With liquid grace
Ben Phillips tracks the intertwined destinies of Britain, France, wine and cycling
Collages: Adele Juraža
Wednesday 02 February 2022
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It may not seem like it, given the general quality of the last 18 months, but take comfort in the fact that we are in the midst of no fewer than two Golden Ages. There has never been a better time to be a fan of British cycling or British wine, a fact delightful to many and annoying to some. Since the year 2000, British riders have won six Tours de France, as well as a host of other major races and dozens of Olympic medals on the track, on the road and off it. While that was going on, vineyard plantings in the UK tripled and British wine solidified its reputation for quality, especially when English fizz started beating out renowned Champagnes at blind tastings.
That’s a turn up for the books, as these are two pursuits we commonly understood, until recently, to be as quintessentially French as unfiltered cigarettes and long loaves of crusty bread. Stereotypes aside, it’s a fact that Britain surrendered the grape and the chain to the French long ago, and whatever resurgence we are experiencing owes the greatest of debts to Europe for showing us the way. Our longstanding love affair with, and jealousy of, the variety and quality of French produce has given way to friendly competition, as more Michelin stars and IWSC awards are accrued by British outfits. Meanwhile, fortunes on the bike are reversed, with the French failing to win Le Tour since 1985 and pressure on young talents getting ever more difficult to overcome.
Now Brits have feet firmly in both the cleat and the crushing tank, it could feel like wearing another’s clothes; French style is good, but is it us? Thankfully, something of a clearer path has been forged. Once English sparkling wines – a product based entirely on Champagne from vineyard to winery – really found their feet with the notable 2009 and 2010 vintages, a distinct style emerged. That irrepressible green fruit character, an extension of the running joke that is this country’s weather, in balance with leesy richness (dare we call it brioche?) is a common thread and a subtle but recognisable distinction from other traditional method sparkling wine. There’s also generally a pleasing focus on quality over quantity; sensible considering the UK’s output in 2020 was about 1/35th of Champagne’s alone.
The cycling landscape is eerily similar. Following on from British Cycling’s Olympic successes on the track, Team Sky set its sights firmly on the Tour de France; the jewel in the crown of French sport and the world’s most prestigious bike race. While the French love a character, an aggressive rider with panache, Sky’s approach was much more calculated. Wins came not from emulation but from innovation, in equipment, nutrition, and by building the strongest team rather than relying on the best rider. Even so, British wins tend to come only at a few high profile races where those efforts can be focused; on most occasions, they are simply outnumbered. But now Britain is undoubtedly a fixture as a producer of both fine wines and fine cyclists. Alas, it was not always so.
Jacques Anquetil, the great and controversial French cyclist who made history by being the first to win the Tour de France five times, infamously said that you couldn’t ride Le Tour on mineral water. He, just as infamously, rode it on a combination of red wine, roast partridge and performance-enhancing amphetamines. He certainly wasn’t alone, as wine had been a key nutritional and pharmacological ingredient for cyclists ever since Henri Cornet, winner of the second Tour in 1904, extolled the virtues of Champagne as an energy drink. To the French, Anquetil is a folk hero, a rolling set of contradictions and nostalgia who exemplifies the complexity of this great but troubled sport. He, his bottle of Cru Bourgeois and his pill bottle are an indelible thread in France’s 1960s, a decade of post-war reconstruction and increased European co-operation.
Britain doesn’t have an Anquetil, but it does have a Tom Simpson – equally mythologised, if less successful. “Major” Simpson was a contemporary and one-time teammate of Anquetil, and probably the only rider of the era to dope more openly. Simpson died in his pursuit of cycling glory during the 1967 Tour de France, only one kilometre from the summit of Mont Ventoux, Provence’s legendary peak standing sentinel over rows of Grenache and Syrah near the Rhône. Cyclists, British and otherwise, regularly brave the grueling climb to leave a cap or water bottle at his memorial. Simpson is remembered for his tragic arc, a cautionary tale, but also because he, along with Beryl Burton, the doyenne of distance cycling in the 1960s, is one of a scant handful of founding figures to whom British cyclists can make reference. Anquetil was unique, but France’s cycling legends are like its appellations - numerous, some sacred, some overrated. A motley bunch, but all the more romantic a prospect as a result.
A noble struggle, a small producer, old vines and panache; that romantic history is an incredibly important element of a wine’s experience, just as it is in cycling, perhaps more important than who crosses the line first or how well made the wine really is. It’s hardly a coincidence that British success in these two areas has come along at the same time; wine and cycling are intertwined by culture and geography as much as they are common overlapping interests among many of Britain’s newly lycra-clad middle class. Cycling, even in its most professional and competitive guise, is an exercise in journeying from, to and through places. It doesn’t take place on a stationary pitch, but slowly enough to take in each stream and street individually. Aside from the occasional featureless motorsport track, road cycling’s backdrop is always some sort of dramatic landscape, and that landscape is felt under the wheels and the open sky. In other words, a bike ride has terroir.
Race organisers know this, which is why routes are so often planned around beautiful wine regions, not least because of their tourist appeal. Le Tour and le vin are two of France’s most important exports and therefore great bedfellows. Along with its Italian equivalent, the Giro d’Italia, this comfy pairing inspires the ‘Wine Trial’ each year, an individual time trial stage through one of the country’s foremost wine regions. Riders are drip-fed past picturesque vineyards and châteaux, the grapes conveniently hitting veraison by the time the race is ready to pass through. This year, Le Tour brought out the heavy artillery with a final time trial into Saint-Emilion. We civilians feel this too, as the vineyards of Surrey, Sussex and Kent are best toured by bicycle, all the better to take in the soil and aspect of the country’s warmest microclimates, and therefore the profound relationship between wine and place.
For more than a century after the invention of the bicycle, Britain’s terroir was about as conducive to the development of professional cyclists as it was to the proper ripening of Mourvèdre. Major-General Salisbury-Jones made Hambledon’s first Seyval Blanc in 1954 despite the weather rather than because of it, a feeling shared by every plucky British touring cyclist who has ever arrived at a Youth Hostel with rain in their panniers. Cycling as a leisure pursuit in Britain, universal before the Second World War, was waning due to the democratisation of the motorcar. Local races, not the fixture they were in France or Belgium, were difficult to organise if road closures weren’t forthcoming. And so competitive cycling in Britain headed to the velodrome and the early-morning A-road time trial.
The character of the British wine industry in those early years wasn’t much different, best described as ‘hit and miss’. Some vintages were complete wash-outs, and those planting vines were undoubtedly enthusiastic but usually came from unrelated industries, with no winemaking expertise. At its best, it was a domestic affair, with tiny volumes made mostly from German crossings chosen to suit the climate rather than to achieve quality. The industry had been resting on its laurels since Eleanor of Aquitaine brought Bordeaux into the fold in 1152 - a convenient excuse. Meanwhile, France was collecting legendary vintages, ‘59 and ‘61 in particular. The ‘70s and ‘80s brought more, along with renewed success at Le Tour after Anquetil’s retirement, in the form of the two Bernards, Thévenet and Hinault, and Laurent Fignon (“The Professor” - he wore glasses).
The French weren’t to know that 1985 would be their last year of Tour success, and if you lived in Britain that year, you witnessed Live Aid, Roger Moore’s final outing as James Bond, a home Ashes victory and, perhaps most importantly, the opening of Dudley’s Merry Hill Shopping Centre. Auspicious occasions all, but even so it’s difficult to conceive of the amount of optimism needed to imagine the astronomically different state of British cycling and British wine only 30 years hence. Maybe one day they’ll be spraying Gusbourne all over the podium steps. We can but dream.
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