CELEBRATING THE BEAUJOLAIS NOUVEAU WITH A CYCLING LEGEND

DAY 1

Paulo Cinquin is not happy. Or rather, he is disappointed. A power outage struck the hamlet of Les Braves right on the day of the Beaujolais Nouveau. And while a lack of light has never stopped anyone from tasting the new season’s wine, people don’t just come to Paulo’s for the man and his wine; they come for his wine cellar, which is dedicated to cycling… and is currently in the dark.

Paulo Cinquin is a winemaker at Régnié-Durette. At least he was until he passed the family estate to his son, Franck. He had himself received it from his father, though he would have preferred to have been a bike racer. Back then, Paulo pedaled enough to be noticed by Jean de Gribaldy – a directeur sportif and then team boss who was known for his intuition – but his mother preferred him working in the fields. He consoled himself by working from time to time as a soigneur and mechanic, weaving a web of contacts in the sport and rubbing shoulders with champions. When his friend Paul Gutty was paralysed in a car accident, Paulo and his mates asked themselves what they could do to help. They launched “Les Retrouvailles”, a charity exhibition race where all the biggest names in cycling lined up to start and then popped a few corks afterwards. There was Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, to name just two, and then, as the years passed, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Bernard Thévenet, Richard Virenque.

Not being able to host us in the wine cellar, Paulo welcomes us into his kitchen. “Have some saucisson!” he commands as he fills us three glasses. A few friends are already there – or rather, they are still there, since Paulo isn’t good at letting people leave. “I’ve been coming here for 17 years,” one says to me. The glasses are filled as quickly as they are emptied. Leave? Why would you do that? Henri Sannier (a French sports journalist and former Tour de France TV frontman) was here this morning. Now another guy named Henri joins us, and as this new Henri takes off his cycling cap and dips his moustache in some wine, the lights come back on. “To the wine cellar!” thunders Paulo. We follow him, the master of the house, and discover the inner sanctum.

Every square inch is covered with memories: there are yellow jerseys from Chris Froome and Miguel Indurain, Laurent Brochard’s world champion’s stripes, a dedication from Andy Schleck, Virenque’s polka dots, a picture of Paulo and Alberto Contador from a newspaper. A photo of the 20th edition of Les Retrouvailles sits above a plaque, and you’d think it was a photomontage or a resumé of cycling history, so surreal is it to see such a concentration of champions.

We take our places around a low table, on which lie empty bottles and plates of pork products. No spittoons or affectations – we’re not here for a tasting and to pretend to be experts, we here for a good old fashioned drink. The barriers between us fall. We debate Tony Gallopin’s chances at the forthcoming Nationals, appraise the ambition of the next generation of amateurs (“They’re all constipated, mate”) and sing the praises of Philippe Gilbert at the Tour of Flanders. Every so often, Paulo and Henri come back to local business. “He’s never stuck his neck out,” they say of a too cautious elected representative. And, “He had his licence taken away! Those cops are lucky to have a badge. It’s shocking!” they say, pitching in on the affair of an amber traffic light that was, according to their words, turning green, but which was heading towards red according to the long arm of the law.

But amid the chatter, Paulo is anxious – anxious that we are here to go riding. It’s a terrible idea, he thinks, and he would prefer us to stay put.

“I’ve got some guys from Étupes coming over tomorrow. You’ve got to meet them.”

The prospect of chatting to officials from the club that trained Thibaut Pinot, Warren Barguil and Adam Yates is tempting; it’s true. After a series of "last" glasses, Paulo accompanies us back to our B&B and we wobble off in the halo of his headlights.

DAY 2

The next morning, the Beaujolais region is foggy, but we get up without difficulty despite the marathon of drinking the previous day. The day will be a time trial, in part literally, since we are riding the parcours of the 2017 Paris-Nice TT won by Julian Alaphilippe. The blanket of clouds lifts as we progress towards Mont Brouilly where winemaking shapes the landscape. In this puzzle of plots of land, there is no room for cows. Arriving at the chapel, where Alaphilippe collapsed without realising that he’d won, the only thing we can do is hurry on: Paulo has already called us, asking why we’re not at the cellar yet.

The route leads us to Vaux-en-Beaujolais, a village made so famous by a novel, "Clochemerle," that it is now officially called by both names. The book’s plot? Some story about a urinal causing outlandish quarrels between different parts of the village. The pissoir is there but sadly padlocked, so we roll on – much to the distress of the zoom lenses of a group of passing tourists.

Clochemerle is a something of a last vestige of civilisation before a series of small, gentle cols. A veritable cyclists’ paradise, emphasised by the autumn colours. The fog has totally dispersed, and it is sometimes difficult to play nice for the photographer, so tempting is it to spin the legs.

Another call from Paulo, who is now waiting for us at a restaurant. It’s time to take a lesson in downhills and downing wine, no silly pun intended. We descend the hills fast, dreaming all the while of stopping at the little chateaux that punctuate the estates.

At the Auberge Vigneronne, Paulo is sitting in the big dining room. Despite a dozen or so guests, he has reserved three places for us by his side, and he introduces us to Jean-Pierre Douçot, director sportif of CC Étupes. While Paulo works tirelessly on the Retrouvailles, Douçot concentrates on spotting and developing young talent to help them turn pro. Between the two of them are decades of volunteering — their lives dedicated to the love of top-level cycling.

We’re being forced to scale back our cycling ambitions: Paulo uses the meal to persuade us to cancel our plans to ride back and to stick around until the evening. The second bottle manages to convince us, and we return with everyone to the wine cellar, where a few young guys have dropped by. The Régnié wine starts flowing again, and when Jean-Luc pops his head round the door, Paulo gives his former worker a glass and teases him gently. Jean-Luc shrugs his shoulders:

“I’m IBM – intelligent, beau and modest. We live in the computer age. We have to adapt."

Less well versed in new technologies, Paulo phones the mayor of Saint-Lager to find out Alaphilippe’s TT time for me. He gives me a scrap of paper: seven minutes and 10 seconds which were recorded, he specifies, “from the cemetery”.

Like Gérard Dépardieu, Paulo Cinquin is a complex character, refined and larger-than-life at the same time. Physically, he is difficult to describe: His features change so much when his blue eyes light up, his booming voice trills and his face breaks out in a smile.
The wine cellar is the image of the man. It is not a museum but a crowd of memories, markers of his life’s passion. When I’ve been with people like Paulo, I always worry that we are losing something, that his type is disappearing and not being replaced in this hectic world where people train for nothing and pedal without dreaming of bigger things – even if that might just be a kiss from Miss Clochemerle.

TRIP DETAILS

To get to Régnié-Durette and the Cinquins’ Domaine des Braves, we took a train from Paris to Mâcon-Loché (1 hour 35 minutes) and rode for an hour from there.

Paulo recommended we stay in the neighbouring hamlet, at the Domaine des Bois, where we were warmly looked after by Marie-Hélène Labruyère. She advised us to eat in the nearby restaurant, Le Morgon, on the hill of the same name, where we ate a locally sourced menu of andouillette sausages in puff pastry with an Epoisse cheese sauce.

In the evening we followed this up with another local speciality, a gratin of andouillette ‘Bobosse’ with an interesting bottle of Beaujolais-Villages from the ‘biosophiste’ Romuald Valot. The next day we met Paulo around a saucisson brioché at the l’Auberge Vigneronne and had the chance to see the church of Régnié-Durette, designed by Pierre Bossan, who later built the Basilica of Nôtre-Dame-de-Fourvière in Lyon.

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