From the Tour de France cycle race to the pensioner cycling home from a village market with a pannier full of vegetables, the bicycle is as much a part of French life and culture as the baguette and the Eiffel Tower.
There are cycle associations in almost every town, statues of cyclists on roads over Alpine mountain passes, and city bike hire schemes throughout the country. France is a nation that loves le vélo and in every department (district), there are superbly-maintained cycle paths and routes that make cycle touring one of the most enjoyable ways to explore France.
Whether you crave Alpine scenery or a gentle roll through the vineyards of Burgundy, here are some of the best cycle routes in France.
Col de Tourmalet and the Pyrenees
Best for: Yellow jersey wearers and masochists
In 1910, when the first Tour de France competitors crested the Col de Tourmalet, the winner of that stage famously yelled at the event organizers “You’re assassins. Yes, assassins.” That should tell you all that you need to know about this legendary cycle route through the central Pyrenees.
During the grueling 19km (12-mile) climb from Luz Saint-Sauveur to the Col du Tourmalet at 2115m (6939ft), you’ll ascend over 1400m (4593ft) at an average angle of 7.39%. At its steepest point, the route climbs at over 10% – no wonder the climb up to the Col du Tourmalet (and the high-speed descent down) is considered one of the most fearful, yet exciting, stages of the Tour de France race.
The route is closed by snow from late October to late spring, but in summer, hundreds of cyclists set out daily to see if they’ve got what it takes to race up and over the highest road pass in the Pyrenees. And whether you pant up over the course of hours or speed like a cheetah to the top, expect to be blown away by the majesty of the high mountain scenery. Yep, this is one of France's great cycle routes for a very good reason.
When you’ve conquered Tourmalet, consider completing the so-called ‘Circle of Death’ by riding from the Col de Peyresourde to the Col d’Aubisque, an extra 141km (88 miles).
Burgundy Vineyard Route
Best for: Gourmands, oenophiles and lovers of the good life
Wine, gently rolling countryside carpeted in vineyards, pleasing bike paths, and yet more wine – what’s not to like about the Voie de Vignes (Way of the Vines)? Stretching for 20km (12 miles) between Beaune and Santenay in the Burgundy region of eastern France, this route is all about the gift of the grape.
Start your ride at the École des Vins de Bourgogne (Bourgogne Wine School) where tastings are available – just don’t taste too much, as drink-driving rules also apply to cyclists! Then roll your way towards the Château de Pommard and the Château de Meursault, both of which produce acclaimed wines (okay go on then, one more quick taste…), before wobbling your way into Santenay.
Exploring the Île de Ré
Best for: Families and occasional cyclers
Caressed by salty sea winds, and washed through with oceanic sunlight, the almost pancake-flat Île de Ré lies a short way offshore from La Rochelle on the central Atlantic coast, and it was tailor-made for easy family bike rides. A network of well-maintained cycle paths scribble across the island – any route you chose is pretty much guaranteed to include lazy cycling alongside long, sandy beaches, through beautiful villages and past small seaside towns where you can stop to refuel with a seafood lunch.
There’s nothing remotely grueling about cycling around the Île de Ré. Instead, it’s simple pleasure after simple pleasure. Although there are numerous routes around the island, we highly recommend the loop from the tiny village of Ars-en-Ré, up to the dramatic lookout point Phare des Baleines (Lighthouse of the Whales) and then east to the saltpans (the island is famed for its salt) around Les Ports-en-Ré.
Leisurely rides in The Luberon (Provence)
Best for: Cycle tourers
The Luberon is the picture book image of southern France. The inspiration for a thousand novels, films and paintings, this inland region of Provence with its sun-soaked olive groves, vineyards, and fields of startlingly bright lavender plants, is dotted with gorgeous hilltop villages built from honey-colored rock, linked to one another via quiet country roads and superb cycle paths.
There’s a fair bit of up and down to riding here – and in summer the weather can be as hot as a furnace – but most people are so bowled over by the beauty of the countryside that they don’t really notice the hard work they’re putting in. There are all sorts of routes to be pedaled here – some are easy family-friendly affairs, while others, including a complete 236km (147-mile) circuit of the region, are far more challenging.
The Canal du Midi Cycle Path
Best for: First-time cycle tourers and history buffs
Cycling alongside southern France’s Canal du Midi involves passing a roll call of fortified towns, crumbling castles, avenues of stately plane trees and quiet villages. And the Canal du Midi isn’t just about good looks, it’s also heavy in history. This is both the oldest canal in Europe and the first canal in the world to use a system of locks to allow boats to easily cover its length. Fun fact: The inventor of the canal locks was none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who spent the last years of his life in France.
The Canal du Midi is generally flat and easy to cycle, with lots of bike-friendly tourist facilities along the way. In other words, it’s pretty much the dream cycle route. Officially, the Canal du Midi cycle path runs from Toulouse all the way to the shimmering Mediterranean Sea at Sète some 240km (149 miles) away. Most people skip the first bit of the route and instead begin their adventure in the fairy-tale, fortified town of Carcassonne. This means four days of steady peddling before you can don your swimsuit and dive into the sea at the route’s end.
The Loire Valley
Best for: History buffs and anyone who’s ever got on a bicycle
Loire à Vélo (Loire by bicycle) was the first official, way-marked long-distance cycle route in France. Following the River Loire, from its birthplace in the icy heights of the Massif Central to its union with the ocean on the Atlantic seaboard, the route streams through 900km (560 miles) of classic French scenery.
Completing the whole tour might be a bit much for the average cyclist, but take on the 100km (62-mile) stretch through the Touraine region and you'll hit the highlights of the route in a few lazy days of cycling. This is the heart of French châteaux country, and along the way, lucky bikers will roll alongside glories such as Amboise, Tours and Chinon.
The beauty of the main Loire Valley route is that you can also happily ignore it and take any number of side cycle trails to other châteaux and attractive towns and villages. Tourist offices can advise on trails suitable for everyone from seasoned cyclers to first-time pedalers.
Véloroute Vallée de Somme
Best for: Anyone interested in WWI history
The Somme – the very name immediately brings forth images of the waste and destruction of WWI and the notorious Battle of the Somme. And true enough, this 160km (99-mile) cycle route along the banks of the River Somme does pass by many sad reminders of one of the darkest moments in human history. It's as much a pilgrimage as a cycling holiday.
But, here’s the thing: The Somme is no longer a place of tears. Alongside the war memorials, what you’ll remember from this bike ride are the wide open spaces at the mouth of the Somme, marshes and lakes ringing to the call of birds, ancient archaeological sites and the joy of cycling right up to the gates of the cathedral in Amiens. It’s one of the finest rides in northern France.
There are plenty of towns and villages to rest up in along the way and the route is largely level, following a well-maintained cycle path, which means this is one long-distance route that almost anyone can take on.
Col de la Loze in the French Alps
Best for: Cyclists with legs of steel
With spectacular mountain vistas and soaring and tumbling roads that rise up and over numerous high passes, the French Alps is one of the world’s great cycle destinations. But the rewards don’t come easy here and most Alpine routes are not for first-time cyclists, though there are endless biking possibilities for experienced riders.
Perhaps the most famed are the routes up to and down from the 2304m (7560ft) Col de la Loze in the Les 3 Vallées region. There are four different cycle routes of varying lengths that take in the pass, and an even longer and more challenging 3 Vallées circuit is currently under construction. The principal route to the top involves a grinding 7km (4.3-mile) climb – sometimes at an angle of 23% – from 1673m to a high of 2304m.