Day 14 Roubaix
Quote of the day; Paris-Roubaix is the last test of madness that the sport of cycling puts before its participants….A hardship approaching the threshold of cruelty-Jaques Goddet (Former race Director)
I wrote some days back that I had been let with a sense of not having given enough of myself so in cycling terms I set to rectify this by taking my bike for one final set of French Revolutions.
Sitting a 60 minute drive from our campsite is some hallowed ground revered as much as it is feared amongst the cycling fraternity. Known as l’enfer du Nord (The Hell of the North) Roubaix is the end point of the single most brutal one day race in the cycling calendar.
It is unique in that the route is interspersed with sectors of cobbled farm roads which jar man and machine in jackhammer fashion. By cobbles I mean rocks strewn into a liberaly connected fashion. Once described as looking like miles of cobble stones had been thrown from an aeroplane roughly landing in the same geographical space. These are not lumpy mono blocks, if the Royal mile is Postman Pat the movie the Sectors of Cobble (Pave) are the love children of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Nightmare on Elm street.
Yet we cyclist are drawn to accept their challenge transposing brutality for beauty in our disjointed thought processes. It’s hard to conceptualise this for non cyclists as it isn’t akin to playing at Hampden or Murrayfield as unlike a sports ground which hosts an event the pave are almost a living participant on the day of the race.
I have always loved the conflicting analysis given in a post race interview (1985) by rider Theo Rooy- “It’s bollocks this race!! You’re working like an animal: you don’t have time to pee you wet your pants, your riding in mud, your slipping. It’s a piece of shit”
He was then asked if he would ride the race again and replied “Sure it’s the most beautiful race in the world!!”
So I arrive and head for the velodrome, the gate is open and I’m not hanging around looking for permission as I get in a lap of the track which has hosted so many pivotal moments of the races history.
My time is limited so I aim to complete a 75 KM figure of 8 which takes in 7 sectors of pave. Sadly the first sector has been tarmaced between last year and this so its a false start. Then I am in the thick of it with 6 sectors split across 25 KM, (list sectors)
It’s exhilarating, it’s it’s ridiculous, it’s surreal as my fragile carbon fibre pride and joy sings across the crown of the harshest terrain it has ever seen. With the wind (briefly) at my back I execute the advice to ride on the crown, big ring, grind don’t spin and power rather than trying to traversing a safe line. However the wind is not kind (daily forecast notes 35 mile gusts most of which hit me face on) and its at its most challenging as I hit the final 2 sections. This is where the terrain is laughable, it’s like the dodgiest cowboy builder has got away with the craziest heist in which he has persuaded us that as the stones age and deteriorate from awful to horrific condition we should treasure them more!!
As I return to the velodrome I sense something is missing and not in a spiritual manner, it’s much more tangible than that. I started the day with a crown in place of a missing tooth (lost years ago making a football challenge) I end the day without it. It’s a strange juxtaposition as I receive messages from my friends expressing their pleasure that I got to ride the famous pave. The self same conditions that were so challenging that they effectively shook a replacement tooth from my skull!
0 miles towards total 44 dead miles
Total- 656 miles towards total and 126 dead miles –
782 ridden since leaving Kirkcaldy.
Day 13 Contalmaison remembrance ceremony
Quote of the day; Who doesn’t respect and value his past, is not worth the honour of the present, and has no right to a future- Josef Pidsuski
One of only 6 ceremonies that received permission today, security is tight. Given there is only only 3 miles between ourselves and the dignitaries, politicians and Royal family at the Tiepval commemorations it is understandable. The village is in lockdown, no vehicles allowed in or out and no roadside parking for locals or visitors.
We are up early and have the opportunity to watch from close range Major Tait leading his troops in an address which detailed what was asked of their forebear ears and how they were expected to respond when their commanding officer blew the whistle to signify they were going over the top (almost certainly to perish under enemy fire) the whistle sounds at 7.30 am just as it was 100 years ago. Some time is taken for silent reflection and the soldiers disperse back to barracks looking visible emotional at what they have just experienced.
The independent travellers and group participants arrive at opposite ends of the village. Each traveller having secured a numbered accreditation which must be carried at all times along with passports.
The ceremony begins at 9.15 and features, reflections, prayer, anthems, and laying of 30+ wreaths.
The Contalmaison mayor, Major Tait, Jack Alexander, Keith Brown vegans minister, and French minister for State for Veterans and Remembrance – Jean-Marc Todeschini offer context each flavoured with their individual and professional experiences. Friendship, togetherness, respect and the collective emphasis that we commemorate to remember and with such value placed on loss we use this to further motivate our commitment to freedom from oppression and peace for all.
The wreath laying takes time as so many have travelled, a mix of formal and informal are represented and with great pride we accept the offer from Marshall Bowman to accompany him in laying the Raith Rovers one. My daughter takes the lead and beats her nerves to represent the club she loves in an admirable manner. Her contribution is noted and she is inundated with compliments post ceremony.
One such compliment promotes conversation with Lorraine whose name is to be pronounced Lorrayne in your best French accent given our location. She is a Hearts fan and told us of her own mark of remembrance. She placed a small cross in amongst the wreaths upon which she had placed a single piece of ribbon representing each of the clubs who had players sign up for the Battalion. We later search for the cross and agree it is as kind of thought as it is beautiful.
