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WW1 ride – Munster to Pfetterhouse – the end!

A bit of an epic today. Woke to heavy rain, and set off up a 3000 climb to the summit of the Grand Ballon d’Alsace, the highest point in the Voges at 4,400 feet. Heavy rain turned to torrential – like being in a power shower – an inch of water tearing down the road.

Much willpower was expended as we toiled upwards, soaked to the skin. Reaching the first summit we were frozen, as the temperature was only kust anove freezing and snow banks lined the road. It was thick fog and driving rain. Six miles of rolling road led, eventually to the summit. By now we were on the edge of hypothermia, shaking violently and struggling to operate the brakes. A 12 mile descent was out of the question, so we locked the bikes up, piled in the support van, and drove down to Cernay. The others thawed out in a cafe while Del and I drove back for the bikes (van not big enough for 5 plus 3 bikes). Since the descent would have required no pedalling whatsoever, we felt that missing it out was hardly cheating, and necessary on safety grounds. Not being able to brake and steer properly at 40mph is not clever!

Having warmed up, we set off again to complete the final 30 miles to Pfetterhouse and the Swiss border, where the front line ended.

We may have had a tough day – but soldiers on both sides lived and fought on those same ridges for 4 years.

What a great ride it was. Congratulations to John and Colin for completing it, thanks to Jane and Del for such great support, and thanks to all who sponsored us.

WW1 ride – Luneville to Munster – the Voges

A massive day of climbing today, following the front line up to and along the main ridge of the Voges mountains, at around 3000 feet.

Luckily, the weather was kind, with clouds gradually breaking and lifting from the summits as we arrived.

A 30 mile run in, up the Meurthe valley, and then our first military cemetery, and our first climb.

The second climb was much steeper, and we were glad to find Jane and Del at the top with baguettes.

The third climb was fully 2000 feet tall, first up a beautiful valley to a col, then up the main ridge. The fighting was intense here in 1914 and 1915.

After considerably more up and down along the ridge we reached the memorial du Linge, where many bodies lie unrecovered in the woods. A section of the front is intact and can be visited.

The final descent into Munster was beautiful, alpine in scale and in scenery. Not fast, because of frequent tight bends. Munster has storks nesting on all the chimneys. Tomorrow starts with an enormous climb up to the Ballon d’Alscace, and then flatter ground to the Swiss border. The end is in sight.

WW1 ride – Verdun to Luneville

Woke to more rain this morning, and very low clouds. Set off up a climb back up to the scene of the fighting on the high ground. This is the start of the St Mihiel salient, fairly quiet for much of the war, but where the Americans finally broke through in 1918. A huge American monument stands atop the Butte de Monsec, dominating the land around. But it was in the clouds and this is what we saw!

This is beautiful, pristine countryside and we loved cycling through the rolling hills of the Argonne forest where the rain first eased and then stopped.

More rolling road took us to a fast descent into the Moselle valley where Jane and Del had baguettes waiting for us.

10 miles of busy roads saw us into Nancy, on the Meurthe. For John’s first taste of city cycling this was a bit hairy. But the main square is imposing.

The final section was flatter, and saw us fairly easily to our motorway junction hotel. Hope to sleep well tonight before a massive day in the Voges mountains tomorrow with some 9000 feet of climbing!

WW1 ride – Reims to Verdun

A distinctly wet day today. Followed a canal tow path out of Reims – nice flat start, dodging the Sunday morning joggers. Then esst to the battlefields of Champagne, September 1915. Soon the cemeteries were coming thick and fast.

Having Jane and Del in support was great, and it solved the problem of Sunday in the back of beyond with everything shut and no food.

After about 50 miles we called in at a German camp, just north of the front.

At the end of the day we reached the battlefields of Verdun. We passed Monte de Morte, crossed thr Meuse at Bras sur Meuse )excellent coffee stop) and ascended the Ravin de Mort, at the north tip of the Verdun salient. Here some 80,000 bodies lie, and a wood was replanted over them. We climbed up to the memorial at Douaumont – the main French cemetery and memorial.

I had been reading eye witness accounts of the battle, I found the whole thing was almost overwhelming.

Then a long descent to a poor hotel in Verdun – a town that has seen better days.

WW1 ride – Soissons to Reims

A slightly shorter day today. The weather was still good, though the headwind persists. We began with a beautiful climb up through woods with just the sound of birdsong. But then we joined the Crete des Dames. This is a Napoleonic era road, running along the top of the high ground to the north of the Aisne valley, and overlooking it. The name is because the ladies of the French court would drive along it in their carriages, for the views. But it is notorious in French military history, worse than Verdun, because of the devastating losses in 1917, when the entire French Army came very close to mutiny. The road is peppered with monuments throughout its length.

This was where the Germans first dug in, as they retreated after the battle of the Marne, in the summer of 1914, and it was from here that the ‘race to the sea’ began, as each side tried to get around the northern end of the entrenched line that was forming. The geographical advantage of being dug in on the crest was huge, and the French paid a high price for attacking, first in 1914, and then on a much bigger scale in 1917, at the same time as the British attack on the Somme and coordinated with it.

The German HQ was in an underground quarry that predated the war, and it is now open as a museum – the Caverne des Dragones. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a sensible website, and we didn;t know that you had to prebook a guioded tour to go underground. Nonethless, the views from the terrace were great, and the information boards well done.

After that, it was downhill to cross the Aisne, and make our way into Reims. Heard crickets singing – so we must be making southwards progress. We knocked off about 2pm, for a change, and enjoyed a well earned beer in the towm centre.

