How France became a queen destination for cycle tourism
The convoy which has just parked at the edge of the water, in the shade of trees battered by the sun at the end of the day, is heavy. One of those that the traffic, already intense at the start of the summer season, now carries frequently along the Loire. Five machines make it up, the first weighted with a trailer. He who closes the road bears ample baggage. The other three, lighter in size, are scattered in the interval like so many Russian dolls lined up on the asphalt.
All the pilots have put a foot down. The leader turns around. Without a word, she points with her chin to the flowery terrace of a small bar. In the back, the man answers him in the same voiceless language, raising his thumb. In two shots, the bikes are put away, the helmets are off, the dog is out of the trailer, the family is seated. Snack break.
Craving for the outdoors after two months of confinement
“We only have 4 kilometers left from here for the evening stage, so we’re taking a breather,” explains Claire, still surprised to be there. Three years ago, she would not have sworn that one day she would spend her family vacation on a bicycle. The virus stung her in the summer of 2020, the year the country had a craving for the outdoors after two months of confinement. She is no exception.
That season, the France Vélo Tourisme website saw an influx of 86% more visitors compared to 2019, he proudly displays. The trend continued in 2021. The glance did not remain only virtual: « 22 million French people cycle during their holidays, including 15% in roaming », further advances the association, which promotes and drives the development of pedal travel. France is now the world’s second largest destination for cycling tourism, behind Germany. It aims to be number one by 2030.
Benefits estimated at 4.6 billion euros
Not just for the glory. The economic impact of cycle tourism is worth its weight in patches. In a report published in 2020, Ademe estimates its impact at 4.6 billion euros. Accommodation, catering, purchase of local products or rental of equipment: the average expenditure of cycling tourists « is significantly higher » than that of other holidaymakers, insists the Agency for the Environment and Energy Management. Praised by cyclists, the Atlantic coast is a singular beneficiary of this boom.
On “La Loire à vélo”, a 900-kilometre route linking Nevers to the river estuary, attendance has doubled in five years. The economic impact did the same, going from 13.8 billion euros to 27.8 billion, still underlines Ademe. It is also measured in terms of employment. In 2019, in France, 34,000 were indebted to bicycle tourism, says the associative platform Vélo & territories.
More than 20,000 kilometers of developed routes in France
The communities, in fact, have seized the interest. The budget they devote to utilitarian cycling policies, but also for leisure, has increased by 40% in ten years. Since 2010, greenways and cycle routes have gained ground, notes Ademe. France Vélo Tourisme maps more than 20,000 kilometers of developed routes. Twenty-nine journeys in total, seven of which are trans-European, some barely 200 kilometers long, others more than 1,500 kilometres. Each season, new ones are born. Three have hatched this year.
« Vélocéan », « Route des Grandes Alpes »… There are 29 mapped routes, including 7 trans-European, dedicated to cyclists. And every season there are new ones!
The enthusiasm, always, is there. The most recent routes « see the number of passages increase by 7 to 11% (in 2020) », notes Vélo & territories, while the attendance of the others remains stable. Even better, the practice is no longer exclusive to the summer. “The trend extends to seasonal wings,” the platform continues. Fall, in particular, “invites more and more tourists to get on their bicycles. « .
There are still obstacles to further development. One of them is financial. Because, if the cyclo-randonneur is the highest paying tourist for the territories, it is also because he is generous. The average daily expenditure of each pedaller is estimated at 68 euros. Accommodation, of course, in the first position – 116 euros on average in a guest room or hotel, 56 euros in a campsite. Alternative arrangements, however, are growing. Couchsurfing or bivouac formulas at 20 euros per night are multiplying, offering salvation to the broke.
By train, spaces reserved for bicycles are expensive
The puzzle of the combination of modes of transport is much more thorny for those who wish to do without a car from the beginning to the end of their vacation. By train, places reserved for bicycles are expensive. Almost non-existent by TGV, they remain limited by TER, which varies according to the region. Political will is not the only issue. Making room for bicycles on the rails is not like clockwork. « A touring bicycle takes up two seats », recalls Wilfried Demaret, driver in Limoges and connoisseur of railway technologies, « and I’m not even talking about trailers or cargo bikes »! Technically, exchanging a buttocks against a two-wheeler is also not simple, even very complicated. « Removing the seats from a wagon involves a mass shift which requires reviewing all the calculations (of the balance of the train) and requesting new authorizations », continues the professional. Adding a wagon at the end of the train is possible… provided that the length of the platforms is readjusted along the entire line, which amounts to millions of euros. Finally, the trains towed by the locomotives of yesteryear have, so to speak, all given way to self-propelled cars, which are more practical but much less elastic – an element which prevailed over the disappearance of van wagons, long dedicated to bulky luggage, two- wheels included.
Nevertheless: some regions have taken the lead by the horns. « Rhône-Alpes has started work to lengthen the quays », resumes Wilfried Demaret. Old backpacker of bicycle tourism, the Pays de la Loire region has, for its part, put on track a unique model, the Jumbo, a train with two levels, one of which is entirely dedicated to bicycles.
The cycle-tourism route thus continues to widen. For those tempted by the adventure, several associative platforms, including the France Vélo Tourisme website, allow you to create an à la carte itinerary. Loop or one-way, family or full-bodied, over two days or two months, from Allier to Alsace or from Paris to London, the final choice is only a matter of calves.