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Ninety-nine Tours de France have been won and lost since the inaugural victor, Maurice Garin, wrestled his La Française-Diamant towards the 1903 finish line in Paris. It’s a humbling thing to behold this fabled machine in the heavy-metal flesh, rather jarringly on display at a suburban shopping centre in the Loire-side town of Saumur. With its conspicuous absence of gears or even brakes, Garin’s plain-black bike was a spartan clunker fundamentally identical to those that would have carried many of his fans to the Parc des Princes velodrome.
In the sports superstore opposite Garin’s workmanlike steed, I could have bought a bike just as closely related to those being ridden around Corsica this weekend in the opening stages of the 100th Tour. It had electronic gear-shifters, carbon-fibre everything and would have cost €4,000 – and it’s this ever-stretching disconnect that last weekend drew 2,600 retro cycling enthusiasts to Saumur for the annual Anjou Vélo Vintage, or AVV.
They came from 20 nations on penny-farthings, rusty tandems, district-nurse sit-up-and-beggers and all manner of golden-age racing machines. For some it was a period fancy-dress parade on granddad’s old bike, an excuse to wax that moustache and straighten those stocking seams; for others, a chance to reclaim cycling from the MAMILs – those technology-fixated, Wiggins-wannabe Middle-Aged Men in Lycra who have been steadily annexing the two-wheeled leisure scene over recent decades. They came to mark the 100th edition of the world’s most famous race, and pay nostalgic homage to a simpler, gentler age of cycle touring for all.
This year’s event was the third AVV, and my second. I came to Saumur last year to nurture a fascination with the 1914 Giro d’Italia, the most attritional challenge in cycling history: 81 starters, eight finishers. At the Vélo Vintage’s attached cyclo-jumble I’d found a 1914 racing bike, a semi-derelict barn find that I then took to Italy and somehow coaxed around the 3,162km route.
Like Garin’s bicycle, my Hirondelle No 7 Course sur Route had wooden wheels. Unlike his, mine was blessed with two gears – though changing between them meant taking the rear wheel off completely and turning it around. I did have brakes, but since spinning wood melts rubber, I had to make the blocks myself from wine corks. Frankly, I could have slowed down more efficiently using la méthode Garin: planting both feet on the road.
I came back to Saumur with the Hirondelle and two like-minded friends: one brought his father’s 1960s track bike, unridden for decades, and the other a small-wheeled Moulton of similar vintage. Any bicycle manufactured before 1987 is welcome at this three-day festival, which combines organised closed-road rides with period dress, design and accordion-heavy music at a cavalry training ground in the heart of Saumur. It’s a cheerful, unassuming town with an appropriately timeless ambience: on Saturday night we ate at a restaurant whose chef was born not long after my Hirondelle rolled off the production line, and who has been working in that same kitchen since 560 cavalry cadets kept 10,000 Germans at bay for three famous days in the summer of 1940.
The AVV is the largest, most inclusive of the celebrations of vintage cycling that have started popping up all over Europe. London’s Tweed Run is a smaller, more fashion-oriented two-wheeled parade; L’Eroica is a hardcore tribute to the racers of old, a series of gruelling, keenly contested rides around the back roads of Chianti.
“Events like this are about reconnecting with a more straightforward and maybe more romantic age,” said Jim Kent, owner of There Cycling, a west London retailer of classic and retro-style machines. “There’s just no soul in a modern bike – they’re all built in Taiwan and only expected to last until the updated model comes out. Every bike here has a bit of heritage to it, a bit of a back story.”
Kent came to take part in the AVV’s tribute to the 100th Tour de France, an 86km ride from Angers back to Saumur along the 1903 Tour route (part of a stage that required Garin and his fellow pioneers to cover 471km nonstop from Nantes to Paris – not for nothing were those early racers nicknamed “convicts of the road”). Kent’s chosen steed was a La Torpille, a Victorian-look reproduction built by two brothers near Annecy: swooping swan-neck handlebars, wooden pedals and a single “spoon brake” that depressed a chrome pad down on to the front tyre.
As I watched finishers barrel sweatily over the line, it was clear that this had been a hard-fought race. Yet in the spirit of the AVV, no times or classifications were announced, and Kent told me the peloton had been halted at the halfway point for a mass picnic at which many of the Loire’s famed refreshments were sampled. Maurice Garin would have approved: his performance-enhancer of choice was a bidon filled with a challenging blend of champagne and coffee.
