Travelling on the ferry to France these days, it seems that every other vehicle has a brace of mountain bikes hanging from its rear. All well and good if you know where you're going, but what if you don't? Especially if you want to be off road.
Thanks to the Federation Francaise de Cyclisme, the answer's easy. Head for one of their 76 velo tout-terrain (VTT) centres, where you'll find more waymarked off-road routes than you can shake a baguette at.
The 20,000km of signposted routes vary from easy to extreme. The 76 centres differ widely too, and are not restricted to the more obvious mountain-biking areas such as the Alps and the Pyrenees. Popular spots such as the Dordogne and Brittany are also included and there are few areas of France that aren't within easy reach of at least one centre VTT.
At each centre you can pick up a "piste map" which, much like the piste maps used in skiing, gives you a rough idea of where the rides are. That is as much as you need because the routes are so well signposted that you shouldn't get lost and you won't (in theory at least) need to invest in a more detailed map.
As with skiing, the routes are also graded from green (very easy) through to black (tres difficile) and all the centres have one or more routes that are recommended for family groups. There are also additional facilities such as bike-cleaning stations, showers (for riders, not bikes), bike hire and repair services. At many of the alpine centres you can use the ski lifts to take the really hard work out of things.
Cycling has long been the national sport of France, but it was a surprisingly long time before it took to mountain biking with anything like the same enthusiasm. Now, however, with a clutch of world champions to its name, a mountain-biking Tour de France and the centres VTT, the country is proving that when it comes to two-wheeled action this is the place to be.
Federation Francaise de Cyclisme Centres VTTFFC 5 rue de Rome 93561 Rosny-sous-Bois Cedex, France
* If you can't get to France for off-road mountain biking, you could always try North Wales instead. At Coed-y-Brenin Visitor Centre near Dolgellau, Forestry Enterprise has established some of the best waymarked trails in Britain, including the 32 km-long Karrimor Trail. Route maps are available from the centre, where there are also bike washing facilities, a cafe and a shop selling bike bits. As in France, these routes are graded for difficulty but there are no ski lifts. Coed-y-Brenin Visitor Centre, tel: 01341 440666. Or Forestry Enterprise, tel: 01341 422289