Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown
French cycling exchanges pavé for ribinoù in this weekend’s Tro-Bro Léon. Endura Racing – profiled in Rouleur issue 28 – will be riding for Alexandre Blain, Rouleur’s tip for the podium. This extract from Graeme Fife’s feature on Brittany’s rough stuff is in Rouleur 27.
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.
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?” and, 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 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.