Saturday, 9 July 2011

Mur de Bretagne - Cap Frehel - Dinan

This was the week I and two mates took ourselves off to our house in Brittany, with the dual aims of doing some riding and watching the Tour de France.  And a great week it was too....

We arrived at the house on Monday morning having taken the overnight Portsmouth-St Malo ferry, and after a small bout of domestic tasks we decided to take advantage of the fantastic weather (worse was forecast for later in the week) by checking out the following day's TdF stage finish town of Mur de Bretagne, only about 15 miles away.  There's a reasonable climb into the village itself, but it was clear that the finish line was actually about 2 km from the centre.  The route was still open as it was a full 24 hours before the race, so we had a go at riding up the "Breton Alpe d'Huez".  Now, I'm a complete Bretonophile, but that really is stretching things - there are no hairpins, and typically it's not 30c there.  That said, the climb is a full 2 km, it's dead straight, and pretty steep in places - the team Garmin showed 18% for several stretches.  I took the foolish approach of pretending I was racing up in the big ring, and my lungs felt like they were in my mouth by the top.  Still, it gave me a pretty good idea of what the real racers would be experiencing the day after.

We nipped back to Mur in the evening for its pre-Tour 'Fest Noz' - literally Night Festival in Breton.  These things are good fun, albeit that they are reasonably formulaic, the parts of the formula consisting of plenty of stalls selling little else than galettes saucisse, beer and cider, a Breton band (bagpipes, clarinet, violin, guitar, ukelele - no bass, no drums), and massed Breton dancing.  As we left we somehow managed to get caught up in the convoy of TV lorries arriving in town ready to set up for the next day.  To give you an idea of the excitement this race generates, they were plenty of folk lining the streets of the village at 11 pm to cheer and wave flags at the TV lorries, which were duly responding with some their very impressive airhorns.  We joined in with our rather less impressive Vauxhall Insignia horn, but we still got the cheering.

We weren't going to need to get to Mur on Tuesday till 2.30 pm, even to catch the publicity caravan that accompanies the Tour, and it was only an hours ride their, so Conrad and I decided to get a ride in on Tuesday morning.  We covered a lovely loop through Moncontour, up to Bel Air (the highest point in Brittany at 336 metres), and back through Plessala, Langast, Plougenast and Gausson, just under 30 miles.  Then the heavens opened as predicted, and when we ventured out in the afternoon it was in full waterproofs.  The rain had stopped by the time we got to Mur, but showers continued to strafe us over the next 2.5 hours as we stood at the roadside.  This was the one day we caught the full caravan, which is a sight to behold if you've never been to the TdF, complete as it is with upwards of 200 vehicles of the TdF's sponsors, some decked out in the most bizarre fashion.  There seemed to be fewer truly strange creations this year, and my personal favourite remains the stretch 2cv which carries Cochonou (dried sausage manufacturers) colours.  That said, i had my richest ever pickings of the freebies hurled out by the caravan, grabbing myself Haribo sweets, an LCL cap, a Panache bottle opener, various bits of rubbish pulicity and a Cochonou (them again) sunhat, which I proceeded to wear under a cap as the rain came down.  Clearly having 2 hats from the caravan is unfair, as an elderly Frenchman demanded my cap.  Refusal caused some offence, and he went back to his position at the barriers and gave me the evils for the next 10 minutes.

The race eventually came through, and where we were (1.2 km before the finishing line, just at the top of the steepest section) was the point where Contador was in the lead and glancing back over his shoulder to see what was going on.  What was going on was that Evans came through to take the stage, though slightly strangely we didn't find that out until we got home.  We also had a nice chat with a lady journalist from Ouest France newspaper, though when I bought it the next day I was mightily disappointed to see that she hadn't used any of my pithy quotes ("le tour est tres exciting"), or indeed mentioned us at all.  By the time we got back on our bikes to go home the sun was burning hot, and we boiled in our waterproof bags very nicely.

Wednesday was the best day of the week from a riding and TdF point of view, though I had to start the day with a visit to a DIY store for a couple of jobs round the house.  Conrad repeated the loop we did together the previous day.  After an early lunch, we arranged to meet Neil about 15 miles down the 40 mile ride to Cap Frehel, the location of that day's finish.  We had a strong south-westerly wind, the same one indeed that both blew the peloton along and caused accidents on the open coastal roads.  We absolutely flew up the route, at one point cruising along on the flat for a good couple of km's at over 30 mph, if you'll forgive the mixing of imperial and decimal measurement systems.  By a complete accident, our route actually brought us out onto the TdF route, and the road was already closed with hundreds of people lining it.  We needed to get a bit further down before picking up the next part of our route to the finish, and in the absence of anyone to stop us, we rode a good mile and a half down it, garnering cheers and "allez, allez"s as we went.  Eventually we got to a road junction where the gendarmes were out on force, and we were ushered off the route in no uncertain terms.  Whilst we weren't arrested, it did feel a bit like the moment where a streaker at a sporting event is captured by the stewards.

