Visiting the Ardeche and L’Ardchoise 2019

The Ardéche is well known amongst those seeking to explore it’s spectacular gorges and relax by or explore its meandering rivers. Many are unaware that the region consists of high mountains too, further south, reaching over 1750m, boasting a significant nordique ski area across these higher reaches. It’s a beautiful place to ride and the Ardéchoise is the region’s annual cycling spectacle, featuring the best riding the Ardéche has to offer across a multitude of route options.

The Ardéchoise, now into its 28th edition, has put the Ardèche firmly on the cycling map. Held across 4 days, over 17,000 cyclists descend on the area to take part in any of the plethora of distance and route options on offer, from single day 70km routes to 4 day 600km+ multi day rides. I was there to ride their 603km ‘Les Gorges en 3 jours’ route with 10,300m+, which takes riders deep into the valleys less ridden.

For the 2 longer routes, La Meridionale or Les 3 Gorges, there is a choice of tackling them in 3 or 4 days, depending on gusto you’re feeling! This isn’t bike packing, with half board overnight accommodation and bag drop being provided, so all you need to carry is your day ride kit, taking into account that the weather can turn, especially in the mountainous area. There are plenty of feed stations out en route too so you’ll never need to carry a huge amount of calories.

The normally tranquille village of le Félicien in the north part of the Ardèche plays host for this event and it’s population swells as cyclists amass for their various rides. It’s quite the slick operation, refined over the years, manned by hundreds of volunteers. Have a question? Simply ask anyone in the deliberately obvious, yellow Ardéchoise T shirts.

The queue for the pre ride check-in is quickly and efficiently dealt with so the wait is never long. Registration and bag drop is straightforward with a number of volunteers on hand to manage anything you may have missed to do, or questions you may have. There is a small expo to check out too, with Mavic on hand for any last minute bike checks. Everything is well managed to accommodate this huge influx of people with car park pools dotted along the main roads into the village. If you hadn’t managed to secure a bed for your time here, a campsite is located 3 km out of town, which is where I pitched up. Food wise, there is a well stocked mini Casino in town and plenty of restaurants/bars, all welcoming Ardéchoise participants.

Bag drop is the evening before or up to 8h30 on the morning of the grand depart. Bag weight is limited depending on the number of days and it is weighed, so no trying to sneak in a few extras. Riding the 3 day 603km route, bag limit was a generous 9kg however. Le depart is anytime between 6h30 and 9h00, there’s no rush as this isn’t a race, where crossing through the start gate activates your tracker.

Day 1 was 210km with 3480m+. With most villages along the initial part of the route getting involved, there were regular feed stops for the first 40km. Each village had made a huge effort in support of this event, decorating it’s streets and offering a plentiful amount of food and drink. The early terrain rolls and kicks, with climbs being stiff and short, passing through the picturesque ancient streets of the villages. As the ride processes southwards, rider numbers begins to thin as they veer off onto their chosen routes, along small, quiet secondary roads, passing through some of the best scenery of the Ardèche.

Thé route is devoid of road side signage, just the occasional yellow arrows painted on the road at early intersections, otherwise you’ll need a GPS unit to follow your chosen route. I used my trusty Garmin 1000. This is certainly an event to enjoy with a group of friends, but even if you come solo you’ll engage with numerous riders along the way. Speaking French will have its advantages too as most of the participants are Francophiles.

Feed station volunteers are an enthusiastic bunch, happy to be part of such an ingrained event in the region’s calender. They encourage you to relax for a moment at their feed station, to take a coffee and food, much of which will be local and home prepared.

The first night was at a campsite in St Remze, in one of the cabins. Basic, but perfectly ideal after a long day in the saddle. It is shared accommodation, so do carry some ear plugs in your overnight bag! The evening meal was hearty and plentiful, around communal seating with other participants. My compagnons around the table were all French, some repeat riders, some newbies like myself. Speaking French made being sociable much easier and conversation easily flowed as we relayed our experiences of the day. Even if you don’t speak French, it’s such a convivial atmosphere that no doubt communication would still flow in Frenglish!

Breakfast was the standard continental, so stock your carry bag with personal preferences if you want anything different. I usually take along my prefered porridge oats. Start time is again up to you, but bags get picked up around 7h30 so you will need to be prepared for that as the bag handlers have a super tight schedule.

With warming sunshine for the start of day 2, the distance was a little less engaging at 188km, for a total of 3318m+ as we headed in the higher ranges. The day started with roads passing through stunning gorges for which the Ardèche is renowned, rolling terrain continually bagging cols along the way, although only in the 300-400m high region, they were still cols! On these longer routes, you almost have the roads to yourself, barely coming across other riders, yet still with many of the villages hosting a feed station, enthusiastically welcoming all who came through. They were as much a part of the event as the route itself.

