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Brittany Through Their Own Eyes

Valentin Madouas: “People from Brittany never give up; we stick at it”

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Brittany is especially prominent on the route of this year’s Tour de France, with the grand départ in Brest one of a total of four stages visiting the region’s four departments. And although the record number of 14 Breton participants set in 1958 is safe for another year, the 2021 peloton will still contain around 10 local riders who are each set to experience a unique mixture of emotion and pride. Five of them tell all about their home region, from their childhood memories to their relationship with the local culture—while never straying too far from the subject of cycling.

At only his second Tour de France, Valentin Madouas will have the honor of welcoming the cycling world to his own backyard. The Groupama-FDJ rider has a close personal attachment to his hometown of Brest and to the department of Finistère, where the peloton will spend the entirety of the first stage on its way to Landerneau. He would not miss it for the world.

Image: Presse Sports

Born: 12 July 1996 in Brest, Brittany

Teams: Bretagne Séché Environnement (2015), FDJ (2016-2017), Groupama-FDJ (2018-2021)

Notable results:

2012: champion of Brittany in the cadets category (time trial)

2014: winner of the national junior challenge, winner of the Grand Prix Fernand-Durel

2015: winner of Les Boucles de la Loire, winner of Manche-Océan

2016: amateur champion of France, U-23 champion of Brittany, winner of the Route Bretonne, winner of the Circuit de Mené, winner of SportBreizh, winner of the Ronde Finistérienne

2018: winner of Paris-Bourges

Record at the Tour de France: 2020, 27th

Valentin Madouas at the Tour de France
Image: Getty Images.

A corner of Brittany

They say that the Breton temperament becomes more pronounced the closer you travel towards the western tip of Finistère. It was in that part of the world, in the city of Brest, that Valentin Madouas was born one day in July 1996, following a strange series of events at the Tour de France involving his father Laurent. “The team doctor had messed up my haircut and we’d had to shave off all my hair, which looked ridiculous because of the tan lines,” explains the former Motorola rider. “Gérard Holtz had heard about it and asked me to take my cap off in front of the cameras. My wife was watching the TV at that moment: she was so shocked that she started having contractions and gave birth during the night, even though her due date wasn’t until early-August. She let me have a night’s sleep and then called the next morning to tell me, and that’s when we chose his name.” Following his somewhat hasty introduction to the world, Valentin developed an affinity with the Saint-Pierre neighborhood where he grew up: “My friends and I used to ride our bikes in the woods and go to the beach a kilometer away. We lived in the city but, at the same time, we were close to nature.” Given his fondness for wide-open spaces and wilderness, the southern expanse of Finistère also made its mark on a young Valentin, “because my grandparents’ house was where I used to go on holiday, next to Pentrez beach in Saint Nic. It’s a very unspoiled area, full of little houses, beautiful coastal paths, pretty coves. The beaches don’t get crowded, even during the high season.”

The “Gwen-ha-Du” jersey

Having mastered the roads of Finistère at an early age, the budding cyclist soon learned his way to the podium, no doubt helped along the way by the genes inherited from his cycling champion father. “I very quickly got a knack for it. I didn’t ride all that much, I only did two training rides a week as a junior,” remembers the former member of the Bic 2000 cycling club, who still has fond memories of his victory at the SportBreizh in 2016. “It’s the most important race for juniors in the department, the only stage race, and the route follows the roads where I used to train. It’s typical Brittany terrain, with nonstop climbs and descents and a spectacular finish at one of the highest points in Finistère, Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts. On the morning of the race, I had an exam at my engineering school. I had to rush to leave before the end of the test, and my grandparents were outside the school waiting to drive me as quickly as possible to the start. We were on a tight schedule: they’d made some pasta for me, which I ate in the car, then I got dressed, picked up my number and off I went to the race. I won the first stage and then the general classification; it was the first day I ever wore the jersey as champion of Brittany.”

The Breton Spirit

Valentin Madouas believes that the character traits typically associated with Bretons are all embodied by Bernard Hinault, an ambassador for the region whose personality and lifestyle are just as meaningful as his record of achievements. “Because of the way he speaks and the way he carries himself, he is the ultimate Breton for me. He is in total harmony with the region and very attached to its values: a punchy character but sensitive at the same time. The fact that he went on to become a farmer shows that he is at one with the region, which is very agricultural. With the career that he had, he could have gone off to live the easy life in the sun, but he loves his homeland.” It goes without saying that Valentin was an early adopter of the “Breizh attitude”, as confirmed by his father, who was one of the first to witness his son’s tenacity at first hand: “From very early on, when he went out to train, it never bothered him to ride in the rain.” The Groupama-FDJ rider corroborates as much, seeing himself as just another product of his home region: “People from Brittany never give up; we stick at it. It’s like that whether it’s work or it’s sport: you don’t count the hours you put into a job when there’s a goal at the end of it.”

Despite all the hard work, Bretons still find the time for the odd party, more often than not involving bagpipes and local dishes that are not what you would call cyclist-friendly. It is a world in which Madouas Jr. feels perfectly at home: “No one in my family plays with bagads, but we love Fest Noz and go there every summer. There’s something happening every week in all the different villages, they put out long tables and it’s just simple good-natured fun. For example, you might be served kig ha farz… I don’t know how to make it but it’s a kind of hotpot typical of Finistère. It’s a bit fatty, but my grandparents often make it.”

A Cycling Region

Cycling is a sport like no other in Brittany. Young riders are left in no doubt that their every ounce of effort and pedal stroke are being cheered on by a whole community. From an early age, Valentin Madouas realized that bicycle racing has been elevated to the status of an institution in the region: “I loved it from the word go. Queuing with your permit to register, sticking the number on your jersey, these are weekly rituals and we take it all very seriously. It’s like that in every village. It’s a land of cycling: the office gets set up in a typical Breton bar, and volunteers work tirelessly to make sure the finish line and podium look great, right in the village center opposite the church. That’s why we’re so attached to our villages.”

The Tour in Brittany

Valentin’s first memories of a Tour peloton are not associated with Brittany, however,  since from a very young age he found himself traversing France in support of his father: “I can still see Mont Ventoux, for instance, where we went together as a family.” Since then, he has seen the Tour pass through Finistère on various occasions. He joined the peloton for the first time last year and now he is counting the days until the big moment when he will enjoy a most unique homecoming. “To experience the grand départ, surrounded by your family and loved ones… we’re going to be a part of something magnificent. And during the first stage, we’ll pass through Saint-Nic, I know that will be emotional. The Tour is always beautiful, but this will be something else.“

As you may be able to tell, Valentin from Brest thrives on competition. And he does not shy away from discussing his chances of following in the footsteps of Bernard Hinault, the last homegrown winner of a stage in Brittany (a time trial in Plumelec in 1985). For both sentimental and sporting reasons, his sights this year are fixed on the first two stages: “As a Breton, to win in Brittany would be magnificent. But we all know that the early stages of the Tour are very difficult. There’s a lot of nervous tension because the Yellow Jersey is there to be won almost every day. For me, like David [Gaudu] and the other puncheurs, winning a stage in Landerneau or Mûr-de-Bretagne would also mean wearing the yellow jersey. All I can say is that I hope I’ll be ready.”