My wife's first cycling tour, and with all of six gears on her bike we wanted to find something suitable: L'Avenue Verte was perfect.
Packed and ready to go. Debs bravely on her city hybrid, and my lovely Dawes Super Galaxy Tourer
The week started with a five-minute ride from our home to Honeybourne station, where we caught the train to London. A short cycle across Hyde Park and we were on the train to Newhaven, where a last-minute "I'd better just double-check" revealed that it's best to get off at Newhaven Town, not Newhaven Harbour if you want to catch the ferry. Obviously.
It was approaching midnight and raining heavily, with thunderstorms on the horizon, but that didn't stop the car drivers getting upset with us for daring to shelter near the front of the queue instead of standing in the rain and exhaust fumes. The most vociferous of these ended up being refused boarding because they’d forgotten their Covid passes; c’est la vie.
There were only six of us taking the overnight ferry with bikes: a father and daughter taking on a long-dreamed-of trip, an Italian returning home from his London studies on a beautiful vintage bike and a lunatic named Bradley, who was cycling from Luton to Paris for charity in the least-prepared way imaginable. More on him later.
We were boarded first (which made the car-drivers’ moaning even more pointless), and fixed the bikes to those awful wheel-only bike racks which, combined with a bumpy crossing, meant that I had to perform a few wheel adjustments before we could get going in Dieppe.
Take your luggage off your bike to at least try and save your wheels.
Day One: Dieppe to Forges-les-Eaux
I’d given Bradley my mobile number, partly because I wanted to keep in touch and partly because, frankly, I was a bit worried about his plan. He’d randomly decided a month ago that he wanted to cycle to Paris, and having never really done any cycling, bought a £150 mountain bike and set off from Luton with little more than a change of clothes and Google Maps. And no Euros. I gave him enough to get him some breakfast in case the first boulangerie didn’t accept his credit card, with the promise that he’d donate the rest to his cause.
By 6am we were off the ferry and, after a few adjustments to the bike and donning of waterproofs, were riding through the drizzle. Sure enough, by the time we’d ridden the very flat kilometre or so from the terminal into Dieppe my phone was ringing.
“I’m going up a hill but that doesn’t feel right…”
We managed to find Bradley and, after explaining the best side of the road to cycle on in France, spent a lovely couple of hours helping him in the right direction and getting to know one another — occasionally encountering the rest of our ferry companions.
He was raising money for MIND, having experiencing anxiety and depression since being involved in a car crash with a fatality in 2017. Aside from raising money a big aspect of the trip was the challenge, and the confidence-building element which comes with any long bike ride.
The entire day was almost entirely traffic free, travelling on a tarmacked disused railway line. It was technically uphill all the way, but you barely noticed aside from the lack of freewheeling.
Easy, pleasurable cycling. What it's all about (for some people).
We stopped at Neufchâtel-en-bray, just under 40km from Dieppe and the first proper town you encounter on the route. Expecting a peaceful breakfast, we were a little dismayed by some kind of car rally looping the town, the main point of which seemed to be a competition to make the loudest exhaust sounds. Still, a hearty sandwich jambon et fromage, which would form a large part of our diet over the next few days, eaten in a pleasant little park which had a tap for much-needed eau potable refills, and we were on our way again, with only a short trip to Forges-les-Eaux, our destination for the day.
Forge-les-Eaux is a nice little town, very friendly and welcoming, with a pleasant campsite just on the outskirts where we set ourselves up for the night for the cost of about €15 (some campsites charge you a couple of euros extra if you check-in early, but we were happy to pay that to let us unload the bikes).
Debs caught up on some sleep, while I had a mooch around town which quickly turned into sitting in a friendly bar, frantically sending maps to Bradley to help him escape the confusion of Gournay-en-bray, a problem we’d have to deal with tomorrow. He later messaged me to say he’d ended up in Noailles — but hopefully that was a mistake, because it’s 65km north of Paris.
There was nowhere open to eat in town, but a tremendously exciting pizza vending machine proved to be a surprisingly-tasty last resort. Live music in the square, a cold beer and a chance encounter with our new Italian friend provided a lovely end to the day.
Pizza by robot
Distance: 58.54km; 5h 6m cycling.
Day Two: Forges-les-Eaux to Gisors
Breakfast in a bar; we decided not to join the man on the next table in a 9am beer, but opted for a baguette with some jam, a coffee for me and thé au lait pour la femme anglaise, a drink of choice that would prove pretty controversial throughout the week.
