By Maggie LaCoste
Traveling by bike is always a huge adventure. No matter how well you plan, how organized you are, or how experienced of a cyclist you are, you never really know what you will encounter until you get there. And, each trip seems to have its own unique adventures, so you don’t always benefit from your learning curve. My latest trip along the Atlantic Coast of France was no exception. It was full of adventure and challenges, but it was also full of new friendships, breathtaking scenery and an opportunity to see France in a way never experienced by normal tourists.
No matter how many bike trips you take to an area, even if you ride the same route, every time will be unique. The weather is different, the route conditions, signage, support services are always changing and your physical condition may all be different. So it’s always fun after every trip to do a recap of major lessons learned. As I sat down to write my overall observations of the Atlantic Coast route, I thought it would be a good idea to first cover the major lessons learned this trip, in the hope that anyone who follows this route can somehow benefit from my experience.
Here are my top 5 lessons learned biking the Atlantic Coast route in France:
#1. Always check the national holiday schedule when you are planning an overseas trip. I miscalculated Ascension Thursday, thinking it was one week later. Bad mistake. Since we were going to be in the heart of vacation country during the four day Ascension holiday, this made a bad mistake also a big mistake. We spent three days trying to find anyplace to stay during that weekend, to no avail. The only thing that ended up saving us was bad weather over the holiday that sent most people home early. Lesson learned: when they have a long holiday, the French love to get away, so be sure you know these holiday dates and plan your accommodations well in advance.
#2. Never completely trust the mileage listed in bicycling guides, tourism brochures and marketing material. Both my husband and I used odometers this year and we compared our distance traveled daily to the projected distance in our bike guides or support material. We found the distances to be consistently 10-15 km off each day of the trip. This may not seem like a lot and traveling by car, it’s not. An extra hour at the end of an already hard day can be really tough and in the rain and cold, an extra 10 km can be an eternity.
#3. Always be prepared. Be ready for bad weather, always have emergency food and extra water and always have a first aid kit. Choose your bad weather clothes carefully, as they may be your saving grace at making it through the tough days. A Gore-Tex rain jacket and my Patagonia wool zip turtleneck saved me from freezing to death the several days we traveled in cold and rainy conditions. Water on these days is important in helping to regulate your body temperature, especially up and down hills. The Kind bars, chocolate bar and chorizo from the market that I carried around in my bike bag were the only things that got us through our hardest day of 98 km.
You never know what you are going to need until you need it, so always be prepared. If the worst that happens is that your rain jacket and wool shirt never make it out of your panniers and you end up coming home with your Kind bars and chorizo, you will have had an ideal bike trip.
#4. Eat anything local, especially things you have never heard of, or seen before. Not surprisingly, eating is always a favorite part of my trips to France, but this trip was really special. There were a lot of times that we had no idea what type of fish we were ordering or eating, but we enjoyed the best fresh fish for two weeks straight.
We bought pastries that were unique to the area, tasted every different variation of canele, tried every type of Pineau des Charentes we could, feasted on every size and variety of oysters and langoustines, ate the best goat and sheep cheese we’d ever had, sampled Bayonne ham and tried every type of Basque food we had the opportunity to.
Sampling local foods is one of the best ways to learn more about the specific region of France and its people. Our favorite place to shop every day was the local market where we were able to shop extravagantly but at a very reasonable cost.
#5. Be flexible, willing to change plans and embrace the adventure of traveling by bike. Our two weeks cycling along the Atlantic Coast was challenging in many ways: several days of rainy weather, poor route markings, bike paths that abruptly ended, several very long days and difficulty in finding places to stay. But even on the worst days we were able to appreciate the adventure of our travels and our ability to physically answer the demands of the day. We changed plans as the need arose, despite my reluctance on several occasions! Choosing the unknown path led to some of our fondest memories of our trip. My favorite example is if we had never turned into Camping Les Ourmes in Hendaye late one Sunday afternoon in the pouring rain, we never would have had the funniest night of the trip.
Throughout this trip, we were reminded that traveling by bike is a very unique experience. People you encounter react differently to you and there is a general kindness in the way that people treat you. On numerous occasions, people went totally out of their way to help us, perhaps they recognize the vulnerability that you experience traveling by bike. When we needed an angel, one always materialized. The kindness of the French to two middle aged people on bicycles was amazing, and makes this trip one of our best adventures ever.