Mountain biking in France – Part 1: from Avallon to Clermont-Ferrand
August 16 till 29, 2020
as an INTRODUCTION: Our MAIN CONCLUSIONS on the GTMC till LE VIGAN (almost to the end..!)
- The GTMC is simply AMAZING! It leads you through 4 protected areas: Le Morvan, Le Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne, Le Parc des Cévennes and Le Parc des Grands Causses; from Avallon to Agde over 1400 km.
- Don’t be put off! Although the route is set and described by various young and experienced mountain bikers who usually only do day trips – and can therefore also take greater risks in terms of technical defects – and have varying opinions about the difficulty level of each stage, the GTMC is a serious challenge but NOT dangerous as such!
We have only been mountain biking for a few years, are approaching 60 and we know: stepping off your bike always brings salvation! To us at least 97% of the route is do-able and we know: after a difficult part there will certainly be more wonderful scenery or an amazing descent or both…!
- This blog covers the route and our experiences in 2 parts: the GTMC part 1: From Avallon to Clermont – Ferrand and GTMC-2: from Clermont – Ferrand to Le Vigan. (What remains of the route – about 250 km – we hope to do in 2022).
- We would like to mention immediately that if we were to do the route again, we would avoid Clermont-Ferrand (CF). Even from before Riom look for a route that takes you from Ebreuil directly to Volvic. If you don’t have to be in CF for logistical reasons, you may as well ignore it. This is because as CF is a big city, it forms such a big contrast with the tranquility of nature.
- In our general conclusion we propose a few five-day itineraries. Five days because they allow you to discover perhaps the most beautiful parts and guaranteed fun of each area in a week’s time. This includes the journey to the departure point and from the end point. This also makes the return trip more affordable if you need taxi service or La Malle Postale.
- For the Morvan we suggest TUBELESS tires! Also: it is best to avoid the Morvan when the leaves start to fall; you need a good view of the surface to avoid surprises…!
- We believe that a gravel bike is NOT recommended for the GTMC; a mountain bike with sturdy tires and front suspension will do the job; rear suspension is not necessary. An electric mountain bike? Perhaps yes, on the condition you have experience with it; such a heavy bike will definitely strengthen your arm muscles..!
- Bring the most crucial spare parts, bring a derailleur pad specifically for your bike and brake pads; maybe also some spokes. Repair shops along the way are scarce, and they don’t have a lot of specialized material…
- We also add 3 lists for reference with 1. Our statistics, 2. Hotels we stayed in and 3. Some suggestions of 5-day itineraries.
- Feel free to contact us if you need a journey chauffeur, to see whether we could organize something for you or to cycle along, we are always interested!
- After having done the Great Divide in 2019, we were in for more… !! We read about the GTMC online and ordered the 2 Topoguides (still only in French) via www.la-gtmc.com: the first two weeks promised a daily ride of 50-60 km with 600 to 800 m of climbing and a technical level V2 to V3 on a total of 6. This sounded fantastic; the route seemed almost tailor-made to us! (as you will read in our reports, this meant a serious underestimation of the level of the route ..!)
- When planning, you also note that the stages in the Topoguides sometimes (and very often after CF) do NOT match the GPS stages on the website! You will be in for some puzzling! But usually 2 stages in the Topoguide correspond to 1 stage on the GPS. But a finish of a stage on the GPS does not automatically mean that there is also a place to sleep …! Double check!
- We each bought a saddlebag (Topeak) for our “evening attire” and a frame bag (Agu) for spare bike parts and “evening” shoes. Together with our Camelbak Mule (3 liters of water and still enough space for spare cycling gear) this was sufficient for the luggage. We cycle with Stevens mountain bikes, front suspension, 29″ wheels.
A little more explanation about the geography and the administrative divisions through which the GTMC runs: the Massif Central makes up about 1/6 of France and spreads over 4 régions (see map at the top; the missing région to the west is La Nouvelle Aquitaine).
The Morvan is a Regional Park and a northeastern spur of the Massif. The Morvan is best known for its artificial lakes that also help provide Paris with drinking water, for its sustainable forest clearing and as a shelter for the resistance in World War II. Château-Chinon is the main town there.
Le Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne is a Regional Park in the north of the former province of Auvergne. It was renamed région after the French Revolution and merged with Rhône-Alpes as the new région after 2016. But still in the humble opinion of les Auvergnats: “La France, c’est l’Auvergne et quelque chose autour”.
