Isitt's subject is "cycling's toughest ever stage race", the little known 1919 Circuit des Champs de Bataille , which traversed the battlefields of Ypres, the Somme and the rest of the western front less than six months after the Armistice was signed. Isitt combines the story of the gruelling tour itself with an account of his own cycling trip along the same route nearly a century later to flesh out an evocatively thoughtful wider history of the race, the war and the peace
I was intrigued to read about a new book telling the story of an utterly extraordinary - mad, even - endurance event that I was totally unfamiliar with, which was held in north-eastern France, Luxembourg and Belgium in April and May 1919 ... the race - which having read Tom Isitt's fascinating book, Riding in the Zone Rouge, I am happy to label the most gruelling one-off sports event I have ever encountered - duly got underway in Strasbourg on April 28, 1919 when 87 riders pedalled off into the gloom from Place Broglie at 6am sharp ... On a visit to Andy Schleck's bike-shop in Luxembourg, Isitt discusses the "lunacy of early bike racing" with the 2010 Tour de France winner. "Those guys were really hard men," Schleck concludes with a shake of the head. By rescuing this most deranged endurance event of all from oblivion, this book provides a welcome monument to their hardness.
I loved the book, devouring it in a few nights' 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 . . . 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 . . . Highly recommended