On the Mediterranean coast, in a medieval village called Bassan close to Béziers in the Languedoc-Roussillon, there is a well-kept secret. Once a year, it hosts a well-organised family randonnée VTT (or mountain-bike ride to you and me) along a well-marked 20km trail, with marshalls to ensure everything runs smoothly. But this is no ordinary bike ride – it’s a French bike ride, and hence not only a physical but also a gastronomic exercise. If you examine the badge you are given when you pay up, you’ll notice the subtitle Vins Nouveaux et Gourmandises and the names of various stops along the route, each one the domaine or estate of a major wine-producer.
The day begins with a breakfast of croissants, tea, coffee or hot chocolate outside the cave co-opérative. While you eat you can observe the other cyclists, who vary from lean individuals in all the right gear to families with 5 or 6 children, some with tow-bikes and occasionally even baby trailers, or people in jeans on resuscitated 1980s racing bikes.
At 9.30am, the cyclists begin to depart. The trail is undulating but far from challenging: my group of family and friends (the youngest child is eight) easily manage the small ascents, even if a couple of the oldies get off to push near the top of the steeper slopes. Descents are designed to be exciting without being scary, and as we abandon ourselves to freewheeling down them, I for one, feel 30 years younger. As the ride takes place in autumn, the countryside is at its most beautiful: the vines shine bright yellow, orange, peach and scarlet, and the surrounding woods blaze with similar colours as well as a million different shades of green. The weather can usually be relied upon to be sunny.
Just as we are ready for a pause, we arrive at the first domaine, the fabulous Prieuré d’Amilhac, a wine producer dating back nearly 2000 years. The impressive stone building has an enclosed courtyard that we ride into, gasping at its beauty, to park our bikes. We walk into the main house past a smiling marshall, heading through an 11th-century Roman chapel into a great stone hall where we pick up plates of oysters and glasses of wine (or soft drinks for the children) to take to eat outside in a sunny spot. Are the oysters really this good, we ask one another, or is it that eating with a feeling of virtuousness, after our labours, makes them especially delicious?
We cycle on, through charcuterie – almost a lunch in itself – and fromages, three locally produced varieties served with mouthwatering brown bread. At each stop a glass of wine is offered by the host domaine, and at the fromages stop a brass band accompanies proceedings and one of the children does a little jig. It seems to us that our efforts on the bikes are being constantly celebrated and rewarded. It seems too that we are seeing parts of the countryside we would not have seen any other way (we haven’t been on a road all day), in addition to visiting some of the most historic and prestigious wine-producing ‘houses’ in the area.
And then, at the end of the ride, each participant is presented with a bottle of wine, a chocolate dessert (made by a local chocolatier) and roasted chestnuts! For those who’ve reserved and paid ahead, there’s also a barbecue lunch.
The end-of-ride ambiance is jubilant. The mayor speaks, then starts to sing, and soon everyone is singing. We don’t understand the words much, except that it’s all about eating. Well it would be, wouldn’t it?
The ride usually takes place in October; check exact details with the Béziers tourist office, who can also give details of bike-hire outlets in the area.