Tunneling in Arras
Among other things, Arras is the heart of World War I heroics that both give one pause and inspire courage in this centennial of the armistice. In the fields within a thirty-kilometer radius of Arras lie such infamous places as Vimy, Heninal, Thiepval, Baumont-Hamel, and many more where tens of thousands on both sides of the conflict died. This was the front line for the Battles of Arras, both in 1914 and 1917 and then again, the Second Battle of the Somme in late summer 1918. Perhaps one of the lesser known, but most impressive achievements of World War I occurred in, or rather under, Arras in 1917. The Great War was known for its expansive frontline trenches, but the tunnels under Arras take this to a new level. The purpose of the 1917 offensive was to push back German positions on the Vimy Ridge to the east. Troops from across the British Empire, including those from South Africa, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, and of course New Zealand, amassed on the frontline south and east of Arras. Behind the British lines, miners who came to be known famously as the New Zealand Tunneling Company and other mining engineers from around the Commonwealth took advantage of the chalky soil in this part of France to go underground, where troop movements could be done in secret. The caves of Arras were not a new occurrence, however. In fact, historically, about one-third of the lower-class populations here, and elsewhere, lived in old underground cities, known as boves. Long forgotten by the early twentieth century, Allied troops re-invented the wheel and used it to their victorious advantage. Today, the tunnels can be visited at the Carrière Wellington Museum. While the Wellington tunnels and cave is now the most famous, there were dozens of caves, some larger and some smaller, named after places back home, whether that be in New Zealand, Australia, or England. It is a distinctive place for members of the Commonwealth to see the heroic and unique contribution of their ancestors to the war effort.
Living the Canal Life in Cambrai
After leaving Arras, the 2018 peloton heads due east along the Scarpe Supérieure, a canaled artery of the important Canal Dunkerque-Escaut. This is storied World War I territory, but the region is also lined with countless kilometers of canals. In fact, over the first fifty-kilometers or so, the riders will make about seven canal crossings across four different canals: the Scarpe Supérieure, the Dunkerque-Escaut, the origin of the Canal de Saint-Quentin, and the Canal de l’Escaut. In general, this part of France was historically industrialized. When some of the earlier canals were built in the late 18th century, textile boomed in places like Lille, Roubaix, and even Cambrai, where cambric cloth was made. Canals were the best means to get goods from throughout the region to other regional, national, and international markets. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the region came to be dominated by coal and metal making. Believe it or not, the largest of the Nord-Pa-de-Calais canals, the Canal Dunkerque-Escaut, 189 kilometers in length, from the English Channel at Dunkerque to the Belgian border at Mortagne-du-Nord, wasn’t built until the mid-1900s as a means of transporting this relatively new and developing heavy industry to ports. Like most canals in France, these canals typically have well worn and maintained tow paths for bike riding. In the area of Cambari, it’s a wonderful way to see the countryside. While the Canal Dunkerque-Escaut is the largest, it’s also still relatively quaint. After seeing the riders cross the canal in Aubigny-au-Bac, it’s possible to see the peloton again in Wasnes-au-Bac, only a six kilometers bike ride to the east.
Cycling in the Wind
The Tour de France is as much about tradition as it is about competition. Whether this is the tradition of the lantern rouge, the honor of the Yellow Jersey, the ceremonial finish in Paris, or the many places that have gone down in history as legend. It’s truly amazing how landmarks on the landscape, some large, others miniscule, have become recognizable solely for their involvement in cycling lore. Along Stage 9 of the 2018 Tour de France, the race pays homage to the one of the most spectacular and historic monuments, Paris-Roubaix. Indeed, seven years older than the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix has become a tradition in and of itself. With this title, come its own landmarks. One that is featured annually and will again be seen this coming July is the Moulin de Vertain, possibly the most famous windmill in France. Just outside the village of Templeuve, some sixteen kilometers south of Roubaix, the Vertain is a nationally listed cultural monument. The first mention of this wheat mill came in 1328. After centuries of use, the original structure was destroyed by war in 1616 and only rebuilt in 1691 by Lord Vertain. This new structure took on a unique construction style in which the entire inside of the mill rotated with the cap depending on the direction of the wind. This is opposed to a detached cap, a simpler and more common method of construction. For the next two hundred years, the mill operated until the last miller died in 1908 and sat abandoned until interest in the structure revived it in the 1980s and the mill was restored. So next time you see the Moulin de Vertain along the Paris-Roubaix, take a moment to appreciate the true beauty in the architecture of this French landmark.