Imagine an entire year of biking in France. 366 days (it’s a Leap Year)! I’ll wait while you close your eyes and imagine the possibilities.
Forget about money, don’t fret about your job, family obligations, healthcare, visas and all the other stuff that prevent us from living our cycling/travel dreams. Like COVID-19. Imagine it’s gone, that everyone is vaccinated, safe and healthy.
That’s what I’ve done during lockdown: Planned an entire year of biking in France, day-by-day, month-by-month, region-by-region. It’s helped me maintain my mental health and remain somewhat optimistic about the future. If you’d like to substitute Italy, Spain or a multi-country jaunt for France, go ahead – it’s your dream, and your mental health. This is my dream trip, month-by-month, maps, to give you a general idea of the route …
Weather plays a big role in determining the route. It’s obviously too cold to cycle up north in Normandy or Brittany during the winter, so there’s no choice but to start way down south … in Nice. Fortunately, Nice, the entire French Riviera and surrounding hills/mountains/cols are cycling heaven, especially if you like climbing. It’s a perfect place to start my adventure.
So, I’m gonna settle in Nice for the month, in a relatively affordable Airbnb. Wait, I almost forget: No need to worry about money! Let’s get something with an ocean view and a balcony. And an extra bedroom and bathroom for when cycling friends come to visit.
The average January temperature in Nice is a high of 56 (Fahrenheit) and low of 46, so riding is doable most days if you wear the proper gear. It will be a little colder and windier up in the cols, so I’ll plan accordingly and ride them on the warmer days. When it’s too cold to ride: the Chagall or Matisse museums; long, leisurely lunches; a walk up to the Parc du Mont Boron. Maybe I’ll take a French-language class. Or a cooking class.
There are lots of day-trip riding options from Nice: Along the coast, in either direction; to Menton, then up the famous Col de la Madone; take the train north and ride back to Nice; ride to a hilltop village and spend a night or two there. This will be a nice, relaxing, get-in-shape month in a great city and region. I’ll also scout out and settle on four or five of my favorite hilltop villages because …
It’s still winter, so we’re “stuck” in this region. And so, I’ll ride from village to village and spend five, six, seven days in each, do a series of day-trip rides, and hike on the days it’s too cold to ride. Or do laundry, or read a book at a cafe. I’m gonna work my way from the east to the west and the villages on my list include: Sospel, Ste Agnes, Biot, Vence, Gourdon, Grasse and Bargemon.
I have a few guidelines for my year on a bike, principles I’d like to follow. They are…
*Despite starting in the big city of Nice, I prefer smaller cities, towns and villages. They do need to have a couple of lodging and restaurant options, and a patisserie and grocery store.
*I plan to hunker down in most places for a few days, and then do day-trip rides, rather then pack up and “move” every day. I love day-trip rides. And packing and unpacking every day can get old real quick.
*My dream trip includes a lot of coastlines, gorges, climbs, rides along rivers, the ruins of old castles – and avoiding the tourist spots in the middle of that spot’s tourist season.
*I want to stay in as many new places as possible. This is getting harder and harder, as I’ve already ridden through big chunks of France. This trip includes about 60 percent new places.
*A town with a laverie every seven to 10 days.
*A non-riding/rest day at least once a week. This is a concession to age and injuries. And so, I need to plan accordingly and do my off days in a town with a museum, castle or interesting old town to explore. And maybe a laverne, as doing laundry kills a couple hours.
*I’m thinking 1,000 miles a month is about right. It’s tempting to do more, but I don’t want to wear myself out or hurt my knee or back by pushing too hard. A total of 12,000 miles for the year seems about right. OK, maybe 13,000 or 14,000.
The weather is still a bit of an issue, plus, I can’t get to Mont Ventoux (a must on this trip) before April 15. This is when the snow and ice at the top have mostly melted and the road to the top reopens. So, let’s head west, along the coast, to Bormes, a delightful little town. A day trip from here will be a ferry ride to the Ile de Porquerolles.
