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Cycling in France: where to go, what to know and how to get there

Joseph Delves
11 Mar 2021

All you need to know about cycling in France such as where to go, what to know and how to get there... when lockdown lifts

Home to cycling’s greatest spectacle, the Tour de France, host of the queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix, and cut into by two of Europe’s great mountain ranges, our nearest neighbour is sans comparer when it comes to cycling.

Whether exploring hors catégorie mountain climbs or pootling through rolling countryside in pursuit of nothing more strenuous than a good lunch, France is a paradise for cycling.

While you could spend a lifetime exploring each region and its culture in turn, we’ve highlighted six must-visit spots that won’t fail to make for an amazing cycling holiday.

1. The Alps

The Galibier, Télégraphe, Croix De Fer, Glandon, Madeleine and Alpe d’Huez. The Alps is home to many of cycling’s most famous and feared mountains. For living out your Tour de France fantasies, or indeed catching a stage at the roadside, it can’t be beaten.

The sheer volume of climbs means it’s easily possible to link up two or three HC ascents in a single ride if you feel up to it. Watching re-runs of the racing can also be a great way to gain inspiration for your itinerary. With summer accommodation fairly cheap, it’d be remiss not to find a town with a lake nearby in which to dunk yourself after a hard day riding.

For Alpe d'Huez and the nearby Croix De Fer and Glandon, Bourg d’Oisans makes an ideal base. Larger but still picturesque, Annecy has a beautiful lake-side setting, while the fortified town of Briançon is within striking distance of the Izoard and Galibier.

While the Alps is so huge and impressive in scale that we think anyone will be dazzled on a first trip, it’s not without a few minor downsides. Some of the roads the Tour races on can be busy in the height of summer. Plus the endless ski-towns can get repetitive.

So go and bag those big climbs, but for a second or third trip we think seeking out smaller towns and more obscure roads can be just as rewarding. For example, seeking out smaller villages and towns in the Haute Savoie region of the Rhône-Alpes will leave you with the feeling you have the mountains all to yourself.

Read about the epic Galibier-Izoard-Galibier sportive

Discover how we got on at the Haute Route Alps tackling Alpe D’huez, Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, plus Les Deux Alpes and the Col de la Sarenne

2. Pyrenees

Of Europe’s three great mountain ranges, only the Dolomites fall entirely outside of France’s borders. Quieter, slightly less high, and with narrower and less frequented roads, the Pyrennes are sometimes regarded as playing second fiddle to the Alps.

But with climbs like the Tourmalet, Aubisque and Hautacam, plus a better climate and slower pace of life, they might make for a better holiday.

The quality of the climbing is different too. Alpine climbs tend to be longer and more consistent in gradient, while those of the Pyrenees can be tricky with multiple gradients. The Pyrenees are also greener and more rolling as opposed to the jagged and rocky Alps.

Either way, there are more than five hundred passes above 1,000-metres to choose from, which is solidly five hundred more than you’ll find in the UK.

With a guaranteed yearly visit from the Tour de France booked-in well in advance, it’s a perfect location for a combined riding and spectating holiday, with the crowds dissipating almost as soon as the pros leave.

Dividing France from Spain, it’s possible to fly in from Pau or Biarritz to the west, while the influence of its warmer neighbour can be felt culturally too. Landing straight into France, Toulouse makes a good place to touchdown, while the comparatively low-lying town of Foix has stunning architecture and good access to the nearby mountains.

With less rain than the Alps, but water seeming to run through everything, wherever you end up staying, the waterfalls at Cirque de Gavarnie should be on any itinerary.

Read what happened when Cyclist attempted the Col d’Aubisque in our Big Ride: Pyrenees

3. Provence

Mont Ventoux

Sunny, rolling, covered in vineyards and fields of lavender, Provence perfectly realises the dream of France. With the under-rated city of Marseille as its prefecture and a Mediterranean coastline, there’s plenty to draw anyone to the region. For one, the food and wine are about as good as it gets.

But for all its comforts and distractions, this isn’t a region without HC challenges. For cyclists, there’s also Mont Ventoux. Rising alone out of the earth, this 1,909m mountain is freakishly barren and often beset by Mistral winds that top 160kmh.

A site of pilgrimage since British cyclist Tom Simpson died there during the 1967 Tour de France, it’s an ascent like no other. Starting from Bedoin, it gains 1,610m over 21km, with most riders taking around two hours to reach the summit before screaming back down.

