The Grand Traversée du Massif Central (GTMC) Mountain Bike Route
446 Mi.(718 KM)
% Rideable (time)
This was the first long-distance mountain bike route to be completed in France. Along its length, you climb around 11,000m (36,000 feet) and descend a little more, using tarmac, dirt, gravel, rock, sand and mud, depending on the weather.
The route is immensely diverse, taking you through the French backcountry, between extinct volcanoes, across the remote stronghold of the French Resistance during the Second World War, over the gorges and through the forests of the Cévennes National Park, past farms, hamlets, villages and ancient walled towns and finally, down towards the Mediterranean Sea.
Generally the route is not very technical, and those sections that are can be avoided or walked if needed, but it is generally all rideable. A lot does depend on the weather conditions as many sections can degrade in wet weather into mud quagmires, and the weather can be very changeable. The route is long, climbs 11,000m, and navigation requires some care due to intermittent waymarking and the number of different route networks that spread across France – sometimes combined on one physical path, whilst at other times separate. Resupply is possible in the many villages and towns through which the route passes.
- The route passes through such a diverse range of landscapes that there is constantly something new to discover.
- The Monts Dôme area is beautiful, with its ancient volcanic domes spread over 25 miles.
The wonderful gîte d’étape in Le Giraldes, where you can eat with the family in a dining room heated by a huge open fire, and where they serve cheek of beef from their own rare breed cattle which, after having been cooked for three hours literally dissolved on the tongue.
- The Cévennes National Park (which astonishingly for an area that only occupies 0.5% of the landmass of France contains about 50% of its plant and animal species) and the Tarn Gorge in particular, is spectacular, and you can camp right alongside the river in the small town of Le Pont de Montvert.
- Many of the towns and villages through which the trail passes are beautiful places to rest for a day, or just a few hours over lunch. Florac has a river running down through the centre in a series of waterfalls and tunnels, whilst La Couvertoirade and Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert are intricate, medieval villages.
- The ride along the valley and back on the southern side of Mont St Baudille feels remote and isolated despite being just a few miles from civilisation.
- The food throughout the region includes hearty soups, fresh salads, good quality meat and the local Puy Lentils in delicious sauces, as well as thinly sliced potatoes, oven-baked with cheese and cream, washed down with a glass or two of local wine.
- Weather. Summer in the Massif Central tends to be hot and dry, whilst winter is cold with heavy snow. It’s not recommended to ride the route from November to April due to snow and ice. Things will be hot in July and August, and also busier with tourists. Most of the trail is at or above 1000m (3278ft) altitude, and temperatures and weather conditions can vary significantly. The weather is changeable – in two weeks riding in September I experienced driving rain, low temperatures, scorching heat, thunderstorms and nights too warm and too cold for the down quilt 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.
- Money. Take cash, and don’t miss an opportunity to resupply. The GTMC passes through some quite remote areas (for Europe). It’s 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.
- Route finding. Take a GPS and maps or guidebook. The GTMC uses a variety of existing designated trails, including a lot of grandes randonnées (GR) trails (official long distance paths that can generally be ridden as well as walked), local GR trails, forestry roads and other hiking routes. Whilst the GTMC is generally 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 direction they point. In the Cevennes National park, the signs are not allowed at all. The Cicerone guide has detailed route directions (plus a whole host of other useful information on facilities etc) and is available electronically for the Kindle or other devices. The route in the guide differed on occasion to the GPS route that I used, and they both differed on occasion to the waymarks I found on the ground. In addition, some sections of trail might be impassable, or just plain unenjoyable, in certain conditions (e.g. very muddy after periods of rain). However, the guide gives road biking (and walking) options for each phase and, when combined with a map it is easy to identify backroads to avoid certain sections of trails if needed.
- Getting there. There are airports in Clermont-Ferrand, Nimes, Lyon and Montpelier with flights mostly serving Europe. Trains from Paris serve Clermont-Ferrand, Nimes and Montpelier. You should avoid the faster TGV trains as they often require you to dismantle and box or bag your bike (although this may not be the case on some routes) – the slower trains should have space for bikes as they are but you should enquire before you book your ticket. If coming from or through the UK, you can take your bike on the Eurostar from London to Paris, though you should ring to book a space ahead as they can get full. More information is here: www.eurostar.com/uk-en/travel-information/travel-planning/luggage/travelling-with-your-bike-eurostar. There are regular non-TGV trains between Clermont-Ferrand and Montpelier. There are also stations close to Bagnols-les-Bains (roughly half way along the route) at the town of Mende (20km) and the tiny viilage of Allenc (10 km)) which run to Nimes where you can change trains to head to Montpelier or Clermont-Ferrand, should you want to leave or start the route half way along.
- There are many established campsites along the route, although they are plentiful in some areas and lacking in others, and are often closed from September onwards. They often seem a little dominated by camper vans and caravans. Wild camping is legally a grey area in France but if you camp late, leave early and are discreet, you shouldn’t have a problem. However, a lot of the area is farmed, so you probably want to be on the look out for a good spot from the mid afternoon.
- Along the trail you can find gîte d’étapes (hostels aimed primarily at walkers and cyclists) that provide basic group accommodation and serve a simple set menu with three courses. There’s generally only one choice of menu, which might make things hard if you’re a vegetarian, but its home cooked, hearty food for a good price.
- Similarly, CAF (Club Alpin Francais) gîtes provide cheap self catered accommodation for outdoor groups, mostly in more mountainous areas. The beds are usually in dorms and you share a kitchen and living space, for about €15 per night.
- There are many relatively cheap hotels and guest houses (Chambres d’hôtes) in small towns and villages which often won’t cost that much more than a gîte.
- Shops and grocery stores open around 7:30am in France and stay open until around 8:00pm but will probably be closed for a few hours around lunchtime. Arriving in a small village (or even town) at lunchtime expecting to buy supplies will normally be met with disappointment – they can seem totally deserted. Many shops in small villages won’t accept debit or credit cards so take plenty of cash.
- Most French towns and villages have water fountains in the main squares or on the main street. Just make sure you watch out for signs warning you if the water is not for drinking (non potable).
- Churchyards often have outside taps to provide water for cemetery flowers. Failing that, when I was out of water I approached people in their gardens as I passed, and they were very accommodating.
- The region has abundant rivers and streams but due to the prevalence of grazing animals, you should assume the water needs purification.
On The Trail
Starting from Clermont-Ferrand the trail initially heads north to the town of Volvic, famous for its spring water, before looping south through the Monts Dôme, where more than 80 extinct volcanoes stretch along a line over 40km (25miles).
The next few days are spent crossing the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne following a chain of volcanic hills and then skirting to the east of the Monts-Dore, a series of peaks and ridges topped by the highest peak in the Massif Central, the Puy du Sancy (1886m/6186ft). After crossing the high Cézallier plateau, the trail then descends to the towns of Allanche and the historic Saint-Flour.
The route climbs into the hills of the Margeride, a remote area used by the French Resistance during the Second World War to launch attacks to delay German reinforcements travelling north after the D-Day landings. After visiting the spa town of Bagnols-les-Bains, you enter the beautiful, high, forested hills of the Cévennes before descending to the spectacular Tarn Gorge. Leaving the Tarn, the trail passes through the southern Cévennes hills and forests before crossing a lower, flatter plain to the ancient walled town of La Couvertoirade. The limestone hills of Saint-Baudille then lead to the amazing village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, in the l’Hérault valley, before the final descent towards Montpellier and the Mediterranean Sea.
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