The long march to Clapier

October 15, 2009 04:06 by Ben

The Col de Clapier is one of the routes scholars suspect Hannibal and his army may have taken over the Alps. I investigated this one and Danny and Sam were off to check out others. After crossing the Col de Galibier I stayed in the Ambin valley nearby with the crew and I cycled off at first light as I wanted to check out a white/bald rock which is mentioned in ancient accounts and would indicate Hannibal's travelled up the Ambin valley. However after beans and rice for dinner and breakfast my priorities changed and I instead needed to find a toilet. Luckily I found one in a cafe - not so lucky for the patrons - but the kindly owner noting my sudden loss of weight gave me a free pan au chocolat! I was ready to meet our guide for the day, Gilbert, in Lanslebourg Mont Cenis. He looked a little like Billy Bob Thornton but with a squarer head and dark hair and less boggly eyes. So actually not a lot like him at all but I still asked if he'd met Angelie Jolie - he hasn't. I told him I'd stopped answering her calls (all in very bad French) and he started to look at me like I was a psycho so I thought I'd better get onto his speciality - local history. He was very knowledgable on this topic and as he told me about the the houses that lined the Cenis pass. Apparently Napolean had them built and housed them with peasants to keep the road clear of snow during winter. The road is closed during the cold months these days but 200 years ago it was open all year round so Napolean could march his army into Italy if he felt like it (I knew that before him when he was my age). And everyone goes on about how much we have progressed since then.

Going our separate ways at the base of the Col du Galibier

As he was telling his story in French and Andrea was helping with translations I was casting anxious looks as the motor home drove off and looked to be manourvering slightly erratically. It was a dangerous trip for the cars, first up a steep mountain pass then along a very bad road above a lake with a huge vertical drop off into the water. The passengers later confessed to having their seat belts off and an escape strategy planned in case of an emergency.  

They all arrived safely although the motor home had suffered some damage - the side door no longer shuts very well, there is a large gouge down most of one side and huge chunks of plastic trimming are missing. In fact Sarkozy has forced through an emergency law and those Napoleonic houses are being repopulated to clear the Cenis pass of debris from motor homes. We met at a farm and after a coffee from the farmer Gilbert explained that the valley leading to the Col de Clapier has been fought over by French and Italians for ages and only since World War II has it been safe to inhabit. Hence the roads are still pretty awful and it has a very isolated feel, especially walking in fog and darkness at 9pm trying to find the way out - but that comes a little later...  

Just as John and Luca were recovering from their harrowing journey they also had to deal with a cold rain that had started to fall and it seemed like the whole thing might be aborted. I was secretly hoping it might be so I could walkie talkie back to base "Murdock...Murdock...I'm coming to get you" ( Apparently it is pretty difficult to film in rain and the descent to Italy is very steep and dangerous in the wet. We pressed on though and soon the rain stopped and we even had a little sunshine at times.   

We filmed lots, I rode little bits of the way but most had to walk and carry my bike and we steadily made our way up the narrowing valley to the pass. There is a huge lake and pasture just below the highest point and its thought that it was here that Hanibal camped to wait for stragglers. There wasn't any snow about on the ground but the valley is flanked by huge mountains which had plenty and Gilbert reckons by the end of the month there will be one, perhaps 2 metres of snow on the ground. There also wasn't much of a view to Italy unfortunately - lots of cloud and a few peaks and the descent was certainly very steep. And once the cold and the fog had set in, darkness had fallen and lightening started flashing all around it was a very surreal descent. Very difficult without any light and any moment you felt the zombie movie was about to start. At one point we lost John and with brain power dulling I matter of factly assumed the Predator had decided to pick us off one by one. But he was waiting a little further on - John I mean. Towards the end the stars started to shine through - I'd not seen such good stars since the Australian desert and our driver once again show-cased their driving skills by getting the hire car bogged whilst kindly trying to manouvre it into the best position for us to see its lights. Mercifully our Director Fiona had prepared a life saving pasta which unfortunately Gilbert couldn't eat. Apparently he can't eat for 2 hours after exercise - he did drink about 10 beers in about as many minutes so I was a bit confused about his affliction (mine's worse). But my French is very bad so perhaps I just completely misunderstood what was going on?  

