Bicycling In France: Trip Planning Advice

Planning a bicycling trip overseas can seem like a daunting task.

But like any undertaking that seems complicated, if you break it down into pieces, it becomes more manageable.  With the 2015 bicycling trip planning season upon us, I wanted to share some insight that will hopefully make your planning a bit easier and help you plan a trip that you’ll enjoy.  Over the next several weeks you can read about things to consider when planning a trip itinerary and daily mileage, the difference between EuroVelo, Veloroute, Voie Verte and other local bicycling routes, renting vs taking a bike, panniers vs. no panniers and choosing where to stay.  Hopefully I’ll introduce a few new thoughts that will help with your trip planning this year or in the future.

I’ll kick-off this trip planning series by discussing some key factors that directly impact travel along a chosen itinerary.

Not all miles/km are created equal 

You might think this an odd statement, but bear with my thought:  bicycling 50 miles on a solid surface on a road bike isn’t the same as bicycling on a rutted dirt path along a canal carrying 30 pounds of gear.  In each instance you’re traveling 50 miles but the canal option could take 20-30% longer, making 50 miles seem like 65.  When you’re bicycling, not all miles/km are created equal.  At the end of the day, no one wants to be cycling at 7pm because you made a mistake calculating the day’s mileage.

This was one of the hardest lessons I learned very early in my overseas bicycling career. Unfortunately my daughters and my husband had to endure this lesson with me.  It was one of our first trips as a family.  I tediously planned our itinerary, found charming places for us to stay and planned our daily mileage with no consideration of the route surface, the fact that we were carrying panniers and the signage(or lack thereof) along the route.  Big mistake.  We ended up bicycling for 2 hours longer each day than planned, we barely arrived at some destinations by dark, we didn’t visit many attractions along the way because there was no time to stop.  Somehow we survived that trip, but much of the joy of experiencing another country by bike was missed.  I never made the same route planning mistake again, and I hope that you won’t either.  Let’s take a look each of these factors and how they impact your bicycling.

 Your speed traveling along a bicycling itinerary is impacted by a number of factors including:

  • the varying surfaces along the itinerary
  • the quality of signage along the itinerary
  • whether you are carrying your own luggage/panniers
  • the weather
  • hills and elevation

It’s amazing to me that so few bicycling books or bicycling websites address these issues.  Perhaps it’s a holdover from the old days when the only people who did long-distance bicycling were guys in expensive spandex outfits riding very expensive road bikes with no luggage, climbing big mountains and covering a lot of miles.  They had little interest in sightseeing or enjoying the unique qualities of experiencing a foreign country by bike.  Those days are over.  Recreational cycling is exploding all over the world. Cyclotourism is becoming so popular that more and more national tourism offices have bicycle tourism offices.  Clearly things have changed, but the quality of detailed information for route planning can vary dramatically.

The best defense is a great offense.  Planning a bicycling trip overseas isn’t an exact science.  You’ll never have all the information you need, that in part is what makes it an adventure.  But keeping the above factors in mind when you plan your itinerary and daily mileage will help insure that you have a great trip on and off the bike with plenty of time for sightseeing and exploration.

How each factor impacts bicycling time:

  • Road surfaces–solid surface, old cracked and rutted solid surface, dirt, gravel, packed gravel, loose gravel, rutted dirt, wet dirt, wet gravel, wet rutted dirt, washed out dirt or gravel, dirt or gravel interlaced with tree roots, uphill grades, downhill grades, grassy paths, narrow paths, possibly only the width of your tires.  All of these surfaces( and everything in between) impact the speed you can bicycle along an itinerary.  Wondering how much of a difference it can really make?  Here are some rough estimates that I use when I’m planning a trip:  bicycling on a dirt or gravel path can be 15-20% slower than traveling on a solid surface.  If that dirt or gravel is wet and/or muddy, your bicycling can be 25-30% slower.  How do I use this information?  If I’m bicycling along a canal or towpath, it’s 90% certain that most of the path is going to be dirt or gravel, and I plan my mileage accordingly.  If I’m planning a stage where I am bicycling on secondary or rural roads, it’s 90% certain that I’ll be on solid surfaces and I can plan a more ambitious mileage for the day.
  • Slow going along the Canal du Midi

    Slow going along the Canal du Midi

  • Quality of signage along the route–You never realized how time-saving great signage is until you tackle an itinerary without it.  Every time you have to stop and consult a map it impacts your progress along the route.  Every time you get lost because the sign at a critical turn was missing, it impacts your progress along the route. Being lost in the middle of nowhere is never fun, especially if it’s at the end of the day when you are tired and it’s getting dark.  Ask questions in advance about the signage along the route.  Read travel journals by others who have traveled an itinerary you are considering.  Always have a map.  The GPS isn’t always right.
  • It's getting dark and I think we missed a sign!

