“Turn left, and you will see a . . . .” Here the store clerk paused, one hand frozen in mid-gesture while the other steadied a bicycle we were renting. I wondered if he was searching for the right English word, or considering how we would react to what came next. Then he finished the sentence: “ . . . a long hill.” And with that, we knew we were climbing those darn hills outside town on ill-fitting bicycles.
Whose crazy idea was it to rent bikes in a foreign country, anyway?
It was June 2002, and we were in France visiting friends. They’d put us up in their home and tutored us in the culture before letting us strike out on our own. Being lovers of history, we decided to tour the Verdun battlefield where soldiers fought for ten months during World War I. A mention of bike rentals in a guidebook caught Mr. Spoked’s eye; he loves nothing if not a challenge. So there we were, standing in a bicycle store in a strange city, with no car and no French, memorizing directions spoken in halting English.
Luckily, the clerk’s instructions were accurate, and we soon found ourselves cycling up the “long hill.” This was years before I’d conquered climbing, and I struggled both mentally and physically. The hill just kept going. Crank, crank, crank for two miles in the heat of a summer day.
About halfway up, though, the pavement entered a quiet forest. Fantasizing about resting in a shady bed of pine needles, I kept glancing at the forest floor as we continued to climb. At first the ground was flat and inviting, then it became violently uneven. Large craters pitted the landscape, trenches snaked through the woods, and signs warned of unexploded ordinance. I called out to Mr. Spoked, riding about 50 yards ahead. Yes, he shouted back over his shoulder, he had noticed it, too.
And just like that, the hill and the heat didn’t matter any more. The terrible war we’d read about became very real. Over 300,000 people lost their lives on that battlefield, huddled in trenches while artillery shells pounded them into tiny pieces of bone and flesh. While they killed each other over the same few yards of real estate, Verdun became a symbol of the futility of war. Riding slowly past the battlefield on bicycles drove home the vulnerability of those doomed soldiers, waiting for shells to drop on their heads.
We spent the entire day cycling around the battlefield sites:
-Fleury, the village pulverized by shells and never rebuilt because the ground is still littered with ammunition and shrapnel.
-Douaumont ossuary containing the bones of over 100,000 unidentified men.
– Bayonet Trench, where a single shell buried 70 French soldiers alive.
An English couple approached us while we were eating sack lunches at the roadside. He told us about a relative who’d lost his life in World War I. Each couple talked about their favorite books on the war—All Quiet on the Western Front and Alistair Horne’s excellent The Price of Glory. Would we have met if we hadn’t bicycled? Would our Verdun visit have been as emotional if we’d driven it in a car? Hard to say, but I believe so many small details of that day stand out because I was on a bicycle—being surprised by the dramatic change of terrain, feeling vulnerable because I was out in the open, wondering at the scope of a cemetery that took so long to cycle past. Bicycling made the day unforgettable.
As I write this, we’re planning another trip overseas. This time we’ll rent bicycles in new places. Will these trips be as emotionally charged as Verdun? Perhaps not, but I’m fairly certain they’ll be more memorable than if we’d made them in a car.