La Flow Vélo is one of France's newest bike routes. Here's our itinerary from when we cycled from the Atlantic Coast at l’île d’Aix to Thiviers in the Dordogne.
Here is my itinerary for my La Flow Vélo bike trip. I've included below our schedule and hotels for each night. This route is very new to cyclotourism in France and to my knowledge at the time of writing (April 2018), there were no tour operators running organised tours along this route.
So for the moment, the only way to enjoy this route is to strap on your panniers and head off on your own.
We enjoyed this trip immensely. The scenery is varied – from coast to forests, vineyards and rural villages. It also links historically important and interesting main centres (I will post more 'touristy' information on a related page soon).
Our itinerary is from the Atlantic Coast at l’île d’Aix to Thiviers in the Dordogne – so west to east. You could of course ride it in reverse. We chose west-east for no other reason than I could ride the Flow and then ride just under 50km from Thiviers to Perigueux. We were then going to take the V90 l'Ilse valley route to just north of my home but storms and torrential rain meant it was more enjoyable to take the bikes on the local TER train home.
You can of course adapt this route to make longer or shorter days to suit your legs. I've made suggestions where possible.
What type of bike? We were told by the tourist board that it was suited to hybrid tourers and MTB and not road bikes. However I am always asked if a route can be ridden on a road bike so we tested it on two bike types. As I always ride an aluminium road bike (carbon fork + slightly wider 28 tyres + panniers), I took that. My riding partner Nicky used an upright touring bike with panniers from Bike Hire Direct. I have made notes below in each stage with regard to the suitability of the bikes.
Getting to Ile d’Aix
AM: Train to Rochefort, cycle 22-25km to ferry port for crossing to Île d'Aix.
Note there is a train station at Saint-Laurent-Fouras, which is closer to the port at Fouras, but the trains are less frequent. See here for France bike/train info. You can walk your bike onto local TER trains (just buy your own ticket). If arriving at Rochefort by Intercites train, you need to book your bike space in advance.
From Rochefort we took the long way around (about 35km in total) to explore the south side of the river from near Echillais to Soubise (taking two local boats for the river crossings). There is, however, a more direct (signposted) route straight to Fouras.
This day was well-signposted, though getting out of Rochefort city centre was a problem. Go to the station and start there as the city centre itself is not signposted.
We stayed overnight at Logis des Paillotes on Ile d’Aix. For various reasons, we would not recommend this as a place to stay (I don't see the point writing a bad review, so we'll just leave it at that).
Ile d’Aix to Saintes
AM: Ferry Île d'Aix to Fouras. Ride to Rochefort (our mileage: 20km) for lunch.
Firstly, the coastal path in Fouras is a joy and takes you along the waterfront, to the fort and a bunch of local bar and restaurant options.
En route to Rochefort there is a scenic marshland section but there is also a segregated bike route along a major road which isn't so pleasant. When we rode it (April 2018) there was also a 1km (ish) section of really stoney road that was a puncture hazard. There was a roadworks team putting up warning signs when we visited, so this section is clearly already on the radar of local autorities and will hopefully be improved.
Otherwise it's a pleasant enough start to the trip.
If you plan to start the journey in Fouras (or to cover Ile d'Aix in a day trip), here is an accueil velo hotel in Fouras. If you plan to to break up the journey in Rochefort, I can recommend this hotel (we stayed there on our way to Ile d'Aix before starting our ride).
PM: Cycle Rochefort to Saintes (our mileage: 54km).
The Flow Velo route on this section takes something of the long way round, following D-roads and quite a few off-road sections. If you are in a hurry or don't want to ride so far in a day, you can easily devise a shorter, more direct route on local roads between Rochefort and Saintes to cut out some of the 'scenic diversions'. Some sections were also much more suited to the touring bike than road bike. We had another cyclist join us for this day – an experienced rider on a carbon road bike (Adrian from Chez les Bons) – and his bike struggled on some stoney sections.
This day was flawlessly signposted.
Take supplies with you if you need to eat between Rochefort and Saintes – options for eating en route are limited as the route doesn't really pass directly through many villages with restaurants.
We loved Saintes and would happily have stayed another night to explore it further. Here we are after arriving into town, and again at the Wednesday market the next day.
Saintes to Cognac
Our mileage: 40km.
