France is blessed with hundreds of kilometres of world-class mountain bike trails. Paul Lamarra says these are five of the very best.
Want to mountain bike in France but not sure where to go? France is blessed with some of the best trails in the world, with something on offer for beginners through to experienced riders. We've pinpointed a few long-distance trails for hard-core riders, plus some good bases that offer lots for riders of all abilities.
1. Grande Traversée du Jura
Time: 7-10 days
Start: Maudeure near Montbeliard, Doubs
Biking in the cool green pine forests of the Jura mountains is a Zen-like experience. Following a dedicated and extremely well-signposted route the Grande Traversée du Jura allows for relaxed non-stop cycling. Out of the trees, the Grande Traversée du Jura crosses meadows and flirts with the edge of high limestone crests.
In the northern section, the route is more technically difficult as it climbs out of one valley into another and skirts the Doubs gorge. Further south it is smoother and flatter and regarded as ideal for beginners. There are some excellent sections of single track in the Lajoux area.
More information: www.gtj.asso.fr
2. Pyrénées-Orientales – Cerdagne, Capcir and Conflent
Things are very organised in the eastern Pyrenees. These three areas offer three slightly differing tree-covered landscapes that straddle the border between France and Spain. The mountain biking trails are centred on the ski resorts of Font Romeu, Puymorens and Les Angles.
The wide valleys between the peaks and the more relaxed inclines allow more scope for developing trails to appeal to all abilities. An easy option would be the 8km tour of the Lac de Matemale. A more challenging trail is the 13km linear route starting out from the Col du Puymorens. In all there are more than 400km of marked trails. A long soak in the thermally heated Bains de Llo is a huge treat after a tough day.
More information: www.pyrenees-cerdagne.com
3. Grande Traversée des Alpes de Haute Provence
Time: 7 days
Start: Col du Madalena (1991-metres)
Wedged between the Alps and Provence, this little known area is hot, dry and only sparsely populated. Running from east to west from the Italian border into the Luberon, this is a physically demanding and often technical trail. A particular challenge is the great mounds of shifting black shale around Digne les Bains. Road sections do offer regular respite.
Highlights include the monumental mountains of the Vallee de l’Ubaye, where there is a shorter Transubayenne trail on offer (100km). Also encountered en route is the 194km of marked single track around the Montagne de Lure.
More information: www.vtt.alpes-haute-provence.fr
Corsica is exploding onto the European mountain biking scene as the must visit destination. It is not however for the faint hearted. The very steep and rocky mountains exceed 2700m, the weather can be fickle and there are few if any marked trails. Yet for the intrepid biker it is close to paradise.
Offering something resembling a happy medium is the area centred on the Coscione plateau at the heart of southern Corsica. Flanked to the east by the Aiguilles de Bavella, a narrow and intimidating rocky ridge, the plateau is a high area of lightly forested and open meadows criss-crossed by shepherd and jeep tracks. There is almost limitless potential and it is possible to undertake a prolonged trip staying overnight in shepherds’ huts. One of the joys is cycling over huge areas of smooth sloping rock.
More information: www.vttencorse.fr (in French)
5. Grande Traversée du Massif Central
Time: 15-20 days
Start: Clermont Ferrand
Finish: Montpellier or Sete
The appeal of the Grande Traversée du Massif Central is the incredible variety of landscapes and challenges. Starting among the shapely cones of the extinct volcanoes of the Parc des Volcans the Grande Traversée du Massif Central takes a direct route south to the Mediterranean crossing some of the emptiest regions of France.
To begin with the ascents are steady and the high-level route over exposed hilltops makes for long free running downhills on broad tracks. In the Cantal much of the way is single track through natural woodland. Further south the climate grows drier, the trails narrower and the surface rockier. The route frequently flirts unnervingly with rocky drops. There are few signs of habitation on the high limestone causses (plateau).
A much less publicised route, the Grande Traversée du Massif Central will, at times, require careful navigation and planning.
More information: www.auvergne-velo.fr
More on mountain biking in France
See our bike rental section for MTB (known as 'VTT' in France) bike hire options in the area you're going. Many of the places listed in our bike-friendly accommodation section can also help you sort bike hire (you can browse these on the map above).
There are specialist operators and chalets offering mountain biking holidays throughout France, but mostly concentrated in southern France around the Alps and Pyrenees, and east in the Auvergne and Jura. However don't also discount areas such as the Dordogne, Languedoc and Lorraine, which all have good trails, especially for newer or rusty riders. Even Brittany has a burgeoning MTB scene with facilities on offer for (mostly) newer and intermediate riders. We have info here on where to find the mountain bike facilities and support in France.
In the Auvergne, Margriet at Les Camélias offers local knowledge of the Massif Central, particularly around the heart of the volcano region in Puy-de-Dôme, and can help with bike hire.
Cyril at Provence Enduro in the Var offers guided rides and other on-ground support (there are more than 20 loops starting from his door).
In the Pyrenees there are too many options on our radar to list. See our Pyrenees cycling pages for providers with local MTB knowledge; likewise in the French Alps. These guys will be able to hook you up with bike hire, trail info and local guides.
See our overview of MTB in Morzine, plus our page on official mountain biking centres in France. We also have this guide to downhill riding in France (see also this crazy footage). Find out more about mountain biking in the Jura mountains here. Check this interview, too, with an Aussie mountain biker on why he loves riding in France.