In the summer of 2009, friends Richard & Kevin set out on a 40-day bike tour around France.
Their trip took them in a U-shaped pattern around the edge of France, first past the surfing beaches and vineyards of Western France, then along the Pyrenees mountains, along the Mediterranean coastline and back north towards Grenoble and Strasbourg.
“The trip was life changing, we’ve vowed to cycle the world in the next few years, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” Richard wrote.
Read on to see just what Richard & Kevin enjoyed so much about bike touring in France, and what advice they have for others planning to do the same.
1. France is a massive country. How did you decide where to go with your 40-day tour?
Deciding where to go was solely based on our initial planned route of cycling a ‘U’ shape around the outside of the country. We spent countless nights discussing “landmarks” we would like to go to and see. The main three were the Col Du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees Mountains, Grenoble in the Alps and the German border. We had other cities planned too as points of interest and to mark our progress throughout the trip. They were Nantes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Nimes, Lyon, Dijon, Strasbourg, Metz and we hoped Calais.
During the beginning of the trip and a couple of tiresome navigations through big cities using our inadequate maps we decided to avoid Lyon, Dijon and Strasbourg and head up straight through Switzerland via Geneve to the German border and enjoy the countryside instead.
Between these destinations we decided pretty spontaneously which place to camp at, we had criteria of cycling a minimum of 60 miles per day (we actually averaged 70 miles per cycling day), whatever accommodation fell into that gap we would usually take.
2. Which resources did you use to plan your trip (online or printed books)?
Planning was kept to a minimum but came primarily from online sources. Initially a Google search of ‘bicycle touring’ lead us to TravellingTwo.com and a host of other touring advice.
The information we took and used were things like choice of saddle (Brooks Flyer) and how to physically prepare for the trip. We read many pages of tips and a few travel blogs.
Next came looking at a topographical view of France to seek the flattest places to cycle through (we’re not cowards, honest!).
In complete honesty despite hours of research we didn’t plan much at all. We bought a road map, highlighted a number of cities along the perimeter of France, bought our ferry tickets, crossed over to France and started riding. Choosing our route as we went.
3. At the start of your tour, you had some difficulty adjusting to French opening hours. Can you tell us about this ?
We found out straight away on our first day of the tour (a Sunday) that shops weren’t open, and survived on the remaining sugary sweets from the ferry journey. Within the next few days, it became apparent that many shops were also closed between midday and 2pm during weekdays, when we wanted lunch!
Once we knew this information, our routine of buying food during the week was to purchase breakfast for the next day and dinner for that same evening during our lunch break at a supermarket. At the weekend we would buy all of Sunday’s food on Saturday.
4. You describe France as “touring heaven”. Why?
A number of circumstances made our impression of France so great.
We had 2 days of light intermittent showers in 40 days. The rest were blue skies and temperatures ranging from 25-40° Celsius. The road quality is Phenomenal. Smooth tarmac greets even the smallest and remote of country roads. The west coast of France from Nantes to Biarritz (450 miles) was completely flat, it was too good to be true.
We found many campsites discounted for cyclists and we were even given free food by other holidaymakers when we pitched up for the night. We utilised a lot of water fountains that lay in even the most remote villages to refill our bottles and backpacks. The French people were still buzzing from the recently finished Tour De France and we were cheered along by locals in small villages that we passed through.
They were inquisitive when we stopped for lunch and were always so inviting and friendly. The nature of our trip allowed us to enjoy ever changing landscapes, from countryside, to beaches, mountain ranges to busy cities and even a 2 day flyby cycle of Switzerland.
5. Was there any part of the country you didn’t find so interesting, and why?
In one word. Cities.
For a bicycle tourist with the time and money to explore the great cities of France we’re sure it would be interesting. But for us we just wanted to navigate through them and maybe stop off for an hour to admire a view or monument, but we had inadequate maps and many road signs confused us. Sometimes taking a couple of hours to navigate a few miles through the centre of town was very frustrating. Time was against us at points during the trip and so occasionally ‘places of interest’ became ‘places to get through’.
