Roads to Ride: The Champs Elysées

It’s testimony to cycling’s mythology that a race can turn a boring road into the centre of the world for a day. Or see Paris-Roubaix for a race where cyclists yearn to finish in a place that many ordinary people might try to avoid. All this is different with the Tour de France and its Parisian finish line when the road is closed for the cyclists, a privilege only shared with visiting heads of state.

But at the same time this is an ordinary road. Grand and famous yet accessible too and not every road in this series has to be a high mountain pass. Here’s a look at the road and also where else to ride if you’re in Paris with a bike.

The Route
The Avenue des Champs Elysées runs between the Place de la Concorde and the Place Charles de Gaulle, sometimes known as the Place de l’Etoile. Place means “square” in French and the avenue is a straight link between these two spaces, the Place Charles de Gaulle with its large Arc de Triomphe and the Concorde with its needle-like Egyptian obelisk. It runs roughly east-west, is 1.91km in length and when ridden from the east to west it rises slightly in gradient towards the Arc de Triomphe although a climb is too strong, think of a graceful gradient instead.

The Feel
Many finishers of the Tour de France report a special feeling. For some it’s just a frisson, others get euphoric knowing they’ve reached the end of the Tour. For everyone else the excitement isn’t so special given the traffic. This is the heart of a major capital city. You can rip it up Alpe d’Huez but getting into full flow here is difficult given the multiple traffic lights along the way although some locals will “grill” a red light, to use the French term. But if this in a city, the sense of space is obvious, the road is very wide.

There are a few bike messengers but the average cyclist is on a Vélib, the public bike rental scheme that’s been copied around the world. In fact Paris copied its scheme from other cities but it was success in Paris that convinced other large cities like London and New York to try it too. It’s cobbled too, something you’ll hear before you see as the traffic slaps over the stones. These are urban pavé, polished by the daily rumble of traffic but at times straining with cracks, missing mortar and sometimes a missing cobblestone or two. A souvenir?

Riding along means a rattle and explains why riders in a breakaway on the circuit will aim for the tiny strip of smooth pavement just next to the kerb, a tightrope balance between clipping a pedal or shoe on one side and putting the wheel onto the pavé on the other side. With traffic all around you hear the city alive to the sound of work and activity, very different from the festive atmosphere of the Tour.

Champs Elysees cobbles

It’s been a long road for centuries but took its name in 1709 from nearby parks and ever since its wide tree-lined style has taken shape as large Haussmanian buildings have been built up and the trees manicured for a uniform look. Today it’s become a tourist attraction for its shopping with all the big luxury goods brands.

Tour de France history
The first finish on the Champs Elysées was in 1975. Permission was granted on a temporary basis but it proved such a success that the race has been back every year. A sprint finish is common but it has been host to time trials, notably in 1989 when Greg LeMond overturned Laurent Fignon’s lead on the last day to win by eight seconds.

In 2005 Alexandr Vinokourov started the day sixth overall, attacked for an intermediate sprint and later jumped away at the finish to win the stage, taking enough time on Levi Leipheimer to rise up to fifth place and proof that the final day isn’t always a procession.

The race used to take an abbreviated version of the Champs Elysées but in 2013 exploited the full length, a format that’s become a fixture now.

Where to ride?
By all means rent a Vélib to explore Paris. But the visiting sports cyclist with their bike needs to head out a bit further for a ride. You can go out of the city in all directions but there are two places popular with Parisian pedlars. First is the Bois de Boulogne just to the west of the city. It’s got an urban feel but the park offers a green space and a circuit that’s nearly 4km to lap including a climb. What’s special is the crowds it attracts, there are always riders lapping and the pace can be fierce at times although each to their own rhythm. Avoid at night as the activities change, the woodland is infamous for prostitution.

Further out of Paris towards the south-west is the Vallée de Chevreuse, by now you get out into the countryside and it’s possible to arrange a series of climbs at 1-2km long of typically 4-7%, not the Alps but vital variety given a lot of the terrain around Paris is flat.

