Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cycles & Chateaux!

As most of the followers of this blog know, Matthew has two particular passions, both with French connections. One is his Citroën SM car, and the other is bicyling. Out in West Marin, he can be seen every morning, pedalling up Ottinger's Hill out to Kehoe Beach and back. For the past 20-plus years, he's been making that ride on a steel frame Puch bicycle, which has given him great service. But for quite a while now, he's been yearning for something new (and, no surprise, French). Last fall, he took the plunge, and bought a carbon-fiber bicycle from a dealer in Mill Valley.  Bicycling immediately took on a new dimension with this technological wonder, made by a French company called Cyfac!  As part of the purchase, Matthew was invited to visit the factory, "should he ever find himself in France."

And so it was, that last Monday found us taking the #4 metro line down to Gare Montparnasse and hurtling at 120 mph on the TGV train to Saint Pierre des Corps, near the lovely town of Tours, in the heart of the Loire Valley. As we barreled along, it seemed that every field we passed was brilliant with rapeseed flowers.

We picked up a little rental car at the train station and, following detailed directions, drove through tiny country lanes, through hardwood forests and lush farmlands, until we came to what could be mistaken for someone's storage locker in the small village of La Fuye. If you blinked, you would have missed both!

Inside, we found Ameyric Le Brun, one of the two owners of the plant (the other, Eric Sakalowsky, lives in Philadelphia!), and he graciously gave us the tour, that had been promised to Matthew when he bought his bike.

Walking into the main floor, we were struck at once by how empty it was; a few machines, hardly any people. We learned from Ameyric that of the total staff of 17, 13 are devoted to producing 700 bicycles each year.

As Ameyric explained, the whole process begins with tubes -- either aluminium or carbon-fiber -- which are manufactured in Taiwan (the world center, as it turns out, for most of the cycling industry's carbon-fiber materials). Once they arrive at the factory, they are cut and shaped for the various models that Cyfac builds.

Matthew carefully examined one such tube...

...and then met the resident designer, Fabien, who, smiling shyly, posed for a photo.

Continuing our tour, we soon realized that the word "factory" was a misnomer. We were, in fact, visiting a 21st century version of a medieval "guild". Almost everything in the construction of these bicycles is done by hand! This gentleman spends an entire day hand-sanding the welded joints of a bicycle frame, until the surface is so smooth you cannot even see the seam.

In room after room, we saw the same meticulous attention being paid, whether in the "wrapping" process...

...or in the delicate touch-up of a decal.

The end result was a rack of brilliantly colored, shiny bicycle frames, waiting for a particular customer's fat dossier of all of his or her particular measurements as to height, weight, leg length, etc. etc.

Suddenly, Matthew's own Cyfac "Gothica" took on a whole new persona -- these same people we were meeting in La Fuye had built it, mostly by hand, and here it is, living in Inverness, being ridden through the hills and dales of West Marin. Amazing!

After an almost two hour immersion in the truly remarkable art and craft of bicycle building, we retraced our route, checking into the swank Domaine de Beauvois, our hotel for the night. We had a quick, late lunch, and then drove back down to the broad, swift moving Loire River and spent the twilight hours at the Chateau Villandry.

The last chateau built on the banks of the Loire during the Renaissance period (1536), Villandry's builder, Jean le Breton, constructed the castle over the remains of a 12th century fortress. During the following centuries, various owners added wings and outbuildings, reflecting the particular style of the era.

In 1906, the castle was bought by Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard, who devoted himself to restoring Villandry to its original Renaissance splendor.

Working with historians and research sources that described how gardens were laid out in France during the Renaissance, Joachim set about to bring them back to life. From this far end of the "kitchen gardens" we looked over a remarkable patchwork of "plots" each planted with seasonal vegetables -- green lettuce, red lettuce, fava beans, herbs.

Other gardens within the Chateau grounds provided a simple, tranquil aspect of still water, and swans drifting back and forth.

In some quiet corners, brilliant colors flashed out at us -- this iris type flower...

...and this opulent opium poppy.
As the light began to slip away, Matthew remembered a nifty device on his iPhone camera that takes a series of three photos at different exposures, then combines them into one, almost surreal, image, like a painting. This is Villandry at 7:30 pm!

 Next morning, we made our way to another magical place, the 15th/16th century Chateau d'Ussé, a fairy-tale building of turrets and towers...

...and gardens designed by LeNotre, of Versailles fame.

Inside the chateau, opulent tapestries hang from the walls, early examples of the finest that the weavers of Holland produced.

And in an effort to bring some of the rooms to life, "mannequin" models take their places amidst the furnishings, dressed mostly in late 19th century gowns.

The castle has been owned by the Count de Blacas family since the 1880s, and, indeed, some members of the family still live there, although none were to be seen in these rooms!

Before we knew it, our time in this beautiful part of France was running out, but we did manage to find a very charming, very small private winery (7 hectares) in the Chinon area, where we had a little "dégustation" (tasting) and came away with two bottles of their very best red wine.

Tomorrow is a national holiday here in France - Easter Monday. We'll be having a family lunch with Juliette and Sean and family -- roast leg of lamb, apple pie, and our Chinon wine. Bon Appetit!

À bientôt!

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  1. Is there a Cyfac being created for rue Reamur? Wonderful saga of visiting the birthplace of Matthew's "wheels"....

  2. What a great outing. I love the connection to the bicycle Matthew rides here in Inverness. That 'iris like' flower in the photos is spider wort. Grows very happily here in Inverness and from a few starters years ago, I now have an abundance. Come get some from me when you're back in West Marin.

  3. WOW! What a wonderful trip. Must've been wonderful for Matthew to see the hands that built one of his prized possessions. Makes it more special. Nothing sounds nicer right now than driving through the Loire Valley in beautiful weather tasting some delicious red wine. I will try and find that bottle here if possible. Cheers! And Happy Easter!
    Alex E

  4. Now have time to catch up on blog - yet again a fantastic one!! x