Review of The Green Toothed Witch & the Yellow Canary by Ian Chester

There seems to be increasing interest in the cycle races in France immediately after the First World War. First of all we have Tom Isitt’s excellent Riding in the Zone Rouge: The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race [Reviewed HERE] about the ridiculously hard Circuit des Champs de Bataille and now we have Ian Chester telling the tale of the 1919 Tour de France.

And for those of us who enjoy our July (obviously somewhat later in 2020) taken up by the quest for the yellow jersey the tales of these early races are extraordinary.

The author tells the 1919 race’s story with aplomb, providing a detailed breakdown of the riders, their nicknames, palmares and likely odds in the 1919 race. The race has added symbolism; not only was it the first held after the Great War but it was during this edition that the leader started to wear the famous maillot jaune or yellow jersey.

A detailed breakdown of the runners and riders is provided

The history is spot-on and once again the reader is left reeling at the sheer physical endeavour required to complete such an event. The distances involved are staggering – the longest stage was over 450 km and the total race some 5560 km, more than 2000 km than the 2020 addition (3,470 km). The route was also suitably bonkers, starting in Paris but traversing the coastline of France anti-clockwise, taking in the mountains of the Pyrenees and Alps.  And to top it all, race organiser Henri Desgrange was the hardest taskmaster, stipulating ultra precise rules. Any breaches were harshly punished. You cannot but feel for the riders as they struggle through the race.

The author lets the story unfold, describing the loss of many of the favourites and the heavy attrition as many riders give up in the first few stages. It is also a journey of discovery as the author covers each stage in his trusty camper van, cycling a number of sections. His knowledge of French and love of the country shines through and many anecdotes are told with a twinkle in his eye.

Each stage has a map of the route

Despite a costly setback whilst down in the French Riviera, Ian eventually completes the Tour route, finding key spots from the 1919 race and honouring them properly. It’s worth noting that the book is self published and whilst I spotted a few typos here and there they certainly do not detract from the overall enjoyment. What is abundantly clear is the author’s fondness and sense of awe for the 1919 racers. I was also interested to read of his grandfather’s part in the First World War and wounding on 15 September 1916 during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Battle of the Somme. The stop at Etaples Military Cemetery to visit the grave of his grandfather’s friend was also a nice touch.

For those who enjoy their cycling mixed with a bit of wartime history I highly recommend this book. It’s easy to read, contains plenty of amusing stories (both 1919 and 2019), lots of maps and photographs and has been much enjoyed with a beer in the garden during lockdown.


Review of Tom Isitt’s RIDING IN THE ZONE ROUGE – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race

RIDING IN THE ZONE ROUGE – The Tour of the Battlefields 1919 – Cycling’s Toughest-Ever Stage Race

Tom Isitt’s new book has a weighty title to match the weighty race it follows. The Circuit des Champs de Bataille (Tour of the Battlefields) bicycle race was held in 1919, less than six months after the end of the First World War.  Covering 2,000 kilometres, it was raced through shattered countryside and an epically destroyed road system across an area known as the ‘Zone Rouge’.  It was so tough that only 21 riders finished.  Unsurprisingly, it was never staged again.

As is the way with so much of modern life, those with a shared interest seem to find each other via the internet, so I was already following Tom on Twitter and then met him at a BDOVELO function in London last year.  Aware of his cycling exploits in retracing the route of the race and wanting to know more about the Circuit des Champs de Bataille, I had been looking forward to the book’s release ever since.

The book has been structured in a pleasing and logical way, starting with details of the race, its inception and planning and, for the cycling geeks out there, the author’s choices regarding bike and kit for his cycling challenge.  Each chapter follows a similar structure with details of that stage, sections where the author imagines the conversations and feelings of the racers (really, very well done) followed by his account of retracing the route.  Primary source material for the race is relatively limited so the author has used newspaper reports alongside contemporary accounts of the battlefields (a decent bibliography is provided at the end) to paint a vivid picture.

As for the race, to attempt to ride over such terrain a mere six months after the armistice beggars belief. But to stage a race over these roads seems utterly bonkers.  As with so many tales of cycling’s early years, the length of each stage is eye-watering – 275km, 301km, 323km, 277km, 333km, 313km and a mere 163km on the final day.  Bearing in mind that on certain stages the route passed through areas recently deluged by monstrous shellfire, destroying roads, villages and infrastructure, it was a phenomenal undertaking.  Even when roads existed, heavy military usage had broken up the pavé, making every kilometre ridden a gruelling task.

Stage 3’s 323km from Brussels to Amiens offers a great example of the suitably mad nature of the race. Passing through Ghent and Bruges the race broke through the old Western Front line at Diksmuide, heading south to Ypres and the immortal salient before passing down through French Flanders to Lille, Douai, Cambrai then Bapaume, Albert and Amiens.  To traverse both the Ypres Salient and the Somme on one stage was a mammoth task – so arduous was its demands that some riders ended up sleeping in trenches and dugouts on the Somme, only to roll in the next morning.  The last men to finish the stage crossed the line some 39 hours after setting off! 39 hours!  I am shattered after five hours in the saddle!

The race threw up some unlikely heroes, most of all, Louis Ellner, the last rider on the road (Lanterne Rouge) who you will find yourself rooting for.  What made his endeavours even more incredible was that he was not competing on a race bike but on a pre-war routière.  You cannot but fail to be impressed with his determination as you see the gap between him and the leaders growing after each stage.  And yet, he soldiered on….

In summary, I loved the book, devouring it in a few night’s reading.  As with so much to do with the war, the same page can often be funny and poignant.  Tom has a good line in amusing stories and his tales of insufficient kit, hideous weather and a malfunctioning bike computer sat-nav raised plenty of chuckles from me.  Also familiar to cyclists will be his daily check of his ‘undercarriage’.  He has also cleverly included well researched information on the war’s battles, key events and individual’s stories.  It all blends together perfectly, offering enough ‘nodding along’ moments for current cyclists plus providing plenty of extraordinary information on early cycling, the race and the Western Front.  Neither cycling fan or war nerd (and I count myself as falling into both camps) will be disappointed.

Knowing the roads of the British sector well I particularly enjoyed reading about the French and American areas further south including the Argonne, Verdun and St. Mihiel.  Highly recommended.

A very good gallery of images from Tom’s trip is available on his website here:

JB, 10 March 2019