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Riding in the Zone Rouge, by Tom Isitt

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Life after wartime: rubble was the key motif in the immediate aftermath of the war
Life after wartime: rubble was the key motif in the immediate aftermath of the war
LoC

Title: Riding in the Zone Rouge – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race
Author: Tom Isitt
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Year: 2019
Pages: 302
Order: Orion Books
What it is: A three-part account of the 1919 Circuit des Champs de Bataille with the author shadow-riding the route nearly a century on and telling the story of the race, both through a ‘straight’ historical telling and an imagined narrative that turns to fiction to get inside the heads of those involved
Strengths: Like Tim Moore’s Gironimo! - in which he shadow-rode the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia – Isitt here neatly balances a travelogue with fascinating research into a forgotten race
Weaknesses: Some readers coming for the travelogue will be bothered by the history, some coming for the history will be bothered by the travelogue.

It’s called the zone rouge, those parts of northern France along what was the Great War’s Western Front so damaged that they were deemed uninhabitable after the conflict ended. Between the danger of unexploded munitions, the despoliation of bombardment by both sides, and the contamination from the lead, chlorine and other chemicals used in an industrial war, the red zone was cursed earth. And across the end of April and the start of May 1919 a Paris-based newspaper, Le Petit Journal, ran a bike race cutting right through it.

Spin the story back to 1914, June 28, the start of the Tour de France. In the pre-dawn dark of a summer’s Sunday morning, the 145 riders in the twelfth Tour rolled out of Saint-Cloud, Paris, where 45 years earlier cycling legend has it the first bike race had taken place. Their passage lit by the headlamps of the race convoy, they were heading for Le Havre. When the peloton was somewhere around about Le Tréport, 220 kilometres into the stage, eighteen hundred kilometres to the east, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Hapsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The world stood on the brink of war. By the time the race ended three weeks later, France was already calling up its reservists, those men aged under thirty who had already completed their three years of military service.

Many of the géants de la route swapped their cycling jerseys for military uniforms, including veterans of that last Tour before the conflict. Émile Engel was just one rider who swapped a cycling jersey for a poilu’s great coat. He had briefly led the 1914 Tour before getting into an argument with a commissaire that saw him throwing a punch and the commissaires throwing him off the race. Engel didn’t come home from the war, he was killed in the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, just seven weeks after the Tour had ended. Upwards of fifty veterans of the first dozen Tours are thought to have died across the fifty-two months of fighting.

Sport in France had, obviously, been limited by the war. But it had gone on, as best it could. Even cycling. Road racing was strictly curtailed. Track racing continued with a very restricted programme. Over the course of 1917 and 1918 L’Auto had been able to run more and more races in the Vélodrome d’Hiver and the Parc des Princes, usually Saturdays or Sundays. Riders like the Swiss star Oscar Egg, a neutral sitting out the war, took part. Ditto the American star Bobby Walthour, before the US entered the conflict. The French star of vélodrome racing, Louis Darragon, returned to the track after being wounded in the fighting. Stars like Henri Pélissier raced when on leave from their war posting. It wasn’t grand cru racing but it was a kind of spectacle. A reminder of what had been. And what might yet be again.

Come November 1918 and the Armistice, people were quick to dream of what might again be. In L’Auto plans were speedily advanced to bring back Paris-Roubaix, Bordeaux-Paris and more. Just one week after the guns fell silent the return of the Tour de France was announced.

But it wasn’t just Henri Desgrange and L’Auto with their grand designs for life after wartime. A few hundred metres north of Desgrange’s offices on Rue du Faubourg, in the offices of Le Petit Journal on Rue la Fayette, others were dreaming big too.

