Cycling in Wine Country – Top Tips
‘Terroir’ on a bicycle: experience the sun that ripens the grapes, climb the slopes that provide drainage for the vines and that afternoon’s rain-shower which arrives unannounced may make or break a year’s vintage. A two-wheeled trip around the vineyards of Bordeaux introduces the ‘terroir’ better than any other mode of transport.
Cycling in this fascinating wine region of France provides a deeper understanding of the wine not to mention an active and rewarding holiday. Cycling and wine tasting are a perfect match. Peddling through the vineyards one can view, smell, hear and experience the landscape that is vital to the flavour, colour and texture of the wine produced in Bordeaux. As a cyclist one doesn’t contribute to the pollution of the region, and for that fact alone the Bordelais should open their arms to welcome any cyclist. Cyclists are also likely to be a thirstier, more hungry visitor – another reason to embrace the traveller.
But fear not, the idea of riding a bicycle in the worlds most prestigious wine region shouldn’t be filled with the dread of arriving sweaty, out of breath and ill-prepared for tasting.
Whether ‘living it up’ with luxury tour operators or ‘wild camping’ there are many ways to plan a cycling holiday. These tips are aimed at those who are embarking on what is know in the world of cycling as a “credit card tour”: an independent tour by bicycle, carrying all one’s needs in bicycle panniers while staying at B&B, hotels or Gites.
Following these practical tips will ensure that time spent in the saddle is as enjoyable as out of it.
1.Topography. What goes up must come down.
Wine regions are rarely flat. The geology needed to grow vines means grapes need drainage and varied sunlight which are often only found on slopes – hills, knolls, and even mountains. However, vines don’t grow well at very high altitudes so there is rarely any need for anything other than working up a little sweat on some rolling hills – there’s no need for serious
climbing, at least not in Bordeaux. A little practice and improved fitness at home before will make the holiday all the more enjoyable. The more time spent in the saddle before cruising around the Medoc, the more comfortable the saddle will feel. And don’t forget, if it really is too steep especially, after a particularly big lunch, there is no shame in getting off and pushing.
One of the many benefits of cycling in Bordeaux is that the Medoc is very flat (the highest point is only 43m above sea level). The Right Bank might be more taxing. Researching routes before a trip will be repaid in full – ‘adventure equals poor planning’.
2. Staying Fresh In The Saddle
Contrary to popular belief cycling all day under a summer sun does not mean that one has to take on the tortured expression of a Tour de France rider. A bicycle’s greatest attribute is its ability to slow life down. However, there will be times when the wind, rain and some unmapped incline might leave one looking a little dishevelled on arrival at some imposing Château, enough to make one feel a tad self-conscious.
* On arrival don’t just dismount and zoom straight into the cellar or visiting rooms. Take in the surroundings whilst normalising the body’s vital signs.
* Make use of ‘the facilities’ and take a little time to freshen up.
* Have a spare T-Shirt handy. A change of shirt is as good as a shower (almost).
* Pack a comb and a little mirror – use them! Aerosol face sprays help with a fresh appearance. A bandanna can work wonders for tying back windswept hair.
* Wine is best enjoyed whilst being relaxed and unstressed. Leave plenty of time for a visit.
3.Dress To Impress
Cyclists aren’t always on two wheels because it’s a more economic holiday – some bicycles cost as much as a car – so it makes sense to dress accordingly. With some careful planning and packing one can look like a million dollars.
What to Pack in the panniers
* Shoes – Châteaux and restaurants with wooden floors will not appreciate specialist cycling shoes. Pack a pair of lightweight shoes for these occasions – boat shoes, moccasins and loafers are ideal.
* Shirt – pack a lightweight long sleeve shirt or blouse – cotton rich easy-care is more practical. Keep this for evening meals and smarter lunches.
* Trousers or Skirt – Why not go the whole hog and include a lightweight pair of trousers or skirt.
* Toiletries – Try to keep the weight down but still take a few vital bits and pieces and perhaps some shower gel as a backup in case the accommodation doesn’t provide it.
* Laundry – Longer over-night stays may provide an opportunity to have a few things washed. There is nothing better than putting on clean clothes after a day of cycling and they’re easier to pack. Taking a small packet of washing powder/liquid might be handy in case the facilities aren’t available.
* Rain Coat – It might rain – a waterproof shell or poncho doesn’t take up much room in the bottom of a pannier.
