I thought I should write an addendum to my previous post that adds a little explanation and may be useful to anyone planning a mountain biking trip to France.
All of the off-road cycling we did in France was part of the VTT, or ‘le Vélo Tout Terrain’. The official website is in French, and I can’t find much else on the web about it in English, but as far as I can tell, the VTT are a network of waymarked offroad trails all over France. But to put that into perspective, they’re not like the purpose-built, all-weather trails in Wales, the 7 Stanes up in Scotland, or the North Face in Grizedale. These are more like the kind of trails we’d get if the UK government decided to take some of the killer loops and enduros that mountain bikers create for themselves with OS maps and trial and error, waymark them, and produce route maps for each one.
As a result, the trails are a real mixed bag – different lengths, different terrain, different amounts of climbing. They’re graded black through to green in the same way as the UK purpose-built trails, but they tend to be graded on length rather than technical difficulty. As a result, one can sometimes spend hours hacking around through fields, doing some pretty tough techy climbing, only to lose all of the hard-won altitude gained on fairly boring forest road decents. They are also most definitely not all-weather: some of the stuff we did in the Jura was the day after some heavy rain and the combination of clay and limestone made for some slippery riding. But none of this is hugely different to riding ‘natural’ trails in the UK – they’re just waymarked so you spend less time fiddling with maps and working out where you are.
There is a bit of an issue in the fact that the waymarking is a little bit random. Somtimes it’s not obvious which direction a waymarker is pointing, or the waymarkers seem to dissappear at a crucial moment so it’s easy to take a wrong turn. You can get a map from a local tourist office (more on this later) which is crucial for helping you work out where you went wrong. I wouldn’t attempt to follow one of the VTT trails without a route map. There is also seems to be a lack of signing convention – straight on could be an arrow pointing up, or one pointing right (from the left of the trail) or one pointing left (from the right hand side of the trail). The waymarkers also only appear at the exact point where you’re required to change direction, without any warning, which results in a lot of skidding to a halt as you notice a waymarker out of the corner of your eye on a descent.
My only other gripe is about the bizarre way information about the VTT is distributed. To get hold of a VTT route map, you have to find the nearest tourist info office, then ask them for the VTT map of the local area. Sometimes this is free (as in the Val de Morteau, tourist office Morteau) and sometimes there is a small charge (as at the Monts d’Arlier, tourist office Pontarlier, 3 Euros), but it seems impossible to get a VTT route map without visiting the local tourist office in person. This makes it very difficult to plan a holiday. There seems to be a screaming opportunity to create something similar to the MB Wales site which pulls all of the information together including locations, downloadable trail maps, trail grading, climbing figures, accommodation information, news and even and some social tools like a picture and video gallery for users to upload their own content to, and a blog.
Having said all of that, I think the VTT is brilliant – it’s great that there are so many miles of trails (there are 147 sites and over 52,000 kilometers of waymarked trails), and that you can pretty much find somewhere to ride anywhere in France. I just wish it was easier to get the information!