It was a sorely depleted LRdFL* (if you have to ask…etc.) squad that made it’s way to catch a few of the Breton stages of this years Tour de France. All manner of excuses had been forthcoming from those in receipt of their call-up papers, some more convincing than others (harrrumph!). In the end, an elite group consisting of Lt Col Aiken Drum, MM, DSO (and Minibar) and Maj Flashman were left to launch the MBH invasion in a perilous two man operation. How did they manage? Follow the magic tyre tracks and read on….
Saturday 2nd July: We jumped on the 17:40 train for Plymouth, and were soon pedalling toward the night’s billet at Greenbank Fire Station in Mutley Plain – Nick had arranged a free B without B, through a mate in the Plymouth Fire Service. On the way, we spied both of Greenbank’s tenders at the scene of a flat fire, and sure enough the station was deserted when we got there. After no more than 20 mins, the first tender returned and it was introductions all round as Nick’s contact Darren showed us around the station. Not long after, we were sat down to a feed of spaghetti and meatballs, and chatting cycling with the guys on watch. We crashed out at about 11pm, but within a few hours were woken by the two-tone alarm and all the lights flicking on, as a 999 call came through. This happened again at about 3:30am, but hey – it was a price worth paying for a free bunk for the night…I think.
Sunday 3rd July: We freshened up and set off down the road to the Ferry Port around 5:00am, and after wheeling the bikes onto the Armorique, we nabbed “the full Anglais” in the Restaurant, and settled down for the 6 hour crossing with iPods in place. The channel was as flat as a roadkill hedgehog, and the tide was with us, so we docked in Roscoff about 30 mins ahead of schedule. Our first night’s stop was to be at Huelgoat, about 35 miles away. Ian and Nigel will recall the place from a previous LRdFL tour – lots of scenic woodland and a lake, with some interesting rock formations including “La Roche Tremblante” – a 140 ton boulder that you can rock by squatting underneath it and flexing the muscles in your back. The ride down from Roscoff was broken by a brief stop for water at Morlaix as it was a scorching afternoon with temps hovering around 30C.
We arrived at La Riviere d’Argent campsite at about 4pm, and started to pitch our tents. A few other brit cyclo tourists were already there and setting up their own tents, but one caught my eye straight away. I’d never seen him before, but what piqued my interest was his MBH cycling jersey! I asked him to explain himself, and he confessed that he wasn’t a member and had bought it from some dodgy bloke at the Dartmoor Classic a few years ago. This suspicious character had apparently been hawking a wide selection of MBH kit to all comers. He supplied a good description of the bounder, so i’ll be posting an identikit picture on the website fairly soon…Ian. If we were Hells Angels, i’d have ripped the colours from his back and whipped him unconscious with a bike chain, but instead we had a beer and laughed about it. So much more civilised, no?
Monday 4th July: After a shower and a simple breakfast of black coffee and a few mini brioches and jam (we’d not noticed the sign in the shop, advising campers to order their morning baguettes and Pains au Chocolat before 5pm), we set off for Mur de Bretagne the site of Tuesday’s stage finish around 50 miles East. A few miles down the road at Carhaix (start town of Stage 5 on Wednesday) we stopped off to grab a few extra supplies at the local supermarche (mozzie repellent etc). We saw a sign for a Decathlon Superstore just outside town, but I didn’t think it would be open on a Monday (the Morlaix branch was closed on a Monday last time we were over). It was open of course, but by then i’d bought the necessary bits and bobs in town, so a detour couldn’t really be justified. We stopped again for lunch in Rostrenen, and a much needed break from the baking heat of the midday sun.
After a strictly illegal, but fun detour on a beautifully smooth new section of the N12 motorway, we hopped off onto quieter roads through farmland North of our destination. We emerged at a junction just above Tuesday’s stage finish on the Mur AKA “The Wall” de Bretagne. Going down it was enjoyable enough, except that we had to go up it again two days later, fully loaded. The finishing touches were being made for tomorrow, and there was plenty going on in town so we made our way to the Lakeside campsite and set up camp before heading back into town to soak up some of the pre-race atmos.
The town centre was beautifully decorated – an artist had painted murals on just about every shop window, with pictures of tour heroes past and present: Armstrong, Anquetil, Mercxx, Sean Kelly, Leduc, Bottechia, Charly Gaul, Gimondi – too many to list, but i’ve photographed a few so that you can see just how amazing they looked. We grabbed something to eat in the church square, and then popped up the road to enjoy some live music at a free outdoor concert in a park near the town hall, before heading back down to the campsite and an early night ahead of tomorrow’s big day.
