Straight into the singletrack descent post breakfast, cutting a winding, narrow path through the dense vegetation as it flowed down the mountain side. Loose scree and some committed sections fired up the senses!
You’ll pass a small boulangerie in the centre of St Saturnin conveniently located next to a small supermarché. Perfect for a 2nd breakfast, with lunch and dinner sorted too. The frosty start was already a distant memory as the day was warming fast, the ideal accompaniment to the mix of rolling and rocky trails, smoother sections a nice balance to the more technical.
Coming into the village of Rustrel, there wasn’t any plan to stop, but seeing the Tabac/Café/Boulangerie evoked thoughts of a caffeine and sugar boost. The place didn’t actually look that welcoming from the outside, but inside was quite the opposite. The boulangerie/café section offered an inviting selection of local baked cakes. Making a choice took a while, testing the lady’s patience by the look of it! A brief moment basking under the warm sunshine to enjoy the coffee and a slab of cake. Seduced by the flavoursome sugar hit, I returned inside for another couple of cakes for the road!
Not much further on from Rustrel is France’s le Petit Colorado, so called due to the area’s red earth and wind blown sculptured canyon. You can’t miss it on the steady climb, as the dirt track suddenly becomes a striking red colour. The rest of the climb meanders steadily upwards along a wide, dusty track, fully exposed to the elements (so bring sunscreen or a good waterproof), leading to ridge top singletrack and a stunning panorama.
The descent followed exhilarating rocky terrain, along a natural, hillside rock shelf with a sharp drop to the left side, bringing you out on the periphery of the small village of Viens. The route skirts around the next, larger village of Cereste, and depending how much you drink in hot weather, it’s a minor detour as there weren’t any fountains in Viens.
It’s on and off climbing for the next 30km, singletrack descents offering momentary, fun, respite for the legs, dense tree cover offering some welcome shelter from the sun’s heat. The GTV signage doesn’t indicate the technical level of any of the sections, but there are the occasional ‘caution’ signs which are best to be heeded. Stop and check what’s ahead! This time it was an unrideable steep set of wooden steps around the blind bend, constructed into the bank, with no lead out, dropping straight into a very rocky dried up river bed. Definitely a hike-a-bike.
The way back up was a pleasant steady pedal, a forest track winding its way around the hills’ contours, gradually gaining height until the open ridgeline presenting far reaching 360 degree views with the high point of Mourre Nègre in the distance.
The track was akin to the humps on a camel’s back, a roller coaster ride along the ridge towards Mourre Nègre. There is a smoother gravel track lower down, but this is a designated mtb route and besides, the views were infinitely better from this higher vantage point. Mourre Nègre is never quite reached however, the track veering off a few metres below, but there’s no disappointment as the descent is on point.
The effort to get to the trailhead was worth it not just for the views, but also the singletrack descent and it was exhilarating. A trail that you’d not have found without following this route or some good local knowledge. Switchbacking its way down through the dense vegetation, steep and loose, nothing to do but drift the rear wheel around its bends, a fast drop to the edge of Auribeau, the adrenaline pumping by its end. It’s a little go off route into the village centre to find the fountain, but at least there was the option of ‘eau potable’.
The following kms are a nice spin along lowland forests and rolling mtb trails, then dropping into singletrack through a tight gorge exiting onto a dead end road that passes the renowned climbing crag of Buoux. The interlude along tarmac on the main road to Bonnieux was brief, the GTV taking the long way to town via forest lined, rocky singletrack.
A quiet spot just off the trail was ideal for the night’s camp. Setting up the MSR Reflex is straightforward and swift, so long as you have suitable terrain for the pegs, as it’s not freestanding. Sleep came easily to the sounds of local wildlife.
More fun singletrack after breakfast for the final few km into Bonnieux. There’s a good boulangerie just as you come into town, but for more substantial supplies, there’s a small supermarche off route following the main road further up into town. Passing by the town’s outer ancient fortified walls on the climb out, the plateau provided some fun riding along forest trails before losing 250m into an open valley. A steady 7km of climbing along double track regained over 500m putting you back amongst the hilltops.
At the col, the track meandered off to the right, seemingly the obvious direction, but checking the Garmin it was directly upwards, up a steep scree filled, rocky, hiking trail. A bit of a challenging hike-a-bike haul, but the views from its summit were worth the effort as was the main reason for its addition, the singletrack leading to the viewing point.
