Ile d'Olonne.           © Jim Clement

Avoid the tourist traffic and the searing heat of the
mid-day sun, and discover the joy of early-morning summer cycling.
Jim Clement shares some of his favourite routes
through undulating countryside, just inland from St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie.


Cycling in France is, for the most part, a more enjoyable experience than in the UK. The car-driving population tends to be more considerate towards cyclists, the road surfaces are better, and the summer weather brings less heavy wind and rain (though I can think of a few hairy summers in France that defy that rule!).
With its fast-growing network of canalside towpaths, coastal cycleways and trails along disused railway lines, the Vendée provides hundreds of kilometres of happy cycling. The area also has the additonal advantage of generally flat terrain - though don't make the mistake of assuming that what appears during a car reconnaissance to be level countryside will seem as flat once you are on a bike, when the gentlest gradient can become postively Alpine!

Remember the two basic rules about cycling a circular route. If you make your outward run against the wind, don't fool yourself that the return run will be plain sailing with the wind behind you! It is a well-known fact that as you change direction to make the return journey, they turn the wind around, too, so you're still facing it! The second, similar, rule applies to hills. Whichever end of them you tackle, they seem to keep on going up!

Seriously, though, cycling in France may be really enjoyable, but you need to remember a few basic survival rules.

  Ride on the right!

  While French car drivers do accept that cyclists have as much right to the road as they do, tourist drivers often do not share this view, so you must exercise care at all times.

  Travel in single file. This is especially important when cycling with children, who should be flanked fore and aft by parents.

  If you stop for a rest - which you should do frequently - get off the road and on to the grass verge.

  Basic survival means a repair kit - better still, tyre-levers and a spare tube.

  Water in bottles (one litre per person per hour) is absolutely essential. Vendean summer heat can be daunting.

  Drink sparingly but frequently.

  Headgear is a must, though helmets are still being debated. Soft hats keep fierce sunrays at bay.

  Cycling in summer heat, especially between noon and 4pm, can be sheer lunacy, and is a form of torture for children.

  Maps are not essential but a planned route is. Wandering at will is an invitation to get lost or waste many miles - sorry, kilometres.

  Though not essential, a very useful piece of kit is a mirror fitted to your offside (in France, the left) handlebar, which shows any fast-approaching car or lorry coming up behind.

 Avoid coastal roads and main trunk routes. They are very busy and, frankly, scary.





Most of the following circuits start from La Mothe-Achard, a small town between La Roche-sur-Yon and Les Sables-d'Olonne, but may be modified to suit your requirements.

I should add the caveat that, although I have cycled them all at various times, I can give no absolute guarantee that the French - with their usual practice of building new roads parallel to existing roads and going from nowhere to nowhere - will not simply have blocked off access to one or two parts of them.




Typical Vendée farm, left, a higgledy-piggledy collection of roughly rendered walls and terracotta-tiled roofs.

© Jim Clement.



Route 1 (from La Mothe-Achard - a 20-mile pre-beakfast run!)
THE DAFTER'S TRAIL (with thanks to my friend Dick Dafter, who pioneered the route)



Take the D12 NW from La Mothe-Achard to St-Julien-des-Landes (3 miles). Turn right onto the D55 for Martinet (2 miles from St-Julien); if you want an extra challenge, you can make the route a mile longer by turning right about 2 miles from St-Julien, then left, left, and left again to arrive in the centre of Martinet. Leave Martinet by the D42 to the west, crossing the Jaunay river and passing a quaint little chapel, before pulling gradually uphill to Chapelle-Hermier. At Chapelle-Hermier you might feel a break is justified; a right-hand turn and a short sprint up to the village centre gets you to the local café where you can watch the populace come and go as you enjoy the best grand café served in the area.
Get back on the D42 again, beside Chapelle-Hermier's newly restored church, and take the Aiguillon-sur-Vie road, but in a couple of miles, just after the hamlet of La Faverie, turn sharp left. A short way along this lane you pass a campsite on your right. Brakes on here, as the next half-mile is an exhilarating downhill plunge with spectacular views over the Lac du Jaunay, gleaming in the early-morning sun. As you round the corner and cross the bridge over the lake you will see the early-morning fishing fraternity settling into their nests for a day's gruelling slog with their rods (just kidding!). Then, rounding a right-hand bend, you are faced with an uphill trek for about a mile, where you join the D21 and turn right for the run into St-Julien and turn left on the D12 to reach La Mothe-Achard.
An alternative here, which affords you temporary relief from the prevailing easterly wind, is to look out for a lane on the right after leaving the lake crossing, go straight over the D12, and do an extra one-mile loop through the hamlet of La Sourderie, before turning left towards St-Julien where you join the D12 again for the last leg back towards La Mothe-Achard.
How self-righteous you will feel if you have done all this before breakfast!




The pretty village of Ile-d'Olonne. Try and catch the annual old-time crafts fair,
or do a bit of bird-spotting among the nearby marshes - but give the eels in the local restaurant a miss!

© Jim Clement.

