Cycling La Velodyssée (in November!)

In November my girlfriend and I embarked on an adventure by bike down the Atlantic coast of France. We try to avoid flying for climate change reasons and we wanted to extend the outdoorsy feeling of summer for as long as possible. It was our first proper cycling trip and we had a great time!

The trip was inspired by an earlier holiday where we’d spotted an undulating path through sand dunes next to a beach near Royan. It was part of the French section of La Vélodysée, an amazing 1200km route from Roscoff in Brittany to Hendaye on the Spanish border.

Route map courtesy of the very useful website

The Vélodyssée is itself part of the wider EuroVelo network that spans Europe. The French section we did is one of the most developed, with over 70% of the route entirely car-free (other routes on the network have more sections on roads).

To camp or not to camp

Before we left we deliberated a lot about whether to camp.

On one hand we wanted a proper adventure with plenty of room for spontaneity. There are loads of campsites on the route but they are all shut by mid-October. So we looked into wild camping and discovered that whilst not strictly legal, it seems fairly widespread in France.

On the other hand, it was November! Sunset was around 5.30pm, and the night temperature quickly drops, despite usually reaching the high teens (Celsius) in the day. We knew it was unlikely we’d camp more than 50% of the time and all the gear adds a lot of weight.

So in the end we decided to bite the bullet and not camp (this meant we could carry lots of extra luxuries such as a yoga mat!).

Our bikes

We are both regular cyclists in London and our bikes are nothing special. Mine is a basic 8 year-old hybrid of the now-discontinued Revolution range from Edinburgh Bike Cooperative.

I contemplated getting a new bike for the trip. But it’s been regularly serviced, with any components replaced as necessary (is it even the same bike now?), so I concluded that as I didn’t have any fundamental concerns about the frame, it would do the job fine.

I got some extra gears rings added so it now has 24 rather than 8 gears, allowing me to get up hills when carrying a lot of weight. I already had a rear pannier rack, and added a front rack as well, meaning I could carry four bags in total (the front panniers smaller and carrying less weight than the rear so as not to cause balance issues, all Ortleib).

Some of the terrain on the Velodyssée was bumpier than we’d expected (especially the “Voie vertes” greenways). Our hybrid bikes could handle it but road bikes would have been in trouble. We both had Armadillo tires, and miraculously didn’t get a single puncture for the whole trip.

We both took four panniers in total (arguably carrying way too much considering we weren’t camping – we even managed to fit in a yoga mat!). Plus I carried an extra small bag on my handlebars for easy access.

Preparing for departure

The Vélodysée website helpfully breaks the route down into 14 sections, and we guessed that each section (average 80km) would be roughly achievable in a day (in the end it took us 3 weeks in total but the route would definitely be achievable in around 2 weeks with an average-to-good level of fitness, and without the 4-5 rest days we enjoyed).

The website also provides GPS route files that we imported into a custom Googlemap. Before we left used the map to get a feel for how far we might ride each day and to check out the major(ish) towns on the route to understand the kinds of places we might stay.

Despite saying it’s possible to book online, we’d had to call First Great Western to reserve bike spaces from London Paddington to Plymouth, where we were headed to take the overnight ferry to the starting point of Roscoff.

We booked our first night’s accommodation before we left so we had somewhere to aim for, and because we didn’t yet have the confidence to be spontaneous about accommodation planning. From the second day onwards we booked the next day’s accommodation the day before (either on or Airbnb mobile apps), and sometimes on the day itself.

And we’re off

Compared to Plymouth (no offence!) we were pleasantly surprised at how lovely Roscoff was, and we started with a lovely breakfast in the sun.

Despite it being November we often ate outside in comfort

We set off by checking the map we’d loaded onto our phones, and were pleased to discover that the route was soon very well signposted, something that was to continue throughout the trip.

Signs like this were everywhere along the route in both urban and rural locations, and became our trusty guide

We’d been worried about getting cold and wet (most people go cycling in summer!) but there were only a couple of days on the whole trip when we really felt the weather. We usually wore leggings with cycling shorts over the top, with two or three layers (including a Merino wool base layer) on our top half (including down jackets and waterproofs when necessary).

