The Outskirts of France

Cycling is a great way to see France, not only does the scenery change but so does the food in your plate. The Tour de France in July is the obvious highlight but the season stretches across 118 days from the GP d’Ouverture La Marseillaise in January to the Chrono des Nations in October.

But if France often prides itself on a reputation for tourism and gastronomy the pro cyclist rarely sees this side. Whilst TV images show châteaux and vineyards, the riders face concrete motels and oleaginous pasta.

The villain of the piece is the chain hotel. The names are Kyriad, Campanile, Ibis, Novotel and others but if the label varies, the experience does not. Typically these are purpose-built hotel blocks found on the outskirts of a town, often within minutes of the autoroute junction. Essentially they are all the same although with experience the riders begin to pick out the differences. For example Campanile means a slim packet of biscuits in the room.

Handy access for travelling salesmen and passing tourists looking to grab a night’s rest, these are rarely destination hotels for a stay given the offer a view of the route nationale or industrial estate. Sometimes when the cyclist wakes up and looks outside it can be impossible to determine the location as the view is of large road junction or a faceless industrial warehouse.

There’s nothing wrong with these hotels. They serve a purpose and are a reflection of economics, geography and planning laws. Most often the riders will sleep fine. But they rarely reflect anything local, it’s all part of a homogeneous corporate exercise that makes racing in France just that bit more sterile. Teams try to make things better. Several travel to races with their own mattresses to ensure riders get a familiar bed for the night.

But the biggest complaint has to be the food. When you’re asleep you don’t notice the hotel but the evening meal is one of the rare moments of relaxation in the day and it can’t just be the moment to refuel, as important as taking calories can be. After a day spent racing and travelling the evening massage and meal is one of the rare moments to escape the day job.

But the hotels are told they’re hosting cyclists and given instructions to offer a repas sportif or sports meal. This means pasta but often, if not always, the kitchen struggles to get it right. France is famed for its gastronomy but in reality this butter-rich cooking is forbidden for the cyclist and besides, this is rare outside of fine restaurants. Pasta close to liquefaction is the most common serving. This needn’t be so since pasta is part of French cooking in some regions but these hotels rarely offer the local touch.

Europcar need a truck to get their cuisine française

Again teams try to fix this. Some employ a chef and try to get them to commandeer the kitchen for the night but this isn’t always possible. A few don’t just bring mattresses, they have a portable truck that acts as a catering unit. The big teams do this but tellingly Europcar does the same too with a special truck provided by Fleury Michon, a food company. There’s everything here to get good food and nutrition, from fresh ingredients to scales to weigh the portions. When even a French team thinks twice about eating in France…

Now out of town chain hotels exist in other countries. Yet France seems to have more and certainly the peloton uses them more when racing in the country. Ride the Giro and many family-run hotels feature on the route. It’s not all bad these chain hotels offer some sanitation, the guarantee of hot water and normally Wifi too. All these things matter.

Five Star Advertising
Riders in the Tour of Oman are probably enjoying the best hotel of the year. Both the Tour of Qatar and the Tour of Oman use luxury five-star hotels and riders get to return to the same room each night. But that is half the point, the Oman race exists largely exists to promote the country as a tourist destination and riders seem only too happy to tweet about the comfortable rooms or big dinners. Exactly what the organisers want.

There’s something egalitarian about the millionaire cyclists lodging in these motels, proof that the sport is not exclusive and big egos are rare. But still, these cyclists are the world’s best. The Tour de France can put riders in a 2 star hotel but imagine the FIFA World Cup doing this? Imagine an international convention for, say, surgeons or astronomers and they’d probably pick better places although of course they’d chose a host town or city where this was available.

Should there be a minimum standard?
Still things have improved. It’s not long ago that the Tour de France was putting the peloton in a school for the night on makeshift army folding beds and hot water was a luxury. The accommodation has to be covered by the race promoter so it’s hard to impose extra costs on the smaller races. A few times a year a team will flee their designated hotel to seek refuge somewhere else. If anything it’s not the hotel but the food that really gets to riders and this is hard to control before.

Teams have to stay where the race has booked them for the night but if you’re travelling, look for hotels in towns or checkout the chambres d’hôtes. Away from cities you’ll find good alternatives for low prices.

France is famous as a tourist destination and for its gastronomy. But the uniformity of these hotels means you can travel the country yet wake up in the same bed. As for fine food the closest most racing cyclists get to the Michelin Guide is when their motel is located on the same out of town retail park as a tire fitter like Speedy or Norauto. After a hard day of racing, the recovery matters. A cheap hotel is fine for a night but poorly cooked food can really get to the riders. This isn’t the story of money as it costs nothing to check the cooking instructions on a box of pasta.

