ISLANDS HAVE NOT ALWAYS BEEN ISLANDS: Cycling Europe in the Summer of Brexit

Inspired by Jon Day’s concept of “cyclogeography”, this mini-series, published to coincide with the 2017 Tour de France, features writing that uses the bike to explore literature, landscape, history, and myth.


By Mark West

In June 2016, two weeks before England and Wales voted to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union, I went on a cycle tour in northern Europe with my brother Sim and our friend Mike. We convened – me from Scotland, Sim from Sweden, and Mike from London – on the sun-dappled platform of Manningtree railway station late on a Monday afternoon, Sim and Mike waiting with pints in hand bought at the station’s own pub. We travelled on together to Harwich, where we caught the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland.

Over the next ten days we rode first north across the Netherlands via breakfast in Delft, past Amsterdam to the uncanny landscape of Flevoland, an island made from land reclaimed from the North Sea. Then down the Rhine, through the Roman German town of Xanten to the cities of Dusseldorf – where the Tour de France began in 2017 – and Cologne. Then west, to Aachen and the beautiful Limburg forests of the southern Netherlands before dropping down into Belgian Flanders; the day we did this leg of the journey we passed through three countries before lunch. We ended the trip in Lille, our arrival coinciding with those of English, Welsh, Slovakian and Russian football fans in town for the European Championships. From Lille I took the Eurostar back to London and a train onward back to Glasgow.

Dutch forests

No sport I know of takes such delight in conjuring names as cycling. In his book Cyclogeography, Jon Day describes cycling as “a sport that has always rewarded, indeed depended on, symbolism.” Cycling’s names aren’t just taxonomic labels for places or people; they hold its capacity for imagination, for world-making. They are repositories for myth. The Baker from St. Méen, The Eagle of Toledo, Spartacus, and The Eternal Second are names given to individual riders, but they are also names that tell stories about those riders, names which conjure the profundity of those riders’ exploits.

For many non-cyclists, the sport comes onto their radar in July, when the Tour de France runs, but for me, the peak of the season is two successive weekends in early April, when, nearer the North Sea than the Mediterranean, two of bike racing’s Monuments, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, are run. Most of the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium stops whatever it’s doing to line the roads the Sunday of the Tour of Flanders. I think this is my favourite race of them all, and the worse the weather the better. The race is characterised by its alternations between short, sharp, mostly cobbled hills and the flat, wind-bitten lanes of the Belgian countryside. The roads sap riders’ strength, but the hills are where the drama takes place. Each rise has its own name and it is these I love most of all. Watching on Belgian TV is best, where the commentators murmur them with awe: the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the Oude Kwaremont, the Paterberg, the Koppenberg. This last one is so steep you’ll see riders getting off their bikes to push, spectators on the banked verges shouting what sounds like equal parts encouragement and derision.

Paris-Roubaix is raced the following weekend across sharp, jutting cobblestones along the French-Belgian border near Lille, pathways used now only by the farmers who have used them for centuries and the cyclists who arrive en masse every April. These cobbled roads, no more than a few metres wide, are kept in shape for these spring migrations by a local society called Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix. The roads wind left and right through the countryside, and their names sound like the battlefields they run so close to: the Arenberg Trench, the Carrefour de l’Arbe. Paris-Roubaix is the race that reminds us most that, as Day puts it, “the history of cycling is the history of the modern landscape.” In 2015, the Ghent-Wevelgem race was renamed Ghent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, and at 2017’s edition, bagpipers from the regiments buried in the fields were stationed at the road-side, playing as the riders sped past.

