Friends and Family,
As I sit here in my living room office, sitting on my ass, I can’t help but think that this is pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past 364.5 days. But, thanks to Facebook, Strava and digital photos, I’m glad to report that I did get off my arse for some of 2016.
According to my Facebook post history, I started the year of moving about with our traditional visit to Nice to watch the last two stages of the first big professional stage race of the European season: Paris-Nice.
Not Nice, but close. This was the penultimate stage of the week-long race, which ended on the mountain Shoko and I were standing on here. It was also the stage in which Canadian Antoine Duchesne secured the polka-dot jersey for best climber.
Back in Nice, I finally got to visit Café du Cycliste, a cycling kit maker who, despite the name, actually never had a café till last year. It’s here (in the Old Port of Nice) now and filled with their unique style of cycling wear, plus a steady flow of foreign pros who live in the city.
In March, my other travel companion, John (we’ve spent far more nights together in hotels than with our wives recently) and I drove down to Girona, Spain to recce our first tour there a couple of months later. Because the business needs to pay for these reconnaissance trips they are action packed, filled with cycling on new, beautiful roads, staying at comfortable hotels and eating at as many restaurants and cafes as we can fit into our short trips (on our last night in Girona we had 2 dinners…our clients will never know the sacrifices we make). Why didn’t I get into this business earlier…?
Sometime around April, Ed came back. Ed Ward is my ‘Rock and Roll Historian’ friend, whom I went through some teething pains with when Shoko and I moved to Montpellier in 2008. He is back in Austin now, but loves to come back to France and load up on wine occasionally.
I’m not sure how this became a thing, but I often find myself travelling to northern France, Holland or Belgium in April. It’s pretty much the last place a normal person would want to be in early spring, but cyclists aren’t normal, and this area of Europe is the epicenter of the pro cycling universe at this time (Google ‘Spring Classics’ if you are ‘normal’).
This year Shoko needed to travel to Lille, where she was wrapping up some training/studying at a film school. Her trip coincided with one of the oldest and most popular Classics: Paris-Roubaix, so I went along and called up Karsten in Paris and we suddenly had a cycling vacation on our hands.
This is about as close as I got to Paris-Roubaix, though, because Karsten and I spent our long weekend riding just across the border in Belgium.
Karsten in Belgium. Notice the lack of rain.
This is also Karsten in Belgium, as the beer and waffles attest.
Cycling is the national sport of Belgium and the cliché says that the sport is taken as seriously as a religion. Well, here’s a roadside shrine with Jesus, Mary and a fresco of a cyclist. On a plaque on the floor were the names of the great Flandrian riders of past and present, and notice the difference in scale between Jesus on the cross and the cyclist on the wall. You draw your own conclusions.
Building a business, one Rich at a Time
Rich tells this story better than I do, but I’ll give it a whirl anyway. A few years ago, when 44|5 Cycling Tours was Cycling Languedoc and a one-man show (we’ve doubled in size!), I was contacted by a woman named Kandy who wanted to do a guided ride either up Mont Ventoux, or in the surrounding area of Provence. She finally landed on the latter and we had a wonderful ride together. The reason why she decided not to do Ventoux was because of the advice of a friend of hers in California, Rich.
A while later, Rich saw on our Facebook feed that we had created a tour in an area called the Cévennes, and this is where the story gets convoluted. Some time before all this he and his wife, Diane, were in San Francisco to see an opera. Before the show they stopped by a bookshop, where Rich noticed a cycling book by an author who looked familiar – Tim Krabbé. The name didn’t ring a bell because Rich was a cyclist, but because he played chess, and Tim Krabbé was a chess champion. Intrigued, Rich bought the book and presumably devoured it (I know I have the 4 times I’ve read it), remembering that this fictional account of a made-up cycling race took place in a (very real) area called the Cévennes.
If you are following this so far, well done! So one thing led to another and Rich and his cycling friend, Jack, came over here in 2014 and did our inaugural HighRoad Cévennes with us. Rich liked riding with us so much that he came back the following year and did it again (bringing along more friends), plus some tandem riding with Diane. In 2016 he and Diane returned for 3 full weeks of custom tours with 44|5, plus another week in late summer in the Alps. Next year Rich and Diane return for a full month in Provence, with both of them again doing our Cévennes tour, then coming back again in late summer to give our HighRoad Pyrenees a go.
Along the way, Rich has sent us many of his friends and whole tours have been filled from just his contacts in California. What I want to say is thanks, Rich, and can you clone yourself and move to New York, Sydney and Toronto?
