Bikepacking the French Lot and Dordogne area
Three years ago I discovered the bikepacking phenomenon and decided that was a great way of spending some quality time outdoors and at the same time a good motivation to get into shape. In 2015 did one overnighter, in 2016 I bikepacked two days in the South of The Netherlands where it’s less flat and for 2017 I planned a multi-day trip with some serious terrain in it. April 2017 was selected as a good time to make this trip and to maximise the chance for good spring weather the South of France was the place to be. I asked Lieuwe, a lifelong friend of mine and about the only person I’d dare to make this trek with, to join me. He said yes and so we left for the Dordogne area in Southern France on Saturday the 15th of April 2017 on a 1.000 kilometer trip by car. The bikes were loaded in the back of the station wagon, bags were packed.
It being April and our home being in The Netherlands the weather at home was well… crap. But we were promised nice weather with 18 degrees and no rain in the area we were heading for. We were treated on clear skies, over 20 degrees Celsius but also on some pretty chilly nights.
Our “Tour de Dordogne et Lot” started by setting up camp for one night at campsite La Pigeonette in Miers, a nice and very French village which had a pub, a traditional boulangerie (bakery) that doubled as a pizza take-out and a small village square with a Mairie (town hall).
On Sunday the 16th we headed out on our bikes in SE direction. The car we left at the campsite, just outside the gate. We brought along enough food because we knew there wouldn’t be no significant towns with shops for about a 100 kilometres. On top of that it was Easter which meant everything was going to be closed for the next two days. This is common in Europe, so be aware of of it and pack enough chow.
I made the gpx track at home with brouter.de’s decent online route making tool, set to ‘hiking’. Then I fine-tuned the trip using gpsies.com and the Linux program gpsprune. And by fine tuning I mean I made the route follow the best trails and through some epic scenery. For this I used Google Images, french websites on historic sites in the area and Google Maps. The first historic site we encountered was the medieval town of Thègra. Hardly anything in the village had been changed for 500 years. It’s like a time vortex: you enter a place with streets too narrow for cars, cobbled streets, streets with no pavement whatsoever, ancient walls and timber…it’s all very, very old. As with most towns and villages in rural France the young population has left for the big cities and what’s left is pensioners, wealthy people in their second or third home en people as old as the buildings they live in.
Leaving Thégra we entered an area of remarkably lush green valleys and ancient old oak trees strewn across the small meadows. Stone walls are built around every meadow. These are a hallmark of this area: over millennia people have found rocks in there fields and placed them to the side and so evolved walls about 100 to 120cm high. There’s these walls everywhere now. Some of them are maybe a thousand years old by the looks of it. They could well be, this land has been in use for millennia.
Some 20 kilometres SE of Thègra these walls were now everywhere around us. Sometimes we cross the fields over narrow paths (‘chemins’) with walls on both sides. Miers, where we started off, is on a 415 meter high hill but by now the terrain is only slightly hilly and we go up and down 50 meters or so constantly. There’s a name for this type of terrain: a causse, a limestone plateau. The greater area we will be riding through is a national parc.
We are now SSE of Thègra and ~40 km into our 335 km ride. The environment suddenly changes quite a bit: it’s now a lot drier and everywhere grow small, wonky oak trees. Not like a forest but just a lot of oak trees strewn across the land. We ride side by side on double-tracks with reddish coarse gravel out of which the bedrock sometimes emerges. You sense this is an ancient landscape.
Then the land suddenly ends. We are at the end of this “Causse du Quercy” and arrive at our first river, the Céĺé. Like the Dordogne, Lot, Tarn and other rivers in Southern France the river is deep down in a canyon or ‘gorge’ as they call them here. Flowing for millions of years the rivers here have carved out deep canyons in the limestone plateaus. The gorge of the Célé is only about 125 meters deep and one of the shallower ones. The further South you go, the deeper these gorges get. The one of the Tarn is almost a kilometer deep at some places.
