Bob Zeller and his friend Jim Burke share their cycle tour along the Loire Valley, a cycle route accessible to riders of all ages. Report: summer 2019.
Guidebook for cycling the Loire (Bob's review)
For some time, I had been thinking about doing a tour along a portion of the Loire Valley, for all the obvious reasons: much of it goes through some of the prettiest parts of France as the river flows from Mount Gerbier de Jonc in the Central Massif to Nantes and Saint Nazaire on the Atlantic coast. In itself, that’s reason enough. But recently, the French authorities have been applying an enormous amount of effort and money into creating a first-class cycling experience along the Loire that can be enjoyed by all cyclists, including families with youngsters. First-class routing on quiet and scenic roads and hard-packed cycle paths are now the norm.
Equally important, touring related businesses such as hotels and B&Bs, repair shops and bike hire facilities, have been encouraged to sign up to the French Accueil Velo programme which provides assurances that cycling related facilities and services will be available at regular points. In short, the Loire Valley is not only a first class area to tour for experienced tourists, as it always has been, but now it is even better – with plenty of confidence building features for newcomers of all ages.
So I called Jim Burke, my great friend and regular touring partner who lives in Canada, and he said yes right away. We wouldn’t have the time to do the entire route but decided that we could join the Loire Valley at Blois and work our way west to Nantes. That would give us a tremendous introduction to what some say is quickly becoming one of the jewels in the French cycle touring crown. Mind you, to get to Blois from Belfast, our actual starting point, was going to a bit of a palaver since it meant having to use innumerable trains and a ferry to get to Chartres, where we wanted to visit its wonderful cathedral, before finally getting on our bikes and riding down the V41 to Blois and the Loire Valley.
There are many variations and versions of the Loire route, but most of them focus on the prettiest stretches of both sides of the river. I suppose that is because everyone wants to see, and perhaps visit, the famous chateaux that seem to always be in view. But there is much more than chateaux and you should do a bit of work to highlight the other choices. What about the vineyards? There are countless and many are small and unknown. Jim, a real wine enthusiast, was happily introduced to many local wines on this trip that he had never experienced before. See here for lots of inspiration. (Wine lovers should also see this wrap of the major French wine regions for cycling).
And then there are the famous caves. Some are used as homes, some by wine producers and vineyards and some have been converted into small hotels and B&Bs.
The list of really worthwhile things to explore is endless, but helpfully, there is now a significant amount of literature and website information about the route options and features, making it possible to plan the most suitable tour - no matter how much time is available, what your interests are, and what skill levels you might have.
We decided to use Cicerone’s new book, Cycling the Loire Cycle Route by Mike Wells as the primary source for our planning. I had reviewed this book for Freewheeling France and at the time, I thought that were I ever to do the Loire, Wells’ route seemed to be so interesting that his would be the route I would want to ride. He is an excellent touring author with a number of books to his credit, and in all of them, he conveys a real sense and feel for the area in which he is cycling. Not only does he suggest and illustrate where you should go using both first class mapping and words, he tells you why he thinks you should.
But as well, you should have a look at other information sources. Loire by Bike is an excellent website as is, of course, the section in Freewheeling France dedicated to the Loire. And Richard Peace’s Ultimate Southern France Touring Guide, published by Excellent Books, has a first-class Loire Valley section as well.
Of course, since most of the ‘official’ Loire a Velo route is waymarked with signage, you could, I suppose, just follow the signs.
For us, the Wells book outlined a route covering the features that we thought most important. As a bonus, Cicerone makes it possible to download it. But, f you don’t use GPS, the route is so well illustrated in the book that it wouldn’t be difficult to follow just using the book alone. If you opt for the ‘official’ Loire à Velo route which differs in places, from Wells’, it too is downloadable.
Full Loire EuroVelo 6 bike route
But, should you find that having so many route choices ends up confusing your planning, never fear. All routes follow the river in one way or the other so you will eventually get to your end point, no matter what.
Mind you, there were a few sections of the Wells route that I came across while planning that suggested they might be difficult for my relatively narrow 700C X 23 tyres if it was wet and muddy. For them, I used Ride With GPS to plot optional stretches that might be a better bet in those situations. But there were only a very few times that my skinny tyres struggled. A couple of muddy patches were a bit difficult and there were three or four cobbled sections that we wished weren’t there. But we managed with little difficulty.
If you are relying on Loire à Velo signage, it is hard to miss the signs and there was usually little to misunderstand about their meaning. But very occasionally, when we were not following the downloaded route but instead using the signs as our primary navigation, we were confused when a sign was set at a slightly different angle or covered with foliage perhaps and thus difficult to comprehend or see. Interestingly, often in those cases, Jim would see a sign and immediately understand its meaning while I saw nothing. Other times it was the opposite. But we never were stymied as to which way to go. In fact, I would guess that we only used 75 per cent of our planned route and just followed our instincts and never did we get confused.
