La Sarthe à Vélo is a well-organised network of bike routes in the Sarthe department of Pays de la Loire.
La Sarthe à Vélo is a 420km network of bike routes throughout the Sarthe department of Pays de la Loire. It's loosely made up of two figure of eight circuits (with a few offshoots) linked by a connecting spur between Le Mans and Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.
The network incorporates a large chunk of the 140km V47 Vallée du Loir bike route between Vendôme and Durtal, as well as the V44 route linking Alençon, Le Mans, Sablé and La Flèche.
It also provides a link that joins the two well-known French cycle routes the Véloscénie (from Paris to Mont St-Michel) and the Loire à Vélo route along the river Loire that also forms part of the EuroVelo 6 route. Just to the west, the route (almost) links with the La Velo Francette Caen-La Rochelle route as it passes through Chateau-Gontier.
The Sarthe à Vélo routes are a combination of dedicated car-free voies vertes (greenway routes and river towpaths) and backroad routes that are shared with cars (see below for a full overview).
For the purposes of clarity, I've included the whole network as one route above to avoid confusion and so you can see how the network links together.
Jacqui Brown, who rode the Sarthe network for us here, send me this more detailed overview:
The southern loop follows the River Sarthe and the River Loir, before returning to Le Mans through the Forêt de Bercé and is a fairly flat route that offers easy cycling for most levels. The only exception being the eastern section from Jupilles to Le Grand Lucé, which is an undulating stretch with hills that I found quite a challenge, especially in the run up to lunch when my energy levels were running low.
Most of the cycling is on quiet, pretty back roads through farmland and small villages. The fields were colourful and there was never a shortage of interested animals at the edge of the road to talk to (please don’t tell me I’m the only one who talks to cows and donkeys!)
There are a few sections when you leave the roads and while the old railway line from La Flèche to Le Lude was safe and fast moving, the potholes on the track leaving Vaas made for slow, uncomfortable cycling. We were on our road bikes rather than touring bikes and although I had 28c tyres and Adrian 25c, it was still difficult.
The countryside along the River Loir is decorated with water mills, chateaux and gardens, which make for interesting views and vistas as you cycle along. Cycling along the Loire Valley is very popular, but I think Le Loir has just as much to offer.
The northern loop follows the river Sarthe from Le Mans to the Alpes Mancelles just south of Alençon, then east to Mamers via the Forêt of Perseigne.
As the name ‘Alpes’ suggests, this is a hillier area with totally different scenery, although I’d still describe it as rural France at its best. We followed quiet lanes with hedgerows full of wild flowers and saw lots of open-air free-range chicken farms.
When you reach the Alpes Mancelles, the craggy rocks, granite cottages and shady forests seem a long way away from the Loir Valley and the open vistas in the south. The cycling here is more challenging, but give yourself time and it is achievable. I actually found the gradients here more manageable than the steep terrain around Le Grand-Lucé and would say they are take-your-time plodding hills rather than real mountains, and they gave me a real sense of achievement when I arrived at the top.
There was also quite a bit of climbing when we crossed the Forêt de Perseigne, but it was so beautiful I almost didn’t realise the effort involved. This section requires either more effort, or more time, but should still be achievable for the tourist cyclist. If I, a 45-year-old who is slightly out of shape, can do it on my first cycle touring holiday, anyone can do it.
Le Mans is ideally situated in the centre of the department and the meeting point between the northern and southern loops. We didn’t start in Le Mans, but this would be my recommendation. It is worth spending some time there: if you just did one of the loops, finish with a few days in Le Mans; if you want to do them both like we did, use Le Mans for a rest in the middle. I found one day didn’t give me enough time to visit everything the city has to offer.
We were covering between 70km and 85km a day, which gave us around four hours cycling each day. If you want to be able to see and enjoy the area and the attractions (museums, gardens, chateaux etc) along the way, I would suggest reducing this daily distance to 60km to 70km. I often found I was too tired when we arrived at the end of the day to explore the town we were staying in, then the following morning we were up and off for another day, without having the time to look around and this was a shame.
Everyone we met was friendly and welcoming. Most said they spoke a bit of English and were happy to try a few words, although they seemed relieved when we spoke French.
I’m not sure whether it was the cycling or La Sarthe, but there was something about the week that made me feel relaxed and happy to take things at a slower pace than normal life.
My top tip would be not to rush La Sarthe, take your time and savour it. It might not be an area of France that is famous as a holiday destination but that doesn’t mean there is a lack of things to see and do.