This kind of symbolism can sometimes verge on the mawkish and the militaristic, especially when certain TV commentators belabour comparisons between soldiers and riders “going into battle.” But its nonetheless important that these northern Classics know that their hallowed routes were once battlefields, not so much for the tributes it can pay, but for the continued acknowledgement of the relationship between landscape and cycling. Most of these races began before the twentieth century, and were interrupted to various degrees by the First World War. Paris-Roubaix, for instance, is known as the ‘Hell of the North.’ These days the name is mostly applied to the legendary difficulty of the race, but it dates from 1919. “By then,” wrote Les Woodland for CyclingNews in 2006,

Roubaix and northern France were devastated by years of static war. Nine million had died and more from France than any other nation. Further south, news from the war zone was scant. Communications were down. Sure, there could be another race. But who knew if there was still a road to Roubaix? More than that, was Roubaix still there? So in 1919 the organisers drove off to look. At first all appeared well. There was destruction and misery, yes, and a strange shortage of men, but the country had survived. You can imagine the restrained relief in the little exploratory party. But suddenly things changed. The air began to reek of sewage and rotting cattle. Trees became blackened, ragged stumps. Everywhere was mud. To describe it as “hell” was the only word. 

Reading Day’s book, I wasn’t sure if his comments about cycling and symbolism included a subtle pun. The symbolists were just one of many groups of artists who were fascinated by cycling. Perhaps my favourite anecdote in a book brimming with them is Day’s description of Alfred Jarry’s love of the bicycle. He dealt with the dog – the cyclist’s eternal foe – by riding around Paris with “a pair of pistols” to “deter” them, and “scandalised society by wearing his cycling outfit to the funeral of Stéphane Mallarmé.” Day goes on to describe Jarry’s short story “The Crucifixion Considered as Downhill Bicycle Race,” and his novel The Supermale, about a “10,000-race between a group of cyclists and a train.” The Futurist Marinetti and Fernand Léger saw cycling “as the coming together of body and machine, but also as a form of art”; Beckett and Flann O’Brien were both “visionary cyclist-mystics.”

For Day, these anecdotes are evidence of there being “something inherently literary about the act of cycling.” This is a historical as much as a philosophical point. As Day explains, “the mock-heroic tone of much cycling writing reflects the sport’s origins as a fundamentally literary event. From its inception, the Tour in particular was conceived of as an epic, and written about in an appropriately high style.” Many cycling races, most famously the Tour, have their origins in the newspaper trade. Thinking of the various codes of cycle-sport this way, velodrome-based track races are lyric poems, one-day classics like Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix “achingly significant short stories,” and the Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain “triple-decker Victorian novels.”

These parallels also point to one of Day’s key aims. Throughout the book, he acknowledges the canon of walking and flaneur literature, of psychogeography: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Iain Sinclair, Rebecca Solnit. In his book, Day wants to “approach the question of a putative cyclogeography.” That’s something of the aim of this mini-series for the Glasgow Review of Books, too. In recent years, alongside the popularity of cycling in the UK after the British Olympic team’s successes and those of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in the Tour de France, and enabled by the existence of magazines like Rouleur, “a canon of cycling literature” has indeed begun to be formed, one “that is more thoughtful than autobiographies of cyclists and books about the history of the bicycle race.” Rouleur columnist – and Oulipo member and French cultural attaché – Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike and Tim Krabbé’s The Rider are foremost among these, part of “a great literary tradition … combining philosophical speculation with descriptions of cycling. If Iain Sinclair’s “prose is hammered out in shoe leather,” these writers’ is pedaled in chain oil. Both walking and cycling “employ [the] legs as an instrument of philosophy”, as Christopher Morley wrote of Wordsworth.

*

Somewhere in Germany

There were many things to anticipate on my trip last June. Sim wanted to spend the first night on the island of Flevoland because it is home to the Oostvardersplassen nature reserve. This meant the first day’s cycle was the longest: a 95 mile trek from Hook of Holland, via breakfast in Delft, skirting the southern fringes of Amsterdam before getting onto Flevoland and a maddening twenty-mile slog along the top of a dyke, straight as an arrow and into the strongest headwind I’ve ever faced. I was also excited by the rest day planned for Cologne, and the kolsch in tall slim glasses. But for me the main interest of the trip was the possibility it raised of close engagement with some of cycling’s names: Ghent, for so many years the centre of the Tour of Flanders; the small lanes bisecting through Flemish farmland that I watch on TV every spring, home to the murmuration of the peloton; the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenaarde, the current start-point of Flanders’ biggest race.

