Family cycling in France

Very belatedly, and especially for my mate Tom Cahill, here are some pictures – and a few thoughts – from our 2010 summer holiday in south-west France. Almost four months ago now, and as I sit in my office at Lancaster University, having just pedalled the four miles from home in sub-zero temperatures, all that warmth and sunshine is a very fuzzy memory.

We had a superb holiday. Three weeks of cycle-camping, starting and finishing in Bordeaux, and taking in the Dordogne, Entre-deux-Mers, the Arcachon basin and the Atlantic coast. It was our first cycle-touring holiday with Bobby on his own machine. Now nine years old, he is too big and heavy for the trailer bike, and anyway, he has too much strength, independence, competence and confidence to be so restricted any longer. It was time to set him free! And how he thrived.

He did have a baptism of fire, though, riding from Bordeaux’s airport (yes, we flew …) into the city centre along very busy rush-hour roads full of fast-moving cars. Such times represented the stressful moments of the holiday; but they were few and far between, Bobby coped brilliantly, and when it comes to interacting with and respecting people on bikes, the French drivers are in a completely different league to those in the UK; almost invariably drivers were patient and gave us plenty of room. The only exception, ironically given that of all the areas we visited it is the one which advertises itself as ‘cycle-friendly’, were the roads around the Arcachon basin which were pretty horrible and on which we experienced some fairly dreadful driving.

But as I say, those were ‘moments’. The durations which they only occasionally punctuated involved a variety of really top quality cycling infrastructure. We made good use of off-road cycling facilities, starting out by heading east from Bordeaux along the Roger Lapebie cycle route, which follows a disused railway through gorgeous scenery.

Later in the holiday we headed to the beach, and rode west, across the Gironde’s flat pine-forested floor, along some very quiet cycle routes. Indeed, so quiet that stopping for an occasional game of pine-cone boules on the track was no problem …

Probably the favourite stretch of the holiday for all of us, however, was the quiet country roads along and around the Dordogne. Sue and I were initially apprehensive because we didn’t know how Bobby would cope – particularly in terms of concentration – with riding for long spells on the road, and because we weren’t sure how French drivers would treat us. On both counts we needn’t have worried. Of course kids can concentrate when they need to, and Bobby coped just fine; in fact, having to concentrate – particularly on the climbs and descents – seemed massively to increase his level of enjoyment. And on the back roads there were very few cars, and the quality of driving was excellent – drivers exercising lots of patience, and then slowing right down and giving us lots of space as they went past. As I said, a world away from the kind of treatment we’re used to in the UK.

I’m aware that recent posts have centred much more on Bobby than on Flo. What’s interesting is that Bobby doesn’t have massively more enthusiasm for cycling than Flo. They both belong to a cycling family in which cycling is normal, expected, unquestioned. The reason Bobby’s getting more of my attention is that he’s at a stage where new ways of cycling, and so new cycling possibilities, are opening up. Two years ahead of Flo, he’s finding his cycling independence. Much of the time Flo’s still ‘stuck’ on the trailer bike; she’s still seeing an awful lot of my backside. For Bobby the cycling view has expanded and diversified. It’s marvellous to see him taking in the world. Here he is riding through the French vineyards.

Given the French love for cycling, their cities are an absolute disaster. There are signs that they are now, finally, beginning to try, so hopefully things will change. Bordeaux has a public bike scheme and bits and pieces of relatively pro-cycling infrastructure. But really, this is France! Were it not for a deep but I think vestigial respect for people who ride bikes the situation would be close to catastrophic. Bordeaux is flat, warm and remarkably beautiful. It should be a cycling city, a city full of cyclists. If Copenhagen can do it, Bordeaux certainly can. But it hasn’t; it’s firmly in the grip of the car. Anywhere else in the world, it’d be an urban planning disaster; in France, it’s a tragedy.