Back on the road again, and the morning ride would be all roads, we found the joy of variety. While yesterday’s railway-riding was incredibly peaceful and easy, you do miss out on the pleasure of passing through sleepy French villages. It was still pretty easy riding, with just one hill which reminded you there were gears on the bike that sometimes needed to be used.
Obligatory bike & poppies shot
We stopped for lunch in Gournay-en-bray, arriving just late enough to find most places had closed. A small shop provided ham, cheese and fruit to go with the half-a-baguette we had leftover from breakfast. Once again, there was freely-available, and welcome, water in the square. A quick beer (Debs’ request for vin rouge was somehow translated into a red Leffe) before we found out why Bradley had struggled to leave the town yesterday.
Lunch options are limited, but still delicious, when nowhere is open.
Eau potable: the two most-welcome words you'll see on a cycling trip through France.
Following the route and we came across a brick wall. Literally. Our map clearly showed a crossing over the railway. The official route guide clearly showed a crossing over the railway. But in front of us was a large, red-brick wall. After a bit of frustration and confusion we decided to use the subway at the railway station to carry on with the route, although looking back now we somehow managed to miss a pretty obvious cycle path on the map — Richard has now updated the cycle.travel official guide with this correction.
How you used to be able to leave Gournay-en-bray
How it looks today. Walls are notoriously difficult to cycle through.
Shortly after Gournay-en-bray you have the choice to head east or south as there are two branches of L’Avenue Verte. The southern version is slightly shorter and was our planned route. You pass through Saint Germer de Fly — or rather you don’t, because the surprise of an enormous and beautiful abbey forces all but the most dedicated to stop and stare. Personally, the rest of the village felt a little too manicured, so we carried on and were soon back in the rolling countryside.
Neuf-Marché has a fairly pointless diversion around the ‘main’ road through it, which is only worth taking if you want to see another church, lovely as it is. Either way there’s a pizza restaurant in the village, but overeat at your own risk, because you’re about to ride up the longest hill of the entire trip.
It’s two-kilometres of unyielding climb, and although it proved a bit much for the six-gears of Debs’ hybrid, it shouldn’t trouble a more touring-suitable setup too much, and it’s more than worth it for the wide-ranging views and subsequent 10km of descent through wheat fields and woods we enjoyed.
Then a beautiful valley ride into Gisors, where we stopped for refreshments. Our campsite was still 9km away, and Debs didn’t fancy the ride there, then back into town for dinner so I left her happily in a bar with a beer and a book and headed out to set the tent up before returning for dinner. For a fairly large town our options were pretty limited: the only two places open were a kebab shop and a Japanese restaurant. Eliminating the kebab shop gave us a simple Hobson’s choice: sushi all the way.
A live-action shot, only one chance to get it right because she wasn't going to go back and ride by again
The campsite is worth the extra trip at the end of a fairly long day. The ride from Gisors is back on the old railway lines, and it’s a beautiful tree-lined ride with glimpses of lakes in the setting sun; downhill all the way to the village of Dangu with just a couple of little bumps at the end.
Our camping pitch was right next to a beautiful lake, and we arrived to the sound of cuckoos and waterbirds. In preparation for the summer solstice we set an alarm for a 5.30am sunrise, but in the end we woke naturally before the alarm and were treated to the most glorious sunrise. What better way to end and start a day?
Solstice morning view from the tent.
Distance: 67.19km + 9.17km; 5h 37m + 53m cycling. And another, slightly speedier, 17.72km / 54m for me to go and set-up the tent.
Day three: Gisors to Cergy
We returned to sleeping bags for a bit of a lie-in after the early sunrise, which also meant we missed the morning rain — this felt good at the time, but we would regret it later in the day as the afternoon sun was beating down on us during the most tree-free part of the trip.
There’s a good boulangerie in Dangu. Knowing what was in-store for the rest of the day I made sure we were well-stocked with food and our water bottles were full. We wouldn’t see another shop or café for the next 40km, and didn’t find anywhere to refill the bottles for over 25km.
Fifteen kilometres of easy railway-riding to Bray et Lu, then we were back on the roads again with about ten kilometres of relatively-easy climbing through, and to, some stunning scenery as the day started to really heat up. Some gravel tracks added a bit of extra interest before we arrived a bit dusty and sweaty in the quiet — some might say comatose — village of Maudétour-en-Vexin, with the incredibly welcoming sight of some shade, a water fountain (with a delightful trough full of goldfish before the drain) and a sheltered bus stop which was a perfect place for lunch and, for Debs, a snooze.
