17 things I learned about booking a French cycle tour
I have set off to cycle around three regions in Northern France, including Pays de la Loir, Bretagne and the Centre department, for 12 days. I plan to treat myself to a few bike packing adventures (bike packing is the new style of cycle touring), visit some tourist attractions, eat nice food, drink good wine, revel in the novelty of “time to myself”, take part in a 24-hour sportive relay on Le Mans race track and blog. While planning the trip, here are a few things I discovered.
1) It is possible to carry a small laptop with you for work while cycle touring. I am blogging on it now! After a bit of hunting and some asking around I ended up with £150 Asus Performer tablet with keyboard, removable touch screen and mouse track pad. It measures just 10 inches and fits into my front pannier.
2) France may be the home of cycling but the train network is a minefield for cyclists. Some trains take bikes, some don’t, some have space for only four bikes, some trains are in fact buses and don’t take bikes, some need bike reservations and some don’t.
3) Bikes can’t be transported on the Paris underground.
4) To book a bike reservation with the French train network, SNCF, requires a 7p per minute phone call to the UK-based office. If you are lucky you will get the help of a fantastic sales assistant (Annabel was ace!) to plan and book trains to fit in with all your infinite requirements.
5) Booking bikes on trains costs money, unlike the free bike transportation in the UK. I paid £8.50 per train.
6) Booking train tickets via a phone call to SNCF also requires a booking fee payment of £8.50. This charge doesn’t apply if you book trains on-line but you can’t book bike reservations on-line so you need to pay the booking fee.
7) If you leave your booking until five days before you travel you will then be required to pay for next day postage. That cost another £8!
8) However, I am cycling to a schedule (so I can reach my flight home) so I prefer to have some trains booked and most of the train reservations are very easy to change once in France (for another small fee, of course!)
9) I must remember to “validate” my train tickets at each station before boarding the train. I bet I forget!
10) France has many, many signposted cycle routes and green ways. Choosing one or two for a two week trip is really quite hard! Check out Cycling in Northern France on Bike Ride Maps. Also see La Sarthe a Velo V44 route in the Loir area (a gem of a find near the Loire Valey) and the Veloscenic, from Paris to Mont St Michel.
11) Be realistic about your daily cycling mileage. You might imagine that it will be nice to have bragging rights for cycling 200 miles each day but is this really a holiday?
12) The most stressful part of a cycling holiday is the transportation of the bike on a plane. And then there is the dilemma of what to do on the return plane. Do you:
a) Take bike in a cardboard box, ditch the box at the airport and worry about how the bike will be packed for the return journey at some later point?
b) Take a bike in a cardboard box, ditch the box at the airport and then, on the return, somehow locate another box, or wrap in a bin bag or cover in Clingfilm etc.?
c) Try to pack your bike in a box, give up, try again, then pack in your “safer” bike bag, then work out that leaving the bike at left luggage during your trip will cost £85 and accept that as part of the holiday simply because it’s easier and also, hopefully, a safer way to transport the bike.
d) Or any other of the suggestions that I received on Facebook and Twitter.
In the end, after much Sunday afternoon deliberation, I chose C.
13) Booking some accommodation ahead can be a good way to go because it eases some of the hassle when you are in France and gives you a mileage goal each day. This is very easy to do on-line. The only drawback will be if routes prove to be tougher than expected or the weather stops cycling for a large part of the day.
14) Cycle touring requires micro packing. Anything you take you need to lug around on your bike. Some things, like toiletries, will become lighter as the tour goes one but many things will remain the same weight.
15) Bike packing is the replacement system for panniers and bike racks. It makes travelling and cycling a bit easier.
16) Travelling solo feels quite nerve-wracking but also liberating as I set off. I would prefer to be travelling with the G-Force but he is away climbing and at the age of 47 I think I am grown up enough to do what I fancy! Well, that is what I am thinking. It is a long time since I have enjoyed an adventure overseas on my own and I will wait to see if I really do like it.
17) Being a freelance journalist and blogger makes a cycle tour trip amazingly possible. I know I will relish this.