Cycling the Loire is one of the great bike routes in France. John Higginson, author of Cycling the River Loire: The Way of Saint Martin, pedals the section from Le Puy en Velay to Sancerre.
The exit from Le Puy en Velay in the Auvergne region is not simple, especially at rush hour. The road is multi-laned and it is advisable to dismount when negotiating some junctions. If in doubt, follow signs to Vorey and Retournac – it's amazing how quickly the road becomes little more than a quiet country lane.
It's impossible to ignore the mighty Chateau de Lavoûte which dominates this section of the river. There is no need to visit the castle unless you have a particular interest in the barbaric goings-on of the Polignac family (though it is possible to stay at the chateau if your time – and budget – permits). Instead follow closely the river as it meanders through a series of medieval villages.
On arriving at Aurec-sur-Loire, the route becomes awkward with a series of busy roundabouts. The town is famous for its sword making but has little to detain the cyclist unless you are interested in hydro-electric schemes. Ride on to a crossing of the Loire at Le Pertuiset where you should be able to find accommodation – or try Saint-Etienne-Les Echandes Hostel, outside town on the banks of the river.
Having crossed the Loire, make the last climb for some time to the windswept village of Chambles with its stone church and massive siege tower providing stunning views of a section of the Loire gorge. From here, descend to begin the long, easy middle section of this ride.
Downhill to Nevers
The first sizeable town one encounters is Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert (French only), a town worth exploring with its medieval buildings and attractive square. This is the last place of interest for the day, apart from a string of villages.
Accommodation is scarce in this region and it may be necessary to divert from the planned route to find a bed for the night at Neulise.
Return to the riverside, riding north, with an imposing castle, Chateau de la Roche, dominating this part of the valley. A little further on, cross the river by the spectacular barrage and ride into Roanne and its many facilities.
Continue hugging the river in a northerly direction through a string of villages. Approaching Marcigny, take the C3 road which avoids the major one and leads to the picturesque Roanne to Digoin Canal. The road through Digoin is a shock with heavy traffic everywhere, but once the town has been left behind, a flat ride alongside the Canal Literal à la Loire – see the Friends of the Canal website – leads to accommodation at Gannay sur Loire.
Half a day’s gentle if uninspiring riding leads to Nevers, a town really worth exploring. The tourist office on Rue Sabatier is very helpful with maps and lists of overnight stays. Beware of cobble stones which are lethal if it is wet.
Cycling to Sancerre
Keep to the riverside as you leave Nevers, heading north. The canal will soon be encountered and this should be followed as much as possible because it runs parallel to the Loire. Leave it to visit La Charité sur Loire with its enormous medieval priory adorned with fine carvings. Stock up with provisions here.
Return to ride alongside the canal until the scenery is dominated by a steep, vine covered hill. Follow the road of ascent and it will lead inexorably to the attractive town of Sancerre. This is a lovely old town with plenty of accommodation, though it can be rather expensive. Stop to savour the fine wines made here and the goat’s cheese which accompanies it. Do not leave Sancerre without visiting the church of Notre Dame de Sancerre, which took a hundred years to build, and its historic belfry with its interesting history.
For the first leg of John Higginson's Loire cycle tour, see Gerbier de Jonc to Le Puy en Velay; his final leg is Sancerre to St Nazaire. He's also written an introduction to cycling in the Loire. See also our top 10 Loire chateaux to see by bike.
Cycling holidays in Auvergne, Burgundy and Centre
The Loire passes through some of France's best popular cycling regions, including Auvergne, Burgundy and the Centre region. Many companies offer self-guided bike rides through these areas that usually include accommodation, detailed route notes, maps and on-ground support and advice. Bike hire can also be arranged by most tour companies. You can search our organised tours section here.
Accommodation in Auvergne, Burgundy and Centre
More information on cycling the Loire
See our bike hire listings for bike rental options in Pays de la Loire.
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.