Picture this if you will. Le Mans 24hr weekend. Setting off in the direction of Le Mans at breakfast, pulling in at tea time, but on a train. There’s something wrong with that in the first place. The 24 Heure du Mans is truly one hell of a weekend. It’s like nothing else. It really is still just like the Steve McQueen film. If you have been you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s got a surreal atmosphere separate from the rest of the world. An engaging isolation of 48hrs that feels like you’ve time travelled a month. If you haven’t been, please do before sensibly or not, I imagine it’s outlawed on environmental grounds alone.
Pulling out of Le Mans for the next station down the line on Le Mans weekend didn’t feel quite as wrong as it ought have as I was off for another weekend of festivities, Anjou Velo Vintage. Before it was home you didn’t have to ask me twice to visit France. Any excuse and I was there. For a number of reasons from weather and open roads but not least their attitude to cyclists.
Anjou Velo Vintage does what it says on the tin really, it is a kind of a weekend’s festivities celebrating all things velo and vintage, in ‘er…’, Anjou. Music, cars, hairdoos, bicycles, everything is out of date and celebrated as such. It could so easily be a little trendy given the current fashion for the fashion of the past, but it’s actually really rather unpretentious. This may be partly because it is attended by the real deal, people from an era before the era before this one, but it’s also because it’s French. The French love an excuse to socialise, it’s what they do best actually. That and wine and cheese. And huge cycle races.
I had got on the first of three long train journeys that day only to realise I had forgotten my iPod. By the second journey I had also realised I hadn’t remembered to buy a magazine at the Eurostar terminal in London and thus had 4 hrs ahead of me sans entertainment. As it turned out it was ok given the British child to my right had kindly brought his iPod with suitably awful earphones and a record collection of one, then the little French human to my left was learning to read English badly and very loudly with a newspaper. At the end of my 7hours on trains going in a kind mushroom shape up round, down and back round as it would appear if train journeys did Strava I had made myself a promise to never travel again sans iPod, but I’d also made some new friends as half the carriage seemed to be headed to the festival too. You can always tell a roadie can’t you. Lean, healthy, serious and well behaved with shiny legs. And so we were met buy our host and part organiser of Anjou Cecilia Rimbaud and whisked off to a party on the other side of town to launch the weekend’s activities. Amid the slightly unnorthadox setting of a setting of an environmental garden expo centre we were handed champagne, witnessed the penny farthing world champion doing sweeps and swoops and caught up with Le Tour legends, Poulidor, Thevenet and Zoetemelk. Champagne became champagne and canopies, champagne and canopies becomes champagne, canopies and vintage singers with their jazz band and we were off.
Waking the next day I was relieved I had opted to witness the first ride of the weekend from the relative luxury of a caravane vehicle. When I found my ride, I was over the moon. A beautiful 1960 Peugeot 404 convertible was waving e in as others climbed aboard turn of the (last) century blunderbusses and prepared for some time travel. The centre of the town had erupted into a party to see off the riders for their long route to Saumur where we would rendezvous with the festival proper and the second leg the next day. The cheers for the heroes of tours past came from much further into the crowd than those signing on. Just like they would a month later, the French had decorated their town. The railings and parks and lamp posts and window displays were adorned with brightly coloured and often home made two wheeled paraphernalia. It was kind of moving to see a nation so proud of an activity they so rarely champion at these days. They just do social so well and like most of Europe they admire their two wheeled heroes deeply. Maybe it’s easy to admire the champion cyclista? Watching Joop Zoetemelk get his old Mercian out of the boot of his VW and assemble it himself with TV crews and photographers preying on him like he wasn’t actually there himself made me realise these characters are just like you and I on a sunday afternoon in a car park. Even when they’ve won the biggest bike race in the world.
Heading out through the town to a fanfare of ticker tape, car horns and cheering crowds, I urged our drivers and proud Peugeot owners Herges and Isabel to overtake the equally classic Renault Alpine in front of us before we all died of smoke inhalation. Catching up with the tail end of the peloton it was clear how seriously these guys took not being serious and riding a slow old bike in heavy uncomfortable period clothing with a handlebar moustache and a bottle of wine for company for the day. Cycling may be at the dawn of a new era of natural stimulant to cover ridiculous distance, but way back before all the doping and the science there was a time I think maybe they just relied on burgundy.
Every town we swanned through slowly, noisily and shockingly smokily, if somewhat stylishly we were met with cheering crowds and smiling faces. It feels a bit of a shame but Olympics aside, that just doesn’t seem to be the case in the UK. We have an unhealthy distrust of two wheels in this country that the rest of Europe has flipped into a national pride. Half way and it was wine and cheese stop number two. The first official one, but our second. Herves gave us a quick detour to meet his friend in a village just off the beaten track. A wine excuse basically. You couldn’t really get more French than that.
A whole pre prepared and quite delicious NASA style lunch tray awaited the hundreds of woolen jerseys queueing up with their tubs wrapped around them in a figure of eight. Cheese, pasta, bread, salad, wine (of course), not like your average sportive military canteen admittedly with it’s flapjack and bananas, this was energy gel vintage style. Sitting in the sun I chatted to Raymond Poulidor about this and that, about then and now. I’m not sure I either completely understood or quite accepted his one lined rant about Lance and that in his day they just raced on Orange Juice(!), but the antique caravan started up, interrupting wherever this was chat was going and before long was ready to lead the way in a slow procession of colours, billboards and smokey exhausts. Amazing sixties press trucks resembling a cross between some sort of deep sea viewing platform and a London bus spluttered along behind classic french racing cars and 1970’s L’Equipe Peugeots in full livery. It was quite a sight.
