Stephen Fox, author of Cycle Touring in France, rides from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, covering 593 miles over 13 days
Twenty years ago I read Walking Through France by Robin Neillands, a fascinating account of the author’s solitary 600-mile trek from Caen to Montpellier, from the Channel to the Med.
What an inspiration! Being a keen cyclist and total Francophile, I soon found myself surrounded by Michelin maps, panniers and camping gear with two weeks’ summer holiday fast approaching.
The subsequent ‘coast to coast’ ride across France with Ian Uren was an unforgettable experience, one that I was happy to repeat nearly two decades later with my friend Roan Fair, who accompanied me on most of the rides described in my Cicerone guide Cycle Touring in France.
The route we decided on would take 13 days, averaging just 46 miles a day so that we could stop off and visit interesting villages and sites along the way and enjoy the surrounding scenery. Cycling south across France from the Channel to the Med was the preferred choice, so that we tackled the hot, rugged country towards the end of the ride rather than at the beginning.
Having taken a ferry from England over to Cherbourg in near gale force conditions, Roan and I just made it to the railway station in time for the evening train that had a special compartment you just wheeled your bikes into and hung up on designated hooks.
Once in Caen, we cycled north(!) to Merville-Franceville-Plage where there was a small campsite, Loisirs Ariane, situated close to the wide sandy beaches; it was here that our coast to coast ride would officially start the next morning. Blustery and cold it turned out to be too, despite being there in late May, and a lone dog-walker was the only human being in sight as we ceremoniously dipped our toes in the chilly waters of the Channel.
A quick photo with the bikes and we were off, heading south across the undulating farmland of Lower Normandy (Basse-Normandie), very similar in many ways to Dorset and Somerset, and an interesting workout for the first few days if you’re planning on camping across France and therefore carrying the extra weight in panniers.
Once you’ve broken through the ‘three-day wall’ at the start of any epic bike ride, psychologically and physically you’re gearing up for what lies ahead, whatever the terrain.
I would at this point also stress that following a relevant training program beforehand to set you up mentally and physically.
Through the Loire's Chateaux country
By Day 4, the landscape was changing, the roads straighter and somewhat flatter, crossing the Loir at Vendôme and then the Loire at Blois, the latter a landmark river on this wonderful ride surrounded by the glorious Chateaux country.
The next day, although slightly longer in distance, is kind on the legs crossing the Cher at Selles followed by a good, fast road past fields of maize and sunflowers all the way to Châteauroux, where there is a welcoming campsite with shade by the river Indre. (Keep an eye out for Campsite Le Rochat Belle-Isle.) This marks a change in terrain again as you soon enter the tranquil, hilly region of the Limousin - good, scenic cycling country up to the Plateau des Millevaches around 900 metres above sea level.
Dropping down into the Gorge d’Avèze, you soon realise how much you have climbed over the past couple of days since here you cross another of France’s great rivers, the Dordogne, which is no more than a fast-flowing stream hereabouts.
Rolling hills, gorges and viaducts
Onwards and upwards to the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, the largest Nature Park in France, and one with a vast, open, rugged landscape of high, rolling hills and extinct volcanoes. The striking hill town of St. Flour and the grand Viaduc de Garabit viaduct over the Truyère river are encountered before cycling into Lozère, the least populated of France’s 96 departments and the point where you are also welcomed to the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. A hidden gem of a gorge follows, the remote and superbly named Vallée d’Enfer, before crossing the Lot river south of Marvejols.
A long, steady climb up to the Causse de Sauveterre is rewarded by a magnificent view of the awesome Gorges du Tarn from the Point Sublime and a refreshing descent to the valley floor where the D907B road snakes south alongside the gushing Tarn all the way down to Millau.
The last significant climb on the coast to coast ride is a very picturesque one and not exacting to boot, so you can enjoy the Gorges de la Dourbie with its pretty little villages all the way up to Nant before you end up on the desolate expanse of the Larzac plateau. This area offers little shade, an unforgiving landscape in the heat of the day where you will discover the historic village of La Couvertoirade. A long descent to Lodève followed by easy cycling south all the way to Vias Plage, and suddenly, there it is before your very eyes: the Med! An unforgettable experience.
Tour itineraryDay 1: Merville-Franceville-Plage, Lower Normandy > Argentan,
Lower Normandy – 46 miles
Day 2: Arengtan > Belleme, Lower Normandy – 42 miles
Day 3: Belleme > Sarge-sur-Braye, Centre – 38 miles
Day 4: Sarge-sur-Braye > Cheverny, Centre – 44 miles
Day 5: Cheverny > Chateauroux, Centre – 53 miles
Day 6: Chateauroux > Boussac Bourg, Limousin – 44 miles
Day 7: Boussac Bourg > Merinchal, Limousin – 40 miles
Day 8: Merinchal > Bagnols, Auvergne – 44 miles
Day 9: Bagnols > Neussargues, Auvergne – 44 miles
Day 10: Neussargues > Marvejols, Languedoc-Roussillon – 56 miles
Day 11: Marvejols > Rivière-sur-Tarn, Midi-Pyrénées – 41 miles
Day 12: Rivière-sur-Tarn > Lodève, Languedoc-Roussillon – 61 miles
Day 13: Lodève > Vias Plage, Languedoc-Roussillon – 40 miles
Total distance: 593 miles
For another take on a north-south route, see Downhill all the Way: Cycling Through France from La Manche to the Mediterranean, Edward Enfield's journey from Le Havre to the Mediterranean.
Stephen Fox is author of Cycle Touring in France, published by Cicerone. Stephen lives in deepest, darkest Dorset and can often be spotted cycling in the countryside surrounding Corfe Castle or canoeing down the Frome and around Poole Harbour. Cycle touring or canoeing in France is a must every year, so you might just spot him freewheeling past sunflower fields on his folding bike, or drifting down the Dordogne in his inflatable canoe. "Wonderful country, whatever your passion," he says.