Cycling is a great way for kids to experience a country – Andy Patton has this advice to help you organise a family cycling holiday in France.
Once school’s out, the familiar words “I’m bored” are a daily mantra. However, it doesn’t have to be the case. One way to break up the holidays is to treat yourselves to an activity break which will give you – and the kids – something to look forward to. With just a bit of advance planning, you can create the perfect cycling trip to suit every member of the family, from teens to toddlers to parents.
If you like to combine activities with sight-seeing, then cycling is a great way of getting to know France: it means you get the chance to explore off the beaten track locations and see the country at your own pace, stopping off at family-friendly attractions along the way. Soak up the atmosphere at one of the many colourful street markets or festivals, and stock up on fine wine and other local produce to take back home.
However, just like any other family holiday, you need to do some groundwork to make it all run smoothly. Here are our top tips on how to enjoy a stress-free family cycling holiday.
Decide on an area
As with any family holiday, the first step is to get the map out and decide which part of the country you want to explore – and ask the kids for their input too. Would they prefer to take a coastal path in south-west of France, covering parts of the Vélodyssée, take a river route in the Lot Valley, or cycle through forests and countryside in the Ardennes, in the eastern part of France?
If you're cycling with younger children, who are less competent on two wheels, you might want to avoid towns, as far as practical, and stick to the country lanes where often you won’t see a car for miles. Look for areas with lots of designated bike paths and car-free routes such as voies vertes, which often follow canal and river towpaths, and disused railway tracks. This will ensure the youngest members of the family won’t have to negotiate uphill rides. You can find a map of these official greenway routes at www.voiesvertes.com
Choosing a route for cycling with kids
Taking a challenging, mountainous tour in the Alps will certainly have its appeal, and if you have teenagers who are also experienced cyclists, they may well enjoy testing their abilities. However, some of you will be cycling with kids for the first time, so it goes without saying that you will need to factor their age and level of ability to get the most out of your break.
If you have five to 10-year-olds, for example, who can cycle – but perhaps not as far as you’d like to in a day – you might want to opt for an easy route which is fairly flat with just a few low level hills. In short, subject to the age and experience of the kids, it’s generally a good idea to keep mileages on the low side and pack in the points of interest and ice-cream stops.
Organised cycle tour or plan your own route?
A number of companies offer organised cycle tours of France – and as each tour will generally marked with the level of difficulty, you should know exactly what to expect before you go. This is the easiest way to plan your cycling holiday as the tour operator will provide you with the a map and an itinerary that includes family friendly attractions to see along the way such as the magical castles of the Loire Valley, prehistoric caves in the Dordogne, or flamingos, white horses and other wildlife of the Camargue in Provence.
By organising through a tour company, you don’t have to worry about booking hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation, as this is all organised on your behalf. You can also cycle light as your luggage will transferred on to your hotel, so you can buy as many souvenirs as you like.
Cycle hire is usually also organised for you, and is usually either included in the price or offered for a surcharge. Bikes can be delivered to your cycle to your accommodation at the start of the holiday.
However, if you like the freedom to plan your own route, there are plenty of resources out there to help you do just that. For inspiration, see France on Two Wheels, the Nantes-Brest Canal guide, this overview of Brittany's green routes, Richard Peace's Cycling Northern France or London to Paris books, or the trusty Lonely Planet Cycling France guide. A generic travelling with kids book like this Brittany guide can also provide some top tips. (See here for more guidebook and map ideas).
Alternatively, simply buy the maps and plan your own route – it is generally clear from the maps which are the busier routes to be avoided. You need at least 1:100,000 maps, as there is too little information on 1:200,000 maps.
You can check out various routes online, such as www.viamichelin.fr or invest in cycle maps such as Michelin road atlas (1:200,000) or the IGN 1:1000,000 series. The Stanfords travel bookshop is an excellent place to start for maps and books.
Spend time researching the places to visit and then piece together what looks like quiet routes between these places of interest and your accommodation. There is more advice here on choosing a bike route.
