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My experiences in France
 

I’m not happy. More than that, I’m flipping furious. I am also annoyed. Not to mention my huge fear for the future of cycling and my overall despair at the idiocy that exists in the world today.

So what’s upset me? Well I’m in the middle of a fortnight’s holiday in France. I have my bike with me and I should be enjoying myself. Instead I’m cursing the French traffic planners and laughing at how bad the cycle facilities are here. I thought it was bad at home, but these people have really made a worse mess of it. My fears though are that as they’ve done more in the name of cycling and as “the continent” is renowned for its cycling, the highways engineers back in England are going to copy this mess and ruin our lives even more.

My first experience of the French’s idea of cycle paths was as I rode from Royan to the beach of Saint-Georges-de-Didonne and I wish I’d had my camera with me. We had a typical seaside scene with a wide pedestrian esplanade between a quiet wide road and the beach. Within the pedestrian area an avenue of trees had been planted long enough ago for them to now be well established. At regular intervals this avenue was interrupted by, if I recall correctly, large walled flower beds. The surface of the road was a smooth tarmac, the surface of the promenade was in the main large paving slabs.

Rather than simply paint the cycle lane in the road, a two way cycle path had been marked in the tree lined avenue. I should have had my cycle helmet with me to avoid injury from the overhanging branches. The pedestrian area was between the trees and the beach, other than adjacent to the flower beds where it was narrowed in width by a faded painted line as the cycle path sharply swerved out from amongst the trees and around the obstruction. In the height of the tourist season I would hate to be in this area as cyclists swerve in and out of the trees. I would hate to be riding the path and trying to safely look for pedestrians as I try to get past the obstructions. At the same time the cyclist has to be very aware of the surface as there are large deep joints between each slab, each one is of sufficient width to grip a cycle tyre and to change its direction of travel. Seven months on and I am still suffering the effects of the last time that happened to me. I don’t want it to happen again!

Further on the path narrowed and became shared use as the pedestrian path was no longer surfaced but was just loose gravel. At the same time there were deep drifts of sand across the path. The inevitable happened before I could warn her and my wife’s front wheel washed out sideways from under her. Fortunately as we were on Bromptons at the time she was able to put her feet on the ground quickly and prevent a fall. I was relieved that the sand had not caused personal injury but I was worrying about what injuries the bikes were receiving through the sand getting on the gears, chain and other bearings and moving parts. I just wanted to leave the cycle path and get onto the clean well surfaced road; something we did thanks to the sudden ending of the cycle path.

Then later on our journey, as we arrived at the beach of Saint-Georges-de-Didonne we came across a classic example of a ridiculous cycle path. The signs themselves were worthy of a photo, with both cycle lane and no cycling signs in the same area. This path though was fully segregated. Again it was between the road and the pavement, but it had a hedge on both sides to prevent the errant cyclist interfering with either the pedestrians or the cars. Then the ultimate in dangerous design. Right across this path was a dark wooden barrier with just a narrow gap either side. In order to create safety for pedestrians crossing the idiots in charge had put this obstacle across the path. The cyclist has to slow and pass through a narrow gap. All well and fine, and actually logically sound. But at night? How are you supposed to see this obstacle? Cycle lights (of the road legal type) won’t illuminate the obstacle until the last minute. I appreciate that a cyclist, like a car driver, should always be ready to expect the unexpected and ride accordingly; but I don’t see any roads with unmarked barriers across them on a regular basis…

It was at this point that in disgust (and in regret at leaving my camera at home, if anybody in that area is willing to mail me some photos?) I turned round and headed back. The only positive comment I can make for cycling is that we weren’t the only cyclists out that night. I counted several. However, and interestingly, all the cyclists I saw preferred to cycle on the clearly marked pedestrian areas or in the road than use these facilities. I wonder if anybody in charge of the roads in that area has noticed this?

My next experience of French cycle infrastructure design was in Chatelaillon-Plage as I came across a very large No-Cycling sign on the road as I entered town. Unhappily I pondered on how I would get into town, until I finally spotted a cycle path in the far distance. I headed for it and cycled through the sign (yes I know it was naughty, but other than lifting our bikes over a barrier and then walking across a large grassed expanse what the bloody hell were we supposed to do Monsieur stupid highways engineer?)

Once on the path I was firstly pleased to note the width and good surface. Then I started thinking. I was banned from the road (which was fine for cycling on) and forced to use this cycle path… but where were pedestrians supposed to walk? All pedestrian space had been removed from the area so that I could cycle on this pavement. Even worse, this was a residential street. I was passing driveway after driveway, each one had a nearly blind exit. These residents, every time they leave their homes, have to carefully exit their gates in case of a high speed cyclist who should really be in the road. They also theoretically have to drive or cycle as they no longer have a pavement to walk on.

