Just Outside The Window—A Gravel Bikepacking Adventure In France
Just Outside The Window—A Gravel Bikepacking Adventure In France
December 03, 2020
Four French-based Felt Bicycles team members have long dreamt of outfitting their gravel bikes with an assortment of camping gear and exploring the local area right outside their office. Recently, they did just that—and they found a deeper connection with the complicated and harrowing history of the region, too.
They had been looking at these mountains for a long time—located right next to their workplace in Saint-Jean de Moirans, close to the French Alps—with the desire to go roaming for a multi-day adventure. One day, when they decided that they simply couldn’t wait any longer, colleagues Sophie, Anael, Albert and Jean set off on the roads of the Vercors for what they knew would be incredible riding. Their goal was to discover and get to know the alluring massif and its breathtaking panoramas that stretch as far as the eye can see. And, they figured, what better way to do it than with a solid bike capable of rolling on different terrain and light enough to transport all of our camping gear and most important items—including some local Vercors’s cheese?
The Vercors Regional Nature Park—the western end of the Alpine massif—is a natural space that offers a wide variety of landscapes: pine forests, deciduous undergrowth, alpine plateau, and alpine peaks. It is a paradise for practicing outdoor sports in all seasons. It is in an area that lends itself particularly well to roaming, whether that’s on foot, ski, snowshoe, or bicycle thanks to more than 150 shelters—most of which are unreserved but very well maintained—and its many water points everywhere along the paths. The group planned to ride a very wild trail in the foothills of the Vercors, which is purported to allow travelers to discover all the richness of the Natural Park.
They departed from Villard de Lans in the North Vercors to reach the Col de la Bataille in the southeastern Vercors via La Chapelle en Vercors. The return trail goes through Vassieux-en-Vercors, crossing the Ambel plateau and the Vercors high plateaus. In total, it includes 130 kilometers and 3,200 meters of elevation gain, made up of 55% gravel paths and 45% paved roads. The route mainly follows forest tracks and old roads where there are more bicycles and hikers than cars. The course does not present any major difficulties but the difference in altitude remains important and requires good physical condition. Some short sections require pushing and carrying the bike, but that’s just part of the gravel adventure!
The group’s meeting point was fixed at Villard-de-Lans. This is the main town of the Vercors massif, and it is very easily accessible from Grenoble either by car or by public transport thanks to the bus lines that allow adventurers to reach the metropolis in less than 40 minutes. The ride starts on a paved road, taking the direction of the Nordic area of Bois Barbu. After ten kilometers, the group arrived at the hamlet of Valchevrière. Historically it was located on the only road connecting the South Vercors to the North Vercors, before the opening of the Gorges de la Bourne route. This particular situation made this hamlet a strategic high place of the Resistance in the Vercors and led to its loss since the hamlet was completely razed and burnt down in July 1944 after several days of unequal struggle when the German Army, arriving from Grenoble, undertook to put an end to resistance in the Vercors. Today only the chapel remains intact among the ruins of the old houses.
The group resumed their journey and left the road to cross the wild plain of Herbouilly, then began the descent to Saint Martin en Vercors via a slightly technical path. They then made their way to the village that housed a headquarters of the Vertaco resistance, which, on July 3, 1944, was the scene of the restoration of the French Republic, which triggered the German offensive on the massif during the month that followed. Just before reaching the hamlet of Les Baraques, the group took a track that allowed them to reach La Chapelle En Vercors. The slope proved a little steep, but the fine weather and the smell of snacks in La Chapelle kept them motivated. The main market town of southern Vercors, La Chapelle en Vercors, offers different food supply options including convenience stores, restaurants, and bakeries.
The four cyclists then left to cross the Plateau D’Ambel. If the trail is not very clear, the route is not too complicated through the meadows of this immense and very wild mountain pasture. In the middle of green hills—sometimes yellow or white depending on the season—the plateau offers a total change of scenery and a feeling of, in one cyclist’s words, “the end of the world.” Although the wind could be violent and cold, the landscape offered the adventurers a feeling of total freedom. After about ten kilometers, at the end of the plateau, the cyclists joined a forest track through pines and deciduous trees to reach Font d'Urle, then crossed its Nordic domain to arrive at the Col de la Chau.
