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The Grand Traverse of the Massif Central

 

Can you easily take your bike from the UK

The quickest and perhaps cheapest way of travelling to the region is by aeroplane. There is usually an additional charge for transporting bicycles on budget airlines (and on some other carriers): the peddles must be taken off, handlebars straightened and secured, and the machine placed in a bike box or bag for the journey.

Eurostar services from London operate frequent daily services to Paris, from where fast TGV and other trains leave for Clermont-Ferrand (but note that it will be necessary to change railway stations in Paris in order to continue on your journey). When using Eurostar services, you can only carry a bicycle at no extra charge if it is carried in a bike bag, no larger than 120cm by 90cm. However, there are two other Eurostar services, which allow the cycle to be transported without dismantling. For both of these options a seat reservation with Eurostar must first be obtained. Then, for the first option you must telephone the Eurostar Baggage Line on 0870 5850850 to book a bicycle reservation on your train (£20 per machine per journey in 2009). There are limited spaces for bicycles on each train, so it is advisable to make an early reservation. With this option you are assured that your machine will be travelling on the same train as yourself. Alternatively, check in your bike up to one hour before your train departure, at the Eurostar Baggage Office at the railway station. This service also costs £20, but there is no guarantee that you and your cycle will travel on the same train. In this case your bike will usually arrive a few hours after your arrival, but Eurostar only guarantees that it will arrive within 24 hours after check-in, so in some cases you could have a wait of up to a day to retrieve your bicycle.

Note that if TGV services are used in France it is again necessary to transport your bicycle in a bike bag no larger than 120 x 90cm. But on other lines in France this is not necessary, however when purchasing your train ticket, do not forget to request a bicycle ticket (free of charge). There is usually little problem in transporting your bike, without dismantling it in any way, on normal express (non TGV) and local trains in France, unless the train is very full, in which case you might be asked to take a later train.


The Express Bike Bus is a company offering coach transport from England, with bicycles towed in custom built trailers. There are various pick-up points in England including Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Dover. Their “Mediterranean route” service includes a drop-off near Montpellier. Services operate from early May to late September, with varying weekly/fortnightly departures and returns.

There are several advantages of using a private vehicle to transport your bike to the Massif Central. Firstly, the machine does not need to be dismantled in any way, packed in bike bag or box, nor re-assembled at journey’s end, and you have total control at all stages, remaining with your bicycle for the duration of the journey. You alone are responsible for securing your machine onto your vehicle, so that there are no concerns over possible damage by airport or train staff during handling, and no additional bike transport costs to pay. In addition, the use of private transport allows total flexibility over journey dates and timings. The disadvantage, unless you have a vehicle back-up person or team, is that somewhere must be found for the safe storage of your car whilst on the GTMC. It is best to book a hotel or similar accommodation in advance for the first night, requesting for your vehicle to be left in the establishment’s car park for the duration of your holiday (it is only reasonable, if the hotel grants this, to pay a reasonable daily parking fee and to offer to stay a second night at the end of your trip before leaving for home). The obvious place to drive to is Clermont-Ferrand. Leave your vehicle here and take a non-TGV train back with your bike from Sète/Montpellier at the end of your holiday.

Can you hire bikes locally

Although there are places, e.g. Clermont- Ferrand & Montpellier, where it would be possible to hire bikes, this is not recommended for several reasons. The route is linear, so the bike would have to be returned to its place of hire; hiring for two to three weeks would incur a cost well in excess of transporting your own bike from the UK and unless fully supported whilst cycling the GTMC it would be necessary to hire a bike complete with pannier rack and panniers, not always easy.

Do you need to take spares parts and a good tool kit, or can you get sorted out along the way?

Spares to carry should include a tyre repair kit including tyre levers, a set of spanners/Allen keys/screwdrivers that fit your machine (a compact multi-tool is a good idea), chain and spoke tool, two spare inner tubes, two spare sets of brake pads and a spare brake/gear cable. A good quality cycle lock, a bicycle pump and lubricant are also essential. Cycling is a more popular sport in France than it is in the UK, so it should be possible to locate garages or cycle shops that can undertake any repair that is beyond the scope of anyone undertaking the GTMC.

What type of accommodation is available along the route?

Hotels, Gîtes d'étape, Chambres d'hôtes and camping are all available along the route. Most of the hotels are one or two star and so they should not break the bank. In France you usually pay for the room, not the number of people using it. However if you are a solo traveller it is always worth asking if they will give you a discount.

Make sure to sample a range of the gîte d'étapes. These establishments have some similarities to UK youth hostels, but operated either privately (most are family run small businesses) or by the local community (gîte communal). Many gîtes d'étape are in sympathetically restored old traditional buildings, typically accommodating between ten and thirty people. All have hot showers. Dinner is usually provided in a gîte d'étape and this nearly always consists of excellent home cooking, often at a much better standard than that available in tourist restaurants. Most gîtes d'étape also have a fully equipped kitchen for those wishing to prepare their own food. Accommodation is in a traditional dortoir, usually of four, six or eight beds, but increasingly these days, rooms for two are also available at little extra cost. Demi-pensions are common and usually offer the best value for money. You will almost certainly meet other like-minded outdoor people here, usually walkers, mountain bikers or cyclists, and these establishments are noted for their hospitality. The stay at a good gîte d'étape is one of the highlights of cycling in France. The gîte d'étape at Le Giraldès, is renowned for its excellent home-made cuisine and hospitality. You will probably be eating dinner with the family, a lengthy affair in a very homely atmosphere, where the courses seem to never stop coming!

