France is a magnet for cyclists and it’s easy to see why. An abundance of clearly signed routes criss-cross through the country with something for everyone.
Take on the challenge of those famous hair-pin bends of the Alps, featured each year in the Tour de France or head north for wide-open flat roads that will see you pedalling to Paris in no time.
And it’s from Paris that you’ll discover my current favourite – the Veloscenic which can take you as far as Mont St-Michel on the Normandy coastline. Along its 450km length, you’ll pass through medieval towns, rolling countryside and cider farms, along rivers (complete with resident beavers), greenways and rural roads.
Whether you’re new to cycle touring or you’ve already notched up hundreds of miles of pannier-laden biking over the years, here’s why you should cycle the Veloscenic:
1. It's easy to get to and from London
Although travelling with a bike on a train is never as easy as we wish it was, pair up the Eurostar and Voyages SNCF and you can be on the Veloscenic in half a day. On my trip this summer, we travelled by Eurostar, Metro and SNCF to start our cycle in Chartres, and from there, we spent several days cycling along the Veloscenic, before getting the train back from Flers to Paris, and then London.
Top tip: Plan ahead to get a space on the Eurostar for a fully assembled bicycle. By doing this you avoid the fiddle of dismantling your bike and working out the logistics of bike-box storage while cycling.
2. A welcoming region for cyclists
Rather than scowls and curses to get off the roads, we received smiles and encouragement as we rolled into towns in Normandy. The two departments we cycled through, Eure-et-Loir and Orne, have an ample network of cycle routes, and a good population of cyclists as a result – both local and tourists. With the International Federal Week of Cycle Tourism about to happen in Mortagne-au-Perche as we passed by, we felt part of the action.
Top tip: Hotels with the Accueil Velo are accredited with being cyclist friendly - they will have bicycle parking and often a tool kit and pump to hand.
3. Flexibility on stages and distances cycled each day
As detailed on the website and in the official guidebook (the English version of which is to be released in February 2018) the Veloscenic route is broken down into eight stages. Planning our trip around a six-day time frame, we adjusted the distances cycled and stopover locations to suit the sights we wanted to see.
Top tip: During July and August, locals tend to head away on holiday. The benefit is that the roads are quiet, but in smaller towns you are more likely to find shops and cafés shut. Bear that in mind when planning your food and accommodation stops.
4. Plenty of sightseeing stops
The beauty of cycle touring holidays is the ability to stop at the squeeze of a brake. We organised guided tours through the local Tourist Offices of Chartres, Bagnoles de l'Orne and Domfront, learning about the history and nuances of the local area. We didn’t miss out on the more self-indulgent delights of the region either. A midday break at Spa Pom, a luxury spa in Villeray, and cider tasting at La Maison Ferré farm in Comblot were particularly beneficial to get the pedals turning. The Chateau of Frazé, Château de Carrouges, local delicatessens and café-bars provided reason to pull over and park our bikes as well.
Top tip: During the summer nights, visit the Chartres en Lumières city light show for a great post-dinner stroll through the medieval city.
5. Local gastronomical delights
As any cyclist will attest to, food is a vital part of a biking day. Luckily for those travelling along the Veloscenic (in French: Veloscenie), you are in gastronomical paradise. With Normandy croissants, cheese, saucisson, boudin (blood sausage), fresh fruit and vegetables and a general attention to quality of ingredients, it’s worth finding restaurants that pride themselves on local produce. My cycling companion follows a vegan diet, something we thought restaurants might struggle with, but calling ahead meant she was remarkably well catered for.
Where we ate and recommend:
- Chartres: Les Feuillantines – delicious fish and steak options, with the puddings being a particular highlight – ask for the melting chocolate ball or café gourmand for dessert.
- Thiron-Gardais: Auberge L’Abbaye restaurant – excellent, attracting locals and guests alike.
