South from the firth of the Garonne and North of the Adour extends France's largest forest, les Landes de Gascogne. It faces the Atlantic Ocean, stretching over nearly 250km of uniform sandy seaside and, triangle-shaped, as far as 100km into the land in the heart of Gasconia (see this album near where I live).
Mainly populated with maritime pines (Pinus pinaster) whose forestry industry generates the main income out of the few towns, this country didn't look the same few centuries ago: it used to be a marshy wasteland (from which originates the name "Les Landes"), which Napoléon decided to fertilize for a double reason: creating activity and slow down the inexorable advance of the Ocean into the land: wind and elements push sand always further every year, making dunes moving 2m per year in average. Looking back nowadays, only one of this two goals was reached, as the ocean keeps moving regardless of pine roots hanging into the void on the dunes tops, or dry trees tops immersed in sand on the back of them... As for the forests, it makes the area one of the most vulnerable of the country due to fires, and is very stongly monitored by firemen. In the last decades, corridors were created, dividing the forest into chess squares, in order not to let them propagate.
The presence of the dunes, conjugated with the natural existence of secondary rivers, created some of the largest lakes of the country, like Hourtin, Lacanau, Mimizan, Soustons, Biscarosse, Cazaux. One of them, Arcachon is open into the sea. Indeed, this is due to the fact it used to be the former mouth of the Garonne hundreds of thousands years ago. This assymetrical shape gave birth to Europe's largest dune, Le Pyla.
These bodies of water are usually separated from the Ocean by a stripe of 5km of hilly land that consists into dunes covered of wood, shared by all sorts of heathers, ferns, thistles, cactus, and make a fragile and pleasant ecosystem.
What we call "Le Médoc" is the northernmost part of this region, the peninsula that extends on the North of Bordeaux. The Médoc is above all renowned for its world-class wines. But the vineyards tend to be rather on the opposite side of the ocean and nearer to the shores of the Garonne full of fertile alluvium. The Médoc of the holidaymakers tend to be on the opposite side, and all the peninsula north from Bordeaux is appreciated for its better quietness, due to remoteness by road. Surfers in particular enjoy the less crowded beaches, which also fully receive the angers of the open sea, as well as activities such as Sand-yachting and Kite-buggy.
Cycling in the Médoc
In total contrast with the French culture and local customs, the Médoc is surprisingly a very renowned region for cyclotouring. Besides of the attractive environment, several factors can explain that.
This paradoxically starts with tragic events and more precisely the Second World War, during which was erected the Atlantic Wall (German: Atlantikwall), an extensive system of coastal fortifications built by the Nazis between 1942 and 1944 along the western coast of France as a defense against an Allied invasion of the mainland continent, like it eventually occurred in Normandy in 1944. It consisted in "Rommel Crosses", iron beams shallow flowed at some distance of the beach (fortunately nowadays far enough, but nightmare of swimmers during some decades: I have do have a scar on my tibia), blockhaus initially located on dune tops (now slipped down to beach level and flown into sand), and watchtowers linked by stripes of concrete across the forest, in order to reach them quickly by motorbike.
When the war came to an end, the concrete trail network remained, and eventually became an object of entertainment, since cycling on them was quite pleasant. Added to this, a lot of Germans and Dutch tourists travel to the Atlantic coast every year. This isn't as obvious now as it was some decades ago, when nearly 90% of the campsites were filled with cars registered from Berlin and so on, and stunning blond girls made the head of local teenagers spinning during summer romances. This huge German presence, into a land that has little to compete with other destinations like Ibiza, is explained as simple as the fact that many former soldiers praised the beauty of the area to their descendants, and the cost of holidays was ridiculously cheap here during the times the Deutschmark was a strong currency.
Since biking always was a part of the German culture, they often brought theirs by car, contributing a lot in the popularity of the concrete network of cycling tracks. Then, local tourist boards took conscience of the value of this network, and started to maintain and advertise it. But unequally along the seaside: those located into the northernmost Gironde département, then the Médoc, favored by the vicinity of the local metropolis Bordeaux, got most of the fundings, which explain the predominance of the Médoc nowadays for cyclotourism.
Most of the tracks are nowadays not anymore of concrete but asphalt, as concrete tends to crack with the work of time (however still a lot are still found). This makes a challenging terrain for race bikes, with some elevation accumulated (despite never high, the many dunes make the terrain hilly). Some easy mountain-biking is also possible on the forest tracks that are not featured with hard surface like concrete or asphalt, but one must be aware the terrain is very sandy, and much easier to ride far from the sea, where dense vegetation make it tougher, and after rain when sand is more consistent.
