The Anjou Velo Vintage event in Western France lasts for several days and this year’s edition (the third) had Saumur as its anchor but Angers was a key component. This year the organizers had included a ride from Angers to Saumur on June 22 that would follow 83 kms or so of the original final 471 km stage of the 1903 Tour de France from Nantes to Paris. To participate in “le Rétro 1903” it was necessary to get to Angers first and the organizers had set up a bike corral so participants could leave their bikes there and take a shuttle bus from Saumur the next morning for the ride. My plan was to leave my bike in Angers and then drive the Skoda to my hotel, which was east of Saumur.
Angers was much larger than I expected and I was a bit nervous driving in but the GPS took me close to where I wanted to be. I found a big underground parking lot (noticing that there were big signs that it would be closed at 6 pm that day due to various events) and found an excellent spot with a lot of room around it. It was here that I pulled out the bike bag and my tools and put the Peugeot back together. It all went swimmingly until I had a heart-stopping moment when I could not find the seat binder bolt. I had not come all this way to be defeated by the loss of a tiny part but, calming down, I carefully shook out the bag and out the bolt fell. Victory! Tires pumped up and brakes adjusted, the sea-green Peugeot and I headed outside into the street. Straight into a violent rainstorm.
The rain hammered down and I sheltered at a storefront as everyone in Angers took flight. It was really nasty and cold to boot but eventually it stopped. After asking some policemen where the square was that I needed to reach—they needed to call in, even though it turned out to be less than a block away!–I found myself in the heart of Anjou Velo Vintage. Avec mon vélo.
Some enthusiastic helpers took the Peugeot off my hands and stored it safely in the bike corral. There were a number of stands set up and I met the charming Marie at one promoting a bicycle museum mid-way between Paris and Angers. She gave me some brochures and did not laugh at my French at all. There was also a stand selling English candy and another with a nice selection of cycling books. Raymond Poulidor was there autographing books, as was the widow of Laurent Fignon, Tour winner in 1983 and 1984.
To entertain the passersby a gentlemen demonstrated a high-wheel bicycle (called “un bi” in French) and then let some children sit on the saddle. The rain was intermittent and I had had enough so I left the garage after I received my registration package in good time and made my way to my hotel.
Le Rétro 1903
On Saturday morning I left the hotel early, figuring I could find some kind of breakfast before the ride. It was very easy to find the Anjou Velo Vintage Village in Saumur. Signs were everywhere and there was a big parking lot opposite the famous Cavalry School so that took care of one concern. Picking up my minimal stuff (a small saddlebag with tools, tire repair stuff, emergency food and the as-yet unused plastic rain jacket from the Retro-Ronde) I walked passed the not-yet open Village with its many tents and promises of interesting experiences to be had to where I could see several buses and lots of people in cycling gear but without any bicycles.
I caught up to Dave W., an English rider with a lovely 1950s Claude Butler whom I had met at the Retro-Ronde, and a number of his countrymen. I was struck again by the fact there are so many British participants at these Continental retro-rides. They certainly seem to have the right bicycles but apparently there are no events there. In any case, it would be hard to surpass the kind of event we would enjoy in France over the next two days.
While waiting for the bus we also got to know another Dave W., this time from Ireland and equipped with a Raleigh and superb vintage-style sideburns. He had ridden the Anjou ride last year and his sideburns had gotten him noticed enough to become the AVV poster boy for 2013! Soon it was time to board the bus and we had a jolly trip to Angers, arriving just over an hour later.
It would be several hours before the ride was to begin but a lot of events had been planned. It was bitterly cold so we all piled into a cafe near the square and after Irish Dave battled through the crowds we were able to enjoy some hot coffee. At an adjoining table was a familiar group from Dűsseldorf’s Klassikerausfahrt, all of whom had also been at the Retro-Ronde. As we were enjoying warming up, a gentleman came around with a big basket and handed out fresh croissants to everyone. Very civilized indeed!
Leaving the cafe, we saw that groups of cyclists had gotten their bikes out of the corral and were enthusiastically chatting in various languages. There were some truly marvellous bikes, including a wonderful old 1905 Peugeot with truly beautiful brakes. And not just the bikes were old: on the stage there was a presentation taking place with “Legends of the Tour de France” being briefly interviewed. These worthies included Raymond Poulidor, “the Eternal Second,” much loved in France for his determination. Although he came second in the Tour three times and third five times, he never wore the Yellow Jersey once.
That was not the case for two others: Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, wearing a vintage Yellow Jersey on stage, won the Tour in 1980 and Frenchman Bernard Thévenet, who won twice with his first victory in 1975 marking the end of the era of Eddy Merckx at the Tour. In addition there were some other French riders and even Roger Legeay, who had been the final manager of the Peugeot pro team and then manager of the Z pro team when Greg Lemond won the tour in 1990. This was a pretty amazing group to present to fans of vintage cycling.
