When the Tour de France Ran Through No Man’s Land

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In the week leading up to the Battle of the Somme, British forces fired 1.5 million artillery shells toward German lines. Those steel shells that flew over Allied heads and into no man’s land varied in size from a few pounds to thousands. Many were filled with explosives, designed to approach the ground but not quite touch it. Instead, they detonated in the air just above. Then, the force of the explosion sent out a shockwave that carried scraps of the shell in all directions. The blast and the metal shards crashed like a wave against trench walls. Other shells contained hundreds of lead-antimony bearings, which melted in the first heat of the explosion and cut through soldiers’ woolen coats like a biting wind.

Each shell left an impression in the ground, shrapnel dusting it with metal pellets that quickly hardened, while large, high-explosive shells cratered the ground with depressions the size of small lakes. In an instant—and then over time—the explosions shifted the topography underneath the soldiers’ feet. The armies used shells as though they would never run out, and they launched far more than what was needed to secure their objectives. Their lives then were not ones of regimented order, as much as training had promised otherwise, but were in fact random and chaotic. At some point, all the soldiers could do was resign themselves to whatever might come. Around them, shells stamped and scuffled across the muddy terrain, with scarcely a moment’s notice before impact. Soldiers claimed the blast that would kill a man was the one he never heard, though no one was around to confirm that theory and it did nothing to diminish the terror that came with the low whistle that bore down upon them, directionless, it seemed, to humans’ imperfect ears.

When rains came, the newly created pits filled with water. Small tributaries quickly formed and hurried it down the pits’ sloped sides, along with any remnants of chlorine gas that still hugged the ground and blood-soaked scraps of wool, horse flesh, trench waste, browned metal flakes, anything left in the immediate area. It all collected in the pit. Unlucky soldiers and horses who had been running across the dark ground sometimes fell into the rising waters, their woolen uniforms and heavy packs weighing them down. Over time, the water evaporated and exposed mud-coated remains like artifacts of fallen civilizations until they were covered once again by the next storm’s rains. And yet, despite the noxious collection, when the sun was out and the pit was now behind a new line—out of the territory between the two enemies—one could still see the occasional butterfly landing on its lip or a wildflower sprouting on its edge. Life had not been extinguished from the land, despite the war’s best efforts.

It hadn’t been clear if the race would survive its own weight in the Tour’s first years. During its initial edition in 1903, only Géo Lefèvre, the l’Auto correspondent who had proposed the idea of the Tour to Desgrange, followed the cyclists. Along 2,428 kilometers, Lefèvre served as the race’s sole timekeeper and finish-line judge. He was also responsible for overseeing the Tour’s day-to-day administration: looking after the racers’ accommodations and corresponding with the leaders of towns along its six stages. While the cyclists rode at night, he had hopped on his own bike to follow alongside the otherwise unaccompa­nied competitors—having no domestiques or coaches—and make sure they were adhering to the Tour’s strict rules. He’d then board the next train to the stage’s end and greet them as they arrived. On top of that, he filed stories for l’Auto along the way. The newspaper’s circulation grew with each passing day of the race as French people heard about the Tour that was approaching their towns.

Firmin rode past a crowd of young boys. It was the first time they had seen the race; they’d been too young to watch it before the war.

Cheating was as common as it was creative in the next year of the race, assisted by supporters along the roads. An early favorite, Hippolyte Aucouturier, held between his teeth a cork tied to a length of string that was in turn attached to the bumper of a car. The cork gave him the appearance of grimacing as he was pulled along by the car. In another incident, masked men swung at Maurice Garin and Lucien Pothier, attempting to knock the two cyclists off their bikes, but the bikes were nimbler than the car the men rode in, and the racers dodged the attacks.

In the second stage between Lyon and Marseille, a mob of fans attempted to stop all the cyclists except Antoine Fauré, a hometown hero. They were only broken up after l’Auto organizers fired rounds from the starting pistol.

Rocks were thrown and nails were placed on the ground, shortcuts had been discovered, lemonade once thought to be a gift to a cyclist was poisoned. Cheating and outright violence were so common that Lefèvre wasn’t sure that year’s results could be guaranteed at all. The corruption was enough that Desgrange considered shutting down the entire operation after that second year, still not convinced the race was worth its risks.

