Sharing a luxury bike break with cycling royalty, including Tour de France icons, “is not about hero worship,” said Justin Clarke, co-founder of the specialist tour company. leblanc.
Instead, he insisted, “it’s about really good people just meeting other really good people and having a great time.”
These good times don’t come cheap. The four-day break I attended on the party island of Ibiza cost me $3,500; travel extra. Expensive, but, despite the cost of living crisis, it’s good value for money considering the luxurious ocean-view rooms, signature meals served by super chefs, and racing head-to-head with sports legends.
I told Clarke that if he charged four times as much for what LeBlanq describes as his “fun rides,” he wouldn’t lose any business.
“You sound like my board,” he agreed.
That board includes investors Simon Mottram, founder of the exclusive cycling clothing company. Raph (a lifestyle brand sold in 2017 for $240 million heirs to the Walmart dynasty) and Tim Ashton, director of the London-based creative agency Antidote.
Announcing an undisclosed capital injection, a LeBlanq press release in February said new investors were backing an “experiential disruptor at the high end of the market.”
LeBlanq is not alone; There are several exclusive providers of bike tours (Trek Travel from the US, for example), but Clarke’s UK company not only offers bespoke Spandex (Rapha, naturally) and spectacular cuisine, but also the up-close, personal contact more important with tastes. Olympic gold medalist Sir Chris Hoy and Tour de France yellow jersey winners Miguel Induráin and Eddy Merckx.
During his remarkable career in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Merckx won thirty-four individual Le Tour stages, a record he shares with Britain’s Mark Cavendish. Cavendish, who continues to ride professionally, is also on LeBlanq’s list of riders, including this trip to Ibiza.
“Everyone calls it the Merckx log,” Cavendish noted in a evening chat in ibiza, “but it is not the Merckx record; it is our Registration.”
Cavendish sat next to me at the last buffet meal of the trip, and we had traveled together briefly before. On this trip I also ran alongside the “Lion of Flanders” Johan Museeuw, three-time champion of the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic, and, at a coffee stop, I ran over the sprinter’s legs of Óscar Freire, three-time world champion . champion.
On next year’s trip to Ibiza, the star rider will be 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. A ride through Ireland will be led by Irishman Sean Kelly, one of the winningest cyclists of the 1980s.
Clarke has a good network of contacts (he was a professional cyclist in the 1990s), but says LeBlanq’s success in attracting legendary cyclists is due to the involvement of Sean Yates, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong’s. Yates later moved into cycling management. In 2012, he was the sporting director guiding Sir Bradley Wiggins through his Tour de France and Olympic time trial victories.
“Sean is probably one of the most respected people in cycling,” Clarke said.
“He is adored.”
Yates is a shareholder in LeBlanq and acts as the company’s sports director.
“Ride well,” he told the guests who had left in packages from Hotel Riomar in the Ibizan resort town of Santa Eularia des Riu.
“If you’re feeling a bit frisky,” he added, “then obviously you can push it a bit.” [on the climbs]but don’t exaggerate.”
The other key stakeholder at LeBlanq is three-Michelin-starred chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, a twenty-year veteran of Heston Blumenthal’s culinary empire and former head chef of the famed Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire.
Palmer-Watts now leads Artisanal Coffee Company., a mail-order provider of “character coffees” paired with individually wrapped chocolates. LeBlanq’s guests get samples.
Other brand connections include California’s bike sponsorship Specialized and a beer deal with cold bath preparation from Harrogate, Yorkshire. The guests on LeBlanq’s trips, although, due to a problem, not the one in Ibiza, are followed by support cars provided by Aston Martin.
And brand connections can pay dividends: Aston Martin has sold at least one car to an impressed LeBlanq guest.
“Our brand partners are very smartly integrated into the overall experience,” Clarke said.
“Everyone here will have a very close affinity now for Laurent Perrier Champagne.
“People are in awe of the fact that LeBlanq has his own Master of Wine. David Hesketh is one of the UK’s 320 Master of Wine”
Hesketh also introduced each wine, which was free flowing, and, if you wish you had talked to him about winemaking, he also drove one of the support cars that followed the riders.
In front of them, the riders are led and followed by experienced guides, in contact via shortwave radio: nobody falls. LeBlanq is “escapism,” Clarke said, not a career. Groups are scored based on experience, with a pre-ride quiz bolstered by checks on Strava profiles so riders pair as carefully as wines.
This attention to detail is Clarke’s superpower. His three-year career as a racing cyclist in the late 1990s, “I was a very average home pro,” was followed by 20 years in live events, including co-founding the Try the London Food Festival. Bought by sports marketing agency img in 2012, Clarke turned the festival into a global series of events.
“I’ve been working with many of the best chefs in the world: René Redzepi, Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal. I like working with people who are the best at what they do; they are inspiring.”
Clarke met Palmer-Watts five years ago at a Taste event in Australia.
“Ashley had just walked on stage and was just introduced as one of our amazing chefs. [and we get talking]. Ash casually said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I brought my bike.’ I was like, ‘Wow, did you bring your bike from the UK to Australia?’ I said, out of interest, what bike is it? And he said, ‘Oh, it’s a Pinarello F8. This is an amazing bike. I immediately said, ‘At some point, Ash, you and I have to do something about cycling and eating.’
The result was LeBlanq, founded in 2020.
While Palmer-Watts has cooked on some of the trips, he is more of a curator now, inviting world-class chefs to join him on LeBlanq’s trips. Tom Kitchin, executive chef at Michelin-starred Kitchin in Edinburgh, cooked for guests on a Scottish leisure trip and three-Michelin-starred chef Alain Passard prepared a meal for those on a trip to Champagne where the star cyclist was American Tour de France winner. Greg LeMond and the luxury accommodation was at the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa.
Who are the guests on these trips? Alongside fintech entrepreneurs on their fourth and fifth luxury trips of the year, there are people who gifted the trips as “the vacation of a lifetime.”
“This is my 40th birthday present,” said endurance runner Sophie Power.
“My husband is a cyclist: we love food, we love enjoying cycling.”
Swedish concrete magnate Mattias Bjork he was on his second trip to LeBlanq (his first was to Champagne), and he’ll be booking more.
“I’ve been asking Justin: when are you going to go to South Africa? Are you going to Italy? Are you going to the United States?
Bjork is likely to sign on no matter where LeBlanq chooses to visit, and that’s because of the chance to tour with legends.
“The greatest joy is the cyclists,” he told me.
“Cavendish has been riding in six groups over the weekend so we all get to know him. That is incredible.”
I traveled to Ibiza by train and ferry and was accommodated by leblanc to record this one hour podcast interview star drivers while driving. Leblanq’s $3,500 multi-day pleasure trips are complemented by less expensive but no less exclusive one-day specials. Tickets for a trip that begins and ends at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire sold out in half an hour.