Cycling across France on La Vélodyssée

This is my trip report on cycling two weeks north-south along the west coast of France on La Vélodyssée, approximately 1,200km. It’s rather long (hey, so is France!) so grab a drink and snacks.

The outward journey

It was two trains from home to Plymouth for an overnight ferry to Roscoff to get to the start. Taking a bike on a train is not my favourite thing, but it went remarkably smoothly. I wasn’t sure where to go as I approached the ferry terminal but thankfully there was a man directing everyone.

“Am I a pedestrian or a vehicle?”

“Vehicle! You’ve got wheels,” grinned the attendant.

I was directed to the shortest of queues for check in and then wheeled past the lanes of cars, being shepherded through security (who laughed at my little penknife) into the special bike lane. We then boarded almost immediately, leaving what I didn’t need on my bike to be strapped against the other dozen or so bikes.

Day 1: Roscoff to Carhaix

79km

After a too-short night’s sleep on the ferry, I rejoined the other cyclists to roll onto the shore and queue for passport control. A French family touring had a potty bungeed to the top of their tent. I am always impressed by those who travel with small children.

I set off from the port at 8.30am and quickly found the first Vélodyssée sign. It turned out to be a very rocky short cut between two perfectly decent roads. After that it was on some beautifully quiet and smooth lanes along the coast with hazy islands out to sea.

I leapfrogged one of the cyclists from the ferry for a while. He was following an old guide book which was at odds with the signposts on the road and he kept stopping to make route decisions.

Freewheeling downhill to an estuary the road suddenly disintegrated around the corner and I was thankful for my hydraulic brakes. I walked across the particularly rocky section of the beach then remounted to climb steeply back up to the main road.

Morlaix was a pretty town and I remember thinking I should stop and get some lunch for later, but continued past the possible stops. It was a pretty big climb for a loaded bike out of the town and in the beating sun I was soon sweating ferociously.

The route joined the voies vertes – green ways, for non motor vehicles only. The terrain varied but was mostly compacted light gravel. There were a lot of walkers, runners and heavily laden cyclists on the wooded trail, so a morning of “bonjour!”s.

I stopped for a snack break at an old station with picnic benches.

Looking at the map I could see the route wiggle the long way round to Carhaix. I could also see the smooth and quiet D679 went to Carhaix, through a little village where there might be ice creams.

Joining the road, I stopped when I saw a sign outside a cafe with a bike drawn on it and SNACKS. Ice cream in hand, I sat under the umbrella shade. The village was deserted apart from this cafe blasting out songs including “It’s raining men” and “YMCA”.

Ice cream demolished, the owner came out and asked what else I wanted to eat. Seeing my perplexed face he reeled off some dishes. My eyes lit up at “Frites”, and he thought chips and vegetables were a normal meal so that’s what I ended up with, including a mozzarella salad starter. Followed by cheese and bread. And a coffee. I could get used to this touring malarkey…

The D769 was indeed a lovely road and I ended up at the edge of Carhaix very quickly. My campsite was on the western side so I peeled off the route up a steep hill to cut across.

The campsite was the Carhaix municipal campsite, and municipal campsites are a cyclist’s friend. €6 for a decent pitch, showers, toilets, and this one had a little restaurant too. In the last week of August the campsite was half empty, and cycle tourers made up a decent share of the tents.

Day 2: Carhaix to Rohan

112km

I packed up and rode out of the campsite just after 8am, with a boulangerie in mind. I drooled over the counter for a minute and came away with a baguette and some pastries. The route wiggled about the town to do a near U-turn when it joined the Brest-Nantes canal so I cut across on a minor D road.

I stopped for breakfast besides the canal: a pain au raisin the size of my head. Most of the day was on the canal, with varying terrain. Largely it was light compacted gravel but there were a few rocky and bumpy stretches that had me contemplating finding a road instead.

I cycled past 112 lochs over the course of the day. Most of them had a cute little loch house next to them which ranged from being boarded up to having a little cafe. One seemed to be setting up for some kind of party and a car was blocking the towpath. As I got off to walk around, I passed a woman sat at a stall laden with pots of jam.

“Oh, puis-je acheter la confiture?” She grinned and responded affirmatively, and I wheeled away with a little jar of strawberry jam. That would go with the baguette for lunch.

Since yesterday afternoon a clicking noise when I pedalled had been driving me slowly mad. After consulting the Internet, and then a WhatsApp group of bike mechanic friends (handy to have) I diverted slightly into Pontivvy gambling whether a bike shop would have a workshop.

