Do you need to be a cycling pro to cycle across France? I don't think so. After all the furthest the three of us (man and women) had ever cycled was 30 miles, and that was over 15 years ago. You do need some gear, some plans and some training in your legs. There is excellent help for you and an absolute must have is the "Lonely Planet Cycling France" book (no longer on their website so shop around). This web page and the daily journal compliments the Lonely Planet information by suggesting a route across France, assisting you with how to plan alternative routes, and providing a real world account of costs, equipment, accommodation, getting there and back and other things to enable you to achieve the challenge - complete a French coast to coast by bike.
Your main aims are to:
1. Build up your stamina so you can cycle 65 miles/104km with your fully loaded panniers.
2. Work out how much food and water you need when cycling to avoid the Bonk and dehydration.
3. Make sure you've got your bike set up just right.
4. Make sure that all of your clothing works i.e. is warm enough, dry enough and cool enough, and doesn't rub where it shouldn't.
5. Learn how to maintain and repair your bike while on the road.
Training isn't that demanding to get into your diary and is well worth it as getting across France in 2 weeks is hard work and your body needs to be ready for consecutive days of cycling. At least one of your training sessions should include cycling during a very wet and cold day to make sure you've got the bike gear and clothing needed for that. Here's what we did before setting off to France:
Liz: Bought a bike and commuted 8 miles for 4 days a week for about 9 months. For all long distance training I cycled with full panniers packed as if I was in France. I cycled 20 miles, 20 miles, 38 miles (where I bonked and was dehydrated), 50 miles, 65 miles, 20 miles of hill training to simulate the climb up Mont Aigoual and make sure my gears were low enough, 67 miles.
Nix: Bought a bike and cycled 8 miles a day 3 days a week for about 9 months. Cycled with half panniers for 20 miles, 20 miles, 50 miles, 50 miles, 65 miles.
Mal: Bought a bike and cycled at weekends 20 miles, 30 miles, 50 miles, 20 miles without panniers, 50 miles with panniers.
Just a quick bit on the Bonk. During my 38 mile training session I'd been cycling well with around 10 miles to go when I started to feel hungry. I delayed eating anything for another 2-3 miles. With about 5 miles to go I couldn't find any energy to go at anything other than a snails pace. When I got home I had the shakes, felt a bit queezy, had zero appetite or desire to drink, and then became very cold even when I was fully dressed and under a duvet. I went to bed early and when I woke up at 6.30 the next morning I felt like I had the worst hang over from hell and couldn't stand up for more than a minute without coming over in a cold sweat seconds away from throwing up. My cycling buddy at work (who has cycled across America and was with me on that session) said it was probably a combination of the bonk and dehydration. It's episodes like these that at first make you really worried about your capability, but then make you feel glad that it happened before you started in France. During the following training sessions I drank more, and more frequently, and ate more and I never had it again.
Finally - you read a lot about energy drinks, powders and bars in cycling magazines. We decided to train without them. Unless you're going to take a pot of energy powder with you then you're not going find an easy supply as you cycle across France. Train with food that you expect to find in France and you'll learn what your body needs and when it needs it.
Getting there and back
You can either go via the Channel Tunnel in a range of transport (Eurostar seemed to have successfully trialled a scheme where you travel on the same train as your bike and don't need to pack it up - November 2008), or for the most efficient and independent way to start on the North coast you can go via ferry. Technically you could take your bike apart, pack it in a bag, fly to Montpellier and then cycle north. Going by ferry means you can leave your bike in one piece. Yes please. The ferry routes from East to West are: Dover - Calais; Portsmouth - Caen; Portsmouth /Bournemouth -Cherbourg; Portsmouth /Bournemouth - St.Malo; Plymouth - Roscoff. Going to Calais will add a whole day of cycling to the trip so we ruled that one out. There were also a couple of places along the route that we wanted to visit and that placed St. Malo at the start of route. Brittany Ferries take you from Portsmouth to St. Malo. To get to the ferry Liz, Nix, 2 bikes with gear and a son caught the train from Edinburgh to Kings Cross. You can now book bikes on the east-coast line with ease as it's one of the boxes you can tick when booking your train tickets - look out for a link to "bicycle space" after you choose your journey times. At Kings Cross we were picked up in a van and driven to Essex where we met up with Mal. The following day and after leaving our son behind, the three of us, our Dad as driver, bikes, and panniers set off for Plymouth. Dad had sourced an excellent van from a local car-hire that had been configured to offer enough seating up front and leave enough space at the back. This may not be possible with the online national companies so don't be afraid to speak to your local business.
