Many consider France as the greatest destination for a cycling holiday, and for good reason. The landscape is stunning, the climate is fair and French motorists usually respect cyclists. (Yes, they really do!) And of course, at the end of every bike ride, you get to enjoy delicious French food and wine. If you’re considering a cycling holiday in France, then read on for our in-depth guide!
It’s no surprise that France is a hugely popular destination for all cyclist types. Mountain bikers have the choice of the Pyrenees or the Alps, while road cyclists can follow in the tyre-treads of the world’s most famous road race: Le Tour de France. For those just starting out, or daily commuters, the rolling landscape of Bordeaux is highly recommended, or step back in time by exploring the back roads of Brittany.
Lawrie Jones, a road and touring cyclist who runs 42Group, a marketing agency for cycling and health brands, has gone touring in France ten times to date.
“The landscape is incredibly beautiful and varied. There’s something for everyone – from stunning short rides to incredible mountains,” states Jones. “The roads have been made famous by Le Tour de France, and it’s perhaps the only sport where you can ride the same course as the professionals.”
UK cyclists can drive, fly, or take the train to France and each option means you can bring your own bike. Darren Parker, the owner of Mountainbikebreaks.com based in Chatel in the French Alps, estimates that about 90% of his guests bring their own bikes:
“It is more common for our guests to ride their bikes; car share or bring all of them over in a van. If the group fly with hand luggage, the average cost of £30 extra per bike, per person each way costs far more than the ferry and petrol. Plus, driving also allows you to bring tools and spares.”
If you do opt to fly, a good bike box is essential to avoid damage. It’s also worth taking into account that transfers can be expensive, as some companies charge extra for bikes.
If you don’t want to take your own bike with you, there’s plenty of places to hire bikes in France. However, if you are doing some serious touring or mountain biking it can be expensive, as you won’t be just getting any old bike. Parker compares it to hiring a Mercedes rather than a Ford Fiesta. Additionally, depending on who you hire from, you may or may not have to pay for any wear and tear gained along the way. Always check with your bike hire company before you book to avoid any nasty surprises.
Le Tour de France has made France a hugely popular destination for road and touring cyclists’ bucket lists. France also has over half a million miles of non-motorway roads and a vast network of bike-friendly trails to escape the traffic, so it’s no wonder it’s popular.
British Cycling-certified coach Royce Murphy, who cycled 2,516 miles from the UK to Istanbul in 2016, said the best thing about cycle touring was experiencing things you normally miss on foot or in a car. “In a car, you’re in a shell and are isolated from the world you are travelling through; while on a bike you can smell, hear and feel what is going on."
Lawrie Jones certainly agrees. On his last cycling holiday, he took on the highest paved mountain pass in France: the Col du Tourmalet through the Pyrenees. This challenging mountain is one of the most famous climbs of Le Tour de France. Jones was also lucky enough to see the race during his trip too: “We drove from the UK, via the Eurostar, to the mountains of the Col du Tourmalet. We varied the route, following Le Tour de France, mixing enjoyable but strenuous cycling with some sightseeing and spectating.”
“Over 5 days we tackled some of the big climbs – the Col du Tourmalet being one – at a leisurely pace, taking our time to enjoy the sights. We then planned out our viewing of the race; taking in a stage depart, a mountain stage and enjoying Bastille Day in a sleepy French town awaiting the arrival of the noise and excitement of the Tour.”
One of Jones’ biggest highlights of cycling in France was the abundance of good food and wine. “What’s even better is that you’ve burned off enough calories climbing mountains that you can enjoy it all with impunity,” he added.
If the idea of peddling up one of France’s highest roads does not fill you with joy, there are gentler options. One of Jones’ personal favourites is cycling through the Bordeaux countryside, home to some of the world’s most famous vineyards, “The area is a great place to cycle through. You can enjoy the breathtaking scenery and a stunning glass of wine. The rolling roads shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge to inexperienced cyclists either.”
He is also a fan of cycling in Paris. If you are worried about motorists, don’t get carried away. Jones assures us that the roads themselves are well kept and the majority of drivers are respectful of cyclists – much more so than in the UK, in his opinion.
France has several mountain ranges, with the two most famous naturally being the Pyrenees and the Alps. For the best experience, one of the most expansive areas of mountain biking terrain is the Portes du Soleil in the Alps. There are 12 linked resorts, four internationally-renowned bike parks, and 20 lifts which are open all summer.
It is in this beautiful part of the world, which sits between Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva, that Darren Parker started Mountainbikebreaks.com. He believes the Alps is the only true testing ground for mountain bikers, especially those with high-end, specialist bikes. Parker estimates that the average value of bikes he sees is over £2,500 each.
“With such expensive bikes and the enthusiasm to test their abilities, mountain bikers can find out the full potential of their bike and themselves,” said Parker.
“Then there’s the awe-inspiring scenery, as well as the extensive area (approx. 650km) of groomed trails, natural trails, downhill bike parks and, most importantly, the ski lifts – adapted to get you and your mountain bike to the top of a mountain in minutes without having to break a sweat.”
With such a huge area to ride around, Parker recommends hiring a guide or going with a specialist mountain bike company. “The knowledge of the area for clients is invaluable. The guide is responsible for keeping them safe whilst exploring and reaching areas they would never otherwise find.”
When it comes to accommodation, choosing a chalet that is set up for mountain bikers will make your life easier. Parker suggests finding one which has a secure area for bikes, plus a workshop where you can clean your bike and make any small repairs necessary after a day on the mountain.
Most of the trails are graded like ski runs; there are green, blue, red and black trails, green being the easiest and black being the most technical and extreme. The advice? Only take on what you know you can handle. All grades match loosely with graded trails in the UK. However, it’s worth noting that no two mountain ranges are exactly the same, and even trails with the same grade can differ vastly.
“The gradients of the slopes in the Alps are much greater than elsewhere, so the Alps’ red trail could be harder than you might have imagined,” said Parker.
“Coupled with weather elements, a suggested green piste can become as difficult as a red piste! The grading system should be taken as a guideline, not as a given, and I would recommend that all trails are ridden with caution. Assess all jumps and kickers before you attempt to nail them!”
If you want to see what happens when you don’t know the trails, watch this video.
If you are thinking about hitting the mountain trails of France, Parker recommends:
- Doing your research
- Being prepared for all weather eventualities
- Taking breaks frequently. Stop for drinks, food and rest. Fatigue slows reactions and causes accidents
- Having a well-stocked beer fridge at the end of the day
- Get covered by a specialist worldwide cycle insurance policy, such as these offered by Cycleplan. Get an instant quote today!
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