Many of us have probably been on a cycling tour or two. A few of us may have even dreamed of setting up our own tour company. Today, I wanted to bring you an interview with Alex Baines-Buffery who has accomplished exactly that. Combining the experience of wine tasting and cycling, his new tour company Wine Rides, is certain to be an interesting experience for cyclists.
1. How did the idea of setting up a bicycle tour company come about?
Cycling through the wine country in Germany, we stopped one day realising we had pedalled right in to the middle of a massive wine festival. It was an opportunity not to be missed!
We simply had to go around and sample all the local wines.
The party atmosphere and the fact that we chanced upon it by cycling to this strange place, made it all feel more magical. It wasn’t a huge leap of the imagination to see that cycling and wine really go well together. A year or two later, we went away for a weekend to Hastings and started cycling around Britain’s wine country.
The majority of our vineyards in the UK are in a part of the world called the Weald of Kent. It’s a mediaeval landscape that hasn’t changed for about 400 years. It was formerly the geographic centre of Roman iron production and was formed during the same geological period as the Alps in France. During several outings, south of London, We just found ourselves starting to gravitate towards vineyards.
Buying a bottle of wine and drinking it later with friends always made it seemed like you’d come back from your trip with a trophy. Eventually I realised that my work in TV as an Associate Producer setting up shoots, should give me the skills I’d need to set up my own touring company.
2. What are your dreams for Wine Rides?
My hope is that the experience I’ve gained setting up documentary TV shoots all over the world will help me create interesting and inspiring holidays for people here at home.
Wine Rides Ltd should play its role in getting people out of cars and onto bikes. Cyclists have already discovered the joy of cycling through the countryside, getting the full HD experience rather than a passing view from a car window. I’d like to bring that to as many people as possible.
In practical terms, that means I want to get to the stage where we’ve got four trips running at one time. Working with two pairs of vineyards, with cyclists travelling in opposite directions, will give us that real kind of festival feeling every weekend.
3. What have some of the challenges been along the way?
The biggest challenge was my own fear: leaving the work you do, is scary.
When you first have an idea, even if you’re really passionate about it, you’ll quickly find a lot of naysayers. The most amazing thing though is the transformation in people’s attitudes. When I first floated that I was thinking about building a business like this, a lot of people immediately threw up doubts. Very few people then went on to say how we could solve those problems.
The changing point is when I started looking people in the eye and telling them “I’m doing this”. They immediately have a very different response. I think when people realise that you’re actually going ahead, they must internally think: “well he’s doing it, so it must be a good idea!” When you commit to doing something, it becomes a lot easier, people start supporting you, they start telling you who they know, who you could speak to who might be able to help.
I suspect that is typical of anybody setting up a business. You just have to believe that you’ve got the ability to work around the problems. The thing that I’ve been most pleased with is that people do really seem to want this.
There is a sense of community among cyclists; we want to be taken seriously. We want more services offered to us; we want more businesses starting that are thinking about cyclists first. I really hope more people do what I am doing and have a go at setting up cycle related companies.
4. What are some of the first rides you are offering?
On 25 May we are doing a pilot ride. That’s one where everyone coming is providing their own bike and tent, and we’re doing the trip at a substantially reduced cost which includes: Two nights, 3days cycling (planned route), two dinners, 2 breakfast, one lunch, two wine tastings (6 wines each), and snacks. Instead of £275 pp for the weekend it is £95, that’s as low as we could get it without re-mortgaging the house!
I’m running that weekend with my brother who is a cordon Bleu trained chef. We are doing it at a reduced cost, because we want to get some feedback from our first customers on how we can improve the weekends. If any of your readers want to come on that and be a part of making Wine Rides a reality, then we would be delighted to have them.
There are only a few places left, if you want to register your interest for the pilot weekend, then you should email info@WineRides.co.uk.
Our web site is: www.winerides.co.uk
5. How did you research your rides?
The British wine industry is still a really small and friendly place and these businesses support each other. I collated a list of their phone numbers and cold called all of them. I then had to go and speak to them in person and see which ones we could work with.
I’m also lucky that I worked at ITV for a short while on a series called: Ray Mears: Wild Britain. The final episode of that series was in the Weald of Kent, which is this area of the UK. It also happens to be the area of the UK where Ray lives, so was an episode that was really close to his heart. Doing that show I fell in love with this area. It is beautiful and has a fascinating history. Apparently all the Cornish pirate stories are actually based on real events with French pirates that happened on the coast of the Weald.
6. Where do you hope to expand it to next?
That’s an interesting question: I don’t think the answer is geographic. I think I want to expand into the winter. When we’ve got the summer holidays working perfectly, I think we can focus on trips which look at using mountain biking or cross-country biking as the primary activity.
7. What’s your favourite wine?
Wines are like children. You’re not supposed to have favourites, but you do. The trick is to avoid saying what it is so people don’t judge you.
Without a shadow of a doubt my favourite wine is Port. I am desperately waiting for a friend to get back to the UK so I can share a Sandeman port with him that has been aged in an oak cask for 20 years.
I recon, you can often tell where someone grew up by the wine they turn to when they have a steak. If I am treating myself I don’t want to mess it up with a bad wine selection, so I will always turn to what I know: Full flavoured South African reds. I served fleur du cap at my wedding and would recommend that as well. That wine will always have a special place in my heart.
Finally, I love to drink wine in context. I don’t think I have ever had a Lambrusco in the UK, but I have wonderful fond memories of the farmer’s wife who rented us a cottage on our honeymoon in Italy bringing me a bottle every other day. I would sit there and read The Name of the Rose, drinking the local Lambrusco and eating Parma ham, all in the landscape where they were created. You can’t replicate that at home. And nor should you. We have a deep, rich food culture here in the UK and a fantastic history. If you want to know what wines we have here in England that are worth boasting about then you will have to come on Wine Rides and sample them and decide for yourself.