Sunday, 18 July 2010

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Dunkerque to Arras, 80 miles

It's sunny as we start at 9.30am and there's already a breeze - sadly it's racing along the coast, so off to one side, and not much help.

We head south east out of Dunkerque, initially aiming for Ieper (Ypres) over the Belgian border. It's a very pleasant route, mixing main roads with cycle paths and back routes.

After a few miles we come to Bergues, which is an amazing little arsenal town, surrounded by ramparts and a moat, and with streets arranged concentrically. James tells me it was made famous as the setting for a French film comedy called Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis (roughly 'Welcome to the Sticks').

Then we're cycling across open countryside, with the harvest (a mix of wheat, potatoes, reeds, etc) being collected.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Nord Pas de Calais countryside
The Nord Pas-de-Calais countryside

We cross into Belgium toward Ieper, but the border is only guarded by a statue...

It's a perfect morning (aside from not having a tail wind) and we make good progress to arrive in Ieper just before 1.00pm. The town is very beautiful, with a stunning cathedral and cloth hall - particularly striking as it was reduced to rubble during the First World War - here's a similar view from 1919.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Ypres Cloth Hall
Ieper Cloth Hall

With an expected total distance of 75 miles today, and having only managed 35 so far - we decide to press on. Just before we stop, after a further 10 miles, I have my traditional first day puncture. It's a big shard of glass that would have gone through a tractor tyre, so can't blame my Marathon Supremes.

But James finds a lovely place to have an omelette and frites, while I fix the puncture.

It's getting hot and the sun is unrelenting as we continue, plus the air is thick with thunder flies, attracted by the ripe wheat, which crawl all over us.

The countryside is also full of war cemeteries, they come thick and fast, mostly British and French, but also German, and we spot Indian, Portugese and Moroccan sites too.

We lose our way a little, thanks to following road signs rather than our map. It all makes for a frustrating couple of hours. But we get back on track and make good progress through La Bassee and Lens.

Our final goal before the end of the day is to visit the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. It marks the site of a much fought over hilltop, which was eventually captured by Canadians in 1917 at great cost. It's up a very steep hill, which is hard going in the heat, but makes us feel we have earned the stunning view.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Vimy Ridge

The memorial itself is very powerful, a split pylon with grieving figures. The area around it has been left as it was at the end of the war, pocked with thousands of shell holes and still unsafe to walk over.

Swiss Roll - Day 1, Canadian Memorial Vimy Ridge

Then it's mostly downhill to Arras. A few miles from our destination we spot a huge, if understated, German cemetery - all the more poignant with quite a number of graves for Jewish soldiers who were prepared to lose their lives for their country...

Arrive in Arras at 8.00pm, shower and head out to eat quickly before bed. Another 80 miles in the saddle tomorrow...

Here's a video of today's ride: