Hi all, I have been living and cycling in France since 1998, which is starting to feel like a long time! Now, a few months ago, I had the idea of creating a web site about cycling in France. However, through lack of time, illness, and seeing that other people have done a far better job than I could ever do, I abandoned the idea. But I thought I could at least salvage some of the work I'd done - and the part that I thought would be most useful would be the section where I gave some general practical advice on cycling in France. Maybe this could be useful to people who are thinking of cycling in France for the first time. Perhaps other people could do something similar on the countries where they live? That'd be really great! Anyway, here it is. I hope it will be of use to someone sometime. I must remind you though that these are my personal opinions, and so others may not agree with everything I've written - especially my tirade on the priorité à droite rule! Bonne lecture! France is reputably one of the best countries in the world for cycling. I have probably lived here for too long now to be truly objective, but certainly compared to Britain (my home country) France does have a lot to offer. First of all, there can surely be few countries of such a relatively small size that can offer as much diversity. If you like the mountains, France has its fair share (The Alps, Pyrenees, Massif Centrale...); if you prefer cycling on the flat, France can cater (especially in the north); France has some fantastic forests too - the ideal venue for many a cyclist; and if you prefer historical sites, France has some real world-class venues like the Chateaux de la Loire, the Normandy beaches or the relics in the Pays Cathare - and that still leaves you with some great towns and cities like Paris, Bordeaux, Lille, Chârtres... Here are some points about cycling in France: Driver mentality Despite considerable progress in recent years, some of the French motorists are still very aggressive. I know you'll meet this problem wherever you go, and some countries have a much bigger driver attitude problem than France, but France nevertheless seems to have more than its fair share of drivers who treat other road users like their enemy. This aggression, together with the fact that too many people seem to consider the maximum speed limit to be more a minimum speed limit, is obviously more dangerous to cyclists than probably any other road user. Be particularly careful crossing main roads. You may estimate that a car is approaching at 90 kmh, but it could be more like 130 kmh! However, despite this problem, I do feel safer on French roads than I do on British ones (and much safer than I do in Italy, for example!). Although there is a lot of "road rage" in France, the French motorist does tend to be very considerate to cyclists. It's rare that they pass too close to you, and cars will sometimes even slow down behind you and wait for a clear view before overtaking. In a word, so long as you're careful of the speed of motorised traffic and do what you can to be seen (wear yellow or lime green vests, for example) you should be able to cycle in France in absolute safety. Priorité à droite Now there's an admission! The rules of the road are there to keep everyone safe. If a rule needs a sign like this, surely there's something wrong with that rule? Here starts my number one rant about French roads - but I suspect other cyclists used to riding in France will sympathise with it. On a lot of French roads, you can't assume that just because you're on the main road this means that you have the priority. In many cases, especially in towns and villages, this just isn't the case - on some roads the traffic coming from the right has priority over you, which means that you must stop and let them through - even if you're on a road limited to 90 kmh (although, on a bike, you're hopefully not travelling at that speed!). The basis for this rule is twofold. First, it means that people trying to join a busy road can do so safely (I think there is something to be said about this - but in my opinion a mini-roundabout solution, as in Britain, would be clearer and safer); secondly, it slows down the traffic - it keeps you alert as a car can pull out in front of you at any time. Personally, I think this last justification is pure stupidity: it's a bit like the authorities leaving the occasional real live bomb on trains to keep people alert to the terrorist threat. Whatever the justification for the priorité à droite rule, I think I'd be able to live with it much better if there was any consistency or clarity. Unfortunately there is neither. There's no consistency because in any town you can have the priority on one junction, only to not have it on the junction immediately next to it; or the priorité à droite rule will be applied religiously in one village, but not at all in the village further down the road; and it's not clear because it's either signalled by a small sign like the one shown here with a cross on it at the entrance to a village (which doesn't tell you just which junction the rule applies to) or by the absence of a white line going