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Arles to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

Words and Images by James Startt

The final ride of our trip through the southern French region of Provence took us across the wild wetlands of the Camargue to the edge the Mediterranean Sea. The Camargue stretches across the largest river delta in western Europe, straddling two arms of the Rhône River.

Starting the ride after lunch in historic Arles, our Panaracer ambassadors Sylvain and Louise first negotiated the city’s narrow streets, enjoying a gentle ride past the Roman Arena and Théâtre Antique. It comes as no surprise that Vincent van Gogh spent some of his most creative years in this picturesque community; and even today Arles is a creative hub, with an internationally renowned photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles (whose 54th edition takes place next year between July 3 and September 24), and the 2,000-year-old outdoor theater that remains center stage with a schedule of productions through the summer. 

Rolling out of town, our two riders crossed the impressively wide Rhône before making their way southwest along the Avenue de Camargue toward the coast. As soon as the houses were left behind the road flattened out and the only resistance to riding was the wind—which can be fierce when the infamous Mistral blows.

Soon enough, the fecund farmlands transformed into the expansive marshes, rice paddies and saltwater lakes that define this gigantic delta. “It’s amazing how quickly the landscape changes,” said Louise as she pedaled easily along the opening kilometers of what is known as the Plaine de la Camargue. “It’s so different from anywhere we have been in the past two days.” 

A vast wildlife preserve, the Camargue is a world of its own. There are very few villages here, with only an occasional Mas—a Mediterranean farmhouse—dotting the landscape. The main road, the D570, dances around a series of lagoons and small waterways. And when the two made a sudden turn onto the D85A, the marshes opened up and the horizon expanded—you could see for miles.

Undeterred by the rising winds, Sylvain and Louise picked up speed; and in what only first appeared as a speck on the horizon, they got their first glimpse of the distant Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. A town of only 2,500 residents, it’s the capital of the French Camargue, sitting just a kilometer from the mouth of the Rhône’s western arm.

Saintes-Maries derives its name from the three biblical Marys—Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas—who, according to certain legends, arrived here from Egypt following the Crucifixion of Christ. As a result, the town has been a pilgrimage site for generations and today attracts up to half a million visitors a year. It has also attracted writers like Ernest Hemingway and painters such as Pablo Picasso and Van Gogh, while singer-songwriters Bob Dylan and Tori Amos found artistic inspiration here to compose their respective, haunting songs, “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Marys of the Sea.” 

As for sports, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer saw Elia Viviani win the first stage of the 2022 Tour de La Provence in February after strong winds split the peloton into several groups, while windsurfers set eight world speed sailing records on the adjacent Speed Canal between 1988 and 2008.

 “It’s really amazing how quickly things change here,” Louise said while rolling along. “Geographically it is not very far from Arles, but the landscape is completely different. Arles is so historic and then down here you are surrounded by pink flamingos, wild horses and the flat marshes. It’s just two different worlds.”

Indeed, as the two made their way toward their destination, they were greeted by an array of birds that migrate here, while small groups of white horses gathered on both sides of the road—the horses provide visitors with a different way to visit the far reaches of this unusual terrain.

After the two cyclists rolled into the town of Saintes-Maries they stopped at one of the cafés near the seafront. “That was really amazing,” said Sylvain. “Both Arles and the Saintes-Maries are really unique. The history in Arles is so impressive. But Saintes-Maries is stunning in its own way. You can just see if for miles and miles dangling out there on the horizon. It gives you a real objective. It’s a hard ride because, while it may be flat, the wind is always there. It is one ride I am not going to forget.”

The Tires

After riding the Agilest Light in the morning ride near Aix-en-Provence, Sylvain opted for the Panaracer Agilest Duro tire, a 28mm endurance clincher, in the afternoon. “I just really love the Duro. It is so flexible. It’s good on the climbs, it reacts well on the descents and here, in the wind, it is great too. In a sidewind like today you don’t even feel them.”

And while Louise also opted for Panaracer’s Agilest Light in the morning, she rode the Agilest TLR tubeless tires on the ride across the Camargue. “I wanted the tubeless this afternoon on the flats. The tubeless in these conditions is just perfect. It’s the best tire when it comes to rolling resistance because, well, there is none. And that is something that is really important on roads like this.”