Brittany through their own eyes (III/V)

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 fourteen Breton participants set in 1958 is safe for another year, the 2021 peloton will still contain around ten local riders who are each set to experience a unique mixture of emotion and pride. Five of them tell letour.fr 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. Although he may have to wait until after the French national championships to hear who will ride the Tour de France for his team Arkea-Samsic, the taste of a fourth Tour would be particularly sweet for Elie Gesbert following a year blighted by injuries, operations and treatment. The rider from Saint-Brieuc also contracted COVID-19 a few weeks ago, but returned in fine form with a 6th place at the Tour d'Occitanie. He now has his sights set on continuing his love affair with the Tour, a race that has been part of his life since his earliest hours.

Elie Gesbert: “The Gwenn-ha-du jersey has an aura about it.” 

Born: 1 July 1995 in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany
Teams: FDJ (2015), Fortuneo-Vital Concept (2016-2017), Fortuneo-Oscaro (2017), Fortuneo-Samsic (2018), Arkea-Samsic (2019-2021)
Notable results:
2012: junior champion of Brittany (cyclo-cross), winner of the national junior challenge
2013: junior champion of France (time trial + road race), junior champion of Brittany, silver medal at the European junior championships
2014: champion of the Côtes-d’Armor
2015: stage winner at the Tour de l’Avenir
2016: winner of the Tour de Basse-Navarre, stage winner at the Ronde de l’Isard, winner of the Grand Prix de Rennes
2017: stage winner at the Tour de Bretagne, stage winner at the Tour du Limousin (2nd in the general classification)
2019: 5th at the Tour d’Oman (best young rider)
2021: stage winner at the Volta ao Algarve
Record at the Tour de France: 2017, 85th / 2018, 86th / 2019, 78th

gesbert (elie) - (fra) -
gesbert (elie) - (fra) - © PRESSE SPORTS
Tour de France 2018 - 11/07/2018 - Etape 5 - Lorient / Quimper (204,5km)
Tour de France 2018 - 11/07/2018 - Etape 5 - Lorient / Quimper (204,5km) © ASO/Pauline BALLET
21 February 2019 10th Tour of Oman Stage 06 : Muscat - Muttrah Corniche GESBERT Elie (FRA) Arkea - Samsic, 1st of the Young Rider Classification Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA
21 February 2019 10th Tour of Oman Stage 06 : Muscat - Muttrah Corniche GESBERT Elie (FRA) Arkea - Samsic, 1st of the Young Rider Classification Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA © PRESSE SPORTS

A corner of Brittany
Armorique is a land of myths and mysterious creatures. However, back in 1995, it was not a fairy who was looking over the cradle holding the newly-born Elie Gesbert but one of the most formidable baroudeurs of the late-twentieth century. Cycling historians still associate the date of 1 July 1995 with the crash that derailed Chris Boardman's hopes of victory in the prologue at Saint-Brieuc and played into the hands of Jacky Durand, who had shown the initiative to set off on the course before the storm broke out. However, history may yet also recall that at the same time, in a maternity ward in another part of town, a baby champion named Elie was taking his first breaths – and that the same baby would go on to demonstrate much later that he had indeed been blessed with a fine pair of lungs. “I was born in Saint-Brieuc but I grew up in Andel, the next village on from Lamballe,” explains the young man who would return to hone his craft on the roads surrounding the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, a setting that he holds dear to this day. “It’s my favourite area, for me it’s the most beautiful of all the seas. The creeks, the granite, Cap Fréhel: it’s really wonderful. And it’s great for my training too, with lots of demanding stretches of road.” The Arkea-Samsic rider has essentially stayed put since he started racing at the age of 9, first on mountain bikes and later on roads. In fact, he has only moved 10 kilometres or so, to Planguenoual: “I feel at home here, I've moved a little closer to the sea. In December, of course, it sometimes crosses your mind to move on, but I wouldn’t be happy away from my loved ones and all these surroundings.”


