From sandy paths that cling to the Atlantic to plane and poplar-lined paths along the Canal du Midi, cycling trails in France go from the sublime to the resplendent.
The French must cringe at the age-old caricature of a French person on a bike, donning beret and a string of garlic with a baguette tucked into the basket en route from the boulangerie. However, there is one aspect of it that they should be proud of - France’s cycling heritage. With thousands of kilometres of cycling trails in France, many of which are completely car-free, we can all benefit from their innate love of cycling, as well as much garlic or boulangeries as we like en route. Here are our favourite long-distance cycling routes in France.
La Vélodyssée, France
Running from Brittany to Basque country, this 1250km cycle route is, for the most part, car-free. Well, 70% of it anyway, which is pretty impressive for such a long, waymarked way between Roscoff and Hendaye, on the border with Spain. Many cyclists take on the whole thing, breaking it up into daily odysseys. Or skipping sections, putting their bikes on the train, and taking on another one the next day. As well as enjoying the wild Breton coast, head along the inland canal linking the sea ports of Nantes and Brest, explore the Loire estuary, marvel at the historic coast around La Rochelle (don’t miss cycling out to Île de Ré) or the Médoc region, saunter past the famous dunes at Arcachon or through the cooling pine forests of Les Landes. Finally, finish off with some magnificent surf at Biarritz.
Canal du Midi
Starting at Gare Matabiau in Toulouse, a 240km towpath adventure awaits on this canal that was built in the late 17th-century to transport wine, dried fish, cereals and fruit. Today you can feast on all the region’s foodie delights as you saunter past historic mills, locks, beautiful villages such as Montesquieu-Lauragais and Villenouvelle or up to the most elevated part of the canal at Seuil de Naurouze. Urban idylls along the way include Castelnaudary and the Unesco World Heritage town of Carcassonne. In fact, all of the Canal du Midi is Unesco listed, with churches and castles par for the course. Engineering feats include Répudre Aqueduct, the first canal bridge in Europe, the canal tunnel at Malpas and the eight lock Fonsérannes ladder. The final legs are at the ancient town of Agde before you join the Mediterranean at Sète.
The Raid Pyrénéan
A road biker’s dream with climbs and cols but also plenty of camaraderie along the way as you take on a 700km route from the Atlantic to the Med. It’s like the Camino de Santiago for road biking worshippers. Climbs on this route are long rather than steep, so both determination and fitness are required. Most people break it up into about a week of cycling, although there are Geraint wannabes who belt their way across it. Slow down to take in the likes of Col du Tourmalet (2,115m), Bagnère de Luchon valley, Route des Corniches and the Corbières vineyards. Start in Hendaye in the Basque country and finish on the coast at St. Cyprien with train connections at both.
From the Route des Vins to the Burgundy Canal, this region has almost as many fine vélo routes as it does fine wines. Spend four or five days of gentle cycling along the Burgundy Canal towpath between Auxerre and Dijon, with highlights including the Voûte de Pouilly canal tunnel, Châteauneuf-en-Auxois and Renaissance castles such as at Ancy-le-Franc.
For full immersion in the region’s vineyards, cycle the Voie des Vignes which is usually broken into two stages: from Beaune to Santenay, and then Santenay to Nolay. Cycling just 36km past ancient villages, viaducts and vineyards, you spend part of your journey on a converted railway track, now a greenway. As well as tastings and winery tours, Santenay is a beautiful thermal spa town (full name Santenay-les-Bains) and Nolay a medieval delight. Other train stations on this wine route include Meursault and Chagny.
What are you doing this summer? Oh, I’m cycling from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean, taking in the city of Lyon, Cote du Rhône vineyards, Provence and the Camargue Delta along the way. This is like the dream Tour de France for leisure cyclists, and still an actual dream as this 800km route that follows the great River Rhône is a work in progress to be a fully waymarked cycling trail. But it is getting there, its aim being to guide you from the Rhône’s source in the Swiss Alps all the way to the Mediterranean at Arles.
You can, of course, break the Via Rhôna into sections or skip a few if you like, the main ones being connected by train: Geneva to Lyon (Lyon is one of France’s most cycle-friendly cities with a superb greenway here that makes up part of the Via Rhôna), Lyon to Valence, Valence to Avignon, Avignon to Sète where it also joins up with the Canal du Midi and, then Avignon to Arles. The final stretch between Arles and Port-St-Louis-du-Rhône is the pièce de resistance taking you through the Camargue and Réserve Naturelle des Marais du Vigueirat for 34km. Although you have to return to Arles to get the train. It is also worth noting that you can travel from London to Lyon direct by train to enjoy this cycling route.
Taking your bike on the train
There are also plenty of trains to get you to these cycling trails in France or to break up the journey along the way and, for the most part, bikes are welcome on board. If you are travelling from UK to France with your bike, a good tip is to change at Lille if possible, as you only have to change platforms, rather than deal with the Paris Metro. However, you can book your train the whole way through to wherever you want to start your cycling. There are also many travel companies that will organise luggage transfers and accommodation on these routes.
Photo credits top to bottom: Baguettes in basket iStock ©Svetlanais, Vélo sur l'île de Ré iStock ©dmaroscar, Canal du Midi iStock ©jazzpote, Road in Pyrenees iStock ©Razvan, bike in French vineyard iStock ©vanbeets, Via Rhona cycle route ©passimage, Mountain biking in France iStock ©GibsonPictures Bike and sunflowers in Burgundy iStock ©clodio
Homage to slow
We recommend a change in life that can have an impact on everything you do. Embrace the slow movement. In mind, body, spirit and, of course, in travel.
Rhine Valley rail trip
The Rhine River must be one of the most elegant arteries winding its way through Europe. Read more about rambling, romance and rail travel in Germany's Rhine Valley.