Useful Info

Fixing a flat

The best way to learn to fix a flat tire on your bike is by doing it with verbal assistance from someone with experience. But it's a simple process, and can be learned by anyone who spends time on a bicycle simply by doing it.

Because we've tried to explain each step in detail, taking into account variations that may occur, the process as described below may seem long. After you've done it a few times, you'll change a flat tire almost as fast as you can read this description. Ask our guide to arrange a group lesson some evening if you’re interested.

Practice before your next ride, if you can. Or just print out these instructions and take them with you, along with tire irons (usually made of plastic), a pump, and a spare tube or patch kit.

1. Prep the bike.

Disconnect the brake; the brake pads may prevent the tire (when it’s inflated) from passing through. Squeeze the brake pads together, then slip out the wire that has a knob at the end, so that the brakes can open fully. (If it's difficult to get the brake wire disconnected, you can skip this step. In that case, you may need to empty air from the tire before you re-mount it, if the inflated tube is too fat to go through the brakes.)

It’s easiest to change a flat when the bike is upside down, or with someone holding it up.

If your flat is on the back tire, also put the chain on the smallest gears, both front and back, to reduce tension on the chain. (Remember that you should only change gears while pedaling. In this situation, you can shift one gear at a time, raise the back tire and rotate the pedals forward until the change moves over, and continue, gear by gear, till you're done.)

2. Remove the tire. Open the quick release lever. (If your bike doesn't have quick-release tires, you'll need a wrench to turn the nuts that hold it in place.) If necessary, also loosen the thumb nut on the other side from the quick release, so the wheel will come off. Front tires come off easily.

Back tires are slightly trickier, but there's no need to get your hands greasy. Note the two small gears in the derailleur that the chain passes through. Push the one that's toward the back of the bike towards the front, and the other one toward the back, so that they roughly form a line from the wheel hub. (You'll be making the chain follow a straight line, rather than an "S" shape.) Before removing the back tire, mentally note how it sits in relationship to the back derailleur gears. Now lift the wheel out. (If you were not able to turn the bike upside-down, do not rest it on the bare derailleur; lay in on its left side.)

3. Remove the tire from the rim. Start opposite the valve. Slip the cupped end of one tire iron between the metal rim and the tire. Catch the lip of the tire, then lever down, pulling the tire out of the rim. Try not to pinch the tube inside as you do this (easier said than done, since you can’t see what’s happening inside.) Hold this tire iron in place by hand, or use the hook at the other end to attach it to a spoke. Now repeat the process about two spokes over to the right, and again two spokes to the left. This should loosen the tire enough that you can remove it by hand. Make a note of which part of the tire was at the valve, before removing it entirely, to help you find the source of the problem..

4. Look for the source of the problem. Run a finger all through the inside of the tire, trying to find what caused the leak. Often you won’t find anything, but if you do, remove it. (You can also try to locate the hole in the tube. The distance between the hole and valve will tell you where to look in the tire. You did note which part of the tire was at the valve, didn't you?)

5. Patch the tube. (Or pull out your spare.) To patch a tube, first find the hole. Put some air in the tube then listen or feel for the leak. (You’ll most readily feel it against your face.) Be sure the tube is clean, roughen it with sandpaper in the patch kit, then brush on a thin layer of rubber cement. Let it dry 5 minutes, then peel the foil backing from a patch, and press it firmly in place. Inflate the tube to be sure it’s fixed.

6. Slightly inflate the tube. Whether using a new or patched tube, you want just enough air in it to give the tube shape, but not enough to make it bigger than the tire. Put one edge of the tire back on the wheel.

7. Insert tube inside the tire. Put the tube inside the tire, working from the side of the tire that hangs over the rim. Start by pulling the valve through the hole, then work evenly from both sides of the valve. Be sure the valve is always coming straight through the hole, not at an angle. Continue around, working the tube in so that it’s completely inside the tire, and so that all of the tube is between the metal rims of the wheel. You should end up with the tube fully inside the tire. One side of the tire will be inside the rim, the other side will be just hanging over the rim.

8. Reseat the tire within the rim. Start at the valve again, and push the loose edge of the tire down inside the rim. Work evenly from both sides of the valve, again watching that the valve doesn’t get crooked. As you finish (opposite the valve), it will get harder. Continue until the tire is fully inside the rim, and seems equally seated all the way around. Do this by hand; using the tire irons could pinch the tube and create a new leak.

