Posted by: Jennifer Sage | May 4, 2008

The Best Time to Cycle in Burgundy

Following my post on optimal times to cycle in Provence, I thought I’d include some of the more popular destinations for bicycle vacations and the best time to bicycle in each one. Although the French climate is one of the most temperate in Europe, not all areas of France are created equal, from a weather point of view. There are four main types of weather patterns in France:

* oceanic or maritime, found in the north-west and mid-west, with mild winters and cool summers and frequent rain all year round;

* continential, inland France with cold winters, hot summers and medium rainfall;

* the mountain climate, the Alps and Pyrenées and smaller ranges, with very cold, snowy winters and summers that may be hot but are often wet;

* the Mediterranean climate along the Meditarranean coast and up to 50km inland, which has mild winters and hot, dry summers with sometimes heavy, sudden rainfall.

Burgundy is further north than Provence, and is less arid and very lush. It has a continental climate which makes it ideal for cycling. On the other hand, the weather patterns in Burgundy can be somewhat confused at times. This is evident in the wide variance in the wines, as the weather has more to do with the quality of the wines than in other premier growing areas. But I digress…I’ll talk about the wines in a future post!

I began my tenure as a bicycle tour guide working for a company based in Burgundy, just outside of Beaune, back in 1989. Over the years of working there, I have experienced Burgundy from May through October, and although I was sent to all parts of France to lead tours, Burgundy was my home base.  When I wasn’t on tour, I was riding my bike through the vineyards all over the Cote d’Or, so I have more firsthand experience on the weather here throughout the seasons than almost any other part of France (although I did live in Nice for a year).

On a side note, I read some interesting articles that stated that the heat wave of 2003 created average temperatures in Burgundy that hadn’t been experienced in that part of France since 1370! Temperatures weren’t recorded until the mid-19th century, so they discovered this by studying the starting dates of grape harvests in Burgundy over the past 600 years. Due to the importance of winemaking in Burgundy to the civilization, detailed written records of grape harvests have been kept since the mid 14th century, making it possible to reconstruct France’s climate 600 years ago. Anyone who watched the Tour de France in 2003 saw the effects of the heat wave on the cyclists, where average temperatures in France were almost 6 degrees above normal. I was in Tuscany in late May/early June in 2003 and experienced temperatures in the high 90’s in the spring; I can’t imagine what it was like in mid-summer!

Springtime

You can comfortably ride earlier in spring in Provence than in Burgundy, but late May is a pleasant time to be here with the arrival of the coquelicots (poppies) and other fragrant and colorful flowers. A common spring crop is rapeseed, or canola, which blooms in May/June and is a brilliant yellow, even more so than the mid-summer sunflowers. But sudden rainstorms, lasting for several days, can get in your way of your rides in May. Make sure to be prepared and have some warmer gear for misty mornings. May, June and September have more rain than the hotter summer months.

June is my preferred time to be in Burgundy (as it is in almost every area of Europe I’ve traveled). Cherry trees are abundant, perhaps even more so than in Provence, often with lone trees on the side of the road (i.e. not on private property). I’ve eaten many a cherry in Burgundy!

Burgundy is mostly known for its grape harvest, but it is also an important farming community, with fields of rapeseed, wheat, corn, oats and barley as well as many vegetables and some fruit trees. In the rural areas, you’ll ride by fields and fields of hay. Wonderful in the spring prior to harvesting due to the undulating textures of the grain blowing in the light breezes, but transformed to fields of yellow stubble afterwards. The cutting of the crops takes place in mid-late June and the air can get quite heavy with chaff and dust.

Summer

July and August are sunny and quite warm, into the mid-80’s, but it isn’t as hot as it can get in Provence and Tuscany during these months, so cycling remains very pleasant. It is more humid than in the south, but not stifling. Rain is scarce and skies are blue. But like all areas of France in the summer, it can get quite crowded especially beginning just before Bastille Day on July 14th (perhaps a little less so than further south). Reservations for accommodations should be made 4-6 months in advance for the best value and quality. You may consider staying in off-the-beaten path locations instead of Beaune if you want to avoid the swarms of tourists in town.

Due to the plethora of secondary and tertiary back roads in this region, you can find some fabulous uncrowded cycling roads even when the towns are brimming with people. There are some amazing “finds” for cyclists if you know where to locate them – abbey ruins, tiny rural villages, scenic roads along gurgling streams, lesser known chateaux and manor homes, and pastures of beautiful horses. You’ll also be treated to the most exquisite endless fields of sunflowers during these months.

There are few parts of France that I would recommend cyclists to travel in the month of August. Burgundy and Alsace are two of them (and perhaps Normandy and Brittany, though I am not as familiar with them), so if that is the only month you can take your cycling vacation, check into these two delightful regions.

Autumn

The wines of the Cote d’Or are some of the finest and most expensive in the world, so if you are planning to cycle in Burgundy in September, I hope you intend to do a little exploration of the vignobles! Harvest takes place throughout the month of September, and the smell of wine and vinegar will fill the air in the villages devoted to the wine trade. Many of our routes meander through the vineyards, on public vineyard roads, but these may be clogged somewhat with tractors pulling the trailer laden with the grape harvest. This only forces you to get off your bike a little more frequently to take more photos!

It can rain more often in September, so always have your raingear with you. Evenings and mornings will be cooler so you’ll need a light jacket.

Also, though families with children have returned from their monthlong vacations, there are still a lot of tourists in the region, primarily to experience the harvest so advanced reservations are strongly recommended (though you might find lodging in the more rural areas). You will encounter dozens of bicycle tours and cyclists from all over the world. Because of the central location of Burgundy to all other areas of France, many bicycle tour companies have their headquarters located nearby, so some of the hardcore cyclists you meet might be guides and other employees from these companies on their days off. I say that from experience as well, because that’s what we did when we weren’t working – we rode our bikes through the vineyards!

In October, the vineyards transform into a mosaic of autumn colors, often shrouded in a veil of mist in the mornings. Temperatures can drop very quickly in October, so you should schedule your trip for early in the month and your rides for mid-days. You should be able to find some great off-season rates for accommodations, but some tourist sights, chateaux and even some shops might be closed or be open only on weekends by the end of the month.  

Also by the end of the month, you’ll see your breath and frost will cover the ground each morning, so only the die-hard cyclists will still be out there! 

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Responses

  1. great to have such detaled info re cycling in Burgundy – we are coming from NZ to ride in mid May and want to do a freedom ride and are looking for somewhere to hire bikes from . Interested in recommendations of a 7 day route doing between 40 and 60 km per day any thoughts and info appreciated
    Regards from the sunny southern hemisphere
    Jan

    • Yes, but it was 18 degrees C today in the hills above Beaune – Nov 19 (2009) !! This time last year it was about 2 C and the temp. hardly rose above zero for three months (average where I live was -3 throughout Dec & Jan -above Nuits St G) . This year . . . . . I’m still wearing my summer cycling jerseys.


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