Tour de France for the Masses?

by Richard D’Ambrosio
Tour de France for the Masses?

Levine has built a business out of his love of cycling, helping clients experience the Tour de France for themselves. Photo: Andy Levine.

Social media images of Andy Levine, CEO and founder of DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co., might lead you to believe you would find him competing in this year’s Tour de France, celebrating its 105th edition on July 7-29.

There he is on Facebook, in full gear, riding for charities with famed cyclists George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde. This May, he was in Israel, joining riders at the Giro d'Italia, as it wound through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

While Levine might occasionally be seen at the front of a peloton, mostly he lives to democratize cycling for the public. He wants everyone to experience the thrill of the wind blowing in their face during the day, as they savor the thought of dining on Michelin-star menus and sipping vintage wines at night.

“There’s nothing like it, the breeze in your face, your eyes taking in the sights, the people you meet,” said Levine, who has been promoting cycling tours through Boston-based DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co. for more than 20 years.

“There is no better way to feel immersed in the culture, see locals in their real habitat, feel good about yourself and clear the mind,” said Betsy Donley, an active traveler, and a travel advisor and independent affiliate of Camelback Odyssey Travel, a Virtuoso member in Phoenix, Arizona. Her company books about 10 clients a year with DuVine, though it works with other suppliers, like Backroads, as well.

“Pulling in to a lodge, whether it be tents, cabins or a hotel, at the end of a day of biking through beautiful countryside, villages or attacking a hill, gives one a feeling that just cannot be understood unless you've done it.”

An inauspicious beginning
Levine started out as a skier, hitting the slopes for the first time when he was three years old. It wasn’t until a few years later that he learned how to ride a bike.

When he moved from Boston to Colorado to attend the University of Denver, he took up mountain biking and found he had a love for putting on races and film festivals. “I never made a dime, but I came to realize that I loved getting people together.”

After Levine graduated in 1992, he toured France on two wheels, with a plan to “ride my bike and have some fun.” That summer changed his life, as he fell in love with the French people, their food and their wine.

“There I am in Burgundy, watching barrels being made, seeing people picking grapes in the vineyards, smelling the flowers in the street. I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to get people to see this.’ But it wasn’t like I had a business plan. All I wanted to do was stay there and blow people away, the way I had been blown away,” he remembers.

Levine started offering tours through the Burgundy countryside in 1993-94, even taking out an ad in the Wall Street Journal – which netted him a grand total of three phone calls. In 1996, he incorporated his business, launched a website, and the business began to grow.

Today, DuVine offers about 300 itineraries (public and private) on five continents and in 22 countries, utilizing mostly small, independent luxury properties. Trips range from introductory Level 1 itineraries (defined by a few flat miles), to Level 2 or 3 trips (which could include a full day of riding and the option of adding some challenging climbs, like sections of the famous Tour de France).

“The majority of our clientele is level 2-3,” Levine said, but the company’s electric assist bike bookings have grown 70 percent recently.

As a boutique company, Levine and his tour managers curate every trip, adding 3-4 new itineraries each year, including new wrinkles on established trips. “It’s important to keep tweaking what you do have. I like to think of us as artists. We get this canvas ready, checking out possible accommodations, places to eat, vineyards. Then we paint it, and then we put it up for sale,” he said.

For 2018, DuVine added trips to Japan and South Africa, but they also recently added villas to a Tuscany itinerary.

“There is such a deep well on these tours. When I travel looking for new trips, I like to go in like our clients do, not expecting much. That’s how you get blown away. You need to taste, smell, see things you never experienced.”

The personal touch
Travel agents with luxury clientele value working with DuVine because of their attention to detail.

“They are so easy to work with and so flexible, especially for bespoke, private bike experiences for our VIP clients,” said Jack Ezon, president, Ovation Vacations, New York, which books about 50 clients a year with DuVine.

Ovation positions DuVine for clients “who are more focused on biking and gastronomy. They tend to offer more serious bike trips as opposed to other great biking outfitters,” Ezon said. “We say that ‘biking is the new golf.’ Clients want to be active and explore the world, which explains so much of the biking tourism explosion.”

“Andy's enthusiasm and drive, his involvement in community and global projects and his care for the product really infuses the product," said Donley. "When a guest is on a trip with him, it solidifies their attachment to DuVine. His Tour de France trips make him an icon.”

For example, last year, when fires raged through the Sonoma and Napa wine region, Levine quickly organized a fundraising cycling tour with Swiss cycling brand Assos. About 250 riders joined him, including Levi Leipheimer, an American former professional road racing cyclist and two-time U.S. national champion.

“I have a lot of friends with the hotels and wineries there and was watching the news. I felt a duty as a traveler, as someone in the industry who cares about the region. We had to figure a way to give back,” Levine said.

“Andy is a guy with a lot of heart. He has spent years riding every hill in Sonoma and Napa and has become pretty committed to the region,” said Joe Bartolomei, owner of the Farmhouse Inn in Sonoma County, who worked with Levine on the fundraiser. “It was just a great thing to do for this community.”

Levine’s strong personality plays such a vital part in the company, Ezon said. “Andy’s passion for food, wine and challenge is everywhere. His tours are in some spectacular corners of the globe, and no matter what, pretty things and amazing gastronomy finds its place in front of you.”

Donley appreciates the personal care that Levine provides. “I love it that after one trip with a very good client of mine, the client emailed Andy directly. In his response to the client, Andy copied me into the email. I appreciate that loyalty,” Donley said.

“I try to work personally with each one of our agency partners,” Levine said. “So many of them are high-end agents, and they respect the relationship.”

Levine said he is happy with the consistent steady growth (approximately 10 percent annually) his company has experienced, though he believes the increased interest in e-bikes could accelerate sales.

Also, advances in technology, like personal GPS devices, and more off-the-beaten path hotels improving the quality of their food and amenities, holds hope for more cycling tourism. For Levine, he is going to continue venturing out on his favorite mode of transportation, encountering new friends and places, and scouting out new possible itineraries.

“It’s what I love most about what I do. You never know what’s around the corner,” he said.

Tip of the Day

As travel advisors, we have to be curious. Curiosity leads to impactful connections that pave our road to success. - Jenn Lee, VP of Sales and Marketing, Travel Planners International

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