At the pass, they stopped at the resistance memorial, which offered a spectacular view of the plain of Vassieux en Vercors. In addition to the village itself, visitors can also see the cemetery of the resistance. The peaceful environment makes it hard to imagine the violence of the clashes that took place there not so long ago. In July 1944, when the German army launched its offensive from the north and tried to cross Valchevrière, the Vercors maquisards awaited support from the allied forces to arrive by air thanks to the small landing site of Vassieux . But while the Allies were busy landing in Provence, it was a German regiment that landed in a glider on July 21, 1944, while a second regiment followed on July 23, 1944, taking the resistance by surprise and depriving them of any hope of support. This episode was a turning point that led to the fall of the resistance in the massif. After a rapid descent, the group crossed the plain of Vassieux and descended to Saint Agnan en Vercors. It’s a small village without much history, but does offer visitors a last stop before entering the reserve of the Hauts Plateaux du Vercors and, therefore, a last opportunity to refuel in the small village grocery store.
The climb to the highlands is long, and takes place on an old, damaged road before evolving into a forest track. Fortunately, Jean never lost his good humor through the adventure, and his jokes gave the group plenty of smiles despite the arduous climb that finishes with 500 meters of pushing bikes. The crossing of the Highlands is incredibly wild, and it alternated between undergrowth and large meadows where visitors can see deer, roe deer, chamois, tetras lyre, and sometimes even wolves if they are lucky.
The arrival on the cross-country ski trails of Corrençon-en-Vercors marks the exit from the Hauts-plateau and the entry into the 4 Montagnes sector. The group passed near the Auberge du Clariant (which they described as a magnificent inn in a preserved setting—but without water or electricity—where you can stop for a snack or a mountain meal). Then they went past the region’s famed biathlon shooting range, a famous training ground for the greatest French champions in the discipline, before arriving in Corrençon, the ideal place for a final rest stop. The last ten kilometers to Villard de Lans are made by taking the Via Vercors, a maintained cycle path that runs through the 4 mountains for more than 40 km and which offers an ideal setting for discovering the joys of gravel riding.
The course was not easy, but the sublime landscapes made it all worthwhile. Each member of the group was amazed by the wild landscapes, so much so that they were already dreaming of their next adventure in the region: a bike and ski touring expedition to reach a summit seen so often from their offices.
“What I dreaded the most was the cold,” said Sophie. “I knew that I could get past the kilometers with a little motivation and mutual help, but the cold was another challenge. Luckily, we came across an unguarded hostel that we hadn't considered in our planning, believing it would be closed. We were able to spend a warm night there, alone in the world, and that was simply ideal.”
“Gravel cycling is a feeling of freedom, the feeling that our horizon has no limit,” said Anael. “We take the path we want and we stop when we want. We can bivouac anywhere, ride at night, by day, in the rain, under the sun, and stop to eat somewhere or do a nap on the side of the road. In short, we can be free. And this very interesting year has reminded us of how precious the freedom to move is. If I had one piece of advice to give to anyone before going on a cycling trip, it's to plan short stages to leave room for the unexpected.”
“The experience of going for several days on a bikepacking trip is always cool, but if it's with your work colleagues and into the mountains that you see all the time from your office window, it's even better!” said Albert. “The Vercors is a hidden gem for anyone on a gravel bike, which was pleasantly surprising. Sharing these days of cycling with the whole team is what gives meaning to all of our work and reassures me of why I decided to work in an industry that I am passionate about.”
“The Felt Broam was a perfect, versatile, comfortable, and sturdy adventure companion, and it will take you far without any pain (except in the thighs from all the climbing) and allow you to carry everything you need,” said Anael. “Its geometry will allow you to be comfortable and stable on the most rugged roads, but will maintain very good performance on asphalt sections. The great road manners were reinforced by the Maxxis Refuse tires with impressive grip even on wet trails and offered excellent performance on all types of roads. The Broam’s numerous mounting inserts allowed us to travel with up to five water bottles, and also allowed us to attach front and rear luggage racks and mudguards, as needed.”
“For our two-day trip, we left with a light set of equipment, even if we took much the same whether we would have gone two days or a week,” said Sophie. “Two of us had a saddlebag rear rack with a frame bag and a small handlebar bag. The others had opted for a handlebar bag, a frame bag, a saddle bag, and small bags on the forks or on the top tube.
“For any bikepacking adventure, make sure your bags are waterproof, which is an especially essential quality when traveling in rainy areas. Also, make sure your bag setup is stable with good binding systems so that they bags aren’t flailing around during your ride. This is incredibly important for maintaining good handling and performance over the kilometers. When it comes to apparel, the key words are efficiency and practicality. You need to be able to protect yourself from all weather conditions with light, compact clothing that should be easy to remove. An essential element in maintaining a good mood throughout the long days of pedaling is to have excellent shorts. It is very important that they fit you well, and that the chamois is of high enough quality to allow you to be as comfortable as possible on your saddle.”