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OPINION

A soggy sojourn in France: La Bikepacking at Nature Is Bike

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It was a case of perfect gravel and imperfect weather as VecchioJo got his gravillon on at this popular festival-style cycling event in and around Angers

We’re smashing along in a mini peloton of five, and I’m spitting a shower of dirty water from a Dutch wheel as the rain splats down so relentlessly and comprehensively that we’ve kind of forgotten that it’s actually raining and because we’re getting just as wet from below.

Our bikes are making all kinds of expensive grinding noises, we’re wearing a patina of liquid brown and I try to focus with the eye that isn’t filled with grit as we signal and dodge potholes and puddles on the gravel track that is heading towards another 90 degree turn around another field.

The pace rarely slows as we’re all keen to get this thing over and done with. It feels like it could be Belgium in the spring, but the rain is nice and warm because we’re in France, in June.

Nature Is Bike - Muddy Shins.jpeg

This just shows that you can do everything absolutely right and yet have no control over the weather, and even with it turning up to literally piss on the parade of the fourth edition of the Nature Is Bike Gravel Festival was - I’m going to put it out there - the best gravel event I’ve attended.

Based in Angers, a town about 300km southwest of Paris at the confluence of the Sarthe, Maine and Loire rivers, the festival stretches over a long weekend with a selection of rides to suit any level of gravelisteur. Although Nature Is Bike is a name that raises some confusion amongst native English speakers as to what it actually is. Do we even need to take cycling clothes?

Bemusing title aside, the event has its heart in the right place, born from the desire to promote the practice of gravel by combining a sporting challenge with a real desire to reconnect with nature. The festival is based in a large city park just a five-minute pedal from the centre of Angers, with its impressive castle and cathedral. The event village has a large expo to keep any gravel geek happy, with Specialized, Van Rysel and Panaracer attending as well as a load of European brands that you’ve never heard of that have a lot of interesting bikes and bits on display.

Nature Is Bike - Trade Bikes.jpeg

It’s here that we register, pick up our numbers and trackers, have our bikes inspected and extensive kit list checked though. There are a few mandatory items like lights and French law demands the use of hi-vis vests, but our checklist ticker doesn’t seem too bothered whether our helmets are under five years old (the sticker fell out of mine just before we arrived, honest) or that we do or do not have an emergency blanket hidden in the depths of our bags. This is a massive stress relief, as we were anticipating a scamper up to Decathlon to panic buy something if our kit wasn’t quite up to scratch.

The usual rigmarole of getting hold of a doctor’s note as part of the French event entry requirement has already been a total pain in the arse, as anyone that’s had to do similar will understand. We had a chat to the organiser and he said he’s going to try to smooth over this particular piece of paperwork to make entry for UK riders a lot simpler in future.

Nature Is Bike - Gravel Riders.jpeg

We’ve chosen to do La Bikepacking event, which is 280km in total with an overnight stop about halfway in Fontevraud-L’Abbaye, where we’ll camp out in the grounds of (as the town's name suggests) an abbey. Fancy.

If that’s not to your flavour there are 300km and 200km length rides, with the Gravel Loire Legend option of doing them both if you’re super keen, and more manageable 100km and 70km distances to choose from according to your fitness and willingness. This also means that if you come with a bunch of friends then you can all have a good time doing whatever ride you want without the pressure of feeling you have to go too far or too fast. If you’re after something more family-friendly then there’s also the Guinguette, a 42km ride that follows the river and has several food and culture stops along the way to give you a real flavour of the area.

Although none of the distances are technically races, it doesn’t mean that some tasty people don’t turn up and get round in a bit of a swift time. The lengthier rides attract a non-too shabby field, and the first man home on the 300km was ex-pro road cyclist Victor Bosoni while the top woman was world record holder and ultra-distance cyclist Nathalie Baillon.

Nature Is Bike - River Painting.jpeg

We rode the Guinguette as a leg stretcher the day before our La Bikebacking route started. It’s a lovely route along the river, down quiet lanes and on smooth farm tracks, and we got to cross a pontoon bridge only just slotted together by the army for one of the next day’s rides, which was a first.

We don’t get to experience the snack stops, but luckily Angers is a busy place with plenty of food options thanks to a large student population, so we stuff our faces with boulangerie buns when we get back which gives us time to ponder why on earth such a nice place is twinned with Wigan.

Nature Is Bike - Cathedral.jpeg

We’ve opted to make a bit of a trip of the event, and in the preceding days rode around Mont Saint-Michel. Then we had a fun little morning mucking about in the forest immediately north of Fougères.

