If you’re looking for a cycling route to explore Northern France and southern England, then the Petit Tour de Manche itinerary should be at the top of your list! In its entirety, this route includes 400km of marked cycling from Dorset England to the famous Brittany town of Saint Malo. From Saint Malo, the itinerary stops at the beautiful island of Jersey, before finishing up back in Weymouth England, assuming you do the entire itinerary round trip. I combined the French segments of the Petit Tour de Manche with deviations to the Normandy D-Day Beaches at the front end and the Ille et Rance Canal to Rennes on the back end during my trip this summer. Although I didn’t have the time to cycle the England part of the route, it is definitely at the top of my list of future things to do!
I joined the Petit Tour de Manche north of Carentan after spending some time exploring the D-Day Beaches. I spent 5 days cycling the itinerary to Saint Malo, a distance just over 300km. Overall, my impressions of the route were great. The CYCLE WEST organization that spearheaded development of this itinerary as well as the full Tour de Manche and La Velodyssee has done an incredible job creating cycle routes that are consistently safe and well marked from beginning to end. Developing and maintaining these itineraries is expensive, time consuming and requires a lot of coordination–17 partners to be exact. CYCLE WEST’s commitment to advancing recreational cycling and promoting cyclotourism in England and France is a benefit to all cyclists. If you cycle this itinerary, you’ll experience first hand the benefits of a professional approach to cycling itinerary development. Kudos to CYCLE WEST!
I get a lot of questions regarding what different bicycling itineraries are like, so I thought it might be helpful to list some of my favorites and least favorites of this itinerary. Hopefully my comments will help you determine if this is an itinerary you’d like to consider further!
What were my favorite things about the Petit Tour de Manche?
There is good signage along the route
There were areas where we had problems, but overall, I would rate the route signage a B+. The Petit Tour de Manche symbol on road signs confirmed that you were following the correct route, always reassuring when you are in the middle of nowhere!
The local tourism offices are a great resource for touring bicyclists
I was pleasantly surprised to find the local tourism offices a good resource for questions on bicycle routes and deviations in the region. This isn’t always the case, so kudos to Manche Tourism! My favorite Manche Tourism resource is “Cycling in La Manche”, a terrific booklet with maps of all the local bicycle routes as well as the grand itineraries. You can request this booklet in advance of a trip by e-mailing Manche Tourism or you can pick it up at a local tourism office once you get there.
More than 75% of the route is totally car free, making the route very safe
This makes this itinerary perfect for recreational cyclists and families. Interestingly, even though we bicycled this itinerary in the busy month of August we didn’t see many of either.
The Contenin Peninsula and Contenin National Park are paradise for exploring by bike
The towns and villages in this area are charming, the food is simple but always good, and the region is steeped with history.
The heart of the region is the lovely town of Carentan, where some of the fiercest fighting during the Normandy invasion occurred. This area is so lovely to explore by bike and filled with small charming B&B’s that you’re tempted to just stay here and explore. And if that’s not enough, the cheese, ciders, butter, seafood and Calvados brandy and other specialties will seduce you into spending more time here!
This itinerary is rich in WW II history and there is no more intimate way to experience it than by bike
With every pedal stroke you become more aware of the incredible sacrifices made by residents who lost everything and the soldiers who fought to liberate this area. Visiting this area during the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion was a very special and moving experience.
Bicycling from Ducey to Pontorson
It was during this stage that I saw Mont-Saint-Michel for the first time.
The car-free walking and bicycling path from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel
Bicyclists have the opportunity to “savor” the Mont for 10km before actually visiting it. I can’t imagine arriving at the abbey any other way….and you don’t have to pay for parking!
The magnificent abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel and Project Mont-Saint-Michel
The Benedictine Abbey known as Mont-Saint-Michel was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. In 1874, it was declared a historic monument by the French and in 1979, it was added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. This 1,300 year old abbey is the most visited tourist site in France outside of Paris, with as many as 9,000 visitors a day in the summer! Needless to say, a visit to Mont-Saint-Michel is a once in a lifetime opportunity, just try not to go in the middle of the summer tourist season! For the last eight years, a maritime restoration project has been underway to return the abbey to an island again. As if seeing and visiting Mont-Saint-Michel was not enough, visitors now have the opportunity to learn about Project Mont-Saint-Michel, and to see the effects of the project first hand.
The last phase of the restoration project is the demolition of the 100 year old causeway to the Mont. Work on this had begun prior to my trip and is planned to be completed in 2015. Once this element of the project is complete, Mont-Saint-Michel will be returned to island status during high tides. Learning about this project was nearly as amazing as a visit to the village and abbey.
The town of Pontorson
Choosing a place to stay near Mont-Saint-Michel can be very challenging, particularly if you are traveling by bike. I chose the town of Pontorson and I couldn’t have made a better choice. This charming town is a place I would choose to stay with or without a visit to Mont-Saint-Michel. Having the greenway to bicycle to the Abbey is just a bonus. Pontorson is the quintessential French town and you would never know you are just a 30 minute bike ride fr0m one of the busiest tourist attractions in France. There are great places to stay (I stayed at Villa Mons, one of my favorites of the year), and great places to eat. There is a large market on Thursday, great for picking up supplies for a picnic at Mont-Saint-Michel!
