Cycling in France road rules and other helpful tips

When you visit a country for the first time everything is unfamiliar to you and it can take a while to discover how everything works. We felt that way when we first visited France for our cycling holiday. Each time we have been back we have learned a little bit more and understood how different things work. In this article, we share our experiences and list out some of the things people don’t necessarily know when they cycle in France for the first time. We will take you through some things that apply directly to cycling on the road and some that apply off the bike as well.

As you would expect from one of the most popular cycling holiday destinations, France is a bike-friendly destination. France has three cities, Strasbourg 5th, Bordeaux 6th, and Paris 8th ranked in the top 20 cycle-friendly cities according to the Copenhagenize survey. In our opinion, it is a great country to explore by bike and you will love everything it has to offer. The French Government has committed to a number of cycling-related initiatives such as spaces on trains and infrastructure in towns and cities for cycling.

Cycling on the shared use VOie Verte from Saint-Girons to Foix. THe trail is crushed dirt and in good condition.

A Cycling Holiday in France – information for the first-timer

This first series of tips and information applies directly to cycling and being out on the bike. So whether you are planning a long-distance cycle tour, road cycling mountain cols or just leisurely cycling you will find some useful information. For your first visit to France on a cycling holiday it is important you understand the rules of the road and what you can expect. Things are often different from what you are used to in your own country.

Safety – is it safe to cycle in France?

Bikes are a common sight on the road in France and many people use them on a daily basis to get to work and do shopping. We have now cycled thousands of kilometers across France and have personally never felt unsafe on the roads. It is not to say that accidents can’t happen, but generally speaking, we would say that France is a safe country to ride a bike in. The vast majority of motorists whether they be in a car, truck, or bus, respect cyclists. They will give you a wide berth when passing and sit behind you if it is unsafe to pass. French laws put the blame on the driver of a car, truck, or bus in the event of a collision with a cyclist.

Most larger French cities and towns have a network of cycling lanes and paths. In our experience, this is typically a mix of on-road bike lanes and segregated bike paths. We have always felt comfortable and safe on the bike, even in Paris where there is a lot of traffic. That is not to say it is totally risk-free. When sharing the road with other vehicles you need to make sure you play your part in keeping yourself safe.

Cycling on the road in France

Before we delve into some of the road rules that apply specifically to bikes, here are a few general things you should know about being on French roads. Even when you are riding a bike it is useful to know what signs mean and what other motorists may or may not do. This website has some great information and images of the signs for you to familiarize yourself with them.

  • France, like the remainder of continental Europe, drives on the right-hand side of the road
  • Yield signs, triangles pointing down, at an intersection mean vehicles do not have to come to a complete stop and can proceed if the road is clear. Known in other countries as Give Way.
  • Stop signs at an intersection mean that vehicles must come to a complete stop before proceeding

Road rules for cycling in France

It is important that you understand the rules for riding a bike in France so you do not fall foul of the local laws. To see the full set of laws for bikes in France, the official government website is here. We have listed some of the key laws you should be aware of:

  • helmets are not compulsory in France if you are over 12 years of age. Our observation is that many people do wear them, especially when cycling out on the open roads
  • outside built-up areas, bikes riders must wear a reflective yellow jersey at night or in poor visibility conditions
  • bicycles are not permitted on Autoroutes (highways designated by A in front of the road number eg A61)
  • do not cycle on the footpath/pavement. Children under the age of 8 are permitted to use footpaths provided they ride in a safe manner.
  • you are permitted to ride two abreast, but ride single file when passed by a vehicle at night or if the road is narrow
  • it is prohibited to use headphones or a phone while cycling
  • it is illegal to ride a bike while intoxicated. A limit of .2 mg/liter of air expired applies.

French road signs for cyclists

In our travels to France, there are 4 road signs that we have experienced that relate directly to bikes. These are the sorts of signs you will see regularly in your travels.

The first of these is “SAUF Velo”. This translates to “Except bikes” and you will see this quite often in cities and towns. It means that the rule applying to cars and other vehicles does not apply to bikes. You see these lots on one-way streets where it is one-way traffic for cars but bikes can still go against the flow of traffic. This is common also in pedestrianized areas off-limits to motor vehicles.

The second is the small give-way triangle. You will see this at bigger intersections where there are traffic lights. This sign means that bikes only have to give way at the lights and can proceed through a red light if it is safe to do so. In some instances, the sign may indicate a direction of travel. For example, you can give way if turning right but not if going straight ahead or turning left.

The third road sign is a red circle with a bike inside. It indicates that bikes are prohibited from the area. While many one-way streets have the “SAUF bikes” sign there are plenty that do not. So if you see the bike prohibited sign or a general “Inderdites” (prohibited) sign then you should be finding an alternate route.

The fourth sign relates to bike paths and your requirement to use them. A bike path sign on a rectangular border indicates the use of the path is recommended whereas a bike path sign on a circular border indicates you are obligated to use it. In the photo below, the sign indicates that the use of the Voie Verte is recommended but not mandatory.

French road types and cycling

In French rural areas there are different road types that you should be aware of as a cyclist. A single letter and one or more numbers are used to designate roads in France. Roads are designated A, N, D, and C in order of importance.

