Stunning riding sits alongside the memory of two world wars.
Remember the first time I saw the Monument to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. I’d seen pictures of it but somehow misunderstood the scale of it. Then I came round a corner by the Newfoundland memorial and spotted – on the horizon, several miles away – the Thiepval monument. Then I understood: it’s enormous, almost incomprehensibly vast. But of course, so is the loss of life it commemorates.
North-eastern France bore the brunt of the fighting in two world wars and there are signs everywhere – from the V2 rocket factories and gun emplacements around Calais to the Maginot Line forts in the hills of Alsace and, near every battle site, the graveyards and memorials. They exercise a sombre fascination over visitors, adding an extra dimension to any tour.
The bitterly ironic thing is, life in north-eastern France is good. This is the home of Champagne, the rolling hills and plains offering easygoing riding on gently curving roads between quaint villages. The climate is a bit more British than you get further south, but it’s a lot easier to get here. For a life-affirming, short biking break, you just can’t beat it.
PLACES TO STAY
It’s a big, bustling city with decent bike shops, loads of restaurants and lots going on. We’d stay on the edge of the city, to make getting out easier. Hotel tip: Novotel Amiens Est
We like Reims, but it’s a big city. The nearby town of Epernay’s nicer, because it’s smaller. And outside Epernay is the village of Moussy – which we like best because it’s quiet, charming and has a great-value hotel. Hotel tip: Auberge Champenoise
If you’re looking for a quiet, charming place to stay in the Ardennes, you’re spoilt for choice. Even the small cities of Sedan and Charleville-Mézièrs are lovely. But to get away from it all, we’d stay in the village of Monthermé. Hotel tip: Les Boucles de Meuse
It’s a bustling small city and a historic wonder all rolled into one. There are some nice hotels in the centre, but they’re on the more expensive side: great for a two-up trip but those on a budget are better-off staying a bit further out. Hotel tip: Ibis Budget Verdun
OFF THE BIKE
Reminders of Hitler’s ultimately futile attempts to resist the liberation of Europe and bombard London with unguided flying bombs are sprinkled around the area between Calais and Boulogne at La Coupole, the Blockhaus and the Todt battery. Before going into the Batterie Todt museum itself, consider trekking through the woods to the other decayed batteries that you can see from the coast road for an intimate visit.
In Amiens, head towards the Perret Tower, built around 1950 and for many years, the tallest skyscraper in Europe. Then drop down to the Saint-Leu region below the cathedral, a region of canals lined with small houses, cafes and restaurants by the river for you to cool off a little.
ARRAS AND VIMY RIDGE
Arras town centre was painstakingly reconstructed in its Flemish style after WWI with two large open squares complete with mansions above arcades, where you can relax with a coffee. Descend 20m deep into the Wellington Tunnels to visit the shelters where thousands of British soldiers hid before the Battle of Arras in 1917. Excellent audio guides and displays. Rue Arthur Deletoille, 62000, Arras.
The Somme, just north of Albert, it’s hard to believe so much carnage was concentrated in such a small area, as you can ride along the Downland ridge from the Thiepval Memorial to the Ulster Tower, Pozieres and the Lochnagar Crater in 15 minutes. Use the Commonwealth War graves Commission site to search for relatives, as Thiepval has 72,242 names engraved on it. Grab a refreshing cuppa at Le Tommy bar/restaurant in Pozieres.
Post-WWI reconstruction means Saint Quentin town is a surprisingly pleasant mix of Gothic and Art-Deco architecture with an extensive ‘Champs-Elysées’ area of garden and parkland too.
Laon is home to one of the earliest Gothic cathedrals in France, which is visible for miles around on its hill which gives you good views too, especially from a walk on the ramparts or from its mini-tram system if you don’t fancy stretching your legs.
Known as the site of the signing of the WWI Armistice and the French surrender in 1940 in a railway carriage in nearby woods, Compiégne’s Palace contains two museums - Vehicles and Tourism and Napoleon III - as well as English-style gardens.
Remember to spit and you can ride and enjoy a visit to the Boutique Champagne Janisson Baradon et Fils, tasting Champagne while sitting outside the store in the sunshine. Less commercial than Moët et Chandon et al.
Gustave Eiffel designed bridges as well as towers and you can stroll over his ironwork bridge here into a park by the canal with views of La Ferte’s 15th-century castle ruins.
Whether you cross at Calais, Dunkirk or Dieppe, this is the most accessible corner of France. You can blast across it quickly on the autoroute or take more interesting roads, which can sometimes be nearly as quick as the motorway, as there are some long, straight, open roads – just be aware that some of them have speed cameras lurking in the hedgerow!
OUR MOTORCYCLE TOURING ROUTES
AMIENS WWI SITES
Start/finish: Amiens. Distance: 195 miles. Riding time: 6.5 hours
From the Somme to Vimy Ridge, this ride passes dozens of memorials to World War One.
Morning route map Afternoon route map Download the GPX
Start/finish: Moussy. Distance: 190 miles. Riding time: 5.5 hours
An intoxicating ride through the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims to the old Reims GP buildings and the imposing citadel of Laon.
Route map, Download the GPX
Start/finish: Verdun. Distance: 150 miles. Riding time: 4.5 hours.
Brilliant roads link the memorial locations around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Verdun.
Route map, Download the GPX
Please note: This page contains the route files for The RiDE Guide To France which came free with RiDE magazine in July 2017. These website page are not regularly updated, so please check all critical information before you travel. All route files are in .gpx format. Garmin and BMW users can download the main file, which contains all the routes and our recommended hotels as separate waypoints. TomTom users can download the individual routes and use the Tyre software to convert them. For many routes we also have Google Map links. However, as Google Maps will not plot routes over seasonally closed high Alpine passes when they’re shut, these may not work for every route all year round.