Planning a cycling holiday to France – what you need to consider

So you have decided to book a cycling holiday. That is fantastic! It’s a little known fact the greatest joy from taking a holiday is actually derived during the planning phases. So with this in mind, below is our list of things we recommend you consider when planning out a cycling holiday in France.

Our first trip experience

I can still remember the feeling of excitement when we hit purchase on our flights. It was November 2012 and we were going to spend three weeks the following July riding our bikes in France. Having watched the Tour de France for years, we fell in love with the scenery we saw on our television screens and couldn’t wait to experience it ourselves. In some ways making the decision to go was the easiest part of our holiday. Now we had to actually work out where to go, where to stay and where to ride.

Given the trip to France from Australia alone involves nearly 24 hours of flight time, we wanted to make the most of our trip, seeing as much as possible. We gave ourselves three weeks and figured this would be more than enough. We set about forming a shortlist of rides and began etching out an itinerary of sorts. The Tourmalet, Aubisque, Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez and Galibier were all climbs we couldn’t wait to ride and experience.

Fans lining the road with banners on the TDF Alpe d'Huez stage

Watching a mountain stage of the Tour de France was a must on our bucket list.

Securing a place to stay

The cycling regions mentioned above are extremely popular during the summer months. For this first trip we had no idea on just how hard it would be to find accommodation nearby – especially when the Tour de France is passing through. Booking a hotel room can be problematic if you leave it too late. Unaware of this, we didn’t start sending enquiry emails until March – just three and a half months out from our trip.

We were super lucky with securing accommodation in the Pyrenees, but left our run way too late for the Alps. We ended up basing ourselves in Grenoble. This meant driving for an hour just to get to the base of the mountains each day, before saddling up for our rides. Not an ideal situation and one we could have avoided had we looked at booking accommodation much earlier. Having learnt our lesson, for subsequent trips taken in the busier summer months, we look to secure our bookings at least 6 months in advance.

If you plan to view some live stages of the Tour de France we would highly recommend you book your accommodation once the route is announced. The Tour is huge and hotels are booked out quite quickly in start and finish towns. Typically the route is announced in October.

Au Primerose Hotel French Pyrnees cycling accommodation

Fortunately on our first trip we were able to secure great accommodation at Au Primerose hotel in the Pyrenees but we nearly missed out. We recommend booking well in advance for any holidays in summer.

When to travel?

Working out when to travel to France will definitely influence your riding experiences. Our first cycling holidays there were solely dictated by the dates of the Tour de France. We wanted to be able to ride some of the famous mountain climbs and also cheer on the riders during the race. The Tour is always held in July (unless a global pandemic like COVID-19 takes hold, but lets not mention that!) and so if you plan on seeing some of the race, then you need to be in France during this time.

There is also an argument to say that riding during summer will give you a better chance of good weather. However, our experience has shown this to not necessarily be true. Whilst you are likely to have sunny days in the summer months, this also comes alongside very hot temperatures. For a lot of people riding in these conditions isn’t pleasant. Couple with this the fact France is a very busy place to be during summer holidays, and you may find it more pleasant to travel outside this peak season. Personally we have found travelling in early autumn/fall to be quite pleasant. The roads to the mountain climbs are still open, the weather is still mild and the area is less crowded.

Fans line the road of alpe d'huez waiting for the tdf riders

Planning to watch the Tour de France live? Expect a crowd!

How long will you be going for?

Coming from Australia I initially had a perception that France wasn’t that big a country. Whilst this may be true, relative to Australia, I quickly learnt a lot of the French regions we wanted to explore weren’t exactly close to each other. For example the Pyrenees are an eight hour drive away from Paris and almost the same distance away from the Alps. We have been fortunate to always spend a few weeks at a time cycling in France. This has meant comfortably being able to explore a few different areas with each trip. Typically this involves staying in one area for a week before spending a full day travelling to the next.

If you are are limited to just a week or ten days we would personally recommend you narrow down the areas you wish to ride in. There is a lot to be said for basing yourself in one town and spending your holiday embarking on rides in one area. Check out our Destinations Pages to see which villages we would recommend doing this in.

What sort of cycling do you want to do?

Does your dream holiday to France entail riding up mythical French mountains, emulating some of the Tour greats? Or would you prefer a sedate scenic ride along canal towpaths and vineyards? If your answer is the former, than you will really want to look at a trip which involves spending time in the Pyrenees and Alps. There you will find an endless amount of challenging routes to test your climbing legs on. However, if your dream holiday finds you riding from one winery to the next, than perhaps a holiday in the Bordeaux region will be more to your liking.

Two bikes in annecy loaded up for cycling in the French Alps
Point to point cycling?

