You’d be forgiven for thinking that the French were born on two wheels, so well-adapted is the country for cyclists. Greenways, mountain biking, exceptionally well-marked routes and city cycle hire schemes, the cycling routes of France make exploring from the saddle extremely easy. It’s even the country where the word ‘bicycle’ first entered our lexicon, although bikes at the time were so rickety that they were often known as ‘boneshakers’.
On a fine day in a French city, there are often more bikes on the road than cars. While in the UK we tend to talk of eating, sleeping and working (on repeat), the French speak of vélo, boulot, dodo (bike, work, sleep). In a country where gastronomy is paramount, this saying, perhaps more than any other saying, underlines the status of bikes within the country.
“You’d be forgiven for thinking that the French were born on two wheels”
Most of France’s trams and trains allow bikes, with many of the latter having whole carriages dedicated to transporting our two-wheeled steeds. This makes it easy to plan a multi-day cycling itinerary without taking the car. From flat jaunts for beginners to vertigo-inducing adventures for cyclists with thighs made of steel, here are the best cycling routes in the country. Allons-y!
ViaRhôna, Switzerland/South East France
Start: Saint-Gingolph, Switzerland
Finish: Port-St-Louis-du-Rhône, France
Length: 815 km / 506 miles
Time: 8-12 days
One of the largest waterways in Europe, the glacier-fed Rhône River starts its course to the Meditteranean from Switzerland and winds its way south-west for over 800 km (with it goes the ViaRhôna). A mix of quiet roads and dedicated cycle greenways meander from the Alps down to the coast, with some urban sections along the way as the river cuts through large metropolises such as Lyon. The route hugs the riverbank for much of the way, frequently criss-crossing via bridges over the water.
Pedalling is largely flat or downhill, especially if starting in Switzerland. Cyclists pass through some of the most important and picturesque cities in South East France, including Annecy, Vienne and Avignon. A particular highlight is the riverside town of Tournon-sur-Rhône, home to a fairytale-like castle and a waterfront lined with restaurants on peniches. The ViaRhôna is easily split into shorter sections and day rides, and regularly punctuated by cities and towns with good train links.
The Alsace Wine Route, Bas-Rhin, Alsace, East France
Length: 141.7 km / 88 miles
Time: 1-2 days
Cycling the Alsace Wine Route is like freewheeling into a storybook. Half-timbered houses turn each passing village into a scene from a Christmas card, and slate grey church spires puncture the landscape more frequently than a rusty nail in your bike tyre. Neat rows of vines meet the road on either side, giving the route its name.
Supposedly the oldest wine route in the country, running vertically through the Alsace, this trail follows quiet roads (a road bike or hybrid is more appropriate than a mountain bike), and is best tackled over the course of a weekend. Keen cyclists can complete it in a day, but it seems a shame to miss all the opportunities for tastings at the caves aux vins en route and so we’d recommend taking your time here.
Le Canal des Deux Mers, South West France
Length: 750 km / 466 miles
Time: 8-12 days
Slicing across the country from one body of water to another, Le Canal des Deux Mers runs from the Gironde Estuary near Bordeaux to Sète on the Mediterranean. It’s a ‘choose-your-ending’ kind of adventure, this one. If you’re confident you’ll still have energy to burn at the end of over 700 km of cycling, finish on the Atlantic Coast to surf the waves. Alternatively, if you prefer to put your feet up after a long bike ride (we don’t blame you), be sure to indulge in the gourmet seafood restaurants and golden sands of sunny Sète.
Although this is a coast-to-coast route, you’ll rarely leave waterways behind. Much of the trail shadows either the Canal de Garonne or the Canal du Midi, the latter of which is a World Heritage Site.