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10 Questions: Cycling Around France


france1In 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?

french map routeDeciding 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)?

france5Planning 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.

france3

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.

france2

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.

Cruising the bike paths of France

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.

Want to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination? Read the guidelinesand then get in touch.

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22 Responses to “10 Questions: Cycling Around France”

  1. nancye says:

    Read your work on the France tour and it was fantastic. I am thinking of heading over for a road trip by myself in May 2012. I was going to do the Tour De France Route but after reading your log I have changed my mind. I was just wondering would there be any other places you would have liked to visit or leave out? I am currently on a little Sub-Antarctic Island and have not done any road riding in 7 months because I have been stuck down here. I am sure my fitness would not be to bad since I am walking six days a week over 10km a day with a heavy pack. How was your fitness levels when you left? Did you struggle? I have an Orbea road bike and people are telling me to get something different but I really cant be stuffed. I am like you two and want to do it simple as possible and not really look into it much, so thank you, you have given me inspiration, to just get on my bike and go. Cheers Nancye

    • Andrea says:

      Listening to mp3 players while cycling on busy roads is dangerous. I can’t believe they did that.

      Here’s some more lessons:
      learn some more of the language – while these guys did ok considering their lack of language any tour where you can communicate with the locals will bring greater rewards

      buy good maps and do more research on routes.

      Yes its a good tip about the stove. A little bit of research would have shown that gas is the way to go in France.

      pq on thorntree lonely planet forum, a veteran cyclist in france and elsewhere says the best routes are the hilly ones. He suggests for france, choosing the roads that are the wiggliest on the map.

      (edited by admin to remove some comments)

  2. Karl says:

    Out on an open road there’s nothing wrong with listening to an MP3 player. Ride On magazine recently did a test on how earphones affect a cyclist’s hearing and found that it was only minimal and still allowed them to clearly hear what was going on around them. Sure in a busy city on busy roads listening to music isn’t a great idea, but if you’re out on the open highway then it isn’t an issue.

    I’m considering cycling through France and surrounding countries over August-September. I just bought a Trangia stove a few weeks ago so it’s concerning to see that sourcing fuel is difficult. I might just buy a decent amount of fuel in Germany before I leave as it’s easier to get there. 1L of methylated spirits should last me a good few weeks if used carefully.

    • Andrea says:

      Well Karl, it would be helpful to know about how the tests were conducted. I am still skeptical. if you want to convince me, you’d need more than this – a name i’ve never heard of – just some strangers say-so.

      When i am riding a bike on the open road, i’ve noticed how often you don’t hear vehicles approaching from behind until they are almost on you. Trucks especially can be tricky because when they slow down, they get really quiet. They probably wouldn’t slow down if passing you on a highway with a wide shoulder though. So i’m not talking about the city.

      Anyway i wouldn’t do it but its each to their own ultimately.

      Leave from where? Germany? If you can leave your trangia at home, i would do that. Unless, you can’t afford it, Bite the bullet and buy a gas top burner and a sheet of flash metal as a windbreak. The thing is you see, these gas burners are cheap and small. You should be able to get one for under $50 and then you won’t have to worry about how much fuel you’ve got at all.

      • Karl says:

        Hi Andrea

        Here’s is a link to the test and how it was conducted:
        http://rideons.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/an-ear-on-the-traffic/

        Unfortunately they didn’t give any of the results there, it was all published in the latest issue of the magazine. Essentially they found that wearing earphones with music at a low-moderate volume while riding didn’t impede your hearing as much as people thought it would compared to the ambient noise around you (in an inner city area).

        In regards to knowing what is happening behind you, as you mentioned using your hearing is often ineffective to be aware of vehicles coming from behind you – this is why I use a rear view mirror on my bike. I have a ‘Mirrycle’ bike mirror which is pretty great and doesn’t look too terrible either. One downside is that it gets knocked around and it’s difficult to flip the bike upside down for a field repair. I also have a mirror which mounts to the bar ends which is good in that regard and very low profile.

