Cycling the Velodyssee: The Atlantic Surf Trail
It can be a challenge to find safe, long distance, family friendly cycling trails. So when we stumble onto 250km of traffic free cycling along the coast of Western France, we think we’ve arrived in a pine scented, beach front, cycling heaven. If you’re looking for the perfect place for a gentle introduction to family cycling touring, this could be it.
One step forward, two steps back
I wish I’d walked up the steps like the kids. They’re already racing back down the hill towards me, looking like they might face plant at any moment. With every stride I make towards them the ground slips backwards beneath me; the faster I move the slower my ascent.
“Come on Dad, run up like this,” shouts Cameron skipping lightly back up, leaving me and his sister spitting sand.
We are on the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune, on the French Atlantic coast, 60km from Bordeaux. It’s our first stop on a week long family cycling adventure en route to the Pyrenees. The dune is only 110m high but it’s the hardest 100m we’ll do as this stretch of coast is as flat as the crepe we had for lunch, making it perfect family cycling territory.
Surf but no surfers
At the top of the golden dune we catch our first glimpse of the Atlantic. We watch ocean breakers rolling in with the rising sun and scan the sea for surfers. This stretch of coast is Atlantic surf country but there are no surfers to be seen. We race each other down at breakneck speed. Breakfast and the bikes are waiting.
We are following a section of La Vélodyssée, the longest waymarked cycle trail in France. It is part of EuroVelo Route 1, an incredible adventure cycling route that in its entirety runs from Scandinavia to the Algarve. The Velodyssee is the French section and runs along the Atlantic coast for 1200km from Brittany to the Spanish border but we pick up the trail at Arcachon and plan to follow it for 250km to Hendaye and the Spanish border.
The sea is never far away as we head south on traffic free trail through pine scented forest. It’s dream like riding, the forest shades us from the heat of the summer sun, a swim in the sea is never far away and there’s a chain of pretty Landes villages en route for coffee, cake or lunch.
Cycling through the Landes forest we arrive at what appears to be our first Surf Camp, although the sign reads Cerf Camp. Six moss clad A frame shelters sit just off the trail in what looks like a Bear Grylls survival school training camp.
“Is cerf French for surf?” asks Hannah.
Our translation app says no. “But can we camp in them?”
It looks possible, almost enticing but it’s too early in the day to be stopping. Not that it’s necessary to camp wild with so many campsites along the route. The Landes is the largest planted forest in Europe, 10,000 square kilometres of pine almost entirely made and managed by man to stabilise the marshy land and halt erosion. Where once Landais shepherds walked across swamps on stilts, now farmers farm grains while walkers, cyclists, hunters, fishermen, sailors, pony trekkers and surfers enjoy their chosen pursuits with scent of maritime pine on the wind.
A touch of Dallas
Day two of riding takes us to Parentis-en-born and the Lake of Biscarrosse-Parentis. I imagine a relaxing evening pitched on the shore watching sun sink into lake. So the oil platforms on the lake are something of a surprise. According to its Petrol Museum, Parentis sits on one of France’s largest oil fields and the derricks around town add a touch of Dallas to this pretty Aquitaine town.
But it’s not just oil that booms here, tourism does too. We are turned away from two fully booked campsites before a third manages to accommodate us on a pitch next to the Salle de Jeux. Most of the camp sites we come across here are full on experiences. While there are a few small naturelle sites, most are big with hundreds of pitches and great facilities but not so much in the way of peace and quiet. Think kids clubs, swimming pools, crazy golf, evening entertainment and large groups of teenagers hanging around outside the Salle de Jeux late into the night.
Surf camps, festivals and fireworks
It’s not until Mimizan that we find our first proper surf camp. Dozens of identikit tents pitched two inches apart encircling a Chill Tent, SurfBar and hangout zone. By day the place is abandoned. By night it’s a surf dude’s paradise, hammocks, guitars, looping surf videos and all. An old surf board hangs above the large wooden frame that separates this zone of cool from us regular campers but it doesn’t stop our worlds colliding.
“Watch out, Dad,” cries Hannah as two guys fly past us on a skateboard made for two. They’re closely followed by a gang of bare chested BMXers competing to attract the attention of surf chicks posting pics to Facebook in the only part of camp with reliable wifi. It’s like being in a circus school and hard to compete with the cool so it’s a relief to cycle on and find a more family friendly camp at Étang de Léon. There are so many options here, you’re bound to find something to suit.
