Written by Beth Nicholson,
30th May 2023

The French invented the bicycle and still lay claim to being the greatest cycling nation. With the government pouring billions into green alternatives to the car, and electric bikes making nipping down to the boulangerie a pleasure rather than a sweaty chore, cyclists in France have never had it so good. See why cycling in France could open a world of fun, fitness and friendship when you buy there. 

Cycling in France is an extremely popular way to get around and getting more popular. For many city dwellers it is now simply the most convenient mode of transport. For others it signifies pleasure, leisure and freedom. Cycling can be a way to relax, stay healthy, get out and about and make friends and is especially popular among the active retired community. 

Moreover, the French government is desperate to get people on their bikes and has a wide range of schemes and incentives.

Cycling in France's Alsace winelands

Cycling through the Alsace winelands

History of cycling in France

French cities were not designed for mass car ownership. They were planned with cathedrals and churches at their centre, approached by narrow, cobbled streets. Great for cycling, although the cobbles could be painful, especially on the first bikes that were used in Paris in the first years of the 19th century.

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Over the past 200 years France’s love for the bike has only grown, depicted in films and literature as symbolic of freedom and romance. Moreover, given the absolute commitment of the French to convivial evenings with friends, family and copious amounts of wine, bien sûr, a bicycle at least only tends to put yourself at risk on your way home.

Then there is the Tour de France, of which France is spectacularly proud. Launched in 1903 to promote sales and increase circulation of the sports publication L’Auto it begins in July and consists of 21 stages over 23 days coinciding with the Bastille Day National holiday. The delight on the faces of those able to watch the tour race past, through tiny villages, as well as towns, all too plain to see.

Tour de France through the Tarn in 2022 ((Radu Razvan / Shutterstock.com)

Popularity of cycling in France

Cycling in France is gaining momentum by the day. For those needing to commute, it’s the perfect way to rise above public transport strikes. A trend started in 2019, during a constant spate of disrupted travel for commuters. Popularity grew during the Covid pandemic as people avoided crowded public transport. Indeed, during the pandemic 50 kilometres of ‘pop up’ segregated cycle lanes were introduced in Paris, since becoming a permanent fixture and being added to. Paris has been leading the way among global cities for cyclists, powered by the government’s Plan Velo scheme.

Both people and governments are beginning to see the positive impact of cycling in achieving climate targets, as well as combating city pollution. Quite apart from being known to lesser Covid symptoms, cleaner air is good for the health of the citizens of France in general.

There are cycling associations in nearly every town and many villages, city bike hire schemes when you’re exploring somewhere new, as well as more cities introducing city tours by bicycle, it’s clear to see the ever growing popularity of the activity. Then on top of that, more and more are turning to the activity to stay healthy, to make friends and increase social circles.  All aided, of course, by France’s great weather and beautiful cycling landscapes.

Government Incentives

The French government has actively encouraged cycling. Firstly, they created a bike repair scheme, where you could claim €50 against the cost of repairs to keep your bicycle roadworthy. They have also created hundreds of kilometres of cycling infrastructure since the start of the pandemic.

As a result, bicycle sales in France have soared. While Germany leads in the number of number of bikes sold, France is not far behind. Sales in 2022 were €3.6 billion, an increase of 5.2% on the previous year. Much of that being attributed to sales of e-bikes.

France is now set to invest €2.2 billion over the next four years to encourage more cycling. That includes creating new cycling roads and infrastructure, as well as offering financial aid to buy new bicycles. The ambition is to double the country’s bike lane network to 100,000 by 2027.

The budget includes €500 million for people to purchase and maintain mountain bikes. The plan includes a continuation of the 2021 incentive of up to €2,500 towards the purchase of an electric bike for those scrapping an old vehicle. They are encouraging the use of ‘cargo bikes’ for working people and shoppers and adding many more bicycle parking places.

This plan is clearly working. Between 2019 and 2020, general bicycle use increased by 12% in urban areas in France, and even more when the pandemic lockdowns ended, at which point it accelerated to more than 30%.

Routes and trails

More people are enjoying cycling as a leisure activity, rather than as a necessity. If cycling is your passion there’s nowhere better to indulge it than France. Bicycles can be transported free of charge on many trains (although it is highly recommended to mention your bike when buying your ticket). Many cyclists report feeling safer on France’s relatively quiet rural roads too.

If you’re just rediscovering cycling and a bit wobbly, the safest routes are the network of long distance cycleways. These include from the Channel down to the Mediterranean, or from the Atlantic to Germany among others. Otherwise, France’s network of secondary roads and country lanes provides more than 880,000 kilometres of relatively quiet roads.

Cycling in France, near Chamonix

Cycling in France, near Chamonix

For the more adventurous, the French Pyrenees or the Alps may be more the ticket. These provide a choice of (relatively) flat routes, taking in Alpine scenery, or arduous climbs designed to test your mettle. You can even take a ski lift up the mountain in summer and cycle down. There is something for everyone, at every skill level, with bike hire easily acessible.

A useful website for cycle routes is the France Cycling Tourism site.

Social aspects of cycling

Cycling in France is not just a great way to get out and about, getting to know your surrounding area. It also offers invaluable opportunities to expand your social networks. If you’re lucky enough to be retired and don’t have work to worry about, what better way to enjoy the great outdoors, have fun and spend your new found free time?

It’s a great way to stay healthy and good for aging joints, with the added bonus of meeting like-minded people. Cycling clubs and associations are everywhere in France, and will always welcome new faces. If you’re worried about your language skills in a new country, cycling requires minimal talking! In the more popular areas for international residents you’re likely to find other English-speakers.



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