Gravel tracks and hot blue skies
We took the cycle.travel recommended short detour from the official route to avoid a gravel track with a gate that wasn’t worth the effort, then had a short spell on the busiest road so far (perhaps twenty or thirty cars over six or seven kilometres, so hardly the M25), ending at Avernes where we rode rough tracks through maize fields until we got to Théméricourt, a lovely little village with a sort-of-chateau and church worthy of a pause and a photo.
On to Vigny, where there might well have been some kind of shop had we needed, but we were still well-stocked, so carried on to a fun gravel track up and then down a short, sharp hill. Check your brakes!
We crossed a roundabout on a busy main road after Sagy, where there’s a choice of sticking to the road for a bit or taking a gravel cycle path. We chose the former, in part because I missed the turn and couldn’t be bothered to go back, then paused at Saillancourt for a rest before the last hill of the day (again, short and relatively sharp) where we were enthusiastically invited to a concert taking place in the square that evening. We’d regret saying no, but we already had a room booked for the evening in Cergy: one of the downsides of booking ahead (our first of the trip) is that you lose the opportunity for spontaneity.
Cergy is immediate. One minute you’re in open countryside, then you are surrounded by noise and concrete. A quick stop for refreshments and we made our way to the house we were staying. I like the original Airbnb concept, but don’t like the way it’s turned into a “buy flats and let them out” business which is decimating places, so we try and find rooms in people’s houses where possible.
We stayed with a lovely family who spoke no English but immediately pulled cool water from the fridge as soon as they saw us, so perhaps we weren’t looking quite as fit as we thought. Debs was exhausted — this was her first cycle tour remember — and it had been a very hot day, so she stayed in to doze and finish off our portable larder while I wandered the 2km to the only place (not including McDonalds) nearby open for a meal, a friendly Thai restaurant.
Although it was nice to have a proper bed and shower after sleeping either on a ferry’s chair or in tents for three nights, in hindsight it would have been more fun to have either found somewhere in Saillancourt or carried on to Forêt Domaniale St-Germain-en-Laye, a beautiful oak and beach forest hugged by the river Seine, for a bit of wild camping. But a good night’s sleep is a good night’s sleep, and we definitely got that.
Distance: 51.95km, plus a bit from Cergy to our accommodation; 4h 39m.
Day four: Cergy to Paris
Our hosts had to be out of the house by 7am for school-runs and work, so we were forced into a prompt start, but after yesterday’s sizzing saunter we were happy to get going.
After a bit of navigation to get back onto L’Avenue Verte, we found ourselves alongside L’Oise, a beautiful river which we’d follow until it joined the Seine. Only seven or eight kilometres for us, but the L’Oise had put in an impressive 335km or so from Belgium to get to this point.
We stopped at the first café we found, a surprising seven kilometres into the day, but it was really a tabac, dedicated more to scratchcards, cigarettes and coffee than anything comestible, so a coffee for me and the nearest to tea for Debs was mint, who declined the offer of milk.
Back to the river and it was beautiful, peaceful cycling. Trees, water and a lack of cars are a perfect combination on a sunny morning. We joined the Seine which we crossed via a pedestrian / cycle bridge beneath a furiously busy dual carriageway, then after a very narrow path through nettles and brambles, rode through the cool bliss of the aforementioned forest before riding along a well-manicured avenue up to Chateau de Maissons-Laffitte and on to the slight shock of the busy Sartrouville where the very welcome sight of a well-stocked boulangerie — more jambon et fromage — allowed us to stock up for the day.
The next twenty kilometres were all right next to the Seine, and we passed walkers, runners, cyclists, groups of schoolchildren all taking advantage of the wide, peaceful paths. We stopped about halfway along in Chatou for refreshments (our only pre-noon beer of the trip, but we had been riding for four hours…) where Debs was dismayed — vocally dismayed — to discover there was still 32km to Paris. She had been expecting to see Notre-Dame emerge at any moment for much of the past hour.
Truly L'Avenue Verte
Still, a cold beer on a hot day solves most problems and we were on our way again, in a fairly positive frame of mind. The end of the riverside riding brought with it a dramatic change of scenery as we plunged through industrial areas to get across to Saint Dennis. It was not beautiful, and required a wisely-stored pain au raisin to raise the spirits.
Saint Denis, and its eponymous canal, continued the theme of contrast. We didn’t feel unsafe at any point, although one stretch under a bridge where we had to cycle around several homeless people was uncomfortable — more through the guilt of our easy lives. There were clearly some sad lives being led along the four kilometres of canal, but positive moments too: work is being done to improve the area, although I hope it improves it for the local people and not holidaymakers and Airbnb investors.
