Grand Traverse of the Central Massif by mountain bike

By Joost Ameye
8 minute read

The Grand Traverse of the Massif Central (the route from Avallon to Besse-en-Chandesse) provided Joost Ameye with 14 days of beautiful landscapes and exhilarating rides on a mountain bike.

Itineraire grande traversee massif central 2018

Sometime at the beginning of 2020, when googling for an update on French cycling routes, we noticed a new one: La Grande Traversée du Massif Central (GTMC).

This turned out to be a renewed and extended route for mountain bikers from Avallon in Burgundy to Agde on the Mediterranean Sea, some 1400km through the Morvan, the Auvergne and the Cévennes.

After our mountain bike trip the year before through Canada and the US along the Rocky Mountains we felt like we wanted more of this! 

Cycling through France’s beautiful but rugged nature and spending the nights in picturesque hotels was even more appealing!

We ordered the two Topoguides (guidebooks) via www.la-gtmc.com and started planning: the first two weeks promised a daily ride of 50 to 60km with 600 to 800m climbing and a technical level V2 to V3 on a total of six.

This looked perfect; the route seemed almost tailor-made for us!

We decided to cycle from the starting point of Avallon to Besse: about 700km and 14 stages, according to the GPS classification on the website, through Le Morvan and halfway through Le Pays des Volcans.

Lac Chambon Murol
Lac Chambon Murol
571 FC

The Grand Traverse of the Massif Central

by mountain bike, road bike or on foot

£12.60

A guidebook to mountain biking, cycling or walking the 700km GTMC, Grande Traversée du Massif Central, in southern France, from Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne to Montpellier and Sête on the Mediterranean. The long-distance route is described in stages for walkers, and mountain bikers, with on road alternatives for road cyclists.

More information

Avallon

The route starts in the centre of Avallon, just in front of the tourist office and the church of Saint-Lazare and immediately gets interesting.

It is a beautiful but tough first day as an introduction to the route and the Morvan, at times very technical but dismounting always brings salvation!

The stretch from Avallon to Besse-en-Chandesse is just fantastic! In variety and beauty it is simply magnificent: it combines the forests of the Morvan with its various lakes and the rolling landscapes of the Auvergne and its volcanoes as background!

As absolute highlights, you pass by le Lac des Settons, Bibracte (Mount Beuvray), which was discovered to be one of the most important hill forts in ancient Gaul, Charroux, one of the most beautiful villages in France, and you cycle for a couple of days with the magnificent Le Puy de Dôme in view.

Le Massif Central makes up around 1/6 of France and spreads out over four régions. The Morvan is a Regional Park and a north-eastern spur of the Massif.  The Morvan is best known for its man-made lakes, its sustainable forest exploitation and as a refuge for the resistance in the World War II. Château-Chinon is the main city.

The capital of the Auvergne is Clermont-Ferrand, also called Michelin City. Famous citizens of the Auvergne are Vercingetorix, king of the Averni (Auvergne) and scourge of Julius Caesar and Coco Chanel!   

It was not until 1752 that it was discovered that the row of mountains in the north of the Auvergne are in fact extinct volcanoes, according to some even dormant volcanoes. The Puy de Dôme is the youngest: it was still active about 5000 years ago.  

Puy de Dome
Puy de Dome

The mountain bike experience as such and of course the main reason for the trip is unique: a succession of long stretches of exhilarating descents or descents that require your full technical abilities after combinations of gradual or steeper climbs, all in wide open nature or enchanting forests!

And to make the holiday completely unforgettable: fine and affordable menus and wine in typically charming French settings.

The Topoguides give an interesting introduction to what can be seen along the way; the signage is exceptionally good but in the Morvan we trusted the GPS; from Bourbon-Lancy on we preferred the signage because it is very recent.

We have some recommendations to make for travellers that do longer stretches of the Traverse on an unsupported holiday as - obviously - the guides are written for the young and technically very proficient mountain biker who would rather make day trips and thus without luggage. We are just short of being 60 and have time to travel longer stretches, unsupported.