Le Petit Journal was at this stage a newspaper in decline. It had once been the biggest paper in France, two million copies a day being printed in the second half of the 1890s. Circulation was less than half that before the war commenced. With the fighting halted, it was time to try and win back readers lost during the conflict. Three decades before, in 1891, Le Petit Journal’s then editor Pierre Giffard had organised the twelve-hundred kilometre Paris-Brest-Paris bike race as a circulation stunt, thumbing his nose at the British stars of long-distance bike riding and instead promoting the race as a patriotic endeavour, a French race for French riders. In a country that was then getting to grips with the psychic wound of defeat in the Franco-Prussian war populism of this sort went down a treat. Could the same trick work again for the once popular newspaper?

The Circuit des Champs de Bataille was certainly designed to yank hard on the heart strings. Rather that starting and finishing in Paris Le Petit Journal made the race – part of a festival of sport the paper planned – a symbol of the return of lands lost in 1871, Alsace and Lorraine, with the race starting and finishing in Strasbourg:

An Easter Festival of Sport
Let us simply announce that all sportsmen – aviators, cyclists, automobilists, footballers, boxers – all without exception will be interested in a series of events including a Tour of the Battlefields which will pass through the whole of Alsace, the whole of Lorraine, through martyred Belgium, through all those places whose chains have been broken by victory.

At the beginning of January, the paper had more details of the bike race, headlined with a tub-thumping banner: “For Alsace! For Lorraine! For the Liberated North! For the Youth of France!”

Just three months later, dream turned to reality. And then became a waking nightmare as the reality of racing bikes through what had only months before been the Western Front slowly sank in.

Mon 28 Apr 1919, 06:00 hrs, Stage 1, Strasbourg - Luxembourg, 279 kms, 71 finishers
Stage GC
1 Oscar Egg - Bianchi – Sui 10h 51'10" 1 Oscar Egg - Bianchi – Sui 10h 51'10"
2 Jules Van Havel - JB Louvet – Bel 11h 03'02" 2 Jules Van Havel - JB Louvet – Bel 11h 03'02"
3 Lucien Buysse – Bel 11h 03'02" 3 Lucien Buysse – Bel 11h 03'02"

An imagined conversation between Ernest Paul and Jean Alavoine. Both have lost brothers in the War: Paul his step-brother François Faber and Alavoine his younger brother Henri.

Jean Alavoine, photographed during the Tour of the Battlefields, when the race arrived in Paris
Jean Alavoine, photographed during the Tour of the Battlefields, when the race arrived in Paris
Gallica

Ça va, Faber?’, came a gentle voice at his elbow. He turned to see the slender figure of Jean Alavoine, dressed in his Bianchi-Pirelli team kit.

’You look tired, Gars Jean,’ said Paul, smiling weakly and acknowledging his own nickname by using Alavoine’s.

’We all look tired,’ replied Alavoine, looking around the crowded café. ‘Most of us have only been back in La Vie Civile a couple of weeks. Except for those Belgians,’ he nodded in the direction of a group of muscular-looking Flandrians huddled in a corner, chatting away in their harsh, unintelligible tongue. ‘But it’ll be good to get back racing again.’

They lapsed into momentary silence. The heat and the noise of the café were oppressive, but they’d be out in the cold soon enough.

’Sorry to hear about your brother,’ said Alavoine, placing a friendly hand on Paul’s shoulder. ‘He was a good rider ... and a kind soul.’

’Thanks.’ A pause. ‘I was sad to hear about your Henri. That was in the summer of ‘16, wasn’t it?’

’Yeah ... the family took it very hard ... I miss him. We all do.’ Another pause.

’Remember at the Tour,’ said Paul, ‘how he would sometimes pick an argument with Desgrange when we came to a big hill? And how Desgrange never seemed to notice that all the while they were arguing, Henri was holding onto Desgrange’s car, getting a tow to the top?’

’Yeah, I remember,’ chuckled Alavoine. He was a smart kid, was Henri.’

It was 5.45 am, and the café began to empty out into the square, riders gathering up their bidons and bags, adjusting their clothing and making sure their dossards were securely attached. ‘En y va,’ said Alavoine, draining his glass and heading for the door. Paul followed him out into the cold morning air.

