French Fancy: Roadbook Trail Riding in the Cantal

Text: Julian Challis • Photography: Julian Challis

The concentration is intense. My entire world has shrunk to a roll of stick drawings, a trip meter, and the single track ahead. Behind me there are six other riders relying on my navigation skills to keep the group moving at pace through the achingly beautiful French countryside. But I’m on my A game, flicking my eyes between the three focus points and maintaining a speed that my mates are struggling to keep up with even without trying to decipher the stream of images on the roadbook reader. We rip along a narrow trail in deserted beech woodland, the crisp leaves curling up behind the back wheel in a russet rooster tail, before hanging a right to tackle a monster climb up a rock-strewn path through the trees. This is trail riding in the Cantal region at its best—this is what we came for.

Our pilgrimage to France has become an annual event on the Bristol Trail Riders Fellowship calendar, and some of the guys have been making the trip for over 20 years. But this is no guided leisurely cruise through the Gallic countryside. This is a full-on trail ride adventure navigating through completely unknown trails deep in rural France with nothing more than a roadbook to get you through—no GPX files, no satnav, no official maps, just the ability to interpret the stream of six drawings ahead of you and convert them into three days of truly awesome riding. Run by Chris Evans, former manager of the legendary French rally rider Cyril Despres and all-round Dakar guru, and his Sport Adventure team, these tours combine uniquely independent yet supported trail riding with fantastic food and beautifully rustic accommodations. It’s a formula that has kept Evans busy for more than two decades.

Armed with eight KTMs, three Betas, two Husqvarnas, two Hondas, and a Husaberg, we had left various locations around Bristol on Monday afternoon in a fleet of vans, the 16 of us converging on the ferry port at Portsmouth for the overnight barge to Caen. This time Steve, our driver, has the satnav on the correct settings, so we slice down through the country on the billiard-table-smooth empty French freeway without the delays and arguments that plagued last year’s trip. Convening at a series of service stations for strong coffee, croissants, and the obligatory baguettes, the road train eventually pulls into the tiny village of Saint-Poncy at just after 4 p.m., and after a few restorative beers there’s a period of intense and excited fettling of the 16 different bikes ahead of tomorrow’s riding. Chains are adjusted, tanks are filled, and, most importantly, the roadbook readers supplied by Evans are strapped into place on the front forks. With the bikes suitably kitted out, it’s time for a sumptuous dinner of an exquisite prune flan starter, wild boar casserole, cheesecake, and, naturally, an enormous cheese board groaning with smelly, runny, and utterly delicious local products.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2019 back issue.