We sent Jacqui and Adrian Brown off on La Sarthe à Vélo to check out one of France's lesser known cycling networks. Here are their daily reports.
Click the route above for a brief overview plus a GPX download for your Garmin
Holidays for us usually mean travelling the back roads to the south of France by car and must include a bar for a morning coffee, a patisserie for an afternoon treat and a beer on a sunny terrace at the end of the day.
This holiday will be a little different as we are headed north, with our bikes, to La Sarthe and its 420km of marked cycle paths that join the two well known French cycle routes, the Véloscénie (from Paris to Mont St-Michel), and the Loire à Vélo (cycling along the River Loire and in the Loire valley).
I am hoping, however, that there will be some similarities to our usual holidays, namely the morning coffee, afternoon patisserie and, if possible, the evening beer in the sun, but it is only April. At least this time we will be cycling away the calories, so won't have to worry about over indulging on regional delights and patisseries.
We will be starting on the river Sarthe in Sablé-sur-Sarthe, cycling east to the Loir (not Loire) valley, where we will spend a night at Le Lude and La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, before rejoining the river Sarthe in Le Mans. After two nights in Le Mans, we will continue north with the river Sarthe towards Alençon, with one night in Saint-Leonard-des-Bois and our final night in Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.
Day 1 – Sablé-sur-Sarthe to Le Lude
Total distance today: 73.3km on V44 and V47
We arrived in Sablé-sur-Sarthe at 9.45am, unpacked the car, loaded the bikes and took our first glimpse of the river Sarthe before finding our way out of town, following the well-signed green vélo route markers. The river Sarthe is likely to be both friend and foe for the week as we follow it and its undulating valley into Le Mans and north to Alençon, although today was a straight forward day without too many hills.
Unusually for us we actually cycled along together for most of the day, rather than Adrian out in front and me struggling to keep up. I think the easy cycling and his extra weight (he is kindly carrying most of our luggage) certainly helped, but I can't guarantee I'll keep the pace all week.
Our morning coffee stop was in Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, only four kilometres into the ride, but a café on the route at the right time of day should never be overlooked. Once we crossed the river we looked back to the impressive view of the Benedictine Abbey, still with an active brotherhood before the quiet back roads took us to the village of Asnières-sur-Vègre. With its narrow streets and pretty sand-coloured buildings, many with turrets and tiny windows, it is worth a look around. There's also a medieval church and museum, Le Manoir de la Cour, as well as a very pretty bridge that takes you out of town on the small, quiet roads that run alongside fields which were vibrant yellow with the flowering rapeseed.
In Noyen-sur-Sarthe we stopped for a picnic lunch by the river that gave us the strength for the main climb of the day, up to the bluebell woods which were beautiful and thankfully it wasn't too strenuous a hill. We visited the Faïence museum in Malicorne, the home of ceramics and we'd recommend it – as not only does it explain how the clay is gathered and refined from the local area and the process of producing the earthenware, there's also an opportunity for everyone to have a go themselves. In Malicorne we said goodbye to La Sarthe and also our first inner tube (I hope we don't have too many repairs to cope with).
In La Fléche we found the river Loir as well as our sunny beer in a square by the church, before making fast progress to the Domaine de la Courbe, just outside of Le Lude and on the banks of the Loir. The cycle path from La Fléche forms part of the V47 La Vallée du Loir route (you can download the road book here). It follows the old railway and is flat, a good surface and keeps you safely away from the main road, although there isn't too much to see as you ride along.
We were welcomed with a smile at the hotel where our bikes have been given their own safe space and we have enjoyed a pre-dinner swim in their spa. Dinner will be onsite tonight, so no need to disturb our bikes until morning.
Day 2 – Le Lude to Le Chartre-sur-Loir
Total distance today: 86.5km on V47 + detours
After a peaceful nights sleep and a hearty breakfast that included cereals, bread, croissants, ham, cheese, eggs and yoghurt, we were ready for our second day in the saddle.
The cycling today was mostly on back roads or quiet, safe cycle paths and to begin with we had a great pace, despite quite a few barriers that were rather difficult to manoeuvre around. The one exception was the V47 from Vaas, which is an off-road track by the river. It was very pretty, but with an impressive collection of pot holes that were not kind on our wheels, our bottoms or our average speed. Admiring the view was also difficult as we swayed around like drunks trying to avoid them.
