A tour around Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux

We love Provence. The sun is all but guaranteed, the scenery is fantastic and the food is good. Having previously toured the Luberon on a marked bike route, we were hoping to find another similar route. Unfortunately there isn’t one, at least not an official one.

Mont Ventoux singletrack
A 1500 m singletrack descent – the reward for riding up Mont Ventoux on a mountain bike

Fortunately online route-planning provides a solution. I linked together a number of shorter routes from the Provence cycling website to create a 312 km tour on some of the most promising roads. I settled on a tour of Mont Ventoux, starting and finishing at Camping La Garenne in Bedoin, since we’ve been before and it is one of our favourite campsites. It is larger than we would usually go for, but the tent areas are generally secluded and have excellent views and the site is right in the town.

I hoped to be able to find a route through Avignon, but unfortunately couldn’t work out anything that looked safe to do with kids. We decided instead to go through Orange and Chateauneuf Du Pape.  Riding with young children, I was keen to avoid any busy or any particularly difficult off-road sections, so I used Google Streetview to preview as much of the route as possible. This method is much more reliable for the busy bits than the bumpy farm tracks which the Streetview car hasn’t yet explored, but the route worked out very well in the end.

One caveat for those considering following in our tyre tracks with kids – it is very hilly. We had the equipment to tow both children and it was certainly necessary. With nearly 4000 m climbing in 7 days, this would be a moderately challenging tour even without children.

The route

Riding through vineyards in the Rhone valley
Riding through vineyards in the Rhône valley

The downside of starting in Bedoin and riding anticlockwise is that the first day is a solid climb along the Gorges de la Nesque. As a reward, the scenery is spectacular. The final kick up into Sault is a sting in the tail, and if camping, you will have to continue through and out the other side of the town before you can rest. The campsite is large and generally rocky, but we found a lovely grassy area to pitch our tent.

The ride on the north side of the mountain was all new to us, including a lovely descent along a valley and some beautiful old towns. We camped at Camping de l’Ecluse near Propiac which was fairly busy but an attractive site with a restaurant.

Who needs toys when a stray sunflower will do?

For the next couple of days, as the route descends to and along the Rhone, the climate gets hotter, the settlements more dense and the land dustier. It is also generally flatter. This variety of scenery, despite the relatively short distance ridden, is one of the fun things about this route. In Orange, we took the time to go to see the famous Roman theatre and had a touristy evening wandering around the old town. From the upmarket L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the route heads for the bike path to Apt. This runs parallel to the Luberon tour we’ve previously ridden, and looking over the Luberon mountains in the sunset from the campsite above Apt brought back some good memories. It is worth noting however that the climb out of Apt is extremely steep – if this concerns you, it may be worth looking for another route rather than following my GPS track blindly!

The last day was the best of all, with a beautiful climb over a pass, and then a spectacular descent to Bedoin. A fitting end to an excellent tour.

Provence

Provence lavendar

A touring paradise

Provence really does have it all. The Alps, the Cotes d’Azur, the River Rhone and the Camargue, Mont Ventoux, Roman ruins, timeless villages, Avignon, Marsaille, the Verdon Gorge, van Goch, Cézanne, the food, the wine and of course, the sun.

With all this to choose from, it is difficult to know where to begin. Even in bike touring routes, there are several classic options – for instance the Canal du Midi, or a route following the Rhone. Having now driven through it, the area to the south of the Gardon river would make for some amazing riding. With our one year old daughter in tow (literally), we decided on a simple option – the Luberon loop, which is well marked and mapped along quiet hilly, but not mountainous roads. This takes around a week, and we also decided on a two day ride in the Camargue. On the drive home, I was able to ride up Mont Ventoux as well – it seemed a shame to be able to see it for so long and not ride to the top! If you have the time, there’s some very attractive riding in its foothills as well.

The Luberon

A lovely little tour, achievable for nearly anyone who has the bit of fitness required to get up a few hills: the route encircles the Luberon mountains, but generally does not actually climb them. It is around 240 km long with around 5000 m climbing. We took six days though it could clearly be ridden quicker.

The best site for planning is Veloloisirluberon, which has most of the information you require. The signage on the road is really very good, and this tour could almost be ridden with it alone. Take a map though – we bought the IGN 1:60,000 Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon which has the route marked. Campsites, unfortunately are not marked – they are on the 1:25,000 maps but then you need several.

