En Vosges

This week I spent three days in the Vosges region of France at the Moustache Bikes factory in Thaon-les-Vosges which is just down the road from Epinal, where I was based. On the face of it a foreign jolly in work time, the reality was two consecutive 18hr days and a 12hr day travelling back to the UK on Friday. A very inciteful trip nonetheless and I’d be lying if we didn’t have some fun there too. Here is a breakdown.

Sam and I were flying from Heathrow on a 7.50am flight. Heathrow was the only direct flight available to Basel, Switzerland, the nearest airport serviced by direct flights from the UK. I looked at part-fly, part-train and even driving but flying direct was the best option all round. I was up at 3.30am and we left about 4.30am, Sam drove up from Gloucestershire so his day was even longer.

A traffic-free 90 min drive down to Terminal 5 was made easier with the meet n great parking I’d booked. Park up, hand your keys over and away to check in. We negotiated a tiny queue at check-in and breezed through security to the departure lounge giving us just over an hours wait and time to destroy a massive breakfast. We’d be travelling into late afternoon so that gave us something to tie us over.

The flight left on time and was a quick up and down 75 min flight which landed on time. We were row 6 on the plane and they let passengers off in small groups front to back so we got off and through border control pretty much first with no queues.

To get to Epinal we were due to meet some other guys from a couple of other UK dealers, Fully Charged and Spoke and Motor. We must have waited 30 mins at the Europcar desk before the Fully Charged chaps rocked up but no sign of the other guy. Weirdly, Basel airport is an airport split either side of the border with France. We were on the French side but we had to collect the car booked for us from the Swiss side. So up and down an escalator and we’d crossed the border!

A nine-seater Vito sorted, we began our 2hr trip to Epinal except the French speaking sat nav was trying to take us off the toll motorways to avoid them which added an extra 20 mins on to the journey. That got sacked off!

The Vosges region is a lovely part of the world and quite remote from mainstream travel connections, like motorways, mainline trains and an airport. I last drove through there about 15 years ago to attend the Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi event in Bergamo, Italy. The first thing I noticed when we arrived at our Hotel Ibis in the centre of Epinal was how cold it was. Really cold. We checked in and dropped our bags and went for a walk around the town to try and find something to eat. Epinal is typically French as there isn’t much open after 2pm. All the restaurants and cafe’s were closed or closing so we ended up in Subway. Masks and a scan of your COVID pass are mandatory in France at the moment. No drama, they just scan your QR code off your phone. Done.

Back at the hotel, we got an hour’s downtime before we had to go to an evening reception and factory tour. Back in the van and it was about a 20 min drive in the pitch black to an innocuous looking industrial estate and unit. For a factory knocking out 60,000 bikes a year it was quite inconspicuous. No massive signs, or lights or even a fancy reception. We just walked in unannounced and milled around until the Moustache staff popped out and met us. The building is effectively in three parts. The offices where we were, the factory which is warehousing and production.

After the meet n greets and a drink, an Irish chap called Seamus, who runs production, took us on a very interesting factory tour explaining how the warehousing works, he showed us the bike build stations and how they operate and why that way and how they pick the bike build kits and build their own wheels on site too. They can build a bike from scratch in about 35 minutes and the wheel building setup is something to behold. An employee spokes up a hub and laces the wheel on a machine and then it rolls out into a machine that automatically trues it then into the next one which pre-stresses and tapes it. Finished and all done in minutes ready for another employee to fit the tyres and tubes.

Factory tour done, we drove back to Epinal for some dinner in a local (random) Irish pub. I was on the local Pils beer and tried the smoked fish n cabbage main dish but it wasn’t the best. Sam went for the burger, good choice you’d think but I’m pretty sure it was almost raw in the middle it was that pink. The food wasn’t a hit but the beers flowed and were free of course. Tired, I got to bed about 11pm, midnight in the UK for a 7am local time (6am UK) alarm to do breakfast and get to the factory again for a morning presentation, lunch then riding PM.

