The Loire river is France's longest. Around 1010kms winding over flat, scenic plains, from the mountains of the Central Massif to the Atlantic. And while the river itself is rather lovely, and enticing for a lazy float, it is more likely it's the wine, pretty villages and the châteaux that entice people to choose this region for a cycling tour.
Drinking and cycling is not ideal, especially if you're weighed down with clinking wine bottles, but if you stay off the main roads, a post-wine-tasting cycle to the next vineyard is a bracing way to clear your head. And not illegal. Which is one of the reasons the humble bike is such a good way to get around the Loire. Add to that the flat terrain and picturesque little roads, running between neat lines of grape vines, old stone cottages, medieval towns and graceful châteaux, and the reliably friendly weather and good food, and you have yourself a very civilised, yet active holiday.
The most famous stretch of river, and the one with the loveliest 15th and 16th Century châteaux is the stretch between Angers and Blois, and most organised or lead cycling trips spend between four and six days pleasantly looping this region: it has the most sites and sights per cycled metre. Trips range from a few days covering 70 - 80kms or so to more adventurous journeys exploring further along the river or into the hills all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to Budapest.
This itinerary travels along the most popular region of the Loire: châteaux central, with about 145kms worth of riding to cover, which most people will find quite comfortable on the paved, flat back roads, and should leave plenty of time to make the most of the sights you're passing.
Chenonceaux - Amboise (12kms): To see another lovely château, this one is reputed to be the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo came as a guest King Francis I in December 1515, and lived and worked in the nearby Clos Lucé, which is connected to the château by an underground passage.
Chaumont – Blois, which is around 36kms from today's starting point. As you near Blois the terrain becomes more varied - there are even hills - which means the town of Blois, sitting on one of these hills, has a nice view as well as being rather charming, which some nice shops and restaurants.
Day Four: Take a morning off your bike to visit the Château de Blois, where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before she set out with her army to fight the British in Orleans.
Day Five: Cherverny - Château de Chambord (17kms): Chambord is the largest of the Loire Valley castles with 440 rooms, 84 staircases and 365 fireplaces, whose chimneys help provide for the fascinating design of the castle's rooftop.
Day Two: Château de Villandry & Château d'Azay-le-Rideau: Cycle west out of Tours to Saint Genouph, then cross over the river Cher to Savonnières for the Château de Villandry. 12kms of cycling south and you reach the Château d'Azay-le-Rideau.
Day Five: Blois: Chaumont also has an ancient viaduct which you should look ever before cycling on towards Blois, which has a nice view and some nice shops and restaurants. Blois also has its own château: Château de Blois.
Day Seven: Chambord
On the last day of cycling amongst the chateaux it's a leisurely 17kms from Cherverny to Chambord and the Château de Chambord. After Chambord you have a last and lovely 16kms of riding though the countryside before you're back in Blois in time to catch the train back to Paris if you need to, panniers laden with clinking wine bottles.
The town of Saumur is between two rivers and surrounded on all sides by vineyards, which produce the sparkling, mostly Chenin Blanc, wines the area is known for. As well as wine, Saumur's most impressive local sight is the Château de Saumur and one of its most popular attractions is the Saturday Market - the perfect place to find that one-off handbag that everyone will envy you for.
Day Three: Saumur - Fontevraud Abbey (15kms): Beautiful, yes, but more importantly historically significant: this is where the Plantagenet kings and queens of England came from, and several of them are buried here.
Cycle on through the evening to Tours.
Further upstream, past Orléans, the towns and châteaux are further apart and you need to cycle two or three hours between points of interest – the pretty back roads are very quiet though. Higher up, near the start of the Loire river the landscape becomes more interesting again and you get into gorge country.
The French transport system makes it quite easy for bikers – you're allowed to carry you bike on many trains, and with a little planning you can get to all these start points via train.
The best time of year for cycling the Loire is summer, between June and September.
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