Riding in the Zone Rouge: The story of cycling’s toughest ever stage race
Charles Deruyter had covered 200km, and ridden for 9½ hours, by the time he reached the checkpoint in Lille on Stage 3. It was just after 2 p.m., he was soaked to the skin, covered in mud, and absolutely frozen. The rain and sleet had not let up for one moment, and now the wind was blowing even harder.
Someone handed him a towel and he dried off as much as possible while shoving eggs and pieces of chicken down his throat, and drinking hot, sweet coffee.
The leading riders in the race had reached Lille 3 hours behind the hopelessly optimistic schedule laid down by the organisers. When the newspaper went to the presses that evening, only 28 of the 42 riders had got to Lille, and no one had yet made it to the finish in Amiens. Things were not looking good for the organisers, and they looked even worse for the riders who still had 120km to go, mostly across battlefields that had seen fighting right up until the last days of the war, six months earlier.
Deruyter climbed reluctantly back on his bike and set off south. Lille was relatively undamaged, despite initial German shelling in 1914, having been behind the German lines for four years, but as Deruyter approached the Port de Douai on the southern outskirts of the town he was astonished to see a huge area of utter devastation.
A massive German ammunition dump at Dix-Huit Ponts blew up in 1916, creating a crater 100 feet deep and 500 feet across (bigger than the Lochnagar crater on the Somme), and wiping out 738 houses, 21 factories and at least 108 civilians.
Verstraeten and Anseeuw caught up with Deruyter briefly as he slowed to take in the devastation. They looked at one another – no words were necessary – then pressed on towards Douai. The road was terrible, having been used as a major supply route by the German army. The pavé had been severely damaged by the endless stream of trucks and artillery being moved around behind the German lines, and the riders made agonisingly slow progress.
The three leaders pushed on, gritting their teeth against the howling wind and rain. Behind them, Albert Dejonghe, leader of the race on GC, came down hard on the pavé near Pont-a-Marcq and damaged his bike so badly that he could not continue. Another of the favourites had fallen by the wayside.
Back at the checkpoint in Lille, riders were still appearing in dribs and drabs. Alavoine was 75 minutes adrift of the leaders, there was no sign of Brocco or Neffati, and Ernest Paul rolled in at 5.17 p.m. looking like he’d just emerged from a dug-out near Verdun. He was one of the lucky few who had a waxed-cotton jacket, but even that only kept the rain out for an hour or two. He was hungry, tired, shaking with cold, and completely sick of the whole thing.
He eyed the train station opposite. In 3 hours he could be home in Colombes, in a warm, dry bed. Instead he took a pill from the tin box in his musette, washed it down with some coffee, and set off once more.
The wind had been picking up all afternoon, and now it blew with such ferocity that direction signs were blown away and the telegraph poles across the region came crashing down. Now the riders had little idea where they were or where they were supposed to go, and the organisers had no way of contacting each other. And it was beginning to get dark.
With the telegraph system down, the last report that day was from Lille to say that Ernest Paul had just left at 5.22 p.m. Then there was nothing. The control points at Douai, Cambrai and Bapaume continued to log the riders as they appeared, but had no means of communicating their progress to the commissaires in Amiens or the newspaper in Paris.
The official race convoy was faring no better than the riders, with cars and trucks getting stuck, sliding into ditches and breaking down in the biblical storm raging around them.
With the roads in such a state, and the average speed so slow, Deruyter decided there was no advantage in riding as a group, so he pushed on as hard as he could on his own. Arriving in the small village of Aubigny-au-Bac, he discovered that the temporary bridge built over the Canal de la Sensée six months earlier had recently collapsed under the weight of an overloaded truck, which was now in the canal along with the remains of the bridge.
He stared in horror. Now what? There were no signs, and no officials to tell him where he was supposed to go, so he set off along the canal bank in search of another crossing point. When Heusghem and Hanlet arrived a couple of hours later they faced the same problem, but made a catastrophic miscalculation which led to them getting hopelessly lost.
