Nice is an all-year-round tourist destination but visitor numbers were certainly boosted by having this year’s centenary Tour de France in town. I found myself passing on the email addresses of my friends at Cycle Cote d’Azur and Mec’Azur to visiting cycling-mad tourists.
Okay, so I’ve written about the former but who or what you might wonder is Mec’Azur? All will be revealed in my interview with its owner, Anton Blackie.
Sheree: Tell me about Mec’Azur. How you came up with the idea?
Anton: I wanted to live in Nice and use the skills acquired during ten years in the bike industry to pay my rent. I just love cycling and I suppose I also wanted to prove to my parents that my time on the bike hasn’t been wasted.
Mec’Azur offers a range of services for travellers and locals from collecting riders and their bikes from the airport and re-assembling them so that they’re ready to ride, to carrying out basic maintenance, repairs, services and bike washes. We also attend to breakdowns or malfunctions while you’re out on the road.
Sheree: A bit like the RAC?
Anton: Exactly, but without the membership fee!
Sheree: I frequently ride on my own and I have your number on speed-dial, just in case! What’s the mix of business between visitors and residents?
Anton: It’s probably weighted towards holidaymakers, although I do now have a number of regular contracts, such as assembling bikes for Ironman Nice. But I’m picking up more and more work with the locals, particularly among the professionals who live and train down here.
Sheree: Here I was thinking that the professionals love tinkering with their own bikes.
Anton: Some do but many don’t, and in fact they often don’t take particularly great care of them. I recently adjusted one well-known professional’s head-set while we were riding up Col de la Madone together. I can completely forgive them as they’re so great at riding but ideally they should be training on a perfectly set-up bike.
Sheree: Which is where you come in?
Anton: Exactly! This year I’ve spent a lot of time riding with pros who have just moved here or who have come down here to train. It’s great spending six or more hours in the saddle with them. I have learnt so much from riding with them even though I consider myself an experienced rider.
Sheree: I know exactly what you mean. Even though there are lots of good cyclists down here, you can spot a pro a mile off. They’re always so at ease with their bikes.
Anton: Not forgetting their typically high cadence.
Sheree: So what have you learned?
Anton: It’s little things, really.
Sheree: Oooh, would we be talking marginal gains here?
Anton: We might! It’s things like understanding which line to take on descents, when and how to apply the brakes. Just little tips but they make a big difference.
Sheree: I’m sure tales of your rides with the pros are much appreciated by both your custom ride clients for Cycle Cote d’Azur and your Rapha Travel clients – another of your roles.
Anton: Absolutely, it gives us something to chat about over the dinner table in the evenings. Rapha‘s clients typically have demanding jobs and really appreciate being freed from the strictures of the office to enjoy the great outdoors and the freedom of just cycling. Everything else is taken care of for them.
While we’re out riding, I like to share some of the history of the area as well as cycling’s rich history with them. It just helps to take them completely away from their normal environment.
For 12 guests, we’ll typically have a couple of guides, a soigneur who’s worked at numerous grand tours and a professional mechanic to take care of the bikes. If we stay in a villa rather than a hotel, that will have its own chef and supporting domestic staff.
Sheree: Sounds as if, like any grand tour, it involves long, tiring days.
Anton: It does, generally from 6:00am until midnight, but it’s also great fun. Simon Mottram, Rapha’s CEO, believes the trips are the ultimate expression of Rapha.
Sheree: You mentioned that you like to discuss cycling’s rich history with clients. I know you’re also an avid collector and dealer in cycling memorabilia. Tell us about that.
Anton: I’ve always been interested but it’s really taken off since moving down here. It helps that a number of past champions, such as Rene Vietto, came from around here. At one time, nearly every professional used to train here in the winter months and race against the amateurs in events that have since disappeared from the professional calendar.
The south of France also used to be a mecca for track cycling with a velodrome in pretty much every town, including Nice. Now you have to go all the way to Hyeres, in the Var, to find a track.
But it’s against this rich background that I’ve found a whole network of people who are into cycling memorabilia. I met an ex-trackie – who was also a former boxer – and he’s taught me a lot about what’s of interest and where to find stuff. We also take the H-van full of goodies to races such as l’Eroica, which tends to attract others interested in cycling collectables.
Sheree: You also hire out your lovely Citroen H-van, don’t you? They’re just so wonderfully nostalgic and epitomise cycling in France in a particular era.
Anton: Yes and I really enjoy tinkering with it to keep it on the road and running smoothly.
Sheree: Cycling’s really on a bit of a roll at the moment, many say it’s become the new golf?
Anton: I think for a lot of people it’s the perfect escape from their day jobs. You’re out in the fresh air, enjoying fabulous countryside and you’re riding on the same roads as the pros and with the plethora of sportifs, under not too dissimilar conditions. I enjoy watching the professional peloton race on roads on which I regularly ride.
Sheree: Me too! In fact I find myself riding along with them and shouting out instructions to the television like “Watch out, the next one’s a really tricky right-hander and there are often damp leaves on the apex!”
Anton: When I lived in England, I would often head over to Belgium to watch the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and having watched those races live helps you to make much more sense of the racing on the television.
Sheree: I would encourage every cycling fan go and watch some live races. It really makes you appreciate the speed at which they travel and the climbs they tackle – even more so if you ride them too. It’s often these more difficult rides that you do as one-offs for clients, isn’t it?
Anton: Yes. It can be clients who are tackling specific challenges such as the Haute Route and who want to properly prepare beforehand or it might be someone who just doesn’t want to ride one of the major climbs on their own.
Sheree: Anton, thank you for your time. It’s always inspirational to talk to someone who’s made their dreams a reality and is doing something they really love.
In addition to Mec’Azur, Anton also provides bike boxes for those travelling from the Cote d’Azur, like the gentleman below who might be a familiar face to one or two of you.
Anton also moonlights as an in-house model for Cafe du Cycliste, a local Niçois clothing range with a similarly retro feel to some of his collectables.
If you’re interested in cycling collectables, check out Anton’s site or ask him to look out for specific items for you.