My tips for cycling in France

Discussion in 'Touring and Adventure Cycling' started by Jimmy Doug, 4 Jul 2011.

  1. Jimmy Doug

    Jimmy Doug If you know what's good for you ...

    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


    2011-05-13%2B10.14.17.jpg
    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)

    2011-05-14%2B16.39.39.jpg


    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:


    2011-07-03%25252012.48.07.jpg


    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:

    2011-07-03%25252012.49.12.jpg

    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:

    160px-SNCF_ticket_punching_machine_1980s.jpg

    The newer ones look like this:

    [​IMG]


    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.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: 20 Sep 2015
  2. yello

    yello Legendary Member

    An interesting read. I do like to read the perspective of others non-French French residents, there's often a great deal I can empathise with or at least recognise. I've lived in France for 4 years now and am starting to settle to it (that is, what was once foreign is becoming the norm and taken for granted). I do still try to make allowances for difference and try not to be judgemental but I'll admit it is difficult sometimes!

    Priorité à droite can catch you out. Fortunately for me, it's not that often that it is an issue - since where I live is rural so there is very little traffic. It's worth keeping in mind that in rural France, many people do drive as if there'll be nothing coming the other way, or crossing an unmarked junction at the same time. You can understand why - usually they're right! So don't be surprised to see something coming towards you in the middle of the road! That is simply how many people drive. It's regularly remarked upon by ex-pat Brits but completely unremarkable as far as the French are concerned - vive la difference eh!

    I can see the sense in priorité à driote in some situations. Where 2 roads of equal significance cross in the middle of the nowhere (both are 'main' roads, who is to say which is the 'route principale?) then priorité à driote is a clear and unambiguous rule.

    But equally there are situations where I am completely dumbfounded as to the wisdom of it... in towns particularly. Yes, you should stop to allow traffic to join from a side road! I know it's only my perspective but my lord it seems weird!
     
  3. OP
    OP
    Jimmy Doug

    Jimmy Doug If you know what's good for you ...

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one! I've often thought of starting a cyclistes contre la priorité à droite campaign but French society can take a lot of persuation that something needs changing. Besides, rather than reducing the number of roads that are priorité à droite, France seems to be increasing them - there are loads of roads around here where new priorié à droite junctions have been created in the past couple of years.
     
  4. mcr

    mcr Veteran

    Location:
    North Bucks
    So that's where the designers of Britain's cycle lanes got their idea that you should give way at every side junction, driveway etc...
     
  5. splitpin

    splitpin New Member

    Hi Jimmy,

    I've just spent three weeks cycling through France for the first time and I wish I'd seen your post before I left. The Priorite A Droite (sp?) bit was particularly interesting. I've been wondering what that funny red triangular sign is with the "X" in the middle :-s

    One thing I found on my travels I thought would be worth sharing is that in a lot of the towns and villages I passed through there would be stops for campervans to park up. These always seem to have fresh running water supplies and often a picnic bench so they were a great place to stop for lunch, clean up, wash clothes etc. Sorry if this is an obvious thing to everyone here, but like I said this is my first tour! I've attached a picture of the signage for these sites. The only thing I didn't try was actually camping alongside the campervans. Do you know if this is allowed?




    5995390731_ccc850bbf1.jpg
     
    2clepto likes this.
  6. OP
    OP
    Jimmy Doug

    Jimmy Doug If you know what's good for you ...

    Hi

    This is a really useful tip. I don't know about putting your tent up in a caravan park. I'll look into it when I get back (cycling in Greece right now). My guess is that campers pay an annual subscription which entitles them to sleep there - but that's just a guess.
     
  7. G-Zero

    G-Zero Über Member

    Location:
    Durham City, UK
    Hi,

    I don't know for definite across the whole of France, but I have stayed in a few French "Aires" that have the sign depicting a motorhome/camping car over a disposal point.

    As far as I'm aware they were intended for the sole use of motorhomes/camping cars, although quite regularly these days, caravanners have started using them.

    Again, I don't know if they're all the same, but the few that I've been in have been on tarmac and not suitable for tents.

    HTH.
     
  8. OP
    OP
    Jimmy Doug

    Jimmy Doug If you know what's good for you ...

    Yes, these are "aires" are good places, but I'm pretty certain that overnight camping isn't allowed.
     