Brighter moments along the Canal Saint-Denis
Soon, though, we started to see what we expected from Paris. A café on every corner — an open café on every corner, which was a fairly unique experience for us to-date on the trip. We continued mostly along cycle lanes and across the Pont au Change to Île de la Cité, the island which played host to our destination: Notre-Dame.
I love riding through cities — Debs doesn’t so much — but I don’t enjoy having to navigate through them. Looking at a map and trying to watch out for the many, often-moving, obstacles is never easy. It was too busy along the Boulevard du Paris to ride, so we walked through the crowds, hopping back on the bikes for the last 200m to Notre-Dame. Not a particularly dramatic way to finish the 260km trip, but we were very happy to have completed it. I was especially proud of Debs who had never cycled more than 30 miles in a day, and had never done a multi-day trip.
Notre-Dame had a sad look to it, surrounded by boards and scaffolding after the near-catastrophic fire back in 2019. It’s due to be complete in time for the Olympics to arrive in Paris in 2024, and is clearly an enormous project.
Notre-Dame: beautiful but poignant
The happy travellers.
The day wasn’t quite over, however, because we still had five kilometres to navigate up to the Batignolles area of Paris where our hotel was for the next two nights. It turned out to be a surprising find (I’d booked it on the basis that it was the nearest hotel to the centre which wouldn’t require taking out a loan), a vibrant, beautiful area packed with parks, families, bars, restaurants and shops, with the added random coincidence that it was ten minutes away from the home of my best friend from school who I’d somehow not seen for twenty years — a perfect reunion in a joyous ‘carrying on like we’d seen each other yesterday’ atmosphere.
Bonus day five: a ride around Paris
Debs was quite happy to stay cycling-free on day five, and had a long-awaited date with some art galleries which I’d have enjoyed, but I simply couldn’t resist the idea of map-free day of exploring Paris by bike. And isn’t it beautiful to suddenly find yourself riding an unladen bike after several days of wobbling weight on the back?
I simply rode and rode, heading down any street that looked nice, stopping wherever I fancied, including on L’Arc de Triomphe, a big no-no according to the armed police who rushed over to move me on. Apparently, to truly respect the fallen you have to pay the €12 entry fee. Still, I cycled around it twice and headed along the Champs-Élysées like the Tour de France champion I am. Although they probably don’t use the cycle lane.
L’Arc de Triomphe. No tresspassing. But you should, it's worth it.
Engineering at its best.
In the end I rode around 50km around the streets of the capital, and loved every second of it — the Eiffel Tower, of course, Tomb of Napoleon, Pont Neuf, Bastille, Place de la Nation, Monmatre, Sacré-Coeur and much more. If I saw a café I liked I stopped, if I saw a photograph to take I did. And if I saw an Instagram influencer taking themselves too seriously I inserted my bike into the shot. The temperature hit at least 34°C, but much of the day was spent in the shade of trees. It was bliss.
Distance: 50.46km; 5h 13m.
Bonus day six: a ride around Rouen
We caught the train to Rouen, intending to have a quick bite to eat and then cycle out to a nearby campsite, but one look at the city and we immediately abandoned that idea and checked into a hotel.
It is beautiful. The stunning cathedral, countless churches, abbeys and more, brightly-coloured timber-frame buildings, tiny alleys and a plethora of bars and restaurants. It took us an hour just to pick one to eat in. There’s also a more alternative culture and feel to the place than we felt even in Batignolles or elsewhere in Paris.
Rouen cathedral, beyond stunning, and impossible to do justice with a camera, so just go yourself.
I spent a couple of hours exploring by bike, although it’s small enough that you can see everything on foot easily enough.
Distance: 30.9km; 2hr 11m.
We’d also planned to ride back up to Dieppe, either all or part of the 70km (the route moreorless follows the railway line so you can choose how much of the climb out of Rouen you want to skip if you like), but we were so enchanted by Rouen we spent most of the Saturday there before getting a train all the way to Dieppe, which was much nicer than we expected with the towering Church of Saint Jacques and some nice places to eat. There’s a rowdier (mainly English!) crowd, but we finished the week off as we’d started: with a pizza, although this one came with a bottle of wine and the outrageous luxury of a table to eat it on.
The other advantage of staying in Dieppe was stress-free access to the ferry the next morning — a ten-minute cycle ride. We queued with the cars this time, chatting to some friendly cyclists (everyone we met had been friendly), before a much smoother trip back to Newhaven, then into London and a wild ride across Hyde Park dodging Eagles fans before the train journey back to Honeybourne and home.
Oh, and Bradley? He made it to Paris. We knew he would, although we still don’t quite know how. Chuck a bit of money towards his worthy cause if you can.