It’s the first night on my first press trip. I’ve spent all day on a selection of trains, some full of less than gentille football supporters, and as I approach the dining table I hesitate – where shall I sit? Where are the other British journalists I met on the final train, and who I’ve at least spent a couple of hours with? In that moment, everyone else sits down, and there are two places left. I take the one nearest to the english speakers, leaving a final vacant place next to me.
I have no idea who he is. Perhaps a friend whose birthday it is? Certainly there is an air of celebration around him.
The person on my left immediately stands up again, as do a couple of others from the french speaking end of the table. They gather around a man who has entered the room. Wearing a rugby shirt and scarf, smiling, greeting everyone in a flurry of chatter, I have no idea who he is. Perhaps a friend whose birthday it is? Certainly there is an air of celebration around him.
Introductions start, he introduces himself, I tell him I’m Hannah from Singletrack, and as I think it’s only polite to try, I say something in what I hope is passable french. As always, within seconds I have no idea what his name was. I’m hopeless with names and in noisy surroundings my ears do me no favours. Eric maybe? Having greeted everyone at the table, ‘Possibly Eric’ sits down on my right.
From his position in the middle of the table, and the way the waiter immediately consults him about what wine is to be provided, it is clear that this is someone whose name I should probably get right. I lean over to Sara, the PR person on my left, and whisper, ‘This guy on my right…?’
‘That’s Gilles’ she says, ‘Gilles Lapierre. He is Mr Lapierre’.
OK. So definitely not Eric. Glad I checked. He’s busy chatting to everyone on his right, in french. I’m doing my best to try and follow what’s going on and figure out who everyone is – which people at the foreign language end of the table are from Lapierre, and which are journalists?
Gilles is clearly much better at this name remembering networking and generally being a social human being than me, as he turns to me and says, ‘Hannah’. I can’t remember what he asks me, but he knows my name already, and he points at a guy across the table and says ‘You know who this is, right’.
Even with my low level social skills, I realise I have a problem. I can lie, say yes, and risk spending the rest of the evening trying not to say something really stupid that reflects the fact I have no idea who this person is; or can I display my total ignorance and admit I haven’t a clue. I decide to opt for the definite exposure as an imposter and and admit I don’t know this man.
‘This is Nico.’
This is bad – worse than I thought. Being introduced to someone by only their first name means you’re in the big league, up there with Cher, Sting, and Jesus.
‘Nico Vouilloz. Ten time downhill world champion’. Gilles prompts.
This guy is definitely one of those legends I should know on sight. I smile weakly and must look like I want to ground to swallow me up because Nico waves dismissively and says ‘You are too young to know!’.
This is way too kind, and in a typically British example of self effacement I say that no, I am just very new to this scene, I am ignorant, and have much to learn. But I do all that in french because I do know that the french are deeply patriotic and that attempting to speak their beloved language (I know of no other country that has an organisation dedicated to the regulation of its language, or expends so much effort in preventing the Anglicisation of its vocabulary) has got to help earn me some badly needed brownie points.
This seems to work, wine arrives, followed by delicately cooked slices of meat that might be a quail but I’m not really sure, followed by pork – maybe hock – in a confit. It is delicious, some of the best food I have ever tasted, and each course is accompanied by a different wine, perfectly matched to the food. As a bit of a frustrated foodie (I find it hard to justify blowing a week or more’s family food budget on a single meal for two), it is hard to describe the pleasure that eating such amazing food delivers.
70 Years Of Lapierre
The conversation flows, and Gilles and I talk about the responsibility that comes with inheriting, owning and running a family business. 2016 is the 70th anniversary year for Lapierre, and it is clear that Gilles enjoys his job and is excited about the bikes he is going to present the next day. With the British referendum on Europe coming, we continue to talk business and politics. He counts himself lucky that the sale to Accell Group* has worked so well, and that with it the business has continued to grow. It is clear that retaining the factories in Dijon and Saint Etienne are important to him, and that the sale of the company to Accell Group was as much a question of heart as head. The transition was structured so that both parties could try it out for a period to see if it worked before the full takeover was established, and it’s I feel sure from our conversation that Gilles would not have accepted an arrangement that resulted in factory closures and job losses.
Just as I’m thinking I can’t possibly eat any more, Gilles leans over and asks me a question I don’t quite catch. Belatedly, I realise he’s asking me if I want cheese, or dessert, but by then he’s rephrased it to, ‘Do you like wine?’.
I’ve read somewhere that good cheese releases the same hormones as sex
This is ground I feel comfortable with, and the obvious answer is ‘Yes’. ‘Then you have cheese’ says Gilles. We are going to have a local cheese that was made especially to go with a local wine.
There is no way I am going to argue with that, as it sounds amazing, and I do as I’m told as the cheese arrives and Gilles instructs me to eat them in a particular order. I’ve read somewhere that good cheese releases the same hormones as sex (I couldn’t say whether the sex has to be good to release these hormones, or if it works for all calibers of intercourse), but at that moment I suspect that being a nun would be OK if you were allowed to eat cheese like this with wine like this.
And so our first evening draws to a close, but a tone has definitely been set. Our trip is an education – not just about the new Lapierre range, but about all things French, and particularly of the Cote D’Or where the main factory in Dijon is based, and where we find ourselves. We are repeatedly told that the region is a patchwork of many small areas, with specific types of soil, rock and weather giving many different flavours and creating many different qualities of wine within a very small area. Mere metres can make the difference between a ‘Villages’ wine (cheap stuff, but still probably better than your average supermarket bottle), a ‘Premier Cru’ (nice), and a Grand Cru (you probably can’t afford it). Gilles is knowledgeable and passionate about the locality – he even owns a couple of small vineyards – and these little changes that can make all the difference to the flavour and quality of the wine. As we’re to discover over the next couple of days, this passion and care for detail, for little changes that matter, is also reflected in his approach to bicycles.
You get the feeling that he is a cycling enthusiast who happens to find himself in charge of a bicycle company, and he can’t quite believe his luck.
Lapierre may be a big bicycle company, and part of a faceless conglomerate, but Gilles is certainly no corporate suit. He’s an enthusiast of many things – wine, cheese, food, France, the Cote D’Or…and bikes. You get the feeling that he is a cycling enthusiast who happens to find himself in charge of a bicycle company, and he can’t quite believe his luck.
The new range of Lapierre bikes is under embargo until 1st July – check back then for all the details. Or pop on over to Grit.Cx to see what Gilles has to say on the topic of doping.
- About Accell: Accell Group N.V. (“Accell Group”) focuses internationally on the mid-range and higher segments of the market for bicycles, bicycle parts and accessories and fitness equipment. Accell has leading positions in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Finland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Accell Group’s best known brands are Batavus (NL), Sparta (NL), Loekie (NL), Ghost (DE), Haibike (DE), Hercules (DE), Winora (DE), Raleigh and Diamondback (UK, US, CA), Lapierre (FR), Tunturi (FI), Atala (IT), Redline (US) and XLC (international). For more information visit: http://www.accell-group.com/uk/accell-group.asp