Prior to picking up this book I hadn’t heard of The Tour of the Battlefields (Circuit des Champs de Bataille in its native French), and given that it took place only once, back in 1919, I’m probably not the only one.¬†Enter Tom Isitt, photojournalist and cycling enthusiast to provide enlightenment.

The Zone Rouge of the book’s title refers to the areas of France and Belgium, the Western Front, where the battles of World War I raged the fiercest. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict these were mostly uninhabitable lands filled with mud, rubble, millions of tons of live ordinance and the remains of the fallen.¬†The wacky idea to plot a bike race through such dangerous terrain came from the publishers of French newspaper Le Petit Journal, envisaging an event that would boost readership and sales as the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France had for their organisers’ publications.

With a limited archive of race-related information to go on, Isitt sets out to expand his telling of events by way of a fictionalised account, and by relating his own experiences of attempting to trace the original route (Strasbourg to Strasbourg via Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France) in the saddle of his Spin Spitfire bicycle. This, however, is about more than a cyclist’s summer holiday. Along with a personal connection (his great grandfather and great uncle both fought in the conflict) Isitt has an obvious interest in, and deep knowledge of, the events of WWI.

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Isitt’s bike by a field of poppies (pic: isitt.org.uk)

It’s that aspect of the book that made the biggest impression upon me. I wasn’t ignorant of the horrors of the ‘Great’ war but I never fail to be stunned when reminded of the scale of the slaughter. One example comes during Isitt’s tackling of stage 4 from Amiens to Paris, and a visit to the Chemins des Dames, where the French army came close to mutiny so bad were their (pointless) losses. 350,000 men (from both sides) died in the battle for the strategic plateau, which the French took from the Germans in 1917, only to lose again the following year.

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French troops at Les Chemins des Dames (pic: figaro.fr)

Not only is it hard to get your head around the magnitude of the barbarity, it then becomes hard to see the unquestionably brutal bike race as all that bad. Riding thousands of kilometres over war-ravaged lands, through atrocious weather, on heavy bikes with no support assistance sounds to modern ears like an impossibly arduous event, but to the men who accepted its challenge — men who only months before had been neck-deep in the blood, mud and death of war — it must have felt like a comparative pedal in the park.

As Marcel Allain, editor of the organising newspaper, wrote at the time, the race was to be a distraction from a war that had only recently ended, “a lesson of energy, a celebration of life after four years of death.”

But what a way to celebrate life. Stage 3, from Brussels to Amiens, raced through horrendous weather, and was so tough it almost broke the race. Only one rider finished on the same day he set off, and the last home took 39 hours to complete the 323km route. There were rumours that others had taken the train, not so much to gain competitive advantage but just to stay in the running. Stage 6, from Bar-Le-Duc to Belfort included the Ballon d’Alsace, its mountain pass consumed by waist-deep snow, through which the riders were expected to slog, taking hour-upon-freezing-hour to cover just a few kilometres.

All things considered, it’s pretty unsurprising that The Circuit didn’t go on to become an annual fixture to challenge the Tour and Giro. This was a parcours that visited the scenes of the modern Europe’s bloodiest events, events from which most people would have wanted nothing more than to move on, a chance to forget, to heal wounds and rebuild — and after riding the hellish 2000-plus km route of cycling’s toughest ever stage race, most of the competitors probably felt the same.

It was a short moment in bike racing’s history, and thanks to Isitt for opening a window upon it. Thanks too for providing inspiration alongside the insight: life (and especially one lived in peacetime) is a gift we shouldn’t take for granted. So grab your bike and go for a ride.

Riding In The Zone Rouge by Tom Isitt is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.