Stargazing & Bikepacking

Not-so expensive astronomy and some bikepacking stories

Singlespeed bikepacking the Ardeche area in France

After a successful ride in the Dordogne area in 2017 and not riding a longer trip in 2018, for this year Lieuwe and I decided on a multiday trip in the Ardèche area in the South of France. Over the course of the year I made a couple of routes out of which the one in the Tarn and Cévennes was selected. Unfortunately the weather there was horrible! Maybe 12 degrees during the day with rain and wind and around freezing at night. We decided on another route a bit more East where it would be warmer.

On Saturday the 26th of April we drove down South for 12 long hours to the camp site at Balazuc. This would be our launchpad for the 350km, 6500 altimeter trip. Again, using our single speed steel mountainbikes. A bit insane but that’s the way we like it. This little town itself is at least 5,000 years old and one of the most beautiful towns in France. And beautiful it is. Like everywhere else in this region no stone was left untouched over the 40,000 years that people have been living their lives in this part of the world. I like history and there is a great many of that here!

View over Balazuc

Day one

…took us from Balazuc to the town of Saint-Ambroix. Yet another ancient town. On the hill in the middle of town lies a castle with a pretty big Saint Mary statue. At the site of what later came to be the medieval castle, the Celts once built an oppidum (fortified hilltop). The first day of the trip was a rough one but had some fantastic sites and sights in it! We climbed 1,251 meters which were presented in the form of hellish climbs on tiny trails. Goats would have had a rough time I am sure and so did we! We immediately started having a love-hate relationship with the red dotted lines on OpenStreetMap… The trails went up steep cliffs a couple of times and this of course took time and also a lot of energy. Not an easy start at all! But man, it was gorgeous! Once on the high plains all is empty. And it appears even quite desolate because the towns are located below, in the narrow valleys in between these plains or ‘causses’ as they call them here. In one of these valleys we stumbled upon a 5,000 year old bridge. Let that sink in for a bit… Here’s the video of the megalithic build quality:

Video of the neolithic bridge

Once you get to the plain itself you think yourself in open lands. In Western-Europa that’s something special. But like I said, no stone has been left untouched and this shows even on the causses in the form of ruins, piles of stones and walls made out of these stones. Once down again, the valley of the river Chassezac was a true marvel. And the single-trail leading into the gorge in retrospect was the best of the trip. Was it entirely safe to ride? Meh… Was it great fun? Oh, yeah! Could we have fallen 50 meters down? Also true. Did we? No, we did not. Obviously.

Best single-trail of the entire trip!

As beautiful as it was riding into the gorge, as gruelling it was to get out. About fifty meters straight up using a very steep trail over very large rocks. With some sadness I kindly turned down help offered by a lovely French lady. I have my pride…

At the end of the day we found a very basic municipal camping in Saint-Ambrox. It was close to the center square so after setting up the tents (DD Hammock pyramid tent + MLD Trailstar) and taking a shower we went there to have a couple of (Belgian) beers and pizza. The barkeeper did not mind us eating pizza bought at the mobile pizza place at the square. Having ridden some 64 km and drinking the Leffe beers I slept pretty well albeit I had some pain in my shoulder which I managed to bust a couple of years back. Nothing some painkillers couldn’t handle though.

View on the castle (behind the cottage)

Day two

…took us to some remote field near Mauressargues where we camped in the wild (“camping sauvage”). We had a very rough day. Twice we had to backtrack up a steep hill and each one had cost us about one hour. It. Sucked! The first time the path just wasn’t there. A mistake on my part. But there was a little riverbed which seemed to be pretty usable as a path. Or so we thought. After a half a kilometer of struggling to haul our bikes over rocks, cracks, fallen trees and through bushes we were confronted with a cliff-face, a waterfall and no way to climb up to the trail (the one that did exist) only 20 meters or so up the cliff. The place was beautiful though… So we had to trackback. Not even that much further down the route we went down a valley on a very pretty, flown single-trail. Just when I thought I arrived in Arizona or Oregon the trail was blocked by an enormous fence erected in the fashion of the former Iron Curtain. Too high to climb and valley-wide. So backtrack we did. Again. These two backtracks were bad for moral. Luckily there’s something we like to call Trail Coffee. After that we had an easier ride over beautiful gravel roads and eventually rode over a ‘voie verte’. These are old railroads converted to trails or sometimes even cycling lanes.