Our writer Leslie and a certain Joop Zoetemelk
A fleet of antique cars assembled, everyone was marshalled into place and “le Rétro 1903” was launched into the cobbled streets of Angers. There were around 250 riders and, as usual at the start of retro-rides, a lot of squealing from the totally inadequate brakes as we swooped through cobbled corners, but soon we were off at a nice pace, passing the historic buildings and heading downhill to the banks of the Loire. Irish Dave set such a good pace we soon lost him but figured we would join up at the food stop.
We joined the north bank of the Loire at Les-Ponts-de-Cė and headed eastwards, directly along the river and soon along a really excellent bicycle road which had no vehicular traffic except our accompanying antique cars. The big group had already split and English Dave and I rode at a reasonable pace, passing quite a few cyclists, particularly those on particularly ancient machines. At one point we were overtaken by an old flatbed stake truck and standing on the back was a cameraman and a man with a boom mike who proceeded to interview two particularly picturesque riders while moving for about 7 kms! This procession was actually holding us up so when the way was clear I sprinted past, English Dave following soon after.
Now we rode along the Levée Jeanne de Laval, the main road along the river, and a rather rickety tandem overtook us. As there was now a noticeable headwind it was time to take advantage of the situation and I quickly pulled in behind the creaky tandem, having explained to Dave the principles of drafting. It was new to him and at first he had some trouble keeping the pace but after a while we had a good rhythm going. We kept up until Km 27, when we came to the small town of Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire and crossed the old bridge southwards.
Now the countryside changed a bit as we rode away from the river into some small hills as we wheeled through the mixed forest and farmlands. We caught up with one of the old Tour de France domestiques who was maintaining an excellent pace in spite of his post-TdF beer belly but the group split up as we reached the steep pitches on the road at Blaison-Gohier and outside Saint-Sulpice. We took a break there and while I was drinking from my water bottle I missed the chance to photograph Joop Zoetemelk, who rode by being paced by a motorcycle.
Near Km 44 we had a real break as it was time for lunch, a hot meal served up at the magnificent Chateau Brissac, the tallest chateau in the Loire region. It dates backs to the 11th Century but has been rebuilt numerous times. The Duke of Brissac acquired it from the King of France in 1611 and his heirs still own it although it was ransacked during the French Revolution and had to be restored yet again in the years following.
In addition to our coucous and other tasty victuals, we enjoyed a performance of local folk dancers in the regional costume. One or two cyclists joined in with much more enthusiasm than skill but we all had a good laugh. Irish Dave was there and soon departed and English Dave and I soon followed, joined by Stephen, another British rider. We continued along the empty country roads, with one or two climbs, but after Km 49 it was pretty much downhill back to the Loire.
We rejoined it at Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne and followed the south bank now, passing through small villages named Saint-Maur, Le Thoureil and Gennes. Other settlements were just crossroads with a few houses. There was no traffic at all on this Saturday morning and we made excellent time as our little paceline picked up speed in spite of the fact that the road took us very gently uphill. Sooner than expected we found ourselves at Km 84, the beautiful old city of Saumur and the end of the ride. There had been a lot of fast riders and I had the feeling that of the weekend events this was the one that would attract the more serious cyclists, even on their old bikes. There was a rather surprising 480 m of climbing on the route and we managed the route at an acceptable 24 km/h average, not getting lost once due to the excellent signage and the numerous marshals on the course who stopped traffic for us.
Of course, our heroic arrival in Saumur did not mean the end of the day’s activities. Leaving our bikes in the convenient bicycle corral with volunteers, we took the opportunity to walk through the very extensive Retro Village, which featured a bicycle jumble sale, retro fashions, a retro barbershop and all kinds of fun products, including a special umbrella to fit onto your handlebars for rainy days, a concept not really meant for anything except Dutch roadsters, I fear.
It was also time for the “Concours d’Elegance” and we enjoyed watching the participants as they paraded in their period clothing with their vintage bicycles before the appreciative judges and a capacity crowd that cheered them on. We recognized several of the contestants as clearly people love retro-riding so much they attend all the events, whether in Belgium, Italy or here in France.
The highlight for me had to be the pleasant chat I had with French cycling icon Raymond Poulidor, the beloved “Eternal Second” whom we had seen earlier in the day in Angers. He was happily autographing books for all and when I asked which of his books I should get he shrewdly suggested: “All of them!” Poulidor at 77 is in great shape and between his own races and then covering them in PR work subsequently has seen no fewer than 50 Tours.
For “Convicts of the Road:” The Ride
Day 2 of the Anjou Velo Vintage had on offer a choice of three rides from Saumur: “the Discovery” at 37 kms; “the Stroll” at 46 kms and “made to order for cycling aficionados” was “the Ride” offering 86 kms. Our start time was 10:30, giving us plenty of time to wander around the Retro Village again. The weather was not as cold as it had been on Saturday but it was still grey and overcast but the enthusiasm of the crowds of people in the Retro Village gave us all courage for the start.
