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Cycling through France South to North soon - wisdom & thoughts?

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Unregistered anon_user's picture
Cycling through France South to North soon - wisdom & thoughts?

Hi everyone,

I'm planning a trip starting late May (four weeks!) to cycle through France, Perpignan to St. Malo with nice long detours. I am looking to start easy and ramp up, maybe 50km a day. I've got 4-5 weeks for this and I'm in a french course now getting ready.

Any thoughts/wisdom on this journey on routes, buying bikes over here for cheap, or what have you?

Thanks for the wisdom!

WS Member WS Member's picture
Hi Nikki I've been living

Hi Nikki

I've been living (and cycling!) in France for 13 years now. Most of my cycling has been in the north, although I have done the occasional jaunt down south. Have you planned your exact route or do you intend to 'go with the flow'? I did once cycle from my house (between Amiens and Paris) to Barcelona, passing through Perpignan - and one thing I would say is that I don't think you've chosen the easiest direction in which to do it! I'd personally reverse it and go from St Malo to Perpignan. For one thing, you'll acclimatise better - St Malo being considerably milder than Perpignan. Also, there are hills in the South West, and although they don't look much, there's quite a lot of ups and downs which all add up and make for tiring riding. Also, the area around Perpignan is prone to very heavy wind. While I was there, I had to stay still for a couple of days because the wind made it too dangerous to cycle.
If you're intending to buy a second-hand bike, you can find some luck in some second hand shops (some Troc de l'Isle stores often stocks bikes but you may not have much choice). However, France is right now in a bike spending frenzy as it's very warm and people have suddenly become enthusiastic about enjoying the sun!


Unregistered anon_user's picture

Thanks, James. I'm now thinking of changing and going from Sete to Bourdeaux instead of starting in Perpingnan; along the Canal du Midi which is supposed to be flattish to Bourdeaux . . .but I'm still concerned about le mistral wind . . .

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Hi Nikki The Mistral

Hi Nikki

The Mistral shouldn't really be a problem in the part of France you're intending to cycle in. It's a wind that blows down the Rhône valley and so affects the south-east of France rather than the west (through Languedoc and Provence). I don't think you should worry too much about that one. However, you're not off the hook - not at all, I'm afraid! The winds around the Narbonne, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Perpignan area are just as strong - if not stronger than the Mistral. They're also less predictable. The ones you should be concerned about are the Cers, The Marin, The Tramontane and I believe the Sirocco. As you can see, this part of the world is subject to winds that are as diverse in their direction as in their strengh!
However, if you're intending to cycle on the Canal du Midi you'll get a lot of shelter from the wind. I've cycled on it myself - and it is quite pleasant. However, I did have a couple of issues with it. For one, I find cycling along canals for long periods of time a bit monotonous. It's great for a few kilometres, but then I get bored. That's my own personal opinion - others enjoy taking it easy, and it's true that it's quite a social experience as you get to meet a lot of people. The other issue I had with the Canal du Midi is that in the Aude area it's not exactly cycle-touring country. The cycle path is not always easy to follow and it is very rough - probably great on a mountain bike but on a fully-loaded touring bike it's not going to be easy! I cycled on the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Avignonet-Lauragais where I had to rejoin the main road because the path became too poor for me on my racing bike that I'd adapted to do touring on (I since bought a real touring bike!). I then pressed on to Castelnaudary. I say "pressed on" because the wind made it terribly hard work.
The day afterwards, I intended to go to Perpignan. I cycled from Castelnaudary to Narbonne really quickly and, despite stopping in Carcassonne to stock up on supplies, I made it to Narbonne for lunch. The reason for my record-breaking speed was that the wind had changed direction overnight and pushed me all the way to Narbonne at average speeds of over 40kmh!!. But afterwards, I changed direction and started my ride towards Perpignan. I only made it to Sigean as the wind, now pusing me to the side, was so strong it became clear that to continue would be folly. To give you an idea of how strong it was, my glasses were literally grabbed from my face and sent flying in the air like a kite! I could just see them being chucked across the other side of the road where they landed somewhere in a field! Fortunately, I had a spare pair! Anyway, I had to sit tight in Sigean for two days and wait for the wind to calm - which it eventually did. The locals told me that I had to get a move on. They reckoned that the winds follow a regular pattern and they'd start up again the next day.
I can't really give you any information about the ride from Toulouse to Bourdeaux, but I think that you won't experience the winds once you get past Toulouse. Now, I have some questions for you - I might be able to help you further: How much cycling experience have you got? What sort of cycling do you enjoy? Where do you land (are you coming on plane)? Where are you from?


