Category Archives: Tips for touring

Reflecting on our 2013 French tour

Shutters on the windows and flower boxes on the sill. Much as I would them too, my windows at home will never look 'French' like this.

Shutters on the windows and flower boxes on the sill. Much as I would them too, my windows at home will never look ‘French’ like this.

As I have already indicated in recent posts, my entries on this blog have gotten more than a little behind the times. However, the memories are still fresh and there is much to write about our cycle tour in France in 2013.

This is what I love coming to France for. So beautiful.

This is what I love about France.

This trip could more accurately be considered a series of shorter cycling tours than one big long trip. Some cyclists are super fit and measure their achievements by the number of kilometres or miles they pack into each day. This is definitely not me, I have never been an athletic type and frankly, it is sometimes very difficult to muster the willpower to get on the bike again, especially after 3 or 4 days of riding with no days off to explore and take photos. I also get very frustrated at missing out on seeing so many things along the way.

Pure magic.

Pure magic (the Canal du Midi in Toulouse).

There were three of us on this tour, me, my partner and my youngest son who was about to commence 2 years of study in France. Unlike our previous French experience, we were based in Toulouse, home of our son’s new university.

Apart from an initial desire to ride along the Rhône Valley, we decided to try ‘winging’ the rest of the 4 weeks we had to ride. This plan worked reasonably well, but personally, I think it would have been better if we had decided on a rough schedule beforehand, so that there was an overarching plan. I am a bit boring in that I like to know what I am doing ahead of time!

How many bikes can you fit into a train compartment? In this photo, there were ten!

How many bikes can you fit into a train compartment? In this photo, there were nine!

Given that there were three of us, we decided to try camping, rather than staying at B and Bs (which are mostly suited to couples or groups).

‘Free’ camping is definitely cheaper than staying in B and Bs or hotels, or family holiday camps. By ‘free’ camping, I mean staying in places that are not designated camping areas.

This was our preferred option as it would have given us the most freedom to plan as we went along and to stop when and were we felt like doing so.

Table and benches - rare luxury! In Australia, most campsites have these as standard fixtures.

Table and benches – a very rare luxury in all the campsites where we stayed! In Australia, most campsites have these as standard fixtures.

In Australia, it is possible to free camp almost anywhere outside major cities, if one is prepared to ‘rough it’ a little.

However, we were unsure of the situation in France, so read widely about what others had done. It seems that free camping is not really encouraged, although many do manage to do it quite successfully. Not being quite as young as we once were (and consequently just a tad less brave 🙂 ), we decided to plan around destinations where we knew there were camping sites. Unlike our first cycling adventure in France, we did not book any accommodation except for when we first arrived and the few days prior to our departure.

Ultimately, we used a mix of camping and hotel stops (after camping in the rain for more than 2 nights, one starts to dream about dry things.. clothes, shoes, tents…. 🙂 ). We also found that in the larger cities, the cost of a room for 3 at a cheaper hotel was sometimes less than the cost of a tent site! So it payed to look at all the options before deciding where to stay.

The first few days of riding were very, very wet! Madoqua and son enjoy a rare break in the weather. At least it was not hot!

The first few days of riding were very, very wet! Madoqua and son enjoy a rare break in the weather. At least it was not hot!

At the finish, there had been four main parts to our trip: the Rhône Valley, Millau-Albi, the Canal du Midi and Bordeaux. Each was special for different reasons, as you will find out in upcoming posts.

As with other tours, I will compile a page which references all the relevant posts, but I had better get on and write them first 🙂

Wet? Need shelter? Try the local market square

I have often lamented the lack of shelter for cyclists in England, Scotland and France (the three places in Europe where I have cyclo-toured). Quite simply, there is nowhere to get out of the weather when it turns nasty or even inconveniently wet (unless you can squeeze yourself and your bike into one of those very rare bus shelters).

I find this quite amazing, because winters in these countries are very cold and wet – and I would have thought porches, verandahs and the like would have featured on almost every building.

There is, however, one place where a soggy cyclist may be able to find respite in French towns and that is at the central marketplace. I have found reference to these areas in other rider’s blogs too, so obviously it is not just me who has made this discovery!

Market2

The market area was virtually empty when we first arrived.

Market

Beautiful, ornate steel posts support the large roof area.

This place is big, open and has plenty of room, all under a convenient high roof.

