From the D-Day beaches to Mont St Michel, Normandy is a real treat for the cyclist. Richard Peace has this guide to seeing Normandy by bike.
While Normandy may be less popular with tourists and less spectacularly wild in its scenery than its western neighbour Brittany, it more than repays exploration by bike. I would certainly argue it has more variety than Brittany in terms of attractions for the cycle tourist and an equally impressive range of scenery.
Normandy is technically split into two regions: Upper Normandy (its regions are Seine-Maritime and Eure) and Lower Normandy (its regions are Calvados, Manche and Orne).
Top of the list of visitor attractions has to be the wondrous island-abbey of Le Mont-St-Michel, bang on a newly signed cycle route that heads north through the Cotentin peninsula (the route being the Petit Tour de Manche - more of which later).
Conveniently dotted with channel ports, the Normandy coast, from west to east, takes in huge wild dunes and vast, vast sweeps of beach, tiny fishing ports and the hugely poignant D-Day landing beaches, a small but intensely developed stretch of unashamedly high-class resorts stretching from Deauville to Honfleur before white chalk cliffs stretch, intermittently, for more than 100km along the Côte d'Albâtre, the spectacular chalk-white Alabaster Coast.
Inland things are generally more low key, with lush pasture and orchards, a spectacular fruit-laden sight in autumn, reminiscent of what you imagine the southern English countryside might have been like decades ago before the ravages of modern farming methods. To the French it's this rich agricultural setting that produces some of their most cherished food and drink, including local cider and Camembert cheese, all finely complemented by fine seafood landed along the Normandy coast.
That said, this tranquil rural idyll, ideal for a meandering cycle trip, is occasionally punctuated by some truly spectacular sights – for example the giant basilica at Lisieux, Richard I's crusader castle at Les Andelys and a series of modern and increasingly spectacular bridges over the river Seine, culminating in the jaw-dropping Pont de Normandie; crossable by bike but certainly not for the faint-hearted. The Seine itself is a much overlooked but hugely attractive destination in its own right, lined with cliff-top viewpoints and crossable by toytown type ferries on the stretch between the attractive medieval centre of Rouen and the river loop that encircles the ancient monastery at Jumièges.
Key cities and towns in Normandy
If you like the convenience and services of being based in a city or large town all the Normandy ferry ports with UK services have something to offer. Cherbourg would be my own personal pick; you are straight out onto the Petit Tour de Manche cycle route when cycling off the ferry and traffic-free riding leads you quickly and easily into the lovely scenery of the Cotentin peninsula.
Le Havre, despite a rather grey and grim industrial reputation, rather undeservedly, has a great cycle lane network and the lovely park-lined Pointe de Caux véloroute to the north of the city leads to the véloroute du Littoral along the Côte d'Albâtre. A booklet and map – in both English and French – for the véloroute du Littoral is available from Seine-Maritime Tourisme via email [email protected]
Dieppe, the most outwardly touristy ferry port, has a lovely harbour as its centrepiece and gives access to the Côte d'Albâtre as well as being the start of the Avenue Verte (London to Paris) bike route on French soil, which heads inland over the attractive rolling countryside of the Pays de Bray.
Inland, Rouen has a public bike hire scheme, a patchy though rapidly developing cycle lane network and gives access to some lovely rides along the Seine valley. And those with even a passing interest in Joan of Arc's incredible story will find Rouen fascinating.
Where to cycle in Normandy
You can click on the routes below for more information and links. I'll add more smaller, local route suggestions to the map as time permits.
There is over 500km of greenway riding in Normandy, mostly on converted railway lines and other traffic-free routes – and much of it concentrated in the Manche département in the west of Normandy. The lovely Contentin peninsula in particular is a wonderful area for combining these unsealed railpaths with minor roads to explore both the fine variety of its coastlines and the tranquil rural hinterland.