And, if you get horrible weather one day, or choose to spend more time sightseeing and less cycling, there are plenty of stations where you can catch a train. That’s what we did when we were to ride from Vendome to Blois but decided that we didn’t come on holiday to fight winds blowing from 70km/h to 90km/h. In the summer, there are even special trains for cycle tourists that make even more frequent stops than do the regional ones.
Would we do it again? Well I haven’t asked Jim, but I most certainly would and I bet he would as well. But this time, I might want to start further east, even at the river’s head at Mount Gerbier de Jonc. Narrow and fast flowing, La Loire Sauvage, as it’s called at that point, would present a very different picture and to go from there into somewhere in the Auvergne, would be a delightful ride.
Navigation and route planning
I used a Garmin Explore, Garmin’s latest touring GPS unit and it worked a treat (see my review here), although it has taken three years to learn how to use GPS advantageously.
Of course, you don’t need GPS to enjoy a Loire Valley cycle tour. Thousands have been touring in the region for years before GPS became available for cyclists. But being able to download both the Wells route and the official Loire a Velo route was really helpful. I also used Ride With GPS in places as well.
Maps and route books
I use IGN’s Top 100 Tourisme & Velo series when touring in France. For me, the IGN scale of 1:100,000 is just right; the information on the maps is easy to read and usually all that I need. However, IGN has started providing even better maps in the Top 100 series that not only have more specific cycle touring information on them but are ‘plasticated’ as well to protect them should they get wet. For me, that’s a real bonus because even when I am using GPS, I will often be holding a map in my hands while the rain is bucketing down. Not all of the Top 100 series have been upgraded yet, so make sure that if maps you want have been, then those are you get those ones. I buy all my maps from the Stanfords Travel Bookshop website (they ship worldwide) and they are well aware of what is up-to-date.
Perhaps if there is a downside to the 1:100,000 scale it is that on some tours, you end up having to bring lots of maps. For this tour, I had six but as much as I work to limit what I pack in the panniers, I’ll never not bring the appropriate maps. Each night I get them and the route book(s) out in anticipation of the next day’s adventures. And, just to make sure we don’t miss something, I write notes on a file card which I slip into the map holder on my handlebar bag.
For more information on maps for touring see Richard Peace’s excellent story.
Hotels that we used
I always book my hotels in advance of the tour. Years ago I didn’t bother, but these days, I don’t want to arrive somewhere, perhaps cold and wet, only to find that there is nowhere to stay or nor a nearby place to eat. But I use the phone to do this, not accommodation booking sites. I do it because I really want to find out what facilities are available to not only lock up our bikes but to keep them dry as well. I always ask about nearby restaurants and whether the hotel has a dining room. But in my case, this belt and braces approach to choosing hotels might be an age thing as I know many tourists who are quite happy to book online, often at the last minute, saving the cost of a call.
Another point about hotels. I almost always try to book hotels that are located close to the train station because French towns usually have excellent signage for getting to the gare.
Here’s where we stayed including some comments from Jim:
Holyhead: Boat House Hotel, Newry Beach, Holyhead LL65 1YF (+44 01407 762 094) or online here.
OK location about 2km from ferry port. Bike storage was good but could be a problem in the busy tourist season since the bikes were stored in a large room on the main floor next to two guest rooms. Dining room good, breakfast pretty good, friendly atmosphere.
London: Hotel Point A, 324 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8BU (+44 0207 713 0428) or online here.
We found it a little further than we would have liked to walk with panniers and ‘bar bags after checking in our bikes at Eurostar Dispatch in St Pancras station in preparation for our next day journey to Paris. But the room was fine (although you have to pay extra for a room with a window) and, as you might imagine, there were lots of restaurants nearby. Breakfast the next morning was OK.
Chartres: Hotel Les Poèmes de Chartres (below), 5 Place Pierre Simard, 26000 Chartres (+33 (0)2 37 21 43 27) or online here.
Good location, just 100m from train station. Friendly reception with the manager telling us, ‘give me those bikes. We’ll give them a rest for now,’ and then leading us to a locked storage room inside the hotel. Mind you, they didn't explain the breakfast situation to us so we ate in the breakfast room that did the continental breakfast and not the room that featured the full breakfast that we had paid for.
Cloyes-sur-le Loir: Hotel le St Jacques, 35 Rue Nationale, 28220 Cloyes-sur-Le Loir (+33 (0)2 37 98 40 08) or online here.
Good bike storage and a very good restaurant for dinner. There were only a few guests and we had to accept a limited menu, but that was fine for us.
Vendome: Hotel Vendome, 35 Rue Nationale, 15 Faubourg Chartrain, 41100 Vendome (+33 (0)2 54 77 02 88) or online here.
Bike storage was in an unlocked but covered barn which was OK as we were able to lock them up with our own locks, but not really ideal. Location was fine and easy to get to, and the breakfast good. We might have been really stuck as we went out for a recce ride after checking out, but we left our bags for our return, only to find on returning that the hotel was entirely closed up – no staff and the doors locked. Fortunately, we remembered the after hours key code. We almost got caught with all our stuff locked up so we couldn't get away.
