It has been 36 years since I first took a bike onto the rural roads of France for a short cycle tour, out from the site of my summer job near the Mediterranean. Since then I have been many times with friends and family, and it never fails as a destination. Apparently Germany has overtaken France as the most valuable cycle tourism market in Europe, but I would say that rural France may not be organised, signposted and planned like German cycle tourism, but for me it remains my emotional number 1.
Here I am now, recharging my batteries again in Burgundy and feeling the same mix of joy and wonder that I did the first time I was here. The minor roads of France map out the landscape, overlaying tracks and trails that in some case pre-date the Romans and providing a tranquil network that is a cyclist’s delight.
It’s strange how the mind needs to be reminded, because again I am astonished to have the privilege of riding on almost car free roads for kilometre after kilometre. I guess we are just conditioned by the density of population and the dominance of car travel in the countryside in most places where I ride regularly. I come to France because I know it will be different, but that doesn’t stop it surprising me and uplifting me every time – how cycle touring is meant to be.
Empty, empty, empty.
And this trip is hardly the “middle of nowhere” by French standards. In Burgundy there are larger cities like Dijon and communications links like the A6 motorway and the TGV high-speed train network cut through the landscape making Paris less than two hours away.
We have been based in the lovely town of Semur en Auxois for the past week which has given us a great selection of rides on tiny minor roads, linking sleepy villages where the cats are seemingly the only ones awake, punctuated by abbeys in valleys or glorious chateaux perched on hillsides.
None of these routes has been planned or signposted for us, so we have to be a bit “old-school” and get out a map to navigate the smaller D roads and avoid the racetracks of Routes Nationale which are the contrasting horrors of French riding, but that is a small price to pay for the experience. Maybe it doesn’t work for those who need their cycle touring handed on a plate, but it works for me.
I may have taken it a bit to extremes (or messed the planning) by using the occasional gravel road to link two sections, but it is hardly necessary to create an almost traffic free network.
Or have I been fashionable and incorporating some gravel to bring myself up to date with the latest cycling trend? (Shouts of “you’ve never been fashionable in your life” in the background, so its unlikely)
However, I can say without any fear of contradiction “Thanks France, you did it again!”