Other vintage rides proved more ruminative and less male. Our trio opted for the entry-level “Discovery” route, a 35km tour up and down the forgivingly flat banks of the Loire. It seemed foolhardy to push our bikes any further: as sturdy and easy to ride as most traditional bicycles were designed to be, the passage of years can compromise their reliability.
Having shed a vital bolt while strapped upside-down to our car on the way, the Moulton ate its rear mudguard on the short ride from the hotel to the AVV enclosure, and later suffered a cable failure that deprived its rider of his rear brakes. Five minutes of gentle riding was enough to snap the track bike’s old Brooks saddle in half (a bargain replacement was handily sourced at the AVV jumble sale) and my Hirondelle remained a wobbling invalid after its Italian ordeal. Four spokes short of a full roster, the wooden rear wheel was an egg-shaped, semi-helical outrage against symmetry. Getting an unhindered revolution out of it involved removing the cork brake blocks; getting the same out of my pedals meant whacking in the cotter pins with a club hammer.
We pootled out of Saumur with a bell-dinging throng of 'Allo ’Allo! extras, pausing en masse every few miles for a dégustation at one of the vineyards running down to the Loire. Over lunch in a wild flower meadow beneath the Château de Montsoreau, I got talking to a French couple with a beautifully restored tandem and their 10-year-old son who was gamely following on a pint-sized 1950s Peugeot.
“With all this economic stagnation, it’s good for us French to relive happier days,” his father told me. “My grandparents used to tell me their best memories were taking bikes out into the countryside and sharing a picnic, lying in the fresh grass. For them the bicycle offered true freedom.” I dare say the French are also keen to hark back to an era when their riders used to win the Tour de France all the time: only two natives have triumphed since Bernard Thévenet, a star guest at the AVV, won his second Tour in 1977.
On the gentle roll back to Saumur, we were caught up by Julien Tomasini, riding one of the La Torpilles that he and his brother build in Annecy. The French, however, aren’t really into the old-bike revival, he told me. “Today it’s different, but when I ride this in Annecy people laugh: ha ha, stupid old bicycle.” His hopes are pinned on the UK market, where traditional marques such as Pashley are enjoying record sales. France might be the cradle of cycling but other nations seem quicker to appreciate the fruits of this heritage: the many foreign visitors combing the AVV jumble stalls were amazed to find road-ready vintage machines going for €30.
On the long drive home we shared the autoroute with hundreds of gaudy supercars, returning from Le Mans. Cheap motoring killed off bicycles as the universal mode of personal transport, and taunting its most expensive incarnation with our rack full of rusty two-wheelers was a rolling exercise in inverted snobbery. At the same time, I harboured a guilty memory of my return from Italy, and my first ride on a bike that wasn’t the Hirondelle. I found out then that one of the greatest pleasures of riding such a noble old survivor is knowing that any bike you ride afterwards – even the cheap girl’s hybrid that is my daily runabout – will feel like the smooth and silent zenith of mechanical achievement.
Tim Moore is the author of ‘French Revolutions’ (Yellow Jersey). His account of his Italian vintage cycling adventure will be published next year (also by Yellow Jersey)
The next Anjou Vélo Vintage will be in June 2014, see www.anjou-velo-vintage.com
More vintage cycling jamborees: No Lycra required
Tour des Trois, Basel
Every year on the last Sunday in June, enthusiasts gather to ride 125km on vintage bikes on a route that takes in France, Switzerland and Germany. This year’s will take place on June 30; www.td3.ch
Tweed Run, London
Since 2009, vintage enthusiasts have come together for an annual ride through London, wearing traditional dress, particularly tweed plus-fours and jackets. It has become so popular that places are awarded by lottery, while spin-offs have taken place in New York and Tokyo. The next London run will be in April 2014; www.tweedrun.com
In 1997, 82 riders lined up for the first L’Eroica, a ride on classic bikes over the narrow lanes and gravel-surfaced strada bianche of Chianti, Valdarbia and Valdorcia. Today more than 5,000 take part in the annual event, which has four routes from 38km to 205km. This year’s event is on October 6; www.eroicafan.it
Goodwood Revival, Sussex
This weekend festival of classic car-racing sees the Goodwood circuit sent back in time – visitors all dress in vintage clothes, and even the food and drink are period-themed. Increasingly the event draws those more interested in vintage lifestyle than the cars, and this year the event celebrates the 100th Tour de France with a parade of classic bikes. September 13-15; www.goodwood.co.uk
La Mitica, Piemonte
Only bikes built pre-1987 can take part in this cycling festival, a tribute to the late, great Fausto Coppi, in the hills around his Piemonte home. June 30; www.lamitica.it