Setting off. Riders in the Tour of the Battlefields make their way through the streets of Strasbourg.
Setting off. Riders in the Tour of the Battlefields make their way through the streets of Strasbourg.
La Vie au Grand Air / Gallica
Wed 30 Apr 1919, 05:00 hrs, Stage 2, Luxembourg - Bruxelles, 301 kms, 51 finishers
Stage GC
1 Albert Dejonghe - JB Louvet – Bel 12h 18'05" 1 Albert Dejonghe - JB Louvet – Bel 23h 21'07"
2 Lucien Buysse – Bel 12h 29'30" 2 Lucien Buysse – Bel 23h 32'32"
3 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 12h 37'10" 3 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 23h 47'10"

Tom Isitt’s interest in the Tour of the Battlefields began with a mention of it in Christopher Thompson’s Tour history:

Being a freelance journalist, I wrote a story about the Circuit des Champs de Bataille for Rouleur cycling magazine and as part of my research I mapped out the entire route on an online route-planner. I also read a lot about the First World War battlefields to try and get a feel of what it must have been like to race a bike across them only a few months after the Armistice. As I looked at the route map the kernel of an idea began to form... By riding the route myself I could visit places where my relatives fought, I could see some of the lesser-known battlefields of the Western Front, and I would be cycling in the wheel-tracks of some of cycling’s most extraordinary riders.

Fri 2 May 1919, 04:30 hrs, Stage 3, Bruxelles - Amiens, 338 kms, 28 finishers
Stage GC
1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 18h 28'00" 1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 43h 09'28"
2 Paul Duboc - Alléluia – Fra 20h 01'30" 2 Paul Duboc - Alléluia – Fra 44h 13'33"
3 Henri Van Lerberghe - Bianchi – Bel 20h 40'21" 3 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 44h 28'30"

It was the third stage when the reality of riding through battelfields manifested itself for the riders in the Circuit des Champs de Bataille. Charles Deruyter took almost eighteen and a half hours to complete the stage. To put that into context for you, here’s a miscellany-friendly little listicle of ‘Cycling’s Toughest Days in the Saddle, Ever!’

  1. Tour de France, 1926 – the Circle of Death – 17h 12’04” – 326 kms (19.0 kph)
  2. Milan-Sanremo, 1910 – Christophe on the Turchino – 12h 24’00” – 289 kms (23.3 kph)
  3. Giro d’Italia, 1962 – Passo Rolle – 6h 41’06” – 160 kms (23.9 kph)
  4. Giro d’Italia, 1914 – opening stage – 17h 13’15” – 420 kms (24.4 kph)
  5. Giro d’Italia, 1956 – Gaul on the Bondone – 9h 07’28” – 242 kms (26.5 kph)
  6. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 1980 – Hinault’s frozen finger – 7h 02’42” – 244 kms (34.6 kph)
  7. Giro d’Italia, 1988 – Hampsten on the Gavia – 3h 53’12” – 120 kms (30.9 kph)

Tough here is a mix of time, terrain, distance, and weather. The latter is usually the most important element: the best worst days typically come with low temperatures mixed with wind, rain and/or snow. The riders in the Tour of the Battlefields were met by falling temperatures, driving rain, and a brutal wind. But the terrain should also throw up difficulties. The parcours for the third stage of the Tour of the Battlefields took the riders right into the heart of the zone rouge: shell-holed roads winding through Dantean landscapes. More so than Paris-Roubaix, which had returned the week before the Tour of the Battlefields commenced, this really was l’enfer du Nord.

