We've 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. 

Our 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 region;
  • 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?

Michelin maps 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:

Michelin Map

(The ruler at the bottom is for scale, since computer screen resolutions may vary.)

Gordes, toward 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, when necessary.
  • Secondary 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.
  • "Cyclable 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.
  • Unmarked 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 unpaved.
  • 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 cycling.

Several other map markings will be of interest as you plan your route:

  • Hills. 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.
  • Windmills, 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:

  • Compass. Check your bearings! Are you headed in the direction the map says you're headed?
  • 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 main sign.
  • 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.
  • Distance. 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.
  • Forests. 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.

IGN serie 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.

Standard 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.

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