It was on the first afternoon, as I stopped to rest beside a lovely Burgundian chateau, that I recognized what a singularly plush bicycle tour this was going to be.
Oh, I had read the literature and knew that Butterfield & Robinson, a Toronto travel agency, had booked us into some of the top-rated hotels and restaurants in the region, that the daily mileage wasn't too taxing, and that our luggage would be carried ahead to the next hotel in the company van. But what about those steep hills out of Nuits St. George after lunch, and why was I still puffing if this was to be such a joy ride?
Now in the shade of the chateau of Aloxe-Corton, with its whimsical yellow mosaic roof, a few of us rubber-legged cyclists chanced to meet a couple from Boston on a freewheeling bike tour of their own planning. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and yet their fancy Motobecane equipment was so weighted down with luggage and other paraphernalia they might as well have been riding fat-wheeled old Schwinns.
They confessed that the going wasn't easy on French hills lugging so much cargo. Furthermore, one of their bikes had been slightly damaged on the flight from Boston to Paris; they had had difficulty weaving their way out of Paris; and - contrary to expectations - they had found that only certain French trains permit one to pack bikes aboard.
All of a sudden the strain of those steep hills was forgotten. And the wisdom of the Butterfield & Robinson way - pricey as it may be - was understood. What this specialist in expensive and exotic travel has sought to do is take the Spartanism out of bike touring, while leaving in the exercise and adventure. In fact, at breakfast that morning in the comfortable one-star Chapeau Rouge in Dijon, our two guides (Tom Hamilton and Craig Brown, Toronto lawyers-turned-summertime guides) had handed each of us minutely scaled Michelin road maps and told us in so many words: ''You're on your own.'' They would be driving the van and attending to other logistics, and we could either follow the company's suggested routing, or find our own way south to each day's destination.
Butterfield & Robinson has managed, in all of its adult bike tours, to wed those often mutually exclusive diversions, exercise and eating. In the season ahead, beginning in May and running into October, you can pedal and dine not only through Burgundy, but also the Loire Valley, the north of Italy between Milan and Venice, London-Paris (with a channel crossing from Newhaven to Dieppe) , and the Alsace region in eastern France. Each 10-day tour costs about $1,100 per person, not including air fare. For further information, contact Butterfield & Robinson at 330 Bay Street, Toronto, Ontario; telephone (416) 864-1354.
In my group of 25 - mostly Canadians, some couples, some solos, a mother and daughter from Toronto - there were no candidates for the Tour de France, but neither were there any two-wheel novices, though the banker from San Francisco admitted his motive was much more gustatory than athletic, which he proved once or twice by catching a train to the next town and letting the van carry his bike.
Though we were advised to pack sweaters and rain gear for September in Burgundy, T-shirts and shorts were the uniform of the day on the almost balmy week we spent negotiating the 140 miles through reddening vineyards from Dijon to the Beaujolais village of Romaneche-Thorins.
Breakfast and dinner were part of the package, but lunch we sought out on our own - and what a wondrous daily task it was. Some hunted down the best restaurants they could find and hoped a comb or a lipstick would conceal a morning's heavy pedaling. One day on the road between Beaune and Chalon sur Saone, a couple from Toronto dared to appear at the Lameloise in Chagny - one of only 18 restaurants in all of France accorded three stars by Michelin - without reservations and wearing T-shirts and shorts. Voila, they were seated immediately and served the meal of their lives (for $73.50 US), complete with a visit from the chef.
The popular luncheon choice, though, was picnicking, which in France can be a profound experience. The only barrier was the clock: Village shops generally close from 12 to 2 each day, so our most furious pedaling was reserved for 11:45 . Rain, when it happened to fall, could also threaten the best-laid picnic plans , as it did on the fourth day out, between Chalon and the walled town of Tournus.
That was the closest we came all week to the dark ages of bike touring. Two of the less Spartan members took a look at the dripping skies over Chalon and chose to ride the train to Tournus, a 12-minute trip. I was in a group of a half-dozen that waited out the rain, then followed our guide along the muddy Saone. Our hardy Peugeots and LeJeunes couldn't cope with the soggy, rutted trail, so for a long stretch we walked our bikes. Finally we found a paved road leading away from the river - not one of France's scenic waterways - and just before noon rolled into the village of Boyer.
Months from now when the one-star meals and two-star inns have faded from memory, I will still cherish the little epiceries like the one we found in Boyer. From this sublime version of the corner grocery we picked out Gruyere, Camembert, two crusty baguettes, grapes and apples, chocolates, Evian water, and a three-franc jar of mustard. Then for want of a dry patch of grass in the environs, we laid out the provisions on a mossy stone bridge at the edge of town and ate standing up, a la Nathan's. That, and not the ensuing downpour that accompanied us all the way into Tournus, is how I will remember biking in Burgundy the Butterfield & Robinson way.