by Scott Cornish, Senior Editor (Alps)
by Scott Cornish, Senior Editor (Alps)
VTOPO launched the gravel route guide at the end of last year for the Departement de Vaucluse, probably better known for its Provence region, renowned for the fields of lavender and the classic climbs of Mt Ventoux. It’s a paradise for road riding, mtb routes and is one of the first areas of France to have been developed for gravel riding. There’s a good number of circular routes to keep even the most hardened of all-road riders happy for days, along with a 488km, point to point, Grand Traversée (GTV) route as well.
There are 30 routes ranging from 19km all the way up to 89km with a not insignificant 2300m+ that takes in the slopes of Mt Ventoux. Their level of difficulty is identified the same as with ski runs, green, blue, red or black, spread across the department. The GTV gravel has a hefty 11,200m of elevation gain traveling east from Orange, deep into the department, taking in many of the area’s best gravel highlights, ending in the small town of Cavaillon, actually only a few km south of Orange. It takes in parts of many of the 30 circular routes and uses interconnecting tracks between them that are only ridden as part of the GTV. Although it passes through some more remote areas, ideal for some wild camping, there are plenty of brick and mortar accommodation options en route for a light bikepacking option.
I went along for the Vélo Passion Avignon exhibition, a festival of cycling in all its forms unique in Europe, including for the first time, 2 days of gravel riding with an overnight bikepack option. Lino Lazzerini was also there, one of the pioneers of the early Tour de France races with his collection of original bikes from the era, including his personal race bike. He had quite the stories to tell about racing unsupported over unpaved cols. The original unsupported gravel races?
The weather however, thwarted the riding. Not one to shy away from a wet ride, but the Conseil Départemental issued a weather warning for the Saturday so there was no choice for the organisers but to cancel the ride and the overnight camping. Probably the right decision as the weather on Saturday was vicious winds and heavy rain, not the safest of conditions to be out on wooded trails or the roads. Sunday was also forecast to be torrential and continuous rain.
I was staying with Nico and Eugénie in their chambre d’hôte Domaine des Lavarines, part of the network of cycling specific accommodation in the region. They also run their own brand bike sales and hire business Cicada Concept within the same plot. They offer a comprehensive range from made-to-measure gravel and mtb titanium, carbon and alloy mtb, gravel, cargo and ebikes. Despite the weather forecast, they had gotten me excited about the planned route for Sunday over dinner, as Nico was part responsible for designing the route along with the organising body, Ventoux Gravel Adventure. (That’s me in the title image on a Shand Bahookie drop bar from riding the Grand Traversée de Vaucluse mtb) There isn’t much he doesn’t know about riding in the area and if there’s an area that he doesn’t, he can link you up with a local who does. The food is wholesome and tasty, cooked up by Eugene. The breakfast is not the usual, sugary fix either, but wholesome too, consisting of various options including porridge, nuts, seeds, dried and fresh fruit, perfect for long days out on the bike.
Based in Morières les Avignon, surrounded by vineyards, at the edge of the Vaucluse Massif (Monts de Vaucluse, Luberon et Ventoux), their chambre d’hôte is in a quiet location, despite being a stone’s throw from the historic town of Avignon with its TGV access. With their shop and workshop on site, get your bike worked on if needed or hire from their titanium gravel or electric gravel and mtb fleet, ideal for the regional terrain which is technical at times depending on route choice.
From Cicada Concept, it’s a short ride along quiet roads to the village of Velleron, the start of the route for Sunday. Setting off in full Gore waterproofs, including their new All-Road gore-tex jacket, in full expectation of the heavens to open not long into the ride.
Velloron is a small village with a boulangerie and really good pâtisserie chez Guillaume Rouget, ideal for some tasty goodies for the ride. The 60km route heads south out of the village, destination Gordes as the (almost) midway point, one of numerous village perchés, built high in the hillside. 40 minutes into the ride and there was no sign of the impending downpours, so I stripped back to arm/leg warmers and the Gore Spirit gilet. Tempting fate perhaps with dark clouds in the distance, but it stayed dry throughout the ride! The forecast couldn’t have been more wrong!
The route is a mix of quiet back country single track roads, smooth gravel and more rugged gravel+ tracks. Although relatively brief in length, it manages to take in many of the area’s highlights.
You’ll descend through the grounds of the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque, surrounded by its fields of lavender, if you manage to time the ride between mid June and mid July. The Abbaye is worth a visit if you’ve time and if you’re a honey aficionado, they produce their own on site. It’s a reasonable climb out, but the village perché of Gordes isn’t far off, an ideal place for a refuel. As you enter the village centre, there is a sandwich bar, nestled between 2 restaurants, on the left. Their sandwiches are filling and hit just the spot.