Tuesday July 5th: The day started promisingly enough, and we headed into town for a decent cyclist’s breakfast. A local Boulangerie had three varieties of baguette on offer for Tour-goers: Le Rouleur (Flat Stage specialist) – the standard Jambon/Beurre, Le Grimpeur (the Hill Climber) – Jambon/Fromage, and Le Vainquer (The Winner) – Ham, Egg, Tomato and Mayonnaise. With our chosen viewpoint near the top of the wall, I opted for “Le Grimpeur” and an amazing apricot and custard tartlet for afters. We grimped our way up to just short of the Flamme Rouge (1km to go) mark before being directed off the road by “Les Flics”. It was a good spot, allowing us to see the riders grinding their way up the hill and over a false flat before the final kick up to the finish.
We’d got there good and early, but so had the rainclouds, and they proceeded to dump on us for the next three or four hours. The publicity caravan came through about an hour before the riders arrived, raising the dampened spirits on the hill with a scramble for free trinkets thrown from the passing vehicles. This is something you never see on the TV coverage, and it’s as much a part of the tour experience as the cycling. Garishly decorated vehicles, some with a distinctly cartoonish appearance speed past the crowds, dispensing treats of all sorts – sweeties from the Haribo cars, water from the Vittel Cars, polka dot race caps from the Carrefour vehicles (Nick bagged one of these, but almost had to kill an old buffer who made a grab for it at the same time and didn’t want to let go!).
One of the best films ever made on the Tour (Pour un Maillot Jaune by Claude Lelouch) has some footage of the caravan on the 1965 tour at about the 3:12 mark – watch it, in fact watch the whole thing (all three parts are on YouTube) – it’s only about 30 mins long and essential viewing as it includes footage of legendary tour figures like Tom Simpson and stages like Mont Ventoux and although it contains no dialogue, just music and sounds, it captures the essence of the event in a way that Phil Liggett or Dave Duffield’s commentary never will.
After nearly six hours on the Wall, the crowd got what they wanted. A shout went up – the helicopters had appeared over our heads and bikes were visible in the distance, coming down the other side of the Hill from the direction of Mur de Bretagne. In a few short minutes the outriders and race cars had swept past and suddenly an elite group surged past our vantage point, grimacing as they fought gravity. Contador and Cadel Evans were immediately recognisable, but the rest flashed past too quickly to pick out faces. Was Wiggins in there? No one seemed sure. Nick spotted Cavendish in a tailing group a few minutes later – predictably, this wasn’t his kind of finish. The rest came through in dribs and drabs, some just turning the pedals and looking thoroughly wretched. It looked as if it had been (as Phil Ligget doubtless said) “a hard day at the office”.
After gaining confirmation of Evans’ photo finish over Contador, we rolled back down to the campsite to get cleaned up and head out for a feed and a few beers. This turned into a few too many as we met a couple of Kiwi rugger fans who were following the Tour, and insisted on buying several rounds while debating the state of English Rugby and sport in general. We wobbled our way back down to the campsite at half past who-gives-a-damn, and I managed to fall off my bike whilst stationary, cushioning my landing on my rearward facing bumbag and busting the glass screen on my GPS. “That’ll learn ya!”, as my old Dad would surely have said.
Wednesday July 6th: We had originally planned to head up to Cap Frehel and watch the end of today’s stage, but common sense prevailed, as it would have left us a nearly 100 mile journey back to Roscoff the next day. This was, we realised, a bit too much to ask given a 4pm date with the ferry to Plymouth. After consulting the map, Nick identified Guingamp, as a likely alternative for viewing the action on the Carhaix – Cap Frehel stage. It was a sizable town about 70km into the stage, and only about 30 miles north of our current locus. From there, Roscoff was only about 45 miles away, and we could probably find a campsite at Belle-Isle-en-Terre, about 10 miles down the road after the stage – sorted.
Both feeling a little delicate, we struck camp and headed off up “The Wall” at a hungover snail’s pace – thank God for compact chainsets! An army of men in trucks with black bags were busy removing all the rubbish and debris from yesterday – more evidence of the first rate organisation behind this event. After a brief stop to procure something for my raging acid indigestion, we arrived in Guingamp to a party atmosphere similar to that in M-de-B the day before. The local branch of Carrefour, sponsors of the King of the Mountains jersey, was staging a barbecue with various stalls and activities for the young and old. We grabbed a jambon/beurre baguette and a coke, and pootled around awhile, before heading up the road and staking out a likely viewpoint.