  9. The motorhome 'aires' certainly aren't intended for anyone other than motorhomers, but if you can find one with an appropriate piece of grass around the edges (just don't try and occupy any of the main 'parkable' areas!) then the worst you will get is some funny looks.
    Most have free refills of drinking water, though in some it may be charged at €1 to €3 for a camper-van tank's volume of water - no discount for cyclists!
    Incidentally, most of the public aires are free to use for motorhomers, presumably on the basis that they're likely to spend money while in the area, and it stops them clogging up public carparks.

    Re. wild camping whilst cycle-touring, France is a big and largely rural place and with a bit of common sense it's a perfectly practical option (even if often claimed to be illegal - I don't know what precisely the law has to say about it).

    nb I speak as both a cycle tourist and a motorhomer smile.gif
     
    Mandragora likes this.
  10. doog

    doog ....

    Reference wild camping :Having cycled up from Spain to the UK up through France with my tent my view is that options are limited and its not really practical. From the mountains to St Malo i saw very few opportunities to wild camp.

    The problem you have is this, nearly every piece of land is either fenced or ditched, in the South there are warning signs everywhere. In addition you have to ask this question , is wild camping an ideal way to enjoy a cycling holiday? answer No.

    I wild camped on my last night and it wasnt enjoyable. I cycled until it was dark and that was a long day in the saddle. I got up at day break so I had about 5 hours sleep, no facilities so not nice. I wild camped because I couldn't find a 5 euro camp site..yes thats how much the municipals were, big pitch hot shower etc.

    I would do it again but only if my planning was so bad I had no choice.
     
    robing likes this.
  11. chrtho

    chrtho Well-Known Member

    Location:
    Mancunia
    I've always found the French countryside more open and less fenced in than other countries. My route took me from Brittany down the Atlantic coast then over the Pyrenees to Spain. I think I wild camped 1 night in 3 and only once had difficulty finding somewhere. Would have done it more often if it wasn't for the cheap municipals.

    Each to his own I suppose but for me, cycling and wild camping are the perfect combination. Why compromise the freedom cycling gives by imposing detours and timescales to find accommodation? Just ride where you want, for as long as you want, put the tent up, eat, sleep and be on your way again in the morning. Beautiful.

    Plus you sometimes get the place to yourself for the evening:
    CRIM0093.jpg
     
  12. battered

    battered Well-Known Member

    I recently had a weekend camping in France, I turned up late, out of season and basically got turned away as booking a place would have taken weeks, ring the call out number etc. One obnoxious women very smugly told me "you won't find *anything*!" Guess again cherie I did, I didn't have to look at you, it was free and I had the place to myself. It helped that in October there's plenty of dark hours, it got light at 0730. I parked up and cooked, tent up at 10, in, awake at 7, packed up, brew and away about 0830. In high summer it's harder, unless you are in very remore areas.
     
    robing and 2clepto like this.
  13. joro

    joro Guest

    Well ... priorité à droite cuts both ways. I used to do a regular commute in Le Havre on my bike that involved pulling out of a (to me) minor side road to turn left onto a heavy traffic route. It took me ages to gain the confidence to just pull out and rely on the traffic tearing down the hill to my left to brake for me. In fact I never really gained the confidence, but I tried to look confident. The thing is that generally as I approached the major road drivers from the left were already standing on their brakes in order to give way to me, even heavy lorries that had real difficulty in stopping. It got to the point where it seemed rude of me not to give them a friendly wave and pull out (all the time being aware of my need to give priority to traffic from my right of course). My French friends taught me by example to be super cautious when approaching any side road on the right, and that's the key to coping with priorité à droite - never ever trust a road on the right to be clear because traffic may emerge very fast (knowing they have priority). Having said all that I totally agree with you that as a rule of the road it's just asking for trouble and is a recipe for gridlock whenever traffic gets heavy.
     
  14. OP
    OP
    Jimmy Doug

    Jimmy Doug If you know what's good for you ...

    That's exactly why I added the priorité à droite rule in my guide - and it's one of the reasons for the rule in the first place. But you can only trust a road on the right if you can see it. Too many of these roads are visible at the very last moment - and then it's too late.
     
  15. rich p

    rich p ridiculous old lush

    Location:
    Brighton
    I don't wish to disagree with a French domicile but I've cycled many times in France and toured 1000's of miles there and never once come across priorite a droite.

    Are you sure you're not over-egging it a bit?
     
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