If you are reading this I am preaching to the converted. We all love riding our bikes, and being based in Australia there is some incredible riding to be had. But…we don’t yet have the culture of cycling that exists in Europe.
It’s not possible to understand this until you experience riding in countries where riding a bike is just a way of life. Riding in France (and the same applies in all the neighbouring countries) you see every variety of cyclist. Often at the same time. The clichéd image of an elderly rider with a baguette in a basket is a reality in most villages we ride through in France. The bike remains a standard form of transport.
With this comes a great respect for cyclists from the community generally, but also from motorists. Because if they are not cyclists themselves, their mother, father, children, etc. undoubtedly are. But in addition to this incredible association with the bike there is also the passion that following bike racing over the last 100 years has engendered.
We have all sat up late at night in Australia watching the great bike races of Europe. Particularly the Tour de France. And in our droves we now travel to watch these events. You see all the flags of Australia, America, etc. flying fervently at the side of the course and you could think that tourists dominate. The reality is that the crowd is mostly locals. They love their cycling.
Some of these locals will be in lycra but most will just be there to watch the spectacle and enjoy the race. Motor homes are the order of the day and will be set up days before the action. There is nowhere that a motor home can’t reach. They form little villages and return year after year to meet friends and follow the race. We often cycle past these groups in the days leading up to a stage and they will be sitting in comfort at the side of the road enjoying a coffee or a glass of wine depending on the time of day and just soaking up the atmosphere. Indeed they are creating the atmosphere. They cheer us as we go by offering a ‘bravo’ or ‘courage’ as they settle back to read l’Equipe. In every village the tour passes there is a celebration of the bike. School children take the day off. With their families or in school groups they will wait for the tour to arrive. Cafes do a roaring trade.
So what does this mean for us as tourists riding in France? Well the main thing is that we are not the enemy. The roads are for everyone to share. In the cities there are cycle paths in most areas much as we are slowly developing here. In the country it is mostly possible to find quiet roads.
In the alps the passes that we use are often the only road from one valley to the next. So they are used by cars and trucks to get to the other side. It is at this point though that we find the BIG difference between riding at home and riding in France. As we spin our way up the Telegraphe or the Colombiere we look back to see a line of cars patiently waiting behind us. No one is beeping their horn at us! When they finally get the opportunity to pass they will shout encouragement to us. That takes getting used to.
This is why we love riding in France! (Oh, and the scenery is pretty spectacular as well).