“My passion is, sometimes, beyond reason”
So says Jean-Paul Mellouët. He’s talking about his race, the Tro-Bro Lèon, a French Classic which he founded 32 years ago.
Actually, scrap that – it’s the Breizh (Breton) Classic. At least that’s what Jean-Paul would say, for it’s a race that personifies the rugged coastal region situated on the western tip of l’Hexagone. The Bretons are out there on their own, and they seem to prefer it that way.
For centuries, the sea has been a dominant part of life in the region, providing a livelihood for generations of sailors and fishermen, as well as featuring heavily in Breton mythology.
Kêr-Is is one example. A city built in the far-western Douarnenez Bay for the King of Kerne’s daughter, Dahut, it became a city of sin under her influence. While her father slept, Dahut opened the city gates, allowing it to be swallowed by the sea. According to legend, she later became a morgen (siren), having been thrown into the sea as punishment.
Stories are told too, about the shadowy figures of Kannerezed Noz, three washerwomen with green skin and webbed feet. Said to gather by the sea at midnight, they wash the clothes of those about to die. Unsurprisingly, they are seen as a bad omen and appear, in various guises, throughout Celtic mythology.
Legends and myths aren’t the only commonality shared between Brittany and the other Celtic nations though, as strong traditions of fishing and farming endure. Other common/shared traits include an independent spirit, a seemingly incomprehensible (and under-threat) language, and a resolute people.
Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault is a man who neatly encapsulates the latter. Defiant, brisk and pugnacious both on and off the bike, he was a patron of the peloton as a 23-year-old.
Le Blaireau was not the only star the region has produced, with Tour winners Jean Robic, Lucien Petit-Breton and Louison Bobet all hailing from the region – or in the case of Robic, “born in the Ardennes by mistake.”
There are fewer big names in Brittany nowadays, at least not to the extent of Hinault. But each year the first Breton over the line in the Tro-Bro Lèon (Tour of Lèon, the north-west part of Brittany) is rewarded with a piglet. It may seem a novelty but the origin of the prize is serious, as Mellouët explains.
“The idea came from the young farmers of the area,” he says. “It was to promote their breeding business.” Another Breton sport, Gouren (folk wrestling), traditionally awards the winner a ram.
Pierre-Luc Périchon won the piglet in 2014, with a fourth place (teammate Benoît Jarrier won one last season). He’s not a Breton but rides for locally-based team Fortuneo-Vital Concept (formerly Bretagne-Séché Environnement). So what did he do with his new pet? “Actually I couldn’t bring him on the train, so he went to the farmer who offered to take it.”
Originally a track rider, Périchon transitioned to the road in 2008, turning professional five years ago with Roubaix-Dalkia. A good all-rounder, Périchon finished fourth at the Tour de Langkawi last season, and won the 2012 edition of Paris-Camembert.
He has raced Tro-Bro Léon four times, with consistent results, improving from 64th to seventh in 2013, before missing out on podium places in the final sprint at the two most recent editions.
“Yes, the race is quite different to riding on the track but the level of effort isn’t,” he says. “The classics often provide more disjointed racing but it suits me better. I’m quite at ease on the pavé. The approach to the ribinoù is similar to Roubaix but as for riding them, it’s more like cyclocross.”
As Périchon points out, the race doesn’t quite offer the same challenges as the cobbles found in Belgium and Northern France. The ribinoù are dirt farm tracks, more comparable to the roads found at Strade Bianche.
Mellouët, a designer by trade who takes on a raft of responsibilites every year, including the design of the race poster, agrees.
“They say that this is the Breton Paris-Roubaix but it’s not comparabl,” he says. “My inspiration for the race came from Roubaix and the Belgian cobbles but our ribinoù are not paved. We currently have 30km in the route, while we started out with just 10km.”
Something the race does have in common with Roubaix is the hand-picked selection of sectors. “I choose my ribinoù according to their length and difficulty. And if there’s grass in the middle it’s even better – more rustic,” Mellouët explains. “As the race evolves each year I try to find new locations.”
The race has evolved, and then some, since the first edition in 1984. Back then it had a budget of 8,000 Francs and the race route included only four ribinoù. Now those numbers have swelled – there were 22 ribinoù last year, while the budget hovers around the €250,000 mark.
On the subject of money, the race has a special reason for existing. Rather than using his race to sell newspapers, the reason many of the biggest races around today were started, Mellouët had a different, more patriotic, motivation.
“The race was created in order to support the Diwan schools which my children went to.” A share of the money raised by the race’s cyclosportive, first run in 2008 and led last year by Stephen Roche, also goes to the schools.
These schools, privately-funded and not recognised by the French government, provide an education in the Breton language, with the first opened in the 1970s. Mellouët, born in 1949, was brought up during an era where speaking Breton was actively discouraged by schoolteachers.
So there was a noble cause behind the race’s creation. Only the first race didn’t quite go to plan.
“We set out the signposting of the route the night before the race, and of course there were some slight errors,” says Mellouët. “Some riders took the wrong route! The local press said there would be no second edition but they were wrong about me. Stubborn as a Breton, they say.”
There was, of course, a second edition, with the arrows set out so well that the Highways Authority asked for them to be covered up. Up until 1999 it was run exclusively for amateurs, with Estonian Jan Kirsipuu a notable early winner.
Sixteen editions have passed since professionals were first invited, and despite Mellouët’s insistence that he will find someone else to organise the race (he says it every year), there are ambitions for growth. Moving up to 1.HC status is a target, though only if the UCI reforms the calendar, says Mellouët – but that ambition is balanced by a desire to retain the local feel.
That said, the race hasn’t seen a Breton winner since 2008, when FDJ’s Frédéric Guesdon beat Maxim Gourov of A-Style in a two-man sprint. “Every year I expect a successor to Guesdon,” says Mellouët. “This year we can hope for a rider from Bretagne-Séché or Johan Le Bon, who is always very motivated for this race.”
Le Bon hails from the town of Lannion – 100km east of the race’s HQ in Lannilis – and has yet to win Tro-Bro Léon, his best result second place to then-FDJ teammate Francis Mourey in 2013. Several ex-winners are down to start this time around though, including Mourey, Europcar’s Vincent Jérôme, and last year’s winner – Alexandre Geniez of FDJ.
The diminutive sprinter Samuel Dumoulin (AG2R La Mondiale) will also be there – he won back-to-back editions in 2003 and 2004. Meanwhile Périchon’s past results suggest that he can join them on the roll of honour. He’s coy about it though, “It’s held when I normally have good form, so I have aspirations.”
Whoever is the next conquerer of l’Enfer du Ouest, Mellouët will be there in his hometown of Lannilis, ready to greet them. There will be a new name for the history books, a new home for a piglet and soon after, a new edition to start organising.
Sunday’s race is only broadcast on France 3 and French Eurosport, so look to the usual alternatives.