This was something of a mixed day. Firstly, the stage was (again) flawlessly signposted. However the signposts led us on what we considered to be unnecessary diversions along trails that were often little more than tractor tracks. The route appeared to have been devised with the ambition of maximising offroad sections that were segregated from cars at the expense of rider comfort. We concentrated so much on avoiding punctures and holes (even Nicky on the touring bike) that we had little time to enjoy the scenery. Any momentum won on brief sections of wonderful local D-roads was broken by these unnecessary diversions down tracks seemingly designed to just get us off the tarmac. This part of the of the route would benefit from staying more on the peaceful and picturesque local D-roads (we barely saw a car all day when we were on roads).
This section is suitable only for experienced riders and light-weight hybrids/MTBs with little or no luggage. If you are on a road bike, or a touring/hybrid bike with panniers, you should devise a local D-road route (very easy on these quiet roads). Do not follow the signs if you have heavy panniers – especially if you are fully laden with front wheel panniers, tents or other camping equipment. Newer cyclists will also not enjoy the official route on this section.
On a more positive note, the first few kilometres out of Saintes were a joy. A bit uphill but on a new bike lane well separated from traffic. We'd left Saintes late, so enjoyed lunch by the river after half an hour. The last 5km into Cognac were also a joy. The route leads into the city on a forested packed dirt path that was excellent.
Take supplies with you if you need to eat between Saintes and Cognac – options for eating en route are limited.
Overnight at Hotel Quai des Pontis in Cognac. This was also a great place to stay – review to come!
Cognac to Angouleme
Our mileage: 54km (+ a detour we took when we missed signage at Châteauneuf-sur-Charente).
This was a glorious day of riding and this section of the route was, to our minds, the best of the trip.
The first 10km or so are on river towpaths from Cognac. The first 7-8km are especially great; the last few are less great in terms of towpath quality and may be tricky in the wet, but were perfectly navigable the April day we rode it.
After approximately 10km the route moves on to a wonderful stretch of road. It's shared with cars but, for the most part, is quiet, covering backroad vineyard and river routes.
Beware in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente – this is where La Flow Velo (route V92) meets the Euro Velo 3 Pilgrims Route – both routes are signposted but if you miss the Flow signage it's easy to end up accidentally heading south on the EV3. If you're riding west to east like us on the Flow and you hit a big hill, you know you've gone the wrong way.
Overall, the the Cognac-Angouleme Flow route is mostly flat but it does become hillier the closer you get to Angouleme. Newer riders and smaller children may find these stretches hard going. (There is no shame in pushing).
The final stretch into Angouleme follows the Coulée Verte shared walking/biking path. It's rough in sections and overgrown in others; in wet weather it would be tricky but is otherwise perfectly navigable at a slower pace. Don't do as we did and be tempted to duck on to the main road when you see the 1km sign for Angouleme. It's a bad, bad idea and leads you to messy, busy roads – follow the Coulée Verte closer to the city centre.
Note Angouleme is on a hill and there's no avoiding a final uphill kick.
You can see my Strava trace here (just send me a follow request).
We stayed overnight at the Mercure Hotel de France in the city centre. This hotel as accuiel velo status BUT I had major reservations leaving my bike in the private underground carpark. Even though it was reserved for hotel guests only, it's a large hotel and access was too general for my liking. There was no dedicated/restricted bike shed/cage in the parking area – just a basic bike rack. Even though the receptionist assured me other cyclists (and groups) had been happy with this set up, to my mind the parking on offer did not tick the 'safe and secure' box that I expect from accueil velo hotels. If you are bikepacking, credit card cycling, or not travelling with a heavy duty city/commuter lock, this parking situation will not be suitable for you. In even blunter terms, if you have any concerns at all over bike security while travelling, this hotel is not for you. We insisted on taking our bikes up to the hotel. The receptionist agreed to let us leave them in a meeting room, but it wasn't without some haggling at the end of a long day on the road. For this reason it makes it difficult to recommend this hotel to all cyclists. If you are, however, travelling with a heavy duty lock, or if you're less concerned about security (or in a large goup/travelling by van/car with space for bikes), it may be OK for you. I will raise my concerns with the tourist board that has approved this hotel under the accuiel velo scheme.
Angouleme to Nontron
We had planned to cycle Angouleme to Thiviers but this comes in at over 100km if you follow the signposted route, which tends to be the 'scenic' route and wiggle around a bit. It's much too big an itinerary to reasonably enjoy in a day (and completely unrealistic for inexperienced cyclists and kids).
Angouleme is an administrative capital of the region, so it's a fair size. Getting out is fairly straight forward, though, as the lovely Coulée Verte bike path (below) follows the river.
