Posted by: Jennifer Sage | May 2, 2008

The Best Time to Cycle in Provence

When is the best time to travel (by bike of course) in Provence?

I am often asked this question, but the answer depends on many factors, such as how much riding you are planning on doing (short excursions or all-day centuries), whether you want to visit the most popular destinations or don’t mind if you are staying out in the boonies, whether you’ll be combining other activities such as swimming in the Mediterranean or hanging out by the pool, your interest in the vendange (grape harvest) and your tolerance of heat and of traffic! Each season is unique and beautiful, and has its own special delights to offer cyclists.  Choosing your months of travel (if you have a choice) can make a huge difference in your experience.

But in general, the best cycling is in late May & June and September & October. I’ll list the benefits and disadvantages of each of these months as they relate to cyclists, as well as how to deal with July and August if that is the only time you can go.

Springtime

May is a special time in Provence and is very uncrowded and pleasant. You’ll be treated to a fabulous display of spring flowers, with large fields of fiery red coquelicots (poppies) intersperced with various yellow, blue and purple flowers of every ilk lining many of the roads. Villages will be endowed with lavender-colored glycine and graceful wisteria draping fences and porches.  You should know that March, though it can be sunny with crystal blue skies, is often a month filled with Mistral winds, sometimes up to 50 mph, not fun on a bike, or even a car! The Mistral may still blow its chilly winds in April and May and it’s possible to experience some heavy rain (though it doesn’t usually last long). Early spring you’ll need warmer clothes, and in May you’ll need a light jacket in the evenings, and perhaps leg/arm warmers for the start of your rides.  

June is probably my favorite month in Provence, because you’ll have many of the flowers of May (sans the poppies, except maybe the first week, especially if it’s very hot), added to the bountiful fruit trees and vegetables visible around every corner.  Some areas of Provence are known as the fruit-basket of France. This is a season of abundance and the marchés are especially interesting at this time of year. Pear, apricot, plum, peaches everywhere. Some are ripe now, some wait until July to be enjoyed.  But in June, the ubiquitous cherry trees are ready and waiting! If you know where to ride, you’ll even find them lining the roads, their heavily laden branches within reach or a short climb, full of luscious black cherries begging to be plucked directly from the tree and into your mouth.  

In June, the yellow broom bushes are covered in brilliant yellow blossoms, and you’ll be surrounded in their honeysuckle aroma. A bit too sweet if you sit next to one (IMO) but wonderful as you’re riding along. Tourists are just starting to arrive in June, and you’ll find the roads delightfully void of cars, except in the most populous towns and popular destinations. I also love the sight of fields of wheat and oats that aren’t harvested yet (though these fields aren’t as plentiful in Provence as in other regions), as it creates fields of shifting shades of green as they gently blow in the wind. The fields are usually cut in mid to late-June, depending on the heat. It’s not fun to ride by fields that are being mowed because of the chaff in the air – you may want to take an alternate route if you see some – or just ride faster!

June is the perfect cycling temperature. You probably won’t even need additional clothes unless you plan to take on some of the bigger climbs such as Mont Ventoux, where you’ll need warm clothes for the descents. But it never hurts to be prepared in case of the rare rain storm.

Summer

You may have been told to avoid the south of France in July and August. Normally I recommend for my clients to avoid these months due to crowds and heat, but these months are so brilliantly colorful, and are often when the local festivals are scheduled. There are ways to enjoy Provence during these months if you know where to go. July is when the lavender is blooming, a fabulous sight to see and an aromatherapy experience extraordinaire – try not to fall off your bike as you ride by (either from the relaxing smell surrounding you or the beauty of the vista)! July and August are also when you’ll see the typical endless fields of brilliant sunflowers.

July is when things really start to heat up, but you can be lucky in early July and still encounter great weather. I’ve taken a tour group in early July to climb Mont Ventoux and we were treated to wonderfully temperate temperatures of 70-80 degrees while cycling through fields and fields of brilliantly colored lavender, as far as the eyes can see. However, even though the average temperatures listed at the end of this post say 82-84 degrees fahrenheit in summer, you should know that in some parts of Provence, it can easily reach over 100 degrees for extended periods (especially in August). Bring lots of sunscreen…

July 14th is Bastille Day, French Independence Day, and beginning a few days prior to this is about the time when the Europeans begin their 4-6 week vacations. Believe me, almost all of Europe heads south for their vacations, and that includes Provence! From mid-July to the end of August, all hotels, camp grounds, B&Bs and gites will be sold-out long before. If you don’t have pre-arranged accommodations made many months in advance (except in the off-the-beaten path towns) you will be out of luck. You should also know that during the peak season, many B&Bs, gites, villas and even some hotels have a minimum stay of one week, and many require half-pension during this time (pre-payment of breakfast and dinner).

