My first foreign cycling trip was also my first completely solo adventure. Cycling onto the Dover to Calais ferry early one morning and heading across France, over the Swiss alps and onwards to Venice in Italy. It was both incredibly exciting and scary as hell. Not least because I barely spoke any French or Italian. I could order a croissant or beer, say please/thank you and apologise for being English, that seemed like the absolute basics I would need – until inevitably I got a bit stuck.
When you travel by bike you don’t just hop from one tourist spot to another, you see every inch of road, every village and pothole along the way. It’s in these real parts of the country that real people live with normal non-tourism jobs and yes, as you would expect not everyone speaks English. So I wish I’d had a better grasp of the language basics before I set off, as I inevitably needed some help. Closed hotels with a phone number to ring to get a room, they didn’t understand English so I had to find someone else to make the phone call for me. 35 degree heat and no shops to find water for hours, so I ended up knocking on doors several times to get water. I was often chatted to by friendly locals at the boulangerie or restaurant, and all I could do was apologise to them for being English. I really feel like I missed something by not speaking much of the language. For example I spent a whole evening and morning drinking tea and eating at a campsite with a French man who spoke hardly any English. We pointed a lot and mimed, with a few basic words. It kind of worked but it could have been so much better.
France is an obvious draw for the cyclist. Whether you prefer grand tours or the classics, you can’t deny that most of the best take place in France or French speaking areas. We already know most of the cycling specific terms like maillot jaune, bidons, soigneur, director sportive, col, haute categorie, velo, montagne, combativité, domestique, rouleur, grimpeur, sprinteur, puncheur etc. Just by being a cyclist watching Le Tour and maybe reading a few books we are immersed in some of the French language. We watch in awe every year as the professional gladiators of the sport duel it out on the iconic mountain passes, and then we go on holiday to cycle over the very same mountain passes at half the speed. Maybe even tick a few off on a cycle tour as we pass through.
I have spent a lot of time learning French during 2020-21 (COVID lockdowns) and will share a few ideas and resources I have found useful for learning a language. But as my blog is about sharing useful information, the first part of the post is going to be about sharing some essential basic phrases that you will need as a cyclist in France, either cycling across it or visiting. So you’ll be a bit better prepared for it than I was.
The basics – Speaking French
So the first thing you will need to know is that French people do not pronounce all of the letters written in a word. They never pronounce “h”. So words like l’hotel (the hotel) is lOtel. The last consonant in a french word is not pronounced either (unless it’s in FoR LuCK). So as a rule of thumb just skip the last consonant in the words in the phrases below (except in mon).
The Second thing you need to know is that you can’t speak French like you speak English. The noises are completely different, often very nasal, and the letters are pronounced in a very French way. So trying your best to speak with a French accent will go a long way towards being understood.
The essential phrases you will need:
I’m assuming you know the absolute basics like please/ thank you hello and goodbye, yes and no. So I will ignore these. I’ve included links for DeepL to give pronunciation examples (some may require you to accept the editing before clicking the audio playback button).
Basic phrases on a cycle tour or holiday
Where is the hotel? = Où est l’hotel?
Where is the campsite? = Où est le camping?
Où est la location de vélos? = Where is the bike hire?
Where are the toilettes? = Où sont les toilettes?
Can I camp here? Je peux camper ici? (said with a rising intonation at the end of the sentence)
I would like some water please = Je voudrais de l’eau, s’il vous plaît.
Do you have a bedroom for one night? = Avez-vous une chambre pour une nuit?
For one person = Pour une personne
For two people = Pour deux personnes
How much is it? = C’est combienne?
Do you have a place to put my bike? = Avez-vous un endroit pour mettre mon vélo?
See also the logistics section for some other ways to ask this.
Talking about your trip
Where are you going? = Où allez-vous?
I came from Calais = Je suis venu de Calais This means you have come from a place as a one-off, as in your one-off trip. Not from where where you normally live.
We’ve come from Calais = Nous sommes venus de Calais This means you have come from a place as a one-off, as in your one-off trip. Not from where where you normally live.
I’m going to Nice = Je vais à Nice
We’re going to = Nous allons à Nice
Now obviously complicated directions are going to be hard to understand. If you can offer a map for them to point at or a pen and paper to draw a map for something complicated. Here are some basic bits:
Have you got a map? = Avez-vous une carte?
If they point and say “là” that means there.
If they point and say “là-bas” that means over there.
Tout droit = Straight ahead (not to be confused with turning right which sounds similar)
Tourner à droite = turn right
Tourner à gauche = turn left
I’m sorry I’m English
If you do really need some help with more complicated directions you might need the following phrases:
I don’t understand = Je ne comprends pas
Speak more slowly please = Parlez plus lentement, s’il vous plaît
Where can I get (find) food? = Où trouver de la nourriture?
The Breakfast – Le petit-déjeuner
The Lunch – Le déjeuner
The Dinner – Le dîner
Where is the bike shop? = Où est le magasin de vélos
I need help = J’ai besoin d’aide (d’aide sounds like dead)
I have a puncture = J’ai une crevaison
My bike is broken = mon vélo est cassé
Do you have any oil for my bike? = Avez-vous de l’huile pour mon vélo?
For returning on a train if you do a one way trip or if something went wrong (you will need a bag for your bike to get on the long distance trains in France).
I would like a ticket for Paris with a bike = Je voudrais un billet pour Paris avec un vélo
(make sure you get the pronunciation of billet (bee-yay) right, as it’s not as it reads in English).
