On the track with electric assistance, on the largest mountain bike area in France, on the border with Puy-de-Dôme

On one side the peaceful valley of Ambert, one of the historic cradles of French stationery from the 15th to the 18th centuries. On the other hand, the Forez Mountains, where dairy cows come to graze on summer pastures in the hottest months, on Hautes Chaumes, to produce the famous Fourme d’Ambert with its blue cheese. And spruce forests everywhere. An ideal environment to start an attack on the hundreds of kilometers of trails that lie there, on mountain bike.

3,300 km of tracks and 150 rounds

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

An activity that has its place because the Ambert-Crêtes du Forez massif has for several months been part of the largest mountain bike area, which is marked French Cycling Federation of France, under the name “Outdoor Destination”. Born from the intersection of the Bois Noirs massifs (around the Thiers), the Ambert-Crêtes du Forez, the Vichy Montagne Bourbonnaise and now the Roanne country, this space offers unique terrain for mountain bikers: 3,300 km of tracks on 150 circuits.

On the land of Ambert, Aurélien Thizy invites you to explore part of this huge playground, especially with a novelty, the “heritage” route offered every Tuesday morning this summer, which includes a visit to Richard-de-Bas, the last Auvergnes paper mill is still in operation. “The goal when you go to the Forez peaks is to drain the battery of the mountain bike and ride as many kilometers as possible. Today, with this course, we will above all appreciate the riches of the territory without forcing”, launches the professional to our group of four amateurs, including beginners.

On the program for the morning: about fifteen kilometers on a circuit marked in red. Our instructor tries to reassure us:

It is available from 7 to 77 years! It is perfect for getting started with an electric-assisted mountain bike, without that assistance you will never get through it because you would ride three times slower.

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Steep slopes but without wear

It’s time to gear up. Helmet screwed upside down, we screw our VTTAE, which weighs 22 kg, eight more than conventional equipment. But first on the bike, there is hardly any difference on an ordinary mountain bike. If the gears always have to be changed with the right hand on the handlebars, a small box allows, with the left hand, to use the electrical assistance. “If you press +, the effect increases and the dial changes color. From green it changes to blue, then orange and red,” Aurélien explains. Nothing complicated so far. After grabbing the station’s parking lot, we head towards the mountain slopes.

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As we cross the town of Ambert along a small stream, our guide gives us some technical advice. “To make VVTAE you do not have to be in good physical shape. The help will help you as soon as it rises. Place your thumbs firmly inside the handlebars, and downhill, brake both brakes at the same time, and remove the assist. »

Quickly, a first large rock rise presents itself, after crossing a small wooden bridge. Without the help of the battery, half the group would have done it on foot, with the bike next to it. But just take off while pressing “+”, to watch the mountain bike climb almost as if nothing had happened. “Once you have tried, it is difficult to go back. The physical effort is there, you should always step on the pedals, except that it is softer. It is ideal for getting back on track for those who have no physical activity, ”smiles Aurélien.

Easy access for athletes of all levels

We continue our way on marked paths, in the middle between farms and cows. Before branching off towards the Bois des Chaux, near Saint-Martin-des-Olmes. The path changes profile even if the route is not fixed “to adapt to each group”, the monitor indicates. The path turns into a path, in the middle of the forest. During the coolness of the trees, the part becomes more technical, with roots and small stones to ride.Photo by Thierry Lindauer

The effort is more important, but the battery is always there to allow us to move forward without difficulty. “I’m pleasantly surprised, because it’s really a big help, the electrical assistance,” notes Gaëlle, a participant who made her first experience in VTTAE. “We can go as a family, all of us, even with different levels,” she continues.

When the 300 altitude meters are swallowed, the descent comes. And it’s just as steep: there the electrical assistance is useless, so you have to take your time and take care if you are uncomfortable, or have fun and go down the hill if we are more tanned. “Everyone finds their account,” analyzes Aurélien Thizy. We have a pretty crazy quality in the field. The ground is never dry, which is what enduro mountain bike purists often seek. »

And for the amateurs, we ride in centuries-old forests, protected, on less rugged terrain than the Alps for example, which is an easy access that we do not have anywhere else.

The route continues with a clearer view of the Ambert Valley. A sip of water later, and after a quick crossing on RD 996, we plunge back into a coniferous forest to reach the heights of the Richard-de-Bas mill. The sound of the Lagat River feeding the mill welcomes us. After more than 1h30 ride, we hand over the bikes to start the cultural part of the route and discover a significant part of Amber’s heritage.

Visit the last paper mill in Auvergne

This paper mill is the last still in operation in Auvergne, producing and selling its own paper. Its first mention dates from 1463. The living museum was opened in 1943. Since then, more than 4 million visitors have discovered the press of white salvaged cloths, the manufacture of pulp, the spread of sheets newly created in the dryers, on the floor of the wooden building. The current director and grandson of the museum’s founder, Emmanuel Kerbourc’h, recalls the importance of this activity, between the 15th century and the industrial revolution of the 19th century:

“At that time, Ambert was Silicon Valley of handmade paper. In the three paper valleys that collide around Ambert, there were 150 mills!”

emmanuel kerbourc’h (director of the Richard-de-Bas mill)

Paper history, discovery of the lives of the paper makers and the production of ancestors are on the program for the visit. We end this cultural break with the site shop, while still making “200 sheets of paper a day” here.

Back on our VTTAE the last three kilometers it takes time to get back in the saddle, but the tourist tour continues on the famous chemin des Papetiers, which allows you to learn even more about the profession of this ancestor. On our way we also discover the Nouara mill, a cultural and tourist center that has been completely rehabilitated thanks to the Omerin Business Foundation, which opens this summer. Before descending into the “City of Friends”, pass through its small pedestrian streets and half-timbered houses.

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After a four-hour excursion, the feeling is pleasant: no pain or fatigue. And the pride of having crossed paths that we would never have taken before, thanks to the mountain bike’s electric assistance, “a miracle product,” according to our instructor on the day. All while breathing in the clean air of Livradois-Forez!

Text: Fanny Guinea
Photos: Thierry Lindauer

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