Our morning visit was to the grounds of the Château du Lude (pictured above), which is magnificent. We didn't have time for a guided visit of the interior – it's recommended to leave an hour for this – but we were impressed with the grounds and the exterior. The château is still lived in by the same family who have been there for two hundred years. English is spoken in the shop and coffee can be taken on a terrace in the grounds with superb views. However we had already had our morning coffee in town, where we made good use of the patisserie we found next door and shared a large almond croissant.
Our route this afternoon took us away from the V47, on a detour where we climbed and climbed, then climbed some more, until we reached the fôret de Bércé. Here, the beech trees with their fresh green leaves led us to Saint-Vincent-du-Lorouër and the Jardin de la Fontaine Blineau.
Adrian had made sure lunch was a significant event and I can't believe the portion of croque madame, salad and chips we got for 5.90€, but we made light work of it. It was the perfect fuel to get me up to the garden, a climb I hadn't been looking forward to. However the garden is magical and worth the detour, although I think we had a bit too much squeezed into our day and it would be more sensible to take two days.
The garden owner is a cyclist and was happy to chat about our day on the bikes as well as his adventures on a tandem as he showed us around. There is so much to see, hidden nooks and fun things to sniff out and discover at every turn. His welcome apple juice and biscuits, followed by the tour of the garden, 100% revived my legs and I could have spent much longer there, preferably in a quiet, shady spot listening to the running water.
The back roads and weather have been stunning all day, taking us through farm land with grazing cattle, forests with wild orchids flowering on the verges and orchards full of blossom, as well as giving us river views.
The final part of the day took us through the vineyards of the Loir where we had a tour of the Fresneau caves at Domaine de Cézin in Marçon. Their real underground caves, with vines growing above them are damp, mouldy and a constant 12 degrees summer or winter. This is perfect for the wine maturing in oak barrels, but a bit cold for a cyclist in short sleeves. Their wine is from two very small appellations that are unique to the Loir region, the Côteaux du Loir and Jasnières. With another five kilometres to cycle (uphill) to the hotel, we couldn't drink too much, but I especially enjoyed the Jasnières, a dry, fruity white, with a honey flavour that isn't sweet. It would be perfect for summer aperos on a shady terrace.
The owner of the Hotel Le Grand Moulin in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir was very welcoming and our room has river views, but although the bikes are safely stored, they aren't under cover, so we're hoping it doesn't rain overnight. Dinner was taken just across the road in the Hotel de France where we ate like kings. Their bar is also worth a look for all those who love motor racing history.
Day 3 – Le Chartre-sur-Loir to Le Mans
Total distance today: 75km on a small section of V47 but mainly La Sarthe à Vélo by la forêt de Bercé
A very peaceful night and a copious breakfast revived us nicely, although we both admitted to having achy legs when we first woke up.
I was a little disappointed in myself at breakfast as one of the things I'd been looking forward to on this trip was eating as much as I wanted, but having had a bowl of cereal with yoghurt, bread and cheese, bread and jam and a croissant, I had no room for the delicious-looking brioche.
Once we managed to drag ourselves away from the stunning Grand Moulin, Adrian's bike was the most reluctant and had developed a slow puncture overnight.
Our route started by almost retracing our steps from yesterday afternoon. From Marçon we left the river Loir behind and headed north to Flée and Jupilles. It was sad to leave the Loir, but our morning coffee stop in Flée was a perfect find, and it was on the route, so no detour required. We had proper coffee served with a biscuit, tables outside and good toilets.
From here it was an easy run to Jupilles, through countryside dotted with small turreted chateaux and lots of watermills.
In Jupilles we visited the Carnuta, Man and Forest museum, which is brilliant for kids of all ages to learn about forests, management of the trees, the timber industry and the birds and beasts who live there. It is a cleverly designed building that feels like a tree, with lots of wooden supports and even exterior wooden tile-clad parts of it to make it look like bark. It is very interactive, with lots to discover and things to try without being too big. I had a great time.
We thought we had a quick 10 kilometres to Le Grand-Lucé for lunch, mainly through the forest of Bércé, but we were wrong. It was a very tough 10 kilometres that climbed high, descended fast and then climbed again, repeatedly.