I would definitely recommend the Bike+ in Pontivvy! My French is a little lacking in bike terms but the young mechanic spoke some English, so we communicated reasonably well. He rode my dusty and laden bike around the car park to replicate the noise.

“Je pense que c’est les pédales,” he mused on return.

“Oh, pas le, uh, bottom bracket?”

He grinned and then after I removed my panniers put the bike in a stand and swapped the pedals for different ones. No clicking! He greased, oiled and tightened mine back on. I tested it in the car park and it was blissfully silent. He wouldn’t take payment, and a couple of onlookers in the shop wished me well on my journey.

Happier now that I wasn’t worrying about my bike falling apart, I grabbed a few things from a minimart on the way out of town.

It was mid afternoon and 32c. I wondered whether I should put more sun cream on but I was so dusty from the canal gravel that I would just be smearing dirt around. I was beginning to think that the Brest-Nantes canal was slightly magical – whenever I thought about having a rest out of the sun, a picnic table under some trees would appear.

Eventually I arrived into Rohan, and got a pitch at the municipal campsite next to the canal.

Tomorrow was Sunday and I wasn’t sure how much would be open, so I bought some dinner and supplies from the little supermarket, and I ate on a picnic bench overlooking the river.

Day 3: Rohan to Guenrouet

111km

Today was the only day of the trip that I cooked porridge for breakfast on my little stove. I’ve happily eaten porridge every day on several long trips before, but when fresh pastries are so readily available it seemed foolishy stubborn to not make the most of it.

The forecast was for another scorcher, but I started the morning in heavy fog which left water droplets on my eyelashes. This section of the canal was smooth tarmac and I rolled into a misty Josselin for a picnic brunch of baguette and boursin. I would consume a lot of baguette and boursin on this trip.

The canal was full of wildlife and today I was accompanied by 3 kingfishers darting alongside me at separate points.

I diverted off the canal onto small country lanes and vertes voies to get to a very pretty Malestroit for a late lunch – places were open on a Sunday after all. One crêpe turned into 2 galettes, a crêpe and a coffee. Quel dommage.

Redon was where I had nominally planned to get to today but I arrived early afternoon and decided to carry on, spying a decent looking campsite at the next town. Frustratingly, after Redon the lovely smooth canal path changed to rough gravel for the next 20km so my speed took a sharp dive.

I was so dusty from the path and so sweaty from the afternoon sun. The two combined to form a slick paste on my shins and arms. Lovely.

The campsite was on a hill but I found a quiet, flat pitch with a picnic table. I’d bought an ice lolly from reception when checking in that I’d finished before getting back to my bike.

Day 4: Guenrouet to Le Migron

107km

I hadn’t slept well so snoozed until 8am, despite knowing that would mean I’d be riding more in the afternoon heat. I packed up and left without eating.

I decided to make my own way on a series of quiet lanes rather than the rough towpath for the next section. Even the small hills saw me slow to a crawl with my loaded bike, but I wasn’t in a rush. I stopped at a Lidl in Blain to stock up on pastries, coffee and a baguette that I lashed to the top of my tent on my pannier rack.

From Blain I rejoined the canal which had returned to a semi solid surface, and was resolutely flat. Just as I was running low on water I passed a loch house with a water tap outside and a toilet and shower inside, along with a bike pump. There were a lot of cycle tourers on the canal, most with a 2 by 2 front and rear pannier set up (Ortlieb the clear favourite) and a handlebar bag.

Over the last few days I had cycled past 183 lochs on the Brest-Nantes canal, counting them down as I went. The route left the canal at loch number 2, I felt cheated! But not enough to hunt down loch number 1.

To get to Nantes I followed the Eurovelo signs along some very nice bike paths, separated from the busy roads. The bike paths also had right of way over crossings with roads, which the drivers actually stopped for (this took me a bit of getting used to!).

There’s not a lot of camping around Nantes, and I decided to continue on the Velodyssee rather than ride 10km east to a campsite I’d originally planned, and have to ride it back again tomorrow. The eurovelo signs disappeared in Nantes so I wiggled my way through little streets and over bridges before swinging west along the edge of the estuary. I was happy to be out of the chaos of the city and back on quiet lanes.

After a very long and hot straight I pitched up at the campsite in Migron. I lingered in the shower, delighting at being clean again.

