Bicycles on the island of PoquerollesYou can cycle for miles along Provence's picturesque backroads without seeing a car or village, and the region is ideal for exploring the scenery while enjoying superb weather, food and drink.

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cycling artwork 2016The country boasts the major event in the international cycling calendar, the Tour de France.

And cycling is part of French culture: everywhere on the road you will see teams of keen local amateurs on their vélos (bikes), sometimes in teams and usually wearing neon-coloured lycra livery.

Touring Provence by bicycle need not be a sweaty ordeal. Cyclists are treated with respect and there's a good reason why the French nickname for a bike la petite reine: the queen of the road.

A big added bonus: it's infinitely easier to park a bicycle at a top tourist spot than to find a space for your car.

You'll easily find many excellent general websites dedicated to cycling in France and worldwide. Some of these are mentioned below, but a good place to start when planning a holiday is freewheelingfrance.com, which is packed with valuable advice, such as this glossary of French cycling terms.

If you read French, try voyageons-autrement.com, another very comprehensive resource dedicated to durable tourism including a large section on cycling.

And you might care to study the official French Ministry of the Interior website for details of laws governing cyclists, motorcyclists and road safety. A new law now bans cyclists from using headphones and earpieces, for example.

All these, though, are general sites. This page gives tips specific to cycling in Provence.

There are many different ways of discovering Provence by bike. One variant is the Vélorail, a sort of giant bicycle that runs along a railway track. Click here to read about Vélorails in Provence.

Bear in mind, too, that vélos à assistance électrique (VAEs, or electric bikes) are becoming increasingly popular in hilly Provence for obvious reasons.

Using them to get around has become much easier in recent years thanks to longer-lasting batteries and a growing network of recharge points. Click here to read about our experiences touring round Mont Ventoux by electric bike.

 

 

Where to Cycle in Provence

If you are seeking a organised trip, various companies such as Cycle the Alps of Provence offer guided and self-guided tours with pre-booked accommodation and planned itineraries.

Alternatively you can devise a route 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.

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.

Several very long-distance cycling paths that pass through several regions or even countries are currently under construction. When completed, the 450 km / 280 mile ViaRhôna will run from Lake Geneva to the Rhône delta or round to Montpellier.

Cycling in Lavender FieldsEuroVelo 8 is even more ambitious. The 5,888 km / 3,659 mile route will eventually go all the way around the Mediterranean through eleven countries, from Cadiz in Southern Spain to Cyprus!

For shorter trips, the websites of local tourist offices are a valuable resource. They're all extremely keen to attract cyclists - although obviously each organisation will be promoting only its own region.

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

It 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, and the nearby, spectacular Gorges de la Nesque.

In 2014 Vaucluse unveiled a new long-distance mountain biking (Grande Traversée) trail. It has been so popular that in 2016 it was greatly extended - almost doubled, in fact - and now runs 400 km / 248 miles. With climbs of 10,000 metres / 32,800 feet, it's certainly 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 Mérindol. On the way it skirts the north and south faces of Mont Ventoux and passes though the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain chain, the Sault plateau and the Luberon National Park.

Cycling in UbayeApproved by the Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme, 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. At the moment the full new route does not appear to have been translated into English, but you can read about the original, shorter route here.

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. Pictured: mountain biking in the Ubaye Valley.

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. There's also a new blog specially dedicated to mountain biking.

A glance at the cycling website for the Hautes Alpes will confirm that this is a region for adrenaline cyclists.

The département is a favoured location for major sporting events such as the Tour de France and the Criterium du Dauphiné. A bonus in summer is that certain mountain roads are closed to cars under the "cols reservés" programme.

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

In French only, the Bouches du Rhône cycle tourism website is in French only and very user-unfriendly (don't be surprised if our link to it is broken, by the way: although we check regularly, the site is constantly being reorganised without redirecting the links).

Its more popular routes include the Camargue, where the terrain is as flat as a pancake. Many areas of the Camargue are barred to motor traffic and, along with horse-riding, cycling is the most effective way to get close to the extraordinary wildlife you will see there.

Cycling in the calanquesOn the other hand, it will be hot in summer and probably windy (the Mistral wind blows here for 300 days a year). The open marshlands 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 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 a wide range of options, from the southern slopes of the Gorges du Verdon to a 120 km / 75 mile parcours cyclable du littoral (coastal bike path) that extends all the way from Six Fours les Plages to Saint Raphaël.

Each October in the Fréjus area it hosts the Roc d'Azur, the biggest VTT (mountain biking) event in the world. Or for something different, try the Sainte Baume vélo-rail (bicycle-rail) that runs along a disused railway track.

The pretty island of Porquerolles off the coast of Hyëres is cycling heaven, with lots of lovely circuits and bike hire shops (it's cheaper to rent a cycle there than to bring your own one over) and a blanket ban on cars. 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.

You 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 year-round climate in Marseille, here for Aix en Provence, here for Avignon and here for Toulon.

Heavy traffic will be a hazard in the popular tourist areas during school holidays and main roads are best avoided altogether on weekends during the grandes vacances in July and August when most French families take their summer break.

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 2017 Tour de France are 1-23 July.

The route, pictured, includes a 23 km / 14 mile individual time trial in Marseille on 22 July beginning and endng in the Vélodrome. It will take cyclists along the Corniche JF Kennedy, round the Old Port to the MuCEM then up the steep hill to Notre Dame de la Garde.

insidertop for the Tour de France in Marseille 2017It is promised that entry to the Vélodrome will be free for this occasion, though a system of applying for tickets in advance is likely to be in place. Watch this space for details as they emerge.

Prior to that, the Provence leg of the Tour passes through Serre Chevalier, Briançon, Izoard and Embrun in the Hautes Alpes on 19-21 July and Salon de Provence in the Bouches du Rhône on 21 July.

tour de france 2017 mapThe winner of the 2016 Tour was Britain's Chris Froome, who also triumphed in 2015 and 2013, making him the first Brit to do so three times. And in 2012 Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France.

Hotel accommodation is at a premium on the coast in high summer. On the other hand, if you are planning to camp, be aware 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 bicycles on local trains.

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-Roussillon 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. If you just want a bike for a hour or by the day, some French towns and cities offer municipal 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 the Aix Tourist Office lists some commercial alternatives.

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

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

Cyclists also get to bike through unusual places such as Saint Charles train station, the Vélodrome football stadium, the Town Hall, Marseille's Opera House or the city's brand new seafront shopping mall Les Terrasses du Port.

The idea is to promote the queen of the road as a fun and eco-friendly way to get around and to encourage participants to see their city from a new point of view. There are plenty of street culture and foodie-type events all along the way and it goes without saying that the whole day is hugely family-friendly.

Find further reading on Amazon

Cycling France (Lonely Planet Cycling Guide)

Cycle Touring in France: Eight Selected Cycle Tours

Cycling Southern France - Loire to Mediterranean

France - Cycling Routes (map)

 

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