France is one of those classic cycling destinations we think everyone should experience at some point in their life. Not only is it home to world-class cuisine, spellbinding heritage and some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable, it’s also the spiritual home of cycling. That’s right, you won’t find anywhere where the humble bicycle is more celebrated!
We could go on and on, but who better to tell you more than our French expert Hannah Reynolds. She’s guided for us in France for several years and also co-creating our epic odyssey St Malo to Nice. It’s safe to say, she knows a thing or two about what you can expect here. Keep reading to discover her 9 favourite things about cycling in France…
French bread is bread as it should be. Warm and fluffy on the inside with a tooth challenging exterior. On its own, it fills your mouth with just the right salty, chewy sensations but when smeared with rich, creamy butter it becomes one of the best foods in the world. I could live on bread and butter if the bread comes from a village ‘boulangerie’ and the butter is from Normandy, thick with crunchy salt crystals.
2. Wine is food
Every meal is accompanied by wine, not necessarily more than a small glass, but an indispensable part of every meal. It’s not treated as a luxury but is appreciated by everyone. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a ‘pichet’ or carafe of the local wine will enhance the taste of every other dish on the table. No one is drinking to be drunk – wine is there to quench thirst, add contrasting flavours to the meal and a daily celebration. Enjoying a glass of wine is part of the joie de vivre. Why deny yourself? When in France I drink more often, but less in total and the enjoyment is all the greater for that.
3. Cycling is respected
If you ever get sick of your friends mocking your Lycra, or of car driver’s close passes, or reading hate-fueled cycling comments on social media – then come to France. France is the spiritual home of cycling; here both the pneumatic tyre and the greatest bike race in the World were invented. Cyclists are greeted with respect, car drivers give you space on the roads and the stories of your day in the saddle are taken as seriously as if you were retelling the time you won a stage of the Tour de France. Cycling is taken seriously, its suffering understood, its glories celebrated.
4. Meal times are revered
Plastic sandwiches eaten over your keyboard or microwaved meals eaten out a plastic container have no place in France! When in France I realise the importance of making time to eat; not just to enjoy the food but to relax and enjoy the company of the people you are eating with. Everyone downs tools and stops for lunch. Road workers shrug off their overalls and office workers step out into the sunshine. Even simple meals are likely to have at least two courses and evening meals can stretch to three or more. Each dish is small but builds into a satisfying meal. Making a little ceremony of every meal doesn’t necessarily mean eating more, it means eating well. Taking time to really notice and enjoy flavours means you often end up eating less than when shovelling it down one-handed whilst typing emails. Slower mealtimes are better for your health – and your digestion.
5. Sundays are sacred
On Sundays, you will be greeted not with ‘bonjour’ but ‘bon dimanche’ – good Sunday. For other nationalities, the absoluteness of Sunday closure comes as a bit of a shock. Getting a pint of milk after about 1 PM is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Bakeries do a roaring trade in the mornings, sending their customers on their way with beautifully boxed patisseries tied up with ribbon, and florists stay open so you can buy flowers for your host on your way to Sunday lunch, but by lunchtime, the streets are empty as everyone sits down to eat together. If all mealtimes are sacred then Sunday lunch is the king. The bonus for the cyclist is that for the majority of the day the roads are virtually deserted and peaceful. No one works so there are no trucks, no delivery vans and few people want to drive when they know there will be a well-chosen vintage to be enjoyed with their lunch. Once you learn to check the milk levels on a Saturday then Sundays become a day of relaxation to be embraced.
6. Tarmac is smooth
Anyone who has cycled in France will be familiar with the ‘route baree’ sign. It is impossible to do a long ride without coming across a closed road but the payback of this minor inconvenience is that the majority of roads are pot-hole free with a beautiful smooth tarmac top. When there are road works they are a proper job, you can see the deep slice that gets taken out before being fully relayed.
Britain is beautiful, no doubt about it. We have stunning coastlines, vast wild moorlands, ancient forest and remote hills. We even have mountains, but what I miss when I come home from cycling in France is the BIG mountains. Mountains that take hours to cycle up which, when you finally reach the top, allow you to gaze down on other mountains and view spiky snowy peaks in every direction. Just looking at mountainscapes raises my heart rate. Baking hot sun on your neck and sweat dripping off your nose onto your stem as you inch and haul your bike up a pedal stroke at a time. Then, at the top, the glorious release of a swooping downhill, just the sound of your free-wheel and wind rushing past your ears as you and your bike flow sinuously around every curve.
France and the UK have a very similar population, but France is three times bigger than the UK. There’s more space, more rural areas, more quiet roads, more picturesque small villages, more wild uninhabited spaces. If you ever feel claustrophobic and that you can’t move for queues, and people and traffic jams then a cycling holiday in rural France will give you a much-needed breathing space. Yes, of course, there are busy cities but it is easier to get further away from the press of civilisation in France than it is in the UK.
9. Rules that are made to be broken
As an outsider, my observation is that French people love to make rules, but they love to break them even more. Sometimes it feels like it’s a national form of entertainment, especially to watch others try and work out which of the rules are really rules and which can be ignored.
However, remember that it is the French who gave us the word etiquette and you are far less likely to see cultural rules ignored than those of petty bureaucracy and jobs-worths. The rule that will never be broken? Correct swim attire in pools. Gentleman, you had better pack your budgie smugglers or there is no chance of a swim.
Feeling inspired? The best way to explore France from the mountains to the coastline and all of the countryside in between is on two wheels!