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I decided to leave my MTB and touring bike in the garage, and try something new. I borowed a friends gravel bike and took the opportunity to get away for a few days and savour a different kind of bike travel. Impressions after 4 days riding from Digne to the Mediterranean.

By Géraldine Benestar – photos : Pascal Gaudin

This article is supported by FRANCE BIKE TRIPS

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False start! Close to Digne, a thunderstorm looms overhead... Ride on, or try and find shelter?

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From the Vallée de l'Asse, starting point for this gravel tour, I head in the direction of the Verdon via a series of extremely quiet back roads. Not a car in sight...

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A new riding position (I'd never ridden with drop bars before) and minimalist baggage are the first notable differences. Preparation and packing requires some extra attention to detail. No room for that "just in case" extra layer, nor that 600 page novel you're currently reading. It's all about utility, and keeping things fast and light.

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One of the first things I notice is how the bike eats up the miles compared to my mountain bike!

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Suitable for riding non-technical offroad tracks, gravel bikes are great for tours that mix road and offroad, making it easy to get away from the traffic. Though perfect for climbing and flat terrain, the descents are noticeably rougher than on an MTB, largely due to the lack of suspension. Some wider tyres would no doubt have been more suitable...

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The wide, flared bars took some getting used to, especially for braking. It took me a few hours of tinkering with the bar and saddle positions in order to find a comfortable riding position.

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The stormy skies highlight the contours of the surrounding mountains on the road into the Verdon Gorges.

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The superb village of Trigance, at the entrance to the gorges. A fountain, a café and a delicious bakery offer the perfect combination for a break from the riding!

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Always clean and well kept, traditional wash houses are great shelters in the event of rain or storms, as well as offering welcome shade and the opportunity to cool off when it's hot.

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The famous Couloir Samson Gorge.

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On the panoramic road above the Gorges du Verdon (left bank). Unlike car travel, cycling offers the opportunity to stop pretty much anywhere and admire the superb views of the cliffs and gorges.

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Leaving La Mescla, with the Route des Crêtes visible in the background. The thunderstorm is rolling in fast, before battering through the gorges.

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The Balcon de la Mescla offers a birds eye view of the twists and turns of the river below. This is where the Artuby joins the Verdon.

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Choosing tracks rather than roads often leads to some remarkable discoveries.

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In search of a camping spot for the night...

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A flat, grassy spot under the pine trees, overlooking a river. What more could you ask for?

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Hydration packs equipped with filters are great for bikepacking, avoiding the need to load up with water during the day.

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Peek a boo!

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A cold fountain offers some welcome refreshment after several hours riding in the hot sun.

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An inticing shaded café terrace...

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Magnificent mature oak trees line the road, offering some welcome shade and a stunning backdrop.

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The deep red earth of the tracks contrasts starkly with the huge oak trees.

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You could be forgiven for thinking this is Madagascar...

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Recent heavy rainfall meant certain sections were flooded. A good dose of ingenuity was needed to keep feet dry!

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The road to Chateaudouble, closed to traffic since heavy rains caused landslides in 2010... A perfect opportunity for some traffic-free riding, despite the warning on the sign!!

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Olive groves are a sure sign we're arriving in the south!

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Gravel isn't only about the riding... It's also about quality materials and understated good looks.

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Ingenious recycling... One more bike that won't finish in a skip!

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As we get nearer to the Med the temperature rises and the landscape becomes noticeably drier and more arid. The numerous fire roads that criss cross the hills offer miles and miles of perfect gravel riding.

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With its Wild West feel, the red rock Esterel is the last pre-alpine range before the Med. Its maze of abandoned roads, closed to motorized traffic, are perfect for gravel cycling.

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Old road signs testify to the previous use by motor vehicles.

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Viewed from the hot tarmac road, this pool offers an inticing opportunity for a swim. Another good reason to discover the area during the spring.

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First view of the sea, after 4 days of riding!

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A big thanks to Marine who lent me her gravel bike! This multi-day tour between Provence and the Mediterranean was a great opportunity to discover ultra-light bikepacking. Gravel bikes open up a host of possibilities, not least to get off busy roads and on to quiet tracks.

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This itinerary corresponds to the last 4 days of France Bike Trips Pre-Alps Gravel Tour. For more information see the France Bike Trips website.

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