A few years ago, two of our wonderful guides, Hannah Reynolds and John Walsh, helped create a journey through France, with one goal in mind: to give roadies the best possible experience! Today this is now our epic 1000-mile cycling holiday from St Malo to Nice in France, a route incredibly popular with many Skedaddlers. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also created a beautiful guide to read more about the route, known simply as France en Velo. Here, Hannah gives us a little taste of the 1,000 mile-experience, a fantastic chance to hear from the author and pioneering guide herself…
The journey in a nutshell
Starting in the fortified town of St Malo, on the rocky coastline of Brittany, and finishing in Nice by the sparkling blue of the Cote d’Azur, this iconic journey of nearly 1000 miles takes you through France from the Channel to the Med. The longest journey starts with a single step, and an entire country can be covered just one pedal stroke at a time. It doesn’t matter if it takes you ten days, two or three weeks. Every time I arrive in Nice having guided a group all the way from St Malo, there is a sense of euphoria and satisfaction that we have covered such a long distance. Taking time to re-wind the route in my mind and trace a finger along the map, it is amazing to think back to the changes in landscape, the food we have eaten and wine we have drunk.
The best way is by bike
Travelling by bike is a perfect way to fully understand a country and what I love about St Malo to Nice is that your bike provides the perfect speed of transport. It allows you to cover significant distance each day, but at a pace that allows you to fully absorb the changes in the sights, smells and sounds around you.
You learn the terrain and geography through your legs and your senses in a way you can’t by train or car. This is most apparent on the day we climb up to the summit of the Col du Mas. The morning starts as we leave Mende, the highest overnight stop of the trip and begin following the course of the Lot River to its source. Here the air is cool as we climb very gently to just over 1000m. Around us there are pine forests and alpine style cattle grazing, even a ski station, which gets occasional winter use.
After coffee we descend, then climb again from Villefort, this time a much smaller col. The Col du Mas de l’Ayre is shaded by dense chestnut woods with only occasional breaks in the trees. Beginning the descent from the top of the Col du Mas de l’Ayre you can occasionally glimpse Mont Ventoux and Provence laid out beneath you.
As you descend the cool mountain air does battle with the warm air of the Ardeche until suddenly as you near the bottom the wafts of warm air becomes waves and it feels that someone has turned the heating on. That is the moment you know you have arrived in the south. Not all changes in terrain and temperature are as dramatic. Sometimes the changes are subtle and it is only in looking back at the end of the day that you realise how gradually the landscape has shifted.
Food, glorious food!
One good indicator of the changing terrain is the food. When on the St Malo to Nice route you can gauge where you are in the ride based on the food we eat at picnic stops. On the first day I always try to find a Far Breton, a custardy cake with large sticky prunes in it that you can only find in Brittany. In Fougeres on the second day we will look out for the creamy patisserie called a Paris-Brest-Paris after the 1200km cycle race.
As we head further south we pass through areas famed for their meat, for their cheese and of course in the Rhone valley for their wines. The crops of the fields and vineyards that have been our scenery for the day are reflected back to us on our plates each evening. If you pick the Menu du Jour each day you can trace your journey as clearly in the meals you have eaten as the miles you have ridden.
France is the spiritual home of cycling. From the invention of pneumatic tyres to the first and greatest professional race in the world, Le Tour de France, cycling is deeply imbedded in French culture. Cyclists are treated with huge respect.
Your bicycle and your journey will open up many conversations, often in surprising quarters, the surly bar tender can suddenly erupt into smiles and questions once you reveal you have cycled to his bar all the way from St Malo! Your bike will be treated as an honored guest. In Chateauneuf-du-Pape we have even been invited to store our bikes in a wine cellar amongst the finest vintages!
Criss-crossing with routes of many pro races, including Le Tour de France, you are literally riding in the wheel tracks of the pros. In many places the graffiti and names of riders are still clear on the tarmac. If you wish (and weather conditions permit) you can ride Le Geant de Provence, Mont Ventoux, from our overnight stop in Salut. A mountain that is iconic in its own right and has been the site of many legendry battles, such as Froome’s triumphant finish on the summit in the 2013 Tour de France.
Mont Ventoux is also a place of pilgrimage for British bike riders as it is here that the legendry Tom Simpson died. Simpson was World Champion in 1965 and hugely popular with the public. He became British Sports Personality of the Year, a feat yet to be repeated by a bike rider. This year is the 50th anniversary of his death, his memorial part way up the ascent, is always covered with cycling caps, water bottles and other memorabilia as cyclists pay their respects. Mont Ventoux is also dramatic when admired from a distance, may be with a Pastis or Rose in hand as you watch the locals play boules on the terrace that overlooks the mountain.
And then do it all over again
Some people ask us as guides if we still enjoy doing a route that we have ridden many times before. With St-Malo to Nice the answer is a resounding yes! While some parts become familiar and looked forward to, the obligatory evening swim under Pont d’arc in the Ardeche for example, there are new experiences and insights every time. For us, as guides, it is also fun to keep back some of the surprises of the days ride so that we can see the excitement and enthusiasm from the group as they discover it for themselves. With so much variety it is a fresh experience every time.
Conquer St Malo to Nice for yourself…
Our iconic journey through France can be cycled in a number of ways to give you the best possible road cycling experience in France. Each tour comes complete with our expert guides to help you along the way, as well as our world famous picnics too! Learn more about our guided cycling holiday ‘St-Malo to Nice’ by clicking here.
Get a copy of France en Velo…
The Ultimate Cycle Journey from Channel to Med – St-Malo to Nice by Hannah Reynolds and John Walsh is available from www.franceenvelo.cc.