Biketouring in Brittany

Words by John Whitney / Photos by Joby Sessions 

The thing about some of professional cycling’s most iconic climbs, away from the mountains at least, is... well, they’re not actually that special. Yes, there’s spectacle galore come race day but it’s the riders who make the show, not the climb. Considered in purely aesthetic terms, such climbs are hardly what you’d call postcard material.

Take Milan-Sanremo’s Poggio, for example. For 364 days a year it’s indistinguishable from any of the other of the roads that wind inland from the Ligurian coast. You could say that the descent from the top is massively technical, especially in the wet. But, that’s for the pros to worry about. If it wasn’t for the tell-tale signs – the names painted on the road celebrating the fans’ favourite riders – you could be forgiven for not even realising you were on one of cycling’s most notable climbs.

But on the third Saturday of every March, this inconspicuous strip of asphalt becomes the site of one of the most exciting finishes of the cycling season. The Poggio isn’t alone in this regard – see also the Mur de Huy (La Flèche Wallone), the Cauberg (Amstel Gold) and La Redoute (Liège-Bastogne–Liège). The last of these used to be famous as a springboard for long-range attacks during the excesses of the EPO era. These days it’s little more than an uninspiring stretch of tarmac miles from the finish that runs adjacent to a highway, which doesn’t stop people camping beside it overnight in order to get a front row seat for the race.

You can add the Mûr-de-Bretagne to this list.

Officially referred to as the Côte de Menez Hiez, it’s been popularised with the name of the town that it rises out of. The climb is up a fairly unremarkable stretch of one of the busier D-roads that pass through this part of Brittany. Yet, like the Poggio, come race day the Mûr-de-Bretagne becomes the biggest show in the country. Over the last decade, ‘race day’ has meant the daddy of them all, the Tour de France.

All departments covered

Brittany plays host to a quartet of Tour stages this summer, all packed into the first week, visiting each of the region’s four departments (the French equivalent of UK counties). It’s a real hotbed of world cycling, not just French, historically punching well above its weight in the number of top riders it produces in relation to its size (roughly the area of Wales with a similar population).

One of the best riders in history – and one of cycling’s biggest personalities – five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault was born and raised here, as was current UCI president David Lappartient. Current Breton favourite Warren Barguil, born in Hennebont in the Morbihan department, won the Polka Dot jersey at last year’s Tour and lit up the race at every turn. He had moved to the Côte d’Azur at the start of his career – the done thing for pro cyclists - but despite having the long climbs of the French Riviera on his doorstep (not to mention the sun and sea) he returned to Brittany after getting homesick.

For its natives, however, Brittany has a strong pull – and its damp climate is part of its charm. Perhaps more than any other region in France, many here consider themselves as much Breton as French.

It’s a region with its own flag, the Gwenn-ha-du (meaning black and white) and language, Breton, and, even if, like that of Jersey (featured in Cycling Plus issue 341) it’s classified as “severely endangered” by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (the most recent edition, 2010, estimated that just 250,000 of the region’s 3.2m people spoke it). It’s very different to French and is a Celtic language most closely related to Cornish. Like in Jersey, though, there’s a renewed push in schools to keep it alive and years of decline have been halted. Road signs here have both French and Breton names.

Missed opportunity

Like Barguil, Geoff Husband also feels the pull of Brittany but, as his name suggests, he wasn’t born here. He and his wife Kate are originally from Devon but have lived here since 1989. A trip to Halfords to buy car oil in 1986 ended up with them buying a couple of bikes and by that same summer they were touring across Brittany. After inheriting some money, Geoff used it to start a new business, Breton Bikes – a cycletouring holiday company based in Brittany – and now has his own campsite in Gouarec to go with it.

For me, it took a drive just shy of two hours to get there from the ferry port at Saint Malo. Given Brittany’s southern coast is perhaps the most popular for holidaying Brits, Geoff suggests this central region has the misfortune of being bypassed on the way down there. For cycle tourists, however, it’s home to an oasis of pin-drop-quiet lanes.

"I once heard someone describe central Brittany as like Devon or Cornwall, but given the 28 Days Later treatment. Do you know what I mean?” asks Geoff, referencing the Danny Boyle film in which a man wakes up after a month of lying unconscious in a London hospital to find the city’s streets deserted.

I know exactly what he means. Brittany is like a slightly better- looking, less manic twin of Britain’s southernmost counties, with the lush, rolling fields, rapeseed crops and winding country lanes all present and correct, but with a near-total absence of motorised vehicles. Where much of Britain’s B-road network, particularly in the proximity to towns and cities, isn’t that pleasant to ride on in 2018, Brittany’s equivalent D-roads are far more welcoming.

Appropriately, my accommodation was out in the sticks, at the charming Domaine de Kozhker-Boulou, a B&B sandwiched between Plelauff and Mellionnec, at the far end of a gravel road and quite literally off the beaten track. Geoff had found it for us, having used it for his own customers’ tours for many years. It’s the home of Michèle and Didier Véron, who’ve been welcoming guests to their home since 2009. Didier used to be a professional chef, evidenced in the food he cooks for his guests, though Michèle gives him a run for his money. The chocolate soufflés she made - her first attempt no less – might well be the thing I remember of this trip when all else is forgotten.