From the beginning of the trip, though, its political context – the febrile question of Britain’s relationship to Europe – could not be ignored.

Standing next to the lift at Harwich station were two middle-aged punks, a man and a woman. They had black boots, skinny jeans and studded leather jackets, and the man had a Mohican. They were smoking. They watched us wheel our bikes one after the other out of the lift. We weren’t sure where to go from there, and in the pause while we figured it out the man thought he’d strike up a conversation. “Boat-load of Indians tonight,” he said. No preamble. Nothing after it either. A simple statement, but not one solely of fact. He was right that there had been a large group of mostly elderly Indian men and women in the departure area, but what significance we were supposed to take from that, and what sort of assumptions the apparent solidarity he found in us was based on was unclear. He didn’t seem happy about the Indians. He didn’t seem particularly worried either, though. There was a note of resignation in his voice, as if a “boat-load of Indians” was just the sort of thing one had to expect these days. He didn’t say anything else, and didn’t explain why he’d met the sight of the Indians with such wariness, or what he thought he was resigning himself to.

It is impossible to overstate the weirdness of the atmosphere on board. There had been a few other cycle tourists rolling into the boat’s hull, but we hadn’t seen them since. In fact the place seemed empty, save for a few presumed truckers and the Indians. Here and there were dotted what we assumed were other tourists, but they ambled wanly around the deck, like bored ghosts, and didn’t interact with us. There was a palpable sensation of being on a back-road to Europe, encouraged by the laissez faire attitude of the customs officials on the dock, who didn’t search our bags and only looked cursorily at our passports.

That night, while we slept in pitch-black, windowless cabins, the boat sailed over Doggerland. Though submerged for nearly 10,000 years under the North Sea, it still connects the eastern coast of England with Belgium, the Netherlands, and parts of northern Germany. It is a traceable explanation for the affinities in the flat, grassy landscapes of eastern England and these continental European countries. It is also a submarine rebuke; islands have not always been islands.

“The beauty of the Limburg forests in a rainstorm”

Some borders are more noticeable than others. Riding out of the Netherlands and into Germany, the cycling infrastructure suddenly stops. We had joked about this on the approach, but it still came as a shock; the well-groomed, well-sign posted, well-surfaced cycle lanes of the Netherlands came to an abrupt stop at the perfunctory border signs by the side of the road. Within ten yards or so, the path became unrecognizable; weeds leant aggressively over the now cracked tarmac, the path narrowed and pedestrians were asked to use it too.

Morning in Aachen

The morning we left Germany and snuck back in to the Netherlands and bumped down into Belgium, we couldn’t find a border anywhere even though we were looking. Somewhere near Aachen there’s even a monument to them, to the three that converge there on the outskirts of a town also known as Aix-la-Chapelle. I write this watching the 2017 Tour de France wind its own way along these roads, a multi-national caravan waved through border-points. We didn’t see the Aachen monument, nor did we realise we’d left Germany until we’d gone three miles and found ourselves in a Dutch town. Later, disoriented by the beauty of the Limburg forests in a rainstorm, we lost ourselves in luscious green country lanes, and found ourselves bumping down a horse path at 45 degree angles, passing bemused hikers, into the town of Voeren, which was in Belgium. No border signs had been visible.

The French border didn’t want us. Trains were diverted away from it, and we spent a protracted afternoon running up and down the Belgian side of it, heaving loaded bikes on and off trains whose doors were higher than our heads. These were small Belgian country villages, but the other people on the trains were residents of big city Lille, English football fans who appeared as if out of nowhere, completely at odds with their environment, and a young Chinese couple.