Arrival into Saumur’s Vintage village opened up a whole new aspect to the festival, in fact this was the festival really. A large enclosure put on for the town’s people with everything from hairdressers and vintage clothing boutiques to acrobats, live music and dance. It was all real too. If you weren’t careful you’d return home looking like you’d time travelled. It reminded me of the Goodwood Revival Meeting in my native south of England – a hugely successful event every year for lovers of all things retro and motorised, but somehow this feels more inclusive, more laid on for the public and less for the privileged or at least paying few. Wandering about the jumble I stumbled on the gem over the rainbow. Or I should say gems, lots of them. Lots of tat too, but I’m a sucker for antique head badges and the bike jumble at the top of the village was a goldmine. So nearly disregarding my instructions on baggage allowance, I withstood the urge for about five classic retro road bikes and complete Record grouppos and ended up with a simple cycling cap instead. It seemed like a booby prize but I’d be glad when wandering around Paris on foot waiting for a train 48hrs later, I knew it. There was such an amazing sense of occasion and fun flowing through the place that at every point you’d meet another nationality’s group happy to share some frites and mayonnaise or some beer and tell you all about their old bike and the small corner of a european suburbia they ride it round. I met Belgians and Dutch, Germans and Japanese that had all made the trek and were all having a whale of a time and then I bumped into old friends from England I didn’t even know where coming. Robert and his wife from Swallow Cycles on their tandem and they appeared to be playing the full part in the concourse too.
Second night in the Pays de Loire and party number two. And this one was a party. Where the previous night was canopies and swing, this one was 5000 guests in a barn eating coq au vin and watching acrobats and listening to singers the after dinner dancing with big bands. The red wine ran and ran and the Twitter friends grew and it was not time for bed yet. I couldn’t help thinking if there was any modern aspect to this event, it was probably the parties. Austerity and bike races probably went hand in hand in 1927, but in the age of the media there’s a lot more hospitality leeway and by that time in the evening, and the wine the various ages were blurring into one anyway.
6am came abruptly and if I was slightly relieved I wasn’t riding the day before, I was bloody grateful that day. Catching up with new internet friends that I’ve actually met and their skinny steel steeds for the day did give me a twinge of envy though. In some ways bikes have moved on in leaps and bounds in recent years, and yet in other ways they have barely evolved, except to often become less graceful an object. The Mercx I was holding while someone found a bush was really quite quite beautiful. Yes it was heavy, probably flexed like hell and would stop at some point in the future after pulling the brake levers, but it was achingly pretty. Subtle, slender, simple poignient decals, it was an analogue tool in a digital world. And it made me want to become a luddite.
My ride for the day after was from way back when and over there. A 1927 Buick no less. Wood and steel and smoke, it even had a tiny crystal glass vase built into the dashboard for the original owner. My second hosts of the road Jean Philippe and his wife explained to me it was made for Australia, then headed to the US and then was then exported to France so it had the steering wheel on the wrong side. It also had the comfiest seats I have ever sat on in a car. At this point something started to niggle about modern design. Yeah it’s safe and quiet and efficient and fast and you get radios and the internet and windows, but you know what, if 90 years on we can’t even make the seats as comfy or onlookers cheer as much, that’s not really progression all round is it. Room for improvement there I thought.
This longer ride was to take us way out into the countryside splitting the field up and mixing the antique cars with their modern counterparts. Oddly it also took us through small hamlets with streets so cramped we alighted from our street barge and walked with the peloton through what first felt like people’s back gardens and soon became a series of caves carved into a hillside in which even more surreally there inhabited picnic tables of locals making of all things bread and croissants. Seemingly unconnected to the race, they were in their own personal time warp and got on with their artisan skills as hundreds of handlebar moustaches happened to sidle by en route to an even more unnorthadox pit stop – a wine cave in a cave that people were encouraged to cycle into, through and out of grabbing a glass of plonk en route drinking it while pedalling and handing the glass back to an official on the outside. It was brilliant. But what made it even more confusing was that it appeared to be the pre cursor to the actual lunch stop. An aperitif etape if you like. The lunch stop proper was five miles down the road in a most spectacular French chateau overlooking vineyards and hills with the sounds of ragtime jazz and the vague smell of old wet wool hanging in the air in clumps around the food tents. Apart from a slight recipe for disaster, I did wonder if wine and cheese, lots of breaks, handlebar moustaches and not taking things too seriously might not take off in the cycle-sportive world rather well.
All done. Heading home I stopped in Paris for lunch with friends and realised as much as I love Paris it seemed a little, well, frantic now. No, that wasn’t quite it, it just felt a bit modern actually. I remember thinking if only I could look around and see a fraction the traffic, a hundred times the bicycles and the odd handlebar moustache I think I’d feel more at home here. Not learning from my mistakes I boarded the Eurostar to realise too late I was without reading material again. To be fair it would have been in foreign but there would have been a French lesson in it I supposed. Luckily I ended up seated with two people that had indeed been to 24 Heure du Mans by train. What were the chances? Talk drifted between two and four wheels and back and forth in time as I realised there was the motorsport equivalent of Anjou Velo Vintage only a few months later – Le Mans Classic in September. Three months to grow my handlebar moustache then I thought. Plenty of time.