Take your own tour de France without spending a fortune

Maggie LaCoste pauses along a lavender field in Provence, France.

After watching scenes from the historic Tour de France, the 102nd of which wraps up today in Paris, have you ever dreamed of biking through its cities and villages, vineyards and fields of lavender and sunflowers?

Perhaps you have but were daunted by the prospect of speaking French, the expense of joining a guided tour or the logistics of going it alone.

A 64-year-old Mount Pleasant woman says don’t be deterred and has carved a niche for herself telling people how to bike in France for recreational travel and not spend a small fortune doing it.

Maggie LaCoste, along with her husband, Russ, and their now-grown daughters, have been doing it on their own once or twice every year for more than 25 years.

In the past five, she’s parlayed those vast experiences into a popular, internationally followed blog, “Experience France by Bike,” and more recently into four, self-published guidebooks with more coming.

“The reason I started writing is we’d come back from trips and tell friends about it and I realized that the only thing available to normal, novice recreational cyclists were (guided) tours,” says LaCoste. “Those are fine if you want to spend $5,000 on a vacation and not meet any local people.”

She says biking in France can be done for no more than $100 a day, not factoring in airfare.

LaCoste is quick to note that she does not conduct tours, but rather provides guidance on doing self-guided tours that are contrary to whirlwind tours of visiting multiple countries in a relatively short period of time.

“I encourage people to experience France the slow way — by bike,” she says, adding that she skips often costly, tourist-oriented hotels in larger cities for bed-and-breakfast inns in small towns and villages.

Her recommendations on where to stay, for example, gravitate toward “the nicest, most authentic, owner-owned and owner-operated for the best value.”

Contrary to conventional thoughts about French attitudes toward Americans, LaCoste says they always travel by bike with a U.S. flag, and people are almost always friendly and helpful.

“The French are intrigued by Americans,” says LaCoste. “When we get lost and pull out a map, we’ll always draw a crowd of people wanting to help.”

And traveling by bicycle, she stresses, is key to breaking down barriers. It also helps to learn 50 to 100 French phrases that will help Americans with basic communications.

“To a French person, if you take the time and make an effort to speak their language, it doesn’t matter how bad you butcher it. I know I have,” says LaCoste.

As for cycling in France in July during “Le Tour,” LaCoste says it’s an ideal time, but don’t do it in August when most French local business owners take vacations. “You’d be better off waiting until September.”

And while LaCoste is finally expanding her cycling reach beyond the French borders, her heart will always remain in France.

“If you can spend a week, two weeks or three weeks biking in France, it will change your life.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.