We head halfway down to glimpse the 13th century abbey of Espagnac-Sainte-Eulàlie in the valley below. The original plan was to go all the way down but legs and mind resisted. “It looks nice from up top too”. After a good look at the ancient monastery we head back up the trail. We are surprised to find that the trail back up is a steep 25% shoddy trail littered with coarse gravel and some bigger rocks. The 50 or so meters up take us at least 30 minutes to conquer. We push and even drag our bikes over the trail and rocks. We knew the route had about 6500 meters of climbing in it but trails like this are a bit too much for me. That it was going to be like this was a big mental obstacle. But I wasn’t going to be put off on Day 1 already, of course.
At the end of the trail that leads back up to the Causse du Quercy we were treated on an epic view: the trail follows the edge of a 100+ meters high cliff. Down below is the river Célé, a road and some fields and houses. At times the trail is about a meter away from the cliff. You really don’t want to make a wrong move here and sometimes we walk the trail.
After one or two gorgeous kilometres the trail goes down a bit and now we ride below the cliff past old springs and ruins of houses and ancient fortifications. The trail turns out the be part of the road of Saint Jacques de Compostella and we encounter several hikers on the trail. We ‘bonjour’ everyone and are greeted kindly in return. Be nice gets you a long way in France.
The next ten kilometres we gently wind our way down to the valley floor at Brengues only to go back up about 75 meters and immediately back down again. This happens a lot in this ride: go up 150 or 200 meters on a trail too steep to ride, and go down on the other side. It’s just how you get around in these parts. After a little over 70 kilometres we find it’s time for the night but it being only April many official campsites (or ‘campings’ as they are known in Europe) are still closed. We end up at the camping municipal of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, a few clicks downriver of the our planned route. The bar is also open so we end the day with a nice cold beer, chips and confit de canard (duck). These camping municipals are usually basic but proper and often have a little restaurant too. Awesome invention!
The night was a chilly 3 degrees we figure. I had a pretty good first sleep in my Six Moon Designs Deschutes and Cumulus Mysterious Traveller sleeping bag I brought for this trip. Lieuwe got us something to eat from the local boulangerie, we packed our things and picked up the trail up on the causse South of the Célé. The climb up is paved and rather long but with ~5% doable with our singlespeed MTB’s. I ride 34*19 on this trip, Lieuwe rolls a 36×18. We ride over a much more arid causse between the Célé and Lot river. There’s the small oak trees but now with more heather, grasses, loads of small flowers, mosses on trees and mulberry shrubs. Overall it the soils looks poorer here and we don’t get the impression much is going on when it comes to agriculture or keeping animals. It’s mostly wood production I gather. The rocks are an eroded but sometimes still quite sharp. Unlike expected, and quite miraculously, we had zero flats during our entire trip!
At one of the highest points of this causse we pass one of two dolmen. These are ~5,000 year old tombs. It is still not quite clear why they were built here on this location. But looking at the site imagine why people would bury their dead here. Maybe they lived close by in the canyons or on the causse itself (there’s still a water source nearby). Maybe it was because this site was a perfect vantage point. It still is, we could see the 1850 meter high Puy Mary in the East, a solid 65 km away in the Massif Central region (cool info: the Puy Mary is one of the peaks left of a once enormous 3,500 meter high volcano which exploded somewhere around 10,000 BC). It makes you feel tiny and short-lived riding here. There have been living people in this area for at least 25,000 or maybe even a 100,000 years. So up to half a million generations have been living out there lives on the spot we are now wandering around. You ponder this quite a bit while out here.
Down in the river valley at Cajarc we have a drink. Again, it’s a nice 20 degrees C and the sky is blue without any clouds. Perfect cycling weather. After 30 minutes we head North out of town back on the GR 65. We have to walk all the way up the causse again. Halfway we are met by hikers coming down the same trail that has been in use for a thousand or more years. They look at us. Probably because they think we are crazy for pushing our loaded bikes up the steep trail. I can’t disagree with them.
