Cycle racing is one of France’s favourite sports and daily use of bikes is on the rise, especially in cities and for getting to work.
A recent study by a cycling business union found 65% of people biked at least once in the last year. In Paris now there are more bikes than cars at rush hour in some areas.
Even so, although some people take bikes with them on holiday to use at their destination, many more do not.
The idea of touring the country on two wheels for fun is alien to most French people.
Instead, you see dedicated groups, dressed in fancy Lycra gear, spending hours training for sport together.
Local councils are working together
Cycle tourism is, however, finally being promoted here and there are signs that it is not just foreigners who are starting to take the idea of holidays in the saddle seriously.
France has a lot going for it for those who like cycling – roads and paths are usually in reasonable condition and motorists in rural areas tend to adhere to the 1.5m passing distance recommended in the Code de la route.
The government is making efforts to encourage more people to cycle for both ecological and health reasons.
Its focus is on getting local councils to band together to plan tourist routes for bicycles, with funding both from France and the EU.
Tour de France route for serious cyclists
The most famous cycle route of all, however – that of the Tour de France – does not feature on tourist maps and varies each year.
It appeals to serious cyclists – you only have to see how steep some of the routes are to realise that someone who only occasionally uses a bike has no chance of climbing them.
Indeed, some people are not even able to walk up them.
Many hotels and other accommodation providers along the route welcome cyclists.
Some offer washing machines for sweaty gear and dedicated lock-ups for bikes as a matter of course.
In pre-Covid years, an estimated 10,000 people would cover the whole course, usually taking a month to do so, while others would choose a region, such as the Alps or Pyrenees, to do all the local routes included in that year’s race.
More relaxed cycling holidays catered for
For the less sporting, there are a number of long-distance, signposted cycle routes which, where cycle tracks are not available, take riders on quiet, scenic roads instead.
Government-backed France Vélo Tourisme provides maps and cycle-friendly information for some 25,000km of routes, with 17 major long-distance itineraries.
The 7,000 hotels and other accommodation providers who are part of the Accueil Vélo accreditation scheme guarantee a high quality of welcome and good services for cyclists.
It is also developing a rating system similar to the star system used for hotels.
Its website, francevelotourisme.com, is available in English, though the most up-to-date information is in French.
Check which trains take bikes
French trains are generally not cycle-friendly – bikes are banned on most TGVs, for example, unless dismantled and carried in bags.
France Vélo Tourisme gives details of the exceptions, where separate paid-for bike carriages are provided.
By contrast, most TER trains allow bicycles with reservations, and some regions are promoting bicycle-friendly railway stations.
Readers in the UK might like to try the Avenue Verte London-Paris, a recommended route between the two capitals.
One beautiful option among the French long-distance routes is La Vélodyssée, covering 1,200km down the Atlantic coast, from Brittany to the Basque Country.
It starts at Roscoff on the Channel, cuts through the centre of the peninsula to the west coast, then follows the sea to end at Hendaye.
Views are of the ocean, with dunes, marsh and pine forests dominating, and the route largely sticks to flat roads until it reaches Basque Country.
Accommodation and repairs close by
For those who want to go further, Roscoff is also the terminus for a route that follows the 1,500km Channel coast to Dunkirk.
Promoters say it has been traced out so that cyclists are never more than 5km from accommodation, a tourist office or bicycle repair shops.
Paris cycle paths
Another well-known route is la Véloscénie from Paris, starting at Montparnasse station, to Mont Saint-Michel.
It covers 450km and a large proportion of it is on paths separated from other traffic, including most of the Paris section.
It is accessible to all cyclist levels.
Wild river Loire
The Loire Valley has also seen local authorities join together to mark out La Loire à Vélo, a long-distance cycle route of 800km all the way from Nevers to Saint-Nazaire.
Paths along the river, one of the last so-called ‘wild rivers’ in Europe with no dams and few canals along it, have been improved and signposted for bicycles, and itineraries of 40km a day developed between each stop.
Bear in mind, however, that for families with children, 40km a day might be too much.
France’s ‘Green Venice’
Rivers and canals are the backbone for la Vélo Francette from Ouistreham to La Rochelle.
This uses mainly towpaths along the rivers Orne, Mayenne, Loire, Thouet and Sévre Niortaise to reach the wetlands of the Marais Poitevin, a large area of marshland where the eastern zone has been nicknamed ‘The Green Venice’ for its maze of islets crisscrossed by canals.
Coast to coast
Further south, a route which follows the Canal des Deux Mers, which links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, takes you from Royan to Sète.
You can pedal along for almost 800km beside the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi, the latter a World Heritage Site, mostly on car-free paths.