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I learned to ride in Toronto, where behaviour such as the following is legal:

if there is not enough space to share the lane safely with another vehicle, it is legal to ride near the centre of the lane, so that drivers must wait or change lanes to overtake

Is this also true in France?

I asked a french man (the father of a competitive cyclist) who replied something which implied, "no": that cyclists should keep right at all times, and that although groups ride two-abreast, they return to single-file if a car approaches from behind.

I would like to double-check: is it legal, and is it at all customary or is it likely to annoy or cause aggressive driving?

Examples of when I might want to use it include:

  • In a town where the road is narrow or lined with parked cars
  • In the country-side, going up a hill with many bends, where it wouldn't IMO be safe for an overtaking car to leave their own lane (which would tempt them to overtake me without leaving much margin)

Cars routinely slow down behind tractors when they go up that hill; but when I was driving (a car) I was surprised to see a cyclist hugging the verge as if there was enough room for me to overtake him safely (I didn't think there was and so I didn't).

Also, is there any legally-required overtaking margin (for example, "cars must leave a gap of one metre (3 feet) when overtaking a cyclist")?

FWIW I understand there is strict liability law in France, which may help, nevertheless I'd like to do whatever it is I should.

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Over here in the UK it is the same - but change the right side to the left side, here you can ride up to roughly one metre from the side, and traffic are supposed to give you at least a metre clearance when overtaking. You may move to the middle of the lane if you are progressing to turn at a junction. Sometimes, depending on traffic and how used to it you are will depend. Some newbies would rather stay on the side till the road is clear. – Kiltie12 Jun 11 '14 at 3:03
@Kiltie I'm sorry, but everything you've said is wrong. I encourage you to identify which part of the highway code mentions any of that stuff. – Nathan Cooper Jun 13 '14 at 23:22
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Note: I finally found the relevant article, so I'm editing my first answer.

According to the article R431-7 of the French "Code de la route":

Les conducteurs de cycles à deux roues sans remorque ni side-car ne doivent jamais rouler à plus de deux de front sur la chaussée.

Ils doivent se mettre en file simple dès la chute du jour et dans tous les cas où les conditions de la circulation l'exigent, notamment lorsqu'un véhicule voulant les dépasser annonce son approche.

Which could be translated as:

Drivers of two-wheeled cycles without a trailer or sidecar should never ride more than two abreast on the road.

They must drive in single file from nightfall and in all cases where the traffic conditions require it, in particular when a vehicle wanting to overtake them is approaching.

It's not really clear if that imply you have to stay on the right of the road, but according to the second paragraph it would make sense to draw this conclusion.

However, especially in France, there is the official law and the less-official customs, which can be quite different from each other sometimes. From my personal experience of both living in France and riding a bicycle, staying in the middle of the lane with cars behind you is the surest manner to make the driver loose his patience and start trying to do crazy things, like driving few centimeters close to your back wheel. So I would not advise it. But keeping a safe distance between your path and the right side of the road, such as around 1 meter, is what most riders do.

For a full reference of the "Code de la route", you can check the legifrance website. You can get the latest version of the text, and also download a PDF version. It's cross-referenced and you can search on the text. Obviously it's in French :)

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Nice answer. Could you add a reference to R414-2 and R414-4-IV? I believe the latter in particular is relevant to the question. – R. Chung Aug 21 '13 at 15:22
Thank you. I can read French but I did expect that the letter of the law and its normal usage are different. For example, in Ontario the law just says "as close as practicable to the right edge of the road": which, for bicycles is used/interpreted as, "not on the edge if that is unsafe". Your suggestion that the cyclist leaves a meter of margin may leave enough room to avoid a car, if it comes without pulling out to the left. And I did want to know the surest way to make the driver lose his patience, to avoid doing that. – ChrisW Aug 21 '13 at 15:32
@R.Chung: ChrisW already made the edit to my other answer and added the reference to R414-4 (IV). Thanks! – Laurent Grégoire Aug 21 '13 at 16:39
The law you are citing is not even specific to bicycles; it seems to be aimed at motorcycles. It concerns itself with side-by-side riding, not with position of a bicycle on a road. Motorcycles do not have this issue, obviously. The intent seems to be to give permission to side-by-side riding, except when there are attachments which widen the cycle, and except at night. – Kaz Aug 21 '13 at 18:05
@Kaz Do you have a different opinion (different from Laurent's) about how and where to ride a human-powered bicycle in France? – ChrisW Aug 22 '13 at 10:05

The Code de la Route also states the following:

En marche normale, tout conducteur doit maintenir son véhicule près du bord droit de la chaussée, autant que le lui permet l'état ou le profil de celle-ci.

Which means:

In a regular situation, any driver must keep his vehicle close to the right side of the road as much as the state of the road allows it.

This part does not specify the nature of the vehicle so bicycles are impacted.

The "as much as the state of the road allows it" is a freedom breech that allows you to add good sense to this law:

  • ride on the right, but not too close as to be within reach of an opening door of a parked car!
  • ride on the right, but if the road is narrow enough that you consider overtaking by a car unsafe, prevent it from happening a ride closer to the centre!
  • ride on the right but if the side of the road is covered by debris, move closer to the centre!

True it might piss the drivers off but ensure your own safety first.

The police is not that picky with cyclists and when they're riding on the right half of the right lane, everyone is happy I would think.

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Note that this also covers motorcycles, and the idea that motorcyclists should ride other than in the center of a lane is ridiculous. – Kaz Aug 21 '13 at 18:10
In the US, in states with laws similar to this, cyclists advocate interpreting "as the state of the road allows" as meaning that one legitimately can "claim your lane" when the lane is too narrow for cyclist + auto. – Daniel R Hicks Jun 11 '14 at 12:02

As for your second question (minimum margin for overtaking a bicycle), indeed there is one: several websites (one, another) mention it. From the Code, Article R414-4 (IV) says,

Pour effectuer le dépassement, il doit se déporter suffisamment pour ne pas risquer de heurter l'usager qu'il veut dépasser. Il ne doit pas en tout cas s'en approcher latéralement à moins d'un mètre en agglomération et d'un mètre et demi hors agglomération s'il s'agit d'un véhicule à traction animale, d'un engin à deux ou à trois roues, d'un piéton, d'un cavalier ou d'un animal.

So the overtaking margin is 1m in urban area and 1m50 outside.

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