At Larnagol we cross the Lot river and fight our way back up yet another causse South of the river. West of Calvignac we are treated again on a stunning view of the Lot river. The Lot gorge is a lot wider and also deeper than the Célé’s. Up were we are it’s again dry, arid and barren land. Down in the valley below its green pastures, lots of trees and several villages. The reason all these villages are down in the valley or built up against the cliffs is obvious: the possibility for agriculture and defensive positions. One of those cliff-hugging towns is Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. One of the most famous villages in France it has everything a tourist attractions apparently needs: camp sites, eight parking lots and tourist shops. Luckily we are here before the busy summer tourist season and we pick one of the free spots at the 5-star campsite down by the river. Today we eat out of the bag because supplies have run low. Again it’s chilly at night, about 4 degrees C.
The next morning we eat a bit, pack our things and cross the Lot in Northerly direction to get to the boulangerie and small supermarket there. Well stocked and bellies full we head back over the river to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie and enter this marvellous medieval town via one of the goat trails as we now call them: steep zig-saggy trails up the hill. Again, too steep to cycle up, we push the bikes some more.
It really is beautiful village. Houses cling to the steep hills and cliffs, a towering church that doubled as a castle at some time and old houses all around. I would be surprised if you could find a house younger than 300 years here. Because we again have to walk up (it’s simply to steep to cycle) we get a good look at the town while on the move.
We leave town by cycling-walking-cycling further up to the causse above this village. By now I know with my singlespeed mountainbike I can ride up to 7% grades when paved. Less when it’s a loose surface. From here it’s a rather long ride over the causse south of the Lot to Cahors, the only big town in the entire area. Most of the route is paved here, unfortunately. I thought the tour would be at least 80% unpaved but I guess I interpreted the OpenStreetMap the wrong way. No matter, it’s beautiful here none the less. At one time we encounter a fence where we want to head back on the unpaved trail so we decide to take the next trail into nothingness only to be stopped 300 meters in by two locals who denied the existence of a trail there. “Il n’y a que de bois par là.” (There’s nothing but woods there). Yes, we know. That’s the point. I try again in my best French: our map says there is a trail there. “Une chemin de points?” the man asks and by doing so confirming our map. Oui, a trail of dots. Again, the man then proceeds to deny its existence. We now gather this is the man’s way of telling us to leave. So we take the next trail 1 km down the road, pick up the route there and leisurely continue our ride. At Aujols we rest and eat a bit. It’s a strange place. Obviously this once was an important place with a large castle on a hilltop, a source of water and a quite a big town around it. But now nothing is left but houses of which at least 25% is uninhabited and ruins of the castle. A sight you see a lot around these parts of France.
We head on and eventually end up at the vantage point high above Cahors, have lunch consisting of bread with Cantal cheese and then descend into Cahors via a narrow trail. I walk most and cycle some of it when I dare. Down in Cahors we cycle round the old city, have a drink at a small pub next to the cathedral of Cahors and resupply. We anticipate not to find an official campsite for the night. We leave Cahors over the famous 14th century Pont Valantré also Pont du Diable (Bridge of the Devil) and have to go up yet another causse. This time the trail up is a really tough one and runs for a kilometer or two. Exposed in the warm spring sun it’s hard. It’s my worst day of the trip and I feel like not being able to move a muscle. I start to mutter because I feel like I’ve reached my limit. Lieuwe pulls me through by making me believe the next day will be better. It’s strange realising that I knew I was going to reach my breaking point, that I would go through that process and that I would eventually make it through.
We now are back up on the causse again, this time West of Cahors. Half of the route is behind us, and we decide on doing another 20 kilometres. There’s no campsites in sight so we prepare our minds for a wild camp somewhere in the remote area a few clicks South of Thédirac. We pass a launch site for parapentes and it’s also a nice view at one of many meanders in the Lot river.
