“Where the heck is that?”
“You’ll like it, trust me.”
I had heard a lot about mountain biking in Europe, but I hadn’t ever heard of Valence. What about Portes du Soleil? The Alps? Livigno? What about those places? I had expected to be propositioned with more grandiose and familiar landmarks when my friend suggested a biking trip to France. I had not expected how completely enchanting this unremarkable town near northern Provence would be.
The weather was absolute perfection. After several months spent suffering the capricious whims of German weather, I had nearly forgotten what sunshine felt like. In Munich, a cloudless sky was a tease often followed by bone-chilling torrential downpours and some snow mixed in for good measure. When I first moved to Germany I was perplexed by the robust offerings when it came to biking outwear, but my confusions was quickly resolved: it’s muddy, it’s rainy, and you either ride in it or not at all. You adapt quickly.
And so, given one of the most meager winters in terms of snowfall the Northern Alps have ever experienced, I consoled myself with mountain biking. I researched destinations when I should probably have been working. Riva, Finale Ligure, and Mozine topped the list as well as anywhere in Scotland! Valence had never caught my attention, but it came suggested by a Frenchman, accomplished rider, and friend, so who was I to refuse?
My limited experience riding in the Alps had left me with the following impression: the trails are very steep and very technical. Think countless off-camber, 180-degree switchbacks, one after another. The mountains in Europe have been traversed and populated for millennia. Countless wars have been waged across them, the remnants of which reveal themselves in abandoned military equipment, high alpine huts, and endless trail networks. These trails were built for soldiers, not bikes. I learned and fell in love with mountain biking in Colorado, and this was quite a departure. I struggled to acclimate, so when my friend lured me with tales of flowy singletrack and beautiful scenery, who was I to resist?
I snaked my way through Bavaria, Switzerland, Annecy, and finally down to Valence, tucked halfway between Lyon and the Cote d’Azur. It goes without saying that the drive through the Rhône-Alps province was beautiful, dominated by obtuse mountains topped by a massive, snow-covered plateau. It was an easy approach, interrupted only by the requisite stops for bread and cheese. We approached a rather dilapidated yet charming farmhouse—our host’s—but the visual spectacle of blooming lavender fields dominated the scene. The landscape exploded in a bleached sea of color that Hollywood does not faithfully reproduced.
The French joie de vivre won me over easily, and I would have departed a fan regardless. But, as if the sheer richness of the experience couldn’t suffice, the riding was fantastic. Our local guide provided us with a treasure trove of maps, and we dove in, discerning our routes and—most importantly—our lunches. We followed the contour lines over glasses of wine at dinner, and they materialized into ridgelines and valleys on the bike the next day.
We drove to a neighboring town, parked in a church, and began our ascent. The landscape’s relief is often too steep to climb singletrack, and we wound our way up dirt roads to reach a ridgeline, graced with a quintessential chapel as if to complete the image.
The trails from that point can only be described as flowy, fun, interspersed with technical features, and completely exhilarating as we dropped from one drainage and climbed up to descend into the next. The dry landscape was populated by a deliberate kind of vegetation that seemed determined to persist with gusto despite sandy soil and marginal rainfall. It had the same kind of quietly resistant presence as its human inhabitants. Perhaps “fierce” would be the better adjective, as the uncharitable plants tore at our legs as we flew by. One misstep and an unassuming shrub would punish us mercilessly.
We climbed up dirt roads past picturesque farmhouses without a soul in sight, quite an astonishing feat considering Europe’s dense population and affinity for cycling. I simply couldn’t believe that we were the only people out there. And yet we were. For several days we explored a fascinating network of singletrack, climbing up from quaint towns to blunt passes and descending back down. The flowy quality of the rides made the area stand out in a region known for rough, technical trails built without consideration for mountain bikers.
It felt more remote than many places I’ve ridden in Colorado’s backcountry. Trails snaking through forests gave way to exposed paths contouring around cliffs, and then dipping back down steeply into towns where we could gratefully refresh ourselves with beer. The slow, timeless quality of the riding experience matched the pace of life in southern France and lent an even more magical air to place that had already established itself as mythical.
I have never been quite so surprised by a riding destination before, although I don’t plan to end my exploring here. Sometimes the best rides can be found in the most unexpected places. Valence may not offer the heart-pounding, bone-rattling experience as other famed European destinations, but I think it comes closer to why I fell in love with mountain biking in the first place: the fast, flowy connection with your bike and the unadulterated joy of riding surrounded by gorgeous vistas and good friends.