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Bilbao to Cherbourg tour

Minh Huynh2020-06-24 09:53:07

Has anyone done a tour on a tandem from Bilbao to Cherbourg? If so, please may I ask for some advice on routes and accommodation. I'm planning to drive to Portsmouth and leave the car there and catch the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao and cycle up the west coast of France to catch a ferry back to Portsmouth from Cherbourg.

Graham Capper2020-06-24 14:25:42

Sounds like a great adventure. Go for it!

We have used the Bilbao ferry with the tandem and have cycled extensively in the West of France, though never to Cherbourg.

The ferry terminal called Bilbao is actually 20km from the city itself. After a short climb up on the busy port approach road, there are relatively minor roads to follow towards the City, with the option of a cyclepath beside the river for the last few kms, allowing escape from the city traffic (and providing a photogenic view of the iconic Guggenheim Museum). 

Booking.com offer many accommodation choices in Bilbao. The best atmosphere is in the old town, around the cathedral. We have stayed twice in Estella Ostatu - a friendly, budget hotel in the old town. Tandem lived in the first floor dining area, which necessitated carrying it up a wide flight of stairs.

From Bilbao to the French border, it is very undulating and sometimes difficult to find traffic-free or less busy roads. There is often affordable accommodation aimed at surfers and walking pilgrims along the Camino del Norte, as well as conventional tourist hotels. San Sebastian is a must. Do try the pintxos!

Once in France, you have the option of the Velodysee/EV1 - the coastal bike path - which stays close to the coast for much of 800 km to Nantes. The Eurovelo website has useful planning tools and also offers road options to cut some of the coastal crenulations - reducing the distance to closer to 600km. Between Bayonne (lunch at the Bar du Marche!) and Royan you are in the Landes, with a mostly tarmac, often very straight cycle path along firebreaks in the forest. Can be exposed and hot!

Favourite places on the way - St Jean de Luz, Biarritz, Bayonne, Arcachon, Royan (via a ferry across the Garonne estuary), La Rochelle, Nantes .....

An option to escape the coast is the Velo Francette, from La Rochelle to Normandy, which is a well signed route following minor roads and sometimes former rail lines. This allows relatively easy navigation across real France, including several Loire wine appelations and the delightful Mayenne river valley.

I haven't made the junction to Cherbourg, but this website suggests possibilities https://en.francevelotourisme.com/cycle-route

Alternatively, via Nantes, there are many choices of route towards Cherbourg. We have used canal towpaths and rail routes, though the latter mainly run east-west. In Brittany and Normandy though there are many kms of lightly used, well surfaced minor roads - a cycling paradise.

If you are willing to camp, there are many campsites in France, coastal and inland, often with fixed tents or cabins for overnight rent.  Even when busy they rarely turn away cyclists. Away from the coast, there are affordable hotels in most small towns, including the Campanile edge of town chain (think Travelodge but with better restaurants) and Logis - often old fashioned town centre former coaching inns. We rarely book ahead and have not suffered as a result - I suppose that depends on the season and whether measures to suppress the virus demand reservations.

Enjoy your trip, including the planning.  You are certainly going to eat well!


Minh Huynh2020-06-24 16:59:23

Thank-you so much Graham! That has got me all excited! Covid19 restrictions dependent, we are planning on making the trip in September. Your information is much appreciated. Are you on Strava by any chance and did you capture your rides on there? If so, would you mind if I followed you on Strava so that I can take a copy of your routes?

Thanks again for taking the time to provide such extensive info. Sounds like a great trip to look forward to and we now also have a few things to look out for!

BTW - when you book the ferry to Bilbao, the website would not allow 2 passengers with 1 bicycle, so I assume you just need to put in 2 passengers with 2 bicycles? Or did you ring them to let them know that you were taking a tandem?



Graham Capper2020-06-24 17:47:58

Sorry Minh, we're not on Strava. I use a Garmin Edge Touring for navigation (plus some paper maps). 

Yes, Brittany ferries used to let you count the tandem as one bike, but now the website insists on one bike per passenger, so the tandem counts as two. 

I would have a close look at the French cycle tourism website whose link I included above, but also AF3V (Association Francais des Veloroutes et Voies Vertes) which has a surprisingly comprehensive interactive map of most cycle routes in France. If you can read a bit of French, some of the links will make more sense, but a lot is maps or in English.


June 20202020-06-24 17:57:02

We have a sailing with Brittany Ferries, with car, in August and we have just been informed our route will resume in July.  While following their updates since passenger sailings stopped it has become evident that when resuming they will not be taking foot or cycling passengers.  There is no indication when this will change and is a resuly of Covid 19 issues relating to passenger management at the terminals.  I assume it will continue until Covid 19 issues have ended, which could be a long time.

Re the booking of tandem and passengers, we have always just booked 2 people with 2 bikes although I have heard of people ringing up and just getting 1 bike registered.

We have done lots of bits of the route on various other trips but never the whole route you are thinking of.  I would agree with Grahem's summary.

Hope you get to do the trip in the near future, it will be great.


Minh Huynh2020-06-24 21:45:43

Thanks again Graham and thank-you Ian. 

Sheila Ward2020-06-29 12:03:44

Having researched the Velo Francette quite a lot, I am not sure that some of it is suitable for a tandem as there is some non-tarmac and some rather narrow looking board walk! But I still would like to do it as parts of Route 1 look pretty boring. You can cut across from Nantes on regional routes to avoid the lengthy coast of Brittany. I would suggest turning off at Ploermel on regional route 3 to St Malo then cycle along past Mont St Michel - a lovely ride - before heading up to Cherbourg. Or take the ferry from St Malo back to Portsmouth.

Minh Huynh2020-06-29 13:32:51

Thanks Sheila. Will definitely include St Malo to Mont St Michel. Will also take a look at Ploermel to St Malo on regional route 3. Thanks for your advice as we've never done the west coast before.

Charles Kendall2020-06-30 10:57:21

We know the French basque Country corner up to Bayonne and the coastal cycle path from Biarritz to Bayonne and while Biarritz is well worth seeing the cycle path will be very challenging with the crowds of tourists in summer. If you are happy skipping Biarritz I suggest you turn inland at Saint Jean-de-Luz (which is worth a visit) and take the main road to Ascain, St Pee sur Nivelle and then to Espelette.Ascain is worth a coffee stop and Espelette is worth more than a coffee stop. The main road has a cycle lan and is very good. Espelette is the capital of the Piment (nice museum to visit). At Espelette turn north and head for Ustaritz. At Ustaritz you can pick up a dedicated cycle path all to way to Bayonne along the Nive river and even the city centre if you want. There is a good network of cycle paths through Bayonne and across the Adour river to the north side.

Minh Huynh2020-06-30 17:57:54

Thanks Charles - that is very good to know. All these great tips from people who know the area will really help me plan my trip. Thanks again, Minh.