For best results as a cyclist, my suggestion is to avoid the month of August. If that’s not possible, look for villages that are away from the more popular destinations, such as Sault on the east end of Mont Ventoux, instead of Vaison-la-Romaine, St. Rémy or the popular villages of the Lubéron. You can always ride to the popular destinations if that is your desire (along with the greater amount of traffic en route and join the throngs of tourists at the popular sights). To avoid the traffic, look carefully at your Michelin map and select rides on small roads that are away from the most popular destinations. You can still find some great routes if you look carefully and know how to read a Michelin map.

If your goal is to climb Mont Ventoux in the summer, even if it is very hot in the valley below, you will encounter cold winds at the top.  The elevation gain is 5,253 feet over 13 miles (from Bédoin) and this monster of a mountain, called Le Géant de Provence (no need for translation), creates its own weather at the top. Make sure to start early to avoid the heat of the day for the first 2.3 of the climb and to descend before the winds really pick up. And make sure to bring your jacket, arm warmers and long-fingered gloves even if it’s 100 degrees down below! I would not attempt the climb if you cannot see the top of the mountain shrouded in clouds.

Autumn

September is another golden time to experience the wonders of Provence. It’s the month of the vendange, the wine harvest, which takes place usually towards the last half of the month (though weather conditions may cause an earlier harvest).  It’s quite a sight to see the fields full of workers picking the grapes by hand, and carrying their buckets to the tractor.  Some appellations allow picking by machine, some (especially the more expensive Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas appellations) still require that grapes be harvested by hand. When cycling near vineyards and through villages known for their wines, there’s a heavy smell of wine in the air (some might even say vinegar) – a little different than the aromatherapy provided by the lavender a few months earlier!

Though many fields are starting to dry up (corn, grains), the planting of sunflowers fields in France is staggered in order to make them visible for longer (sunflowers are a trademark of France and believe it or not, are a huge tourist attraction and farmers are subsidized to plant them as they rotate their crops). You’ll see some fields of sunflowers that are completely dried up next to some that are still in full bloom in September.

Though not quite as busy as August, since many of the families with children have returned from vacation for La Rentrée (the return to school), September is still a popular time for travelers from around Europe and the rest of the world. This is one of the most popular times for foreign bicycle tour companies, and you are sure to run into many fellow cyclists. I always recommend early reservations, 4-6 months minimum, or even earlier for the best value and highest quality accommodations. It can still be quite warm in September during the days, although breezes keep it cool in the evenings. Rain is possible (though short-lived). It’s also a great month for some festivals, especially ones that are centered around the harvest.

October finds the vineyards and valleys bathed in a palette of color, as the leaves on the vines and fruit trees turn a brilliant orange/yellow and red. Fragrances of food and spices simmering in the cafés will permeate the air in the villages. You’ll need arm and leg warmers and a jacket/windbreaker for your rides, but you may be shedding them mid-day (and especially while climbing). The back roads will once again be empty of tourists, with long stretches of little to no traffic at all. It’s also a great time to get discounts on your accommodations. This is a wonderful time to visit some of the touristy but worthwhile sites such as Les Baux de Provence and the Pont du Gard – you may even snap a photo with no one else in it, a rare sight indeed. On the other hand, in many of the more popular villages, some of the tourist sites may even be closed down. Not to worry – you are here to ride your bike!

For every season, we provide our clients with a packing list that is tailored to that season, so you never need to question what you might need. Please contact us with any questions you may have about cycling in Provence (or any part of France or Italy for that matter), or check out our website

Average Temperatures in Provence

March: 11-14c. (51 – 58f.)
April: 16-19c. (60 – 66f.)
May: 17-21c. (63 – 70f.)
June: 26-27c. (78 -80f.)
July: 28-29c. (82 – 84f.)
August: 28-29c. (82 – 84f.)
September: 24-25c. (75 – 77f.)
October: 19-22c. (66 -71f.)
November: 14-16c. (58 – 60f.)

 

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  1. Thank you for this post.


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