Hollywood’s best efforts have captured attention; history lessons and documentaries provide a more thorough education. But there’s watching or reading about D-Day, and there’s standing on a landing site. The cold wind whipping off the English Channel, the waves crashing, the sun rising, the Mulberry harbour ruins poking out of the sea behind, an expanse of sand and foreboding cliffs ahead.
Gold Beach was one of five D-Day landing locations on France’s Normandy coast where over 6,000 Allied vessels unloaded 175,000 soldiers on June 6 1944, a high-risk move which turned the tide of the Second World War and kickstarted the push for liberation. The aim here was to create a beachhead and capture the village of Arromanches, a key disembarkation point for the Allied forces.
“You look up at it and realise they left their boats and had to cross the beach with all that crossfire and those guns,” Billy Ceusters says. “You feel emotional, like something happened here, even if you weren’t around at that time… You also feel respectful to have the life you have now because people did that. You see how big everything is, you can’t imagine the violence of this thing. I think if you're English or American, being here is even more special.”
Ceusters was one of three astride his bike on the sands at dawn contemplating a very different challenge. Gold Beach is also the start of a groundbreaking new French sportive, Gravel of Legend. It is set to take place at the end of June as the centrepiece of the three-day Nature Is Bike gravel festival in Angers. Getting there is no pedal in the park: 280 predominantly off-road kilometres, all in one day. Zuts alors! However, that poignant start puts things firmly in perspective: it’s not risking life and limb either.
D-Day is woven through the DNA of the event. Its 6.31am start is the same time that the first soldiers’ boots hit the beaches in 1944. Each of the 300 competitors will also receive a carnet, just like the Allied soldiers landing. Theirs had key French phrases to help on their advance south; this particular guide carries tips on places to stop for food and drink, as well as checkpoint entries to be stamped.
After heading over the cliffs and skirting close to Bayeux, home of the epic 11th century tapestry, the charm of this ride becomes clear. Seventy per cent of the route is off-road, taking in a mix of dedicated cycle paths, greenways, tracks and farm trails.
Gravel is no passing trend, it’s here to stay; more and more riders are mixing it up for a change from the tarmac. “Every time I ride my bike on the road, there are more drivers being upset by cyclists,” Billy says. “They have to wait five seconds, then it’s toot-toot-toot, they open their window and you get to hear some colourful language for free.”
No danger of that happening when off-road in nature and tranquility. “These sportive gravel rides are easier to jump into than a road sportive. ‘Those people on the road, they’re super fast, I’m not trained enough,’” he adds, parroting the fears of a newcomer. “With gravel, they’re cool people with a cap or shorts, they stop to take pictures; some want to be part of this lifestyle and not the super sportive road one. I think this is why there is a huge potential for this kind of festival and event.” Incidentally, whatever the surface under his tyres, Billy can handle it. A Specialized event coordinator who rode 27,000 kilometres last year, he’s at ease rough riding on a hardtail, nailing Alpine descents or the steep cobbled bergs of his Belgian homeland. Even into the latter stages of this test, he had the energy to pull whips and keep smiling.
The rutted farm tracks encountered in the opening 50 kilometres require power and persistence before giving way to the expansive Suisse Normande. With its rolling green hills, lazing cows and rocky gorges, one could be forgiven for expecting Heidi to pop up among a cluster of chalets. There’s no snow-capped peaks in northern France, but here the ride heads over its 276-metre highpoint, Mont de Cerisy, covered in pink and purple rhododendrons each summer.
Then it’s a dash along the Varenne into the quaint medieval town of Domfront, perched on a rocky outcrop. With its slew of timber-framed houses, bars with Gothic script and a ruined manor once besieged by William the Conqueror, it looks like it hasn’t changed since time immemorial. This sportive isn’t called Gravel of Legend for nothing: with a château count in double figures and many historical borders crossed, it’s especially easy to imagine slipping back into a time of clanking armour and warring dukes. Just swap those knights on whinnying horses for riders on zipping gravel steeds. “You start with the Second World War then it’s castles, lords and everything else. This ride is like going back in time,” Billy says.
A very long way back in some instances. On the outskirts of Domfront is a 5,000-year-old monolith, the twelve-metre-long Devil’s Table. This collection of ancient stones was viewed as a creation of evil when it appeared. Legend has it that evil spirits living in the stones play tricks on passing innocents by throwing enchanted heaps of coins around it. If successfully tempted, they are beaten for their greed or spirited away.
