How to ride your own Tour de France
Were it not for the doping accusations, the risk of crashing and the sheer bloody agony, riding the Tour de France would be a great way to see Western Europe’s largest country.
Who hasn’t watched the peloton of oaken-thighed riders slide past a field of sunflowers and dreamed they were freewheeling under Gallic blue skies?
With this centenary-year Tour passing through some of France’s most spectacular scenery -- from Corsica to the Champs Elysées via the Pyrenees and the Alps -- the dream is even more vivid.
But it needn’t be just a dream.
You too can ride in your very own Tour de France -- here’s how.
Like cheese and general insousiance, cycling is a way of life in France and there’s no better way to appreciate the country’s bucolic landscape than from the saddle of a bicycle.
Nor is there a better way to work up an appetite for cheese and … well, let’s just leave it at cheese.
In the weeks after the Tour de France (running from June 29 to July 21 this year), the whole country basks in a cycling afterglow.
Towns that briefly hosted the riders proudly display race regalia and locals treat anyone on two wheels with a level of respect usually only accorded to Belgian crooners.
France might not normally be as cycle-friendly as other European nations, such as the Netherlands or Denmark, but its drivers generally respect two-wheeled road users, giving them plenty of space.
And it has better weather than the Netherlands and Denmark.
And better restaurants.
Picking your route
There are benefits to choosing a ride that follows a Tour de France stage.
You get a pre-planned route on smooth roads that are often still marked with the Tour’s directional arrows. You get convenient start and finish points in towns now obsessed with cycling.
You also get bragging rights.
But wouldn’t you need those wooden thighs to do it?
In fact, the ride needn’t be too arduous if you pick and mix your stages.
In 2008, I cycled stage 18 of the Tour, beginning with a long downhill from the Alpine town of Bourg-d’Oisans which meant I barely had to move a muscle for the first 70 kilometers.
I should have called it a day at that point because, after completing the rest of the ride, I couldn’t move a muscle for another 70 hours.
This year’s Tour offers several relatively flat outings, the most level being stage 12 from Fougères to Tours.
And there’s nothing to stop you tackling stage 8 backwards -- if you clip off the first 30 kilometers and start atop the Col de Pailhères, the next 100 kilometers is nearly all downhill.
If recreating the precise Tour isn’t your thing, there are gentler options.
Consider trying the permanent cycling trails on the breezy Atlantic island of Ile de Ré, the preposterously well-organized route along the Loire Valley, which offers bike rentals, accommodation and luggage transfers, or the extensive network in pancake-flat Normandy.
For the highly unmotivated, there’s also Vélib, the pioneering Paris bike hire scheme.
What you need
You’ll need a bike. France has plenty of rental outlets if you don’t want the hassle of taking your own.
You won’t find the $20,000 machines used by Tour riders, but as Germany’s Jens Voigt showed when he finished a 2010 stage on a budget racer borrowed from a child, it’s not the bike, it’s the rider.
You need a little fitness.
Obviously if you’re breaking your tour up into 10 or 20 kilometer sections, you won’t need much. But if you’re planning stage 18’s double assault on the Alpe d’Huez, then you’ll need legs like pistons, lungs the size of airships and a bellyful of determination -- or steroids.
It’s a good idea to buy maps beforehand.
Rest stops in France seem to relish stocking random charts detailing anywhere but their own surroundings. One store clerk explained to me the logic behind this: “If you are here, then you do not need a map because you are not lost.”
And, yes, he did that French shrug thing while explaining it.
If you are following a stage of the Tour and you’re short on maps, good news: cycling fans have waymarked the route by defacing the road surface with words of encouragement to their favorite riders -- and, for some reason, crude cartoons depicting male genitalia.
It’s a good idea to get someone to support you. Bulging cycle panniers are tough to haul over the smallest hills, so try to persuade a more sedentary friend or partner to transport your luggage to your next destination.
Some companies will arrange transport, but usually only on set routes.
Where to stay
Most French towns have a good selection of hotels ranging from luxurious to dirt cheap, often with the emphasis on dirt.
Outside of peak periods, you can generally pitch up anywhere and find a room. Most hotels will have secure bike storage or turn a blind eye to you sharing a room with your ride.
You can usually find low-cost, clean rooms in cinderblock stopovers that loiter near main highways.
But while chains such as Fasthotel or Mister Bed (links in French) might offer you the opportunity to marvel at a bathroom molded entirely from one piece of plastic, they can be miles from any restaurants.
A sometimes better option is the network of independent hotels assembled under the Logis de France umbrella. These offer both rooms and restaurants, which can be unexpectedly delightful or downright bizarre.
Either way, they love cyclists and cycles -- and at least you’ll get a meal.
Bumps in the road
The weeks following the Tour de France are a great time to go as peak summer temperatures begin to ease while cycling passions remain high, but main roads can be choked during the last weekend in July when half of France is heading out on vacation and the other half heading back home.
It’s also worth putting a bit of planning into lunch and dinner stops.
French eateries are hopelessly rigid when it comes to opening hours and if you miss their brief midday or evening windows, you could end up too hungry to finish your own tour.