The capital of the Auvergne is Clermont-Ferrand, also called the Michelin city. Famous citizens of the Auvergne are Vercingetorix, king of the Averni (“Auvergne”) and scourge of Julius Caesar; and Coco Chanel, yes!
It was not until 1752 that it was discovered that the row of “mountains” in the north of the Auvergne are extinct volcanoes, according to some “dormant” volcanoes. The Puy de Dôme would be the youngest: it was still active about 5000 years ago.
Lozère is the most sparsely populated department in France and gives access to the National Park of the Cévennes where the Gorges du Tarn and the Gorges de la Jonte next to Mont Aigoual are perhaps best known.
In the Cévennes you have the Causse de Méjean (above the Gorges du Tarn and de la Jonte), almost a biotope in itself of 20 km by 20 km and with only 600 inhabitants.
To the southwest is Le Parc des Grands Causses with Millau, les Gorges de La Dourbie and the city of Couvertoirade as not to be missed…
(For detailed figures on our route, please click on above GTMC statistics)
The day before we started the GTMC, we visited Vézelay (again). Vézelay is famous for its unique and beautiful location and its architecture, as the end point and starting point of various pilgrimages, its Basilica of St Madeleine with inspiring timpans of the Last Judgment and The Enlightenment (as in Pentecost) and for Rostropovich’s performance of Bach’s Cello suites.
And infamous for the various crusades that were called for or gathered there with horrendous consequences for all local populations, before, in or after leaving the so-called holy land until the remains of all the crusading rabble was finally exterminated….
The day before departure we stayed at Pontaubert near Avallon in Hotel les Moulins des Ruats, besides the idyllic river le Cousin. (85 € pp demi pension). We could also leave our car there safely for the duration of our trip.
DAY 1: From Avallon via Chastellux-sur-Cure to Quarré-les-Tombes: 52 km, according to us 1335 m climbing, 6h24 moving time, our grading: V4 + V5
The route starts in the centre of Avallon, just in front of the Tourist Office and the church of Saint-Lazare and gets immediately interesting! It will be a beautiful but tough first day as an introduction to the route and the Morvan, at times very technical but dismounting will bring salvation…!
Smooth descents in enchanting forests come as foreplay for some steep and technical climbs. After Chastellux things quiet down a bit near and around the Lac du Crescent after which the guidebook indicates that “things are getting a little less difficult…?” Well, walking in the riverbed of the Cure is not that hard, indeed! But cycling it…?
Never mind, soon Quarré beckons like a beacon of calm, high above you…
We stayed at the friendly Hotel du Nord in the centre of town. 80 € pp demi-pension.
DAY 2: From Quarré-les-Tombes via Saint-Agnan to Saulieu: 43 km, 862 m D+, 5h44, V5 + V3.
Call it a “brisk but beautiful morning walk in forest with bicycle” and this until about 2 km passed the abbey of la Pierre Qui Vire, with a lovely stretch to Saint Agnan afterwards where cozy lunch possibilities are on offer. (La Vieille Auberge du Lac en La Maison du Lac)).
After lunch, we continue as in the morning but on heavily eroded forest tracks (therefore a V3 for this afternoon) allowing for a quick digestion of the lunch. But then and according to the guide as well: “… ça commence à glisser bien…” meaning: “expect some good runs”…
You will pass Saint-Brisson where you need to take a moment to visit the Maison du Parc du Morvan – coming also with a restaurant. The afternoon will also offer some magical forest trails!
We stayed at LdF Hotel du Bourgogne, 95 € for the room 13€pp for breakfast.
DAY 3: From Saulieu via Alligny to Montsauche-les-Settons: 36 km, 536 m D+, 4h00, V4 + V3
You start the day with a V4 descent and just after Alligny a climb that takes you 200 meters up. But otherwise we agree with the guidebook: a ride in“… un esprit de ballade et de découverte dans un cadre bucolique… ” , something like :”in a joyous ambience waiting to be surprised in bucolic surroundings..”?
Alligny and Maux-en-Morvan both have a restaurant and a shop. The days ends up gliding smoothly (“glissant”) around and along the beautiful Lac des Settons.
