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Tro Bro Cyclo sportive review: Hell of the West

In-depth
15 Apr 2020
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With its sectors of rutted farm tracks, the Tro Bro Leon is Brittany's answer to Paris-Roubaix. Cyclist travelled to the western tip of France to tackle the amateur event

Words Joe Robinson Photography Alex Turner

People from Brittany are Breton before they are French. Tucked away in the northwest corner of France, Brittany is a region shaped by the harsh Atlantic weather. It is rugged but homely, and Bretons are the same. They can be tough, they can be abrupt, but they are always welcoming.

Bernard Hinault is Breton. Jean-Paul Mellouet is also from Brittany. The directness of his emails before my trip and the warmth of his handshake on my arrival tell me that. His background is important, because without it the Tro Bro Leon cycling race wouldn’t exist in the first place.

In 1984, so the story goes, Mellouet was looking for ideas to help fund his kids’ Diwan school. ‘Diwan’ in Breton means ‘seed’ and the school system was created in 1977 to teach the Breton language to the local children.

During Mellouet’s youth, he had spoken Breton in secret. Central government in France discouraged Breton and even created posters warning young children against two things: spitting in the street and speaking Breton.

Diwan schools were privately funded – they still are – so Mellouet, his brother and a handful of friends organised the first Tro Bro Leon over three decades ago to raise funds for the schools.

Inspired by a trip to Paris-Roubaix, Mellouet envisaged a version that swapped cobbles for the ribinou gravel farm tracks that criss-cross the fields of Leon, a county in the far west of Brittany. 

With a budget of 8,000 francs (about £900 at the time), Mellouet managed to get his race going. At first the Tro Bro Leon was strictly for amateurs. It covered 152km and included only five sectors of ribinou.

Riders got lost and a car was ruined by an overturned pot of white paint, but the event happened, and then it returned for another year. And it has continued to return and grow with each passing year since.

Some 35 years on and Tro Bro Leon is a UCI category 1.1 one-day professional race, 205km long with 26 sections of ribinou. It also has a sportive, the Tro Bro Cyclo, which takes place the day before, and Cyclist is here to give it a crack.

Oh, and did I mention that the best-placed Breton rider in the pro race wins a baby pig?

Back of the pack

Jean-Pierre is a kind man but a bit too relaxed for my liking. It’s 8am and I was supposed to be on the start line by now. Instead I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Jean-Pierre’s VW Scirocco, knees to my ears, bike in the boot, waiting for him to fill the tank with unleaded. 

It was certainly generous of Jean-Pierre, a friend of race organiser Mellouet, to offer to be Cyclist’s chauffeur to the event but, thanks to his nonchalant approach to timekeeping, I’m pretty certain we are going to miss the start.

Jean-Pierre sees me staring at my watch and offers a Gallic wave of the hand: it will all be fine.

He’s right. When we arrive at the start in Lannilis riders are already leaving, but in no time I’m sitting astride my bike at the back of the pack with a number pinned to my jersey. Yet while I may not have missed the start, I feel like I have already used up a fair amount of my energy reserves purely in nervous tension.

‘Alright mate, are you on your own? Fancy riding with us?’

Also loitering at the back of the pack are Graham, Vedran, Anton and David, a quartet of riders from southwest London who seemingly have no trouble spotting a fellow Brit among the throngs of locals. They are wearing CS Gruppetto club jerseys. I accept eagerly, because I’m fairly sure I’m going to need all the help I can get today.

We’re the last people to leave the start village and soon we’re alone. It’s not long before we see a marker directing us onto the first sector of ribinou, the fearsome Keradraon. 

This is the Tro Bro Leon’s answer to Roubaix’s Arenberg Forest and perhaps the most iconic part of the annual pro race. The dirt track drops downhill, and as my speed rises I’m forced to make some quick decisions about which line to take. I choose a line and stick with it, hoping not to come a-cropper on a large chunk of gravel. 

I can hear stones pinging off my rims, and my bike shakes like a drill as I head blind into a tunnel beneath a main road, the darkness leaving me unable to see the road surface ahead.

I make it through unscathed and let the speed from the downhill slingshot me over a short uphill stretch before emerging blissfully onto the smoothness and quiet of a tarmac road.

The signs are not good

You can search through other magazines or websites, but you won’t find another account of an amateur riding the perilous Keradraon ribinou in the Tro Bro Cyclo sportive. It’s not because it’s so tough that no one lives to tell the tale, but because it’s not actually on the route. 

After 10km of riding, my Gruppetto friends and I begin to wonder why we haven’t seen any other riders. Turns out we’ve gone off course.

