A guide to cycling in France
Cycling in France is not only a leisure activity but a recognized mode of transport. As such bikes are accepted on French roads which makes for a very pleasant riding experience. This page sets out some of the things we have learned along the way.
The first time we rode our bikes in France we were nervous about what it would be like. We soon learned that cycling in France is a much more pleasant activity than in other countries. Over the 10 years we have been cycling here, there has only been one or two occasions where someone has shouted at us out of a car window. We quickly had to get used to the idea of a car following us slowly before it was safe to overtake. Out of the countries we have cycled in so far, it is the best by a long distance.
On the road
In France, you are treated as an equal on the road as a cyclist and we have always found drivers very courteous compared to experience at home. We have always found that if a car cannot pass you safely they will sit behind you until it is safe to pass, especially on the narrow mountain roads. As an equal on the road, you are also expected to be respectful of other road users. Where available we always use bike lanes and paths and ride single file on smaller narrower roads and make it as easy as possible for others to get around you.
In France, it is not compulsory for you to wear a helmet while riding on the road if you are over the age of 12. Our experience is that the majority of non-commuting cyclists do wear one. You must have a front and rear light on your bike when riding at night or in poor visibility as well as a reflective vest if riding outside city limits. Using headphones or your phone while cycling is prohibited.
Fuelling up for your rides
There are generally plenty of options in the busier areas to refuel while you are cycling in France. You can buy snacks at any of the big supermarkets before you ride but be mindful they may not have the same things you are used to at home. Check also the opening times especially on Sundays where many shops close at lunchtime.
On route, you will find cafes, bakeries, or small general stores selling a variety of things including drinks and food to stock up on. Be mindful that many places can close for a few hours in the afternoon and while cafes are open, their kitchens are usually closed meaning limited or no food. Cafes and bars are often located at the top of some of the climbs and we have provided this information in our destination section.
In mountain villages, you will often see public fountains that can be used to refill water. The general rule here is you can drink it unless it says not to. “Eau non-potable” means the water is not ok to drink even if it looks nice and clean. Eau Cyclisme is a website that aims to identify all the drinking points for cyclists in France to assist you to find the ones that are safe to drink.
Given cycling is very popular in France there are generally plenty of bike stores to assist with any mechanical issues you may have. The popular cycling bases in both the Alps and the Pyrenees will have plenty of bike stores to choose from. We have included locations of stores on our destination pages.
What to wear
The weather over the summer is hot so a short sleeve jersey and bibs are the go in terms of riding gear. Sunscreen is also a must as well on hot days or you will burn. Riding in the mountains you are at the mercy of mother nature and changeable weather conditions. It is advisable to take arm warmers and a gilet with you as the temperature drops as you climb. Once you get to the top you can also get cold quite quickly with the impact of wind. The mountain weather can be cooler at times also so arm warmers and an extra layer often come in handy.
Riding in the mountains
There are a few things to be aware of riding in the mountains while cycling in France. The first are animals, namely sheep and cattle, which graze in the high alpine meadows over summer. They will wander over the road so you need to be prepared to come around a corner to see a cow in the middle of the road. Cows can be quite protective of young so keep your distance and we have witnessed this first hand. Cow and sheep dung on the road is common although as you climb up you get a fair indication of the things you need to look for on the way down.
The second is the road surfaces which can be cut up in places, especially on quieter roads. These roads are often under snow for a few months of the year and have heavy snow clearing equipment over them. As you ride up you will see any areas that you need to be aware of on the descent. Any of the roads used in the current Tour de France are generally of a high standard for the pro peloton.
The third thing is the weather which can change very quickly. In summer especially a nice clear day can turn to storms very quickly. Be aware of the forecast and keep an eye out. The last couple of stages of the 2019 Tour de France were testament to the ferocity of these storms.
Lastly, you will either come to love or hate the markers every kilometer on many of the climbs. These markers tell you how far you are from the summit, the average gradient for the next kilometer, and your current altitude. Depending on the day they can demoralize you with how far you still have to go or lift you in that the summit is all but reached.