By Klaas Hardeman
Lung-searing climbs and steep technical singletrack descents are the hallmarks of mountain biking (Vélo Tout Terrain, or VTT) in the French Alps, an activity which is plagued by one drawback only — a short riding season that stretches from June to September only.
A little more to the south, however, we find the Alpes-Maritimes region, an area sloping down from the alpine peaks of the Mercantour in the north to the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean in the south (hugging Italy to the east as well). It is there that the French bikers have made their home, riding alpine singletrack under the sunshine of the Côte d’Azur.
Indeed, the Alpes-Maritimes is the heart of the French riding scene, with its abundance of tough singletrack — both wooded and rocky — cut into the landscape over centuries for military, commercial, smuggling and recreational purposes. With 13 world mountain bike championship jerseys hanging from the rafters (Nicolas Vouilloz, Fabien Barel and Nicolas Filippi), the mountain bike club in Peille rightfully claims to be the breeding ground of French “VTT” champions. Here’s another way to put it: Peille is the French Durango.
From the Mercantour peaks in the north (standing at 9,000 feet) to the French Riviera in the south run the river valleys of the Roya, the Bévera, the Vésubie, the Var and the Tinée. Each of these valleys comes with distinct riding opportunities and riding characteristics.
The Roya, the Bévera, and the Vésubie valleys all have been designated by the French Cycling Federation as “site VTT-FFC,” which means there are sign-posted mountain bike trails of various levels. Maps can be had from the tourist offices.
If you go: Alpes-Maritimes, France
Guidebooks: Books on the Alpes-Maritimes can be purchased through www.vtopo.fr.
Maps: Two “green” Michelin maps available via Amazon.com cover most of the region. Map #114 French Riviera (Côte d’Azur), Var, Verdon Gorges covers Provence, from Apt and Marseilles to Grasse. Map #115 French Riviera (Côte d’Azur) covers the Côte d’Azur, from Fréjust and Fayence to Italy, and north to Saint Etienne-de-Tinée.
Racing: Every year in spring Europe’s hardest marathon race occurs — the Transvésubienne in the Vésubie valley. And don’t forget Roc d’Azur.
Air travel: The Alpes-Maritimes can best be accessed through the Nice airport.