The view of Italy

It had been an epic day for everyone, riding, hiking, pushing and struggling with the bike and camera equipment up and down the rocky valley and we were all very happy for the day to end.

Nightrider (lone crusaders in a dangerous world)

October 13, 2009 17:54 by Sam

We are in Italy having survived the Alps... just. It was physically some of the hardest days I ever have ever known especially crossing the Col de la Travasette with my elephant-like bike (heavily loaded with its four panniers!) - I will defintely tell that story in a blog or two when I have mentally recovered. But for now I will go back to Vaison La Romaine and our journey until we split and rode on alone to our respective possible Hannibal passes.

Ben reading an odd but excellent book at the top of the old city of Vaison la Romaine with the towers of Mont Ventoux in the distance. (Michel Houellebecq's the possibility of an island. Ben is finding an appropriate quote but for now - )

Vaison La Romaine was a fantastic town and we were sad to leave it, however the ride to Chatillion en Diois was one of the most memorable rides I have ever had. It was hard, this was the beginning of the alps proper so there was no avoiding going uphill. It was also spectacular as the mountains grew and grew as we crawled our way over them and each one loomed larger than the last. It was also dark for some of the ride as we began at 5pm with 100km to ride! This was unavoidable, filming always takes priority and we are making sure we do not miss any of Hannibal's trail even if it means riding at odd hours. However once we reached a col at about 10pm and knew that there was 25km of downhill to the campsite, we rolled in the dark with silence, a full moon to guide us and towering, ominous mountains for company. It was a stunning unforgetable hour of riding, which ended at a deserted campsite with our poor photographer Zissi waiting for us wondering what we could possibly be doing cycling out at that time of night.

Darkness falls in the lower Alps

The next day we rode throughthe Gorge de Gats. This is possibly the place where Hannibal was ambushed by the locals whom he surprised by taking their battlements at night - they had gone off to their villages for the night to have a good sleep we seems like a pretty odd thing to do when you have just ambushed the biggest army ever yet to cross the Alps and they are really quite pissed off and waiting for an opportunity to destroy you. But this is the way things happened according to the ancient historians. So Hannibal did destroy them from their own battlements but with heavy losses and they did regroup and attack him as he tried to get the rest of his army up the gorge but Hannibal saved the day riding down and scattering the enemy. We did some fantastic filming here, it is a spectacular gorge with sheer cliffs either side and really is a perfect site for an ambush. Our riding began late with a big climb out of the gorge, taking us further into the Alps and after a desperate search for sustenance, which we eventually found at an extremely odd cafe, which looked more like someones front room and we were served by the French equivalent of the hill billies from Deliverance - however they make very good hot chocolate! We rode on up through Mens to La Mure, more spectacular cycling but we were a bit shocked to hear that we had been riding along a cliff edge for a lot of the time we just couldn't see it! But we did see a car driving straight at us and we all took evasive action thinking he hadn't seen our not very blazing head torches but he was just turning left. After this scare Zissi very kindly escorted us to our next stop. We have been through some stunning towns in France, the vast majority have been beautiful to ride through but La Mure is, unfortunately just like it sounds..

Racing down the Alps - excited that we were briefly going down not up! (Zissi Kausch)

Approaching the Gorge (Zissi Kausch)

Sam getting ready to ambush Hannibal (Zissi Kausch)

Zissi catches us warming up in the Gorge (Zissi Kausch)

Climbing out of the Gorge de Gats (Zissi Kausch)

As we rode on the next day and the Alps got steeper and the riding harder. A motorbike cannonball run equivalent came past us the other way in what looked like an official race on public roads. They came close to taking us out on many occasions, hence for health and safety we had to stop here for a long coffee break!

