“Cycling is sport but it’s also a window on a country. I did not know this beautiful land of Léon. I discovered it through the Tro-Bro Léon as have many others. I’d love that to serve as an example, as a way of revealing the beauties of France. But, for sure, there is only one Tro-Bro Léon…”
Jean-René Bernaudeau, Manager, Team Europcar
The profile of Brittany’s coastline – a promontory thrusting into the Atlantic – evokes a horse, open-jawed, at full stretch; perhaps that magical creature Morvarc’h on which, so the story goes, King Gradlon and his daughter Dahut tried to escape a resistless tide which ultimately engulfed their city of Ys. Legend has it that, on the calm of halcyon days when the water is still, the bells of the lost city can still be heard tolling under the glassy surface of the water.
The coastline known as the Côte des Légendes runs, as it were, down the long forehead of Morvac’h (“sea horse” in Breton) and its name could not be more appropriate. Legends abound in this ragged-edged peninsula, the coastal waters of which are studded with broken reefs and craggy atolls, clumps of half-sunken rock and stone, fragments of the landmass constantly chewed off and spat out by the sea.
The sea defines the region whose ancient name, Armorica, comes from a Gaulish word are-mor-ika, “country of the sea”. Here lies Finistère, Finis Terrae, Land’s End, Penn Ar Bed, “head or end of the land”; the westernmost foothold overlooking what the Greeks called Ocean, the limitless flood surrounding Earth.
For generations Bretons have coped with, come to terms with, and defied the Atlantic fury, fishing and sailing the ocean’s teeming depths with rare temerity. No wonder that so many of their mythic demons and spirits have salt in their hair and clothes. The cannard noz (night ducks), three dwarfish washerwomen garbed in green with webbed feet who come to the water’s edge at midnight to wash out shrouds for those about to die… The eternally young and ravishingly beautiful morgens who live in the water and lure men to their deaths… Yan-gant-y-tan (night wanderer), a capricious spirit who trails bad omen like a troll but is just as likely to give the five lit candles he habitually carries to a traveller lost in the dark labyrinths of the forest.
The lighthouse beams which sweep the treacherous offshore inner sea roads might be cousin to the creature himself. Lights to mariners were not always benign. There is a dark history of wreckers on these shores just as across the strait in Cornwall, close kin to Brittany, false beacons to draw boats and ships onto, not away from, the reefs by callous folk in quest of plunder. There was a legal and lucrative “right of wreck” but helping the delivery of a wreck along was an old, if disreputable, game.
When Rome’s power collapsed and the rampaging Visigoths moved in from Iberia and south-western Gaul to take the pickings, Armorica became a haven for peasants and slaves as well as for dispossessed Roman citizens fleeing the wild hordes. Not much later, Britons fled the Angles and Saxons to join a people whose language of Brythonic Celt they shared.
The defiantly independent character of Bretons is thus not only forged and tempered by the unpredictable moods of the coterminous sea, the tidal surge, the climate and terrain, but atavistic, deep-rooted in their past. The ebullient little cartoon bruiser, Astérix, embodies the spirit; an innate resistance to central authority.
A report on regional languages published in 1794, when the revolutionary leaders in Paris were trying to impose French universally, fingered Brittany as a hotbed of sedition, an incorrigible nest of social and political deviants: “Federalism [ie. anti-republicanism] and superstition speak Breton”. Even today, the French government refuses to recognise Breton as a legitimate language although it has since 2008 condescendingly allowed it to be “part of the patrimony of France”. That is, a sort of theme park demotic.
Pugnacity, you might say, goes with the territory and other, more recent, legends emanate from Brittany: Jean Robic, Louison Bobet, Cyrille Guimard, Bernard Hinault, bristling racers all, nine Tour wins amongst them. And while Guimard never won the race he is undoubtedly the finest director of Tour winners ever: Lucien Van Impe, Hinault, Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond. Guimard has something of the magus about him, a druid, perhaps, a Breton wonder-worker.
The druids, a Celtic priestly caste possessed of preternatural powers, wore their hair long and were reckoned to be sorcerers. Thus is Jean-Paul Mellouët described as “the druid of Kergounoc”, a reference to his address in Lannilis, north of Brest. The originator and founder of the Tro-Bro Léon – or TBL, a tour of Léon, the north-west part of Brittany – is a long-haired, self-confessed ‘60s flower child, fan of the Stones, “très rock”, and a former club cyclist: “I was useless.”
