Choosing a Bike for Cycle Touring in France

Stephen Fox, author of Cycle Touring in France, has this advice to help you choose the right bike for your French cycling holiday.

There's a bike out there to suit everyone. Photo: Helen S-T

There's a bike out there to suit everyone. If you are taking an organised cycling tour of France and want to bring your own bike, chat to your tour company in advance to ensure your bike will suit the tour you've chosen. Photo: Helen S-T

Which bicycle is best for touring? A touring bike is the obvious answer as it is built specifically for carrying heavy panniers and granting a comfortable ride over long distances with good steering. It has drop handlebars (like a racing bike), but they are set in a more upright position, 700c wheels, and usually a steel frame, mudguards and a triple chain-ring.

Although lighter, a racing bike is not really suited to cycle touring as the frame geometry is more severe and most racing bikes do not come with seatstay lugs for the rear pannier rack (although there are ways of overcoming this). It also does not respond too well to hairpin descents when fully laden with panniers.

Having said this, I have done three mountain cycling tours on a bicycle made up of racing bike and hybrid bike components to good effect. The hybrid bike is something between a touring bike and a mountain bike in that it offers the relaxed frame geometry and larger 700c wheels of the touring bike, but has straight or rising handlebars like the mountain bike, at least 21 gears, and a sloping top tube. Cycle tourists who suffer from back or neck pains should definitely ‘test drive’ a hybrid if they are not sure which type of bicycle to choose.

What about mountain bikes?

Mountain bikes are robust, affordable and often surprisingly suitable for cycle touring. They usually come with chunky, knobbly tyres which are great for all-terrain adventures, but not suitable for cycle touring on roads. Replace them with slicker, thinner tyres that will reduce the effort you have to exert on paved roads; 26 x 1.5 or 1.75 tyres with good tread are recommended.

For mountainous terrain, a triple chain-ring (30/42/52 teeth) together with a Mega-range freewheel/sprocket on the back wheel (11–34 teeth) will get you up the steepest hills imaginable, but smaller range sprockets are usually adequate for most rides.

And folding bikes?

Brompton folding bikes – complete with dog trailer – on a cycle camping tour of the Loire. Photo: Nicole Wilkins  

Brompton folding bikes – complete with dog trailer – on a cycle camping tour of the Loire. Photo: Nicole Wilkins

Folding bikes are becoming increasingly popular for cycle touring, especially if you are also considering using public transport. Brompton and Dahon folding bikes with 20in wheels are sound choices, but make sure you buy one fit for touring (not commuting) and able to carry loaded panniers. There are also folding mountain bikes with 26in wheels. See also foldabikes.com (the FAQ section is a good place to start).

What else?

No matter what you choose, make sure you buy your bicycle from a reputable bike shop. They can advise you on the correct frame size for your height. To determine the correct saddle height for a comfortable ride, sit on the bike saddle and line up one of the crankarms with the seat tube, then put your heel on the pedal and adjust the saddle height until your leg is almost straight.

If you plan to camp you will probably need two rear pannier bags, a handlebar bag and a rear rack bag. The rear rack bag is not essential as you can strap gear onto the top of the pannier rack itself (rolled up bike bag and so on), but I find it useful for carrying food, cooking gear, repair kit, spare bike bits and the like.

Clothes, tent, sleeping bag and mat can then be put in the rear panniers, leaving the handlebar bag free for valuables. Always line your panniers with durable bin liners to keep everything dry when the heavens open. If these four bags do not suffice, you either need to trim your gear down, or consider front bags, which many cyclists like because they counterbalance the rear panniers.

Make sure you buy a strong, good quality rear rack to take the weight of heavy panniers. Altura make some great bags and their Arran handlebar bag (5 litre) clicks into the Rixen and Kaul quick-release support that can be left permanently attached to the handlebars.

Finally, a frame with two waterbottle carriers is better than a frame that only has one. You can buy still mineral water in 1.5 litre plastic bottles at any supermarket or alimentation shop (2 litre bottles are too fat) on a daily basis (or refill them), rather than having to keep topping up those non-transparent bike bottles which soon make the water taste of plastic.

This is an extract from Stephen Fox's Cycle Touring in France, published by Cicerone. Stephen lives in deepest, darkest Dorset and can often be spotted cycling in the countryside surrounding Corfe Castle or canoeing down the Frome and around Poole Harbour. Cycle touring or canoeing in France is a must every year, so you might just spot him freewheeling past sunflower fields on his folding bike, or drifting down the Dordogne in his inflatable canoe. "Wonderful country, whatever your passion," he says.

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