The country of France and the pastime of cycling have been synonymous for centuries. Firstly, it’s said that bicycles with pedals were invented in France, in the mid 19th century, with the word ‘bicycle’ first appearing in a French publication in 1847 to describe a type of two-wheeled vehicle.
It’s also here that the world’s most prestigious event on two wheels, the Tour de France, takes place, about as far removed from that stereotypical image of the beret-wearing, onion-wheeling Parisien on a pushbike as you could imagine.
Regardless of whether you want to experience the roads of La République at full throttle or a canter, we’ve got a velo vacation suggestion for you; here are 5 of the best cycling holidays in France.
A RIDE THROUGH THE LAVENDER FIELDS OF PROVENCE
Though Provence is one of France’s most visited regions, it also boasts some of the most tranquil and scenic stretches of roads you’ll find anywhere in the country.
With routes bordered by the region’s rolling hills, verdant vineyards, lavender fields, and Roman ruins, there’s plenty to take in during a tour on two wheels here, but it’s those violaceous pastures that are particularly captivating for cyclists.
It’s in mid-June to late August that the flowering season is at its peak, and in good news for cyclists, this coincides with the most favourable conditions on the road; there’s little rain and the days are bright and sunny, though not overly humid.
Arguably one of the best cycling holiday destinations in France is the Luberon Valley which offers stunning descents right into the epicentre of where the region’s lavender and sunflower fields meet.
Some choose to base their cycling tour here on a kind of village-hopping, making a pit stop in each of the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of villages that make up the north of Luberon, namely Bonnieux, Gordes, Goult, Lacoste, Oppède, Roussillon, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, and Ménerbes. Sounds blissful to us!
THE EXCLUSIVE ASCENT OF LA MARMOTTE, FRANCE
From the leisurely to the lofty…
Arguably the most revered (and feared) amateur one-day cycling event in the country, if not the world, La Marmotte isn’t well suited to those cyclists who rock up in their swimming shorts, trainers and with half their bottom on the bike seat.
Known as the La Doyenne (the Old Lady) because of its history and prestige, and with just 7000 places available, this one’s not for the faint hearted or lunged. The event’s finish line is found at the peak of the Alpe d’Huez ski resort (you might know it as the location of hedonistic dance festival Tomorrowland) in the Central French Western Alps, and sees a 174km race complete with over 5000 metres of climbing.
And if you thought that sounded challenging, wait until you try to actually enter the event; the online application process is a source of much mystique and mirth. In terms that us fair weather Brits might understand, snagging a slot in the race is akin to the lottery of Glastonbury ticket day! That said, a cycling holiday amongst the snow-capped mountains of the region is awe-inspiring, even if you don’t dare tackle the Old Lady.
A TOUR OF BORDEAUX & ITS VINEYARDS
Phew, we need a glass of wine and a big plate of something hearty after all of that climbing. And perhaps nowhere is more equipped at satisfying those urges in France than the gorgeous, gastronomic powerhouse Bordeaux.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the city’s surrounding wine regions are generally acknowledged as being the finest producers of premium plonk on the planet, and are eminently cyclable to boot. In fact, Old World wine regions often go hand in hand (hey, put them back on the handlebars!) with great cycling, since the best conditions for vines to thrive is amongst benevolently hilly terrain, and in a hands-on, non-industrial environment. All of which equates to gentle climbs, fresh air and quiet roads.
But let’s return to the city, first. Bordeaux is relatively flat and replete with cycle lanes, with the majority of its main cultural landmarks, including Bordeaux Cathedral, the Basilica of St. Michael and Place Royale, the huge central square, all accessible by bike.
There are two well-traversed cycle paths leading out of the city in either direction; the Roger Lapebie bike path from Bordeaux to Sauveterre-de-Guyenne is a 60km scenic stretch of well signposted, straightforward cycling, complete with stunning views at every turn. Alternatively, cycle in the opposite direction, heading west to the coastal town of Lacanau, which is supported by a 60km off-road path.
TRAVERSE THE BURGUNDY CANAL
Because where there are picturesque stretches of canal, there are also cycle paths…
The Canal de Bourgogne cuts a swathe through the Burgundy region of east-central France, a part of the world defined by its Romanesque heritage and the quality of its wine. Beginning in Migennes and ending in Saint-Jean-de-Losne, the entirety of the canal’s route (some 250km long) can be cycled, with the canal’s southern finish particularly scenic.
If Bordeaux didn’t give you your fill of fine wine, then towards the beginning of the Canal de Bourgogne, in the heart of Yonne, you’ll pass close to both the Chablis and Tonnerre vineyards, which cover over 4500 hectares and offer plenty of opportunities for cycling, touring and tasting. Lovely stuff.
Or, if you’re more of a history than a wine buff (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course), the Canal de Bourgogne cycling route takes in several ancient sites, including the Abbey of Fontenay, which is the oldest Cistercian abbey in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. You’ll also pass through the Alesia region, famed for being where the Gauls and Romans did battle, as well as Dijon, where you can appreciate the city’s magnificent Notre Dame church.
TAKE YOUR TIME ON THE VELOSCENIC CYCLE ROUTE FROM PARIS TO MONT SAINT-MICHEL
We’ve perhaps saved the best ‘till last. We’ve certainly saved the longest ‘till last; the Veloscenic cycle route is a 450km signposted route running from Paris all the way to France’s northwestern coast and Mont Saint-Michel Abbey.
This magnificent medieval monastery and its surrounding bay have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the abbey is one of France’s most revered cultural locales. The abbey, in fact, used to be one of Europe’s key pilgrimage sites, with pilgrims walking these routes by foot – starting in Germany, Italy, and indeed France – to honour the centuries-old tradition.
What a wonderfully appropriate way to finish both your cycling tour of France and our article.
You might want to spend a week kicking back on the beach after all that physical exertion. We’ve got you covered for that, too; check out these 4 of the best weekend city breaks with a beach in the south of France.