On our two-week trip (mid-August 2020) we encountered only three other fully packed cyclists, two of which were with a tent.

Recommendations

1. Use tubeless tires! Otherwise, your GTMC may become the GECC or La Grande Exercice de Changer Chambres à aires, a great exercise in replacing and repairing inner tubes. (And this especially for the Morvan, the first week.) Even Michelin tubes will not help. Thorns of brambles have no mercy!

2. We sometimes wondered (especially in the Morvan) when we pushed our bike up again or hobbled down on rocks and tree stumps on a so-called V3, what V4-V5-V6 would be like, then? In the Topoguide, no stage got a higher gradation than V3...!!??  What is the point of grading routes if for more than half of the grades you need to be a circus performer and work for Cirque du Soleil to stay on your bike?

3. Also the daily denivelations, the D+ are often seriously underestimated. (See our statistics: we had 4 Garmins and 1 Wahoo the first week to check, 2 Garmins and 1 Wahoo after!) This is not really a big problem because the experience is in the beauty of the cycling.  But a good (mental) preparation, knowing what the day is going to bring contributes to that experience; a lack of preparation does not let you experience it to the fullest.

4. We would strongly advise against gravel bikes through the Morvan. We met one biker on one the first day, who after a couple of breakneck descents decided to take the regular road to Quarré.  But also, in the Auvergne we would feel safer on a mountain bike.

5. We also wondered how you would come through this first week with a tent tied on your handlebars so you can hardly see where your front wheel is racing to? In this respect, autumn when layers of leaves cover the ground, is also not advisable to ride through the Morvan. Somewhere in the Topoguide it is also suggested that you can pull your luggage on a cart behind your bike...?! Our advice, especially for the first week: stay in hotels or campsites with cabins!

6. With an electric bike? Well, I would not want to push that 15+ kg bike – with saddle bag and frame bag on top – along the rivers Cure or Cousin or all the way past La Pierre Qui Vire... let alone carry it over the top of the Bois du Roy! And you must be extra careful if you decide to go electric because you have not cycled for a while: higher speeds require higher skills!

7. In the topoguide and in various literature advertising the GTMC, it is also stated that the route can be done en famille?! If your wife is looking for one more reason to file for divorce, she will surely have one after you have taken her and the children on one of the stages and you have both been carrying the children's bikes more than the children have cycled on them!

8. You must include in your planning that after two weeks on the trail – and especially after the Morvan and probably also after the Cévennes - you will need a day off to have your bike serviced. So be sure to start with a tip-top bike and bring spare brake pads and derailleur pad specifically for your bike. Bicycle workshops are only in larger cities and you often must leave the route for them.   

9. If we were to do the same stretch of route again then we would avoid Clermont Ferrand (CF) and cycle from Malauzat (between Riom and CF) straight to Volvic. Cycling in traffic always feels like an anti-climax to what would otherwise have been a nice day of cycling. We would even look for a route to go directly to Volvic before Riom. As such you don’t need to leave a fantastic bike biotope for a rather dull intermezzo and you can stay in the same vibe.

10. A remaining problem when doing this trip unsupported is the return shuttle. Well, it is not a problem, just expensive: the company cap-liberté mentioned in the book refers you to a taxi company anyway; there are no shuttles in the real sense of the word. We were quoted €540 to be driven back from Besse to Avallon! (About 300km one way). It should be possible to organise this in a different way. Where you leave your car, surely there must be someone interested to make some extra money and come and get you with your car? Alternative: go by train.

Anyway, we enjoyed it so much that we cannot wait to do the second part as soon as possible. And we will definitely be doing certain parts again in future! ENJOY!!!!

For more details about the route and statistics, you can visit our blog:

Mountain Biking La GTMC – the Grand Traverse of the Massif Central – We love to travel

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