This is a question many people ask: Should we, can we, do a French bike tour on our own? Or do we need to do it with a tour group? Help me Steve!
Before I attempt to answer this all-important question, and help you decide, I must first admit I’m a bit of a bike snob … and for many years looked down upon the people I come across in tour groups. Sorry.
However, there’s a reason, maybe even a good one…
I was biking in the Loire many years ago, and came across two cyclists, a husband and wife, in front of the chateau at Chambord. I could tell they were members of a bike-touring group, because the name of their bike-touring company was on the frame of their bikes.
“Where are you coming from?” I asked, hoping to strike up a conversation with my fellow cyclists. Cyclists are friendly. We like to share routes and stories.
“Michigan,” the guy said.
“No,” I said. “I mean where are you coming from today?”
He didn’t know. And asked his wife.
“I don’t know, some town that starts with a B,” she said.
“Blois?” I asked. It was the nearest town.
“I don’t know,” she said.
I was tempted to ask where they were headed, but they looked miserable, all red and puffy. And seemed to be in the middle of an argument that revolved around: “Why did you make me go on this %$&% bike trip?”
Off I pedaled, thinking: “What sheep, I’ll never be like that.”
It’s taken me years to overcome my aversion to bike tours. Now, I’m all for them, and think they’re a great option.
On my last trip, I saw several people in St-Emilion who were part of a bike tour … riding electric bikes. It took me a few minutes to get over my long-ingrained bike snobbery and superiority before thinking: “Hey, that’s OK. If it gets more people on bikes and touring France, people who may not be able to do all the miles and hills without an electric bike, it’s a good thing. Don’t be such a snob about it. Heck, I might even say hello to these people and ask them about their trip.”
I still prefer biking on my own, and even more so with Susan. It’s how I’ve always done it. I love the sense of freedom and adventure, and totally enjoy planning out a route in advance and then adapting it as I go. Plus, as the author of an on-going series of eBooks about biking France, I need lots of time to explore and do day trips, and that’s not the way group tours work.
Here’s a guide to help you decide which option is best for you…
Comfort Zone: Your comfort level in a foreign country, such as France, is a determining factor. Have you been there before? Can you speak a little French? Can you plan out a good route? If the answers to these questions are yes, go the self-supported route. If not … well, you know what to do.
Time: A tour group is great if you have only a limited amount of time, say 6 to 8 days, and want to take in a lot of sights and not worry about the logistics. If you have a few weeks, or maybe even a month or more (which I highly recommend), and want to really explore a region, or pedal from Paris to Nice, or Bordeaux to Avignon, you’re better off on your own.
Money: The less you have, the more you should consider a self-supported tour. And stay in youth hostels and cheap hotels. If you have enough money for a more-expensive bike tour, well, do it. It’s nice to be pampered, and they sure do pamper you on bike tours. I admit it: I’m a bit envious. I like being pampered. Will someone please pamper me!
Bikes: You need a bike, otherwise you’re on a hiking trip. Shipping your bike over can be expensive, and also a pain to put back together and then re-pack at the end of the trip. Plus, what do you do with the bike box for two weeks?
Renting is always an option, but can be expensive (about 25 to 30 Euros a day). And you never know what you’re gonna get with a rental bike. I was lucky on my last trip, and the rentals I got in Bordeaux and Bedoin were great. Don’t let this deter you, do your homework and make sure to rent a bike that fits your needs. And body.
Tour groups provide you with a bike, and the quality is generally pretty good. And so is the fit. They always have a mechanic to fix stuff and put air in your tires every few days. In fact…
Bike mechanic skills: Can you fix a flat? If you have some basic bike-mechanic skills, you’re good to go on your own. If not, you can either cross your fingers and hope for the best … or join a bike tour.
Life’s Baggage: When you’re on your own, you obviously have to carry all your stuff with you. It can be cumbersome, and add a little bit of effort to the day’s ride. Over the years, I’ve become an expert bike-trip packer. Click here to read my previous post with some packing tips.
On a bike tour, they drive all your stuff to the next town and hotel and it’s waiting for you when you arrive. This alone is a good reason to opt for a bike tour. Once, in Chinon, in the Loire, there was a tour group staying at my hotel. In the morning, as I was leaving, I saw all their bags piled up outside the hotel. “Where are you headed?” I asked someone.
“Saumur,” they said.
This was where I was headed. What if I put my bags in with their bags, and then picked them up in Saumur at their hotel? It was wishful thinking, and off I rode with a fully loaded bike. Never did see them in Saumur.
The Hermit Factor: I like people, especially my fellow cyclists, and always seem to find some to chat with on my various French bike tours. Then again, I’m not sure I want to be tethered to the same 12 or 14 people, whom I never met until we started out from Aix or Amboise or Bayeux. But, that’s just me. You may be a more social animal and revel in the company of your fellow cycling enthusiasts. For a week or more.
OK, there you go. I hope this helps you decide.
Here’s the bottom line: Either way, on your own or with a group, biking in France is amazing. What are you waiting for?