Saturday 28 June 2014

Book Review: the Shattered Peloton

A hundred years ago today on Sunday, June 28, 1914, 145 cyclists rolled out of Paris for the 12th edition of the Tour de France.  The race was already an established sporting event and national icon and fans look forward to the competition, which featured seven previous winners (in addition to four future winners).  On the same day 1800 kms to the southeast in Sarajevo the heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife died by the hand of an assassin.  Two days after the Tour ended on July 26 back in Paris, Austro-Hungary, unsatisfied with the response to its ultimatum, launched an invasion of Serbia.  The bike race to end all bike races thus had a strange coincidental overlap with what was to become the launching of the War to End All Wars.  In his new book, “the Shattered Peloton,” Graham Healy has provided an unusual perspective during this centenary year marking the start of World War I—what was its effect on professional bike racing?

This seems like a question of laughably little consequence and the book is poorly served by its subtitle: “The Devastating Impact of World War I on the Tour de France.”  The number of professional cyclists was very small and the comparative handful who died in the war (32 Tour de France participants) pale beside the huge number of casualties, totalling an estimated 17 million military and civilian deaths and 23 million wounded.  In the cases of France, Germany and Austria-Hungary more than 4% of the total population perished. However, the book is to be recommended for telling the stories of some of those cyclists (not all of them Tour de France riders either) and their terrible experiences in battle, experiences that would have been duplicated in the thousands by soldiers from other jobs and professions and social classes.  What we really see is “The Devastating Impact of World War I on Everyone.”  The war devastated Europe (nicely described in the account of the first Paris-Roubaix after hostilities ended) but not really the Tour, which was restarted, admittedly with some difficulty,  a mere seven months after the Armistice.

June 28, 1914: the Grand Depart!
The book begins by describing that 1914 Tour in some detail and one has a good flavour of the chaotic happenings that made the race so interesting,  In the end Philippe Thys of Belgium would go on to win the overall for the second time.  Interesting details included the unspecified abuse apparently suffered by two Australian riders and an enthusiastic crowd so enamoured of Henri Pélissier that in their enthusiasm they blocked their countryman’s way and ruined any chance of him winning.  The chapter is interspersed with some diplomatic history about what was happening as political events moved forward in European capitals but these have an add-on feel, breaking the Tour narrative up.  There are a number of instances in the book where the narrative takes detours unrelated to the central subject, such as the enlistment of sportsmen who were famous for other things, such as football/rugby/tennis/piano player pilot Roland Garros or boxer Georges Carpentier.
The founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, wrote an editorial (in red ink!) in l’Auto calling, in what to us is astonishingly jingoistic language, for Frenchmen to enlist in the war to defeat “the evil imbeciles” from Germany.  Desgrange himself enlisted in 1917, at age 50, and even spent some time at the front. 

It is well-known that three Tour de France winners died in the war.  The popular 1909 victor François Faber of Luxembourg joined the Foreign Legion and died in the Battle of Artois in May 1915; Octave Lapize, winner in 1910, died in aerial combat in July 1917 and in December of the same year two-time winner (1907/08) Lucien Petit-Breton, who was serving as a military driver, was killed in a car crash.  Each of these riders receives a full chapter treatment, divided into an account of their cycling history (which in all cases is quite well-known) and their wartime exploits, unfamiliar to most cycling fans.

Lucien Petit-Breton, ready to race
Even more interesting are the accounts of the riders who rode in the Tour and did not place particularly highly or even finish.  One rider named Emile Engel, a friend of Fabre, was banned from the 1914 Tour by Desgrange, who by all accounts was a thorough martinet, for arguing with a commissionaire and was to die at the First Battle of the Marne in September that year.  Many of these riders are obscure but their fates nevertheless received compassionate treatment from the author.  It is sad to read of so many of these brave young men being chewed up by the great war machine in numbers that would seem incredible.

Emile Engel, left, and Francois Fabre
Some of the stories amply illustrate the confusion and stupidity of events.  Paul Deman, the first Tour of Flanders winner and three-time Tour de France participant, carried messages for the Belgians by bicycle during the war and was caught by the Germans.  Sentence to die, the execution was not carried out as the Armistice intervened.  British soldiers took over and unable to tell the difference between Flemish and German imagined Deman to be a German spy and planned his execution before a timely letter from Belgian authorities saved his life.

