The thin bicycle tires spun through puddles, spewing water like a fountain run amok on the 24 cyclists sloshing past the celebrated red wine vineyards of Nuits-St-Georges.
It was a sodden, chilly day that cyclists could do without. Yet, with zeppelin-gray clouds hovering above the Burgundian vineyards, the let's-wait-for-the-weather-to-clear tactic wasn't an option.
Rain, though, doesn't dampen cyclists' spirits nearly as much as it does those of tourists contending with umbrellas, foggy windows and the option of spending the day inside a museum. Cyclists zip on rainproof pants and jackets, tighten Velcro cuffs, secure helmets and, voila! they're off and pedaling.
"Rain is irrelevant to me having a good time," insisted Ron Johnson, a 45-year-old distributor from Los Angles on his second European cycling tour. "The roads and views just don't get any better than they do in Burgundy."
So on this cycling itinerary through some of the world's most celebrated vineyards, a couple of days of inclement weather simply meant fewer photo stops and longer cafe-au-lait and lunch breaks.
The day the rain fell so relentlessly, lunch couldn't come soon enough. In this tradition-bound region, however, where workmen not only gather at the same cafe every noon but expect to sit at "their" table, the cyclists were left to shuffle in the corner until the regulars cleared out and the proprietor -- who'd nev-er seen so many Lycra tights in his diner before -- draped clean butcher paper over the long tables.
The day's menu began with tomato and couscous salads followed by steaming pan-fried potatoes, flank steak, red wine and long loaves of crusty bread. Dessert, with yet more bread and wine, was a triumphant platter of local cheeses, including timbales of goat cheese from the nearest farm. The price? Just under $7 a person.
The cycling workout barely justified an extra nibble of cheese, let alone the fancy four- and five-course dinners the group put away each evening. On several days, the route covered fewer than 20 miles. It never exceeded 32 miles, although longer options were available.
No matter what the route, Burgundy is permeated by wine -- in its landscape, culture and history. World-class vineyards climb gentle hills topped by crenelated retreats of the ambitious Dukes of Burgundy or by somber monasteries of Cistercian monks. Medieval towns are thoughtfully spaced so that patisseries (for too-good-to-pass chocolates), boulangeries (for fragrant loaves of warm bread), tea salons and coffee shops are never more than 20 minutes apart.
Dozens of tours free-wheel through Burgundy each season; the oldest and largest of the operators is Butterfield & Robinson, based in Toronto. The solidly middle-aged participants on its Burgundy route ranged in age from mid-30s to 65 and averaged 55. They paid $2,655 a person for this Level I trip, the easiest of B&R's four-level rating system.
The seven evenings were spent in three interesting properties: the firsttwo nights in Puligny-Montrachet, near the 14th century cellars of the Chateau de Meursault; three nights in an elegant, converted 17th century residence in Beaune; and the final nights in a 350-year-old hunting palace.
"It was a hard life, being a monk in Burgundy," quipped Jean-LouisBottigliero, manager of the 40-room Gilly-les-Citeaux, the monastic hunting palace south of Dijon where powerful abbots once lived. "We make Relais & Chateaux [an association of high-end properties] hotels out of their old monasteries."
Dinners were as extravagant as the lodging: One of the two Michelin-starred dinners began with a lobster salad with foie gras and crescendoed to a multifaceted dessert of three homemade sorbets, a raspberry tart and a mousse. The far more casual lunches were another opportunity to indulge in Burgundy's hearty specialties: cold sliced ham cooked in parsley and garlic, osso buco, cheeses by the score and, of course, beef Bourgogne. In the town of Chardonnay, salad, sausages, mustard and crusty bread were washed down by the town's namesake wine, priced at $1.25 a glass; tumblers of red Macon wine went for 80 cents.
The hours sauntered effortlessly by as cyclists eased along paved back roads devoid of traffic, passing fields of hefty Charolais cattle, farmyards where freshly hosed-out wine barrels were awaiting the season's vintage, and always impeccable vineyards.
Near the 16th century Clos de Vougeot -- where the well-used wine presses are made of oaks grown during Charlemagne's era -- the route threaded through priceless vineyards on narrow, grape-stained roads built for the miniature tractors used to tend the fields, or for the proprietors' Citroens.
Cycling into Beaune, the route passed the greatest white wine vineyards in the world: Montrachet, Santenay, Pommard and Volnay.
In the sophisticated wine center of Beaune, B&R arranged for three tastings; a fourth, given by the premiere cassis producer, called for the most restraint, since it was held mid-route, before lunch.