To book the ferry for multiple bikes in 2008 you had to split the booking: 1 person books a cabin with a bike, the others book a bike with a reclining seat as the accommodation. The ferry from Portsmouth started loading up at 6pm and you will be guided on and off by the crew. The ferry was fantastically equipped with an excellent buffet, bar, cinema and cabin and gets you to your starting position with a belly full of breakfast at about 8am allowing you to do a full day cycle from day one. St. Malo is also easy to get out of as they have been working to create a network of cycle paths. If you use this in conjunction with our day1 route you'll be able to get out of St.Malo within 20 minutes.
For the return journey we picked up the European Bike Express, a special coach which carries UK cyclists across to the continent. This stops in about three locations on the Mediterranean coast hitting Montpellier and then heading north and across to the UK at Calais, so you've a fair choice about where you can end up on the South coast. The European Bike express is an excellent service and solution to the problem of getting back home. There's a wee bit of busy road for the last mile to get to the pick-up point at Montpellier (although I'm convinced there is a quieter short-cut that someone may know about). There's a MacDonalds there with a nice covered picnic area, and once you're on the coach you can eat, sleep and relax all the way home. The coach stops at various points in the UK ending up in Stokesly, not too far from Darlington where you could pick up the train if you lived further north.
Cost and Cash
The total cost was £770 per person in May 2008. We reduced the costs by sharing a room between the three of us. In France you tend to pay for the room and sometimes a single person will pay an additional supplement so the per person costs for 1, 2 or 3 won't be too disimilar if you share a room. Here's the break-down:
Van hire to Portsmouth: £100
Ferry to France: £215 total (2x£58 for 1 adult, 1 bike, 1 reclining seat; 1x£99 for 1 adult, 1 bike, 1 four berth en suite cabin)
Coach back:£266.25 total (3x£88.75 for 1 adult, 1 bike)
Insurance:£110.79 total (1x£38.73 for single person, 1x£72.06 for couples/family insurance via CTC, and the European Bike Express offers insurance when you make your booking)
16 nights food and accommodation:€2022 total (for 3 adults). Equivalent in pounds and dollars
Plus around 200 pounds worth of pimping up the bike with bike gear, spares, tools and clothing.
Many of the gites d'etapes take cash only so make sure you've got enough as you go. Shops will take cards. Cash points were found in substantial towns but many small towns and villages didn't have them. Check where cashpoints are located on your route in case there are any gaps where you may have to carry a couple of days worth of cash. There was one part of the journey where we were a day and a half without passing a cashpoint. There are several online cashpoint locators that can help including Visa cash machine locator and Maestro cash machine locator.
We looked at the www.meteofrance.com (France's met office) archive at April to September weather between 2001 and 2007 to guestimate the best time to go, and to some extent the best routes. There are some really interesting localised heavy spots of rain around the Massif Central that you can plan to avoid and if beforehand we'd read about Mont Aigoual being the wettest place in France we might have changed our route.