On June 29, 1919, a day after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and five years and a day after the start of the previous race, the first post-war Tour de France took place.  The author writes:” The effect that the First World War had on professional cycling was immense.”  But the fact that it started again so soon after hostilities and that a new generation of riders  had appeared—many of those who died, such as Fabre, Lapize and Petit-Breton were already no longer competitive when the war began—belies this statement. 

This is not a book for reading about the origins of World War I in detail (“The Sleepwalkers,” a blockbuster by historian Christopher Clark is that book) and some of the general research is a bit doubtful (Roland Garros, for example, is wrongly described as the developer of tractor propellers for fighter aircraft). But as a view of the war taken from an unusual angle and focusing on the lives of those involved moving from being suddenly transformed from celebrated sports figures to common soldiers (no officers here) the book Is well worth reading in this year when we can expect a great wave of Great War-themed publications.  On that early Sunday morning in 1914 in Paris the world was a different place. The Tour de France may have been merely postponed for four years but the real and terrible effect of the war on a human scale is told here with pity and with affection.
The Shattered Peloton: The Devastating Impact of World War I on the Tour de France
By Graham Healy
221 pp., ill., paperback, Breakaway Books, 2014
ISBN 978-1-62124-011-2
Suggested price: US$14.95

Tuesday 24 June 2014

A Ride in Upper Bavarian Ski Country

Hot, hot, hot... for an entire week Germany melted under seriously summery temperatures although it was still a week to go before the season officially started.  En route to Austria, I found myself staying with my friends in Lenggries, south of Munich, in the beautiful region of Upper Bavaria.  The area is much more notable for winter sports than for cycling but having persuaded my friend Uwe of the joys of riding a racing bike and loaned him my Basso for as long as he likes, we had clearly no choice but to go for a ride together even if it was 34C under very sunny skies.

The plan was to ride to Jachenau and then proceed to the Walchensee before turning back, perhaps a ride of 50 kms.  We rolled out onto the main road and began the 18 km stretch to Jaschau.  Beautiful clouds, no traffic to speak of and superb scenery.  And as we gently rolled along (the combined ages of our two steel bikes is 65 years, to say nothing of us) we were rapidly overtaken by a gorgeous blonde woman who hammered past us on a high-end carbon bike.  She had a fantastic tan and superb muscles, making me wonder again why more women don't ride to get fit.  I caught up to her fairly easily but stayed back as we had begun to climb and I did not want to hear my heavy breathing and get the wrong idea!

Passing through some little clusters of picturesque houses, we stopped momentarily at a bus shelter for a drink and noticed that there was going to be a butter-making demonstration the next day at a local farmhouse and Uwe thought he would take his older daughter there (the younger one is just three weeks old!).

"Make butter they way they used to..."

We reached Jachenau 19 kms into our ride.  There was a fancy hotel with lots of customers in the beer garden and the volunteer fire department across the street had a painting of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, and I was to see this image many times in Bavaria and Austria.  Apparently there is a prayer that runs something like: "Oh, St. Florian, send the fire to burn down my neighbour's house and not mine.  Amen." Apparently.

St. Florian with his water bucket


We rode past a charming onion-domed village church and soon found ourselves on a pleasant descent that brought us to down to the shore of the Walchensee.  We had considered turning right to track the eastern shore but the path deteriorated immediately into dirt so we decided to continue onwards.  This turned out to be wise as we had an excellent road to enjoy.  Soon we came to the beach at the south end of the lake and stopped to enjoy the beautiful views.  The lake, one of the largest and deepest (maximum depth 193 m) in the German Alps, is a popular destination for visitors.

Our route along the western shore brought us past a little cabin where a gentleman was collecting tolls.  Bicycles were free but the road itself was private.  It was also excellent and we enjoying spinning along in the sunshine on the smooth asphalt.

We left the toll street at Einsiedel, where some of the reserves of the Reichsbank were hidden and eventually handed over to the occupying Americans (minus 100 gold bars and a lot of foreign currency!) and now rolled northwards up the first of our big climbs for the day as we came over a ridge and then quickly zoomed downhill into the village of Walchensee proper.  Time for an Eiskaffee!