A bit of a tourist spot for its views across the Luberon valley, but worth a visit, although up here it was fully exposed to the strong winds. The descent was contrastingly different, this side of the hill more easily accessible along forest tracks, consequently, having now to be mindful of people strolling along the trails! The people dodging didn’t endure, soon back on mtb trails, negotiating fist sized gravel down a steep scree gully.
The café at Oppède le Vieux is worth a stop, as is a quick look around the old village. Just don’t speed off down the singletrack descent out of the village, as it’s the access track for hikers. I met a small group coming up and this was the off season.
The route skirts the edges of the villages of Maubec and Robion not much further on, with a slight detour into the towns for resupply if needed, or Cavaillon centre which is a few kms from Robion. No doubt both towns will be busier in the summer season, but on passing through there was a real stillness in Robion, stopping for a calorie intake before the final big effort to the last high point of the route. The GTV really does use every possible km of trail, leaving the village along rolling singletrack inbetween properties and behind the local camping ground.
The final climb was along an old broken access road, used by 4x4s, as two came down in succession as I headed up. A sting in the tail of the GTV, steep on its upper reaches, but with increasingly better views of the southern lowlands of the Luberon as you gain height.
From its 540m highpoint, it’s a fast descent along switchback tarmac, but focusing on the flow of the descent I almost missed the turn off after a couple of km, back onto trail! Taking my time, rolling along the hillside’s contours, the route drops down into a deep, narrow gorge where the sun’s warmth doesn’t penetrate, riding through a long pocket of bitingly cold air.
A steep, but brief hike-a-bike is the entry into an on point, flowing, wooded singletrack descent. A little final effort upwards brings you to the grand finale, a long singletrack descent right to the edge of Mérindol, the route’s end. This time I had accommodation booked, for a hot shower at the very least.
Once in the village, having been completely engrossed in the flow of the trails I had forgotten that it was Sunday afternoon, and out of season, and Mérindol is a small village. I was down to a few figs and looking for food. I didn’t find anything open of course so asked the first local I came across. She asked what I needed and offered me sustenance to go, from her house just along the road. Waiting outside, she appeared with a host of produce; bread, ham, biscuits, bananas and cheese and wouldn’t take any payment. I must have looked like I was in need of a proper feed! I was deeply humbled. The selfless kindness of strangers still exists.
Finding my gite for the night at the B&B Les Argiles, located within a camping ground 2km out of the village at the bottom of the hillside, a pleasant and quiet location. I was the only guest and was made welcome, chatting with the owners over a pastis, before they had to head off due to the curfew, leaving me with delicious, home cooked, local produce for dinner. A fitting end to a stunning ride.
For onwards travel, the closest trains are from Cavaillon 18km away to Avignon or directly from Avignon 43km away. With only 2 trains a day from Cavaillon to Avignon which didn’t fit my timings for the train from Avignon, it was just more convenient to ride to Avignon. The 2 hour pedal mostly along main roads was a bit of a shock after a few days along quiet trails in the hills.
With numerous accommodation options en route, the GTV can easily be ridden light, carrying the bare minimum across several days. It may not be that long distance wise, but the initial ⅔ is much more technical and slower going. Take it as a multi day adventure or a one hit challenge, either way, it’s an awesome mtb ride.
For more information about riding and accomodation in the area, have a look at http://www.provence-cycling.co.uk/
Find out more about the 14 Grand Traversée routes across France here
Bike & Kit:
To maximise comfort and grip, wheels were 9th Wave Cycling Yarrow with big volume WTB 29×2.4 Rangers. I wouldn’t recommend lightweight tyres for this route.
Bags were a mix of Wildcat Gear and Revelate Designs.
PNW Components Coast flared handlebar and stem
Tent was the MSR Reflex Carbon 1 person.
PHD Minimus K sleeping bag with a comfort rating of +5degrees and a PHD liner bag adding and extra 10 degrees. I sleep cold so tend to use both if vaguely cold.
Rab 120weight baselayers for sleeping
For morning coffee, I used an MSR Pocket Rocket and an Alpkit Ti Mug.
Gore Wear C7 Pro shorts and jersey. C5 Trail LS jersey for cold days.
Gore Wear Spirit windstopper vest
Gore Wear Shakedry Trail waterproof jacket ideal for long periods in the rain as it has a hood that fits snugly under the helmet
PHD Wafer down jacket for post ride warmth