I’m somewhere in the middle of what looks like nowhere, with a tingle of excitement at the thought of riding my bike in the Champagne region of France. So much so, I had already researched and planned a few cycle routes in the area. Wine and cycling what’s not to like?
Driving my campervan, heading towards Epernay a landmark town of the Champagne region, I was surprised by the vastness of the vineyards. Row after row, evenly spaced, equal in height, kilometre after kilometre, planted in a way to maximise the kiss of the sun; ripening up my favourite fruit. However it’s the wine I love and not so much the munching of grapes! Every few hundred metres, small signs were located at the end of a trellis, marking out the territory of some very familiar champagne houses, Viv Clicquot, Moet Chandon and Tattinger. Champagne has a very big ego!
I soon discovered I’d held a naive view about the wine industry which, when summed up was, picking and squashing grapes, barrels, red or white, buy at the supermarket, drink, enjoy. What I saw quickly changed those out-dated perceptions. The industrialisation of Champagne making and harvest-time was a major logistical event. The tiny back roads which I’d already pre -planned to cycle had white transit vans, scattered across the vineyards like hundreds-and- thousands sugar sprinkles. Shuttling pickers to the vinyards, transporting crates of grapes back to the ‘champagne house’ for instant mechanical crushing. Not a pair of hairy feet in sight. The whole process takes less than a few hours, even though each bunch of grapes is hand-cut and handled with the tenderness of a new-born baby.
I quickly decided it was not a good idea to ride my bike along those roads whilst the number one activity was ‘le harvest’. So plan B, cycle along the River Marne, one day west and east the next.
Off I set along a side path where the gardens of several champagne houses backed onto the river. My tyres were sticking to the tarmac where the juice from the grapes had dripped from the emptied grape crates, leaving a reddish coagulated residue. The smell in the air was humming like the morning after a house party. I was filled with fizzy excitement as I was also on a mission to buy champagne for my daughters’ twenty-first birthday.
I cycled along the river’s path, where many vineyards sloped down to within metres of the rivers deep, slow flowing water. I cycled past many travelers’ make-shift camps, pristine white caravans where families lived whilst they came to the region to earn a living. I guessed those travelers returned every year. It was easy to see why the vintners needed transient labour, as grapes for champagne making are ‘picked by hand’, no machines.
After twenty peaceful but flat miles, I got bored! So, decided to swoop up to a small village in hope of a brew or a shop. A short but very steep slope and I finally had to do some work on my bike. My tyres were sticking to the road again and I’m overtaken by another trailer laden with crates of my favourite fruit, grapes. The trailer turns into the one of the many champagne houses lining the road and I see a monsieur opening a big old wooden door leading into the grape crushing area. The familiar smell of sweet sticky grapes filled the pocket of air close to the house. And, I sensed I had witnessed a deep-rooted love of nature and man working together.
The village was a ghost town, hardly a soul to be seen, not a coffee to be drunk or pain au chocolat to be eaten. Those grapes, not people, were everyone’s centre of attention. I doubled-back on my route along the river. I find riding along rivers can get boring after a while, and I was disappointed that ride didn’t have the fizz I was expecting.
I still had the mission to buy champagne for my daughter’s 21st birthday. Choosing a champagne house was daunting, because there was so, so, many of them. I had no idea what made a good champagne other than it tastes good. I randomly chose a house, Bonnet – Ponson, knocking on the door that stated ‘reception’ and was warmly greeted by a young lady speaking very good English. I buy a few bottles, then I’m escorted by the lady to the vineyard where the grapes were grown. I snap a photograph of the ‘terroir’ and my mission was accomplished.
It’s a little unique story, that I planned to share with my daughter as we sipped the Champagne on her special day. I was flooded with lots of thoughts of motherhood and special memories of cycling together when she was younger. Including watching the final stage of 2012 Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees, Paris. A golden year for Bradley Wiggins and British cyclists. Standing at the finish line we watched a moment of cycling history as Mark Cavendish won his fourth and most prestigious sprint win; the final of le tour. He pulled-up directly in front of us as he was hailed victorious by his Sky teammates and that special beam of victory smile, which I’ve witnessed many times before beamed across his face that said, ‘just another day at the office’. All lavished with hundreds of British supporters cheering team Sky, much to the annoyance of the French (tee hee).
My three loves in life are, daughter, bike, wine. They all bring me great pleasure. My bike never answers me back, unlike my daughter, and wine is an easy companion. If I were the one blowing out the candles my birthday wish would be that, one day she might come join me on a ride, mum and daughter side by side spinning our wheels to the rhythm of our chitter-chatter. Joy!