The best cycling routes along the Loire River
Cycling, a different way of discovering the Loire River!
Some Brits, when thinking of our closest continental neighbours, may conjure up images of impolite, baguette-wielding fashion obsessed Parisians who seem to spend more time in their local cafes than dealing with the rigours of life.
Stereotypes aside, this is a shame as there is so much more to France than its capital.
Many wonders can be found by simply getting out of the cities armed only with a backpack, a map and a rented bicycle.
La Loire à Vélo is a cycling trail stretching almost 500 miles from the western coast to heartland France.
It offers tourists one of the most diverse and interesting cycling routes in the whole of Europe.
Spoiled between spectacular mountain scenery, endless vineyards and stunning historical architecture, it’s a great place to unwind with your better half.
Or, it can just be an active getaway with the family!
Below, I have shared some highlights of the route starting in the newly declared rural Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region.
It starts in Goudet, nearby Mont Gerbier des Joncs, the source of the river in the Massif Central and ends at Bren-le-Pin near the Atlantic.
In terms of equipment, the route is never extreme in any off-road sense.
A good comfortable touring bike – or indeed anything that you can guarantee to be comfortable on – is all you need.
Cycling from Goudet to Le Puy en Velay
The route from Goudet to Le Puy en Velay is one of the less rugged rides along the river, although the first part is steep in places.
There were plans to turn a section of this route between Chadron and Solignac-sur-Loire into a reservoir.
However, as of writing, it remains unspoiled.
Cycling this stretch of the Loire will bring you across Le Puy en Velay.
This place is like no other in France, due to the fact that it is built upon an inactive volcano.
As a result, some of its roads and houses are made from local quarry stone coloured ochre, cream and purple.
Not only are they unique, but also very beautiful!
Atop Mont Anis you’ll find a 4th century cathedral, an unmistakable sight with its huge steps and quirky zebra striped doors.
Cycling from Le Puy en Velay to Sancerre
This is one of the more demanding cycling routes along the Loire.
In fact, leaving Le Puy en Velay in the Auvergne region can be pretty testing – especially at rush hour.
As I found out, the road out has multiple lanes; I therefore recommend dismounting at some junctions.
If in doubt, look for signs to Retournac and Vorey.
That said, any initial aggravation won’t last long!
You’ll be delighted to see just how quickly this busy road transforms into more than a quiet country lane.
The mighty Chateau de Lavoûte-Polignac, seemingly built from the rock face itself, dominates this section of the river.
It is one of the many majestic chateaux of the Loire Valley that can be found dotted along this region of France.
However, unless you have a particular affiliation for the more gruesome aspects of French history, there is little point in taking the trip to the top.
Your time would be better spent cycling on downstream in order to investigate the historical hamlet of Le Cros or the Lavoûte-sur-Loire commune.
Cycling from Sancerre to Gien
Starting at Sancerre, descend down until you reach the canal and follow it in a northerly direction.
You will find this road to be quiet and flat, as you cycle through the myriad of small villages and picturesque towns.
For a quick fix of 12th century Gothic architecture, take a detour towards the churches in Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire.
You shouldn’t miss the blooming flower beds… they are a sight to behold in summer!
Get back onto the canal path, and ride until you reach just beyond Firmin-sur-Loire.
From there, turn right to cross over the Briare Aqueduct (the longest in Europe) and go through the nearby town of Briare le Canal.
However, I wouldn’t recommend trying to leave Briare by the D952, as it’s an extremely busy road.
Instead, go back over the aqueduct and turn right on to the D951.
This route offers much better views of Gien, a town renowned for its fine pottery or ‘faience’.
Cycling from Gien to Orléans
The route out of Gien initially zips along the southern bank of the Loire.
It then takes a rising detour away from the river to take in the towns of Saint- Gondon and Saint-Florent.
There are some notable climbs along the way.
However, the increasingly broad vistas that go with them make the efforts more than worthwhile.