The morning’s presentation in the Boardroom gave us a great insight into who Moustache actually are, where they’ve come from and where they want to be. Elements of it were quite eye-opening given the depth of their R&D and their partnership with Bosch which is quite unique. It gave us the tools to explain to our colleagues and customers why the bikes are so good and the price they are.

Moustache are a relatively young company, only 10 years old and they have grown from 1300 bike sales to 60,000 in that time only held back by COVID recently. Owned by founders Manu & Greg, who live locally, the company has a real family feel to it, currently employing 160 staff and seemingly growing all the time. That’s staff and building space. Everybody locally, knows who they are. It’s arguably not in the best location logistically but they are so passionate about their roots they just overcome those obstacles and factor them into their future plans. You get the sense there is no question they would ever move from the region. Why would they? It’s beautiful.

Presentation done. We’d covered a lot, finally going through all the new models. Lunch was provided and we then all got changed to go riding their ebikes in the local forest in Epinal which is where they actually test them. The forest is just outside of town and is a dedicated freeride (VTT) area with a mass of trails criss-crossing the woods. When we got there is was sub-zero. I’d planned for cold weather and brought all my winter gear, gloves and boots but I was still frozen to the bone waiting to go. Moustache had their events team setup for us and we got setup on bikes by them before being taken on a 2hr tour around the trails. I was on a Moustache Samedi 29 Trail 4 and Greg, the co-owner joined us too which was nice

Now I haven’t ridden an MTB properly for a long, long time yet alone an electric one so I was pretty green. A real novice. Sam was in his element and said come and try this short, sharp hill next to the car park. I engaged eMTB mode as recommended and pedalled a fast cadence and the bike just went on and on, up and up as it got real steep at the top. All I had to do was steer it. It blew my brain! I tried it again with assistance lower in Tour and Eco and I could still make it expect with non, that was too much because of the weight and the gradient. What an awesome piece of kit!

Off we pedalled as a group into the forest taking various single track up and down. Some fast and flowing, some quite technical. Early on I crashed quite heavily banging up my wrist and knee which was a tad embarrassing. Just a rookie error, seat too high on a slope too steep with my front brakes on too hard, so I went over the bars. Later on in the session though I began to get the feeling back, just let the bike go and it was much easier, plus I was more aware of using the dropper more too. But man, it was freezing cold and after a couple of hours and the light fading we called it a day and got back to the hotel for a hot shower and some downtime before dinner.

my pride hurt more

My deodorant had been confiscated at Heathrow so I nipped out to get another and then chilled for an hour before we went out for dinner again. Same Irish bar, same beer but the food this time was much better. A nice cheese and salad starter, a beef main and some ice cream for dessert. Washed down with some red wine this time for a change and I’d finally perfected asking for more in French too rather than just pointing at an empty glass!

After the meal a few of us descended to the bar for more beers and cocktails. Later, a couple of the Moustache girls departed so we snook in a final beer at a posh cocktail bar around the corner before bed at midnight again.

Travelling back on Friday was slightly different as we drove back with a couple of Irish guys who were catching an earlier flight than us. It meant hanging around Basel airport for a couple of extra hours but they passed quickly. On the way, French customs had stopped us and briefly searched the car and asked where we were going etc. They were pleasant and understood us. Beware though! Switzerland is expensive. Sam bought a baguette and a bottle of Orangina at the airpost for 12 euros, thats circa £11. Ouch!

Coming back was really easy again, a quick flight that was about 10 mins early and we breezed through passport control. The only hold up was a 30 min wait for the car and trying to get around and off the M25 at 5pm but once we got on the M40, we had a straight run and I walked in my door at 7pm. Knackered. Sam had an hours drive back on top. I’m glad I didn’t.

All in all a great trip which gave us a both a lot of info to impart to the rest of the company and made us want to own a Moustache bike too.


3 thoughts on “En Vosges

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