There were no signposts, no houses, no one to give them directions. On and on they rode, lashed by wind and rain, hoping they were going in roughly the right direction. They weren’t. By 10 p.m. they were back in Douai, where they had come from 6 hours earlier, having covered an extra 60km on terrible roads for nothing.
At Cambrai Deruyter paused briefly at the checkpoint. The town was another bleak and miserable ruin, torched by the Germans in October 1918 as they retreated. Around 1,500 of Cambrai’s 3,500 buildings were gutted by fire, including the town hall that contained records going back to the middle ages. In amongst the ruins a few returning civilians were living in damp cellars and corrugated-iron shacks, trying to salvage what they could from the devastation.
A little while later Duboc and Chassot, followed by Van Lerberghe and Anseeuw, turned south-west from Cambrai and picked their way carefully through the gathering gloom that was descending on the 1917 battlefield. One of the organisers’ cars passed the two Belgians, slowing to enquire as to their well-being.
They shrugged, and watched it disappear in the direction of Bapaume. Either side of the road, the wreckage of war was everywhere. And still the sleet and rain fell. And still the wind blew, unchecked by trees or hedgerows, which had long since been shelled out of existence. The landscape was an horizonless, turbulent sea of grey-brown mud over which sickly grey-green weeds and brambles were attempting to gain a foothold.
Anseeuw and Van Lerberghe struggled past Bourlon Wood, scene of unbelievable carnage in November 1917, and then crossed the temporary bridge over the Canal du Nord. All around were shattered bunkers, broken weapons, burned-out tanks, discarded helmets and scraps of rotting clothing. They didn’t know it, but this was the Hindenburg Line, Germany’s last hope.
On and on they pedalled, the battle-scarred, dead-straight road rising almost imperceptibly towards the remains of Bapaume, where Deruyter had collapsed at the checkpoint. Perched on an old wooden chair, he wiped his face with a towel and informed the time-keepers that he’d had enough and was quitting. They tried desperately to persuade him to carry on, but Deruyter was physically and mentally finished.
Some soldiers, who’d stopped to see what was going on, took pity on Deruyter and set about trying to revive him. Someone fetched a blanket, another scrounged a hot drink and some bread, while another started to rub some circulation back into Deruyter’s aching limbs. It was all against the rules, but competitors and organisers alike had long since given up worrying about the regulations and were just focussed on surviving.
After a while Deruyter began to recover, and sufficiently revived by the soldiers he remounted his bike and set off on the final 50km to Amiens, where he could finally get some warmth and rest. But the landscape he now crossed was a Dantean vision of hell. Before the war there were rolling hills and streams, with woodlands dotted amongst the fields and farms. An idyllic vision of pastoral France.
When the First World War lapsed into a static form of trench warfare, the front line ran straight through the middle of this picturesque area and the shelling started. Anything that afforded cover, or the potential to be used as a look-out, was targeted by the guns and pounded to dust. Month upon month of shelling, and terrible weather, turned the Somme into a featureless morass of chalky mud and water-filled shell-holes as far as the eye could see.
The rain had abated slightly as Deruyter climbed passed the Butte de Walencourt, turning from a deluge into occasional wind-swept showers. From time to time the clouds even parted for long enough to afford him moon-lit glimpses of scattered graves in the ‘fields’ around him. The previously charming countryside had been replaced with a stinking primordial swamp of mud, corpses and twisted, rusty metal.
There was no colour, no respite, no comfort, and the names of the tiny villages and woods had become the stuff of legend, and nightmare – Contalmaison, High Wood, La Boiselle, Delville Wood, Mametz, and Beaumont Hamel – all synonymous with suffering and slaughter. In 1919 these fields were still peopled by ghastly shattered corpses, and a dank, rotting smell of death and mud and rust oozed from the lifeless soil.
Van Wijnendaele reported:
“When it turned dark, there was no one to cheer them on and there were no houses in sight, besides the wooden barracks and coloured people from the French colonies who aided the reconstructions. Cyclists had to climb poles to see what was written on the traffic signs. It was inhuman.”
Riding in the Zone Rouge by Tom Isitt is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on March 21st, price £20 (hardback, 320 pages).
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