Cycle Touring Tips
Hotels & Baggage
When we go to France, we fly first to Paris and stay in an hotel for a night or two before moving on to the city or town where we begin our tour. Then, at the end of the tour, on our way home, we go back to Paris for a night or two at the same hotel.
Here's why: we arrive in France with our baggage, which includes our panniers & everything that's going on the bike tour, and other things as well, which we definitely don't want to take. The trick here is to know that most decent hotels in Paris will keep your bags for you, usually for free, and especially if you're coming back. Sometimes your bike rental agency will do the same thing, but we find it's just easier to leave everything in Paris. So, when we leave Paris for the bike tour, all we have is our paniers, ready to put on the bikes & head out.
Cycle Touring Tips
We've been on many cycle tours all over Europe & North America (but mostly France) and we've learned a few things.
When planning your trip, remember that wherever you plan to stay for the night, you'll need to think about dinner, because if you're like us, you won't want to ride in the dark. This means there needs to be a restaurant with walking distance from you're hotel, B&B, or apartment. If this happens to be in a small or medium sized city, no problem, you'll likely have a choice, but not so in the countryside where there may be only one restaurant or none at all. Hotels in the countryside frequently have their own restaurants, and very often your hosts at your B&B will drive you to the closest restaurant for a few euro. Sometimes, you'll just have to make do with a picnic at your hotel/B&B, which means you'll have to think about where you can buy what you'll need during the day.
When we know that it'll be a picnic dinner, we'll frequently find a nice restaurant and have a bigger meal for lunch than usual. Happily, the standards for restaurants in France is probably higher than what you're used to, and even in the smallest, more remote corner of France, you'll find little restaurants in tiny villages that are surprisingly good.
Sometimes it's lunch that can be the problem. You can't count on there being a grocery store in every small town or village in France. These days, there may not even be a boulangerie (bakery). If there is, most of them make nice sandwiches, which make for a good picnic. When a ride presents a particular challenge for lunch, or dinner, we mention it, but it's something you do have to plan for no matter what.
Never start a cycle tour without the ability to repair a flat tire. Flats are part of cycling, and a flat tire can really ruin your day if you're not prepared to deal with it. We always carry a tool kit and a spare inner tube. If we use the spare we buy another. We don't bother trying to patch a tube on the side of the road, but later on, if successful, it can serve as the spare. If you don't know how to change an inner tube, learn before you go.
On the subject of flats, if you do get a flat tire, when changing out the inner tube, be sure to carefully run you fingers along the inside of the tire to be sure that whatever punctured the tube isn't still embedded in the tire. Otherwise you'll puncture your new tube all over again. Don't ask us how we know.
Even with the best of maps and GPS, we still find it's easy to get turned about. We still carry and regularly use, a good old fashioned compass.
Bike Lanes, Bike Paths, Voie Verte & Canals
In our descriptions, we talk about bike lanes, bike paths , Voies Vertes, and canals. Here's what we mean by all that.
Bike lanes are dedicated lanes for bicycles along roads or city streets. You're still riding in traffic, but at least you're not competing for the same space with the cars & trucks. Bike Paths are routes that are completely separate from ordinary traffic lanes, often through parks or along rivers and streams and usually but not always paved. In general, you share these with pedestrians, roller bladers and occasionally equestrains. These are much more pleasant and we actively seek these out.
Voies Vertes are a particular type of dedicated bike path. We call them Rails to Trails, these are usually old railroad right of ways that have been converted to recreational use. They can be very long, generally pass through rural areas and often are sufficiently developed to have restrooms, picnic tables, drinking fountains, etc. along the way. The best part of the Voies Vertes is that they are either flat or with a very gentile grade, since trains in the 19C couldn't climb a hill greater than 3% grade.
Canals were the freeways of the 17-19C. For about 300 years, they were by far the best way to move heavy or bulky goods long distances quickly (by 17C standards) and reliably. Before steam engines, canal boats were towed by animal teams, thus all canals had towpaths along both sides of the canal along it's entire distance. Over time, many of these towpaths were lost to roads and other uses, but today, many canals in France and all over Europe have taken on a new life for recreational boaters, and the towpaths have been recreated for cyclists.