While it mostly follows the sea, La Vélodyssée also skirts several freshwater lakes with opportunities for freshwater swimming, sailing, kayaking, wind surfing and jet skiing. At Étang de Léon we are lucky enough to score a lakeside pitch on the night of a summer festival. After washing away the tiredness of a day’s biking with a swim, we head out to enjoy food, music and free fireworks down by the lakeside. It’s a great little party without a surf dude in sight.
Finally in surf country
La Vélodyssée is big on beaches, big beaches. Cycling along you’re never more than a few kilometres from your next swim. If you want a beach to yourself, strike off to the sea away from the towns. If you want to join the crowds head to the big resorts and main surf beaches at Seignosse, Hossegor and Cap Breton.
It’s at Hossegor we finally get to see surfers where they belong, out in the breakers. We run down to sample the surf on a short stretch of beach marked out for bathers. We venture in and are bowled over and over and over. It’s like being in a washing machine working up to a spin cycle. It teaches respect for the power of the sea and for those brave enough to surf here.
Bayonne, Biarritz and beyond
We ride on through Bayonne, the French Basque capital and further down the coast to the Anglet beaches and classy Biarritz, where the price of ice cream doubles with the crowd density. There’s no question of getting on the beach here. No space to breathe between the dense stripes of deckchair and parasol that colour the beach. It’s a beautiful place for beautiful people but after one ice cream beyond our budget.
Break for the border
It’s beyond Biarritz, with the Pyrenees now firmly on the horizon, we face our first hills as the trail heads up onto the cliff top roads that lead to Saint Jean de Luz. La Vélodyssée has been a training run for us, breaking us in for our main summer adventure, a traverse of the Pyrenees. But I can’t think of a better family ride in all the cycling we’ve done in Europe. The kids have loved the freedom of riding solo and I’ve loved the fact I haven’t had to worry about their safety or listen to them moaning about hills. Until now. Having been spoilt by 200km of pan flat traffic free cycling, I’m not surprised the hills and traffic generate some negative press. But the cliff top views are worth it. At least I think so!
Into the sunset
Our journey along La Vélodyssée finishes in Hendaye. We ride along the coast at first, then past the Hendaye marina and onto a boardwalk that follows the River Bidasoa miles inland until we reach the road bridge that marks the French Spanish border. Across the bridge lies tapas, tortilla, cheap coffee, a market selling cheap booze and a journey into the high mountains. Yet no-one is keen to cross. I’m not sure if it’s what we’re leaving behind or fear of what lies ahead but I take it as a sign of a great ride.
La Vélodyssée (part of Route 1 on the EuroVelo cycle network) is a 1200km waymarked cycle trail that takes you along the French Atlantic coast from Roscoff in Brittany to Hendaye on the Spanish border. It is broken into 14 sections. The sections we rode were from Arcachon to Hendaye, about 250km in total. The route is well signposted and there’s good information on route, distances, accommodation, bicycle hire and attractions on the La Vélodyssée website. There are dozens of campsites and numerous hotels along the route, something to suit every budget. Do bear in mind that in season the campsites can be very lively and busy!
We travelled with Brittany Ferries to get to and from the start and finish. Travelling by ferry is much easier with bicycles as there is no need for boxing and unboxing or dismantling as is with flying and can be with trains. By ferry you can either cycle on or off or travel with your bikes on a rack on your car. Brittany Ferries is well placed to serve the Vélodyssée as they have ferries to France (Brittany ports of Roscoff, Caen, Le Havre, St Malo and Cherbourg) and ferries to Spain (Northern Spanish ports of Santander and Bilbao). If you wanted to cycle the whole route you could travel out to Roscoff to begin and travel back from Bilbao or Santander by combining two one way tickets.
If you prefer to do a shorter section of the route then it’s possible to do this independently with a little planning or there are companies that will help you out, listed on the Velodyssee site. We crossed by ferry to Caen with bikes on the roof, spent a day driving down to Arcachon where we left the car at an SNCF station while we cycled for a week. With careful research you may be able to take your bikes on a train back to your starting point. Alternatively leave your bikes somewhere safe at the end, take a train or bus back to pick up your car. You can then recover your bikes and head home. If you have further questions about this ride, please do get in touch. Leave a comment here or contact us via social media.