Le Petit Journal / Gallica
Sun 4 May 1919, 06:00 hrs, Stage 4, Amiens - Paris, 277 kms, 24 finishers
Stage GC
1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 11h 58'00" 1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 55h 07'08"
2 Paul Duboc - Alléluia – Fra 12h 02'18" 2 Paul Duboc - Alléluia – Fra 56h 15'51"
3 Jean Alavoine - Bianchi – Fra 12h 04'18" 3 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 56h 43'58"
Shattered towns marked the route of the Tour of the Battlefields as it crossed the heart of the zone rouge
Shattered towns marked the route of the Tour of the Battlefields as it crossed the heart of the zone rouge

There is a remarkable absence of available information about the Circuit des Champs de Bataille. You have the reports of the race in Le Petit Journal, and you have the reports of the race in L’Auto and Sportwerld, and you have some photographs from it in La Vie au Grand Air. The reports, they tend to be rushed, made to deadline, lacking in detail and colour.

Usually, with other races, you get reminiscences years later, riders and reporters telling and retelling old stories, adding detail and colour missed in reports in the rush to a print deadline. This didn’t happen with the Tour of the Battlefields. While other races from 1919 – particulary Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France – have become modern myths, the Circuit des Champs de Bataille has been allowed to slip away into the graveyard of forgotten memories. Until now.

Isitt here makes up for the absence of later recollections by turning to fiction to add colour to the story of the race, drawing from the available historical record and his wider knowledge of racing in those years and what is known about the riders who took part in the race. Such colour allows an inhumane race to gain a human face.

Wed 7 May 1919, 00:00 hrs, Stage 5, Paris - Bar-le-Duc, 333 kms, 21 finishers
Stage GC
1 Jean Alavoine - Bianchi – Fra 15h 53'23" 1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 71h 09'20"
2 Hector Heusghem - JB Louvet – Bel 15h 53'23" 2 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 72h 45'34"
3 Albert Desmedt – Bel 15h 53'23" 3 Henri Van Lerberghe - Bianchi – Bel 73h 53'48"

For Le Petit Journal, the raison d’être of the Tour of the Battlefields had been to act as circulation viagra. People would have to buy the paper if they wanted to know what was happening in the race. What the paper least needed, then, was real news happening during the race. The sort of real news that would in itself drive circulation. But as the remaining riders laboured through another hard day’s riding in the zone rouge real news was what Le Petit Journal got: a major breakthrough happened in the peace talks. Isitt explains:

This was what every French (and Belgium, and Luxembourgois) citizen had been waiting for, to see how Germany was going to pay for what it had done. And as a consequence everyone was buying newspapers, thus negating any slight gain in the Le Petit Journal’s circulation due to the race. With space at a premium in the paper (it was a four-page broadsheet), Le Petit Journal was forced to devote most of its pages to the Treaty of Versailles and squeeze the race report into just a couple of paragraphs of timings at various checkpoints on page four.

Even in the sponsoring paper, Le Petit Journal, news of the Tour of the Battlefields was pushed off the front page by a breakthrough in the peace talks.
Even in the sponsoring paper, Le Petit Journal, news of the Tour of the Battlefields was pushed off the front page by a breakthrough in the peace talks.
Le Petit Journal / Gallica
Fri 9 May 1919, 05:00 hrs, Stage 6, Bar-le-Duc - Belfort, 313 kms, 19 finishers
Stage GC
1 Hector Heusghem - JB Louvet – Bel 13h 18'09" 1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 85h 01'37"
2 Henri Van Lerberghe - Bianchi – Bel 13h 55'32" 2 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 87h 01'29"
3 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 14h 01'32" 3 Henri Van Lerberghe - Bianchi – Bel 87h 31'00"

The innocent abroad that he is, when Tim Moore took on the 1914 Giro d’Italia, he took it on on a bike made from cork and spaghetti (or so some reports of his ride suggest). Tom Isitt isn’t quite in the same league when it comes to naivety, as attested by the fact that he rode a real bike, a titanium-framed 7.5kg 22-speed Spin Spitfire MkIII (“Nice.”). That alone wasn’t sufficient to protect him from the comic pratfalls of the Englishman Abroad. From a GPS device that was at times thicker than Holly in Red Dwarf and as determined to do him real harm as Hal in 2001 to the bad luck of a particularly hard Spring, Isitt’s account of his attempt to ride the route of the Tour of the Battelfields will be enjoyed by fans of Moore.