        I think I’ll take my chances with the Trangia. I’ll just be aware of the fuel situation and take some extra with me to last while I am there. I’m sure it must be sold somewhere if you ask the right people and look in the right places. If it doesn’t work out I’ll just mail it back to Germany and get a gas system like these chaps did.

        Au revoir

  3. Andrea says:

    I was unable to post my reply on the blog where the study was conducted ( your link above) because i don’t know what my password is. Suffice to say, i can’t see how any useful conclusions can be drawn from this test that would be applicable to the experience of a touring cyclist.

    This sounds like an utterly pointless test and will not prove of disapprove anything of any value. What does it matter who hears more of the traffic buzz. The question is does wearing headphones and listening to music increase the likelihood of an accident for bike riders. This test as far as i can tell will not demonstrate this question either way. Even without headphones, when on rural roads it difficult to hear cars and trucks approaching from behind, especially if they slow down. With headphones on, you will be even less aware of them. If your concern is whether a rider may here a car horn, or someone yelling at them, well i have no idea. I would imagine that a person wearing headphones would not notice someone yelling at them (for warning) as well as someone without them. I say that on the basis of how hard it is to get the attention of people wearing headphones even when they are not on a bike.

    • billybicycle says:

      i thought the advice from the guys was fine. they did it, that’s the most important thing. they didn’t just sit at home on a computer criticising people who actually went out of their way to do something like this.. even impetuously it still beats throwing a digital stick into some strangers spokes.. on yer bike andrea ;)

      • cammopaint says:

        Personally I don’t see anything wrong with this style of travel planning, but it isn’t for everyone. Some like a much more structured itinerary, where accommodation is booked each night and their exact route is known months in advance. It’s all up the individual. Good on you guys for getting out there.

        (Edited by admin to remove some comments)

  4. Robert says:

    I am thinking about a trip to France. Age 56, bicycle, your route seems good to me. What about a single wheel bicycle trailor ? Would you suggest to take a bike from USA, or buy one in France ? What tires whould you suggest ?

  5. Richard says:

    Hi guys this is Richard who answered the 10 questions thanks for all your comments.

    Andrea: I can see your concern with wearing headphones, I guess it’s something not for everyone and I’ve received a fair amount of comments on youtube about it. To clear up a few things most of the time we wore the headphones you can hear traffic through the earbuds, the volume was never maximum, we also had handlebar mirrors so were able to see backwards at a glance, we travelled mainly back roads and sometimes didn’t encounter cars for hours and never wore headphones in cities, I’m not sure if you’ve cycled in France but the drivers are very courteous and give a lot of room for people when overtaking. We never had any close encounters through listening to music on the road and were always able to get each others attention.

    Robert: I’d suggest taking a bicycle you’re familiar with and I loved my schwable marathon plus tyres, only got one puncture on the last day by accidentally riding over a glass, it was about an inch thick.

    • Andrea says:

      Hi Richard thank you for the explanation. No i am going to france to cycle next year. But one of the things i noticed when on the road is some vehicles,even trucks you can’t hear until they are really close. When a vehicle is not accelerating, ie if they take their foot of the peddle, they can be extrememly quiet. Its quite alarming even without earphones on and its partly coming from awareness of that phenomenon that i am concerned about the earphones. Also if you don’t hear someon coming, even though they may be aware of you and being courteous if you don’t hear them you could easily accidentally swing out into the traffic suddenly and you only wouldn’t do this if you knew something was there. Have you never noticed sometimes you just wobble in your track and vere onto the road by accident. If a vehicle is there and you don’t know it could be the end of you. That’s one of the concerns i have.

      But nevermind. I’ve state my concerns and if people want to continue wearing headphones, then its their decision.