After struggling to find a way down to the valley floor we cross the Lot from the South and are now heading back North again. After a while we find a spot up in the corner of a meadow and set up shop. The road next to the meadow is unpaved, and only one car passes our stealthy site. We remain unseen and eat pasta and half a cucumber each while the sun sets. A deer walks casually across the fields. When the night arrives we are already in our sleeping bags. During the first hours unfamiliar sounds keep me awake and at one time even anxious when a boar gets pretty close to our camp. Making a lot of noise I manage to scare it off and no animals are heard again. But maybe that’s just because we are deep asleep by then…
The following morning we eat, drink coffee and are treated on the site of two does chasing each other across the meadow. Good times.
This part of the route turns out to be easier going as the third day. I’m glad because I’m running on limited power by now. As the day progresses my strength partly returns but I am still quite incapable of cycling the longer and steeper climbs. So I just walk. Not a big deal, we can easily make our 60 km goal for the day. The area we now pass through is a combination of what we have seen the previous days: lush green valleys, arid areas but also a new type of terrain we know from back home: pine forests and sandy surfaces. Only here there’s also hills in the mix. We ride through Gourdon, a real pretty medieval city with 12th century store fronts still there. Next we pass through Milhac which is a small but beautiful village with again the remains of a castle on the hilltop. We stop and walk through the little village. In retrospect Milhac was the best historic site and sight of the entire trip.
Only when we reach the Dordogne valley the terrain is flat and green and we ride nice strade bianche’s. Nature here is abundant but man-made. Trees are planted in straight lines, the land is being extensively used by farmers and there’s lots of roads, railroads, bridges and telephone lines everywhere. But beautiful in its own way.
This day did have a lot of climbing in it but not nearly as much as the third day, which I found to be the toughest day of the entire route. Back home I discovered the third leg had indeed the most vertical meters in it: over 1,600. So yeah… At the end of Day 4 I feel like I can hack another day like this and I feel much better dan yesterday. We camp on a campsite in Saint-Julien-de-Lampon, eat an easy pasta and have a good night sleep. No sub-zero temperature but it’s a close shave.
After packing we leave for the boulangerie in Saint-Julien-de-Lampon. Visiting the boulangerie is easily the best start of any day: buy sugary treats and a baguette (bread). Lieuwe also buys some sardines in tomato sauce and another piece of cheese. We stuff our packs with the loot for the final leg of the trip and hit the road. The first 25% of this leg is over the flat Dordogne valley floor. We ride more strade bianche, we pass Souillac and have a drink there on a small square next to the bell-tower and head for Pinsac. Here I stayed with my parents in 1979. We visit the house they rented there. I don’t know how I can have remembered but I actually have some keen memories of that holiday. I get sentimental and to get down to the river’s edge we ride the same sandy road I walked as a 3 year old. I rediscover the echo against the cliffs. I am again surprised by it. Good times again. We ride further through the valley to Lacave where we know the terrain will get tougher again.
After Lacave you leave the Dordogne valley by first going up a bit. Then we enter the gorge of the L’Ouysse river. It’s decidedly bikepacking heaven: easy to ride gravel double-track or wide paths, not all to steep and we are surrounded by cliffs. I’ve never been to Arizona but this must be it. Watch out for them indjuns on the ledges! Our fifth and last leg is quickly turning out to be the best part of the trip!
After at least 10 kilometres of the best bikepacking ever through a fantastic valley and the best trails of the entire tour we reach the world-famous town of Rocamadour. Built against the cliff it’s one of the best examples of this way of building. I have actually seen Rocamadour twice before but was never impressed by it. So when I made the route I decided on approaching it from the valley floor. It’s better than from up top were all the tourists are, looking down at the town. When we close in on the town the first thing I notice is a watch tower on the top of the gorge opposite the town. Obviously a way of being able to warn the town against dangers coming out from the L’Oussye valley and probably built during the 100 Year War.
