Steve's Sabbatical

By Steve van Dorsser

Breakfast of fresh croissants and treacle-like coffee in a village café, temples of food on every corner and medieval architecture as far as the eye can see. If you've got a month to spare and a wad of cash looking for a way out of your wallet (or a healthy credit facility on the plastic), then this could be the go. Cycle touring in France is close to heaven on a bike.

There are a few tricks to getting yourself within striking distance whilst maximising the pleasure and minimising the dramas. Europe via Asia allows 20kg of luggage; the route via the US generally allows you two pieces. You needn't be a rocket scientist to work out that with your average touring stead weighing in at around 14kg, if going via Asia then you'll be travelling exceedingly light. You can risk going over weight but beware the baggage Nazis - excess luggage fees can mortally wound even the most robust budget. Check out your chosen airline's policy on bikes with your travel agent and (if it's favourable) make sure your ticket is appropriately endorsed.

With a few exceptions most of France is cycling nirvana - check out a travel book if you need inspiration. Getting to your chosen starting point can be a challenge. If you've got time the best bet is to jump on your bike, otherwise prepare for battle. The French rail network is extensive and reliable but it suffers from a bike allergy. Only certain trains will take bikes - even though all have baggage cars. Very French. The timetable identifies those that carry bikes with a wee bike symbol. You can send your bikes separately as freight but they go via Paris (nice for your bike) and will take 3-7 days. You've got your ticket and are waiting on the platform - so what next? Getting on the train with your bike and panniers can be a bit of a juggling act with only a couple of minutes to execute the manoeuvre. It's best to figure out where the baggage car is going to end up on the platform and then wait in ambush.

Next, you'll need some maps. The 1:200 000 series from Michelin are the go. They're readily available at local book stores and tabacs. To avoid the traffic, stick to the white tertiary roads - you can cruise these for hours without seeing a car (tractors maybe).

Camping around France is a breeze. There's an extensive network of camp grounds ranging from flash "municipal" ones to more laid back (and cheaper) jobs linked to a local farm or vineyard. The local Office du Tourisme will have a list of those within their canton. If you'd rather avoid the camping thing, there are numerous alternatives with B&B style auberges and 1 star hotels in abundance.

Let's face it - the main reason you're in France at all is for the food and wine.

And the more you ride, the more you can eat. The two hour lunch easily becomes part of the daily routine, and joy of joys... three courses of the daily set menu plus a tipple or two can be got for about $20. Then tuck a few k's under the belt and hey do it all again in another spot for dinner. Just like a health camp but without the control freaks!

Supermarkets are heaven for the DIY gastrophile. Much to Kate's frustration, I could easily lose an hour browsing the aisles - salivating at the array of delectables. We didn't actually swim in the European wine lake, but there's a proverbial pond in each supermarket and the choice, oh the choice! I'm too young for this.

The other institution you'll observe is the Sunday morning ride. Basically every bloke with a bike, slips on a bit of lycra and heads out in search of lunch. Normally they hunt in packs - it's a very macho affair. Quite what France's women get up to during this weekly pilgrimage is anyone's guess. The sight of us cruising along in full touring regalia was quite a novelty for the lads. Two were seen slinking into a hilltop cafe in disgrace after being passed by Kate and Sue on one gruelling hill climb.

Escaping France is difficult both emotionally and physically when you have to squeeze all your gear back within the airline allowances. We played stuff the cabin baggage till it pops to reduce the official weight - but all without reason... a bit of deft handling during the pre-flight weigh-in fooled the officials into believing our bikes really were only 7kg (the woman was clearly not velo literate). The only remaining challenge was getting the 15kg day pack into the overhead locker without killing any other passengers.