Cycling keeps you close to nature yet enables you to reach far more places than you’d ever achieve on foot.
Young or old, fit or unfit, Burgundy is great cycling territory. For my short break, I took in a seven-night gentle tourer itinerary offered by Susi Madron’s 30 years’ established Cycling for Softies. I was based for the first two nights at a wonderful chateau in appropriately named Fleurville, with its masses of geraniums and lovely parks.
Dinner under the stars provided the perfect aperitif before the next day’s serious business of getting fitted out with a suitable bike and taking a trial run to Pont des Vaux, where the market was in full swing.
It’s just 25 kms to Chatillon sur Chalaronne and I made it well in time for lunch the following day, having pedalled down deserted lanes.
That afternoon, a colourful cycle race hurtled through the town, stirring the adrenalin for some serious riding on the morrow but I succumbed instead to the bustle and noise of one of the best street markets I’ve ever witnessed, with everything on sale from live rabbits and gloriously stinky cheeses to local wines and cheap socks. I did though, make time to ride out to the wonderful bird sanctuary at Villars, where greedy vultures set my own taste buds racing.
Day four took me through endless vineyards to the old railway station at Romanèche, which today serves as a museum run by Georges Duboeuff, one of the most respected names in Burgundy’s wine industry, as a visit to Majestic, Sainsbury’s or Tesco will testify. The wine harvest was just getting underway in nearby Julienas, with the aroma of freshly squeezed grapes filling the air.
This delightful spot provided another lovely hotel and my next day ride was punctuated with wild strawberry gathering, a swim in the lake at St Point and a visit to the old wine town of Macon.
I couldn’t resist the lure of the nearby hills on my last day awheel – or, I should say, bike pushing – back some 25 kms through the evocatively named vineyards at Chiroubles and Fleurie to Fleuverville. It was hard going but the delightful panoramic views were adequate recompense.
Did I finish my week a bit fitter than when I started? Maybe. Was I a happier soul for the experience? Definitely.
A wealth of choice
Burgundy and bikes are the proverbial marriage made in heaven. Gently undulating, quietly trafficked roads, ever-changing vistas, a wealth of historic sites to visit, picturesque inns and country hotels and all that wonderful food and drink to re-charge the batteries all add up to a truly memorable two-wheeled holiday.
While serious riders will easily cope with their 100-mile a day marathons on such generally undemanding and beautifully engineered roads, that’s somewhat missing the point. Burgundy is a region to be savoured, not rushed, and a schedule of 20 miles a day, ok, let’s make that 45 if you are really fit, will give you ample time to take it all in without feeling you have a rigid schedule to stick to.
Fortunately, there are a number of UK tour operators who specialise in Burgundy cycling packages, whether you wish to ride on your own, with a partner or opt to join a small, companionable group which will underscore the point that a stranger is simply a friend you haven’t yet met.
Most of these packages offer bike hire and a service whereby your luggage – save what you will need for the day’s ride – is transported ahead to the next overnight stop. ‘Travel light’ is a good maxim for happy cycling.
There are a wealth of ride options, one of the most intriguing itineraries takes in the Gothic abbey of Pontigny, the ancient crypt of the abbey of St. Germain, the celebrated stained glass at St. Etienne and the delightful wine village of Chablis.
You don’t have to stick to the roads either, for the Voie Verte network of ‘green road’ tracks featured on many itineraries are totally traffic free. You can even ride through the two-kilometre long Tunnel du Bois Clair, a former railway tunnel. There’s another tunnel, this time 3.333 km long, and dead straight, on the Canal du Burgundy, built between 1765 and 1832 to link the rivers Yonne and Saône and allow barges to navigate all the way from the north to the south of France. The delightful towpaths of the Canal du Bourgogne and the Canal du Midi form the core of many superb and virtually dead-flat rides, with canalside avenues of trees minimising the effects of the strong winds that sometimes blow in these parts.
Burgundy is the home of the world’s finest white wines and vineyard visits play a role in many recommended itineraries, as do stop-offs at the abundance of fascinating museums and fairytale châteaux to be found locally, one attraction not to be missed being the Mustard Museum at Dijon, the historic capital of what was once a fiercely independent dukedom that allied with the English and threw Joan of Arc into captivity.
I was once invited on a Burgundy tour that featured a Michelin star meal every evening – the ride each day serving to build up a suitably ravenous appetite. Sadly that particular itinerary is no longer available but gastronomy still plays a major role and you can’t beat a healthy bowlful of coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon after an energetic day in the saddle.
Too much like hard work? Well, that’s not the way cycling’s supposed to be! As with any activity, careful planning and the right equipment will make all the difference.
By Roger St Pierre. Despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments.
Read Roger St Pierre’s expert Tips to make cycling in France fun and relaxing