For our holiday in the Cevennes we are staying just away from the main tourist hot spots of the Ardeche and the Tarn Gorges so the area seems to be little discovered by cycle tourists. When I searched on line for routes around our nearest town of La Grand Combe I found quite a few mountain bike routes uploaded but only one road route. Many have ridden by perhaps, but few have recorded the area.
That’s a huge loss to cycle touring – but a massive sense of discovery for me.
This is typical Cevennes scenery. The gorges are cut deeply by the rivers which clearly flow fast and furious with winter rains, even if they are dormant trickles now. Climbing up to the ridges and plateaux took me up to the levels of the ancient plateau that marked the height of the Cevennes before river erosion and there are brilliant views to all sides. On this eastern edge the hills and gorges drop away rapidly and just in the distance the Rhone Valley can be seen from some of the ridges.
My series of day rides has been glorious as I have tracked up and around these valley sides on roads that seem to be impossibly well maintained for tiny country tracks, but they tell a tale of the economic and social changes that have ebbed and flowed as much as the winter streams.
We have found it hard to understand how lonely houses and villages that seem to be suspended up on the steep slopes could have been chosen for settlement, and how did they survive?
The towns give away the first clues, because they celebrate a recently lost history of coal mining – the Miners’ Museum in La Grand Combe and the symbolic miner’s lamp in La Martinet are remnants of an industry that boomed on almost every hillside until as recently as the 1950s and today is all gone, in fact it is almost unimaginable that these valleys have an industrial history.
Riding up from the valley floors it is easy to see some scars and recognise that some of the bigger villages probably supported mines, but that doesn’t explain the isolated farmhouses way up the valley sides. But the second reason for an amazing network of roads and farms way up into the hills is because there was a good living to be had and goods to be shipped.
Some research on line explained that we were staring at another export of the region. Forests of châtaignier. The local variety of sweet chestnut was not only a prized export but it was actually the staple diet of the people, capable of being turned into a flour for bread as well as consumption as the familiar nut. One excellent web site I read claims that the châtaignier is responsible for the fact that there has never been a famine in this area for centuries, although recent declines in demand and the impact of tree diseases have significantly reduced the rural population.
Where we are staying is called Les Taillardes, which translates as “the choppers”, a centre for chestnut wood so it was at the core of the industry.
Two of my rides very much followed the pattern of this history. On the lower slopes I worked my way through villages that must have had a mining heritage and caught glimpses of the old workings in places.
But as soon as I climbed above the valley floor I was winding through groves of chestnut and the original black pines, then emerging to spectacular views across mountains and valleys with occasional farmhouses dotting the hillsides.
The choice of roads is extensive, the bigger roads have gradual winding gradients, but the secondary D road network offers the best network of climbs up and around the valleys, climbs of 4-7 kilometres up to heights of 500-800 metres above sea level, but extremely well surfaced considering that they were almost entirely traffic free for me.
On one ride I saw the postman, and just nobody else.
Steepness varies a lot, that comes down to some careful map-reading to select according to choice – nicely graded, or ferociously steep!
I could have stopped dozens more times to take photos, but I hope this gallery does it some justice, and encourages many more people to come and enjoy somewhere very special to ride.
Maps of three of my rides are below – maybe they will be useful to someone!