Marion Sauvebois rolls down to Auvergne’s capital and rubs tyres with its pudgy mascot, the Michelin Man, on his 120th birthday
In the beginning was… Michelin?!
At least that’s where my story starts: sandwiched between Michelin’s headquarters and the concrete hulk of the local stadium, somewhere on an industrial estate on the edge of Clermont-Ferrand.
“Michelin is as much part of Clermont’s identity and history as the volcanoes,” an eager guide assures our perplexed group as we file into L’Aventure Michelin, the tyre manufacturer’s interactive museum (and hall of fame), greeted by its roly-poly mascot, Bibendum, busting his signature disco-point in the corner.
To truly unspool Clermont-Ferrand’s history, I am about to learn, you need to understand – and submit to the back-to-front logic of – the three ‘Rs’: Rubber (courtesy of Michelin), Rugby (Michelin again) and (volcanic) Rock. In that order.
R IS FOR RUBBER
If the Michelin HQ’s pole position as the gateway to Clermont is not enough of a clue already, the rebirth of Auvergne’s capital and the unstoppable rise of its rubber empire at the dawn of the 20th century are inextricably linked. Unbeknown to many, Auvergne was a thriving wine region until a Phylloxera (wine louse) blight at the tail end of the 19th century wiped out 70 per cent of France’s vines, laying waste to the area’s lush vineyards and the livelihoods of its vignerons. So farmers in and around Clermont left their ravaged plots behind to start anew at the fledgling Michelin rubber company.
Contrary to popular belief, in France anyway, Michelin did not invent the tyre. Though it did invent the (spare) wheel! In fact, the wily Michelin brothers, André and Édouard, owe their best-seller to a fluke; in the form of an English cyclist who suffered a well-timed puncture (on his Dunlop tyre) outside their plant. André and his workers graciously offered to help. Their makeshift patch-up job lasted the best part of 10 seconds and 100 metres before the hapless anglais had another flat. On the spot, André dreamt up a radical new idea: the world’s first dismountable tyre. And the publicity-savvy magnate hatched a bold plan to prove his revolutionary invention’s superiority to the world. He talked the cycling champion of the day, Charles Terront, into competing in the 1891 Paris-Brest-Paris race kitted out with his removable pneus. Not only did Terront win hands down, but he covered the 1,200km in a record three days and three nights – 8hrs 27min ahead of the runner-up. Michelin was set on a brave new course, and riding with it was its hive of worker bees in Clermont-Ferrand.
Though L’Aventure Michelin’s rubber hoard is something to behold, there’s so much more to the firm than just tyres. Or so I discover, agog, and more than a little penitent at my initial misgivings, as we trawl through the larger-than-life collection of planes, trains and automobiles vying for attention and thoroughly turning the heads of our merry crew. Each new gallery is a mind-boggling archive of the 20th century’s greatest inventions and breakthroughs. The first ‘Micheline’ rail-car, the first road signs, cement landing strip, tread patterns – in yet another marketing stunt, André decided to carve a trail of ‘Ms’ across his still-smooth tyres, only to discover that the grooves significantly improved grip. Michelin even shod the American Space Shuttle, would you believe?
Giddy from all this new-found knowledge, and armed with a lifetime’s worth of did-you-knows, I head on up to the Michelin Man exhibition hall to pay my respects to the portly idol on his milestone 120th birthday. Rather aptly, this involves clambering up a giant effigy of Bibendum via his roomy undercarriage and out through his rotund paunch. This (all in all slimmed-down) avatar couldn’t be further from the original cigar-chomping, champagne-quaffing mummy-type of 1898. As automobiles became accessible to the masses, not just a privileged few, Bibendum had to ditch his spendthrift habits and appeal to your every man. And these days Clermont’s health-conscious mascot has shifted a spare tyre or two.
Having seriously outstayed our welcome, our little group trundles across the road to tick off ‘R’ numéro deux at the Stade Marcel-Michelin’s new ASM Experience rugby immersion museum.
R IS FOR RUGBY
Not content with giving the town a trade, and some of the first homes with indoor loos, the Michelin sibs gave it the local pastime too. Firm proponents of social responsibility and staff wellbeing (as the key to pepped-up work performance), the pair turned the factory into a near-utopian complex complete with its own Association Sportive Michelin sports centre – where the rugby stadium stands today.
Steadily rugby took centre stage, and its cracking team, ASM Clermont Auvergne (these days the ‘M’ stands for Montferrandais), quickly shot to the top of the league, where it has remained ever since, despite some setbacks – and one tragic freak accident. In 1976, player Jean-François Phliponeau was struck by lightning during training and died on the pitch. Two years ago, following L’Aventure Michelin’s lead, ASM launched its own eponymous hall of fame. Although deserted, the atmosphere is positively electric as we slink into ASM’s inner sanctum. Somewhere in the bowels of the stadium, the team is pumping iron ahead of tomorrow’s make-or-break game against Bordeaux, after an excruciating losing streak. Even more excruciating as ASM are the 2017 Top 14 reigning champions. “It’s the Brennus curse,” shrugs our guide. Ironically, scooping the Brennus trophy has historically guaranteed a disastrous post-victory season. Keen not to dwell on failure, she steers the conversation to ASM’s two seismic (literally) Top 14 wins.
