Four and a half hours south of Paris, in the region Auvergne-Rhône–Alpes, lies the Department of the Haute-Loire, an area you might easily overlook driving south on the A75 to cycle in the Pyrenées or along the Mediterranean. Yet this department, the home of Romain Bardet, one of France’s most famous cyclists, has some of the most beautiful cycling landscapes in France.
Cycling in the Haute-Loire
Starting in the Gorges de l’Allier and gently climbing 2000 feet through the Parc Naturel Régional du Livradois-Forez, you will encounter perfect roads with little traffic. Vistas look across a chain of extinct volcanoes, and villages arepopulated by friendly people who admire not only their local champion but often know well the feats of other contemporary cycling heroes like Warren Barguil, Sylvain Chavanel, Tony Gallopin, and, from just 75 miles to the north, Julian Alaphilippe. You may even find sections of road still painted with fading words of encouragement to riders in the 2019 Tour de France. Allez Romain. While France offers many wonderful areas for cycling, the Haute-Loire presents a rare combination of physical challenges and rural tranquility.
Wherever you ride in the Haute-Loire, you are riding through history. The region of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alps has the largest concentration of Romanesque churches in France, and within this region, the Department of the Haute-Loire has more than its share. Stop in a village and poke your head into its small stone church on the town square; voila, 15th century frescoes. At least 12 châteaux, including Château de Chavaniac-Lafayette where the hero of the American Revolution was born and raised, tell the story of the Haute-Loire through the Hundred Years War and the religious wars that followed. Monasteries, priories and fortified villages abound. Take a break, sit on stone steps deeply worn by 500 years of boots and shoes, and enjoy a few moments of respite from our complex world.
Not only does the Haute-Loire have a rich history and breathtaking vistas, the regional food is a joy. Ask any Parisian to name favorite cheeses and at least one from this area will make the list. Bleu d’Auvergne, Saint-Nectaire, Salers, Fourme d’Ambert and Cantal. These, as well as the many chèvres, goat cheeses, are available in any market, sometimes directly from the local producteur. In restaurants, the waiters are often able to name the farms where your vegetables, meats, and cheese were produced. Young vintners intent upon reviving the regional wine are reclaiming the terraced hills that once supported hectare after hectare of vineyards lost to the phylloxera disease in the mid-1800s. When your ride takes you past a farm or vineyard advertising its products, stop and visit. The people are welcoming and will want to hear the story of your trip.
As you cycle, you may have to wait for a farmer and his dog to move a herd of dairy cows across the road. You may stop for the night at an auberge and enjoy a dinner of vegetables picked that afternoon from the owner’s garden. Or you may ride through the Gorges de l’Allier, stopping for a swim along the river bank. Solo or in a group, seeking asphalt or gravel, you will find extraordinary itineraries in the Haute-Loire.
by Alan Merickel, a keen cyclist who lives in the Auvergne.