Published by Lyn on 5 April 2011
Emma Philpott has cycled all over Europe with her boyfriend Justin. They are currently riding to New Zealand via Central and South-East Asia
Can you tell us about the first time you cycled in France?
France fit all the criteria we were looking for when planning our first week long cycle tour – it was easy to reach by train and ferry from London in the UK, camping was affordable and there were enough small roads for us to plan our own route. We took a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe and cycled towards Le Havre before ducking inland at Etretat where we followed small country roads until we hit the Seine. We cycled upstream to Rouen and then went north picking up a dedicated cycle path for some of the way back to Dieppe where we caught the last afternoon of an international kite festival before our ferry back to the UK.
What’s your most vivid memory of France from that trip?
The first day of any trip is when you have the greatest sense of adventure. We arrived in Dieppe before dawn and were eager to start riding immediately. We had a quick coffee before climbing a hill out of town. Just as the sun was rising we were cycling along a high farming plain, with a cliff edge in the far distance. I remember being incredibly tired from the early morning arrival and viewing the slow change of light through a veil of surrealism - giant hay bales seeming to stand out against the pancake flat landscape like something out of a popup book. Just as I was yelling something to this effect to my boyfriend, a flock of pheasants were disturbed on the side of the road and all flew off, except one poor confused bird which continued running just ahead of his tires for a few metres before finally taking flight.
How did you choose your route?
We booked the ferry journey first and then started looking at maps to see where we could conceivably go within six days. We wanted to have a mix of countryside, coastline and cities, so picked Rouen as our city, plotted a route to avoid major roads and looked for campsites en route. We kept our plans a little flexible but highlighted the route and marked all open campsites on a paper map.
We had done shorter tours but this trip was the first time we had carried full camping equipment on our bikes. With this in mind we intentionally kept our daily distance manageable, aiming to do a maximum of 50 kilometres a day. This allowed us to take unloaded afternoon rides, treat ourselves to lunches out and sightsee without the bicycles when we stayed in Rouen.
How did your first impressions of France change during subsequent visits?
From London I had been a regular visitor to Paris but hadn't explored more than a few other cities before I started cycling in the country. The sheer beauty and variation of scenery in France from dramatic gorges to rolling vineyard covered hills really struck me as I cycled in the South East this year and I only wish I had spent more time exploring France by bicycle when I lived within easy reach.
What was the most challenging aspect of cycling in France?
The only challenge I can really think of is storing baguettes without squashing them! We never had problems with finding bakeries, but there were a few squashed lunches before we cottoned on to asking for our bread to be cut in half at the shop.
Despite some cold and wet days on each of my tours to France we always found people accommodating of our limited French and usually found navigation a breeze. Otherwise there were few France specific challenges to distract us from the riding.
If you could come back and ride anywhere in France, where would you go?
There is a lot which I still haven't seen but I think my first destination would be Corsica. I think I could find about two weeks of cycling on the island to keep me entertained but if I was flying from New Zealand I would consider building a route which encompassed some time in its Italian neighbour Sardinia as well. I like the idea of all that hill climbing coupled with tiny hilltop villages and beautiful beaches.
And where would you avoid?
The last time I cycled through France I avoided the coastal roads from Marseille to Nice and I think it was wise to stay inland. I'm not a huge fan of cycling along developed coastlines especially if it means battling with cars along busy coastal roads. Less budget conscious travellers may well enjoy spending time on some of the beaches along the way but I was happy to follow the hills all the way to the Italian border.
You mostly camped around France, often free-camping. What’s your number one piece of advice for other cycle-campers?
If you can't find an official campsite, try asking local shopkeepers if there is camping nearby. Smaller municipal campsites aren't always well marked from the road but local residents can usually point you in the right direction or offer you an alternative place to spend the night. If you are in a location with more than one campsite its worth shopping around as the quality can vary hugely although we found prices were always reasonable.
Best piece of French foodie advice for cyclists?
Keep your eyes peeled for fixed menus (called menu du jour or prix fixe menus) which will be advertised outside restaurants. These two or three course meals are a great way to eat well on tour, and are often really good value as well.
You’ve cycled all over Europe – how does France (as a cycling destination) compare to all the other countries you’ve been?
I have fond memories of each country I've pedalled through but good quality tarmac and lots of local enthusiasm for cycling does make France special. On some roads it was easy to imagine that they were built with cycling in mind. Maybe it is a result of Tour de France madness?
You started cycling as a commuter in London before branching out into longer rides – Hadrian’s Wall and then Land’s End to John O’Groats. How did these rides prepare you for your longer tours?
I commuted on a range of very cheap second-hand bikes and as they fell apart in various ways I learnt a lot about maintenance. My fitness levels improved by riding regularly and over time I purchased a lot of the gear that I would need for longer tours such as rainwear, warm weather clothes and panniers.
I started talking about a multi-year trip with my boyfriend a few years before committing to the idea. We started doing multi-day rides as we ran out of local routes to cycle and did a few longer tours as test runs of our equipment. Cycling Land's End to John O’Groat's gave us the chance to make sure we wouldn't go crazy living in a tent together and to see a bit more of the UK before we headed off on our current trip.
Many people don't train regularly with the same weight they'll be taking on tour, but finding time for at least one trial tour over at least two days is a good idea before you embark on any big trip.
Why is cycling such a great way to see France (and the world)?
You can get a glimpse of small places which are hard to get to by public transport yet you can also choose if you want to visit major towns and tourist destinations. Also in France you're allowed to eat as many pastries as you can fit in your handlebar bag!
What three items can’t you cycle without?
No matter the length of the bike ride, I always wear padded cycling shorts (usually under MTB style baggy shorts), mount my bicycle computer and try to have some emergency snacks to hand.
Any final words of advice for people thinking about cycling in France?
No matter where you're cycling in France, take time to watch daily life play out in small villages, stop for the view at the top of any hill you climb and make sure you stock up on food when shops are open.
Emma Philpott is a world-curious New Zealander who packed up London life to cycle back to New Zealand in March 2010, boyfriend in tow. After spending winter in Istanbul, they spent 2011 travelling east towards Russia, Mongolia, China and South-East Asia. You can follow her adventures on her Rolling Tales blog.
See Emma's articles for Freewheeling France
- Cycle camping
- French gastronomy: Eating on the road
- Mastering campsite cooking
- Campsite recipes
- Basic cycle camping kit
- Where to stay: Find free beds in France
- Cycling in wet weather