“jpm”, as he is called – he modestly insists on lower case – embodies the laid back artist although any meaningful relationship between rock and roll and professional cycling is a queer eccentricity beyond my grasp. A passionate Breton, born on a farm in Kerlouan near the coast, he created the TBL in 1984, inspired by visits to races in Belgium – cobbles, rough tracks, dust and mud, frenzied crowds. His aim was to help fund the local Diwan school to which he wished to send his sons.
Diwan means seed in Breton and the first school so named was founded in 1977 to offer children immersive education in the Breton language. Privately funded to this day because the central government neither recognises nor subvents them, they offer a curriculum taught exclusively in Breton from the age of two till seven and a half, thereafter with an admix of French.
The young jpm himself had been told, when he went to school in Lannilis, “You’ll have to talk French there” and felt very intimidated. He was born in 1949 and, in the post-war years, schools in Brittany routinely posted notices warning the children that it was “forbidden to talk Breton and to spit on the floor”, ranking both as equally abhorrent. The effect was expressly to make native-speaking kids ashamed of their social status, their heritage, their difference.
This was a mistake. Provocative. Consider the Breton motto – Kentoc’h mervel eget bezañ saotret (Rather death than dishonour) – and some lines from their anthem, sung for the first time in 1898, in Léon:
Brittany, my country, how I love my country
As long as the sea is like a wall around her
Be free, my country.
Brittany, land of the old saints, land of the bards,
There is no other country in the world that I love as much;
Each mountain, each valley is dear to my heart.
In them there still sleeps a heroic Breton.
The Bretons are a people hard and strong
No people under the heavens is as fervent
Sad laments or cheerful songs still among them
Oh, how beautiful you are, my country.
The idea of immersive education in native language began, way back, in French-dominated Quebec as a way of resisting encroaching American influence. For Bretons, the offending influence was that of Paris. And for jpm, ardent man of Brittany that he is, the idea of a bike race round his home region of Léon combined a method of raising money to sponsor native culture and a means of showcasing the beloved pays, the natal land, that notion so dear to the French.
There was another ingredient that made the planned race special, different: the inclusion of a number of sections of ribin (plural ribinoù). These largely unmetalled farm tracks are shortcuts across the open fields, linking roads composed of packed earth, often compacted with stones, some loose, frequently with a grassy ridge down the centre. The ideal ribin, says jpm, “shouldn’t be too broken up, not too many potholes and with grass down the middle – that makes it more rustic.” These off-road byways also serve as escape routes for people on the way back from the bar, allowing them to bypass police breathalysers.
The first TBL – organised by jpm, his brother, and a few friends – was for amateurs; 152 kilometres, four or five ribinoù. Like Henri Desgrange in 1904, however, jpm didn’t expect there to be a second edition of his race. “It was a mess. The first two riders missed the race route. We’d daubed the arrows in a crazy hurry – overturned a pot of paint in one volunteer’s car…” But of course there was another edition the year after, 170 kilometres, and “the arrows were so well-executed that the local highways authority told me to cover them up with tar.”
A shy, taciturn man with an unswerving will to get done what he wants to get done; enormously patient, capable of sitting through protracted objection to any proposal he makes and then repeating with quiet insistence what he’d asked for at the outset, jpm has another similarity with Desgrange: he seeks ever to improve, to make new demands, to extend the original vision.
Opened to pros in addition to amateurs in 1999, TBL became a fully professional race the following year. From a budget of 8,000 francs for the first edition in 1984 to one of €250,000 today, the 2011 race (UCI rating 1:1) covered 206.4 kilometres with 25 ribinoù sectors totalling 34.2 kilometres. A couple of years ago a journalist from Le Monde, flourishing his intimate knowledge of pro bike racing, called the TBL “the Breton Paris-Roubaix”. However, jpm pooh-poohs the analogy. True, some parts of the race are off-road but there really is no biddable comparison between the pavé and the ribinoù.
As to the organisation of the race – route, sponsorship, securing television fees, publicity, administration in advance and managing the event itself – everything is done by a headquarters crew of 18 volunteers and some 600 willing bods on the day. But at the heart of the huge workload remains jpm himself. There’s always a deficit of between five and €10,000 after the race that has to be made up by running a number of lotteries, but the cruellest depletion, however, is on jpm’s own energy.
