Cycling in France...
There’s a reason that Le Tour happens in France – and it’s not just the spelling. One look at the miles and miles of quiet, country roads, winding through gorgeous and often dramatic landscapes and the French obsession with cycling starts to become all too understandable.
France isn’t just big – compared to the UK it’s also sparsely populated with most of its people living in towns and cities. It has an excellent network of major roads and railways, making rapid, long-distance travel easy. Put those things together and what have you got? A vast web of barely used but meticulously maintained country roads, supporting the local traffic from a scattered population; surfaces are excellent and in the more remote areas you can go hours at a time without even seeing a car. And the cars you do see will generally be far more considerate towards their two-wheeled cousins than UK motorists. Add in the obligatory café or bar that seems to grace every village square – not to mention the odd patisserie or boulangerie – and you’ve got cycling heaven right outside your front door.
Of course, towns are towns and cities are cities, but it’s amazing just how quickly you hit rural France as soon as you leave the beaten track. Take a look at any Michelin road map, or even better, the superb Institute Geographique National topographic maps (French equivalent to the Ordinance Survey) and look at that endless patchwork of little white D-roads that spread across the countryside, filling the voids between the bold ribbons of the payage. These are roads that welcome cyclists, linking villages whose businesses need the passing trade. Whether you are already a keen cyclist or you need to “start doing something to stay fit”, you have a young family you want to start cycling or a group of likeminded friends, these roads will beckon irresistibly.
Their sheer number makes creating routes of almost any length (and with breaks to order) easy to organise, while the smooth surfaces and lack of traffic suit all types of cycling. Trailer-bikes and tandems are still sufficiently rare in France to raise an amused eyebrow and friendly interest, while more serious riders will receive regular, interested enquiries as to how far they’ve been – or have to go…
Getting bitten by the bug…
You can cycle almost anywhere in France, from the windswept coast of Brittany to the rugged expanse of Provence. But if the bug bites you’ll inevitably find yourself gravitating towards the hills. First maybe the local hills, but later, once you’ve conquered the nursery slopes, onwards and upwards to the mountains proper.
Once the roads start to rise the population thins still further, villages become fewer and further between, and there aren’t quite so many options when it comes to routes. But the views become spectacular, the sinuous roads quieter and even more addictive and enjoyable to ride. Each outing starts to elongate, stretching across the countryside and filling the day, encompassing a lazy lunch or maybe a visit to some point of interest.
Slowly you begin to really appreciate the relaxing, almost meditative quality of riding on quiet roads, the cleansing effort to crest the climb, the long, long swoop down the winding road on the other side. In truth, this is some of the best cycling country there is – anywhere in the world. Routes are still plentiful whilst the hills are long enough to test those who want to test themselves, manageable enough for those who simply want to pass that way. The villages are frequent, the bars and cafes always open. But still, there will be those who want to take it further, and for them, the real mountains await…
The High Life…
You can divide the French mountains into three basic sets: the Alps, the central block of the Massif and finally, the Pyrenees. The Alps are the biggest but for cycling, in many respects the least attractive. The well-developed winter-sports industry makes for a denser population and more developed roads, designed to take coaches and the like. Busier, it’s also generally more expensive making it a less than ideal place to start your forays into the high mountains. However, there is one important exception – and that’s mountain biking.
The combination of year-round ski-lifts and readily available local guides make this the European centre for serious off-road riding. Just be aware that simply because your progress is gravity assisted doesn’t mean that it’ll be easy! Conditions are extreme and not to be contemplated by beginners (who’ll spend more time walking than riding their bikes – and that’s going downhill…). But experienced mountain bikers will love it, many making an annual pilgrimage to towns often better known for skiing than cycling.
For road cycling, the quieter routes and spectacular scenery of the Massif, the Ardeche and Tarn gorges, are a far more rewarding proposition. The jutting scarps that heave up out of the earth create rugged valleys with spectacular limestone cliffs, ribbons of road often cut into the face of the rock itself. Likewise, the more modest ranges of the Vosges offer more enticing opportunities than the bigger Alps to their South and East, while the Vercours are also worthy of thorough investigation.
