Sibling Bikepacking: Riding France’s GR4
Have you bikepacked with a sibling? There are few finer ways to share experiences and create new memories with your family. After some last-minute purchases – including both a brand new bike and an Opinel pocket knife – Cass is joined by his brother Nick in the south of France for a bikepacking initiation, in the form of a perfect segment of the GR4…
Meet my big brother Nick. He’s the most well-travelled ‘non-cyclist’ I know. By well-travelled, I mean he’s ridden in countries as diverse as Syria, Kyrgyzstan, India, Tunisia, and Cuba. And by non-cyclist, I mean that Nick rarely rides, at all, in between!
This is why, just a couple of days before we’d planned to meet in France for a long-overdue Gilbert Bro Adventure, he discovered his once trusty steed – a Specialized Rockhopper Comp, circa 1998 – had developed cracks and was now deemed untrustworthy by his local bike shop. It was an emotional blow, because this same bike had been pressed into service for all of our trips together – as listed above – spanning a period of almost two decades.
With tickets bought and time put aside, the news was announced by text – “Bro, bike frame is cracked, ring ASAP” – followed by a mad scramble to find a replacement within his budget and schedule. Naturally, I suggested an affordable steel ‘plus’ bike as the rightful heir to the venerable Rockhopper’s throne. The trouble is that such a bike, as simple as it is, isn’t easy to find in the metropolis of London, at least when you need one the very next day. After scouring the internet and contacting nearby bike shops, he laid his hands on a Genesis Longitude. With a price of £1,200, 27+ wheels, a rigid fork, and a leg-friendly gear range, it ticked all the boxes. No sooner had his bank card been swiped than the bike was boxed. The very next morning, he was on a flight out to Nice, in the south of France, to catch some sunshine before the onset of a UK winter.
Nick may not fall within conventional cycle touring taxonomy, but he’s strong, motivated, runs, and is a regular at the gym. Ask him about resting heart rates, intervals, and the science of training, and he’ll glance at his Garmin watch and rattle off a series of numbers. Like many city dwellers, however, it had been a good many years since he’d last been on a camping trip. Although we’ve ridden dirt road tours together in the past, he’d never ‘mountain biked’ in the formal sense, and has never been especially thrilled to be riding off road.
All of this meant that as the official trip planner, I felt a certain pressure to figure out where would be best to ride, for both of us. Aside from deciphering the right terrain, Nick’s saddle time had also been spent entirely on an exercise bike, which meant his real world range remained unknown. But, with the years we’d let slip since our last ride together, he was open to anything that got us out there. And, with his new bike clad in borrowed, lightweight soft bags – the rack and basic panniers he owned left at home – he was keen to put its oversized tires to good use and to find out what all this bikepacking fuss was about.
With only a handful of days to play with, I pitched the idea of taking a train to nearby Grasse, a town north of Cannes that’s built on the production of perfume. Located at the base of a climb that leads straight into the foothills of the Alpes-Maritimes – a world away from the glitzy French Riviera – we could then strike out towards the Gorges du Verdon, a river canyon complex that, at 700m deep in places, is considered France’s most beautiful. What we’d find was largely unknown. Ditto for where we’d stay. Experience has taught me the importance of managing expectations, so the potential for hike-a-bikes was discussed, too. Nick signed on the dotted line and we were set.
In a sign of the times, he asked if we were riding electric assist mountain bikes, or were we on ‘VTT musculaires?'”
First, though, we needed a good map and local intel to supplement the GPX files I’d sketched out on Gaia GPS and my cell phone. As luck would have it, the manager of St Vallier de Thiey Spar supermarket also doubled as the head of the local mountain biking club, so was able to provide both. After finding me unfolding every last one of the 1:25 000 scale IGN maps (France’s gorgeously detailed topographic survey series) in an aisle of his store, he came to our aid. I explained our predicament: range unknown, terrain questionable, adventure sought. In a sign of the times, he asked if we were riding electric assist mountain bikes, or were we on “VTT musculaires?” When I told him that we weren’t afraid to push our old-fashioned, muscle-powered bikes, he pointed us in the direction of the Vieux Chemain des Cameux, a stony climb that would deliver us neatly onto the GR 510 hiking trail. He promised it was largely rideable. The overall distance was relatively short so it sounded like exactly what we were after. After all, this trip wouldn’t be about crunching miles. Rather, it would be Nick’s introduction to bikepacking, a chance to ride our bikes together, drink coffee, talk politics, and just hang out.
For those unfamiliar with France’s trail network, its ‘Grande Randonnée’ routes are officially hiking paths that cross entire regions, or even the whole country. Being open to any form of non-motorized transport, many of them are suited to mountain biking, too, as long as you don’t mind the odd push and shove. They knit together some 60,000 kilometres of trails in France alone – extending into other European countries too – guiding you across the backcountry in the most imaginative way possible. Forget newfangled GPX files; a sense of adventure is all you need to navigate. Following their distinctive insignias – a white stripe above a red one, painted on trees or rocks – is like searching for clues across a land. It’s an inspiring, historic network, and it underpins some of France’s best modern day bikepacking routes.