And yet, in 1919 the cyclists would follow a route through a stretch of their country that had been destroyed, on the longest Tour de France attempted to that point. Though their numbers had been winnowed, it looked as though at least a few of them would finish the race. As it had been in those first years, the competition wasn’t a matter of determin­ing the most proficient or athletic cyclist. It had become a different sort of race, between those who remained, who had simply managed to continue riding.

Just after leaving Geneva, Firmin and the others ascended col de la Faucille. Firmin rode past a crowd of young boys who looked on. It was the first time they had seen the race; they’d been too young to watch it before the war began. The hill was small enough that Firmin arrived alongside the others, their pack unbroken. Behind them, Lake Geneva extended into the distance, its color deepening toward the center of the lake, dark and undisturbed. The Alsace lay just next to it. It was peaceful at the moment, in those first hours of the day.

The first people who visited the region saw its value. How the animals they hunted had gathered on its plains between the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest. In time, grapes were planted in the rich soil; they fed the viticulture of ancient Rome. The Holy Roman Empire even­tually took control of the land in its entirety. It was violently traded between France and Germany for centuries after that. Both knew the value of the crops that flourished there. The people who lived in the region reflected the nature of the conflict. Many spoke a language close to Swiss German, but others spoke only German or French. More German than French in their culture, small towns were dotted with half-timbered gothic buildings, and their food was more like what one would find in Berlin or Frankfurt than in Paris.

The French took control of the Alsace in 1674, when Louis XIV led his army in the Franco-Dutch War and gathered up the remaining parts of the country his father had failed to secure in the Thirty Years’ War. In 1871, France ceded the Alsace to the Germans after the Franco-Prussian War. Under German control, at least one hundred thousand Alsatians decided to keep their French citizenship and leave the territory; those who stayed felt the burden of the Kaiser’s power after he declared the Alsace-Lorraine a reichsland, a region directly controlled by him, and denied its inhabitants self-government for thirty years.

The Great War hadn’t started because of France’s desire to regain the Alsace. Nor did it occupy the most strategic ground of the war: German troops had been concentrated to the north after their army stormed through Belgium. The region wasn’t just a symbol, though. Its hops and tobacco were riches for the country that controlled it. The French towns along its border had been fortified; they would be costly to capture. One was the former Tour stop of Belfort. Rather than fight to challenge these positions, Germany first stayed away.

Construction and reconstruction of local utilities and transportation gave the cyclists the feeling that they were traversing an industrial wasteland.

In the last days of the war, the territory’s future had been uncertain. Few knew how the Alsace would be governed at war’s end. Those who lived there had their own opinions on whether France would retake the land and exert control, or whether they would finally give Alsatians a choice in the matter.

France’s decision came down after a self-proclaimed government was declared in November 1918 in Strasbourg. French troops were sent in to quash the fledgling state and reassert control. The French govern­ment also began a cultural campaign, ensuring that Alsatian ways of life bent toward French norms. As French citizens had once left the land, a similar number of German citizens did the same, of their own accord and by the demands of the government.

Firmin rode through these Alsatian towns. Seven of the cyclists stayed together as a pack, in front of the four others. None of the seven were riding aggressively, for there was no reason for them to attack yet. Those who remained were the riders who had survived the race, who had found themselves on a level playing field even if they had lagged in earlier stages, as if their diminished numbers were a weight now shed from them. Jacques and Paul both suffered tire punctures and fell away. Joseph and Alfred slowed, injured from earlier falls. After the bright alpine days, the temperature dropped, and the riders again felt the effects of the cold on their energy and limbs. The sky was gray; the clouds were so common they receded into the flat sky. It was an atmo­sphere the cyclists had become used to over the years, one that seemed to hold steady toward the front, planed further by the haze that had once drifted over the lines.

Firmin had not seen how the weather seemed to change near the front. The changes to his atmosphere had been subtler, though the war still socked his city. Both his hometown and his current city, Antwerp, had fallen under control of the German Central Government, a gov­erning body set up by the Germans for the Belgian occupation. Those in Antwerp and Florennes at least had it better than the towns nearer to the front that had been placed under direct military rule. The small conveniences Firmin had been allowed—a job, religious observance—were even more difficult under military rule. The civilians there had been treated as prisoners lest they use their proximity to the front to transmit intelligence to Allied soldiers or lend physical support to the German enemies.