I had a beer at the campsite restaurant and made friends with a cat.

“He’s called Migron,” said the owner. “So is the dog,” he added, nodding to the hyperactive fur-ball that was running around the chairs. “But when I call for Migron… only the dog comes.”

Day 5: Le Migron to Les Blouets

42km

I felt like a short day today, so that was what I did. Which is the beautiful freedom of camping, being able to be flexible each day. I didn’t leave until gone 10am, after chatting to a father and son cycling la Loire, packing up their tent.

Quiet lanes took me to Paimboeuf where I pulled in to a boulangerie, taking breakfast on the quayside of la Loire, watching the sun burn through the morning fog.

The trail followed the estuary bank, with fishing nets lined up on rafters over the low tide. A humming in the background grew louder, and the estuary bridge soon loomed out of the fog.

I met the sea at Brevin! The quiet roads carried on to St Michael Chef-Chef where I paused for an ice cream in the courtyard (and shade) of a church.

Les Blouets campsite let me check in early so after rinsing my cycling clothes and hanging them out, I headed to the pool for a relaxed afternoon.

Day 6: Les Blouets to St Hilaire de Riez

91km

I almost didn’t make it to Pornic, the first town today, as I missed a turning and cycled up a suspiciously large hill before realising my mistake. I eventually found breakfast in the port, highlighted by the discovery of the maxi pain au chocolat. Where has this been hiding all my life?

The route followed quiet roads through the suburbs and then onto a bike lane that cut through out to the countryside. Lanes gave way to gravel tracks weaving through the marshes by the sea front. I rode through small industrial mussel farm villages, stopping for tractors laden with pots and nets.

The Passage du Gois road is underwater except for a couple of hours around low tide. It was just at the edge of that window, but people were still crossing and out collecting mussels. After a few moments trying to make heads or tails of the information boards, I headed out. It was a very strange situation, riding with the rising sea either side. Some sections of the road I had to go really slowly as the tarmac had been eroded to leave large uneven cobbles. After a while I realised I hadn’t been overtaken for a while and figured they must have closed a barrier. Better crack on…

I paused for a snack on the other side. When I got going again the trail rose up on an embankment following the edge of the island. I looked back at the Passage du Gois and could see the markers of the road submerged.

To get back to the mainland it was up over a large bridge, which afforded views over the massive pine forest that I was about to enter. The light gravel trail wound its way through the pine trees down to St Jean de Monts and St Hilaire de Riez, large seaside resorts. Campsites were every few 100m but I had to go to a couple before finding one that wouldn’t charge me €30 to camp. A lot of campsites had a discount rate for cyclists, but these were harder to come by in the touristy areas.

My campsite was so close to the beach that my pitch was actually just sand. I had to dig a little to reach more solid substance that my pegs would latch to. It was a beautiful spot though and I ate dinner on the beach watching the sun set over the Atlantic.

Day 7: St Hilaire de Riez to Jard Sur Mer

70km

I stopped at the first boulangerie I came across and ate my croissant and pain au chocolat fresh out of the oven overlooking the sea front. Another beautiful day.

Today’s bike lanes were a delight, with a smooth surface, physically segregated from the road, the same size as the road for vehicles, good signage, and gorgeous views.

Les Sables-d’Olonne was another busy seaside town, jarring against my quiet morning on the coastal paths. I rolled along the bike path passing restaurant after restaurant before stopping at one at random. My lunch of galette complète was bigger than my face. Washed down with an espresso, of course.

The Vélodyssée soon left the town and I pedaled through marshes and meadows under the afternoon sun. Fields and fields of sunflowers and wheat.

After getting a little lost in Jard sur Mers one-way streets, I found the campsite and booked in for two nights. Rest day tomorrow! My legs were pretty okay but my bum was a bit sore, plus the town was really pretty.

I needed to wash all of my clothes, so I ended up doing laundry in my bikini. This raised no eyebrows whatsoever.

Rest day

Typical rest day activities – eating, reading, lounging. One thing I regretted not bringing on the trip was my kindle, using the app on my phone instead, which doesn’t work great under the sun. I bought a copy of the second book in the Artemis Fowl series (about the standard of my french!) and made a decent inroads to it whilst sitting on the beach.

Day 8 Jard sur Mer to a field near Yves

121km

I had a long day planned so I was gone by 8am, but my sleep had been interrupted by a helicopter landing next to the campsite at 3am. I looked on google maps in the morning and couldn’t work out where it could have landed in amongst the pine trees. Pretty sure I didn’t dream it.