Lieuwe on the voie verte

Supplies were low by now. Luckily we found a small supermarket still open in Moussac. With our bags now again full we headed out to look for a site to wild camp as we knew there weren’t any camp sites in the area. We found a country road with these Spanish-type bulls in a field with a sign on the fence warning not to enter the field. Duely noted. Won’t go there. Did not need the sign to convince us but thanks anyways. The field opposite to where the bulls were was in fact open for public ^_^ and appeared to be a good spot to spend the night. We set up camp behind some bushes and between the dried-out cow dung, I relocated my Trailstar away from the red ant nest I found too close for comfort and then we had a freeze dried meal. Real Turmat turned out to be pretty nice!

At around 22:00 stars were popping up as it gradually turned darker and we hit the sack. After a short fright caused by some ruckus in the bushes made by a wild boar (these are of the enormous kind, 300+ kilos) we slept quite well. We had done a whopping 83 km today and climbed 1,288 meters according to Strava. Lieuwe slept outside under the stars and without knowing it himself was in fact my first line of defence against other wild boars that might show up. My canary in the mine so to say. None showed up.

Wild camp not sponsored by Opinel but I welcome it

Just before sunrise I woke up because I was a bit chilly. Turned out it was -2 degrees Celcius. Ice on the tent and on Lieuwe’s sleepingbag. Luckily we are using Cumulus down sleeping bags which are GREAT. I just put too little clothing on for this kind of low temps. In the morning the sun warmed everything up nicely though and we had coffee, bread with cheese and a ‘poo sauvage’ which was not buried but creatively hidden under some locally sourced rocks. The farmer came to see his field but did not pay any attention to us while we packed and left for…

Day three

This was going to be quite a long leg with the great city of Nimes in it.

After leaving camp and one pretty long climb on a dirt road we arrived at one of the highlights of the trip: a Roman quarry used to build either buildings in Nimes or the Pont du Gard, I can’t remember. There were no signs whatsoever. I stumbled upon this fascinating site by accident when making the route. In the quarry the half finished work gave the impression the quarry was abandoned quite suddenly. Or maybe the customers did not pay for that half finished water basin? Who knows! The fact that you know slaves worked and died here gives places like this an eerie but fascinating atmosphere. And boy does it makes you feel happy you happened to be born now and not back then when life generally sucked for most people.

Roman quarry at Montagnac

While leaving the site an elderly Parisian couple asked us if we were locals. We weren’t. “Ah, dommage… but do you know where the Roman quarry is?”. Well, good people…that we do know! So we pointed them in the right direction hoping they would manage the small climb into the quarry. After the descent and some nice rock-sized gravel paths we were confronted with what I would like to call rolling hills except they weren’t. Downhill we couldn’t go very fast because of the ever present rock-sized gravel (this is not gravel, folks.. make ‘m smaller!). And uphill was hike-a-bike. Six or seven times in a row. Luckily we were approaching Nimes with it’s cafes and sites so that kept us going good enough.

Up. Down. Up. Down.

After stocking up in a supermarket in the outskirts of Nimes we went to the city centre. First up was the tower of the old Roman city wall. The Tour Magne. It. Was. Huge. And an amazing thing to behold. Next up the Temple of Diana. We passed the Maison Carree, a Roman temple still in one piece. Amazing. Then a nice lunch and a beer on a pretty square.

Roughing it in Nîmes

To top it all of we rode around the famous amphitheater of Nimes that once held 24,000 spectators. Also an amazing site. We left the city about the same way we came in and stumbled upon the outlet of the aquaduct that once fed water into Nîmes. You can easily make out the round connectors for the water pipes that brought water to all corners of the city.

Tour Magne

Aquaduct outlet into Nimes

We headed North to the Gardon river an after some unexpected and one totally unnecessary climb we slept at a luxurious camp site in Collias. We did 71km today and went up 1,086 meters.

