Tag Archives: Bicycle 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 🙂

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Orléans – eerie in the morning mist

If you have been following my Tour of France posts, you will know that we started riding in Dijon in the east and crossed the French countryside to get to the Loire River. We then turned north and were following along the river crossing it from time to time as we found suitable cycling routes. We were on our first cyclo-tour ever and learning a lot about both France and bicycle touring!

Our bikes were mountain bikes which we had adapted for our trip. We had Old Man Mountain pannier racks which supported 4 pannier bags – two larger ones on the rear and two small ones (which I had made) on the front. The bikes were comfortable and we were travelling well. Our itinerary was just right – not too much riding each day, so that there was time to stop and enjoy the sights as we went along.

The loaded Anthem showing how the bikes were packed.

The loaded Anthem showing how the bikes were packed.

We had got as far as the city of Orléans and had toyed with the idea of going into the city, but eventually we decided against this. We had no need to go into the busy central precinct and did not have any detailed maps, so navigating was going to be a hit-and-miss affair at best. This does not bode well in an unfamiliar city at morning peak hour!

Instead, we decided to cycle through/around the city along the River. It was quite early as we had stayed overnight at a B&B in a small town just to the east of the city and had not taken us long to cover the distance to the outskirts of the city.

Our decision was a good one. The morning was foggy and very still. The river was eerie, shrouded in wisps of fog and very beautiful. We stopped a number of times as we rode this stretch, taking photos and generally enjoying watching the city wake and start a new day.

A beautiful bridge over the Loire River. This is where we crossed.

A beautiful bridge over the Loire River. This is where we crossed.

I now envisage Orléans as a place always shrouded mystically in mist, which is probably unfair as it probably has quite lovely weather most of the time 🙂 .

Bridge1

Follow this link for access to other posts and the itinerary and details of our Tour of France).

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.

Planning your food supply while on tour

Be kind to your body, you are relying on it a lot!

Many modes of modern travel do not require that we have to eat good food to keep going! But when cycling, you are relying on your food intake to keep you pedalling and moving ahead. It is not wise to treat a cycle tour as an opportunity to lose weight! [Actually, if you are like me, then the opposite happens – you generally put on weight, as your muscles become fitter and more developed to cope with the demands you are putting on them].

The issue of food is one of the really great things about cyclo-touring! You not only can eat lots of lovely food, but you have to do this to stay healthy! Getting food while on the road can, however, become an issue if it is not planned properly.

Plenty of food in Dijon. This is how we traditionally imagine France!

Plenty of food in Dijon. This is how we traditionally imagine France!

If you are from a country where the inhabitants like to eat at any time of the day, you will need to adjust this way of thinking while you are in France! Australians (for example) like to have food available where ever they go and consequently, a wealth of food outlets is found in most places. So if you forget your lunch, that is probably not a major issue, you can simply buy something to eat.

Snack time! A stop in a quiet forest. We found lots of lovely spots like this.

Snack time! A stop in a quiet forest. We found lots of lovely spots like this.

In France, food seems to be less of a ‘consuming passion’ 🙂 for the inhabitants.

Small villages often have no food available anywhere. (An example of this is Bussière-sur-Ouche, which appeared to have no food outlet). Cyclists who are not prepared for this can get themselves into problematic situations. It pays to always have at least one day of food on board your bike at any stage. If you are not cycling through any major centres, then you may need to stock up for a few days.

Evening meals

If you are staying at B&Bs, as we did many times on our tour, you can also run into issues with getting a main meal at night. Many B&Bs will provide meals if you request this which is wonderful. But many don’t. They also don’t provide the means to cook your own – the expectation is that you will eat out.

Where the B&B is in a larger centre where there are restaurants, this is easy. Where the latter are some distance away from where you are staying, you have a problem.

We had a wonderful lunch at this restaurant in Sully-sur-Loire

We had a wonderful lunch at this restaurant in Sully-sur-Loire

While it sounds rather romantic to ride a 30km round trip to a restaurant for your evening meal, it does have a down side! After being all day on your bike, braving the elements, and working your legs and body for a number of hours, your bike will quickly lose its appeal as a means of transport!

The only time I have enjoyed ‘riding to get dinner’ was after a particularly easy day on the bike – I wrote about this in the post Riding in the inky dark.

Superb view as we ate lunch near Rosnay. No food outlets anywhere nearby here!

Superb view as we ate lunch near Rosnay. No food outlets anywhere nearby here!

You need to have your meals (which require no significant food preparation) with you in these instances. We have dined on muesli and fresh fruit on more than one occasion! Not terribly appetising, but packed with energy and nourishment.

(Australians  who are used to huge selection of muesli on the supermarket shelves need to be aware that muesli is very difficult to come by in many places overseas. You may need to be prepared to make your own if you eat a lot of it. If you have a great muesli recipe that would be easy to make while on the road, please feel free to add this in the comments below. I and other cyclists would, I am sure, be most appreciative!).

Water

Just as important as food is water. Before going on tour in France I read something which made me laugh at the time, but it was very valid. The article suggested that if you run short of water, to look for a cemetery. Not so that you can select a spot there to meet your demise :-), but to find a tap. French cemeteries apparently have water supplied for mourners to add to fresh flowers on graves. [Taps are not located in Australian cemeteries, but most service stations (fuel stations) have water available.]

Our trusty little 2 cup thermos flask.

Our trusty little 2 cup thermos flask.

We filled up our water bottles each night, and our B&B hosts happily filled our thermos with hot water for coffee. This was sufficient for our needs, but we were travelling at a very cool time of year.

Recommendations

I suggest that each day’s cyclo-touring should be catered for in entirety (unless you know you are going to be in a large centre which will have food available). There are many light weight, non perishable types of food that are easily carried and stored. Carrying of adequate water supplies is (as it is the world over) a must.

A related issue is eating adequately while riding. Professional riders know all about this, but as an amateur, I learnt a lot while riding every day. This will feature in a future post.