It was only by complete chance that we even knew the Critérium was happening in Quillan that weekend. We’d driven virtually 1,000 miles from our home in Gloucestershire to the far South West of France, and were sitting in a local neighbourhood restaurant in Esperaza, quite excited to learn that Friday night in La Frite Normande is“Moules Marinières Frites – A Volonté” (all you can eat Mussels & Chips). As I nipped inside to use the facilities, I saw a poster advertising an event for the next Sunday, in the next town just a few km away. And I got even more excited.
Quillan is about the same size as Cirencester; not very big, with a population of no more than 5-10,000. Imagine Bradley Wiggins coming to take part in a cycling race around and through the town centre. That’s what was going on in the Critérium, except the French version of Wiggo is Thomas Voeckler, cycling pro extraordinaire and recently-crowned King of The Mountains in the 2012 Tour de France. And as France wasn’t experiencing the same glorious Olympic Summer as the UK, he’s as big a name as they have right now.
Having been avid followers of the Tour de France, “Little Tommy Voeckler” (as some of the ITV commentators jokingly called him) was already a bit of a legend in our household. For our daughters, he was only a small step behind the likes of Wiggo and Mark Cavendish.
We arrived in Quillan not knowing what to expect. The town is nestled between some impressive mountains, and indeed a climb in the Tour de France started there earlier in the summer. Our anticipation rose even more driving into town, as we passed Thomas Voeckler himself riding out on a warm-up. The town centre was effectively closed, but once we’d paid our entry fee (£20 for the family), we wandered around the town in a bit of a daze until we got the hang of how it all worked…
It seemed quite amateurish, really. Grass-roots cycling but with added celebrities. About 40 riders took part, with slightly more than half selected from local and regional amateur cycling groups, riding alongside members of the major professional teams, with a few star names dropped in to attract the crowds (and no doubt some useful appearance money). All the riders seemed to be operating for the day out of the back of an estate car, getting changed in the main square’s car park and fixing equipment. The riders were completely accessible; we just wandered up to several to get autographs, and they were all really willing to chat.
The course went down the main high street, over a bridge, back around a very tight corner over another very old and narrow bridge, down a back street/straight and around to the start. The race ran for 75 laps of just over 1.1km each, which meant if you missed the peloton flying around 1 lap, you barely had to wait 90 seconds for them to come around again. It was like seeing the Olympic Torch, but without all the sponsors’ vehicles, and with the torch going around and around and around.
From a fairly quiet start, the atmosphere in the town built pretty quickly. The roadside bars were all packed, the pavements quickly became crowded around the finish line and the key corners getting on and off the medieval bridge.
I’m sure the riders use events like these for sprinting practice or interval training. Every few laps a different group would break away from the peloton, only to fall back a few laps later. With the main street barely 300m long, there’s no chance anyone could genuinely escape.
By the finish the streets were genuinely packed. We’d seen Thomas Voeckler change his own wheel. We cheered like mad for a local rider who was eventually dropped by the gradual acceleration in the race. We marvelled at the riders’ skills in negotiating the incredibly tight corners, and remarked at the amazing roll-call of previous winners (Jacques Anquetil, Charly Mottet, Richard Virenque). We enjoyed the sophisticated lap-counter…
This was one of the highlights of my year, let alone just our (excellent) holiday. Grass-roots cycling with genuine professional stars. Watching this sort of sport right up close and personal (just about) made up for not seeing any of the Olympics. It wasn’t a surprise that M. Voeckler took the prize, but it was a delight to see him spend so long being interviewed on the podium afterwards, showing genuine thanks and respect for the fans who came to spectate and his fellow riders.
I’ve put more photos of the event on my Facebook page