Tales from the land where cycling really is a religion

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The Independent Online

On the first French family holiday I was ever involved in, which is so long go that the war was still a fresh memory, my father decided that we should go to Dinard. It was actually Granny's choice, I think. She had a taste for posh travel, and had the leather luggage to match, so I suppose that the faded Victorian/ Edwardian charm of Dinard, with its big villas, would have appealed to her. (I was there again a week ago. It isn't very posh any more.)

The one thing I can remember clearly about that holiday is that the Tour de France came through while we were staying there. I had never heard of it before. People in Britain didn't bicycle round the country, so far as I knew. I don't think I even knew that people raced each other on bikes. I certainly had no idea that people could get so excited about it, but for hours before the race passed, vans went up and down the otherwise traffic-free street, shouting distorted messages through their loudspeakers, and music blared out from somewhere. (Have you noticed the perverted taste that the French have for pumping out nasty music into their streets?)

Some cyclists raced up and down the tree-lined avenue, but they were just local lads, putting on a show for the waiting throng. Then, after about an hour, there was a distant roar down the road. The roar travelled towards us. It was the Tour de France approaching. A jumble of colour and flying legs flashed past us. The roar receded. The Tour de France had been and gone. Everyone went home. The litter left behind, I remember, was truly impressive.

I have never seen the Tour since that day, 50 years ago, but I got closer to it this year than I thought I ever would because, just outside Labastide d'Armagnac, the little French town we were staying at, there is a church dedicated to cycling. Notre-Dame-des-Cyclistes. There is no other church in France dedicated to the sport of le cyclisme. There is, apparently, a church dedicated to rugby somewhere in the Ovalie (Ovalie is a new word I learnt this year. It's a name for the part of France where rugby is played. Unless someone was pulling my leg...), and there is a cycling church in Italy, but in France, the 16th-century church of Notre-Dame-des-Cyclistes is unique, so I pedalled there one day to have a look, and apart from lots of faded photos and some very old cycles, the church is almost entirely lined with cycling vests of all colours and clubs. Bit scruffy, to be quite honest.

But I am glad I went, because there was a reprint of an old article pinned up on the wall, containing the vivid memories of one Maurice Protin, who had cycled in the Tour three times, from 1923 to 1925. It was grim, he wanted us to know. Most of the course of the Tour was not even metalled - about 200km of French road was tarred, he thought, and the rest was all dirt track - so the bumping and grinding must have been appalling, especially on solid tyres. He had no support team at all. "To save the price of a hotel room, I usually slept the night in station waiting-rooms," he said. "It was cold and uncomfortable. I did have some money, but most of it went on spare parts.

"On one stage, my frame broke, and I finished the stage on foot, carrying the bike, at 2am. 2am! And we had to set off early the next morning... Ah, they were real men in those days."

He doesn't say anything about drugs, though he claims he drank a whole bottle of Pernod one day during the Tour. And he would never have been able to afford to keep going if his home town of Rheims hadn't had a whip-round and sent him some funds...

We were staying near St-Malo earlier this week, on the way home. I told Madame Grosset at our lovely B&B of my early memories of the Tour at Dinard. I asked her if it still came through St-Malo.

"Of course not," she said. "St-Malo couldn't possibly afford it."

"Afford it?" I said. "You mean, places have to pay to be visited?"

"Of course!"

Old Maurice Protin would have turned in his grave.