The Hell of the West

Tro-Bro Léon – A race like no other

The Bretons are a hardy people. Their homeland is a rugged wind-swept peninsula that juts into the Atlantic in the far north-west corner of France. It is made of grassy hills, farmland, and forest that roll inland from the sea, where cliffs fall away to sandy beaches and old fishing ports. Their ancestors have worked the land and fished the waters near Brittany from time immemorial. It was dubbed a “ferocious” country by a French lieutenant-general who was charged with governing the region in the 17th century, and while relations with Paris have of course eased since, Bretons are not entirely at home in modern France, either.


Just a generation ago, they could only speak their language in private. Notices in school playgrounds read, “No spitting on the ground or speaking Breton.” When Jean-Paul Mellouët founded the Tro-Bro Léon race in 1984, he did so to raise funds for a school established outside the auspices of the French state to teach Breton children their native language.


Mellouët’s goal was a noble one. UNESCO has declared the Breton language severely endangered. At the beginning of the 20th century, nearly two million people spoke it; just 250,000 do so today, and most are of a dying generation.


The bike race Mellouët founded is perfectly in step with the old French general’s characterization of the people and their land. Tro-Bro Léon is an absurdly brutal race. It is 207 kilometres long with 26 sectors of ribinoùthe Breton word for the rough farm tracks that cut across the countryside. It is very hilly, especially toward the finale, where the riders face a battery of short, steep climbs. Most days, strong winds blow in off the ocean. On Sunday, there will be no hiding in the peloton.


“We should always try not to get into a situation where we have to chase,” says EF Education-NIPPO sport director Andreas Klier. “Offensive racing and a bit of luck should help us to stay in the game. In such a hard race, you need the legs to actually win it. So offensive racing with a good pair of legs should be the key.”


Frenchman Julien El Fares is excited. “It is everything that I like at this moment in my career,” he says. “It’s a mix of road and gravel in a beautiful part of France. The road is really twisty, and the weather is often rainy. My first ambition is to get the best results for the team with me or with my teammates. For sure we will have a beautiful show!”

Lachlan Morton is no stranger to off-road riding. From races like Unbound Gravel, the Leadville 100, GBDuro, and Three Peaks Cyclocross to his 700-kilometre, 44-hour Badlands expedition in the Spanish desert last year, he is well accustomed to dirt. Tro-Bro Léon will be something else entirely though. “It’s probably closer to a northern classic than an off-road endurance event,” he says. “I imagine the speed and fight for position will be much more intense. I’ve never done it. I’ve seen the pictures and read the stories, but look forward to experiencing it for myself.”


A fun detail? The highest-place Breton earns a piglet from a local farm. With his cyclocross skills, Logan should be in good stead.“It will definitely be fun racing through the dirt roads of Brittany,” he says. “I have raced the Tour de Bretagne in the past and the roads make for some really tough racing, even without the off-road sections. The region is super beautiful with the massive amounts of farmland and greenery.”

Mitch Docker will be going for it, too. “This style of racing suits me, and I am feeling fit and ready to go. It’s a race I have never done before, which is cool. It’s exciting. It seems like it has a Roubaix style to it, with sectors of gravel as opposed to cobbles. But I have the feeling the race will run the same way—race into a sector and then fight across it, then do it over and over again. I love the area. It is one of, if not my, favourite places in France to ride and visit—as long as the weather is kind.”


Rain and strong winds are forecast for Sunday in Brittany. 


No matter. We’re hardy, too. And we can’t wait to race over les ribinoù.