Challenges of planning a ‘Tour de France’

I have always wanted to go to France. Not a short stay in a major city, but a tour through rural areas, going to places where the locals only speak French and rarely encounter tourists. Inspired some years ago, by the beautiful TV footage of the real Tour de France, we brushed the dust off the high school French grammar texts and started planning how to get our bikes to France.

For those who live in Europe or the UK, getting to France would probably not seem to be much of a challenge, as the distances are not that great. However, we had never travelled anywhere with our bikes and here we were, planning to take ours almost half way around the world! We made a few fundamental errors, but mostly, it all came together beautifully.

There were two major challenges/questions that we faced in the planning stages. The first was one all travellers have to consider – where to go and what to see (in the 5 weeks that we had available). The second was whether we took our own bikes and if so, how to get the them intact into and out of France. This post will cover the answer to the first of these questions.

Pot luck decisions!
Where to go was by far the easier question. We spent a lot of time looking at bike tours and bike trails on the internet, and then set up some criteria:
– Stay away from the serious mountains (the fellows on the real Tour de France make them look easy, but we know the truth!)
– Avoid big cities like Paris (we would be riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, so figured avoiding a lot of traffic made a lot of sense!)
– The starting point and end point had to have cycle friendly rail access (in France, this is quite a challenge, as different rail companies have different ‘rules’ for taking bikes, and these also change according to the time of day!)

The superfast train which travels between Paris & Dijon. Only bikes in ‘housses’ permitted.

Where to start? We took pot luck and decided to start in Dijon. I liked the sound of the city and it was conveniently located on a major fast rail link from Paris. As the bikes would still be in their airline ‘housses’ (a French cycle bag), we would be able to get on this train with no problems. Dijon was also in relatively flat country and we were a bit nervous about our capability to carry all our gear up and down hilly terrain, never having toured before.

There is also a fabulous canal trail which starts in Dijon. (The photo at the top of this blog is taken along this trail.) We mapped a route along the canal trail for about 140km, then used the minor back roads to get across to the Loire River Valley. We set an average of 60km each day (we wanted to see some of the tourist attractions as well and enjoy the scenery, so covering long distances was not important).

Dijon. Cycle trails are abundant, especially along the many canals

The route we chose followed the river a long way, through Giens, then up to Orleans and down to Blois. From Blois, we again boarded a train to get back to Paris. This time, though, the bikes were not packed, as we decided to ride in Paris after all!

Where to stay
We had thought about camping, but decided against this, as we had no idea what the facilities were like and it involved taking a lot more gear. Also, the idea of a hot shower, a comfortable bed, somewhere to dry off on wet days and a hot, home cooked meal, sounded rather attractive. B&Bs also gave us the opportunity to meet the locals and practice our French!

The ‘Gîtes de France’ website was invaluable to find bed and breakfast accommodation along our route. I hauled out my dog eared dictionary and sent emails off to the owners of our chosen establishments. My emails written in rusty French may well have created much merriment at their destination, but the recipients were, without exception, absolutely delightful. Our potential hosts were very obliging about providing places to store our bikes overnight, tolerant of vague arrival times, and happy to wait for payment until we arrived to stay. This made the whole thing very easy. In the few instances where B&Bs were not available, we found hotels instead.

The final touches were to select an hotel in Paris for when we arrived and somewhere to pack the bikes for their trip back to the Antipodes. We also booked a hotel near the station in Dijon where we could assemble the bikes, ready for our big adventure!

(Follow this link for the itinerary and details for our Tour of France)

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