It was an insanely early start on the morning of the 4th April. I strode down to the farm where the Scout minibus was parked up, laden with the bikes we had tied on the night before. The sun had not yet crept over the horizon, and we were due to set off for Dover at 05:45. We were Explorer scouts and our mission was to place a poppy wreath at Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium to honour the memory of a soldier born in our village who is not on our village war memorial. He was missing in action at one of the Ypres battles and his body never identified, consequently his name is carved into the Menin Gate along with the names of the 54,895 other commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no identifiable individual grave.
With the last of the three Explorer Scouts who were coming aboard the bus and myself, Mike and Howard in the front seats we headed for Dover. We unloaded the bikes at the ferry terminal in the midst of a scrum of drunken braying students, luckily they were not going on the same boat as us, they had barely made it out of the coach park by the time we were loaded up with panniers and tents and cycling towards passport control. Immediately we ran into technical difficulties as one of the lads’ wheels came off on the ramp. This did not bode well. We wove in and out of lorries looking for our lane to be loaded on the ferry. The sound of an ill-fitting wheel buzzing against a frame like the engine noise of a buggered moped accompanied us up to the front of the loading ramp where we were loaded first, right at the front of the ferry. A balaclava-clad ferry worker in a grimy orange overall lashed the bikes to the metal insides of the lorry bay. We went upstairs and consumed huge amounts of pasta salad, during the foggy crossing, carb-loading in anticipation of the day’s riding, which was to be, according to Mike, a mere thirty miles.
Dunkirk loomed suddenly out of the sea-mist, alerted by the profusion of bouys in the shipping lane we had headed down to the freight deck, becoming momentarily lost in a maze of tightly parked lorries. Eventually we found the bikes and saddled up as the ferry doors slowly opened. Immediately we dismounted again, having been told we weren’t to ride off the boat, spoilsports.
Back in the saddle and off the ramp we were spat out into an endless stream of heavy freight. Like an overboard sailor all we could do was go with the flow, cycling at speed past chainlink fences, through gates and along long roads with no idea which way we were headed or even facing. The lad with the bust bike was in danger of losing his wheel again so we found a convenient area of blighted tarmac to effect a repair. Beneath the gaze of a brace of parked up Polish truckers, we searched for a bolt to secure his rack, the only one that fitted came off my rack extension for my rear light. A piece of sticking plaster took its place on my bike, most effectively it turned out. After much booting about, straining and choice words, the offending back wheel was bodged into place and we set off again.
For miles we cycled through a flat industrial landscape covered with serious looking factories, gigantic pylons and trainlines running by the road. After the trucks had gone, there was no traffic at all and the roads were dead straight disappearing into the distant fog without a kink or corner in sight. Finally we saw some gigantic wind turbines and headed for them, crossing a main road and leaving behind the industrial area, which we had cycled through for miles:
Now we were surrounded by fields without fences, here and there a long deep ditch lined the road or cut away at ninety degrees from us, cast iron sluice gates punctuated the waterways and crumbling farmhouses squatted near the tarmac, casually disgorging barking dogs as we rode past. Lapwings rose from the plough furrows, or pecked around amidst green shoots. The mist showed no sign of breaking and it was now four in the afternoon, but we were making good time because the roads were so flat. About an hour and a half later, I was plagued by a pinging sound from my bike, and it wasn’t long before I felt the back brakes rubbing on the rim of the wheel, I pulled over and my fears were realised, the back wheel was not only buckled, but a spoke had broken, shearing by the thread. Another sticking plaster held the spoke in place and stopped it flapping about. We were miles from anywhere, I offloaded my tent onto Mike’s Dawes Super Galaxy, which if you know anything about bikes is a bombproof tourer on which you can carry anything (unlike my Lemond Etape). I arranged to meet the others in Wormhout, and sped on ahead to look for a bike shop, it was getting close to closing time! I raced through the countryside ignoring the wobble in the rear wheel and actually quite enjoying the speed and thrill of being on my own in another country. I passed through Esquelbecq, wasted fifteen minutes circling the town once looking for a bike shop, nothing, so I shot on for Wormhout. The road rose and fell so gently the incline was barely evident. The sun was starting to droop towards the horizon and now it was way passed closing time on a Saturday night. I burst into Wormhout and began asking about a bike shop around the town centre, incredibly no one I asked seemed to live in the town. I had been there about twenty minutes when I saw the others coming in on the Esquelbecq road. I passed a short man with grey hair and a ‘tache and asked him if there was a bike shop nearby.
