The Best Sporting Town in France, Hands Down
Cholet, France. Ever heard of it? Neither have I. But to the French, this city of over 50,000 inhabitants is known for its sports fanaticism. The city is the only town over 20,000 people to have won L’Equipe’s “Challenge de la Ville la Plus Sportive de France” three times … 1972, 2007, and 2014. This award measures a city’s overall sports involvement from a professional, public, and policy standpoint. Cholet is known for its professional basketball, hockey, and football clubs but also features a wide variety of other clubs for its residents to enjoy, including rugby, American football, judo, and skateboarding, to name a few. For cycling specifically, the city has constructed a BMX track honoring world champion and Cholet native Franck Chevreton as well as the Bernard Hinault Cycling Pole, a facility that combines five cycling associations and provides a safe place to train. Cholet also hosts the UCI Cholet-Pays-de-Loire race in March. Related to the Tour de France, Cholet has seen the peloton finish twice before. In both instances, the stage was overshadowed by doping. In 1998, Festina team doctors were arrested on the Tour’s arrival in Cholet. Stuart O’Grady won that 252 kilometer stage. In 2008, the year after winning its second L’Equipe title, the town hosted the Tour’s ITT. This time, Stefan Schumacher won the 29 kilometer race, 18 seconds ahead of Kim Kirchen. Schumacher took the Yellow Jersey but his results were voided following a positive doping test. Otherwise, this was a fast stage, seeing average speeds over 50 km./hour, aided by a strong tailwind at the end. The 2018 Tour de France will largely mirror the course from a decade ago, but promises to the negative stigma that has accompanied the Tour to date.
The Home of French Handkerchiefs
Just on the outskirts of Cholet is a lasting remnant of the city’s long-standing textile industry. Now surrounded by single-family homes, this surprisingly small brick factory with a single smokestack centered behind the main structure is strikingly beautiful and classic in its early industrial style. It was a former whitening factory built in 1881 but today houses the city’s well done Museum of Textile and Fashion. Ambitiously, the museum explains the evolution of weaving through loom demonstrations, the process of production, and even a history of children’s fashion. Perhaps most importantly, the Musée du Textile et de la Mode contains the last workshop to manufacture the famed red and white handkerchiefs that put Cholet on the map. Cholet started making handkerchiefs in the early 18th century and became a local rallying point for the royalists during the French Revolution in 1793. Nearly one hundred years later, Theodore Botrel composed a song titled, “The Red Handkerchief of Cholet,” immortalizing the Vendeen soldiers and creating the legacy of the Mouchoir Rouge. As the industry languished, the last manufacturer made 40,0000 dozens of handkerchiefs per year until 2003. Now, the museum takes up this legacy. With live demonstrations, children-focused exhibits, and a garden that illustrates the origin of fibers and dye, this is a great kid-friendly place to explore the interwoven history of Cholet.
If few have ever heard of Cholet, they are not likely to know the Mauges region it lies within. Indeed, as the riders take their turn at the ITT, they venture out into the Mauges countryside. This is known to French historians as the heart of the Vendee counter-revolutionary activity during the Revolution. Even today, the Mauges face an identity crisis as they feel more affinity to the Vendee Department than Maine-et-Loire. This is because the Mauges is a border region at the edge of the Amorican Massif, an ancient mountain range (now small) that unofficially divides east (Paris) from west (Anjou and Brittany). The area appears to be ripe with agricultural potential, but upon closer examination, the land is not among the best for crops in France. This is partly why the region has such a strong history of livestock and small manufacturing. In this way, it is a vestige of traditional France. If you get a chance to explore the little known Mauges, be sure to look out for tell-tale signs of cultural landscape.