The English-French border, if a line officially exists, must be somewhere at the bottom of the sea, just like Doggerland. The train ran under it.

*

As well as its names, one of the most enticing aspects of cycle sport is its alien yet comforting Euro-ness. The garish design of the jerseys, plastered with team names that are portmanteaus of European businesses unknown to us northern islanders: Spanish mobile phone companies, German shampoo manufacturers, grocers from the south of France, Flemish sportswear conglomerates, the lotteries of Belgium and the Netherlands. I was about eleven when I first fell in love with cycling as a sport. I was a sporty child, but no-one around me knew anything about cycling, and I don’t really know how I discovered it. What I do remember, though, is the way I used the school’s computers’ paint program to draw out all the jerseys of that year’s Tour de France teams. It would’ve been the early 1990s, when Miguel Indurain was in his run of five wins in a row and the most lurid, most Euro jersey of all – the Mapei team’s – was at its most resplendent. I have a vague memory of talking with another fan about Indurain’s chances of winning again; we talked with weary familiarity, like old hands, but the clearest bit of the memory is the furtive nature of this conversation, as if it were risky talking about this odd, faintly ridiculous sport in a school centred on the more safely Anglo-Saxon pursuits of football and rugby.

The Rhineland

In the campsite on Flevoland, I got into a conversation with a middle-aged Dutchman in the bathroom block. He had glasses and was very smiley. At first we talked about flooding, although I can’t remember why it came up. As the conversation developed, we described our routes to that point in time and space; I told him of our epic cycle the day before, the ferry the night before that. He told me that he was there with his wife in their camper van. They come every summer, and they were going to be in the same spot for the next three months. I couldn’t quite imagine what he would be doing for that long; Flevoland is a very eerie place, as if the effort of creating the island in the first place sapped everyone’s strength, and they didn’t bother finishing it. It would look like a wilderness if it weren’t so tidily pruned. What I remember most from my conversation with this man was the blunt friendliness of his speech, the matter-of-fact way he started talking to me, stating that he wanted to test his English.

There’s a kind of dull richness to the land either side of the Rhine. Boring to ride, it’s full of wide fields of corn or grass. In 2016, the water was higher than normal due to flooding. It was full of tourist boats even though there is nothing to really see on the banks, just long roads linking cities together and a cycle path that is part of a grand European route from the Swiss Alps to the Dutch coast, but which at this point along the way felt like an afterthought. Approaching Xanten was like another world altogether; it was more like the America of clean capitalist recreation than anything I’d seen in Europe before. The lawns and streets were exquisitely manicured, but not in the homely way the countryside of the Netherlands was. There was a palpable sense of something having been tamed; Xanten didn’t feel like the Roman cities I’ve been to – Bath, Arles – where history piles up in layers around you. Xanten felt too clean and somehow desolate, like a Roman-themed town rather than an actual Roman town. It didn’t feel connected to any time or space, either now or far in the past.

Leuven on match day

Dusseldorf felt like a great modern city. We arrived from the north, alongside the river, and as we approach the Altstadt more and more people gathered on the banks of the Rhine on what was a glorious summer Friday evening, to drink and relax at the end of the working week. The football European Championships started that evening, and the beerhalls were full of fans of all sorts of European countries, happy that the tournament – and four weeks of nearly daily televised football – was beginning. There was a similar atmosphere in the central square of Leuven the night Belgium played Italy. It was full of students, many of whom were neither Belgian nor Italian, but who entered into the spirit of the thing, painting their faces and learning chants. The buildings surrounding the square had strung up huge Belgium and Netherlands flags, and flung black, red, and gold bunting over our heads. At half-time, a brass band appeared up out of the crowd and got the square dancing to something halfway between Balkan folk music and reggae.