As we gradually cut across west, the hills got higher, the valleys deeper, the climbs longer, meandering upwards, always steady, never steep, always with far reaching views of these more wild parts of the Ardéche. Our entrance into this mountain range marked by a 1000m climb up to the Col de la Croix de la Femme Morte. From the earlier 250m cols, we were now reaching heights of over 1400m, the riding becoming more hearty and with that, a change in weather to more damp and colder conditions.

The hillside village of Bourne is nestled deep in its valley, but even here the locals had put on a feed station, welcoming all who came past, even if you didn’t really need to, it was definitely a place to take a moment to stop and chat with the locals.

The views and riding was now in strong contrast from earlier in the day. Dropping in and out of deep, remote valleys. The way out ran along the contours of the mountain, following a gentle gradient, as the weather came in, drizzle and misty clouds now obscuring the views. Whipping out the Gore C5 Shakedry jacket to stay dry for the final few kms to the night’s accommodation, but not until we had scaled the final col of the day, the 1435m high Col du Pendu.. The view of the valley below more stunning the higher you rode. The isolated auberge at Le Bez is in the heart of the Adreche’s winter sports region, from where you can link up the nordique ski tracks which traverse the area. Already busy with riders who had taken a shorter route, I arrived just in time as a heavy storm rolled through 30 minutes later, bringing with it heavy rains and high winds!

Food was again plentiful and just what a hungry cyclist needed, with conversation flowing with fellow rides (again in French). An hour later, the storm had passed, leaving a deep freshness in the air.

An early morning heavy mist lingered around the hills as we crossed from our dorm accommodation to breakfast. Cold, but the sun was starting to peer through the deep haze by the time we set off. Another warm day was due. Day 3 was a final 208km and over 3500m of elevation gain. Rolling along this high plateau, you wanted to take your time, watching the sun rise above the hazy mist, its warm gradually burning it off.

The descent was long and gently flowed down through the forest, the roads still damp from the mist. The climb back out was equally as long, momentary descents to rest the legs before the sharp ascent to the highest point of the ride at 1506m. Worth it for the views and a whole new perspective on the Ardeche, a region usually simply touted for its gorges and rivers, but which included this spectacular mountain range, a cycling treat and a stunning winter destination for any nordique skier. Along this stretch, routes converged, once again joining in with a melee of other riders and feed zones becoming more regular, busy with hungry riders. For Les Gorges riders though, we had a different loop to do, taking us off into another back of beyond landscape of the Ardeche, dipping in and out of more deep valleys, long descents and concomitant long climbs back out. Tough on the legs, but worth to discover these little visited areas.

Even on this final loop, villages got involved, setting up feed stations and waving you in as soon as they saw you! With no sense of urgency to race back to the start, you could take the time at some stations to chat and drink coffee, the locals always curious about non French riders’ experience of their Ardechoise. I took a final relaxed moment at the top of the Col de l’Ardechoise for the station at Boree, a social pause before the last 2 major climbs.

Emerging off this loop, the route rejoined that of others for the final stretch back to St Felicien, suddenly thrust into throngs of riders from the shorter routes or on the day rides. One last 10km climb gave way to 20km of descent pleasure to the finish.

Having stashed my meal and drink ticket away safely, I joined the queue at the food tent, which was moving swiftly, ideal for that deep hunger! Back her in the north Ardeche, the hot weather continued, so you could take the time to join others on the grass to slowly consume the plate of food, amongst a buzzing atmosphere.

L’Ardechoise was an amazing cycling experience around a region I had never visited before, pleasantly surprised by the diversity of riding available. These longer routes are certainly challenging, but also a social affair, meeting other riders en route and at the overnight stops, but it’s also about those moments riding solo, just you and the mountain, appreciating just where you are. The village feed stops are a part of the Ardechoise as is the riding itself. I was always welcomed in and offered hot and cold drinks and made sure that I was sufficiently fed!

If you are looking for a cycling adventure next year, then check out the Ardechoise and its longer routes. It can take a while to decide which one to ride as there are many options, but none of them will disappoint, all offering and engaging and picturesque ride. Take the 4 day option too for a more relaxed few days of discovery.

It is a road bike event of course, but I rode a Cotic Escapade, a versatile bike that I use for everything from road to gravel riding, shod with 30mm WTB Exposure tyres, set up tubeless. I now use 30mm and tubeless across all road events, no loss of speed for added grip and comfort.

I had an oval double chainring set up from Absolute Black, trying out the oval concept. A full review up on the website soon.

Dates for 2020 are the 17th to 20th June and entries have just opened and can be found here.

Scott,  Alps Editor