One of the authors of France en Vélo: The Ultimate Cycle Journey from the Channel to the Med: St-Malo to Nice, Hannah Reynolds, shares why she believe France is best explored by bike and give you some tips on how to make the most of your own Tour de France.
Cycling in France can be the ultimate ice-breaker. During the early days of Le Tour de France riders would raid bars during the race with proud owners offering them liquid refreshment. Today’s tourist rider gets an equally warm response with cafés always happy to top up your water. A bike proves a great conversation starter too – people will always ask a cyclist where they’ve been or where they’re going.
Generally the French have a great respect for cyclists; you and your bike will be made to feel welcome most places you go, from the car driver who shouts “bon courage” out the window as you labour up a climb, to the hotelier who is happy to let you tuck your bike away in his wine cellar to be safe for the night.
France is unequalled in its flavours; there is an incredible diversity of terrain, soil type and climate which influences the wide variety of food you will find on your plate or the drink in your glass. As you ride through the landscape you will observe the colours of the hills and soil, the type of animals grazing, the nut trees lining the road and the scent of woody herbs by the roadside. Of an evening those flavours, smells and sights will be served to you on a plate.
From the hefty beef steaks found in the north, the foie gras and truffles of the Périgord and the abundance of fresh vegetables in Provence, your meals will be a reflection of the landscape you have ridden through. As you eat and drink your way through France you will learn as much about a region in the restaurants as you do on the road.
Food is an integral part of French culture; meal times are observed rigidly and lunchtime is sacred. The ceremony surrounding food even extends to the humble picnic. In most villages you will find a small picnic area or plan d’eau a quiet spot by a pond or lake, the perfect lunch spot for a cycle tourist, and passers-by will often offer a cheery “bon appétit” if they see you tucking into your sandwich.
You don’t need to carry vast amounts of food supplies, many villages have a boulangerie so you will never be far from a warm, fresh baguette, although you should be wary of Sunday closing hours – ensure you purchase a few extras on Saturday. In rural communities you may find a place de multi-services – a concentration of all essential village services including a dépôt de pain.
When eating out don’t be shy about ordering the menu du jour. It is often the cheapest option and, most importantly, it’s the freshest as it is prepared each day with whatever is on offer at the local market at the time. It will give you a good taste for regional specialties and what produce is in season. To complement your food try ordering wine by the pichet (250cl or 500cl jugs); it will be the basic vin de table (house wine) but is usually a good locally produced tipple and is the perfect size for when an afternoon of pedalling suggests a whole bottle would be unwise.
There is a wide range of accommodation available suitable for the touring cyclist, it is mainly dependent on your budget and whether you are light-weight touring with just a change of clothes and a toothbrush or fully self-sufficient.
The three main types are good quality hotels, chambre d’hôtes or campsites. Chambres d’hôtes are essentially Bed and Breakfasts, although some may also offer an evening meal on request. They are a great way to meet people, the rooms themselves are often interesting and character filled and the welcome is more intimate and personal than a large hotel. There is also a network of auberge de jeunesse (youth hostels), which offer a similar experience.
Consider the type of accommodation you book in respect to the riding you plan. After a full day in the saddle it will be good food and rest your body craves most. If your end point is somewhere you wish to explore thoroughly then plan a shorter day. No matter how fit you are a long ride, especially in the heat, isn’t conducive to doing much more in the evening than enjoying a satisfying meal and relaxing with a drink.
Despite being perfectly comfortable with breaking the rules when it suits, some things in France are done with clockwork regularity. One of the key things to know is lunch times. Outside the hours of noon-2pm you will struggle to get a meal and any request for the lunch menu will be greeted with, ‘not possible, not possible’ as the chef sharpens his knives in the kitchen. Yet, a starving cycle tourist can often be surprised by offers of help. By some miracle bread and cheese may materialise, if you look particularly pathetic. However, this is not a technique to be relied upon.
Top tips for cycle touring in France
- Tourist Information offices – Office de Tourisme – are often a great source of free WiFi, even when they are shut you can often pick up the signal from outside.
- Hotel breakfasts can be a rip off. Buy your fresh croissant or pain au chocolat from the local boulangerie and eat with an outdoors view of your choosing.
- In some rural areas you’ll be able to find bike spares and mechanical help at catch-all farm machinery shops. Don’t be put off by the displays of lawn mowers; they will often sell inner-tubes as well.
- Many villages have water fountains, particularly the further south you go. If there is a sign saying “eau non potable” avoid it, but if there is no sign it is normally fresh and good to drink.
- Learning a few bits of French cycling slang will help you blend in with the local roadies, “finir sur la jante” means you have ended the ride completely exhausted, in direct translation it means you have “finished on the rim”.