Whilst the Southern French Alps don't have the reputation of Morzine for hard core downhill biking they are perfectly suited to the sort of activities most of us mere mortals like to partake in - and you can do the hardcore stuff too! The French are great believers in sport for everyone and their graded and marked trails make life easy (or hard) for everyone. The area of the Buech valley even has it's own dedicated full time bike route finder, employed by the Department to write leaflets, update routes, and organise manifestations and competitions.
This area of France has virtually no restrictions on public access so if a route or track exists you have every right to use it, this, coupled with the general friendliness and helpfulness of the locals and other walkers and cyclists you may meet - though there wont be many, make a refreshing change from the UK with all it's restrictions and reservations on paths and tracks. It takes away the stress of wondering whether or not you should be there.
The Buech route cards, covering the area around the house detail a total of 1200km of marked routes, add the various unofficial shortcuts and this makes for an incredible choice of routes and destination. The routes are almost invariably circular and start and finish in the local villages - most of which have a cafe and bar in which to top up fluid levels after the ride. We are gradually translating the more local routes into English - and riding them ourselves to check the directions, hard work but someone has to do it!. They are graded into Green Blue Red and Black, just like ski runs. Green and Blue runs are those suitable for families, Blue and Red for experienced riders with the Black most definately regarded as 'Sportif' with long steep climbs and monstrous downhill sections. Lengths vary from an hour to a day. There are also route maps and guides to the lower Durance Valley, Champsaur and several other areas all with their accompanying waymarkings.
Many of the local ski resorts open their lifts for bikers and walkers in July and August to make that first accent of the day much easier, many have the sort of downhill tracks that have become popular in the North Alps and those that havent are gradually developing them, the French have recognised the potential revenue from summer tourism and are opening more and more resorts for the summer season. Being further South and enjoying a mediterranean climateallows biking and walking to be done in the sunshine and warmth making the experience much more pleasant.
Bike Hire is available either locally or at many of the resorts. It is possible to hire bikes of every standard, for tootling between villages and bars, for gentle cycles along forest tracks or for more serious challenges and downhills though most serious bikers prefer to bring their own bikes which these days is much simpler on trains and planes - see below
Local Competitions and Manifestations
All through the spring and summer the local Department organise VTT Raids or Manifestations- a wonderful French word covering a multitude of sins. These come in two types, Randonées; designed originally to publicise the newly opened route, but so popular that they have become a great social day out, they are great fun, and usually they consist of three or four different graded routes, again from family to sportif starting from a villag,e all well signed and detailed, followed by a meal, wine and often a barbeque or dance in the evening, all for just a few Euros. There will often be several hundred bikes spread over the route all cycling at their own pace, except of course on the sportif route where the serious racing goes on. the second Raids are much more competitive and specialised with regional competitions over several weekends, to compete in these you generally need a medical certificate to say you are reasonably healthy and capable of taking part - however the same medical applies to boulists so the standard is not too high!
The area is popular not just for the Tour de France. The World Cup downhill and slalom event was held at Vars and the Coupe de France; Cross Country, Trial, Slalom and Decent competition at Orcierres-Merlet and Orres in 2003, which perhaps indicates the potential for the downhillers
The French are just beginning to get their head round the pleasures of tandem cycling. We have had one for a few years now and cycling around on it is a great way to meet the locals, they will invariably come over and have a look at it and often engage you conversation or tell of how they did their courting on one in their youth. The flat valleys in the area lend themselves to long relaxing tandem rides allowing the stoker the opportunity to enjoy the views.
Bringing your bike
French trains are very bike friendly or you can bring bikes on many of the airlines provided they are adequately prepared, plus there is the bike bus from the UK. See the getting here section for details of travel options. If bringing your bike on the train or plane it is worth booking. The trains in France are as we say very bike friendly and indeed timetables show whether a train has specific bike racks if it says it has it generally has, but even if it doesn't say so the chances are there will be room. Some airlines have a 'sporting goods' premium whereby for a small extra charge your bike will be carried as additional luggage outwith the normal weight allowance.