Travel and Access
All places in this series can be reached with relative ease but Paris doesn’t need much of an explainer. It’s got a lot of hotels but check before you book as plenty are average at best, they cater for tourists who won’t come back.

What’s in a name?
Elysian fields is a reference to the myth of Elysium the resting ground of battle heroes and a version of the afterlife in Ancient Greece.

Say It

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25 thoughts on “Roads to Ride: The Champs Elysées”

  1. I found the overriding feeling of riding Champs-Elysees was absolute terror at the sheer amount of traffic being driven erratically and the somewhat chaotic nature of the roads around the Arc de Triomphe.

      • I’ve done “London to Paris 24 hr” twice – nothing left riding round the Arc roundabout in the middle of the day when you haven’t slept for 30 hours (apart from maybe a brief hour on the ferry) and you’re 275 miles down.

        Wait for a gap, nail it, get onto the Champs and breathe again 🙂

    • I’ve read a couple of times that until relatively recently the Champs Elysées was the busiest stretch of road in the world. I’m sure it isn’t any more but I remember getting caught at the Arc de Triomphe at rush hour and it made Cairo traffic feel like a country drive!

    • There’s not a lot more to it. Visit Longchamp/Bois de Boulogne for the group rides, you can do lap after lap. A longer ride depends where you stay, for example if you’re staying in, say Montmartre then you would not necessarily ride across town to get to the Chevreuse valley. Drop me an email when you know where and when I’ll try to help.

    • If you’re there in the spring/summer, head for the circuit round Longchamp on an evening (ie after work). it attracts just about every seriuos bike rider in Paris and the western suburbs, and is great for some serious intervals, or just hard riding staying with one of the faster groups. Work as much, or as little as you want, depending how many times you want to do a turn at the front!

  2. Yes, fond memories riding from Paris to Versailles and back. believe our route did go by Longchamp
    We rented bikes and were given helmets to use as well. Wife could only fit into a “lady Bug helmet’
    she was very popular with male drivers. although it is a bit crowded around Paris, always quality food!

  3. There’s always the 3 km circuit in Bois de Vincennes, just as popular as the one in Bois the Boulogne among cyclists, huge peloton swarms. +There’s the magnificent vélodrome Jacques Anquetil close by, which is still under reconstruction since a year back?
    A must see if you are in the neighborhood. Enormous velodrome in concrete and beautiful bleachers.
    So many legendary Tdf finishes incl Merckx and more…

  4. Ten years ago in 2003 Le Tour organised ‘Le Randonee Du Centenaire’, so that a few thousand members of the public (including me) could ride some of the final stage (on closed roads), including a loop of the Champs-Elysees, wearing retro yellow cotton maillots. Not a race but we did cross the finish line first!

    After a quick sprint back to the hotel to change & leave the bike, it was possible to watch the real race, before taking Eurostar back to England!

    • did the 2003 and the 2013 ones, but sadly the 2013 only allowed one lap of the course whereas in 2003 you could do a few laps depending on your speed. great fun none-the-less. In 2003 I took the eurostar, in 2013 the shuttle and car, not sure about cycling in Paris but driving was not much fun either!

  5. Forget tiny roomed overpriced hotels in Paris, hire an apartment instead. We did this September and it was exceptional value in the Canal St Martin district. Will go back again. With bike.

    • Agree – we used to ride a bit of it on a Sunday morning, just for a laugh, before heading out west via The Bois, Versailles to the Chevreuse for the more serious stuff. Thanks for the memories!

  6. The Tour organized a Champs-Elysees Randonee in 2013 as well for the 100th edition, similar to the one Milessio describes from 2003.

    Staying in Paris, my wife and I only learned of it the same morning and realized it was too late to buy entry to the event. However, renting a couple Velibs, and using the principle that the “rules” are merely suggestions (C’est le Tour!), we found a gap in the fencing at the starting queue, and joined in the event. (We gladly would have paid, but none of the volunteers would accept our entry fee/bribe.)

