become big fans of the Michelin maps, which we use for our bike trips
in France. But a map is only as good as the user. Here's how to get the
most from your map on a bike vacation.
Using your map
This page is sponsored by Alyson
Adventures, which offers bike trips in France and other locations around the
world for gay men, lesbians, and friends.
company began by offering bike trips in France, and these are still
among our most popular vacations. We've found no other spot in the world
that offers such a perfect combination of:
- Small, well-maintained
roads with little traffic;
- Drivers who
like and respect cyclists, rather than trying to scare us;
- Stunning natural
scenery and historic sites, often with enormous variety in a small
- Superb maps
(Michelin maps, in France), making it easy to follow a route, or to
improvise as you go.
This page focuses
on how to get the most from a Michelin map, but many of the principles
will apply with other maps, and in other counties.
You can use a map
for two purposes: To plan your route in advance; and then to find your
way as you go.
Planning your route
If you're like us,
you'd rather be on smaller and quieter roads, even if it means biking
a few extra kilometers. After all, biking is the reason you're here;
why not enjoy it?
are great at helping you evaluate a route. Almost (though not quite
every) paved road you'd want to bike on will appear on a Michelin
map. So do some unpaved roads. They fall into these categories:
(The ruler at the
bottom is for scale, since computer screen resolutions may vary.)
the top, is the largest city on this portion of the map. The two maps
below show the same region of France, as represented (in more detail)
on other maps.
- Divided highways.
Red with a yellow or white stripe in the middle. Avoid
these entirely. You generally aren't allowed on them anyway.
- Major routes.
Red. Best to avoid. Some will have trucks whizzing past and
no shoulder at all. A few have a suitable paved shoulder, and will
feel reasonably safe, but there's no way to tell from the map which
are which. Often these routes are tolerable for a few kilometers,
routes: Yellow. Most of these are suitable for cycling,
but will have steady traffic.
- Minor roads.
White, various widths, shown with two solid (not dashed) parallel
lines. These are usually a cyclist's dream, and the narrower,
the better. It's often harder to find your way on these routes (signs
will tend to point you toward the larger roads that drivers prefer),
but we think it's worth the effort.
- Unpaved or
semi-paved roads. White, shown with a solid line on one side,
a dotted line on the other side. Michelin uses this marking for
a variety of roads that it defines as being of "poor viability".
Some of them are paved and delightful; others are rough, bumpy, or
unpaved. You'll rarely see traffic on them.
trails." Solid red line. At first, it's reassuring
to see on their legend that Michelin claims to show cyclable trails.
Unfortunately, they don't often actually do so. The red line is seldom
used, and many designated bike trails actually still show as small
roads or hiking trails.
- Hiking trails.
Dotted black line. France has an extensive national network
of hiking ("grand randonee") trails, identified by the prefix
"GR" plus a number: GR7, for example. These trails are a
patchwork small trails as well as paved and unpaved roads. They're
marked by red-and-white blazes, but not always reliably. You'll need
a map, compass, and occasional good luck to follow them. (Parallel
red and white lines mark the trail; a red or red-and-white "X"
symbol means you've just taken a wrong turn.) Most of these trails
can be biked on a mountain or hybrid bike, and will take you deep
into the French countryside. Just be considerate of, and yield to,
the occasional hikers.
roads. Invisible, but... Occasionally you'll see the beginnings
of a small road on the map as it branches off from another road, but
then it stops. These are roads that Michelin presumably felt would
clutter the map, without being relevant to many users. But you may
want to use them. Sometimes you'll be able to look ahead and see where
that road is likely to come out. But there are no guarantees that
it will come out there, or anywhere, or whether it will be paved or
- Scenic routes.
Green stripe beside a road. Michelin maps are produced
with motorists in mind. If they've designated a smaller (white) road
as scenic, by all means work it into your route if you can. But often,
if a larger (yellow) road gets the scenic designation, the unmarked
smaller roads nearby will be just as attractive, and will offer quieter
Several other map
markings will be of interest as you plan your route:
One to three carets. A single caret > on the road indicates
a hill with a 5% to 9% grade. Most cyclists in reasonably good shape
can handle this. Even a three-caret >>> hill (13% grade or
steeper) shouldn't deter a good cyclist, and steep hills are generally
shorter. The carets point uphill.
chateaux, forts, panoramic viewpoints, megaliths. Symbols as
shown on Michelin legend. These can all be interesting stops as
you bike, and are worth trying to fit onto your route. Megaliths,
represented by a pi-shaped symbol on the map, are primitive stone
arrangements from early or prehistoric times. Finding a megalith may
require you to use every map-reading skill you've got, and generally
there will be no information at the site, but it's still fun to search
out these remnants of ancient habitation.