    It’s getting dark and I think we missed a sign

  • Panniers or no panniers–Unless you are traveling a route that has baggage transfer services like the Burgundy Canal or Loire, chances are you’ll be carrying your own baggage. This is something that beginners sometimes dread, but it’s really not so bad, as long as you plan accordingly.  If you’re bicycling with panniers, plan your daily stages using the higher percentages listed under road surfaces:  20% slower on a dirt or gravel path and 30% slower on a wet and/or muddy dirt or gravel path.
  • Bicycling with panniers

    Bicycling with panniers

  • The weather–the bane of recreational cyclists. Sometimes you have no choice but to bicycle in the rain.  If that’s the case, the going will be slow, how slow depends on the surface you are on.  Always know where the closest train line is along your itinerary.  It may be worth it to go a bit out of your way to be able to hop on a train and reduce your bicycling time in the rain.
  • Hills and elevation–I’m not sure which is worse:  hills or unending uphill grades.  At least hills end, uphill grades can go on seemingly forever! I encountered a lot of both during my trip last summer to Normandy.  Unless you weigh under 150 and are bicycling hills for fun on a road bike, hills and uphill grades dramatically impact your bicycling speed, especially with panniers.  I could have saved a lot of time and road distress by consulting a topographical map before my trip.  I won’t make this mistake again, and I advise you to do the same!

Bicycle trip planning isn’t an exact science, but there is a lot more to it than plotting a course out on a one-dimensional map.  Always plan for the unexpected.  If you are bicycling an itinerary for the first time and you can’t find good information on the route, allow extra time to bicycle the route.  The worst that happens is that you arrive at your B&B mid-afternoon and you can enjoy leisurely exploring the local attractions.  Set yourself up for a successful trip. Even a beginner can have the experience of a lifetime if they choose an itinerary and mileage suited to their skill level.  Likewise, a very experienced cyclist can have a miserable time traveling along a dirt path with a road bike.

One last piece of advice:  when you’re bicycling, never take advice from someone traveling by automobile!

Posted by Maggie LaCoste

I love the adventure and unpredictability of experiencing France by bike. Cycling in France is the ultimate slow travel adventure, an opportunity to see it through the back door in a way few tourists experience. One week on a bike in France and life takes on a different meaning! I created Experience France By Bike to inspire recreational cyclists to visit France the slow way....by bike, and to be the best source of information for planning the perfect bicycling adventure. I encourage readers to embrace the uncertainty of the road ahead and to take the path less traveled, exploring roads, towns and villages that you would never experience traveling by car.

  1. Excellent post once again Maggie!! It’s nice to find blogs that cover trail-biking issues. The vast majority of them discuss only road biking or mountain biking and forget that a slight majority of us prefer riding canal trails, rail trails and urban trails.

    You provided valuable information for planning a trail-bike tour. As you mentioned, trail conditions make a huge difference. Although it’s nice to know the exact surface type, it would even help if trail guides at least broke trails into two categories:

    smooth = concrete/cement or asphalt

    rough = ballast, gravel, dirt, crushed stone, etc.

    The rails-to-trails Conservancy guidebooks rate trails with a “Roughness Index.” This type of rating system is helpful not only to help judge how many miles per day you can bike on a particular trail but also how bike-able the trail is in rainy weather.

    1. HI Kevin,

      As always, thanks for the great comments! I actually thought about you when I was writing the article because I thought that you would understand better than anyone the differences. In my opinion, the surface difference might not matter to everyone, but I would certainly want to know. An extra hour of bicycling means the difference between getting to my B&B at 6:00 versus 7:00 which is a very big deal to me, especially if I had to forego some stops because of overly ambitious stage planning!

      Trying to finish up my next book……it is really very time consuming but I am very happy with how it’s turning out! Maybe you might read again for me?

      Thanks again for staying in touch!

      Maggie LaCoste