The Traversée du Massif Vosgien connects the forested Vosges Mountains of Alsace from north to south. The Vosges are an understated range with few rocky exposures– they are the French mirror of the Black Forest of Germany, which is found just on the other side of the Rhine River. The TMV has been in existence since 2004-2005, when it was officially mapped and signed by the Alsacian Chapter of the French Federation of Cycletourists (FFCT). It claims over 400km of trail and 8000m of climbing, favoring the east side of the mountains and the intermontane zone along the eastern flank where most Alsacian wines are produced, between the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin regions. Compared to American dirt touring routes, the TMV offers riding similar to the Great Divide Route, with climbs as much as 800m (2500+ft) and a highly rideable dirt surface. Maps and trailside signage serve to make navigation simple. Resupply is simple, and available daily. The route includes only about 10% pavement– little enough not to bother the dirt lover– and big climbs with grades and surfaces manageable enough to be inclusive of any athletic rider. The TMV balances physical challenges with accessibility. Also within range of many bike-friendly TER Alsace train stations (regional ‘slow’ trains accept bikes at no cost) and several major cities (Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Basel), and short enough to be done in a week, the TMV will likely gain popularity as more French (and German, Swiss, and Belgian) riders become wise to the pleasures of dirt touring.
Taking a few days to regroup following weeks of rain, we center ourselves in Wissembourg at the start of the route, at the north end of the Vosges. We climb into the hills every night to tuck away in the woods. Free, legal camping close to town is always a treat. A morning descent to croissant and cafe is routine in France. An inexpensive public pool is real special to a touring cyclist.
Located just outside the ramparts.
We installed new brake pads, a chain, and replaced Lael’s worn WTB Exiwolf tire while in town. Espace Cycles in Wissembourg is one of the best mountain bike shops we have seen so far and readily supplied all of the parts that we desired, including Schwalbe tires for cheap. A 30€ folding Schwalbe tire is a treat, considering that similar tires cost as much as $90 in the US. With borrowed air from the shop’s compressor, tubeless touring is a breeze. We haven’t had a single problem in two months of tubeless touring. We have some spare sealant and tubes packed away, but haven’t had any use for it, and haven’t experienced any flats. We’ve only used our pump a few times in two months.
A placard near the center of town describes the trail and serves as an official start point.
It departs, winding through historic Wissembourg, and follows a paved cycle path out of town. Within six km, it joins a forest road and sets the tone for the remaining 400km– tranquility, with some climbing.
Atop the first climb, we meet Gaby at his home. He works as a mechanic at Espace Cycles and offers to lend us a hardcopy of the maps, which are currently out of print. The complete set is available as a .pdf file online. He and his wife Valerie lead us to a special camping place near Climbach with a fresh water source. The site is an old chappelle, which predates Christianity in the area. For a little guy, 26″ wheels still make sense, but 29″ wheels are starting to take off in France, even on some longer travel Cannondale models found at the shop in Wissembourg.
The next day, despite some rain, we enjoy a diverse range of forested tracks connecting small villages. The elevation along this part of the route ranges from 200-400m. Still, there is plenty of climbing.
And plenty of water. Les sources, or public springs, are found in abundance in the Vosges. Even when declared to be ‘not potable’, we usually fill our bottles. All of the water is cold and beautiful. Cemeteries are also a reliable source of water in Europe.
Endless forest service roads are found in the area; most are closed to motorized traffic. Mostly hardwood forests around, with interspersed conifers which favor well-drained sandy soils.
Some roads are recovering doubletrack, on their way to becoming wide singletrack corridors. Follow the orange signs marked TMV. We mostly follow trailside signage, although the maps help us whenever we feel unsure about the route.
Nearing another town we find scattered houses and farms.
A church, mairie, école, and a bakery. Often, a war memorial reminds of both major conflicts that affected this region in the last century.
Some towns, especially in the Vosges, feature the ruins of ancient castles and forts. They cannot be reached without a steep climb, ever.
As quickly as we arrive, the trail leads out of town. Steep climbs provide occasional challenges, although mostly the route is extremely rideable on anything from a rigid 26″ mountain bike (even a Surly LHT for example) to a full-suspension 29er or even a fatbike. A minimum 50mm (2″) tire is recommended, especially as the northern Vosges are underlain with sandstone, thus mostly sandy roads. Luckily, sandy soils drain well after weeks of rain.
Evening is one of our favorite times to ride. Mornings are reserved for coffee. Some people tour early in the day, we prefer to ride late.
Note, baguette protrudes from the Carradice saddlebag. Overall, we both ride lean machines. Framebags hide a lot of gear, even on Lael’s small frame.
Even at the end of the day, Lael must go for a run. As this was the 4th of July, I took the chance to prepare a special evening. While she was gone…
I prepare a fire for her to light. We rarely, almost never, have fires on tour.
Chilled some crémant Alsacien, a sparkling white wine, and a couple Alsacien beers in the source.
Prepared a feast of sauerkraut and sausage, to be served on baguette with mustard. This was our best effort at hot dogs and beer in Alsace.
No fireworks. Not bad.
In memoriam, the cork becomes a new bar-end plug the next morning.
The following day is our best day on the trail so far. Smooth singletrack and wild blueberries spoil us. Bicycle touring is not hard– not never, but not always.
Sandstone defines the northern Vosges– the area encompassed by the Parc Naturel Régional des Vosges du Nord, from Saverne to Wissembourg along the TMV. Sandy soils are ever-present, but rarely are they soft like beaches. Mostly rideable hard packed surfaces are found, while pine needles and beech leaves quiet the ride.
Many tourist offices provide resources for free, or for a small fee. The TMV maps are out of print, but I know at least one copy exists in La Petite Pierre if you want it. A trail map is not essential, but a regional road map would help in case you lost your way and were traveling without the official guide.
The FFCT promotes cycling touring, and the growing sport of touring by velo tout terrain, or VTT.
A few squishy, muddy spots make things interesting. Mostly, very little special equipment is needed except for a big tire. Guesthouses and hiking shelters offer an alternative to camping for some. Camping is possible almost everywhere along the route.
Local hiking and biking clubs maintain trills, signage, and shelters. The number of hiking routes in the area is astounding.
These aren’t guesthouses, but troglodytic homes restored for viewing. For the culturally curious, there is much to do in the area. Alsace has changed hands many time between French and German leadership over many hundreds of years, and Alsaciens maintain a strong identity despite a diverse heritage.
For us, the riding and the camping are most important. This is some of the best.
Ride down to Saverne to meet Andi for a few days of riding. The TMV is officially mapped in three sections: the northern Vosges, the piedmont, and the mountainous southern Vosges. Leaving Saverne, we begin the Pidemont des Vosges, gaining elevation.