You’ve heard of the Tour de France, right?
It’s an annual, multiple stage bicycle race primarily held in France, while occasionally making passes through nearby countries.
But have you ever thought about cycling your own tour of France?
Tanis Marshall did and shares her insider tips on how to take a bicycle tour of France…
Tour of France
How did you first hear about cycling in France and when did you decide to go?
This is a lengthy story – I like to travel in an active manner.
Hiking, cycling, and walkable cities are all on the top of my lists.
I was on a six-day cycling trip about eight years ago on the West Coast of Ireland and I realized then that being outside, smelling the smells, feeling the air and hearing the sounds for me is so much more preferable than touring in a vehicle.
I cycle at home a fair bit on a road bike so the sport is familiar to me. However, my original plan was to either hike in Peru or Venezuela and I went so far as booking my trip to Venezuela when an awful feeling in my stomach about safety (that gut instinct you just need to follow) as a solo traveler hit me.
So I began searching the internet for cycling trips.
My criteria was something a little longer than six-days, fairly straightforward to get to and having been to France before and knowing that I had so much more to see; I stumbled upon a trip from Saint Malo to Sete. After a few inquiries, I felt up for the challenge (despite my sister’s warning – “You know the shortest day is a 100 kilometer ride?”) and had my trip booked by May 16 in order to start the journey on July 25.
How did you prepare for the journey? How did you train?
I cycle a fair bit and cross train with running and yoga. I’m not the fittest person, but I stay healthy.
I am a principal of an elementary school and so May and June are crazy months and the weather where I live isn’t always great for riding. I got very sick the last three weeks of June and it rained a lot as well. My training was sparse at best.
The good news was that I had three weeks off before my trip so I did get out to ride most days or run. The distances I rode, however, were really short compared to what I was up for.
When and where did you bike in France? Can you provide any details around your route (# of days, cities stopped, miles/km per day, etc.)?
The cycling was 10 days and the shortest day was 100 kilometers; the longest was 131 kilometers.
The terrain varied from flat to rolling hills to the Midi Pyrenees.
We started in St. Malo, Brittany on the Atlantic and ended in Sete, Languedoc-Roussillon, on the Mediterranean. We stopped each night in mostly smaller towns and a few little cities.
Our first night was in Vitre, then next to Angers, followed by Chinon and Richelieu.
The Loire Valley was a main feature and the beauty of it all was so varied. There were farms, villages, chateaus that were beyond huge. Cows, sheep and donkeys were all part of the scenery, among fields of corn, sunflower and wheat. We stopped for coffee and refreshments at town cafes where they were always supportive of cyclists and filling water bottles. The odd town had a market day, so we stopped to stock up on baked goods, dried fruit and other treats.
As we approached the ‘mountains’ and the Midi Pyrenees, we completed a 1688 meter climb up Puy Mary; which has been a part of the Tour de France. There were many other climbing days and fun downhill rides.
The highlight for me, of almost the whole trip, were the roads.
Seldom did we come across pavement that was not optimum for riding. On top of that, there were days when we didn’t see more than 20 vehicles. And, they were so respectful of riders.
How challenging was the entire route?
It was challenging enough that I didn’t think I could do it at times, but knew I could push myself to conquer each day. I would not recommend it for a leisurely rider as it pushed my limits. But each day when I got back on the bike, it seemed more doable and I look back and think I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The biggest challenge was the heat and the length of the days combined. The longest day I was on the bike almost 9 hours. That’s a lot of seat time!!!
Did you go with a guided group or DIY? If, DIY how did you research and plan your bicycle tour of France?
I was with a supported group meaning the route, hotels and support were all pre-arranged. However, because we had such a spread out level of riders, the support van could not always be available so it became more self-guided. The company provided a garmin that was very useful to me as it had the whole route set. Also, our luggage was all carried from point to point – hallelujah!
How did you get a bicycle there?
I would have loved to take my own bike, but flying it over from Canada can be quite an expense and hassle. So I worked with the company to rent a bike that would meet my needs. Although much heavier than I am used to, it was a good touring bike for the hilly routes we were on.
