A Biker's Reverie
What follows are two week-long tours, one at each end of the waterway. Pick and choose depending on your time.
In the East:
Le Puy-en-Velay - St-Etienne (55 miles). For your first two days, the cycling is tough. You are on the wind-eroded expanse of a once-active volcanic zone. Steep spires of stone hard rock plugs that have endured the weathering too powerful for their soft outer shells stand like sentinel landmarks, sometimes capped by Medieval, man-made cloister aeries. Rivers have cut gorges and winding valleys through the pumice of the land. Yes, there are long level stretches, but there are just as many tough dips and climbs as your scenic road winds with the bends of the youthful Loire, skirts its first set of dramatic gorges, cools in the shadow of some fine chbteaux, and then detours slightly east for a night in St-Etienne.
St-Etienne - Roanne (45-70 miles). From St-Etienne to Roanne is a straight shot of some 45 miles. Back on the banks of the Loire, there are country roads that push you north through rolling but unchallenging countryside. For a little more geographic spice, head farther west to Montbrison and then north through an area speckled with small lakes. North of Feurs or Boen, the east side of the Loire has an ambling road that runs along a new set of Loire gorges mostly filled by the first of many water controls on this lengthy watercourse. Roanne doesn't have much to offer except reasonable accommodation and good proximity to the Monts de la Madeleine.
In the Monts de la Madeleine (variable miles) or off to Paray-le-Monial (35 miles). For fans of symmetry, a straight shot to the north will deposit you in the religious center of Paray-le-Monial, home to a beautiful 11th-century basilica. For those more wowed by the cathedral of nature, the Monts de la Madeleine hills 10 miles to the west offer more than a day's worth of fine gear-and-ache cycling. Beware of roads with an average grade of 6-7%!
In the West:
Orlians - Blois (40 miles). Orlians is unabashed in its celebration of its greatest daughter. Joan of Arc's 1429 rally cry changed history forever and saved the French from having to learn English. This, then, is a good place to begin a jaunt through the residences whose well-eared walls still tell of aristocratic maneuvering in Renaissance France. The Loire River west of Orlians has carved a wide flat valley that makes for easy pedal-ambling through large country estates. Leaving Orlians, stay north of the river as far as Beaugency. Cross to the south and make straight for Chambord, your first and the largest of the river chbteaux in a splendid forest park (with wild boar and white-tailed deer). It is hard to believe that this was built as no more than a hunting lodge. Blois is now only a short distance away and itself home to an architectural hodgepodge of a castle (the real royal residence), and a charming old town.
Blois - Chenonceaux (30 miles). Leaving Blois, cross back to the south side of the Loire and head inland. Climb out of the Loire Valley (it's not too tough a hill) and cross the plateau separating it from its southern tributary, the Cher River. Pause at the abbey at Pontlevoy before the drop back to the Cher; after the rolls of the tween river stretch the downhill coast is good delayed reward for the morning ascent. Due west is your next castle, the river-spanning gem at Chenonceaux. Along the Cher, keep an eye out for"troglodyte" houses carved into the soft rock of the area. This is the same rock mined for the building of the castles... and the construction of the White House.
Chenonceaux - Tours (20 miles). From Chenonceaux, head back up the hill, through the forest of Amboise, and back down to the Loire at Amboise. The castle here is a little less entrancing, but its history, as well as that of the nearby Clos Luci (intimately connected with Leonardo da Vinci's last years of life) is fascinating. The non-river road from Amboise to Tours has its topographical moments, but it is almost without traffic and treats you to your first views of the wine vineyards of Touraine. Vouvray, a small village 5 miles from Tours, produces one of France's most famous non-champagne effervescent wines. Stop and sip. Tours is as commercial as it is cultural and young. It has business, entertainment, a university and plenty of history (and gastronomy) to discover. Don't skip the oldest part of town.
Tours - Chinon (30 miles). Leave Tours on the south side of the Loire and head to the three-tiered garden castle at Villandry. A short over-the-divide valley skipping spin to another tributary to the south, the Indre, will leave you at the mini castle of Azay-le-Rideau. Follow the Indre to Ussi for another secondary castle, the one that inspired Perrault to write La belle au bois dormant or Sleeping Beauty. Once more over the hill, but this time to the Vienne River and you come upon the charming city of Chinon. There's a hilltop castle ruin and a ribbon of a village packed with fun.
Chinon - Saumur (30 miles). West of Chinon, make the short detour to the worthwhile Abbey at Fontevraud. Little known secret: this is where Richard the Lion-Hearted is entombed, along with some other royal folk. Since your legs are strong now, you might as well continue overland (with the hills) to Saumur, your final Loire destination and a good place for a sip of the Loire's famous wines.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication