Cycling en France

We are one of those extremely fortunate families to have a holiday home overseas – in France in our case. I always try to impress on our three children how lucky they are to be in this position, but of course it is impossible for them to fully understand because they don’t know any different. (When you read in the news that 45% of children live in families with less than a “minimum income standard” – defined by members of the public as the least that you can reasonably live on – it really does put in perspective how lucky folks like us are. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/households-below-minimum-income-standard-200809-201415 )

The choice of location for our house was simple: Mrs 40SC is French, although she has now lived in the UK as long as her formative years in France, and the house is close, but not too close, to her family. That just happens to be a rather good place for cycling. (Actually I think you could pick just about anywhere in rural France and conclude the same.). We are in the Rhone valley in the south east of the country, close to where four departements meet: clockwise from 12 o’clock they are Drome, Vaucluse, Gard and Ardeche. (As an aside, I am a big fan of the French system of numbering the departements. It appeals to the logician in me – and he is never far from the surface.  So Ardeche is 07, Drome is 26, etc.  One day, when I am even more boring than today, maybe I will learn all 101 of them.)

Between them these four areas have an embarrassment of cycling riches. To name but a few, the Drome has the Vercors mountains, precursors to the Alps; the Vaucluse has the giant of Provence, the Mont Ventoux itself (visible from pretty much everywhere in the surrounding area, including our garden – see photo of the sun rising behind it); the Gard and the Ardeche have the Cevennes and the Monts d’Ardeche respectively, both on the fringes of the Massif Central; and the latter also has the eponymous Gorges de l’Ardeche, best known for canoeing but the winding, undulating road above has spectacular views.

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If these departements were English counties most of them would be big ones. Not right at the top of the list, but close, in terms of area at least. However, they are relatively sparsely populated, like much of the French countryside, with no really big cities (although the Vaucluse has Avignon). The Ardeche has the smallest departmental capital in France, Privas, with a population of under 9,000 (although to be fair it is only the 5th largest town in the departement). It is principally known for its bucolic charms and farm produce, including fromage de chèvre, charcuterie, chestnuts and blueberries.

If you like statistics, here are some to illustrate the point, which is that there is a lot more of France to go round: in the UK as a whole, each square km is shared by on average 268 people; in France, the same figure is just 118 people. That’s quite a lot less crowded. Which is great if you are a cyclist.

Region                      Area (km2)                  Pop (‘000)         Pop density / km2

Ardeche                   5,529                              320                       58
Drome                     6,530                              495                       76
Gard                         5,853                               733                       125
Vaucluse                 3,567                              549                       154

Kent                         3,738                               1,800                   481
Derbyshire            2,624                               1,100                   394
Cumbria                 6,776                              498                      73
Norfolk                   5,380                              885                       164

(All of this from wikipedia, the source of all truth and knowledge:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_French_departments_by_population
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ceremonial_counties_of_England )

Despite the relative lack of people, there are plenty of roads, generally maintained to a good standard. Sometimes they are bit scratchy but they don’t do potholes in France like they do back in the UK. I guess the weather makes it a bit easier to look after the tarmac. Fewer potholes also means less gravel on the road. In the south of France, it is less wooded than the UK (at least the bits I cycle in), which means fewer leaves, twigs, branches, husks and so on to make the surface nervy. Less rain, and a bit more wind (certainly down the Rhone valley which has the Mistral), keep the road surfaces dry most of the time. In short, better roads and fewer people on them. It’s a great combination.

I’d quite like to stay here permanently and just cycle a lot. In fact that is pretty much my retirement plan. Would I miss the restaurants and pubs of London? Proper beer? Food from a different nation every night? Friends and colleagues? Yeah a bit. I might pop back every now and then. But to give an example of the upside, back in the UK at the moment it is around 0 degrees, and risky to be out in the lanes which could be icy. It’s no fun on a road bike at those temperatures. Whereas here in the Rhone valley (from where I write, this half term week), it is 10 degrees in the morning and 16 in the afternoon – ok, it is a bit warm for the season, but it illustrates the point. We won’t get those sort of conditions in the UK until April. I plan to make the most of it and ride every day, family commitments permitting. I might even go for short bibs one day, just to make a point.

Maybe I’ll retire early. Can’t remember what was so important that needed to be done at work anyway…. Unfortunately reality will come crowding back in to my little bubble of cycling bliss as soon as we are back in the UK. There are the not-so-small real-world issues of the kids’ schooling, Mrs 40SC’s fledgling new career and continuing to earn enough to pay for the upkeep of two houses. But one day, one day…

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