Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What can indoor cycling instructors learn from wine?

I am reading a fascinating book called The Widow Cliquot, about the widowed woman in the late 18th century who made Veuve Cliquot the powerhouse champagne that it is today (”Veuve” means widow, and when widowed in that age, one always kept the title, unless one remarried). It’s a wonderful story about this entrepreneur, one of the few women business owners of the world at that time (widows were given a lot more freedoms than married women back then). But it’s also a mesmerizing story about the world of wine and the development of the champagne industry from around the French Revolution and into the post-Napoleonic period.

The author describes how the really great vintners of today are truly scientists. They are very skilled in the chemistry of winemaking, and are master technicians in selecting, storing and blending varietals to create the magical elixir you bring to your table. Sure, Mother Nature plays a role, especially in a vintage year where everything comes together exquisitely, the perfect blend of arid soil, sun exposure, the right amount of heat but not a heat wave, the timing of the rain, and a dry harvest. But even when everything is perfect, it’s the skilled and knowledgeable winemakers who set themselves apart from the others, creating a true masterpiece. These skilled scientists can charge more for their wines. And when everything isn’t perfect (like most years – vintage years only come once every 10-20 years), that skill can make or break the end product. Some years they will need a little more of this varietal, some years a little more of that one. If it’s a one-varietal wine (like a cabernet), they might blend more or less from different vineyards to arrive at that perfect combination. Sometimes they must age it longer, some years the alcohol content is higher, there is so much behind every glass you pour.

The result? The people drinking the wine may not know (or even care) what has gone into the creation of this wine. All they know is they like this bottle! They savor the enjoyment it brings, the pleasure of sipping it, and the masterful way it melds with their meal. The science is behind the scenes, but without it, the wine wouldn’t be as enjoyable or successful.

You, the knowledgeable instructor, are like the wine maker. You know there is so much behind every class you teach. You eagerly learn the science so that you understand the why behind everything you do. The more you know about physiology, the better your product will be. You blend the elements of a class masterfully to create the perfect profile. On some days it's higher intensity, on some days it's lower intensity with a mental focus, some days it's right at threshold; but each application is with intention, your intention. Your focus and attention to detail allows your students to train smarter, not necessarily harder. You blend the elements of mindfulness, motivation and music to create a class that wows your students. You add that secret ingredient that gives your class the "fizz"!

The result? Your profiles make sense. Your students love the product, and they enjoy the resulting increase in fitness. They may not really understand the science behind the effort, but there's just something different about your class, that savoir faire that you have, that sets you apart from your peers. You have them intoxicated!

Not every class will be perfect - you can't have a "vintage" class every single time you teach! But that's when your skills are even more important, so that your students have a great experience every time.

The science? Sometimes it's fun to teach them that part too. It's like going to a wine tasting or lecture where you learn about the the vinification process, the residual sugars in the different wines; what it is that gives them their characteristic aromas and taste; the choice of casks that impart entirely different flavors; why they use oak barrels or stainless steel. Did you know that champagne is fermented twice? After it ages in casks and goes through the first fermentation, additional yeast and sugar is added when it is bottled. The yeast "eats" the sugar (fermentation) and the result is carbon dioxide. This was originally a "mistake" in the 17th century, one that the monks fought hard to get rid of - no one wanted bubbles in their wine for God's sake!

Wine tasting is fun, and it actually improves your understanding of why you like or dislike a certain wine, and can even teach you how to appreciate that varietal that you normally pass over in the wine shop.

The class where you educate your students about what you're doing and why you're doing it is like that wine tasting. You give them just enough information to pique their interest, to get them to nod their heads in understanding. In the process, they expand their own knowledge, they appreciate their workouts even more, they appreciate you even more. How lucky they are to have an instructor who serves such delicious treats, and occasionally explains how to do it! You may hand out additional information for those who want to learn more - just like you'll receive at a wine tasting.

In the process you may teach them that they really can enjoy an endurance ride, because now they know and appreciate what is going on behind the scenes (in their bodies).
And then on other days, you just let them enjoy that glass and savor the delicate flavors without complicating it with too much information.

Here's to you and your students! Chin chin!

[A little background: As a bicycle tour guide in France and Italy since 1989, I've had the great fortune to not only ride through some of the most famous wine regions of these countries, but also to experience their wines and often take my groups to wine tastings in each region. I also love to ride and taste wine in Napa and Sonoma in California. But my favorite experience is from Alsace, a wine growing region in the northeast of France, on the German border. I have friends who own vineyards in Alsace. I met this couple, Martial and Catherine, while on a solo self-supported bicycle odyssey in France in 1988, and we've remained friends every since. Their wines are Reislings and Gevurztraminers, normally not my preference for varietals, but when I'm there, I love them; they go so perfectly with the food of the region, and I believe there's an "energia magica" (there's that expression again - maybe I should say it in French in this case - une energie magique) when you're in a vineyard that attracts you to those wines. I was lucky enough to experience a harvest one year, actually going into the vines and picking, then watching the whole process from pressing to storing. The incredible body of science behind it is mind-boggling. Before they selected vines for harvesting, Martial showed me how he measured the residual sugars in the grapes. "Nope, this vineyard needs one or two more days. We pick those over there." The best part of the harvest? The celebratory elaborate dinners they have each evening, of course opening up a couple of bottles from some previous vintage years. I hope you can have this same amazing experience one day; it is one I will never forget. Kind of like a Master Spin class that stays with you forever!]