Perhaps the single most important thing to remember when heading for a family cycling trip in Normandy is that the success or otherwise of your jaunt rests entirely with tantrum-prevention. Or to put it another way, if you can keep your kids happy, entertained and enthusiastic at all times, you are in for the trip of a lifetime – guaranteed. Much of this of course comes down to ensuring rest periods and eating times are spaced out thoughtfully and intelligently throughout the day, never forgetting that from around 2pm, you can forget being served in any local bars, restaurants and cafeterias!
Whichever way you look at it, Normandy is without any shadow of doubt one of the most outstanding cycling regions in the whole of Europe. Ever since the French government recently gave its official ‘voila’ to a new 443 kilometre cycling route that connects Mont Saint-Michel and Paris, families from all over the continent have been flocking to the region for dreamy weekend breaks. Brits in particular have extremely easy access to this glorious corner of France, with a quick hop on the overnight ferry with bikes in-tow being all it takes to soak up all that’s on offer.
The overnight ferry journey with Brittany Ferries never fails to prove exceptionally exciting for kids, kicking the holiday off on the right foot. By taking the overnight ferry, it is perfectly possible to cram three full days of cycling into a single long weekend. You’ll also find plenty of time to soak up the rest of the regional delights on offer, be it a horseback ride through a vineyard, sipping your way through the Cider Route or letting time pass you by on one of the region’s stunning beaches.
Back to cycling though, it’s regularly argued that the part of the route that runs through the Perche region of southern Normandy is by far and wide the most beautiful and enchanting of all. It stretches for a full 90km, which admittedly seems like quite the challenge, but is actually quite easy and manageable over three days – even with kids along for the ride. Most of the enormous route from Paris to Mont-Saint-Michel is traffic-free and gentle on the legs – this particular route being supremely enjoyable.
Part of the region’s voies vertes – aka green ways – the route follows the path of now abandoned railway lines that remain flat, safe, easy and enjoyable the whole way. Not only this, but the area is so completely tranquil and far from the nearest source of heavy traffic that letting your kids stray pretty far in front need not be a cause for concern. Even in the depths of summer, there is still plenty of room and you will never find the paths to be overly crowded. However, find your way out to this neck of the woods during the late spring or early summer and there’s every chance you will have km after km of this extraordinary cycle path to yourself.
Along the way, you will encounter everything from enchanting forests to the abandoned huts previously used by railway workers and the kinds of old buildings that just beg exploration. Over the past couple of decades or so, this particular region of Normandy has earned a strong reputation as the short break hotspot of choice for discerning residents of Paris in search of true tranquillity and escapism. Each time you come across a village along the way, you’ll find yourself presented with nothing less than a picture postcard snapshot of the kind of France few visitors are privileged to lay eyes on. Sleepy doesn’t even come into it, but you will almost always find the most idyllic lunch spots and eateries along the way, largely without a tourist insight.
This particular route involves a trip to Condé-sur-Huisne and back, which is a round-trip of approximately 27km. On another day, it is more than worth heading to Mortagne-au-Perche – an absolutely fantastic 30km roundtrip which if taken at the weekend will give you the opportunity to check out the local market. Once again, it’s the kind of affair that definitely isn’t put on just for the sake of tourists, meaning what’s on offer is as traditional and authentic as it gets. If you can score a jar or two of the local jam, you will not be disappointed! If you have a third day available, Mêle-sur-Sarthe represents another incredible place to head to and back again, promising some of the most glorious vistas of the surrounding Normandy countryside along the way.
There are plenty of places that make ideal bases for short cycling breaks to Normandy. The long and short of it being that to select anywhere on the Véloscenic route – Boissy Maugis for example – is to situate yourself right to the heart of exactly where you need to be. The local gîtes and farmhouse accommodation options come highly recommended, but at the same time it’s worth remembering that the kids are usually even happier with a spot of camping.
