TMV: Châtenois to Thann

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Divided into three segments, the southern third of the Traversée du Massif Vosgien (TMV) comprises the most mountainous stage.  The granitic southern Vosges is most visited, both in summer and winter, and challenges riders with climbs nearly as great as 3000 ft.  For more details of the route, I’ve shared words and images from the previous two stages: from Wissembourg to Saverne, and from Saverne to Châtenois.  

This stage is defined by the rivers crossed and the ridges crested– thus, major descents and climbs, valleys and vistas.

We begin by leaving Selestat near Châtenois.  Selestat is the larger town a few km off the route, with access to the TER Alsace train and connections to further destinations.  We dropped Andi and his Pugsley at the train station; tended to some necessary affairs, including laundry and bicycle maintenance; and returned to the hills before the end of the day.

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Climbing, loaded with treats such as local cheese, wine, and bread.

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The climb reaches a plateau, where we camp for the night.  Castles can be seen on multiple hilltops nearby.  Shelters such as these are maintained by local hiking clubs.  Lael’s new Opinel knife is the first of many birthday presents given during the week.

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The next day, climbing towards 1200m.  Abundant logging and managed forests account for the complex of forest service roads, most of which are closed to private motor vehicle traffic.

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Most roads are durable hardpacked dirt, especially in the granitic southern Vosges.  The northern part of the Vosges are sandy, underlain with sandstone.  This road was recently tilled by the tracks of logging equipment.  In the transition zone between sedimentary sandstone and igneous granite from Saverne to Châtenois, we identify green, flaky metamorphic rock.  

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Cresting and riding the crête of the Vosges at 1200m, our highest point yet.

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Abundant water sources are found throughout the Vosges, especially in the south, where less permeable bedrock and steeper hills account for more surface water.

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The TMV mounts more than 20 named passes, or col. Here, looking back toward the the last col we passed, on our way to two or three more in the same day.  This is called ‘pass hunting’ in French and Japanese cycling traditions.

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A bit of rough doubletrack catches our interest, between endless rideable dirt roads.

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Intersecting many ski areas atop the mountains, we also encounter this downhill biking course, a growing source of summer income for ski areas around the world.  This one looks easy and fun.

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This one looks impossible.

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This, a little beyond our skills.

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Near the top of the ski area is a huge winter refuge.

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At the pass, we encounter a paved road, power lines, hotels, and the ski lift.  I understand why some people travel to the US in search of serenity, and the wild, but we don’t mind the the diversions from the forest and from riding.  Downhill from here.

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This map section is called Les Lacs for the four major lakes along the way.  

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Still descending.  The TMV frequently intersects local VTT circuits.

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All four of the lakes are contained by earthen or concrete dams.  In some cases they provide hydroelectric power, and a fine place to have a picnic or cool off.

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Streams and shade air-condition the forests, making a pleasant place to spend a hot July afternoon.

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The final lake on our descent to the Munster valley, accessible only by foot or by bicycle, was the busiest of all.  Alpine scenery and clear water are the reason.  

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Climbing away from the Munster valley, home to the famed cheese.  I enjoy climbing in the evening.  

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In the mountains, there are abundant hiking refuges which house as many as several dozen bodies in the winter.  In the summer, they may provide an option for lightweight travel without a tent.  It is possible to connect refuges and gîtes along the TMV for indoor accommodations and prepared meals.

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Nearing the highest elevation of the entire route…

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…on pavement, actually, but only for a km or two.

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And our most spectacular campsite in the Vosges.  By morning, thick fog climbs over the ridge, enshrouding the mountaintops.

 

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It clears by late morning for our second to last descent of the entire route.

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Arriving in the valley below, we are only 8km from the eventual finish.  The route favors another 22km through the forests in lieu of riding the roadways in the valley.

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We fill our bellies and our bottles in Moosch for one final climb and one final descent.

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Climbing for the last time.

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A well-used shelter awaits at the top of the climb.  Still early in the afternoon, we point our wheels towards Thann, only a few km away.

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The eastern flank of the Vosges Mountains are home to all of the wines produced in Alsace, depicted here from south to north.

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The same signage found in Wissembourg is also presented in Thann, over 400km away.  Continuing from here, one could connect either the Swiss or the French routes through the Jura Mountains, beginning less than a day away by bicycle.  For now, we have other plans.  

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Which bike?

Choosing a bicycle for the TMV is a simple affair, as any bicycle that accommodates a 2″ (50mm+) tire will suffice.  This may include a Surly LHT or an old ATB; a modern hardtail, full-suspension bike or even a fatbike.  Lael and I are both riding steel-framed mountain bikes with 29″ wheels, disc brakes and a wide range of gears.  Suspension forks have been valuable when exploring new terrain, but are not strictly necessary on the TMV as the route is mostly comprised of well-groomed dirt roads.  However, we have been happy riding with a suspension fork, which allows us to descend faster and tackle some more challenging rocky climbs.  

