As you’d expect riding in France offers advantages and challenges compared to riding in the States. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the beauty of Le Tour on a bike. Gearing for the mountains is essential—I climb well with a 12-23 cassette on the steep hills in Austin but the hardest thing to simulate is the length of the mountain climbs in France so at a minimum I use a 12-27. Many of my guests believe their 12-25 will cut it and end up making a trip to a French bike shop midway through a trip. A triple is also a very good option but more costly.
You should also consider the new bevy of compact 50/34 cranksets on the market from companies like FSA , Campagnolo, and Shimano. The last two years I’ve found my climbing far more comfortable with a 50/34 upfront, mated to a 12-25 in the back. The cost is substantially less than reconfiguring for a triple. If you run Campagnolo components invest in a 13-29 rear cassette and spin away up the climbs.
Many of you also may be wondering about finding your way around France on a bike. In later articles I share information on a Michelin map book that you can use to plan driving and riding routes. It’s available in stores and online plus the pages can be easily photocopied prior to leaving the States so that you have maps on the bike.
TdF Specific Riding Tips/Etiquette
1. Even though the pros rides on closed roads most of the time you won’t. French drivers will be annoyed at the behavior of cyclists riding in the middle of narrow roads and blocking traffic. Europeans are much more tolerant of cyclists, but there are limits. Use common sense when riding and watch how others behave. Following the local customs will keep you from harms way.
2. Be careful about walking in a roadside bar, café, or restaurant and using their bathrooms. It is customary for bathrooms to be served for patrons only. So make some attempt to buy something. In most small towns you can find a public restroom called WC or Toilettes. Also many places have pay restrooms with an attendant at the door. In France you will often see people relieving themselves along the road—it is not viewed as an act of poor taste as in the other parts of the world.
3. Descending on a bike is an art form and much of what you see pros do on TV should be forgotten when riding downhill on your own. Factors like narrower roads, slippery diesel fuel, and fast drivers to contribute to the complicated nature of riding on 1 inch tires at 50mph. Relax and ride within your means—if it feels like the bike will take forever to stop, then it will.
4. If the French Police say get off your bike, do it ASAP. At certain times they will choose to no longer allow riding on roads (especially in the mountains)when the crowds swell too large. It may seem silly now but wait and it will all make sense. Be alert and never assume that people on foot are going to move for you. With so much visual pageantry and alcohol pedestrian’s brains turn off. This is most important as you descend. If someone steps in your way politely call out attention (Zah-tahn-ssyon). It should help alert them.
If You’re Lost ( Je suis perdu )
As much as I hate to put fear into your mind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share the following information about what to do if you’re lost. During one Tour I was working as a guide one of our guests was enjoying the scenery so much he rode right past one of the designated turns on our map. The guest made a few mistakes in the following hours, and before the ride left that would have avoided a very anxiety filled afternoon for all parties involved.
Always carry an emergency contact card—if possible make them before you leave and laminate them. Carry one on your body and one in your seatbag on the bike. List numbers to call including your hotel, U.S. Embassy, home, physician etc. Sometimes you won’t have the hotel number until you arrive but make sure to include them. On the card write Je suis perdu (I’m lost) and Je voudrais appeler s’il vous plait (I would like to call please). Also include Je reste à (I am staying Hotel Name ) and list any medical allergies. You'll also need a French Telecarte, a phone card with metal smartchip used as form of payement for the numerous payphones in France.
If you are lost there are a few places to search out for aid but the first is the Police, known as the Gendarmerie. The next would be the Fire Station—Maison de Pompiers, or look for the local Office of Tourism—Office de Tourisme, or Bureau de Tourisme as they are often helpful AND multi-lingual.
U.S. Embassy (1) 42 96 12 02
The fire, police, and ambulance can be used from any payphone for free. (No Telecarte needed)
I hope you don’t have to use the links below but they are good for the information. The first is a list of contact info for the U.S. consulates and embassy in France. The second is your rights if you happen to be arrested.
Unique Obstacles of French Roads
Roundabouts—These are undoubtedly the most unique aspect for most American cyclists as it pertains to riding in France. If you’ve never seen one think paved circle with multiple roads intersecting and radiating off of the circle. When riding YIELD to traffic in the circle coming from your left and slow down when approaching. If you’re in a group signal to those behind so they know your intentions. If the traffic lane/circle is clear proceed and stay to the right. If not, wait until there is sufficient opening, then proceed. Most accidents occur here when you assume the car or rider in front of you is going to enter the circle and they don’t.
Tunnels—In the mountains you may often ride through tunnels. Some have lighting but some don’t. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to carry a rear flasher and if you have poor vision perhaps a basic battery operated headlight. Most tunnels are short enough that you can see the other side but sometimes they are longer. The diesel fumes can hang in the air and the road surface can be damp and extra slick. Be careful.
Descents—I know I already talked descending but it needs another mention, as it is the most hazardous thing you will do. Be ready for the fact that often no guardrails exist. Livestock will use the roads to move and accordingly will leave fecal matter on the road. Try not to tense up and relax your body by changing hand positions from drops to the brake hoods occasionally. The more aero you are the faster you go, but sitting up taller and letting the wind help keep your speed in check is a good way to stay safe. Never assume people in front of you can hear your voice—especially others on bikes. I’ve noticed that riders overtaking other riders often pass too close and pick inopportune times like blind curves to do so. Apply even brake pressure when descending. Don’t ride them too much either as they’ll heat up and lose stopping power.
Cobbles/Pavestones/Painted Stripes—Unlike the roads used during the Paris Roubaix, most cobbles on French roads are pretty tame. They often use cobbles on the perimeter of roundabouts but again they are not as much of bone-jarring danger as a slippery danger. Just like the U.S. painted stripes are extra slick when wet.
Bike Lanes/Bike paths—In smaller towns and larger urban areas it is not uncommon to see frequent bike lanes. They are often signified with green paint and cyclist symbol painted inside the lane. In bigger cities it is not uncommon for the bike lane to be a shared lane with the bus lane. From time to time you’ll often see bike paths or Piste Cyclable. Sometimes they are multi-use and often they follow canals, rivers, and the Autoroute. Because of the multi-use nature of the Piste you should not plan on a hammerfest of a ride, in fact some even have posted limits.
Stoplights—I feel relatively certain that most of you can get the hang of this, but know most of the time French stop lights are not on the OPPOSITE side of an intersection like in the states. When driving and riding don’t pull up too far or you can’t see the light change. Also know that in most of France most stoplight poles have low mounted lights at eye level.