Soloing Paris-Roubaix
April 29, 2009 1:03 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know and do in order to take a bike and ride a famous cycling route in France?

Backstory: Since watching this year's Paris-Roubaix I have a dream to bike that route. The positives: I am an experienced cyclist, I am a professional bicycle mechanic and I could have a liberal budget for this project. The negatives: I don't speak french or flemmish, I have travelled overseas just a few times during my life, never solo, and never with a bicycle.

My intent is to ride this 170 mile route over the space of 3-4 days with 2 days in Paris and 2 days in Roubaix on either end. I want to stay at small hostels or hotels along the route as I don't have extensive camping experience. I may consider sending baggage ahead of me each day via rail package services. I would be flying, most likely, from Chicago O'Hare intl. airport, and I would want to bring my own bike if possible.

My questions; beyond getting advice from the French Consulate, which intend to do before applying for a visa. What advice can AskMe pass along about traveling to Europe? What about bicycling and crossing borders in Europe? What should I pack? When is a good time to travel Europe? Where should I go for travelers insurance? What questions am I forgetting?
posted by Severian to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Visa? Are you not American? Borders in the EU?? Google bicycling in Europe blogs. Time to go: September. Stay in hostels (L'auberge de la jeunesse in French) or backpackers. Take only what you can fit in panniers. Forget the consulate, everything you need to learn in on the internet.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:36 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No advice on the biking, but some general Europe knowledge:

- You don't need a visa to go to France or Belgium if you're an American citizen, I believe.

- Almost everyone in Paris, at very least, will speak English. If you learn one or two French phrases, like "parlez-vous Anglais?" (do you speak English?) they might be a little less rude, but not much. They're Parisians, so being rude is who they are, it's not personal.

- Crossing borders in Europe is even easier than going, say, US-Canada. Once you're in any of the Schengen countries (which include France+Belgium) you never need to go through customs to get into another of them. So there are essentially no borders.

- The spring, early summer, and fall are very nice in Paris, but it tends to get hot in August and the locals all leave town.

- You should have a very easy time finding hostels, just look online for some reviews. Much easier than in the U.S.

- You will find the amenities in Europe much like those in the US. Bring the same stuff as if you were going to Chicago for a week.

- Everything will be a little more expensive than you expect, just because Europe is more expensive than the US. But less so than it used to be because the USD is so high.

- I wouldn't bring travelers' checks or anything--the easiest way to deal with currency is to go to an ATM when you get to Paris. It'll cost you, probably, $5 flat rate, and they'll gouge you to the tune of maybe 1% for the conversion, but even if you're changing $500, we're only talking a $10 fee which is hardly that bad.

- Flights within Europe are cheap, and flights to Europe are very variable. Shop around for the best deals on transatlantic flights--it could be that the cheapest way to get to Paris is through Dublin, or Rome, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Brussels.

- Travelling solo is fun. You'll get a chance to meet a lot of people, more than if you were going with someone else. So enjoy!
posted by goingonit at 1:45 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: One thing to know is that Flemish/Dutch won't help you at all, since nobody anywhere near the Paris-Roubaix route -- or anywhere in France -- speaks it. (If you want to do the Ronde van Vlaanderen route and try the Koppenberg or something, that's a different story.) Not knowing any French will be a pain in the ass, but there are tons of tourists who also don't speak French, so pretty much everywhere you stay and eat they'll be able (if not exactly happy) to help you in English.

Another thing to know is that the Paris-Roubaix route changes every year (not a lot, but some) so you'll have to decide which version you want to ride. Some sections of the official route might be unrideable -- since the race sometimes uses some roads that aren't appropriate for cycling when traffic is on them. So you'll want to look carefully at a map and figure out where you have to detour.

For the riding itself, just remember that riding on cobbles is a special skill. (I live and race bikes in Belgium, and I can tell you from experience that it's hard and slow and you're ass and everything else will take a beating, especially as you get used to handling your bike on pavés.) If there's somewhere you can practice handling your bike on cobbles and get used to it (the trick is to relax as much as you can and pedal in a high-ish gear) you should do it.

You don't need a visa to enter France as a tourist, and once in, there are basically no border crossings in western Europe. (That is to say, you cross borders, but inside of the Schengen Area there is no border control. So you can visit Belgium or Germany or (as of this year) Switzerland without any hassle.

The weather in this part of Europe tends to be best in late summer and (very) early fall. If you come in August there will be huge numbers of tourists, but if you delay until September, it's a little quieter and the weather is still pretty good.

I'm not sure there's tons to do in Roubaix, so you might consider -- instead of spending 2 days there -- hopping a train to Belgium and visiting Brugge (Bruges) or Antwerpen or something. If you wait until the beginning of October -- risking the possibility that the weather starts to get worse -- you could catch one of the first big Belgian 'cross races of the season, the Superprestige race in Oostkamp, which is not more than an hour's drive from Roubaix. (If you like Paris-Roubaix, you should really go to at least one big Belgian 'cross race.)

