Clermont-Ferrand to St. Etienne, France

By Sean Cleary (cleary (at sign) Copyright by Sean Cleary, cleary (at sign), permission granted to reproduce electronically for noncommercial purposes only.
I had been visiting Clermont-Ferrand for a few days and was about to head to Lyon for a topology conference. After looking at maps, I decided that riding from C-F to Lyon via the most direct way looked like busy roads through more gentle valleys. I planned to ride instead over the Livradois and Forez mountains on smaller roads through what looked like more interesting terrain. This was a fair amount longer so I decided to ride only to St. Etienne since the ride from St. Etienne to Lyon looked like even busier roads. Then I could take the train from St. E to Lyon.

I left early, 5:15am since I had a long way to go and was worried about having to ride a long way during the heat of the day.

Leaving Clermont-Ferrand was no problem, since there aren't many people around early on a Sunday and the roads are good. I crossed the Allier river (~1300 feet), which flows north to the Loire, near the somewhat industrial town of Cournon d'Auvergne, and then found the riding fast and enjoyable through farms and countryside. There was a nice sunflower field on a hill that looked great as the sun came up. I pretty much missed the town of Billom, since I naively believed the "Toutes Directions" signs and was worried about missing turns. I was pointed around the town and by the time I realized that the "Toutes Directions" was essentially a town bypass, and I was already beyond Billom. Oh well, from then on I generally headed for "Centre Ville" and sorted the signs out there, that way I'd see more of the towns.

After that, there were more gentle hills and descents but not much net elevation gain. The riding was great since it was quiet and there were reasonable views of C-F and the hills west of C-F, including Puy de Dome, where I'd been the day before. There were a couple of chateaux and old churches along the way and soon I was in St. Dier d'Auvergne, where everyone with any sense was still asleep. The hills rolling up and down more after that and I met a few solo cyclists out for rides in the hills. No tourists, though, so we normally didn't chat for long before they zipped off on their unladen bikes. It was great to chat with cyclists. The TDF had finished the day before so we would talk about that. When people found out I was from California, they would ask about the World Cup, and were usually surprised to hear that I'd gone to a number of games. I think there was an impression that the only people at the games were foreigners!

There were some more ruins and chateaux amoung the forests and then the hills picked up some more into the Livradois mountains. Not particularly high (peaks at 1200m, passes at 1000m) but there were a fair number of climbs and descents in there. On one hill I slowed and stopped to rest and eat and ended up taking an accidental short nap. After cresting a pass, I saw a cycling club-type group pounding up the other side. I didn't get a chance to talk to them but there were loads of friendly waves and smiles.

I stopped in the town of St. Armand-Roche-Savine which was a nice mountain town. I got some bread and something to drink and again ended up talking about the World Cup. My French is pretty weak and I got the impression that people don't meet many non-French speaking tourists here. Everyone was quite friendly and it was great talking to people.

After another pass it was downhill to Ambert, a larger town on the Dore river. Ambert lies on a wide flat valley between the Livradois and Forez mountains. There were nice views of Ambert on the descent into town. It was quite hot, though, at the lower elevations. After poking around town a bit, I headed south on a quiet road and stopped for shade when the odd clump of trees turned up. Then I turned into the Forez mountains and began climbing towards the Col de Chemintrand. There were some nice small towns along the way and it was great to be able to stop for a cold "limonade" every couple of miles. All but the tiniest towns have some kind of cafe, it seems. There was some town festival in St. Just Baffie, and a fair amount of the (light) traffic on the road was headed there, it looked like. I slowed on the prolonged uphill and was glad to have swapped my 30t granny for a 26t one before leaving for Europe.

After the col, the riding was again fast and rolling with some nice views. There were some threatening clouds and faraway thunder but it was hot enough that the idea of rain was fine by me. Viverols was nice stop for bread and cheese. There were some climbs and rolling hills and then I got to the town of Usson-en-Forez. I was really puzzled when I rode in, since there were these loudspeakers on the building corners with someone speaking urgently and fast, but there was no-one around at all it seemed. I couldn't understand a word, what with the speed and distortion, so I figured it was something political (talk fast, nobody listening?) Anyway, headed through town I discovered that it was a bike race. Boy, it was great. There were loads of people out watching and there was a short hill climb right into town. People were everywhere and it looked like most of them knew someone racing. Lots of the spectators had wheels, tools, and water bottles for the racers. Great fun. Unfortunately, the racers were coming into town the way I'd planned to leave. So I watched for a while and then I realized it was a circuit race. I chatted with some people about the race and my tour. There were some jokers who thought I should ride with the racers, with my load as a handicap... I ended up walking my bike around a bit to stay out of the way and then heading off. Lots of riders were riding Vitus bikes (no surprise) but I was surprised how many Trek and other American bikes there were. I didn't see any Bridgestones, sigh. Somehow running into a bike race on my route seemed like a vote of confidence on my route choice- such a nice road to bike on, people decided to hold a race there!

I was getting tired and somehow I'd convinced myself that it would be all downhill to St. Etienne from there. Whoops, not by a long shot. There were some nice rolling hills and drops and climbs and some more small farm villages. The weather closed in at that point, and there was a thunderstorm for a while but it wasn't too bad. I got wet but not cold and the stuff in my panniers was well protected from the rain. I stopped for a bit for shelter and then after the storm moved though it let off into a steady light rain. I could have used the rain on the way up Col de Chemintrand!

Eventually there was a long descent after St. Maurice-en- Gourgois, which was somewhat slick from the rain. There were more cars on this part, presumably people returning from weekend trips to the mountains. The long descent landed me down on the north-flowing Loire (~1300'.) The terrain was still quite hilly though, with some steep valley sides and such, so I had a fair amount of climbing to do to get to St. Etienne. I didn't have a decent map of St. Etienne so I went for a simple approach to downtown which landed me on some limited access roads. I'm not sure if bicycles were allowed on them but there were very wide shoulders and I felt quite safe. After poking around town a bit and stopping to help someone with a flat tire, I found the train station there pretty easily and found a train to take me and my bicycle to Lyon. I'd checked earlier what the latest train from St. E to Lyon was that took bikes. They had said 9:40pm or something like that but I was able to catch an earlier train at 8:30pm which also allowed bikes.

My computer read 113 miles by the time I'd ridden from the train station in Lyon to ENS-Lyon where the conference was. I had been keeping a lower bound on elevation gain with my Casio watch and figured I'd gained at least 7500'. I was averaging about 10mph. I made the mistake of many beginning tourists, which is bringing too much stuff. I had way too many clothes and I also had some notes and preprints and books related to the conference, which meant that I was quite heavily loaded. (Two locks? What was I thinking?) . If I had any brains I would have mailed the preprints and stuff back home from Lyon, since I rode along the Mediterranean for a couple of days to Barcelona afterwards... But it was great to see the countryside and small towns and to chat with people. My bike is a gorgeous Bridgestone 93 X0-2 which is a great touring bike. Nice 26" wheels with 1.4in Tom Slicks, very nice on just about anything. Wide drop bars and a triple crank and takes racks and loads really well...

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