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Cycle tour of the Somme

The Memorable Cycle Tour of The Somme

"Both Ben and I collect old bikes. Nothing unusual about that. What’s slightly more unusual is we both prefer to wear cycle clothing that suits the period of the bikes we ride. Now in the 30s and 40s that was more often than not big baggy plus fours or even bigger and baggier plus sixes. Seeing someone ride a 1940s racing bike doesn’t attract funny looks, it’s just an ‘old bike’.

But do that wearing cycling plus fours? For some reason that does turn heads … (In a society where it’s normal for fat middle-aged men to wobble around in lycra on carbon fibre bikes … I know what this middle-aged man prefers).

 For us, it’s more than just looking the part. We both share a passion for that halcyon heyday of mid-century cycling and cycle touring, before cars dominated the roads.

My Great Uncle Walter was a member of the Erdington Social and Cycling Club and his photos of carefree cycle trips look truly idyllic, in what was a fairly bleak post-war ‘Austerity’ Britain at the time. It’s easy for us to don rose-tinted spectacles now, but my uncle and his friends still all look to be having the time of their lives.

I often think it would be great to do similar trips, and luckily for me my mate Ben actually puts these pipe dreams into reality and organises them. And our last trip was a long weekend visit to the Somme Battlefields in August last year.

A little bit about the Somme war

The Battle of the Somme, a pivotal World War I conflict fought from July 1 to November 18, 1916, left an indelible mark on history.

The Somme River Valley in France witnessed one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war, with forces from the British Empire and France facing the German Empire. The battle resulted in immense human losses, with soldiers enduring harsh conditions and unimaginable challenges.

Fast forward to the present day, and the Somme region has transformed into a historically rich destination.

Cyclists, drawn by a blend of history, scenic landscapes, and a sense of commemoration, embark on the cycle tour of Somme. The route, winding through picturesque villages and past historical sites, offers cyclists a unique journey through the remnants of the past.

How did we prepare for the tour?

Ben rode his lovely 1939 Claud Butler, while I took my tatty but trusty 1946 Hobbs of Barbican Raceweight. This year, as well as my ancient Long Flap saddlebag, I had also procured some slightly newer panniers. All black canvas Carradice, and resting on a Midland rear rack of similar mid-century vintage. It was a heavy load for the Hobbs, which wasn’t designed as a touring bike! But like they did back then, we made do with what we had.

What did we carry?

Well, Ben had a lightweight sleeping back, and a 1920’s lightweight tent that packed down to almost nothing. I chose a heavier 3-season sleeping bag, an army surplus ‘bivvi bag’, and a lightweight inflatable mattress. No tent. I really hoped it wouldn’t rain … Although my camping kit was modern, you could have bought similar items back in the day.

The best bit of kit was the inflatable mattress. It was MOD contract, packed down to the size of a pencil case, and when inflated was like a beach lilo. It meant this 43-year-old had a great night's sleep under the stars every night. (And a great view of the Perseid meteor shower)

Account of the tour

We sailed overnight from Newhaven to Dieppe, where we landed just before dawn. We planned to reach Albert, the hub of the Somme battlefields, by the end of the day. According to Google 87 miles, but my Lucas odeometer on the front wheel read well over 100 miles, so guess which one we’ll go for?

The ride through the French countryside on quiet D roads was an absolute joy, and I imagine 1930’s cycle tourists would have felt much the same. I guess this is ‘Living History’, but we were just enjoying simple pleasures. We made Amiens by early evening and stopped there for dinner. Feeling refreshed after a good meal we then carried on and made it to Albert, hub of operations for our little tour.

In Albert, we met up with our old mate Dickie, who had joined us from Paris. He had an in-depth knowledge of the battlefields and we couldn’t wish for a better guide for the weekend. His choice of bike was very different from ours though, a heavy black single-speed Phillips rod braked roadster!

For this trip, as we were such a small group, we wild camped. We were not too sure about the legalities of this in France, so erred on discretion. This part of France isn’t ‘wild’, all the land is owned by someone. We adopted the non-intrusive stance. ‘Free’ camping is a better description.

We had no issues at all, and camped in small parks, by the river Somme, and the last night on route back to Dieppe, we just pulled over at 2 am and camped down an old track, but were so tired it didn’t matter!

It was a superb little 300-odd-mile cycle tour, and the Somme Valley is very quiet and unspoilt. It wasn’t difficult to imagine you were back in the 1930’s. Our little homage to a past era of cycling isn’t that retro though. In fact, it would more accurately be called a micro-adventure now, so rather annoyingly for us luddites, ‘on-trend’. Damn.

The Carradice bags were a big help

And as a footnote, as this is a Carradice blog, our vintage saddlebags and carriers performed extremely well. The long flap is voluminous. I don’t think there was anything we needed that could not fit inside one of these. It housed my football-sized sleeping bag in it’s ‘stuff sack’, and next to that my old oblong army mess twins which had a little tommy cooker inside, and a few tea bags.

The side pockets were perfect for spare tubes and tools, and I carried the obligatory rolled yellow cycle cape on top. The panniers were smaller, and perfect for some spare clothes on one side, and my bivvi bag, inflatable mattress, and toiletries/towel on the other.

These photos are snapped on my grandfather Charlies old Voigtländer VitiB Viewfinder 35mm, from the late 50’s. I also took just as many on my iPhone, but I get more hipster points raving about how film has real soul.

Mike, Ben and Dickie.

August 2016."

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