Gravel Guide Paris: Urban Parks & Protected Forests
During a recent family trip to Paris, Barry hauled his bike overseas with the intention of getting to know the city by gravel. He spent much of the time experiencing the explosion of cycling in the city and hunting gravel in the capital's protected forests and parks.
Since relocating our family to British Columbia—over three years ago—I haven't had the chance to venture beyond the province's borders. It's the longest stretch I've ever spent in one place— in my entire life. This past winter, my wife and I were feeling that itch, a tell-tale sign that it's time for a change of scenery and new experiences. When we decided to take the kids (and my Landyachtz) to visit some friends in Paris, I was initially a bit worried: while Paris is well-known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, world-class shopping, art and architecture, it's not particularly renowned for its singletrack. Inwardly, I also wondered about how I would fare in Paris (or any city) after so much time on the island. As soon as the tickets were booked, my focus shifted to hunting for longer dirt tracks in France. While the French Divide and the TMV offer amazing routes, I had a hunch that the local forests and countryside surrounding Paris itself would hold some solid gravel-tunities.
I initially turned to Komoot, assuming it was the most popular cycling app in Europe. However, I was disappointed when I couldn't really find what I was looking for. Thankfully, my disappointment turned around when I discovered RWGPS had a treasure trove of rides in the Paris area, thanks to its unpaved filters on the map. Brilliant! Without extensive research, I locked into the idea of experiencing the thrill of grinding some Parisian gravel. I randomly selected four day-trip routes, relying on my usual approach of making choices, hopping on my bike, and embracing whatever surprises the universe had in store. The only criterion I had was being able to reach the starting point and navigate in and out of the city solely by bike, without relying on trains.
Paris By Bike
Paris has undergone some remarkable changes since my last visit to the city nearly five years ago. Although the bicycle was deeply ingrained in French culture, it had seemingly been absent from Parisian life. During this trip, however, I was (pleasantly) flabbergasted by the abundance of cycling infrastructure and the sudden emergence of commuting cyclists throughout the city. What was once an urban mess overrun by cars has been transformed into a cyclist's paradise.
During Covid, as in many cities worldwide, cycling experienced a surge in popularity in Paris. In response, the city swiftly developed cycling infrastructure to accommodate. The mayor of Paris has taken a firm stand against cars in the city center and has implemented proactive measures to promote alternative modes of transportation. This is not just empty political rhetoric: it represents an active and ongoing transformation of the city, aimed at improving the lives of Parisians. One striking example of this change is the complete designation of Voie Georges Pompidou, the road that runs along the south side of the Louvre, as an active transport path. It even passes through the Tunnel de Tuileries. As someone who had driven on this road in the past, it was truly refreshing to experience the ability to ride it, breathing in the fresh air of progress and change.
One of my best friends, who has made the change to commuting by bike in Paris, was keen to show me around. I hopped on his e-commuter and we hit the town. Cycling in Paris proved to be an absolute blast, but I quickly realized the need to remain constantly aware. The bustling streets are in constant motion—with vehicles, pedestrians and other cyclists coming from all directions. It was quite the change from the tranquil forests back home in British Columbia. Navigating the city's cycling culture meant grasping its unique set of rules, which took some time to fully understand. I particularly felt a bit nervous when encountering a challenging roundabout, but having my friend's tire to follow gave me confidence and helped me navigate it while getting a feel for the local cycling flow. After getting accustomed to city riding and enjoying some quality time as a tourist with my family, it was finally time to hit the trails.
Route: Dhuis & Marne
For my first dirt ride near Paris, I embarked on a picturesque 50 km loop situated east of the city. Before setting off, I made a quick stop at La Chouette to acquire a new helmet, because of course I forgot mine back in BC. To begin the route, it was most convenient to head north and make my way to La Villette Park. From there, I followed a delightful canal that led me eastward, gradually guiding me towards the charming suburbs of Le Raincy.
This ride offers the feeling of two distinct experiences in one. The north part of the route closely follows the 200-year-old Dhuis aqueduct along a scenic ridge. This section features an enjoyable split track (a tad too wide to be called doubletrack) allowing riders to choose lines while riding. The gravel on this segment stands out as some of the best I've ever encountered, with a few small hike-a-bike sections. While tearing through the forest, I couldn't help but notice a plethora of singletrack trails branching off from the main line, each beckoning, calling my name... "Barrryyyyyyyyyy." Sticking to the main line demanded discipline. Along the route, metal gutters can be spotted running down the ridge slope, presumably for water drainage. These gutters protrude from the track due to erosion, and unfortunately, one caused a pinch flat. Stranded in a foreign country with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, the realization hit hard—I had neglected to bring my pump. Dumb, dumb.
After getting my flat fixed, I found great pleasure in the lower section of the ride, which meandered alongside the serene Marne River and Chelles Canal, guiding me through charming villages and picturesque parks before bringing me back to Le Raincy. I deliberately slowed down during this portion, giving myself ample space to savor the experience. After all, I was on vacation.
Route: Meudon Forest
I embarked on my second impromptu journey from Paris, setting my sights westward towards the enchanting Meudon Forest, a local protected haven. Let me tell you, getting to Meudon Forest from central Paris was an absolute treat and one of the finest urban rides a person could ask for. Along the way, I pedaled past iconic landmarks like Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower, while enjoying the company of a fantastic stretch of cycling infrastructure that mostly hugged the scenic banks of the Seine River. My friend bid farewell and headed off to his day job in Boulogne, allowing me to continue the adventure into the forest.