Gardon river at Collias

Day four

…would bring us the Pont du Gard. The famous aquaduct built 2,000 years ago to get water from the source at Uzes to the 20,000 souls in Roman Nimes. We took the easy way to the aquaduct (our original route would have added a couple of hundred altimeters to our trip but we decided on going easy on ourselves) and had a good look around.

Pont du Gard as seen from the North

The Pont du Gard is not the only remnant of the aquaduct and we saw many more parts of it strewn across the countryside. We cycled roughly where the aquaduct once was. Basically we backtracked the former aquaduct tract all the way up to it’s source at Uzès. From the valley below we drove past the source of the aquaduct and through a lovely park were many locals had a good time with their families. Then up some mighty steps to the old town up above. We managed to plunder the supermarket right before it closed shop and had a roadside picknick. The first of May is a holiday in France and everything closes up early or doesn’t open at all. If you go to France do check if there are any holidays as they have quite a bunch and shops are probably closed then.

Uzès as seen from below

Then we went on our way, up to the end of the Gorge de l’Ardèche where we would look for a site to spend the night. So close to the Rhône river. On the way up North we passed a 12th century chapel where locals were playing petanque as a celebration of the 1st of May, met with a group of friendly hikers who wanted to know eeeeeverything and liked Dutch soccer club Ajax, went past the Cascades du Sautadet and to end it all had one final proper climb over the last hill of the day were we were rewarded with beautiful monastery.

The monastery

This building was also from the 12th century but upgraded in the centuries afterwards. Further restorations were kindly donated by the Germans in WW2 using only a little bit of forced labour. A nice and fast downhill over an unpaved forest road took us down to the Ardèche river and along it to our second to last camp site. We were the third visitors this new season as most camp sites open on the 1st of May (or sometimes even the 1st of June!). We had another Real Turmat meal, a beer and went to bed early. As you do on trips like this. Total of the day: 83km and 1,170 vertical meters.

Day five

The last day. Anxious to get home and at the same time disappointed it was almost over already. The route would take us close to the Ardèche gorge, over the top of a plateau and down to the touristic towns in the lower valley to the West. Then over a voie verte to Balazuc.

Entering Saint Martin s/Ardèche

After leaving the campsite we soon crossed the river at Saint Martin sur Ardèche. In town we visited the boulangerie for some pasteries and bread. Once out of town the road started the ascent. I figured the road would go up to the plateau at 400m, then go down once and then up a bit and that would be it. I was mistaken, the road went up and down a lot and had 800 meters of climbing in it over the 40km stretch. By now I had already discovered the use for M&M’s with peanuts: they were my power food. The planned route went close to the main road but we quickly decided to use said road instead of the planned trail as we did not see anything of the beautiful gorge. Also there were silk caterpillars in great numbers dangling from the trees that ended up everywhere. We did not like that either. Once on the road we were immediately rewarded by the awesome views of the Ardèche river down below.

La Plage de Templiers (look carefully for the fortification of the Templar knights)

Looking downstream

Panorama

 

After a cool descent where I managed to hit 67km/h we had a coffee and Cola in a café, sped through the already busy tourist town of Vallons-Pont-d’Arc and had a homeless style lunch in a doorway during a thunderstorm. The last leg of the day went over the voie verte and through Ruoms, to Balazuc. Not the nicest part of the trip. Once set up on the campsite we pedalled out once more, to Balazuc for a nice meal with meat, fries and beer. The next day we hopped in the car and drove home. The ride itself was quite uneventful.

Looking back the best time to ride this trip would be end of April/beginning of May as it is very warm here during the summer (35+ degrees C). Campsites are open from half April, some even later. You can count on having to wild camp at least once, especially in the South-Western part of the route or if you don’t want to descend into the valley to find a campsite. Food, water and other supplies are available in the larger towns only as are the boulangeries. And remember: in France “be nice” takes you a long way!

The GPX files for download

(Premium needed but send me a message using the contact form if I need to send them to you):

GPX day 1

GPX day 2

GPX day 3 & 4

GPX day 5

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