There is a certain romance to the idea of a unplanned, no route, ‘devil may care’ cycling tour through France. Simply stuff a tent into your pannier, a packet of jelly babies and a phrasebook in your pocket, jump on a ferry and head in the general direction of ‘‘that one climb I saw on the Tour on TV’ – what could be simpler?
Kit and equipment
Preparation is going to make things easy once you get there. Finding that balance between over-packing and being underprepared is an art form that takes experience to perfect. A good place to start is with Jim Dirlam’s extensive touring kit check list.
My advice is to filter this list with a bit of common sense, focusing on the essentials that fit your planned trip whilst taking into account that France is a cycle friendly country, so a lot of less essential items will be available en route.
Having the right kit to carry your gear is another important factor. Remember, your well worn hiking backpack is probably not the best option for cycle touring. Front and rear panniers attached to your bike via racks, with a handlebar bag for items you need to access easily is a preferable setup.
Cover your back in case of emergencies by ensuring you have your European Health Insurance card, a vital addition to your kit. Your EHI Card will enable to you to access free healthcare whilst in France.
Make sure your setup is on point before you leave. Small niggles, such as not having the correct saddle height or handlebar reach may not be an issue on your Sunday ride, but when you take those niggles long distance they can quickly be magnified and leave you in serious pain. Try this bike fit guide to get you started.
Pack it all up and take a few decent length rides with all your kit on board. I know that the first time I jumped on my bike fully laden it was a shock how hard it was to control and it is definitely worth acclimatising to increased braking distances and cornering with a load.
How to get across the channel is obviously going to be one of the first decision. Whilst you can take your bike on Eurostar, spaces are limited especially during peak periods. My first choice has always been to travel by boat, not least because ferry routes can take you ports such as Roscoff which is a perfect starting point for many great routes. Brittany ferries are currently offering day trip ferry crossings, with bike, for a shade over £30 which is pretty great value.
Planning your route around railway connections will allow you to see more of the country quicker, tackle more varied and interesting terrain and avoid the need for a looped route from the ferry. Taking bikes on the French high-speed rail network (the TGV) can be tricky, but on conventional French trains you will most often find a bike carriage or if not, will be able to take your bike into the passenger section.
For an easy life, look to plan your route around the multitude of cycle specific routes that cover the country. These are the Voie Vertes (Green Ways), which are solely for non-motorised traffic and Veloroutes – which link quiet roads and cycle paths for a safe and accessible route. Click here for a handy map of these routes.
For the more masochistic amongst you setting out to tackle some of the Tour De France’s classic climbs is certainly an interesting project to base a tour around. Cycle vacation company Trek Travel offer a 9-day adventure through the French Alps and Pyrenees, which takes in some of the Tour’s most famous climbs such as the Col du Tourmalet and Croix de Fer. Not for the faint hearted!
The best value option will always be camping. Not only will it be cheap – especially if you camp ‘wild’ – but generally you will not need (for two or three people with a couple of tents) to book your campsites ahead, which will allow your tour far more flexibility.
An Auberges de jeunesse is your next option on the price scale, essentially the French version of a youth hostel. They are, despite the name, open to all ages and are also a great place to meet other cyclists. Some hostels will serve meals, with most having communal kitchens where you can cook your own food.