A new company called LeBlanq offers amateur cyclists the chance to ride with former champions, recuperate in luxurious surroundings and refuel with Michelin-starred food. Edwin Smith joins the peloton
They used to call Eddy Merckx ‘The Cannibal’. The Belgian is, by a distance, the greatest road cyclist of all time. He won the Tour de France, the sport’s biggest prize, on five occasions – and picked up six more victories in the other three-week ‘grand tours’ of Italy and Spain.
He also claimed five ‘monuments’, cycling’s most prestigious and historic one-day races, as well as three world championships and the coveted ‘hour record’, travelling 49.4km in 60 minutes in 1972, on a steel bike. The range of his victories – over varied distances and terrain, requiring such different physical attributes – means that it is vanishingly unlikely such dominance will ever be witnessed again. However, on the weekend when he and I meet, Merckx will be feasting on Michelin-starred food – not the flesh of his rivals.
We shake hands on a cool autumn morning as Merckx, now 76, prepares – somewhat gingerly – to brave the drizzle and join a peloton of amateur cyclists on the roads of the Champagne region in northern France. He gamely poses for a selfie with me and several other lycra-clad fans, but unlike some professional cyclists of his era Merckx has not sought to cultivate much of a public profile. He still lives on a farm in his native Belgium with his wife Claudine, whom he started dating when he was 19.
He is here, in the limelight, because he has been persuaded (with the help of an undisclosed fee) to be part of an event hosted by LeBlanq. The company is the brainchild of chef Ashley Palmer-Watts and Justin Clarke, a British former professional cyclist who had a second career as the founder of the Taste of London food festival. When this business was acquired by the sports and events management giant IMG in 2012, Clarke came with it and worked on expanding the Taste festivals internationally.
It was on one of these international trips, a visit to Australia, that Clarke met Palmer-Watts – a 20-year veteran of Heston Blumenthal’s culinary empire, who became head chef of the Fat Duck in Bray when he was just 25. When Clarke discovered that Palmer-Watts had shipped his top-of-the-range Pinarello road bike with him to the other side of the world, he knew he’d found a kindred spirit; the pair made a pact to work on a project that would unite their shared loves of cycling and fine food.
The result is LeBlanq, which is difficult to define. It is an events business, cycling club, tour operator and digital content producer all rolled into one. (Clarke’s LinkedIn profile describes him as a ‘global experiential brand builder’.)
LeBlanq’s launch was postponed by the pandemic, but it got off the ground in May of last year with a ride through the Surrey countryside that was sandwiched between two gourmet meals at a high-end restaurant. More one-day events followed, with former professional cyclists – such as Sir Chris Hoy, Sean Yates and Sir Bradley Wiggins – and celebrity chefs getting involved too. In August, tickets for a ride starting and finishing at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire sold out within half an hour.
Palmer-Watts believes there’s a natural connection between food and cycling: both are rooted in an appreciation of the land. Clarke notes that both tribes – chefs and cyclists – share an appreciation of hard work. To me, it also seems relevant that spending five or six hours pushing the pedals can create a deficit of 3,000 calories; replenishing that is all part of the fun.
But there’s more to LeBlanq than cycling and eating. The company’s events are decidedly luxurious. On our weekend sojourn to France we are staying at the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, replete with its pillow menus, Hermès toiletries and a beautiful pool that overlooks a vista of vine-striped slopes. Clarke, Palmer-Watts and their team have thought of everything: there is a specially- produced cycling kit provided to all members of the group, which will be laundered overnight; there are former professional cyclists to lead the rides; there is a mechanic on hand to clean and service bicycles before placing them on a rack outside the hotel lobby in the morning, ready to go; there are photographers and videographers to capture it all and riders have access to a bottomless supply of products from Veloforte, the Fortnum & Mason of the cycling nutrition world. For those less concerned about marginal gains, there is also an apparently limitless supply of Laurent-Perrier Champagne back at the hotel. The price for the two-day trip is almost £3,500, excluding the cost of getting here.
All this results in an interesting mix of people, who mingle and chat over the weekend. Among the 40 or so in the group, there is a Danish bond trader and his wife, a clutch of fintech entrepreneurs, a former Cardiff Blues rugby player and representatives from firms (such as Laurent-Perrier) that have partnered with LeBlanq to make it all happen.
The weekend began with a short leg loosener on the Friday evening before a light dinner, a glass or two of champagne and an early night before a big day in the saddle on Saturday. But after my Saturday morning selfie with Merckx, I face a tough decision: go with the fastest of the four groups on a route covering 130km of rolling Champagne countryside (with a not inconsiderable 2,000 vertical metres of ascent) or take it a little easier, with a slower pace and a less demanding parcours.