Unless of course, you have arrived at the same time as the local market is in full swing, in which case you will probably just be able to find a corner to hover until everyone departs.

The upside of market day though, is that there will be plenty of fresh fruit to purchase and to enjoy 🙂

We passed many of these markets, but this was one of the few where we actually stopped while en route from Sully-sur-Loire to Checy (just east of Orléans).  I must confess that I did not write down the name of the town at the time, but I am fairly sure it was Jargeau (on the southern bank of the Loire River). According to the sign in the photograph, entry was not permitted on Wednesdays between 12:30 and 8pm and Jargeau has a market each Wednesday afternoon.

The marketplace was deserted when we arrived, but this was not the way it stayed.

Market1

Stall owners start to arrive and set up for the afternoon’s trading. First in, best placed!

Market3

Rails for clothing, umbrellas to hang things. These vendors were well organised.

As we sat and ate our lunch, we watched a hive of activity suddenly erupt as stall owners arrived and prepared to set up their afternoon of trading. By the time we left, the covered area was full, crowds were arriving and vendors were fussing with last minute preparations.

Market4

Metallic lace work shows up against the lighter background. This structure was quite beautiful.

One can buy a fascinating variety of goods at these gatherings. Fruit and vegetables, meat and specialty cheeses all find a place. Fun toys and trinkets keep the children tempted and amused while their parents search clothing racks for elusive bargains. It was a delightful taste of the French culture.

It also seemed a bit of a waste because the weather was clear that day and we had not needed to shelter at all!

Keeping a travel diary

One of the things I did not do on our tour of France was to keep a diary. Normally I am quite diligent in this regard, but I found I was tired at the end of each day and decided not to bother – simply to enjoy the riding and to rely on my photos for a recollection of the trip. This approach was not as successful as I had hoped as new experiences were numerous and I simply did not take sufficient photos to capture everything I needed.

The only technology that we had with us was a single Netbook which belonged to KJ. This was able to log onto the internet if we were able to get access to a Wifi network, which was not often.

English: Lenovo IdeaPad S10

Lenovo IdeaPad S10 (Photo credit: Wikipedia). This is identical to the one I won.

I found it very frustrating to be so limited in my communication capability and eventually I gave up altogether. I also decided that we could not rely on one device for both of us for future tours. Shortly after we returned from this trip, I won a lovely Netbook of my own, so I was set (or so I thought!).

Then Apple released the iPad and I was immediately captivated by this new device. A lot smaller, lighter and with such potential for planning, executing and capturing tours! Netbooks could not help track or plan routes and give reports on terrain and weather at a touch of a button. In addition, Netbooks were too bulky and somewhat overpowered for what we needed.

English: The iPad on a table in the Apple case

English: The iPad on a table in the Apple case (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now my iPad is a fundamental touring tool, as is my smartphone (which gets mounted to my handlebars to provide a live map – how incredibly convenient, no more paper maps to get wet or blown away 🙂 ).

Using these tools, it is now possible to write, photograph and make audio visual records of anything in real time and back them up to the cloud for safe keeping until you are ready to use the material. This makes diary entries so much easier and less time consuming at the end of a long cycling day. Photos can be captured from the SD card of one’s camera, providing an instant backup, and I have an attachment which lets me tune into local TV stations using my iPad. So we can keep up with what is going on in the world while we are away.

iPhone mount

iPhone mount (Photo credit: ryumu)

If you are considering getting a tablet device to use on your trip(s), I suggest you get it well before you go. Not only are they wonderful for capturing your tour information, they are also great in the planning stage. You also need to be familiar with using the device well before you leave home. This will give you time to find out which apps are suitable for what you want to do and give you time to learn how to use them properly.

With the latest upgrades and models of iPad and/or iPhones, it is possible to create a local internet hotspot using wifi. So all is needed is a local internet (SIM) card for either a recent model phone or iPad and all your devices can get internet access. I do not use Android or other non Apple devices, so do not know if this possible with them as well.

If you are interested in using technology on your cyclotour, I have two other posts on this topic as well:

C: Deciding on a specific route

Part of a series on how to plan a cyclo-tour from start to finish. Check out the “A – Z of planning a tour” on the menu at the right of this page to find other articles.

Part C: deciding on a specific route

So you have decided on a broad destination for your cyclo-tour. Now the fun starts, especially if you really have no particular preferences about where to ride.

