Cycling in France: five must visit locations

France has something for every type of rider – here are the locations to put on your travel wish list

Home to the most prestigious Grand Tour in cycling, France is a country with a rich cycling heritage.

Judging by the fan lined climbs that the Tour de France encompasses, you’d be forgiven for believing the terrain is suited only to whippet-like riders looking to train in the mountains – but actually there are plenty of options for those seeking a more sedate break away on two wheels.

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For those in search of major ups and downs, then there’s the passes of the Pyrenees and mountains of Morzine. Keeping it more relaxed, the Loire Valley has a lot to offer and the undulating roads of Normandy sit firmly in the middle.

Here’s a look at some of the key destinations for cyclists, plus the why, when, how and what for each

Normandy/Brittany

Cycling in france

There are some lumps and bumps, but plenty of long, flat roads too – perfect for touring

The northern end of France is sometimes overlooked. However, it’s an area which possesses some stunning undulating roads, with plenty of winding narrow country lanes that quietly weave through farm land.

The other pro of this area is that you can get there via ferry. Touring cyclists can leave their front door in the UK, find a route to Newhaven, hop on the ferry to Dieppe then begin the French part of their adventure.

Those not keen to repeat any part of the journey could head further North, getting the ferry home from Calais. Though fairly industrial itself, Calais is surrounded by the Parc Naturel Régional des Caps et Marais d’Opale – the Regional Natural Park of Caps and Opal Marshes – from where you can spot the cliffs of Dover.

Heading the other way from Dieppe, Brittany is an alternative, and those looking for a gentle option may wish to seek out the 365km canal path from Nantes to Brest.

Most of the summer months will be pretty safe bets to visit – max temperatures sit at about 20°C in July and August so you’re not likely to bake. Average rainy days in Normandy can be as many as 19 a month in peak summer as opposed to 10-12 in Brittany – something to bear in mind.

Pyrenees

Cycling in france pyrennes

Peloton on the Tourmalet in the 2016 Tour de France. Image: Sunada

The Pyrenees mountains create a natural border between France and Spain, and they’ve played a pivotal role in many editions of the Tour de France.

I stayed in the sleepy town of Tarbes before, but somewhere like Pau offers a bit more for the tourist in you – with views along the Boulevard des Pyrénées and the Château de Pau to check out when off the bike.

Getting there is simple, there are direct flights from the UK to Toulouse, Lourdes and Rodez. In terms of when to go, the season kicks off in April once the ski stations close, but there’s likely to still be snow up high.

On the first Saturday of June each year there’s a celebration that sees thousands of cyclists follow the Le Géant statue as it rides on a truck up the Tourmalet, and from then onwards it should be a pretty safe bet to ride. The roads get quite busy in July and August – we reckon September is the sweet spot.

Must ride climbs include the Col d’Aubisque, Col du Soulor, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam.

The Col du Soulour from Argelès-Gazost in the East covers 19.5km – at 5.2 per cent. This includes a fairly flat section between the village of Arras-en-Lavedan and Arrens – before a tougher last 7km at 8.3 per cent. It can be connected to the Col d’Aubisque via the breathtakingly stunning Cirque du Litor, and the Aubisque itself is 16.6km long, with an average gradient of 7.2 per cent from Laruns.

The Col du Tourmalet is 19km at 7.5 per cent from Luz or 16.5km at 7.5 per cent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, and it’s the most used climb of the Tour de France so simply can’t be missed.

If you’re heading to the Tourmalet, then it’s worth having a go at the nearby Col d’Aspin, which has featured in the Tour countless times thanks to being a through route to other climbs. From Sainte-Marie-de-Campan to the west, the ascent is 12.8 km at an average of five per cent. From the other side, Arreau to the east, the climb is harder at 12km at an average of 6.5 per cent.

Another must-do is the ‘road to nowhere’ climb of Hautacam. At 17.3km it’s 6.8 per cent, there’s only one way up and down, so you can escape a lot of the traffic.