He’s said it before and he said it again this year: “This time, for sure, I’m stopping. Someone else will have to do it next year.” Of course, no one believes him and one local journalist has already said that for jpm to quit would be “a crime against cycling humanity.” In 2008, he added to the burden by organising a cyclo-sportive for 300 riders running the day before TBL starts, with a percentage of each entry fee given to the Diwan.
I drove the course with two men from the Vendée who had ridden it, together with their friend, Jean-René Bernaudeau.
Your photographer and I join the milling crew of motards waiting for their boss, Jacky Coat. “Yes, he’s coming,” one tells me.
“He looks like a boss?”
“Sure. This high [gestures, about a metre], talks a lot, he’ll arrive on a BMW.”
Under a druidical circle of trees, a knot of Breton pipers warms up – if that’s the right phrase given the weather. Idiot French pop blares out from a building across the park.
Knowing about sea frets from years living near the Norfolk coast, and having witnessed a curious phenomenon in Brittany when a mist over the sea makes the offshore islands seem to float in mid-air, I ask my motard informant: “What happens if there’s fog?”
He shrugs. “Turn the headlights on.”
Monsieur Coat glides up on an electric blue motorbike and swiftly assigns your photographer to the pilot, who assures his charge that he speaks English. Coat grins at me and says: “Il parle anglais comme une vache espagnole,” a standard insult for murdering a language.
Finding the promised seat in a car for me proves more problematic. Having asked various individuals who, other individuals assured me, were in charge of press cars but who, individually, assured me that they had nothing to do with press cars – including, ultimately, jpm’s son – the time eventually came for force majeure.
I phoned jpm himself. Hadn’t wanted to bother him but, as I told Gi Keltik, part of the organisation upon whom I stumbled late in my quest and who seemed to take my predicament more to heart: “I’ve had it up to here. I’ve come from England to follow this race and if I don’t get a ride now I’m going to lunch.” You know how seriously the French take their meals. So, jpm appeared, quiet guy, no fuss, took his son aside, short confab and I get my seat, all smiles. I forfeit lunch. Back to the press room in the school. I go into the loos. A lurking man calls out, somewhat abrasively: “What are you doing?” “Going for a pee,” I say.
jpm lets fall the black and white Breton flag and the 177 riders of the 28th Tro-Bro Léon ride out, among them seven of the Sigma Sport-Specialized team. I’d had a quick word with Sid Barras beforehand about his guys. Oh yes, steep learning curve, no time to recce, problems with the radio, not doing every race with them. “I’ve got other things in my life but… if I can help them… Listen, I need to get out otherwise I’ll get stuck. It’s happened before. Cheers.”
My companions know the course and so we cut some corners, scoot through small villages moored in big fieldscape, hot bright sun, cornflower blue sky, and onto the third section of ribin: 1.6 kilometres. It’s a good’un, two strips of tarmac and a verdant herbal mohican down the middle. We’re ahead of the race, motos and cars stirring a haze of dust, horns blaring from time to time, spectators hanging back in the verges. A stretch of hedge and out into open farmland – they grow a lot of potatoes round here. We overtake a team car, move through to the end of the track and park to wait for the riders in the early break.
They emerge from the dust as if in a mirage, the carbon frames and wheels speaking the uneven surface in a percussive staccato. Heads down, the judder of the ribin going up through arms, shoulders, neck, and they’re past. We follow, into the mist of fine precipitate, earth particles and heat haze. The course regulator roars through, perched on a moto, waving her arms up and down like she’s pretending to be a seagull. She keeps blowing her whistle and glaring at us. The driver leans out of the window and says something like “What’s your game?”
Ignoring her gesticulations, we chase up and latch onto the bunch of escapees. One rider tosses a bidon to a woman standing by the roadside.
“That’s thoughtful,” remarks the driver, “and for the environment, not to make rubbish of it.”
The fourth stretch of ribin is much rougher: stones, fissures, rutted. The break surges through and you can feel the urgency in their acceleration as they swing off the path and onto smooth road. Another seven kilometres and we’re into woodland, an old village, stone buildings, some abandoned; the ribin markedly rougher; bikes dance like barefoot runners on hot pavements; and suddenly, a steep climb out of the dell, cruel tax on legs and lungs, loose stones cheating traction, a nasty hairpin. This is Le Vern, famous round here. Not quite a muur, more of a revetment.