Here you have quite a few hotel options. We stayed at Les Grillons du Morvan, a quiet and beautifully located hotel (seen from the back!) with a lovely garden- a river valley actually; also with its own chocolate production and tastefully decorated rooms (the ground floor rooms step out right into the garden). But not very warm people, a pity! (85 € pp half board.) Alternatives (both come with outside terraces so touristy and loud): Hotel la Morvandelle and Hotel du Lac.
DAY 4: From Les Settons via Planchez to Anost: 53km, 1064 m climbing, 4h34, V3 + V3
Day 4 offers a perfect mountain bike morning with undulating tracks in mesmerizing forest and with a steep climb to finish with which will make you fully deserve dessert after a perfectly timed lunch at the friendly restaurant le Relais des Lacs in Planchez. A lot of adjectives in this sentence to cover up that you will have climbed already 558 meters again that morning!
The afternoon brings similar excitement. At the end and upon entering Anost, the route wants you to go up a ridiculous and unnecessary set of stairs which you can easily bypass by cycling a little further up the road.
In Anost “you eat and sleep at Fortin” because the only guest house and the two restaurants, La Galvache and Le Pizzeria there belong to René Fortin. In fact, the village could also be renamed to “Fortin”.
But René also initiated the annual “ecrévisses” festival (crayfish); they feature on the menu in la Galvache. The restaurant is worth a visit already for its decoration and for its staff! Hotel Le Fortin: 65€ for the room and 8.5€ pp for breakfast.
DAY 5: From Anost via Glux-en-Glenne to La-Grande-Verrière:(without the loop around le Bois du Roy): 46 km, 1103m, 5h27, V5 + V3.
The day starts with a walking climb as warm-up and then before Arleuf turns onto the route du tacot (old railway or also “Galvache”, paved route on which cattle were used as transport animals). After Arleuf we enter the woods where the hard work starts, not too difficult but steep!
When reading the description of the route that day we noted : « Cette étape de la GTMC nécessite clairement un bagage plus technique que la précédente ». So, you would need to be even more technically adept that day than the day before?! The guide continued: “…. Before, on and over le Bois du Roy you effectively have to carry your bike“. So, you need better technique that day and this to carry your bike… We decided to just skip this part!
Just after reconnecting to the route – you just continue for 200 m straight on to the gravel road instead of taking the forest path for le Bois du Roy on your left – you still have to push your bike for about 200 to 300 meters at about 30% denivelation to reach “le vieux point de l’alpinisme du Morvan”. But it pays off because you get a nice long descent all the way to Glux for it.
(Note that before Glux you have an exit to Port des Lamberts and les sources de l’Yonne with the possibility to continue to Bibracte on Mont Beuvray. One day we’ll return for this…!)
After a morning with 835 m climbing, time for lunch. We stopped at le Petit Auberge in Glux – with English owners – but you must book for it by phone in advance! Apparently, supplies in Glux are so limited that the restaurant can only serve what has been reserved for. So even though the restaurant was not full, we did not get lunch, we did get bread pudding, instead.
In the afternoon you have to climb another 200 meters, but you will be finishing the day with beautiful glides down to Hotel de la Poste, better known as “Chez Cécile”.
Cécile is still strolling around but her two sons now man the kitchen and the restaurant and Claudine is taking general command. 60€ for the room, 21 € for a menu chosen by “le team” and 8€ for breakfast. And you will be tempted by the wide choice of fine Burgundy wines that are displayed next to your table in the restaurant. The hotel also has a nice grocery shop.
DAY 6: From La Grande Verrière via Etang-sur-Arroux to Toulon-sur-Arroux: 60 km, 980m, 5h21, V3 + V3
The day started with replacing a second flat tire (the thorns work slowly but surely!). Today a lot of climbing is served on paved road. Normally this is not what you are looking for on a mountain bike, but it comes as a welcome change for all the climbing on washed out tracks the days before. And in beautiful scenery!
Etang feels like somewhat grey but comes with 2 bakeries and welcoming picnic places along the Arroux river.
The afternoon has not much else to offer besides paved climbs. But Dettey comes as a relief, especially because of le Relais de Dettey with a wonderful location and warm owners, who even serve coffee and tea in the afternoon. They also have a gîte for 4 people – but you would have to take all the meals in the Relay because there are no other amenities in the village! You could stay in Dettey for a rest day, “away from it all”.
A few more blissful trails, mostly descents through beautiful forests to arrive in Toulon-sur-Arroux. And two more flat tires….
