As the French summer tourist season arrives, one of the most appealing options for seeing this country is a trip along one of its numerous bike paths.
Travelers like this choice because it gets them outdoors in a way that also offers some measure of safety and peace of mind. You can ride at your own speed, and keep as much distance as you want if you’re still feeling anxious about crowds while the coronavirus is still circulating.
The nation’s tourist industry is promoting this because they’re eager to entice people to travel this summer to get some much-needed Euros circulating in the economy. In that respect, biking is particularly attractive because people visiting a region by bike tend to spend more time and money than someone zipping along by car.
“Bikes are very good for our tourism,” said Stéphane Villain, president of the National Federation of Tourism Organizations in France. “Riders can benefit more from our Patrimoine, take their time, and relax. The average tourist by bike spends about €70 per day, compared to €50 for the classic tourist.”
For all of these reasons, plans to resuscitate the nation’s tourist industry include increased investment in biking infrastructure. With bike sales in the country already soaring during the pandemic, the nation that is home to the famed Tour de France is set to boost its cycling profile even more.
To get started, here are several great resources for researching your own itinerary:
- Vélo & Territoires
- France Vélo Tourisme
- Vois Vertes (This is the official term for dedicated bike paths that have been either paved or are maintained in some fashion.)
Given the embarrassment of choices, here are 7 bike trips that offer the perfect way to see France on two wheels this summer.
Canal du Midi in Occitanie
King Louis XIV’s desire to embrace projects of grandeur in the 17th century left a legacy that includes that Canal du Midi. The canal stretches 150 miles across the southwest of France linking Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. Our family rode the entire length in 2018 until we reached Sète. That ride took 5 days, but you can pick and choose smaller sections. For instance, leaving Toulouse, there is a solid bike path most of the way to Castelnaudary. And though it gets a bit rougher in some stretches, it’s still pretty easy to reach Carcassonne in two days. The final section, from Béziers to Sète, also features a mostly-paved bike path and a flat ride. Last year, the regional government announced plans to invest in creating a maintained bike path the entire length of the canal.
La Vélodyssée along the Atlantic Coast
La Vélodyssée is an extraordinary voie verte that runs from the Brittany region all the way south to the Basque Coast. That 745-mile route also takes riders across the Nouvelle Aquitaine region and a variety of landscapes, including Bordeaux. The good news is that more than 70% of the path is dedicated bike lanes where you won’t be competing with automobiles. Only the hardiest of bikers will attempt the whole thing. Instead, pick a more modest itinerary. For instance, a 5-day ride starting south of Bordeaux will take you along the coast in the Landes department and through scenic forest areas and spectacular beaches.
La Grande Boucle of Southern Burgundy
The Great Southern Burgundy Loop in the Saône & Loire department runs from Chalon to Mâcon in the eastern part of France. The 90-mile path goes from north to south, and the section between Givry and Cluny lays claim to being part of the first voie verte in France. This will carry you past some of the most peaceful countryside, forests, and pastureland in France. You will also coast among vineyards at Côte Chalonnaise to the north and Mâconnais to the south if you feel ready for some wine tasting. You’ll also cross the medieval villages of Buxy and Saint-Gengoux-le-National.
Canal du Nivernais in Bourgogne
The Canal du Nivernais sits in the Nièvre department. The adjacent bike route follows the canal, which connects the Yonne and Loire Rivers in the western Burgundy region (Officially the Bourgogne-France-Comté Region). The bike route is 108 miles, so the whole thing would take several days depending on your pace. But it’s mostly flat and easy pedaling along what was the former railway line next to the water. In addition to passing the impressive system of locks, the path takes you near the Saussois rocks in Merry-sur-Yonne, which are part of an ancient coral bar that formed in the Jurassic era. The route is also part of the larger network known as the Tour de Bourgogne à vélo. These 500 miles of bikeways include the Southern Burgundy Loop mentioned above.
La Loire à Vélo in the Loire Valley
La Loire à Vélo is a 500-mile route that cuts across the center of France. But the 26-mile section from Blois to Amboise that runs through the Loire Valley should be right at the top of your must-do list. It’s hard to beat the payoff in terms of gorgeous countryside and spectacular sites. Our family did this ride in 2017, and you can read about our itinerary here. The Loire Valley is where several generations of French royals built their countryside castles for their life outside of Paris, and so this region boasts some of the most famous châteaux in France. This route largely traces the Loire River, but a few small detours will take you past castles, which demand anywhere from a couple of hours to a whole day to visit. Our ride mostly followed the official La Loire à Vélo, which is part of the epic EuroVelo6 route that runs from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Note for planning: Names can be confusing in France, and that’s especially the case for anything related to the Loire River, one of the longest in France. The Loire department is further east. This trip is in the Loire Valley, or Val de Loire in the Indre-et-Loire department.
The Vélomaritime in Normandy
The Vélomaritime is a 745-mile bikeway that follows almost the entire French coast along the English Channel, from Brittany to the Belgium border. But the 182-mile section in the department of La Manche is particularly noteworthy. You can start at the famed Mont Saint Michel and check that off your French bucket list. From there, the path turns north and will eventually go past such places the Vire Valley, Utah Beach, and upwards to Cherbourg (for fans of its namesake musical).
Passa Païs in Haut Languedoc
The Passa Païs is a 47-mile bikeway that was formerly a railroad track. The route is an easy 2-day journey between Mazamet in the Tarn department and Bedarieux in the Hérault Department. It works well in either direction. While there is a mild climb in the middle, the path is well-maintained and easy to follow. You’ll pass waterfalls, picturesque villages, bridges over deep gorges, and mountains.
Bonus: Vélo & Fromages
This is not a bike route, but rather, 87 of them! In 2019, a group of tourist associations in France teamed up with the director of the Tour de France to create a concept called Vélo & Fromages. The project designates bike routes that offer a tour of several dairy farms, cheese production sites, and cheese stores. The goal is to give riders a taste of the region’s best offerings as well as a lesson in its cheesemaking industry. There are now more than 1,000 cheese sites participating. You can see the full list of routes here. Note: Some of these itineraries are created with electric bikes in mind, so look closely to make sure the route matches your own biking level.