Monday, April 7, 2008

The Monuments

The Monuments of cycling are indeed just that—monuments—to the fallen soldiers of the World Wars. The Monument events are composed of five races. They are: Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy. What unites these events is their history. Each harkens back to a time before the World Wars. The youngest of the five monuments, the Tour of Flanders, took place for the first time in 1913, a year before World War I began.

In my experience as a photographer, both Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are indeed war memorials. The roads that are used are protected under local council laws; these are the same roads used by the young soldiers of the First World War.

Roubaix is known as "l'Enfer du Nord" which translates to "The Hell of the North." That expression came from the soldiers who were posted there. The rough farm tracks and cobbled lanes that are used are what was left after the bombing in the First World War.

After the war it was decided to dedicate the race to the fallen soldiers of the Great War. The race starts in Compiègne, 60km north of Paris where the French made the Germans sign the WWI Armistice.

The first Armistice of Compiègne was signed 11 November, 1918 at 11:00 am. It was held in the forest outside Compiègne because there were two sets of railway tracks and the trees would hide the events from the air. The two tracks were approximately 50 meters apart.

The Second Armistice at Compiègne was signed on 22 June, 1940 at 6:50 pm near Compiègne, in the department of Oise, between Nazi Germany and France. Following the decisive German victory in the Battle of France (10 May-21 June, 1940), it established a German occupation zone in Northern France that encompassed all English Channel and Atlantic Ocean ports and left the remainder "free" to be governed by the French. This second armistice signaled only the cessation of war between the French and the Germans—Hitler continued declaring war on the rest of Europe from the same railway carriage.

Adolf Hitler deliberately chose Compiègne Forest and the same rail car as the site to sign the armistice with France due to its symbolic role as the site of the 1918 Armistice with Germany that signaled the end of World War I with a German defeat. Satisfied with his revenge, Hitler then declared war on the rest of Europe, and had the prestigious rail carriage taken by road to Berlin and ceremoniously destroyed.

There is now a replica rail carriage and museum on the site, which is well worth the visit. It is just a few kilometers from the Royal Palace (the site of the sign-in and start for Paris-Roubaix) on the south side of Compiègne; it is well signposted.

Paris-Roubaix traverses the Arenberg Forest—itself a war memorial dedicated on consecrated ground. It is forbidden to drive through this area except when Paris-Roubaix is run, and even then only the race can go through the Arenberg—all spectators must walk in. The forest of Compiègne is funded by public donation; when a child is born, or when a soldier or family member dies, the relatives buy a tree which is planted in memoriam. A friend of mine, Christelle Cocquempot, formerly of La Redoute, (sponsors of Paris-Roubaix) has a tree planted in her name. It was donated by her parents when she was born.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege is the same; the race route passes many battlefields. Tanks—Panzer in German—are among the few survivors from WWII. The race passes through Houfalize, but it’s hardly recognizable compared to the town that stood before the war. It’s so sad what the Germans did to the town, and then what the Allies did to oust the German occupation. It was worse in many ways than Dresden. There is a German Panzer in the town square to this day.

The total German advance was stopped, hundreds of tanks, simply halted by a handful of British and American small tanks, which were really no match for the superior German armor. There are several small Sherman (USA) and Churchill (GB) tanks set in concrete also as memorials to the struggle that saw the tide of war turn against the Germans. We know this turning point as the Battle of the Bulge; victory was snared from the jaws of seemingly sure defeat.

The Allied soldiers forced the Germans to run out of petrol by attacking the fuel dump. There is a small memorial by the roadside commemorating the event. I'm sure not a single rider has ever noticed.

Special thanks to John Pierce of Photosport International for his essay and photos.


DRU said...

A chilling reminder of what really happened there. This summer, my brother and I will be fortunate enough to go and pay our respects to those who gave their lives for our freedom and to those who devote their lives to the sport we hold so dear...

Anonymous said...


thefutureofamerica said...

I rode through Bastogne and Liege last summer on a tour from Basle, Switzerland to London to see the prologue of Le Tour. On the cold, rainy day we passed through the square where the panzer in that photograph sits, there were a dozen or so kids climbing up it to have photos taken.

What struck me more than anything on seeing that was that a day or two before, I hadn't even realized we'd passed from France into Germany until several miles in, when I noticed that the road signs had switched languages. While remembering the sacrifices that a free Europe required, we should also celebrate the peace and prosperity that the last half century have brought.

Thanks for this post.

You can read more about the tour I described at the allsevens blog

Anonymous said...

While it is highly commendable to commemorate the historic grounds - it remains questionable why dresden is mentioned.

bikesgonewild said...

...while i was aware of all points of the conflict history you mentioned, i don't know that i'd made the direct association of the races being memorials to the fallen...& i'm glad to know it...

...for rememberance day in canada every year, as kids, we wore our red poppy pins & we all knew & proudly recited the words to the famous lc. john mccrae poem:
in flanders fields the poppies grow
between the crosses, row on row
that mark our place;... a kid, a lotta things go straight over the top but that poem was something you learned about & i still find it evokes emotion...

...& here the spring classics are w/ us & the strong sporting emotions they evoke are now made more meaningful...

...thank you very much...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great posts. I never associated the monuments of cycling with the monuments of world war II, even though I remember them in every single village and town of France growing up over there. I wish more was mentioned about that when TV/magazines/websites cover those races. While the pain on the riders faces may be more than I have ever put myself through, it is nothing in comparisson to the young men who fought along those same roads during the wars.

Great post,


mathias_d said...

Thanks for the post. My grandfather and his good friend fought in the Bulge and remained good friends until my grandfather's death on Pearl Harbor Day 1998.

Being Jewish, WWII has more significance than any other major event in the past century. I never had a chance to discuss much of the war with him and I'm sure he didn't want to but shed quite a few tears watching Band of Brothers and thinking of him.

May peace return to us sooner than later, and never shall we forget the Holocaust.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thank you.

Bolivar said...

Great correlation.

My uncle came in to Bastogne with Patton's crew to relieve the US troops who took the brunt of the shelling, he said it was the worst thing he had seen through his experience in war. He came up through Italy and saw quite a bit. He has some jaw dropping stories that shocked us all one Thanksgiving day, and this isn't a man who mentions his service time very much, to the point his family didn't even know some of his past.

On a different note, Radio and Padraig, could use some help, looking at some new frame/forks and would greatly appreciate your opinion of what I am considering. Thanks, Bolivar

Anonymous said...

Back in the 80's, I was the intelligence officer for an engineer battalion stationed in Germany. Each year we would do a staff ride, a battlefield tour accompanied with professional development readings and study. And my last year there, we walked the grounds of the Battle of the Bulge, specifically pertaining to the book The Damned Engineers and the roads that Kampfgrupped Peiper attacked along. I didn't know it at the time, but those are the exact same roads used by Liege-Bastogne-LIege. St Vith, Malmedy, Trois Ponts, and Stevelot are all along the race course and are all important historical markers.

It's hard enough to imagine racing full speed down these roads. Now image driving ton-and-a-half trucks in the middle of a muddy winter.