One of the things I will miss most in returning home to Boston after six weeks on a work assignment in France is the cycling culture here (please stop snickering, this is serious). Except for a one day car rental to pick up my family from the airport in Geneva, which was an adventure, we have relied entirely on non-automobile transportation.
Even real cities like Geneva (just over the border in Switzerland) or Annecy have bike lanes all over town. The automobile traffic is usually considerate of cyclists. The countryside is full of regular riders of all ages and shapes, and also world-class athletes. My family got to see the latter race in the Criterium Dauphine. I also get to see them in teams, from behind, as they pass me on the roads cruising along at perhaps double my pace. Sometimes, they have a cheery word of condolence for me -- pointing out in French as best I can tell that the headwind is strong, as if that would explain why I alone am affected.
Every type of public transportation seems to accept bicycles. The inter-city bus driver will stop and block traffic in order to open the cargo area for a bicycle. On Saturday, my family caught a special city bus from Annecy to the peak of a mountain called the Semnoz. Fully half of the interior of the public bus was dedicated to hooks for mountain bicycles, and every single hook was filled. The cyclists have what looked to be a glorious reckless path downhill back to Annecy. Then, a couple days later near the Mt. Blanc range, there were kids with mountain bikes on a cable car ride!
The rail-to-trail bike path nearby from Annecy to near Albertville is the best I have ever traveled for length, quality, and landscape. The mountain roads are nice too. Here is a Map My Ride link and image for my favorite ride this summer, a loop from Talloires around the La Tournette range and then over the Col de L'Epine, which will be part of the Tour de France this year.
Among the various explanations for the "French Paradox" -- the surprisingly moderate rates of obesity and chronic disease amidst a culture of enjoying plenty of delicious food -- some scientists focus on the modest traditional portion sizes or some magic chemical in the skin of red wine grapes. But, watching all the walking and bicycling, and the priceless treasures of public investments in facilities for non-automobile transportation, I can't help wondering if the output side of the energy balance equation deserves the credit.