And then, north to the Grand Canyon du Verdon. I’ve been here once before, in a car, not on a bike. The ride around the canyon, about 50 to 55 miles, is legendary. Let’s stay in Moustiers-Ste Marie for an entire week and really explore this canyon.
Then, it’s off to Aix-en-Provence, and a few rides around the Montagne Ste-Victoire, the mountain Cezanne painted over and over. Aix is a city, but it’s a great place, filled with fountains, cafes and restaurants, and Cezanne’s old studio at the top of a steep hill. Then west to Avignon (another large, but nice city), and a day-trip visit to the Pont du Gard. And a ride south to Les Baux, the ancient citadel high atop the cliffs.
The heart of Provence – perhaps my favorite region of France.
Here’s the link to my Biking Provence book, and my four other Biking France books (Normandy, Bordeaux, the Loire and the Dordogne). They’re all currently half off.
On this trip, I’ll settle in Venesque and Lourmarin for a few days, and then on to Sisteron, a town I’ve never before visited. It looks amazing … I wonder if you can hike to the top of this rock …
I’ll spend a week in Sisteron, and use it as a base to ride and explore. Over the years, I’ve developed the ability to study my Michelin map and instinctively recognize great cycling territory. My instincts tell me: This is great cycling territory.
And then: west to Sault, my favorite of the three Mont Ventoux base towns. It’s about April 20, so there’s probably still some snow at the top of the Ventoux. It could be quite cold and windy, but, what the heck, let’s climb this damn mountain a few times.
Then west to Uzes and north to the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, the western edge of the Gorges de L’Ardeche. Yet another gorge I’ve never cycles. Take a look …
Here’s April’s route …
Lots of miles this month, about 1,200. From Vallon-Pont d’Arc, it’s north and along the bike path parallel to the Rhone River to Tournon. My instincts, and Michelin map, again tell me this is another great cycling region. Then SW to St-Agreve and south to Arlempedes, Villefort and then 10 or so days at different towns along the Gorges du Tarn.
I told you: I love gorges! And this one – which I’ve never cycled – just might be the most scenic. It’s also very touristy, as the map below indicates, but it’s May, so I think I’m safe from the hordes.
Near the gorge are several other sighs/rides on my list: the Canyon de la Dourbie, Mont Aigoual, the super-tall Viaduc de Millau bridge, and the Point Sublime that overlooks the Tarn. Best of all, everything this month is new territory to me. And no, I’m not sure of the difference between a gorge and a canyon. But I’ll find out when I get here.
Here’s the Viaduc de Millau …
Another big-mileage month with lots of great rides, towns and sights. And a gaggle of gorges, of course. I’ve been staring at pages 262 and 263 of my Michelin map for a couple years now, planning this region. I think these two pages might be perfection on a bike. So many great routes and things to see!
I’ll settle in at Entraygues for several days and ride along the Gorges du Lot, up and over the hills between the gorges and down to the medieval town of Conques, then north through the Gorges de la Truyere. And then head north to Aurillac and ride up the magnificent Puy Mary …
Then it’s on the Albi, then the surrounding rivers, gorges and mountains on the way to Montauban. I’ll take a day off in Rodez to visit the Sourages Museum, a day in Albi to see the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and immense cathedral, then the Ingres Museum in Montauban. These are three of my favorite artists, and I haven’t been to any of three museums, although I have been to Albi before.
Here’s the Albi Cathedral …
Then it’s west, west, west, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and the immense, amazing sand dunes du Pilat just south of Arcachon …
Then up the coast, along the wonderful bike path that meanders through endless pine forests, across the bay to Royan for a few days of exploring.
Wow, I’m already half way through my year on a bike in France.