The important thing to understand about canals is that they were essentially flat, and when a change in elevation was necessary, this required a lock. A lock is fascinating piece of engineering that allows the watercourse to change levels, usually in the 3-6 meter range for most locks. So, for cyclist of today, this means that riding a long a canal between the locks is about as flat as it gets, and any climb or descent occurs at the locks, and the change is modest and short. Most canals had trees planted along the towpaths to stabilize the canal banks, which today means the paths along the canals are frequently gorgeous. All this plus the fact that restaurants, cafes and other services tend to congregate along the canal make for very nice cycling indeed.
The Road System in France
As you know, we hate traffic and we avoid it like the plague. In order to do that, you have to know a bit about the French road system. For the most part, the French road system is extensive and well maintained. There are 4 principal categories of roads: the A routes (autoroutes) are just US style freeways. Except to get over or under them, cyclists have nothing to do with them. Next are the N routes (routes nationales) which are generally multi-lane, high speed roads that are heavily traveled. may or may not have a shoulder, and even if they do, we do everything we can to avoid them. Then come the D routes, the most numerous catagory. Some D routes are little more than country lanes with very little traffic, while others are more like the N routes. On Google Maps and others, our included, the D routes in yellow are faster and busier, whereas the white D routes are usually less so. Finally, the last catagory is the C routes, which are almost always country lanes and are virtually deserted most of the time. Whereas all the other roads are indicted by their appropriate prefix (like the A6, the N44 and the D111), C routes are frequently neither named nor numbered on most maps. So if it's small, out of the way and not numbered, it's probably a C route.
One nice about cycling in France is that, for some reason, French drivers are remarkably courteous to cyclists
Lodging in France
France has all the usual sorts of lodging choices you've come to expect, but there are still things that it pays to understand.
Hotels in France, by law are graded on a scale of 1-5 stars. As you might imagine, the more stars the nicer the hotel. We've never seen a 1 star hotel and don't really want to. In general, 2 star hotels, while not fancy, or even very nice in any sense, are clean and reasonably comfortable, so you can get by, especially for one night. Three star hotels are usually a big step up in comfort, with bigger, better appointed rooms and generally a better ambiance. This is what we look for when we thinking about a hotel. Four and 5 star hotels are luxury hotels, usually found in big cities and resort areas. They also tend to be quite pricey, so we don't stay in one very often.
What we call a Bed & Breakfast is known as a Chambre d'Hotes in France. By law, a chambre d'hotes is limited to 5 rooms. They tend to have a certain amount of class and character, and breakfast is almost always included in the price, which tends to be quite reasonable compared to an hotel of similar quality. We prefer these for a one or two night stay and actively seek them out. Chambre d'Hotes located along well known cycling routes tend to cater to the needs of cyclists. They'll often have a secure place to store your bike, and if they're not within walking distance of a restaurant for dinner, there may be a nice spot for a picnic supper, and not infrequently the owners will drive you to the nearest restaurant for 5 euro or so. Some Chambre d'Hotes also serve dinner, generally known as a table d'hotes. Your host will cook for you and any other guests who've signed up. It's generally a fixed menu, generally includes wine & and apero, and if there's other guests you'll all eat together at a common table, which can be very interesting. We do this a lot and while some are definitely better than others, we've never had a bad one, and a few have been utterly spectacular
Air B&B, VRBO and the like work just like you're used to at home, and can be a source for nice apartments in towns & cities, and we prefer these for stays of 3 nights or more. While Air B&B and VRBO are in English, there's also a French language version of VRBO known as Abritel (www.abritel.fr). Some French speaking owners will only list there to avoid language problems, but if you're having problems finding something, it's worth a look there.
Finally, there are two other lodging sites that are specific to France that you should know about. First, Gites de France (www.en.gitesdefrance.com) can be a very good source, especially in out of the way places. Gites originally referred to vacation homes in the countryside that rent by the week, but increasingly you'll find all sorts of things on their site, including chambre d'Hotes and apartments in cities & towns (they call them CityBreak). We don't know why, but a lot of owners still list only on Gites de France. They have a 5 point rating system similar to hotels. In our experience, stick with 3 & above.
The second France-only site is CleVacances (www.clevacances.com). Also available in English, this site has a fair number of places that don't appear anywhere else. Like Gites de France, they use a 5 point rating system, and here again, we recommend 3 & above.
Finally, if you're really having trouble finding someplace in a small town or remote area, it pays to check out the website of the local tourist office. They'll almost always will have section on lodging, and every now & again something will turn up there and nowhere else.