In Toulon we had chosen for an “Eco-Cabine” (stands for: “tight and spartan” except for the price) in Diverti-Parc. The stay also comes with a formula where you can grill vegetables and meat yourself in a special grill-hut. 95€ for the Cabin and breakfast, 22.5€ pp for the grill. Diverti-Parc wants to be a more fun alternative to cabins (huts, chalets) on a regular campsite. Is okay! They also provide healthy takeaway lunches and bio-products from the region.
DAY 7: From Toulon-sur-Arroux via Grury to Bourbon Lancy: 50km, 1016m,4h42, V3 + V4
A thorn in the outer tire had eluded us the night before, so the morning started with replacing the tube. And some searching to find the route because the GPS and the signaling did not match. Take the D985 towards Luzy and go up left towards “Mont Dardon”.
You guessed it: 530 meters climbing that morning, but mostly paved. From here we also noticed that the signage is more recent (and better) than the GPS. When in doubt, follow the signs
Grury should become “Dreary”; and only the barbershop was still in business. Luckily, after Grury, we go back into the woods. And to make you climb faster: under 12 km/h you get swarms of flies around your head! But smooth descents alternating with some solid climbing – “warm downs” – to Bourbon.
Bourbon sounds royal – but actually refers to hot springs- and indeed has some of its traits: a miniature medieval centre with authentic belfry and wooden frame houses! The Hotel La Tourelle Beffroi is just next door and comes with “acceuil vélo” logo. Highly recommended! 95€ with breakfast for 2.
We had dinner on the terrace – the street becomes traffic-free in the evening – of the modest Restaurant du Centre: simple but good!
DAY 8: From Bourbon-Lancy via La Chapelle to Moulins: 79km, 399m climb, 4h50, V2 + V2
You can consider today as a transition stage from the Morvan towards le Pays des Volcans; mostly flat but headwinds can still make it hard! Apart from a few castles, you bike in the middle of nowhere. And you won’t pass anything to eat or drink all day… We did not even notice La Chapelle.
Also note that today you will often deviate quite a few kilometers from the GPS route. However, there is plenty of signage and new, so that is what we went for.
We also had 3 flat tires because a lot of the cycling is done on pasture tracks (bocages) lined with bramble hedges!
Upon entering Moulins you will still be sent a few kilometers on the local mountain bike circuit along the Allier river. Was not really necessary, anymore, thank you….!
We stayed at LdF Hotel le Parc, good! 95 € with breakfast. (The friendly receptionist took us to Decathlon early on Monday morning to get some more inner tubes, just in case…). We had dinner on the terrace of the art nouveau Le Grand Café, according to the locals: “just for tourists”. But was ok.
Moulins and Ysseure fused together to one city and have all necessary amenities, also a bike shop. And a mega (-lomaniac) Leclerc supermarket, bigger than most international airports.
DAY 9: From Moulins via Châtel-de-Neuvre to Chantelle: 68km, 930m D+, 4h56, V2 + V3
A brilliant day with a varied menu: it starts with a nice trail along the authentic Allier – authentic because it has never been widened, channeled, dredged…- some false flats through wide plains and some really nice mountain bike work through forest. And this all the way to Besson.
We had started the day late, so we were already looking to restock here. Only “l’Aubergiste Gourmande” turned out to be open… The lunch menu offered Andouillete as main course, so we went for “Tomates-Mozza” as a starter and even more typically French, “le Burger” as main course, instead. On the terrace with a view of the first Eglise Peinte of the area.
After lunch some rolling work through the first vineyards of AOC Saint-Pourçain and up to Châtel Neuvre (also with restaurants and shops). Until Châtel we measured 322 meters of climbing. We would consider this stage as the first possible to do “en famille” and rate it as the standard V2 for our grading of all other stages. (see conclusions and statistics)
The afternoon comes as a V3 because there is still a lot of technical climbing to do, but also with 2 exhilarating descents, on grass and at 40km/h!
You surely need to stop in Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais as a beautiful village and for coffee or lunch “Chez Agnes, à l’imprévu”. Specialités Italiennes because Agnes is Italian. (do call if for lunch, not sure if they still serve it?)
After the beautiful churches of Saulcet and especially Fleuriel comes a last somewhat difficult descent and tough climb – but after the Morvan: child’s play! – to the center of Chantelle.
