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updated 7/5/2006 5:27:36 PM ET 2006-07-05T21:27:36

Not much happens on a sunny afternoon in Lancrans until the hotel - just about the only commercial enterprise in this little village - opens its doors at 6 p.m.

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Not much happens after that, either, except for the arrival of a steady stream of cyclists who have just fought their way up into the Jura mountains in the warm evening sunshine.

Fortunately for the travelers, the family-run Hotel du Sorgia knows just what is needed. Cold drinks are served on the terrace. Dinners of fresh local produce are good value and portions are plentiful - and the owner even locks up the bikes for the night in his own garage.

"What we enjoy is the fun and freedom ... exposed to every type of weather, with only Gore-Tex, one's native wit, knowledge of bike repair and a credit card to protect one," says Neil Forsyth, one half of a married team who write European cycling guides.

But taking to a bicycle in France doesn't have to be as daunting as it looks on television - almost anyone can pretend to be Lance Armstrong.

  • The country's size means many rural roads carry little traffic, and motorists give bicycles a wide berth. Cities often have plenty of cycle lanes and there are bike-only tracks in the countryside.
  • Bike rental is easy, cheap and convenient at many train stations.
  • Hotels, like the Sorgia, go out of their way to be helpful to touring cyclists. It's easy to organize a lengthy tour from overnight stop to overnight stop.
  • Bikes can also be taken free of charge on most trains, so it's easy to avoid towns, hilly sections, or even just take a day off.

France's geographical diversity means wannabe Lances can pick an area to explore that suits their ambitions and fitness and choose a route that suits their fitness and energy levels.

For those who really wish they were taking part in the Tour de France, there are plenty of steep ascents and descents in the Alps, Pyrenees and other mountain chains. The race even opens up one stage - or Etape - each year to amateurs to test their endurance, just days before the peloton of top riders takes it on. This year Alpine resort L'Alpe D'Huez, not all that far from Lancrans, plays host.

Slideshow: A European tour But in other parts of the country, it's not hard to find relatively undemanding bucolic landscapes, where most of the riding is flat or with minor gradients, perfectly suited to family touring vacations.

A new bike route in France that's part of a larger effort to create bike trails around Europe opened last year in the Loire region. Called "Loire a Velo" (Loire by bike), the route offers flat trails with little or no traffic through the scenic countryside between Tours and Angiers, about 93 miles.

Here in Lancrans - whose population just about reaches 1,000 - there's little in the way of amusements, but for those who've battled their way up to enjoy the clean air, panoramic views and peace and quiet, probably all they want is a chance to soothe aching muscles and get a good night's sleep before they ride on in the morning.

The rounded Jura mountains - which run along the border between France and Switzerland - may lack some of the spectacular scenery of the nearby Alps.

But the good news is the roads meet the requirements: they aren't quite so steep, the countryside less crowded, and the waves of tree-bound ridges are a natural lookout point toward the high peaks farther south, dominated by the pyramid of Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak.

The area is sparsely populated, but even on quieter roads there are enough villages to give travelers the chance to take a break or stock up on picnic goods.

What food-lovers may enjoy best is the knowledge that they can eat fine French food to their hearts' content and still not worry about putting on weight, as they'll easily burn off those calories on the next day's ascents.

Although this is one area of France that is less well-known to tourists, summer can get busy. Out of season in sring or fall - when the weather may be a little bit more changeable, but more comfortable than summer for riding - it's easy to set off with no definite plans and stop wherever looks good.

Logis de France is a happy discovery - a hotel chain that's not a chain. It's an association of independent family-run establishments, often in scenic locations, offering a friendly welcome and high-quality local cooking.

The Sorgia has been in the hands of the same family for 110 years and is now run by Monsieur and Madame Marion, who also serve in the restaurant where set-price, four-course menus featuring local dishes cost from $28.50.

Dining can be al fresco on front or back terraces, while windows in the simple but comfortable rooms look out on a church, across lonely hillsides or over a deep river gorge.

After a hearty breakfast, though, the departing cyclists may find the best thing is enjoying the speedy run back down those views.

If you go:

GETTING THERE: Geneva airport, just over the border in Switzerland, is the easiest gateway to the Jura. Paris and Lyon airports are also easily accessible by car or train.

BIKE RENTAL AND TRANSPORTATION: Many French towns have their own municipal bike rental systems and train stations have outlets for longer-term rentals. Prices are low, from about $12 a day plus a deposit, and bikes can normally be returned at other stations in the region. But reservations are needed to transport bicycles on some trains and the system can sometimes be a little baffling. Ask at the station or check http://www.velo.sncf.com/ (French only) for details.

LODGING AND DINING:

  • Logis de France has an excellent Web site at http://www.logis-de-france.fr/uk/index.htm or a central reservations hotline on (011) (33) 1-4584-8384.
  • The Sorgia has double rooms from $55 a night. The chain has more than 20 hotels dotted around the Jura alone.
  • Another good bet for accommodation is the dense network of gites d'etape, akin to private youth hostels and designed specifically for cyclists and walkers - http://www.gite-etape.com/ (French only).
  • Most places offer a good choice of traditional (and often good value) French food with the emphasis on fresh products, with a wider variety of other types of cuisine in larger towns and major resorts.

LOIRE A VELO: Bike route in the Loire region; http://www.loire-a-velo.fr/index_en.htm.

GUIDE BOOKS: Lonely Planet publishes "Cycling France." Other detailed guide books for Europe and useful information available at http://www.bergstrassebikebooks.de/

TOUR DE FRANCE: The 93rd Tour de France runs from July 1-23; http://www.letour.fr/indexus.html.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Federation Francaise de Cyclotourisme, (011) (33) 5-5529-9878. Large-scale maps are available from the Institut Geographique National in Paris, http://www.ign.fr/rubrique.asp?rbr_id1&lng_idEN.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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