A sparkling adventure ride

Champagne (la Champagne), France's northernmost wine region, is – as we all know – very famous for its sparkling wines.

The only wines that can bear the name "champagne" (le champagne). UNESCO declared the region a World Heritage Site in 2015. According to tradition, it was Dom Perignon who accidentally invented the drink in 1688 by applying a second fermentation.

‘La Champagne’ is perhaps not a region that immediately appeals to the imagination of the average motorcyclist: you won’t find any and there is very little infrastructure. The landscape is, at a first glance, somewhat boring. Open fields and dusty villages … adventurous? Naah.

I uncork a 300km route along small rural field roads and forest paths. The goal: discovering whether it is indeed as boring as people say and whether I can find other entertainment besides bottles of sparkling wines.

The starting point of the route is in prosperous Épernay, the self-proclaimed capitale du Champagne and home to many of the world's most celebrated Champagne houses. Épernay is the best place for touring cellars and sampling bubbly. The town also makes an excellent base for exploring the Champagne Routes.

I arrive in Épernay in the late evening. The hotel restaurant is already closed. But no worries: I find dinner at the takeaway Asian food a few streets away. With my bowl of “Asian mix” I sit on a bench in the crisp autumn evening, and half an hour later I find my way back to the hotel, my fingers all greasy.

A refreshing night's sleep, a baguette with cheese and jam, a croissant, and a cup of coffee later, I zip up my motorcycle jacket and buckle my helmet. I drive out of the city via the famous Avenue de Champagne, along which there are many world-famous champagne houses, including Moët & Chandon and Mercier, with a lot of enthusiasm and, still, cold hands.

In the misty morning I quickly leave the city behind me and 10 minutes later I am in the middle of the green champagne fields. Grape vines as far as the eye can see. A labyrinth of small roads cross these vast fields. Wonderful! I drive through the morning mist over the fields and hills. I've only just left, and I already feel like I'm on a journey. From this maze of paths and roads I descend to Le Mesnil sur Oger where I return to civilization. Or so it seems.

I then end up on large and wider sandy paths that take me further south. The only other road users I encounter this entire morning are almost exclusively tractors and workmen, busy picking grapes. Furthermore, it seems completely extinct here. But it does give me a huge feeling of space and “away from it all”. Don't expect cozy French terraces or touristy markets. This is the ‘great nothingness’.

Of course, I pass small village centres such as Villeneuve Soudron, Sommesous ... but apart from a local bar tabac or boulangerie, there is little to see. However, the nature, the vastness and space that you get in return is wonderful!

The gas tank of my Husqvarna is only half empty, but when I pass a gas station, I err on the side of caution and fill the tank. I won't find haut French cuisine here, so a cookie and coffee provide me with fuel to get through the rest of the day.

From Mailly-le-Camp the route runs parallel to the E17 motorway and eventually takes a bend to the west just above Troyes.

The same sequence / alternation of sand, forest and asphalt roads leads me further into the afternoon. Several paths are overgrown with grass, which is slightly different from real sand paths. You see less of what is hidden under that gras; since there could be veiny spores underneath,  I deliberately keep the pace very slow. The weather is beautiful, and the paths are 95% bone dry. The few parts where there is still water, or where the surface is still muddy, give me an indication of what this route would be like in rainy weather. Absolutely not recommended with a heavier motorcycle; you would need very good knobby tires. The surface is made of the world's most slippery clay!

From Pouvy sur Vannes to a little way past Nogent sur Seine there is a short break from more continuous asphalt roads. There are more forests here and the paths can be a little more challenging when wet. This is absolutely no problem with a lighter all-road motorcycle, but not recommended if you are on the road with a heavier motorcycle (Africa Twin, GS ...). Although of course everything depends on your own ability as a motorcyclist. Because I want to make this route feasible for every type of all-road motorcycle, I decide to avoid these more difficult parts.

In the meantime, the sun is lower on the horizon, and it is about time to put my motorcycle in the stable. I find a pleasant hotel close to the Nogent nuclear power plant. Time to rinse off the sweat and dust and go to bed. I can already look back on a beautifully filled and varied first day of motorcycling. It was enjoyable!

The next morning, a little way past Nogent sur Seine, I dive into the dirt again, but it remains doable with any type of all-road motorcycle. Here and there you will find short sections that are a bit more difficult and narrower. It is up to you to assess where your limits lie. If you are in doubt and you are alone I recommend not to take any risks and simply take a detour. You are always near smaller D-roads and a detour is always easy to do.

I must make that detour myself when my cheerfully humming Husqvarna tells me that the tank is running empty. It's great fun to drive between fields, bushes and grasses all the time, but I haven't come across a gas station all morning. The GPS directs me to Villenauxe-le-Grande. About 12 km back to the place where fifteen minutes earlier I took a wrong turn. However, I will now skip the short climb over a stony and slippery forest path. I’m not willing to give that one large stone  - the one that suddenly jumped in front of my front wheel - a second time to knock me down.

So, after I have passed the village for the 3rd time, but now with a full tank, I can continue my ride. I send my Husqvarna back into the vastness of nothingness.

For a change, approximately the last 60 km of the route runs on beautiful asphalt roads, full of particularly beautiful views, most of them small asphalt tracks through villages and fields. A truly beautiful part of France. The asphalt is not always of impeccable quality and there is often a thick layer of pebbles or sand on the track, but that certainly does not spoil the fun. This is enjoyment and motorcycling at its best!

One last stretch through the vineyards and I arrive back in Epernay. The circle is round. It takes some getting used to the crowdiness and traffic after 2 days of complete emptiness. Have I managed to make a beautiful and adventurous ride in this region? Full-bodied: Yes !

Not in the sense that it was a challenging ride on the edge or that I was able to see the most beautiful landscapes ever. But I was able to enjoy large expanses of land, a feeling of freedom, and being able to drive carefree over sand, gravel, and grass paths. And that alone is priceless.

Download HERE the GPX files from this trip!

 

 

Words & Photography: Peter De Jongh

 


 

 

 

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