Bretagne
by Tom Southam | 17/08/09

It’s like it’s 2003 in here. Here being a tiny room in an ‘Equine School’, the kind of regionally funded institution you could only ever really find in France. We are here to race of course, in Brittany in mid August, in the appropriately named Mi-Aout Breton. This is the kind of racing that I thrived on as a youngster, Brittany not being a million miles away from my homelands of Cornwall, either topographically or even as the crow might fly. I would say it’s always kind of suited me, sir.

I prefer not to think of coming back here, some six racing years on, as going backwards; instead maybe something of a refresher course in what I used to do to get me to where I am. Shitty, cramped accommodation would of course have to be an integral part of that particular voyage.

As ever some things stay the same, and I see with the same eyes, though some things now look a little different when returning as a slightly more mature gent.

The first thing I discovered is that I can no longer stand Dutch riders. I used to race a lot in Holland, I used to love it. I have good friends and a second family out in Holland, and I’ve never really had a problem with any Dutchman, save that total arse Michael Boogerd. But here, my word were the Dutch annoying. From their continual need to shout instead of talk to each other down the corridor in the accommodation (think any campsite in France in July), to their saggy below ankle length racing socks, and more than anything, their annoying habit of trying to race the whole day in the top ten of the bunch when they are clearly not strong enough to be there.

On every corner, around any bend or if the speed eased just a little you could be sure one of the Dutchies would come bobbing past and start to fight to move up to one wheel in front of you. This in itself is part of racing and is not too irritating, the annoying bit is that as soon as the pressure would increase again they would ping straight back down the bunch and I’d have to expend energy riding past and shaking my head in disgust.

This gets quite tiring over the days and I did have to progress from subtly displaying my disdain to out and out verbal abuse. Now I’m not really a fan of having to raise my voice in the bunch, I think it shows a lack of class. But after three days of this perpetual irritation the groundskeeper did have to open the gates and let the wild dogs howl, so to speak.

But then on reflection, I did chill out a little, realising as I did that the things I hate so in other people are just the parts of myself that I recognise in others. I’m pretty sure I used to race just like that when I was 20 and excited. Now probably anyone with a degree in psychology and a spare 20 minutes could tell me all about what this says about me, but we ain’t got time for that now.

Back to my original point of racing here being like a trip back in time, it was also a bit of an experience racing with so many young guys. I haven’t been under-23 for quite a while now, and even though there is always a smattering of young guys in most races I do, these French amateur races are really the traditional proving ground for young guys.

Looking about the bunch I saw a lot of very young faces and undeveloped legs, and didn’t they just race like it too. Interestingly enough, in the Second World War the optimum age for a P51 Mustang pilot was 21 and under (thanks Dad). Any older and this thing called a brain would start to work out that the high risk and high speeds required to go off dog-fighting Mitsubishi Zero’s were a little silly and the will to survive would instead take over.

I think it’s pretty much the same with u23 bike riders; they just don’t seem to care about falling off. They dive recklessly into tiny gaps without any real need to, jump up the inside on any gravel strewn corner and mindlessly attack without a flicker of thought for what’s 20km further on down the road. It all came as a bit of a shock on day one when I had to put my foot on the floor three times while people piled into pointless crashes all around. Including, in one unrelated incident actually getting myself run over by a motorbike marshal, I was pretty cool about that though, he just fancied going straight while we were turning left, no biggie.

Maybe I am just getting old but I’m really over falling off. I have done enough of charging around the bunch like an imbecile, and have a scar on practically every extremity and a slightly disfigured nipple to prove it. Now I know that I am both strong enough to let a little gap appear without worrying that it needs to be closed immediately, and I also know what a pain it is to have a large open wound on your hip. It’s never really all that painful, just a huge inconvenience. Like my one time director sportif Alberto Elli once told me in a voice that intoned it was the simplest thing ever: ‘Tom, You must not crash, ever’. Oh. OK.

So aside from all the chutes and my dislike of anyone on a Gazelle) (the bike that is, if there were any real Gazelles our Lion of Namibia would kill and eat them), the racing at the Mi-Aout has been great. France is, as Chris pointed out, how we left it. Guys attacking left right and centre, the racing on from km 0 until the very last, hard old Bretons with their eyeballs bursting out their heads flogging what looks to be the last ounces of energy out of their withered souls.

It’s racing as I remember it from many moons ago, where you have to be in it all day to win it. You also have to be prepared to smash yourself silly up short sharp hills all day. Just as it happens, much like the ones I spent my youth in Kernow dreaming my way up and down.

What’s more, the civilised beauty of racing en France is that although the pasta may be sloppy and the plates of grated carrots a pretty poor way to start a meal, the French are decent enough to put a bottle of wine or two on the table, and there is always plenty of soft cheese and bread to finish off with. If that isn’t enough to remind me that racing in France should be done more often I don’t know what is.

Oh, and bored of my own predictability in recommending records I am going to take a punt and say that it is well worth going and finding a book called ‘A Man Without A Country’ by Kurt Vonnegut. A simple, wonderful yet heartbreaking look around at life. The man stood telling jokes at the end of the world indeed.