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Hi James, Thanks for the

Hi James,

Thanks for the reply. I haven't cycled for years, I have been on the road backpacking for the last six months in Asia and now a month here in France learning French. I am young-ish and in fairly good shape, but nervous about the whole thing. I have 35 days left in the country before my visa runs out, and looking to start this tour next Monday for 28 days. I have completed a 1500 mile tour of the West Coast but that was a decade ago, however I do know how to ride in traffic. I got a hybrid for the journey, with pretty low gears. I am trying to camp half the way and warmshower/sleep indoors the other half. This week I'm just riding around a little trying to train, doing quad strength exercises and getting last minute stuff!

I would love to get all the way North to all the way South but I don't know how I will feel once I get out there, so here is what I came up with for a route that I think will work:

* Bike the Canal du Midi starting in Narbonne - that's about 400k. Break up the monotany by doing the Lonely Planet chateau loop around Bordeaux.

* From there, go as far up the Atlantic coast as I can, hopefully making it to Saint Nazaire. Anywhere from 300-500k depending on me.

* When I get to the point where I only have ten days left, stop wherever I am and take the train to Saumur and do the 5 day Loire valley ride to Blois, another 250k if you go real slow and see the sights

* Then take the train from there to Rennes and complete the last 3 days of the the tour, Rennes to St. Malo through some great forest, St. Malo to Mont St. Michel for the grand finale (about 200k)

That should be about 1300 - 1400km, so around 50k a day, or 30 miles-ish. When I was in shape I could do loaded a max of 60, but I am nowhere near that now and I don't want to max out my 36 year old knees.

I'm considering no tent for this - just tarp - to save some weight. And no sleeping bag - sleepsheet and small blanket.

I really wanted to get under my own power all the way South to North but my visa is running out, so we'll see . . . There's a direct route that is 1000k but I wouldn't want to miss all the good sights! Violating my visa to add 5-6 days is also a possibility, but risky (and I don't know if just another week will help, and I wouldn't tangle with the law any more than one week over).

What do you/does everyone think?

Thanks a ton! / Nikki
Or, skip the Loire Valley and keep up the left side to St. Malo.
Since France is only 1000km North to South, I will still claim victory

WS Member WS Member's picture
Hi Nikki Your plan seems good

Hi Nikki

Your plan seems good to me. It should be fairly easy cycling once you get to Bordeaux. I have a couple of suggestions, though. Firstly, I found the Canal du Midi impossible to follow in Aude (which is the region between Narbonne and Avignonet-Lauragais) - it's simply too rough and not well routed. However, it's true that I haven't tried it from Narbonne so perhaps it's OK from that end - but if it is, there will come a point when you will have to cycle on the road (unless they've done some serious improvements on the path in the last couple of years - which I doubt.) With that in mind, you'll probably be forced to use the main road which isn't brilliant, but it's safe enough. Don't miss Carcassonne - it's well worth a stop.
My second point concerns Saint Nazarre. I know this region quite well because I lived there for a few years. I really don't think it's worth going to Saint Nazarre. Unless you really, really like industrial towns, there's nothing to see there. To be honest, it's fairly ugly (sorry to anyone who live in Saint Nazarre!). If I were you, I'd do La Rochelle, Les Sâbles de l'Olonne, Noirmoutier (if you have time it's well worth it) and onto Nantes - I'd go via Bourneuf-en-Retz rather than Machecoul because Machecoul isn't interesting at all and the road to Nantes from there gets very busy. Nantes is well worth a stop - it's where I used to live - and I can say with all impartiality that in your position it's not worthwile going to Saint Nazarre at all as it'll add a significant number of Kms to your ride.
From Nantes, you have a couple of options. You can go straight to Saumur on the train, or you can go to Rennes. I used to do cycling in the Niort sur Erdre/Joué sur Erdre area just north of Nantes and it's quite pleasant - but the road onto Châteabriant from there isn't anything special. So if you don't have much time left you could take the train from Nantes to Rennes without missing too much. I think to get to Saint Malo, I'd opt to pass by Dinan - which is really nice. However, I know this part of the world less well. If you want more info about this, I can give it to you as we have a true "Breton" in the family who'd be happy to advise me about this!


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Il n'y a rien à voir à Saint Nazaire !!! : Jimp connait bien mal la région : Cote sauvage, guerande, le croisic la "Grande Brière".... La ville elle même a peu d'intérêt, en effet mais la région est très belle et parcourir ces endroits est très agréable.

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Il n'y a rien à voir à Saint Nazaire !!! : Jimp connait bien mal la région : Cote sauvage, guerande, le croisic la "Grande Brière".... La ville elle même a peu d'intérêt, en effet mais la région est très belle et parcourir ces endroits est très agréable.

