In the House of the Pope

There are those roads that convince you you’re better than you are. We were riding in the Hautes Alpes east of Mont Ventoux, a region that balanced gracefully between alpine and Provençal, when we began descending a road called D942, an Ophidian squiggle of asphalt that drops with just enough deliberate verve to allow a reasonable cyclist to run out of gear. For a late afternoon in August it’s the vacation jackpot.

I’ll admit that I was looking for even more speed, that my rhythm through the turns couldn’t come at too high a tempo. Something primordial was begging for more and I aimed to deliver.

I stood to wind up the gear just a bit more when I caught a whiff of something simultaneously alien and familiar. It was like seeing a picture of my mother as a child. I couldn’t quite place it.

Then, with the suddenness of a microwave bell, I cruised around a right-hand bend and had to hit my brakes hard enough to cause the rider on my wheel—my girlfriend—to yelp like she’d been pinched. Ahead, at this point by only 20 or 30 meters, was a large flatbed truck stacked chest-high with bales of freshly picked lavender.

For a moment I considered diving over the yellow line and sprinting by the truck. But before I could make that mistake, my brain registered the scent coming off the truck. The perfume of the lavender was so strong it choked oxygen from the air. I couldn’t even smell the diesel exhaust coming off the truck. Lightheaded though I was, I decided to luxuriate in the wash of the lavender. I’d never encountered anything like it—a fragrance with the power to alter my perception. Had you told me that it was hallucinogenic, I’d have believed you. My senses of smell and even taste were so beguiled I sat behind the truck, rolling at 15 mph for a couple of miles because I didn’t want the feeling I got from breathing in the aroma to end.

That lavender should be so brilliantly purple when mature seems a kind of justice, truth in advertising on the part of the universe. I mean, what else should something that can cause you to lose your train of thought look like?

Later that afternoon, our tour group gathered in the reading room at our hotel to discuss the next day’s route. We opened a couple of bottles of wine—all of which I was skipping because bicycle racing—when the hotel manager dropped by with a special bottle to say thank you to our guide for visiting their hotel for the third time that season.

People began to pour shy glasses of the red and exclaim in lavish tones what a great wine it was. With less than two glasses of the ruby liquid remaining in the bottle, I asked our guide if I might have a sip.

“Just a bit. I’d like to find out what the fuss is,” I told him.

Here’s what happened in the weeks following our trip: I learned that the wine was a Chateauneuf du Pape from Vieux Telegraphe, grown in the shadow of Mont Ventoux and that our bottle, the 1996 vintage, was given 96 points by a prestigious wine magazine. It was, in short, a bottle that didn’t so much demand respect but acquire it. Of course, at the time, I knew none of this. I took the first of the two tiny sips I was afforded and what happened next made my experience with lavender seem like I’d just walked down the produce aisle at the market.

My mouth was bombarded with more flavors than I could inventory. There was bright fruit, berries and cherries, spice, white pepper, a minerally dustiness and a hidden ingredient, like a cool fire, something that could expand air and cause thousands of synapses to light up like streetlights along a highway.

I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Hold the phones, Marcy! What just happened in my mouth?”

Her name wasn’t Marcy. I blame the wine.

Before that day I’d had good food, good wine. But that sip of the Southern Rhone taught me why the French care about cuisine, why it matters, why slow food is a thing, why wine has built empires and torn them to the ground, why wine itself can be a religion.

In a single afternoon I’d been baptized and made an acolyte. The irony was that as cycling had made my world bigger, it also made it too big to keep racing bikes, to keep chasing such a monkish endeavor. Wine and food, I found, were to become a more interesting draw. I gave up one pleasure of the flesh to chase two others.

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This was first published in Bike Hugger Magazine.

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