They say the best things in life are free. It’s true of cycling as August dawns every year on the Glastonbury of cycling, when close to a hundred thousand cycling fans flock to the picturesque town of Plouay in Brittany, France. Many are regulars, with thousands of camper vans lining the surrounding roads. This was my first time at the ‘3 Days of Plouay’ and I was not to be disappointed.
The weekend is crammed with entertainment in all forms; Plouay offers sportif events, French Elite races, Women’s World Cup and Men’s Pro Tour races all within 3 days. Friday saw four sportif events with thousands of competitors lining the excellent roads of Brittany. The Randonneé is open to any age and nationality with four distances of 43km, 72km, 98km and 154km to suit all abilities. The more official Cyclo Sportif shares the same courses, but is timed with transponders.
The Pedestrian and VTT (Mountain biking) events are also very popular. The sportifs give the unique opportunity to ride most of a Pro Tour circuit and to ride on closed roads. The event is marshalled at nearly every junction; this is combined with a rolling road closure and efficiently run feed zones. The event is even covered by a French TV crew, who I somehow managed to end up being interviewed by on the startline. I was quite impressed to learn that all of this would only cost 9 euros ; I was even more so when I found food, beer, cold drinks and a free pair of socks waiting for me at the finish.
The circuit was used for the World Championships in 2000 and saw some of the best French amateurs racing on Saturday morning, shortly after, the women’s World Cup race started with the crowds gradually increasing throughout the day. Great Britain’s Nicole Cooke was out defending her lead and eventually finished in a well-deserved second place behind the winner, Italian Noemi Cantelle. As I make my way back, I am almost flattened by enthusiastic French fans racing to get an autograph from the podium places. This is enthusiasm that is replicated throughout the racing culture in Brittany, something I haven’t experienced often in racing back in the UK.
I may have been slightly naive when I went into the town centre for a quiet drink. Half a dozen bands fought for attention in the small square, but all were outdone by the brass band carnival, which marched the streets in a routine practiced all year round. Seasoned racers, weekend warriors, old time heroes and future stars sat side by side eating greasy chicken, sausages and chips. What an atmosphere.
All the locals are there to help out and, without them, the weekend would not be as enjoyable as it was. The people of Plouay could make a killing if they were to charge for parking or increase their accommodation prices. But instead my campsite had 100-odd people in the bar enjoying free drinks and snacks. This is cycling Brittany-style.
As I made my way to the Pro Tour race on Sunday morning, the population had suddenly grown even more and an array of team buses, camper vans, cars, cyclists and walkers made their way onto the circuit. Plouay is the only Pro Tour race run on a circuit. The 19km distance means that you can see the riders every 20-30 minutes. Compare this with other races where it’s common to camp out at one part of the race only to have 120 colourful jerseys race past quicker than you can shout ‘Allez’. It wasn’t long before a break had made its move and had a considerable gap on the field, Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux), Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel), Mickaël Buffaz (Cofidis) and Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom) received a huge reception from the crowd, appreciative of the combative riding.
I followed the general direction of spectators and found myself on the barriers on one of the circuit’s many climbs, typical of the surrounding Brittany countryside. As the race unfolded, larger teams such as Saunier Duval and Quick Step placed themselves on the front to chase down the gap, which at one point had a lead of 8’51. The break was joined by seven extra riders, with Jens Voigt (Team CSC) ever present on the front. Leader of the Pro Tour, Danilo Di Luca, made a bold attack, but as a heavily-marked rider, was reeled in by the peloton. Great Britain’s Bradley Wiggins (Cofidis) was the next to make a move but was again brought back by the attentive bunch.
The increase in pace meant that the riders in the break were caught. Frenchman Thomas Voeckler made an all-or-nothing move with just under 3km to go; slight hesitation meant he was off and away with a small gap away from the peloton. On the long downhill finish into Plouay, Voeckler looked behind and raised his hands in delight to take his victory salute in the biggest win of his career. [2003 Tour of Luxembourg, 2 stages and overall; 2004 Tour de France Yellow Jersey? Ed.] The predominantly French crowd were pleased to say the least.
After a great weekend of cycling on some of the greatest roads in Europe, watching some of the greatest cyclists in the World and beating a group of children for a thrown out Agritubel bottle, it was time to make my way out of the crowded roads. One thing is for sure, I will definitely be back.