LeBlanq describes its cycling as ‘joyriding’ and places the emphasis on having fun, rather than going fast. There is certainly no hint of the glamorisation of ‘suffering’ or high-performance that permeated cycling culture during the 2010s. All the same, I want to feel as though I have earned the tasting menu that will be waiting for us at the end of the day, so I elect to see if I can stick it out over the longer distance.
The group I choose to ride with includes British former pro Chris Lillywhite and another Belgian legend of the sport, Johan Museeuw. At 55 and 56, respectively, each man still carries the look of someone preternaturally gifted with athletic ability. Lillywhite has the responsibility of leading the ride, and so sits on the front of the miniature peloton, churning away for hour after hour. Museeuw, who says he has come for the sheer fun of it and the chance to spend time with Merckx (as well, perhaps, as to furnish his burgeoning Instagram following with some aesthetically pleasing content from the event), is happy to lark around at the back and make jokes. At one point, he pulls up next to a stationary car and asks its bemused driver if he knows the best way to Paris.
Our group is also trailed by a support car, which is on hand to provide sustenance and top up water bottles when we occasionally stop. This being LeBlanq, it is a Porsche 911 in Michelin livery. Another group is followed by an Aston Martin, the car manufacturer being another LeBlanq partner. (After the weekend, I learn that one member of the group liked it so much that he bought the same model.)
Following a fairly sedate start in the morning, sweeping past spectacular vineyards and through the rolling, verdant paysage, one or two members of the group decide to up the pace. I manage to hang on to their coattails, but begin to get cramp in my legs. Fortunately, by this time, we have almost made it to a scheduled stop near the end of the ride – at the Laurent-Perrier estate. All of the four groups out on the road convene for a restorative glass of fizz before the final 10km back to the hotel.
Having taken a dip in the hotel pool, I make my way up to dinner, which is prepared by Raymond Blanc and his team. After a short but characteristically effusive speech from Blanc himself, we taste the fruits of his labours. The courses range from Blanc’s signature ‘tomato essence’ – vital, golden liquid served cold in a shot glass – to a succulent beef fillet wrapped in nori.
After dinner we repair to the hotel lounge for a discussion between Merckx, Museeuw and Adam Blythe, a former British national champion who retired young, at 30, and now has a successful career as a TV commentator and pundit. After the interview, I ask Merckx what made him better than anyone else. He pauses, then calmly states: ‘You worry that you won’t be the champion.’
The last day of the trip coincides with Paris-Roubaix – one of the most prestigious bike races in the world (Merckx and Museeuw are both former winners). It has earned the nickname ‘The Hell of the North’ because of a uniquely difficult course which sends the peloton bouncing over long stretches of historic cobbled farming roads. In homage, our route – named ‘The Hell of Champagne’ – will take in a stretch of gravelly, rough terrain, although it is a modest 64km, compared with the 257km that the pros will deal with.
As I clickety-clack out of the hotel in my cycling shoes, I notice that, this morning, my bike is not waiting for me outside the hotel lobby as it had been the previous day. So I ask another member of the group already sitting astride his bike how he got it. He looks at me blankly and says: ‘I went to get it.’ And that’s when it hits me: after less than 48 hours of having my every cycling-related whim seamlessly tended to, I have become totally accustomed to this treatment.
Later that day, after the ride, as I’m driving towards the Channel Tunnel, I worry that my normal, decidedly low-fi, experience of cycling will no longer satisfy me in the same way. Is it like turning left on a plane? Can you ever go back to economy class? Will I ever be content to return to washing my own kit, cleaning my own bike and scarfing down food from petrol stations, now that I’ve seen how comfortable cycling can be?
Fortunately, a couple of weeks later, an email arrives from one of the LeBlanq team. It details plans for the company’s trips in 2022 that range from domestic one-day meet-ups to multi-day tours of the Dolomites, Ibiza and Norway. The prices are chunky, but luxury comes as standard. I just have one question: where do I sign?
Spear’s travelled to Champagne in a Land Rover Defender 90 provided by The Out, the luxury car rental app powered by Jaguar Land Rover. Cars can be delivered to your doorstep within three hours of booking (London Zones 1-5, Manchester M postcodes, selected airports available). Customers can select from a large fleet, including the Range Rover Sport, Land Rover Discovery Sport and Jaguar F-TYPE convertible. Prices from £144/day. Download the iOS app or go to: theout.com
LeBlanq’s Joyriding weekend prices start from £2,295 for riding guests and £1,995 for non-riders, including all riding, meals with matched wines, experiences and accommodation, but not travel. A programme of domestic day rides is planned for 2022, each led by former pro-cyclists and including a memorable dining experience at some of the UK’s finest restaurants. Prices start from £195 per person and include the ride and a multi-course gourmet lunch or dinner. For further information and to sign up to membership for priority booking visit: leblanq.com