Following Your Route
French roads are
often well-signed, but inevitably you'ill sometimes need a few minutes
to figure out where you are, and which road corresponds to the one
on the map. Most road signs are intended to direct car drivers, who
are looking for larger roads, so to the extent you prefer a quieter
route, you'll need some map-reading skills.
As you bike,
stay aware of your location on the map. Occasionally, confirm that
you really are where you think you are. You'll have lots of clues:
Check your bearings! Are you headed in the direction the map says
- Road signs.
In France, most people (and signs) tell directions in terms of what
town you're headed toward, rather than what route number you're
on. Road signs generally point to the next town or village. Route
numbers are used less often, but may appear in smaller type below
- Town name
signs. As you enter a town in France, you'll usually see its
name announced on a red-and-white sign. Leaving town, the name is
repeated but with a line through it. (Sometimes the route number
is also posted below the town name.) Most smaller towns have only
a few roads into them. Try to confirm, soon after leaving a village,
that you're on the right road.
How far do you expect to go before the next village, intersection,
or other landmark? Get a sense of how fast you're biking (a casual
cyclist will cover a kilometer in about 3 minutes) so you'll know
how long it should be until you reach a town or other map location.
If your route takes you through forest (green, on Michelin maps),
you'll know precisely where you are as you enter and leave the woods.
- Railroad tracks,
bridges, and rivers. Tracks and even small rivers are marked
on the Michelin maps. Have you crossed one? Are you expecting to?
Once you're familiar with the maps, you'll discover many other markings
(hills, for example) that help you keep your bearings. Warning:
There's a lot of highway construction in France lately. You could
pass a new super-highway that's not on the map.
- Road markers.
Some roads have small concrete markers, typically at 1-k intervals,
telling both distance and route number.
- Other landmarks.
Familiarize yourself with the other landmarks that are shown on
your map: Golf courses, churches, windmills, airports, and water
towers can all help you get your bearings.
Other French Maps
Two other maps series,
both from France's IGN (Institut Geographique National), cover the
entire country, and may be useful for certain purposes.
Standard IGN maps
offer twice the detail of Michelin. (Scale is 1:100,000 -- 1 cm. = 1
km.) They show some of those smallest paved roads, missed by Michelin,
that can be particularly fun for biking. They include more landmarks
(including one that's unexpected, but can be useful in getting your
bearings: High tension wires.) Unfortunately, these IGN maps do a poor
job of distinguishing between larger and smaller roads.
Biking from Avignon
to the Pont du Gard, for example, a pastoral road winds from the old
walled village of Aramon into Fournes. Once you're on this road, it's
easy to follow, and the Michelin map shows it as a larger road, with
various smaller roads branching into it. The IGN map, on the other
hand, makes no distinction between the main road and the smaller ones.
Since they all twist about quite a bit, the IGN map leaves you thinking
(erroneously) that you'll have a confusing intersection every kilometer.
bleue maps ("the blue series") have
4 times the detail of the Standard IGN maps (4 cm. = 1 km.). That's
8 times the detail of Michelin. If a farmhouse has a long driveway,
it shows up on the IGN serie bleue map; moreover you can tell
if the driveway is paved. Road hierarchies are indicated here, unlike
on the standard IGN maps. Many variations of terrain are also shown:
vineyards, orchards, forest, brush, are each distinguished with unique
patterns. Elevations are frequently given, and contour lines help you
evaluate the topography.
All sorts of
historic sites and other curiosities show up on these detailed maps.
Outside the wine town of Pommard in Burgundy, there's a small bridge
and dolmen that date from Roman times. We've never seen these mentioned
in any guidebook or on other maps, but we located them with the help
of the IGN map, and they've become an intriguing stop on our Burgundy
bike tour. (More modern structures may be absent, however; these maps
are only updated every decade or two.)
In short, we
love the IGN serie bleue maps. We have a whole file drawer
full of them -- and therein lies the problem for casual cyclists.
For a single day of biking, you could need 6 to 10 serie bleue
maps. A serie bleue map is a good investment if you're exploring
an area extensively, or if you want to do hiking or off-road biking.
Otherwise, it's probably overkill.
IGN maps are available in many U.S. travel stores, though not as widely
at the Michelin series. Serie bleue maps are widely available at
stationery shops and newsstands in France (though usually only for the
immediate area that you're in) but we are not aware of any U.S. supplier.