“Oui, mais il est fermé”
Drat! He gave me directions to it anyway. The others gathered round as I was preparing to race off and the man noticed the wreath –
“Vous êtes britannique, viennent de trouver la tombe du soldat? Il est moi qui a bip bip à la jonctio et…”, he held up his thumb. The others nodded, we had already been exposed to the novelty of the drivers beeping us and cheering or giving us the thumbs up, a marked contrast to the UK.
I shot off for the bike shop, only to find that as expected it was shut. But, hang on, there was a light inside and someone moving about. I knocked firmly on the door and a tall young man wearing thin-framed glasses came to the door and opened it a fraction:
“Nous sommes fermés monsieur”
“Ah pardon. Quelle heure ouvrez-vous demain?”
“Nous ne sommes pas ouverts le dimanche”
“Oh, mon vélo est cassé”
He saw the worry on my face and stepped out into the street:
“Ce qui semble être le problème?”
I didn’t know the French for broken spoke so I spun the wheel and it stuck against the brake. He nodded, and whipped the wheel off. Calling out a name that I didn’t catch he walked back into his shop and beckoned me to follow him. Another man stepped out from a door at the back of the shop rubbing his hands with a rag. I could see from the oil in his fingernails that this was the mechanic. He nodded once as the bepectacled man handed him the wheel and stuck it in a vice, removed the spoke and fitted another:
Next, he put the wheel in a jig and carefully trued it. The whole exercise took maybe six minutes, I was thrilled to be having my wheel fixed in a French bike shop after hours, I was equally delighteed to see he had fitted a sliver spoke which stood out amidst the older black spokes as a permanent reminder. He took the wheel outside into the dusk and fitted it back onto the bike. It span beautifully. Total cost, five euros and profuse thanks in the most effusive manner I could manage with my broken French. The men waved me off with a bonne chance et bon voyage and I rode back into the town.
The others had not wasted their time while waiting for me, the hungriest of the Explorers had discovered a pizza van that, incredibly, had a massive log-fired pizza oven built into it. It was half an hour before we set off again, now it was getting dark and we were a long way from Ypres still. At some point we passsed into Belgium and immediately we were riding on cobbles. This was fantastic for about three minutes, then I realised why the Paris Roubaix is called L’enfer du nord, it hurt! A lot! And it was shattering.
As the dark came down the mist gathered strength again, we switched on our lights and slipped into the bike lanes. There was more traffic now, but it was always respectful and seemingly unhurried. We attracted more beeps, cheers, waving and thumbs up. As it became pitch black we stopped at some roadworks behind a small renault with music blaring out from its speakers. As the traffic lights seemed to be taking ages we held an impromptu rave, dancing about on our stationary bikes as a tractor pulled in behind us with headlights blazing, setting our lights to flashing mode only seemed to heighten the mood and we were on the verge of getting the tractor driver to step down and start grooving when the lights changed and we were off again.
The miles blended together and our existence shrunk down to a smear of light pooled on the blurring tarmac in front of us. Every now and then the lights from a roadside bar spilled out onto the road, a buzz of neon in the misty air, patrons at the door, laughter in the night.
Eventually we began to see signs to Ypres, or rather Ieper as it is in the Dutch, and at long last we pulled into the town. The night was filled with music and some sort of festival was afoot. Two dancers on ropes were dancing from the Cloth Hall, high above the heads of the enraptured crowd. Eventually we pulled away down more cobbled roads, until we slunk into the campsite, pitching tents in the damp dark at 22:00 before locking up the bikes and crawling into our sleeping bags. 49.82 miles on the clock, some 19 more than expected.