I have no shame in admitting that I got off and walked, twice. The sun was out again today, but the wind had arrived too, mainly in the hilly sections, just where I didn't want it.
Lunch, a delicious steak frites, was amazing and just what I needed, but the climbing madness continued after lunch until Parigné-l’Eveque. I would describe this section as challenging and probably not ideal for those who don't cycle too regularly.
Most of our cycling today has been on back roads as we took a few detours from the signed route to avoid the track sections. We passed lots of vineyards first thing, then chicken farms and smallholdings that all seemed to have a pair of grazing donkeys. At one point we came across a pair of sheep in the middle of the road and they looked just as put out by our presence as we were by theirs.
Today was the first day we found ourselves in a town, mid-afternoon with an open boulangerie. We were in Changé, only about 15km from Le Mans, but we enjoyed every mouthful of flan (Adrian) and apple tart (me). It was just what we needed for the final stretch.
We have used cycle paths to enter a few French cities and always been impressed and coming into Le Mans was no different.
We arrived via the Arche de la Nature, a large parkland with easy to cycle tracks (no pot holes) that followed the Huisine river. It was calm, peaceful and felt miles away from a big city. Having spent most of the day alone on the roads, it was nice to see some local life. Fisherman, families on bikes, walking groups, friends out for a stroll, even a horse-drawn carriage squeezed past at one point. The sun was out and with French school kids off this week, it felt like holiday season.
The final kilometre was on cycle paths clearly painted on the roads, and although the traffic was busy, it was an easy ride to our accommodation.
Les Cabanes de Do are individual chalets in a garden just outside the old city walls. Each cabin has a double bed, large shower room, desk, TV, a kettle, hairdryer and reliable wifi. The owner was very welcoming, the bikes are under cover in an open lean-to and breakfast will be brought to our door tomorrow morning. We are both enjoying the cycling, and despite the hard work today are having a real laugh. That said, it will be nice to give the bikes a rest tomorrow and do some exploring on foot.
Day 4 – Rest day in Le Mans
We'll post a separate article later on things to do in Le Mans when you're not cycling.
Day 5 – Le Mans to Saint-Léonard-des-Bois
Total distance today: 72km on the V44 and backroad detour to Ballon
The breakfast at Les Cabanes de Do (above) in Le Mans was very generous and delivered to our door in a basket. We managed a baguette, croissants, jam, honey, orange juice, hot chocolate and yoghurt, but couldn't squeeze in the apple compote before leaving Le Mans via the Jacobin market, held at the foot of the cathedral.
I was somewhat disappointed not to find the stall holders dressed in Jacobian costumes, but not disappointed with the produce for sale. It's not easy to carry soft fruits like strawberries, despite their tantalising aroma, on the bikes but we did buy a pot of local pure pork rillettes for a picnic lunch that was delicious, eaten in a wild flower garden with views towards the distant hills.
The morning ride to Ballon was fast and easy through gently undulating countryside of forests, farms and hamlets. We made such good progress we had plenty of time for a relaxing picnic with patisserie that was perfect for celebrating Adrian's birthday. Unfortunately there was a communication misunderstanding in Ballon and our visit to the donjon and gardens didn't happen, despite our knocking on the heavy, metal-studded, wooden gate. With rain in the hills and still another 50km to cycle, we had to leave without glimpsing the delights hidden inside.
The afternoon cycling took us to an area known as the Alpes Mancelles and I was a bit nervous, especially as everyone we spoke to about our route opened their eyes wide and exclaimed how hilly and steep it was. However my legs (and bottom) had enjoyed a day off and by lunchtime I was happy to be back in the saddle, despite having enjoyed our day in Le Mans, where there was so much to see we could easily have stayed another day.
Cycling into the hills brought the first rain of the week and it wasn't a happy husband I was sat with in a bus shelter unpacking our rain covers and bike lights, but I think we can now call ourselves real touring cyclists. We soldiered on, accompanied with the smells of pig farming and the gentle clucking of hundreds of chickens, albeit at a slower pace and without our smiles.
As the afternoon progressed, the terrain got hillier but the villages, with the local granite stone cottages, were a pretty shade of pink. The hills weren't too steep though, they allowed me to gently plod up in my own time and descend gracefully down the other side. It really wasn't as bad as I was expecting and even with a bit of rain we made good time to our B&B, a watermill, with a room with river views and warm radiators to dry our clothes. The bikes are undercover and we also have our first bath of the week, which our legs were very happy with.