As their guest, I ate at their dinner table with them, the food and red wine seemingly available on an all- you-can-eat-and-drink basis, with Didier never shy in asking if I had room for more. Despite the language barrier Didier knew enough English to understand the route I’d be taking and to warn me of the particular characteristics of the Mûr-de- Bretagne: “Long... Steep... Straight,” he said, as if to discourage me, motioning his forearm into the universal sign for ‘bloody steep hill’. I assured him I’d ridden worse.

While Geoff designed the route he was unable to join me on the road as he was in the final preparations for the campsite’s opening that week, always a hectic time.

Even though Geoff provided my directions, he says the best plan is not to have a plan at all in Brittany, insisting that “you can never get lost here,” given how extensive the road network is for cyclists.

So I ran with that, roughly following the detailed notes Geoff gave me but not back-tracking if I realised I’d taken a ‘wrong’ turning. The first order of the day was to get to Mûr-de-Bretagne via the Nantes- Brest Canal, getting on its tow path at Gouarec (the site of Geoff’s campsite) towards the Abbaye de Bon Repos near Saint-Gelven, then on an adjacent path across the bridge. According to legend, this 12th- century abbey was founded by Viscount Alain III de Rohan, who was asked to build it by the Virgin Mary, appearing to him in a dream when he fell asleep after a hard day’s hunting in the Quénécan Forest. Bon Repos means good rest.

Rest was the last thing on my mind as my appointment with the Mûr- de-Bretagne drew nearer and the towpath (28mm tyres or above ought to cover it) took me directly to it. Brittany’s canal network is vast, with over 600km waiting to be explored by bike or boat. The Nantes-Brest canal is only 20 per cent manmade (much of the route uses existing waterways) and was built in the early 19th century on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte to strengthen his military hand.

Crowning glory

While it was first used in the Tour de France back in 1947, in the middle of a monster time trial from Vannes to Saint-Brieuc, it wasn’t until 2011 that Mûr-de-Bretagne was used as a stage finish. It makes for a compelling spectacle on TV; heading out of the town, the road runs arrow straight and upwards. At first it’s almost a false flat but becomes progressively steeper in a sort of ramp test for the peloton. As the riders close in on the climb, the shape and angle of the road make it look far steeper at the bottom than it actually is, 2km at 6.9 per cent (although the first kilometre rises at 10 per cent).

Because the road is so straight, the cameras, aerial and head-on, can detect the fractures in the bunch all the way down the road, as the strongest come to the fore. You can see why Christian Prudhomme likes it – it’s near perfect as an uphill sprint finish.

To ride it alone on a spring day is an unremarkable experience, the only giveaways to its status are the road paint in support of French favourite Romain Bardet and the billboard at the summit advertising the coming Tour. This year, Prudhomme is milking the climb, with two ascents climaxing stage 6. At the time of writing the route back to the bottom had yet to be confirmed, but it’s almost certainly not the narrow farm track through the yellow rapeseed that I took.

After lunch in Mûr-de-Bretagne, the route flirted with the canal again and took me as far south as Pontivy, before heading back north west to base. It was idyllic springtime riding – albeit with mid-summer temperatures – gliding between pretty villages in a bliss that I’m always searching for (but rarely find) at home in Bristol these days. The main event on paper, the Mûr-de- Bretagne, was something of a sideshow compared to the tranquility of the rest of the 90km route, with its constant ups and downs that were never too steep in either direction.

As a man who came here and never left, Geoff is utterly effusive about his adopted home: “The countryside changes so much faster than any other part of France. In a 50-mile ride you can be cycling down a canal towpath, across moorland, through lush forest, by old-fashioned, almost chocolate-box farmland, see tiny villages, bustling market towns and then hit a coastline that swings from golden sand to sheer cliffs in the space of a few minutes. There’s no place in France quite like it.”

GETTING THERE

We travelled to Saint Malo from Poole, via Jersey, with Condor Ferries. It operates a year-round service to the Channel Islands from Poole with its fast ferry, Condor Liberation, alongside a conventional service from Portsmouth. Passengers walking on with bikes are welcome. To book and check current prices, visit condorferries.com or call 0345 609 1024.

WHERE TO STAY

Home for a couple of nights was the B&B Domaine de Kozhker-Boulou (kozhker- boulou.fr), near Mellionnec. We paid £50 per night for a twin room (2 double beds), which included breakfast, and opted for the additional £20 per head for a four- course evening meal (wine included). For camping/ hotel-based cycle tours, Breton Bikes (bretonbikes. com) has been in the business for three decades, supplying all the kit you need for touring, should you need it.

FOOD AND DRINK

The food cooked by Didier and Michèle was fabulous, using ingredients from the local farm where possible. Seafood is popular in Brittany and the cassoulet went down well, as did the guinea fowl. There are good options for lunch in both Mûr-de- Bretagne (Boulangerie Patisserie Fayer Philippe) and the much larger town of Pontivy. Look out for Brittany’s favourite dish of crêpes, popular in both sweet and savoury form.

TOURIST INFO

brittanytourism.com