My own Cycling Northern France (UK, US) guidebook details a figure of eight loop around the peninsula, giving options for either a 129-mile or 199-mile tour, the highlights being the lovely coastal villages of Barfleur, St-Vaast, Portbail and Carteret. Or you can follow the Petit Tour de Manche signed route further south, along the lovely Vire valley (rock climbing and canoeing is also available in the area near here known as Swiss Normandy). The Petit Tour then heads west for a final stretch on minor roads to the architectural and tourist phenomenon that is Mont-St-Michel. This is probably the easiest point of entry for cyclists pedalling through Normandy to Brittany as there are good links here to the rest of the Breton cycle network.
Heading back east now, across inland Normandy, you can use Véloscenie, a long distance signed route launched at the end of 2012 with some 'provisional' sections, that stretches right across southern Normandy from Le-Mont-St-Michel and beyond to Paris.
The next cluster of 'official' routes lies south and west of Rouen. The high-quality 27 miles of tarmac of the traffic-free Évreux to Pont-Authou voie verte could be used as the backbone of an area tour, taking in the signed minor road routes of the nearby Risle and Charentonne vallies, with beautiful half-timbered villages such as Pont-Audemer and Bernay. These could be linked to signed routes further west, between Lisieux and Caen, from where it's an easy matter to take the Ouistreham ferry from Caen to Portsmouth (here's how to get to the port from Caen).
Although no official route runs along the Seine valley from Le Havre to Paris yet (one is being developed over the coming years) again, Cycling Northern France (UK, US) describes such a route using countless minor roads, a barrage crossing and many delightful 'bac' shuttle ferries. It visits sites such as the crusader castle at les Andelys and exits southern Normandy at the international tourist attraction that is Monet's gardens at Giverny (where the famous water-lilly ponds can still be seen).
The north-east of the area, Seine-Maritime, is dominated, in cycling terms, by the textbook quality greenway running from Arques-la-Bataille, just outside Dieppe, to the characterful spa town of Forges-les-Eaux for some 28 miles. This is part of the Avenue Verte, the official cycle way between London and Paris, continuing south along another railpath down the Epte valley south of castle-dominated Gisors, before heading across the Parc Régional du Vexin to Paris (an eastern spur heads through the lovely Oise area of Picardy to rejoin the branch coming from Normandy on the outskirts of Paris).
Richard Peace is founder of Excellent Books, specialists in cycle publishing. He has made several tours of France (including on electric bikes) and is author of Cycling Southern France (UK, US), Cycling Northern France (UK, US), and Electric Bicycles: The Complete Guide (UK, US). He is a regular contributor to bikeradar.com and A to B magazine.
Getting to Normandy
Normandy is well served by ferry with services from Portsmouth and Poole to Cherbourg, from Portsmouth to Caen and Le Havre and from Newhaven to Dieppe. Rail services via Paris are good with fast services to many towns and cities throughout Normandy, normally from Gare St. Lazare (so you do have to allow time to get cross-town from the Gare du Nord if using Eurostar). Rail travel within Normandy itself will often involve a change at the major transport hub of Rouen. There’s even a seasonal air service from London City airport to Deauville.
Organised cycling holidays in Normandy
There are many companies offering organised rides in Normandy that usually inlcude pre-arranged accommodation, maps and on-ground support and advice. They are usually self-guided, giving you a mix of independence and local knowledge and support. You can search our organised tours section here.
More information on cycling in Normandy
See our dedicated article with links to official cycling websites and tourist information across Normandy. Another good a good place to start is the Normandy Tourism website, which has links to assorted cycling maps and downloadable brochures. The www.normandie-cote-nature.com website has downloadable leaflets covering the cycle routes of each of the départements of Normandy.
Books and maps for cycling in Normandy
IGN's 1:100,000 Tourisme et Découverte series maps are great for exploring local areas in more detail, with most of Normandy covered by the following: Caen Cherbourg-Octeville map 106, Rouen Le Havre map 107, Paris Rouen map 108, Laval Fougères map 116, Caen Evreux map 117 and Le Mans Alencon map 126. There is also a map that takes in both Upper and Lower Normandy.
Lonely Planet’s Cycling France by Ethan Gelber includes routes across the north of France, while Adam Ruck's France on Two Wheels: Six Long Bike Rides for the Bon Vivant Cyclist also passes through Normandy.
For other books about cycling in France, see our books section.