Some tips and highlights

The route is typically described as starting in Cavaillon, and this is certainly the easiest point to get to by road from the UK. It is one of the larger towns on the route and is very pleasant, as is typical. If you take a car, you’ll probably want to leave it somewhere quieter. We chose Maubec, which has an excellent Camping Municipal and is very attractive town in its own right. The route is signed in both directions – we decided on anti-clockwise as there are side loops that can be added from Forcalquier and Apt. By leaving these to the end, we could see if we had time (and energy) to undertake them. As it turned out, we decided to move on and use the time to ride up Mont Ventoux.
The campsites we stayed at were:

  • Maubec, which was excellent
  • Camping les Argiles, which has a lovely pool and is perfectly pleasant, though there is some traffic noise
  • Camping a la Ferme, near Cucuron which was a new site and in the process of being signed. We found it only because we met the owner’s son en route. The family were very friendly and is really in the middle of nowhere so it almost felt like camping wild to us (we were the only people there). I loved it. Take the Chemin de Galon out of Cucuron and some time after the road turns into a gravel track, it enters some trees before turning back north (by which point it is barely a road, though still marked on Google Maps as such). It is on the northern side of that corner.
  • Volx, which was a pleasant but quite busy camping municipal; situated slightly further up a hill off-route than we’d anticipated at the end of a long day!
  • St Maime, which we would really recommend despite its size and general ‘holiday camp’ feel. The pitches are relatively secluded and there is little else in the area. We had a really good night.
  • Camping a la Ferme, on the D223 just before the D48 junction (Les Gaudins). We passed this, intending to ride into Apt and perhaps do the additional loop from there. It looked so good, we stopped for the night. We weren’t disappointed – the views are spectacular and it is a fitting end to a Luberon trip.

The Camargue

This was interesting – it’s an amazing place, best accessed by horse or bike. The Camargue is the marshy delta of the River Rhone. Rather surprisingly it is essentially a man-managed ecosystem, created in the 19th Century when both branches of the Rhone were dyked and the digue à la mer, (dyke to the sea) was built to reduce flooding. It helped the rice and cereal farmers, and has produced a wildlife haven. You’ll see flamingos, the white Camargue horses, shimmering lagoons and loads of birds, of which there are more than 400 species here. On the other hand, it is pan flat, very hot, and has lots of mosquitos and tourists. Coming from the quiet Luberon, it is a different world, and one to my mind that is not so pleasant! If you have the time though, it is worth a couple of days, and I’d certainly recommend taking enough time that you can do a loop rather than a there and back ride.

We left the car outside the Crin Blanc campsite, which is conveniently situated. There aren’t many options, but this was expensive and the owner refused to give me my passport back so we could leave before the designated 8.30am leaving time. This despite her sitting at the desk with my passport at 8 o’clock. The site itself was large, but clean and with reasonable shade. We intended to leave as early as possible in order to avoid riding with Elsa in the heat of the day. Over the years, we have discovered that we almost always end up riding at noon in the spirit of ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. It is not intentional, just what happens if you don’t rush your morning. It doesn’t bother us particularly, but we did feel that Elsa should probably not sit in a covered trailer in the full heat of the Mediterranean sun.

Our route followed the ‘Route des Figares’, a minor road off the D37 running along the Petit Rhone, rejoining the D37 at Albaron and then taking the ‘Route des Méjanes’, a gravel road along the edge of the lagoon. This was excellent for seeing the wildlife as it had essentially no traffic. Our book suggested it would be a difficult, bumpy ride, but it was fine on slick 32mm tires and with a child-trailer.

We stayed in a very slick hotel in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and found the town surprisingly enjoyable despite the crowds. Staying here allowed us to get an early start on the digue à la mer which was our main concern on this route as it is totally exposed and with no real shade or water. The terrain was similar – there were a few unrideable sandy sections where the beach had blown over the path, but otherwise it was a little bumpy, but easy enough riding. Of course, it is absolutely flat.

The loop can be completed in a variety of ways. With Elsa in mind, we took the shortest, stopping only at the Camargue visitor centre on the east of the lagoon and for a decent lunch in Albaron. It would, however be simple enough to extend the route to include a visit to Arles.

The Western Isles

North Uist camp

A family tour

Our lives had changed (for the better) in September 2009, with the arrival of Elsa. The question over the course of the year naturally arose: how to incorperate a baby into a bicycle trip? There are of course many ways of doing this, for instance basing ourselves somewhere and going on day rides. This may become a necessity as she grows, but we decided that we could take her with us on a tour.

The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, lying to the north-west of Scotland are well known as a chain of islands which lend themselves to cycle touring. They have very little traffic and are fairly flat and are joined by a network of ferry routes allowing for a linear (or circular, if you have the time to cycle the return leg on the busier mainland) tour. The significant disadvantage is the inclement weather which has the habit of blowing in from the north Atlantic. We didn’t care too much for ourselves, but a cold, wet nine-month-old would not make a pleasant travelling companion.

This ruled out the use of a bicycle seat, and she was too small anyway so we decided to get a child-trailer. Our choice, based on price and the requirement for weather-proofing was a Burley Solo. We had to purchase the baby snuggler seat insert as well. Note that Burley, and indeed all other trailer manufacturers insist a child must be over 1 year, and that the baby insert must only be used whilst walking, not cycling. This is largely due to neck strength and the requirement to use a helmet. At this point Elsa could just about walk, and therefore we decided that she should be fine – as indeed she has turned out to be.

