Anjou Velo Vintage: sun, cycling, and all that jazz in the Loire

My Grand Départ from the pretty Loire town of Saumur on the third day of the Anjou Velo Vintage cycling festival takes place to the accompaniment of Bon Voyage, Monsieur Velo, performed frequently and with enthusiasm by a three-piece jazz outfit.

Within metres, the mechanism for securing the seat-post on the 30-year-old, Reynolds 501-fashioned Peugeot provided for the occasion has failed (a screw penetrating the trailing edge of the seat tube), but in the spirit of bonhomie induced by sunshine, the enthusiasm of the hundreds of riders who surround me, and, of course, by Bon Voyage, Monsieur Velo, I pedal onwards with a smile, inwardly celebrating my narrow escape from serious injury, rather than cursing aloud.

Hundreds of cyclists gathered in Place Michel-Debré, Angers for La Rétro1903, an 86km route inspired by the Anjou section of the Nantes to Paris stage of the first Tour de France

For those unfamiliar with Anjou Velo Vintage, it is a joyful, three-day celebration of cycling from bygone eras, which, seemingly by unspoken but common consent among the participants, has centered on a period from the 1930s to the 1950s. It is an event in the style of Italy’s L’Eroica or Belgium’s Retro Ronde , but accented heavily towards dressing up and having fun, and less upon testing the legs on machinery of yore.

That’s not to say that Anjou Velo Vintage offers nothing to the enthusiast seeking a thorough workout for a lovingly-restored steed. The 86km opening ride, dubbed La Rétro 1903, and inspired by the Anjou sections of the maiden Tour de France 110 years earlier, is perhaps as far as you’d want to ride on a vintage bicycle. The event is awash with beautiful machinery, all defiantly sans STI. It is a celebration of Alan and Simplex, of Mercier and early incarnations of Super Record, of fluted alloy seat-posts topped with leather saddles.

The old chap I’d passed pulling a Mercier frameset and Mavic MA4 wheels from the rear of a hatchback turned out to be Joop Zoetemelk. His yellow jersey was the garment he won in Paris in 1980.

And shoes. Almost all of the riders are dressed in the style of the times, and leather footwear is de rigueur. Heavy woolen jerseys, some secured with Breton-style buttons at the shoulder, are standard fare, though, interestingly, so are lycra shorts. Most have drawn the line at vintage legwear, but some have gone the whole hog and wear what appear to be long johns. I am alone in an entirely modern ensemble of polyester and lycra. I discover too late that the De Marchi Italia jersey appears retro only when compared to contemporary kit, and hopes that my Dromarti Race shoes might offer some atonement end with the on-site mechanic’s failed attempt to fit my clipless pedals to the venerable Peugeot.

The guest list at Anjou Velo Vintage is as impressive as the machinery. Raymond Poulidor, Bernard Thevenet, and Roger Legeay were among those who had taken the stage in the Place Michel-Debré in the department capital of Angers the previous day. The old chap I’d passed pulling a Mercier frameset and Mavic MA4 wheels from the rear of a hatchback turned out to be Joop Zoetemelk. The yellow jersey he was wearing was the garment he won in Paris in 1980. Humbling.

Joop Zoetemelk, winner of the 1980 Tour de France was one of the champions de légende at the 2013 Anjou Velo Vintage

I followed his lead out, and that of his fellow champions de légende through Angers in a vintage Peugeot motor car. The retro theme extends to the ‘caravan’ and its pilots. My driver and his wife were both dressed for the occasion, and, sensibly, in warmer clothes than your correspondent. I’m no expert on four-wheeled transport, but I’d call the introduction of glass side windows a giant step forwards in the pursuit of comfortable motoring.

When I engage with another of Peugeot’s products the following day, it is through necessity rather than choice. The machinery provided to the paying guest who has arrived sans steed is better described as old than vintage. Two quick points in the organisers’ defence: 1) You’re free to bring your own, as a journalist colleague proves by arriving with a beautifully restored Colnago Mexico; 2) As previously observed, AVV is far more about style than performance: mastery of the lindy hop at the Saturday night dance will earn more respect than an ability to pass strugglers on hills, as I learn to my cost.

The outward leg of the journey takes us past vineyards and through the pretty villages of the Rois Valley. The return is no less idyllic: an almost dead straight journey back to Saumur along the right bank of the Loire

The practiced eye is an advantage if chancing your arm with the house machinery. The Peugeot distinguishes itself as a bike that might fit and the Reynolds sticker is a further inducement to move the five bikes racked against it. The Selle Italia saddle is the clincher. Congratulating myself, I head for the mechanics’ booth to borrow a spanner with which to remove the really-quite-nice alloy platforms and replace them with (whisper it) LOOK Keo Blades.

Tiring quickly of my broken French and lunatic gestures, the mechanic decides to perform the operation himself, and as he removes the non-driveside pedal, a significant portion of thread from the crank arm comes with it. In fairness, this might be the first time in 30 years that the pedal has been removed, and the grease applied at the factory is likely to have dried some years since. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, and spurred on by my feverish nods, he returns pedal and thread (most of) from whence it came and I resign myself to 35km in canvas sneakers.

Riders strike out for Saumur on the 87km La Rétro 1903 ride from Angers

I needn’t have worried. They are the most leisurely 35km I am ever likely to cycle, passed in excellent company and broken with joyful frequency by picnics and visits to the wine caves of Souzay-Champigny. La découverte (the discovery) is a ride aimed at “amateur joy-ride thrill seekers”. The ‘replenishments’ laid on by the organisers are splendid, and consumed on a sundrenched lawn in the grounds of the Chateau Monstoreau.

The outward leg of the journey takes us past vineyards and through the pretty villages of the Rois Valley. The return is no less idyllic: an almost dead straight journey back to Saumur along the right bank of the Loire. Confusing signage at the end of the ride extends it by ten minutes, or just long enough to be caught in the heaviest shower seen in western France for sixty years (here, I speculate). No matter. The press tent at the event village in the charmingly-name Place du Chardonnet is welcoming, and the Ibis Hotel, Saumur (home to the most comfortable beds in France) a mere 10 minutes away.

Showered and changed, I have time to enjoy the attractions of the event village, home to Salon de Rétro, 40 stalls selling all manner of vintage cycling gear, as well as to a stage on which cycling acrobats, dancers, and, of course, Bel Air Line, progenitors of Bon Voyage, Monsieur Velo, perform. All very pleasant.

With the 2013 Anjou Velo Vintage breaking the attendance records of its predecessors, expect to see it return next year.

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