The criteria we used with our tour in France was simple. Since it was our first tour and we really did not know what to expect or how we would cope with the loaded bikes, we would start with a landscape that was relatively flat and easy to  ride. (In fact, to my way of thinking, this sounded like a great philosophy for the whole tour!) We were a bit nervous about starting off in Paris, not knowing what the traffic was like, the general attitude of drivers towards cyclists and how we would cope with riding on the wrong (right!) side of the road without having practised this for a bit first.

Assembling the bikes in a convenient area of the hotel in Dijon.

Assembling the bikes in a convenient area of the hotel in Dijon.

I had always liked the sound of Dijon, and so we chose that as an alternative starting point for our ride. But we could just as easily have gone anywhere else that was easily accessible by train.

For more about our stay in Dijon, check out the post Dijon revisited.

When it came to actually planning the route, we decided to first follow a canal along a river, then to branch off onto the roads. You can read more details about how we went about this process with the Challenges of planning a ‘Tour de France’.

When it came to planning our second major tour (in the UK) we took a somewhat different approach to many things, mostly because of what we had learned in France.

Knowing which way you are headed is essential. Good signposting makes it easy.

Knowing which way you are headed is essential. Good signposting makes it easy.

We started cycling from a hotel near Heathrow airport (London) and returned there at the conclusion of our tour. In France we were worried about doing this and did not get the bikes out until we were (safely 🙂  ) in Dijon. However, by the end of the tour we were quite comfortable on the roads and cycled all the way back to Charles de Gaulle airport just prior to our departure. I have written previously about planning our UK trip in two posts:

What Comes next?

The next part of this series will explore options to get yourself and all your cycling goods to your starting location. This can be quite a challenge if you intend to use coaches or trains.

B: Where and when to cyclo-tour

This post is the second in a series on how to plan a cyclo-tour from start to finish. Other parts of the series are listed in the A – Z of planning a tour on the menu to the right.

Part B of Planning a cyclo-tour – ‘A to Z’.
Covering where to go and when to go.

where to go?

Deciding where to go when you want to cyclo-tour is actually a very difficult question to answer because it really depends on what you enjoy and how much money you have to allocate to your trip.

I would not be comfortable cycling in many African countries for example. This is not to say that there would be nothing to see (quite the opposite!), or that there is anything wrong with those destinations. However, the cultures are very different to mine and there is a lot of poverty and related social issues in many places. Consequently, I would be uncomfortable – feeling as if I had to be on the alert constantly. This is not my ideal way to cyclo-tour.

However, I would jump at the chance to tour in many places in south eastern Asia, the Pacific basin, the USA, Canada or Europe, the UK or Ireland. That leaves me a lot of options and I am sure I will run out of time and money before I explore all of these!

But many people have cycled all around the world and hundreds of their stories can be found on the web. So if you are not sure where you would like to go, then start reading and see what appeals to you. A good place to start is the Crazy Guy on a Bike website, where you will find forums, lots and lots of tour diaries (you can add yours there too if you wish!) and many other useful articles. You can also do a search for bike touring blogs and follow the ones that appeal to you.

If you can’t make up your mind about where to go, then select one of your most favoured destinations and go with that!

When to go

This question will be answered by a few determining facts. Firstly, you will need to select a time that fits with your personal commitments. Then the second thing is to have a look at the climate of the place where you wish to tour.

Beautiful warm weather at the start of our French tour in  2009. (Chateauneuf, not far from Dijon)

Beautiful warm weather at the start of our French tour in 2009. (Chateauneuf, not far from Dijon)

You may prefer to cycle in the cooler weather or you may be like me and relish the warmer months. I would far rather be a bit hot than cold! (Actually, I should ‘fess up here – I really hate being cold, and I feel the cold more than most people 😦 ). A cooling breeze on a bike is lovely, but on a cold day, that same breeze is definitely not as welcome!

Riding along the Loire River, the days getting cooler and we had to wear jackets.

Riding along the Loire River, the days getting cooler and we had to start wearing our jackets.