Total rain April to Sep 2001-2006
Maximum temperature April to Sep 2001-2006
Minimum temperature April to May 2001-2007
Sunshine hours April to Sep 2001-2006
Accommodation, Food, and Loos
After coming up with a rough route through France we used www.gites-de-france.com to list 2 or 3 possible places to stay along the route, sometimes adjusting the route to suit the location of the accommodation. The website was a bit of a dog in early 2008 but I'm pleased to see that they've recently implemented a google maps interface that allows you to easily find where B&Bs (chambre d'hotes) are found. They also show you stop over gites (gites-d'etapes) which are like youth hostels and tend to be in the more remote locations. With these and some online hotel research you'll be sorted. We booked the first two nights before we left the UK and then booked 2-3 days ahead as soon as we knew when we were going to have a rest day. Our number 1 choice was not available all the time and we did find ourselves in a tourist information office when all of our selections were booked out for 2 nights over a double French holiday. In France you tend to pay for the room and sometimes a single person will pay an additional supplement so the costs for 1, 2 or 3 won't be too disimilar if you are all prepared to share.
Many of the chambre d'hotes offer an evening meal and because the days can be long, and the restaurants can be some way away this can be an excellent choice and worth thinking about when planning your route. We all really enjoyed getting a glimpse of people's lives by eating in their home and many times with them. Wine, bread, and cheese were present every time. The breakfast, was universally similar - bread, croissants, jam, honey, coffee although the brekky in Domme was like a banquet and breakfast in St Clément-de-la-Place with Bruno was as good as his evening meal the night before. Bruno also said that those in the South would be less hospitable but I'm unsure. Certainly in bigger town less people responded to the on-the-bike-bonjour and staff in restaurants were often rude or at least couldn't be bothered or at least were acting like they couldn't be bothered. All hosts in the chambre d'hotes were more than hospitable. Food was easily accessible through restaurants, cafes, boulangeries (bakers), charcuteries (butchers), alimentations (general stores) and supermarches, although you have to watch out for several things: Lunch time closing that can happen between 12noon and 3pm; Sunday and Monday closing; mid-week bank holidays; some of the more Rural routes where few services are available. In effect this means that you may have to buy and carry 1-2 days worth of food and water - although Tabacs, cafes and bars are happy to fill your water bottles. A good tip is to ask your hosts and the people you meet during the day what the situation is likely to be with opening hours in an area as things can vary from place to place. Food was good throughout with only two sub-standard meals for the whole trip.
Public loos next to churches were a godsend but disappeared after day 8ish. The good news is there are far fewer holes in the ground and more sit down loos than every before, but the holes do exist. One tactic is to wait until a tabac and have a coffee and a dump. We noted that people would wonder in say 'bonjour' on the way to the loo and then leave without a coffee, so maybe it's a bit like pub toilets in Scotland - enshrined in law as alternative public toilets.
Here's a big long list that I'll tidy up soon. This is everything that I took, the other two carried their own clothes and Mal took a spare set of travel documents, pump, inner tube, punture repair kit, tyre levers and alan keys.
2 Ortlieb rear panniers (Nix took some cheaper second hand nylon ones and packed them within a thick waterproof inner sack and this kept everything just as dry). Front bags not needed.
A day sack (a soft rucksack with draw strings that you can fold up and stick in your pocket when you're not using it. This is handy for the times you're not on your bike)
First aid kit
Deodourant (I wouldn't bother again as long as you wear wool when cycling)
20 Freezer bags
2 Large rubble sacks
3 Inner tubes (to cover two bikes)
2 pair of Knicks
Cotton shirt for evenings
2 cotton t-shirts
3 boxer shorts
2 pairs of light woolen walking socks
Swimming trunks (that we didn't end up using despite a pool being available at one of the chambres d'hotes)
Spare spokes (to cover two bikes)
3 spoons, knives, forks
Green sun-hat (that you can fold up in your pocket)
Spare rear break cable
Spare rear gear cable
SPD cycling shoes and bottom pads
4 spare break blocks (just change them beforehand and you can leave these behind)
Spanner for pedals and wrench
2 velcro straps
Small philips and flat screwdriver
Puncture repair kit with spare nipples, bolts, shimano chain pins
Original IGN maps in a waterproof bag
3 wool jumpers (1 lambswool, 2 merino for cycling)
France cycling book
IQ front cycling light (i.e. strong enough to illuminate the road in front as streetlighting will only be in towns), red rear light
Seat bag (to carry sun block, wallet, keys, passport etc)
Insurance policy, E1-11 cards, Places to stay list
Photocopied maps with route highlighted
Spare sealable bag
Cycling shorts (actually walking shorts with pockets galore to go over my knicks)
Waterproof, windproof, breathable cycling jacket (only waterproof for so long)
Full fingered cycling gloves (used for warmth, not padding or sun protection)
Map holder (standard map holder strapped onto handlebars)
French language book
Book for reading (which I never did)
Soap liquid (travel size)
Cycle clips to reign in waterproof trousers and jeans
Water purification tablets
Bungee/pegless washing line (what a find!)
