Les Trois Cyclistes Vont à Les Herbiers

(More photos below)

Hafren CC’s Secretary and Chairman (Steve Colidicott and Steve Taylor) had been asked to meet Les Herbiers Twinning Committee members when they attended the Newtown Food Festival to discuss how Cycling could be used to promote Twinning.

Les Herbiers runs a major end of season Time Trial, Le Chrono des Nations. Since its inception as an amateur ITT in 1982 the event has now become an open event with a mix of amateur and professionals, with youth, junior, women’s and men’s races. As Les Herbiers has a similar population to Newtown and is in one of the traditional heartlands of French cycling, it is not surprising that this major sporting event is central town life.

The significance of the event is demonstrated by the list of winners; Chris Boardman winning in 93 and 96, David Miller 2010, Tony Martin, 2011, 12 and 13, son of the Vendee Sylvan Chavanel in 2014 and the 2015 world champion Vasil Kiryienka wining 2015 and 2016.

The list of women victors is as impressive with Jeannine Longo and Maria Canins dominant in the early years, Amber Neben winning twice and British TT champ Hayley Simmonds taking second this year behind Anne-Sophie Duyck.

With big name riders using the same parcours and on the same day as club riders, juniors and youth it is an impressive event, professionally organized and representative of the best of inclusive sport.

As part of the weekend of celebration the Chrono Committee also run Randonees (Sportives) of varying lengths the day before. Realizing that this area has a strong cycle club, the Twinning Association identified possible cultural and sporting links to exploit and invited the club Chair and Secretary to meet representatives of Les Herbiers Twinning Committee and representatives of the Chrono at the Newtown Food Festival.

Although aware of the significance of the Chrono in the sport’s racing calendar it was not clear at this meeting how the club could capitalize on the event or on the existing town links. 2016 sees the 20th anniversary of Les Herbiers’ Twinning Association and an invitation was extended to visit the town as guests of the Twining Committee and the Chrono. Keen to investigate the options and to see the racing at first hand this was accepted and a small group from the Club (Steve Taylor, Steve Coldicott and Alun Roberts) travelled to Les Herbiers (at their own expense) to find out more and enjoy the Vendee.

During the brief discussions at Newtown it was apparent that a fact finding visit to Les Herbiers while town’s world famous Chrono des Nations was running would be productive, informative and enjoyable. Maybe we could enter a rider next year or send a group to ride the associated Randonees? Knowing the history of this prestigious event the club was most pleased to accept this invitation.

A break in the drive from Roscoff to change into lycra, unstow  bikes and explore 40km of the Morbihan, was a great precursor for the following week.

We were met by eight or nine twinning representatives, their friendly welcome set the scene for our stay. Our host, Daniel was there to take us to his home and to meet his wife, Jeanine (and three granddaughters). Daniel and Jeanine are incomparable hosts, generous and attentive in all things, not just their home, but their companionship, humour and intellect.

In addition to hosting three strangers with limited French, Daniel was involved in the Chrono and the Randos on Saturday while Jeanine had her granddaughters to look after. Nothing was too much for them, but as all was so freely given it did not feel that we imposed on their generosity. Certainly the comradeship common to cyclists was a major factor, we all understood a deep, shared, underlying passion. (Merci bien, nos amis)

Saturday morning was a visit to the Chrono Exhibition, where “Ce sont les Gallois, ici pour le Chrono” opened smiles, conversations, welcomes from town Police to volunteers, from Exhibitors to the Mayor. For the rest of our stay “Nous Sommes les Gallois” would be the key at the Chrono. “We are the Cyclist” seemed to work nearly as well with the Twining Committees of both towns

Although the Expo was still setting up, it was impossible not be impressed by the breadth of commerce on display. A ten euro, four course lunch later and we were heading back to Daniel’s for a bike ride. Daniel’s friend and fellow club member, Francois, joined us and we were treated to 80 km of the Vendee, passing the house where Jeanine was born, visiting the church of her childhood, then past Daniel’s home, where cousins and uncles live, before l’Abbaye de la Grainetiere and Le Tombe Clemenceau (a moving tribute to a great French Hero) before a chain gang back as we all enjoyed pushing the pace and being boys on bikes (despite our advancing years)

