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Decanter Magazine: Cycling in Bordeaux

By: Patrick Matthews

I'm getting something floral, plus tobacco and damp hay and a faint earthy farmyard character. We're talking one of the Bordeaux satellite regions, like Bergerac ? Actually I know we're somewhere near Bergerac; at any rate we're only a field or two from the banks of the wide Dordogne river which we we've crossed and re-crossed twice today - you can feel its cool dampness in the air.

No I'm not smelling wine, for now - I'm smelling France. One thing wine and cycling have in common is that they wake up your senses. The French are passionate about both (though if anything they're more serious about le vélo than le vin.) and more and more people are visiting the country's vineyards on two wheels. Burgundy's Côte Châlonnaise boasts a new cycle route, the Voie Verte; the Médoc in Bordeaux is now criss-crossed with tracks. And there are increasing numbers of organised cycling holidays on offer, many of which feature trips though wine country.

As a Londoner I own a bicycle (a yellow Dawes, bought long ago in the semi-criminal Saturday market under Westway) and I enjoy wasting French winegrowers' time in their cellars. I'm not convinced I need anyone's help to combine the two activities. But an outfit who, rather forbiddingly, call themselves The Chain Gang are going to try to persuade me otherwise.

This is what brings me to Les Eyzies de Tayac in Périgord, where I'm standing in light drizzle outside a lean-to building. Over the next week our ten-strong group will cover around 200 miles and visit x vineyards, coming into Bergerac from the hilly east, and ending up in the flat Médoc estuary beyond Pauillac. 'At least it's downhill,' someone says.

For more than an hour Ciaran, our 19-year-old Glaswegian guide, has been changing saddles, raising and lowering saddles, taking off toe clips, putting on toe clips, handing out comfy 'gels' for extra saddle cushioning. He's wielding an Allen-key - spanners are old hat, apparently. On his own bikes he has the scary modern alternative to version of toe clips, which lock your shoes to the pedals. Ciaran is very serious about cycling - recently he rode the whole way from St Malo to Rome - but is only a recent convert to wine. He's not sure that his teetotal parents would approve but he's become 'fascinated by that mix of science with a culture that the French don't even realise they're part of. Like they say, le vin c'est le plaisir.'

Some of us haven't been on a bike for years. It occurs to me that some of the requests for modifications may be aimed at putting off the moment of truth. Our group's sheer diversity reminds me of the 60s cartoon Wacky Races. Jeff, a retired senior council officer, came down to breakfast in a retina-bursting 'Joker'-team cycling top, and has revealed that till recently he did 'time trials' (whatever they are). I mentally cast William, a young American pharmaceutical executive, as Dick Dastardly. William has come equipped, not just with a wing mirror, but a Global Positioning by Satellite System. Why can't I have one?

Was it the pleasure of getting stuck into some impressive 1996 Cahors on our first night that left some of us somewhat muddled? As we stop in a market square for our first breather, it emerges that Sophie, who's William's girlfriend, seems to think that Claire, (a university administrator who's quite a serious wine buff) is married to Jeff and is called Carol. I put her right and she confesses: 'I thought they seemed a bit distant with each other - not even sharing rooms.' Ha ha ha. Much later it turns out 'Claire' really is called Carol, but couldn't be bothered to correct me.

HS and Winnie are the most elegant members of the group. They're a young couple working in Hong Kong's environmental protection department, and before setting off each day they spend at least 20 minutes doing elegant stretches that look more like performance art.

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