Black nylon strap
Bike lock and keys
Waterproof overshoes (essential)
2 large and 1 medium water bottle (small used as container for food on the go)
We all used everything we took, although I never touched my book and used my deodorant once and almost all of the tools and medicines were untouched but I was more than happy to take them. Of the tools we used oil, duct tape to patch over a gel seat that got split and to act as trouser clips, the pump to top up when carrying super-heavy loads, and some of the alan keys to prepare the bikes for loading on the coach. 0, zero - count 'em - punctures or problems with any of the bikes.
Routes, roads and maps
Planning the first draft of the route became easier when we identified two or three key locations that we wanted to visit: Le Pin; Domme; and a climb up the 1567m Mont Aigoual. From there we worked out the shortest route would start at St. Malo and end in Sete near Montpellier. All we had to do was join these dots up. To do that we used a combination of IGN 1:100 000 maps, Google maps, www.mapitpronto.com and www.gitesdefrance.com.
IGN maps offer the most concise form of the key information you need. The give you an idea of how busy the roads will be, what amenities towns have, how hilly the terrain is, whether you are in woods or by rivers, and you can see a days cycling on one map at one time in high detail. They are thoroughly recommended by many cyclists and cycling books. They can be ordered online at IGN, the French equivalent of the Ordnance Survey. If your French is very ropey you're looking for the TOP 100 map product which will have a picture of bike on the front.
Google maps is excellent for helping you to calculate distances and to easily tweak the route. It will also give you a good idea of which IGN maps you need to order and you can view satellite photos and terrain versions of the maps to give you some more information. They may also develop a better elevation tool. In November 2008 there is the Path Profiler plug-in which works OK but it does not follow the roads accurately. In early 2008 we used...
www.mapitpronto.com which uses Google maps but calculates the elevation and allows you to download the elevation data so you can plot it in a graph. I stitched together a tool that used this data, xslt, and Microsoft Excel to draw and compare different downloaded elevation profiles. If you can contact me I'd be happy to expand on how this works. It did, for example, identify a completely unnessecary 250m climb and descent on an already difficult day that I had missed when reading the map and allowed me to replot the route. My tool also allowed us to plot training routes that would be similar to the demands of the fist few days, and identify longish climbs that were of the same gradient as the climb up Mont Aigoual. Great physical and psychological preparation.
When planning your route make every endeavour to keep on the D-roads, and endeavor to use the white narrow ones on the IGN maps as busier roads can be dull and edged with traffic danger whereas the smallest D roads are quiet and frequently beautiful. Once the route was decided I photocopied the IGN maps, used a highlighter to mark the route, added the locations of possible stop-overs, towns with cash points, and towns with train stations with routes that carried unbooked bikes if we had to bail out. I then cut off any excess paper from the photocopies, (do leave enough to help you get back on track if you take a wrong turning), and added the daily route to a waterproof map holder that I strapped to my handlebars. I then packed the original colour maps into a waterproof bag right at the bottom of my waterproof panniers. We needed the originals once to help us with a major bit of rerouting when we all of our planned accommodation was booked out.