Blois: Hotel Le Monarque, 61 Rue Porte Chartraine, 4100 Blois (+33 (0) 2 54 78 02 35) or online here.
Bike storage was good from the security point of view but outside with limited shelter from rain for many bikes. That wasn't really a problem for us because the small partial roof protected our bikes, if not all of the others. We ate in the hotel's quirky dining room and were happy with both dinner and breakfast. The only problem was that I felt cramped in the room. It was smaller than every other room we had on the tour, but it was clean and had a good bathroom.
Tours: Grand Hotel Tours, 9 Place du General Leclerc, 37000 Tours (+33 (0)2 47 05 35 31) or online here.
Good location and good inside bike storage, but I don't know what they would do if there were a lot of bikes and the room, which seemed to be a meeting room of sorts, was needed for some other purpose. Good breakfast.
Dampierre sur Loire: Hotel le Petit Hureau, 540 Rte De Montsoreau, Dampierre–sur–La Loire, 49400 Saumer (+33 (0)2 41 67 92 51) or onlne here.
This fascinating hotel (actually a B&B, I suppose) was partially built into a Troglodyte cave. Our extra large and very comfortable room was actually in a separate building but our breakfast was served in the cave. Bike storage was secure in a locked and covered hut in the parking lot. There isn’t a dining room but there is a first class restaurant just a few hundred metres away. Note that the hotel doesn’t accept credit cards (though you can pay online by card) and you may not be able to check in before 5pm.
Les Ponts de Cé: Le 3 Lieux, 10 Port des Noue, 49130 Ponts de Cé, (+33 (0)2 14 03 03 53) or online here.
This was possibly the fanciest hotel we stayed at and you would expect, everything was fine including the dinner. But it was also the most expensive. Mind you, there was a pizzeria just a short walk away, but we opted for something better and the dinner was a treat. Bike storage was outside, but was locked and covered so it was excellent.
Ancenis: Hotel Akwaba, 119 Boulevard du Dr Montel, 44150 Ancenis (+33 (0)2 40 83 30 30) or online here.
If Le 3 Lieux was the fanciest hotel on our tour, the Hotel Akwaba was perhaps the most basic although there was first class storage in their garage for the bikes. But complicating things, while it did have a dining room, the dining room was closed on weekends and we had arrived on a Sunday. Perhaps we didn’t ask the right questions about dining in when making the booking. Adding even more complications, while the hotel was located just across the street from the station as per our usual practise, the station was right on the edge of town and there were no restaurants nearby. But the friendly person in charge explained that if we were to walk for not much more than 20 minutes, there would be many to chose from. We did, he was right and we had a wonderful meal, one of the best on the entire trip.
Nantes: Hotel Ibis Styles, 8 Allee De Commandant Charcot, 44000 Nantes (+33 (0)2 40 74 14 54) or online here.
Across from train station but perhaps like the Hotel Akwaba in Ancenis, it was a 20-minute or so walk to centre ville. That didn't matter since there was that a really good restaurant just two or three blocks away where we ate dinner both the first night and then the next as we staying over for an extra day in Nantes. Bike storage was in the basement and was OK but limited, causing us to would happen if there were a lot of bikes. Breakfast should have been good but one coffee machine broke down, they ran out of eggs and other things and were slow to be refilled.
Paris: 25Hours Hotel (it really is called that!): 12 Boulevard de Denain, 75010 Paris (+33 (0)1 42 80 20 00) or online here.
Good location by the train station right across from Gare Nord where we rode to from Gare Montparnesse as we had to check in our bikes at Eurostar for the next day’s journey to London. It’s a pretty quirky hotel with lots of unusual decorations that were, perhaps, a bit lost on us. But the staff were tremendous and the breakfast first class. Perhaps the best of all breakfasts on the tour.
Eurostar did a first class job for us. Our bikes travelled from London St Pancras to Paris Gare de Nord fully assembled and without a hitch. But they can also be transported boxed or bagged as well. However, their regulations regarding the different ways of using the service have undergone a number of changes since the service was first started and you should always check for the latest information. If you are thinking about using Eurostar, Richard Peace has written about the various ways that bikes can be carried on Eurostar trains. See here. Equally importantly, for updates from Eurostar, see here.
For us, it was simple. For both our going and returning trips, we arrived at the Eurostar Dispatch offices at the departing station late in the afternoon, removed our panniers, handlebar bags, amd saddle bags and handed the bikes over to Eurostar staff. The next day, after we arrived, it was just as simple to collect the bikes, reattach the accessories and be off. If you decide to box your bike, they supply the boxes and even tools. And should you need a bit of assistance, they’ll do that as well.
Almost all of our rail bookings other than Eurostar, both in the UK and in France, were made for us by the Rail Shop in Dublin see here. I sometimes struggle trying to marry up train tickets, seat reservations and the most vexatious of all, the cycle reservations where required when I do my own bookings. See here for more on booking French trains.
About our contributor
Bob Zeller, a now-retired UK-based Canadian journalist, spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for (Toronto) Globe & Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most.