9. Work out any kinks. Pump a little more air into the tube, then work your way round the tire, kneading it a bit, peeking inside if possible to be sure the tube isn't pinched anywhere. Your goal is to work out any twists or kinks that might have developed in the tube, which would lead to another flat.

10. Inflate. Fully inflate the tire, and pause to be sure it’s fixed.

11. Put the tire back on the bike. For a back tire, twist back the derailleur, as you did when removing the wheel. Be sure the axle is all the way back in the slot.

12. Tighten. Tighten the thumb nut, if you loosened it when removing the wheel. Then tighten the quick release lever. It should be quite snug when it’s parallel to the bike. Spin the wheel to see that it moves smoothly and evenly.

13. Reconnect the brake. Check for rubbing. If the brake or frame rubs the tire, chances are the axle is not fully seated and all the way back. You don’t need to remove the wheel to do this; just loosen the quick release lever and try again.

If you put the chain onto the smallest gears (to fix a back tire), you don't want to bike like that. Put it into the middle gears.

Congratulations!

You never again need to worry that a flat tire will ruin a day of biking.

Using a map

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

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.

Transporting your bike

"I got the idea for Alyson Adventures in 1994, while biking through France with a small group I had organized from amongst my friends. Some of us brought our own bikes, having heard it was nearly impossible to rent good ones in France. It was a hassle at times, but worth it: Two members of our group had decided to rent bikes in Avignon, and struggled to make their aging 10-speeds keep up.

The biking was superb. But hauling the bikes to the airport, across the Atlantic, through the turnstiles of the Paris Metro, and onto various trains, wasn't the fun part.

A scattering of new shops now offer better rental bikes in France than what we found, but it's still hit or miss. I felt a new company could provide a real service not only be planning routes, reserving hotels, and getting together a friendly and fun gay group, but also by making better bikes available as part of our tours. Even so, some cyclists wonder if it's worth the extra trouble to bring their own bikes from home. Here are some factors to consider. This page is largely based on our experiences in France, but much of it will apply elsewhere."

--Sasha Alyson

1. How long is your bike holiday?

Most of the hassle of transporting a bike is involved in getting from your home to the start of the first bike day, then from the end of the biking holiday back home. If you'll be abroad for 3 weeks, you're getting quite a bit of benefit from your extra trouble. If you'll just be abroad for 1 week, it's less likely to be worth it.

2. What extra cost is involved?

Most airlines do not charge extra for a bike brought as one piece of baggage on an international flight -- but ask your airline, just to be sure. Be prepared, at the airport, to hear that you'll have to pay. Baggage checkers frequently don't know their employer's policy on this.

3. How much flexibility do you have?

Transportation strikes are a way of life in France. Several times a year, train workers all a brief strike. For most passengers, these strikes represent only a mild inconvience, but if you're trying to return to Paris with an expensive bicycle for tomorrow's non-refundable flight, it could be a major nightmare. I suggest, therefore, that you schedule the last few days of your holiday in the city that you plan to fly out of (Paris, Marseilles, Nice), as a cushion against such problems.

Carrying your bike on trains within Europe also creates questions. Certain trains are designated to carry bikes. For a train not so designated, you can generally walk on with a boxed bicycle, as carry-on luggage, but there's always a possibility of complications. When you check your bike as luggage, the railroad only promises that it will arrive within 3 days. In reality, it usually arrives the next morning, but you have no recourse if it takes longer.

4.Will you have storage problems?

In small towns, most hotels and inns have a spot for bikes. In larger cities, especially in Europe where centuries-old buildings are often squeezed together, don't assume there will be any place to keep a bike at your hotel. You may have to lock it outside. Have a good lock!

Also note that many airports and train stations close their luggage storage facilities from time to time, due to terrorism and bomb threats.

5. How important is it to have your own bike?

You've entered a land of ambiguities. You have to decide whether it's worth the trouble to bring your own bike, without knowing exactly what headaches you'll encounter, and without knowing exactly what the alternative is. Make the best decision you can. Whatever you decide, once you're coasting along the roads of Provence or Tuscany, it will be worth it.