Biking in France
By Bob Berley
Dear Monsieur Rick and Staff:
I've just returned from my second trip to France and used your book as a basic guidebook. We brought our bikes with us and pretty much got around riding them and using the trains. We did rent a car on two occasions. Biking is the best way to see France. Out in the countryside, we were exposed to local culture, relating to people in a very direct way. It takes your "back door" philosophy and distills it down to an essence. And nothing makes wonderful food taste even better (no guilt) like having to work to get there!
On both trips, we went without an itinerary except the first few nights and the last few. We used the Gite de France and Chambres d'Hotes guides for hotel listings and local TIs to book rooms on short notice. On one or two occasions, we had some difficulty, but generally it went very smoothly (and even the problems turned into adventures, as they often do.)
Here are a few thoughts on what I've learned about biking in France:
- Why bike: Enjoy little traffic, contact with la France profonde, true back door experience, etc.
- Easy biking vs. hard biking: There are only three other books I've been able to find that talk about biking in France, and they all are for real enthusiasts that can ride 50 miles uphill with full panniers. Unfortunately, this doesn't work for most people, especially families with youngsters. We did nothing but flat areas (see below) on our last trip and had a great time.
- Finding the flats: The least strenuous bike routes are found in river valleys, canals (tow paths vary greatly but all are passable and flat), and bike trails (like the Burke-Gilman in Seattle) The Voie Vert is a former railroad track paved for bike use. It runs for 40 km from Cluny to Givrey and offers side trips.
- Bikes on trains: This is the most important piece of information for any biker in France. Many trains will take bikes, and only certain types of bikes can go on trains. Knowing the train system rules is important for a fun and fancy-free trip. You can put your bike on nearly any train and get from one part of the country to the other with little effort. The exception to this is the TGV, which requires reservations for bicycles as well as people and limits the number of bikes carried.
- Shipping bikes by air: Most of the bike books have good sections on how to box them for plane travel. Try to book one carrier for both the domestic and international portions of your air travel. On our first trip, we flew Continental from Seattle to NY, and then took Air France to Paris. Flying Air France is an exciting way to start a trip (great food, a real treat) to France! Unfortunately, we had to pick up our boxed bicycles at the Air France arrival gate and take them to the Continental departure gate but on the return flight. Even if your baggage is ticketed through, you still have to go through customs at the city of your first stop in the States. You're responsible for moving your baggage, including your bikes, to the next carrier. On our second trip, we booked US Air for both legs, and although I still had to get the bikes through customs, there was a re-booking desk only 10 feet away from the gate. I left the bikes there, still boxed, for the next leg to Seattle. Renting bicycles was not option for use, since it's difficult to find the right sized rental bikes and you are usually required to return rental bicycles to the same location.
- Lodging: Since your books focus on cities, you tend to mostly describe hotel accommodations. It would be foolish to recommend specific Gites and chambres d'hotes since they're not usually near interesting sights. But staying at these places are a wonderful way to meet people, and are very convenient for the biker in the countryside. Hotels are always available in a city of any size as a backup, but our preference are the chambre d'hotes. Your phrase book will need to be expanded a bit to include the right lingo to communicate with non-English-speaking hoteliers in these areas.
I don't know how much the ability to speak French will make this type of trip easier. I studied it for five years in high school and college, and was fairly fluent then. But that was 30 years ago and I haven't used it much until recently. I can make myself understood, even if my verb tenses are all over the place. Getting directions and other crucial information in French can be a bit nerve-wracking. Even in a car you'd have to stop and ask for directions to most of these places, since they're so embedded in the countryside.