Sidecars too (Zissi Kausch)

We also knew we were to split company this day which meant we all had a sense of foreboading - this wasn't all emotional, after all it was only a day or two! More we have come to rely heavily on each for drafting - sitting behind each other as we cycle - it saves a lot of energy! The split was made at the base of Col du Galibier - Ben unfortunately for him had to go over this 2645 metre tour de France special, Danny and I much more fortunately rolled south - 30 km downhill all the way to a day off in Briancon!

Ben feeding up to get himself over Col du Galibier (Zissi Kausch)

Ben goes left, Danny and Sam right....(Zissi Kausch)


Thanks again to Zissi for all of the great photos!

Les Rambeaux - Wood Brothers HQ - 220-56 Lone Wolf receive

October 13, 2009 03:23 by Ben

We have found the perfect town for wood Brothers headquarters - its called Les Rambeaux:,+france&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=31.839416,79.013672&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Les+Rambeaux,+38740+Le+P%C3%A9rier,+Is%C3%A8re,+Rh%C3%B4ne-Alpes,+France&t=h&z=16

The only problem was that after riding through the town we were all signing the lyrics to "Its a long road" - a song from the critically accaimed first instalment of the Rambo series: First Blood. I've pasted them here for your kind pleasure:

It's a long road
When you're on your own
And it hurts when
They tear your dreams apart
And every new town
Just seems to bring you down
Trying to find peace of mind
Can break your heart
It's a real war
Right outside your
front door I tell ya
Out where they'll kill ya
You could use a friend

Where the road is
That's the place for me
Where I'm me in my own space
Where I'm free that's the place
I wanna be
'Cause the road is long yeah
Each step is only the beginning
No breaks just heartaches
Oh man is anybody winning
It's a long road
And it's hard as hell
Tell me what do you do
To survive
When they draw first blood
That's just the start of it
Day and night you gotta fight
To keep alive
It's a long road ...

Its a long road...

When you're on your own...

And it hurts when they tear your dreams apart...

The Way to Pain

October 10, 2009 12:56 by Danny

Sam is sleeping next to me, hands still clasped next to the book he was reading, as we relax in a campsite in Briancon on our rest day. We are in the Alps for real now and as I write brother Ben is making his way across the Col du Clapier with our film crew. It will be interesting to see how he goes! Tomorrow it will be my turn to do Mont Genevre and then Sam will follow up with the Col de la Traverstette, the third possible Hannibal path over the Alps that we are testing.  Since we entered the foothills of the Alps a week ago the bike riding has been spectacular. Mountains like giant stone fists that leave little room for sky on all sides of us, many packed so densely with deep green pine trees, that the trees appear like bushy blades of grass. Panoramic views from the seats of our bicycles over scarey cliff edges, telescopic vistas down valleys that look like the massive, interlacing paws of gigantesque bears. It really is a dream landscape - like the covers of those science fiction books portraying the undiscovered worlds of the future gone Alpine.

A strange sun marks our descent from Mont Ventoux

We've been lucky enough to have Zissi Kausch with us for a few days.  Zissi is a professional photographer who gave up her time to join us for nothing except the glory and thanks to her we have some wonderful snaps of us riding in this eye boggling landscape. She was also very entertaining and always good for a smile and conversation! We were sad to see Zissi go!


Photographer Zissi Kausch plans her next shot

But to start this blog where it should start we have to go back a week to the village of Maillane, just across the Rhone and up from Beaucaire, where we interviewed some other brothers, Henri and Rene, who like us share an interest in history. The motive for our visit to Maillane was the discovery a couple of centuries ago of elephant bones under a house. Before the bones disappeared without a trace an investigator concluded that they could have belonged to one of Hannibal's elephants. Henri and Rene sat together outside Henri's beautiful house set in olive groves and told us the elephant story and thought it could be a good idea to dig up the aptly named Giant Street to see if we could find more bones. Unfortunately it's not even clear which house on Giant Street should be the excavation site (the villagers are far more interested in their link to Frederic Mistral, the French writer and nobel prize winner) so we rode on to tackle another giant - Mont Ventoux.


Brothers Henri and Rene at Henri's home near the town of Maillane, Director Fiona front left, Luca holds the boom, John on camera and in the distance Sam chats with Exec Producer Chris

I really learnt the meaning of physical pain riding up Mont Ventoux.  That pain would have been lessened if we had ridden the twenty kilometre long road up a nearly two kilometre high mountain without our panniers, but we decided we'd like to do it differently to most cyclists and so we loaded our bikes up with a total weight including the bike, of about twenty-five to thirty kilos. After half an hour I really didnt think I'd make it - my undies must weigh a lot more than I thought they did! And I had two hours plus to go. This was supposed to be a race but in a classic but warped edition of some sort of mountain macho man myth, it also ended up being a competition between each one of us and this giant hill. We all had big problems with cramp but somehow we managed to get back on and keep going...

The Way to Pain I - Ben reaches the summit of Mont Ventoux

The owner of the campsite here in Briancon has just offered me a beer on the house and it has arrived...I could have done with good will like that as I was slowly peddling up Ventoux and in fact, oddly enough, a motherly looking blond woman who must have been driving up Ventoux to see the incredible aeroplane like views to the valleys below, seemed to appear with her camera snapping the scenery near the barrier at four different stages of my journey into pain.  She always said bonjour as I went past and that did help keep me on my bike.

We all got there, hugged at the summit and as the camera rolled after filming Ben writhing in agony with cramp in both the hamstring and thigh of his shaved leg (he only shaved one leg to test the aerodynamics), for a few minutes I spoke about prunes to the camera and thanked Granny for introducing me to them. (eating them during the last hour really helped me stay on the bike).  I spoke with a slurr like I had had a stroke! It was probably because I had a thicker tongue than usual because of the cold.

The Way to Pain II

The moonscape view from the summit of Mont Ventoux

Anyway! Our next port of call was Vaison la Romaine where Hannibal settled a dispute between two brothers by naturally chosing to side with the older brother against the upstart younger one, who was getting too big for his boots. How things change eh? Vaison is a wonderful place. The old town has been lovingly restored so that it still looks old and it winds around a hill to a castle, through beautiful cobbled alleys with fountains, views off to the moutains, over vineyards far below, and of course there are great places to stop and have a coffee.  We managed to sneak one in between bike shots.

Matching coffee cups for a piece to camera in Vaisone la Romaine as location manager Luca looks on approvingly

BBC History Magazine - Crossing the Rhone

October 9, 2009 15:06 by Sam

Our next instalment for the BBC History Magazine is here:

Have a look if you feel like a more historical read!

3 in a breast GV

October 6, 2009 10:50 by Ben

We are becoming film production experts (although obviously I was already an expert - as you know I am an expert on everything) and become familiar with all the acronyms; PTC (piece to camera), POV (point of view), GV (general vision/golden virgin), MED (movement for the eradication of dwarves), we even did a reverse POV yesterday. But we also get lots of good directions from cameraman John - our favourite is "come past the camera 3 in a breast" - I asked if he wanted a quadruple D but didn't get a response.

Mum and Sam inspecting the guinea fowl - they are popular around here

After our relaxation in Russan we rode down to Arles to meet up with the Production Team for episodes 3 and 4. On the way we crossed paths multiple times with a peloton of elderly German cyclists who seemed to be more lost than we were. And in Arles we bumped into Luca Chiari our fixer/location manager/second cameraman/driver etc etc. A very friendly and thoughtful Italian bloke and then toured the Roman ruins around Arles. There is a very atmospheric theatre we shared with a German school group and an amphitheatre they are in the middle of "fixing". High pressure blasting and resurfacing it so it looks like it was built yesterday which kind of ruins the ruin. There is also a huge cemetery, the Alyscamps which was famous in ancient times and Dante mentions it in the Inferno. It was empty and a safe distance from the touristy parts of town - I lay in a sacrophogas for a dumb zombie photo and had a very vivid dream that night of a bloke who talked to us on the beach at Ampurias getting his legs chopped off. I lay awake for a long time apologising to the person who's grave I desecrated.