Visitors are far better off dodging demonic comeuppance and plumping for local delicacies instead, like a nightcap of calvados made from the local orchards or a fine slice of camembert cheese. Alas, spring pandemic rules meant separate dining so there was no eating and drinking like kings for our trio.
Normandy conquered and the hardest bit behind them, they struck out into the Pays de la Loire and flatter terrain by the Mayenne river, a section punctuated by mills, locks and its keepers’ quaint cottages. Our test riders even got off their bikes and mucked in to help one boat owner with the fiddly task of opening and closing a lock.
Though well inland, reminders of the route taken by the Allied liberators still crop up. “You see streets named after generals, Winston Churchill Place, and Charles de Gaulle Avenue. The ride really follows the way the soldiers went to make France free again, the way they went to Angers and then Paris,” Billy says.
At one point, pausing by a tank stopped in its tracks, Billy nearly burned his hand on it, despite the lukewarm spring temperatures. “Imagine doing the war in this thing in July in 35 degrees. You cannot just open the door because it’s too hot,” he says.
Much of the sportive’s second half uses La Vélo Francette, a 600-kilometre purpose-built track running from the Norman coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic. Hundreds of kilometres of old railway line have been converted into pleasant greenways. It also means lights are a must for the several tunnels. (We can neither confirm nor deny whether our group shouted like big kids while riding through them.)
Though the legs were getting heavy into the last 100 kilometres, the terrain proved a saving grace; there’s little rolling resistance on the harder-packed river paths and barely a bridge to climb. However, three days of headwind proved thoroughly irksome. An impromptu stop was made at a boulangerie one afternoon, Billy and company unfurling themselves on the kerb in front of the bakery to eat their stash. It wasn’t pretty, but an effective fuel-up for the final push to Angers.
The scenery kept shifting, giving way to green grass and sheep; Billy likens it to the British countryside. “I’ve done long rides of 200 or 300 kilometres in my life, but what also makes this cool is that very few of those changed as much in landscape,” Billy says. “You feel you’re in a different area very quickly.” The appearance of vineyards heralds the run-in to Angers, alongside the welcome sight of locals. “We spent a lot of time on this ride not seeing many people; riders are a bit outside civilisation and it feels like you come back, step by step.”
Flying in the face of any French Oasis tribute band advice, it’s only right to look back in Angers. “I have to say, it’s a tough one,” Billy adds. They spent three days leisurely test-riding the Gravel of Legend route, while competitors will have 20 hours.
In this pedal back through time, the hilly city of Angers has an appropriate sense of ceremony. Seeing the locals passing on their bikes, couples strolling arm-in-arm over cobbles past an enormous turreted château and diners raising glasses in nearby restaurants, it’s an especially apt journey’s end to a ride that celebrates fun and pays tribute to freedom.
Gravel Of Legend takes place on June 25, part of the Nature Is Bike festival. natureisbike.com
Specialized Diverge Pro Carbon
The Specialized Diverge was one of the first bikes with a road bike veneer to say: “Hey, who needs roads?” And it has proven the point very nicely indeed. Since the Diverge’s initial release in 2014, Specialized has refined the bike carefully to straddle both fast road riding and off-road versatility. This latest iteration boasts an innovative, adjustable front suspension unit below the stem – the FutureShock 2.0 – alongside a host of subtle technical wonders, including the discreet SWAT internal storage compartment within the downtube to stash inner tubes and spares. Both proved great additions for a ride like this. Hands rattled numb from pounding off-road terrain and heavily-laden back pockets are both best avoided after nine hours in the saddle.
The Diverge Pro could well have been custom-made for the 280km Gravel of Legend course. That is, with a couple of minor tweaks. Billy opted for a 46-tooth front chainring, rather than the 42-tooth version that comes as standard. Given the super rangy 10-50 Sram Eagle mtb rear cassette (endearingly nicknamed the mullet setup – business at the front, party at the back), there was plenty of gearing on offer for even the steepest off-road climbs. While roadies may cling to their double chainrings, our riders were very happy with the range of gears on offer from the 1x setup, which was made virtually fuss-free with Sram’s wireless electronic eTap – although tucking a spare battery in your back pocket isn’t a bad idea.
The Diverge offers a striking 47mm tyre clearance for 700c wheels, and much wider when using a 650b wheelset. So for the second tweak, the crew swapped the standard 38mm Specialized Pathfinder Pro tyres for some 42mm Specialized Tracer Pros. That offered a little more grip and control through the thicker mud on the route – hopefully not an issue come June.
There’s certainly no way to make 280 kilometres of gravel riding easy, but few bikes could soften the blow more than the Specialized Diverge.