France Is For Cycling
The Chateau de Germigney might just be the best hotel in Europe.
It’s not because of the excellent chef, who prepares exquisite four-course gourmet meals, or the relaxed French ambiance or even the spacious manicured gardens or the four-star rating.
No, what makes the Chateau de Germigney a slice of the good life is the fleet of townies parked right outside the front door. The townies are classic beaters, crafted from solid steel, with mud guards and bells.
When you want to go for a ride, all you have to do is hop on and kick it into gear, spinning through the gravel, under the arch that marks the entrance to the Chateau’s compound and down a small lane into the warm night of the French countryside.
The fact that the Chateau de Germigney keeps a fleet of townies handy reflects the truth about France. The country that hosts the world’s greatest bicycle race, the Tour de France, has a heart that beats to the cadence of pedals and the hum of knobbies. This pulse is particularly strong in Franche-Comte, an unknown region nestled in the Jura Mountains against the Swiss border.
As the world’s greatest bike race unfolds over the next two weeks, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the townies parked outside the Chateau. Their very presence is an indication that in France the bike is king.
And while an American, Lance Armstrong, is king of the Tour, you don’t have to race to enjoy a slice of European cycling culture. Because in France, the very act of riding is, perhaps, more important than the Tour itself.
You can see into Switzerland from the Franche-Comte mountain-biking mecca of Metabief. While the 2003 Tour won’t travel into the rugged Jura (the race beelines towards Paris from Lyon), the Jura Mountains and Metabief sit just north of this year’s route. Both the town and the surrounding region have an illustrious racing history.
Metabief has a wicked, downhill course, which hosted the 1993 World Mountain Biking Championships. Roadies have competed here in numerous stage races and, in 1994, the Tour de France held a stage at Lac Saint Point.
The French Road Championships were held a year later in the small town of Pontarlier, with the Tour returning again in ’96 and ’97. With more than 200 miles of singletrack, roads that snake through the mountains and the kind of rolling terrain and sweeping views that make riders ache with passion, the area around Metabief is a cyclist’s heaven, on road or dirt.
While road riders are spoiled for choice by the region’s endless riding, featuring castles, quiet lanes that twist through quaint villages and spectacular views of the Jura, mountain bikers will want to taste some mud. One of the best options is a long, wonderfully evil trail called No. 29.
No. 29 starts at Ornans, a town sitting at the bottom of the Loue River valley. The Jura rises above Ornans, their steep green flanks accented by bands of chalky cliffs that every few years spit off massive boulders that tumble to the valley floor.
Trail No. 29 etches a circuitous route from the town into the mountains, across the cliffs, down ravines and across more cliffs. It’s the kind of epic that you’ll only find in the Franche-Comte region.
Sustained climbing on old double tracks through orchards, downhills smoother than a baby’s bottom and faster than Superman, harrowing singletrack that hugs the edges of the region’s trademark white cliffs and the requisite views of castles and ancient towns nestled against the banks of the Loue.
I climb up No. 29 on a hot afternoon, sweating as my wheels spit mud into my face. The trail is empty. Three hours later, I’ve crested the mountains, dropped back into the river valley, and then climbed back up into the hills
again. The water in my Camelbak is done and I’m feeling foolish for not bringing extra bottles.
It doesn’t matter, though, as the trail finally drops back down to the valley floor and it’s an fast spin back to Ornans, a cafe and a couple of cold ones on a deck overlooking the Loue.
As I sip the last of my beer, No. 29 seems like a dream. The latest stage of the Tour de France flickers across the TV in the bar as the locals watch Armstrong pull away from the pack and put the hurt on the rest of the field.
I don’t race, but the brutal effort that I’ve just indulged in makes me feel like I’ve just completed a stage in the big one. As the crowd cheers on the riders, I sit back, feel the ache in my legs and listen to the excited locals babble in French.
I can’t understand a word they’re saying, but I do understand one thing. And it’s the only thing I really need to know. France is for cyclists and you don’t have to be named Armstrong to feel like a champion when you ride here.
Just The Facts
The Region: Franche-Comte, http://www.franche-comte.org
The Airline: Air France, http://www.airfrance.com
Trail #29, The Map: The Plein-Air topo of Le Doubs Massif Du Jura, available at most tourist offices
Bike Rental: Syratu Tourisme, 25290 Orans, phone: 03 81 57 10 82
The Best Place You’ll Ever Stay: Chateau de Germigney: 39600 Port-Lesney, phone: 03 84 73 85 85
Tom Winter is a freelance writer based in Vail.