When thinking about French cycling, most people think of Le Tour, the Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, Lance Armstrong, and lots of spandex. But did you know that France is now one of the top destinations for recreational cycling? Without question, there are other great places to bike, but France has the perfect combination of qualities that make it a perfect choice for cyclists of every age and skill level. Granted other countries have great food, wine, cycling and markets. But France has a perfect blend of these top features that consistently place it at the top my list of perfect cycling destinations. So if you are contemplating your first cycling trip to Europe, are looking to add a weekend cycling adventure to your French vacation, or are just looking for a new way to experience Europe through the back door, take a look at my top 5 reasons to choose France for your next cycling vacation!
From escargot in the Loire to Cassoulet along the Canal du Midi, to Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon in Burgundy, to seafood, crepes and galettes in Brittany and the Atlantic Coast, France is a food lover’s paradise! Sweets like gateau au noix, creme brulee, tarte tartin, souffles, canneles and light-as-air macaroons make all the hard work on your bike worthwhile.
Then there is French cheese: where else in the world would you find cheeses that actually have AOC status similar to wine? France has 42 cheeses with AOC status, a quality label granted by the government, designating cheese from a particular area of France. From Epoisses in Burgundy, rumored to have been Napoleon’s favorite cheese, to Valencay and Saint Maure in the Loire, to hundreds of goat cheeses and cow’s milk cheeses, France is a playground for cheese lovers. Regardless of your budget, regardless of whether you prefer hard or soft, strong or gooey, you will never run out of cheese options in France. With ham or salmon for breakfast, with bread and apricot jam and cold cuts for lunch or as a pre-dessert course at dinner, a meal without cheese in France is like a day without sunshine.
And how could you forget French bread? Thick crusted pain de campagne, whole grain pain aux cereales, sourdough pain au levain, baguettes in every size, croissant as light as air. Bread in France is an institution in and of itself.
No matter where you go in France and no matter what your budget, you will always have an incredible variety of local wines to choose from. Whether biking in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Cotes du Rhone, the Loire, Provence or Champagne, just stop into the local grocery store and pick up a bottle to go with your picnic lunch or dinner. Throughout the French countryside, you can buy local wines from 2 Euros in the local grocery. All but the most posh restaurants feature several local wines by the half bottle or carafe, usually for less than the cost of a Coke.
#3–The French Market
French markets are a 4th of July for the senses: the brilliant colors of flowers and fresh produce, the intoxicating smell of lavender and fresh herbs, samples of cheese, foie gras and local delicacies all make market days a highlight of any trip to France. A trip to the local market is an opportunity to experience French life up close and personal, to find new adventures around every corner. From early morning set up, to shopping for the perfect ingredients for a picnic lunch or dinner, to simple people-watching, local markets are one of my favorite French experiences. Local market days are one of the first things that I put on my calendar when I plan a bike trip.
#4–The French Picnic Lunch
There are few things I love more about France than the picnic lunch. Sometime between noon and 1:00, the work day comes to a halt as people rush home, to their favorite restaurant, to the closest picnic table or to any available bench to enjoy lunch with family and friends. Everything about the picnic lunch is fun; planning and buying supplies for the lunch are almost as much fun as eating it. There is something so comforting, old-fashioned and deliberate about the picnic lunch. There is no rush. It is a time for story-telling, sharing thoughts, discussing politics, and for cyclists, for meeting new friends. It is the antithesis to the lunch on-the-go that is so common here in the U.S. The picnic lunch is one of my favorite parts of the day when I am in France, and it is one of the things that I miss the most when I leave.
#5–A safe cycling environment
While French bicycling is perhaps best known for the grueling annual battle of the Tour de France, over the last 10 years, it has also become paradise for the recreational cyclist. So regardless of whether you are young or old, traveling solo or with kids, even if you have never taken a cycling vacation before, France is the perfect place for a safe cycling adventure–no spandex required!
France has made a major commitment to expanding the network of safe, signposted bicycle routes throughout the country. Over the last several years, the number of voie verte, car-free bike paths, and veloroute, limited traffic networks across France have increased dramatically. There are currently close to 300 itineraries encompassing 12,000 km of flat, safe, marked routes on quiet country lanes, through vineyards, along rivers, towpaths and canals. In addition, 7 of the 14 long distance EuroVelo Routes go through France, providing many alternatives for cyclists looking for longer adventures. For example, EuroVelo 6, runs from Nantes on the Atlantic Coast of France to Istanbul on the Black Sea, a 4,000 km journey along three great rivers, the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube.
After biking for years along major highways in Europe, the peacefulness and tranquility of this new level of recreational biking in France is hard to describe. Cycling along routes like the Burgundy Canal, the Atlantic Route or the Loire a Velo is safe and fun for families, first-time cyclists, the young and the old. So whether you are looking for an outing for a day, a weekend, a week or a season, France offers a safe and welcoming environment where you can experience the joys of exploring the countryside by bike.