Cycling vacation offers guilt-free gluttony

Sally Kohn, CNN CommentatorPublished 4th August 2015
Fine food and wine are great motivators on a cycling vacation through France.
Editor's Note — Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.
(CNN) — I imagine that people travel for all sorts of reasons. Me, I like to travel to relax and eat. Basically both in as much quantity as possible.
Those are my top two priorities, especially when going anywhere without my 6-year-old.
So when my partner suggested that we take an active biking trip for vacation, I was quick to object.
But it turns out that using a vacation as an opportunity to get fit isn't as bad an idea as it sounds. In fact, if you do the getting fit part alongside the eating part, the vacation is virtually guilt-free.
It's even better if you go somewhere with lots of wine and butter. We chose France.
Before booking our vacation, I had never biked more than 6 miles at a time.
When picking specific trip options in France -- via the fantastic company Backroads -- I wanted to take one of the beginner options, like the Loire Valley, which boasted few hills and short routes. My more-optimistic partner wanted to do Provence, which we were told was one of the hardest biking trips in the region.
So we met in the middle -- figuratively and almost literally. We booked a six-day, five-night trip in the Bordeaux and Dordogne regions.
The trip involved biking at least 12 to 30 miles a day with a 500- to 1,600-foot elevation gain. If you, like me, have no idea what that means, then you, like me, might be lulled into thinking it sounds easy. It's not.
Or, let me clarify, for the folks on the trip who were twice our age and had biked the entire length of Canada the previous summer, it was easy. For us, it was not.
Neither my partner nor I are what you would call "regularly athletic." I hate exercise. She likes it but never has time for it.
And while we were both more naturally fit in our younger, pre-parenthood years, I now have to rest my foot on my knee to tie my shoe. Aging sucks.
We had plans to "train" before the trip. I must confess that this ended up involving more training for the wine-drinking part of the vacation than for the biking part.
Though I like to think both are important, we probably each should have had a couple of double-digit mile bike trips under our belts before heading off. But we did down a bunch of bottles of Bordeaux and read up on the terroir of the region. We were very good about that.
How did it turn out? Well, I learned that you can do anything for five days and that the human body is an amazingly adaptive machine. I also learned that vineyard tours and five-course French dinners are great motivators.
And Advil is a great bedtime snack.
Cyclists pass through small villages and vineyards on their way to the next delicous meal.
Cyclists pass through small villages and vineyards on their way to the next delicous meal.
courtesy SAlly Kohn
We ended up biking 20-plus miles each day for five days; on at least one day, we clocked over 40 miles. Which, by the way, is even more in kilometers and thus feels even more impressive.
And before, during and after each trip, we had baguettes with brie and crisp rose wine and buttery fois gras and complex Bordeaux -- enticing and coaxing us along each day. And when you've biked 20-plus miles, you don't feel a single bit of guilt about devouring an entire plate of duck fat and then mopping up what's left with bread.
During the rest of our trip, which we spent in Paris, we did the multicourse eating and drinking part without the biking part.
We did walk a bit, but mostly we sat or slept. And I'm not gonna lie, while every bite was as delicious, we felt heavy and full -- of food as well as guilt. On our Bordeaux/Dordogne trip, the exercise was hard but also liberating.
Plus, we used vacation not as an escape from accomplishing things but as an opportunity to accomplish something new. I enjoyed that experience more than I had expected.
I was prepared to come back from our France bike trip both ready to incorporate more Bordeaux-region wines into our dining life but also ready to be "a biker."
I was going to bike every day, I told myself, and even learn how to bike in traffic in New York -- something that had always scared me but felt a little more doable now.
And then I fell off my bike.
The second to last day of the trip, I made a stupid error and took a horrible spill, tumbling over the handlebars of my bike and skidding to a stop in the middle of the road.
Thankfully, I was wearing a helmet, but I still managed to skin my chin, rip my shirt, bruise my sternum, fracture some ribs and get a concussion.
CNN political commentator and amateur cyclist Sally Kohn took a nasty tumble on her first fitness and fine-dining trip.
CNN political commentator and amateur cyclist Sally Kohn took a nasty tumble on her first fitness and fine-dining trip.
courtesy SAlly Kohn
Since then, my newfound biker identity has been on the backburner. And I've been snacking on more Advil.
I also realized, in one quick moment, why it's worth it to pay extra for a well-organized bike trip -- and from my research and everyone I talked to, the folks at Backroads are top-tier.
Not only do they organize beautiful, thoughtful "backroads" bike routes with easy-to-follow directions and high-quality bike gear, but when you moronically brake with only your front brakes and go flying onto the pavement, a van showing up to provide first aid is a welcome sight.
And especially for first-time active travelers, it was comforting to know that support was always nearby.
At first, I didn't realize how badly hurt I was. Thank you, adrenaline.
And since my bike was entirely unscathed, I got back on and pedaled another 10 miles. Because I had a wine tasting to get to, darn it, and I wasn't about to miss out.
I had earned it. And some Advil.