Cycling in France is a national pastime. Extremely popular among all ages, but there are a very large number of active cyclists in the 40 - 65 year old age group. Why is the sport so popular, when in many countries (eg the UK) it is reasonably unusual?
Perhaps the weather plays a part - cycling is almost a year around activity in France, especially in the South. The endless availability of quiet roads in peaceful beautiful countryside has a role to play. Very often I will cycle 50 - 70 kilometres and only see two or three cars. The roads are usually well maintained, and many popular cycling areas e.g. in the Pyrenees, will have cycle routes on the larger roads.
Then of course pride in the Tour de France, the greatest cycling event in the world, and possibly the most demanding sporting event in the world, must play a part (although it is quite a while since France won...).
You should be warned however that cycling in France is also quite competitive. So if you don't cycle much usually, and you are visiting France for a cycling holiday, I would not recommend donning Discovery Channel clothing, and buying the latest super-bike for the occasion, unless you know how to ride it. To give you a clue, a typical group ride in our local, hilly but not at all mountainous, terrain is about 75 - 80km long and takes about three hours. Flat terrain is much faster, of course.
You will, sooner or later, be passed by an elderly gent on a ten year old bike, as he cruises casually up the hill that you are struggling so hard to make it to the top of.
So how to join in?
Assuming you are visiting France for a cycling holiday, and that you ride a bike at least occasionally already, there should be something to suit you. If you never ride, I would highly recommend that you start a few weeks before coming. Even a short ride in easy terrain can be very hard if you haven't been on a bike for 20 years, but a couple of 20 kilometre rides a week for a few weeks will do wonders to get you back in practice.
Organised Cycling Trips
The most popular cycling areas in France (at least, with companies offering organised cycling holidays) are the Loire Valley, the Dordogne and Provence. There are numerous companies that organise these kind of holidays, usually with accommodation in a different hotel each night, and time to explore the towns. Often the holidays are combined with visits to nice restaurants and so on. Usually the organised trips will take back-roads that your guide knows about but you may not have discovered on your own.
If you are not a keen, regular cyclist these holidays will probably be ideal. They tend to have quite low daily cycling distances - 20 to 50 kilometres is common - no pressure to go fast, and make for a great experience. Backup will be provided, so if you get a puncture you will not need to try and mend it all on your own, and your baggage will be taken to the next nights hotel for you.
Finding organised cycling holidays in other regions of France is a bit harder, although there are companies that offer to guide you up the famous Tour de France Alpine mountain climbs (eg Alpe d'Huez), across the Pyrenees (eg Col du Tourmalet), and so on. Similarly, companies where you cycle further are slightly harder to find.
And of course, you do pay a bit extra for having the trip organised for you.
Disorganised Cycling trips
If you want to cycle in France in one of the (many) areas of France not covered by these holidays, or if you want to cycle further and faster, or if you simply want more freedom in your choice of routes, you will need to go it alone. This should be easy, especially if you have bikes that you can bring with you, although hire bikes are available in most towns. Some general comments:
Cycling in France is safe and easy, and every town will have someone who can repair your bike in an emergency.
If you are organising your own cycling holiday don't overestimate your cycling abilities - mountains and or hot sunshine can make cycling between 10am and 5pm extremely tiring. Even early mornings and late evenings can be very warm in the summer. A long lunch in a restaurant, and the desire to ride 50 kilometres afterwards can fade very fast.
Try and find back roads for cycling where possible, if you want to see the 'real France'.
Don't be too competitive with your partner. Many is the time I have seen a 'husband' cycling 200 metres in front of his 'wife', slowing down to let her catch up, then zooming ahead again. Why bother? You are both going to get to the same destination at more or less the same time, so go with the speed and abilities of the weaker of the party. If you get stressed because they are slower, or faster, than you that will materially reduce the pleasure you both get from it. Best solution is that the faster rider cycles behind the slower rider and lets them set the pace.
The other main practical consideration is the accommodation that you choose. Whatever the standard or type of accommodation, I recommend that you ensure it is in a fairly central 'crossroads' type place for exploring the region. I have stayed in gites that are 5 kilometres along a mountain track - this will become boring if every time you go out you are covering the same terrain. It is not difficult to find somewhere to stay from which a week or two of good cycling routes can be found without having excessive overlap, but you need to check the location carefully at the time you book.
An alternative - cycling with friends and family
One possibility is a variation on the above options. If you can find a group of, say, four or five people, who would like a cycling holiday together, you can book your own hotels or bed and breakfasts, and then each day one of the group can drive the baggage to the next hotel, while the others cycle. This has many of the benefits of an organised cycling holiday, but will cost less and will allow more flexibility in each days cycling plans. If two nights are spent at each of a few places, then no-one need miss out too much on cycling.
Cycling training in France
One other option for the keen cyclist is to combine a visit with a chance to get down to some serious (or not so serious!) training, perhaps on some of the cycling routes that have been made famous by the Tour de France - see Cycling training in France.
France is perhaps almost the perfect cycling destination. Every cycle ride offers something new to see, some new memories, and a fine meal at the end. What are you waiting for?