Perhaps you plan on a cycle touring holiday and so can plan a larger point to point trip. Ultimately how long your route is will be determined by the distances you want to travel each day and how long you plan to be away for. The level of detail you can go into when planning can be limitless. For our last trip we spent five weeks bikepacking. Our route ultimately traversed 6 different regions and just under 2000km / 1250mi of riding with a lot of elevation thrown in for good measure.

We were travelling in September so outside of peak season. This meant we didn’t need to stress too much about finding a place with vacancies. Whilst we had some broader dates defined for when we needed to be in certain towns, we wanted to still have the flexibility of being able to choose where to ride each day. Typically this meant we would only book our accommodation a day or two in advance. Be mindful, if you are travelling in peak season this won’t necessarily be the case for you.

French opening times

One thing we needed to plan out in advance was where we would be stopping for lunch and dinner. In the main we were self catering but we still needed to account for most places being closed in the middle of the day during the week. A lot of places are also closed all day on Sundays and Mondays. Coming from Australia, it seems odd that shops could be closed for a few hours of the day. But this is very much the case in France – especially in the smaller villages. In the end, Supermarkets and roadside stalls proved to be our go to for re-supply.

A croissant and fruit purchased from the French market food

With most French restaurants and cafes closed at lunchtime, sometimes lunch is whatever you can grab from a roadside stall!

Will you take your own bike?

Choosing to take your own bike or hiring one instead is something we recommend working out prior to purchasing your tickets. This is so you can factor in the cost of travelling with your own bike on airlines and rail. If you are planning to drive in France, then bringing your own bike will also impact on the size of hire car you may require. Each airline has different rules regarding taking bikes on board as part of your luggage, and some require notification you will be bringing a bike prior to travel with them. Check out our table which lists out airline requirements here.

If you decide on hiring a bike then we recommend you organise this prior to arriving at your destination. You’ll soon realise when you get to the popular cycling regions in France that there are a lot of fellow travellers who are on the same kind of holiday. The last thing you want is to arrive at your destination and not be able to hire a bike as they are all taken.

We have included links to each of the bike hire places in all of our Destinations Pages which will help you plan this out. We have also indicated the types of bikes available for hire be that road, mountain or e-bike.

Man taking bikes on plane in cardboard boxes

Make sure to factor in the logistics of choosing to travel with your own bike.

Self Guided or Cycling Tour?

For some, travelling to another country for a self guided cycling trip is a scary proposition. For others, riding with strangers as part of an organised cycle tour is just as intimidating. Ultimately whether you choose a self guided cycle holiday or decide to book with a cycling tour operator, depends on what you are more comfortable with. There are pros and cons to each option. We have taken the time to list these out for you here, to help you decide what is best for you.

Who else are you travelling with?

We are fortunate in that each of us really enjoys riding bikes. This means we can plan our holiday purely around riding. If you are travelling with others you may be in a situation where you are the only rider. Hence, staying in places where there are lots of options for non riders to keep occupied is a must! We have included a section on ‘Other Activities’ on each of our Destinations Pages. You will quickly see there is a lot on offer in each of the cycling regions. Typically there are a wide range of activities to keep everyone occupied.

Col d'Aubisque big bikes

So there you have it, our list of what to consider when planning out your cycling trip. Whilst it might seem like a lot, doing this before you go, leaves you with more time once you get there. We also recommend taking the time to explore our dedicated Planning section for more details around each of these topics.

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Two cyclists at the top of the Col du Tourmalet summit in the Pyrenees

TIPS & TRICKS

  • Are you going to be watching the Tour de France or travelling in peak season? Make sure to book your accommodation well in advance.

  • Be aware a lot of shops in France are closed at lunchtime – pre-plan your meal stops!

  • Will you be hiring a bike? Pre-book this prior to arriving at your destination.

  • If you only have time for a short trip, look at the benefits of spending time cycling in a single region.

  • Assess the pros and cons of a self guided vs organised cycle tour, to work out which is right for you.

  • Work out if you’ll be taking your own bike with you before booking your flights, car hire etc.

  • Consider your non cycling travel companions when choosing where to stay. Make sure there are plenty of activities to keep them occupied while your out riding.

NEED A BIKE BAG FOR TRAVEL?

  • Click here to see our list of over 50 bike bags currently on the market.

  • You may be able to hire a bike case – check with your local bike store.

  • Check with your friends to see if you may be able to borrow one.

  • Another way to avoid the expense of a bike bag is to use a cardboard bike box – most bike stores will give you one for free.

  • Consult our handy list of airlines and their rules relating to bringing a bike with you as checked luggage.

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