Petting Horses and Sweating Bullets

Photos by Leanne Bentley and Kilian Reil.

We all know that one Tyler the Creator meme right? You know, the one where he says “get a bunch of bikes and ride ’em around with your friends”. We that’s just what we did.

With a group of seasoned ultra-racers and well, me, we agreed on a route that wouldn’t be too challenging and could be completed in about a week at a medium pace. Keep in mind that Quinda is fresh of the Hellenic Mountain Race, Leanne Atlas Mountain Race and Steppenwolf, and Killian just rides his bike to Siberia on a whim… the field was, as they say, “stacked”. Thank geez it wasn’t a race…

The Traversée du Massif Vosgien (TMV) seemed to be the perfect choice. At about 400kms and mostly dirt roads, riding the route in a week would mean covering 60-70km per day, with enough time to set up camp, eat, and rest. However, the route turned out to be surprisingly challenging, as these things go. The route really has two halves, one with constant up and down smaller foothills, and the other with only a few climbs, but much longer in distance and higher in elevation. Nevertheless, it was perfect and perfectly mellow.

The TMV is a unique route that snakes through a truly European microcosm, where French and German culture and language fade in and out of sync as you pedal on. Gravel roads are gravel roads, but the Vosges and specifically Alsace, the region wrapped around the mountains, have a storied history; with place names like Chateau du Ramstein [sic] and food like Flammekueche as often as tarte flambée, the 300 years of territorial contention between France and German is everywhere. As a history and language nerd myself, the mish-mash of Germanic and Romance langauges were almost as entertaining as the MTB’ing itself! Also, apologies to the three others that had to put up with my nerding out (but I mean, come one! We had lunch in Klingenthal! In France!).

Pedaling away from the train station at Wissembourg towards Thann, the end point of the marked TMV route, we were often unsure whether to greet locals with “bonjour” or “hallo”, hardly a concern really though, as it would seem that everyone was aware of what we were doing. In true French form, there was a general happy ambivalence to our heavy bikes leaned against store windows, waiting for the cafe to open, lovely. Although there was one section without too many options for food, the rest of the route was dotted with options for grocery stores, cafes, bakeries, and the likes. There are even a few bike shops on the route where you can charge an AXS battery if you forgot to bring your charger! Not that I would know anything about that…

Nearly every night ended in a beautiful campsite, having searched out the highest, most exposed points along the route in hopes of sleeping out of reach of the bird-sized mosquitoes we encountered the night before starting the route. Camping in the mountains in France is often a non-affair: show the locals that you have no intention of leaving any trash behind, partying, or starting a fire where prohibited, and you’ll have all the peace and quiet that they also expect. Again, just lovely.

It was hot during our trip, but being in the mountains of France, there were fountains often enough and often large enough to take a quick dip. The locals often laughed at the sight of four hot and tired cyclists creeping into a fountain in the town square, but a dip and a towel offered by local leaned out of his window was enough to stave off the heat until higher altitudes brought the temperature down.

We had booked a house about halfway through the route to stop, chill, and also celebrate a birthday! The next day we took off and started cycling towards the higher peaks of the southern half of the Vosges. With peaks like the Grand Ballon on the horizon, with its famous radar globe on the summit, there was plenty of climbing to be done. Thankfully climbing means altitude, and altitude means the temperatures started to even out, those “generally irritated” vibes were settling in, having been a little too hot all week.

And just like that, after a short hike up to the highest point on the route, the route was essentially over. We got a beer, more tarte flambe, and took off towards Thann where we’d catch the train towards Wissembourg. Sure, there’s one more summit to hit on the other side of the Thann valley, but honestly I don’t believe anyone has actually ridden that bit after cycling 400+km and coming so close to the finish.