Last spring on April 8th, 2012, I wrote to Yann for the first time about touring France via the network of GR (Grand Randonnee) footpaths. Those plans eventually fell by the wayside as Lael selected to participate in a yoga training in England, following by travel in Corsica and Germany, before rejoining me in Denver to ride the Colorado Trail in late summer. I left Alaska on my own, on my Pugsley, and eventually landed in New Mexico. This spring, we return to the idea of following footpaths in Europe. The leading concept at the moment is to bring real mountain bikes, and to commit to off-pavement exploration– a hybridized bike would breed a hybridized version of these plans. At worst, we encounter rough tracks and convoluted trails, or monotonous flat doubletrack through farmland. At worst, we ride pavement part of the time while connecting trails when possible. At worst, we ride bikes, sleep outside, shop at fresh markets all summer and see another side of France, and Europe. At best– well, the potential spoils of ideas are the reason we dream. At best– this could be the best summer yet.
Yann is the craftsman and the gentleman behind Salamandre Cycles, producing some of the nicest fatbikes anywhere, and perhaps the only custom fatbikes in France. He lives near Ardeche, in the Massif Central mountains of south-central France. Visit his blog to see more of his bikes and the inspiring terrain in his region.
This correspondence begins last spring, 2012.
My girlfriend Lael and I are planning a trip to France in May. We spend much of our time cycletouring, and have lived in Alaska for the winter, riding fatbikes (Surly Pugsley) and working to save money for our next trip. From our past experiences in France, specifically when Lael was a teacher in St. Malo, we recall the extensive network of GR trails. Is it legal to ride these trails on a bike? We are hoping to bring our Pugsleys for a full summer of riding in Europe. In the US many walking trails do not allow bicycles, but I thought that France may be different. Also, we might like to meet up with you. Where are you located?
I’m located in the south of Ardèche. The locality name is Banne. The place there is perfect for fatbikes: there is no snow, no sand, but rock everywhere and fat tires are wonderful on that kind of ground. The countryside is wonderful with many different landscapes only a few km from each others. But the weather is warm in the summer and after 11 o’clock, I prefer having a bath in one of the various clear water rivers rather than riding my bike.
In France footpaths are not walk only tracks. This is just a leading line for people who want to have long hikes. Paths are rarely forbidden to cycles. One general exception are coast tracks that might be officially forbidden to bikes especially in Brittany where they are very pleasant (you already know them if you were in Saint Malo). But, as a matter of fact, there is quite no policy made on them (not like your rangers) and if you don’t ride them on weekends you won’t have any problems. Of course in the summer there are more people there than the rest of the year, but you only might have some remarks from unhappy walkers (but if you have some problems, I’m not responsible !).
The main areas where you might have some problems are the national parks, except the Parc National des Cévennes (close to my home) where some people are living and where the restrictions are low restrictions (camping…). But National Parks are only a small part of France and you have many others wonderful places to go in France.
Some other countries in Europe might be less permissive (Austria, Switzerland, maybe Germany but it has to be verified).
Lael and I did not ride in Europe together that summer. Instead, she rode her Cannondale Hooligan and hopped planes, trains and ferries to various destinations. I reconnected with Yann this spring.
I wrote to you last year about riding in France. We were diverted from these plans, but have committed to riding in Europe this summer. We will fly to Amsterdam (cheapest ticket to Europe), and hope to ride south to spend some time in France. As mentioned previously, most of the GR trails are legal to ride, and may be quite nice. We expect to push our bikes at times if the trail is very steep or rocky, but would still be happy to experience the “less traveled” paths of France. The system of GR trails seems perfect!
I have learned that there is a major GR route from Amsterdam to Bruxelles and Paris, GR12. Have you heard anything about this route? I expect it is mostly flat, perhaps muddy and with many roots in the spring, but it would seem to be a good way to begin our trip. Any thoughts?
There is a map/guidebook available that I hope to order. Also, can you think of any other significant resources to help us plan for a summer of off-pavement riding? Maps, guidebooks, established long-distance routes?
The fatbikes on your website look amazing! If possible, I hope to visit you this summer.
I remember this email. Is your girlfriend Lael (who went to France last summer but didn’t find time to get here)?
I don’t know anything about GR12. Yes it must be flat except in the Ardennes (low altitude mountains where SSEC took place in 2011) between Belgium and France. You might have long flat rides in crop fields. I think you’d better go straight to the south, for an example following GR14 and then GR7. You’d travel in the wineyards of Bourgogne and Beaujolais before really entering Massif Central near Saint Etienne. There’s a long climb to go up to the crests of Pilat (alternatives to unridable GR7 from Saint Chamond to the top are possible, I can tell you on request) and there it’s perfectly ridable. It never goes under 1000m altitude for more than 150km. From there it’s possible to go down to my village by wonderful technical singletracks.
Another general alternative would be to join Luxembourg and then folow the GR5. You’d have a non-stop mountain ride to the Mediterranean Sea ! You can follow the top line of the Vosges (sandstone) that culminates 1430m, drop down to Belfort and climb just in front to top line of Jura (limestone) that culminates around 1700m, have another drop to Genève and then enter the Alps to the Mediterranean or not. And if you want to visit me, you’ll just have to cross the Rhône.
According to me, the best places for ATB riding in France are under a line that goes from Strasbourg to Bordeaux (+ Britanny) but this requires much time if you have to come from Amsterdam. Maybe you won’t have enough time to go so much southward. But I’d be glad to welcome you at home. Just let me know.
Yes, Lael is my girlfriend and we will both be riding this summer. We will be riding from Amsterdam, and do not mind several days or weeks of travel to reach more interesting trails. We hope to connect each local destination with small lanes, unpaved routes, and singletrack trails. Thus far, your experience has been very helpful. I will do some research and will likely contact you again once I have gained some greater perspective. Thanks!
First image: Lael Wilcox; final image: Nicholas Carman
All other images: Yann, Salamandre Cycles