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THREE DAYS IN THE MOST ATTRACTIVE MEDIUM-SIZED CITY IN FRANCE
Clermont-Ferrand has been elected France’s ‘most attractive medium-sized city’. The salient criteria in this competition matter little: it seems sufficient pretext to come and visit, and to get to the bottom of some important questions: are people happy here, on and off the bike?
The Auvergne region has already become France’s California (albeit without the ocean) – thanks to its New Deal policy that offers financial assistance to people wanting to move there – and this is undeniably so for some of the players in French cycling. Here is where Victoire Cycles, jewel in the crown of the renaissance in cycling craftsmanship, is based, along with 200 magazine’s editorial team, the publisher of Cyclist France, the team behind Warsaw Cycling clothing, and, soon, the distributor 2-11, which is currently moving its stock of Compass tyres to town. So is Clermont-Ferrand a paradise for cyclists?
Just as some take the RER for their daily commute, I catch the 7 A.M. train from Bercy. In 3 hours, 41 minutes, you’ve time to regret there being no TGV express service, but at least there’s time to work without being disturbed. No sooner arrived, I jump on the bike and head to the Cycles Victoire workshop in Beaumont. There I find Julien Leyreloup, who presents his team’s latest creations for the lens of our photographer, Bertrand Trichet. There are road steeds in stainless steel; a tourer, a former show bike, with couplings that allow the frame to be broken down and fit into a normal suitcase; a mountain bike waiting for its new owner, and several prototypes.
Far from the world of craft framebuilding, the Auvergne is currently in the spotlight thanks to a regional racer: Romain Bardet. When the third-placed rider in the 2017 Tour de France has time away from races and training camps, it’s here he comes to train, and he puts all his rides on Strava – and the last outing he posted looks tempting. Matthieu Perrusset, Victoire’s marketing & communication manager, suggests a couple of little changes and off we go. Each year, there’s one ride during which you feel that you’re truly reaching the of the season. When the wind is glacial, gloves obligatory and oversocks desirable, but something motivates you to ride – and you’re always rewarded. The trees are turning rust red, the cows resemble cuddly toys in their winter coats, and the low sun bathes this scene in a beautiful light. We climb towards the Col de la Croix-Morand. Nothing is stirring on the road, but the undulations of the ‘puys’ (the local name for these mountains, once volcanoes, now extinct) are a delight. At the col we dive into the inn to warm up with a hot chocolate. Through the window we can see hikers and trailrunners descending a footpath of black volcanic rock. Ice is forming on the summit before our eyes.. Bardet often visits this bar – not always for a blueberry tart, but to fill his bidons at least. Pierre Rolland has also fallen for the region and its perfect tarmac. The two climbers have a good reputation among local cyclists, always happy to pose for a picture. They’re not in the area today, but never mind. The day is fading and we cycle home in the drops. The tarmac here really is perfect.
Our hotel is in an alley in between Clermont’s Place de Jaude and the Rue des Gras, which leads to the cathedral. The nerve centre of the city, in other words. Monday nights are not the best for going out, but we join the Victoire team and their partners for a gentian (a local liqueur, bright green and made of mountain plants) at the Dicken’s pub. Saïd is the president of the Bad Wizards, the Clermont football team’s supporters’ club – a small cult in this land of rugby – and he greets us by pointing to the jukebox. There are two credits left. The speakers boom, glasses rattle and we talk over our impressions of the day. From Salers to Avèze – two brands of gentian – takes us until 10:30 P.M., and we’ve barely had a moment to choose a place to eat. Only a tourist restaurant will open its doors for us this late. The aligot (a local potato speciality) tastes like might have come out of a packet, and everyone’s a winner in the garlic stakes, but it doesn’t matter. We have two more days to improve.
In the popular imagination, Clermont-Ferrand is synonymous with Michelin, and this is not completely wrong-headed, so much has the tyre manufacturer shaped the town. The Michelin Adventure is the museum that tells this story. I was expecting something obscure or tacky, but the visit turns out to be fascinating for those of all ages and interests. Cycling is celebrated right at the entrance, with Charles Terront’s victory in 1891 in the first Paris-Brest-Paris (a single-stage race of over 1,100km), a victory that helped demonstrate the superiority of pneumatic tyres over solid rubber ones. Progress is accompanied by daring feats: crossing the Himalayas in a caterpillar wagon and pith helmet; breaking 100 kilometres an hour, in an era when it was believed the human body wouldn’t survive over 70km/h, and other first flights. These exploits retain some of their magic. What could have pushed a guy to try to fly, with scarcely more than a wooden frame and two stretched-canvas wings to help him? Man is fascinating, and Michelin was at his service. The company’s paternalism extended to Clermont, where the lives of Michelin workers were always being improved.
