11 Months of Travel – Cycling in France

We’re a little over three months into our 11-month travel adventure, and finally getting to do the cycling portion of the trip that Covid waylaid three years ago.

Settling into a Cycling Pattern

After two+ weeks of cycling across France, most of it along the Loire River, we’ve developed a good sense of the pleasures. challenges, and surprises ahead of us. We’re 3/4 of the way across the widest part of France, having started in Nantes, very near the Atlantic Coast, and the official start of EuroVelo 6. Last week we passed through the town of Sancere, which deservedly boasts a “Heart of France” slogan on the town hall, because it really is in smack-dab in the middle. And they make Joy’s favorite white wine.

We’re taking a pretty casual approach to this cycle tour adventure. We’re averaging roughly 40 miles/day (with a long of just over 50).  We hope that at some point our average cycling day will increase to 50, but we’re just about to reach Switzerland, so who knows. Once we hit the Burgundy region, our daily routes began incorporating plenty of (moderate) hill climbs. A good warm-up for Switzerland. When we cycled across the US, we were usually on the road before 7:30 (not a lot motivation to lounge around in bed when it’s a sleeping bag). In France we’re staying in boutique hotels or guest houses. We often don’t start cycling until midmorning because we’re waiting for temps to warm up to at least mid-40s. Or breakfast isn’t served until 8:30. Or, we need to dawdle because the Chateau/museum we want to see doesn’t open until 10.

We’ve settled into a “three days on, one day off” cycle of cycling, which is much less aggressive than our cross country ride, where we often rode five or six days between breaks. The nice thing about this cadence is that we don’t have to hand wash clothes in the sink every night. It also tamps down, but doesn’t eliminate some of the disorientation of sleeping in a different place most nights.

The other night I woke up to a pitch dark hotel room. I could hear Joy standing at the foot of the bed, running her hands back and forth along the wall.

“Whatcha doing, my love?”

“Trying to find the bathroom,” Joy replied, her voice tinged with despair.

“It’s on the other side of the room, over by the TV. Head for the green glow that shows the TV has power.”

The next night, when we checked into our hotel, we were a bit aghast that the wall opposite the bed looked like this. For the record, the door on the far right was the bathroom door. And oddly, our room had two doors out to the hallway. And I don’t mean a few feet apart along the same wall. I mean, you’d unlock the hallway door and there was another door staring you right in the face, about three inches always from the first door. It was kind of like having a storm door setup. We postulated that the double doors were a kind of sound proofing.

On cycling days we sometimes stop for lunch at a bistro (which often includes wine). Otherwise, our typical (like most days) lunch is a picnic of crusty bread, some kind of French cheese, salami, and apples. Having charcuterie for lunch is great. Who doesn’t love a charcuterie board (well, other than vegetarians)? As much as I enjoy that meal, I’m been jonesing for a jar of peanut butter, but grocery stores only seem to sell Nutella.

Occasionally we supplement lunch with hard boiled eggs, which we steal from that morning’s hotel breakfast if they have them. I’m not worried about being scolded by hotel staff about pocketing two eggs, though I am usually self conscious about other hotel breakfasters who might see the two bulges in my right front pocket and think to themselves, “Poor man. Life must be so difficult when your scrotum is so mis-aligned!” A few times I’ve been tempted to steal four eggs and see if I could make other guests faint. 

Through the first two weeks+ of cycling we’d only encountered half a dozen other touring cyclists. We’d been hearing that although this year was slow in terms of tourists in general, everyone was expecting cycle touring to pick up starting Easter Week. Sure enough, on Palm Sunday (that’s a week before Easter for you non-Christians), we saw five other touring cyclists, and another five the next day. 

Navigating Our Way Across France

Our cycle route is primarily along EuroVelo 6, with occasional short spurs off to visit interesting sites (usually chateaus) or to get to our hotel. Just in case you couldn’t guess it from its name, EuroVelo 6 is part of a comprehensive set of bicycle routes throughout Europe. Quoting from their site:

EuroVelo 6 – Atlantic–Black Sea is one of the most popular EuroVelo routes, and it’s little wonder why. Coasts, rivers, castles, top-class infrastructure and a nice flat topography make this route into every cycle tourists’ dream journey. The famous sections along the Loire and the Danube Rivers are known to cycle tourists around the world, and for good reason. In France you’ll taste the best wines after cycling through the vineyards, in Vienna you’ll visit the most stunning museums, and in Serbia you’ll experience the warmth of the people. Come and see what all the fuss is about!

