Mountain Biking in Provence

Meet the Moab of France—sweet singletrack enhanced by olive groves and better wine

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine
Access and Resources

The hiking guidebook Circuits Pédestres et VTT includes mountain-biking routes in southern Provence, from Mont Ventoux to the Mediterranean Sea. Gassou Shop is at 422 Avenue Victor Hugo (011-33-490-74-63-64). Another shop, closer to downtown Apt, is VTT Lubéron, 2b rue Amphitheatre (011-33-490-74-54-25). The outfitter Egobike (011-33-490-67-05-58) offers one- or two-day mountain-bike courses. Hôtel L'Aptois is at 289 Cours Lauze de Perret (011-33-490-74-02-02)., and Au Petit Saint Martin is at 24 Rue Saint-Martin (011-33-490-74-10-13). For general information, call the Provence Tourist Board in New York (212-745-0980).

C'Est magnifique: the vineyards of Provence

At some point along a meandering ridge trail called the Grande Randonnée 9, the thought took hold: The region around Apt, in southern France, is a kissing cousin to that mountain-biking mother lode, Moab. Both areas are sun-drenched convergences of startling geology, sudden inclines, and long vistas, crisscrossed with technical trails. Apt even shares Moab's Mars-colored riding surfaces—the powdery, ocher-infused dirt of Provence glows as lustrous as Utah's sandstone. It just hurts a lot less when you biff on it.
But I had to set my revelation aside when the GR 9 turned abruptly to the right, sauntered among the stone ruins of a castle, plunged down an ivy-laced ravine, and skirted olive groves. When the ride finished in a town with cobblestone streets so narrow my bike could barely pull a U-turn, Moab's fast-food franchises and prefab motels seemed, well, an ocean and a continent away.
Like the Impressionist painters who moved to Provence for the astonishing intensity of its light, mountain bikers also find much to their liking here. With more than 300 days of sunshine a year and frost-free winters, Provence's riding season is long and hassle-free. The widely spaced trees—cedar, oak, juniper, and eucalyptus—keep trail duff and deadfall clutter to a minimum.
I first rode Provence three years ago. Near Nostradamus's hometown of Salon-de-Provence, I snuffled down singletrack brimming with rosemary and thyme. On my second trip, I ventured farther inland to the Parc Naturel Régional du Lubôron, 637 square miles encompassing the 11,500-person village of Apt, as well as winemaking estates, lavender fields, rugged slopes as high as 3,690 feet, and startlingly phallic ocher formations.
A stop at Gassou Shop, on the west side of town, got me pointed to Apt's trademark playground, Le Colorado Provençal, a canyon six miles to the northeast. The Colorado Provençal ride is one of many possibilities; hundreds of miles of riding trails surround Apt. Ridable chemins (roads) and sentiers (trails) spider up, down, and over the 31-mile-wide Lubéron range.

Once at the canyon, I followed the yellow markings that denote mountain-bike-friendly trails, spinning up a gentle grade to the rim. Birdsong and golden light made the preserve's wind-eroded dirt pillars appear celestial, but still damn weird. As in Arches National Park, cyclists are banned from pedaling sensitive formations; unlike in Utah, the sights loom yards, not miles, away. The seven-mile loop concludes with a rollicking descent.
Each evening, I returned to the affordable (about $40 per night) Hôtel L'Aptois, on Apt's eastern edge, to prepare for French post-ride refueling. Among several unpretentiously good restaurants, Au Petit Saint Martin stands out: a romantic room inside the chef's house, tucked into a labyrinth of backstreets that a certain automobile-obsessed nation would have bulldozed long ago. On Saturdays, Apt hosts a bustling outdoor market where your euros buy fresh cherries and criminally good $4 bottles of Côtes du Lubéron wine.
Eight days in Apt coated my bike with grit the same hue that Provence native Paul Cézanne used in his palette. Too bad that when I flew home, U.S. customs officials washed the bike to keep our shores free of hoof-and-mouth disease—I wanted to spread ocher dust all over home.