I stopped at a bakery on the way out of town to get 3 pastries and a little baguette for lunch. About half an hour later I came across some picnic tables at the edge of a forest, so pulled over for breakfast.

Another delightful morning on light gravel trails through pine forests. I’d been enjoying a tailwind on the quiet lanes by the sea but the trail swung north for a while to get around a bay. I passed below a village raised up on an island of cliffs overlooking the flat plains.

An elderly man from South Africa that I’d seen earlier came cycling back towards me. He was trying to find the path but the signs went a different direction to his GPS route. He said he’d seen me a few days ago.

“Oh are you riding the Vélodyssée?”

“Eh, I don’t know what I’m doing!” He’d started in Amsterdam and was planning on spending a few days in Rochelle then getting the train home from Bordeaux.

He went back to try and find the path that his GPS said should be there, and I carried on following the signs which took me off the canal path onto small roads, before rejoining the canal side. I didn’t see the man again so was left wondering if he made it through or whether he gave in and followed the signs behind me.

La Rochelle was pretty but also pretty busy and I didn’t linger. I stopped for coffee and ice cream on a beach the other side, watching kitesurfers catching waves and air just offshore.

I stocked up on supplies at a supermarket before detouring off the trail to a little campsite which was basically a field in the middle of nowhere. It was so calm and peaceful.

Day 9: Yves to Rayon

82km

Rain woke me up in the morning so I rolled over and went back to sleep. I checked the forecast and it didn’t look like it would stop any time soon, so I packed up and got going. Packing up camp in the rain is much less fun than in the sun.

It was a bit of a dreary morning in the light but persistent rain, the bike path sticking next to big roads most of the way to Rochefort. The neon lights of a tabac called to me and I dived inside for a coffee to dry off. Many were drinking beer already.

I did a quick search on maps and rode to the end of the road for breakfast from a boulangerie – more coffee and very nice pastries. A guy came up to me as the rain eased and asked where I was going.

“Espagne…”

“Oh, sur la Velodyssee?”

“Ah, tu connais?” We chatted for a while and it turned out he had ridden most of the route more than once. He said the next section wasn’t great, which was the same as what Serge, from last night’s campsite, had said, so I followed their advice and caught the river taxi south instead.

I pressed the button “Appeler bateau” which signalled to the boat on the other side of the river. An old couple with bikes turned up too as he was coming across. By the time we disembarked it had stopped raining altogether.

I followed my nose around quiet lanes and where it looked on the map like I was going to have to go on quite a large road, it turned out to be lovely and quiet. The road shrank to a single lane weaving through the marshes without any traffic. I saw two beavers near to the road, the first time I’d seen any!

I rejoined the route in Marennes and it was back into the forest on smooth cycle track.

My campsite was on the sea front and I grabbed an ice cream on my way out, although it turned out they were buy one get one free, so I left with two ice creams. Another beautiful sunset over the Atlantic, and a new moon made for wonderful stargazing.

Day 10: Royan to Carcans

80km

I followed the coastal bike path into Royan, stopping when I smelled a boulangerie. I ate my haul on the ferry over to La Pointe. There were more bikes than cars on the ferry. I was the last cyclist to disembark as I’d ran back up to the deck to grab my left behind sunglasses. This meant I overtook a train of cyclists on the cycle track on leaving the port.

It was a ribbon of tarmac through the pine forest alongside the coast, just for bikes. Sometimes there were signs warning of the bad surface ahead, emerging roots which would be sprayed neon green. It was still a smoother surface than any bike path I’ve been on in the UK.

I found a little bike rental shack which also sold spare parts and I picked up some oil for my chain – which had been squeaking since yesterday’s rain.

There were some ridiculously long straight flats where the path followed a road through gaps in the forest. I measured one as a 10km straight. I started singing to myself.

The straights turned into a rolling road through the forest, with fire breaks at regular intervals casting gaps to the sea. The grid system seemed to work though, as every now and then a square would be depleted, but adjacent to healthy forest.

Carcans consisted mostly of a huge campsite of surfers in the pines, and a couple of restaurants to feed the surfers. My pitch was entirely sand again. Another beautiful sunset on the beach.

Day 11: Carcans to Dune du Pilat

97km

The pitches were pretty small and open so I ended up getting up early with the surfers out to catch some morning waves. I picked up breakfast from the bakery then headed back up the hill out of town.