We started to realize that this trip was going to take us somewhat longer than we had planned as heading back east over the mountains would require some brutal climbing, even if we had suitable roads.  The decision was made to continue north and around Bad Tölz before backtracking to Lenggries.  So having fortified ourselves with refreshment, we continued along the lakeshore until we reached Urfeld.

Here we reached the biggest climb of the trip and it brought us to around 845 m ASL before we plunging down a twisty road, hairpin turn after turn, dropping 250 m in only 6 kms until we found ourselves riding along the Kochelsee, a much smaller lake.  We passed a museum that had once been the summer home of famed Blue Rider artist Franz Marc and leaving the village of Kochelsee found ourselves on a long boring straight road and straight into a nasty headwind. 

Uwe vs. Headwind
This brought us to Benediktbeuren, where a famous abbey is located.  Established in 739 AD, the abbey is noted for being the location of the discovery of the manuscript of Carmina Burana in 1803, subsequently set to music by composer Carl Orff in 1935/36.

We soon found ourselves in the nearby village of Bichl but were confronted with some very heavy traffic on the main B472 road.  I convinced Uwe there had to be a bikepath nearby and, sure enough, the Germans did not let me down.  We headed east now, towards Bad Tölz and some little climbs and descents. We reached the spa town at Km 71 and then on the final stretch to Lenggries turned south and attacked for the big sprint finish. Uwe was starting to suffer from hunger knock but I still had enough to chase down two riders on time trial bikes but could not keep up anymore on the climbs.

Uwe's massive victory sprint
Tired but happy we pulled into the driveway at Uwe's place, having covered 79 kms in just over 3.5 hours of actual riding (minus standing on the beach and Eiskaffee time).  The surprise was that we had put in nearly 1000 m of climbing on our old bikes.

The next day was my birthday so that evening we celebrated in proper fashion with beer and pizza.  It had been an excellent adventure and I told Uwe how lucky he was to live in area like this where you could do these kind of rides just out of your front door.  He enjoyed himself and learned something about cycling longer stretches as well!

Wednesday 18 June 2014

In Velo Veritas: A Retro-Ride in Austria's Weinviertel

Arriving in Berlin years ago I was bemused to discover there were Austrian restaurants, which were perceived as foreign and exotic by the German locals, themselves no strangers to permutations of Schnitzel. But the Austrians were seen as having a lighter touch, possessing a flair with diverse ingredients and spicing it all with a knowing, sly humour.

A few years ago Horst Watzl and fellow enthusiasts Martin and Michl, admittedly inspired by Tuscany's great L'Eroica retro-ride, felt that that own country offered many of the same features that made the Italian ride so wildly popular: superb tarred roads; bad gravel roads; the odd cobblestone and nasty climb; and really excellent wine and food. Test runs were carried out with increasingly large groups until the first In Velo Veritas (IVV) was officially run in 2013, attracting 291 cyclists on old steel bicycles from 14 countries.  Here is a video of the 2013 event:

News of the event spread and in 2014 well over 400 cyclists, representing 17 nationalities, came to ride one of three courses: the Epic (210 km); the Ambitious (140 km); and the Pleasurable (70 km). The majority of the riders are local but 40% make the trip from Germany.

The event is spread over two days on a June weekend. On Saturday registration was set up and the area around Korneuburg's Hapsburgian Rathaus on the Hauptplatz was given over to the arrival of cyclists, who came not only to sign in and get their numbers but also to look at the Flea Market, check out the display of some of the truly ancient bicycles brought over from the Bicycle Museum in Retz, enjoy an Eiskaffee in the afternoon sunshine the adjacent café, chat with other cyclists and admire a lot of cool racing bikes.

The rules are straightforward: you need a pre-1987 classic racing bicycle with downtube shifters and pedals with toeclips and straps. My participation was with my glorious 1975 Rickert Spezial built in his Dortmund workshop by the great Hugo Rickert with classic Reynolds 531 tubing, a SunTour Cyclone drivetrain and with slightly shakey pinstriping applied by Frau Rickert. I really need to do a post about Rickert's bicycles.  And “a suitable outfit for the riders would be very much appreciated” which meant wool jerseys for sure.  So I had my favourite RSV Vagabund '13 jersey to show off.