The town itself is chock-full with tourists so we ride through it as fast as we can. The climb out of Rocamadour and up the causse is a tough one but I manage to ride the whole of it. Happy.
Again, we are up on the causse we started the route on, five days ago. Close to Rocamadour it’s all a bit arid but that soon changes back to the lush green valleys we rode through on the 1st day of the trip. I decide to make a cup of coffee, the last one of this trip. We sit next to a country road and have coffee. Not far from our final destination Miers we are treated again, on a gorgeous sight. This time it’s an extraordinary green valley. It’s greener than anything we have seen on this trip. We decide on calling it the Hidden Valley because of its limited access but relative closeness to some villages.
Finally, we reach Miers and the campsite where we left the car five days ago. We set up camp, order pizza at the boulangerie and wait for it being made while having a beer or two at the pub 20 meters down the road. We then eat the enormous pizza at the little town square. The next morning we leave quite late. In Paris we have to navigate the northern suburbs because of very heavy traffic and therefor arrive late in the evening. The weather still is the way we left it. Crappy. We won an entire week of sunny, warm weather and experiences that will last a lifetime.
Gear, the gpx file and tips
On this trip I rode a Salsa El Mariachi singlespeed bike. Bags: Apidura saddle bag, Revelate Designs harness with Ortlieb 22 litre bag, Relevate Designs Gas Tank and a simple backpack. You can ride this trip on a singlespeed and rigid bike. Having gears will just make you go faster on the straights, but don’t expect to be able to climb more by any significant amount. Just pedal. Suspension will make you down the hill faster. Lieuwe rode an All-City JYD, singlespeed and cantilever brakes. It was sufficient but I wouldn’t recommend it. I liked my Shimano Deore hydraulic disc brakes.
I slept in a Six Moon Designs Deschutes (shaped tarp), Exped UL 7 synmat and Cumulus Mysterious Traveler down sleeping bag. For bug protection I used a Sea2Summit Nano bug net. I didn’t use it that much because when temps are low you don’t get the bugs. Bring one of those yellow kitchen cloths with you to get rid of dew on the inside of single wall shelters.
Halfway April is a good time to go to this part of France but you have to provision for rain. We had none. That was unusual. Temperature will be anywhere from -4 to 6 at night and 10 to 25 during the day. You just don’t really know. It can rain for a week but I don’t think that happens very often this time of year.
There’s room to wild camp in this area of France. You can check with a local Office du Tourisme if you are allowed to. They do speak limited English and Google is your friend for finding them.
Easter: all shops closed. For two days. Pack enough. You can get to drinking water but there are hardly any shops on the causses. In the valleys there are. If needed just ask a local. Learn to say thank you and please in French and combine it with monsieur or madame. Try to get the pronunciation right. The French like this. A lot. They will be much, much friendlier then when you are just waving your Platypus in their faces. They are probably just like you when it comes to that 🙂
Over half of the camp sites are closed this time of year. Camping municipals are open more often. Expect to pay about 7 euros a night for a stay. Prices of food in the shops are about the same everywhere in Western-Europe. A supermarket is a super marché. And do find a boulangerie in the morning. Every morning. And during the day if you can. They all have pain aux chocolat and pain aux raisans but the all also have things the one in the next village doesn’t. It all good cycling food.
Do yourself a favour and do NOT ride this route in summer. It’s hot out here. And it’s crowded out here. From April 15 to June 15 you’ll be fine. Autumn probably will be okay as well but it is going to be a lot wetter then. Places like Rocamadour and Saint-Cirq-Lapopie don’t have EIGHT parking lots for no reason… it ruins the entire experience you will otherwise have when you are there with your bike and only a handful of tourists.
And finally, the route. It’s an unedited version of what we rode. There’s some weird loops when we looked for a campsite or shop. If you fall, you did it yourself. If you don’t like it, you chose to ride it yourself. If you want to improve on it and post the new version somewhere else? Go ahead, I’m completely okay with that!
And most importantly: enjoy the ride!