He had still faced daily grievances. The occupying forces had been a parasite drawing on Belgium’s economy, demanding regular monetary contributions the Belgian government could not have paid even under normal conditions. People from Firmin’s town had been deported to work on roads and on railways, then to man German factories, farms, and mines, when the country could not meet growth aims with its existing workforce.

Firmin had spent the war in that miasma. He had avoided its worst sufferings—the deportations, the forced labor—but his life had existed in a country entirely constricted by another. The saddle shop he opened in Antwerp before the war began at least kept him busy. He had been able to cycle, but he took on few professional racing opportunities. Still, his had been a better existence, he knew, than those who were fighting to the west.

The landscape had changed. Fresh dirt, exposed worms and muck of underground strata, had been brought up, then pounded flat. A railway connecting France to Switzerland had been commissioned in 1915—in the midst of war—but construction lagged. The cyclists fol­lowed the twin line of assembly. It was a Monday, and the railroad workers stopped to watch and cheer as the cyclists passed by the unfin­ished, crosshatched tracks.

The new railroad was one of many in the area. Construction and reconstruction of local utilities and transportation gave the cyclists the feeling that they were traversing an industrial wasteland. In that con­struction was evidence, too, that there was movement along these roads, even if they were in disrepair. Few knew how long the boom would continue, whether the funds would dry up before the tracks were com­pleted, whether the lines would eventually wither back into the ground, or whether the region would join as neatly with its country as those in the government hoped it would.

The soldiers didn’t stop the racers like they would for others crossing the land. Instead, the poilus only looked on and occasionally cheered.

For all the construction, for the gray day around them, the war was as obvious as it had been since they first left Paris. Firmin crossed through the checkpoint in Pontarlier and then reached rue de Vannoles, where men in uniform milled about and watched them with interest. Their garrison, the fortified Fort de Joux, looked down on the town. The soldiers’ mission wasn’t clear to the cyclists; whatever it was, there was little tension in their movements. They simply existed in the town, made up part of its population, showed the people that the French government was taking care of the region. Between towns, simple white signs placed by the military directed the cyclists. They marked the way to locations on the front and to towns where units could rest before joining others in the trenches.

Firmin entered Belfort just before noon. By then, Jacques and Paul had caught up after their punctures and rode alongside the oth­ers, nine in total, who formed the leading pack. On rue Vauban, they passed another crowd of blue-uniformed poilus. An officer by the name of Berger approached Desgrange as the Brasier idled in the town. He handed Desgrange a stack of bills that he and his men had gathered and instructed the editor to give part of the money to the first cyclist to pass through the town and part of it to Jules, the last remaining B classification cyclist.

The streaks of war were still visible in the town as Firmin rode through it, but Belfort was at least inhabitable. Many of the buildings still served their more recent wartime purposes: schools had become hospitals, warehouses stored logistical supplies. The town, stretched beyond its capacity, couldn’t accommodate the racers for anything more than a pit stop, to the dismay of its citizens.

After they checked in with the race administrators, the cyclists rode east. Just before leaving Belfort, they passed the town’s citadel. The forti­fied building had first been a castle in the 1200s and was strengthened through the 1700s as the Alsace became contested territory. At the foot of the citadel, carved into rose Perugia sandstone, a 22-meter-long lion sat, its front right paw crushing an arrow beneath its weight. The arrow faced east, toward the German border. It had been built to represent the resistance of the city for 103 days against the Prussian army during the Franco-Prussian War. Belfort’s fifteen thousand gar­risoned men had fought against forty thousand Prussian soldiers. The town surrendered at the end of the war, but its fight went on longer than any of the French strategists and politicians had imagined. At the end of the war, the Germans occupied the town for two years, until 1873. Instead of claiming the town for its own, it exchanged Belfort with the French for cities farther north. After the Germans left, the city’s fortifications expanded again; the wall between their city and the surrounding countryside grew. Alsatians from other towns made their way to Belfort after the region was ceded to Germany, the nearest place where their way of life could continue. Once the Great War broke out, the most vulnerable civilians left Belfort on the orders of General Frederic Thevenet. The city supplied French soldiers to the front, only 15 kilometers away. The Germans responded by shelling the town with long-range guns and bombers, though its fortifications held.

