Not (much) cycling in France
The plan was to put the bikes in the van, drive to various places in France, then ride. It had worked in Germany but not this time. I have come to the conclusion that generally, the French do not cycle very much.
The places we stayed at during almost a month in France: Bayeux (Calvados), Châtelaillon-Plage (Charente-Maritime), Biarritz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), Cauterets (Hautes-Pyrénées), Sarlat (Dordogne), Loches (Indre-et-Loire), and Calais (one night). Cycling the Col du Tourmalet was a must for me. We also rode along the coast around Châtelaillon-Plage south of La Rochelle. We'd intended to stay on nearby Île de Ré as recommended by my brother but quickly moved on from this ant hill of a place, where, indeed, there were many people cycling – it is flat. And we cycled various published and pleasant routes in Southern Touraine without seeing one single other cyclist, or pedestrian or horse or even hardly a car. On one of these rides a dog bit my leg so the enjoyment was ended in hospital.
Not that we don't love France... we do. Walking in the Pyrénées is 'out of this world' and anyone who hasn't seen the best French chateaux (Loire region) is missing some 'wonders of the world' – Talleyrand's Valencay has become our favourite. Domme, in the Dordogne, is surely one of the world's loveliest villages. Then wine, empty roads, gorgeous sunny skies, and the fascinating strangeness of the French – plus happy memories of years of family camping in France. But purely for cycling (next year now) we'll go back to Denmark, or Germany, where people actually ride bicycles.
For instance: we went to the tourist information office in Biarritz and asked about cycle routes and places to ride to. "Non," she said, no cycle routes or anywhere to ride to – and indeed there were no bicycles in Biarritz. I decided it's because Biarritz is hilly, not because there's nothing to see. It is a classy town with things to see so it didn't really matter.
Now... le Col du Tourmalet. A 'col', incidentally, is not a hill but a gap between hills, occasionally crossed by mule tracks. The Tour de France often goes via the climb up Col du Tourmalet. It did this year and I watched the stage on TV to see just how bad it is. It didn't look bad at all so the ride became part of our French itinerary. Having now cycled up to the top, stopping only for sandwiches and beer a couple of kilometres out of Barèges, I can report that le Col du Tourmalet is not a problem unless you are trying to beat Bradley Wiggins or, even more unlikely, Lance Armstrong. The most daunting aspect of it is riding over the painted names of the greats: Voeckler, Contador, and Kern (whom I missed by only a couple of weeks). Once you remember you are not in a race it's just a matter of plodding up 12 miles of 7-8%, steering round sheep resting in the road, no panic... and yes, it's cold on the way back down. Incidentally, on my way up an English chap riding down called out: "Well done Patrick!"
A few days later, in Sarlat, some French fellow-campers went off for the day on their bikes. Afterwards, on a map, they showed us the route – a disused railway line in a rocky ravine in the middle of nowhere. More encouraging was a pamphlet we found in Loches, titled: "200 km of cycle rides. Get to know the landscapes and treasures of Southern Touraine..." About a dozen routes were illustrated, from 10 to 40 kilometres in length, and we cycled a few over several afternoons. They are actually very nice (even if nobody ever cycles them – we could tell this from the complete absence of tyre tracks on the off-road sections). Quiet single lane farm roads and paths through the Forêt de Loches in rolling countryside. I mean quiet. You see no-one. Not even horse droppings. But you might see a dog. One saw me and ran up, barking mad. I tend to kick out at snapping dogs in England but this doesn't work in France, as the dog buried its teeth in my leg. "It's your own fault," said Sandra, "trying to kick it." There might be some truth in this as the owners appeared from a farm shed and apologetically assured us that it was un bon chien.
A doctor at the hospital asked me about this dog. Did I know it? A country dog, I said, and I don't know it. He insisted I go back to the farm (or whatever the place was) this evening and ask to be shown the dog's vaccination certificates and that if none were forthcoming and the owner wouldn't agree to take the dog to the vet the very following day (a Saturday) I should report them immediately to the local Gendarmerie, then go to some place myself (on Monday) to be tested for rabies. So in the evening we went back to the countryside and found the owner (a very nice young lady). She duly got out the certificates, valid until May 2013. Phew! I would be allowed to return to the UK.
Anyway here's another photo from the mighty Pyrenees (never mind the cycling):
Ten possible reasons why the French don't cycle very much*:
(1) The World's Greatest Bike Race makes them feel that cycling is part of the culture without actually having to do it.
(2) Good food (and more wine than beer) means less obesity, less reason to get/keep fit.
(3) Demographics: more compact towns with greater distances in between – less reason to cycle.
(4) Narrower-laned and faster roads mean cyclists slow cars down more and are less convenient to overtake (more of a nuisance).
(5) Very few dedicated cycle lanes alongside roads.
(6) Too hot for cycling in summer.
(7) Too hilly in many regions – the flatter the terrain, the more people cycle, and vice versa. I'm convinced of this.
(8) Cycling gear – helmets especially – is not chic.
(9) France is a car-centric nation with a long tradition of motoring as personal transport.
(10) According to several Nobel laureates, the French are inherently lazy.
*The inhabitants of France cycle even less kilometres per unit of time than those of the UK. In Europe, only Spain, Portugal, and Greece cycle less than France. This is not to say the French have no tradition of appreciating pleasures of living:
Note: If we had been cycle touring instead of travelling in a van with the bikes inside, this would be a very different report. Cycle touring is obviously possible in France, but then you are 100% committed to cycling and all the pleasures – and occasional hardships – that make it so rewarding to travel that way. Even so, France for us is unlikely to be a natural choice for a proper cycle tour. I think we'd find it too monotonous (and hot in summer). At least that is what I was thinking, driving through the endless countryside.