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Most of us know the stereotype that French people aren’t particularly inviting to foreigners, but when you show them that you like adventure—and I mean real, authentic, and crazy adventure—they will open their arms to you.
When mountain biking started to gain popularity, the French embraced the sport and legalized riding on footpaths. When I’m out riding, people on the trail greet me with a smile and shout “Bon voyage!” as I’m leaving. Mountain biking terrain is limited in other parts of the world, but in France, you can go everywhere! From trails backdropped by the striking Mont Blanc massif to the open green valleys of Briançon, the possibilities are infinite.
England Taught Me How to Ride, But France Let Me Flourish
My cycling journey started in 1984 in Northern England. I found a group that took me under their wing and soon enough became the youngest member of the first British mountain bike racing team. Mountain biking has stayed a passion through the years, and more than a passion it became the family business. My partner, Mary, and I run Ride the Alps and are constantly out with our kids. So why uproot everything and move to France?
When talking about 8 of the best mountain biking destinations in Europe, places in France hold two of the spots. And for the right reasons. For me, the French Alps offer world-class downhill, enduro, and cross country mountain biking with an awe-inspiring backdrop. We settled in a quiet valley between the busy Morzine and Chamonix for its abundance of amazing natural single-track runs.
More than the terrain, it was the French hunger for pure adventure that kept me here all these years. To be friends with the French you have to ski Col de Beugeant, or climb Les Drus, or bike Tour du Mont Blanc. You have to be an authentic person who chases new challenges. I myself have tried to stay true to that idea by straying away from electric bikes, and always insisting on riding my human-powered bike. I have spent a good deal of time exploring France, from Chamonix all the way to Nice, and here are the top four places for an unforgettable time.
1. Chamonix, France
Chamonix is special because of its postcard-worthy backdrop: Mont Blanc. The riding in Chamonix is vast and the town itself is a sight to see, but people also come here to find new sports and adventures like this sport climber who came to Chamonix to experience true alpine climbing. You won’t get the side eye when you are walking around town caked in mud from your latest ride. Yet, its popularity is also a drawback. For me, It’s worth it to find those quieter, less traveled areas.
Away from the crowd and onto the adventure
If you’re looking for a leisurely ride, my go-to would be the loop around the valley floor. It winds up the Grand Balcon Nord, through Argentière, and then back down into the valley. You’ll be rewarded with striking views of the mountains surrounding Chamonix and a panorama of the valley.
In the winter, families flock to Chamonix for some of the best backcountry skiing, but in the summer those routes turn into great mountain biking runs. If you want lift access, I recommend going up Le Tour and riding down the bike park on either the green or blue run. It might not offer as much scenery as the loop around the valley floor, but it is still worthwhile for those who want to do less uphill.
Besides this, everything else in and around the valley is for more advanced bikers. My two favorite areas to ride are on either side, away from the crowds. At the top, we have Le Tour. Here, I enjoy going up to the col, traversing across the high points, and then heading down to Vallorcine and taking the lift back up.
On the other end, we have Les Houches, a place that was once underground but has since amassed a remarkable trail building and freeride community. They created a park exceptional enough for hosting the French Enduro Series earlier this year. Situated off the back, my favorite trail called The Fully English (I’m not biased at all) meanders about 2,000 meters down to the valley floor. Once you reach the bottom, you can catch a train back to Chamonix.
1. Chamonix, France - Good to Know
The trails on the valley floor are easy, everything besides that is more difficult. The lifts at Le Tour and Les Houches give access to a wide variety of terrain difficulties
Mostly cross-country for everyone, there is also a good number of downhill and enduro trails for intermediates and advanced riders at Le Tour and Les Houches
Resorts open for mountain bikers at the beginning of June and close at the end of August. The season can run from April to September in the lower elevations
You can easily do 2,000 vertical meters in a day. If you are quick in your descents that number can go up to at least 4,000 to 5,000 meters
There is a great selection of Airbnbs and hotels in Chamonix that vary in price. There are also lots of options for car or tent camping around Chamonix
It’s less crowded in the afternoons when all the hikers finish up for the day. You need a pass for the lifts, and I would recommend buying the day pass which is around 23 euros for mountain bikers
2. Morzine, France
Many professional downhill riders make Morzine their summer home. Nestled in Portes du Soleil, this small town connects to 12 other resorts. Together, they create a vast network of trails that spans hundreds of miles across alpine peaks and through village floors. Easy accessibility to downhill, freeride, and cross-country riding defines Morzine as a mountain biking nexus. If you are looking for a vacation that is all about fast, flowy routes down the mountain, this is the place to go.
Ski tracks by winter, tread marks by summer
Morzine is more popular than other mountain biking destinations in France. Major construction efforts contribute to less natural terrain but make for some spectacularly engineered trails, freeride park, and jumps. In summer, this wintertime ski resort transforms into a mountain biker’s heaven.
Spending a day in Morzine is going to be fabulous no matter what, but the Pass’Portes du Soleil tour is my favorite thing to do. It’s a route that links all eight villages in Portes du Soleil with 80km (49 miles) of MTB tracks, 720 meters of total uphill, and a total of 5,700 meters of downhill. The best time to ride is in summer when the high peaks are still blanketed with snow but the lower elevations are lush green and flecked with grazing cows.
