A Conversation with Justin Clarke

For over 20 years, Justin Clarke has built festivals and live events across music, sport and gastronomy in collaboration with the icons and champions in each field. A visionary himself, Justin has delivered the extraordinary Gourmet Escape festival in Australia and Taste Festivals all over the world. His previous passion was cycling as a professional and he has now founded LeBlanq, a gastro-cycling event which takes guests on 4-day trips to the most beautiful places around the world, combining rides through breathtaking scenery, led by champion cyclists and indulging in the finest gastronomy by culinary stars. Take note, ‘joyriding’ is the new travel buzzword.

20th to the 23rd of October brings a slower-pace cycling tour around Ibiza where LeBlanq will showcase the island’s unexplored wilderness, diverse heritage and tempting flavours. We see a gentler side to the otherwise physically and mentally demanding cycling discipline, now more in tune with nature and with companions. Days will be spent on bikes exploring the beauty of the island, rides will have intervals to enjoy essential coffee breaks in stunning spots and the sense of achievement will be shared at Michelin-starred dinner tables.

 

 

Tell us about how the event became a reality.

It happened six or seven years ago when I was in West Australia, organising Gourmet Escape event in Margaret River, a unique place with a unique vibe. One of the chefs, Ashley Palmer-Watts, who was Executive Chef for The Fat Duck Group at the time, just came off stage from press interviews and we were having a chat. He mentioned he’d brought his bike with him all the way from the UK to West Australia. He said that whenever he arrived somewhere new, he loved to ride his bike in the morning, get a feel for the place, the smells, the terrain and really connect. Then he’d cook in the afternoon and have an amazing dinner in the evening. So, I said to him, “Ashley, at some point we’re going to do that”, and that’s how it became LeBlanq. It’s thrilling to blend together two things you love and see them work so nicely. We do joyriding. It feels so great, you always get back from a ride happier than when you set off. You’re so much more positive, you get a natural high from being on the bike and once you’ve burnt all those calories, you’re ready to refill.

Can LeBlanq be described as a trip which is about cycling with legends, Michelin-standard gastronomy, and world class hospitality?

Leblanq is all about hospitality, on the bike, at the dinner table or in terms of relaxation. Brilliant hospitality looks effortless, it’s incredibly complicated to look effortless and takes a huge amount of work. We believe in putting huge amounts of effort to curate the perfect 4-day experience. As a guest, we just want you to have a great time and not have to think about anything, it is done for you. That’s the level we strive for and in cycling, that’s completely foreign. Cycling is normally about brutality and hardship.

We just care that you have a good time, LeBlanq is not about racing or how good you are. If you are a good rider, you probably want to ride hard. If you’re a beginner rider you want to ride easy, getting lots of instruction and help. We provide all of it. We have different groups to choose from. Participants will ride with others of similar ability and similar motivation. The black (higher level) group are pushing themselves to their limit but, again, we don’t time it. It’s about you having the best experience, remembering it and sharing it. It’s not about time or position. Lots of the riders are euphoric when they get back from the rides. It’s brilliant.

As a former professional I can tell you, the only objective of racing is to win. 99% of the participants are miserable because they didn’t win. For all the effort that goes into that, that’s very sad. Don’t do it just for the result, do it for the journey, for the process of the enjoyment. You then realise that once you change that, everyone loves their ride and is having the best time. When you have that kind of energy within a group, once you get to the dinner table, it’s so on-fire. At dinner, people are sharing their own story about what they did, where they went and how they felt. It’s a lovely social interaction which brings everyone together. At the end of a shared bike ride experience, you make connections. Lots of our participants are repeat customers. It’s become like a family.

 

 

You’ve previously hosted LeBlanq events in Scotland, Champagne, Norway and on the Isle of Wight among others, what made you choose Ibiza?
A big part of LeBlanq is about discovery. We like to show places in a fresh way. Ibiza is obviously world famous for its nightlife, the clubs and the high energy. We also knew it’s fantastic for the roads, the beauty, the gastronomy and the people. That’s why we’re here. It was a natural base. Ibiza is not famous for cycling, and we want to highlight places, open doors and windows and make new connections. There’s something about the party vibe that puts people in a good mood before they start, they know they’re going to have a good time. People have faith in what we do, they know the riding is going to be good, and they’re excited about having that celebratory pump.