While Nature Is Bike is an easy enough hop from the UK, it’s well worth spending some extra time there, be that cycling or just mooching about. Angers is steeped in history and was the seat of the Plantaganets, and today boasts two universities giving it a vibrant youthful feel. More on topic, it’s at the crossroads of three cycle routes: the 900km Loire by Bike that runs from Saint-Nazaire to Nevers, the slightly less taxing 320km Vallée du Loir à Vélo, and the Vélo Francette that takes you from the Normandy ferry port of Ouistreham all the way to La Rochelle on the Atlantic 600 kilometres away. If you wanted to go full bikepacking, the latter would be a great way to pocket some active travel points and ride the 300km from the ferry port to the event. which would make a couple of pleasant days out on the mix of old railway lines and quiet roads that’s been voted Europe’s number one cycle route.

Nature Is Bike - Railway Gravel.jpeg

 

Nature Is Bike - Vines Crest.jpeg

The gravel scene at Nature Is Bike is very different to other events I’ve been too, in that there is no dress code. Plaid shirts, beards and dangle mugs aren’t much in attendance (although you do get a very nice dangle mug in your registration bag) and there is very little evidence of the deep section carbon wheels and muted earth tones skinny Lycra gang. What there is instead appears to be quite a lot of Decathlon-based riding and no one trying too hard to be Gravel™, which is lovely.

We join 150 or so of them for the start of the bikepacking ride, having just dodged the spawning salmon of the 200km riders making their way out along the river. It’s a bright sunny morning and we don’t understand a word of the pre-ride briefing in French, but assume it’s the usual "don’t be an idiot" spiel which ensures a mostly polite elbows and ego-free crowd as we meander out through the park and onto the quiet roads and rolling countryside, heading south and then east into the Loire valley.

Choosing a gravel bike to ride here is a no-brainer, as unlike a lot of UK events where at some point you usually wonder if a mountain bike might have been a better option, you won’t even need a mountain-bike-tyres-with-dropped-bars gravel bike. The off-road bits are so perfectly chosen that a 40mm tyre will see you round fine, and you could even do it on a cycle-cross bike if you wanted. Remember them? Oh, and there is also the small rule that you’re not allowed to ride a mountain bike. Because it’s a gravel event...

Nature Is Bike - Long Grass Track.jpeg

Our road trip is joined along by Richard, who’s in the Venn diagram of local cycling friends but who we’ve never actually spent much time with, and he turns out to be both easy company and incredibly useful, because he speaks very good French. He’s just as handy on the bike too, and wins XC and gravel races as much as we don’t. To get his money’s worth out of the weekend he’s riding the 300km route on the Friday and then joining us for the two-day La Bikepacking ride as a nice little wind down. He’s a bit fit like that, and we still spend a lot of the time hanging off his back wheel.

Nature Is Bike - Dark Sky Tree.jpeg

 

Nature Is Bike - Prime Gravel.jpeg

It doesn’t take long for the busyness of the initial kilometres to fade as the various speeds, mechanical stops, faffing and gradient managements of everyone means we’re mostly riding in our own little group, only bumping into others once in a while which makes for relaxing riding. Our average speed is happily above 20kph, which is way over our usual pace. Not because we’re crushing it, but because the riding here is simple, easy going and just flows smoothly.

There are no gates to negotiate, we haven’t been routed through any bogs, down any rock strewn bridleways, had to fight along bramble overgrown paths or been directed up any hike-a-bike climbs for fun, which is the bread and butter of any UK gravel course. Because the tracks are actually nicely graded, proper gravel and the roads are so quiet, we haven’t had to wait for a gap in the endless flow of cars at every junction and road crossing, which saves an enormous amount of time.

It is beautifully stress-free and mind emptying, and it does help that France has a lot more space to play with; but it’s still a wonderful gravel travelling through the countryside experience. There’s also enough variety not to get bored, with no endless tracts of the same dirt track meandering off into the distance to numb your will to live. Farm track will turn to forest trail, will morph into dirt path, which leads into a wiggly bit of singletrack, which will become a doubletrack through the vines, which will turn left onto a deserted country lane, with no shitty bits just to make up the miles, and mix and repeat.

Nature Is Bike - Lattice Bridge.jpeg

 

Nature Is Bike - Tabac Cakes.jpeg

I like to split my rides into 50km chunks, and luckily at just about that distance a tabac appears where there’s little resistance to stopping for a coffee and a cake; well, all the seven little cakes that were on the counter.

A steady stream of riders waft past, giving us quizzical looks as their interpretation of bikepacking must not include stopping at any available cafe for a little sit down and something to eat. Are we really in France? With similarly good timing, a food stop reveals itself exactly at 100km. I suggest that now would be good time to look for food, just as a boulangerie in an unpromising industrial estate on the outskirts of Saumur drifts into our peripheral on the other side of a furniture shop.