- Villeray: the watermill of Domaine de Villeray Spa and Hotel
- Mortagne-au-Perche: Pigmalion wine cellar, delicatessen and gastro pub selling only the best of locally sourced produce
Top tip: Enjoy the Normandy’s famous apple and pear-based drinks: cider, poiré (perry), pommeau (a mixture of apple juice and brandy) and calvados (Normandy apple brandy).
6. Good cycling terrain
The Veloscenic route is a combination of country roads and cycle paths. I used a road bike for the trip, while Lisa used a more suitable touring bike. Both worked well, though the benefit of panniers and trail tires was noted to handle the bumps and grit on the off-road sections.
There are no dramatic ascents, with the majority of the route fitting within flat or undulating in terms of steepness. The steepest stretches, mostly around Mortagne-sur-Peche, are labelled ‘expert’ by the guidebook but would be suitable for anyone who can cycle up City Road in London – nothing dramatic and not that long either. The Chartres to Flers section that we cycled was relaxed and quiet in terms of cars and other cyclists, allowing for the two of us to chat as we cycled along. The only adverse conditions we had were on our first morning, cycling 60km from Chartres to Thiron-Gaudais via Illiers-Combray. It’s a long straight stretch of road through open fields and we found ourselves hampered by a cross-wind that we hear blows fairly frequently.
Top tip: We chose not to use clipless pedals and cleats, opting for a more relaxing time using normal pedals and trainers. With the distances we covered and the stops we made, this was the right choice for us.
7. It's well sign posted
In the 305km we travelled from Chartres to Flers, we only made one wrong turn. It was a treat not having to keep my eyes following little blue dots my handle-bar-mounted phone; instead we could trust the Veloscenic sign-posting, with the odd help from Google Maps to get us into or out of towns we were spending the night.
Top tip: Pack a map of the region. It’s always nice to know which direction you’re cycling in and if you do want to take a detour to find another French pastry, you’ll not get lost trying to find your way back.
8. Bicycle-friendly accommodation
During our five days of cycling, we stayed in comfy cyclist-friendly hotels, auberges and B&Bs. Hôtel Le Jehan de Beauce was our home in Chartres, conveniently opposite the station and with a spacious reception to reassemble bicycles after the train journey. Our second night was spent in Thiron-Gardais at the beautiful Auberge L’Abbaye – a traditional exterior with modern interior overlooking a garden and the Abbey. In the heart of the action of Mortagne au Perche, a popular weekend break for Parisians, is the Hôtel du Tribunal – this was the best equipped for bicycles in terms of tool kit and cycle storage we saw on our journey. Bagnoles-de-L’Orne’s O Gayot Hotel served us well during our night’s stay there. Our last stayover of the trip was in Domfront where we stayed at Número Cinq B&B – owned by a British couple, the building is set into the rock on the edge of the medieval centre and was one of our favourites of the trip.
Top tip: Try not to make your cycle days too long, giving you time to explore where you’re staying. Each place we stopped was worth a wander around.
9. You can pack light
Cycle touring is best done with as little kit as possible. There is no need to bring lots of changes of clothes – one/two evening and one/two cycling outfits will do the trick. The hotels we stayed at provided toiletries and have electric towel rails so you can dry any hand washing you choose to do. The weather is variable but with a few essentials you can be ready for anything. For cycling I wore Odlo bike shorts, a dhb jersey and a wind jacket. If you do need to pack your bike for the journey, Bike Box Alan or the lighter Scicon Aerocomfort bag are the best.
Top tip: Bring sunglasses – the Dragon Alliance EnduroX transition lens glasses were great for the changing light as we went along tree-lined roads, and for protecting us from gravel kicked up on the paths.
10. Suitable for a wide range of cyclists
Along the route we didn’t pass many cyclists but the few that we did were similar to us; casual touring cyclists. The majority of long-distance cyclists were couples, while day-trippers on the cycle routes tended to be young families.
Top tip: This is a great route for people who want to get the feel for multi-day cycle trips so why not introduce a friend of family member to the fun of cycle touring on the Veloscenic.
For more information visit www.veloscenic.com.