You’re quickly back on tree lined trails south of Gordes, some of them more gravel+, wild and challenging on a gravel bike, but fun to ride. Back country road and smoother gravel lead through picturesque villages. Grab an ice cream and coffee for a quick respite alongside the river.
The route back to Velleron takes in a cool section of gravel canal path after Fontaine de Vaucluse and over a viaduct, standing 25m above the Sorgue river. Just be careful not to drop your bike in the water on the walk over it! It’s rolling quiet roads for the final km back to Velleron.
Once back at Cicada HQ, it was more chat about the region’s riding and the newly created Grand Traversée de Vaucluse gravel over another hearty dinner. If the GTV MTB I rode back in March is anything to go by, the GTV gravel will be quite some ride. I would suggest avoiding the holiday period of mid July to the end of August as the roads will be clogged with motor vehicles, especially around Mt Ventoux and many of the forest tracks are closed due to seasonal fire risk. If you’ve not ridden in the region before, it regularly experiences high temperatures in mid summer. Try to time the ride with the flowering of the lavender fields from early June, it’s a spectacular show for the visual and olfactory senses.
The GTV gravel starts in Orange and ends in Cavaillon, easy access and exit points, not far separated as the crow flies, but the route winds its way throughout the department taking some of the area’s best riding and views. WIld camp or use any of the multitude of accommodation options en route.
With time to spare before heading home, it was a detour via the col de Murs, Sault and the Gorges de la Nesque. Turning off the climb just before reaching the col de Murs, there is a network of gravel tracks over the top, worth returning to explore more. Back onto singletrack road, the route to Méthamis is a stunning ride, winding around the hills’ contours, with a view down into the gorge, a section well worth adding into any cycling itinerary in the area. From here it was a ride up the Gorge de la Nesque, a favourite ride and another classic, through its tunnels hewn out of the rock face with stunning views as you slowly wind your way up.
There is a gravel track part way through the gorge that starts near the bottom of the road climb. It’s a cool experience to be deep in the gorge, but it doesn’t go all the way, turning south before the gorge narrows, but the exit gets rocky and is a hike-a-bike/steep for a time. Once out of the gorge, it’s a flat ride to Sault, with its numerous refuel options. Grab something to go and sit in the public garden in the village centre with a view of Mt Ventoux.
It was onwards to Bédoin the next day via the upper road north of the gorge to grab some patisseries from a favourite boulangerie on the village’s main street to fuel the climb up Mt Ventoux. A mandatory montée when in the area and this time via the off road track. It starts not far from Bédoin centre, along small roads before the turn off along an inconspicuous singletrack, broken road. It finishes 1km above Chalet Reynard, leaving 5km to the col. It doesn’t feature on the GTV gravel as it’s officially designated as an mtb (vtt) route. The bottom section is the hardest, chunky and loose, but it can be ridden on a gravel bike (I had 42mmx700 WTB Resolutes tyres) with the upper km on smoother terrain.
Ventoux was completely enshrouded by dense cloud when I started, but the cloud cover can change in an instant on this peak due to its infamous winds. It was worth the effort heading up despite the gloomy outlook as the cloud dispersed and I was rewarded with stunning autumn colours and a grand view from the top. Do come prepared though, as it could be the absolute reverse with cloud blowing in with the weather changing rapidly for the worst.
From the top, my route took me back down via the mountain’s ski resort of Mt Serein (yes, a ski resort in Provence) to Malaucène and back to Avignon for the train home. One more camp out next to a vineyard before the final few km to Avignon. Sunrise across the vines through the darkening clouds was pretty special. There’s multiple days worth of All-road/gravel riding in the Vaucluse, with a real diversity of terrain, through gorges, past vineyards and fields of lavender. Even if you’re planning to bikepack, do spend a night or 2 with Nico and Eugénie at Domaine des Lavarines for an informative and tasty culinary experience. Great hosts who have been in the department all their lives, helping to develop the mtb and gravel cycling scene.
If you want to comprehensively explore the département, stay a few days in different areas, such as down south in the Luberon, then perhaps Sault or further north at the dedicated gravel centre at Rasteau. The lavender fields in bloom are quite the experience, but personally Spring and Autumn are a favourite time to do a trip through the Vaucluse.
My kit listed included:
MSR Carbon Reflex 1
Thermarest Neoair Xlite mat
Alpkit Pipedream 400 sleeping bag
Revelate Designs bags
Gore Wear Explore shorts with Long Distance bibshorts+ underneath
Gore Wear SS baselayer with C7 Pro SS jersey and Spirit gilet
Lake MX238 wide fit shoes