Tour de France puts brooding Brittany on the map--and in the sun--for a day

THE BALTIMORE SUN

QUIMPER, France -- The Tour de France has something that is seldom noticed by the world's greatest cyclists and those who travel with them. It rides into France's cities and large towns like a flare across the night sky, illuminating the drama below: the traditions, hopes, frustrations and pleasures of a people, awaiting an event.

Eventually even the worse skeptics are infected, like Jose Colin, a local taxi driver, who looked through his windshield into the windswept streets of Quimper last weekend and swore he had no intention of going to watch the arrival of the Tour de France.

"I couldn't care less," he declared, looking at the rainy streets. "I like car racing."

Indeed, last weekend there were few signs around Quimper that the bicycle race would even be coming through the town.

But something happened between that foul Saturday and the arrival of the race 48 hours later.

Overnight, caravans and tens of thousands of people lined the banks of the Odet River, where the cyclists in their bright jerseys streaked into Quimper. An explosion of food and trinket stands appeared, selling biking posters, T-shirts, enameled pins and perfumes. The state-owned Antenne 2 television network mounted an enormous screen to show the race as it approached.

"There was nothing here last night," exclaimed the once disdainful cabdriver Jose Colin, utterly gripped by the passion of the moment.

"I want to be everywhere at once: in the crowds, in the stands, watching it on TV," he said, and pinched the front of his T-shirt. "It really does something to me."

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The region here is called Finistere. Literally translated, that means the end of the Earth. It is so far from Paris that for centuries the town and its Celtic inhabitants were the butt of jokes, which is surprising because it is a beautiful town, famous for its cathedral, Gothic architecture, lace, seafood and crepes.

And its rain.

Laurent Peron, a fruit salesman, believes that Brittany's capricious, mocking weather eats away at people's spirits, much as the insatiable Atlantic gobbles up and shapes the Brittany coast after its appetite year after year.

Brittany has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in France, and one of the highest rates of suicide. But in the last two years, the number of suicides has dropped, and many Bretons attribute the decline to the lack of rain.

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Small wonder that the burghers of Quimper would be looking for ways to cheer up their constituents and bring the dividends of attention and respect to Quimper (pronounced CAM-PARE). What greater draw than the greatest bicycling race in the world, the Tour de France, which goes through different places each year and hadn't been through Quimper in a quarter of a century?

For Socialist Mayor Bernard Poignant, voted into office two years ago on a platform of bringing Quimper into the limelight, drawing the Tour de France was a masterstroke.

Long on the waiting list, the town's application got a boost last year when Ronan Pensec, a native son, was the leader of the race for several days, entitling him to wear the famed yellow jersey.

"Cycling is not just a sport. It's the history of an entire people behind one racer," said Anna Vari Chapalain, cultural writer for Le Telegramme, who also heads an advocacy group for the preservation of lesser-used languages -- such as the Breton language that people speak here. "You saw last year, when [Mr. Pensec] had the yellow jersey, the whole city stopped," she said.

Never mind now that Mr. Pensec's performance has fallen sharply, or that he barely made it into this year's race, or that fickle politicians here rushed to be photographed with Greg Lemond, the American whose three Tour de France victories and personality have made him the darling of the French.

The Tour de France's arrival drew 60,000 spectators in Quimper and hundreds of thousands along the 140-mile stretch from Rennes.

"Cycling here is something that is completely irrational. It has nothing to do with common sense," said Robert le Goff, regional director of Le Telegramme. "The sports value of the Rennes-to-Quimper leg is absolutely zero."

Last Sunday, speaking at a Bastille Day reception at Chateau Lanniron, before the race arrived, the bespectacled Mayor Poignant reminded the town that the Tour de France would be here the next day with all its journalists and followers: "Do everything possible so they leave with good memories; that will encourage them to write good things," Mr. Poignant said.

But would the weather cooperate?

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Rain was not the only source of trepidation among the civic boosters of Quimper. The area's people have been known to seize public moments to express their grievances.