It had been more than twenty years since I last cycled in France, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My verdict? I loved the people; polite, respectful, reserved and above all ‘civilised’ or ‘cultured’ in a way which I hadn’t quite expected. And our cycling experience was in the main exquisite. Using the best cycling infrastructure we were permanently tripping over a rural France which charmed and enchanted. As Bobby and Flo get bigger and stronger, able to tackle longer distances and more demanding terrain, then more cycle-touring options will open up to us – my plan, then, will be to identify a region with a really good, dense network of roads (not hard, in France) and to steer a course through the back ones, the ones which drivers of motorised vehicles are unlikely to use, to be furtive in France.

It’s too long ago, and I’ve been dreaming and scheming about our next one ever since (actually, if I’m honest, I start daydreaming about the next one, and begin discussing it with Sue, whilst we’re still enjoying the present one – conditions are somehow conducive to doing so). I can’t imagine a year without a few weeks of bike-centred nomadism. Being almost permanently outdoors, almost permanently with my family, almost permanently experiencing and having to negotiate places you’ve never seen before – it’s refreshing and rejuvenating, but it’s also indulgent and therapeutic, and then it’s stretching and bonding too. What other kind of holiday can give so much?

Finally, it’s a bit cheesy, but also true – that a few weeks cycle-camping, mucking in together, living together intensely, but with a different kind of intimacy, powerfully re-makes us as a family. And every year, each time, it’s different – finding a balance, but a new balance, because the balance is always shifting … (next year Flo will be heavier, and maybe I’ll have lost some weight!)


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8 Responses to “Family cycling in France”

  1. Lenny Says:

    Great information Dave, I have been cycling in France twice now, was a great experience !!! Thanks

  2. Amoeba Says:

    We cycled in France in 2010. We were staying Near Richelieu, not too far from Blois. We drove from Ouistreham. Cycling was an important feature of the holiday, but it wasn’t central. We enjoyed it immensely. We found the drivers friendly and like the French generally, courteous and respectful. Quite different from our experience in the UK.

    We’d love to do it again.

  3. Sandra & Mike Barnes Says:

    Found your article on cycling in France of great interest. I am interested to know where you stayed and if you have the details of the route you used. I am presently researching a similar trip with my two children. I would prefer not booking campsites ahead but concerned that August could be very busy. Any information would be very helpful.


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Sandra, we stayed in campsites and didn’t book ahead. Inland, this was fine, but it was a bit more stressful on the coast, where the campsites were much, much busier. However we were only turned away from one campsite, at Lacanau-Ocean, and only then because there were others nearby which had some space. At other campsites along the Atlantic coast and around the Arcachon Basin we would arrive to find them announcing they were full, at which point our strategy was for Sue and the kids to go into the campsite’s reception, looking exhausted and announcing how far we’d cycled. I don’t know whether the dramatics were necessary – my sense is that most campsites operate an unofficial benevolent policy of finding space, however small, for cycle-tourists. But as I say, inland there was plenty of space, and actually it was inland that the cycle-touring was most enjoyable, for me anyway (the kids might disagree, as they are perhaps more enthusiastic about beaches than me!).
      Our route entailed heading approximately east out of Bordeaux, first along an official (and largely off-road) cycle route, and then heading onto the backroads around the Dordogne towards Ste-Foy-la-Grande. Then we headed along quiet roads roughly south-west, over the Garonne, to Bazas, and from there along off-road cycle routes to the coast at Arcachon. From there we crossed the bay by ferry and went north, again off-road, to Lacanau-Ocean, where we cut inland, east, back to Bordeaux.
      We made our route up as we went along, dictated by imperfect knowledge of nearby campsites, weather, our moods, keeping variety etc. It seems to be the case, whenever we go cycle-touring overseas, that we don’t really know what to expect, and so we don’t have a clear idea beforehand of what we’ll do and how things will work out; but invariably (so far! and keeping fingers firmly crossed for the future) things work out just great, and we have a fantastic time. So my main advice is don’t stress too much about getting ‘perfect information’; get the best information you can, and then just head off – I’d certainly recommend this area of France, and other than Bordeaux and the Arcachon Basin, it’s pretty child cycling-friendly – the back lanes are great and the off-road cycling infrastructure that does exist is very good.
      Let me know if you want specific details of any places(s) in particular, and good luck with the planning!
      All the best