If you don't have the time or confidence to plan your own route, then opting for an organised tour is the best bet, as generally the quietest and prettiest routes will have been selected by the organisers and the points of interest will already have been researched for you.
While a tour company will make things easier for you by organising your break on your behalf, a DIY holiday may give you more freedom, so you can change your route as and when you need to – although this may involve having to find or rearrange accommodation during the holiday.
If you want to include an element of flexibility without worrying about where you are going to stay, choose an organised trip which allows you to choose between different routes on different days – such as a fixed-base holiday, which we cover next.
Fixed-based cycling holiday or point to point?
If you have very young children, there may be an advantage in taking a fixed-base holiday, as opposed to staying in different accommodation every night. You may decide to stay in a cycle friendly hotel or a villa in France and just take short cycle rides during the day. It is also a good option during the summer months, where cycling for hours in the heat with young children is just not practical.
If your children have a particular interest – such as animal parks, transport, theme parks or just simply heading to the beach – you may want to plan your own holiday to factor this in (the Atlantic coast around Lacanau might be a good option).
With under-10s it is also a good idea to plan as many stopovers as possible so they have plenty of loo breaks, and drink and snack breaks, and enough distractions to keep them occupied during the day.
Which bikes to hire?
If you're staying in a villa or cycle-friendly hotel or B&B in France and using this as a base, you may want to load up the car, put your bikes on a trailer, and just drive to your destination with everything you need (see here for our ferry information).
Although some accommodaiton comes with bikes included, the bikes provided may be of questionable quality or not be that well maintained.
If you have toddlers, trailers or bike seats are the options. You can seats to fit the front or the back of the bike, and these bring the little ones closer to you and out in the fresh air.
Some youngsters, however, feel cautious about using a bike seat, and would feel far more comfortable in a trailer or buggy, especially as some trailers are designed for more than one child. A trailer is also a good idea to protect your child from the elements, to shield them from the sun’s rays or from any unexpected downpour, and to also provide a comfortable place to nap along the way.
Most child seats are suitable for youngsters between about six to nine months and four years. The age bracket is wider for a trailer. It's possible to get trailers for children aged eight weeks to six years, although most trailers are suitable for children from nine months upwards. (Here's how Lyn chose a trailer for her mini-cyclists).
With children aged four to nine upwards, there are tagalong bikes, which is basically a third wheel attached to a frame that is fixed on the back of an adult bike. Your child can pedal or not as the case may be and they will feel they are contributing to the ride. The view can be restricted though as the child is at the back. From aged six or seven upwards, your child may want to have their own bike.
Another option is the tandem, which – depending on the model – is suitable for children aged six years, right through to adulthood.
If the children are to cycle independently, it may be best to bring along their bike from home if that is possible, as it is far better that the child rides a bike that they are familiar with, and that is the right size for them and so on.
If hiring, look for a reputable hire firm in the area you are visiting. See our bike hire listings (including these that deliver), or ask your accommodation provider if they can recommend a local service.
Each family member should have a bottle of water to take with them when they go, especially if you are cycling long distances in the heat. Other essentials include sunscreen, lightweight waterproofs, and some snacks (or at the very least plan to stop over at various cafes or restaurants along the route so you can keep your energy levels up for the ride).
Andy Patton cut his cycling teeth on the Cheshire plain, later becoming a commuter cyclist in London throughout the 1980s. Moving to Suffolk for a quieter life in 1991, he has been organising self-guided cycling holidays ever since. He's married with two teenage boys, who can attest to his advice here. He's also Treasurer for and on the Board of British Cycling's Eastern Region.
More advice and inspiration to help you plan
Browse our map below for cycle-friendly accommodation across France, or see our accommodation listings.
See our organised tours section for self-guided rides. We also have a comprehensive bike hire section covering all of France. See our where to go section for bike route ideas and our cycle camping section if you're planning on getting back to nature, in particular this overview. Our planning section has lots more advice on everything from car hire and ferries to food options.
Oh, and here's some useful advice for watching the Tour de France with kids.