EuroVelo 6 is often easy to follow as it’s usually well signed (if you are good at keeping an eye out for sometimes subtle little path indicators). The majority of the time we’re traveling along dedicated cycle paths, most of them even paved. But sometimes we’re moving along dirt paths bordering canals and farmland or navigating through twisty little town roads. As a result, navigation can be incredibly easy or absolutely exasperating. We mostly rely on pre-defined Ride With GPS (RWGPS) cycling routes that are linked to EuroVelo 6. This application helps us map out how far we want to ride each day, and know with a fair amount of certainty that it’s, say, a 43 mile day and that 87% will be paved. These RWGPS routes have built-in, mostly accurate cues so our phones will talk to us, saying things like, “In 200 feet, turn right onto Rue du 71è Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pieds,” except that every time the phone announces a French road name, it’s like a Saturday Night Live skit where an ugly American is purposely massacring French.

By the way, have you figured out the logo for France’s Loire section of EuroVelo 6? Not until day 3 of cycling did I finally get their logo: a spinning back wheel of a bike with an abstracted river on top. Not sure what the Burgundy section is supposed to mean. I’m interested to see what other countries’ EuroVelo 6 logos will be.

RWGPS is a powerful, but complex cycling tool that lets you plan and share cycling routes, and then track your progress as you actually ride that route. (It’s so nice to glance down at my phone and see exactly how many more miles we have left that day — assuming no unexpected detours.) RWGPS is a rich (and therefore, somewhat complex) tool that I’ve slowly been figuring out. I recently figured out that I can sometimes enter our starting and ending hotels, which will make life a lot easier going forward. Previously, if we needed to deviate from the public EuroVelo 6 RWGPS route, we would switch to using the bicycle option in Google Maps to guide us.

Although Google Map Lady is generally reliable in terms of giving us cycling-specific directions, she still sometimes totally fucks us over. Although these unhelpful directions usually have me swearing and muttering the whole time, these unplanned adventures sometimes lead to wonderful moments of serendipity.

The other day, we were trying to get from our hotel which was close to Chateau Chenonceaux (a wonderful chateau, but about 8 miles off the Loire River & EuroVelo 6). Google map lady started off well enough, guiding us along narrow bike-friendly streets or designated bike paths. And then Google Map Lady sent us off along a series of rutted dirt farm roads (because, in Google logic, a shorter, flatter route is better than a paved route with any kind of hills or car traffic). At that point we were committed, and we could see in Google Maps that we weren’t that far from the river, so decided to keep with her directions.  Before long, we were walking our bikes through a grey, dense forest of still-leafless trees, where the only signs of spring were scraggly patches of grass bordering enormous puddles too deep to ride through or squishy mud you could sometimes ride through if you didn’t mind a little rear wheel fish-tailing every now and then.

After about a mile the path dried out enough that we could ride, slowly, along a dirt road obstacle course of tree roots and potholes. Things started looking up when we began encountering intersections, even if the other paths were in equally bad shape. After a few Google-directed turns, the road improved to a nice packed fines, a sure sign we were nearing civilization! We’d been riding for about 10 minutes when the road dog-eared to the right. As we turned the corner, we were surprised to see a large group of people dressed in classic hunting gear, some even carrying French hunting horns draped on their shoulders, horses, hunting dogs, horse trailers, and lots of spectators lining both sides of the road.  We’d stumbled across a hunt that was gearing up to set off. 

This meeting spot was only a half mile of nicely graveled road from paved roads. Everyone associated with the hunt had reached this spot by following real roads up until the very end. We’d arrived from deep with the forest. It’s not often that you can cause a whole group of people to think the exact same thought at the exact same time. This time, I’m pretty sure the entire hunting party was thinking, “Where the fuck did they come from?”

Because we weren’t sure of the etiquette, and we didn’t want to risk startling the horses by cycling too near them, we walked our bikes through the fanfare, which gave me a chance to snap some photos. One English-speaking participant helpfully informed us it was the 2nd-to-last day of deer season and all the neighbors were turning out for the hunt. That meant most community folks around there would have a first-hand opinion about the mud-caked crazy cyclists. 