WS Member WS Member's picture
Of course the Côte Sauvage,

Of course the Côte Sauvage, Geurlande and le Croisic are interesting - they're great places! But you could also include on your list Piriac, Vannes and why not Carnac while you're at it! And she'll be cycling right past the Dorgdogne - why not send her to Bergerac too!
The point is Nikki doesn't have much time and she needs to make choices. There's so much to see all over France that at some point you have to say to yourself, "I'll come back another day to see this, or do that." I have an American friend who has lived in France for 30 years and doesn't want to go cycling anywhere else because he still has loads he wants to explore here!
The places you mention are all north west of Saint Nazarre - and so to visit them would take valuable time off her trip. I think it's a terrible shame that she won't go to Quimper, the Monts d'Arrée, and the north coast of Britanny. In my opinion, these places offer some of the best scenery in the north of France. But unless she doubles her daily distance it's just not going to be possible!
If Saint Nazarre was in itself interesting, or if the ride to Saint Nazarre was really pleasant, or if she had more time, then of course it'd be worth going to these destinations! But as her ultimate goal is to get to Saint Malo and le Mont Saint Michel, and as she's contemplating using the train, and as she also wants to do a 5-day ride to Blois, I just think it's more logical, given her time constraints, to head straight to Nantes. In Nantes there are rail links to practically everywhere in the west and she can assess what she can see in the time that's left to her - and take the train to get there if necessary. And Nantes itself is unmissable, wouldn’t you agree?
The trouble with France is there's just too much to see - it creates dilemmas like this for everyone that visits it!

Unregistered anon_user's picture
Everyone's right, there's too

Everyone's right, there's too much to see in France. I'll never see it all in this trip, just need to come back and get a job here, I guess :)

France, c'est impossible à voir toutes!

So JimP and everyone in case it helps, here's what I came up with, kilometers included. Comments/feedback welcome! It's still 4 days too long, so I have to combine, cut, move my flight, or leave earlier. This mileage is sad but I gotta train while I ride . . . anyone in shape could probably do this in 20 days with plenty of time to spare.

At the end I have some links to great resources I am using to plan, for anyone else thinking of going north south.

Great tip on Aude, JimP, I found a post which details the work around through the real roads there. Ended up cutting Nantes out after all . . . I don't think I can get that far North, and I opted to do the long route of the beaches in the Gironde . . .

What a beautiful country!

Day Start Kilometers
0 St-Pierre Mer 0
1 Narbonne 34
2 Le Somail 20
3 Trebes 48
4 Carcasonne 13
5 Rest day 0
6 Castelnaudary 40
7 Avignonet-Lauragais 18
8 Toulouse 44
9 Montauban 56
10 Rest day 0
11 Moissac 34
12 Vianne 76
13 Castets-en-Dorthe 57
14 Sauternes 10
15 Rest day 0
16 Bordeaux 70
17 Ares 60
18 Hourtin-Plage 60
19 Le verdon-sur-mer/Royan 50
20 Rest day in Royan 0
21 La Rochelle 73
22 Les Sables de l'Olonne 92
23 Rest day train to Saumar 0
24 Loire valley day 1: Chinon 48
25 LVL day 2: Azay-le-Rideau 54
26 LVL day 3: Loche 62
27 LVL day 4: Amboise 50
28 LVL day 5: Blois 50
29 Rest day/train to Hede 0
30 Dino 50
31 Saint-Malo 27
32 Mont Saint-Michel 63

Canal du Midi guide: Association Francaise de Veloroutes et Voies Vertes, "A Velo, le long du canal du Midi 2008" en francais

Canal de Garonne (Bordeaux-Toulouse): Association Francaise de Veloroutes et Voies Vertes, "Bordeaux-Toulouse a velo, en Gironde et le long du canal de Garonne 2010" en francaise

the Gironde and coast:
"Carnet de Voyages Cyclo Destination Gironde" en francais

Lonely Planet Cycling France - in English, but light on back-to-back routes, more loops

Eurovelo route one, for the atlantic coast:

. . . . and of course this site!

WS Member WS Member's picture
Hi Nikki, I think your route

Hi Nikki,

I think your route looks fine and dandy! Looks like you've opted to be conservative in your estimation of how many Kms you can do per day, which is probably wise. But don't be too locked into your plans. You may find you want to stay longer in one place, explore an area more, or perhaps you find you're doing better than expected and you can make good progress. Otherwise, I think you're sorted now! You said you were a bit nervous - it's natural, I think most of us are when we start a tour. You've got nothing to worry about - you'll have a great time, and the French are usually very considerate drivers towards cyclists.
Perhaps you'll decide to come back one day. If you do, maybe you could explore Brittany. Honeslty, it's worth coming back for!
Take care, and please tell us how it goes.


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