Besides the usual Colnagos and Peugeots one sees at these events there were there were many interesting Austrian bicycles—Puch, Austro-Daimler, Select, RIH and Steinmayr. (For more about Austrian bicycles, check out my review of a book about them here .) One of the unusual twists of this event is that you are photographed on Saturday in a “before” photo and then again on Sunday in an “after” version as the organizers were hoping for the gaunt and sweaty style of true “convicts of the road.”

At 4 pm the cyclists present were organized into the In Velo Veritas prologue and the group of about forty happy riders churned off westwards and soon reached the mighty Danube, A wide bikepath brought us along the river for 8 kms before turning northwards at Stockerau where we began what was first a rather gradual climb that became progressively steeper until it topped out at Km 21.6. A super-fast downhill came next, accompanied by the usual squealing of ineffective vintage brake blocks and we continued downhill more or less until we returned to the Hauptplatz after riding 32 kms in all, with a gain of 270 m. Time for dinner!

At our table was the Guest of Honour, former pro Rudi Mitteregger, a Very Cool Guy. Three-time winner of the Tour of Austria and an unmatched quadruple winner of the King of the Grossglockner competition, Herr Mitteregger is a very very fit 70 years old and he rode the prologue with us on his newly-restored green and white Puch bicycle. One of Austria's cycling legends, he is famous for a quote when leading the 1974 Tour of Austria he was left holding a wheel at the side of the ride when his team car was nowhere to be seen and shouted (in enraged and frustrated Austrian dialect): “Where are the monkeys? Still at the start?” He lost the stage but won the overall and immortality.

After dinner he took the stage for a Q&A and showed himself to be a gracious and entertaining speaker. A highlight had to be the arrival of a bike collector with one of Rudi's old Tour of Austria bikes, a silver Select (actually a relabelled Alan from Italy). It was carefully researched and restored and Herr Mitteregger enthusiastically agreed to sign it. And the very fit Austrian ace was looking forward to the 70 km ride the next day which was appropriate given his age!

Also at the dinner table was Hannes Weitscheider who is the manager of the Weinviertel tourism agency and he explained to us how his organization has been keen to work with IVV to develop the entire program to encourage visitors to come to the region. The routes were chosen to highlight the lovely scenery of rolling landscapes, historic small towns and villages and impressive castles but also to show off local products, of which wine was the most obvious but not the only one by far.

The evening program ended with the showing of a 15 minute experimental video, “In Velo Veritas,” which was shot on 16 mm film last year by filmmakers Milena Krobath and Johannes Schrems. Accompanied by the sounds of spinning spokes only, the video was in black and white and sepia and reversed images and had a timeless if fey quality.

Sunday and time to get serious, although I had plenty of time for breakfast.  Startlingly, someone in my little B&B at the next table recognized me from "Travels with a Tin Donkey," the first time this has ever happened.  A thrill to start the day!

The Epic riders had already assembled and ridden off from the Hauptmarkt at 6:00 am and headed northwards on a route that would take them into Moravia and the Czech Republic. The more modest Ambitious riders set out en masse at 08:00 am in what was claimed to be a neutral start but some of the more antsy riders were pushing the pace. The Rickert began to shift strangely as we almost immediately began to climb but the real problem was when we reached Stetten 13 kms into the ride and suddenly turned onto a “Weingasse.” This is a unique feature of the Weinviertel, an alley of small buildings that are used by vintners to store wine but also are opened up to serve wine and simple food during special events. The Weingasse in Stetten was paved with flat stones with surprisingly big gaps between them packed with earth. This was very difficult to ride and not helped by the steepness of the grade. But we pulled through and we rewarded with, oops, another long climb but one on dirt and gravel tractor path before a nice descent on smooth asphalt to Grossrussbach and the first control point at Km 37.

This had to be one of the highlights of the day. Unlike the usual organized long-distance rides where you can really only expect some bananas, energy bars and fluids, we found ourselves in a real restaurant. There was a fantastic variety of food, from three different soups to cakes, all-natural apple cider and grape juice, fruits and hot savoury strudel, either spinach or meat. Little signs explained where the products originated: for example, the milk for the coffee came from a particularly family farm.