Here’s my June trek …
This is gonna be a month that’s hard to fit on one map! Which means lots of great cycling – and not too many prime tourist destinations. I’m going all the way from Bordeaux to the Loire. The citadel in Blaye, the medieval St-Emilion in the heart of Bordeaux, north to the great villages of Brantome, Uzerche and Solignac (near Limoges), and then a few days in St-Junien. From St-Junien, at least one day trip to the nearby town of Oradour-sur-Glane, a special place I’ve always wanted to visit.
On June 10, 1944, every resident of the town – all 642 men, women and children – were systematically murdered by German soldiers. Everyone. The town remains now as it was then, a memorial to man’s inhumanity to man. I need to visit this place, but am also dreading it.
From here, north to the Loire and to Blois. I haven’t been to the Loire since 2013, so it will be a bit of a homecoming.
It’s August (already), which means lots of tourists. Especially in the Loire, which is where I’ll spend the first two weeks of the month. Oh well, what can you do … I have to be somewhere in August, so it might as well be here. From Blois, west along and around the Loire, hitting all my favorite towns, castles and day-trip rides.
I’ll end my Loire journey at Angers, and then hear due north, all the way to the water, passing through lots of great towns: Vitre, Fougres, Dinan and Lambelle, and hit the water at Le Val-Andre at the very end of the month. I’ve ridden through Brittany before, but have never been to this part of the coast.
Here’s my map for August …
Planning this month was a bit perplexing. My goal was to get from Brittany to Reims in the Champagne region, but … I’ve done this basic route twice before and it’s only so-so cycling after the Normandy invasion beaches. And then … inspiration struck. From the Normandy beaches, instead of heading due east to Rouen, go north first, along the coast, up to Etretat and check out the famous cliffs that Monet (and others) painted. This will be new territory for me. Rugged, rocky coasts.
And then, ride even further north along the coast, to St-Valery and Dieppe, and then cut east and inland, and down to Amiens and the famous cathedral.
From Amiens, the Champagne region – Noyon, Laon, Reims and Epernay – are only a day away. I think the timing will work out perfect, as it will be less crowded, but still warm along the coast, and I’ll hit Champagne at harvest time.
Here’s the September route …
Back in 1992, I was all set to ride from Reims to Strasbourg, as part of trip that started in Paris and eventually ended in Amsterdam. And then, I got sick. Really sick. Food poisoning, I think. And so, I holed up in a hotel in Reims for three days, drinking tea and alternating between sweating profusely and teeth-rattling chills. Finally, and reluctantly, and still feeling weak, I took the train to Strasbourg, and then rode south through France and then east into Germany (which was West Germany at the time).
Now, all these years later, I’ll finally ride from Reims to Strasbourg. It seems like a great route, with lots of picturesque towns – St-Dizier, Chaumont, Epinal – along the way. I’ll hit the Alsace Lorrain region at Kayersberg, and wind my way north through the wine route to Strasbourg. I rode through this area back in 1992, but it was a quick trip (I was still trying to make up some lost time and miles) and didn’t do any day trips. So, lots of day trips this time, from my base towns of Kayersberg, Guebwiller and Selestat.
I’ll settle in Strasbourg for a few days, and then … take the train to Annecy. I’d rather not take a train, but it’s already late October (about the 20th or 21st), and I want to spend as much time as possible in Annecy before it gets too cold to ride, as this is great cycling territory: the French Alps!
Here’s my October route to Strasbourg …
When it gets to cold to ride (early to mid-November?) in Annecy, I’ll head back to the French Riviera, by train or maybe I’ll rent a car and make a few stops along the way to do some day-trip rides. I don’t want to plan too much for these last two months, but will instead play it by ear and revisit some of my favorite towns, villages and cols and “ride” out the rest of the year in this region. Or maybe somewhere to the west, along the water and near mountains.
And then, when it’s all over … it’s time to start planning a new, year-long, dream trip. I’m thinking Portugal and Spain. Or maybe Switzerland and Germany.
Here’s the link to my 3-part series on The Invention of the Bicycle