The Biggest Little Race

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.

  • 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.

39 thoughts on “The Biggest Little Race”

  1. It never came above cat 1.2 but we had a similar event in Denmark, a Danish homage a Paris-Roubaix.
    I don’t recall anybody mentioning anything about Tro Bro Leon when this event was created but it might have influenced it. “En forårsdag på heden” (basically: A spring day in the moors) started when Bjarne Riis became successful and is centered in and around his home town, his plaque still embedded in the town square.
    Tro Bro Leon gained wider recognition (outside the hard core cycling community) after last year’s Danish winner Martin Mortensen.

  2. In the UK there’s the Melton Cicle Classic, similar to Tro Bro in its use of small mud tracks.

    These smaller races definitely have a certain charm.

  3. I love everything about this race; the ribinous, the traditional language, the pig on the podium.

    It doesn’t matter that only a smattering of World Tour riders attend, as it has that rare commodity (as described Jonhard, above) – charm.

  4. ‘Schaal Sels’ (or Sels Trophy in cosmpolite English) is in itself a long standing 1.1 race on the Belgian Calendar but changed its parcours drastically a few years ago in order to include farm tracks as well. It’s held in late august and attracts all kind of (strong) riders that are not top classics contenders, last year it was won by Wout Van Aert, the cyclocross champion (who is rumoured to be trying his hand at the spring-classics in 2018).

  5. A small aside: Armée de Terre rides on Gir’s bikes after two seasons on Cipollinis. Gir’s is a small marquee from northern France founded by the two brothers Girout. The model is named Oscar after a Finnish rider who had raced in the same French club as the younger of the two, ran a bike shop (and sold quite a number of Gir’s bikes) and died at the age of 36 during a ride in Mallorca two years ago.

  6. Good to know it’s on TV now. I will seek out the highlights. Does sound like the idiosycracies set it apart from many races on the calender.

    Fitting that Gaudin won. From watching him in his Europcar/AGR days, he was something of an ‘agriculteur’ on the bike.

    • It’s not on TV only “now”. It has been for a few years, either in France 3 Bretagne or Eurosport France or highlights on British ES.,like in 2103
      cyclingtorrents has every edition since 2008.

  7. Thank you for making a point of including this event.

    I have always found the ‘minor’ pro races fascinating, and have watched many. The local content, organizers, sponsors and even on occasions like this some local teams, make these races a kind of throw back to the past, and give them a completely different and unique flavour compared to so many WT races.

    Long may they continue.

  8. About Leon : Brittany used to be split in 9 “countries” (areas, or “Bro” in Breton), Leon being one of them, each of the stripes on the regional flag stands for one of those 9 countries, the white ones for the 4 Western ones (including Leon then). It’s not a former ancient name for Brittany as a whole, only its North-West end.

    The Finistère department is more or less the combination of two of those areas : Leon and Cornwall (the Southern part). The Tour du Finistère basically stays out of Leon and is held the day prior (or two days prior) and ends in Quimper, the main city of Cornwall (there’s some polite rivalry between both parts). It’s some sort of counter-part for Tro Bro Leon.

    As for JY Le Drian, regardless of the outcome of the various elections the coming weeks, he’ll still remain president of the regional (Brittany) council for a couple of years (2021), so it’s unlikely the national election will have much influence on Fortuneo VC and the money they still get from the region.

  9. Many thanks to for streaming the race free over here in the States. Did anyone else catch their feed? And the commentator who seemed amped on a dozen cups of coffee? My favorite line is when he described one of the riders as, “the pocket rocket. If you like the look of him, pick him up, stick him in your pocket.”

    • Yes, it was exciting to watch the two keep ahead of those chasing. Corporal Damien Gaudin sure cuts a soldierly figure on the bike, too, camo kit and all.

  10. Thanks for the prompt, I was busy over the weekend and had forgotten Tro Bro was on. Found a video of the last 30km, which was great. I would echo Pete Linsley’s comments about its appeal – it has charm and I’d add that it has a distinctive character.

    The 2017 Rutland-Melton classic mentioned in a previous comment is this Sunday, 23 April. VeloUK has a preview:

  11. Me and some mates took part on Sunday at the amaterur cyclo/challenge. Best event I have aver took part, in last 2/3 years I rode RVV LLL PR Lombardia (on my own as there’s no amateur cyclo) and Strade Bianche but TBL is by far what I preferred…really nice people, amazing landscapes, rough roads, big wind: such a hell of a race…
    Can’t wait to be back next spring!

    Quite hard to reach though: from Italy it was a 12/14 hours trip by plane and 2 trains…

  12. They also have a sportive, which i went out of my to participate in some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed. a top recommendation for an event, and a fantastic race to watch as well.

    By far my favourite race of the year not named Flanders or Race of the Falling Leaves

  13. This sort of event is one of the things I love about following cycling and the coverage that’s provided by Eurosport. Here I am in Melbourne, about as far away as you can get from Breton, and I get to wake up in the morning to watch smaller events like this about which I know nothing – all just by taping everything on Eurosport that starts with “Live: Cycling – …”.

  14. If I could figure out a path to do this here in northern Colorado, I would…

    have been thinking hard about this. There are many wonderful “ribinou” here.

  15. Nice write up, this race is always on my radar to go and watch but somehow i never seem to get around to it.

    Recently rode through Brittany on a ride to Alicante and was surprised by the “Welshness” of the language

  16. Great race to watch and the scenery reminded me a lot of my birth place in Cornwall in the UK. In fact I think there is a strong connection with Brittany and Cornwall and many similarities, the remote location, the strong sense of identity, its own language, the rural roads, it’s tailor made for its own version!

    I don’t live in Cornwall at the moment, but I’d love someone to organise a Tro Bro Leon style race there!

    • In fact, one of the regions of Brittany is called Cornwall ( Cournouaille, but pronounced like you would pronounce it in English). It was settled by princes of Cornwall in the middle ages. Cornish and Breton are actually linguistically very close

  17. Really enjoyable coverage and the scenery, sunken lanes and farm tracks made for a superb parcours. Watching it on Eurosport definitely made me add this to the European Sportive bucket list.

  18. Thanks for the insight INRNG…nice history about this nice race.
    Watched it line in America on cyclingtv. A nail biter. The winner,and
    second place were nearly caught on the line. Enjoyed the race, despite
    lesser names on the podium.

  19. I’m sorry I missed this, but I’m glad it’s getting more coverage now.

    I spend a lot of time in rural Australia and I’ve been thinking the unsealed roads and “Strade Rossi” around here would be fun to watch a race on. The population density is far too low here, but someone over east should try it. It’d certainly shake up the TDU a bit.

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