A day after the 2023 Tour de France had finished, and accompanied by my family (including my grown up children), I travelled west. I ended up in the Breton town of La Roche Bernard, which marks the southernmost border of the region and sits a dozen kilometres inland, on the wooded river Vilaine.
It is a tranquil little place, with a main square, one hotel (the outstanding Auberge Bretonne), two churches, a town hall, two bookshops and half a dozen restaurants clustered onto top of a rocky headland that overlooks the slow-flowing river as it drifts towards to Atlantic. Its granite townhouses stand tightly packed on streets that wind through the centuries and alongside one another, turning gently along lines that all seem miraculously to end up in an embrace somewhere near the Mairie and the two brasseries nearby. As the roads peter out into cornfields and neatly packaged woods, there is a perfectly muted sense of order and of life being quietly lived. Down in the harbour, small boats bob and sway in the breeze. The people of La Roche, the Rochois, have a good life on the whole.
I was here on invitation. In Easter 2022, writing the final chapter of my book about the 1923 Tour de France, I had arrived all alone in La Roche Bernard, armed with my slightly wonky French, a laptop, and a profound spirit of adventure. You see, this little place had assumed mythical proportions in my imagination. It is through its tightly-packed streets, and across its mighty old iron bridge, that a lone rider is seen to attack in the tiny fragment of Pathé newsreel which I had been studying for over a year and a half. Covid had prevented me from travelling until then. But suddenly, there I was, actually standing on the streets which featured in the century-old film. I had been, still am, profoundly moved by this.
To cut a long story short (and please do read it in full), I made a few contacts during my brief spell in the town, one of whom turned out to be the remarkable Michel Chatal; born and raised in La Roche, and the town’s passionate and obsessive historian.
He had fallen upon the film I showed him as it were heaven sent, pausing it, pointing out things I would never have noticed, bringing the detail to life by giving houses and people a name.
Upon leaving, Michel promised me that he would put on an event in the town hall, and that I should return there after the 2023 Tour de France. I had been deeply touched by this gesture. And a year later, here I was, two days after the Tour and on the day of our event at the Mairie.
Over coffee on Tuesday morning, on his balcony overlooking the Vilaine, Michel said to me, ‘There are two possibilities: no one will come, or too many people will come.’ I smiled at him, not without a shiver of trepidation. The mostly likely of the two was that not a soul would attend apart from Michel, his wonderful wife Catherine (a retired pharmacist who had worked in La Roche all her life) and my family.
I was quite wrong. The little hall in which we showed the film and talked about it was full to bursting. A gentleman had driven a vintage Tour de France press motorbike from afar to be there. Another wonderful man, JoJo David, introduced himself to me with a violently friendly handshake. Jojo had worked on the Tour for 34 years; from 1970 to 2004, driving the Voiture Balai (the Broom Wagon, into which riders climb if they abandon the race). ‘My God,’ I said to him. ‘From Merckx to Armstrong!’ We laughed a lot and figured out that we had worked together on the Tour for two years; in 2003 and 2004. This is JoJo, in the middle:
The mayor was there, boasting to me of his friendship with the UCI President, and Morbihan politician David Lappartient, who Michel had also invited, but who didn’t show up. There was a lot of hustle and bustle outside the town hall before we all traipsed inside, which is where the magic happened.
The star of the evening was the film. When the scenes of La Roche Bernard flickered across the screen, a wave of gasps circled the room, breaking into excitable chatter as the Rochois saw their town from a sudden and altered perspective previously unimaginable to them; from a century past.
We paused and rewound, stopped the film, advanced it. Stopped it again, so that Michel would dwell on details. My wife, Kath, told me that she had found herself dabbing away at an unexpected tear that had formed, as she watched on from the sidelines at the reaction inside the hall. I, for my part, sitting at the side of the projection, was just as overwhelmed. It felt like a privilege and an honour.
And why did it have such an effect on us all? Place. Place is the answer. The sense of the land beneath our feet and the interplay of permanence and flux; the deceptive drift of time which passes slowly as we wake and sleep, wake again and fall asleep on a turning globe, more or less in one spot, surrounded by neighbours we know who are ageing as we are too, those we love, the always changing streets we follow and skies which mimic one another with the passing days, seasons and years. In the place we call home.
After the evening’s presentation, and after we had all bid one another farewell, Michel, Catherine and my family all went to a creperie to feast on gallettes and wine. It was a wonderful evening, after which we walked the streets of La Roche together, listened to how Michel and Catherine had met, passed the little house where he’d been born and peered through the windows of a local glass studio. Then we went our separate ways. There are rumours that the Tour will pass very close to La Roche next year. I am waiting for confirmation, hoping that I can take David and Pete there to stay at the Auberge Bretonne, and that I can show them around, proprietorially.
Before leaving, I placed a copy of 1923 in a little free library at the exact crossroad where the checkpoint had been set up on the 30th June 1923. I placed in it a little handwritten note, scrawled on the back of a Chagall postcard I’d bought at the Librairie that I had first visited the week after Easter in 2022.
I popped the card into the book at the page which features this crossroads. And then I left. I am certain I’ll be back.