Our last cycling day, pretty fed up by now of being on a bike, was the comparatively easy 25 flat miles from Ghent to Oudenaarde, the home of the Tour of Flanders museum, which I had demanded we visit and where 1970s Belgian champion Freddy Maertens works as a guide. You can cycle from Ghent all the way to Lille on a cycle path along the banks of the Schelde river, which gives its name to a flat spring classic race called the Scheldeprijs. Halfway to Oudenaarde we were caught in a hailstorm. There was no shelter anywhere, and we had no choice but to continue, laughing hysterically through our exhaustion. There was a very “out of season” feel to Oudenaarde on the overcast weekday afternoon we trundled in. There were very few visitors to the museum, and we pretty much had the run of it ourselves, dressed in our strange outfits, amalgamations of the tourist and the cyclist. The museum itself is a joy, though. It holds all sorts of memorabilia and history of the Flemish national sport: bikes that once belonged to Maertens and Eddy Merckx, jerseys taken from champions of Flanders, a giant wall-mounted collection of team waterbottles.

Inside the Tour of Flanders museum

I’d been looking forward to it, but only half-noticed it. The previous few days had been full of news from Marseille: organized groups of the Russian far right, encouraged by the government, had seemingly set on English and Welsh football fans, who had not turned the other cheek. The security services were anxious about what might happen in Lille, where we were headed, and where English, Welsh, and Russian fans were staying ahead of their teams’ games there and in nearby Lens. The day we spent hopping trains along the French-Belgian border, I felt the anxiety piling up. There was a tense atmosphere in Lille that I was not keen to experience. When we got off the train and rolled our bikes out of the station, the first noise to hit us was the sound of English football chants. We couldn’t see anyone, but the songs filtered through the streets from the main square to where we were standing. On the news the day before, I’d heard them singing “We’re voting Leave! We’re voting Leave!” and antagonising the locals who were hosting them. I was silently thankful when Sim pointed us in the opposite direction towards our Airbnb. The house we were staying in reminded me of terraced houses I’d seen in Manchester.

*

If you look at the professional bike race calendar, you’ll notice something about the names of the races. Paris-Nice, the “Race to the Sun”; Milan-Sanremo; Tirreno-Adriatico, the “Race of the Two Seas”; Liege-Bastogne-Liege; Dwars Door Vlaanderen, also known as A travers la Flandre, or ‘Across Flanders’; De Brabantse Pijl, a.k.a. La Flèche Brabançonne, the ‘Brabant Arrow’.

These names do what all types of cycling do, they ‘join the dots’ between places. Cycling is, by definition, an activity that connects places. This year the Tour de France began in Germany and passed through Belgium on the way into France. A few years ago, the Giro d’Italia began in Northern Ireland, travelling down the coast to the Republic’s capital, Dublin, before transferring to Italy. There are rumours that its 2018 edition will begin in Japan.

If there was one thing I realised on my cycle tour two weeks before a vote for separation and isolation, it was the simplicity of the question being asked. This wasn’t just because of the inherent simplicity of referendums, but because the question itself misunderstood how geography works. It doesn’t stop or start at the border (whatever the differences in cycle infrastructure may suggest). This is itself a simple point, which makes it all the more egregious (though not surprising) that the referendum campaigns glossed over it. The referendum over-emphasized borders and under-emphasized everything else. Geography is as much mental and psychological as it is physical. It is, as the cycle races I love so much understand, for better or for worse, held in things like the names which conjure history and myth, and in the interactions with those names, histories, and myths they inspire. Geographical relationships are contingent and precarious. What was once separate might now be connected, what was once connected might now be separate – Doggerland is testament to both, simultaneously.

The United Kingdom is a very shaky union, an assembly of constantly moving parts, with shifting affinities and enmities, differing degrees of relationship and connection. Its northernmost outpost, the Shetland Isles, is nearer to Norway than it is London, its southernmost territory nearer Argentina; some of its laws do not apply to all of its territory.

Islands have not always been islands.

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