Morzine

cycling in france morzine

Morzine has a lot to offer road cyclists as well as downhill MTBers

Better known for its uplifts and network of, frankly terrifying, downhill mountain bike trails, Morzine’s road cycling reputation is not as developed as it could be. The ski resort in the French Alps did get a bit of a roadie push in 2017, however, with four stage of the Tour de France taking place in its region of Haute-Savoie.

The area boasts some unmissable climbs – such as the Col de le Ramaz (14km, 7 per cent from Mieussy) – from which you can see the white peaks of Mont Blanc – Col de Joux Plane (11.6km, 8.5 per cent from Samoens) and Col de la Joux Verte (25.2km at 5.8 per cent from Montriond). If you don’t want to ride too far but fancy a mountain, you can ride the Montée d’Avoriaz (13km, 4.5 per cent) straight out of town.

When it comes to relaxing, there’s Les Gets lake, which can entertain the whole family with its open air pools, awesome cream-on-top coffee, pony rides and walks.

You’ll enjoy some absolutely breathtaking views and there’s nothing stopping you riding over to Switzerland – a country that’s landscape puts it on many a ‘to do’ list, but one that’s also been announced as the ‘most expensive place in the world to visit’.

Since Morzine and surrounding ski resorts such as Avoriaz are set up for the winter tourists, there’s lots to do in the evening. There are plenty of bike shops to keep you stocked, too – though you’ll find more catering for mountain bikers than roadies.

In terms of getting there, Geneva airport is about 90 minutes away.  Temperatures max out at 18-22ºC from June to September – though bear in mind that surrounding roads will be busier in school holiday periods.

Loire Valley

cycling in france Cycling in the Loire Valley. Image: Dave Jimison via Flikr commons

Cycling in the Loire Valley. Image: Dave Jimison via Flikr commons

A world heritage site (as rated by UNESCO), the Loire Valley carries the names ‘Cradle of the French’ and the ‘Garden of France’.

The area surrounds the Loire River in central France. There you’ll find vineyards (and lots of the resulting product!), orchards, an abundance of farm land and towns of historic interest – since the valley has played home to settlements since the Middle Palaeolithic period. It’s the perfect place for a relaxed cycling holiday or touring.

One way to explore the area would be to tackle La Loire à Vélo (The Loire by Bike) cycle trail. The signposted pedal route features well-surfaced paths and roads, from one end of the river to the other. At 900km long, there’s no expectation that you make it the whole way. The regional train line (TER) travels the length of the route, and around 20 stations have cycle access.

There’s several Châteaus along the way, plus vineyards and of course the river itself to keep your mind entertained as you pedal.

Max temperatures range from 19-23ºC from May to September and there are several cycle travel agencies who can provide hire bikes. You can fly to Angers, Nantes, or Tours, or combine your visit with a road trip, driving the 500km from Calais.

Nice

Beautiful coffee stops aren’t hard to come by on the Côte d’Azur (Credit: Flickr/Julia Maudlin)

Nice is home to a high number of professional riders – and it’s easy to see why.

Located on the French Riviera (or Côte d’Azur), the south-eastern capital on the Mediterranean coast has fantastic transport links (direct flights to Nice go from Gatwick, Heathrow, Liverpool, London City, Luton, Manchester and Stansted), stunning inland roads as well as some notable climbs.

There’s the Col d’Èze – 10km at 4.9 per cent and the Col de la Madone – a favourite testing ground for Tour de France hopefuls.

Since the region is popular among non-bike-riding holidaymakers, there’s a myriad of accommodation choices as well as places to eat and evening entertainment. However, those jetting to the area with the velo at front of mind will be well served – with cafes such as Café du Cycliste on hand with hire bikes as well as coffee and kit.

Being on the Mediterranean coast, temperatures are a bit hotter than elsewhere in France – with max temps of 17 to 24°C from May to October.

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