Again, the publicity caravan made their passage through but this time the Vittel truck featured an underdressed, acrobatic young lady in a trapeze harness doing the splits upside down, while directing a water spray at the crowd. I stood slack jawed with…appreciation – I was in good company!
After sussing out a decent position to watch the pack come surging up the street (and changing my mind a few times), I stood on the pavement and watched the clock. Soon enough, the whirring sentinels overhead were giving the game away, and everyone waved in case it was their turn for a closeup. The outriders appeared next followed closely by a compact group of 4 plucky breakaways who flew up the street with an urgency befitting their status as hunted men. “Allez! Allez!! Allez!!!” and they were gone. Five minutes ticked by before the hound pack of the peleton surged through in search of those fleet footed hares. Their daring escape wasn’t to last – few succeed on a stage as fast and flat as this one, and a few hours later Cavendish claimed his sixteenth TdF victory at Cap Frehel, equalling the tally of the great Jacques Anquetil.
Once the fuss had died down, Nick and I rolled down through the cobbled streets of the old part of town, looking for something to eat. We found a cafe, outside of which was a large table already occupied by cyclists. “What are a couple of Cornish boys doing over here then?” said one and I instantly recognised Scott Robinson from Perranporth, formerly of Clive Mitchell Cycles in Truro. A few of the others were vaguely familiar, having ridden my summer Audax event, The Celtic Coastal. We sat down for a drink and a chat, and found that they had just come over for that day’s stage, arriving in Roscoff on the overnight ferry. David, the group leader, had booked them in at a campsite in the grounds of an old chateau, about 15 miles away in the direction of Morlaix. They invited us to tag along, so with no better plan in mind, we did. After setting up camp at the chateau and grabbing a shower and a change of clothes, we headed into the nearby town of Louergat for a feed.
Over dinner and a few beers, Nick got talking to Vin from St Austell, who possessed a very well set up and expensive looking Titanium touring bike. “Do you do much touring then?” asked Nick. At the time, neither of us knew who Vin was, and he just laughed and said “Yeah, a bit”. A little later we found out that Vin Cox is a cyclo cross champion and the current holder of the Guinness World Record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe on a bike, a record previously held by Mark Beaumont, and (briefly) James Bowthorpe and Julian Sayarer. He’s currently planning a round the world cycle race, so if any of MBH’s deeper pocketed and more adventurous members are looking for the ultimate challenge, this could be for you?
Thursday 7th July: Next morning, we struck camp early and said au revoir to the guys, who were debating a more scenic route back to the ferry port. Nick and I just wanted to blast back to Roscoff the quick and boring way, in order to grab a few pressies and a leisurely lunch before catching the boat. The headwinds on the exposed D712 weren’t as bad as we’d feared, and we got to Morlaix around noon, stopping for a quick cafe-au-lait at La Terasse, and some amazing pastries from the Patisserie next door.
From there, we took the scenic route back to Roscoff, along the estuary. We’d been lucky and dodged the showers most of the way back, so choosing an eatery with a large awning was a good call as a few sharp showers struck soon after we arrived. We boarded late, as I didn’t want to have to retrieve my bike from behind dozens of others – a top tip if you’re hurrying for a connecting train from the ferry port. On arrival at Plymouth we blasted through customs and up the hill to the station in the company of an anxious Exeter mountain biker who’d managed to knock over several bikes in his haste to retrieve his own.
At this point, we came back to earth with a bump. There were about 300 people waiting to board our train, as several preceding trains had been cancelled due to a derailment at Liskeard. Sensibly, those journeying the furthest were allowed to store their bikes in the large space behind the drivers cabin, and I suppose most found a seat – I don’t think they’d have dared to stop anyone occupying the first class seats without a ticket.
After making our way slowly down through Cornwall towards the end of the line, Mistress Fate had one last little jokey-o in store. We arrived in Penzance around ten to midnight, on the middle track between platforms 3 and 4! The signalman had thrown the wrong point, and we couldn’t leave the train. After about 15 mins, we reversed out as far as Tesco and stopped. Another five minutes passed before a voice on the intercom promised that we would be moving again soon. Finally, just before 12:15am, we chugged into platform 4 and got off. It was hardly the perfect end to another LRdFL adventure, but I was just glad to be home.
Don “AikenDrum” H