Lavender fields, sunny backroad routes and Ventoux – Max Wooldridge has this guide to cycling in beautiful Provence.
The Romans claimed this historic and charming region of south-eastern France long before Peter Mayle put it on the map with A Year in Provence. Caesar christened it La Provincia ('The Province'), as Rome’s first province beyond The Alps.
Today, the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is splitinto the departments of Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, and Vaucluse.
The region borders the banks of the Rhône River to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the south and Italy to the east. With its fragrant lavender fields, cobbled streets and pin-drop-quiet villages, Provence inspires writers, painters, writers and travellers on foot – or indeed bicycle.
When to cycle in Provence
The best time is between May and the end of September, but here are a few pointers. Head there in spring, and everything will be in bloom and you’ll ride alongside stunning fields of bright red poppies. Then in late June and early July, the landscape becomes a glorious purple haze as the region’s famed lavender fields bloom. The photographs you’ve seen are not Photoshopped: the hillsides around the town of Sault really are awash with lavender.
July and August are peak holiday months in Provence, so you will share the views – and roads – with plenty of other travellers. Provence’s roads will be busier than normal, as it’s a popular holiday destination for the French, too. Mid-June until the end of August will be more crowded than normal. The other downside to mid-summer, of course, is the weather can be excessively hot, so plan your rides around early morning and late afternoon, and take lots of spare water in case you’re miles from a village café that sells Oranginas.
September is an excellent option as the weather is usually still warm, and you won’t have the school holiday crowds. The reason September stands out, for me anyway, is its colours: orange and golden-tinted hillsides, and vineyards that are a riot of colour. A sunset ride at this time of year is something magical you’ll remember for months. The only downside to travelling this time of year is you may have to keep to the major towns, as many small-town hotels and restaurants close after the summer.
But whatever the season, take spare clothing and plenty of water and food supplies. The challenge in Provence is that old enemy of all us cyclists: wind. When the wind whips up in Provence, you’ll know about it and will need to be prepared. Also, you don’t want to be miles away from the local village patisserie when the hunger pangs set in.
Where to ride in Provence
Be sure one of your cycling routes takes in the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, near the beautiful hill town of Gordes. You’ll probably recognise this abbey instantly. Because of its postcard-purple lavender field out front, it appears on the cover of all the coffee table books and brochures about Provence.
A must-ride in Provence is the stunning Gorge de la Nesque. A great route is to start from the achingly beautiful hill town of Venasque. Join locals stocking up at the superb local patisserie, and follow the road signs for Sault.
Bring a map as a back-up, but don’t worry too much if you get lost – you may just discover some of the best rides ever. I took the wrong route out of the town of Blauvac one day and discovered one of the greatest cycle rides of my life: from Methamis via the Cote du Javon to St-Saturnin-les-Apt. Just follow the D5 and then the D943. The route back is even more stunning, as you have the gorge on your near side. I still dream about this route.
Provence’s ancient Roman roads are made for bike riding, but the region is not short on mountains – Mont Ventoux, the Luberon, the Alpilles and Dentelles de Montmirail – so rides here are likely to be a little more challenging than just breezing along the banks of the Loire or the Nantes-Brest Canal. But, of course, whatever goes up must comes down.
Mont Ventoux is a kind of rite of passage to many cyclists, and it's not just gladiators who fancy pitting themselves against Chris Froome who will find its pull impossible to resist. But in truth, you can spend weeks cycling in Provence without tackling the Giant of Provence.
By bike, Provence is a feast for all the senses; you’ll ride through gorgeous sleepy villages, past olive groves, vineyards and cherry orchards. You can follow the region's rivers and deserted mountain roads to fairytale hill towns such as Roussillon, Menerbes, Oppede-le-Vieux, Bonnieux and Lacoste.
Quiet country roads with little traffic link a landscape of marvellous churches, medieval castles and fascinating Roman sites, all bathed in the magical light that was so loved by painters such as Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Then there’s the smells, from thyme and rosemary scented roadsides, and miles of wild lavender fields.
Provence’s road surfaces vary, and can change within a few miles, from challenging rough old stone to tarmac as smooth as velvet. Many routes can be isolated, so stock up at roadside stalls for supplies of fruit, and markets for pâtés, jams, pastries and chevre (goat's cheese) with herbs or flowers. Bung it all in your backpack or panniers as you could be miles from any shops or cafes. And make sure your mobile phone is fully charged.
Cycling Mont Ventoux
Once you’ve spent time cycling around Provence, it’s hard to imagine that some cyclists only travel here to cycle up the fabled Mont Ventoux; to faire Le Ventoux (to ‘do the Ventoux’). Some riders like to use the word 'conquer’ in relation to the Ventoux, but some humility, and caution, is advised; Mont Ventoux will always have the last laugh. (See here for planning advice to help make it easier).
We have this separate article on Ventoux, as well as these top 10 tips for cycling Ventoux, and this information on accommodation in the area. See here also for guidance on cycling Ventoux from Crillon le Brave, plus other more gentle dayride routes. We have THIS bespoke Ventoux tours service.
Cycling accommodation in Provence
There are many great towns to stay in and explore: Aix-en-Provence – pronounced Aches-in-Provence if you’ve had a long day in the saddle; Tarascon, and St Remy de Provence, the birthplace of Nostradamus. There are the historic towns of Orange, known for its Roman arena and triumphal arch, and Arles, famed for the winding streets that inspired Vincent van Gogh, which is close to the wetlands of the Camargue. Carpentras or Avignon are good places to base yourself for rides to stunning villages like Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Fontaine de Vaucluse.
Zoom onto the map below or browse our Provence accommodation pages to find bike-friendly accommodation on your route. I'll continue to add route suggestions when I can.
Bike hire in Provence
See our bike hire listings for bike rental options right across the region.
Cycling books and maps for Provence
Lonely Planet’s Cycling France guide is excellent and the best map to keep in your pocket is Michelin map no 332. The reliable Stanfords travel bookshop in London has a full range of IGN maps available online to help with more detailed route planning.
More information on cycling in Provence
I have THIS bespoke Ventoux service, which I can adapt to other areas of Provence. Vaucluse Tourism is really geared up to bikes and has an excellent website dedicated to cycle touring – see www.provence-cycling.co.uk. See also the interactive Véloroutes website if you're looking for longer routes.
We also have this day ride suggestion for cycling in the Var department, as well as this one.
Max Wooldridge is a UK-based freelance writer who specialises in travel, sport and music. A keen cyclist, he divides his time between London and North Norfolk, which is not quite as flat as Noel Coward made out.