    Among all our Alpine adventures visiting the Tour this year, riding this iconic circuit with no traffic (not to mention all the official Tour banners and signage) was the experience of a lifetime! I doubt I would attempt to share the road with traffic though.

  7. I do long (running) intervals in the B de B on the same circuit as the cyclists when in Paris visiting the in-laws nearby. Running all over the bois, there seems to be “nocturnal activity” available on a 24-7 basis the last few years. Another good run/ride is through the Foret de St Cloud – on foot I cross at Pont de Sevres, run through the park, come out into the aristocratic village at the back, then follow the trails until it drops down into Versailles. It’s a 20-25K round trip, I see cyclists on the road next to the forest trails, + a few on VTTs on my trail. About a 20-25K round trip from Boulogne-Billancourt.

  8. When I was a lad growing up in Paris I used to ride my bike everywhere (I cycled without a care: dodging buses, hitting taxi doors getting lost around St. Lazare with a walkman on my ears in lieu of a helmet!); on Sundays the destination was almost always the Champs Elysées. I’d ride up and down until I found a movie I wanted to see (there were movie houses then). And then I would lock it with flimsiest lock you’ve ever seen and that was that. The bike was always there when I returned. In London however, the bike (a superb gray and orange Peugeot 12-speed) got stolen within a week!

  9. Agreed that the Vallée de Chevreuse (and beyond) is beautiful riding, but you don’t need to go that far out of Paris to find climbs. For example, the Foret de Meudon has some very nice little climbs of about .6k, and some nice dirt roads too if one is so inclined. And since you mention the perpetual peleton in the Bois de Boulogne, don’t leave out the similar peleton across town in the Bois de Vincennes! Pople don’t often associate Paris with great road riding, but if you know where to go it can be excellent.

  10. The Bois de Boulogne is great for jamming and intervals (there are no stop signs on the loop around the Longchamps racetrack), as is the Bois de Vincennes (although I haven’t been there in a few years). It’s a stretch to say the Boulogne loop has a “climb” on it; it’s flat, with a slight riser at one point. But there is almost always wind. It’s a good place to go and get a quick and dirty workout in while visiting Paris, but don’t want to be out for 3h training rides!

    That’s a bit of the conundrum in Paris, like in most big cities: it takes a good hour to get into the countryside and away from the heavy traffic. That said, there are lots of decent rides in the area if you are willing to go for a few hours. Garmin and Strava should help with some of the specifics, but it’s best to go with a local if you can. My friend Juan has found many quiet roads throughout the area.

    Areas to aim for include the already mentioned Vallee des Chevreuses (which has featured in many a final Tour stage and has some short, punchy climbs; access via Versailles, Montigny-le-Brettoneux, Dampierre or Velizy (industrial estate – ugh), Saclay, Jouy-en-Josas, Gif).

    Other options include St-Cloud (climb!), Vaucresson, l’Etang, St-German-en-Laye, Maisons Lafitte and beyond, and back via the Seine and up the climb of Bougival/la Selle-St Cloud and across to drop down into Paris at St-Cloud.

    You can also head east out pas Vincennes along the Marne, which has a bike path and some quiet roads along its banks, out towards the Parc de Noisiel; from there you can either do a loop back to the south-east of Paris, or heads west / north towards Claye, where you hit the bike path that follows the Canal de l’Ourcq all the way back to Paris. That path was not in the best shape the last time I rode it a year or two ago, but still very rideable.

    Where you ride will largely depend on where you’re staying. Traversing Paris by bike takes a long time, as there are endless traffic lights, and the traffic is heavy – although lighter in the morning on weekends. I’d recommend following bike paths where possible, particularly down the banks of the Seine. As far as the Champs Elysees is concerned, well, it’s something to do once… unless you’re in the Tour! Enjoy…

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