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Hell of the west: Tro-Bro Leon

Roubaix has cobbles, Tro-Bro has Ribinoù — twin scratches in the earth left behind by centuries of Breton people. Why not race on them?

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The race loops around a spit of land with centuries-old ties to Celtic nations, ties as strong as its current connection to France. (The English call it “Brittany.”) It is part of the French national road series (Coupe de France) and is a UCI 1.1 event. But series and UCI calendar slots are not defining features. To understand Tro-Bro Léon, simply look down. The Breton soil makes this race.

Some 30 of the race’s 204 kilometers are unpaved. But this isn’t Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders. It’s something else entirely.

Drag carts and tractors over farmland for long enough, and they leave permanent marks. The Bretons call these ribinoù. Tro-Bro Léon races across them every year in mid-April.

The pavé of Paris-Roubaix, which happens a week earlier, are human constructs, laid down by hand and with purpose in centuries past. Ribinoù are more like ancient accidents — twin scratches in the earth left behind by the constant movement of people over time. They are variable in surface and temperament. The perfect ribin (that’s the singular), says longtime race director Jean-Paul Mellouët, is two parallel dirt paths, mostly smooth but with the occasional stone and a strip of grass up the middle. The grass sets the mood.

When Mellouët drops the checkered black and white flag of Bretagne to set the riders against his course, none are quite sure what lies ahead.

That is the difference between a race like Paris-Roubaix and Tro-Bro Léon. The latter is even less predictable than its famous northern brother. Of the 25 unique unpaved sections, some are simple dirt — or mud, when the rains come. Others hold fist-sized stones, worn by travelers and the elements so that their rounded tops send tires back and forth, dropping rubber into dirt-filled gaps. A few are semi-paved, with a meter-wide strip of asphalt that disappears without warning. The race runs through corrugated aluminum tunnels, under windmills, across gravel, and along Bretagne’s wild windswept coast. Riders may flat four or five times and still finish well.

The hard riding and unforgiving weather of Bretagne have bred some legendarily tenacious bike racers, like Bernard Hinault, Louison Bobet, and Jean Robic. The region itself stands in stark contrast to northern France, the home of Paris-Roubaix. The barren fields and smokestacks of the north give way here to coastal grasslands, weathered boulders, and painted wood homes battered by years of salt and storm. Until they leave, Breton riders know little more than wind, bad weather, and surfaces only vaguely qualifying as roads.

Though it is a national race and is slowly gaining international attention, Tro-Bro Léon is still fundamentally a product of its region. It rarely attracts many foreign riders or teams, particularly as it shares a weekend with Amstel Gold. The race and accompanying amateur sportif support schools that teach Breton, a Celtic language that fewer than 250,000 people still speak. Mellouët started the event in 1984 to help fund the schools, while his children were still attending. “My passion is sometimes beyond reason,” he says.

There is a winner of Tro-Bro Léon, and then there is the first Breton across the line. The two are treated with equal fanfare (with the edge, perhaps, to the Breton). The former gets a trophy; the latter, if not the same man, receives a live piglet. Last year, that honor went to Benoît Jarrier of Bretagne-Séché Environnement.

The race grows in prestige with each passing year. So perhaps we’ll soon see cycling’s cobblestone stars battling over the ribinoù. Maybe this race will inspire the next Hinault, or the next Bobet — a Breton who can stand at the top of the podium and lift his piglet high.