Tour de France: cycling the opening Vendée stage

The grand départ of the 2018 Tour takes place next weekend on the Atlantic coast. Our writer rides his Brompton through dunes and forests with pit stops to sample fine local seafood

The beaches, forests, lagoons and marshes of the Vendée coast will provide a scenic backdrop to the start of this year’s Tour de Franceon 7 July. And while football fans can’t have a kickabout on the pitch before a World Cup game, anyone with a bike can have a go at riding a stage of the Tour.

But I looked at the race route and soon realised I’d best forget the bits that use fast main roads; instead I’d follow the traffic-free coastal bike path, the longest of the Vendée’s 1,800km of waymarked, often traffic-free cycling routes.

The Tour starts on the island of Noirmoutier, where the white-painted houses with light blue shutters and terracotta roofs blend in with the simplicity of a landscape made up of sky, sea and sand. I rolled over the Tour’s start line on my Brompton (long story, see How to do it, below) and followed the race route as it zigzags through the dykes, leats and lagoons of the island’s salt marshes. Here, salt farmers guide seawater through a series of shallow basins, where sun and wind slowly evaporate the water until salt crystals, known as fleur de sel, can be carefully skimmed off.

I rode south on a cycleway whose verges were dotted with purple marsh orchids. I passed oyster farms, whitewashed windmills with witch’s hat roofs and a long tidal lagoon, home to a large and noisy population of seabirds. The salt marshes are a birder’s paradise, particularly in winter, when they’re a stopping-off point for migrating species. Besides salt and oysters, Noirmoutier’s rich but sandy soil is known for growing excellent potatoes. One variety, the bonnotte, claims the title of the world’s most expensive spud. Grown under a mulch of seaweed and algae, bonnottes are harvested by hand and can fetch absurd prices in Paris.

The Vendée coast is so flat that the road bridge from Noirmoutier to the mainland, at just 33 metres above sea level, was comfortably the highest point of my entire ride. Once on the mainland, I picked up the region’s 200km coastal cycleway, which itself forms part of La Vélodyssée, a much longer route along France’s Atlantic coast from Roscoff in Brittany all the way to the Basque country. It’s well-signposted and my first few hours took me through fragrant coastal forests of pines, evergreen oaks and mimosas bursting with scented yellow blossom.

If this stretch of coastline has a downside, it is its sheer popularity. At times it felt like a continuous strip of holiday homes, caravan sites, golf courses and amusement parks. I pushed on past the beachfront apartment blocks of Saint-Jean-de-Monts to reach the Corniche Vendéenne, a rocky headland of small sandy coves, sea stacks and a handsome lighthouse which was more like the wild Atlantic coastline I was hoping for. Just beyond is Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, a fishing town that calls itself the sardine capital of France. Sardines are a seasonal catch from April to October and I stopped at a roadside kiosk for a plateful fresh from the grill and crusty with salt.

After more sandy beaches, forest tracks, canals and marshes, I reached Les Sables-d’Olonne and the end of my first day’s ride. Its long seafront promenade looks out over the biggest expanse of sand I’ve ever seen, and its port is the start and end point of the Vendée Globe, the solo round-the-world yacht race that is one of the few sporting events to rival the Tour de France as a test of physical and mental endurance. It was once home to the largest cod fishing fleet in France, and fish are still big business here. Early morning guided tours of the wholesale market and auction halls are available (€6.30, book at the tourist office).

Dubbed “little California”, the area around La Tranche-sur-Mer is all holiday villas, coastal forests and a seemingly endless sandy beach that’s perfect windsurfing, kite-surfing and, when the tide is out, sand yachting. But the cycling is a little dull here, as much of the cycleway runs alongside a busy main road; it gets more interesting around the mussel country of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. Everywhere I looked little places were offering moules marinières.

At this point the Tour heads inland, and so did I. After 160km of gloriously car-free and carefree cycling, I bade farewell to La Vélodyssée and set out on farm lanes through vast fields of wheat, maize and sunflowers. The land has been reclaimed from what was once marsh and, centuries before that, the open sea.