Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Green Line

Michelin is best known for its tires. After that, its reputation as the arbiter of the greatest achievements in gastronomy is only mildly in dispute. For the veteran traveler, the guides to hotels and tourist destinations—le guide rouge et le guide vert—are two inarguable sources of helpful information. What most people can’t reconcile is how a company known for making tires for cars (and motorcycles and bicycles, of course) could also be the consummate reviewer of restaurants. The connection is as tenuous as, say, an action film star becoming Governor of California.

But there is a connection and when you see it, suddenly Michelin’s magnanimity takes on such mythic proportions as to seem like a new take on philanthropy. The connection between Michelin’s pneumatic products, its restaurant guides, hotel guides and tourist guides are maps. You see, Michelin is in the travel business. Rather than offering package tours, cruises or cheap airfare, they supply those items a traveler of roads might need: Directions, food, lodging and a good time. What could be more obvious?

Its three-tiered ranking system awards stars based on criteria that have been called incontrovertible, objective, idiotic, old-fashioned, ingenious and arcane. Even if not everyone agrees to the judgments, the system is easy to understand and offers travelers a reasonable starting point for trip itineraries.

But perhaps Michelin’s greatest achievement aren’t the tires or the primers on Gothic architecture or the surveys of French wines, but that most necessary of travel aids, the map. Due to a map's essentially objective nature there isn’t much to make it likable or revolting in measures small or large. Yet Michelin has found a way to distinguish itself by offering maps that are easy to read. And because it is the Michelin staff’s very nature to evaluate and review whatever it encounters, its cartographers have determined that not all roads are created equal. Some roads, to paraphrase, are more equal than others.

The green line is Michelin’s way of saying, ‘You’ll remember this drive for the rest of your life.’ Now, depending on just where you are, that might mean beautiful or breathtakingly precarious, but that’s your call. The larger point is that every road that offers an exemplary view gets a green stripe hugging the road itself.

Those green lines are a cyclist’s best friend after the bike itself. An interesting road is like news: To keep one’s attention, there must be changes, undulations, unexpected twists and turns. No one ever called the driving in Nebraska beautiful. And yet everyone talks of a drive through the Alps as being beautiful, but also a little scary.

For the cyclist who uses maps as a way to fantasize about the vacation not yet taken, Michelin maps are the HDTV of the cartographic experience. Arguably one of the finest spiral-bound documents ever assembled is Michelin’s atlas of France. Compiled in 1:200,000 detail, the atlas leaves no asphalt ignored in its corralling of each and every road in France. And as great as that atlas is, Michelin offers other treasures you may not know about unless you visit France. Little known are the 300-series maps in 1:150,000 scale. The green line threads its way up and down mountain passes like ribbon through a young girl’s braid. Each switchback and chevron spell a cyclist’s playground, an epic day just waiting to happen, a family album to the Tour de France, monuments to the greatest battles on French soil.

9 comments:

tjh said...

Oh sweet painful memories. Those 300-series maps are works of art. A buddy and I rode along the last 12 stages of the tour in 97. We blitzed it carrying as little as possible. As we entered each region, we would buy the new map and mail the previous one home. While climbing the pyrenees, everything was subject to jettison...except the maps.
They were priceless for navigating your way around the road closers.

Sam said...

In 1992, I "followed the green lines" on a solo bicycle tour through England, Scotland and Ireland. I'll never forget the feeling of independence *not* having a guidebook - or worse, paying for sag support or an organized tour.

Now when I see the fat tire guy on TV I am reminded of the best trip of my life.

Smiker said...

You are spot on with this commentary on the green line. Bim first introduced me to the green line in 2004 on a circuitous trip through the alps and then pyrenees. These past few months have seen me 'on the continent' for a week or two at a time, always making sure I've grabbed a michelin map. And yes, there have been a few epic green line days!

Anonymous said...

334 LOCAL: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes: 1/150 000

Alpes d'Huez, Galibier, Croix de Fer. Col de Granon. Tous "Parcours Pittoresque"

1000km en mai 2007. Fantastique.

Rich W said...

Yes! I did a solo 3 month 2800 mile tour of europe back in the late '80s. I still have the tattered maps with the stains from the brie! I spent hours pouring over those maps. One of the best experiences I've had (and I've been around a bit).

granny gear said...

Cartographers cast a dim light on a poorly illuminated world.

SofC said...

You chose a particularly good piece of map for you picture! Col D'Allos into Barcelonette is one of my favorite places in the world.

erik k said...

where do I find one of these amazing maps?

bikesgonewild said...

...while google-maps is an awesome display of technology, there is nothing like the tactile sensation of unfolding a good map & perusing all that info...