Gravel Culture: The hunt for Parisian gravel riding
Gravel Union On
13 July 2021
Although Shimano Gravel Alliance rider Sofiane Sehili lives in the centre of Paris, it doesn’t stop him dreaming about riding gravel trails.
If there’s one thing that is not traditionally associated with gravel riding, it’s big city dwelling. As it happens, I live in Paris with two million other people (10 million if you count the whole of the urban area). I grew up there and for a long time, I associated cycling with tarmac. Then, thanks to bike-touring, I discovered the joys of riding off-road, the proximity with nature, the absence of traffic. This is what I came to look for when travelling on my bike. But coming back home, I would always go back to tarmac. More so because of my job as a bike messenger.
For me the dichotomy was clear. Away = gravel, adventure, nature. Home = tarmac, working, training, watts. But then Covid19 happened and the opportunities of leaving home in search of big adventures to quench my thirst of dusty gravel roads became few and far between. It became clear that I had to explore my surroundings in search of some gravelly goodness, otherwise my gravel bike would seldom see the light of day.
I started with a collection of routes a friend of mine published on komoot last year. I soon discovered there were many more gravel roads around Paris than I ever imagined. The routes were good, especially the shorter ones. But the long ones still had too much tarmac for my taste. So, I started modifying them a bit. I would ride one, come back, look at the parts I thought weren’t so good and check if there was a way to improve them. Or sometimes I would simply go back and check for better options on the spot.
It’s a slow process, but it’s rewarding and rather fun. We have several forests not far from the city and they all have an incredible number of narrow and wider paths running across them. We also have a couple of big rivers (the Seine and the Marne) and a few canals, which usually have multipurpose trails running alongside them, where pedestrians and cyclists try to peacefully coexist on gravel.
A typical gravel ride leaving from the city would first take you on cycle paths to the suburbs, then said paths would turn to unpaved towpaths, until an opportunity to reach a forest would present itself. The further away you get from the city, the greater the chances to find gravel roads running between fields of rapeseed, wheat or barley. Smaller, quieter, paved roads would then link to other forests.
Some of these forests are quite big, like the one in Fontainebleau in the south and the one in Chantilly in the north. Once you reach them, they offer endless combinations of wide, straight gravel roads and narrow winding singletrack trails. I especially like the Chantilly forest. With its Scots pines and sandy soil, I often feel like I have travelled all the way to the south of France when I’m riding there. Especially if the sun is shining and the temperature is above 15°C.
We don’t have a lot of “rail trails” but we have a couple of really nice ones. They’re always a favourite when you err on the narrower side when it comes to choosing gravel bike tyres, as the surface is hardpacked and fast rolling. One is called Chemin des Roses, as the train that used to run there was carrying roses from where they were grown all the way into Paris where they were sold. The line closed in 1953 and now the roses come from Kenya...
Now that I’m familiarised with the best ways to find gravel riding around the city, I like to mix them up - find new ways to reach Chantilly or Fontainebleau, create shorter and longer loops. Some fast rolling, with more river and rail trails. Some more technical, mostly going through the various forests we have around here. It’s a process of trial and error. Some paths look good on the komoot route planner, but once I get there, they prove to be too rough to ride without suspension, so I look for alternatives.
In the end, my goal is to come up with a route with as little tarmac as possible, while still making sure that someone out on a gravel bike doesn’t wish they were on a mountain bike instead. And there’s no better feeling than sharing this work and then having riders tell me they had a ton of fun riding one of my routes.