across the road which takes priority. Actually, I think I'll say that again because it's so illogical you may have missed it. Yes, you only know it's priorité à droite by the absence of a line across the road you're not on! This means that if you don't see the road and a car suddenly pulls out in front of you and hits you, the fault is yours and not his. Now, all of this is bad enough if you're driving. After all, if a driver hits you because he arrogantly pulled out in front of you without looking, the most it'll probably cost you is your no-claims bonus; but on a bike this situation could literally cost you your life. And the best bit is that it'd still technically be your fault! And really, I'm not exaggerating at all, some of these priorité à droite roads aren't visible until it's potentially too late. Take a look at this example from one of the villages in my area. In the photo below, you can see there's a zebra crossing in the road. After this, there appears to be a bend: However, juet after you get past the house on the right (about 20 metres), you realise that what appears to be a bend is, in fact, another road crossing the road you're on. The picture isn't that good, but you can see that this is the case because there's another zebra crossing. Both the zebra crossing and the road itself are only visible a few metres before you actually get to them - and notice there's no sign - nothing to warn you that you're going to have to stop and give way: Even when you arrive here, it's only by craning your neck that you can really see the road! If a car was coming down this way and hit you, you'd be at fault and not him! Junctions as bad as this one are thankfully rare, but you must always stay alert in French villages and towns for cars suddenly pulling out in front of you on roads you can't even see! So, whenever you're out cycling in France, be always attentive to this rule which is a potential menace to anyone going through a part of France they don't know, especially if they're on a bike. If you see the sign like the one above, be careful because a car could pull out of at least one of the roads you're about to pass; and if you don't see this sign, be careful anyway because the presence of the priorité à droite rule isn't always signalled. Roads French road surfaces are usually good to excellent. This is obviously great news to cyclists - and it's one of the reasons why France is so attractive to cyclists. However, there is a potential cost - road closures. If you're out in Summer particularly, be prepared to change your route unexpectedly. During the summer the authorities take advantage of the fact that most people are on holiday to repair the roads - and sometimes the roadworks are enormous. When this happens, out come the Diversion signs - and as a cyclist you can't always trust them. For one thing, they're notoriously unreliable as they can disappear; for another thing, the alternative route they take you on can literally add miles to your journey. In fact, it's probably best to dismount and walk past the roadworks if you can, or maybe ask the workers if it's OK for you to cycle through (they'll usually usher you through). However, I have encountered roadworks that are so huge there's really nothing to do but go round. If this happens, take out your map and plan your route yourself - do not blindly follow the Diversion signs! Whilst on the subject of roads, I think I should warn you about the N roads. When you look at a map, they seem OK - and they often are. However, N roads can be very busy and very fast - and some of them are more like motorways than normal roads, and you may even not be authorised to cycle on them. So, stick to D roads or the smaller C roads - (which are precisely the roads most likely to be closed in the summer, by the way!) Trains If you need to take a train in France with a bike, it is generally not a problem if you are taking a conventional (ie, a non TGV) train. Modern trains have at least one coach where you can store your bicycle, usually by hanging it from the front wheel. These wagons are great, because it's easy to wheel your bike onto the train, there are seats right next door to where you store the bike (so you can keep an eye on it) and the bike is easily stored and removed. These wagons are signalled by bike logo, like this one (or variants): [Image link no longer available] The actual position of the wagon is difficult to predict, so best stand on the platform and watch out carefully for the bike wagon - and be prepared to run to it - on some stations the train won't wait for long! On older trains, you have to put the bicycle at the front of the train, in the controller's wagon. If you are taking a TGV, note that it can be much more difficult to take a bike (although it can be done on certain trains). If you do try to take a TGV with a bike, you have to pay €10 extra and on some lines you must take the bicycle to pieces and put it in a bicycle bag. This is obviously no use to touring cyclists who can't cart a bulky bike bag around with them. For these people, it may be necessary to re-route your journey so as to take non-TGV trains (called Train