Since hunting season was over the next day, I figured our encounters with hunting parties would be done. Not so. The next day, Joy and I were actually on course riding along a grand levee with grassy slopes on either side that dropped 20 feet down to flat stretches of grass before giving way to a mixture of forest and swamps of braided waterways and pockets of thick brush. In the distance we could see some men near the left base of the levee dressed in distinctive, modern orange hunting jackets. Unlike yesterday, this was no Downton Abbey hunt. As we cycled closer we could see that they were spaced out about 50 yards from each other, standing guard along a watery ditch that ran along the base of the slope. It was good to see that they all either had their rifles pointed at the ground or had the action open on their rifles. It seemed perfectly safe to cycle past them since no one seemed on the edge of pulling a trigger. Even so, we dropped down to a slow pace. We didn’t want to interrupt something or accidentally flush out game when the hunters weren’t ready. Or get shot, though the odds of that happening were low since we were both wearing our fluorescent yellow “please don’t hit me mister driver” cycling jackets and we were riding along the top of the levee so we were hardly going to sneak up on someone. Soon after, we spotted a group of hunters and dogs on the right side of the levee, walking in and out of deep clusters of brush.  Maybe they were trying to flush birds towards the hunters we’d spotted earlier? Clearly, I know nothing about hunting other than don’t stand (or cycle) in front of someone holding a gun. Oh, and, don’t go hunting with Dick Cheney.

Not long after passing the second set of hunters. a hundred yards ahead of us we saw two dun-colored animals break from the forest on our left, race across the expanse of grass bordering the levee, up the grassy slope, bound across the 20 foot-width of the levee top in two leaps, then race down the slope and into the forest on the other side. I said it was two deer. Joy was sure they were French hares (which, based on her personal observation a few days before, can get as big as our medium-sized dog, Brighton). The animals (deer, trust me) had not quite reached the top of the levee when a pack of barking dogs emerged from the forest, hot in pursuit. Barking and braying, up and over the levee they went, then down into the forest on the right. We lost sight of the dogs, but could still hear their excited call-to-arms coming from the nearby forest.

We stopped cycling. Now what? Should we stop and wait for horsed huntsmen to come charging after the dogs and rabbits/deer? I took my phone off its handlebar mount and opened the camera app just in case. Should we continue cycling, but at an even more cautious pace?  We waited. We each argued our relatives positions on hares vs deer.

We reached no conclusion on what was being chased, but did agree that whatever they were, they weren’t very big.

No charging horses appeared so we started cycling at a very tentative pace (though i was fighting the urge to pedal as fast as I could). Then we heard a horn blast come from our left. We stopped. We heard shouting. Were whizzing bullets just moments away?  I couldn’t decide whether to scrunch down into my saddle and make myself as small a target as possible or sit up tall and celebrate my neon yellow. I decided on the latter. Surely, everyone for miles around could see our blindingly yellow jackets! We waited a bit more. No more horn blasts, shouting or movements from either side. We pedaled on at a steady but cautious pace. For the rest of the day we periodically circled back to the hare vs deer discussion. It reminded me of that Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck gag about whether it’s rabbit or duck season.

A few days later, our cycling brought us alongside a meadow where two deer were grazing. We agreed that these were what we’d seen the dogs chasing. I researched French deer in the Loire. According to various sources, Roe deer, found throughout rural France, are very small, typically, 70cm tall & 130cm in length. (So for us Americans,, that’s 27 inches tall and just over 4 feet long). Which is pretty much the same height as our dog.

A week after deer hunting season ended, the owners of a guest house we visited mentioned that it’s only been 2-3 years since France started requiring hunters to wear bright orange. Yikes! And that when he first had a bar in France, on hunting days, hunters would arrive at 6am, order a plate of tripe & a bottle of rose wine before grabbing their guns and heading out to hunt. Double Yikes!

Running 11 Month Travel Totals To Date:

3+ months into our eleven month trip, we have visited (though Joy missed out on Mexico):

  • Countries: 5 (US, Mexico, Cuba, The Netherlands, France)
  • US States: 7 (Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi)
  • Different beds slept in: 33 (39 if you include same hotel/house but different rooms each visit)

4 thoughts on “11 Months of Travel – Cycling in France

  1. I’m exhausted just reading of your travels. Ah to be young and energetic! Have some Sancere for me. I’ll have a bottle reserved for your return-from Deer Creek Liquor🥹

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I too loved the hunting stories. Hopefully even if orange is the official “I’m a human. Don’t shoot me” color. Hunters would know that no game animal is 5 ‘ + tall and bright yellow
    My husband cycled in France late in the summer when he was 17. He said he made good time every morning. Then he’d stop for lunch at a roadside bistro, where eh was served a carafe of the new wine. And cycle off much more slowly in the adternoon


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