The Cévennes is a small mountainous area at the southern end of the Massif Central, a large range of mountains and plateaus situated between the Alps and the Pyrenees, covering much of south-central France. The area is best known for being a Protestant stronghold and has had a fairly turbulent history because of this. In the early 18th century the Camisards (Protestants of the Cévennes) rose up against King Louis XIV in rebellion and began a guerrilla war against the crown. Many Protestants fled France at this time, settling in ‘friendly’ countries in Europe, as well as the New World.
History didn’t start with the Camisards, however, nor did it finish there. The Romans were here 17 centuries before, with the Gauls preceding them. Robert Louis Stevenson famously crossed the Cévennes, with his donkey, Modestine, in the autumn of 1878, and wrote a fascinating little book about it. There are many reminders of this trip in the area, including plenty of donkeys to rent! For the reading cyclist, the entire amateur race so expertly described in The Rider (Tim Krabbé), takes place in this area (we ride many of the same roads on our guided tour, outlined below) and is a must read for anyone coming here to ride. The Tour de France has been through here many times in the past, as well, with the most famous incident unfortunately being a crash in 1960 that ended the career of French star Roger Rivière.
But above all, the Cévennes just happens to be one of the best places in the world to ride a bike!
- Location: Southern France
- Gateway cities: Nimes, Montpellier
- Population: About 40,000 – one of the lowest densities in France
- Year listed as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve: 1984
- Climate: From Mediterranean to Alpine
- Highest mountain: Mont Lozère – 1699 meters
- View from Mt. Aigoual on a clear day: Alps, Mediterranean, Pyrenees
The geology gods seem to have had a field day in this area of the world and created a concentration of several high plateaus, bordered by deep gorges, all with great cycling roads running through them. The Gorges du Tarn is by far the most famous (and trafficked!), but nearby are the Gorges de la Dourbie and Gorges de la Jonte, both magical places to ride, with easy gradients and fantastic vistas.
These high (up to 1000 meters) limestone plateaus are a distinctive feature in the region and create some seriously awesome variation for the cyclist. If you climb out of any of the gorges in the Cévennes, you’ll find yourself in another world altogether. Below is lush, green and full of water; above is barren, windswept and dry, but stunningly beautiful.
Two huge mountains dominate the landscape of the central Cévennes: Mont Aigoual (1567 meters) and Mont Lozère (1699 meters). Both these mountains can be climbed from various approaches and some of these are major efforts (the climb up to the Col du Pré de la Dame is 15 km long with 1100 meters in elevation change). They are all wonderful routes, though, and you could easily spend a week just riding all the roads that lead up to the summit of Mont Aigoual, there are so many!
The southern area of the mountain range is where you find the most typical elements of what many people consider the Cévennes, including grazing goats, chestnut groves, rustic hamlets…and more goats! It is also, as you can probably guess by now, an amazing place to ride, with a heavy dose of small, car-less roads, endless choices of climbs and great weather (this area is near the Mediterranean).
Getting to the Cévennes
The area is thankfully a bit isolated, having only one train line running through it, and no major highways. This is good news for the cyclist, of course, but presents a few challenges for the traveler. If you have a car the Cévennes are easily accessible from any number of big towns/cities in the south, including Montpellier, Nîmes and Millau (for the gorges).
When to Come
Spring, summer and fall are all excellent times to ride here, with most rain falling in Autumn. The southern part of the range has a Mediterranean climate, so you are nearly guaranteed sun from June to the end of August.
44|5 Cycling Tours is an expert on the Cévennes, since they are our local mountains, and we have been running tours in the area since 2014. As far as we can tell, we are the only tour company offering full-service annual tours to this special area.
Our Signature HighRoad Cévennes Tour is an all-inclusive week-long biking holiday that takes you through the whole region, highlighting the superb variety of scenery and riding, with a high standard of accommodation and gourmet dining to fuel each day’s ride. This tour is run in early June and is usually sold out early. Contact us if you’d like to be part of it.
One of the best books ever written on road cycling happens in the Cévennes – Tim Krabbé’s The Rider. This fictional account of perhaps an actual amateur race back in the 70s, rides through two gorges, rolls over the wind-swept plateaus and climbs up and back down Mont Aiguoal. It’s a book that will keep you coming back and probably make you want to ride this magical area.
A century before Krabbé explored the area, Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) walked the entire length of the Cévennes with a rented donkey named Modestine. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes has become so well known that a whole industry (hiking trails, gites, donkey rentals!) has shot up to support the interest in walkers coming to the area.