Planning a perfect cycling vacation to France can be daunting, especially for first-timers. But by answering a few questions early in the trip planning process, you can insure you’ll choose an itinerary that’s suited to your ability, interests and vacation goals. The following are 10 questions that should get you on the path to choosing a great itinerary for your next bicycling vacation!
#1. Is the goal of your bicycling vacation to cover a lot of kilometers or to slowly explore the French, German, Swiss or Austrian countryside?
A gravel itinerary along a canal might be a wonderful cycle path for some, but if your goal is to bike 100 km/day or more, this could be your worst nightmare! Conversely, an itinerary through the middle of farmland with few towns and villages along the way could be a miserable experience for someone interested in a mid-morning expresso or trip to a local market or museum.
#2. Are you renting a bike or bringing your own?
There’s no single factor more important to the selection of my cycling itineraries than bike rental options. If you’re renting, make sure you identify rental options before you get your heart set on an itinerary! If you’re bringing your own bike, make sure that your bike is the right kind for the itinerary you’re considering. There’s nothing worse than trying to bicycle on the tree-rooted, gravel/mud sections of the Canal du Midi on a road bike!
#3. What’s your hill tolerance….and the hill tolerance of those in your party? Are you an experienced cyclist who enjoys the challenge of cycling in the hilly parts of France, or are you strictly a flats person? Or are you somewhere in between?
Learn how to read topographical maps for regions you are considering for your next cycling trip. These will enable you to understand the challenges you will encounter on different itineraries. Review elevation maps so you can see the hills you can expect. If you tolerate hills but your spouse doesn’t, don’t assume that your partner will find a way to make it through a difficult stage. Decide if you’re willing to end the day with an uphill climb to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view for your overnight stay.
#4. Are you looking for a route that is completely signposted?
Not all bicycling itineraries are completely signposted. On longer routes such as national routes and EuroVelo, the local governments along the route are responsible for signposting and maintenance of bicycle routes. It’s not uncommon to go from a perfectly signposted, well maintained section of a cycle route to a section that is beat up with sporadic signposting. Last summer I was on a cycle path that just disappeared, it turned into a field with no warning! Fortunately, this is becoming less common, but it’s a good idea to inquire about the quality of signposting on routes you are considering.
#5. How do you feel about packing your bags every morning and cycling on to a new hotel?
When you arrive at your B&B, gite or small hotel at 5 or 6 in the evening, it can be difficult to know that you will be moving on in the morning. It may be smart to plan several 2 night stays during your trip to give you time to just relax. You can plan these longer stays in locations where there are local bicycling routes to explore.
#6. Do you plan to carry your own clothes and equipment in panniers or do you want to use a baggage transfer service?
In the event that you’re looking for baggage transfer services, you will need to find itineraries where these services are available. I would guesstimate that only 25-30% of cycling itineraries have baggage transport services.
#7. Are you looking for a car-free bicycling experience, or are you comfortable bicycling on low-traffic country roads and perhaps some local traffic roads?
If you will be traveling with kids, especially ones on their own bikes, you’ll want to be sure that you choose an itinerary that is family friendly. This can be challenging and will definitely require some advance planning. Very often voie verte or car-free bike paths are interspersed with low traffic roads and sometimes even busier roads near large cities. Be sure to consult up-to-date regional Michelin maps and the local tourism resources to determine the type of bicycle paths on routes you are considering.
#8. How good are you (or someone in your party) at navigating and map reading?
No matter how good the signage is on an itinerary, you’ll get lost or miss a turn at some point in your travels. Bicycling is not an exact science, that’s the adventure part of the sport. When this happens, it’s really great if someone in your group can read a map to get you back on course. If no one in your party feels comfortable in this role, this is an important factor in choosing an itinerary.
#9. What’s your daily lodging budget?
If you are traveling on a budget, some itineraries may be challenging from May to September. Weekends along popular routes may be particularly challenging year-round. If you’re camping, the busy summer months can be a challenge, the month of August impossible. This doesn’t mean that you can’t plan a trip during these periods, it just means that you’ll need to be very creative in your planning. Choosing an itinerary that has a lot of small towns and villages along the route will provide more affordable options to better known, more expensive big towns.
10. Do you like to sleep in late, stop for a late morning expresso, have a casual picnic lunch and be at your B&B in time for late afternoon cocktails?
If so, you are a cyclist after my own heart! After all, you are on vacation, and enjoying the local pace of life is one way to embrace your European bicycling experience. If you are looking for this pace of bicycling holiday, be sure to look for itineraries with major towns at 15-20 km intervals.
If you’re like me, you’re pretty serious about choosing the right itinerary for a bicycling trip. Take the time to find the itinerary that will provide you with the vacation experience you’re looking for. Hopefully these questions will get you looking in the right direction!
Stay tuned for more information about evaluating different types of European cycle routes!