I’m off to Paris in two days for the start of my 12th European bike adventure. I know … 12! That seems a bit much. Please don’t hate me.
All 12 have begun in France, although one (1992) included Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and ended in the Netherlands.
So Steve: What’s your obsession with France? Are you some sort of Francophile?
Maybe. Kind of. A little bit. I can explain…
I’ve been lucky and have travelled quite a bit in Europe, starting all the way back in 1981 when I covered the Paris Air Show (I was an aviation/writer editor back then). After the 1985 Paris Air Show, a little exhausted and tired of train trips and big cities, I headed to Blois in the Loire … rented a bike … loved it … and the rest is the start of my biking France history.
Did another short Loire trip in 1988 (my last year as an aviation writer) and then went a bit crazy in 1990 and rode from Paris to Nice. Was totally hooked. Loved it. The adventure, the independence, the route planning, the people I met, overcoming obstacles and adversity, climbing an actual mountain, the things I saw and the food I ate. You learn a lot about the world on a bike trip … and even more about yourself.
I’m not gonna tell you France is the best country in Europe. That’s subjective. I love Italy: The food, the people, sitting in the Colosseum, roaming Florence and the all-encompassing incredibleness of Capri. Spain is great and I need to spend more time there, and maybe even do some cycling. Portugal is calling my name … and Susan and I plan to do more hiking in the English countryside.
But when it comes to bike trips, France – in my humble opinion – is the #1. Here’s why…
Roads: There’s an extensive network and they’re easy to navigate thanks to the fantastic Michelin maps – and the signs along the road that point you toward the next town. There are three basic types of roads on the Michelin map: red, yellow and white. The reds are the busiest, the yellows less so, the whites barely any traffic at all.
You can pretty much spend the entire day on the yellow and white roads in the country with very little traffic. The French love bike tourists … and are building hundreds and hundreds of miles of bike trails.
French drivers: Because so many people over there are cyclists, including a large percentage of the people in cars who pass you, French drivers are very, very courteous and give you plenty of room. Have never had anyone over there honk angrily at me … and a huge percentage smile and wave.
Geography: I’ve yet to find a boring part of France. It’s either rivers and lakes; valleys and mountains; hilltop towns made of stone that date back 600 or 800 years; castles and the ruins of castles; and vineyards, farm fields and acres of sunflowers. And rides along the coasts that surround ¾ of the country.
France is big enough for major rides (such as Paris to Nice or Bordeaux to Nice), yet small enough that you can actually ride from the top to the bottom on one trip.
Towns, Villages & Cities: You’re rarely ever 10 or 12 miles from a nice-sized city with a couple of hotels and restaurants and a few interesting things to see. Take the Loire for example: You can do a 50-mile loop from Blois and ride through Amboise, Chenonceaux, Montrichard, Cheverny and Chambord), all great places to stay.
Comfort: I feel comfortable biking in France. It’s familiar.
Food: Yes, French food is great, especially the three-course, fixed-price menus that most places offer. And then there’s pizza! There are pizza restaurants everywhere and the pie quality is superb. I don’t know why, but I crave pizza after a long bike ride … and wind up eating it three or four times a week. “Oh great, pizza again,” Susan has been heard to mumble.
And cous cous. I love cous cous, with merguez and chicken (of course). And don’t forget the bakeries/patisseries. Every town has at least one and the bread and pastries range from really good to so darn amazing you salivate when you walk by the window. I can still remember this chocolate/caramel tart I had in Gordes that made me cry it was so delicious.
We often get a nice baguette, then do a little shopping and get some pate or roasted chicken, some tomatoes and cucumbers, some fruit, pastry and a bottle of wine and create our own dinner and find an scenic/romantic spot to eat. OK, I admit it: two bottles of wine. And speaking of wine…
Wine: French wine is excellent (as if you didn’t already know this) and you can get a really nice bottle for 5 or 7 Euros. Or even less.
Petite Couers and other snacks: The cookie/cake/pastry aisles of the French supermarkets are huge and the quality is so much better than over here. Sorry to sound like a cookie snow, but it’s true. We love the Petite Couers (with the chocolate in the center, of course) and the Prince sandwich cookies.
My eBooks: After my 2010 trip to Provence, technology finally caught up to me. I had written a few French biking travel articles for the various newspaper I worked for. But now, eBooks! I could write and sell my own French biking eBooks. I’ve already covered Provence, the Loire and Normandy, will do Bordeaux and the Arcachon Basin, and maybe a third one on Biking Mount Ventoux from this trip.
Plus, I still need to do eBooks on the Dordogne, the Great Gorges of France, the Bordeaux to Nice route (which I’ve been planning for years, but have yet to do, and looks to be even more amazing than the paris to Nice route), and then Brittany, the Champagne region and the Strasbourg/Burgundy region. And the French Riviera. I think that’s it.
So, as you can see, I still have a few more French bike trips ahead of me. I’m a man on a bike on a mission.