4. Sipping & Shipping: How to get the wines home?
Some châteaux offer direct sales, some don’t. Carry a notebook to take down details of vintages and special blends. It’s worth remembering to have something in a pannier for a picnic but carrying around several bottles can be sweaty work,
5. Go The Distance – How far to go in a day?
40 to 50 miles a day is a good and achievable amount for even the slowest cyclist. If this is not enough go for an extra ride on return to the accommodation – this could be a quick lightweight skirt around a village or estate but without all the gear.
Try and keep to a practical daily schedule. Ideally, the majority of the riding will be done in the morning before lunch. This permits a leisurely lunch break and avoids cycling during the hottest part of the day.
Tip: Try and do a little riding in the early evening. This is a magical time when the light is at its most beautiful and the air is cool. Great for photography and perhaps stopping for an ‘Apero!’
6. Steady as she goes – Drinking and cycling
One question I get asked all the time is whether cycling and drinking are safe? “Tour de France riders used to race on the stuff!” I often reply. Obviously, I would not condone operating any vehicle intoxicated, and in all my time cycling and leading cycling holidays around the world I have never had a problem. Here are some tips to enjoy drinking and cycling:
* Eat: One burns a huge amount of calories on a cycling holiday so make sure to replace them. Drinking on an empty stomach while excising is not a good idea so it might be advisable to carry a little bread just to soak up any excess.
* Water: This is vital to any enjoyment of a cycling holiday. Whether the sun is shining or not cycling is dehydrating and the wine does not help. Restaurants are very happy to provide tap water and the water in France is very good. They will also top up any water bottles so make the most of it and try and drink around two litres a day.
* Don’t forget to spit. It can seem like a tragedy but try not to swallow. Most wine experts rarely do, preferring to spit their mouthful into a spittoon provided. This will help to maintain a road sense and keep the bike upright.
* The Power of a Nap: 30 minutes of shut-eye in the shade of a tree or by the bank of a river will do wonders for restoring body and mind.
Practical Tasting Tip: Avoid applying lip balm or sun cream before tasting. The fragrance contained in these products will mask the subtle aromas of the wine. However, lips can be badly chapped from a combination of the wind, sun and wine tasting – if required apply some neutral (organic) beeswax lip balm made from propolis and honey – it is odourless and leaves
a protective coating whilst rehydrating the lips (check for allergies though). Some cosmetics companies produce fragrance free sun cream (e.g. Clinique).
7. Food for Thought: Picnics or Restaurants?
On any holiday which involves strenuous exercise, food is fuel so it is important to keep the tank topped up. Firstly, make the most of breakfast. Some will be better than others but there is usually plenty of fresh fruit that can be saved for later – don’t pass up on the hard-boiled eggs – the Duke of Wellington always took one into battle. These can be perfect for a mid-morning snack or a picnic later in the day. However, do check with the host before and offer a supplement for effectively making a packed lunch from your breakfast. At the very least, it’s incredibly rude to make two meals from the one offered. At the worst guests are effectively ripping off the hotel. Bad behaviour by guests leaves an indelible impression which will be taken out on the next visitor, and vice versa.
Lunch will be the most important meal of the day. A time to unwind, relax and refuel, most cafés and restaurants will offer a menu du jour (menu of the day) that will provide the best value and should include wine and coffee.
Remember that most shops close at 12 for two hours. This requires some planning for any picnic – buy the items before midday. Picnics are a wonderful way to eat on a cycling holiday. Stop on the banks of a river or in a town square and feast on local treats. Saucisson, local cheeses and fresh bread are staples, but almost any boulangerie and patisserie also offer quiches, tartlets and cakes that are perfect for al fresco feasting.
Local Treat: Cannelé de Bordeaux. These dark brown little cakes can be found all over Bordeaux and especially in St Emilion. Made from flour, sugar and egg yolks they are a must on any wine tour.
* A pocket knife
* A corkscrew
* Some kind of glasses for wine (unbreakable or well-packed in a hamper).
* A lightweight shawl, sarong or kikoi work well as a picnic rug and won’t overburden the panniers.
8. A Word On Safety
Bordeaux is a very safe region and away from the big cities cycle theft is almost non-existent. But for peace of mind take a padlock – a combination lock is the best as there is no key to misplace. Use it.
It’s also good to remember that Bordeaux is a busy working agricultural region. This means sharing the road with tractors, and various other pieces of viticulture machinery. These vehicles can be slow and block visibility and they may also leave earth and rocks in the road – so be careful.
Also, keep an eye out for hire cars. Whilst French drivers are very respectful of cyclists and celebrate the sport, you can’t expect the same from a young foreign couple who have hired a car for the week. They will be unsure of the roads, so never second guess them and keep a wide berth.
Have a great trip and do come back to this and leave advice you may have for others.