The past two weekends have been the highpointof teh year for many cycling fans in that they have been the weekends with 2 of the “Classics” professional Bike Races with Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) & Paris-Roubaix , the so called “Hell of the North”. The consistent feature of both these races are sections of cobblestone “pave”, in the Tour of Flanders these are coupled with the so-called “Hellingen” climbs and with Paris-Roubaix longer largely level(ish) stretches of cobbles.
The reason Paris-Roubaix is known as the Hell of the North is not due to the mud, dust and cobbles but was coined in 1919 when organisers and journalists set out to see what remained of the route after 4 years of war.
The words in L’Auto were:
We enter into the centre of the battlefield. There’s not a tree, everything is flattened! Not a square metre that has not been hurled upside down. There’s one shell hole after another. The only things that stand out in this churned earth are the crosses with their ribbons in blue, white and red. It is hell! ‘ Les Woodland (2006-04-06). “Tales from the peloton, The real Hell of the North”.
Cassel sits atop one of the few hills in this part of France & Belgium rising nearly 600ft above sea level which explains why it has been fought over throughout history. During World War One Cassel was for a while the headquarters of Marshal Foch who became the Senior Allied General in the last years of the war and whose statue sits in the municipal gardens at the top of the cobbled hill where it is possible to see the Channel coast 19 miles away. Unlike in World War One where the town was largely undamaged it was the scene of fierce fighting in World War 2 when the 2nd Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and the 4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry held Cassel for three days as part of the defensive screen around Dunkirk during the evacuation (27 May 1940-30 May 1940). The British forces had prepared a defence on the hilltop, barricading the narrow streets. After scoring initial successes against the tanks of Panzer Regiment 11, which had made the mistake of advancing without infantry support, the British garrison was heavily attacked from the ground and the air by German forces. Much of the town was reduced to ruins by bombing. Most of the garrison’s members were killed or captured by the Germans during the fighting or the subsequent attempted breakout towards Dunkirk, but the defence they had put up played an important role in holding up the Germans while the Dunkirk evacuation was taking place.
Riding up the hill to the drink stop at the top, bumping over the cobbles on the thin tyres of a road bike even slowly was quite a 5 minutes or so and to do so at full race pace must be an “interesting” experience even without making the cobbles wet and throwing in another hunderd or so riders jostling for position and the prize which includes one of the cobble “setts” and having a shower cubicle in the Roubaix Velodrome where the race finishes named after you!
The other reason for mentioning Paris-Roubaix and it’s relevance to the Big Battlefield Bike Ride is that it starts in Compeigne near Paris which is our first stop on this years Help for Heroes Bike Ride where we will visit The Glade of the Armistice the site of the signing of the Armistice which brought World War One to a close and where Hitler insisted the French signed the Second Armistice in the same railway carriage as had been used in 1918. The carriage was destroyed by German troops in 1945 but a replacement carriage constructed at the same time and to the same design as the original was reinstalled in Compeigne in 1950.
It’s fitting that Help for Heroes use cycling to promote awareness and for fundraising and we will be visiting an area famous for historic battles andhuge sacrifice and for cycle racing.
Lastly today I just want to say congratulations to former Royal Marine, Eastbourne resident & Help for Heroes beneficiary Joe Townsend ( @Joetownsend1664 on Twitter) who became British ParaDuathlon Champion yesterday.
If you want to continue the support Help for Heroes can give to people like Joe then you can support me by donating online here
Thanks for reading