But the real jewel lies in the foothills of the Pyrenees and in particular the Ariege towards their Eastern end. Here, the Southerly position offers the best weather, almost too hot in the high-summer, while the great lumps and humps in the terrain that start the steady climb up to the peaks that mark the Spanish border offer an almost endless variety of riding, spectacular views and beautiful hidden valleys, filled with tumbling streams and waterfalls. It’s an area rich in history, the Cathar castles perched high on the least accessible rocky outcrops far more spectacular than the exaggerated hyperbole of The Da Vinci Code they helped inspire. In fact, the only proviso to be aware of is that this, being the least populace area in France, is not as well provided with those essential facilities the café, bar and bakery. Don’t count on every village having a bar; and if you go early or late in the year, don’t count on every bar being open!
Following in the footsteps of giants…
But the real appeal of the Pyrenees is the easy transition from the foothills into the mountains proper. Once you’ve mastered the many routes that fringe along the face of the range, the desire to ride one of the bigger hills, one of the cols made famous by the Tour and traversed by Merckx, Indurain and Armstrong may become a lure too strong to resist. They stand, brooding on the Southern horizon, half an hour or so away by car. Surely, they can’t be so difficult?
The great climbs of Le Tour De France are spread across the Alps and the Pyrenees. Those in the Alps are longer and climb to higher altitudes, but also offer a gentler gradient and more even ascent. In contrast, the Southern range might not claw its way quite as high into the sky, nor offer the huge distances involved in the Alps, but the compact climbs are generally steeper, narrower, hotter and feature brutal changes in gradient. These are real mountain roads, not the manicured carriageways created to get rich skiers to expensive resorts. For those seeking a test, the Pyrenees are the more demanding and also the more rewarding destination.
Riding the high cols is an experience to both savour and treat with respect. The distances involved mean that any circular route will be lengthy and often involve considerable additional climbing, over and above the major hill you’ve targeted.
Don’t take the weather for granted; you are in the mountains and it can change in a flash. Even on a warm day, you’ll need a windproof for your descent; 10 or more kilometres at around 50kph will chill you to the bone, especially if you’re sweaty from the climb! Take it easy and enjoy it, both going up and coming down. Drink in the views and the names of cycling’s stars still painted on the road, reminding you that they too passed this way. And at the end of your ride, beer in hand, remember that when the Tour last crossed the climb you’ve just conquered, the riders did that one and three or four others the same day, and the same the day before and the day after… It makes you realise why the riders who complete the Tour, not the ones who win but simply those who finish, are heroes – every one.
Their achievement, their suffering reflects in the weary ache in your legs, the knowledge that you’ll sleep well tonight, and adds to the flavour of that hard won beer as, mentally, you inevitably turn to thoughts of the next plan, the next col, the next trip…
Cycling in France is like that. The roads seem to lead ever on, and if you let them, ever upwards, but the experiences and pleasures, the views on offer, constantly reward the effort and feed the desire. Ride the cols and you start to realise just why the Tour commands such respect and affection throughout the country, capturing the imagination of the entire population. The continuity that links the flat roads leading to the next village with the flashing colours of the passing peleton is uninterrupted and unmistakable, all part of a shared experience that you too can share. The French may be obsessed with cycling, but like I said, ride on their roads and in their country and you soon understand why.
Etape Sportives One stage at a time
The final step in the cycling line that leads from onion seller to Tour pro is the Etape Sportif. Huge, organised rides that generally take place on closed roads the most famous (and over-subscribed) is the Etape du Tour which offers around 8000 riders a chance to experience a genuine Tour stage, around a week before the race proper travels the same roads. This year it will take place on the 6th of July, tracing the 165km Pau-Hautacam stage in the Pyrenees, crossing the mighty Tourmalet before finishing with the brutal ascent to the ski station of Hautacam.
But what is less widely known is that there are actually hundreds of Etape Sportives, many organised by regional councils or to honour local cycling heroes, the star in question generally showing up to ride the event and meet participants. They vary enormously in scope, from a hundred or so riders to the ten or eleven thousand who participate in the Ardechoise Sportif, culmination of a long-weekend cycling festival (www.ardechoise.com). But almost every region will have one or more events, and although they are technically races, with prizes for the winners of each category, divided by age and sex, the vast majority of participants aim only to complete the course, wearing their number and race transponder with pride.
It’s a movement that has started to reach these shores, but the UK events offer only a taste of the enthusiasm, camaraderie and scale of the continental Sportives – or the welcome and support you receive from the locals. After all, in the UK we don’t close the roads for The Tour Of Britain. In France they close whole towns for a city centre criterium and the roads for their local sportif. And it is “theirs”; it’s that pride of ownership, the desire to make their event the best that permeates every aspect of the day. Turn up as a foreign visitor and you’ll be assured a warm welcome – as well as a great day out!