Cycling the Via Francigena

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Introduction. This section covers the main issues for those pilgrims wanting to cycle the Via Francigena. Some will be experienced cycle tourists who will be interested in the specific points that are important to cyclists on this route. Others may be pilgrims with little or no experience of cycle touring, and have decided to cycle because they don’t have the time to complete the journey on foot. There may also be some who take up the journey as a challenge to develop their skills and experience as a long distance cyclist. The section provides some basic information, and also provides references to books and websites that can supply more information and lead you to more detailed information. We welcome feedback that will help us improve this part of the website.

Choice of Bike. If you are already an experienced cycling tourist you will have made your choice long ago. Newcomers to cycle touring may think of using a mountain bike or hybrid rather than one specifically designed for long distance cycle touring. Think carefully and take advice from friends, colleagues, local cycle clubs, and borrow or hire different types of bike to see which suits you. Type of handlebars (drops or straights), range of gears (range on rear cogs and double or triple chain ring on the front) and tyre type are the crucial choices. If you opt for a mountain bike do fit road tyres which will have less rolling resistance than off-road tyres. Make sure the cycle rack is strong and can be secured to the bike frame at four points. You will need a comfortable saddle – gel saddles offer good levels of comfort, and there are saddles designed specifically for women. Only by doing several long rides will you really know if your saddle suits you. If buying a new bike, spend time looking in several shops, and if possible go to a reputable specialist dealer to discuss your needs with the experts in terms of daily distances you aim to travel, luggage weight you will carry, and the need for a good range of gears, particularly at the lower, for pedalling yourself and your luggage over steep hills, long mountain passes and into head winds. Make sure you fit a bell and lights. A good dealer will make sure you get the right size of bike and set up the handlebars and saddle to give you the best position for comfort and efficiency. If buying a new bike do not be tempted to go for the cheapest possible – you can buy a mountain bike for as little as £100-150 – but you will pay dearly in terms of pedalling a heavy machine with poor gear ratios and components. Talk with the dealer about what you want to achieve in terms of daily distance, amount of luggage you aim to carry, and your experience ( or lack of it) of cycle touring. 

Bike Security. Secure locks can be both bulky and heavy. You need a compromise that will prevent opportunistic thefts but is reasonably light – a combination lock, for example. If you are going as a pair or in a larger group, each person can have a lightweight lock used to lock several bikes together, as well as at least one locked to an immovable object. Most hotels and hostels will have secure storage for bikes.  (The author of this article had no problems on his journey to Rome). If camping, there is usually some object close to your tent to lock the bike to. Failing that, tie a length of string to the bike with the other end tied to a tent pole: any attempt to move the bike will shake the tent and alert you!

Bike maintenance. At very least you need to carry the tools, and have the skills, to remove wheels and tyres, to change inner tubes, mend punctures, adjust brakes and possibly change brake pads. Find a friendly cyclist and ask to be shown how to carry out these tasks, and practice them until you are confident you can carry them out with reasonable efficiency. Trying to do these tasks for the first time by the side of a busy road in bad weather can be very frustrating. Carry a chain breaker, spare chain links, spare spokes and spoke spanner. Even if you can’t use them yourself many other cyclists will be able to, and most would stop to offer assistance if they see you in difficulty or stranded. There are many good basic bike maintenance guides and it is fairly easy to find classes in basic cycle maintenance and repairs. 

Bags and Panniers. Purchase good quality panniers that are waterproof and have strong fastenings that will keep them locked firmly onto the bike. Get a handlebar bag that can be easily unclipped and has a map case attached to the top as this will make route finding easier, and allow you easy access to sun block, food, glasses and other essentials on the journey. Do not carry too much stuff – your first practice ride with a fully loaded bike may help focus your mind on what is essential, and what you can leave out to lighten your load. The author of this article never uses front wheel panniers, even when camping, as everything can be fitted into a handlebar bag and two rear panniers with just the tent and sleeping mat strapped on the top of the carrier. Any cycle touring book will offer advice about lightweight camping equipment and suitable clothing.

Clothes. Make sure you have several pairs of padded shorts or underwear to allow a daily change and time for drying. A high standard of personal hygiene is vital if you are to avoid a sore backside when cycling significant distances on a daily basis – a daily shower and change of padded shorts. A small first aid kit with non-stick dressings, a bandage, Elastoplast’s, antiseptic creams, Vaseline and pain killers is essential. E45 cream is a useful all-purpose cream to soothe sore skin, and rehydrate areas exposed to the sun. Cycling gloves or mittens provide extra padding for your hands on roads with bad surfaces. As well as a good quality waterproof and windproof jacket, make sure you have enough clothes to wear several layers in wet/windy/cold weather. There are several high mountain passes to cycle over and even in summer time it can be very cold in the Jura Mountains, the Alps and Apennines. Remember to carry some clothes appropriate for visiting churches – many have dress codes and will not let you in wearing shorts or sleeveless tops.

Health and Fitness. Cycling such a long distance as Canterbury to Rome needs determination, resilience and fitness. Whilst cycling 40-80 miles a day as a one-off is not too difficult, maintaining the effort most days for three weeks is much harder, unless you have developed a good level of fitness before you start your pilgrimage. You need to cycle at least twice a week for some months before your start date. Over a period of a few weeks, work up to your expected daily distance, and then go out several times to cover this distance with fully-packed panniers. Use the bike and clothes you will use for your pilgrimage to iron out any problems. If in doubt as to your general health seek the advice of your G.P. Swimming, walking and running will all improve your general fitness levels as you prepare for your journey and, if winter weather prevents outdoor cycling, many gyms have bike machines.  Home trainers which fit your own bike are now reasonably priced. You will enjoy your journey so much more if you are not permanently exhausted. Be realistic in your daily distance target and put some rest days into your schedule.