Once you get off the river, it's a bit messy – as most cities are in and out – and we weaved our way through some residential and industrial areas.
From the outskirts of Angouleme to Javerlhac-et-la-Chapelle-Saint-Robert, my Garmin recorded just under 50km. It was relatively flat until we hit the Forêt de Bois Blanc at around the 18km mark – a main road section that's lovely but just a bit lumpy for newer riders and kids.
From Le Quéroy the wonderful Coulée d'Oc voie verte (above) – a greenway that runs along the old Angoulême-Nontron railway line – runs for around 21km of dead pan flat cycling until just before Javerlhac-et-la-Chapelle-Saint-Robert.
From Javerlhac-et-la-Chapelle-Saint-Robert it's quiet backroads through to Nontron. This section starts to get hilly and the final kilometres into Nontron will be difficult (especially for families and newer riders) if you've already made it all the way from Angouleme.
We spoke with Rosey and Frank, two local riders, who also suggested a few diversions (for example, there is a thoroughfare beyond the old town forge in Javerlhac-et-la-Chapelle-Saint-Robert that is preferable to riding the official route around a local housing estate). For Angouleme to Javerlhac-et-la-Chapelle-Saint-Robert, you can see my Strava trace here.
By this point we'd had two punctures and were well behind schedule. Rosey and Frank gave us a lift round the hills of Nontron so we could make it to Thiviers before dark. I will try and add some accommodation options for Nontron when I can confirm some bike-friendly places to stay to avoid you getting stuck short of time like we did.
Nontron to Thiviers (end of Flow Velo)
On the other side of Nontron it's again a bit lumpy for approximately 10km until you reach the start of the Saint-Pardoux-la-Rivière voie verte. This is a converted greenway and runs for around 18km to the foot of Thiviers. The voie verte is for bikers and walkers and is mostly shale and small stones. It is not the packed sand/dirt surface or tarmac enjoyed earlier in the trip; it's OK for hybrids and MTB but a bit more of a puncture hazard for road bikes. Still, it's through forest and a peaceful way to end the Flow Velo ride (or start if you're going east to west).
From the end of the voie verte it's about 2km on local roads to Thiviers itself (with a good uphill kick for good measure). For this section you can see here for my Strava trace.
We stayed overnight at the excellent Hôtel de France et de Russie, Thiviers (review to come).
Thiviers to Perigueux (add-on day)
Thiviers to Perigueux on this route is around 46km.
This is not yet an official route but I'm told by the tourist board that it should be certified and signposted by the end of 2018. It's a lovely route but, as with all decent routes, it can be adapted to cut out some of the 'diversions' that keep you off main roads. As we had taken a detour for lunch (see below), we cut the final river stretch out and took the faster D5 main road from near Le Change. It wasn't too busy on a Saturday afternoon in April, but you may need to take more care in high summer.
If you stick to the official route it can be hilly in parts (see elevation profile here). While mostly it follows the river with lovely tarmac stretches, there are some lumpy forest climbs that will be beyond younger riders or newer cyclists (there is no shame in pushing!), as well as a few dirt sections that will be heavy going on a carbon road bike (these can be avoided by sticking to the D-roads).
In total I did 68.5km this day with about 600m of climbing – you can see my Strava trace here (just send me a follow request).
We took a detour to the lovely town of Excideuil for lunch (above) at the cyclist-run Gaillard Gourmand cafe (13 Rue Jean Jaurès, 24160 Excideuil). You can call 05 53 55 10 08 (in English) for opening times if you're not sure when you're arriving. It's Dutch/French/English-run. At Excideuil you can also pick up the Lawrence of Arabia route, which is signposted from the village.
The route into Perigueux skirts around the aerodrome and delivers you right onto the Voie Verte des Berges de l'Isle (below) for the final run in to the city. The bike path runs along the river, is well signposted and used by both walkers and cyclists. It's a real joy to arrive in a city centre in this way.
We stayed overnight at the riverfront Hotel Ibis Perigueux centre, which provides easy access from the bike path and has a dedicated bike room. We crossed the bridge and rolled up to the hotel moments later.
Overall thoughts on the Flow Velo bike route
Difficulty: This is an easy to moderate route, depending on your pace/distance each day. It's not the Alps or the Pyrenees, but the further east you get into the Dordogne, the hiller it gets. The route has a varied personality. It isn't like the Loire or the Canal du Midi with flat routes suited to all abilities all the time. The voie verte and road river sections are certainly flat and suited to everyone, but some sections – especially before/after Saintes – are also off-road for long stretches and may require adapting with your own navigation to avoid rocky/offroad paths if you have a fully laden bike or road bike. There are some hilly sections sporadically east of Saintes – some lasting longer than others. Certainly the sections around Nontron will be beyond many leisure riders and kids (allow extra time for pushing if you are not used to climbing). Our add-on section to Perigueux also has extra elevation.