I chose the road rather than the velo route, and it may well be one of my favourite roads. With the rising sun through the pine trees, the smooth tarmac, gentle rolling hills and no traffic, it was sublime.

I joined the forest bike road at Lacanau which sent me on a mini roller coaster of small ups and downs. One of the things I loved about the wonderful bike infrastructure that these towns had was seeing how many different types of users it enabled. There was everyone from lycra’d roadies to chino and beret wearers with baguettes in their baskets.

Grabbing some fresh boursin from a Super U, I ate an early lunch on a picnic table next to a little chapel overlooking Arcachon Bay. There is a ferry that could across for you, but I followed the route around the bay on greenways.

Tonight’s campsite was at the bottom of the largest sand dune in Europe. Another all-sand pitch! Several ladders had been placed at the bottom of the dune then it was a case of “two steps forward one step sliding down” to reach the top in a sweaty, sandy mess.

The view from the top was incredible, looking down on the seemingly infinite pine forest that I’d been cycling through, and would continue to cycle through.

Lots of people climbed the dune to watch the sunset, which was stunning.

Day 12: Dune du Pilat to Messanges

128km

A morning of roadside bike paths and forest lanes. I passed 5 signs warning of a “deformed” surface ahead, and it was indeed bumpy but I took the descents slow (it goes without saying that I took the ascents slow). Rejoining the road, the blue opal lake at the bottom of the hill sparkled in the morning sun.

Some very long straights. More singing. For some reason the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” often gets into my head when solo walking or cycling. I only ever remember the chorus, and probably incorrectly.

I stopped several times in the afternoon at little villages on the coast to break up the endless forest trail. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – kinder chocolate. I did have to empty the beach out of my shoes afterwards though as the shop was actually on the beach.

I’d known today was going to be a lot of riding south on the trail through the pines, but it seemed to be going on forever. And then, it stopped. Hmm. I checked the map and realised I had missed a turning east to Berguin. I didn’t really have any rules on this trip, but something felt wrong about riding back north upon myself.

After some quick route planning and campsite searching, I carried on south on a fairly quiet road to Montel then rejoined the voies vertes of the Vélodyssée to Messanges for a campsite.

Tomorrow, Spain!

Day 13: Messanges to Spain

108km

I picked up breakfast from the campsite but ate it with a coffee from a patisserie at the next town. More lovely bike paths and voies vertes.

From Bayonne the trail found some actual hills (and I could see the Pyrenees!) and from Biarritz the route went through suburbia all the way to Spain. The positioning of signage after junctions saw me twice descend down to the sea only to realise my mistake and crawl back up on top of the cliffs.

Bike paths had taken me 1,200km across France but disappeared for the last 10km to Spain. The road into Hendaye was horrible with lots of fast traffic and barely a hard shoulder. What a view though!

I found the campsite and pitched my tent, then continued my journey around Hendaye’s harbour with a much lighter bike. Something I was very thankful for when the route was blocked and I had to carry my bike up a long set of steps. I never did find the actual end of the route, but road over the bridge into Spain and ordered a coffee at the first cafe I saw.

The coffee was terrible, but I didn’t care. I’d cycled the length of France.

The return journey

It was a very long day, but I managed to get home from Hendaye in about 15 hours and 3 trains.

I got up before 6am to leave plenty of time to catch my TGV from Hendaye, which thankfully was there 20 mins before leaving, but unhelpfully did not have any bike signs on the outside of the carriages. By the time I’d figured where I was meant to be, a little old Spanish lady had put her huge suitcases in the way. After much huffing and puffing we came to an agreement. At the next stop, a German and his recumbent bike got on, to which the Spanish lady was not amused. Eventually she conceded to her husband’s implores of moving her luggage to the actual luggage storage halfway down the carriage, and the bikes were strapped in their proper place with their own seatbelt.

I rode across Paris between Montparnesse and Gare du Nord which frankly was terrifying. I grabbed a quick lunch with a friend and we went on the adventure of figuring out where to drop off my bike for the Eurostar (you get to the end of a platform, leave the station, go into an industrial estate and into a little office).

I then had a little soirée with french customs, who did not take so kindly to me trying to bring a gas canister on the train.

Reunited with my bike in London, it was time for a terrifying ride to Marylebone station, where as it was a weekday I had to wait an hour until bikes were allowed on trains.

And then finally, a ride across Oxford home – cycling across 4 cities in one day.

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