Nature Is Bike - Rain Road.jpeg

It’s been a perfect day so far, the sun’s out with just enough freshness in the air to keep things cool, but we haven’t spent all week refreshing the Angers weather page for nothing. Just as we reach the top of an open windswept vine-lined hill, there’s the sudden punchy gust that precedes the rain. It puts on a proper show, forcing us to suddenly stop under the only available shelter of an insufficient tree and quickly struggle on waterproof jackets.

It gets very wet very quickly, but calms down enough to cope with soon enough. Luckily with about 20km to go on the day, there is a control point where we get our brevet cards stamped and an invitation to tour the wine cellars of Les Vignobles Edonis and partake in a little wine tasting.

Nature Is Bike - Wine Bottles.jpeg

This beats the usual gazebo in a car park offering up pieces of banana, fig rolls and energy drinks. We wander around the visitor experience, more taken with the pleasing weirdness of it all than the impressiveness of the kilometres of cellar tunnels, or the nuances of different types of grapes and fermentation techniques. We do, however, sample a few glasses of wine and wonder why they haven’t supplied some cheese-based snacks. We’re hungry cyclists goddammit! 

Nature Is Bike - Tents.jpeg

We manage to make it to our overnight stay in Fontevraud-L’Abbaye, and because the sun’s made its way to join us we sit in the square with an end of day beer before collecting our tents. There’s the option to have all your overnight kit taken to the campsite if you’re new to bikepacking and haven’t got all the kit, or just want a lighter bike, and there’s the opportunity to hire a tent too. We were going to go fully self-supported bikepacking, but there was an admin error and the tent poles were left on the front room floor, so we last-minute snaffle a pair of tents to pop up in the maze of hedges that form our bedroom for the night.

Nature Is Bike - Fontevraud-L’Abbaye.jpeg

The weather forecast for Sunday has never looked good, and the hammering 4am rain wakes me up, not filling me with much joy for the ride back. By breakfast it’s eased off, and we at least break camp in the dry which is always better.

A lot of riders have made an early start to make up as much distance as possible before the forecast hits, and we’re about the last to leave, especially after a quick tyre faff and boulangerie restock of supplies. There’s a picturesque wiggle through the abbey grounds and then out into an uninspiring grey day as the route takes us alongside river, railway tracks and down squiggly bits and easy dirt tracks, before we reach a 20km-ish long forested section that’s the most technical riding of the whole route. Difficulty has been enhanced by that overnight rain making the muddy bits a bit muddier. The rest of it incredibly greasy, apart from the bits that are rim-deep sand traps.

Nature Is Bike - Forest Push.jpeg

This whole passage in the trees is more UK-style gravel, but all still totally rideable if you don’t mind the odd sideways drift, which is meat and potatoes to us Brits. We did witness a certain amount of flailing about and dabbing from the less experienced riders, though.

Immediately after we’re out of the trees, the rain turns up for its appointment. Rolling into Neuillé it feels like the right place for a quick stop and refuel, a sentiment shared by most other riders by the looks of things.

Nature Is Bike - Dutch Coffee Shop.jpeg

We fail to secure supplies from a weird Api shop that you have to download an app to enter and buy stuff from, but bump into Emma and Iza, two Dutch riders who we were introduced earlier and shared supper with last night. They have found shelter in a portico with a useful adjacent toilet, and got their mocha pot out to make coffee. I’m sure that wasn’t in the kit list, but we’re not complaining so we make sure to swap stories until we’re offered a coffee and agree to ride together to the finish. Which is how we find ourselves in that mini peloton gritting it out.

Nature Is Bike - Gritty Peloton.jpeg

 

Nature Is Bike - Fast And Wet.jpeg

We’ve got about 70km of mostly flat gravel left to cover, and work well as a group. It’s always a pleasure when serendipity teams you up with people who have decent bike etiquette and don’t chop you up, bounce you into the weeds, surge off the front and are happy to sit on the wheel of, so the distance passes quickly. Plodding along solo through this would be quite the task, although probably a bit cleaner.

Thankfully the weather finally cheers up as we enter Angers, and by the time we cross the finish line the sun makes an appearance, meaning we can celebrate with our finisher’s beer and sausage with smiles on our drying dirt faces.

Despite the weather, and also because of it, it’s been a fantastic event. Nature Is Bike attracted 2,500 riders who managed to accumulate over 320,000 kilometres of gravel riding between them, if you wanted an idea of just how popular and successful this event is; yet, it never felt crowded and had a really relaxed vibe. Maybe that name doesn’t matter so much.

Nature Is Bike - Dirty Bike.jpeg

Travel

We took the overnight Brittany Ferries Portsmouth to Caen-Ouistreham ferry, so we got an entire day to play in France when we arrived. Angers is about a three-hour drive away, and other French port options include Cherbourg and St Malo. If you don’t mind more driving, Dieppe and Calais are also options.