The ride along the Brittany Coast from Mont-Saint-Michel to St-Benoit-des-Ondes
This day was perfection. A view of Mont-Saint-Michel behind us and the salt marshes and then the ocean and oyster and mussel beds next to us. Bright sun shining. Days on a bike don’t get much better than this! I celebrated by having a cornetto with my cappuccino!
Where to begin with Cancale? Definitely my favorite town of the entire trip! The town is blessed with a 15 meter tide that makes it perfect for cultivating almost all kinds of shellfish, earning it the nickname of Crustacean Capital of Brittany. There are over 25,000 tons of oysters sold every year from here, many to the 90+ restaurants in the area. It is magical to see the town at low tide, when the oyster beds are being worked, and even more magical after 7:00 when most of the day tourists have gone for the day! This is a place I could easily spend 3-4 days eating oysters along the seawall and bicycling the quiet country lanes along Mont-Saint-Michel Bay.
What were my least favorite things about the Petit Tour de Manche?
Finding a place to stay on or near the route can be difficult, especially in the summer
A great deal of this itinerary is quite rural with most accommodations being small B&B’s or local inns. Outside of the more touristy areas of Cherbourg, Pontorson/Mont-Saint-Michel and St-Malo, accommodations can be quite limited, particularly during the summer. I bicycled this route in August, at which time a number of Logis along the route were closed. Most of the B&B’s along the route have only 2 or 3 rooms, so even if there are 10 B&B’s in a town, that only accommodates 25-30 people, not much for an area that is so popular. Bottom line, it’s important to book your lodging along this itinerary early.
Signage in and out of main towns and/or around main towns is often inadequate
This is probably the #1 complaint that I receive about all bike routes in France: once you get off the main itinerary, it can be a challenge to find your way into the city center, and then difficult to find your way back to the bicycling route. Obviously all of this is easy when you know where you are going, obviously this isn’t the case when you are traveling by bike, and lack of signage when you are dealing with city center traffic can be very frustrating. I found the signage out of Carentan confusing, the signage in and out of St-Lo confusing, and a critical sign from Campeaux to Vire missing. This resulted in us missing a critical turn, taking a long dissent by mistake, and then spending more than 2 hours on hilly roads trying to find our way back to the route.
There isn’t a lot to see/do through the Vire River Valley
If you are used to bicycling in Burgundy or places like the Loire or the canals of France, you’re accustomed to having a lot to see and do along the itinerary and many places to stop for a second cup of coffee in the morning. While there’s no question that there are terrific attractions at each end of the French Petit Tour de Manche, there isn’t a lot to see in the middle. You do need to stock up on water and snacks each morning before you set out for the day, because there are segments of the route where you won’t find places to buy water.
If you love bicycling in wide open spaces with lots of cows and fields, you’ll love this, but if you like to stop several times during the day for coffee and/or lunch, you might not. After the incredible time we had bicycling around the D-Day Beaches, the itinerary from Carentan south to Mortain was a bit of a letdown, perhaps comparable to biking through endless miles of pine forests on La Velodyssee.
Bike rental can be difficult
Cyclists coming from England will most probably travel with their own bikes, but if you are traveling from another continent, you may not. Bike shops that have rentals suitable to this itinerary, and that rent for a week or longer are sparse. Unlike the Loire and perhaps La Velodyssee, there is not great train service along the route, so picking up a bike and taking the train one way or the other is not an option.
I have found that one of the best, most reliable rental agencies that covers towns on or near the Petit Tour de Manche is LocVelo, located in Bayeux. This bike shop offers rentals from 11 locations including Bayeux, Caen and St-Lo, which is located on the Petit Tour de Manche itinerary. LocVelo will also deliver 2 or more bikes to locations in the Calvados and Manche Departments. Using LocVelo, you could for example pick up a bike in St-Lo, join the Petit Tour de Manche and bicycle along the itinerary to St-Malo and then take a train back to St-Lo to return the bikes. Depending on the time of day you travel, it takes about 2 hours by train from St-Malo to St-Lo with one transfer in Dol-de-Bretagne. If you are interested in getting more information on whether this option would work for you, contact Francois Briane, owner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overall Rating of The Petit Tour de Manche: A-
I loved this itinerary. Yes, there were a number of things that I didn’t especially care for, but that happens with every route. Normandy and Brittany are gorgeous, the food is fantastic, the people are warm and welcoming, the area is full of history, it’s generally easy to find affordable lodging, and the region is very welcoming to bicyclists. The itinerary is generally well-marked and safe. You can’t ask for more than this from a bicycling itinerary!
I hope that this information on my favorites and least favorites of the Petit Tour de Manche itinerary have been helpful to you! Don’t forget to share information on your experiences bicycling this and other itineraries in France with me. I love to add these comments to the Reader Reports section so that everyone can benefit from these first-hand reports!