Baby trailers, a more recent invention, also massively invested the place, as roads free of cars are very sought-after, especially in France, and due to the proximity of the entertaining environment that are the sea and beaches.
Following the very positive experience on the Rügen island last year I had no problem convincing my wife to try this year on the seaside of my home country. Personally, I was eager to meet back the sweet feelings of the holidays of my childhood. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't as good and we mostly cycled under gray skies and low temperatures, except the last day.
The network is really complex if we sort the tracks in 3 types: large asphalted roads (firemen trucks can go on it), narrow asphalted cycle tracks, and even narrower concrete tracks (PDF map here).
This is the reason why the Médoc tourist board created few customs loop for familly rides, that use the best sections and allow the most sight-seeing, with an average of 15-20km. They are 3 at the moment but might be more in the future (PDF map here):
- Boucle des Genêts
- Boucle des Cavalles
- Boucle du Lion
They do have a special marking made of small circles, but only occur when a change of direction is required crossroads, so it's easy to miss one and get lost. In this case it is much better to get the small paper map at one tourist board (a copy of the second PDF link).
We did the three of them, which I attached to this page as albums. These loops are named after forestry houses which they visit on the way: Maison forestière des Genêts, des Cavalles, du Lion. These forestry houses are on the seaside but far from the large crowded resorts that are Houtin-Plage, Carcans-Plage, and Lacanau-Océan. As they provide access to the dunes and the shore, cycling to them is a perfect way to enjoy fully the ocean in the quietness of secret spots, if we make a break at them (mind to bring a lock for the bikes).
For deeper exploration, one can also try to purchase the IGN maps 1434OT (Lacs d'Hourtin et de Carcans) and 1433OT (Soulac-sur-mer/Montalivet/Pointe de Grave).
* By Plane : The Bordeaux airport is the place to fly to. If you don't have your own bike, you can rent one in sea resorts like Carcans, Hourtin or Lacanau. These places are served by bus from Bordeaux
* By Car : The peninsula isn't very optimal to reach when you come from the North, as you need to cross Bordeaux, taking the large bridge Pont d'Aquitaine on its north bypass. Avoid the end of the afternoon as the city tends to be stuck in jams after 4pm when people get back from work.
* By boat : A good and original way to get to the Médoc peninsula while avoiding Bordeaux is to take the ferry boat (timetable) from Royan or Lamarque. Beware, a lot of people take it during holidays and it is better to choose the boats in the early morning.
* By... bike : Loads of people do travel from their homeland to the Ocean using the small roads, using side sacks and pockets of all sizes on loaded bikes. Be careful with cars, people drive fast in the region as roads then to be long straight lines, and narrow too. Wear bright clothes as the forest is dark by poor weather. But the nearest to the ocean, the more cycling tracks you will find.
Agrandir le plan
* If you swim, beware of strong streams called "Baïnes" in French, created by "pockets" of deeper water near the shore. When the tide goes down they can push you very quickly, faster than you swim, away from the beach. Many people die like this every year. Watch out especially when bathing out of the monitored zones. If it happens, the trick is to swim parallel to the beach for a while until you're aside of the stream, and swim back to the beach.
* Beware also of medusas, Rommel crosses at low tide, and weaver-fishes in shallow waters: if you have water boots or slippers take them.
* Don't rock-climb or visit the inside of WW2 blockhaus. They're dangerous.
* If you cycle on the beach, remind that the water is VERY salty. A shower with clear tap water and quick drying is required to avoid quick rust. Even when not cycling near the beach, strong breezes tend to be also salty.
* Identically, remember that sand destroys the bike mechanisms very quickly (bearings, etc). If you've ridden in deep sand, the same: wash it.
* As said as in Getting There, beware when using roads without a cycle track and shared with cars. Due to long straight lines people do drive fast. Cars driving 120km/h during quiet moments of weekdays is not rare.
* Take a waterproof jacket when the air is cold and the weather is uncertain. Local weather can be sometimes very "Scottish".
When to ride
All year !
THE accomodation (and almost only possible) in the region is camping. There are loads of campsites near the sea resorts (Houtin-Plage, Carcans-Plage, and Lacanau-Océan, etc). All kind of standards and prices. But cheap ones are full very quickly in July and August.
There are also some houses and flats to rent, but significantly expensive. And the stay looses a lot of its charm.
Wild-camping is not very recommended even if there is a huge space to find spots out of sight. But if you get caught the fine can be salty: firemen do not joke with forest fires...
Wild-camping can perhaps be done on the beach but far from crowded spots. But near the dune to avoid sudden fresh water in the tent at high tide :)