John Higginson, author of Cycling the River Loire: The Way of Saint Martin, writes about cycling the Loire from its source at Gerbier de Jonc to Le Puy en Velay.
The source of the river Loire is in one of the most isolated regions of France. High on the Massif Central, it has no motorways or major roads leading to it and, therefore, some time with the map before you begin will be richly rewarded.
Whichever route you take, you are still going to climb 1,500 metres. If you are fit, you can leave Orange, cross the River Rhône at Pont St Esprit in Languedoc-Roussillon and make a first night’s stop at St Martin d’Ardèche before riding up the Ardèche Gorge to Vals-les-Bains in the Rhône-Alpes region, which is your starting point for climbing up to the Loire’s source.
If you have plenty of time, a gentle warm-up is to ride through the Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards as far as Caderousse, then cross the Rhône and ride up to St Martin d’Ardèche and then climb the Ardèche Gorge to Vals-les-Bains. The gorge is very spectacular, although beware of motorists watching the scenery instead of cyclists. En route for Vals-les-Bains, visit Balazuc, one of the most beautiful villages in France, and learn about its tragic history.
The climb from Vals-les-Bains to Gerbier de Jonc is not easy. It’s not desperately steep but favours those with endless stamina (39km with hardly a place to rest). The views are tremendous and you can be sure to have the road to yourself. On reaching the source, you may feel you wish you hadn’t bothered as you are overwhelmed by souvenir stalls and donkey rides, but as evening draws on, the place takes on its true nature. The infant Loire pours out of a grey plastic pipe from the volcanic plug opposite and you can hear the water bubbling even from the gîte across the road.
The descent as far as Goudet is not quite as spectacular as the previous day’s ascent but it has its moments. The road descends via a series of steep hills and you will be glad you checked your brakes before you started out.
Goudet, crouned with its medieval castle, offers an ideal overnight’s stop. There is accommodation and an excellent ferme auberge (French only) in the village and a magnificent beach in the bend of the river where you can relax before the next day’s journey.
Goudet to Le Puy en Valey
From Goudet to Le Puy en Velay is a less rugged ride although the first quarter is steep in places. There have been plans to flood the whole section of the valley between Chadron and Solignac-sur-Loire but so far common sense has prevailed.
The first sizeable town on the journey now appears before you. Le Puy en Velay is like nowhere else in France. It's built in the crater of an extinct volcano, and its houses – and even some of its roads – are made out ochre, purple and cream stones to a startling effect. The cathedral, standing on one of several volcanic plugs, should be viewed from the bottom with the massive steps stretching before you crowned by the zebra effect of its doorways. Inside is the famous black virgin. Alongside the cathedral is the enormous statue of Notre Dame de France, built in toffee pink out of over a hundred canons captured after the battle of Sebastopol.
There are cycle shops here, although the roads in the centre of the city are certainly not conducive to riding a bike. Instead, wander through the narrow winding early medieval streets and alleyways or spend an hour or more in the Crozatier museum in the beautiful Edwardian park.
If you do have a day to spend out of the saddle, this is the place to spend it.
For the next two legs of John Higginson's Loire cycle tour, see Le Puy en Velay to Sancerre and Sancerre to St Nazaire. He's also written an introduction to cycling in the Loire for Freewheeling France. For more on the chaetaux of the Loire, see our article on the top 10 chateaux to see by bike.
Bike hire for cycling the Loire
See our bike hire listings for bike rental options throughout France.
Zoom into our map to see accommodation options for the areas this route passes through: the Rhone-Alpes, Languedoc, Auvergne and the Centre region of France.
On the guidebook front, see John Higginson's Cycling the River Loire: The Way of St Martin, published by Cicerone. For more general tourist information on the Loire, see the DK travel guide to the Loire, the Loire Valley Footprint guide, or the Cadogan equivalent. See also Michelin's Tourist Guide Chateaux of the Loire (there's also a map).
John Higginson, a keen cyclist in his youth, took up cycling again after retiring from teaching. He is now a professional writer and lecturer. He is the author of the Cicerone guides Cycling the River Loire: The Way of Saint Martin, The Danube Cycleway: Donaueschingen to Budapest and The Way of St James: A Cyclist's Guide. For the latter, he and his wife Andrea spent two years researching the pilgrimage before embarking on their cycle journey to Santiago de Compostela in 1997; they have spent much of their spare time cycling alternative bike routes ever since. They live in France only a few kilometres from the pilgrim route.