We park again and wait for the main field to go by; that expected but never less than thrilling sizzle of collective power, drive and intense concentration, the potency of a bee swarm. Back in the car and another dodge across country to rejoin the route in the basse marée, an inland area of shore below the tideline which, despite being ringed by a protective dune or bank, is nevertheless frequently inundated with sea water to form a saltmarsh. A few years ago the Tro-Bro Léon had (unusually) bad weather and the ribin here was a saturated trench of sand.
It’s dry as chaff today and we drive out onto the coast road along a line of fragmented cliffs, the pale green-blue sea swilling around protruding rocks, dark patches marking the colonies of seaweed below the surface – they burn it, hereabouts, for extract of iodine, and it’s also a source of fertiliser. We skirt a fishing village, Meneham, close by where jpm grew up, swinging round a serpentine road bordered with large boulders. Not quite the famous dolmens and menhirs of Celtic Brittany, more the residue of rival gangs and their giants’ exchange of hurled stones.
Another steep climb, the Haut de Kervaro, lined with cheering people like any alpine pass, some Breton flags waving, and on past the Château de Keroüartz. The race goes through its grounds; the riders like a pack of post-revolution citizen hunters flaunting their new right to kill game on aristocratic demesne.
The route drops down to the road skirting one of the many inlets fretting the coastline. On fine days, locals call this the Aber Ac’h: the Mermaid’s estuary. On days when the weather is bad and there’s a likelihood of wrecks, it belongs to a witch, Aber Gwroac’h.
From it, a long drag of ribin – not steep but dreadfully wearing – takes the riders up to a short stretch of road and then the penultimate track, nearly two kilometres of pitted hard ground to shred the muscles. The final stretch, a stony path through a tunnel of woods, forms part of a finishing circuit which the riders negotiate four times. The crowds are dense. We rattle through – the view ahead obscured in the dust kicked up by wheels – and then exit the car for a view of what is the decisive break.
They have it to win, this small group, but the finishing line – once, twice, three times – is like the threat of the bonk when there’s no more food and the tank is draining. Every passage saps more energy, strength and will. On the final approach, there are only two riders with enough left to up the ante: Vincent Jérôme (Europcar) and the Canadian road champion Will Routley (SpiderTech).
It was from a precarious perch on the rim of a scaffolding tower that I watched them come in, Routley wilting at the last, Jérôme lifting his arms in the victor’s salute, only minutes away from raising both arms again on the podium to clutch the winner’s supplementary prize of a small piglet. “Ce n’est pas cochon,” they say, for “Hey, wow!”
For Bernaudeau, still aching from the sportive the day before and managing a team which had to earn notice under new colours, it was… pas cochon. For your photographer, his face grimed with dust, a certain bafflement – in all that dust and scooting around, on and off the hot moto (I saw him once, knee-high in grass in a patch of open ground, scanning the landscape for a panorama), would the pictures carry the story?
He went off to wash, I scribbled the last of my notes, we joined the sludge of traffic trying to get out onto open road and, finally, drove away from Lannilis, the late sun at our backs, across the green pastures of Brittany.
I pondered things various and a Breton folk tale came to mind, Les Deux Amants (the Two Lovers) as recounted by Marie de France in her wonderful breton lai: widowed king, beautiful daughter, she comes to marriageable age, he’s reluctant to lose her so imposes a task on any suitor who presents, to prove themselves by carrying her in their arms up a nearby mountain. Many make the attempt and fail. Meantime, daughter has fallen in love with a young nobleman who, presumably doubting his strength, has held back.
It’s okay, says daughter, my aunt’s concocted a magic potion that will see you through. Here. (Shades of Astérix and the empowering draught the druid Getafix brews for him.) He takes her in his arms and sets off up the steep slope. Take the dope, she says, seeing him flag. No, he says, and struggles on, clean.
He makes it to the top but, alas, collapses with exhaustion and dies. She throws the phial of potion aside and dies of a broken heart. But the spilled potion makes the ground fertile for medicinal herbs. The mountain became Le Côte des Deux Amants (it’s actually near Pîtres, outside Rouen).
The moral? Oh, come on. Train harder.