The roads and drivers were fantastic at least 99% of the time. The quality of the roads were excellent up to somewhere south of Le Pin where they were then periodically bumpy but still much, much better than the roads in Edinburgh. Signage was excellent with some exceptions on the hill around Sireuil and when we got onto the last 3-4 days the D-road number was missing from the town exit signs. Using the D-road number on signs is an excellent navigation method along with two others: Churches are marked as small white circles on the IGN maps and as the IGN maps won't show you all of the roads in a town or village it's sometimes useful to know if the church should be on your right or left as you exit the village. The final method is to become aware of where the sun should be at certain times of the day (or take a compass). If the sun is straight ahead at 9 o'clock in the morning you're heading eastwards. This happened to us once when the sun should have been on our left as we were going south. All in all we went the wrong way 4 or 5 times but for no more than 5 minutes.
Are paper maps dead? With small laptops, GPS, sat nav, PDAs and smartphones becoming popular you may prefer digital maps over paper which can add weight and bulk. Paper maps have lots of advantages over their electronic counterparts though: you don't need to worry about batteries or taking power adapters; you can draw on them; you can get photocopies of them wet; when opened out they offer an unparalleled view of the area you are in. In any case do think about what happens if you loose one of your bags, or bust your electronic device. This goes for paper and digital maps. Our plan was to have the original maps in one person's pannier, the photocopied annotated maps in someone else's bag and an annotated copy of the photocopies back at the UK HQ (along with insurance policies, travel and accommodation info). You don't want to do all that planning and training and loose a day finding some replacement maps and planning a fresh route.
Read the Lonely Planet's very good advice on health. For us health was good with a bit of tendon pain for Nixter and I, but this shifted in 2-3 days and 2-3 hours respectively by relieving the sufferer of a pannier or two and using painkillers and anti-inflammatories. We would have tried cortisol cream if the pain had gone on although this supposedly increases gastric reflux. We all suffered from this without needing the cortisol, Mal in particular. This started in week 1 and almost disappeared in week 2. The gastric reflux was never painful, just uncomfortable at worst. We had some soft poo episodes and I had a 4 morning run in week 2. I never felt ill or in pain, just a desperate need to get to the loo in the morning followed by lots of gas and explosive bowels. I also had some dizzy spells in the evening which I still don't understand without doing more research, but it could easily have been a lack of food. Mal had some unpainful rash on her bum and a dizzy spell with the shakes while riding. We stopped, sat down on the verge, wrapped her up, fed her food and drink and then continued at a slower pace for a couple of hours. We all had very mild rubbing around around our groins around day 2 or 3 which we treated with Metanium, an excellent barrier cream for nappy rash and soreness for babies and just as good for cycling adults. Oh and sun cream, sun cream, sun cream.
Seeing Mal climb Sireuil,
The drop down the gorges past Mostuejouls which was quickly followed by the race to Meyrueis.
Nixter and Mals frequent tears of hysteria.
The ferry from Portsmouth
The sight of the Med
That nameless valley to Salzac
The possibility of sleeping it rough one night
The slog up Mont Aiguoual with no scenic reward, a closed restaurant and a near hyperthermic descent.
Missing our boy Redmond who was at his grand folks.
Worries about Nixter's knee and my arse.
We had 98% "good times" and 2% "bad times". Cycling with Mal and Nixter was great and as a three the dynamics worked really well. By the end we were farting and peeing without inhibitions either with each other or the passing cars. Mal and Nixter had many laughs and we all had tears once or twice for various reasons. Yes I would recommend it and with a couple of minor, minor, route tweaks it would be even better. Would I do it again? Well the day after finishing it was a no. The weather was unbeatable and the excitement of that first discovery can never be recaptured. Now 3 weeks later, especially on my morning cycle into work, I truly yearn for my panniers, bike, pals and the warm open road wondering what the weather and tarmac will hold. Fin.