There was a lot of jostling about as the announcers called us all up to the start line. The 46 and 86 km route riders were all to start at the same time, with the 37 km riders beginning half an hour later. Things eventually got sorted out, the antique car, with Raymond Poulidor as the honoured passenger, at the start line rolled forwards and we were off!
Catch more of the action on the startline with this great video (in French) from French TV. Our author Leslie was even interviewed at 0:43s ‘en français’ before degenerating into English after about two whole seconds…
We quickly passed the chateau of Saumur and rode along the broad road along the Loire, heading southeast. We had nicely gotten sorted out and we starting to pick up speed when all of sudden after 10 kms we raced up a steep little hill and then found ourselves riding underground through a tufa cave!
This was the village of Souzay-Champigny (population 743) which offered fine houses alongside the river and a series of underground passages where people lived and stored their wine. Tufa is a soft, workable stone that is easily quarried and was used in building all those chateaux. The caves where it was quarried are dry and consistent in temperature and humidity, so people just moved in. It was my first time cycling in a cave, manmade or not, and we were delighted to be offered wine along with the usual cycling standards of bananas and energy bars.
Unlike the previous day’s route, the Ride featured a lot of little climbs and descents. Leaving Souzay-Champigny we climbed away from the river to the south at Turquant and just outside Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg we came up to an impressive gatehouse and a high stone wall, which we followed in a loop through the little town of Brézé and discovered the remarkable Chateau Brézé, site of some of the largest underground fortifications in Europe and site also of our lunch. We had only put in 26 kms on the road so it seemed to be pretty early to stop but as the lunch stop was being shared with the 46 km route riders it appears to have been done for logistics reasons. We were already ahead of the others and it was clear that the longer route group was smaller than the one for “le Rétro” had been the day before. Even Joop Zoetemelk was doing a shorter stretch today.
Chateau Brézé dates back originally to 1060 but the current building was modified in the 16th and 19th Centuries and is in the Renaissance style. However, we made our entry through the cellars, which are 12th Century, and provided another strange cycling experience as we rode around the interior, going from the dark cellars to a bright courtyard. We climbed back out of the historical darkness and lunch was served with a fine view of the impressive building.
The charming village of Le Coudray-Macouard was only 10 kms away but it also offered another refreshment stop but we did not tarry as the skies to the northwest were looking dark and threatening. We put on some speed but when we came to Le Puy-Notre-Dame I called a halt when I saw a bus shelter with two Dutch riders already standing there. We dashed in just as the rain began. And it poured and poured for 20 minutes. Other participants passed by, soaking wet, but we were comfortable and dry. Soon enough the clouds parted and we were on our way again.
Another food stop and we were into the home stretch. We reached the larger town of Doué-la-Fontaine (“the Rose Capital of France”) at Km 68 and our route took us into another totally unexpected discovery: the amazing underground cathedral at Le Perrières, carved out when the stone was quarried in the 19th Century (for sarcophagi!) and featuring ceilings a good 12 m high. Again, a strange experience to ride through the passages, which were lit and airy.
Returning above ground, we continued northwards towards the Loire, passing Chateau Marson and another chance to try some wine (actually, I really enjoyed the sparkling grape juice) before joining up with the cyclists on the 46 km route, whom we effortlessly overtook as we approached Saumur. But one more surprise was in store…
8 kms before the end of the ride we were directed off the road and through a set of shipping doors. Yet once again we found ourselves underground and to our delight discovered we were now in the wine caves of Bouvet-Ladubay. Slowly riding through the candelit cellars we saw stacks of bottles behind iron gates and then we reemerged onto the winery’s main floor where everyone was enjoying unlimited glasses of excellent sparkling white wine, the vin mousseaux for which the Loire is celebrated, made using the same technique as that for Champagne.
After making a serious dent in the cellars, we shakily remounted our trusty steel bikes and headed outside for the final stretch. While we had been riding around indoors the rain had returned and the streets were wet but now the sun was shining and we quickly passed the final intersections (all with marshals, including two policemen on horses!) and found ourselves back at the Retro Village at the Place du Chardonnet. We celebrated our arrival after 89 kms and 670 m of climbing with a justly-earned beer. Another circuit of the RetroVillage was made and that was for us the end of Anjou Velo Vintage 2013.
A highly-entertaining and exceptional event with wide community support, Anjou Velo Vintage takes you through pretty countryside with some memorable detours you will not experience on any other ride. It is not like l’Eroica, which is much more racing-focused, but rather is an exercise in general nostalgia. While we were tearing up the roads on our Golden Age lightweights, many other people were riding the shorter routes on classic roadsters or rusty tandems while in period clothing. The event boasts first-class organization and is reasonably priced serving as an excellent introduction to the Loire region which offers many choices of historic routes to cyclists.
Mark it in your calendar for June 2014!
For further information on this great event, check out their website: www.anjou-velo-vintage.com
When not cycling underground, Leslie Reissner may be found contemplating vintage (and modern) rides at www.tindonkey.com