Michelin is also synonymous in the public perception with maps. They deserve a chapter on their own, but they are also accompanied by the no-less-celebrated Michelin Red Guide. For us nowadays, it’s no more than a collection of recommended restaurants, but imagine driving back then, with your starting handle and your no-good tyres, having to find petrol before service stations were invented, or an inn where the specialities didn’t give you a dicky tummy for three weeks afterwards… Another invention that’s easily taken for granted: the road numbering system. To make it happen, Michelin launched a petition, which was received favourably, and then supplied the kilometre markers – a kind of street marketing in the public interest. And this innovation is where we leave Michelin, because it is after 12pm and therefore about time to join the Victoire team for a lunch ride.
Riding at lunchtime is the Parisian’s dream. Whereas he or she has to cross town for half an hour to get to Longchamp (where many Parisian’s go for their regular pedal) here you can find yourself at the top of a col in the same amount of time. Climbing towards Berzet, I chat with Olivier, who has moved to Clermont from Toulouse to take up a position as framebuilder. Aside from the boss, Julien, who is born and bred in the region, all his colleagues have come here for work – from Caen, Tournus, Caraix and even Australia. His new life is very much to his liking
We spend the afternoon at the Hôtel Fontfreyde, the town’s photography museum, which shows artists’ work in quiet, intimate rooms. Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s work stands out in the ‘Dommages et Refuges’ exhibition: the contrast between her portraits of young Ukrainians traumatised by their involvement in the war and a imposing carved chimney is striking.
In another room I chat with a young couple who were instagramming a series by Rita Puig-Serra Costa, who, they say, drop in here regularly and never miss a show. Often they follow it up by visiting FRAC, a modern art gallery, but today that is closed. We console ourselves with a walk around the old town, with its small shops and workshops. One craftsman is repairing a guitar, there’s a sculptor at work and someone else is sorting through LPs. Each window prominently displays a poster of a Keith Haring penis, advertising the 50th anniversary exhibition at the Christiane Vallé Gallery. We go along and, even if the big names don’t necessarily guarantee a high-quality or cohesive show, we manage to find some nice engravings at the back.
The street life this Tuesday evening is just as varied. Halloween has taken the upper hand in Clermont: vampires and werewolves stalk the dark-stone alleyways in packs – and there goes a zombie on rollerskates clothed in rags. You don’t have to be dressed up to get into the Ecu d’Or, however. Like the Dicken’s yesterday, this is one of a crack trio of addresses for self-respecting revellers in Clermont. The custom is to start here, move on to the Dicken’s and then to hope they pull the curtains back at the Chantilly, almost opposite. We meet Nicole, who was also here yesterday, a lady of perhaps dubious reputation who still seems to be living on her wits. She sits and strokes the landlady’s dog, which the landlord is threatening to put in the oven. The bar is already closing, but the real bad news is that all the restaurants are full. We’d been recommended L’AOC, had thought about Lard and La Manière, and also about La Gourmandine, even Bougnat Burger when we’d found Les Arcandiers closed, but in vain: this will teach us not to book, in a town where the local specialities are hot to trot!
All Saints’ Day is a public holiday, which doesn’t stop us from asking the Victoire crew to be our guides one more time. Since we didn’t manage to eat at the best restaurants in town, we decide to proceed with them as one would with the best chefs, and give them free rein!
Our start is not to be trifled with – Auvergne doesn’t do amuses bouches and that’s fine by us. Our heart rates rise up to Charade and we warm ourselves up by spinning our legs, since the road is still icy in patches. We pass the Puy de Dôme (the region’s most famous summit) and navigate via minor roads. Two sections of gravel track test our tyres’ resistance. The cold deepens our hunger. There’s nothing much open where we can find something to cover our climbers’ bones, but that doesn’t stop the Col de Guéry from chewing us up and spitting us out. We pass between the Tulière and Sanadoire, two incisor-shaped rocks, as spectacular from down below as from the vantage point of the col. Then comes the Lac de Guéry where, Julien tells us, ice fishing aficionados gather for an end-of-winter competition. The long, cold wait leads participants to warm themselves with antifreeze lamps which, coupled with the natural melting of the ice, causes frequent involuntary dunkings at the end of the day – really something not to miss!
At Mont-Dore we try to find a restaurant for lunch. As in Clermont, everything is full. After four or five disappointments we cobble together a picnic with the help of a Saint Nectaire cheese seller in one of the charming side streets of the spa town, and go to eat our bread and cheese in front of the closed casino. The Col de la Croix-Saint-Robert doesn’t give us any time to digest – were we right to make the most of it by trying different types of cured sausage and to finish with a tart? – so we have to take it at our own pace, splitting into several little groups. On its barren slopes, we take stock of how luck we are to be here – the Auvergne really is a change of scene! The other side of the col is celebrated for its hill climb: the competition tarmac is like dessert, and the view of the Lac de Chambon the cherry on the cake. What follows is like a nightcap, all the way to the train home, a marc brandy both rounded and robust, smooth like gentian with flavours of come-back-soon. That’s also the flavour of the Auvergne and the Clermont residents – whether they’re newly arrived or native since the time of Vercingetorix. Thank you.