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.