Signposting: This is generally excellent and it is very difficult to get lost if you follow the signs. On the western Charente-Maritime and Charente sections (so as far as Saintes and Cognac) the Flow Velo signage is excellent. After Cognac as you head east, the signage is still good but it was still the old-style 'green man on bike' labelling rather than regular Flow Velo signage. Take local maps or have a GPS/iPhone handy in case you need to take diversions away from stickier sections (especially after rain). Note nearly every section takes longer than an 'as the crow flies' or main route mileage count on Google maps. As it loosely follows the river, the squiggly lines on the map soon add up to pile extra mileage on each day. Be conservative in how far you want to go each day when planning accommodaion or lunch stops.
Amenities: This is a new route (April 2018) and it has not been fully developed for cycle tourism yet. The route often detours around villages and towns and bypasses boulangeries and local restaurants. When you do take detours into these towns, make sure you arrive between 12-2pm for lunch. Outside these hours (and especially on Sundays, Mondays and outside peak summer periods), you will find most amenities closed. Along almost the entire route, we would recommend taking supplies in your panniers or pockets – the major towns have markets and shops, so stock up on nice cheese, fruit and baguettes for riverside picnics en route.
As with food, take plenty of spare inner tubes and a puncture repair kit (and know how to use them). To find bike shops or supermarkets for spares outside the away from the major towns, you will likely need to venture off the route if you.
Accommodation: Again, we saw little evidence of many options directly on the route outside the main towns. I will try and add more options to my maps as time permits. Certainly we'd recommend being conservative with your ambition each day. If you have punctures or if a day takes longer than you expected, then there are few options for amending accommodation plans en route (especially outside peak tourist season).
Overall: This is a great route still in its infancy, and it has something for all types of rider. It passes trough varied landscapes: sea and beaches, forests and wetland, vineyards and villages, and links historically important French centres.
It's difficult to say the route is suited to all riders on all bikes. The route is suited to riders on lightweight hybrid trekking/touring bikes. I enjoyed it on my road bike but I'm used to riding offroad on it and regard it is essentially as a touring/cross bike rather than a high-end road bike. Away from the main tarmac and some smoother voie verte sections, I would not recommend the Flow Velo for full carbon bikes – 60% of the route can be enjoyed on a racing bike but the remaining 40% may require your own Garmin/map-inspired diversions. For example, the voie verte into Thiviers is stoney/shale and a puncture risk for thin tyres, but the voie verte out of Cognac is a joy of smooth, packed sand and dirt; likewise the Coulée d'Oc voie verte from near Châteauneuf-sur-Charente to near Javerlhac-et-la-Chapelle-Saint-Robert is almost exclusively tarmac. Mountain bikes are certainly suited to the offroad sections but would be slow/heavy going over the full route, especially on the hillier stretches to the east.
We found the route inconsistent in parts, with the marked path changing personalities each day. It felt as if each stage had been mapped by a different person on a different bike, which made it difficult to find momentum. We'd have liked to have seen the offroad sections used for valid reasons (sightseeing and beauty) rather than as active diversions from roads. Sometimes the local D-road appeared a better option than the marked path, and they also went through vilages with food options.
Overall the entire route is suited to more experienced tourers who are OK with more varied terain. That said, individual sections – e.g. Cognac to Angouleme or Rochefort to Saintes would be great as single day rides out of either town for families and leisure riders. The route is also ideal for one-way rides, with a train line linking Fouras, Rochefort, Saintes, Cognac and Angouleme and making a shorter tour possible for time-starved cyclists or those wanting to avoid the hills.
La Flow Velo also crosses with some other key routes, making a mix and match approach to cycle touring possible. It crosses at various parts with the Euro Velo 3 (for Paris and Bordeaux), Euro Velo 1 (for northern French ferry ports and Biarritz), the wonderful regional Tour de Charente route, and the historically interesting Lawrence of Arabia route; there's also the link route down to Perigueux.
La Flow Velo (April 2018) is new and has stacks of potential. Some subtle route changes to provide a more consistent and comfortable ride, combined with the continued development of accommodation and eating options close to the route will, in time, make this one of France's most surprising, varied and interesting cycle touring routes.