This year I played the Canuck-down-on-his-luck card a couple of times and had two sit-down interviews with Canadian pro riders. The first was Antoine Duchesne, an up-and-coming rider, living not far from us in southern France; the second, Christian Meier, a pro with Orica GreenEdge, who took an early retirement just a few weeks ago to focus on the three businesses he and his wife Amber have going in Girona – one being the cafe we sat down at in the photo below – La Fabrica. Go for the hummingbird cake if for no other reason.
Lyon Interlude: With France’s 2nd largest (or 3rd, depending on if you are from Marseille or not) city nearby, we try to have some ‘urban time’ once in a while. It’s usually art related and this was no exception, going to see the Yoko Ono retrospective. The photo below is from inside the factory building where the first ever ‘moving picture’ was filmed by Louis Lumière.
Then the summer hit the fan. After a few years of doing this cycling-tour thing, I’m figuring out when the hay has to be made – when the sun shines, it turns out. Basically, if we are lucky, John and I are full-on from May to the end of September, with August being an odd slow month (someone will need to explain why this is to me someday). Here are a few shots from places outside our neighborhood (southern France) that saw us riding in.
Huesca, Spain. John and I rode our first Spanish race: Quebrantahuesos (named after the bearded vultures that hover above, just waiting for you to get a flat tire).
Southern French Alps. This cow was on the loose on the climb of the Col de la Croix de Fer. Minutes later her owner came trotting down the road, saying that she often took a wrong turn on her way back from the pasture.
Part of our 15-strong group in the Alps in June, feeling pretty good about themselves on top of the world.
Northern French Alps. In July we hosted a bunch of guys for the Etape du Tour, the most famous Gran Fondo-ish event in the world. They were kind enough to pose in our jerseys before their shake-out ride.
During a rare quiet moment, Shoko and I took a couple of days to visit our good friends from NYC, Stephen and Rebecca, who always seem to find a place to stay for a few weeks in southern France that could not be further away from New York. This year their house was deep in the bush, on a single-track road, surrounded by lavender fields. But it had beer, lots of rosé, and Rebecca’s wonderful cooking. Who needs New York?
In August I made my now-yearly trip back to the homeland, Gaspé, Quebec. My whole family was there at the same time, which is pretty rare considering it wasn’t a funeral. The wine my mom is drinking is a Chateau de Ruth (her name) that I brought her from France. She’s not a big drinker and this is the only sip I think she took of it all week! I’m sure it got taken care of, though.
Back in France, Shoko and I drove to the Pyrenees for a few days in August so I could suffer like a dog in the inaugural Marmotte Pyrenees, a massive one-day cycling event that punishes you with 5 giant climbs and even makes you ride by the lunch hall before starting the last one. Devious. Below are the famous wheel-licking sheep of the Col d’Aubisque.
More sheep on my 2nd descent of the mighty Tourmalet. This race was the culmination of my training year and, although I still feel like my butt spent far too much time planted in front of my desk, Strava tells me that I rode nearly 10,000 km in 2016, over 400 hours (50 8-hour days), with 135,000 meters of climbing. Why do I still feel fat?
A few days later I was back at work with a great little group (Rich and his friends) in the High Alps.
In what seems like years ago but was only the end of August, we bought an apartment. Having moved around quite a lot in the past 48 years, I’d never had the confidence to buy anything (or the money, mind you), so it wasn’t without a bit of trepidation that we took this particular plunge. At least it’s not Vancouver or Tokyo, so it was a modest investment. It also helped that we bought the apartment across the hall from us. Moving day was cheap.
The kitchen, starting to take form.
Finally a proper place for my Italian artwork.
In November we went up to Paris for a few days and I had the pleasure of seeing one of the places where Hemingway pissed.
And finally, for our mini-Christmas trip, we took the train to Madrid, where Shoko spent two days in bed with a cold and I wandered the city, trying not to see too much.
After she recovered we did make it to the Big Three museums in the city and tried to track down the best tortilla de patatas in town, which we found at the cafe in the bottom of the Reina Sofia Museum, if you’re planning on visiting.
If you’ve made it to the end of me 2016 I applaud you. I almost didn’t myself! 2017 is already looking like the arse will have to get off its perch at least as much as this year, with several tours already booked in the Alps, Pyrenees, Provence and Cévennes, plus a trip to Italy in March for some ‘white road’ racing and some artsy city visits to fill in the blanks.
Happy New Year!