Cycle touring in France 2016-7 – on the famous “Bike Bus”
The previous year we had put the bikes in the back of the car and driven around France getting the bikes out when staying in great places. But, we wanted something more – cycle touring in fact. But how did we magic ourselves into the south of France with our bikes – cycle all the way (weather and distance warning!), fly, teleport…or Bike Express: or as it is better known – the “Bike Bus”( http://www.bike-express.co.uk/)
This was new to us and to be honest the thought of spending 24 hours on a bus filled us with dread. But, we needn’t have worried because it was time spent with like-minded people all excited about their adventure. And how well organised was it – from the moment of the bus pulling up with it’s purpose-built trailer for the bikes to the lovely meals provided by Jason to the arrival at a supermarket car park at 6am on a Sunday – all brilliant!
“You, your bike and the whole of France…”
Of course you make friends, compare routes, help build bikes but ultimately you are on your own – you, your bike and the whole of France. Scary or what.
The first task is to get out of the city you land in – Grenoble, Orange or the other many stops. Not always easy after 24 hours on a bus! On our two trips we got off in Grenoble, gateway to the French Alps, and headed for Bourg d’Oisans in the Isere region and gateway to climbs like Alpe d’Huez, Col de Lauteret, the Col du Galibier and many more.
And we did most of them, mainly after dumping our panniers at a hotel. To do those climbs, made famous by the Tour de France, you don’t need to be a professional cyclist but you do need to find your own pace and with determination you will do it. Oh, and stopping for photos!
But get your timing right – one year the roads were closed due the Marmotte sportive so we had to detour on a cable car (with bike) via Les Deux Alpes to get to our destination – great descent with thoughts of Marco Pantani’s breakaway in the rain in Le Tour 1998 going the other way!
“Taming the Geant de Provence…”
Another part of France we visited on those trips was Mont Ventoux, the Geant de Provence. What a challenge it was, but in two visits we managed to cycle all three ways up from the beauty of the lavender fields below to the barren moonscape featureless summit. We benefited from lovely weather, apart from what Ventoux is famous for, nasty swirling winds, the one time. It may have stopped Le Tour in another year, but not us!
On both trips, and from different directions, we also visited the Gorges du Verdon. A magical place with surreal views, very hard cycling and vultures strangely enough – the road from Moustiers up to La Peloud was especially brutal, but well worth it.
Memories of the Alps/Provence – sunflowers, lavender, fresh fruit, horrendous hills and dizzy descents.
“Its about the people you meet, the food…”
But it is not just about the scenery, its about people you meet, food you experience and the different sights and sounds of a country at 20km and hour. A new version of the world we live in with time, tastes and conversation – however tricky the language.
In another year we went to see Le Tour in the Ardeche and how different it was. We cycled from the Gorges du Verdon over a few days to Vallon Pont D’Arc and things changed – more people, more cars more danger for cyclists – and it wasn’t just Le Tour – it was just a touristy area. So beware of subtle changes of area and the different challenges for cyclists.
But we did, inadvertently, cycle the time trial route with our luggage – a little slower than Chris Froome who won the race.
On to the beautiful and undiscovered Vercors…
Vercors nestles between the Alps and the Rhone/Isere rivers and is a little gem. We stayed the night before entering Vercors in a lovely AirBnB in the town of Die, but first we had to get over the Col de Rousset – not high, not steep, but a relentless 21km uphill; but, oh, those views looking back with a degree of smug contentment. We had been cycling in Vercors a couple of years before and it hadn’t changed a lot and it is still one of our favourite areas to explore further. And the tour de France has a finish there in Villard de Lans on Bastille Day in 2020!
So what did we learn from our time cycle touring in France:
- The Bike bus is ace! And even though we now have a camper van we still look longingly at the emails from them as they come through. Give it a go.
- Carrying panniers is hard work in the Alps – we should have figured that out to be honest – but all you do is take your time and enjoy the amazing scenery. It’s not a race.
- A wine bottle fits nicely in the bottle cage.
- It can rain in the Alps in the summer – the last 2km down Alpe d’Huez were done in torrential rain.
- Ski resorts are quiet in the summer and you can find a room easily.
- Some areas of France can be busy, so be prepared to share the road.