Published by Elliot on 6 February 2011
Friedel and her partner, Andrew, run the popular Travelling Two cycle touring website. Here, she shares her memories of cycling in France
You’d travelled a lot in France before you took up cycling. How did your impressions of the country differ when you were cycling compared to the times you’d travelled sans bike?
Well, you can certainly justify more of those wonderful chocolate croissants and french cheese when you're travelling by bicycle! Seriously though, for me bike touring is a way of being more in contact with a country than travelling by car, train or bus. You're actually in the landscape – a part of it – not just speeding through it. When you're travelling France by bicycle, you quickly get a sense of the height of the Alps or the vastness of the vineyards and there are many chances to just stop and observe French life. For example, every time we pass through a small village and the locals are playing the game of petanques, we stop for five minutes to watch.
You visited France twice on your first big tour, once from Germany and then back again after Italy. How did you choose your routes?
We didn't! We are not great planners, we'd rather go with the flow, and France has so many small roads you don't have to worry too much about taking one particular route. We just use the wide network of C and D roads and we never have a problem with traffic.
How did the French campgrounds compare to those in the rest of Europe?
France has great Municipal Campgrounds which are basic but very reasonably priced. We used those a lot and I think they're among the best budget campgrounds in Europe. The roads are also good. There are so many back roads and the drivers are always very considerate.
What’s your most vivid memory of France from that trip?
Buying fresh baguettes from the many markets and bakeries! A cyclist never has to go hungry in France.
How often have you been back to France on your bike since?
Not often enough, I'm afraid. We've been too busy cycling the rest of the world.
If you could come back and ride anywhere in France, where would you go?
My dream trip in France would be to cycle along the north coast, visiting all the war sites and the vineyards of the Loire valley, then down the west coast to Bordeaux.
And where would you avoid?
Paris! I know it's a major tourist destination and there are many wonderful things to see in Paris, but I always find cities a bit of a hassle on a bicycle. I'd rather be out riding the quiet country roads than watching traffic.
You weren’t cyclists when you embarked on your European bike adventure. Did you find any aspect of cycling in France particularly daunting?
I don't know about daunting, but one of the quirks of French culture that many people don't realise that many French shops (supermarkets included) close in the middle of the day, so you can't always find somewhere open to buy food in the afternoon. Also, occasionally we rode into what looked like a reasonably large town on our map, only to discover that there weren't any services there. If you really need something, it pays to ask someone what is coming up for hotels, restaurants and shops.
Given you and Andrew could both speak French, how much easier was travelling in France compared to the countries where you did not know the local language?
Of course speaking the language helps a lot because you can always ask the questions you need to, or get your point across. The French people are very proud of their language, and they appreciate it when you try to learn at least the basics like “hello”, “where is...” and “thank you”.
There’s an excellent passage in Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France that describes how the bike's arrival in France opened up the country and its possibilities, and made exploring nearby villages – nevermind regions or countries! – possible. It helped people to dream of a world beyond their village – do you think the bike still does that today?
Today it's so easy to travel. Almost anyone has the means to get in a car or on a plane, bus or train and travel somewhere new. What I think the bike does today is bring a sense of the extraordinary into what would otherwise be seen as routine. You can drive through an area 100 times in a car, but when you bike through the same area it's a totally different experience. What might have once seemed boring when you looked at it through the window of a speeding vehicle is now full of new sensations and adventures.
What’s cycling got that no other form of transport can match?
An incredible flexibility. On your bike, you are not tied to schedules or public transport routes. You control where, when and how fast you go. You can travel by bike on a tight budget or make it into a luxury vacation. A trip by bicycle is anything you want it to be.
How long does a bike ride have to be before it’s a bike tour and not simply a bike ride?
I'm not a purist when it comes to definitions like this. To me, a bike tour is any ride where the main goal is not speed but rather discovering something new about the area you're riding through. You can do a one-day tour around your town or set out for a worldwide adventure.
What three items can you always find room for in your panniers?
A good travel pillow (I tried stuffing clothes in my sleeping bag but a pillow is vastly superior), a bar of dark chocolate for those difficult hill climbs and a book to read while sitting under a tree at lunchtime.
Do you have any other words of advice for people thinking about cycling in France?
Yes. Learn this phrase and repeat it in cafes all over the country: “Je voudrais un café crème et un pain au chocolat.” If you start each day with a milky coffee and a chocolate croissant, you can't go wrong!
The Bike Touring Survival Guide by Friedel and Andrew Grant is available now. See our review of the book. You can read more about Friedel and her travels, along with some really great cycle touring advice, at Travelling Two.