As you all know by now, Mike and I were in France for a better part of a month following the Tour de France, and it was honestly the best experience, and I can’t wait to visit France and to do it all again. Of all the places to go during a (post) pandemic, why France? Why particularly during the Tour de France? Well, Mike has been a fan of cycling for years and has dreamed of this opportunity for ages and had a feeling this was going to be the year he did it. We honestly couldn’t have asked for a better tour route to follow, even with all the uncertainty that led up to our trip.
This year’s tour route was conducive to following it the way we did. Many of the stages were designed to start and finish close together. Which made it really easy to post up in one location and ride or walk to see the race. Speaking of choosing locations, we decided to rent a camper van for our adventure. We planned this right off the bat and did a ton of research on deals, and what was going to be our best choice. To give you some context we booked our van in December of 2020, we chose to go with a third-party company called MotorVana and couldn’t have been happier with the experience, they rent vans through Avis Caraway in Paris but the booking process with MotorVana was seamless and their staff was so accomodating, they talked us through all our options and when we picked up the van it was super easy.
Should I bring my bike to the Tour de France?
Another big early decision we made was to bring our bikes. To us, this was a no-brainer. We wanted to be able to park the van and not worry about driving it down narrow French roads, and we wanted the freedom to get around anywhere we were. So how did we do it, we found some bike bags and broke down the bikes to fit inside. We did have to pay to check them so keep that in mind but Sometimes if the bag is light enough (under 50 lbs) you can get away with it being a regular checked back instead of an oversized or sports bag. This was something that was so nice to have and honestly you would spend more to rent a bike and having our bikes that were designed for us made some of those harrowing climbs much easier. Bringing our bikes was another reason why we decided to go with MotorVana, if this is also in your plans making sure your van can accommodate or the company rents out bike racks is crucial.
Planning Your Tour de France Route
So once we locked in the plan for the bikes and our van the next part was the exciting part, planning the trip. We wanted to break up our trip with some Airbnb stays between camping, Mike was also very interested in seeing the mountain stages. I would suggest focusing your trip around a couple of big stages you don’t want to miss and working everything out from there. We were focused on making sure we were in the Alps for Stages 8 to 11, and of course, we wanted to see the Grande Depart on day one and then making it to the Pyrenes for the climbs of Porte and Tourmalet. With this decided we worked our way from day one in Brest to plan for campgrounds and hotels that we could book for a couple of days instead of picking up and moving every day.
Tour de France Accommodations
When it’s time to plan your accommodations, I say try to book your hotels and Airbnb early. The tour is typically during peak tourism season and many businesses will also increase their prices when they know there will be an influx of visitors to the city. With this said, we booked a couple of locations, Carcassonne being one of them, and didn’t pay much over our budget and got an incredible place. Camping is also good to try to book ahead of time, we started trying to lock in campgrounds around a month or two before the trip. It’s worth noting that many of the campgrounds don’t open until the spring for getting them to respond to form fills and emails could take a while.
We looked at maps and Googled campgrounds and municipal camping in the towns we wanted to stay. Camping in France is nothing like camping in the United States, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the pitches, amenities, and grounds for the price we paid. Typically our pitch for a campervan spot with electricity would be about $20-35 a night. The showers were super clean, some of them had pools, and even had onsite laundry which was so convenient. If you’re coming to France for the tour I highly recommend looking for camping instead of staying in hotels the whole time because those can add up especially in the bigger cities.
European, camping is also really unique in the fact that if you’re in a camping van you can park and camp almost anywhere. When the tour comes through many people will open up their fields for campers, we even parked on the side of a mountain, and in a field in front of a hotel. From what I read, as long as it’s a designated city land or you have permission from the property owner you can camp anywhere. For those big climbs in the Pyrenees, we wanted to make sure we got a good spot to be where the action was and we parked on a pull-off on the mountain.
Things I learned about following the Tour de France
Something I learned quickly is that there isn’t any downtime, even your “days off” from racing are spent traveling or getting things prepared for the next day. We decided to take an early detour and go to Mont Saint-Micheal and forgo seeing a couple of stages. If this is your first trip to France I highly recommend taking these little breaks to see some of the sights and experience the beauty of France.
With that said, if you want a good spot on the route of a stage, especially for the mountains you should realistically get there two days prior. A very large challenge we weren’t prepared for was all the road closures. Mike did a lot of research online of when certain roads were closing but many times things changed and we weren’t prepared when they closed earlier than listed. I would suggest looking into local city sites or newspapers for these details and even then be prepared to take an alternative route…
On that same note, every town was different in its protocol, even with COVID. Some towns had guards checking vaccination and COVID tests to allow people on the gates, others you could walk right up, it depends on where on the route you were and what the town’s rules were, this also goes for their road closures, some towns like Mallacuien and Tinge the roads closed 24 hours before the race, others it was a couple of hours. Unfortunately, as I said about the road closures, there isn’t too much documentation on this that we found and it helps to just keep looking on local news sources to find the most accurate information but we even ran into some locals that had the wrong information.
Other information when you’re traveling to France
Is France vegetarian-friendly?
The answer is yes, for the most part, just get used to eating a lot of bread and cheese. Which hey, I was not upset about. There are so many delicious salads, roasted veggies, and pasta the french will smother in cheese and it’s divine. If you eat fish you will have an even easier time finding dishes you can indulge in. I ate some of the most delicious salmon pates I’ve ever had on this trip. We would also stop at little boulangerie’s on our route or in the little towns and often they had some kind of vegetarian-friendly option.
Do you need to learn french to visit France?
As anyone will tell you no matter where you visit it’s only polite to try to learn the language, no one is asking you to be fluent by the time you visit but knowing how to order, say hello, and understanding your numbers for prices when checking out are really helpful and much appreciated. Quite often we found ourselves in really small towns where no one in the shop spoke English and it was nice to have a little bit of knowledge of the language to muddle our way through the conversations. I found Duolingo to be a really helpful and fun way to brush up on my French.
How do you plan for business hours?
Another interesting thing we learned was that many businesses including grocery stores are closed on Sunday and even Monday, so it’s really important to plan your grocery trips and even your meals around when businesses are open, it’s so helpful to check Google My Business for the businesses hours. There were a few instances where we decided to eat dinner a little too late and didn’t have too many options because everything was closed.
How hard is it to get around?
Another thing we didn’t prep for was how expensive the tolls would be on the highways. The roads are smooth as butter and very easy to navigate, there was rarely any traffic but that comes at a cost. If you’re trying to avoid tolls the town roads come with their challenge of many times being very very narrow. If you’re driving a large campervan it can be tricky to turn around if you take a wrong turn and driving past tractors or other cars can be a little scary.
How to pack for a trip to France
Packing for this trip was nothing like I’ve ever done. I’ve traveled to Europe plenty of times, and many during winter. But nothing could have prepared me for this. We were also informed that this year, in particular, was unseasonal and very wet but it taught us to pack for any kind of weather no matter was season you visit. We had so much rain and cold weather around (50/60 degrees Fahrenheit) early in the trip and into the mountains, but it was also mixed with beautiful sunny and warm 70-80s. If you’re packing for the tour de France here are a few essentials I was happy to have.
- good rain shell
- midweight jacket
- pants – more pants that will dry quickly and breath
- layers layers layer – sweaters and sweatshirts to wear over tops and under your jacket for those cooler days
- sensible shoes- shoes you can walk in
- water bottle
- reuseable bag
- extra foldable day bag – this came in handy brining my clothes and toiletries to the showers and packing for our night in the airbnb if it was just for a night so I didn’t have to drag all my belongings in from the van