The Tro Bro Leon race took place yesterday with the win going to Corporal Damien Gaudin (Armée de Terre) and Laurent Pichon (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) winning a pig as the best local rider. This is a unique race and a remote one that may not attract the big names and World Tour teams but its quiet success proves it needn’t worry either.
The race takes place on the far point of Brittany, that finger of France that sticks out into the Atlantic and in the Finistère department whose name is derived from finis terræ, literally the end of the earth. Once upon a time this area was called Leon instead and they spoke Breton. Today France’s homogeneous republican model squeezes out regional exceptionalism including local languages and faced with this some proud Bretons wanted to keep traditions alive like their language going so they hit on the idea of a bike in order to raise money to support a local language school. Given the race was designed to support the ancient language it could only have a Breton name and Tro Bro Leon translates as the “Tour of Leon”.
A bike race to raise money, what were they thinking? This is cycling-mad Brittany, a region that has given rise to the likes of Bernard Hinault and Louison Bobet among others having sent many riders into the pro ranks and also being behind the Fortuneo-Vital Concept team today which was formerly Bretagne-Séché, something we’ll return to in a moment. The race organiser is Jean-Paul Mellouët who looks like central casting’s idea of a Breton druid with his long grey hair. His idea was simple:
“Because I found that so many bike races looked the same I decided to use the smaller farm tracks, the famous “ribinou” in Breton”
– Jean-Paul Mellouët”
He had a point. Launch a bike race and it’s hard to make it stand out amid a dense calendar whether the packed programme of regional races in Brittany or today’s pro schedule. The first edition took place in 1984, an amateur race, and was serendipitously won by Bruno Chemin, a rider whose name translates as “path” or “track”. Just don’t call it the “Breton Paris-Roubaix” or the “Little Roubaix” as it apparently infuriates Mellouët. Quite right too, it’d be like calling the Giro the “Italian Tour de France” or the “Smaller copycat Tour”. No, the Tro Bro Leon is a race in its own right. In factual terms it doesn’t even race over the cobbles, instead the ribinou are dirty farm tracks, not even paved with cobbles. More importantly this is a race created to promote regional identity so you can see why being labelled as a derivative event from another part of France is insulting.
It’s still a UCI 1.1 race meaning up to 50% of the teams can be World Tour teams with the rest from the Pro Continental and Continental ranks. However the only World Tour teams in attendance were France’s Ag2r La Mondiale and FDJ. Why no more? It’s a long way to go for a 1.1 race and the cobbled classics specialists were either busy with the Amstel Gold Race or licking their wounds. There was a small calendar change this year with the race being moved to Easter Monday in order to avoid a clash with the Amstel, not for the startlist but for television as Mellouët told website Vélo101 because French TV could not show both races and it had just signed a deal to screen the Amstel. However the race is only shown on regional TV in France where it gets an audience in the low hundreds of thousands rather than millions that national coverage would enjoy.
As is often forgotten in the clamour to share TV rights, many races don’t earn income from selling TV rights, instead they have to pay a production crew and broadcasters: an expense rather than revenue. But it’s an investment because the lure of TV draws in other sponsors and encourages more teams to take part. However to get more and bigger teams involved the race may have to pay more – expenses and appearance money – and if the race’s vocation was to raise money it was never created to run as a business. There’s talk of calendar change for 2018 with the race moved to a slot in March. This has as much to do with the comings and goings of various events on the French calendar, notably the vanishing Critérium International, but it could equally make the race as a useful pre-cobbled classics prep which might tempt more but if it’s on the same weekend as Milan-Sanremo or Gent-Wevelgem then the big teams will still send their big riders to the big races.
Perhaps it’s just better as a 1.1 race rather than worrying about promotion to the World Tour where it’d be lost amid Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem with its “plugstreets” and just another contest between the same riders. Sure, seeing the top classics contenders go head to head in late March is mouthwatering but it’d mean the Tro Bro Leon just becomes an amuse-bouche consumed in the build-up to de Ronde and Roubaix. If this race was created to promote regional identity then it’s better if it stands out.
Another benefit of the 1.1 status is that it lets lesser riders have their chance, rather than hoping for a wildcard and maybe a top-20 in Paris-Roubaix here is a race for some to target outright. Damien Gaudin once finished 5th in Paris-Roubaix when with Europcar, signed for Ag2r La Mondiale but it never worked out. Now he’s part of the Armée de Terre team, literally the French army team and finding winning ways again. All riders are salaried soldiers complete with ranks but get time off to train and only during the off-season do they revert to military duties such as marching and firearms training. It’s a curious project backed by France’s Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a Breton and a keen cyclist and it was he who was a driving force behind the Bretagne cycling team before too. With France gripped by election fever and Le Drian’s Socialist party heading for a rout it could mean this pro procycling politician is sitting in an ejector seat but that’s yet to be determined, a story to watch over the summer.
— FortuneoVitalConcept (@FortuneoVitalC) April 17, 2017
- The piglet: the best Breton rider wins a piglet. The prize always makes for a fun moment on the podium and serves as a reminder of the region’s farming traditions. Winning livestock in a race used to be a common thing and of course the cyclist could hardly get the train home with a cow in tow so typically the award would be bought back off the cyclist for a cash, the local farmers get publicity on the podium and the rider returns with a fungible prize
It’s a great little race and perhaps all the better for this. It’s now on Eurosport and so it can be seen all around the world so it may look like just another round of the series of gravel races from the Strade Bianche to Gent-Wevelgem’s plugstreets but the remote location – nine hours in a team bus from Roubaix – means the Tro Bro Leon stands apart which it was always meant to do. A hallmark of the best races is a sense of place, both a strong local identity and the ability to exploit the geography and the terrain and on this formula the Tro is another winner.