We were told to follow the yellow arrows by a guy who, with hindsight, we realise was obviously not part of the sportive organisation. The yellow arrows are for tomorrow’s pro race. We should have been following the red arrows.

Five minutes of squabbling and 20 minutes of retracing our steps gets us back on track, but we’re now half an hour adrift of the pack. Me and the CC Gruppetto boys really are the gruppetto.

Rough and the smooth

Mellouet has his own ideas about what constitutes a perfect section of ribinou. He says the ground should be compact, free of potholes, scattered with loose stones, with a grassy centre.

The Keradraon certainly didn’t live up to that definition, but once we’re back on track the next few sections are true to Mellouet’s word, being comprised of compact gravel that’s neither too technical nor treacherous.

I cover the ground quicker than expected over the initial sections, which lulls me into an expectation that the rest of the day will be much the same. Good weather has dried any moisture from the exposed land, making the mud hard and ideal for riding. Apart from the occasional big stone, it feels almost like riding on tarmac.

A farmer on his pony and trap eyeballs us as we pass through the towns of Milizac and Saint-Renan. We ogle the pretty French houses and bemoan the impossibilities of home ownership in London.

Such is the serenity of it all I find my mind wandering away from the efforts being forced through my legs – until my nostrils are hooked by the smell of the sea as the road thrusts us over a steep bump and onto the coastline. 

It reminds me of Cornwall. Crystal-blue sea blends into golden sands that spread into rich green fields. The hills roll rather than peak, and some of the farmhouses are so old they’ve been swallowed by foliage, making them look like they’re made from twisted vines and leaves.

As in Cornwall, tiny hamlets hug the many small coves, which are peppered with houses painted in pastel shades. Fishing boats bob in the bays and the air is fresh, with a hint of salt. It’s the kind of place I’d like to retire to. 

Running dry

I’m 80km in when my reveries about a cosy dotage are replaced by a gnawing worry that I’m running out of food and drink. I’m making good progress, but the April sun is hot and I’m tooting at empty bidons. My lips are claggy and I can feel the first hints that my legs are cramping.

With every corner I hope to see a feed station. I dream of a little marquee tent with a foldout table brimming with cakes, pastries and cool water. But it never comes.

Eventually we come to a collective decision to stop in a town called Plouarzel and find a bar. The ageing owner happily fills our bottles with ice-cold water and even treats me to a Twix and a Fanta before making a joke about pouring us a beer. Oh, if only.

Back on the road I feel slightly refreshed, but I seem to have lost my bearings. I’m clueless as to how much more gravel I have to endure. The sections of ribinou roll by, and as my tiredness increases I find it increasingly difficult to control the bike over the rougher terrain.

At one point I have to unclip to prevent from tumbling into a verge. I skid to a halt and I’m not sure I have the energy to get going again. For a moment I consider beginning my retirement right now. I could just sit here and surely that farmer on his pony and trap would take me in? I could help out on the farm to earn my keep.

Eventually I get going again, digging into my reserves and following the wheels of my Gruppetto friends as they lead me over the final few sections of gravel to home.

True to their name, the Gruppetto and I cross the line dead last. Not that it matters. We roll through to the start village, dump our bikes and tuck into ham baguettes and beer. As the strength returns to my body, I thank my lucky stars that Jean-Pierre managed to get that tank of petrol and me to the start on time. 

The details

Fun on the farm

What: Tro Bro Cyclo
Where: Lannilis, France
How far: 112km
Next one: April 2020
Price: €17
More info: trobroleon.com

Do it yourself

Travel

Ryanair offers a direct flight to Brest from Southend with prices starting as low as £7 one way, although it only operates once a day on Fridays and Mondays, so could prove quite limiting.

You could take the overnight Brittany Ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff, which is just a one-hour drive from Lannilis. Prices start at £115 and you can even attend a black tie party on board.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the Couett Hotel (couett-hotel-brest.fr) on the Plage du Moulin Blanc just outside Brest. Prices start at £58 per night for a twin room. It’s basic but you can keep your bike in the room.

Some rooms even have an ocean view and it sits above a Paul patisserie that opens surprisingly early, despite being in France. It’s also only 20 minutes by car to the start of the sportive in Lannilis.

Thanks

Many thanks to race organiser Jean-Paul Mellouet for bagging us a place to stay and entry into his sportive. Thanks to Eric and the Raleigh bike shop in Brest for providing a bike and to Jean-Pierre who, despite speaking no English whatsoever, happily carted me around all weekend.

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