Believe it or not, it’s Tour de France season again! That means now’s the perfect time to think about bikes, France, and combining the two in the perfect holiday.
A quick look at how seriously the French take the Tour de France proves that cycling really is a national passion here. And why wouldn’t it be, what with varied scenery, a great climate, and charming towns and villages all conveniently linked by thousands of miles of quiet roads?
Better by bike
The brilliant thing about France is that there’s cycling here for everyone, whether you’re an avid racer tackling infamous Alpine climbs or a total novice hoping to coast along from café to café. Better still, cycling isn’t just a good way to keep fit, it’s also a lovely way to meet the locals and see a country close up, and you’ll find yourself in out-of-the-way places many tourists never really see. One thing is for sure: whatever your interests and level of fitness, France is a country made for experiencing on two wheels – the only problem is deciding which bit to explore!
Later on we’ll help you get to grips with some of the practicalities of cycling in France, but let’s start with a quick rundown of some of the country’s best regions for a two-wheeled adventure of your own. Remember, with more than half a million miles of roads to choose from (and that’s excluding motorways!) there’s a huge network of cycle-friendly routes covering every corner of the country. Look out for so-called ‘voies verte’ routes too, as these ‘greenway’ routes are a particularly good option for families because they’re generally flat and completely free from motor vehicles. Some even follow scenic disused railways or canal towpaths.
The way to go…
There’s enjoyable cycling to be had all over France, and with thousands of holiday properties located throughout the country, it’s easy to find the perfect base from which to explore by bike.
The famous Loire Valley is ideal for beginners, with easy terrain, a user-friendly cycle trail and plenty of great sightseeing, including iconic châteaux. Normandy and Brittany make good bases too, although Brittany’s intricate coastline makes cycling inland an easier option here. If it’s big mountain scenery and a serious cycling challenge you’re after, head for the French Alps and enjoy (or endure!) some of the world’s legendary road and off-road routes.
France’s Atlantic coast offers the best coastal cycling in the country, and it includes islands you can reach from the mainland situated between the Gulf of Morbihan and the Gironde. So long as you avoid some of the main roads – especially in peak season – the areas around rivers like the Dordogne, Lot and Aveyron also make ideal cycling country. Watch out for some steep but rewarding climbs as you leave the valley bottoms.
Aquitaine, Languedoc and the Midi-Pyrénées offer good opportunities for cyclists too, and it’s worth checking out the huge area of pine forest at Landes as well as St Emilion and its surrounding area. Burgundy has plenty of interest to offer cyclists, including scenic canals through undulating terrain. In pretty Alsace, the foothills of the Vosges are home to beautiful traditional villages well worth a visit, or pedal to Comar for a day in this wonderfully preserved historic town, often considered the capital of Alsatian wine.
Getting to, from and around France
Whether you’re driving to France or flying and picking up a hire car, it’s possible to take your own bikes with you. Choosing this option won’t just save you the time and expense of hiring bikes when you arrive at your destination, it means you’ll get to ride a bike you’re already familiar with. If you decide to fly, check with your airline about the additional costs of taking your bike, and make sure you know how to pack it and whether or not it needs to be booked on the flight in advance. Airline websites usually have all this information available under their ‘Baggage’ section.
Of course, if you’re a really keen cyclist you may even decide to ride to France! A journey like this turns your holiday into an adventure, but be sure to plan and pack carefully. Ferry companies will allow you to take your bike on board and, if you time it right, you might even be able to benefit from special offers aimed at cyclists.
Eurostar and the French rail network both allow bikes on trains, although you should check and book in advance by contacting either http://www.eurostar.co.uk or http://www.voyages-sncf.com. It might be necessary to pay for transporting your bike, and not all high-speed TGV trains will carry bicycles.
If you prefer to hire bikes when you arrive at your destination, check carefully to make sure the bikes fit properly and are in good working order. If you’re hiring for a few days, it’s even worth thinking about taking basic tools along too, like a puncture repair kit and a pump.
Points to remember
Just like at home, to stay safe and avoid breaking the law you need to know the rules of the road if you’re cycling on French highways, even the quiet ones. Make sure you check for the latest laws and regulations covering traffic, safety equipment and bicycle set-up. As a general rule, you must obey all traffic signs just as you would in a car.
- The law doesn’t require you to wear a helmet in France, but it’s definitely strongly advised. If you’re riding in the dark away from urban areas, you’ll need to wear a high-visibility jacket too.
- In towns and cities you must cycle in the marked cycle lanes wherever they are provided.
- Don’t forget to check the latest law on alcohol limits and driving, because the same limits apply to cyclists as well. Ignoring these laws could lead to a major fine and the confiscation of your bike, and you could even have your car licence withdrawn.
- In France, to be ‘roadworthy’ bikes need to have a bell as well as brakes that work properly. If you ride after dark, you’ll need to make sure your bike is also fitted with reflectors together with lights front and rear.
- While it’s fine during the daylight hours, don’t ride side by side at night, no matter how tempting it is.
- Always make sure that your holiday insurance covers you for the type of riding you’ll be doing. If you’re mountain biking in the Alps or road racing in a competition, you might need specialist insurance to cover any medical costs arising from an accident. Never be tempted to skimp on this – medical and repatriation bills can quickly run into tens of thousands of pounds, or even more!
Last but not least, it’s worth doing a bit of research before your trip. We’ve tried to give you a few of the basics here, but there’s a wealth of more detailed information available online. Look at the tourism websites for the particular area of France you’d like to visit, and start your adventure with a visit to the official site for cycle tourism in France at www.francevelotourisme.com
Take a look at holiday cottages in France to find your perfect for cycling holiday accommodation.