How we used technology

After some trial-and-error in the first few days, this was our mapping and tracking setup:

  • Before we left we loaded the GPS route loaded onto a custom GoogleMap (see Preparing for Departure above)
  • When we set off each day we navigated to the custom map on our phone (via the “Your Places” menu item in the Googlemaps app) and zoomed in on the section we were intending to complete
  • GPS (i.e. seeing where you are via the blue dot on the map) still works in Airplane mode so we turned this on to massively save battery (it was occasionally necessary to reconnect and reload the route from the internet)
  • For tracking, we installed Komoot (an excellent app) on our iPad (which we took with us mainly to watch TV on in the evenings!)
  • Each morning we turned on Komoot tracking (with the iPad also in Airplane mode to save battery) and put it in a rear pannier
  • We then checked Komoot on the iPad each evening to see our exact completed route and distance covered/average speed etc.

Terrains and landscapes

After the initial greenways from Roscoff, much of the first section of the route takes place on the Brest-Nantes canal. This had the benefit of being entirely flat (as is pretty much the whole route), and with gorgeous autumnal colours.

The autumn sun along the canal was delightful

One part to watch out for is the cycle into Nantes. We massively under-estimated the 2 hours of urban cycling that would be required at the cold, wet and dark end of our longest day’s cycling (Nantes itself was great! Especially Les Machines).

After Nantes the route goes via the Loire estuary to reach the Atlantic coast. The town of Pornic was a real treat (unlike many of the coastal towns we encountered, it was surprisingly lively in mid-November).

Lots of the coast in the middle part of the ride is dedicated to oyster bays, with lots of charming huts and a blurred line between land and sea (a few of the days were very windy when not under the protection of forest!).

It was when we got to Ile de Noirmoutier and beyond that the scenery really came alive. From long sandy beaches through to amazing forests, we felt really immersed in nature, and it often felt like late summer rather than early winter.

At times it felt like we had entire forests to ourselves

As we got further south, the occasional delightful stretch of forest turned into the expansive Landes, which it often felt we had entirely to ourselves (not the case in the height of summer when the route is very popular). We got an especially good view from the top of the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe.

On top of Pilat/Pyla sand dune. This view shows the Atlantic coast to the West, with the expansive forest of the Landes visible on the other side (not shown in this picture).

Eventually we entered the Basque country as the trip started to draw to a close with lots of dramatic waves coming in from the Atlantic. The final day included the biggest elevation, as we skirted around the Pyrennes on the coast at Biarittz.

A stretch of beach near Capbreton at the start of the Basque country.

The Spanish Basque country

The Velodyssée route continues further into Spain (not along the coast) but we’d decided to visit a friend near San Sebastian before taking the ferry home from Santander.

Rather than cycle along main roads in Spain (which was the only practical option when not on a EuroVelo route), we took our bikes on trains after we crossed the France/Spain border at Hendaye/Irun, and we had a lovely week in San Sebastian and the Basque countryside.

The rail network in the Spanish Basque country is called Euskotren, and confusingly the timetables are generally only available on their own website (checking on or elsewhere often yields scarily few results because they only show the small number of high-speed trains that pass through Basque towns).

It’s possible to take bikes on all Euskotren trains without booking in advance, and there was plenty of room (though we did find that the straps we brought with us came in very handy to stop the bikes falling over so we could sit down without constantly watching them).

Home from Santander

Santander is a lovely city (we paddled in the sea and ate outside in the sun on 2nd December!) but we wish the same could be said for the 28 hour crossing back to Portsmouth. The Bay of Bisquay is notoriously choppy, and it lived up to its reputation. Not for the faint-stomached!

All in all it was an excellent trip, full of nature and far from miserable weather-wise despite it being November. A great introduction to bike touring, and one that left us feeling free and thirsty for more. Hopefully this post has been helpful for anyone thinking of doing something similar!