The Dordogne Region of France, Cycling’s Hidden Gem

By Andrea Champredonde

Most amateur riders have a bucket list of places they’d love to pedal one day. On it, you usually find prominent cycling cols like Italy’s Passo dello Stelvio, Mallorca’s Sa Calobra and France’s Mont Ventoux, among others. But there are cycling paradises that fly under the radar, and the Dordogne Region is one of them.

I lived and cycled in France for years. The Dordogne was right under my nose, yet never heard a peep about it. It’s my job as a cycling guide that brought me there. I was impressed, and left wondering why it’s not a destination that travels in cycling circles? It should be. Let me share why I think the Dordogne Region of France is one of cycling’s hidden gems.

Location and about

The Dordogne Region, also known as the Périgord, is in France’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine department. Picture southwestern France between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees. The region gets its name from the Dordogne River that runs through it. It’s one of France’s largest departments, yet has a sparse population of approximately 410,000. It’s divided into four areas: Noir (Black), Black, Vert (Green), Blanc (White) and Pourpre (Purple). There is something for every cycling ability, from flats to hills and rollers, and more.

Périgord Noir: On the extreme eastern border of the region, the Black Périgord is named after its dark oak tree forests. And oak trees mean truffles. The wonderfully preserved mediaeval town of Sarlat is its capital. The Dordogne and Vézère Rivers flow here and the region is peppered with magnificent landscapes, castles, prehistoric caves, and historic monuments.

Périgord Vert: The Green Périgord lives up to its name with rural valleys, green landscapes and lush foliage thanks to heavy rainfall in the spring and winter. In the department’s extreme north, it is the least populated of the four and Nontron is the capital.

Périgord Blanc: The abundance of white limestone available in this area gives it its name. It’s nestled between the Green to the north, Purple to the south, and Black to the east. Perigueux is the capital of this area and the entire Dordogne.

Périgord Pourpre: Other than cycling, wine comes to mind when you think of France, and the Périgord Purple is no exception. The colour of grapes gives the area its name. Bergerac is the capital and home to the region’s largest airport. Rolling hills covered in vineyards, fields of sun and wildflowers, and timeworn farms make up the landscape. Saint Emilion, a wine buzz word known around the world, is a brief hour away.

Dordogne family cycling
The Dordogne region has a lot of offer. © Profimedia

Minor roads, little traffic

Cyclists in the Dordogne have access to a wide range of less-travelled trails and roads to choose from for road, mountain or gravel bikes. Roadies may want to opt for moderately priced 28 or 30+mm training tires over expensive, lightweight ones because of roads with mixed surfaces and debris from agricultural activity.

And once away from the urban centres, one can pedal for large spells in peaceful bliss before crossing another cyclist or vehicle. Sections of the roads have a natural canopy from the dense vegetation that lines the roadways. Under them, you feel you’re in a scene out of a fairytale. This natural shade protects riders from the elements and the sun in warmer weather.

When riding on any small, rural roads, it’s important to not get lost in the moment and stay to the right; particularly when riding in a group. Locals are used to having these corridors empty, so remember, we aren’t alone on the road. Keep an ear out and be attentive.

Choice of terrain

The Dordogne may not make the cycling bucket list final cut because it lacks any massive, long cols, but that shouldn’t deter you. Some of the mid-length hills are definitely a challenge as you ascend out of deep gorges carved into the landscape back in prehistoric times by water. Link them together for an impressive accumulation of metres climbed in a fairly compact distance, close to 1000m for 50-60 km if that’s your flavour.

Riding with the family? Stick to the flats or easy rollers. Just a few minutes researching routes in your Périgord destination of choice on Strava, Komoot, or Ride with GPS reveals two-wheeled excursions to your liking based on ability level, desired distance, and elevation gain.

Lots to do and see

When the bike is put away, there is still plenty to do. This region is rich in cultural history and boasts over 1,200 chateaux, manors, and country homes built by past French nobles. This is more than the Loire Valley. The Périgord is also the heartland of prehistoric sites and decorated caves in the department’s Vézère Valley. There are 15 of them, to be exact, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

If you’re looking for a mixed-activity holiday that includes canoeing, or you want to learn to canoe, you’re in the right place. Rivers carved the landscapes here. Their banks are home to perched chateaux and manor homes. It’s a pleasure to view them as you gently paddle by. And if rambling in your thing, tracks abound. April to June is the best time for birdwatchers to visit. Bird song follows you wherever you go. Or learn everything you wanted to know about truffles from a local grower (they grow under oak trees). There really is something for everyone.

Excellent infrastructure and accessibility

The closest major airport is Bordeaux. If you fly into Paris, or want to include it as part of your holiday, the French train system offers high-speed TGV service to Bordeaux in three hours. From there, rent a car or jump on a local train (called a TER) to get you to your destination.

Many of the trains have cars for bikes, or allow cyclists to bring their bikes aboard under certain conditions. On larger trains on major lines, like the TGV, bikes are allowed in most cases, but usually if they are in a case or covered. You can take fully assembled bikes on some TER trains, but you need to do your homework to verify this on any train before you go.

Use the SNCF website or app to plan your trip and buy tickets. I also use a convenient app called Trainline. There is no more need for paper tickets. A QR code saved to your phone’s wallet, or as a screenshot, is the new norm and environmentally friendly.

Weather and people

April to October is the best time to visit the Dordogne. July and August are the hottest months of the year. I was there in May, and to be fully transparent, we had a lot of rain, but that was bad luck. The week before was glorious and hey, that’s part of cycling. Don’t forget to pack the rain gear or some pop-on fenders, just in case.

The French people in the region were charming, showing interest in our group and asking questions about where we were from, where we were heading, etc. Cafés, restaurants and other services abound in the many clean, well-maintained and charming village squares decorated with flowers that you’ll ride through along the way. The distances between them aren’t enormous either, so you’ll have no problem filling your water bottle or finding a coffee stop.

Parting thoughts

I didn’t dive into the region’s extensive gastronomic history, but you’ll eat and drink well in the southwest French tradition, I promise. We had a vegetarian in our group, which could be a challenge for the region if arriving with no warning. But we contacted the restaurants ahead of time and they were accommodating.

I enjoyed my visit to the region. And as a fellow cyclist, I believe you will too. I found cycling there to be the closest to what I have experienced riding the small camis of Mallorca or the back roads of Girona. A Dordogne cycling holiday doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg either. You can find plenty of reasonable places to stay. Put the savings into a great bottle of Bergerac wine to share over a delicious meal in a cosy restaurant. Enjoy!