The years that I spent as a bicycle tour guide in Europe were shrouded in a singular paradox: I have a terrible sense of direction. Really awful. Fortunately, the company I worked for was set-up so that I was not actually a “guide” as such, but more of a “coordinator.” That distinction, although subtle, was significant in that the clients would head out on their own with written directions leading them to the next location. My job was to follow the group in order to insure that everyone arrived at the next hotel.
The concept was fairly simple—if a client had some sort of problem (e.g., a mechanical issue with the bike) and was somewhere on the route, I would eventually come along and get him or her rolling again. Since that rarely happened, I spent most of my time riding alone, which was perfectly fine with me. I had no problem being lost myself (since I usually am), but if I caught up with any clients they would assume that I knew how to get where we were going and they would simply start following me. And before the days of GPS I found out fairly early on that they would tend to get testy if I caused them to miss a turn and end up on an autoroute or climb an unnecessary Alp.
So I actually structured my day so that I would minimize running into any clients along the way. While most of them would have ridden off by 10 a.m. and almost certainly by noon, I would hang out in town, have lunch, wait another hour or so, and then hit the road around 2 p.m.
For me, a perfect day would be to catch the last of the group just as they were pulling up to the hotel—similar to sprinters in the Tour de France who like catching the breakaway right before the finish line.
Most days, my plan worked brilliantly.
Except when it didn’t.
One such time was in Champagne, riding along the Marne River from Château-Thierry to Épernay….
As a guide, er coördinator, I had the opportunity to visit many wine regions: Burgundy, Alsace, the Loire, Provence, the Mosel, but perhaps my favorite was Champagne. There are many reasons—it is a beautiful region, rich in history, and produces what I consider the best wines in the world. The main source of my fondness of the region, however, is easily the people. Simply put, in all my travels I doubt I have met a populace more welcoming and friendly than the Champenois.
Among the Champenois, it seems as though those who live in the Vallée de la Marne just might be the nicest of all. It is in that Valley where most of Champagne’s third grape variety, Pinot Meunier, is grown. I say third because Pinot Noir and Chardonnay get more than their fair share of the glory, but the people along the Marne seem perfectly fine with that, which might be the source of their gentillesse.
As I rode along the D1 just outside of the tiny town of Cumières, a mere six kilometers from our hotel, I came up on the entire group, all eight of them. They were lazily pedaling along, past house after house, all of them offering “Dégustation” (the French word for “Wine Tasting”). While these growers sell most of their grapes to the large brands, they often keep a bit for their own champagne which they produce at the local cooperative.
After getting over the disappointment of catching the group (and immediately worried that I would somehow get lost in the remaining 6k), I asked them if they had stopped for any tastings yet. To my astonishment, they had not.
I pulled into the very next driveway to rectify their gross oversight.
Other than the sign out front, it was a perfectly normal residential dwelling, replete with toddler toys strewn about the yard. I rang the bell and after a moment or two, an elderly woman likely in her seventies, appeared from the rear of the house. I motioned to my crew and asked if we could possibly have a dégustation.
Without hesitation, she gleefully said “of course” and motioned for us to follow her to the rear entrance to the house. As we entered the house she explained that her son, the winemaker, was off in the field but since she had taught him everything he knew, she could fill in just fine.
She also mentioned that she did not speak English, to which I replied that I would be happy to translate—it was part of the job.
Even though they only made about 800 cases, they had an impressive gamme of four different champagnes. I translated the story of the family (her husband had died some thirty years earlier and she had taken over the operation, but her son was in charge now), the composition of the wines (as one might expect in la Vallée de la Marne, their champagnes were mostly Pinot Meunier), and even some history of the region (our host’s grandfather had died in World War II, in the Battle of the Marne, which is why her father stressed the need for her to learn the family business).
As I consumed more champagne, however, I translated less and less (she was pouring full glasses of each wine). This, in turn, caused the clients to become more and more disinterested, and they gradually left in groups of two until I was there alone with her.
She had just poured the fourth glass—their top wine—and after drinking the entire flute (I did not want to be disrespectful, naturally), I mentioned that I needed to go. I was the guide after all.
“You can’t go.”
“Um. Well, I will gladly pay for the tasting, but I am afraid I can’t buy any wine—I am on a bike after all.”
[Yes, I realize that the picture on the top of this page shows a bike with a case and a half of champagne on it, but she didn’t know that.]
At this she seemed a bit offended, and once again uttered:
“You can’t go.”
At this point, I became worried that I had stumbled into the home of Champagne’s version of Mrs. Robinson. A much, much older Mrs. Robinson.
I scanned the room, wondering if I could bolt for the door without slipping on my cycling shoes and killing myself.
Panicked, I once again indicated that I was the guide and I really should get going.
“You can’t go…. I just opened our prestige cuvée and it will not be any good tomorrow. We have to finish the bottle.”
Thirty minutes (or was it forty?) later, after leafing through a couple of family albums and two (or was it three?) more flutes of some very tasty champagne, I stumbled out of the door and gingerly mounted my bike and tried to ride in a straight line. Those last six kilometers were definitely difficult…
…but at least no one was relying on me for directions.