TCI Book Club – Riding in the Zone Rouge

Tom Isitt’s Riding in the Zone Rouge is the story of the Tour of the Battlefields, a stage race that went off in 1919 while the peace treaty to end WWI was still being negotiated, and the landscape of Northern France was in a state of utter devastation. The titular Zone Rouge is a swath of land so badly damaged and contaminated by the war that it was, and still is in some large part, made off-limits to the public.

The stages themselves were cruelly long. Riders were forbidden to cooperate or accept any form of support. They rode heavy bikes with one, sometimes two gears. The whole race was a bad idea compounded by foul weather and roads that were no longer properly worthy of that name. Launched as a counter to the Henri Desgranges’ Tour de France by rival newspaper Le Petit Journal, the Circuit des Champs Batailles (as it’s known in French) was staged only once.

This is, on its face, a cycling book, but to me, it read more like a book about war, about suffering, and about humanity’s capacity to inflict misery on each other. There are obvious parallels between soldiers being sent to slaughter by governments who have ceased caring for human life, and riders being sent into the worst possible conditions to sell newspapers and advertising. In 1919, it looked a bit like neither the soldiers, nor the riders had much choice, and the results were predictable for both.

Riding in the Zone Rouge runs along three parallel lines. In one, the author recounts the story of the race. In another, he tells a personal tale about riding the race route himself, in the present day, and in the third, he tells the story of WWI through the lens of the battlefields he and the racers have passed through. As someone who has not traveled extensively in France, I found a lot of the descriptions of WWI battlefields, the memorials, the massive cemeteries, shocking.

It’s a good read, this book, but in light of recent events, I went away sad that neither humanity nor cycling seems to have learned very many lessons in the intervening century. My takeaway was that maybe we all need to reconsider our comfort with the suffering of others.

Everyone who raced The Tour of the Battlefields would have been better off on a Shimano GRX bike.

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