Friday was finally a day with a more leisurely start. So much so, that I was more able to consider breakfast, at which I had the most I did all week!
Bikes as usual were waiting outside, and (for the last time) I picked up the bike bags and ambled out to fix them to the bike (I have a capacious saddle bag for waterproofs, inner tubes (2), tools, food gels and bars, 1st aid kit etc etc; and a smaller bag just behind the stem for a few gels, camera, passport and money). Knowing we had a schedule to meet today, I didn’t hang around and quite quickly was off following the orange arrows again. It was a reasonably warm day already so for the only day this week I actually started with just a single layer on – my reliable Altura transformer top with easily removable sleeves.
Over cobbles for a bit, out under the Menin Gate, still a sombre reminder of times gone by, but strangely normal when reverted to normal traffic duties; and then out of town. We were quickly into the surrounding farmland and cycling on poor concrete section cycleways. A gentle climb past a few cemeteries (notably the Aeroplane Cemetery) just out of town.
After only about 6 miles (only really a warm up) we stopped at Polygon wood. There, waiting for us, were a couple of the excellent Battlefield Tour Guides who had been telling us about the history of our route. Polygon Wood cemetery is notable as a less ordered cemetery. The graves were laid during the war, and as a wartime working graveyard the CWGC did not relocate them. So in this small area there were graves pointing in various directions as you can see below
Even more unusual were 3 particular graves. Firstly a German who’d been treated by the Allies, but died in their care. And then 2 further graves that had the unusual addition of the home addresses of the men buried there. One address was quite local to me, so I took a photo and resolved to check the address and see if the current occupants were related, or interested.
And then off through the dappled lane, through the forest and on to Passchendaele. In a couple of miles we arrived and had the chance to enter the museum and see the reconstructed trench from WWI. Having visited this museum only last year with Mrs B, I resolved to carry on and get a second breakfast now I was more awake. Sadly, this was not to be. In the few short miles to Tyne Cot Cemetery (home to nearly 12,000 men, and commemorating about 35,000 missing after 15thAugust 1917) all the cafes were closed and there was nothing at Tyne Cot.
We were now 10 miles into the day (a proper warm up!) but having arrived at 9, we discovered that the staff there a) had the hump as they did not know we were coming and b) were not willing to bend the rules and open the toiletblock or the visitor centre until 10am as per schedule. So I set to helping Anna herd the cyclists to the right area to park their bikes. Come 10 o’clock preparations for the last big ceremony were under way and at 10:30 the bugle sounded. Our Peddling Padre made yet another great speech and with another Last Post, more bagpipes, more wreaths, more commemoration we were left to wander around the cemetery. Many spontaneously moved to the central cross and a superb image built up as most were wearing their BBBR12 cycling jerseys. Others will have captured a better photo, but this was mine.
So, another couple of miles to lunch. A very stop start day so far. Lunch was the usual superb display, created from the back of large van, and lots of effort. It being so hot I stuffed myself with more crisps for the salt, and even managed a bit of cake (nothing compares with the Apple Pie and Custard at Thiepval though!). Camelbak loaded with 4 pints of water, a couple of Zero tabs for the nutrients I’d later sweat out and I was ready.
Thirty-eight miles to go, and if we could do it in a few hours, that would be good (we were told if we were late we’d miss the coach transfer to Calais!).
I got going!
I stopped briefly at a much more dark and sombre German cemetery (Langemark
), where tour guides told the tale of the inexperienced school students who were mown down by more experienced Allies in the First Battle of Ypres.
So, we leathered on. The road was a mixture of good tarmac and concrete sections that really tested out your contact points with the bike… ahem… I nearly missed the next water stop, as we had to bleed off the road, down to a tow path along which we’d cycle. At this point I was able to stuff myself with more oat bars etc, and grab a cup of tea, replenish the Camelbak, and then head off. A waterside cycle is great, but in this instance speed was of the essence. I’d lost track of the miles done, but just knew that the next water stop would be the last, and we’d be on the run in to Dunkirk by then.
A village later and a small fountain in the middle gave some brief relief from the sun, and then off again.
By now it was getting really hot, and I changed jerseys – by now I felt I earned the right to wear the Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2012 jersey, a fresh jersey (like the world cup winning England Rugby team found) is a great refresher. Not far out we came to the last Guide stop (with water!). Here we heard how a British officer had not only (allegedly) shot dead a cowardly commander who would not hold his flank during the retreat to Dunkirk, but also downed a German pilot by using his Bren gun more like someone out hunting pheasant.
I was getting desperately tired maintaining 15-20 mph cycling in the heat (and on the last day too). But something clicked in and I was able to keep it going. But all along I was desperately looking for signage to Dunkirk (with distances!). When we turned away from a sign to Dunkirk I was dejected. But then I wondered that maybe we were coming in a quicker back way.
Townscapes beckoned and the people alongside the road were cheering us on (the French really GET cycling). Then, suddenly, a couple of blocks and the promenade was in front. It was over. Well not quite.
And I was only 4 minutes late.
We parked the bikes and formed a welcoming party for something. About 20 minutes later a solitary Spitfire performed a magnificent solo display for us. A short wreath laying ceremony later and the Peddling Padre told of his excitement at finding 4 converts the day before in teh fancy dress nuns, but it seems they\’ve already lapsed. Several were congratulated on their 1000 miles for H4H, many more for their 1000 units of alcohol.
Finally we set off down the prom to the cheers and waves of the locals to a finish line
Off the bike, strip it for transportation, hand it over the organisers, and onto the coach for the hotel in Calais. I felt flat. The achievements of the heroes on handbikes is so huge, anything I did felt modest by comparison. Hey ho.
Hotel, shower, change and off to the celebration dinner. There we were awarded a medal, and entertained by comedy awards (best lycra…) and a band played. The Canadians handed out free beer, and the French caterers ran out of food, so H4H sent out for pizza!!!
Carriages were at midnight, hotel and bed… just 1 more day until blighty…