Saddles, Somme and snow: a tale of the toughest cycle race ever
Even as the guns all along the western front fell silent in November 1918, plans were being made to stage an extraordinary bicycle race around the battlefields in the spring of the following year. It was to become known as the toughest race in history, and the extraordinary efforts of the riders, who raced across the fields of Flanders and the Somme barely five months after the armistice, have been all but forgotten.
The Circuit Cycliste de Champs de Bataille (The Tour of The Battlefields) in April 1919 took the riders in seven 300km stages on a 2,000km loop anti-clockwise from Strasbourg to Luxembourg to Brussels to Paris and then back to Strasbourg via the Vosges mountains.
Eighty-seven riders lined up for the start in Strasbourg on April 28, 1919. Among those were some big names: Jean Alavoine, winner of 17 stages; Charles Deruyter, Belgian star of the 1913 Paris-Roubaix; Ali Neffati, the eccentric Tunisian who rode wearing a Fez; and Paul Duboc, who was famously poisoned during the 1911 Tour.
In the spring of 1919, north-eastern and western Flanders lay in ruins. Four years of war had left towns and villages little more than rubble, and an estimated 500m shells fell on the western front, obliterating great swathes of countryside, wiping roads, woods and farms from the map.
Into this barren and ruined landscape the riders ventured. By the time the peloton reached Metz, a strong north-easterly had sprung up, bringing flurries of sleet on the wind. Thick snow was falling as Oscar Egg struggled to the finish of stage 1 in Luxembourg, followed a few minutes later by Van Hevel and Buysse, who had surrendered a 16-minute lead when they lost their way. The riders were provided with only very basic route instructions, and often at crossroads they would have to dismount and search piles of rubble in the hope of finding a signpost.
A metre of snow fell on Northern Europe in late April that year, turning pavé to ice and unmade roads to a slippery quagmire. Considering their primitive bikes, lack of food, and woefully inadequate clothing (wool shorts and a long-sleeve wool jersey), it’s astonishing that any of the riders continued.
Albert Dejonghe won the second stage in appalling conditions, and 30 minutes later the spectators were treated to the extraordinary sight of Charles Deruyter pedalling across the finish line wearing a full-length woman's fur coat, which some kindly soul had lent him to keep out the cold.
Starting at 4.30am from Brussels, and expected in Amiens at 3pm, stage 3 saw the riders race across the battlefields of Ypres, Artois, and the Somme. Scarcely five months after hostilities ended, the riders were required to negotiate 323km of this brutalised land in temperatures barely above freezing. One commentator was moved to describe the race as “inhuman”.
What can have been going through their minds as they rode through the ruins of the Menin Gate in Ypres, negotiated Hell Fire Corner and struggled up the Menin Road, past the vast mine crater at Hooge and the blasted remnants of Sanctuary Wood? Away to the right, Messines Ridge, to the left, the pile of shattered bricks that once was Passchendaele. Half a million men fought and died in these "fields".
Tormented by hunger and cold, they pedalled on. Either side of the muddy roads the detritus of war was everywhere – twisted tree stumps, fields long since obliterated by shelling, concrete bunkers, mine and shell craters, wrecked gun carriages, clothing, bones. All around, belts of wire, trenches and duckboards zig-zagged in all directions, and hastily-erected crosses littered the landscape. And still the sleet and rain fell. And still the wind blew, unchecked by trees or hedgerows.
At 11.10 in the evening, 18 hours and 28 minutes after he set off from Brussels, Charles Deruyter crossed the finish line in Amiens. The man who finished in fifth place arrived at 8.00 the next morning, having spent an uncomfortable night sheltering in a trench somewhere on the Somme battlefield. The last-placed finisher took 36 hours to complete the 323km stage.
But it was Verdun that represented the apogee of the Circuit de Champs de Bataille. The heavily fortified city had always been an important one to the French, and in 1916, a million French soldiers stood toe-to-toe with a million German soldiers and fought a desperate war of attrition in the forests and valleys around Verdun. The 20 remaining riders paid their respects to their fallen comrades, and turned south on the Voie Sacré, slipping and struggling through the carnage, as cold and muddy as the soldiers that fought for their lives there a year earlier.
They were now on the home straight, with the climb over the Ballon d'Alsace on stage 6 representing the last remaining obstacle. Snow started to fall in the Vosges, and by the time the riders reached the foot of the Ballon, the weather was terrible. Slipping and sliding in the snow and ice, the riders resorted to carrying their bikes as they battled towards the summit.
On the final stage, Deruyter put in a huge effort and took off on a long breakaway, which he maintained all the way to the finish. Leader on the road, and leader of the race, he crossed the finish line in Strasbourg to the acclaim of a huge crowd that had gathered to see the exhausted remnants of the peloton struggle home. Deruyter won the Circuit de Champs de Bataille by 2 hours and 25 minutes, Anseuw was second, Van Lerberghe was third, and Alavoine came in a distant fourth. Finally, it was over.
The Circuit de Champs de Bataille returned one more time in 1920, but as a single-stage day race. The logistical problems of putting on a multi-stage race in a part of Europe that had almost no infrastructure were far greater than anyone had expected.
The year 2014 again sees the professional peloton return to these roads, 100 years after the first world war began, as the Tour de France pays tribute to those that fought and died there. There will be pavé, there will be battlefields, there will be a moment's silence at the Menin Gate, and there will be the Vosges. But compared to what the riders went through on the Circuit de Champs de Bataille in 1919, this visit will be like a walk in the park.
• The full story of the Circuit de Champs de Bataille can be read in issue 44 of Rouleur magazine. Tom Isitt is a freelance journalist