When we started St Antonin Noble Velo we were expecting to do a mixture of guided and self guided cycling, but it turns out that most of our customers opt for self guided, and it’s actually quite rare that I take people out riding. For us, that’s fine, we’re just happy to have customers, but it did get me thinking about why that is.
In some way it’s obvious. We get a lot of business from couples who want to spend a week or so riding through lovely French countryside at their own pace on quiet roads. It would be a bit weird to do that with some guy they’ve never met before (wonderful though he is!). Also guided rides have to include the cost of the guide which is fine when you’re a group, but works out very expensive if there are only two of you. Then there’s photography. It’s much easier to stop for pictures if you’re not part of a group – you can please yourself and in these parts there’s no shortage of fantastic photo opportunities.
I sometimes talk about this to other people who run cycling holidays and it seems that our location plays a part. We picked this location because the cycling is superb. One of the reasons the cycling is so good around here is that no-one’s heard of it which makes the roads quiet. I really notice the increased traffic when I ride in other, better known parts of France, and you don’t have to travel far from our base for that to happen. But it seems that groups almost always book a holiday in a place they’ve heard of, whereas couples are more likely to want to try somewhere new. I have no idea why that is, but it does seem to be true.
It also works because of technology. Self guided in the past always meant stopping every five minutes to look at a map or written instructions and probably getting lost. These days bike GPS units make self guided cycling a breeze. They give you turn-by-turn instructions just like a car GPS and beep at you if you go off course. They mean you’re getting my local knowledge without having to put up with my company! Of course we back it up with a rescue service and book a restaurant for you for lunch (including explaining your dietary requirements which is great if your French is dodgy). I’ve written more about GPS for cyclists over at FreewheelingFrance.
So there you are, my thoughts on self-guided cycling holidays and why I think people love them…
This year we’ve decided to try something very niche, a vegan cycling holiday. As far as we can tell we’re the only people in France, maybe in Europe offering this. I’ll be posting details soon, but I thought I’d write a blog post about it first.
I’ve been a vegetarian for longer than I’m going to admit to, and I was a bit apprehensive about living in France because of it. On holiday it was never a problem because I speak fluent French, and if by the time I got home I’d eaten too many omelettes and pizzas, well, that wasn’t the end of the world. Living here is different though. I can’t live on Omelettes and pizzas forever and I imagined never being able to eat at friends houses. Would I crack and start eating fish? Natalie said I’m way too stubborn for that, and of course, she was right, I’ve stuck to being veggie.
We moved here to run cycling holidays and that’s been going well, but it was always my project, so right from the start Natalie’s got stuck into her dream of running a food business. Her first venture was a stall in the market selling cakes to try to bring some money in while we were renovating the house. It was a lot of work and didn’t produce that much money, but we got to know everyone in town and it forced Natalie to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops you need for a food business.
Fast forward a year or two and we’d realised there was quite a good market for vegetarian accommodation, so we started advertising our b&b as vegetarian. That meant Natalie could sell evening meals to guests, and our encyclopaedic knowledge of veggie friendly eateries in the area also turned out to be quite a draw. She also really enjoyed it. We did our best to say nothing on the cycling side about the whole vegetarian thing, but it turned out to be such a rare combination that people found us anyway and soon most of our cycling bookings were vegetarian.
At about that time Natalie started to become aware of the popularity of veganism in France. It was as though the nation had bypassed vegetarianism completely and gone straight to veganism. It seemed really odd in such a meat based food culture, but the more we thought about it, the more sense it made. The French are typically very interested in what they put on their plates. When we had our cake stall, no money would change hands without an in-depth discussion about what was in the cakes and what the recipe was. Vegans of course are also very interested in what they eat, so there’s an obvious fit there. We also noticed that French cuisine had become, well, rather unadventurous. Not everywhere of course, there’s a lot of good food to be had here, but too often the menus are the same as they were thirty years ago and more and more of the food, especially desserts are bought in. Put simply, people are bored, and veganism offers an entirely new way of eating.
Our activities on social media, especially instagram showed the same. Vegancyclist is an active hashtag there, but vegetariancyclist is not. Even Vegan Cycling Holiday exists! And it’s not just cyclists either, all sorts of top level sportspeople seem to be embracing veganism.
So all of this got Natalie thinking about vegan cooking and it wasn’t long before the most amazing dishes started coming out of her kitchen. We started to get vegan guests in the b&b and ran a couple of vegan gourmet weekends. For us, even though a lot of what we eat has always been vegan, Natalie’s explorations opened our eyes to what we’d been missing and our diets became almost exclusively vegan. For Natalie it really chimed with why we came here in the first place. We wanted to follow our passions, which for me was cycling, but for her was being creative in the kitchen To her surprise, vegan cooking was really hitting the spot. This winter, Natalie’s started running an almost entirely vegan weekly pop-up cafe in a local arts space, and finds that most weeks she’s having to turn people away.
So it seems a logical next step to try running a vegan cycling holiday. The problem though is lunch – cyclists by and large don’t want to ride to big towns, and getting a good vegan meal in rural France isn’t easy (although terrible vegan food is easy to come by!). After a lot of conversations with French chefs, and a quite a lot of eating out, we’ve found enough places. Very few are actually vegetarian or vegan restaurants, but such is the interest in vegan food in France that the more adventurous chefs are starting to embrace it. I’ve been impressed by the quality. Without a doubt, the best is Thierry at Restaurant Les Sens. He moved down here from Paris for a quiet life and now runs the best restaurant in the region. Typically there’s nothing about veganism on his web site, but he makes some of the best vegan food I’ve ever tasted, although he does need plenty of notice.
So there you are, that’s why we’re going to be running what we think is the first vegan cycling holiday in France, maybe in Europe.
Now the web site’s been up for a while, I thought it was time to experiment with writing a blog. Well, more accurately my web guy said google will love me for it… Still I like writing and there’s always something to say about what we’re up to here in St Antonin.
St Antonin Noble Velo is very much my baby, and this is my chance to tell you a bit about what it’s like riding a bike around here, what we’re about, and I hope, tempt you into paying us a visit.
It’s spring now in St Antonin, which always arrives suddenly and dramatically. Winter doesn’t last long here, but it’s still wonderful to see the greenery coming back and there’s been a riot of cherry blossom over the last week or so. It’s been in the low 20s most afternoons for a few days, so my pasty white legs have been bared for the first time this season; they should look like cyclists legs again by April. March is a great time to ride in the south of France, especially if you live in the UK where spring is usually wet and cold. The roads are always quiet in these parts, but right now it feels like the car was never invented! And I can’t get enough of the spring flowers – they’re everywhere.
Natalie and I went for a walk yesterday afternoon, but we didn’t get very far because of all the photo opportunities. It was a bit hazy for distance shots, but Natalie took some beautiful pics of all the blossom. She only took up photography when we realised we needed images for our web sites, but it turns out she’s quite a natural. I can’t take pictures like she can.
This facebook group has loads more pictures of St Antonin