2. Morzine, France - Good to Know
Each area (there is 13 total in Portes du Soleils and Morzine is one of them) has one or two beginner trails, but overall the areas mostly cater to intermediate and advanced riders
The Morzine lifts are open from mid-June to early September
The Morzine resort has a summit at 1,560m and a vertical drop of 560m with the base at 1,000m. My favorite tour—Pass’Portes du Soleil—is a 80km tour with 5,700 meters of downhill riding
I recommend staying in one of the classic French chalets; there are loads in the area
You need a lift pass for Morzine and the surrounding areas. A day pass that encompasses the whole region costs between 35 to 40 euros. If you want to do just a few laps, you can also get a pass for one specific location. During the pre-season, the passes are cheaper
3. Briançon, France
A lesson in contrast
I only started venturing down to Briançon in recent years thanks to my friend Steve, a fellow mountain biker and the owner of Bike Alp. Tired of the wet climate that defines Samoëns, Chamonix and Morzine, he began looking for other areas to ride and fell in love with Briançon.
I did a five day tour from Chamonix to Briançon and found that every time you cross over a col, you enter a different weather system. Before descending into Briançon, you must cross a mountain pass called Col du Galibier. As soon as you ride over, the weather becomes much drier and dustier. It can become unbearably hot in summer.. This contrasts the moist weather we get on the north side of Mont Blanc—and makes for some amazing riding. I can understand why Steve moved.
Briançon is not as popular as some of its French counterparts because it’s difficult to access. While Morzine is about a 50-minute drive from the airport, traveling to Briançon requires a two to three hour drive in each direction. If you have the means, it’s worth the journey; this place is sure to blow you away! Briançon is a charming ancient village peppered with family run B&Bs and a drawbridge situated at the entrance to town. This area features vast valleys with extremely long drainage systems. It’s a bit deceiving, really—the mountains aren’t any bigger but the descents are much longer.
One of my favorite things to do is take an uplift to access one of the area’s many mountain passes and spend the day riding the long descent down through the valleys and drainages. At the bottom, I catch a train back to Briançon. These runs are best suited for intermediate and advanced riders. For those looking for a mix of everything, I would head to Serre Chevalier. Another option is La Grave, which has an extremely difficult run from the top. I only head there when I’m feeling really good about my riding.
3. Briançon, France - Good to Know
Serre Chevalier has options for everyone. La Grave caters more to intermediate and advanced riders. The trails that require uplifting and aren’t easily accessible are for intermediate and advanced riders as well
It is best to go in the pre-season meaning mid-June, or in September and early October
The highest point of Serre Chevalier is at 2,491 meters and for La Grave the top is at around 3,600 meters
If you can, stay in the old part of Briançon in a small hotel or a family B&B. There are other accommodations outside of the old town, but it is worth it to see the ancient little town
You will need bike passes for Serre Chevalier and La Grave which cost around 25 euros per day
4. Samoëns, France
Samoëns, my hometown, is nestled between Morzine and Chamonix. You can cross over the col and drop down into Morzine or descend the steeper route from the other side down into Chamonix. Samoëns is known for its enduro tracks and played host to the World Enduro Series in 2015. Without downhill tracks, the trails here are more primitive than highly engineered destinations, such as Morzine. Some riders find that harder because there is no flow to the track and the steeper terrain requires more effort.
Yet, Samoëns holds a certain charm. It is a beautiful little village, much more unique than others around France, if you ask me. And because the riding is more natural, you can cover a lot more tours and terrain. For beginners, I recommend heading down to the flat valley floor which boasts easier trails on the side closer to Les Gets. Afterward, you can bike back over to Samoëns and sit in the lovely square or visit La Reposette, a popular post-ride gathering place.
For the intermediate and advanced riders, I’d head to the trails off of the Grand Massif and ride up one of the lifts in Samoëns. These offer access to some massive descents. Due to their north facing orientation, most of them dry slowly and make for steep, challenging terrain,not suitable for beginners. If it has been raining, I head to Les Gets on the other side of the valley, and try to do runs that are higher up because they will be more stoney and dry. One of my favorites is the Joux Plane—it’s a 1,000-meter climb, but a local gear shop offers a shuttle up. You can spend a whole day just winding down through the picturesque green alpine pastures and crystal clear mountain lakes. For US riders, it’s like mountain biking in Colorado but taken to the next level.
4. Samoëns, France - Good to Know
The terrain is very natural, raw, and steep, so there are not a lot of options for beginners. I’d recommend the area to intermediate and advanced riders
Enduro, no downhill trails
The Grand Massif Express gondola is open from late June until the end of August, but trails can be accessed (especially in the lower elevations) before and after those times
The Grand Massif is at 1600 meters, and the Col du Joux Plane is at 1697 meters—both offer a great deal of descending
Since this is a ski area in the winter, there are many hotels and accomodations right near the lifts
The price for a lift ticket is between 30-40 euros. The price for one shuttle lift is seven euros.
Go to Mountain Spirit for any bike needs and also to coordinate the shuttle for Joux Plane
What You Need to Know for Mountain Biking in France
Where can you mountain bike in France?
France (thanks to the Alps) has steep and high mountains that provide some of the best MTB terrain. In addition to that, France has spent a great deal of time developing their chairlift systems so that they can be used for riding in the summer, when the trails are as dry as if you were mountain biking in Croatia. These two things combined mean well-maintained trails with easy access on awesome terrain.
Is mountain biking popular in France?
Yes, yes, and a million times yes. Cycling is one of the biggest sports in France. The public support of mountain biking is one of the reasons France can invest so much in the infrastructure needed to maintain trails and allow for easy access. More than that, many of the best mountain bikers in the world are French, such as Julien Absalon, Loïc Bruni, Cecile Ravanel, and Pauline Ferrand Prevot. Like I said before, mountain biking is in France’s DNA.
Come for the terrain, stay for the people
One of the things that drew me to France in the first place was the attitude of the people regarding extreme sports. The French like to see you out there and they like sharing the environment. I have always liked that about mountain biking in Switzerland, as well—people will see you smiling out on the trail and reciprocate that joy. I truly enjoy the journey and the freedom of riding in France.