You will need to ask someone official where you can put your bike on the train. The simplest way to ask this is:
Where I put my bike? = Où je mets mon vélo?
With a rising intonation to make it a question. This sentence is not entirely correct, but easy to say and simple to remember. You will be understood in the context of the situation.
More commonly this would be said as:
Where is it that I put my bike? = Où est-ce que je mets mon vélo?
The est-ce que being a very common way to ask a question in French, these 3 short words each sounding like a single letter each, to sound like “e-s-k”, said a bit faster it commonly sounds like “es k”. So: Oo es k juh met mon velo?
Expect a response involving some pointing, the door that takes bikes should have a picture of a bike near it. We just need to know which end of the train it is on.
You could use:
I put my bike here? = Je mets mon vélo ici? to ask for confirmation if you’re unsure.
Making do with basic language:
There are lots of things you don’t need as you can simply read the price on the till or the context of your situation and your pointing will be pretty obvious that you want the pizza you are pointing at whilst saying something close to “Je voudrais… une … Pizza” or “deux” holding two fingers up and pointing in the standard English way we’ve embraced for years.
My 10 top tips for learning a language for free.
So that’s the basics, but to take things further I recommend the following steps to take as you feel ready for them. All of them are either free or have a free option, so you don’t have to spend any money at all.
1, Start small. Learning a language is overwhelming. Start small, doing just a little bit consistently. Do the bare minimum, but consistently. Duolingo is the perfect way to start. A simple free app to help you learn some words and basic phrases. 5 or 10 minutes a day is a good target. This will help the langage grow without overwhelming you and it will establish a habit.
2, Once your learning habit is established and you actually know some words, keep going and increase your learning time from the bare minimum to what you feel you can cope with. This will probably be around 30 – 40 mins a day total.
3, Start practicing – If you want to speak it you have to practice actually speaking. Duolingo has some audio lessons that are really good but not extensive. I found audiobooks fit very well into my busy life. I was able to do chores like the washing up/cleaning bikes/cut the grass, go for a walk (or steady ride on the turbo trainer) with some headphones on whilst practicing speaking and listening.
I used Learn French with Paul Noble and it was brilliant – You can get it for free using this link for a free Audible free trial.
This audiobook helps to practice speaking, learning common phrases and pronunciations and in turn helps to understand the spoken language, stopping you getting tongue tied with more complicated sentences. It finishes with drills to help recall things quickly and it works. A follow on course is also available to take it a little further: Paul Noble next steps in French.
4, Immerse yourself in the culture as this massively helps motivation – as cyclists we already get a bit of this every year with the Tour de France. Go on Youtube or Spotify and find some french language music you like, find some playlists and when exercising try to tune your ears into the words. I’m willing to bet that you know the phrase “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir” because you’ve heard it hundreds of times in a song. There might be lots of slang in the French Hip Hop so not that easy to follow but fun to try. Trying to pick out a few words you know and eventually being able to sing along to the chorus then maybe all of it. (Use Google for full lyrics and translations).
5, I signed up for a child’s newspaper email list: https://lepetitquotidien.playbacpresse.fr/ – I get some headlines and a short comic strip to try and understand in my email inbox that gives me a short reading practice several times a week.
6, Create free audio books like “1000 most common French Words” by extracting the audio from YouTube videos (using a free YouTube to mp3 software) and loading them onto your phone as audiobooks (use iTunes for iPhone – Set the file as audiobook in the settings before putting onto the phone – listen using the “Books” app).
7, Trying to think of sentences and have conversations takes practice. I use a free app called HelloTalk to chat and ask questions with native speakers – I practice French, they practice English. It seems like a huge step to take the plunge on this. But it’s pretty relaxed and we’re all in the same boat. I only use the free features.
8, Start writing a brief journal in the language. Whether it’s a sentence a week or a day about your life and interests. Using a pen, or taking advantage of auto correct in a google doc, messages or notes (install a second language on your phone for this). The idea being to practice sentences that apply to your life, ones that you would actually use in conversation.
9, Buy a Kindle. I bought a second hand one from eBay for the sole purpose of reading in French because I can highlight a word and instantly get a French – English dictionary to nudge me in the right direction of the meaning. I am also able to email* my Kindle free content that I am actually interested in like french language cycling blogs, or the transcripts of the Duolingo podcast (some engaging stories) which I can translate in the evening then listen to the next day. There is also a Kindle app for phones if you prefer a completely free option.
Try to read each story twice. Once to decipher it, then the second time to help you remember the words you got stuck on.
*Copy and paste from the webpage to a text document – set text to about 20pt and save as rich text format. Email the .rtf file to your Kindle’s unique email address which you can find here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/hz/mycd/digital-console/alldevices by selecting your device.
10, Be patient. It’s a huge step up from being comfortable on holiday to being “fluent” in a language. If you’re enjoying the process then relax, you’ll get there. If you’re not enjoying it, then either take a break or look for subject matter you are interested in studying in that language – like: https://www.lequipe.fr/Cyclisme/ . If something seems too hard then put it to one side for a bit then prepare to be amazed when you find it possible in a few months’ time. Remember that even if it makes no sense to you, it does to hundreds of millions of other people and some of them aren’t geniuses. So the rules do make sense eventually, they’re not wrong, just different. It’s also ok to make mistakes, the aim is to be understood, not perfect.
Note – Amazon links are affiliate links, but yes I do actually use them, and clicking on them helps to support this website. Links to the free apps are the ones I use, I have no affiliation with them.