A Cyclist's Dream: Top French Locations
In the epic wake of Le Tour de France, the spirit of cycling will blaze across Europe as the increasingly popular sport continues to gain momentum. To honour such a noble event and recognise the impact that cycling has, we’ve chosen to take a look at some of France’s best locations for you to follow in the tyre tracks of cycling greats! Whether taking it easy on a meandering path, or tearing into an uphill climb, we hope you’ll find a route that suits your cycling style.
1. Mont Ventoux, Provence
First off, let’s take a look at one of the most iconic locations for cycling enthusiasts. With a shrine to British cycling hero and European legend, Tommy Simpson, it’s no surprise that Mont Ventoux in Provence is heralded as one of the most demanding ascents of Le Tour de France, which has climbed the mountain on fifteen occasions since 1951.
"MontVentouxDawn" by JohnnyOneSpeed - Own work. Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
‘Venteux’ translates into English as ‘windy’, so it’s understandable that the Mountain is known for its strong winds – conditions you should be aware of if you attempt the climb! Thankfully, one of the three access routes up the mountain is more sheltered than the others, yet it is no less difficult an ascent. This approach from north western Malaucène may protect you from blustery mistral crosswinds, but is comparatively similar to the southern ascent from Bédoin. This is the most famous and gruelling of climbs, averaging an incline of 7.43% on the road to the summit.
"Mont Ventoux 090927" by muneaki - Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
If you’re looking for a less painful route up the mountain, approach from Sault in the east. On reaching the summit’s ‘Lunar Landscape’, the climb is identical to the Bédoin climb, but the invigorating views are well worth the hard work, and don’t let the gales of more than 90kmph stop you from reaching the Tommy Simpson memorial. A man who paved the way for a British cycling tradition, this site immortalises the memory of the well regarded professional cyclist in an atmospheric and ethereal environment.
"Tom Simpson memorial, 29 December 2006 (cropped)" by Peter from Salisbury, UK - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
2. Col du Tourmalet, Hautes-Pyrénées
Another Tour de France favourite is Col du Tourmalet. As the highest road in the central Pyrenees, it’s become one of the most famous locations for a Tour de France ascent, and has a total of 82 Tour visits under its belt. With an average incline of 7.4%, rising to 10.2% towards the summit, the endurance required to master the western route of 19km from Luz-Saint-Sauveur is almost unfathomable. However, with beautifully stunning views from the summit, it’s understandable what makes the climb so worthwhile.
"Col tourmalet 01". Licensed under CC BY SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
The story behind the Pyrenees’ introduction to the Tour highlights the intense condition that cyclists have historically had to endure when attempting the Tourmalet climb. The first organiser of the Tour de France was Henri Desgrange, but it was his colleague, Alphonse Steinès, who was sent out to assess the environment of Tourmalet.
Steinés’ investigation involved their car failing after 16km. This resulted in him walking the remainder of his journey, where he slipped on the icy road and even fell into a stream. Thankfully, he was rescued by one of the many search parties that had been sent out to find him, and while he barely made it through the harsh weather conditions, Steinès eventually persuaded Desgrange to include the Pyrenees in Le Tour de France. The ultimate telegram he sent Desgrange read: "Crossed Tourmalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly feasible."
The first rider to take to the slopes in 1910 was Octave Lapize, who succeeded in taking the Yellow Jersey in Paris. The achievement is commemorated by an impressive statue on the col, inspiring you to strive to the efforts of past cyclists.
"Col du Tourmalet 090929" by muneaki - Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
3. Paris – Roubaix
Not the most comfortable of routes, but iconic nonetheless, the famed cobbles of Paris to Roubaix are a magnet for cycling enthusiasts. Cycling in the shadows of professionals, the 260km route takes you from Compiègne, north of its historical beginnings in Paris (1896 – 1967). It’s started here since 1968, with the first cobbles after 100km, stretching up to Roubaix near Belgium, well known for time trialling and sprint races, thanks to its flatter terrain. The race concludes on 750m of smooth concrete in the large outdoor Roubaix velodrome.
Historically notorious for focussing on the traditionally cobbled roads of France, or “pavé”, the route takes the mountainous edge out of cycling, but brings in an uneven surface for riders to endure. One of the race’s most significant cobbled sections is the Carrefour de l'Arbre, found by Alain Bernard, who was President of 'Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix' in 2007.
Previously, Mayors of the 1970s would shy away from encouraging the race to run through their towns, spending money on road resurfacing to prevent the race returning. However, by 2007, Bernard reports that towns were proud to host the race, contacting him to request it take part on their cobbles. As more and more cobbles are included, the character of the race builds, for example, competitors of 2005 had to race over cobbles of 54.7km!
"Route pavée crt 2002" by F Lamiot - F Lamiot (Own work). Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
During the four years of World War I, many of the northern pavé cobbles were lost due to trench warfare and heavy shelling. By 1919, this left a sight of shocking destruction, described as “The Hell of The North” by publications at the time. Since then, the Amis de Paris–Roubaix has spent €10-15,000 a year on restoring cobbled roads, with continual development of historic routes, however many spectators have been known to lift cobbles after the race, to take as souvenirs!
One stone that spectators hopefully shouldn’t be able to remove is the Cobblestone Emblem of Paris-Roubaix, which stands in front of the Roubaix Velodrome. Placed by 'Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix' and 'La Ville de Roubaix' as a beautiful and iconic monument to mark the 100th Paris-Roubaix cycling race that took place in 2002.
"Pavé, 100ème Paris-Roubaix.001" by Nicolas von Kospoth (Triggerhappy) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Hopefully, the stories behind each of these exceptional locations will encourage you to seek out the historic landmarks and routes associated with these iconic races. However, if you don’t feel like challenging yourself on these French routes in the style of endurance and sprint professionals alike, there’s always closer to home.
There are some truly stunning spots for cycling across the UK, such as the Yorkshire Dales – why else would Le Tour’s Grand Départ have started in Leeds this year?! If you do enjoy cycling in Europe but high intensity routes aren’t your thing, check out Wanderlust’s Where to Cycle in European Cities!
Author: Paul Quigley
1 September 2014