We were surprised to find out that the owners of la Maison du Puits are from New Zealand. Murray and Jan (Janet) run a wonderful chambre d’hôtes with 3 rooms. It was Monday and they had dinner prepared – was optional – already because everything is closed that day in town. (consultation between the various shops has not been invented yet in Chantelle!). We had a simple but very tasty dinner in the garden. 95€ for room and very extensive, wonderful breakfast. Highly recommended!
DAY 10: From Chantelle via Ebreuil to Riom: 59km, 1241m D+, 5h19, V3 + V4
After 3 steep climbs you arrive in Charroux, an enchanting village (“un des plus beaux villages…”) and with plenty of gîtes and restaurants!!
A pity that Charroux comes too early in the day to really enjoy it, including the mustard, the chocolate and the olive oil. So best to time your arrival for lunch or ……just stay the night!
Just after Charroux comes another hilarious 40km/h descent on grass! Then the route sends you umpteen times up and down around Rochefort to finally arrive in Ebreuil on the river Allier. Have lunch here if you have not stopped for it earlier in the day. Because the climbing in the afternoon is brutal, through forest but on washed out trails, loose sand, gravel, bolders and everything nature can find to make you fully deserve dinner!
St Hilaire de la Croix invites you to a small siesta behind its church … and the descent afterwards is good fun!
Note that in Combronde – despite having a few cafes and shops but at 15.00 all still closed – we had to knock on people’s doors to replenish our water (the water at the cemetery was also cut off for conservation purposes). We needed it because we still had the climb up to Saint-Bonnet-sur-Riom ahead of us.
As an anticlimax the stage ends up, and you arrive at, the roundabout before Riom where we took the D446 to the right to Mozac to bring us to LdF Hotel le Moulin des Gardelles. It is better to go straight instead on to the D227 and at the edge of Riom go right towards Mozac on the D986. This road is much quieter and less dangerous than the D446. Also feels a bit shorter (still about 3 kilometers from the roundabout!)
Le Moulin de Gardelles sounds good (and is also good!) but much less romantic than the name suggests and its location so unfortunate between all these supermarkets, convenience stores, car repairs and car sellers, fastfood chains…etc. (75€ pp demi pension; with Nikki the bordercolli inviting you to play!) Bicycles were parked in the conference room.
My recommendation for the route planners (or else to sort out yourself) would be to avoid Riom and Clermont-Ferrand altogether (see further) and find a bike-friendly route directly to VOLVIC from somewhere after Combronde and before Saint-Bonnet. (Must be possible: via Yssac-la-Tourette, Châtelguyon, Enval…).
DAY 11: From Riom to Clermont-Ferrand: 27km, 513m D+, 2h27, V3
We thought we would take half a day break: so, a short ride to CF and maybe visiting the city in the afternoon…
The morning offered a V3 as a stage, not too technical but very bumpy towards Châteaugay. It is probably this stretch, sitting high on their horse drawn carriage with wooden wheels, that inspired the Michelin brothers to do something about it…?!
(Note that according to the guidebook, “Michelin” is the 2nd most famous brand in the world, behind Google…; “La Vache qui rit” probably comes 3rd, then?)
You notice soon you are approaching a big city; a little flattering in the guide about Châteaugay can’t take away that impression.
Just after Malauzat we suddenly came to a sign indicating “Volvic 3 (km)” ; the route takes you in the other direction, though. (When going towards Volvic the next day, you pick up the signage a hundred meters further). Shortly thereafter, during the climb of the Col de Bancillon which does have stretches of more than 20% (and not 10% according to the guide!) and unpaved, we wished we had taken that turn!
Also, find the error on the GTMC marker on top of the col de Bancillon!
According to our experience, big cities do not feature well on bike tours! It is hard to trade the tranquility of the countryside for the noise and traffic of a city. You better visit a city with your mind set on it!
Hotel Clermont-Estaing (81 € room with breakfast) turned out to be about 3 km from the end of the route and along busy roads: a concrete block among other blocks. But the spartan interiors did not incite us to visit the city in the afternoon… Although we are sure that Clermont-Ferrand has plenty to offer…!
Dinner in the evening at restaurant Oval of the Rugby Stadium (“Oval” and “Rugby”… got it?), a 500 meters walk from Estaing.
For part 2, starting from CF: go to The GTMC – part 2