The route eventually tilts north (and downhill) once more in order to re-join the river at the splendidly named Lion-en-Sullias.
From here it is a pleasantly tranquil roll towards Sully-sur-Loire and its castle.
The river begins to meander after crossing the river at Sully.
The route indeed dutifully sweeps – by turn – first north, then east, then north again to match the rhythm of the river.
The riding here is easy going.
The sun on your back and a fair amount of greenway ensure that there is little to interrupt the happy rhythm of your pedals.
There is indeed every reason to take your cue from the languid pace of the river.
Both are worth spending a moment or two to feast your eyes on.
Likewise, the picturesque town of Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, where the trail once again crosses to the southern side of the river, is a delight.
From here the route runs along the crest of a raised levee.
It gives richly satisfying views across the full width of the valley, as the dramatic skyline of Orleans tantalisingly peeps into and out of view.
Cycling from Orléans to Tours
Orleans, for all its rich medieval history, is today a bustling, thoroughly modern city.
The riding is well-signed and very easy, if not quite as bucolic as elsewhere.
But as you head out of the city’s eastern suburbs, still enjoying the benefits of those raised levees, normal scenic service is quickly resumed.
The confluence of the Loire and the Loiret produces a rich agricultural flatland.
This land has been worked for nearly a thousand years, as the olde worlde charm of small towns like Meung-sur-Loire et Beaugency bears testimony.
There is an unmistakable sense of travelling through time, as the impact of the modern world becomes increasingly evident – nowhere more so than the huge power station at St-Laurent-des-Eaux.
However, a historical mystique is never lost for long.
The Pays des Châteaux, with its famous array castles around Chambord and Blois, means the Loire’s sense of timelessness is never entirely surrendered.
There are alternative, less direct routes through the Pays des Châteaux, should you choose to linger here before setting out through the expansive vineyards of Touraine.
The route to the regional capital Tours is very easy going with a new greenway taking you all the way into the city.
Cycling from Tours to Bouchemaine
Le Jardin de la France, as the area around Tours is known, offers easy, stress-free riding along shared country roads.
Between Rigny-Ussé and Candes-St-Martin, the confluences of the Loire with the Indre and the Vienne offer stunning views and abundant birdlife.
The route then heads into Anjou towards Saumur.
Heading towards the town you have the option to roll along the valley floor greenway.
Alternatively, you can take in more demanding but also more panoramic lanes up and down the valley sides.
From Saumur the route resumes its flat and easy character; it allows you to focus on the stunning local architecture.
You then reach Bouchemaine, site of the Loire’s dramatic confluence with the Maine.
Cycling from Bouchemaine to St-Brevin-les-Pins
Heading towards Anjou, the startling slate quarries around Trélazé, as well as a charming cable ferry across the Authion River, offer memorable riding.
The route through supposedly urban Angers will come as a pleasant surprise.
It then heads west into the wide vineyards of Savennières and Côteaux du Layon, along with the wholly charming villages of Montjean-sur-Loire and St-Florent-le-Vieil .
Béhuard Island and the river crossing at Chalonnes’ island are further highlights on a stretch that again enjoys the views provided by quiet roads atop ancient levees.
You are now entering the Basse-Loire (Lower Loire) in the county of Loire Atlantique.
The sense of the connection with the ocean is increasingly strong.
Nantes represents the largest city on the Loire.
As you might expect from a recent European City of Culture (2013), there are plenty of attractions to be unearthed.
As the route approaches the Loire estuary and your journey’s end-point at St-Brevins-Les Pins, the route is shared by the Velodyssey Cycle route.
It is also marked by some spectacular examples of contemporary artwork.
After 800km of some of the world’s most spectacularly scenic riding, it is easy to think that the end point at St-Brevins-Les Pins represents something of a disappointment.
But that is to overlook the fact that, when there is a bike involved, journeys are almost always more important destinations.
Coordinates and map for Mont Gerbier des Joncs: Lat 44.844444 – Long 4.220000