After a bit of poking around we eventually found ourselves only 150 metres from the finish line, but we could still see the big screen erected for the crowd - today we weren't going to have to cycle home to find out the result.  Now, this was the day I'd marked down for a Mark Cavendish win (since last October in fact), and consequently I donned my Union Jack cycling jersey in anticipation.  And the Manx Missile didn't let me down, apparently coming from nowhere to win the stage.  Magnifique!  At that point I joyously removed the gilet that had been hiding the jersey, a bit uncharacteristically let out a massive "Yeah!!!", and did a stomach bumping celebration with Neil.  The locals thought we were tremendously witty and amusing, and conveyed their deep regard through the deployment of lipcurling and even more aggressive shrugging than usual.  As it happens, the French aren't usually too partisan, but it just so happened that a local favourite (Voeckler) had a dig for the line a couple of km's out, and was swallowed up with just a few hundred metres to go.

We turned into true cycling groupies after the finish, positioning ourselves between the podium and the team buses, and over the next half hour stood by TV interviews with most of the Belgians in the race (apart from Gilbert unfotunately), and congratulated in person Cadel Evans, Jojas (green jersey at that point), and most of the Sky team.  Cav was obviously still doing interviews when the time came to leave, as we wanted to be back to watch the last few minutes of the ITV4 highlights.  Though we almost didn't make it - a combination of getting caught in the post-finish traffic (though not the plebby spectators you understand - oh no, we drafted the team buses for the first few kms [this felt very cool, and was well worth the horn blasts from them we got for our efforts, much as a cow might swat away an irritating fly]), and the wind that was still blowing, but not hideously in our faces.  We battled that 30kmh headwind for the whole route home, the 38 miles taking a full hour longer than on the way out.  No matter, we got home - just - in time to see the business-end of the stage.  (I've a horrible feeling I've nicked that phrase from the ITV4 team covering the Tour, so apologies to them for plagiarism and to you for the cliche).

We were truly sh***ed by our efforts on the bike that day, and a combination of tiredness, a late finish and prospect of an early start, and an iffy forecast meant that we didn't make firm plans for Thursday morning.  In the event we all woke feeling fresher than anticipated, and decided to ride to Dinan to see the stage depart.  We were a bit later away than ideal, but soon picked up the pace, met Neil in the delightfully-named Broons, and rode on.  The route was fantastic, full of views, villages and vistas, but the TdF element of the day was slightly disappointing.  We arrived too late to see most of the riders in the depart village (though we did follow and acknowledge Westra as he warmed up on the back streets), and the crowds were heaving.  We did get to see most of the riders roll out of town followed by the team cars and buses, but it was slightly anti-climactic after the previous day.  No matter, we rolled back to Broons where we climbed off our own TdF experience to drive the rest of the way home, as by this time the storm clouds were rolling in.  We caught the finish live on TV, and it was good to see Sky in the form of Boassen Hagen get a stage victory.

We did manage to catch one more day of the Tour as a threesome, watching yesterday's stage on the MV Bretagne as we cruised back across the Channel to Portsmouth.  It was French TV we were watching and so not completely easy to follow what was happening, but there was no misunderstanding what happened to the two highest-profile British riders - Wiggins crashed out with a broken collarbone, whilst Cav took win no. 2 of this Tour.  Talk about mixed feelings.  Watching Wiggins be interviewed both as he left hospital last night and then today at home was quite sobering too - he was unfeasibly philosophical about it all, just saying "that's bike racing".  I'm not sure I could have contained my frustration in the same way.

Reflections on the week: well, it went in a flash first of all.  I seemed to get home no sooner than I went.  I guess that's what happens when it's full-on action from dusk till dawn.  Second, it was a great week of riding and watching, made so principally by having two good mates there.  It just wouldn't have been the same without them.  And finally, boringly, repetitively, what a marvellous country France is - the countryside, the tradition, the culture, the roads, and the TdF itself - all fantastique.  It's going to be hard to get back to the realities of day-to-day life.

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