After enduring two consecutive days of relentless rainfall, the forest transformed into a spectacle of mud unlike anything I had encountered before. The mud had a consistency of perfectly whipped butter, enticing thoughts of abandoning the ride altogether. However, the realization struck me that the chance to explore Meudon Forest doesn't present itself often. With a renewed mindset, I embraced the challenge, adopting a slower pace and reframing the experience as valuable "all-conditions practice." And let me tell you, I am so glad that I did.
Meudon Forest is a spider web of off-road tracks of all sorts and can be classified as truly “all terrain”. It has everything—from wide open gravel (mud in my case) roads, to doubletrack, to hardcore singletrack—and will leave you wondering about the definition of “gravel”. Some of the singletrack was technical enough to have me wanting a dropper post on my bike—something I have been meaning to do for a while. I was elated and very much at home as Meudon felt like a part of BC in France.The track I followed was created by a pretty advanced rider and I wouldn't suggest it to anyone riding anything under 45mm tires and a solid gravel or hardtail setup. The line hit everything that Meudon has to offer, including some pretty long and steep hike-a-bikes that were almost comical in the butter-mud. Meudon has so many tracks in it that following the line on my Garmin 130 was almost impossible at its resolution. In fact, I wouldn't even suggest following a route through Meudon, I would just head there and get lost in its wondrous beauty and endless tracks.
Route: Versailles Loop
After spending a few days in the Parisian forests it was probably time to get some culture in. My good friend suggested we do a day loop to the Royal Palace of Versailles. We had once driven there in a sports car of his, many years earlier, and I knew it would be nice to reconnect while biking there.
Our first stop was a gas station—my bike was in dire need of a wash after I took it mud bathing in Meudon. After the bike showered, we left Paris by heading south on a paved pathway through the suburbs. Initially the path was a bit trying as it served as a connector for residents to access the area's playgrounds. But further on, much of the paved ways had some dirt track next to them. It was a lot of fun blasting these gravel bits and getting some dust up our cranks.
Along the way we found a couple more hard-packed dirt tracks and came across a protected Forest just outside the city of Versailles—it's probably worth checking out if you want to grind some real gravel. Once again, I was blown away by the changes and how prevalent cycling had become, even in a national monument like Versailles. Bikes are rentable and even encouraged in the gardens, which is great because the place is huge and it is tough to see all of it on foot.
On our way back to the city, we stopped using the GPS and followed our directional instincts for a few kilometers through a neighborhood that borders Saint-Cloud Park. Along the southern border of the park runs an old stone wall mirrored by the fences of local houses. The result was a totally walled alleyway with some pristine gravel tracking through it. My friend and I had squealed in delight as we blasted through the ancient walls. After a day of royal splendor somehow it was these old stone walls that had become the highlight of the day.
For our last gravel day trip my friend and I headed to northern Paris. Georges-Valbon Park is the largest park in Paris with over 400 hectares of woodlands, lakes, waterfalls and—most importantly—some solid singletrack weaving through it all.
As we headed out, the day loomed gray and cold, almost the complete opposite of the weather we had on our Versailles loop the day before. We trusted the GPS to get us to the park quickly which turned out to be a bit of a wash, as the GPS thought we may like a trip through some of northern Paris's dodgier neighborhoods. The best way to Georges-Valbon is to hit the spanking new cycling highway that shoots north from La Villette.
Arriving at the park I was a bit disappointed to realize that I totally forgot to load the line onto my Garmin. Testing the boundaries of technology and user-experience, I was able to load the track on my computer using only my phone and we got started. Similar to Meudon it became pretty evident that the route was 'inspiration', and that we probably just needed to get lost a bit in the park's tracks and hills. To be clear, Georges-Valbon isn't a forest, it's a park—and that means much of the environment is controlled and maintained. I wouldn't suggest the park for hard gravel grinding, but more for a mixed-surface-fun-ride. My buddy and I jokingly came up with the term 'gravier du ville' (or urban gravel) to explain the type of riding Georges-Valbon has to offer.
After a couple of hours of exploring, I came close to bonking and was relieved that the cantina in the park sold a semi-decent baguette sammich. Funny how everything tastes amazing when you are on the verge of bonk.
Having visited Paris numerous times in my life, I believed that I had the city all figured out. Paris is perfect for spending time with friends and exploring its famous attractions, but I never considered it as a cycling destination. However, I have come to realize that it truly is. Thanks to the city's well-developed cycling infrastructure and its access to protected forests and parks, Paris can proudly claim its position as one of Europe's premier gravel cities. If I were to live in Paris, I would eagerly make Meudon Forest my new home, with its endless singletrack paths and expansive gravel highways. It really is the stuff of dreams.
On my next visit to Paris, I will venture beyond the city limits. I recently discovered that any train (except for the Metro) is bike-friendly, making it relatively easy to explore other parts of the country. The areas I have in mind to explore next include Fontainebleau Forest to the south, Domont Forest to the north, and a juicy looking loop around Reims. Until then, A Bientôt Paris.