Cycling in Provence

Bicycles on the island of PoquerollesCross-hatched with picturesque backroads where you can cycle for miles without seeing a car or village, Provence is ideal for exploring the scenery while enjoying superb food and drink.

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Not only does the country boast the major event in the international cycling calendar, the Tour de France, but you will everywhere see teams of keen local amateurs puffing along on their vélos (bikes) in neon-coloured lycra livery.

Cycling artwork blackBut touring Provence by bicycle need not be a similarly sweaty ordeal. Cyclists are treated with respect and not for nothing is the French nickname for a bike la petite reine: the queen of the road.

There are many excellent general websites dedicated to cycling in France and worldwide. Some of these are mentioned below, but probably the best place to start when planning a holiday is freewheelingfrance.com, which is packed with valuable advice and feature articles and valuable advice, such as this glossary of French cycling terms.

If you read French, voyageons-autrement.com is another very comprehensive resource dedicated to durable tourism including a large section on cycling. Both these, though, are general sites. The article here gives tips specific to cycling in Provence.

A variant way of cycling through France is by Vélorail, a sort of giant bicycle that runs along a railway track. Click here to read about Vélorails in Provence.

Where to Cycle in Provence

If you are seeking a organised trip, various companies offer guided and self-guided tours with pre-booked accommodation and planned itineraries.

Cyclomundo logoBased in France and founded in 2003, Cyclomundo, the sponsor of our cycling page, has devised a number of routes through Provence tailored to different interests.

They might take you along the Côtes du Rhône vineyards, the lavender fields of Haute Provence, the Camargue with its amazing wildlife or the Roman ruins in the countryside around Arles, as well as a "gastronomic tour" including local food and wine producers.

Rest break on a Cyclomundo biking tour in ProvenceCyclomundo has an easy-going trip designed for families with young children (visiting family attractions en route), as well as longer, more challenging itineraries. Each tour is calibrated on a one-to-five scale, depending on its length and the type of terrain.

The advantages to doing a cycling holiday this way include insider knowledge of the best roads, restaurants and hotels, local back-up and - very attractively - luggage transfers which mean that you won't be dragging all your bags up the provençal hills.

Guided tours with a support vehicle are also available and it's possible, with advance notice, for Cyclomundo to devise customised trips, including "one-base" holidays with alternative activities for groups where some members don't wish to hit the saddle every day. You can read more about one of Cyclomundo's holidays in this New York Times travel feature.

Alternatively you can plan an itinerary yourself. Recommended reading for anyone thinking of doing this is Cycling France (the Lonely Planet Cycling Guide) and Cycle Touring in France: Eight Selected Cycle Tours, while the best map is France - Cycling Routes.image

If you want a book to take with you, you might consider one of those available on Kindle to keep the weight down: Cycle Touring in France and Adam Ruck's France on Two Wheels: Six Long Bike Rides for the Bon Vivant Cyclist are both available in this format.

The websites of local tourist offices, all of which are extremely keen to attract cyclists, are another valuable resource - although obviously each organisation will be promoting only routes within its own region.

The département of Vaucluse is the clear leader here - the maillot jaune, or yellow jersey, if you will - with an impressively well-developed and comprehensive English-language website that's a mine of information on bicycle taxis, bike hire shops and so on. Click here to view Vaucluse's cycle tourism website.

Cycling in Lavender FieldsIt suggests a range of GPS maps and itineraries, and themed véloroutes taking in everything from wine and lavender to ochre and hilltop villages (villages perchés) - not forgetting, of course, the legendary Mont Ventoux, the ultimate challenge for serious cyclists.

In 2014 Vaucluse unveiled a new long-distance mountain biking (Grande Traversée VTT) trail. At 232 km / 144 miles long and with climbs of 5,750 metres / 18,865 feet, it's not for beginners. But it takes you through some of the most stunning scenery in the region.

Divided into ten stages, the itinerary runs one way from north to south, starting in the village of Savoillans and ending in Fontaine de Vaucluse. On the way it skirts the north and south faces of the legendary Mont Ventoux and passes though the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain chain, the Sault plateau and the Luberon National Park.

Approved by the Fédération Française de Cyclisme, the route is mapped out with road markings and comes supplied with details of accommodation, restaurants and bike repair shops all along the itinerary. Click here to read the full details (in French).

The tourist offices for the other départements of Provence have prepared their own equally seductive cycling routes, but have not yet translated all of these areas of their websites into English.