Races like the Tour de France try to mix the quality of hotels and dining but even the world’s biggest race uses some of France’s most plain hotels. If you want to see France, don’t race.

Just as these hotels all look the same… so do the articles. I’d started the piece above on Sunday only to find journalist, writer and rider Guillaume Prébois saying the same thing today in French and it’s worth viewing his piece just for the photos.

34 thoughts on “The Outskirts of France”

  1. Ouch, the more you know about the life of a PRO, the more you are happy being a slow amateur. But, I feel for these lads. I played non-Big Time college sports in the U.S. and out situation was similar. After late practices we either had to eat the last stuff left on the line at the dining hall or, if it was really late, buy our own food out-of-pocket.

    Yup, if you are training hard and working hard the one luxury in life was some attention from the physio and a good meal. If you don’t get it, life is not so pleasant.

  2. Thanks, as always. One of the highlights of the Tour last year for me was Lionel Birnie’s food diary where he recorded the evening meals he was served as he followed the race through France.

  3. Love these inside peeks into the racing. The “guts” so to say that we do not see. Great work per usual! Looks like going PRO is not as glamorous as some make it out to be!

  4. The peleton enjoys superior travel and accomodations for the two World Tour stops in Canada.

    In Quebec City all the teams stay at the Chateau Frontenac

    A 5 star establishment with stunning views, luxurious rooms and cuisine that gan only be described as mind-boggling. Old Quebec City offers world class dining experiences as well, last year especially we ran into a host of pros enjoying various local eateries the evening prior to the race. No overcooked pasta in our part of the world 😉

    In Montreal they stay at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, another in the Fairmount chain that is world class. As Montreal is also a foodie destination the offers on menu are as varied as they are brilliant. Ted King blogged last year about his visit to the Pied de Cochon, where everything they serve incorporates wild game and/or foie gras.

    For those racers who are ending their seasons in Montreal, the opportunities for mischief amound 😉

  5. First met Guillaume , whilst riding the route of the TDF in 2000 , he was driving the Team PR Luggage from hotel to hotel .

    Next time i saw him , he had got a job as a team PR Officer , then another year he took to riding his bike on the route of the TDF but reporting for a Newspaper . With his duties and the need to get to the press room each day , we didn’t get to ride together , of course he got to share Team Facilities and had transport to move from Arrivee to Ville Depart , each night . I got to the Ville depart either by bike or on the thumb . Late night arrival left me with a choice of YHA ( equivalent ) or camping out with families that helped out .

    Food was the last thing on my agenda after transfer , fixing the bike for the next day and sorting out a bed ! Valreas in 1998 , saw the farm dog kicked out of the house to give me a place to sleep before the ride to Grenoble . Caught up with friends there for the night of sleep , before the horror etappe to Les des Alpes .

    Riding in the snow today reminded me of that hardship . Luckily i only had a couple of hours today and a warm shower , like i needed at the Arrivee YHA , that night .

  6. The Feed Zone Cookbook by Alan Lim and Biju Thomas echoes how horrific the food can be in the racing environment and emphasizes the premise that performance can be materially affected by the meal intake.

  7. I think in football, the teams select (and pay!) their own hotels. Are the teams really required to stay in these hotels or is it just that they don’t want to spend money if there’s already something booked for free?

  8. The text below the Marco Pinotti pic made me smile!

    >The combo chef&nutritionist makes the life in the road really enjoyable. Thanks @BMCProTeam

  9. I liked the 2 cheap Novotels I stayed in Paris and Lille. Clean and adequate food. Nothing special. But I don’t mind dive hotels. All I want is a decent place to sleep. And I usually bring food with me just in case.

  10. The food in France can be surprisingly poor (and it can also be great) and somewhat limited in range (believe it or not). Travelling there I always pack a bottle of red, some cheese, some bread. If the meal that night is crappy, do the bread and cheese. If it was really, really crappy, do the bottle of red immediately.

  11. Good article in a recent issue of Cyclist that featured the chefs behind BMC, Sky etc. Mobile kitchens are becoming the norm with the chef using local produce on the day. Sky take it to higher level with menus tried early on in the season.
    In France, the Logis de France chain have always been my favourite. They do vary according to the grading system they use but generally not expensive with high standards of catering.

