Cycling in Brittany is a breeze thanks to the region's network of green ways, says G.H. Randall
In the first half of the 20th century, Brittany’s transport needs were served by a network of railways, largely narrow or metre gauge, and a system of waterways. All were major engineering achievements in their time but destined to fall into disuse in the face of competition from the improving road system. Overlooked and neglected for decades, these ready-made but outmoded arterial routes have recently been revived as green ways, a major leisure resource, free from motorised traffic.
Railway track-beds have been cleared and resurfaced, canal towpaths have been renovated and safety improved at road crossing points. Additional facilities geared to the needs of cyclists and walkers are dotted along the way. A number of former stations are converted to tourist offices, others to gîtes d'étape (hostels) or museums. The work of improvement is on-going as there are hundreds of kilometres of these routes to be brought back into use. Often passing through deep countryside, these green ways ('voies vertes' in French) are an ideal way to discover Brittany and some of its treasures that are hidden from road-bound tourists.
The concept of green ways (sometimes greenways) is international, rooted in the 'green' movement and the 'sustainable development' buzz of the last few decades. The European Greenways Association sets the criteria; accessible to everyone (including mobility impaired people), even surface, satisfactory width, only very gentle gradients, no motorised traffic. This makes very pleasant cycling for anyone who is new to cycling, or anyone who indulges perhaps only when on a cycling holiday. The green ways are a fast and stress-free way of accessing nearly all parts of Brittany, or travelling through to the rest of France. Take them slowly, enjoy the view and use them as a jumping off point for further exploration.
Cycling in Brittany made easy
There are four major green way cycle routes in Brittany that interlink to form a network:
• V2 St-Malo to Rennes (107kms)
• V3 St-Malo to Questembert (113kms)
• V6 Carhaix to St-Méen-le-Grand (121kms)
• V7 Roscoff to Concarneau (121kms)
These routes make a sort of H-shape across central Brittany, with the V2 branching off to Rennes in the east. But don't be misled by their names. The V2 and V3 actually start from Dinard, on the opposite side of the R. Rance from St-Malo; the V3 has a mid-section of about 39km on roads; the V7 is mostly a road route from Roscoff to Morlaix, not entirely signed, and the route has not been developed beyond Rosporden, a few kilometres short of Concarneau.
The V1 Roscoff to Nantes is officially incomplete as a green way but in practice it duplicates the V7 from Roscoff to Carhaix and then follows the Nantes-Brest Canal to Nort-sur-Erdre, near Nantes. The towpath can be cycled pretty well all the way, but only certain sections of it are officially designated as green way.
The V4 is the coastal route from the Normandy border near Mont St-Michel to Roscoff, and the V5 takes it on from Roscoff, around the western peninsulas and along the south coast to the Brittany border in the south-east. Neither of these two routes is complete and very little of them is or will be on actual green ways – a bit of up and down can be expected, and signing, where it exists, can be well-intentioned but vague. It's essential to have a map as back-up.
The V8 will be a route from St-Brieuc in the north to Hennebont (near Lorient) in the south. Only the southern part of this route is complete, following the towpath along the R. Blavet from Pontivy down to Hennebont.
Other shorter stretches of green way have been developed in various parts of Brittany and a list of these can be found in Brittany's Green Ways.
Brittany at its best
The best parts of Brittany's current green way system for scenery are at opposite ends of the network: the V7 between Morlaix and Carhaix and the V3 between Malestroit and Questembert.
On the Morlaix-Carhaix stretch, the V7 passes over the Monts d'Arrée, the highest range of Hills in Brittany (up to 387 metres) with outcrops of granite, craggy slate peaks and deep natural woodland in the valleys - the green way alternating between cutting and embankment as it climbs to its highest point at the Gare de Kermeur. There are numerous mountain-biking circuits linked to the green way and these are worth exploring just for the scenery alone.
The V3 south from Malestroit climbs over the Landes de Lanvaux, the main high ground of Morbihan. It is deep, rolling countryside rising to open heath-land, very beautiful, and the green way surface here is tarmac, which is a joy to ride on compared to the compacted sandy gravel of most of the rest of the network. The whole of the V3 south of Mauron has a tarmac surface and numbered cycle-rides (not VTT) are signed, taking in many of the places of interest in the surrounding country. Just south of Mauron the V3 is only a short distance from the Forest of Brocéliande, steeped in Arthurian legend, with the Valley of No Return, the Golden Tree, Merlin's Tomb and the House of Viviane - a worthwhile diversion through Néant-sur-Yvel, and perhaps taking in the picturesque Château de Trécesson.
Of the five departments of modern Brittany, it is Ille-et-Vilaine that seems to be doing most in the way of developing other long distance cycle routes by minor roads, while Côtes d'Armour and Morbihan have a more coherent system of circuits for tourists, mostly based on the green ways.
Green ways are a great idea and a lot of work has been done to bring the idea into reality, but there remains a lot still to do and the situation on the ground is constantly evolving.
Accommodation in Brittany
There's an accommodation option for every taste and budget in Brittany. See our 'Where to stay' section for a range of links to hotels, gîtes, gîtes d’étapes, B&Bs and self-catered accommodation around France.
Books and maps
Brittany's Green Ways: A Guide to Re-Used Railway Tracks and Canal Towpaths is an invaluable guide, as is The Nantes-Brest Canal, a guide for cyclists and walkers. See the Footprint guide to Brittany for a general tourist overview; Footprint also has a new Brittany With Kids guide for families, while Lonely Planet has a Brittany and Normandy books.
Michelin has a regional Brittany map, as well as a green guide to Brittany available in book format and for Kindle. IGN also has a regional map of Brittany.
G.H. Randall is the author of Brittany's Green Ways.