One last thing, flying to Europe with a bike is no big deal. Just get yourself a good bike box and maybe check with the airline in advance of your flight. Usually you can just show up with your bikes/wheels/whatever, but a couple airlines require you to tell them in advance that you plan to fly with a bike.
posted by dseaton at 1:48 PM on April 29, 2009

Best answer: - Oh, you'll want a cell phone too, in case of emergency and to call home/the next hostel/wherever. For about 50-60 Euros you can get a cell phone with a prepaid SIM card that'll last you a while. There are shops at the airport that sell them--some places will even rent you a cell instead. If you have an unlocked GSM phone, you may be able to switch out your SIM for a prepaid one and save 40 Euros or so, but make sure you have a "quad-band" phone or it won't work.
posted by goingonit at 1:50 PM on April 29, 2009

One concern I would have with random hostels is that they can be bike unfriendly. Quite a few with no elevator, and dorm rooms often literally have no space to put a bike except in the center of the room. I suggest emailing them in advance to see what they say.
posted by smackfu at 2:12 PM on April 29, 2009

What should I pack?

Tools. Wrenches. Most of those cobblestone roads are only opened once a year, for the Paris - Roubaix road races. Some are in a seriously bad shape. The most famous parts of the race are also the ones with the most terrible pavement.

Cycling the Trouée d'Arenberg / wood of Wallers-Arenberg part for instance will feel like if you're controlling a jackhammer, if you stay on the stones. Parts fixed on your bicycle will come undone. Luggage will fall off.

Apart from that, that part of France is dreary, a poor industrialized zone. You better pick a time of the year with some chance for good weather.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:19 PM on April 29, 2009

See what airlines you can take your bike for free with. In January, British Airways did not charge to transport a bicycle-bag, and I believe the same was true of Virgin.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 3:04 PM on April 29, 2009

I may consider sending baggage ahead of me each day via rail package services

I notice that noone has commented on this component of your plan and I can't either (I've cycled in France but always had panniers). You might just want to double-check that what you're describing there would work in the real world.
posted by southof40 at 3:51 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Cobbles; I have a cyclocross bike that I will most likely be taking, that or putting some 28c tires on my road bike. As for practice, I don't think anywhere in the midwest of the USA has terrain like the cobbles so I'll have to make do with roads-under-construction around my hometown. I am expecting that it will be a challenge to ride on the cobbles. Hell, I'm looking forward to it!

Bike Transportation; I will likely be purchasing a bike hardcase. I know of a company that makes an inexpensive corrugated plastic bike packing case. Comes with foam spacers, straps and etc.

Visa; I assumed that I would need a Visa since that is what the French Consulate website for Chicago said. That site said nothing about not needing one if I was an American.
posted by Severian at 6:22 PM on April 29, 2009

Response by poster: Luggage; I saw a travel website that said some rail services in some countries have a service where they will ship your baggage to a destination along their route for you to pick up at a rail destination of your choice. This would be something that I would check on before finalizing my plans.
posted by Severian at 6:24 PM on April 29, 2009

Some airlines requires the bike to be in a box which requires the pedals to be taken off, and the handlebar to be loosened from the fork to fit it in the box. I don't think a hard case is such a great idea unless you have a place that will store it for you during your trip. (it's easy to get a cardboard box for the way back since every bike store has loads from new bikes.)

I'd also be wary about shipping things to each destination. Part of the fun of a bike trip is doing whatever the heck you feel like. Spending an extra day somewhere if the weather isn't nice, or stopping whenever you feel like it. Get some panniers and pack lightly.
posted by kamelhoecker at 6:53 PM on April 29, 2009

You might want to ask questions on these bicycle touring forums:

This site is only about bike touring. Be sure to read the trip journals for tours in France.
This site is for all kinds of riding. There is a large touring forum, and also notice the regional sub-forums.

Lonely Planet/Thorn Tree forum on bike touring
Of course the Thorn Tree forum on France has a great deal of general travel info.
posted by conrad53 at 7:32 PM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: conrad, thanks for the first and 3rd links. I'm avoiding posting this on bikeforums. I'm not sure why I'm avoiding that forum, but I am. I do post there, but I haven't yet posted to the touring section.
posted by Severian at 7:52 PM on April 29, 2009

Visa; I assumed that I would need a Visa since that is what the French Consulate website for Chicago said. That site said nothing about not needing one if I was an American.
It does: see here for details (list of countries; if you're a resident of one of them, you need a visa; the US is not on the list).
posted by altolinguistic at 3:10 AM on April 30, 2009

sorry, citizen, not resident
posted by altolinguistic at 3:10 AM on April 30, 2009

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