Dinner with various representatives of Twining was a good opportunity to meet more people, who showed the same sincere interest and friendliness we had encountered at the Chrono. This would be repeated at the commemorative dinner on Saturday, where this world, divorced to some extent from the hubbub of the Chrono and its Expo, showed its own vitality and we were again welcomed as if among old friends

Saturday was the Rando de Walter Bénéteau that is the curtain raiser for the Chrono. A very cold start meant we were all pleased to see the 3km climb early in the day, a chance to warm up as temperatures dropped to 3 degrees). This event was a great pleasure to ride. Less “corporate” in its feel than the equivalent UK Sportives, it was exceptionally well organized and signed. Groups of riders formed readily on the road, with all instinctively knowing how to follow and lead a wheel, skills often missing in our domestic events. New friends made with the camaraderie of the road. The unstoppable Daniel made an appearance as motorcycle photographer capturing the event from the pillion seat

Sunday was a cold damp start for the Cadet and Cadette classifications at the Chrono, but the damp conditions did not deter these impressive young riders as they raised the curtain for the last big TT of the calendar  With the weather worsening we took advantage of our VIP badges to shelter in the VIP lounge for coffee, champagne and oysters. A ride was organized for us to follow local hero and hopeful Florian Maitre in a VIP car. His strong performance was fast enough for the driver to struggle to keep up, bouncing of kerbs and squealing tyres. A great ride from the son of the Vendee was good enough for 7th overall (Chapeau, Florian)

The Chrono hosts a post-race dinner to honour the 500 or so volunteers who work on this event. Hard to say why we too were honoured, except perhaps “vous êtes les Galois”; confusing as we humbly took our ovation in turn, while everyone else in the room had worked so hard to make the event a success. A shared love of the sport was enough

Monday saw us give our hosts a break as we headed for St Giles Croix de Vie. Jeanine had been keen for us to visit Les Sables D’Olonne (a special place for her) and hosting the Globe Vendee. St Giles to Le Sables on the back roads, a roulette along the sea front and a chain gang back, a perfect day on the bike with 80 km of the Vendee

Tuesday and Daniel and Jeanine joined us for a route, taking in 100km of country familiar to them: Mouchamps, the Cotes du Moulin de Bois and Ouillette, St Michel (with its 199 steps climbed in stocking feet as cycling shoes are not good here, and stunning vista) Coffee and sandwiches in autumn sunshine, motorists allowing plenty of room and gangs of kids on bikes rings bells and shouting “allez! allez!” the French passion and understanding for cycling seems undimmed

Our early start for the ferry port was tinged with sadness at leaving new friends, but all things must pass. Lunch in Roscoff and an angry, bewildered and incredibly polite book seller in the market offering the British a present (the jungle) as a parting gift on leaving Europe was a reminder that the world has more to do than treat us like long lost brothers (for a week it really seemed as if it didn’t)

The future? The club will now look at how the club might support a performance programme to try and get a rider in the Chrono for next year and also look at participation in the Rondos. We are also thinking how we might host events to attract riders from the Clubs of Les Herbiers. Daniel, a great planner, is already plotting a ride from Les Herbier to Newtown in 2018, Gaby and Francois may well join them, but, in Daniel’s word “much water has to flow under the bridge before”

On a personal level we have enjoyed a life affirming time, made new friends and ridden over 400km of some of the world’s finest cycling roads. Would we go again? At a drop of the proverbial chapeau.

“The Cyclists” and Hafren CC would like thank all who made their visit so enjoyable and fruitful. Our host Daniel and Jeanine, the Chrono committee, Guy and Gaby, and all the Newtown and Les Herbiers Twinning Committees. We hope to have repaid this in some way by establishing a new link between the towns