Route 2 (La Mothe-Achard to the seaside, avoiding the coastal roads; about 12 miles)

From La Mothe-Achard, take the D12 St-Julien road, but turn left after the hill about a mile outside the village, at La Giraudiere, onto the D54. This is a gradual uphill run for about four miles, so slow down and don't try to beat the gradient with speed. Shortly, you will join the road from St-Julien towards the village of Vairé. (Look for an unusual privet hedge on your left with four separate sections, each a different colour.) The village of Vairé is charming, with beautiful refurbished stonework on the wall surrounding the church.
Turn left here onto the main - though fairly safe - road towards Olonne-sur-Mer, but well before you reach it take a right-hand turn onto the D87, signposted for Ile-d'Olonne. (Just after turning, you will see, on your left, the "Temple of Art" - worth a visit, if only for the culture shock and the high tourist prices of the icons and wooden figurines within!)
Continue the short distance into Ile-d'Olonne, and stop in the delightful marshland village which, at the end of July each year, is the scene of one of the best craft fairs in the Vendée. On a corner is an unpretentious building with fake Greek portals. Here, fresh from the marais, or marshes, you can enjoy a meal of eels (anguilles), served by the dozen, carefully lined up on a plate with gimlet eyes intact. UGH! (I had an omelette, my favourite cop-out food whenever my wife drags me into one of these places.) As you leave the village, still on the D87, you pass the ruin of a salt keep and wind across the marshes at water level, with crakes and oystercatchers almost at your feet. Wonderful!
In about two miles you come to the main D80 coast road where you turn right at the traffic lights and then, immediately, left towards Sauveterre, passing an old boat outside the campsite of La Loubine. This vessel used to be the reception centre for the campsite, but successive winters have taken their toll and it has now been abandoned - I shouldn't give it more than a couple more winters before it disintegrates completely. Turn right shortly after, for the mile-long run up to the beach car park. Sauveterre is one of the area's finest beaches - the wide sands sweep way towards the horizon.
The ride is well worth the effort - but don't forget, you have to cycle back again!




One of the Vendée's rural campsites, left, an idyllically peaceful base for exploring by bike.

© Jim Clement.



Route 3 (an inland route from La Chaize-Giraud, with some hilly stretches; 22-30 miles)

Starting from La Chaize-Giraud, this run is a little more demanding than the first two routes. Head NE out of La Chaize-Giraud on the D40 towards Coëx a hilly, but pleasant 5-mile route. Coëx is a busy little town, its pride and joy being the perfumed gardens known as "Les Olfacties" - well worth a visit if you have time (the entrance is behind the church). Afterwards, head north - still on the D40 - for Apremont, another 5 miles distant. This route takes you into the rural areas of the Vendée, with overtones of highly cultivated farmland and well kept private houses and gardens. An air of discreet affluence prevails.
Apremont cannot but impress. Descending the hill, you see in front of you the towering ruins of what was once a handsome Renaissance castle. As you swing left to cross the bridge over the river Vie you are confronted by a choice of watering holes - a good excuse to stop for a well-deserved rest - or turn right here and run along the riverside to a pleasant waterside picnic area just below the dam that creates the Vendée's largest lake.
After your break, the punishment. A steep, half-mile climb out of the village, takes you to a crossroads where you turn right, still on the D40, for a 3-mile run into the village of Maché. Just before Maché church, turn right on the D50 and downhill to cross the river Vie (the other end of the Apremont lake).
From here, you have two options:
(a) Bear right following the D50, cross the busy D6 in 3 miles, then take another right hand turn in a couple of miles to Martinet then right, through Chapelle-Hermier (see route 1) to the D40, where you turn left to La Chaize-Giraud. An arduous, sometimes tortuous run, totalling 30 miles plus.
(b) Or, after the lake at Maché you can bear left on the D107 to Aizenay, a pleasant, well laid-out small town with a good selection of shops - including, just beyond the post-office, a well-stocked cycle shop. By now you will have covered some 22 miles, so you could be forgiven for calling your run finished. How do you get back to base? Easy. You call up the support vehicle which you left at La Chaize-Giraud, on your mobile, and tell your loved one just which café or eating establishment you are in!
If you think that's cheating, head uphill through Aizenay along the D948, in the La Roche-sur-Yon direction, and when you reach the huge roundabout - where the tourist office is located in a converted railway station - turn right and you will find a super-smooth tarmac cycleway that will, when completed, link La Roche-sur-Yon with the coast at St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. Laid on the old railway line, this guarantees you a pleasant, rural run back to Coëx, from where you just have to turn SW again on the D40 to return to La Chaize-Giraud, bringing your mileage up to a more than respectable 30.




Early-morning light on a typical Vendée farmhouse.

© Jim Clement.

Route 4 (a circular route starting at Aizenay; 25 miles)


From Aizenay (see Route 3, above) briefly join the busy D978 road towards La Mothe-Achard, but turn off right in just under a mile, joining a narrow road which you follow, looking for indications to Martinet (about 4 miles). In Martinet, near the church, turn left onto the D42 and climb upwards for 4 or 5 miles to Beaulieu-sous-la-Roche. This attractive little village is the scene each summer of a craft and livestock fair, for which the locals dress in typical period costume worn by Vendée peasantry of a century ago. There are one or two nice cafés in and around the leafy village square, if you feel you have earned a rest.
The journey continues east on the D42 to the village of Venansault, where you can turn north on the D4 and cross the flyover above the busy dual-carriageway D948 to Aizenay. Once on the north side, you can turn left on another section of the smoothly tarmac-ed cyleway (see Route 3, above), and cruise the last 5 miles back to Aizenay past fields and along the edge of Aizenay forest - vastly preferable to the main road.





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