Iconic mountain climbs, rugged coastline, crystal blue oceans, glorious countryside – and a nation who adores cycling with a rich history of welcoming riders from all the world, why look any further than France?
If you are looking for more challenging terrain, then either the French Alps or the French Pyrenees will go way beyond the level of your standard British hills. They may be home to some of the most iconic and challenging cycle climbs in the Tour de France, but you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy the pain and glory of conquering an epic col or pass. With a bit of training and a few sportives in your legs, you can tackle any of the rides which are on offer in this spectacular mecca of cycling.
There are so many bucket list climbs in this region, but to name just a few we’d have to cite the Col de l’Iseran, the Col Galibier, the Col de la Columbière, Alpe d’Heuz and the Col de la Madeleine. The latter having featured 25 times in the Tour de France since 1969 and being one of the most iconic climbs of the French Alps. It’s also one of the toughest, but your hard efforts are rewarded with the breath-taking scenery and views over the majestic Mont Blanc. The Col du Galibier, a beast of a climb and a firm favourite amongst the road cycling community, is regularly included in the Tour du France and well worth adding to your ride bucket list.
Haute-Savoie, a popular region for cyclists with its breath-taking landscapes, borders Lac Léman and Switzerland to the north and Italy to the west, and as mentioned above, it is home to the majestic Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Short transfer times from Geneva airport make Haute-Savoie a favourite destination for UK cyclists arriving by plane.
Sat between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Hautes-Pyrénées region of France has no less than nine Tour de France mountains, including the Hautacam, Col d'Aubisque and the climb which has coined the nickname “The Terrible Mountain”, the Col du Tourmalet. Arguably, the Pyrenees should be on every cyclist to do list, especially if they seek some of Europe’s greatest cycling challenges. Being further south, the temperature can soar to 40 degrees at the base of the mountains, but still be cold up top, so packing the right gear for your ride is essential.
If you are looking for a more relaxed cycling trip, try the Canal du Midi. A UNESCO World Heritage site with almost all its 240km length lined with trees and an abundance of dedicated cycle paths. Ride through a landscape steeped in history, linking Toulouse, in the south to the port of Marseille on the Mediterranean. This is a perfect cycling route for families with long, flat, car free paths taking in the medieval fortified city of Carcassonne, Gothic Narbonne, and Romanesque Beziers. If gentle pedalling is what you seek from a trip, the voies vertes (greenways) are cycle tracks of rough or smooth surface, without cars or steep hills. Voies vertes are good for safe family cycling and follow canal towpaths and disused railway lines.
For comprehensive maps of the French railway network, see (ferrocarta.net). Low-cost, high-speed journeys through France are possible if you book early (up to 3 months in advance). The system is generally bike-friendly but not all high-speed trains (TGVs) accept bikes. Find out more via the SNCF website (voyages-sncf.com), clicking the details icon for suitable trains - a picture of a bicycle means the train takes bikes. TGV bike spaces cost €10, must be booked at the same time as the ticket and cannot be booked online.
The French Alps are well connected by train from the rest of the country and has international airports nearby at Grenoble, Lyon and Geneva. If flying to the Pyrenees, your best bet would either be to Lourdes, Toulouse, Perpignan, Pau or even Girona.
By Ferry & Road
Your options are endless if travelling by ferry. A good starting point to compare the various operators and prices for each crossing would be to try Ferry Savers.