Not that this is the only outstanding cycling route available in Normandy – you might also want to consider the following options:
One of the most popular and highly acclaimed of all cycling routes in France, Lonely Planet recommends a round-trip route that starts and finishes in Bayeux. Often referred to as the D-Day cycle tour, you will set off down a series of quiet and tranquil roads which will eventually take you to Omaha Beach and the world famous American Cemetery. Port-en-Bessin-Huppain makes the most beautiful place to stop for a spot of lunch, after which it’s a case of enjoying a beautiful coastal cycle to Arromanche and taking in the extraordinary views from cinéma circulaire – more commonly referred to as the Arromanches 360.
Les Iles Chausey
Take your bikes over to the Les Iles Chausey archipelago by the ferry that runs daily during the summertime and you’ll discover a side of Normandy that is even more beautiful than the mainland. Well, perhaps not more beautiful, but teaming with beautiful deserted beaches, a dramatic coastline and so much to explore on a fun afternoon with the family.
Le Pont de Normandie
Last up, a bike ride to Le Pont de Normandie also comes highly recommended. Once again, it’s a case of hopping on the ferry with your bikes to Le Havre, in order to soak up the sites of a supremely important feat of engineering which just so happens to also have its own cycle lane! Honfleur’s pretty harbour at the other end makes the entire journey more than worthwhile.
One of the most important parts of attempting a long distance charity challenge cycling journey is to pace yourself. If you start cycling too quickly and intensely you will exhaust yourself and burn out long before the trip is over. If you do not ride fast enough, you will fall behind and not complete the journey in the allotted time. When you find the perfect pace you can keep riding to your ideal capacity and cover as much ground as possible.
Of course, finding your pace isn’t always that easy. Here are some important points to keep in mind when it comes to finding your cycling rhythm.
Take a look at the planned route for the charity challenge long distance cycling journey, whether it’s a ride to the next county or an epic London to Paris bike ride. The organisers will share the route with you so that you can see how many hills and elevation changes to expect. This information will help you know how to pace yourself. For example, if you know that there is a section of hills and climbs at the beginning of the route but a downhill section at the end, you will know that you can push yourself on the climbs and then recover afterward. If you see that the route is mostly the same the entire way, you can keep a steady pace.
When you start off on a long distance bike ride there is always a sense of excitement and urgency and it’s tempting to ride too quickly. However, if you are riding above your intended pace or heart rate you will be tiring yourself out for when the going really gets tough.
Instead, focus on keeping the intensity low for the first few miles so that you can avoid getting overtired. Once you have settled into a rhythm you will still have the option of pushing yourself a little further later on.
One strategy for pacing yourself during a race is to use a heart-rate strap. You will need to take your average heart rate after a 30 minute maximal effort test, which will give you a good approximation of your threshold heart rate. This is the point at which the muscles will create too much lactic acid to shift. If you stay below this point throughout the ride you will be able to avoid pushing yourself too hard and burning out.
If you use a GPS to track your cycling, take a look at some of the data from your longest distance previous ride. You will be able to see what your usual average speed is and how well you performed at different heights and elevations. This information will help you to be realistic in your expectations and mindful of what you will be able to achieve. Of course, depending on your energy levels, physical state and the wind and weather conditions on the day you might be able to achieve less or more – but the data should give you some sort of idea.
It is very important to listen to your body when you are pacing yourself on a long bike ride. You don’t want to wait until you are paralyzed with a painful cramp before slowing down. You’ll feel a sting in your legs when lactic acid has built up, or a tightness in your back muscles that will tell you that you need to take a break and rest. Listen to the signals that your body is sending you so that you can work at the right intensity to keep yourself going.
You are attempting a long distance ride and not a race, so don’t worry too much about whether you are surpassing the people around you. When you get competitive and you try to surge forward to beat the others, you can tire yourself out which will result in problems at the end of the race.
Remember that the only person you are racing against in this situation is yourself. Don’t worry about the others, just keep a good pace and try to perform at your best.
With these tips you will be able to pace yourself, find your cycling rhythm and make the most of your next long distance cycling journey.