6. Because you were travelling during the peak summer season, was there any trouble finding accommodation and did you book ahead?
The only accommodation we booked ahead of time were the first two nights. One was a hotel as our ferry arrived at 11pm in the evening and the other was our first campsite 60 miles from the hotel. The rest of the tour we turned up at campsites hoping for an available pitch, and there always was.
7. You did a fairly low budget bike tour, camping and eating out of supermarkets. Can you give us a ballpark average budget for this kind of tour?
Because we were new to bicycle touring and did not speak language we stayed in campsites for 37 out of the 40 days (to avoid being unable to negotiate our way out of people catching us stealth camping). The campsite prices vary and there are so many to choose from. Because we shared a tent together went halves on tent pitch fees. This came to a total of roughly £300 each.
Without camping costs we spent £500 each on food, spares and miscellaneous items (batteries, sun cream etc).
We realise now that we could have gone a few more weeks if we had stealth camped. There’s always a next time 😉
8. What was the one thing you packed that was essential for this tour, and one thing you’d leave behind next time?
The most essential item was our AAA battery operated MP3 players. We bought them for £30 and hundreds of tunes on them. We bought a 40 pack of cheap batteries (£10) with us and they lasted us both for the whole trip. The music distracted us from our aching bodies, cancelled out wind noise and the sound of heavy traffic. It was a nice escape to be in a beautiful country listening to our favourite music.
There are many things we’d leave behind next time, if cycling in the summer again. The list would include a tonne of clothes, waterproofs and our front panniers.
But primarily one item we’d leave behind next time would be, surprisingly, the Trangia. Before this tour I swore by the thing, in every sense it is practical. But after 2 weeks we ran out of Metholated spirit and found it hard to locate more. Despite always cleaning it after use and wrapping it plastic bags it would always manage to leak and stink out and stain everything in the panniers. We ended up sending it home in the post and reverted to Gas. It was lighter, cheaper, cleaner, lasted longer and was readily available everywhere.
9. Was language ever a problem? Did you learn any French?
Neither of us spoke French but we had a small old phrase book that we took with us. We learnt a few key words and picked up sentences along the way. Our most used words were: “Bonjour!” (Obviously), “Pardon”, “Oui”, “Non” and “Deux personnes et une petite tente pour une nuit” when booking into a campsite (2 people and 1 small tent for 1 night).
Usually a nice big smile and a nod of the head enabled us to avoid many awkward conversations and problems.
10. What’s one quintessential French experience you had that you would recommend to others?
Richard: Personally for me it was climbing the Col Du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees mountains. We had anticipated it from the moment we step foot on France nearly 900 miles away. It was beautiful, exciting and relentlessly steep. I spent 2 hours climbing and grinding away whilst absorbing the ever improving views of the steep valleys. Reaching the top, standing by the Octave Lapize memorial and seeing the words ‘Contador & Livestong’ on the road and sharing those moments with my friend was the single most rewarding cycling experience of my life. The ride down was so much fun, reaching speeds of 35mph for 20 minutes was exhilarating.
Kevin: My quintessential experience is not so much based on France itself but a particular experience that occurred during the second week of the trip which tested my mental toughness and desire to succeed. There was one day where we cycled into a pretty tough headwind through an almost baron landscape totally flat for miles on end. The road consisted of 10mile stretches of obsessive straightness and the traffic was endless, cars zooming passed at high speeds. We struggled into the headwind for a couple of hours taking it in turns to shelter behind the other for a much needed rest from the constant barrage of noise of the wind. We had the end in sight but it never seemed like we made any progress, going at 8mph into a strong headwind for hours and watching cars breeze by totally unaffected by the wind. Having finally fought our way through it after a hard slog to get a puncture. The mental test of making it through that day and coming out of it with a positive attitude was one of my best experiences in France; testing ones mental and physical strength to such a length was for me what the trip was all about.
Thanks to Richard & Kevin for answering the questions and providing the photos. If you want to know more about their trip, check out this video on YouTube.