On our first tour – the one to France, we left the trip a bit too late, and Europe had a very cold winter that year. The first few days were glorious, but after that, it got colder and colder and it got me a bit down in the end. We rode on some days when the temperature did not get over O degrees C (32 F). I got a bit grumpy on those days! In future, we plan to go earlier – in late summer/early autumn, irrespective of the destination.

weather-icon-set_500x500

weather-icon (Photo credit: Shmector)

The other thing that cyclists have to deal with is rain. I was intrigued to find that even though it rains a lot in places like England and Scotland, there are almost no places to shelter from the weather. Buildings front directly onto the street without any porches or covered awnings. This is very different to Australia, where you will find verandahs of some sort on almost every building, covered shopping mall areas and so on.

We did get wet on our rides in Scotland and England, but mostly it was not a major problem. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done if one strikes a few rainy days – just don the wet weather gear and brave the elements! If you select the time of year when rain is less likely, that is about all that you can do!

Foggy morning in Orleans.

Foggy morning in Orleans.

The internet is a great resource for finding out what the weather is most likely going to do while you are on tour. Once you know what to expect, you can get the right gear to deal with the weather.

What Comes next?

The next part of this series will explore ideas for deciding exactly where to tour and how to get yourself and all your cycling goods to your starting location.

A: Planning a cyclo-tour from A – Z

What this series will be about.

I have written quite a number of things on this blog about cyclo-touring, but when chatting with a friend recently, it occurred to me that I don’t have an A to Z on how to actually plan a tour. Given that KJ and I intend to tour a lot more in the future, this could be good as a checklist for us too.

If one is considering touring with a tour operator, it makes the whole process considerably easier as you simply select the tour you like, pay your hard earned cash and go off and enjoy. Some tour operators will take your luggage for you too, which makes the whole thing very easy to manage! The downside of these tours is that you are constrained to travelling with a group and you have no flexibility to chop and change en route.

Morning tea break in a shady forest. It does not get any better than this in my book.

Morning tea break in a shady forest. It does not get any better than this in my book.

KJ and I like to have some flexibility with respect to where we go, but we have been a bit apprehensive about going the full flexible option and camping.

So I am going to provide some guidance on how we have planned previous trips and what we anticipate will be required for a camping tour. If you have cyclo-toured, please feel free to add your advice and opinions in the comments – there are lots of options out there and our approach will not suit everyone. You may have also come across some great gear and ideas that we have not discovered.

I will post a series from A to Z (if I can think of that many things!) which will describe how we go about planning for a cyclo-tour from start to finish. Where I have previous posts that are relevant, I will link back to those and where I find other blogs that have information I have used, I will add them as well.

Exploring villages and towns at a rate that suits you best.

Exploring villages and towns at a rate that suits you best.

Hopefully, if you are considering a tour yourself, this will give you some hints on where to start and how to go about it. Often, the hardest part is getting started.

In the very early stages, getting to your destination (where you wish to tour), figuring out when to go and the big question when you are free touring – where exactly to go are the main questions that need answering. So Part B of the series will start with the first of two of these and Part C will give you some ideas on deciding where exactly to ride.

I hope you will enjoy the series and will add to it if you have information that will be beneficial for other touring folks. I thought of creating an index, but maybe the search function and/or the menu at the top of each page are sufficient.

Wines and vines (Sancerre)

My previous post described the views from the amazing Tour de Fiefs in Sancerre in France. However, this is only part of what I enjoyed about Sancerre – a hint of the other thing I enjoyed is evident in some of the photos on that post too!

English: Sauvignon blanc wine grape. Location:... The town is situated on the banks of the very beautiful and cycling friendly Loire River.

In this setting, it is also surrounded by the most beautiful vineyards which create lush green vistas of carefully managed rows of vines.

Vines2 Vines1
We were lucky to be in this area just before the Autumn set in, and as I enjoy cool, bright green landscapes, this really appealed to me.

Cotat Sancerre

Cotat Sancerre (Photo credit: e_calamar)

The area was originally well known for its red wines which were produced from Pinot Noir (dark coloured) grapes. However, after a bad infestation of phylloxera (small pest insects) severely damaged the vines in the area, the vineyards had to all be replanted with white grapes instead.

Vines

Currently, the area produces many white, rose and red wines. For those who like cheese with their wine (like me 🙂 ), the district also produces some superb goat cheeses.

The district was so lovely, we had to stop part way up the hill to Sancerre to enjoy the surroundings and the view.

The district was so lovely, we had to stop part way up the hill to Sancerre to enjoy the surroundings and the view.

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