As with Moore, however, it’s not just about laughing at someone else’s misfortunes. A key story Isitt tries to tell throughout Riding in the Zone Rouge is that of Louis Ellner, a relative unknown who took on the race on an ordinary road bike and each day trailed home hours down on the others, the race’s lanterne rouge. Ellener’s story and Isitt’s, they complement one and other. As with the fictional interludes, together they put a human face on the story.

Sun 11 May 1919, 10:00 hrs, Stage 7, Belfort - Strasbourg, 163 kms, 19 finishers
Stage Final GC
1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 4h 55'10" 1 Charles Deruyter - Alléluia – Bel 89h 56'47"
2 Charles Kippert – Fra 4h 55'10" 2 Urbain Anseeuw – Bel 92h 19'36"
3 Jean Alavoine - Bianchi – Fra 4h 57'25" 3 Henri Van Lerberghe - Bianchi – Bel 92h 49'07"

A lot of people, especially in the UK, have a particular attachment to World War One. Some of it is a cultural thing – from the war poets to Blackadder – much of it family-related, stories handed down from generation to generation, of grandparents and great-grandparents who fought in the war. In cycling, these stories are less visible. For sure, yes, we know of the Holy Trinity who died – Faber and Lapize, and Petit-Breton – but not much besides that. We don’t really know what war was like for the riders of that time. They went to war and when they came home – those that did come home – they didn’t talk about it. What need had they for words, it was such a shared experience? French soldiers died at a rate of nearly 900 a day. More than half of them were married, leaving behind a widow. Every day, more than 2,700 children lost a father. There was little need to tell their tales, least ways not in public.

And so we’re left to fill in the blanks. Like David Coventry’s hero in The Invisible Mile we fall into the trap of mimetic desire. It’s how we relate to these people as riders, their suffering is our suffering. So when we see a photograph of Henri Pélissier in his uniform staring blank-eyed into the camera, we read into his thousand-yard stare a vision of the war as we understand it, a vision largely of life in the trenches on the Somme. Riding in the Zone Rouge doesn’t have much to tell us about the truth of Pélissier’s stare, he didn’t feature in the Tour of the Battlefields (the week before the race he’d won Paris-Roubaix and there was more money to be made racing at the weekends in the Parc des Princes, the critérium circuit of its day). But Isitt does expand our knowledge of what others did in the war, takes us out of the Somme and puts us among Belgian refugees, or shows us the horror of Verdun. He takes us away from the Great War of the poets and Blackadder and puts us closer to the guerre mondiale the French experienced.

Charles Deruyter, winner of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille. He was one of the coming men of the sport before the war - he finished second in Paris-Roubaix in 1913 - and, like many, he lost his best years to the fighting.
Charles Deruyter, winner of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille (left, pictured in the Vél d’Hiv in 1914, right in the Parc des Princes during the Tour of the Battlefields in 1919). He was one of the coming men of the sport before the war - he finished second in Paris-Roubaix in 1913 - and, like many, he lost his best years to the fighting.
Gallica

As a stage race, the Circuit des Champs de Bataille was a once off. Le Peitit Journal rolled the dice with it again in 1920, but only as a one day race. After that it was another dozen years before the paper tried again to boost its circulation with cycling, this time creating the race we know today as la course au soleil, Paris-Nice. As a way of remembering the war, the Tour of the Battlefields was perhaps too soon, and too brutal. The folly of it, though, is what attracts us to it today. Through research, imagination and re-creation, Tom Isitt brings its story to life and allows us to once more marvel at men who raced their bikes along the Western Front.

Riding in the Zone Rouge – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race, by Tom Isitt, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson
Riding in the Zone Rouge – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race, by Tom Isitt, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson