You can’t beat a good summer bike trip. My last one was to the Nürburgring, which was great but busy. Simon says the roads in France’s Cévennes are “like your own private Nürburgring”. That sounds like my kind of destination — tell me more!
EVERY TIME I see it, it takes my breath away. This time though, I tried to let it sneak up on me, riding through the town and consciously trying to avoid scanning the horizon as I headed down the D41. Of course, it was fruitless: as the road hugged the course of the river round a lazy curve between scrubby hills, there it was - the Millau Viaduct. It soared like some elegant alien artefact, seemingly too massive to have been made by mortal hands.
Crossing the river and climbing up to the visitors’ centre, the giant piers within a highside of the road, the bridge assumed both a more approachable and more intimidating scale. Clearly it could only be
man-made... but the enormity still blew my mind, as it had the first time I saw it. This return trip was prep for RIDE’S 2017
Guide to France (when the pictures you see were taken). I wasn’t strictly meant to be in Millau: we’d already covered that, I’d been before, etc. I was here to check out the roads of the nearby Cévennes region, but by pumping up the daily mileages, I figured I could fit the bridge into the schedule — assuming it would be the highlight of the trip. It was the biggest sight... but the riding turned out to be the star of the show.
I’d taken two days to reach the compact city of Alès, staying in the centre. Nice place but I wasn’t there for a city break. It was the third day of the trip that was meant to straddle the line between the serious business of checking routes and having a great ride and calling it ‘research’.
It took me longer to break free of the city than expected so, for the Guide, I based the routes around the village of Anduze, as that’s where I picked up the first great road of the day: the D907. A few quiet, sweeping miles were just enough to get me warmed up and then I was peeling off to the right towards Florac for the main event.
This was a road that had been recommended to me by a reader at the London Motorcycle Show: the Corniche des Cévennes. It climbed steadily from the banks of the River Gardon de St Jean, switching its number from D260 to D9
along the way at the Col de St Pierre.
By the time it was the D9, the road was a ridgeway, twisting and turning along the top line of the hills like an agitated python. I was working hard to maintain a decent speed — torn between the necessary concentration and the desire to admire the gigantic vistas that kept appearing between the trees to my right.
After 15 or so traffic-free miles (that felt like 40) I rolled off and rolled steadily through the village of Le Pompidou. A few more hairpins on the far side, then the road was romping off across a high plateau — long straights coinciding with a couple of cars for effort-free overtakes.
The road dropped down to Florac where today’s route would join one of the roads I’d taken on the ride to Alès, the N106. I detoured into the village centre -nice cafés but I bought a bottle of water, downed half of it and carried on. I was only on the N106 for three miles anyway, before dropping down to run beside the River Tarn.
Now I was on an old favourite road, the D907. The further it went, the more spectacular it became as the hills rose ever higher on either side. It’s the Tarn gorges that have drawn riders here for years — the network of rivers feeding the Tarn cutting dramatic paths through the hills, with challenging roads threading their way along them. The D907 has it all — every kind of corner, rocky tunnels, huge views and just enough straights to make leapfrogging the occasional car or cyclist a part
de gâteau. Even leaving the confines of the gorge for the faster, flowing D809 was no particular strain — especially as it led to Millau and to lunch.
From the middle of Millau to the base of the viaduct is barely 15 minute’s ride. I’d never been round the visitor’s centre before and I can’t say I’d bother again. Mind you, I was aware that time was ticking on and I was only at the mid-point of the day’s route...
I pressed on back, bypassing Millau and rejoining the D907 — but in less than a dozen miles I was turning right on the D996 and heading down the La Jonte gorge on another immaculate road in a landscape hewn for giants. I remember thinking days don’t get much better than this... at which point this day got a whole lot better.
In the village of Meyrueis I picked up the
D986. I didn’t know it, but this was about to become one of my favourite roads. It’s as if a committee of biking road engineers had got together to pace the perfect piece of tarmac. There are tight corners and sequences of bends rushing through woods that offer some welcome shade followed by laid-back stretches of longer straights and endless sweepers cutting across farmland to provide a breather. Then more tight sections, before another few miles of easy stuff, all building up to the final hectic few miles like your own private Nürburgring to the top of Col de la Serreyrède.
At least, that’s what I thought it was building up to when I stopped for a breather — and a drink — at the roundabout a few miles further on. I knew I was near the Mount Agouial Observatory and, having checked the map, knew there was a run of hairpins ahead. I assumed they’d be an anti-climax after all the flowing riding I’d just enjoyed. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As the D986 began to scroll down the mountain I realised this, not the bridge, was the highlight of the day. This was no ultra-tight, first-gearand-hold-your-breath tiptoe descent through a series of fiddly switchbacks. This was what the entire day had been building up to.
The traverses between hairpins were long and loaded with quality corners of their own. Each hairpin was broad and flowing enough to provide punctuation to the ride, not stop it in its tracks. This was everything that’s great about riding a bike, compressed into ten perfect miles. It was so good I did something I’m normally too jaded to do: I turned around and rode it again. Twice, in fact...
It wasn’t the end of the good riding, but the final run down to Ganges paled in comparison. I finally started seeing a few cars on the D999 and D982 that returned me to Alès, but by that point I was largely sitting up, slack-jawed and mind blown. I’ve been back twice since then and, just like the bridge, that ride has taken my breath away every single time.
Passing the underground waterfall at Abime de Bramabiau
Heading down the D986 from Mount Agouial
Col de Porte in the heart of the Cévennes
The Millau Viaduct is a breathtaking sight and a worthy destination