Corail). Note that on some routes (eg, Paris to Lyon) this can be a very long process involving many changes - but it can be done! However, do check with the SNCF before you go, as the rules concerning bike transport on the TGV seem to be depend on the line, but probably also on other things. Don't forget that before you enter any French train, you must punch your ticket. You'll find in the station a punching machine, into which you must put your ticket (the right way round). When you hear a punch you know that the ticket has been validated. Failure to do this can result in a fine (although some controllers, knowing you're not French, might feel generous). If you get on a train and realise you've forgotten to punch your ticket, seek out the controller before he asks you for your ticket and you should be OK (I've forgotten to punch my ticket is J'ai oublié de composter mon billet). There are two types of punching machines. The older ones look like this: The newer ones look like this: Note that not all non-TGV trains are equipped to carry bikes - and at some times you may not be allowed to put your bike on some of the trains. However, this is quite rare. Also, did I forget to say that bikes on non-TGV travel free? Finally, if you're going to Paris, do not try to put your bike on the metro! It isn't allowed, and you'd have a very hard job squeezing your pride and joy through the small gates and getting up and down the stairs. Besides, if you did make it down to the metro platform, you'd never get out of the metro alive! Your bike's presence would not be appreciated by the Parisians who are generally squeezed together more intimately than they'd like anyway, and who already have a big job not getting irritated by rucksacks! Dogs In some parts of the world dogs are a threat to cyclists. However, I have never ever had any problems related to dogs in France. Hunters France is the European country which counts most hunters - and you'll often see them walking along the side of the road, sometimes dressed like Rambo in full combat gear. They're not as much of a danger to cyclists as they are to themselves - and actually you do hear stories of them getting shot. Nevertheless, be aware that they're around - especially in the forests. High visibility clothing is a good idea! Accomodation Camping sites are very easy to find in France. Most big towns have a municipal campground at very reasonable rates. This is a handy web site showing all the municipal campsites http://www.camping-municipal.org/camping-france.htm. Although the quality of the campsites do vary greatly, they are mostly very clean. Do remember to bring toilet paper however, as this is rarely provided. Note that wild camping in France is illegal, but if you are caught out and can't find the landowner, if you are discrete and adopt the arrive late, leave early principle you shouldn't have any trouble wild camping in the more remote areas. Be aware that in some parts of France (for example the Lozère or the Jura) there are attempts to re-introduce wolves, lynxes and the like, but I haven't ever heard of any attacks on humans. If you don't like the idea of camping, there are obviously a huge number of hotels all over France. Compared to the UK, the prices tend to be very reasonable. In most towns you will find budget hotels, but on a bicycle they can be difficult to locate as they tend to be situated at the exterior of the town, visible from ring roads that you are not allowed to cycle on. Some of the main budget chains are B&B, which is my personal favourite but a little more expensive than some of the other budget hotels as the rooms have en-suite bathrooms and are a little more comfortable; F1, which is cheaper but where you have to be prepared to share the bathroom facilities with other guests (the showers and toilets are cleaned after every use so this doesn't usually cause any trouble); and Etap, which offers a greater variety of rooms from budget to comfortable. Finally, you should have no problems finding youth hostels in the bigger towns or the more touristic places. You'll find details about these here. French There is no doubt that any attempt you make to speak French will be greatly appreciated. You don't need to be fluent, if you at least make the attempt to say "Bonjour" and "Merci" you will probably be rewarded with a smile and more likely to get a helpful response than if you just assume that the person will understand English. Note that it is far from certain that the person you're talking to will be able to communicate in English (except in places like hotels and tourist centres): although most children do English at school, the lessons are for the moment far too theoretical and the class sizes far too big to allow children to have a true language learning environment - hence a lot of French people can write and read English adequately, but have great trouble speaking and understanding it. As I said, you don't need to be bilingual, but a small grounding in French will help. Take the time to acquire the basics and you'll be amazed how polite and helpful you'll find people. You'll find a lot of good material to learn beginner French here.