Two hundred and fifty kilometers into the stage, Firmin hit a fork in the road near La Chapelle. Another plain white sign pointed him toward Soppe-le-Bas. The small town held no more than five hundred inhabitants in a typical year, but with the war, the population had dropped. People had sought out safer terrain and hadn’t returned once the war ended. The town itself had only two intersecting streets. Firmin rode through it, continuing eastward. He looked at Eugène, whose yellow jersey stood out against the landscape. Neither had been able to break away from the other along the stage’s length. The flat terrain didn’t suit their strengths. They rode through Soppe-le-Bas, their tires kicking up dust and shifting unsteadily along the pockmarked ground. The day grew darker.

There were people along the route, but they were few and far between. Dressed in simple clothing stained with earth and hand sewn, the townspeople stood out from the soldiers. Every now and then they passed by a station on the road—small huts, only large enough to keep a few people out of the sun and rain. The soldiers didn’t stop the racers like they would for others crossing the land—checking their passports even though they were part of the same country. Instead, the poilus only looked on and occasionally cheered.

The front hadn’t disappeared with the end of the war, the cyclists knew as much.

Imperceptibly, the cyclists crossed the outdated border. There was nothing notable left to pass over; the land between Germany and France had moved kilometers away. Instead, they continued riding. They headed to Mulhouse. In the distance, the cyclists made out pont d’Aspach. The bridge slumped into the water. Stones and wooden planks were strewn underneath it. It had once connected Mulhouse with Belfort but had been destroyed by artillery to delay troops and material from crossing.

To the right, the cyclists began seeing deep gashes in the ground. A little more than two meters deep, the trenches had covered the heads of the soldiers who fought within them but had still allowed the men to scramble out from their protection. Some were more complex, follow­ing a quick zig-zag pattern to prevent shrapnel from crossing too large a distance. The occasional trench perpendicular to the others allowed sol­diers to move between lines, communicate plans. The German trenches were more elaborate than the Allied ones, deeper and with concrete con­structions, stairs and spherical pillboxes. Some German soldiers didn’t see the sky until they had left the trench entirely. Around the trenches the ground was pitted. Birds nests of barbed wire sat in irregular bundles, like rusted tumbleweeds. The land was empty.

The battles that took place in the Alsace were unlike those farther north. They were smaller and moved more quickly across the land. Immediately to the cyclists’ north, where the ground ascended into the Vosges Mountains, there had been alpine fighting. French and German men had fired at one another on slopes between sixteen and twenty degrees, land so steep it would have been difficult for the cyclists to ascend. They lived and fought in trenches like those on the north­ern battlefields, but above the cloud line the ground froze in winter. Sometimes only a few meters separated the soldiers on the Vosges from enemy machine guns and men who had trudged up the mountains just like them, dragging their artillery guns behind them on makeshift lifts. The landscape had separated those soldiers from the rest of the war—thick with trees when the war began and inaccessible to trains. They were self-sufficient and expected little relief if they found themselves fighting against a superior force. By now, most of the land had been sheared. Its trees were cut to make way for excavations, and the wood was used to make the duckboards that supported the soldiers on the sodden ground. Those plants not felled were destroyed in the beat of artillery shells and bullets.

The pillaged ground surrounded the cyclists. Firmin hadn’t seen that sort of war, nor had Eugène. The machines Eugène had fixed while it went on couldn’t operate on those Vosges Mountains; they were suited to the flat ground where the largest battles had been fought, where the decimated earth waited for them on the other side of that day’s ride. The front hadn’t disappeared with the end of the war, the cyclists knew as much. Eugène, Firmin, and Jean continued, setting pace against one another as the gray deepened.

Excerpted from Sprinting Through No Man’s Land by Adin Dobkin. © 2021 Published by Little A, July 1, 2021. All Rights Reserved.