Book Review: Riding in the Zone Rouge, by Tom Isitt

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Tom Isitt, Riding in the Zone Rouge, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2019) - £20.

Tom Isitt's new book, Riding in the Zone Rouge, is the both the story of cycling's 1919 Tour of the Battlefields (Le Circuit des Champs de Bataille) and a travelogue of the author's 2016 journey to retrace the route. The cover proclaims it to have been 'cycling's toughest-ever stage race', and it is easy to see why. Run less than six months after the cessation of hostilities, the seven-stage road race covered some of the worst-affected areas of the Western Front. Starting and ending in Strasbourg, it traversed Luxembourg and Belgium to loop through Ypres and the Somme to Paris and then across to Verdun and over the Vosges. Towns lay in ruins throughout, and many pre-war cyclists were unable to race as they had not yet been demobilised from the army.
The race route in the organising newspaper (@masaccio60)
I came across this book via the author's twitter (@masaccio60) during Paris-Roubaix weekend and was instantly fascinated. Not only did the photos Isitt shared combine my two interests in the First World War and cycling, but they also showed the post-war history of the battlefields, or 'Zone Rouge'. It is so easy to ignore that after the guns stopped firing in November 1918 life continued in this region, just as it did elsewhere. Evacuated families returned: they needed homes and livelihoods, yet the deadly damage of war still lay all around them.

Coincidentally, this week I have been reading some YMCA reports of post-war visits to the front and of their ongoing work in the affected areas throughout 1919 and 1920. The words 'devastation' and 'catastrophe' are frequently used and I'm sure they're no exaggeration of the mounds of stone which laid in heaps where houses had once stood; the fields churned and pocked with craters. The reports describe how the only post-war attempts at reconstruction thus far had been by way of temporary huts and pre-fabricated structures, which the riders would have seen as they passed. Isitt describes it similarly, including how one such family were living in a dug-out in land that had once been their farm, as they waited for something more habitable.
The riders in Verdun (@masaccio60)
If conditions weren't bad enough, the seven stages of the race were excruciatingly long, each averaging 300km. Perhaps it is because I have ridden several parts of it, but stage 3 from Brussels to Amiens seemed particularly gruelling, taking in both the Ypres Salient and the Somme, in addition to the journey across Belgium and the destroyed industrial lands between the two. Cycling in those days was unsupported and riders were just as likely to be forced from the race due to a mechanical as they were a crash. It really is no wonder that so few made it to the finish line.

I really enjoyed the split in this book between coverage of the 1919 race and Isitt's 2016 ride, retracing the route. This was a good combination of two genres I enjoy reading, as well as an effective demonstration of how the battlefields have changed and recovered in the century since. There are cities like Reims where city life has been restored, compared with the forested ruins that surround Verdun, left as a lasting memorial to the destruction. Having been on two Spring battlefields trips of my own in 2017 and 2019, I couldn't help but feel for Isitt, enduring horrendous rain and even snow through his late April/ early May journey. Of course, his suffering was nothing compared to those riders of 1919 and the inclement weather certainly did add some unfortunate entertainment to his narrative, but I'm sure he would have preferred to avoid the three broken ribs sustained on Belgium's infamous cobbles.

Riding in the Zone Rouge really must be read in order to believe that a race as mad as the 1919 Tour of the Battlefields could actually take place. Cycling as a sport is full of histories of completely mad races, yet this one really takes the biscuit for being held so soon after the Armistice when the organisers were not even sure the proposed roads were actually traversable. Like many of the early bike races, it was run for the promotional benefit of a newspaper, yet cruellest of all, it was robbed even of widespread coverage as the French press was (understandably) dominated by the Peace Conference negotiations.

And maddest of all? By the end of the book, I found myself really wanting to ride my own Tour of the Battlefields. I have been fortunate enough to visit the battlefields of the Somme, Verdun and the Vosges, each with their own distinct landscape. As both a cyclist and a historian, I can't help but want to connect them up, to ride between them and understand the length of the Western Front.

Riding the Zone Rouge really is a must-read, for both First World War and cycling enthusiasts alike.


Isitt's research first appeared as an article in Rouleur. It can be read online here:

I am not affiliated in any way with the reviewed book, its author, or publisher.


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