A good guidebook can mean the difference between a warm welcome with bed and board at a country gîte, or crawling into a truck stop on the hard shoulder with processed cheese with your bike outside in the rain. Cycling Weekly’s Hannah Reynolds new book France en Velo could be all you need to enjoy France on a bike.
Cycle touring is all about freedom. Guidebooks, on the other hand, are often prescriptive and uninspiring. With France en Velo we wanted to break the mold and create something different – something that would be an inspiration in your armchair at home and a practical companion on the road.
My first experience of cycle touring was when I had a mid-life crisis at the tender age of 23. I jacked in my job that I had taken straight from Uni and headed for the mountains of France. I had no plan, no destination and very little kit. In the three months I spend aimlessly wandering around the Alps and south of France, sleeping in ditches in a bivvy bag and subsisting on Camembert and baguettes. I learnt that life on the road could be a pretty simple existence once freed from the need to ‘get somewhere’ and ‘do something’.
However not everyone has the luxury to aimlessly wander. If you only have two weeks of valuable holiday you want to know that you are going to see the best of France and not end up straying on to the Route National or end up sleeping in a truckers stop in Angers – both things I did which I rather wish I hadn’t. A guidebook or a guided holiday ensures that you have the best experience possible. Rather than wasting time making navigational errors or missing out on what a region has to offer someone else does the research in advance to ensure you visit the best spots.
When planning the route from Channel to the Med it was important to ensure that every road taken, every village passed through offers a great experience to a rider. Anyone can join two points together on a map and call it a route but the chances of it being the best route are slim. Our route from St Malo to Nice is a wiggle and a squiqqle. It’s what the French charmingly call a ‘Prendre le chemin des écoliers’ – translated this refers to the route boys take to avoid getting to school too quickly. When it is all about the journey no one wants the destination to arrive too soon as it means the journey is at an end.
As a guidebook it offers all the ‘turn left, turn right’ stuff you need to navigate the route and recommendations for where to sleep, eat and get your bike fixed but it’s your journey and your holiday so deviation is actively encouraged. The 1000-mile route is split into 32 stages of 20-40 miles so you can build your own itinerary depending on how far you want to ride each day and how long you’ve got.
If you’ve never contemplated cycle touring before, I would heartily recommend France as a first destination. The French love bikes. And they love cyclists. It’s part of their culture and your bike will be treated with the utmost respect. My bike has resided in the cellars of Chateauneuf – du-Pape resting alongside the finest wines. In the UK some B&B owners won’t even offer the use of their shed!
One evening I was cycling to a distant hostel. I’d misjudged the distance and it was getting dark. I was hungry, cold and on the verge of feeling demoralised. From the valley below I could hear the roar of a car engine. The pitch changed as the driver slammed it through the gears driving it hard into every corner. As it drew nearer I could hear the boom of a bass speaker and I immediately conjured up a picture of the kind of reckless boy racer you don’t want to meet on a narrow road. I felt the whoosh as he drove past. He immediately pulled over, leapt out of his car and came running down the road toward me. Cold, tired, alone, all the worst thoughts were going through my head. I stopped. Breathlessly he thrust a bag of cherries into my hand, ‘ for your supper’ he told me, ‘you deserve them.’
There is an understanding of cycling even from those who aren’t cyclists themselves. Roadside shouts of Bon Courage and offers of food and water from passers by makes you feel like a conquering hero rather than a bedraggled cycle tourist. A bike is an instant conversation starter. Leave your bike outside a shop, and by the time you come out it will have gathered a crowd of people wanting to know where you have come from and where you are headed. Telling a waiter at a cafe in Nice that I had cycled from St Malo drew disbelieving stares. But really anyone can ride 1000 miles. It’s just one pedal stroke after another until you get there.
If you want to challenge yourself to ride 1000 miles I think your destination should be somewhere worth reaching and a dramatic ending to your journey. St Malo to Nice was designed by John Walsh for Saddle Skedaddle who, after years of guiding John O’Groats to Lands End, was fed up with watching the celebratory glass of Cava filling up with rain. We can guarantee not only that the weather be better but so to will the food and wine!