People sometimes ask if a hybrid-type bicycle with 700cx40mm tires will work for such a route.  It may, but only if packed lightly, if the rider is skilled, and if willing to walk short sections of the route.  It also requires that you don’t mind bumping around on dirt roads with medium (-high) pressure tires.  We don’t, and thus ride big rubber at lower pressures.  

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You may have noticed that we are somewhere in Switzerland, Germany, or the Czech Republic, on our way to points further east.  Some superbrainstorm sessions have given us new direction, to be discussed soon.  For now, if you live in northern Czech, southern Poland, northern Slovakia, or western Ukraine, send a message (nicholas.carman(at)gmail.com) if you’d like to meet for a ride or if you may be able to assist our route-planning efforts.  

TMV: Wissembourg to Saverne

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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.

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Located just outside the ramparts.

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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.

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A placard near the center of town describes the trail and serves as an official start point.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nearing another town we find scattered houses and farms.

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A church, mairie, école, and a bakery.  Often, a war memorial reminds of both major conflicts that affected this region in the last century.

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Some towns, especially in the Vosges, feature the ruins of ancient castles and forts.  They cannot be reached without a steep climb, ever.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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I prepare a fire for her to light.  We rarely, almost never, have fires on tour.

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Chilled some crémant Alsacien, a sparkling white wine, and a couple Alsacien beers in the source.

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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.

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No fireworks.  Not bad.

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In memoriam, the cork becomes a new bar-end plug the next morning.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The FFCT promotes cycling touring, and the growing sport of touring by velo tout terrain, or VTT.

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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.

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Local hiking and biking clubs maintain trills, signage, and shelters.  The number of hiking routes in the area is astounding.

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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.

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For us, the riding and the camping are most important.  This is some of the best.

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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.

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Out Somewhere in the Vosges

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We’ve just descended the Vosges Mountains for the last time, having enjoyed just over a week on the Traversée du Massif Vosgien.  The TMV is a newer route in the east of France– in Alsace, upland of the Rhine river– with over 400km of mapped and signed dirt riding.   We shared the route for a few days with Andi, a new friend and a Surly Pugsley rider from southern Germany.  More soon, but some great representative images can be found on his blog Out Somewhere.

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Thanks for a great time Andi!

Detour aux Vosges

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A wet week post-Luxembourg has sent us looking elsewhere for good weather.  Clay-rich French soil has caked our drivetrains more than a few times, and soaked our socks to the point that you don’t want to be behind us in line at the supermarché.  After nearly two months of rain, excepting my hiatus while visiting New York, we began looking south– at Provence, Spain and Italy.  Instead, in the face of potentially more wet weather, we set our sights east to the Vosges mountains, and a new long-distance mountain bike route through Alsace, the forested northeastern corner of France.  Notably, the region is home to the Rhine basin and cool-weather grapes, but the uplands rise quickly and sharply, in Appalachian style, in a way that continues to remind me of home.  They are also responsible for some of the only beer brewed in France, a continuing theme of our trip.  The Traversée du Massif Vosgien will be our home for the next week. 

The only risk of this decision was more wet weather, making muddy mountain trails unrideable, and no fun.  We broke from the GR5 after drying out in Metz, and hit the road for two days to reach the start of the trail.  Lael and I swore that if the rain continued, we would, absolutely, ride south as fast as possible.  Two days of road touring reminded us why we ride off-pavement whenever possible, although we did encounter many peaceful canals, voie verte and country roads.  Road touring in France is blissful, for sure, although we still find it more peaceful, and interesting, to ride dirt.

With barely the chance to check the weather forecast in the past two weeks, a funny thing happened when we arrived at the start of the route in Wissembourg near the German border– the skies cleared, and the sun promised to stay all week.  What lucky kids we are!  We made a brief tour along the Rhine to Strasbourg to let the forest dry for a few days.  Strasbourg is surprising– perhaps our favorite city anywhere– boasting pan-European style, bikes of all kinds, hip kids and old French, and the mighty Rhine.  There is more to say, but make a visit if you can.

Below: Near Metz, in the north of France near Luxembourg, at the top of a muddy hike-a-bike that convinced us to begin looking elsewhere.

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Riding to Wissembourg from Metz, to see for ourselves if the trail was in rideable condition.

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Crossing the northern stretch of the Vosges Mountains.  Camping in public forests is straightforward in this part of the country.  Always comparing to the familiar, this feels much like Oregon, or the Lost Coast of California.  The southern Vosges are supposed to be much taller and more rugged.

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In Wissembourg, Espace Cycles is a good place to check in for parts and repairs.  Cheap 29″ Schwalbe tires are in abundance.  Lael has got a new Nobby Nic in the rear for 30€.  Wissembourg, like a very little brother to Strasbourg, is also amazing.  Situated at the north end of the Vosges on the German border, it is a haven for hiking and biking.  Germans visit daily in hordes.

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The TMV, on verra.

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