Maps and routes. An important part of planning is to take some responsibility for route choices. Different guides will give you slightly different routes, and even within one guide there may be one or more alternative routes suggested for some sections. However, major towns on the route are clearly identified, and will be the same across different guide books. For cyclists there will usually be a variety of routes available between major towns, avoiding main roads. Be prepared to make changes if you find yourself on a road that feels dangerous, either with many heavy trucks or traffic going too fast. For cycling a road map at a scale of 1:250,000/300,000 will show virtually all surfaced roads. The cheapest and easiest to manage are road atlases; most French ones also cover the Swiss section of the Via Francigena, and the section to Aosta in Italy. The pages can be torn out and provide a lighter and less bulky alternative to the Michelin or IGN series.  In Italy you can also use a road atlas. For finding a good route into Rome it is best to purchase a larger scale map closer to your destination.

Consider using canal and canalised river towpaths, especially to get in and out of towns. Leaving Calais for Guînes there is a good route along the canal. In Reims, drop down to the river after leaving the cathedral and there is a good tow path down to Sillery, a quiet and safe way out of the town. From the cathedral in Châlons-en-Champagne there is a towpath down to Pogny, where you leave the canal. Cross the river Marne and on to Vitry-La-Ville. The Rhone cycle path from Villeneuve to Martigny follows both the canal towpath and the river, providing an off-road route with a good surface for cycling.

Particular problems are from Corbeny to Reims, where the D1044 should be avoided as it is a fast road with many heavy trucks avoiding the autoroute. Around Besançon care is needed to avoid the main roads coming into town from the north, and climbing out of the centre towards Beurre. From Moutier Haute-Pierre to Pontarlier avoid the N57 by taking the minor roads to Ouhans, Bians-les-Usiers and Dommartin. Going south from Pontarlier to the turn off to Sainte-Croix there is no alternative to the N57 for around 5 km. Take great care and avoid busy times of the day. Martigny to Aosta poses problems, especially from Martigny to Orsières (narrow and extremely busy road with no pavement or hard shoulder in places), and from Bourg-Saint-Pierre to the entrance to the Grand St Bernard tunnel (narrow roads, and long sections of gallerias for avalanche protection, which are really like tunnels with open windows on one side but with no pavement or hard shoulder either). Trains from Martigny to Orsières will take bikes, as will the Swiss post bus from Martigny to Aosta. You can travel by Swiss post bus to Orsières, Bourg-Saint-Pierre, the tunnel entrance (and cycle over the col) or all the way to Aosta. The bus leaves from the train station in Martigny and Orsières, and from the centre of Bourg-Saint-Pierre. The condition of many of the minor roads in Italy is poor, with deep potholes, long subsidence cracks which can trap a bike wheel, and loose gravel. Constant attention to the surface, searching for pot holes, large cracks and bumps, will minimise damage to you and your bike. 

General Safety Points. Purchase and always wear a good quality helmet. It can make all the difference between minor injuries and a major trauma if you come off your bike, or are knocked off by traffic. Sunglasses are essential in bright sun, and regular use of sun-block will help avoid painful skin conditions caused by sunburn. If coming from the U.K., cycling on the right can cause problems – first thing in the morning, for example, or when starting after a break and there is no other traffic about. Be vigilant at all times for traffic coming from side roads, for potholes and loose surface gravel. Cycle routes through large towns often end abruptly, throwing you back into a fast moving stream of traffic. Hard shoulders can suddenly end (e.g. on the N 57 south of Pontarlier), and in towns a cycle lane can end without warning (e.g. Reims, Besançon, Lausanne and many towns in Italy). The final few kilometres from the Rome ring road into the Vatican need extra care as, although the traffic moves slowly, there is a good deal of very erratic driving. The cycle path down the Tiber into the Vatican can provide a safe route, but getting to the path itself may involve some very busy roads. From Sutri consider going to Bracciano and then the road towards Osteria. Just after the turn off to Vigna di Valle, turn south on a small road to Tragliata and Boccea. Here you have to negotiate a large roundabout under the Rome motorway ring road (there are pavements so you can walk with your bike if the traffic is intimidating). From here follow the Via Boccea to the Vatican. It is a busy road, but it is wide, has pavements if you choose to walk some sections, and did not feel dangerous when this author cycled it in 2014

Web-sites and books

European Association of the Via Francigena website www.viefrancigene.org/en/ has details of the cycle route from Bourg Saint-Pierre to Rome

EuroVelo 5 London-Brindisi www.eurovelo.com via Rome, provides a cycle route although it deviates from the Via Francigena

The Rhône valley cycle route www.en.viarhona.com covers the route from Lausanne to Martigny, mainly on dedicated cycle tracks

Cycle touring club www.ctc.org.uk has a great deal of information and advice on its website. Good for tips on equipment, safety and insurance at very good rates

The Bike Book – Complete bicycle maintenance, Milson. F. (2013) Haynes Publishing Yeovil, UK.