The Alpes de Haute Provence offers both on- and off-road cycling (the latter, a speciality of the region, is VTT or vélo tout terrain in French) through such tourist attractions as the Gorges du Verdon, as well as mountain biking.

The Alpes de Haute Provence cycle tourism website has 20 different circuits in GPS format. The website's less comprehensive English-language page has links to other sites in English and French.

Of course both these regions also have hills and mountains aplenty, and if this is a deterrent rather than an attraction, you might consider the département of Bouches du Rhône.

The rather user-unfriendly Bouches du Rhône cycle tourism website now has ten suggested circuits: scroll down the page and click on the links to see detailled maps of these routes (in French only).

They include the Camargue, where the terrain is as flat as a pancake. Many areas of the Camargue are barred to motor traffic and cycling is one highly effective way to get close to the extraordinary wildlife you will see there.

On the other hand, it will be hot in summer. The open marshlands are particularly exposed to wind and are a breeding ground for mosquitos.

Another, slightly more energetic circuit proposed on the Bouches du Rhône cycling website takes you through the hills of Aubagne: Marcel Pagnol country.

Cycling in the calanques of Marseille remains popular. Off-road biking there is still permitted following the establishment in April 2012 of a new National Park in the calanques, although freestyle (free ride) biking is prohibited.

If you prefer to stick to made-up roads, the stunning route des Crêtes between Cassis and La Ciotat is a popular - if challenging - choice, while the route Cézanne around the Mont Sainte Victoire has both on- and off-road biking options.

In spring each year the little town of Cassis hosts a major cycling event, the VTT Offroad Provence-Alpes-Côte-D'Azur, which informally marks the beginning of the cycling season in Provence. It includes a series of races open to everyone, including children, and at all levels of ability.

The Var département suggests several dozen on- and off-road circuits through a variety of terrains, both coastal and mountainous, as well as the Sainte Baume vélo-rail (bicycle-rail) that runs along a disused railway track. Click here to view the Var cycle tourism website.

When To Go

In southern Provence, in the middle part of the day during July and August, temperatures can often soar to over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). So be sure to programme in a long lunch-break if you plan to tour the area during this period.

Cycling in the calanquesYou would be unlucky to encounter rain in high summer (it can rain heavily in spring or autumn, however). But there's nothing much you can do to dodge the Mistral, the fierce north-west wind which can roar down the Rhône valley and surrounding areas.

It might blow up at any time of the year, unless you confine your itinerary to the eastern parts of Var and the Alpes de Haute Provence.

Other winds from the south can put in an appearance at any moment too. Click here for more detailled information about the climate in Marseille, here for the climate in Aix en Provence and here for the climate in Avignon.

Heavy traffic will be a hazard in the popular tourist areas during school holidays and the roads are best avoided altogether on the two weekends which bracket the grandes vacances, the period of summer when most French families take their break.

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Watch out, too, for the Tour de France, when roads will be closed off for the race (and there may be road maintenance works on the route in the run-up to the event). The dates of the Tour de France in 2014 were 5 July to 27 July.

2014 Tour de France route mapThe route, pictured, skirted the north-western edge of Provence on one day during the 15th stage. The winner of the 2014 Tour was Italy's Vincenzo Nibali.

The 2013 Tour de France marked the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France and the victor was Britain's Chris Froome. It was the second year in a row that a British cyclist won the Tour de France after Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to do so in 2012.

NewsThe British director Stephen (The Queen) Frears is working on a new film about the disgraced Tour de France multiple champion Lance Armstrong.

Partly filmed on location in the Hautes Alpes, the film, known currently only as Untitled Cycling Project, stars Ben Foster and charts the rise of the pro-cyclist through the 1990s and early 2000s, battling cancer as he and his fellow American teammates dominate and change the quintessentially European sport of cycling.

Winning the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times, Lance retires as one of the great sporting heroes of our time, worth millions of dollars. David Walsh, a sports writer played by Chris O'Dowd, is at first charmed by Lance’s charisma and talent. But he gradually comes to believe the world is being sold a lie...

Ben Foster as Lance ArmstrongPictured: Foster as Armstrong, on location in the Hautes Alpes. Photo credit: © Larry Horricks.

Hotel accommodation is at a premium on the coast in high summer. On the other hand, if you are planning to camp, bear it in mind that camping sites are likely to be closed from November to March (and will be, in any case, less than inviting at this time of year).