      • Richard says:

        Thanks for your reply Andrea, I’m sure such a topic could be discussed/debated for a long time. Personally I’m comfortable travelling with them in, the joy of having music whilst riding and the risks that entail were something we took, as such there were no consequences after 2000 miles of riding. I hope you enjoyed the video and hope the fact of us wearing headphones hasn’t spoilt our efforts of trying to share our holiday :-)

  6. Chris Riding says:

    Thsnkyou for the blog, a friend and I are cycling from Canterbury to Santiago in Spain, albeit in several sections over a few years. This year we are starting in Paris, going south to Puy de Dome, and then west through the Dordogne to the coast and then into Bordeaux, can’t wait!
    With many lessons learned from last years Canterbury to Paris section (less clothing, no front panniers, tent a quarter of the weight and a better bike)I have a few questions that have been bugging me that you may be able to help with…
    Where can I get a reasonably priced bag for drop handlebars?
    Should we take a stash of Lidl type dried pasta dinners for barren sections?
    Although you didn’t stealth camp, did you spot many opportunities to do so (we are keen wild campers).
    Thankyou for your help!

  7. Paul says:

    Just returned from France with 2 friends and cycled from the Atlantic to the Med using the Canal de Deux Mers(Garonne & Midi) as a handrail but used all the minor roads. Max 100Kms per day staying at little Hotels. Route Bordeaux – Tonniens – Moissac – Toulouse – Carcassonne – Beziers – Cap D’Agde, using IGN 1:100,000 mapping. Hired CUBE touring bikes from O2Cycles in Bordeaux. Norbert Audioun is the man, could not have been more helpful. We had to catch the train back from Beziers – Bordeuax at the end of the ride, but it was worth every Euro we spent and at the end of the day it is the best alternative Coast to Coast I have ridden

    • Another Paul says:

      Hi Paul

      Thanks for your comments. I am planning a similar coast to coast ride that is not to arduous and not too flat. Did your route fit that definition? Also, would you have avoided cities like Toulouse etc. if possible?

      Thanks.

      • paul says:

        Paul the route would fit the bill for you. We had no problem going through Tolouse as the trick is to come off the D roads and get on to the canal path which through that city is excellent. I have left an e mail for you and if you want to get in touch please ring me

  8. niloufar says:

    it was great but it would be great to write about distance.I’m from Iran.I love France

  9. Granville says:

    Just completed a 23 day trip from the north of Scotland to Land End. I agree with your comments on the Trangia operated with meths, but after 30 years I have converted mine to gas with a Go System gas burner,(considerably cheaper than Trangia’s). It worked a treat.

  10. Cyclist says:

    Hi, congratulations on an amazing trip & thanks for the useful tips. Am doing a similar route in the near future.

  11. Andrea says:

    I recently got back from two months cycling in France. I can help with questions if anyone has any. After Paris, i started my cycling near Perigueux, then went east across the Dordogne, The lot River, Gorges du Tarn, back west to Albi along the Tarn River and then South via Castres, Carcassone and into the Roussillon area. Took a side trip by cheap bus to Collioure (recommended) and then back to head up the Pyrenees. I was worn by end of Col de Peyresourde so took train to the Loire for some flat cycling. Spent a week then then back to Paris by public transport (a somewhat trying thing to do). I did a lot of wild camping. I travel on a small budget. I also had my bike stolen in Paris and had to buy a new one so if anyone has questions on this matter, please ask.

  12. Michelle Noble says:

    Hello there – came across your website on a google search for cycle trips across France. For our 50th birthday year we are cycling from the Italian border at Menton to the Spanish border near Biarritz. We have completed Menton to Sete and are now looking to tackle the Pyrenees (we live in the French Alps – lucky us! – but have never been to the Pyrenees before). Hubby is looking to do some of the famous cols (of course) but I’m interested mainly in doing the miles. I would appreciate a more detailed route map of where you cycled particularly to avoid traffic laden roads, in the sector from Bayonne to Narbonne. Many thanks in advance for your help.Michelle.

  13. Natasha says:

    I realize this post is a few years old but would live a reply. I’m hoping to do a three or four day ride along the Mediterranean coast in France. Nothing too rough, 75mi max a day. Since I am only biking three days I don’t really want to invest in buying a bike in France but bringing a bike with me seems very involved too. Does anyone know if a chain rental company that would let me rent on one side if the coast and return on the other? I would prefer to ride alone and not on a guided tour.

    All tips appreciated!

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