We all sat together in the shady garden enjoying ourselves but eventually realized we had to go or else explain to friends how we had gained so much weight on a single ride. And in the parking lot was stationed a friendly mechanic, a cheerful Berliner, who put the Rickert shifting to rights in about 30 seconds. So no excuses now!

We had a bit of a laugh that the next control/food stop was only 15 kms away but laughed a bit less when we began to feel the effects of a headwind, coupled with a gradual but relentless climb. A very cool thing was crossing railway tracks and seeing four people using a draisine, a self-propelled railcar named after but not invented by Baron Drais, the generally accredited inventor of the bicycle.

We rode by the first castle of the tour, Schloss Niederleis, which dated back to the 12th Century but had seen a number of reconstructions due to war and fashion and even served the Russian occupation administration from 1948-1955. But we were now climbing more steeply.

Some hard turns and we found ourselves, breathless, at the highest point in the Weinviertel, the Buschberg, which towers, relatively, 491 m ASL. The hut where we had our cards stamps and enjoyed a cold drink is the lowest-situated mountain hut maintained by the Austrian Alpine Club at 484 m.

Blasting down the descent of the Buschberg at 70 km/h with not-so-useful brakes was fun on the superb road and we rode through the green and lush landscape into the northwest headwind. But the sun was shining and we were having a great time. We passed another Weingasse near Mailberg, the third for the day and thankfully not involving cobblestones before pulling up to control point No.3, Schloss Mailberg at Km 78.

This castle has been owned by the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta since 1146 and, like most castles, has had many periods of reconstruction following numerous wars. It presently is an impressive hotel and we were treated to soup, yogurt and juice or, for those indulging, wine. We were joined now by the Epic riders heading on their way back and coming to Mailberg for a second time on their loop.

We had more climbing and descending, with not much of the hoped-for tailwind as we also turned back on our loop and by the time we returned to Grossrussbach at Km 114 the Rickert rider was feeling a bit rickety. We had already reached the amount of climbing claimed by the organizers for the whole route but fortifying ourselves with coffee and cake we attacked the last 30 kms of our route.

The organizers clearly had not wanted us to miss any chance to do more climbing before we saw a road sign showing the way to Korneuburg was only11 km. Of course our route took us a different way as we needed to ride another long stretch of gravel and then a nasty short climb of perhaps 16% grade through what appeared to be someone's backyard—oh! It was a backyard! Wrong direction! Finding the correct 16% section took us over the top and now, mercifully, we were on the main road from Leobendorf for a fast, flat straight-in ride back to the Hauptmarkt.

Greeting joyfully by those who had arrived before, we happily if sweatily posed for our portraits before receiving a bag which had lots of printed material (promos for retro-rides in Italy, a very good Austrian bike advocacy magazine, bike route maps, tourism information and a nice certificate personally signed by organizer Horst Watzl, the Mayor of Korneuburg and Rudi Metteregger) but, most thrillingly, a bottle of local white wine which made up for the fact that the promised 1400 m of climbing were more like 1800 m. 


We had had beautiful weather, fine roads with little traffic, great company and the Austrians are even organized enough that you can take a shower at the end before heading for home. The small team that runs the event has built a total package in a remarkably short time, with community buy-in, enthusiastic sponsors, professional graphics and a useful website. If you register early enough you can enjoy Horst's entertaining build-up e-mail newsletters. They ignored their own rules (no mechanical check to see if you had spare tubes, or time stamp at the controls) because, well, somethings are less important. One had the sense that everyone was there to have fun. The organizers are aware of the dangers of letting an event get too big and lose its charm but I don't think there is much risk of that at IVV.

Getting to Korneuburg and the Weinviertel from Vienna is very easy (almost a suburb of the capital) and for those planning to visit there are excellent wines to sample and a whole range of events around them—even for children! Of course, the area is rich in history and lovely architecture and there is a whole lot more than schnitzel and strudel so be prepared to be charmed at one of the best retro-rides yet.

Riding with my new friend Bernd
For more information, go to The attractive website is multilingual.