Ferry routes

At time of writing, the ferry routes to the Outer Hebrides are Oban to Castlebay and Lochboisdale, Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, Ullapool to Stornaway. The ferries are run by Caledonian MacBrayne and all the info is on their website. It is possible to link Ullapool and Oban by train from Glasgow which would allow for a one-way trip down the whole island chain; we wanted to drive and to see Skye so elected for Uig.

Harris

Our original plan had been to ride from the ferry to the standing stones at Callanish on Lewis, before heading south, which would have seen us cover almost the complete length of the islands. With a small child in tow, however, we decided for a shorter route and simply rode south on the quiet Harris eastern coast road. The ride is gently undulating and takes in dramatic rocky inlets with beautiful views back over the mountains of North Harris (which, if you follow in our tyretracks, you will have deftly avoided cycling over!) By chance, we found the rather wonderful Lickisto Blackhouse campsite: free homemade bread and freshly laid eggs, hot showers and a wild camping feel.

The ferry from Leveburgh connects to the Island of Berneray, passing between the many islands in the Sound of Harris. These ferries really add to the experience of the tour – the routes are spectacular in their own right.

Berneray and North Uist

Whilst it may be tempting to continue south from the ferry terminus on Berneray, via the causeway to North Uist, it is worthwhile backtracking instead to take in the isolated beauty of the island. We camped at the Berneray Crofters Hostel, pitching with a couple of backpackers next to an unrestored stone building. The shelter of the wall was much appreciated, and the views from inside the tent, once again quite lovely. Having Elsa, the ability to wash wash in warm water was much appreciated, and camping outside a hostel was an ideal way of avoiding disturbing others, whilst at the same time having some amenities.

North Uist has a road running in a loop around it. We were planning on taking the ferry back from Lochmaddy to Skye and so opted for the western route whilst travelling south. If you are only doing one direction, this is the road to take since the beaches are quite breathtaking (there is also another road through the mountains, crossing the center of the island, which is likely to be very scenic as well). Another important consideration is provisions. There is a Co-op at Solas which is the only decent sized store until you get to the next one at Creagorry, Southern Benbecula. There is another at Dailburgh, South Uist and one in Castletown, Barra. Of course there are other small stores, though their opening hours are unpredictable, especially on a Sunday.

Having travelled up from London, it was even more striking than we’d expected just how remote and quiet everything is. We had almost no phone signal (T-mobile) at any point on the trip. On a Sunday, there are no newspapers, because the planes don’t fly. We never locked the bikes at any time, and in fact I left my expensive camera on my bike by the roadside whilst going shopping with no concerns that it would be there when we returned.

The beach near Balmartin, before the bird reserve was spectacular, even by Hebridean standards. We were lucky with the weather, but the green machair, the emerald sea and bright white sand, with views over to St Kilda were undoubtedly a highlight of the trip.

Benbecular, South Uist and Eriskay

If we are honest, the main road through Benbecula and South Uist (all of Benbecula in fact!) is something of a disappointment. It is not busy, but it is long and flat and straight. We were lucky to have a tail wind in both directions, but it was only when we got off the road that we really enjoyed our riding. The highlight was undoubtedly the road past Loch Druidibeag to Lochskipport where we camped. The royal yacht Britannia used to bring the Queen on holiday here, and it was easy to see why. An unforgettable camp, which we made on our return leg and completely changed our opinion of South Uist. It is worth looking at the map and noticing the road to the other side of the loch via Locharnan; this would surely be worth exploring too.

We also camped at Howmore Hostel, acceptable, but not amazing and cycled along parts of the beach and coast road, which was tricky to navigate and required a climbing over a few styles when the road came to abrupt end.

Things pick up again to the south. The views past Eriskay to Barra, are typical Hebrides and never failed to impress, despite the weather closing in. There are numerous opportunites for wild camping before and after the causway to Eriskay.

Barra and Vatersay

Barra is reckoned to contain elements of all the Outer Hebridean islands, in one small package. There is certainly an element of truth in this and it is well worth the ferry trip to get there. If you decide to come by plane, things are even more interesting since your runway will be the beach and you flight schedule decided by the tides. We camped wild up by the airport, though it was not as easy as we’d hoped to find a good spot. We were then keen to find a comfortable hotel in Castlebay for some luxury, but were thwarted by the Round Britain Yacht race which was having a stop-over. We stayed in a caravan in the Hostel. If we were to do things again we’d book the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel which has a fantastic location and would make a luxurious stop-over.

Vatersay is the end of the road. The causeway (as with many of the others) has only existed for a few years and this is a remote outpost with only a few houses. Of course, the beaches are whiter than white and the sea crystal clear. We climbed the hill, took in the view and had lunch on the beach before heading back to Castlebay and planning our route back north.

All in all, once you’ve managed to get there, it is hard to go wrong on a Hebridean tour. We got lucky with the weather – you may have rain for a week, but it is more likely to be a heavy shower that blows in and then out again. It would make a great first bike tour, or indeed a great first bike tour with children. The scenery is constantly changing but frequently spectacular and, bar a few exceptions it is pretty flat! Enjoy.