France is biking heaven – fantastic roads, great scenery, welcoming people and relatively few cars to spoil the fun. But there are a few specifics you need to be aware of to make sure your two-wheeled trip goes smoothly…
1: Speed The general speed limit is 90kph (55mph) unless otherwise indicated. 130kph (80mph) is allowed on motorways (110kph (68mph) if it’s raining and on urban motorways). 50kph (30mph) is the rule in towns and villages but there are no signs – the limit begins as you pass the village sign and ends as you pass the crossed-out sign on the other side. France has been clamping down hard on speeding lately and on-the spot fines are the norm. If you can’t pay or if you’ve grossly exceeded the limit (around 50kph over the motorway limit is enough), they can impound and even crush or sell your bike, so you’ve been warned. It’s common to find a speed trap hidden away under a bridge just before a major motorway services. If you’re flashed, a chase car (often a dark blue Subaru or Renault Megane RS) or bike will pull you into the services, where you can be frogmarched to a cashpoint to pay the fine. Any kind of device that warns you you’re nearing a speed camera (even if it’s just a sat-nav with locations loaded) is strictly illegal.
2: Fuel Supermarkets are by far the cheapest option. Motorway services are breathtakingly expensive. Don’t assume you’ll easily find fuel late at night or on a sunday, especially in rural areas. When you do find a 24hr garage, it will almost certainly be cards only, and not all UK cards work at French pumps – the time to test it is when there are other options, not late on a sunday night. Debit cards are cheaper to use abroad than credit cards but fees vary wildly – check in advance.
3: Tolls Far cheaper for bikes than cars, but can still mount up. On some holiday weekends and all year round at many toll bridges, passage is free for bikes – look out for signs directing you towards a separate lane off to one side.
4: Road surfaces Generally pretty good, but some rural roads are extremely bumpy. Beware in the wet though – many local authorities use very wide strips of overbanding to cover cracks in the tarmac, and it can be incredibly slippery. There’s a lot of variety in while line paint too – in some places it’s lethally slippery in the wet, so beware. Take extra care in ferry ports, where there are often train tracks set into the surface. Again they can be extremely hazardous when wet.
5: Tyres Make sure your tyres are good before you go – a big sportsbike can chew a rear tyre in a couple of thousand motorway miles, so head for the south and you might need to get new tyres while you’re there! Tyres are more expensive than in the UK, so it makes sense to make sure yours will last the trip – if you usually use soft-compound sports tyres it might be worth opting for a higher mileage sports touring or dual-compound rear.
6: Documents etc You must carry your driving licence, passport, registration document and proof of insurance and be prepared to produce them on demand. Failure to do so is punishable by an immediate fine. Your UK policy automatically covers you for travel with the EU, but only for the legal minimum (in most cases Third Party Only). Some insurers offer automatic extensions of full cover, but you need to check before travelling. Breakdown insurance is highly recommended. Read the small print though; many policies insist you buy cover for the entire journey, so cover must include the day that you leave home and not just begin as you land in France, or you may find you have no cover at all. By law you must carry a disposable breathalyser; in practice, there’s no fine for not carrying one, so it’s up to you…
7: Eating and sleeping There are plenty of reasonably-priced hotels all over France, with quality varying from immaculately-clean, family-run gems to thinly-disguised grubby knocking shops in some cities. There’s recently been a rash of development of out-of-town convenience hotels, many with no staff, just an automated check-in system using credit cards. – Ibis, Novotel, BritHotel. They’re cheap, and a good bet if you’re arriving somewhere late… traditional small hotels are often closed and barred by 11pm, so trying to get a room late at night can be a pain. Campanile hotels are a good compromise – modern, but usually family run, with proper restaurants serving regional food at good prices. The knocking shop in town will probably be more fun though.
You can usually just turn up at campsites, but they can get very, very busy in July and August, and a lot shut up shop completely in early September. Prices vary hugely – look for Camping Municipal for the best value; they’re run by local towns/villages, are usually pretty basic but clean and cheap (sometimes just a few euros for a bike and tent). You can find most of them at: www.camping-municipal.org. Anything with swimming pools etc is likely to be geared towards families and a lot more expensive. If you like to let it all hang out, how about a naturist campsite: bit.ly/nakedfrance
8: Etiquette French drivers are very bike-aware, and most are happy to move over and let you pass where they can. It’s polite to acknowledge with your right boot, since your right hand’s occupied with the throttle. Bikes coming the other way will usually wave or signal (it’s a sort of Victory-V sign) – again it’s polite to acknowledge. Flashed headlights though aren’t just being friendly – it almost always means there’s a police presence just up the road, so take it easy, especially as they’re armed, and have powers to impound your bike and kick you out of the country. Again, if you see a speed trap, it’s de rigueur to warm drivers coming the other way.
9: Visibility Dipped beam is compulsory during the day. It’s not normally necessary to use beam converters as bike lights don’t dip to one side as sharply as car lights. It’s NOT obligatory to carry spare bulbs. However if you’re stopped with a duff bulb the Police can refuse to let you continue until you’ve fixed it.
French motorcyclists are required to have a certain amount of reflective material on their helmets. Contrary to some sources, this doesn’t apply to visiting foreigners. There was a load of hoo-hah a couple of years back saying everyone was going to have to wear Hi-Viz clothing in France. That was never the case; it was proposed to carry a small amount of reflective (not flourescent) material on your jacket, but that law was never approved. From 2016 it will be necessary to carry a fluoro vest for use in emergencies, but you won’t be required to wear it while riding.
10: Priorité à Droite – IMPORTANT If you ignore everything else on this list, please don’t ignore this one… Less common than it used to be, it’s still in force in some towns and rural areas, and gives drivers pulling out from the right priority over those already on the road. Which wouldn’t be so bad but a lot of drivers won’t even look as they pull out. On main roads a junction with priorité à droite should be signalled by a triangular sign with a red border and a black cross on a white background. Elsewhere (and especially in towns and villages) you’ll see a diamond-shaped sign with a white border and yellow centre – this means your road has priority. If it has a black diagonal line through it, that means your road doesn’t have priority.
French traffic lights are similar to ours, though, a flashing orange means traffic joining from the right has priority, unless indicated otherwise.
You can’t trust the locals to actually take any notice of any of this though…. The bottom line is it’s always going to be the bike that comes off worst, so a healthy paranoia whenever you’re approaching a side road junction is a wise strategy.
Know the signs
1 Junction ahead, give way to the right
2 Junction ahead, you have priority
3 You have priority on this road
3a You no longer have priority, and must give way to the right
4 Roundabout, give way to the left
5 Give way (Cedez le passage)
6 You’re entering this town or village, and unless otherwise stated, it’s the start of the 50kmh limit.
7 You’re leaving this town or village, and the speed limit. Unless a second town/village runs immediately after, in which case the limit remains.
8 Indicates the speed in kmh. Rappel means reminder.
9 Pedestrians have the right of way over vehicles once they are on the crossing