Brittany spires: Cycling in North West France


Words and photos Nigel Wynn

A land where the roads are smooth, traffic is virtually non-existent and the landscape is beautiful. Not merely a figment of a British cyclist’s imagination, this place exists — and there’s only a short stretch of water between it, you and a perfect day out on the bike.

Despite its proximity to southern Britain, Brittany, on the north-west tip of France, is not on many people’s list of places to go riding. But getting there is a lot less effort and costs a lot less than you may expect.

One of the few problems with cycling in Brittany is choosing which of the many thousands of kilometres of routes to ride. Thankfully, the local authorities have really got their act together in providing clear mapping and route-signing for visiting cyclists. Pick a route from one of the freely available leaflets, then just follow the clearly numbered signs for a truly hassle-free day of biking.

Short hop
Brittany regular Ken and I headed into the area’s heartlands for a 45km trip that takes in some of the best that the area has to offer. We started our day’s action in the pretty market town of Maure-de-Bretagne with its typically imposing church. As you ride around this area of France — as in so many parts of this sizeable country — you cannot help but be impressed by the enormity and architecture of its places of worship.

Maure de BretagneSpire-gazing done, we headed to one of the real attractions of this area for cyclists: the Voies Vertes, or green ways. The section of Voie Verte we used runs from Plöermel in the west, to Guipry/Messac in the east, and consists of a recently converted section of old railway track. The railway was used during the Second World War to transport US troops back to the ports for the long trip home, and earned the nickname ‘railway to New York’. This section of Voie Verte is still marked as ‘New York’ on maps today.

Although the rolling stock is now long gone, the railway buildings are still largely intact, and we passed the old Maure-de-Bretagne station as we rolled along the track. Several of the old crossing guards’ houses have been converted into cottages where the track is bisected by a road.

Comfort is key
The surface of the Voie Verte is mainly hardpack gravel, but is fairly loose in places so we elected to use mountain bikes equipped with semi-slick tyres rather than road bikes. You could ride on road bikes, but something that offers a bit more comfort is a better choice for this section, be it mountain bike, touring bike, hybrid or cyclo-cross machine.

As it’s an old railway, the terrain here rises and falls very gently and it’s easy to pick up a good cruising speed, only easing up for the road crossings. Ken and I found ourselves ticking along, pausing only to watch one of the native red squirrels feeding on an acorn and to take a few snaps.

Voie VerteAfter around 15km, the track ends in the double settlement of Messac and Guipry. Messac lies on the east side of the river Vilaine, Guipry on the west. A road bridge connects the two in this lively old port. An impressive watermill stands in the centre of the wide river. It’s now a restaurant but was sadly closed at the time of our trip, so we had to settle for a partially melted back-pocket chewy bar and a sip of water while admiring the view before heading on.

The route now follows well-surfaced roads northwards, along the Vilaine valley and through a series of small hamlets as you head towards Saint Malo de Phily with yet another imposing church built on top of a large hill looking out over a gorge cut deep by the river. Thankfully, you don’t have to ride up the large hill; instead, you turn westwards to travel along a network of small country lanes that really represents what cycling is all about in Brittany — a real rural idyll.

Skirting around the fields full of maize and cows grazing, the buzz of our mountain bike tyres on the tarmac roused numerous buzzards from their resting places on the top of telegraph poles and old oaks. Every other field seems to have its resident bird of prey; if wildlife is your thing, then you will not be disappointed at the flora and fauna that crosses your path. To someone who lives within the confines of the M25, the volume of birds and insects is truly eye-opening.

LoheacMecca for machines
Further west, we met the town of Loheac, which is well known in Brittany for its fine car museum, Le Manoir de l’Automobile, and accompanying rallycross race circuit. Naturally, the museum includes pristine examples of French cars throughout the ages alongside models from all around the world and is a great place to visit — it also includes many bicycles and a recreated bicycle workshop. There’s even a small Tour de France display, with neatly arranged models of the peloton navigating an Alpine pass. Loheac also offers several good restaurants, cafes and — of course — a boulangerie that wafts the smell of fresh bread and pastries into the road, making hungry cyclists’ stomachs hurt.

No time to pause for a baguette as we continued our journey back along classic French poplar-lined roads to join up with the Voie Verte and head back up the track to Maure-de-Bretagne to complete our journey.

A stop-off on one of the benches in the centre of Maure, like the pair of old men that we are, lets us watch the bustle of market day and reflect on a great morning’s riding. We are suitably content, having taken in some of the best scenery this stunning area of France has to offer.

Getting there

Most people take the ferry over to this area of France, with services running from Portsmouth, Poole or Plymouth and docking at Roscoff, St Malo, Caen or Cherbourg.
A fast ferry service runs from Portsmouth to Cherbourg from spring to autumn. Crossing the Channel takes about three hours. The other crossings use a much larger ‘cruise ferry’ and take six or seven hours. All ships have on-board catering and shops, although we noted the newsagent section of the Normandie Express appeared to have, ahem, sold out of Cycling Active magazine. We’ll be writing to the captain.

Return ticket prices for one person plus a bike costs from around £50. Prices for two adults and a car costs around £260. Prices depend on route, season, whether you’re taking a car, number of passengers, etc.

Rennes St Jacques is the area’s main airport. A quick web search brought up plane tickets from several British airports with Flybe or Air France airlines costing from around €200 return for one passenger. You will need to check availability and details relating to taking a bicycle before you leave.

More routes to ride
Voie VertesVoies Vertes
There are around 800km of Voies Vertes (green way) cycle routes around Brittany. All are traffic-free, and most are very well maintained offering a great riding surface.
I used the Redon tourist information website to download a selection of PDF maps. Other major towns will have their own websites and selection of cycle maps.

More Information

Tourisme Bretagne
Source of information on all things Brittany, from travel arrangements, accommodation, and activities.

Guer Tourism office
Situated in one of the old railway stations further east on the Voie Verte route we used. Offers help with local maps and accommodation.
2 Place de la Gare, 56380 Guer
Tel: 02 97 22 04 78

Loheac car museum
Worth a visit, even if you only have a passing interest in cars. Also includes bicycle exhibits.
Le Manoir de l’Automobile
4 Rue de la Cour Neuve
35550 Loheac
Tel: 02 99 34 02 32

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