Autoroutes roads in France are designated by the letter A. These are toll roads and the major routes between centers in France. Run by private companies, they provide the quickest and most direct route to get you from A to B. Bicycles are expressly prohibited on French Autoroutes. , so if you are planning a cross-country cycling route make sure you avoid them.

National roads in France are designed by the letter N. These roads are still busy roads and could be a single or dual carriageway. Cycling on an N road is not prohibited in France. However, we would recommend staying clear of them. Traffic volume can be high still and it is not a pleasant experience. We have ridden on them for short distances at times and this is something that may be unavoidable.

Thirdly you have the Department roads designated by the letter D. As a cyclist these are the roads that you will spend the majority of your time on outside towns and cities. D roads can range from very quiet country lanes to busier thoroughfares between larger centers. If you are not familiar with an area it can be hard to work out whether the D road will be a busy direct route or a much quieter country lane only servicing farms. The road surface can vary greatly from smooth and well maintained to very rough and poorly maintained. We found using the Google Street view when planning a route can give some indication of how busy a road might be and the condition of the surface.

The fourth, and last road type, is the Commune road which is designated by the letter C. You will find most of these are very small lanes in rural areas that do not see much traffic at all. They can be a bit hit and miss in terms of the surface quality but are definitely something to consider when planning your cycling route.

Where is the best place to ride a bike in France?

The easy answer to this is that you can ride a bicycle where ever you wish in France. Every region in France has something unique to offer and riding a bike is a great way to visit new destinations. On our first cycling holiday in France, we focused on the big mountains of the Tour de France and spent time in the Pyrenees and French Alps. Since that first trip, we have visited a much broader range of locations. Here are a few different articles that will help you with some ideas on where to ride your bike on your first cycling holiday to France.

Other considerations for your first cycling holiday to France

This next section of tips and information refer to France more broadly and not just to people on a bike.

Organized cycle tour or independent travel

Personally, we have always traveled independently and worked out everything ourselves along the way. We did not see the need to join an organized tour group to achieve what we wanted to. Personally, we have found France an easy country to navigate when cycling. In the popular cycling areas, there are plenty of facilities for bikes and other cyclists around. Towns and villages are plentiful and never too far apart to find some water, food, or other assistance.

There are plenty of options to choose from if you do decide a cycle tour is your preferred option. If you don’t want the hassle of organizing everything, then you can simply join a tour that suits what you want to do and they will take care of everything else. Organized tours definitely make for an easier experience and someone else looks after all the planning and you can concentrate on riding your bike. You can head over to our page that lists out tour companies specializing in road cycling tours for some further information.

Our advice is to do what is right for you. In our opinion, organizing a cycling holiday in France is relatively straightforward to do. You will find lots of great information on our various pages. Joining a cycling tour is not necessary but doing so definitely offers plenty of advantages.

Opening hours in France

Something to be aware of when you visit France is the opening hours of shops and supermarkets. Whether you are out for a day ride or planning a multi-day cycle touring trip knowing when things will be open and closed is important.

Supermarkets will typically be open from 8:30 am to 8 pm Monday to Saturday. On Sundays, supermarkets close around lunchtime. The exact time can vary between towns and the different brands, but don’t expect anything to open Sunday afternoon after 1.30 pm. Our advice would be to check the opening times of supermarkets you plan to visit on a Sunday and ensure you do not arrive after they close.

Cafes, bistros, and restaurants will be open all day generally serving food and drinks. Set times exist for both lunch and dinner service so don’t expect everything on the menu to be available at all times of the day. In France, you can expect the dinner service to start around 7.30 pm and people start arriving around 8 pm. We sat in a few empty restaurants wondering why we were the only ones there on earlier trips.

In France, many retail shops will close for an hour or more in the middle of the day. We have noticed this in many smaller towns, but you will see closed shops in bigger cities as well. It would apply more so to smaller independent retailers rather than a large national chain, big-box type stores. But something to be mindful of, especially in areas where there are only independent retailers.

Traveling by train with a bike

It is easy to incorporate train travel into your cycling plans. Many trains allow bikes for free in France and there is space for the bikes onboard. We have a separate article about this which you can find here.

Bike hire in France

There are plenty of places across France where you can hire a bike. We have a separate article detailing the cost of bike hire in France which you can access here.

Accommodation for cycling in France

No matter your tastes in accommodation or budget you will find something to suit. Head over to our page on French accommodation types to see what is on offer. We have found most hotels will have somewhere to store your bike. This could be a separate area or simply in your room.

Hunting season

In France, the annual hunting season runs from October to February. What has this to do with cycling you say? Well, you can expect to see hunters in many rural parts of France, especially on weekends. As a cyclist, you need to be aware of whether there is hunting in progress on the roads you are cycling on. You will see signs indicating the presence of hunting activities if it is happening on the road you are on. We have also had hunters stopping us to let us know that there is hunting in progress.

More information

We have lots more information on our site to help you plan your cycling holiday to France. Head over to our Practical pages for lots of information on things such as visas, accommodation, using your mobile phone, how to find a doctor, etc. Our Destination Guide pages provide lots of information on a range of destinations such as the Pyrenees, The French Alps, and Provence.