Being just a short hop across the Channel, France is perhaps the ultimate destination for British cyclists. Whatever type of riding you favour, it should be possible to find your own personal, two-wheeled nirvana there.
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Roadies can follow in the tyre tracks of Armstrong, Merckx and Coppi, comparing their performance with those legends of the Tour. Mountain bikers, meanwhile, have the Alps, Pyrenees, Massif Central, Jura and Vosges along with a number of smaller mountain ranges to play in. And cycle tourists can enjoy the quiet roads, superb scenery and magnificent cuisine that are hallmarks of a country with twice the surface area of Britain but roughly the same population.
Given its six-sided shape, France has no single equivalent to the UK’s classic End to End cycle tour. But that’s not say that those who are so inclined cannot ‘bag’ it. Picking a route from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea is one option, but a shorter, flatter alternative is to ride up (or down) the west side of the country between the Spanish border and one of the more westerly Channel ports.
If time allows, catching a ferry to northern Spain from Plymouth or Portsmouth will get you to within striking distance of the French border and from there it’s simply a case of deciding on your route north. The natural inclination may be to stick to the coast, but on a tour from Biarritz to St Malo, we decided to follow a route further inland that we came across on the Cyclists’ Touring Club (CTC) website. It was a decision that paid dividends in the form of largely empty highways that took us through towns and villages less geared towards tourism but still with plenty to offer in terms of affordable accommodation and gastronomic pleasures.
One of the advantages of starting out in Biarritz is that before long, you are riding through the area known as Les Landes. This pancake flat region with its big skies and gun-barrel straight roads makes for a gentle opening day – not that there is any serious climbing to be done anywhere en route to the Channel. At the end of day one we made an overnight stop in Morcenx before continuing on to the medieval walled town of St. Macaire in Bordeaux wine country. Continuing the ‘M’ theme, our next destination was Montendre in Poitou-Charentes where we broke out the tent and sleeping bags for the first time. Mixing camping with stays in hotels worked well, giving us added flexibility while helping keep the costs down and generally, we found French campsites to be of a high standard.
Day four on the road brought us to St Jean d’Angely, roughly halfway between Biarritz and St Malo. It’s a decent sized town and a good place to enjoy a rest day, with plenty of excellent restaurants.
The break set us up nicely for our longest day, a 70 miler that took us through near-deserted country lanes flanked by sunflowers, maize, vines and occasionally simply fields of wildflowers. Just as we were flagging in scorching conditions, we encountered an evil, sting-in-the-tail climb up to our hotel in the town of Pouzauges.
Day six saw us heading for the village of Oudon on the mighty Loire. A fast, sweeping descent to its south bank gave us a magnificent panorama of France’s longest river before a night spent camping close to the water provided another highlight of the trip.
On the penultimate day we were determined to spot at least one wild boar as we rode through heavily wooded countryside on the way to Chateaugiron. Alas, the Sangliers were keeping themselves well hidden, unlike some of the other fauna; on a couple of occasions deer bolted across the road just metres in front of us. By now well into Brittany, that evening we were close enough to the coast to enjoy excellent sea food, washed down with a superb local Muscadet.
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Our last day involved a triumphant 65 miles of pedalling, helped by a friendly tailwind that was with us all the way to St Malo where we splurged on a posh hotel and post-ride gastronomic blow out. The next day on the ferry back to Portsmouth we pondered the alternative route options we might have taken over the nearly 500 miles we had covered in eight days of riding. The simple fact is there are a million and one ways of doing this trip.
However, if you appreciate the simple pleasures that cycle touring in France has to offer, any itinerary that uses minor roads while avoiding major cities is likely to be as good as the one described above, wherever you choose to start and finish your trip.