22 Nov 2012

Telling riding mates you’re spending July in France is a sure-fire way to induce envy, hate mail and, eventually, excited chatter about what you’ll do when you get there.

‘Are you going to watch the Tour?’

‘Yeah, a mountain stage or two, for sure. And maybe a few more at the pub with locals after riding all day.’

‘Are you taking your own bike?’


‘A road bike?’

‘Hey, what do you think I am?’

This part of the conversation always surprises me. Why is it that when we’re talking about French tourism, mountain biking seems like the poor cousin to road riding?

French nationals Julien Absalon and Julie Bresset are two of the best riders on the international cross-country circuit. The Alpes and Pyrenees boast huge climbs, jaw-dropping, brake-burning descents and well signed trails heading in almost every direction. [private]

Huge, huge mountains that aren’t just for the roadies to climb. They’re for mountain bikers to bomb down.

Even so, after jumping on my bike and heading out on a series of rides that had gold-star recommendations, I was surprised to discover that the land of wine, cheese, and the most watched road cycling event in the world offers mountain bikers an array of off-road adventures that are very different to how we understand the sport ‘back home’.

Differences in what mountain biking ‘is’ reveal as much about French culture as they do about our own.

The trails seem to have grown organically out of walking tracks, and are tied to the mentality that a ‘good ride’ is not roosting through a network of trails spiralling around a carpark.

Here, a good ride is ‘a good tour’. It will take in vast landscapes and big hills. It will take you places.

It’s not atypical to start a ride with a two-hour fire road pedal up a comfortable gradient and to end it with a thrillingly steep singletrack descent back to where you came from. On these trails it is disc brakes, rather than a lightweight frame and fancy suspension system, that signify a good off-road steed.

Singletrack is everywhere.

Trail maps can be found at most tourist offices in mountain areas and will usually indicate the distance, time and vertical gain of a number of well-signed loops.

If it’s singletrack you want, ask about this specifically because on some maps a ‘hard’ difficulty level can refer more to the gradient of the journey rather than the trail type.

Bike shop staff are invaluable, as always, in helping you sniff out the ride experience you’re after. Local shops are well worth a visit even if it’s just to ogle at some of the different product lines on offer.

A riding holiday in France thus begins to unfold a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels that many of us enjoyed as kids:

Do you want to watch a decisive hill stage of Le Tour while you’re road tripping around?

  • Yes – Choose a town nearby to base yourself for a couple of days.
  • No – Head to a well-known ski resort that offers lifted runs in summer.

Are your legs still blown from the last town you visited?

  • Yes – Book your accommodation for long enough that you can still get out on the epic that speaks to you most in the trail guide.
  • No – Stock up on riding food and get ready for an early morning.

With plenty of long hard tours, shorter explorations and lifted-run goodness to choose from how you want to put the pieces together is entirely up to you. What follows are a few do’s and a don’t that might help you choose the best adventure.


  • Pack your climbing legs. It’s not unusual to ascend 1000 vertical metres on ‘an easy ride’.
  • Check out some of the iconic Tour hill climbs if they’re on your route. Local riders will let you know if there are some fun dirt descents from the top, and it’s exciting riding over the names painted on the tarmac on the way up.
  • Pack spare brake pads. Long descents (with blind corners and shared traffic) can burn through resin faster than an Aussie race in the mud. Well, almost.
  • Plan long rides around food stops at Refugios and small towns that you’ll pass by along the way.
  • Always take a windproof/water-resistant jacket for long, fast descents and changes in weather up high.
  • Be aware of the impacts of driving on the right side of the road for walking, riding and car travel.
  • Be courteous to and aware of walkers (randonneurs) as you fly through shared and unfamiliar trails. Many French folk flock to the mountains in summer like many Aussies flock to the beach.


  • Fall into the trap of thinking you can counter excess pastry-consumption by riding more and eating smaller mains. Blown legs make it harder to get to the next patisserie.

Ah, French food. All that cheese is the perfect fuel to get you to the top of the mountain.


Language barriers:

We are lucky that people in so many countries learn English as a second language, but this can make us quite lazy as tourists. If you have time to brush up on some French vocab, you’ll be better placed to learn from and understand the kindness of others, and to ask questions and express thanks.

Get some audio lessons and listen to them on training rides or on the plane. Most guidebooks have a selection of phonetically spelled words and phrases as well.

Here are a few trip-specific words that may come in handy:

  • bon courage – ‘Good luck/courage.’ Something people say to you out the car window when you’re riding your bike up a mountain.
  • carte – map
  • chapeau – ‘I take my hat off to you.’ Something people say to you when you’re doing a champion effort (like riding a mountain bike up the Col de Galibier wearing a hydration pack).
  • la descente – the descent
  • difficile – difficult
  • la durée – duration
  • facile – easy
  • kilometres – kilometres
  • la montée– the climb
  • moyenne – average
  • la piste – track/trail
  • plan – map
  • le single – singletrack
  • technique – technical or technicality
  • la télécabine – gondola
  • le télésiège – chairlift
  • vélo tout terrain (VTT) – mountain bike (MTB) [/private]