Then we came to a side road. More stupidity. The cycle crossing was ten to fifteen feet down the side road, hidden behind a tall hedge. Here’s a photo, including unknown cyclists, of the maximum view allowed of the main road. I’m sure you can imagine how little view of the road is available to somebody who is waiting to cross this side road and positioned behind the lady.

As I stood there trying to determine whether it was safe to cross I just hadn’t got a clue. I couldn’t see any of the traffic I could hear so had no idea whether it was going to turn down this side road. It was stupid to cross in the hope that it wouldn’t as the car driver wouldn’t be able to see me either, so would potentially hit me as they came around the corner. My only solution was to wait until I could hear no traffic and then cross carefully.

Fortunately it was a quiet main road so I didn’t have long to wait, although as it was a quiet road why couldn’t I ride on it? Even more frustratingly, if I’d been riding in the road as I should be (bikes are transport and vehicles after all) then I wouldn’t have had a problem here as I would have simply ridden straight past the side turning having confirmed no traffic was pulling out.

Then lastly, and with the greatest insult, we got to the end of that particular road where the cycle path deviated back onto the main carriageway just in time for a large junction. There was no cycle provision at all at that junction. We’d just put up with nearly a mile of cycle path to bypass a quiet road, only to be dumped back in the carriageway and expected to negotiate this junction with no help.

The next day we decided to visit Ile de Re. My wife had seen an advert saying that it was ideal to visit by bike and nearly suggested we ride the whole way. However as she didn’t know what to expect or how long we’d be there, or even take to get there, she kept quiet and we drove there. Once on the island we parked up, got the bikes out and headed off.

From the car we firstly followed a good tarmac path, except for the occasional unmade sections where there were crossings to the beach. I wonder what drivers would say if we were to install a motorway for them and then announce that every mile there would be short unmade section? And then, as suddenly as it started the path disappeared. Our only option was to cross the road on a pedestrian crossing (walk, don’t ride) and then head down a side road that was signposted as a cycle route.

A short distance down this road we came across what I can proudly award the most ridiculous cycle farce-ility of the holiday. A path, no more than a metre wide, with a dangerous drop down to puncture inducing gravel each side (and yes I did get my first ever puncture in the Kevlar belted Brompton tyres). Then, to separate this stupid path they put a damn great concrete pillar in the middle of it. Look at this photo of me trying to keep on the path and not hit the pillar!

In fact I can probably award the cycle friendly island of Ile de Re the award of the least cycle friendly area I have ever seen. The whole island (we drove around it in the end) was covered in No-Cycling signs. Cyclists were expected to go and play in the areas provided and ensure they did not interfere with the public at all. It disgusts me to even talk about it. All I can say in summary is please examine this next photo. We have here a road heading directly to where I want to go. I am not allowed to cycle on it. I have to ride on a shit surface of loose pointed gravel which travels only at ninety degrees to my desired direction of travel.

The next and final place I tried cycling in was Bordeaux. See here for that report.

{post holiday edit}

On the way back we drove through Rouen. Just as bad. Nearly every road had been narrowed by painting a narrow cycle lane in the gutter and building an unbroken central concrete island. I was following a lorry that was nearly rubbing the concrete yet had its wheels on the cycle lane. Junctions were easy to spot. The first and obvious warning that a junction was coming up was a large “End of cycle lane” sign! The cyclists had to negotiate the junction in the normal way as traffic, and as soon as they were safely through and back on an un-interrupted road they got their narrow cycle lane back again. Until the next major junction.

These weren’t facilities to add to cyclist safety. These weren’t facilities to help cyclists to navigate and travel around. I don’t know whether they are token facilities installed just to prove that the local authorities care about cycling, or whether they are devices to channel cyclists into the gutter on narrow roads rather than riding safely and defensively. I have my suspicions though.

{post holiday edit}

So that’s my holiday report almost finished. There is more, but that’s not for here. One part is related to road safety and is still under thought. The other, the “what I did on my holidays” part is just so boring you’d not want to read it.

But why am I so angry? My cycling on this holiday has been ruined by cycle farce-ilities. If we’re not careful we’ll end up with this type of crap here in England soon. Will you join me in fighting this? Do you want to ride the longer distance on a worse surface, or do you want to continue using the roads as you do today? Do you consider the roads already too dangerous thanks to narrowings and changes made in the name of safety? Please, if you care about cycling for any reason join me in fighting this false image that cyclists want gravel routes that bypass all civilisation rather than venture anywhere near a road.


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