On electric-assisted trails, bordering Puy-de-Dôme, France’s largest mountain bike area

On one side, the peaceful valley of Ambert, a historic cradle of French stationery from the 15th to 18th centuries. On the other hand, the mountains of Forage, where dairy cows come to graze in summer pastures during the warmest months, in Hautes Chaumes, to make the famous Forme d’Ambert with its blue-veined cheese. And everywhere, the fire forest. An ideal environment to attack the hundreds of kilometers of trails nestled there by mountain bike.

3,300 km of track and 150 circuits

Aurélien Thizy, mountain bike instructor since 2007, understood this well, when he created his electric bike rental company (VTTAE), Granit Bike, from Ambert station last year. The 36-year-old sportsman offers to go on trips with tourists, whether they are amateurs or experienced.

An activity that has taken its place because for several months, the large part of Ambert-Crates du Forez is part of the largest mountain biking area in France labeled by the French Cycling Federation as “Outdoor Destination”. Born from the junction between the Bois Noirs massif (near Thiers), the Ambert-Crêtes du Forez, the Vichy Montagne Bourbonnaise and what is now the Roanne country, this area offers exceptional terrain for mountain bikers: 3,300 km of tracks in 150 circuits.

In the land of Ambert, Aurelian Thizi invites you to explore part of this huge playground, especially with a novelty, the “tradition” route offered every Tuesday morning this summer, which includes a visit to Richard-de-Bas. The Auvergne paper mill is still in operation. “The objective, when you get to the top of the forage, is to drain the mountain bike battery and do as many kilometers as possible. Today, through this course, we will above all appreciate the richness of the region without forcing it”, introducing the professional to our group of four amateurs, including newcomers.

On the program for the morning: about fifteen kilometers on the circuit marked in red. Our trainer tries to assure us:

It is accessible from 7 to 77 years old! It’s perfect for starting electrically assisted mountain biking, you’ll never get through it without assistance, because you’ll be going three times slower.

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Steep slopes but without exertion

It’s time to gear up. Strapping the helmet on, we carried our VTTAE, which weighed 22 kg, eight times more than conventional equipment. But once on the bike, there is little difference from a normal mountain bike. If the gears on the handlebars always have to be changed with the right hand, a small box allows the use of electric assistance with the left hand. “If you press +, the power increases and the color of the dial changes. From green, it changes to blue, then orange and red, “explains Aurelian. Nothing complicated so far. After pulling into the parking lot of the station, we head towards the mountains.

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As we pass the town of Ambert along a small stream, our guide gives us some technical advice. “To do VVTAE, you don’t need to be in good physical condition. The assistance will help you as it goes up. Place your thumbs well inside the handlebars, and on the descent, brake both brakes at the same time, remove the assistance. »

Quickly, the first big rocky climb presents itself across a small wooden bridge. Without the help of batteries, half of the team could be done on foot, as well as bicycles. But just take off, when pressing “+”, the mountain bike looks almost like nothing happened. “Once you try, it’s hard to go back. There is physical effort, you have to pedal all the time, other than that it is soft. It is ideal for those who have no physical activity to get back on track,” laughs Aurelian.

Easy access for all levels of athletes

We continued our way on marked trails between farms and cows. before branching off towards the Bois des Chaux near Saint-Martin-des-Olmes. The course changes the profile, even if the route is not fixed “to adapt to each group”, the monitor specifies. The path turns into a path, in the middle of the forest. Below the coolness of the trees, the section becomes more technical, with roots and small rocks to climb.Photo by Thierry Lindauer

The effort is more important, but the battery always allows us to proceed without difficulty. “I’m pleasantly surprised, because it’s really a great help, the electric assist”, noted Gale, a participant who made his first experience at VTTAE. “We can go as a family, all together, even with different levels,” he continued.

Once a height of 300 meters is crossed, the descent comes. And it’s just steep: there, electric assistance is useless, so you have to take your time and be careful if you’re uncomfortable, or have fun and go downhill, if we’re more seasoned. “Everyone finds their account, analyzes Aurelian Thizi. We field has a pretty crazy quality. The ground is never dry, which enduro mountain bike purists often look for. »

And for amateurs, we ride in centuries-old forests, protected, less rugged terrain than the Alps, for example, where we have ease of access elsewhere.

The route continues with a clear view of the Ambert Valley. A sip of water later, and a quick crossing on RD 996, we headed back into a softwood forest to reach the heights of Richard-de-Bass Mill. The sound of the Lagat stream, which feeds the mill, welcomes us. After a journey of more than 1h30, we leave the bikes to start the cultural part of the route and discover an essential part of Amber’s heritage.

See last paper call in Auvergne

This paper mill is the last one still in operation in Auvergne and manufactures and sells its own paper. It is first mentioned in 1463. The living museum was opened in 1943. Since then, more than 4 million visitors have discovered white salvaged rags press, make paper pulp, spread freshly made sheets in the dryer. Wooden building floors. The current director and grandson of the museum’s founder, Emanuel Kerborch, recalls the importance of this activity between the Industrial Revolution of the 15th century and the 19th century:

“Back then, Ambert was the Silicon Valley of handmade paper. In the three paper valleys that surrounded Ambert, there were 150 mills! »

Emmanuel Carborch (Director of Richard-de-Bass Mill)

The history of paper, discovery of the life of paper makers and production of ancestors are on the program of this tour. We end this cultural hiatus with the site store, when “200 sheets of paper per day” are still produced here.

For the last three kilometers on our VTTAE, it takes time to get back in the saddle, but the tourist journey continues on the famous Chemin des Papetiers, which allows you to learn more about this ancestral occupation. On our way, we also discover Nuara Mill, a cultural and tourist center completely rehabilitated thanks to the Omerin business foundation, which opens this summer. Pass through its small pedestrian streets and half-timbered houses, before descending into the “City of Friends”.

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After four hours out, the feeling is pleasant: no pain or fatigue. And thanks to the mountain bike’s electric assistance, “a miracle product,” according to our instructor for the day, pride of crossing paths we’ve never taken before. Time to breathe in the fresh air of Livradois-Forez!

Text: Fanny Guinea
Photo: Thierry Lindauer

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