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.


Watching Stage 9 (Arras – Roubaix) of the Tour de France on a battlefield tour

Last Sunday was one of those great days when I managed to combine a bespoke battlefield tour with watching Stage 9 of the Tour de France. I was with clients (not on the bike this time) following 92nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery from 1916–1918. Having visited Liévin and Vimy Ridge where they served from May – October 1918 and the area around Gouzeaucourt for for the Battle of Cambrai in November – December 1917 as well as retracing the route over which the Brigade retreated during the German Spring Offensive of March – April 1918 we had planned to incorporate a stop at the Tour into our final day in which we followed 92nd Brigade up Goegnies-Chaussée on the Franco-Belgian border where they reached to 11 November 1918.

92nd Brigade had been at rest in the village of Chérisy between Arras and Cambrai but moved forward to Cambrai at the very end of October. From there, at the start of November, they advanced eastward on the trail of the retreating German Army. Their movement tied in perfectly with Stage 9’s route and I had worked out the best place for us to watch – the first section of pavé (Section 15) between the villages of Escaudoeuvres and Thun-St-Martin.  The entry to the first cobbled section would be frantic and offered a terrific view.

Stage 9 profile

After a nail biting journey across country to make it there on time and a highly officious police cordon which meant a 3km jog (not to be recommended with sandals on) in order to watch the race, I made it with ten minutes to spare.

IGN Map showing where I watched the race

As ever, when watching pro riders, I marvelled at their skill and was astonished at the speed in which they came off the wide, dead straight Route National into the tight first cobbled section. Cycling fans know the thrill of seeing such incredible riders whizzing by. I snapped as many photographs as I could and a selection appear below.

The entrance to section 15

‘Are You Ready’ painted on the entrance to the pave

The breakaway came through over two minutes ahead of the peloton

Sagan, Gaviria, Degenkolb and Kwiatkowski amongst others. Not a bad view!

Yesterday’s stage winner and current polka dot jersey wearer, Julian Alaphilippe

Stage 9 winner, the likeable John Degenkolb

Sep Vanmarcke followed by Geraint Thomas and Nairo Quintana

Mark Cavendish

The last rider to pass me – Lawson Craddock riding with a broken scapula he sustained in crash on Stage 1

The section of pavé ran through the exact ground over which two companies of the 27th Battalion, Canadian Infantry advanced towards Iwuy on 9 October 1918.

Canadian Corps advances in October 1918

After we got back to the car we stopped for a late picnic lunch near Iwuy opposite Wellington Cemetery and the 19th Battalion memorial which commemorates their actions there on 10-11 October 1918.

19th Battalion CEF memorial at Rieux-en-Cambrésis

These roads, ridden on by the pros, can easily be weaved into a battlefield tour. I am currently working on a talk to be given at a few locations in September on the Canadian Corps in 1918. Their battlefield, so heavily fought over, covered much of the opening section of Stage 9.

Why not join me in cycling the battlefields and see some of these different areas whilst following in the wheel tracks of the pros? We won’t go as fast as they do but it’s a fascinating area that is brilliant to explore by bike.