Wild camping is something of a legal grey zone in France, tolerated in some areas, strictly forbidden in others, especially in the Calanques National Park at all times of year and other parts of southern Provence which are vulnerable to forest fires in the middle of summer.

Where to Eat and Sleep

French restaurants, especially in rural areas, tend to follow strictly codified opening hours: 12.00 to 2.00pm (or even 1.30pm) for serving lunch and 8.00pm to around 10.00pm for dinner. Sunday and/or Monday closing is widespread.

Shops are also likely to be closed for lunch - and, in Provence, lunch often lasts significantly longer than in other parts of France. Think three hours rather than one.

Arm yourself with a picnic if you won't be able (or don't want) to eat out at these fixed times. The local markets will be an endless source of mouth-watering provisions.

Vaucluse has organised a "Welcome Cyclists Charter" ("Charte d'Accueil Vélo") whose member hotels and B&Bs make special provisions for cycling guests (early breakfasts, picnic lunches, bike parking and cleaning areas, etc.).

www.warmshowers.org is an international website whose members (including several dozen in Provence) offer free hospitality to cyclists.

How To Travel To Provence With A Bike

Provence is an awful long way to get to by bike if you are starting out in the UK or northern continental Europe. So, unless you are planning to spend weeks on the road or to rent a bike once you arrive (see below for details of where to rent a bicycle in Provence), you will want to bring your trusty steed down by train, plane or bus.

Bikes on a French regional trainBy rail: Folding bikes, or bikes that have been dismantled and bagged, can be taken free of charge on Eurostar. There is a charge for taking unbagged bikes or for sending them as registered baggage (the latter is a slightly cheaper option). Click here to see the guidelines to taking bikes on Eurostar trains.

Alternatively, UK cyclists can take their bikes as far as Calais via the Eurotunnel (Le Shuttle), either with or without a car.

Once in France, things get more complicated. As the FUB (Fédération Française des Usagers de la Bicyclette) not very enlighteningly summarises it, "Carrying your bike on board trains can be either free, or forbidden, or require a mandatory reservation." However, the FUB website supplies a very useful summary of the rules about taking bikes on French trains.

If you read French, the TER (regional train site) also provides specific information about taking bicyles on local trains in the PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côtes-d'Azur) area.

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By plane: You should check with your individual carrier what its policy is about taking bikes on a flight. Both EasyJet and Ryanair will transport bikes and other sports equipment at an additional charge.

The CTC (the UK's National Cyclists' Organisation) offers some guidelines on how to pack your bike for a flight.

Nice airport has a dedicated bike assembly area in the arrivals lounge, complete with tools, but Provence airports such as Marseille, Avignon and Toulon have yet to follow suit.

By bus: European Bike Express transports cyclists to mainland Europe with their vehicles towed in a specially designed trailer. It operates four routes, one of which skirts northern Provence (Valence and Orange) before veering west into Languedoc and Spain.

Where to Rent a Bicycle in Provence

A rack of bikes for hire in Avignonfreewheelingfrance.com has a useful, though by no means exhaustive list of bicycle hire shops in Provence. Another local recommendation in Saint Rémy de Provence is vélopassion.fr.

Quad and mountain bikes can be hired from Provence Quad Location, also near Saint Rémy, which additionally offers guided quad bike tours. Sun-e-Bike rents electric bicycles in Bonnieux and Saint Rémy.

If you just want a bike for a hour or by the day, some French towns and cities offer cycle hire schemes. See our articles on local transport in Marseille and local transport in Avignon for details (pictured: a rack of such bikes in Avignon).

The city of Aix has discontinued its bicycle hire scheme, but our page on local transport in Aix en Provence suggests some commercial alternatives.

The TER (regional train site) also provides information about how to rent a bike at a train station in Provence (in French only).

Fun cyclingMany French cities organise an annual Fête du Vélo, a Festival of Cycling, on the first weekend in June, during which a wide variety of fun activities aim to reclaim the road for cyclists.

A second annual event in Marseille (and a handful of other French cities) is the Vélotour, a guided group ride in late September that takes participants to famous and little-known landmarks, many of them opened especially for the occasion.

Find further reading on Amazon

Cycling France (Lonely Planet Cycling Guide)image!

Cycle Touring in France: Eight Selected Cycle Tours image!

Cycling Southern France - Loire to Mediterraneanimage!

France - Cycling Routes (map)

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