Sharing an upscale bicycling break with cycling royalty—including Tour de France icons—“isn’t about hero-worshipping,” said Justin Clarke, cofounder of specialist travel company LeBlanq.
Instead, he insisted, “it’s about really good people just getting to know other really good people and having a really good time.”
These good times don’t come cheap. The four-day break I attended on the party island of Ibiza cost $3,500; travel extra. Pricey, but—despite a cost-of-living crisis—nevertheless good value for money considering the plush sea-view rooms, signature meals plated by super-chefs, and shoulder-to-shoulder riding with sporting legends.
I put it to Clarke that if he charged four times as much for what LeBlanq describes as its “joyrides,” he’d not lose any business.
“You sound like my board,” he agreed.
That board includes investors Simon Mottram, founder of upscale cycle clothing company Rapha (a lifestyle brand sold in 2017 for $240m to heirs of the Walmart dynasty), and Tim Ashton, the director of London-based creative agency Antidote.
Announcing an undisclosed capital injection, a LeBlanq press statement in February said the new investors were backing an “experiential disrupter at the top end of the market.”
LeBlanq is not alone; there are several upscale cycling travel providers—Trek Travel of the U.S., for instance—but Clarke’s British company provides not just bespoke Spandex (Rapha, naturally) and blow-out gastronomy but also the all-important up close and personal contact with the likes of 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 stages of Le Tour, a record he shares with Briton Mark Cavendish. Cavendish—still riding professionally—is also on LeBlanq’s roster of riders, including this trip to Ibiza.
“Everyone calls it Merckx’s record,” pointed out Cavendish at an evening talk in Ibiza, “but it’s not Merckx’s record; it’s our record.”
Cavendish sat beside me on the trip’s final buffet meal, and we had earlier ridden together briefly. On this trip I also rode beside “Lion of Flanders” Johan Museeuw, a three-times winner of the Paris–Roubaix one-day classic, and, at a coffee stop, stepped over the sprinter’s legs of Óscar Freire, a three times world champion.
On next year’s trip to Ibiza, the star rider will be the 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas. A joyride on Ireland will be led by Irishman Sean Kelly, one of the winningest cyclists of the 1980s.
Clarke has a good contacts book (he was a pro rider in the 1990s) but he says LeBlanq’s success at attracting legendary riders is down to the involvement of Sean Yates, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong. Yates later moved into cycling management. In 2012, he was the sporting director that managed Sir Bradley Wiggins during his victories in the Tour de France and the Olympic time trial.
“Sean is probably one of the most respected people in cycling,” said Clarke.
Yates is a stakeholder in LeBlanq and acts as the company’s sporting director.
“Roll along tight,” he told guests setting off in packs from Hotel Riomar in the Ibizan resort town of Santa Eularia des Riu.
“If you feel a bit frisky,” he added, “then obviously you can push it a little bit [on the climbs], but don’t exaggerate.”
The other key stakeholder in LeBlanq is three-Michelin-starred chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, a twenty-year veteran of Heston Blumenthal’s culinary empire and the former head chef of the famous Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire.
Palmer-Watts now spearheads Artisan Coffee Co., a mail-order purveyor of “characterful coffees” paired with individually wrapped chocolates. LeBlanq guests get samples.
Other brand hook-ups include bike sponsorship from California’s Specialized and a beer deal with Cold Bath Brewing of Harrogate, Yorkshire. Guests on LeBlanq trips—although, because of a snafu, not the Ibiza one—are followed by support cars provided by Aston Martin.
And brand hook-ups can pay dividends—Aston Martin has sold at least one car to an impressed LeBlanq guest.
“Our brand partners are very intelligently integrated into the overall experience,” said Clarke.
“Everybody here will have a really close affinity now to Laurent-Perrier champagne.
“People are blown away by the fact that LeBlanq has its own Master of Wine. David Hesketh is one of only 320 Master of Wine in the U.K.”
Hesketh also introduced each wine—which flowed freely—and, should you wish to have talked viniculture with him on the hoof, he also drove one of the support cars following the riders.
Ahead of them, the riders are led and tailed by experienced guides, in contact via short-wave radio: nobody gets dropped. LeBlanq is “escapism,” said Clarke, not a race. Groups are graded for experience, with a pre-trip questionnaire bolstered by check-ups on Strava profiles so that riders are paired as carefully as the 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 domestic professional”—was followed by 20 years in live events, including cofounding the Taste food festival of London. Bought by sports marketing agency IMG in 2012, Clarke developed the festival into a worldwide series of events.
“I was 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’re inspirational.”
Clarke met Palmer-Watts five years ago at a Taste event in Australia.
“Ashley had just been on stage, and he’s just been introduced as one of our amazing chefs [and we get talking]. Ash casually said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I brought my bike.’ I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve brought your bike from the U.K., all the way down 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 got to do something with cycling and food.’”
The result was LeBlanq, founded in 2020.
While Palmer-Watts has cooked on some of the trips, he’s now more of a curator, inviting world-class chefs to join him on LeBlanq trips. Tom Kitchin, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Kitchin in Edinburgh, cooked for guests on a Scottish joyride and three-Michelin-starred chef Alain Passard prepared a meal for those on a trip to Champagne where the star rider was American Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the upscale accomodation was in 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 folks gifted the trips as “holidays of a lifetime.”
“This is my 40th birthday present,” said endurance runner Sophie Power.
“My hubby’s a cyclist: we love food, we love enjoying cycling.”
Swedish concrete magnate Mattias Bjork was on his second LeBlanq trip (his first was to Champagne), and he will be booking more.
“I’ve been asking Justin: when are you gonna go to South Africa? Are you gonna go to Italy? You’re gonna go to the U.S.?”
Bjork will likely sign up no matter where LeBlanq chooses to visit, and that’s because of the chance to ride with legends.
“The biggest joy is the riders,” he told me.
“Cavendish has been cycling in six groups during the weekend, so we all get to meet him. That’s amazing.”
I traveled to Ibiza by train and ferry and was accommodated by LeBlanq to record this one-hour podcast interviewing star riders while riding. Leblanq’s $3,500 multi-day joyrides are complemented with less costly but no less exclusive one-day specials. Tickets for a ride starting and finishing at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire sold out within half an hour.