Apparently, the Volcanic Research Centre’s seismograph recorded a little earthquake (courtesy of bouncy fans) after each historic win. While ASM Experience doesn’t stretch to recreating the quake for fans’ pleasure, it offers a surprisingly enthralling overview of rugby in Clermont and its secret weapon: high-tech turf – a combination of real grass and artificial blades for a champ-worthy pitch. Already strangely elated by all this talk of top-grade lawns (the dormant fan I never knew existed scrumming up to the surface), our next stop, the changing rooms, tips me into full-blown rugby mania. It’s all I can do not to squeal at the sight of the yellow jerseys carefully laid out ready for the next day’s face-off with Bordeaux. We even get a fleeting flavour of what’s to come – Clermontois are nothing if not game. The crowd’s deafening hoots boom from speakers as our guide plants herself inside the tunnel, tapping an imaginary earpiece and mumbling into her cupped hand before giving us the go-ahead. As one, we stream out, giggling, onto the pitch.
R IS FOR (VOLCANIC) ROCK
Finally venturing out of Clermont’s Michelin enclave into the historic centre is quite a shock to the system, after a three-hour layover on the fringes of town. Built on a volcanic mound nipping at the foothills of the formidable Puy de Dôme, the tallest of the Chaîne des Puys’ 80 dormant giants (one is technically still active!), it is one wind-knocking time capsule with its cross-century mosaic of Renaissance hôtels particuliers, curlicued Art Deco shop fronts and the looming silhouette of the soot-black cathedral. Chiselled out of Volvic volcanic stone, it is a dramatic if a little austere sight; in startling contrast with its incredibly ornate interior. A vanity project of monumental scale, Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption is the brainchild of one of Clermont-Ferrand’s powerful bishops who, after attending an exhibition of Gothic art in the capital in 1248, came home intent on erecting a behemoth to rival those of Paris and razed the existing Romanesque church. Though something went a little awry along the way and one of the twin spires is a mite shorter than the other.
But even in the city’s most historic heart, traces of Michelin’s lasting legacy are never far away: from the arresting figure of a Greek goddess propping up a tyre on the pediment of the Préfecture and Michelin-tyre-shod trams snaking through the famous place de Jaude, to the veritable army of Bibendums, in various iterations, drop-kicking from postcard stands and the streams of old posters festooning the restaurants and bars.
Not even the jagged peak of the Puy de Dôme – now an easy 10-minute tootle up aboard the Panoramique des Dômes train – has escaped the Michelin mystique. Like Clermont, the snoozing volcano has inherited quite the hotchpotch of ancient landmarks (namely the ruins of a Roman shrine to Mercury) and 20th-century add-ons. Among the latter: an observatory, visitor centre, one frankly unsympathetic partial restoration of the aforementioned temple and possibly the biggest commemorative plaque in existence to, you guessed it, the ubiquitous Michelin brothers. Setting their sights on aviation – the plaque’s short novella informs me – in 1908 André and Édouard offered 100,000 francs to the first pilot to successfully fly from Paris and land on the Puy de Dôme, in one piece. After much ado and a record 5hrs 10min journey, Eugène Renaux pocketed the coveted prize in 1911. Speaking of flyaway successes…
Following our pre-game snoop round the changing rooms and tunnel warm-up, ASM finally broke their losing streak and wiped the high-tech turf with Bordeaux 33-3. Coincidence?
TOP ATTRACTIONS IN CLERMONT-FERRAND
Clermont’s star attraction, the 2,000m2 interactive museum lifts the veil on the pioneering tyre manufacturer that changed the course of the city’s history.
Unique in France, this is the first immersive centre dedicated to rugby – specifically Clermont’s legendary team, ASM Clermont Auvergne.
A theme park with an educational slant, Vulcania makes volcanoes fun. It’s full of interactive exhibits and high-octane 3D movies, with plenty of thrills… and spills!
Whether you hop on the 10-minute train or valiantly trek to the top, the 1,465m-high dormant giant affords a breathtaking panorama of the Chaîne des Puys and its rugged volcanic range.
ESSENTIALS: GETTING THERE
BY PLANE: Fly from London-Stansted to Clermont-Ferrand from March to October with Ryanair. www.ryanair.com
BY TRAIN: Travel from Paris Bercy station to Clermont-Ferrand. en.oui.sncf
From France Today magazine