What gear did you buy and pack for the journey?
I didn’t have to buy a lot for the journey other than some extra sustenance that I am used to having along when I ride (electrolyte powders, gels, bars), and a few items I did not have for cycling such as a sleeveless jersey for very hot days (our hottest day was 37 degrees).
I packed my helmet, cleats, pedals and cycling kit – three pairs of good shorts, four jerseys, socks, arm warmers, leg warmers (never needed) and a vest.
Other than that I had my nightly clothes which consisted of comfy wear for the restaurants and towns. I was heading to Spain after this trip so I had a few other fashion necessities!
And I am an over-packer so I am best not to provide advice on what to pack. I have not learned the term ‘pack light’ even though I think I would preach it. There were many comments regarding my heavy bags.
What advice or tips can you give women who might be considering biking through France?
Do make sure that you are fit enough to handle it, or that if you doubt yourself, ensure there is a support vehicle. Bike maintenance knowledge is helpful and I have to admit, I have never had to change a flat before this trip as it’s never happened to me but I had three flats on this journey of which my experiences of watching others did not help in my ability to do it on my own. Thus I was fortunate to have a few fellow riders who helped me out a lot!
Have an open mind, especially if you are on a tour where you may not know anyone. Because you never know who will be on this type of trip. I found the best thing I had was my ability to laugh, laugh at myself, be open and enjoy the ride. I found ultimate serenity, peacefulness and thoughtfulness when I was riding solo, and I found friendship and camaraderie and learning when I rode with the others. There was a lot of both.
Did you face any challenges being a woman?
Not any that come to mind. Oh, perhaps just the discomfort of riding a bike for 10 days straight…
Did you face any language barriers?
Yes, often. My French, despite eight years of it in school, is lacking. But, I find the French are mostly patient and you can work your way through a conversation in order to gain something. Knowing some key phrases is always helpful.
Where did you sleep and what where the accommodations like?
We stayed in decent hotels every night. I was very impressed overall. I think because they were in smaller centers, the hospitality was more than comparable. Mind you, I was so tired each night, I might not have noticed anything unfavorable. I slept very well other than at the beginning due to jet lag.
What were your three favorite traditional meals?
Does dessert count as a meal? Creme brûlée always!
But as for meals this is difficult for me to answer as I am a vegetarian and although I’ve always found it easy in Paris to find a meal that is veggie friendly, in the smaller centers this was the largest challenge as the French traditionally like to have meat in all meals. So although I consider myself a foodie, this trip the food was great, but there were no meals I would consider traditional.
Back to dessert – one night they served a Greek yogurt with sweet lentils and although it sounds ‘different’, it was delicious.
Oh and French breakfasts are top notch in my mind; I mean, who doesn’t like croissants, bread, cheese, yogurt and coffee with warmed milk??? Especially when you can eat as much as you like when you are cycling.
What was the most memorable moment?
There are definitely more than a few memories that stand out, but for me it’s the sunflower fields and their proximity to me as I rode. We’ve all seen Van Gogh’s pieces, I’ve seen the fields from afar on a train, but to be riding beside them and just take it all in is something that I won’t forget. I never tired of the views.
How was your overall experience?
I have been exploring the concept of ‘stretch goals’ since I have returned from my holiday.
In essence, a stretch goal to me is one where you aim to do something that maybe you thought you never could or would but when you do it and you look back you have gained so very much from every moment. I am changed because of each trip I take and my journey on bike across France is a highlight of my life. Uphill, downhill or flat, I had so many happy moments in time as I rode.
I also booked a week to follow in Girona, Spain, which was, in hindsight, ideal! I had rented a loft which was beyond perfect for the rest and relaxation I needed after my bike trip (even though I did go out with a group of pros who ride out of the city, two days after my ride and it was a challenge but a riot!) Spain, with it’s sangria, tapas and beauty was the perfect ending to my trip.
Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?
What is your stretch goal??? Go for it!
Thank you Tanis Marshall for participating in this interview.