There are many other moments which stir the spirit and challenge the tear ducts such as a description that the Queens bugler is present and will play the last post on a bugle which was present at this spot 100 years previously and has not been played since.
I note there is a rifle resting on the Cairn as the addresses start a do it is confirmed that this is in actual fact the one which belonged to George McCrae’s. It remains rested on the Cairn throughout the ceremony. Upon the completion of the ceremony some take the time to pose with this treasure but for me it seemed somewhat undignified to pass the weapon around. For others it was clearly a chance to take a picture which will sharply focus their connection to the Battalion so I offer no criticism solely a difference of thought.
Food is consumed, beer, wine and soft drinks shared as (insert singers name) serenades us with several pieces of music. I am approached by many pie pole offering congratulations, thanks and even some donations. It pleases me greatly that Raith Rovers are held in such high regard in this company and that our actions are seen as an extension of an already strong connection.
On my final wander before setting off I happen upon a French TV reporter looking awestruck as the pipe band surround the Cairn and perform in spirited fashion. The pipes can move me to tears at the best of times and this was especially powerful. I will post video on my return to Fife. I really did feel for the reporter as just when he got his chance on air after many frantic calls, the band called it quits and he was left with an image of 30 or so kilted pals japing en route to the buffet/beer tent.
I had intend to return to join a commemorative meal being held locally that afternoon though once out of the village we are not allowed to return. This is a real pity as I hear from our friend that our actions were highly commended with a stirring round of applause offered by all the pilgrims present.
I feel it will be quite some time before we will fully understand what we have been part of though in the moment it feels that we have been privileged to embark on a challenge which bridged Starks Park and Contalmaison. As a mark of respect to the players and fans of our team left our home town we have simply used a bicycle and a campervan to again draw a line between our home ground and the Contalmaison Cairn.
I would urge any person with the inclination to further explore this link to do so. You will find a wealth of knowledge at hand and a collection of motivated and thoughtful individuals ready to assist. I thank them all for their support and spirit. In addition to those who helped with so many practical and organisational matters relevant to the trip I would also like to add our thanks to Major Tait’s own charges who were kind of action and warm of welcome. We all enjoyed their company and wish them well.
I leave the trip with one key sentiment standing above all others. I have heard the phrase before but when it was repeated today I finally got it; Put simply the young men we honour gave their tomorrow’s so we can have our today. It only took me 738 miles on a bike for it to make sense!
Quote of the day; life is too short, and sometimes brutal, and in the end we have only each other… Nothing else matters.” ― William Donelson
The shortest of rides today but clearly the most important as I will finally arrive at the destination set some months earlier.
A mere 20 miles stand between me and the memorial Cairn and I’m guaranteed a friendly welcome as our friend Ali from forces broadcasting will be on site. Some text messages over the last few days assume my media profile hits new heights as Dave Cowan from STV asks if I would share my thoughts on arrival, a kind offer.
The ride itself starts in great weather as so many days have done yet ends in torrential rain as so many others!! I will in time put up some video clips to show I’m not a drama queen when I parrot words like; torrential, storm and cataclysmic.
To ensure the usual pattern of route plotting drama is followed I take a google maps over to my phone and hit follow. 7 miles in and I am riding solely on farm tracks with debris of the size and quantity that riding a road bike is not to be recommended. However I have a deadline to meet for the people, who have honoured the task with offers of support. With this in mind it in some ways validates the decision to continue riding when I turn into a field, then another, then another (repeat ad in finitum) only video will represent how ridiculous this is as I familiarise myself with the Somme landscape in an intimate manner.
Unlike meltdowns in earlier stages of the journey I’m taking this in my stride. Then the Garmin 810 lists a prompt which genuinely raises a non cryptic smile on my cynical face “follow paved road to destination”
Within moments a see a sign, not in the theological sense more geographical CONTALMAISON. Another first is set as I set mobile to selfie and join the 21st century.
My timing is in actual fact perfect as I arrive as Major Tate and his soldiers are leaving barracks to discuss their own preparations for the 1 July ceremony. I welcome their handshakes, warm wishes and congratulations.
My main observations from today is that at every turn during today’s ride (including mid field) I see designs of war, either craters or memorials. Monuments outnumber hedgerows and signs to sites of mass commemoration outnumber road signs. I understand the sheer volume of life lost over the years of fitting in this area but I’m still grounded by the sites of the final resting places of so many.
Time is taken to walk round several burial sites as the evening comes and it’s humbling to see the care with which these sites are maintained. We discuss the graves which are listed only “A soldier of the Great War”. So many men whose families never had the closure of a landmark for their loved ones.
Contalmaison itself is tiny, no shop, bar or clutch of social gathering points solely some houses, farm land, a church, grave yard and a memorial cairn. The size and lack of grandiose significance again focuses attention on the fact that it was an inch by inch battle that took place here where the smallest outposts were contested to the most bitter of ends.
With the village in lockdown from 8pm we settle down early.
20 miles towards total 0 dead miles
Total- 656 miles towards total and 82 dead miles – 738 ridden