I love madmen. No, not the show that follows Don Draper, though it was okay, but rather the person who is that certain type of crazy that borders on genius. I have a large picture of the abolitionist John Brown on my office wall. One of my favorite books is A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols (and one of my favorite documentaries is Deep Water, which is based on the book). That book recounts the story of the 1968 oceanic race of a number of sailors trying to be the first to successfully complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the world. The book focuses on the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, but the true star is the French sailor, Bernard Moitessier, who (spoiler alert) is well on his way to winning the race and closing in on his final destination when he says, nah, fuck that, and decides to just to keep on sailing (which is something I expect and would love to see Thomas De Gendt emulate one day during a long break away). Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is one of my favorite movies, which has both a mad subject and a mad director.
I bring up my love for madmen because the best and most transcendent shit small race in the world was borne from the same school of singularly-obsessed mad genius.
The kind of race that is the antithesis of a race like the Dubai Tour or the Tour of Guangxi. Not a race to sell newspapers, to pad the Swiss bank accounts of the UCI, or to gratify provincial mayors. A race that’s raison d’etre is, to borrow a Kirbyism, bring “joy for cycling fans globally.” I’m, of course, talking about the Amgen Tour of California. Psych! No, I’m talking about Tro motherfuckin’ Bro Leon.
Tro-Bro sprung from the mad mind of Jean Paul Mellouet, a cartoonist and amateur cyclist with a dream of making a race through his home region of Brittany that took advantage of all the shit small dirt tracks that criss-cross the land. While “Tro Bro” sounds like something a Southern Californian surfer from the 80s would say to his surfer buddy, Leon, it is actually just Breton for Tour of Leon. In 1984, Mellouet was attempting to raise funds for a Diwan school (basically a free and secular school that teaches in the traditional Breton language) in Lanillis and decided that his dream bike race was a good way to make some money for the school. He decided to use the ribinou in Brittany to make the race unique. Ribinou can be simply defined as dirt trails in Brittany. For a much fuller and more eloquent definition, even in google-translated form, the cycling website be-celt describes them thusly:
“They are the soul of this country of Leon. Indomitable, they arise from nowhere, they are these pamphlets against boredom and norms. By preventing us from being, one fine morning, freed from the banality of a life a little too regulated. Jean-Paul Mellouet, the “druid” has made his masterpiece of suffering and desires, dreaming of long hazy nights until the morning milky. He has in fact, in his ordeal, his revolt and his paradise.”
The race has been called “Le Petit Paris-Roubaix” and “The Hell of the West,” but Mellouet has not embraced these nicknames as his race has its own special Breton character apart from Paris-Roubaix. For one, the winner of the race and the the first Breton to finish the race receive a prize of a piglet. For another, the ribinou in Tro-Bro are actually used for transportation by the residents of Brittany, lending Tro-Bro a bit more authenticity.
Tro-bro is a true auteur-made race. Besides designing the course each year, picking out new ribinou section, and lending his flowing white locks to publicity photos, Mellouet also does the artwork for the posters, which like the race, are simply awesome. Mellouet says that he locks himself in his cellar listening to Pink Floyd while designing the posters for the race.
The Breton novelist, Daniel Kerh, writes of Mellouet’s illustrations on the Tro-Bro website:
What do you dream of Jean-Paul? You think you’re Merlin, the magician. You are a child of the Coast of Legends. Go back to your pencils and draw the champions you love. You do it so well. Leave the imagination if you do not want to lose your mind! And how will you call your trial my poor boy?
To be honest, with the hippy race director, the cartoon illustrations of the riders, and the piglet prize, the whole thing could feel too precious if the racing wasn’t good. I mean, Cadel Evans could give out emus as prizes at his Great Ocean Road Race and no one would give a fuck except for the unfortunate new owner of the ornery ornis. At Tro-Bro, the racing is the reason that this race is much damn fun and has become such a treat for cycling fans.
The profile of the course looks like this, with 27 ribinou sections sprinkled throughout:
Here’s a listing of those ribinou sectors:
More importantly, here are some snapshots of the ribinou, which resemble paths through hobbit villages:
It’s hard to go through a list of favorites for this race as prognosticating about who may win seems contrary to the race’s ethos. This is a race where Dan Craven won a piglet and appeared on a poster simply for the elan (and beard) that he brought to his DNF. Also, and more importantly, it’s hard to discuss the favorites because the start list is not yet complete.
The last four winners of the race were Damien Gaudin, Martin Mortensen, Alexandre Geniez, and Adrien Petit. Samuel Dumoulin has won this race twice. In the last 6 years, the race was won three times by continental riders. The winner is most often French, but there is a smattering of foreign winners— a Dane, a Canadian, a Belgian, an Estonian, and two Australians walked into a bar and have won this race. Like Paris-Roubaix, the race is often anarchic. In 2014, there were 56 finishers. In 2015, there were 32. In 2016 and 2017 there were 64. It has very often been won solo or from a sprint from a very small group. Last year, Damien Gaudin and Frederik Backaert escaped with about 40 km to go and held off the pack, mainly by the work of Gaudin, with Gaudin murdering his bike to out sprint Backaert from the front. His victory also led to the greatest victory celebration ever.
Damien Gaudin and Federik Backaert are back this year. Groupama-FDJ have Benjamin Thomas or Daniel Hoelgaard who both could do well here. AG2R have 2 time winner Samuel Dumoulin, whose wins are an awful long time ago. I could also see Alexis Gougeard or Stijn Vandenbergh vying for a piglet. Fortuneo opts for the 3 chon attack, with their Peri, Va, and Pi chons. I’ll go with Gougeard to take a victory and assume he skipped most of the classics this year just to focus his efforts on Tro-Bro.
On Sunday, you should be able to find Tro-Bro on Eurosport, French stations, and the usual pirate streams. Enjoy the race and raise a glass of Breton cider to toast the mad genius who has brought us such a wonderful spectacle.