  4. Graeme Gowling Says:

    Hi Dave, Like Sandra we want to go cycle camping on the Atlantic coast, thinking it would be a good destination (flat, many cycle paths and beaches for our 10 and 11 year old). Also concerned about campsites being full and not wanting to book ahead. also would like to stay at small sites not the big resort style ones, but can’t find any information on them do you know if they exist? any info greatly recieved. Graeme

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Graeme. It really is a good destination, and I’d heartily recommend it. And probably ideal given the age of your children. I’m struggling to remember (how come things which are still so recent are increasingly so very difficult to recall?!) in a way which I could vouch for being wholly accurate, but I don’t recall us stumbling across any small camp-sites at all. That’s the key respect in which coastal camping is different – all the sites are big, and all of them are dominated by people in big tents, caravans and motor-homes who look like they’re there for a fortnight’s annual holiday. So cycle-tourists really have to improvise, and find ways of squeezing into a system which is patently not designed for them, or their needs. At one site, I think it was in Arcachon itself, we were shown to a tiny patch of parched and uneven ground behind a row of static caravans. Anywhere else, we’d have laughed and thought the camp-site owners were taking the piss. But on the Atlantic Coast we just became grateful that they were trying to fit us in, and took whatever we got – beggars can’t be choosers. All the coastal sites we stayed at were full to bursting, and not because they were great sites, simply because everyone wants to be on the coast. Bizarre, almost, really.
      One thing which might be worth thinking about is this: inland there are many lakes, many of which have campsites nearby. These are much quieter (the lakes tend to attract day-tripping locals – especially on the weekends – much more than tourists from further afield). The lakes are good because they have good beaches, and you can swim in them. We didn’t fully understand the benefits of this until we got to the coast and saw everyone standing looking at the Atlantic Ocean rather than plunging into it! We did have some good attempts at plunging into it, which was tremendously exhilarating, but also quite terrifying! The waves are incredibly powerful and the currents remarkably strong. People get very seriously bashed around, and many people just don’t go into the water at all. Swimming was for us (all competent but not especially confident or very powerful swimmers) impossible. So one possibility would be to plan an itinerary that includes more overnight stops at inland lakes? (The ones towards the Dordogne were more attractive, smaller and quieter; the ones closer to the coast tended to be bigger, uglier, and busier.)
      There might of course be stretches of this coastline quieter than the one along which we rode.
      I’ll copy and send your email to Sue, my partner, as she might have more to add. (And her memory might be better than mine!)
      But good luck with the planning, and – if you end up going there – have a really great trip.
      All the best, Dave

  5. Sue Holden Says:

    Just to add to Dave’s comments, (I’m Dave’s partner) the campsites were much nicer inland – in the resort towns they were huge (i.e. concentrate on how to find your tent when the site-supervisor on a quad bike first takes you to it, so that you can find your way back later). They were also, I think, more expensive. However, all credit to the campers, people’s behaviour was generally excellent. Several times we anticpated disturbed sleep as we were camped next to a surf school encampment, or a huge youth group, and nothing untoward happened.

    As Dave has said, the lakes with beaches were a better deal – smaller less urban sites, and safe swimming. The Atlantic coast swimming was exciting but also alarming (the waves literally pick you up and throw you down) and sometimes revealing in a ‘whoops, there goes my swimming costume’ way.

    Hope you have a great time


  6. Graeme Gowling Says:

    Hi Dave and Sue
    thanks greatly for your comments, very helpful. I take your warning about the coastal camp sites. it is not the sort of experience we want…Like the idea of the lakes-will look into it. I was already thinking of staying more inland and making cycling day trips to the beach. i think i mentioned one of the reasons why i homed in on the area and that was it is flat so my kids would not get too dis heartened with hills (any hill seems to knock their motivation considerably). thats why i discounted the dordogne, but perhaps i should re think? our plan is not to cycle far, but to have a bit of an expedition feel with moving around not knowing what is coming next, setting up camp and having a free afternoon to explore. one thing i have noticed is i cannot find maps with campsites on. so it will be a bit of an unknown! Anyway thanks again for your comments great information!

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