Trains in France are generally okay with bikes, although some of the high-speed options demand them to be in bags. As mentioned above it’s easy to extend your adventure and ride from Caen-Ouistreham to Angers via the La Velo Francette cycle route, which is about 300km.

A big thanks to...

We can’t thank Olivier from Destination Angers enough for the amount of effort he put into overcoming all the obstacles that stumbled in the way of getting us out to the Nature Is Bike gravel festival, arranging a pair of tents last minute and being a great guy when we got there. Thanks also to Brittany Ferries for sorting us sailings there and back at the last minute too.

natureisbike.com

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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10 comments

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Lozcan | 1 week ago
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Mountain bikes not welcome, not even with drop bars ???

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VecchioJo replied to Lozcan | 1 week ago
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This does raise the question of when does a fatter tyred gravel bike become a mountainbike with dropped bars?

I guess this is a matter of semantics, geometry, tyre width and DNA you discuss with the organiser.

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brooksby | 2 weeks ago
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Quote:

The usual rigmarole of getting hold of a doctor’s note as part of the French event entry requirement has already been a total pain in the arse, as anyone that’s had to do similar will understand. 

Why do you need a doctor's note, Jo? (speaking as someone who hasn't had to do similar and so doesn't understand).

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Rendel Harris replied to brooksby | 2 weeks ago
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The French are HUGE on the certificat medical for virtually any organised sport to satisfy insurance requirements for everything from the primary school swimming team to international rugby matches. Pretty much any organised cycling event in France will ask you to provide a certificate/letter from a doctor on registration to prove that you are fit enough to participate. This is a real pain as you have to be bothering your GP and pay them between about £25 and £40 and it has to be less than a year old, so if you regularly participate in sport in France you have to keep renewing it. However, whisper who dares and I've never done it myself but I do know people who simply type up an official looking letter and show it at registration who have never been questioned, so…

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brooksby replied to Rendel Harris | 2 weeks ago
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Rendel Harris wrote:

The French are HUGE on the certificat medical for virtually any organised sport to satisfy insurance requirements for everything from the primary school swimming team to international rugby matches. Pretty much any organised cycling event in France will ask you to provide a certificate/letter from a doctor on registration to prove that you are fit enough to participate. 

Thanks.  It makes sense once you say it, but does seem terribly (overly?) bureaucratic...

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Rendel Harris replied to brooksby | 2 weeks ago
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brooksby wrote:

Thanks.  It makes sense once you say it, but does seem terribly (overly?) bureaucratic...

I've never lived in France on a long-term basis but I have stayed there for extended periods – long enough to get mixed up with the bureaucracy – and their red tape makes the UK look like an anarchist's paradise.

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TheFatAndTheFurious replied to Rendel Harris | 1 week ago
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Rendel Harris wrote:

I've never lived in France on a long-term basis but I have stayed there for extended periods – long enough to get mixed up with the bureaucracy – and their red tape makes the UK look like an anarchist's paradise.

I did live in France for several years, and they do love red tape. Their love for it is matched only by the disdain and disregard they have for following any of the rules the red tape stipulates.

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Rendel Harris replied to TheFatAndTheFurious | 1 week ago
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TheFatAndTheFurious wrote:

I did live in France for several years, and they do love red tape. Their love for it is matched only by the disdain and disregard they have for following any of the rules the red tape stipulates.

Very true! When I lived in Belgium as a kid (dad was a diplomat out there) the general feeling was the Germans love rules and follow them to the letter, the French love rules and follow the ones that suit them and the Italians say "what are rules"?  Like all cliches not entirely true but with a certain element of truth.

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mark1a replied to brooksby | 2 weeks ago
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A lot of French events require one, I needed one for Etape du Tour 2020 (didn't happen in the end, pandemic cancelled), my GP wasn't interested in providing one either (too busy), so I went online to https://www.sportsmedicalcertificates.com/, answered a few questions regarding height, weight, BP, etc, paid £75 and got a certificate same day, signed & stamped by a doctor I'd never met. Crucially though, he did have a stamp with a registration number on and it was fine.

 

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VecchioJo replied to mark1a | 2 weeks ago
3 likes

All of the above, I think I've had to get a certificate for any large European cycling event for at least the last ten years. There were times if the doctor was in he'd sign the form right away and we'd have a good chat about where I was going and what I was doing, now the process is outsourced, it's a £35 fee and it takes several weeks. 

Richard on this trip went for the online option and secured a certificate from a doctor who's never met him and I know other riders who have photoshopped old certificates to get them to fit whatever the next event is so it's a far from perfect annoyance.

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