Day 6 – Saint-Léonard-des-Bois to Beaumont-sur-Sarthe
Total distance today: 83km on the V44
I slept very well at Le Moulin de l’Inthe, the sound of water roaring past outside the windows was comforting and relaxing, and thankfully muted a little by the double glazing.
The view from our bedroom of the sun setting over the gardens.
Even on a dull morning, the mill, with its backdrop of trees and cliffs was very beautiful. The owner was friendly and happy to serve us hot chocolate (normally reserved for children) along with fresh bread, croissants and the creamiest yoghurt I've ever eaten. Also staying overnight were a family from Paris on a donkey trek, which I thought sounded a lovely idea until we witnessed the fun and games of trying to catch their donkeys and saddle them up – bikes are definitely easier even if they don't have warm fur.
The cycling today started with a climb from the front door and continued for most of the day. Our first morning coffee stop was in the beautiful village of Saint-Cénéri-le-Gérei, one France’s Plus Beaux Villages. Even in the damp the pink granite cottages were very pretty and in the summer it is full of flowers too. As the going was a little tough we stopped for a second coffee just before Alençon (the furthest point north) and found one of the strangest bars in France, and we know our bars.
As we stepped in, all the regulars who were propping up the bar, turned to stare, their cigarettes leaving their mouths just long enough to murmur ‘bonjour’. It has been illegal to smoke in French bars for about 10 years, but obviously here it is different. I had been thinking as I cycled along how fortunate we'd been to find plenty of good public toilets on our travels. Not one had been a ‘hole in the ground’, until I went to use the one in the odd bar. It's quite an accomplishment to strip out of cycling bib shorts and squat without slipping while wearing cleated cycling shoes.
Our plan had been to have a warm meal in Alençon as today was our coldest day so far. As our planned route was to be one of the longest and hilliest, our bags had been collected from the B&B and would be dropped off at our hotel, so we couldn't even double up on warm layers. It's not much fun cycling with cold fingers and toes. Alençon was a little disappointing, as every bar we found was closed even though it was a Saturday. Our lunch ended up being an artisan picnic, a homemade quiche from a butchers and a sticky pain aux raisins from a boulangerie down the road.
Our afternoon visit was at the museum La Belle Echappée in La Fresnay-sur-Chédouet, a bicycle and Tour de France museum. There were lots of old and unusual bicycles as well as a walk-through journey of the history of the Tour de France. The bikes, the cyclists, the old knitted jerseys as well as film clips, memorabilia and signed photos. It has it all and was worth an hour's visit.
After La Fresnay-sur-Chédouet we had to make a practical decision and plot our own route to Beaumont-sur-Sarthe as there were too many kilometres and not enough hours left in the day. We climbed our way through the forest of Perseigne, which was stunning and at one point the bluebells disappeared into the distance, but it did mean we missed the town of Mamers. Thankfully after the forest section it was mostly downhill all the way, although I'm sure Adrian said ‘that was our last climb of the day’ more than a few times.
By mid afternoon our energy tanks were running low and as a pain aux raisins doesn't really count as a patisserie, we were lucky to find an open boulangerie and enjoyed a slice of flan and a chocolate éclair in the steps of a church over the road from the boulangerie. It's amazing how quickly a chocolate éclair can make my body aches disappear.
We might have had a quick peak at Beaumont-sur-Sarthe on our way up from Le Mans yesterday, but in order to qualify for dinner and a comfy bed for tonight we had to return the long way around. The Hotel La Barque gave us another warm welcome, our bags were already in our room, we have another bath and our bikes have a cosy spot in the garage.
Even missing out a section we still cycled 83km in four-and-a-half hours in the saddle, our longest day and also our last day on La Sarthe à Vélo. We are sad to have finished it as we have seen a real variety of landscapes, experienced some very friendly welcomes and visited lots of fun and interesting places. Five days of cycling was not enough.
All photos copyright 'French Village Diaries' unless otherwise stated.
Our guest reporter Jacqui Brown writes French Village Diaries, a blog about life in Poitou-Charentes, cycling, French food, travel, and books.