Thinking about cycling in France? Experienced cycle tourer and Francophile Laura Stone, author of Himalaya By Bike, has this guide to get you started.
If God created a country especially for cycle tourists, it would look just like France. From thundering gorges and cloud-shrouded mountain peaks to peaceful canals and gentle green ways, the French landscape can provide a perfect backdrop for any tour. Sprinkle in pedalling along quiet local D-roads, courteous drivers, a raft of pain au chocolats for breakfast and a pichet of plonk at the end of the day, and you might even think you’ve arrived in heaven.
There’s really no reason not to go cycle touring in France – especially during the warmer months. So, where to begin?
Where to cycle in France
To get the most out of your French cycling holiday, give a bit of thought to what you really want out of it. It’s worth browsing through a guidebook to whet your appetite: try Lonely Planet's France or Cycling France, or Cycle Touring in France by Freewheeling France contributor Stephen Fox, or see our books section fo rmore ideas. France offers a host of charms – do you crave azure skies and the hot breath of the Sahara? Head for the Mediterranean. Or alpine meadows and snowy peaks? Head for the Alps. Citadels, hilltop villages, grand cathedrals, chateaux, extinct volcanos – they all await. Pick out your ‘must sees’ and mark them on a map. But be aware that many coastal regions are plagued by high winds: the Mediterranean especially attracts an array of seasonal winds from each corner of the compass.
See our Where to go section for more inspiration.
How much time do you have?
You need to work out how much reality is going to limit your ideal bike trip. The logistics of a long weekend require more planning than a longer tour in order to make sure you don’t waste half your time getting to and from your ride in the first place. If you've done some cycle touring before, you’ll know what is a realistic daily mileage for you; if you're a first-time cycle tourer, spend a couple of weekends out on your bike. Don't forget to factor in the terrain and possible weather: uphills, deluges and headwinds will slow you down; downhills, long days and tailwinds will see you covering more miles than you thought yourself capable of.
When to cycle in France
Early spring through to late autumn, give or take some regional quirks. High season (with accompanying high prices) is July and August, and August in particular as the French holiday en masse and this is the month they take to the roads. Snow can block the high cols in the Alps and Pyrenées as early as October, and as late in the year as June. If you’re col riding before late June/July, you may also get caught out by road resurfacing for the Tour de France – you can cast an eye over the route from October onwards.
If you're dreaming of a part of France that is popular with tourists (for example, Provence), think about travelling in the off-season; there will be less traffic and hotels won’t be full, so you can keep your itinerary fluid, without being locked into a series of reservations.
What's your budget?
How much cash do you have to spend, and how far will it go? Are you happy cooking your own food and camping out under canvas, or would you rather splash out and follow restaurant meals with a night in a hotel? Could you do both to prolong your tour?
The cheapest option is to free camp, though wild camping is technically illegal in France and should be done only in remote areas and with respect for landowners (especially farmers), who might not take too kindly to you using their land without permission. Campsites vary from the primitive to the deluxe (featuring heated swimming pools with poolside bar and other delights), but the latter can cost up to €50 a night for a tent pitch in the summer months, and be filled with campervans from northern Europe. And don’t do what I once did, which was to go on a cycle camping tour in Provence and the Alps Maritimes in March: most campsites don’t open until April, and close for winter at the end of October. See our camping guide for more.
If you are on a tight budget but prefer to travel fast and light, then hostels in France can be as cheap as €12 a night; they're also a good option if you’re travelling solo but like meeting other people. French gîtes, small hotels and B&Bs can be good value for money (and can make dinner with advance notice) – a more engaging way to see France than bedding down in one of the cheap French hotel chains (most of which are clustered around autoroute exits, city centres and industrial suburbs – great for cars but unpleasant cycling). You could always allow your accommodation choice to dictate your route – there are some really fabulous and unique choices in France, including a few – like Two Wheels Mooring – that are dedicated to providing biker accommodation. See our cycle-friendly accommodation listings for more ideas.
For food it’s worth making the odd picnic lunch and snack for yourself as it will get you involved with French food, especially if you detour to a local market. You also then get to cycle until you find the perfect spot to enjoy your spread. As well as saving you money, this also ensures that restaurant meals remain a treat, rather than inducing menu-fatigue. And you’ll need to make your own food on a Sunday anyway: rural France is a traditional society with traditional eating times and almost everything except McDonald's (if you can find one) is shut on Sundays.
What about the bike?
Choose a route that suits your bike and your fitness – think twice about taking a big-geared road bike up the mountains if you’re out of shape, or grinding along smooth roads on a mountain bike with knobbly tyres. If you’re thinking of camping, then you’ll need a bike with braze-ons so you can attach a rack and panniers – let the bike carry the load, not your back. A handlebar bag can be really handy if you like to have a camera and cash within reach. Sort out any bike niggles like slipping gears before you go, and give your bike some TLC: check brake pads, gears and tyres, and pack a puncture repair kit, spare inner tubes, chain lube and a pump. We have more advice here on choosing a bike.
But it’s not all about the bike: you’ll enjoy your cycling tour of France far more if you're fit before you leave. Cyclists are renowned for taking weight-saving to extremes (the Crane cousins even sawed their toothbrushes in half before riding to Xinjiang Province in the 1980s) – why not take it off yourself instead?!
Getting to France
If bicycles are the most efficient means of transport, they compensate by being horrendously inefficient when you’re transporting them by any other means. If you’re flying or taking a train, then consider investing in a bike bag as these are easier to leave in train station and airport left luggage areas than bike boxes. Most airlines now charge to carry bikes (and require them to be boxed or bagged), and Eurostar requires them to either be dismembered and in a bag or to be booked in advance (in which case your bike may, or may not, travel on the same train as you). For more, see our article on bikes and French trains. The bus is another option – with or without a bike, while walking on a ferry with your bike can be the easiest option of all, providing you're able to get to a port in the first place.
A word about Paris and the larger cities you may hub through: although French drivers are generally considerate of cyclists, this does not apply in the larger cities where roads (and especially roundabouts) are a free-for-all; if your route starts and/or finishes in a city, then time your departure/arrival for a quiet time, preferably a Sunday or, if you are in Paris, in August. (Take our Paris safety quiz here.)
See our Getting to France section for more information and links.
Planning your French cycling holiday
It’s a good idea to set a goal – whether that’s to get from A to B, or A to Z via lots of ‘must sees’. Your level of planning is personal, of course – some people take real joy in doing the research, while others are much happier to wing it. But if you're travelling in a group, then a little some planning is usually needed, especially if you’re visiting France in the busy summer holidays when accommodation is at a premium.
Organised tours can be an excellent option if you don’t have the time to plan a route of your own, if you’d like to meet other cyclists and/or if you’d like to be taken care of while you cycle. Choose your tour company carefully – the good ones are run by people passionate about cycling and the region you are cycling through, and they will go the extra mile to make sure you have a wonderful time. And don't forget there's always the option of taking a self-guided tour organised by a tour company: you get the benefit of their local knowledge, planning and support, as well as the independence of cycling on your own.
Finally, don’t forget to pack the corkscrew and, in the words of the French, bon courage!
Freewheeling France has more information on getting started, including a guides to getting to France by plane, ferry, bus and train, an introduction to cycle camping in France, help choosing a route, and advice on buying tents, camp stoves and insurance.
Laura Stone spent two years researching and writing the Traliblazer guide Himalaya By Bike (UK, US, Fr). A regular visitor to France, she co-owns Greenrock, a bike adventure company that runs tours in France, as well as in the Himalayas, the Andes, and the USA.