As the world’s top cyclists gear up for the most gruelling bike race on the planet, get in the mood for the Tour de France by taking a rather less strenuous route through some glorious landscapes. Explore some of France’s beautiful beaches by following this guide to the best places to take the plunge along the way.
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Mont-Saint-Michel – France’s biggest tourist attraction outside of Paris – is the spectacular backdrop to the start of the race. If you want to escape the crowds, head to the quiet sandy beach across the bay at St-Jean-le-Thomas. The first stage finishes at Utah Beach on the Cotentin peninsula, one of the D-Day landing beaches used by soldiers in June 1944. There’s an evocative museum overlooking the seemingly endless sand dunes of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
As stage two finishes further up the peninsula at Cherbourg-en-Cotentin, stop en route at the sandy beach at pretty Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. And before the race leaves Normandy for Loire, check out the lovely long beaches at Granville, the starting point for stage three.
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Along The Loire
As stage three comes to a close in Angers, linger for a while in this attractive medieval town on the River Maine in the Loire Valley. Spread across 90 hectares is the Lac de Maine, which used to be water meadows and is now a popular park with safe swimming beaches. As the tour heads along the Loire to Saumur, there are plenty of places for wild swimming in France’s longest river, as well as its tributaries and river islands. Where the Loire joins the Vienne, check out the sand-and-pebble beach along the banks of the tiny village of Candes-Saint-Martin.
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France’s Green Heart
Before the race reaches Limoges, take advantage of the clear waters of Lac de Saint-Pardoux about 28km north of the capital of the Limousin region. As the tour crosses into the Auvergne, stop at the sprawling Lac de Vassivière in the massive Parc Naturel Régional de Millevaches en Limousin. By stage seven, the tour arrives in the small town of L’Isle-Jourdain, which has an adorable heart-shaped lake in the middle of the sleepy Gers countryside.
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Before the riders face the really tough climbs in the Pyrenees, they go past the jewel-like Lac de Payolle in the foothills. They won’t have time for a swim, but spectators along the route can stop for a refreshing dip. By stage nine, the riders are in Andorra, where the Tristaina lakes are a target for hikers who want to swim in the sparkling mountain waters of the Pyrenees.
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At stage 11, the tour slides down closer towards sea level as the riders race through the Languedoc countryside from fairy-tale Carcassonne to buzzing Montpellier. Beach lovers are in heaven along this section of the Languedoc coast, as the beaches seem to go on for ever. Start in the calm vastness of Leucate before heading to Gruissan and the wild, windswept stretch between Cap d’Agde and Sète.
Montpellier itself has several beaches on its doorstep, including Palavas-les-Flots and Carnon-Plage. Just beyond are La Grande-Motte – regarded by some as a modernist horror, but you can’t fault the sand – Le Grau-du-Roi, which is easier on the eye, and the wonderfully empty expanses of L’Espiguette. You could carry on to the otherworldly landscapes of the Camargue, but at this point the tour will be veering north.
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Mont Ventoux – one of the Tour de France’s toughest climbs and a place of pilgrimage for cycling fans – is the goal for stage 12. You can see its white peak from the small village of Mormoiron where, among the peaceful vineyards of Provence’s Vaucluse region, is the sandy beach at Lac des Salettes. There’s another bijou beach at Prato Plage near the fountain-filled town of Pernes-les-Fontaines south of Carpentras.
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As the tour heads north, it passes through the Ardèche gorges, which make up some of France’s most breathtaking sights. Among the limestone cliffs and canyons is Vallon Pont d’Arc, where the River Ardèche offers some excellent spots for wild swimming, canoeing and kayaking. The tour carries on into the Drôme towards Montélimar, but along the way you can stop at Lac de Montmeillan, which is right by the River Rhône. Stage 14 ends at Villars-les-Dombs, a town that isn’t well known outside of France – or even among many French – but it happens to be surrounded by hundreds of lakes, as if someone had scattered giant shards of glass across the countryside. You’ll have to share the waters with wild birds, particularly in the Parc des Oiseaux, the largest ornithological park in France.
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Before the tour gets into the infamously arduous Alpine climbs, it makes a detour into Switzerland towards the capital, Berne. Here you’re spoilt for choice for swimming, from long narrow Neuchâtel to huge Lake Geneva – more like a sea than a lake.
Back in France, the tour zigzags through various ski resorts including Megève, Le Grand Bornand, Morzine and Saint-Gervais. If that seems too much like hard work, relax in some of the Alpine lakes instead. Lake Annecy is as exquisite as the city it borders, with towering peaks rising dramatically in the background.
Just on the other side of the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges is France’s largest freshwater lake, Lac du Bourget. Revel in the old-world elegance of Aix-les-Bains, a lakeside thermal spa town where you can swim in the shadow of the mountains.
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The Road To Paris
On the final stage of the race, the riders set off from the green environs of Chantilly in the Picardy region north of Paris. Just a few kilometres from Chantilly’s handsome chateau is the tiny village of St-Leu-d’Esserent, where there’s a man-made lake with a sandy beach. There’s just time for a last dip here before the tour arrives in Paris in nail-biting fashion along the Champs-Elysées. By this time, the annual Paris-Plages will be set up along the banks of the Seine as well as in the Bassin de la Villette in the north-eastern 19th arrondissement.
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