An adventure retold - welcome to the gravel paradise of Les Grands Causses.
I say my goodbyes and put the phone down, it's done. In a few weeks time I’ll be joining Gravel Up’s EXPLORER trip in the south of France. In store is 50 to 80kms of gravel riding each day with at least 1000m+ to climb, all in the heart of the stunning Grands Causses Natural Park, just north west of Montpellier.
My anticipation grows as I wind my way down to Millau and the start of the adventure, with a few nerves too I’m not going to lie! Even though I ride regularly around my home near Annecy and also venturing into the mountains, this multi day bike trip on gravel will be my first. After 5 hours on the road I arrive the Domaine Saint Estève, our base camp for the trip, welcomed by the Welcome to Millau sign, “Capital of Outdoor Sports.” Enough said!
Olivier, one of three founders of Gravel Up, welcomes me and I’m the first to arrive. JB, my housemate arrives shortly after and we settle in to our little bungalow. Normally I’m not fussed about having many creature comforts on a bike adventure, but I think I’ll be appreciating my own room and comfy bed on this trip! Some Gravel Up goodies welcome me to my room - reusable cutlery, a water bottle and some stickers which I proudly stick on my van straight away… thank you Gravel Up!
With the prologue ride scheduled that afternoon, I have a little bit of time to settle in before the adventure begins. While the others get their bikes from Wish One Cycles (steel framed bikes made by hand locally) I have time to meet everyone in person and put names to the faces I’ve only seen in our what’s app group so far. To my surprise not everyone has ridden gravel before. It doesn’t matter though as Daniel, our guide, and Olivier take us on a 30km ride to get used to our bikes and the terrain, allowing us to get to know each other better as we ride along the river Tarn. Any fears I had had disappear with each pedal stroke as we all relax and ride under the ever present Millau viaduct. My mother always said that you have to take the plunge, a phrase that is entirely appropriate here. No matter what has brought us here and where we have come from, we find ourselves in the saddle ready explore the roads, gravel and paths less travelled here.
Daniel explains that the prologue is an ideal warm up for what’s to come over the next few days - climbs, descents, and dream gravel with some beautiful villages thrown in the mix.
Back at our basecamp Julien, our Gravel Up manager, welcomes us back with local cheese, sausage and beers from the nearby Lozère plateau. He’s responsible for all our food and drink for the trip and an all round great guy, not just because of being our mobile feed station! Its smiles all round as we happily relax into the start of our gravel adventure before heading to the restaurant for a dinner of local specialities.
We’re up early the next morning at half 6 for yoga with Catherine before breakfast. It doesn’t matter that most of us are about as flexible as our bikes… it does us the world of good both mentally and physically and we are ready for another day of gravel. Back in the saddle we start with a 6km climb with 500m+ and its not long til we are breathing hard and our legs are complaining. All is forgotten as we arrive at the Cap de Coste viewpoint, the gateway to the Larzac Plateau, greeted by Julien waiting for us with coffee and homemade walnut cake. Any suffering from the climb is quickly erased by the delicious food and the views. We continue across the plateau, somewhat silenced by the beauty of the paths on the Larzac under the watchful gaze of a pair of vultures who nonchalantly follow our trail.
The descent to Roquefort and then Saint Jean d’Alcas for lunch passes without incident, and we are all disappointed to hear there’s only 20km left to get to Saint-Affrique where we will stay the night. We don’t need much persuasion to agree to add in another col and an extra 20km proposed by Olivier, and it’s good to see our guides listening to us. They know exactly how to adapt the route according to the level of the group. Nothing is set in stone, just as it should be. On the other hand Komoot, the mapping app through which the routes are shared, leads us to a dead end. It’s all part of the adventure as we hike a bike for a few hundred metres to rejoin the path above. We realise the path is littered with thorns and hey presto, I have two punctures! Part of a long list of recent of punctures that leaves me unconvinced by my tubeless set up. Guillaume takes a tumble on the last climb of the day but luckily it’s nothing serious and all these challenges add up to make the day even more satisfying and the memories more powerful.
Morale is still high as we arrive at Saint-Affrique and see our fabulous accommodation! Lodges hidden in the forest with a swimming pool to help us ease our aching muscles after a full day in the saddle of 72km and 1500m+ with a healthy dose of fresh air on the side. We all fall into a deep sleep after drinks with the head of the Grands Causses Natural Park and a hearty dinner nearby.
The next day our legs are heavy as we set off for our third day of riding, and as with previous days we start with a climb just to keep the quads working hard! As we ride we are enveloped by thick fog and a mystical and surreal atmosphere, with the springtime green landscapes shrouded in wintry weather. The contrast makes for some beautiful images and I try to capture them as best I can.
The muddy trails slow our progress, but we stay together and no-one is left behind. This is another thing I like about Gravel Up: they have redefined the idea of performance from medals, speed and unhelpful rivalry to a real desire to enable everyone to challenge themselves as they see fit.
The fog finally lifts around us and we are met with an incredible sight: the red earth of Camarès. Olivier had been tempting us with stories of this red soil like you find down under in Australia. He was right and we find ourselves in an Outback à l’Aveyron (the region that Millau is in.) The changing scenery takes us to Montlaur after four and a half hours of gravel in which we’ve done 50km and 1000m+. The minimum for a day on an EXPLORER trip. Almost too easy after yesterdays antics! We happily decide to finish here and save our legs for tomorrow, and Julien takes us back to Millau where the river Tarn provides a natural ice bath to soothe our legs. Dinner is in one of Millau’s emblematic restaurants, where the southern french accent of the waiters resonates and there’s nowhere we’d rather be.
Our fourth day brings us to our last day of riding, and straight away we find ourselves deep in the Tarn valley before turning away from the river and climbing up onto the Causse above. (A Causse is limestone plateau unique to this region of France, there’s 7 to explore!) Everyone settles into their own rhythm, naturally forming 2 groups. With a friendly race going on at the front, those of us towards the back make the most of the time and space to take in the panoramic views as we climb. At the top we find the ever faithful Julien with another hearty and delicious food stop, sadly the last of this Gravel Up adventure.
After a few false summits we find ourselves on top of the Pouncho d’Agast, the highest viewpoint up above Millau. Theres rain in the air on our last descent and we can see the storms brewing on the horizon, a fitting end to our adventure. Of course we don’t escape it entirely after another 80km and 1800m+
We finish the ride with a drink in Millau. Tomorrow everyone will go back to their respectives lives with plenty of memories and the absolute satisfaction that’s follows a great adventure. Thank you to Gravel Up for enabling us to experience this, and more. And now you know where to go if you fancy being a part of a unparalleled adventure, an unrivalled physical yet personal experience. The Gravel Up door is open, and we can only wish for one thing, that it lasts a long time so that many more people have the chance to take part in such an adventure!
How to dress for winter riding?
The key to keeping warm is… staying dry! Gravel is ideal for year round riding, on dry trails and muddy tracks alike. Winter riding needs good kit, and there’s two golden rules to help keep you as warm and dry as possible.
3 bikepacking movies you must see
Don’t miss the three bikepacking adventure movies we have selected for you! You’ll only want to do one thing after watching them: explore the world on your bike.