You will be dining at Ocean and Chiringuito Blue and TRIBE. What is LeBlanq’s gastronomic ethos?

Our opening meal is “Time and Place”, it’s about showcasing the flavours of the destination. It’s about seasonality and local produce but also local talent and local culture. Food is culture. The way you present a plate gives people an understanding where they are. So, the opening meal is about connecting with the location you’re in. This will take place at TRIBE, in Hotel Riomar, which is full of personality and celebrates the authenticity and history of the island. It’s a very relaxed open space right in front of the sea. The team is fantastic and they really know how to make Ibiza’s best produce shine so it will be a stunning welcome dinner where guests will get a taste of the island’s famous potatoes in the classic Spanish tortilla, or sobrasada and flaó.

 

And what made you choose Michelin-star Chef Nieves Barragán for your Tour de Feast?
 
The international chef that we pick must relate to the story of the event. Nieves is an amazing chef, she’s Spanish and culturally the perfect fit for this style of event in Ibiza. She has such a huge integrity about ingredients and is highly skilled as well as a beautiful human being. When Nieves opened Barrafina in London it took Spanish restaurants to a new level. Internationally, she redefined what Spanish cooking and eating is about. The bonus is that she is also a cyclist and will ride with us when she’s not cooking!

Your longest rides will cover a large area of the island. What do you expect to share with the riders on this route and what are you particularly looking forward to?

The routes are always designed for you to feel you are better acquainted with the place than when you arrived. We want our guests to feel they’ve absorbed the terrain. One of the routes is the north of the island and goes more central and the other route is more of the south. Over the course of the 4 days the black route will have covered a lot of the island. In particular though it’s about having a road which is breathtaking. We love coastal roads, we love amazing views, and you’ve got to have a few climbs. The routes will show off Ibiza in the best way and will make the guests connect with the island.

The philosophy of LeBlanq is that we don’t want to dominate any place we go to, we want to work with it. We like to be a small group of riders on quiet roads, with the protection of the car directly behind, keeping the riders safe.

 

Can you tell us more about who will lead and who will take part in the Ibizan joyride experience?
The lead rider is Mark Cavendish, who is arguably the greatest sprinter of all time, he’s still a racing cyclist so he’s at the top of his game. He’s  become a legend before he’s retired. He’s a superstar and he’s a really, really nice guy so we are thrilled that he’s our lead rider.

Johan Museeuw, the Lion of Flanders, is the classics king, the king of one-day races in the late 90’s and 2000s. He’s done a couple of the events with us and is an absolute superstar. He’ll ride like he’s your best friend, he is so encouraging and loves cycling and seeing others enjoying themselves as they cycle. When you ride with him you have to pinch yourself to remember what an incredible champion he is. He is the rider who epitomises joyriding.

Pete Tong is a superstar dj, he’s played a crucial role in the electronic music world and he’s also a big cyclist, so he’ll be riding with us on Sunday. We also have Tom Rowlands from The Chemical Brothers joining us for the event who also joined us on the Isle of Wight. It was funny when the great Sir Chris Hoy was starstruck about meeting Tom Rowlands and it was mutual. Chris told us whenever he won the Olympic Games he always had The Chemical Brothers on his headphones.

And then we have our local star, Enrique Morillo who is amazing and has devised all the routes. He’s Ibizan, lives here and effectively all of the routes are his favourite rides. As visitors, we’re here to learn and it’s the same with food. LeBlanq is about going to a place and really getting to know it.

 

It must be such a privilege to ride with these legends in such small groups.

It is and there’s definitely a reason why we describe it as a family. It feels like that. The people in the group become your friends after such a fascinating shared experience. It’s very interesting how honest and uninhibited conversations become when you’re exercising with someone.

Normally on the Sunday guests are all swapping contact numbers and their surname becomes LeBlanq. That’s the family name. Lots of people have become really good friends outside of the events because of the events. It’s unique.

The only prize we have is ‘LeBlanq Legend’ and the winner is the person who had the most fun. It’s not a competition, it’s just for riding. That puts people at ease. When all you do is training, you’re almost not even looking at where you’re going, you’re literally heads down because you’re trying so hard. That’s great if you want to be professional rider but we ride because we want to enjoy the place, the company and the overall experience.

LeBlanq allows you to appreciate the bigger picture. It’s not just the end result that matters, it’s actually enjoying the journey. It’s such a natural fit, cycling and gastronomy. Eat well, live well.