When even those petered out, we stopped to boil up water straight from freshwater springs or fountains, sipping cowboy coffee through clenched teeth.”
GR510 was just what we were after. A mixture of stony pistes (unpaved roads), farm tracks, country lanes, and singletrack, it wended through tight groves of oak trees and across high, treeless plateaux, forging a way over mountain passes – or ‘cols’, as they call them in France – that divided one small community from the next.
En route, it passed by ancient druid stones, the crumbling remains of Medieval churches, and a string of sleepy villages that promised little more than a shot of espresso in a quintessentially French cafe, where only locals prop up the counter. When even those petered out, we stopped to boil up water straight from freshwater springs or fountains, sipping cowboy coffee through clenched teeth.
Within a few days, Nick’s riding improved markedly. He quickly became confident at negotiating rocks and roots. Whilst exposed and awkward singletrack climbs remained his nemesis, I could see that it was just a matter of time and technique before he’d become more comfortable with them, too. And he threw himself into the few hike-a-bikes we encountered with a zen-like acceptance. Besides, they provided core body training! The new bike and the way we’d set it up undoubtedly played a part. Compared to the skinny little 26″ tires he was used to, he was convinced it made these explorations enjoyable rather than just bone-rattling, as they might have been previously.
Of course, a bikepacker’s skillset doesn’t just revolve around riding, right? We all know, only too well, the sometimes frustrating game of Tetris, aka The Art of Packing Your Shit In Tiny Bags So It Fits and Doesn’t Shake Around. With every day that passed, Nick’s system developed, in his quest to figure out what goes where and – even more crucially – how to stop jettisoning possessions down the mountain during bumpy descents. For example, the top of his handlebar bag was deemed ideal real estate for his daily fresh-from-the-boulangerie baguette (word origins aside, who said panniers had to be used to carry bread?!). For his seatpack, he coined the word ‘boot’, the English vernacular for the trunk of a car. As tends to be the way with short trips, by the last day his system was dialed.
Technically, we were now in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and whilst we weren’t tackling the big passes in the region, we were still riding at elevations between 1,000 and 1,500 metres. Leaving the GR510, we headed west on the GR406, the GR4, and its variants, loosely following the Route Napoléon, tracing Napoléon Bonaparte’s march from Grenoble to Elba in 1815. This in turn overlapped with a more contemporary counterpart, the Trans-Verdun, a 260 km mountain bike route. The stint between Castellane and picture-perfect la Palud-sur-Verdon was an undoubted highlight. First, it climbed high on a chunky, rock-strewn doubletrack, softening eventually to grassy trails, before affording far-reaching views over the community of Rougon. Then, it dropped down into a series of muddy, wooded singletrack trails that twisted and turned their way to la Palud.
There, climbers converge in converted, makeshift vans, drawn to the Verdon’s fabled limestone walls and multi-pitch challenges, chalky hands the telltale of their lives’ purpose. The village vibe, replete with shops selling local produce like goat’s cheese and honey, was exactly what we were after. Figuring a rest was called for, we pitched our tents in a cosy ‘camping a la ferme’ for a couple of nights – a small campsite that adjoined an organic farm – and dropped our bags off for the day to loop around the popular Route des Crêtes. This classic road loop is a showcase for the area, promising sweeping views across the gorge and perfect vantage points to peer dizzyingly down into its depths. The Verdon’s resident griffon vultures boast three-meter wingspans and cut an impressive profile as they soared by at beady eye level.
Looping back to Castellane once more on one of the region’s signposted mountain bike routes, we stopped to forage around the abandoned village of Châteauneuf-lès-Moustiers, then nosed about the remnants of a church tucked discreetly into a hillside cave, via a voie ancienne romaine – an old Roman road – cut dramatically into the edge of a canyon wall. “Bientôt en haut!” encouraged a farmer from his tractor in a strong regional accent (nearly at the top!), before sharing the location of a succulent spring we’d surely have missed otherwise, making us immediately think of the Marcel Pagnol novels, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Then, our route climbed further towards the high pastures, funnelling us towards yet more rideable singletrack, before a rocky descent down to Chasteuil, another picturesque Provençal village.
Our precious days both on and off the saddle had come to an end. A short ride it may have been, but we’d made it happen, and it was enough to rekindle Nick’s desire to tackle a bigger trip. The GR4 introduced him to the benefits of a minimal style of backcountry exploration, over the traditional, sometimes overloaded bike touring he’d done before. Listening to him enthuse about our singletrack-laced route was evidence enough that it had struck just the right balance for the both of us.
So, where to next? Nick’s moving with his family to Portugal next year, so we’re discussing the possibility of slow touring the Portugal Divide. There’s no doubt that the rides I’ve enjoyed with my brother have brought us closer together. They’re created new memories, beyond those of our upbringing, that we now share. If you haven’t already, my advice is to try something similar with a sibling. It’s hard to beat a family tour, both for the experience now, and what you’ll have to reminisce over in years to come.