The German peloton

The offending photo

Fiona Cushley our director arrived - full of energy and enthusiasm even when paying 7 euros for a beer in a local bar! Sam interviewed a local archaeologist Alain Genot who was great - academic but practical - a rare combination. He explained to us that when Hannibal was nearby Arles was a mixture of local Gallic people and Greek merchants - no Romans yet - but the centre of an extremely fertile and productive part of France - which it still is.

Sam and Alain - John and Fiona crouching in the Roman theatre at Arles

Danny doing a PTC as the German school group prepare to put on a play

Then we were off to cross the Rhone - perhaps the most logistically complex part of our trip so far. We had canoes from a local club and heaps of camera and safety boats in strict accordance with BBC health and safety rules. They were driven expertly by Xavier, Kevin, Pierre and Stephanie from the Beaucaire rowing club - all ex-French rowing champions and definitely future patience champions too as we took ages to cross and get our PTCs and GVs right. The river was very clean, heaps of massive fish and we camped on the bank in a mosquito and dog poo infested park.

Preparing for the crossing

After the crossing

Our Executive Producer Chris Granlund turned up on his way to Cannes which was good fun - nice meals! It was lucky he was around actually as we got directions to the wrong town that evening. We turned up in Graveson very pleased with ourselves arriving just as it got dark and looking forward to a big dinner only to realise we were still half an hour ride away - but even worse it was back the way we had come. So we rode as fast as we could in the dark along a busy road to St Remy de Provence and Sam and I had our first argument since 1994 in a cafe in Glebe (Sydney) called Badde Manners - Danny couldn't believe it!

Chris Granlund testing Sam's bike

Horses near Graveson

Cutson, Big Brother and the end of Episode 2

October 2, 2009 16:53 by Sam

The relaxtion in Russan is coming to an end. Tomorrow we cycle on to confront the alps after 3 great days rest...

After Danny's confessional blog in which he outlined his inexplicable anger I feel it necessary to respond to aid in understanding this as well as how 3 brothers work when living in each others pockets.

We haven't lived all together for more than a week or two at a time for 15 years so to be all together again, doing absolutely everything together is challenging - riding, filming, eating, even campsite showers are often communal! We can even hear each other sleeping/snoring through our tents, for Danny you only need to be within a kilometre or so! We feel we get on extremely well but at times it can at times be surprisingly hard especially when you throw in physical exhastion from cycling and mental strain from being in front of the camera.

Danny is defintely the most emotional of the brothers, hence he was the first to show his emotions in this blog and justifiably sympathy always follows when someone admits their faults. Poor Danny hasn't done any long distance riding like this before and it is draining in all ways. Its good that Danny can admit his anger but that doesn't seem to stop it occuring so what are Ben and I to do?

It was hard to find a photo of this topic - maybe this will do?

Anyway...We had a week till we met the crew again in Arles, 350km away so we felt that the best thing to do was cycle fast, get there and relax. However, day 1 was terrible - a head wind known as the Mistral drove us nearly backwards and French drivers are shocking! You would think being a huge cycling nation they would be good to us on our bikes but they skimmed our panniers all day and we really missed the Spanish who were amazingly curtious to us when we were riding.  This reminds me - As we were packing up our bikes at our campsite in Ampurias, two gardeners stopped their small utility vehicle to tell us that they said they were very proud of us and impressed by us attempting such a long ride for a cultural cause rather than sitting on the sofa and doing nothing! This actually left us feeling quite guilty as we had given their fellow workers the remains of the pig.....

Windfarms - not good places for cycling!

Back to day 1 and we were wondering whether we would get any days off after cycling against the wind and the French all day. As dusk fell and we found ourselves 60km short of our destination we were aided by David of Fuella who guided us out of the windy valley and to a town called Durban Colombiers. The place we stayed at was odd but great - in the shadow of a ruined chateau - the proprietor was an old man who seemed incapable of moving his eyes from his computer screen, he was also suspiciously protective of his internet password and made sure no one could see his monitor. We came to the conclusion that he was either halfway to finding a cure for cancer or had a mammoth collection of porn

The next few days we rode on and enjoyed some of the best cycling we have had - small lanes winding through acres of vineyards, medieval hill top towns like Pezenas, