The Massif Central region of France is quite literally,
massif massive, stretching from virtually the centre of France right down to the Mediterranean, and covering some largely remote 36,000 square miles (93,000 square km) of mountain, high plateaux, forests and heathland.
As the Rough Guide states… “Thickly forested and sliced by numerous rivers and lakes, the once volcanic uplands of the Massif Central are geologically the oldest part of France and culturally one of the most firmly rooted in the past. Industry and tourism have made few inroads here, and the people remain rural and somewhat taciturn, with an enduring sense of regional identity“.
The Grand Traversee du Massif Central (GTMC) mountain bike route crosses this region, running for some 446 miles (718 km) from Clermont-Ferrand in the north, to Sète, just south of Montpellier on the Mediterranean Sea. This was the first long-distance mountain bike route to be completed in France. Along its length, it climbs around 12,000m and descends a little bit more and utilises tarmac, dirt, gravel, rock, sand and mud, depending on the weather!
Not many people seem to ride this route, so I thought I’d jot down a few of my main thoughts about doing it successfully…
1. Go light, and take a mountain bike.
This is most definitely a mountain bike route. Some of the trails involve lots of singletrack or rough, rocky ascents and climbs. There is a lot of climbing. The lighter you are, the more enjoyable the ride will be. Unlike some other long rides in Europe (the Camino de Santiago, for example, a lot of which could be ridden on a hybrid or cyclocross bike), take a bike with at least front suspension if possible, or if you’re riding a rigid bike like I did, put some nice voluminous tyres on so that you can lower the pressures a little and take some of the sting out of the trails.
2. Take cash and don’t miss an opportunity to resupply
The GTMC passes through some quite remote areas (for Europe). Its not uncommon to come across only very small villages for a few days at a time, where you won’t find any cash machines, and where any shops, campsites and hostels that do exist often won’t take credit/debit cards. It’s also pretty rare to be able to get cash back when you are able to pay by card, so best load up your wallet with some notes when you have the opportunity in order to avoid awkward moments where you’re unable to pay or big detours in order to find some cash.
3. Take a GPS, maps or guidebook
Whilst the trail is waymarked, the signs can’t be relied on to navigate with on their own. In places they are missing, or faded to the point that you can’t see which way they point. In the Cevennes National park, the signs are not allowed at all. Take the Cicerone guide, which has detailed route directions (plus a whole host of other useful information on facilities etc) and is available electronically on the Kindle, or even better take that and a GPS with the route downloaded [I found one here].
4. Don’t be obsessive about only taking the ‘trail’
The Cicerone guide differs on occasion to the GPS file I downloaded, and they both differ on occasion to the waymarking. In addition, some sections of trail might be impassable, or just plain unenjoyable, depending on the conditions (e.g. very muddy after periods of rain) and how much gear you have with you. The guide gives road biking (and walking) options for each phase, and using a map it is easy to identify backroads to avoid certain sections of trails if needed. I used the GPS route with detailed French basemaps available on the Viewranger app on my iPhone. Some of the route is on tarmac anyway, so its not cheating to make up parts of your route yourself, if thats what you feel like on the day – the scenery is still magnificent.
5. Be prepared for all weathers
Although the Massif Central can be very hot in the height of summer, in September I experienced driving rain, low temperatures, scorching heat, thunderstorms and both nights too warm and too cold for the sleeping bag I had with me. Be prepared for all sorts of conditions. Much of the trail is on high ground and very exposed to sun, wind and rain.
6. Plan to take your time and explore
The Cicerone guide breaks down the route into about 17 stages, but if you’re travelling light and prepared to get up early and ride long days, it’s possible to halve that time. However, the area is beautiful, steeped in culture and history, and a lot of pleasure is to be had in being able to stop and take in the small towns and villages, and gorgeous landscapes. Take your time and enjoy this amazing but often overlooked area.