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Adventure Cycling & Cycle Touring

Best Cycling Routes In France | Top 10

It’s little surprise that the country that gave us the Tour de France is packed with the kind of cycle trails that many of us dream of riding. Here's a guide to the best cycle routes in France

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 

Cycling on the edge of Lake Annency. Credit: Getty Images

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

Ride past classic French vineyards on the Alsace Wine Route. Credit: Getty Image

Start: Marlenheim

Finish: Thann

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

Cycle from Royan to Sète. Credit (left and right): Getty Images

Start: Royan

Finish: Sète

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.

PassaPaïs, Haut-Languedoc, South France 

The views up high in the Languedoc are something special. Credit: Håkon Grimstad

Start: Aiguefonde

Finish: Bédarieux 

Length: 76 km / 47.2 miles

Time: 1 day

Doable in a day, the delightfully flat PassaPaïs is completely at odds with the Languedoc Mountains rising up on either side it. The leafy route follows an old railway line, which passes under moss-covered stone arches, via ancient standing stones, and over railway bridges with staggering views. It’s one of France’s voies vertes (greenways) and is a haven for flora and fauna. The PassaPais is at its best in spring, when the hedgerows are kaleidoscopic with colour. 

Grand Traversée du Massif Central, Central and South France

The Tour de France peloton riding in the Massif Central (2016). Credit: Getty Images

Start: Avallon

Finish: Agde

Length: 1,400 km / 870 miles

Time: 14 – 21 days 

The grandparent of all other cycling routes in France, the 1,400kms Grand Traversée du Massif Central is the longest biking route in the country, and the stuff of legends. It rises and falls through an undulating landscape of extinct volcanoes (and when we say undulating, we’re talking about over 13,000 metres of elevation gain overall) before finally coming to rest on the Mediterranean coast. 

You’ll need a strong mindset, and even stronger calves, to complete it. 

Tour du Ventoux, Provence, South France

Cycling and Provence has a rich history. Credit: Getty Images

Start: Vaison-la-Romaine

Finish: Vaison-la-Romaine

Length: 128 km / 79.5 miles

Time: 2 days

Although far from the steepest cycle route around, the Tour du Ventoux could hardly be described as flat. Over the entire course of your time on it, you’ll rack up just shy of 2,000 metres worth of elevation gain. Fit cyclists can complete this in a day, but it’s generally tackled over the course of a weekend. 

If you thought that France’s mountain panoramas were confined to the Alps, think again. The Vaucluse region of Provence is rocky, gritty, and dotted with vertigo-inducing chateaux-forts impossibly perched on sheer cliff faces. Climbs are rewarded with 360 degree views, and incredible photo opportunities. 

Entirely on roads, the Ventoux loop is a windy one, and a head for heights is recommended. It’s best tackled on a road bike. 

Col de Sarenne, Isère, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, East France 

The ascent to Alpe d’Huez is the ultimate leg-burner for cyclists. Credit: Getty Images

Start: Bourg d’Oisans

Finish: Bourg d’Oisans

Length: 57 km / 35.4 miles

Time: 4 hours

What would a French cycling round-up be without an Alpine route? Well, say no more on the matter because here’s the famous Col de Sarenne climb. Best tackled in the summer, as snow lingers in this part of France longer than in other parts of the country, it’s 57 km long and perfectly doable within a day. With over 2000 metres of elevation gain however, expect to have wooden legs the following day. Yes, you’ll need a good level of fitness to tackle this one. 

Starting from Bourg d’Oisans, pedal uphill and navigate 21 bends as you ascend to the skiing town of Alpe d’Huez, where weary legs enjoy a mere kilometre of flat ground before climbing steeply once more. The toothy mountain peaks are worth the sweat. 

La Vélodyssée, West France

Take your bike for a spin by the water at Arcachon beach. Credit: Getty Images

Start: Roscoff

Finish: Hendaye

Length: 1200 km / 746 miles

Time: 12 days ++

To say that this is a practical and accessible cycling adventure for British people is an understatement. You can, you see, wheel off the ferry in Roscoff and be on the trail as soon as you pass Customs. The Vélodyssée snakes the entire length of the country from Brittany down to Irun on the border between France and Spain. Most of the 1,200 km route hugs the Atlantic coast, except for the Breton section right at the start which is largely inland. 

70% of the Vélodyssée is on traffic-free paths and is well signposted, leaving bike-riding adventurers free to soak up the wild beauty of the Atlantic views. For a route of this length, it’s a surprisingly flat one.

The Loix Loop, Île de Ré, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, West France

The Loix Loop is a lovely tour on Île de Ré. Credit: Getty Images

Start: La Flotte

Finish: La Flotte

Length: 29.7 km / 18.5 miles

Time: Under 2 hours

For a relaxing and flat spin, that’s under 30 km and which doesn’t scrimp on views, the Loix Loop on the Île de Ré takes some beating. A low-lying Atlantic island of sandy beaches, salt marshes and sleepy fishing villages, that’s only 5 km wide in total and comparatively free of traffic, Île de Ré is an easy place to explore by bike. 

During the first half of the last millennium, the island changed ownership a number of times between England and France before becoming permanently French in the 1370s. Follow the cycling loop here past whitewashed, blue-shuttered houses in the centre of the island for a dreamy ride like no other. This route will have you starting and finishing in the port town of La Flotte, with a picture-perfect marina and plenty of ice cream parlours to enjoy when you’re done. 

Grande Traversée du Jura, Jura Mountains, East France

The Jura Mountains serve up unforgettable views for cyclists. Credit: Getty Images

Start: Montbéliard

Finish: Culoz

Length: 425 km / 264 miles

Time: Approximately 1 week

The Jura Mountains, wild and mysterious, form a rugged cradle around francophone Switzerland. The effort required to complete the over 400 km that make up the Grande Traversée du Jura is not to be sneezed at. They may not be the highest mountain range in the country, but cyclists can still rack up over 9,000 metres of elevation gain over the course of the trail here. 

Is it worth the sweat? You better believe it. From many of the highest points along the way, weary cyclists are rewarded with views over an entirely different country (Switzerland, not Australia). Some rough tracks and elevation make this best explored on a mountain bike.

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