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.

Col du Tourmalet

Col du Tourmalet (near the top)

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.

Early morning ride


Lac d'Estom

Lac d'Estom, Pyrénées (for walkers)

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!"

Le Col

The winner

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):


The Vignemale, highest French Pyrenean summit

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:

Chez Talleyrand (Chateau de Valencay)

Talleyrand's home, the Chateau of Valencay

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.

Campsite at Cauterets

Camping at Cauterets, Pyrenees

9 comments on “Not (much) cycling in France”

  1. Kern wrote:

    Congratulations on Tourmalet! It's an accomplishment to be sure. And I'm tickled that you noticed the road graffitti 😀 . I thought I had gotten a picture of that particular spot but my camera failed me. The photo is a treat.

    Getting bitten by a dog is no laughing matter. In Romania, before we had even checked into our hotel, our driver was emphatic: always keep your legs moving, even if you are pedaling backwards. I guess kicking doesn't count.

    By the way, that's a great picture of Vignemale.

  2. Hilary wrote:

    I'm jealous of your (and Kern's) Tourmalet ascent. Its high on my 'to do' list.

    Châtelaillon-Plage, Hmmm.... thats the place where I circled along the seafront then through the town for hours looking for Dennis who had a flat phone battery and was waiting in a campsite beyond the far end of the town while I waited at one on the way into the town! 🙁
    The Ile de Re is one of the busiest places I have ever been but once you got beyond St Martin there was some very nice cycling along the little tracks. As you say, lots of other cyclists because its flat. Actually there are well marked cycle tracks all along the Atlantic coast which seemed to be pretty well used when I was there in June.
    I'm quite surprised by your comments on the lack of cyclists. I have always seen everything from large club groups in head to toe matching kit to ancient Frenchmen/women creaking slowly along to the boulangerie. French motorists treat cyclists with more respect than their English counterparts tho Dennis assures me that this doesn't extend to moped riders!
    I agree though that you will never interest people in cycling in hilly areas, its just too much like hard work for most people.

  3. Patrick wrote:

    We spent a couple of hours on Île de Ré trying to find a campsite that wasn't full, and this was mid September. There must be a reason my brother likes it but I can't think what as he doesn't eat seafood (nor do I). Châtelaillon-Plage is nice, and there were a few cyclists pottering along the sea front, doing bits of shopping etc.

    It is certainly true that French motorists tend to be courteous to cyclists. In contrast, we have found that Dutch motorists are aggressive towards cyclists who are in the wrong place!

    Col du Tourmalet. It is conveniently close to some gorgeous – but easy – walks in the mountain valleys south of Cauterets, starting at a place called Pont d'Espagne with a huge car park and ski-lifts up to the higher level. This makes it (Tourmalet) viable for a cyclist travelling with a non-cyclist.

  4. Jim wrote:

    I agree about the French not cycling very much but the country is full of wonderful characters.
    Some of my experiences on my recent tour are featured here

    I love the French and will be back next year.

  5. Doug wrote:

    A nice article and some wonderful scenery – wow!

  6. daniel wrote:

    Cheers Patrick, another great report and some stunning pics as ever! I must say, the cols and high mountain scenery are the main reasons I'd think of cycling in France (but, knowing me, you'd probably know that to be true for me anywhere!) Any idea how your English cyclist knew your name? Sorry I don't have any notable rides to report on this year – I'm a good 3500 miles down on my last year's record-breaking total.. 🙂 good to know the rest of the world are still getting out and about rather more though!

  7. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Daniel. She denies it but I think Sandra must have mentioned my name at the top when she'd driven up in advance.

  8. zen wrote:

    i have to disagree i have lived in france since 2002 and cycle nearly every day. i agree that during the week it can be very quite.i enjoy the solitude. but come the week end its a different story. there lots of road cycling and mtb events taking place. there's also more and more bike shops appearing in my area.
    of course i can only comment on the area were i live which is the deux sevres.
    there some very nice marked routes around the marais poitevin. ideal for family touring holidays see link
    i also cycled along the canal de midi from toulouse to narbonne in early october and found it very busy.

  9. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks for the information zen. I don't doubt there are areas (and times of year) in which cycling is popular but it seems to me, from observation, that in general – in spite of many very quiet roads – you can go a long way without seeing a single cyclist. The same is true of many towns you pass through: the occasional one or two, but no rows of bikes parked outside the supermarket.

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