Chambres d'hôtes are bed and breakfast establishments, similar to their British counterparts, although, of course, do not expect an English cooked breakfast. The cost always includes breakfast, but dinner is often not available, but can usually be taken in a nearby restaurant. Chambres d'hôtes are becoming more and more popular in France, and to attract foreign guests will often be signposted as “bed & breakfast”, “B & B”, or “zimmer-frei”.

There are many campsites on or near the way, plentiful in some areas, but rather thin on the ground in some regions. For those campers intending to undertake the GTMC late in the season, it is important to note that most campsites on the route close sometime in September.

Regional food – is there a must-try dish of the region

Solid but excellent peasant fare would be the best way to describe food in the Massif Central, but who wants to eat an artfully arranged teaspoonful of “interesting” exotic vegetables after a hard day on the bike? Hearty soups, fresh salads, good quality meat and the superb local Puy Lentils in delicious sauces, or thinly sliced potatoes, oven-baked with cheese and cream, washed down with a glass or two of local wine, will ensure that the evening meal is a very satisfying conclusion to a day’s exertions.

To finish the meal make sure to try clafoutis, a delicious fruit tart baked with a batter of flour and egg poured over it. Black cherries are traditionally used, but pears, blackcurrants or apples can also appear in the tart. Four distinguished cow’s milk cheeses are produced in the region, St-Nectaire, Cantal, Fourme d’Ambert and Bleu d’Auvergne, but Roquefort made from sheep’s milk is considered superior to them all.

As you head through Montpellier and onto Sète, seafood will appear on the menu. Oysters are produced in the Thau basin and either these or seafood tarts (a local speciality) are delicious with a glass of chilled white wine.

The best time of year to go

Winter is definitely not a recommended season for travelling the GTMC, most particularly by mountain bike, as snow and ice on the route would make for very hazardous conditions, particularly on the many steep and rough sections. Temperatures are generally very low in wintertime, particularly along the higher sections of the trail away from the coast and even the road cyclist would face difficulties, with black ice and snow blocking sections on many of the untreated minor roads used on the route. Moreover, hotel and other accommodation would probably pose quite a problem during the winter, as many of the establishments along the trail close during the winter season. The definition of “winter” in this discussion is the time from the beginning of November until the end of April.

The other three seasons all have their charms and advantages/disadvantages. The summer is undoubtedly the most popular season, although it does have some disadvantages. Firstly, it can become intensely hot during the daytime in July and August. Care must be taken to avoid sunstroke and dehydration. Secondly, finding accommodation for each night will be more of a problem in summer than in early or late season.

The flowers and general freshness of springtime (May/June) can be recommended, as too can the autumn (September/October) when the golden-brown tints of the turning leaves can be particularly beautiful, chestnuts are everywhere on the ground, mushrooms of every size and hue abound in the forests and the hedgerows are ripe with abundant fruits. The temperature can however be quite low both early and late in the year and there can be fairly dramatic changes in weather conditions. Much of the trail lies at or above the 1000m (3278ft) contour, so it is not surprising that temperatures can often drop rapidly. Late lying snow on the high sections of the route in early May, and early falling snow in late October are also to be considered. Violent thunderstorms, often with little warning of their approach, are not uncommon at anytime of the year, particularly after the heat of a summer's afternoon, and are a particular hazard to be taken seriously (if such storms become frequent during the hot afternoons, then start and finish the day early, to reduce the risk of being caught out in one).

Is the route waymarked

The waymarking is generally good and for most of the mountain bike route is identified as the GTMC by a square waymark bearing a white background on which is a red equilateral triangle alongside two red circles and the letters GT, followed by “Grande Traversée du Massif Central. This waymarking commences a few kilometres from the centre of Clermont-Ferrand and continues until after La Couvertoirade (during Stage 14).

After this the waymarking is replaced by waymarking for the GT34, the Grande Traversée de l’Hérault, with which the GTMC is co-incident until Saint-Jean-de-Fos, at the end of Stage 15. This waymarking is quite different from that described above. Each waymark now consists of a short green post bearing a GT34 and Hérault region stickers. From Saint-Jean-de-Fos to La Paillaide, on the outskirts of Montpellier, the GTMC is co-incident with the GR653, which bears the standard red and white waymarking of a GR trail. For the final stage through Montpellier and on to the Mediterranean coast at Sète, the GTMC carries no waymarking. However, this is not a problem as the use of one of the free city maps, available from Tourist Offices, will allow easy navigation through Montpellier and after that, route finding along the Canal du Rhône is very straightforward.




 

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