The Breton spirit
Nothing epitomises Brittany better than its music. Whether in its traditional or more contemporary forms, Breton music has a special place in the heart of Elie Gesbert, who loves those inimitable sounds that have the capacity to transform the atmosphere: “I really like Matmatah, a rock group from the 2000s, or Denez Prigent, who does fest-noz folk music, which is 100% Breton. That music is a real product of its region: they talk about Brittany and they sing about it.” Although he agrees with the widely-held belief that “Bretons are a bit stubborn, a bit closed, although still very friendly”, Elie says that he sees his own character reflected more in the penchant for travelling that is often associated with people from his homeland. “The Breton is an adventurer, that’s for sure. You can see that by the number of Breton flags you see all over the world. When I rode the Tour of Utah in 2016, for example, there was a Gwenn-ha-du on the side of the road, which made me smile.”

gesbert (elie) - andel velo sport  - CHAMPIONNAT DE FRANCE DE CYCLISME DE L'AVENIR - CHAMPIONNAT DE FRANCE COURSE SUR ROUTE JUNIORS - SAISON - 2013/2014 - ALBI
gesbert (elie) - andel velo sport - CHAMPIONNAT DE FRANCE DE CYCLISME DE L'AVENIR - CHAMPIONNAT DE FRANCE COURSE SUR ROUTE JUNIORS - SAISON - 2013/2014 - ALBI © PRESSE SPORTS
BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, FRANCE - JULY 24: Elie Gesbert of team FORTUNEO-SAMSIC during the stage 16 of the Tour de France 2018 on July 24, 2018 in Carcassonne / Bagnères-de-Luchon, France. (Photo by James Startt/Agence Zoom)
BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON, FRANCE - JULY 24: Elie Gesbert of team FORTUNEO-SAMSIC during the stage 16 of the Tour de France 2018 on July 24, 2018 in Carcassonne / Bagnères-de-Luchon, France. (Photo by James Startt/Agence Zoom) © PRESSE SPORTS
gesbert (elie) - (fra) -
gesbert (elie) - (fra) - © PRESSE SPORTS

 
A cycling region
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the historical reasons for the popularity of cycling in Brittany, when you listen to Elie Gesbert’s early memories of competition you start to understand why the region produces so many champions: “For a young person who loves cycling, it’s the best place to learn, to progress and to feel supported. Every weekend, there are four races in your department and four more in the next one along. You feel the support of the public, there are people at every race, whatever the weather.” In such an environment, a teenager can quickly develop the reflexes and mentality of a competitor. Helped in that process by the sheer volume of talent around him, the young Elie began to understand – as he started to pick up wins and travel to more races – that he had received his cycling training in a region that was like no other: “At the junior level, I was champion of Brittany and the level was very high,” he recalls. “So when you arrive at the French championships the following weekend, wearing that jersey, you’re not the same rider. You can sense that people look at you in a different way, the Gwenn-ha-du jersey has an aura about it.”

The Tour in Brittany
The regular visits of the Tour de France to Brittany are one of the reasons for the attachment that the locals feel towards cycling. They allow the youngest fans to open their horizons and aim higher, something that worked perfectly in the case of Elie Gesbert: “The first time I watched the Tour pass by was in 2011, just down the road from my home in Planguenoual about 30 kilometres from the finish at Cap Fréhel. Right where we were standing, we saw an attack by Thomas Voeckler. I was in a dream as I watched it, it filled me with the desire to be in the peloton myself one day. Unconsciously, at least.” That dream came true in 2017 – a year in which he was the youngest member of the peloton – and again in 2018, when the race returned to Brittany: "We passed by not far from my home and I knew the finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne well. That was quite something, especially since I was riding for a Breton team. The crowds were bigger there than anywhere else, it was exhilarating. Unfortunately, I’d crashed the day before that stage, so I wasn’t at my best.”
Elie has already had more than his fair share of problems this year, but is looking forward with enthusiasm and hunger to the Tour’s latest trip to Brittany. What’s more, he is quite happy to discuss his chances of becoming the first homegrown victor of a stage in Brittany since Bernard Hinault (winner of a time trial in Plumelec in 1985). In fact, he is counting on the fact that something special will occur: “As a Breton team, it’s inevitable that we will put pressure on ourselves to do well. We have to dream, we have to hope. It would be a massive celebration. But if I win at Mûr-de-Bretagne, it will be hard to leave the next day.”


Brittany through their own eyes: the previous episodes, available now:
Cyril Gautier: “Hearing bagads, it makes my hairs stand on end” (I/V)
Valentin Madouas: “People from Brittany never give up, we stick at it” (II/V)

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