Posted by: Jennifer Sage | June 3, 2008

Cycling in France? Should you rent a bike, or take your own?

Many of my clients ask if it’s better to rent a bike in Europe or to take your own bike. The answer is, it depends. It depends on how much you love your bike, whether it’s custom fit to you, and whether you have a history of discomfort on poorly fitted bikes. Some people aren’t aware of the differences between road bikes – I’d say they’re lucky because they can be fine on a so-so road bike and not have to deal with lugging their bike around the globe.

Then there’s people like me (and I’m not so unusual, I am finding!). I have back issues, my handlebars are raised slightly to accommodate for that, and a poorly fit bike can leave me in a lot of pain at the end of the day. Not just my back, but my neck and shoulders. If the handlebars are a different width than mine, I’ll feel that as well in my shoulders. I’ve done it on a one-day basis and have managed fine, but for a week, I’d probably elect not to ride towards the end if it meant being in pain.

As a general rule, if you have a custom bike and/or back, shoulder, or neck issues, you’ll want to bring your own. If not, and you’re not that picky, then you’ll be fine renting.

It also depends on your destination and your goals. If you are planning to ride some big cols, then my suggestion is to bring your own (though I’ll tell you about a place near Alpe d’Huez that rents high-end road bikes – a rarity in France). It’s one thing to ride a heavier bike uphill for long periods, but I want a bike that I know very well and trust for those long and fast descents! Also, if your goal is longer mileage, you’ll be so much happier on a bike that you are already comfortable with. You might only be able to find stiff aluminum rentals which will beat you up on those longer rides.

On the other hand, if your goal is to ride from village to village, stopping a lot at wineries or ruins, smelling the roses, and just cruising for enjoyment with only the occasional hill, then you’d probably be happy with a rental. In fact, a hybrid bike might be a better choice for this kind of travel.

If you are picky about maintenance of bikes, then you’ll want to bring your own. I’ve had rentals (or clients who have rented bikes) that turned out to be very poorly maintained. Greasy chains, poorly adjusted gears and brakes, and old, low-end components. Yuk. But again, if you’re just cruising, this may not bother you. I rented a bike for a day last year in the Alpes, just so I could ride the Col de Saisies. He was a very nice man at the rental place outside of Annecy, and he took a long time to fit it to me and clean it up. But it was very heavy. I slogged up that hill, and longed for my bike with every pedal stroke. On the downhill, I hit a slight bump, my body weight was on the hoods of the brakes, and the handlebars rotated forward! I had visions of face planting and leaving my teeth on the pavement, and my heart was in my throat as I slowed the bike to a stop. I did not have my own toolbag with me, so no allen wrench to tighten it (and the tool bag on the bike was worthless). I rode the rest of the way slowly, with my hands on the drops to prevent them from rotating. Now THAT’s a scary thing to happen on a descent!

The bad news is, road bikes are very, very difficult to rent in France, believe it or not. When I’ve asked in many places around the country, they give me a strange look and say there’s no money in renting road bikes, and any decent cyclist would have his own. Yes, you can find cruisers, hybrids (usually quite heavy) and mountain bikes, especially in the mountains. But good quality road bikes, almost impossible.

I do have access to decent road bike rentals in Provence through a company that will actually deliver them to your hotel (email me for info).  If your plan is to climb Mont Ventoux, there is a bike shop located both in Vaison-la-Romaine and Malaucene near the base of Ventoux that rents decent (but not high-end) Trek bikes to take you to the top. It’s called Mag 2 Roues and this shop is also the best place to get your Mont Ventoux jerseys. Be wary of the bike rental place called Holiday Bikes – they are located in Avignon, and have terrible quality and maintenance. There’s another place in Avignon called Provence Bike that has decent Treks (low-end components).

In Bourg d’Oisans at the base of Alpe d’Huez is a store called Cycles et Sports, and they have decent road bikes as well as performance carbon fiber bikes; both have triple chain rings for your ascent up the Alpe! But rentals can get expensive. In Bourg d’Oisans, it’s 25€ for standard, 30€ for high end, per day. And Bourg d’Oisans it’s very out of the way unless you are staying there for the whole week. Lots of great cycling in that one area – if your goal is climbing big cols.

I’ve also used a high-end shop in Chamonix some years ago for excellent quality rentals, but I’d have to look up their name and information. Chamonix is a little out of the way, and if you plan on riding the cols near the Lac d’Annecy, you’ll have to detour at least an hour to pick up and drop off the bike, and right in the Chamonix area there is limited riding.

In Beaune in Burgundy, I am floored that road bikes cannot be rented, since this to me is the quintessential bicycle tour destination. There are many bicycle tour companies that have their bases near Beaune (and barns filled with hundreds of well-maintained road bikes) but these aren’t available for rental outside of their own tours. There is a place that rents hybrids that are great for cruising through the vineyards or for rides of 30-50 miles. Email me for the information.

I’ve rented pretty good road bikes in the Pyrenees in Bagneres de Luchon, but as a warning, it wasn’t easy access – getting in and out of there was time consuming. I’ll have to look up the shop, so if you’re going to the Pyrenees, email me.

Most of what you’ll find available in France will look like this: these were the rental bikes delivered to these women I met at our hotel in the Loire Valley – they were riding these for 6 days. Fine for very easy low-mileage cycling, but very heavy and cumbersome if you want to ride up to those quaint medieval villages, almost always located on the tops of hills.

The final issue regarding the decision to rent or not has to do with your tolerance for lugging your bike boxes around Europe. I’ve done it for years and have no problem with it. I have taken my bike case on trains, through airports and stations, down cobblestone roads, onto taxis and of course, in rental cars, and so have many of my clients. I can give you lots of tips on traveling with bike cases. But yes, they can be a bit of a pain, especially if your goal is a week of cycling followed by a business or pleasure trip without the bikes. I’ll address lugging your bike cases in another post!

Coming soon: rentals vs bringing your own bikes in Italy, and How to Pack Your Bike!

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