Given Ventoux’s lonely status as a mountain seemingly divorced from a range, many people assume the rest of Provence lacks any other high points. In fact, the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region provides some incredible and little-explored climbs too.

For a challenging but less altitudinous ride, the Gorge de la Nesque offers a surfeit of beautiful mountain villages, while sticking closer to sea level, the Camargue Regional Nature Park is equally spectacular.

Read the Cyclist guide to riding Mont Ventoux

Discover Provence’s hidden gem: The empty road of the Haute Provence and Drôme departments

4. Brittany

With its own unique Breton culture, Brittany has a proud tradition of producing hardened cyclists. Jutting out into the sea on the northwest of France, it’s produced riders including Bernard Hinault and Lucien Petit-Breton.

Shaped by the harsh Atlantic weather, this might not be the place if you want a break from UK-style weather. Instead, it provides a rugged landscape and has a fascinating history, both ancient and modern.

It's an area shaped by agriculture and its proximity to the sea. In 1984 the Tro Bro Leon race was created to celebrate the region’s cycling heritage. Covering several unpaved sectors known as ‘ribinoù’ it’s a wild and unfussy event we reckon everyone should have a crack at. That it costs €17 to enter should give you an idea of how enjoyable cycling here can be!

You can find an account of how Cyclist got on at the ride known as The Hell of the West here

While Brittany’s rolling coastal roads make for the most spectacular and challenging riding, the region has also been making sustained efforts to attract more general cycle tourism. This has seen thousands of kilometres of former railway lines and canal towpaths turned into signposted routes ideal for more sedate tours or family outings.

Among the easiest bits of France to get to, a cycle-all-the-way friendly ferry link from Plymouth to Roscoff means it’ll suit those looking for an aviation-free holiday.

5. The Riviera

Right on the southern border with Italy, the Riviera runs from Saint-Tropez, through Cannes and Nice to Monaco. Finishing at the border with Italy, the region has passed between different regimes, giving it a feeling of being slightly aside from the rest of France, this is only added to by its famously sunny climate.

While the seafront road that links its glamorous if overstuffed towns is normally busy, it’s the hills immediately behind this sunny coast that have persuaded generations of professional cyclists to make the region their base.

Nice itself is charming, yet within striking distance are the climbs of the Col d’Èze and Col de la Madone. Allowing for a huge number of different loops all ending in a city that’s easily accessible via air or rail, you can be suffering up the last few metres of a high mountain pass yet know you’ll be back on the beach within the hour.

While the climbs themselves tend to be overlooked by the Tour de France, and their height might seem diminutive by Alpine standards, it’s not by chance that the area is packed with pro racers.

For one, the Grande Corniche road is among the best looking you’ll find anywhere. Plus if you get bored you can easily hop the border to Italy and hit two nations in one bike ride.

Read Cyclist’s classic climbs and WorldTour pros: Nice Big Ride

Read Cyclist’s Gran Fondo Saint-Tropez sportive review 

6. Vosges

Just as Brittany has been shaped by its unique Breton culture, and the Rivera spritzed with a dash of Italian flair, so the culture of the green and verdant Vosges region is tied to that of its neighbour Germany.

Previously little known among cyclists, the region has well over twenty summits above 1,000 metres. And while most of the roads don’t reach quite that high, they’ve recently had an outsized effect on the Tour de France.

Having first visited La Planche des Belles Filles in 2012, two years later the race was back. And it came through again in 2017, 2019 and 2020.

Each time this medium length, but superbly punchy climb has provided the desired fireworks. Not that the region doesn’t have plenty more hills to offer. It’s just that until given the chance to prove themselves, they’d perhaps been overlooked for being gentle and winding rather than steep and zigzagging.

But then that’s partly why we like them, plus without artificial star quality, they’re also incredibly quiet. With German-sounding names like the Hohneck and Hundsruck, the region’s highest point is the Grand Ballon.

Climbing to 1,424 metres, the almost straight road over the top takes you up as far as 1,343 metres. From here you can see over into Germany’s Palatine Forest, which given its proximity is well worth hopping across the border to visit.

Also nearby, Basel in Switzerland is actually the handiest airport for reaching the Vosges, just make sure you take the correct exit or you’ll end up in the wrong country.

Read about the day Cyclist spent riding 211km and 4,400m of vertical ascent around the Vosges here

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