If you were to devise the ideal cycle route, it would look a bit like this. 50% traffic free, very little climbing, miles of smooth tarmac, beautiful river scenery… oh, and a string of picture-postcard villages and towns.
La Vélo Francette is just as good as it sounds. An inland route connecting two seas (the Channel and the Bay of Biscay), it nonetheless spends a lot of time by water – the Mayenne, the Loire, the Sèvre Niortaise. Add a handful of railway paths, and you can see why there’s so little traffic and so few hills. The quiet lanes that make up the remainder are well chosen, allowing you to dawdle and daydream past cider orchards and vineyards.
A panel of travel journalists voted this Europe’s number 1 cycle route in 2017. It’s hard to disagree.
Not all the route is paved, but the unpaved sections are good-quality gravel. The upshot is that any bike will do, though if you’re on a road bike, you’ll want reasonably sturdy tyres – 32mm or so.
Why not? It’s not hilly – there are just two gradual ascents on the whole route, where by “gradual” we mean “over 50 miles or so”. Yes, there are inevitable undulations on the road sections, but there’s so much rail-trail and towpath riding that you’ll never be too taxed.
That said, at 600km (370mi), it’s a pretty long route for your first cycling holiday. Angers is roughly halfway, and would make a good destination for a shorter excursion. (It’s also a little easier to get back by train from Angers to a Channel port.)
Just what you think: ‘Little France’, or ‘France in miniature’. In other words, the Vélo Francette captures the essence of France in one bike route. You might think that ‘Petite France’ would be a more obvious name, but as the route manager explains, a district of Strasbourg got there first.
Yes! A cheery logo of a cockerel in a pink circle adorns the excellent signposting throughout. It doesn’t hurt to have a map with you, whether one downloaded from cycle.travel or the very good French-language guidebook published by Chamina. But you’ll rarely need it.
Caen station has regular Intercités trains from Paris (St Lazare) and regional trains from across Normandy. If you’re travelling from Britain, ferries from Portsmouth arrive at Caen’s port (Ouistreham), operated by Brittany Ferries.
There are plentiful trains from La Rochelle, but unfortunately not to Caen or anywhere similarly helpful. Trains back to Normandy inevitably involve going via Paris, so if you want to get back across the Channel, you might as well take the TGV to Paris and then the Eurostar. (Both of these require booking for you and your bike.)