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Cycling and Armistice Day: Bonded in Hell

I've got the boys all day, so light blogging for me. But did you know that the Armistice which we commemorate today (expanded in the US to Veterans' Day, another good cause) was signed on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour... in Compiegne, France? Compiegne, of course, is better known around here as the startline for Paris-Roubaix. And Paris-Roubaix dates back to 1896? Which means that Paris-Roubaix made Compiegne a place of peace? Yes folks, cycling can stop wars.

OK, sadly that's not even close to the truth. Compiegne didn't become the startline until 1968, so a better telling of the connection between today and the Queen of the Classics is that both are occasions to remember what happened between 1914-1918 in northern France. In fact, while Paris-Roubaix is first and foremost a bike race, it got its nickname from World War I. From Procycling:

They knew little of the permanent effects of the war. Nine million had died and France lost more than any. But, as elsewhere, news was scant. Who even knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? If Roubaix was still there? The car of organisers and journalists made its way along the route those first riders had gone. And at first all looked well. There was destruction and there was poverty and there was a strange shortage of men. But France had survived. But then, as they neared the north, the air began to reek of broken drains, raw sewage and the stench of rotting cattle. Trees which had begun to look forward to spring became instead blackened, ragged stumps, their twisted branches pushed to the sky like the crippled arms of a dying man. Everywhere was mud. Nobody knows who first described it as 'hell', but there was no better word. And that's how it appeared next day in the papers: that little party had seen 'the hell of the north.'

And L'Equipe:

We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There's not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There's one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell!

The former quote comes from this longer historical piece, a great read from Les Woodland. The latter... stirring stuff. Worth remembering today. Cycling has been a part of the healing process following two world wars. The idea of France reconnecting to a shattered Roubaix through the running of the race is a poignant image. So too is the telling by Dino Buzzati of the day the 1949 Giro d'Italia rolled into Trieste. Reunification of this border city with Italy had theoretically taken place already, but it wasn't until the Giro came to town that the Italian population of Trieste felt part of Italy again. No doubt there are Belgian versions of this story too.

To place cycling in its proper perspective, at most it's served as a means for getting over wars in Europe. Unlike most of the US, European soil was the staging ground for last century's great conflicts, and cycling celebrates these landscapes and civilizations like no other peacetime activity. In the above two (and presumably other) examples it's played a more direct role in the healing process for survivors, a signal of reconnection and the promise of eventual normalcy. The story isn't really cycling though; it's the rebirth of humanity in the aftermath of the inhuman experience of war.