You want to cycle in France but you're not sure where to go? Cycle tourer Laura Stone, author of Himalaya By Bike, has this guide to choosing a route.
First of all you want to be clear what your ‘must sees’ are, be they mountains, castles, hotels or markets. Buy a fold-out map of France, grab a highlighter and mark them up, to give you a birds-eye view of your route. If your trip to France is to test yourself against the cols, or you fancy including an iconic climb such as Mt Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez, then it’s best to leave these till later in your itinerary (ie once you're fit), unless you are confident your pins are already strong. If, on the other hand, you're dreaming of a leisurely coastal pedal from A to B with not a hill in sight, then look into prevailing winds to ensure you’re won’t spend your holiday shouting into a headwind. Finally, unless you're confident cycling in traffic then give larger French cities a wide berth.
Sources of inspiration
There are a few good guidebooks that cover the whole country – try Lonely Planet's Cycling in France and Stephen Fox's Cycle Touring in France – as well as books the concentrate on a series of routes or a region (Cycling Southern France, Cycling the Canal du Midi, Cycling the French Alps, Cycling the River Loire, The Grand Traverse of Massive Central, and The Way of St James: A Cyclist's Guide are all good places to start).
Some cycle tour companies post their itineraries online too, which can be great sources of inspiration. Search Google for some of the places you’ll be passing through, and visit local tourist board websites – see the French Tourist Board's France Guide for links. Some local tourist boards (eg the Haute-Alpes) have great cycling and VTT (MTB) itineraries, and can often send our brochures and maps. A new initiative in France is Voies Vertes (or greenways), which are traffic-free cycle routes around the country – they can be great to build routes around.
All these sources are useful for inspiration and you can pick and mix bits of their routes to create a tailor-made tour for yourself. Aim for a balance of local knowledge and having your own adventure – it’s good for the soul to blaze your own trail now and again. So, with all this in mind, sit back and, like a magic eye picture, defocus to let your route appear from France’s maze of D-roads.
Maps and road hierarchies
For more detailed planning, the best series for cycle touring are Michelin’s yellow local maps (scale 1:150 000) and IGN’s yellow TOP 100 (scale 1:100 000). The Michelin maps show the topography and mark up cycle routes (including Voies Vertes), tourist attractions and city insets which can be handy. The ideal cycling route avoids autoroutes (motorways whose names start with ‘A’, eg ‘A6’) altogether and minimises Routes Nationales (the French version of A-roads in the UK whose names start with N, eg ‘N 85’) and dual carriageways. This leaves you with France’s departmental network of local roads (whose names start with D), and the rarely-spotted (and maintained) communal roads (whose names start with C). Scenic roads (marked with a green border on Michelin and IGN maps) are a plus, though their ‘scenicness’ is subjective and dependent on the weather. What about hils? A bonus or to be avoided at all costs? Whichever way, the topography is marked up so you can to take them into account.
Don’t forget to sleep!
Next up, working out where en route you’re going to stay. You will probably have a general idea of how many miles you’d like to cover each day, so does your route have a small town or campsite close enough to your mileage? Outside of high season (July and August) and as long as you’re not in a big group, you’ll usually be fine to turn up unannounced. But it’s good to have done some pre-trip research so you have a few places in mind (and their contact details and address to hand), just in case your Plan A doesn't work out. All this research can be backed up with route information and A to B distances on the Michelin site – choose the ‘cycle’ and ‘sightseeing’ options, and it will also suggests hotels en route. A few things will influence your mileage: downhills, uphills, bad weather, strong winds and also how many days you’ve been in the saddle: it’s amazing how quickly your legs get used to (and even enjoy!) spinning about for hours on end.
While cycling in France, you’ll notice that D roads sometimes change their number for no seemingly good reason – this can be unnerving when you’re cycling, but don’t worry, you haven’t missed a junction: the road has probably just crossed into another departement. The French attach more importance to a road’s destination than to its number, so all around France at any given time there are probably a couple of tourists going round and round a roundabout because they have been caught out by the French quirk of suddenly signing a road by its next nearest town (which only the locals have heard of) rather than its final destination.
On a tour, it’s good to have a fixed goal and then go with the flow a bit en route. A loose itinerary leaves you free to explore if you find somewhere gorgeous without messing up a series of reservations. And what a change it makes to wake up in the morning and have no idea where the day will take you.
See also Laura's getting started guide to cycling in France.
Laura Stone spent two years writing and researching the Traliblazer guide Himalaya By Bike. She also co-owns Greenrock, a bike adventure travel company that runs tours in France, as well as in the Himalayas, the Andes, and the USA.