Farmers dissatisfied with the price of pork a few years ago slaughtered a score of pigs and left them on the streets of Quimper. Another time, a protest ended up busting all the traffic lights.

Last week, one of the farmers' unions hijacked half a dozen milk trucks from the dairy cooperative in a protest against low milk prices. City Hall had feared that the farmers would take advantage of the presence of journalists and photographers to block the race's arrival.

"They refuse to negotiate," Jean-Jacques Urvois, the chief of MayorPoignant's Cabinet, had said before the race. "We are in the most total darkness."

(At last report, the hijackers had sent in the keys to the hijacked trucks but would not say where the vehicles were.)

Then a rival farmers' union was demanding a bit of the spotlight, too: live television coverage for its own complaints against the low prices. It demanded permission to congratulate the winner of the Rennes-to-Quimper leg with a live calf.

"Obviously, the Tour de France can't accept this, or they'd have things at each stop: dates, figs, milk, calves, cows," Mr. Urvois said before the race.

But surprisingly, the tour said OK to the calf, and in a low-profile ceremony, Mr. Lemond got a calf before leaving Quimper.

After the six months of work that went into organizing the bike race's arrival, and with all the things from flighty weather to unhinged farmers that could go wrong, Mr. Urvois learned the value of humor and a philosophical turn of mind.

"We're just hoping they don't block the arrival," he quipped. "We wouldn't mind so much if they delayed the departure by a half-hour."

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At the Hotel Nantais bar, home of the Ronan Pensec fan club, Rene Danion's heart was warming to the approach of the Tour de France.

The rider's smiling, handsome picture looked down from a calendar hanging at the end of the bar. "We put that up before, not just for the Tour de France," Mr. Danion said. Next to the picture, a polished brass sign announced that rooms must be paid in advance.

The fan club counts 1,000 members, all of them biking fanatics, but the bar is open to anyone with a few francs and a thirst to quench.

"Normally, I go biking on Sunday, when it's nice out," Mr. Danion said. A stranger cast a doubtful glance at the steady rain.

"You'll see. Tomorrow, the sun's going to come out. We'll have perfect weather for the tour." Nicole Danion, his wife, nodded hopefully at his side.

"It'll be disgusting," piped a mustachioed man standing at the bar, who would give his name only as Jean.

"Ignore him," Mr. Danion advised. "He's crazy. He's never happy."

"I'm a realist," answered Jean.

Malcontents and those overcome by bleak weather aside, the savage skies and rolling terrain of Brittany have produced an impressive share of France's cycling champions: five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault, three-time winner Luison Bobet, 1947 champion Jean Robic and many more regional stars and Tour de France contestants.

"Biking's always been hot here," said Roger Robic, who has followed the Tour nearly 40 years. He is not related to the biking champ.

"Maybe it's because the roads are so beautiful," mused Mr. Danion, the bar owner.

"I'm not so crazy about it," said Jean, nursing his beer.

Nicole Danion shot him a withering glance.

The talk turned to Quimper's local hero.

"He's really fallen off," admitted Mr. Danion. "We're hoping he can make an extra effort to be first coming into Quimper at least."

"We have to be realistic, just the same," added Mr. Robic.

Whatever Mr. Pensec's performance, the bar owner insisted, all the publicity for Quimper had to be good.

"You know what they'll say," finished Jean, with a derisive frown of triumph. "It's raining in Quimper. As usual."

But then came the electric moment when the world's greatest cyclists came sprinting into the streets of Quimper. The Hotel Nantais bar emptied out to watch.

"Go, Ronan!" they shouted with all their might as the cyclists whizzed by.

"Quick. The finish!" someone in the crowd called, and the swarm JTC of supporters raced back inside to catch the sweating, pumping herd crossing the finish line on television.

For the record, Mr. Pensec was hopelessly behind. "Oh, my dear, I believe he is in 90th place," said his aunt, Nicole Beniat.

But the sun was shining.

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