TOUR’15: Never Forgetting
Roadside Stage 5: The run from Arras to Amiens roughly follows the old Western Front line in the First World War, through several battlegrounds, including the Somme, and past the too-many cemeteries in this part of the world. Thousand of soldiers died here including Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders, and 46,000 Australians. It was a sombre start after 4 days of intense fighting on the road.
What numbers stick in your head when it comes to racing and riding? Too often, it’s 1. It’s not always healthy to just think about winning and winners though. Or do you think of watts pumped out, kilometers ridden, altitude gained? For me, today’s numbers are 295,000 and 46,000.
The weather was a total contrast to when we arrived at the Tour last week – 20 degrees Celsius cooler – and the pouring rain made it a sombre day to join the mobile circus that is the Tour de France.
Mechanics tried to work in the downpour; tyre pressures were carefully noted and adjusted. Endless checks of bikes were carried out. It was a last minute scramble to the sign-in, and a precarious journey up onto the podium depart.
The run from Arras to Amiens roughly follows the old Western Front line in the First World War, through several battlegrounds, including the Somme, and past the too-many cemeteries in this part of the world. That 295,000? It’s the number of Australians who fought in the conflict; 46,000 of them died. It’s a staggering, sickening statistic. It makes me shudder, and is why Orica-GreenEdge wore special armbands to give people pause to remember.
The stage was designed to commemorate those who fell in the Great War, especially the Commonwealth soldiers, and started with a ceremony in the early morning to inaugurate a metal blue cornflower at Mont Saint-Eloi where 1909 Tour de France winner Francois Faber was shot dead.
The Giant of Colombes won Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours twice and the Tour of Lombardy, as well as the 1909 Tour, and took 19 stages in his career, before he joined the French Foreign Legion. He was cut down, supposedly carrying a wounded colleague, in the Battle of Arras in May 1915.
Two other former winners, Octave Lapize and Lucien Petit-Breton, both died later in the War; some estimates say around forty to fifty former competitors in the Tour were killed in action.
Just across from the start line in Arras is the British cemetery of Faubourg d’Amiens. Everywhere you turn, there are names, and more names. Thousands and thousands of memories carved into stone. Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians. Regiments from what seems like every county in the UK, and from so many regions across the world. Scores of friends and relatives growing up together, signing up together, training together, mown down together.
Once the stage rolls, it passes through some of the most important battlefields where the Australians saw action in World War I including Bullecourt, Pozières, Péronne and Villers-Bretonneux.
Jennifer Collins, Deputy Commissioner (NSW) Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), told me that the Australian Government, the Australian Embassy in France and the Department of Veterans Affairs was very proud to have been able to work with ASO to bring this commemoration to the forefront, and help to promote an Australian Remembrance Trail which has now become a pilgrimage for a new generation of Australians, and New Zealanders, too.
Luke Durbridge came out to greet the visitors from the Australian Embassy, and he did a great job of representing his team. Gilbert Duclos-Lasalles was there from ASO, and the Paris-Roubaix double-winner looked on approvingly.
Durbo the Turbo said: “Sometimes guys in a bike race forget that so much has happened in the past. The Great War was an event that shaped our country and shaped who we are now. The sacrifice those guys made allowed us to be here to ride this race.”
Shayne Bannan, Orica’s General Manager, came out into the rain to speak to me:
“It’s very significant for us to recognise what those guys did for us – it was important for Australia as a nation, and for Europe as a whole. To play a role in remembering them is so important for us. We took a little time to decide what was an appropriate thing to do to show our appreciation, and the idea that we settled on was a commemorative armband. It’s just a simple black band, with a logo remembering the 100 years of the ANZACS, but we think it is a fitting thing to do. My connections to the great conflicts are really to the Second World War, but it is the same principle of honour. The riders have bought into it wholeheartedly. Most of the guys have been with us since the team started and with the training camps and events in Australia, they’ve come to understand the Aussie culture, and understand how important it [the conflict remembrance – Ed.] is for our country.”
Shayne and Orica-GreenEDGE owner Gerry Ryan were on their way to the Australian Cemetery at Villers-Brettoneux with twenty kilometers to go, the national monument to all the Australians who died in WWI, to spend time there and visit the fans (Aussies and French alike) celebrating the sacrifice made a century ago. Another number for you: 10,773 names at Villers-Brettoneux are of those whose bodies were never found.
It wasn’t all glum though: Michael Matthews was carefully trying to pull his armband on over his bandaged left arm. He wanted it to match his team-mates, but it was obviously damn sore. Then some sage Aussie advice delivered as bluntly as possible. “Mate, put it on your other arm.”
The language of cycling is of the game becoming war, and war becoming the game. We talk of attacks and counter-attacks, of riding defensively or trying to hurt the opposition.
And because of that, it’s crucial to echo what Luke Durbridge said, and what I overheard Michael Matthews say to an Australian film crew: if it hadn’t been for those 10,776, the 46,000, the 295,000 – as well as the millions from all nations who laid down their lives – we would probably never have the opportunities we do.
It’s been a great Tour to follow so far, with so much action and so many stories, but it’s a grey and sombre note to go home on. Sometimes it’s better that you just have to stop and think.
Thanks for reading.
• PEZ Sez: The famous PEZ Roadside Reports continue tomorrow, as we welcome a new photog to the site – Marcus Enno – aka “Beardy McBeard” picks up the roadside adventures from his first Tour de France.
Keep it dialed PEZ!