WW1 ride – Albert to Soissons

A great day’s riding in the sunshine, albeit with a nagging SE headwind all day.

First off, after leaving Apbert, a visit to the Lochnagar crater – the result of tunneling and then huge mines, plaved under the German position. Hard to photograph.

Then on along the front line of the battle of the Somme, with a visit to the South African memorial at Deville Wood.

We finally left the plateau of the Somme, after a gruelling series of non-stop cemeteries and memorials to the missing. We descended and crossed the Somme, moving to the French section of the front line. No more Commonwealth War Graves from here on.

The next section was flat, with less evidence of the war, just scattered French military cemeteries.

We had an excellent Plat du Jour for lunch, sitting outside in the sunshine, in full holiday mode. The it was over a final small climb before descending into the valley of the river Aisne. Here we met Cotswold limestone, and very pretty villages. Vic sur Aisne was a gem, and we sat drinking outside a very good cafe.

Soissons is a compact town, and we are bookid into the Ibis on the outskirts. Del drove us into town for our evening meal.

WW1 Ride – Ypres to Albert

A big day, with a huge amount to see. Strong wind from the eest, and some cold rain for a while.

Started with Hill 60, and Hill 62 and Caterpiller Crater on the Ypres salient.

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Then the Messines Ridge to the Irish Peace Park, opened 1998.

We called in at Loos and Hill 70, before reaching Vimy Ridge. We arrived at exactly the same time as Jane and Del in the van, which was just as well because it rained hard and my jacket was in the van. Here there are preserved trenches and a great view over the Douai plain that the Germans were defending.

Food had been a problem all day, the Ascension day holiday, and we finally found a chip shop in Arras around 14.30.

Then on to the Somme, where the cemeteries come thick and fast. Highlights were the Newfoundland memorial at Beaumont Hamel, and the massive British memorial at Thiepval.

Then on to a very good hotel in Albert. A fantastic day. Hard cycling, and far too many battles and deaths to process easily.

Western Front WW1 ride – Zeebrugge to Ypres

Quite the calmest ferry crossing ever. It was hard to tell the boat was moving overnight. We could have been tied up at the quay! But we weren’t. Zeebrugge appeared right on cue – and bathed in wall to wall sunshine.

Jane and Del gave us a send off at the docks, and then we had a lovely 25 mile coastal ride, mostly on bike paths running parallel with the main road. The last bit was along the promenade.

The start of the Western Front, near Niewpoort, was where we paused for ‘official’ start of ride photos, sun shining on the North Sea. Hard to believe that there had been a war here, what with holidaymakers all around.

Within a couple of miles we arrived at the King Albert memorial, to the Belgian king who was the last royal to command troops in battle, and who sucesssfully defended this end of the front in Oct 2014, partly by flooding the Iser.

We saw our first preserved trenches at Dodnengang – the scence of intense fighting in 1914.

By lunch we had reached Dixemunde, where the battle of the Iser is commemorated by a tower, which is also a statement of Flemish identity.

The final leg was a circuit of the first half of the Ypres salient, starting with the section of front line that first saw a German chlorine gas attack in 1915, and where there is a German cemetery (they weren’t allowed many) to a lost youth division, who had volunteered patriotically – the mirror of the British ‘pals’.

But the most impressive site was Tyne Cot, where some 12,000 are buried, some named and some unnmamed, and some 35,000 others are named as ‘missing’ – mainly at Paschendale – the 3rd battle of Ypres.

Tonight we are in Ypres, where we attending the daily wreath laying ceremony at the Menin Gate. It’s really rather overwhelming. Given that there were roughly 6 million killed on the 600 miles of the Western Front that we’re planning to ride – that’s about 10,000 per mile – or about 40 deaths per turn of our pedals.

Leobersdorf to Vienna

This was just a morning’s cycling, under grey skies and alongside a canal to start with, to finish the ride.  Austrian cycle paths are fantastic, and Vienna has upgraded its cycling infrastructure a lot since we were last here in 2010. It was good then – now fantastic!

Only one stop en route, at Schloss Vosendorf, which was supposed to have a cycling museum – but it wasn’t open. Not much of a story, but I took a picture!

Anyway, the ride is over, and we’re in a hotel in Vienna. It’s been one of the best we’ve done. The scenery across the Alps was fantastic, Slovenia was interesting and beautiful, the hotels (with one exception) were all good, and the company was as excellent as ever. The route was more physically demanding than most of our rides, with only one planned rest day, but we were almost always running parallel to a rail line, and were able to add a couple more as needed. All in all, a great trip.

Quirky geographical fact to finish. Despite crossing the main spine of the Alps twice, we never left the drainage of the Danube at any stage!

Semmering to Leobersdorf

Another sunny morning! We were really lucky with the weather on the pass. It could have been dreadful. Instead we woke to great views down over the plain towards Vienna. Though difficult to photograph!

After breakfast at the local bakery we meandered along a level road, enjoying the views, before plunging down through the forest on a small lane, ending up in a narrow limestone gorge, with just enough room for the road.

Then, as the angle relented, we let the bikes fly, covering 10 miles to Gloggnitz (great name) in no time at all.

Weiner Neustadt was a large town with an elegant square and plenty of cafes for lunch. It was slightly too far to get to Vienna today, so we’ve stopped in the small town of Leobersdorf, with just a mornings riding left for tomorrow. It’s a shame that the cycling is nearly over.