Pretty much everyone is familiar with the Tour de France. Even most non-pedal pushers. But what about the Circuit des Champs de Bataille — the Tour of the Battlefields? Arguably, it may be the toughest cycling stage race ever held. So darn difficult that it only occurred one time, in 1919.
Back in the day, organizing sporting events had the potential to be very lucrative. Newspapers saw it as a way to boost circulation. L'Auto found such success after launching the Tour de France in 1903. Therefore, Le Petit Journal decided to create its own race — the Circuit des Champs de Bataille.
But there was one huge problem. It was to start less than six months after the end of the First World War.
All of this is detailed in the 302-page book, "Riding in the Zone Rouge," by photo journalist Tom Isitt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019).
The Circuit des Champs de Bataille took place from April 28 to May 11, 1919. It was broken up into seven stages, covering 2,000 kilometers — 1,200 miles — with the longest section being 333 kilometers — 206 miles. The circular course ran through northern France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The conditions were appalling, with horrible weather adding to the cyclists' misery.
The war damage was everywhere, with entire villages in ruins. The participants, many coming to the event straight from the army, were reliving the horrors of war. They rode their bicycles across the battlefields of the Western Front, the worst areas of which were otherwise known as the Zone Rouge. This particular designation was issued post-war by the French government, declaring the region as being so badly scarred by gas and shells that it would never again be fit for habitation or cultivation. Parts of it still exist to this very day.
The race attracted a total of 87 riders. A generous amount of prize money was a big draw, and bicycle manufacturers and their teams were keen to get involved because they were permitted to use — and thus promote — multi-gear bikes. Something that wasn't allowed in the Tour de France until 1937.
Just 21 cyclists crossed the finish line of the Circuit des Champs de Bataille. It was won by Charles Deruyter of Belgium. Coming in last was Frenchman Louis Ellner, an amateur club cyclist. It was estimated that he finished 78 hours behind the victor.
The author, as a way to relate to the 1919 contestants, jumped on a bike and rode the Tour of the Battlefields nearly a century later — following the actual route wherever possible. He stopped to visit several memorial sites honoring the fallen soldiers of the First World War, describing the present-day conditions.
While the facts of the race are correct within the pages of the book, the author — who apologizes in the preface — uses his imagination to create a dialogue between the participants and to depict some of the scenes. All this based on obtaining knowledge of these early racers.
While I believe Tom Isitt falls a bit short when compared to the writings of my favorite cycling author — William Fotheringham — the book is worth reading just to learn about an event that has been long forgotten. In my opinion, more people should be made aware of a tour tougher than the Tour de France. Stay safe!