  12. Thanks (I think) for reminding me why we DON’T follow TdF anymore! Started back in 1988 and did it through 1998. 10 years of those hotels and awful food. It’s NOT just the chain hotel “chefs” that fail to understand how to cook pasta (the French make wonderful bread, but just can’t cook pasta) I can remember eating once at a place with signs touting their homemade pasta. While I was very hungry this evening I simply could not stomach this gelatinous slop cooked in what I guess was the same water they’d been cooking it in for days or weeks!!! It’s great for the general cycling fan to see that even the top pros don’t get any special treatment on the world’s biggest race when it comes to lodging – I can remember trying to do an interview with the Motorola team once when you couldn’t hear the boyz because of the roar of the traffic at the cheap chain hotel (motel is a better word for these) right at the side of a major autoroute. It was an eye-opener for the clients to say the least! Following the Giro (we did this for the same period) was much, much more enjoyable…a big reason we started CycleITALIA after 10 years with the other folks.

  13. As a vegetarian I have never had my evening meal staying at these hotels but the breakfast is usually more than fine, one of the highlights for our children, and the rooms are generally clean and good for a sleep.

  14. Though have to say one of the great things about following cycling is staying overnight in a hotel before a race, and there being a chance that one of the teams is staying there too. The geek in me gets a kick out of seeing the guys off their bikes and out of the race setting – and even more so, getting an eyeful of the bikes and having a chat with the mechanics as they prepare them in the grounds before loading up them up and driving to the race start.

  15. This is also a consequence of races that are you just too big and overcrowded, with toom many teams, too many riders, and too much staff in general. You need a lot more beds than you would with a 10-team race. And so you need to go to cities, sous-préfecture-sized, close to a RN, with all the motels near the Leclerc and the Carrefour, and all those unpleasant sights between a French old city and the motorway, where no tourist in his or her right mind would ever care to stay. Much smaller races would be able, to go to much smaller towns or even villages, and get a much more local and personal treat. And also to afford less cheap accomodation.

    • When do you think the TdF got too big? In 1988 the cars were Peugeot and the water was Perrier but things were pretty much the same. I DO agree with you on the race size idea in general – there ought to be just a dozen top-tier teams (if they insist on having the top-tier) and then 4-6 wildcards. But even with this I doubt LeTour would be able to find better-than-average lodgings for the teams every night. They seem to do a decent job of rotation so things even out – a crappy autoroute place one night followed by a 4 or 5 star chateau the next…but I figure the food quality’s the same pretty much everywhere – it was back-in-the-day we followed TdF. One exception was a place in Alpe d’Huez. We stayed there with the ONCE team as I recall and the food was pretty decent. When I complimented them on this they told me the hotel was totally run by DANES, they had only one French person there for language issues! I remember rider agents like Tony Rominger dining there and I think we saw Mr. 60% lurking about as well. Word gets out when you have decent food!

  16. Great article. Having been to France a few times, it’s always amazed me what the standard hotel food is like, and how crap it is. Britain isn’t exactly amazing in that respect, but they do seem to be able to cook simple stuff like pasta.

    In terms of cycling food, Sky have their full kitchen on the go and it’s worth following Soren Kristiansen, @teamskychef. Though not if you’re hungry.

    • Soren tweeted after reading this last night:

  17. Sort of supply and demand (not sure what the right term is). When you get the business no matter what, you don’t have to make it great. Oman and Canada are working hard to get the euro pros there so it’s 5 star hotels and excellent food (latter per another commenter). Perhaps some teams want to band together and say they are only staying at places where there is good food…watch the motels scurry around then and make things (somewhat) better!

  18. My husband and I usually go on at least one mountain/hill walking holiday a year, and frequently find ourselves staying in a hotel that’s been used by the Tour or the Giro at some point. The set menu one gets on one of our walking holidays is probably similar to what the riders get as their repas sportif, and has led me to comment to my husband that I can understand how PDM ended up giving Intralipid to the whole team rather than eat what was on offer. Food in the Italian hotels — with the notable exception of a couple we’ve stayed at in the Sudtirol — is markedly better.

    However, if I were a rider chosen on a team for the Tour of Austria, I’d rapidly discover several reasons why I wasn’t well enough to race that week .

  19. I frequently drive thru France and usually use the F1 hotels. Cheap and decent enough for just a bed for the night. No restaurant in these so I have to go where the locals go, poor French people, apart from one or two exceptions, the standard restaurant serves up pretty average stuff, and it’s 5 euros for a pint.

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