France, more than any other country so far, was a completely mixed bag for us. On one hand, we had high expectations from a country that has such a stellar reputation in the tourism industry and boasts the largest, most prestigious cycling race in the world (Le Tour). Our expectations were shattered almost from the get go. As we entered France from Italy, our first destination was the French Riviera, as we were very much in need of some lower gears to tackle future mountains. The Riviera does have some fantastic (stony) beaches and even has a pretty well-maintained cycle path running the length of most of these beaches. But as soon as you leave the bike paths and hit the road, you’ll probably be biking through huge lines of traffic, feeling a little out of place on your leg-powered machine.
We did only cycle through the South of France, however, and there are certainly less-travelled routes than the French Riviera. But if you want to see France’s natural beauty, you can’t avoid fighting for prime position with coaches, cars and everything else that comes with well-developed tourism!
We eventually took to our old strategy of heading way off the beaten track and found solace in the hills near Verdon. We found incredible natural beauty there, as well as in some other parts of France (Aigues Mortes for example), but in between these lovely destinations, the cycling was often unremarkable and the people no more special than anywhere else. That doesn’t mean it’s a country you should miss, just be mindful of it when planning a trip in the “South of France”.
Cycling To The Gorges of Verdon
Undoubtedly one of the gems of the South of France, the Gorges of Verdon are exceptionally beautiful and worth a visit. We paid a visit to a secluded part of the Lac de Saint Croix, where we bathed in beautiful blue-green water and enjoyed peace and quiet on the shore of this huge lake. There are parts of the lake, however, where it joins the gorge, which are absolutely heaving with tourists. Cycling away from the Lac de Saint Croix in the evening we shared the road with what seemed like thousands of vans, motorhomes and cars heading home. Very few people had cycled to the lake in fact, and it is hard to believe that France is the nation which has hosted the largest annual cycling event for over 100 years. Drivers were more respectful of us in Italy and Spain both.
Despite the traffic at the lake, the roads through the Parque Naturel Regional du Verdon make for gorgeous riding. Indeed, if you stick to the south of the Gorges (along the D49 and D51), as we did, you will be cycling along stunning mountain roads scattered with organic farms and scarce a car to be seen. We rode side-by-side most of the way from Bargemon to the Lac de Saint Croix without worrying about passing vehicles at all. We didn’t ride the typical route through the Gorges as we spotted on the map that there were some big climbs involved and we were not feeling up to them on the day, hence our first view of the Gorge was at its joining with the lake.
Bike Touring in the Camargue and Aigues Mortes
Another of France’s plentiful national parks, the Camargue is a large marsh- and wetland in the very south. Boasting a huge diversity in plant and wildlife, the Camargue is simply a lovely park to bike through. There is a dyke at the southern end of the park which is inaccessible to motorised vehicles, intended for cyclists and walkers. Beware: the path is very sandy in places. The beaches here are vast and mostly unpopulated, so you could enjoy a good day on the beach here without the masses of people usually found on French beaches.
There are flamingos to be found here, lots of species of birds, white horses, oxen and lots of other animal species the tourist information will happily tell you about. We were glad we made the decision to cycle through the park and it led us to our next stop, Aigues Morte.
The medieval walled city of Aigues Mortes is still on the French coastline and a short ride along a busy road from the national park of the Camargue. It’s really worth a visit, it is visually stunning from the outside and with its views overlooking the rose-tinted saltlakes to the South, it made for a really special evening. It’s a step back in time and a chance to behold something which is a rarity in today’s walless cities. It’s also not as touristy as you might expect, so that’s an added bonus.
When Bike Touring Goes Wrong: a Broken Chain and our First Flat Tyre
Bike touring is usually a trouble free activity. Sure, cycling can be difficult and a combination of mountains and adverse weather is sometimes enough to beat down even the most resilient rider, but sometimes problems arise when cycling that have nothing to do with the rider’s physical state. Mechanical issues often come completely out of the blue and the bike tourer must remain calm if they are to have any hope of fixing what went wrong. And so it happened that we were biking uphill on a scorching hot day as we neared the border with Spain when Katie’s chain snapped apart. Not knowing what had actually happened, I shouted down at Katie and gave her grief for not checking the area where the chain snapped for links or pins. Our teamwork went to pot and a couple of heated arguments later we were working together to put a filthy chain back together. I’m an okay cyclist but no mechanic, and we were both stumped trying to fix quick-release link to Katie’s chain. In the end, we figured out that both ends of the snapped chain had to be “female”, but not after we’d both upset each other by arguing and losing our temper.
It’s the single toughest aspect of bike touring with a loved one or companion, managing your relationship with each other. You share the most magical memories together, and they feel all the more special for having been shared with someone, but that other person is also someone to vent at unfairly when you’re in a foul mood. Our arguments are rarely ever to do with a genuine problem with each other, if they were, we probably wouldn’t be doing this together. No, the arguments always come about when external factors become too much and the other person gets on the receiving end of that pent up anger.
It happened again on the morning we were set to climb the Col d’Ares, our chosen mountain pass from France into Spain. Standing in the heat, I became frustrated with Katie not being able to change her first flat tyre (after 3,500km mind) and instead of helping her figure it out, I vented my frustration at her, which obviously didn’t help the situation much. We love each other very much and we’re going to have much tougher challenges to face in the future, so it’s up to both of us to manage our stress and not let it wreak havoc on our relationship. It is the side to bike touring which nobody sees on Instagram, but it happens all the same!
Bike Touring in France Summed Up
Southern France is littered with beautiful small towns, quaint and magical and each one unique. It is a very old nation, a very proud nation and you cannot expect to “fit in” with the locals without good knowledge of French and the good fortune to meet an open, friendly native.
Our encounters with the people were fairly surface level, apart from those encounters made with people on Warmshowers (which always seems to be the case), but that shouldn’t put you off visiting if there are sights here you definitely want to see, e.g. the maritime Alps or the French Pyrenees.
Our time bike touring here was short and we definitely could have seen more of this nation spoiled with natural parks and mountainous terrain, but that must wait for another day.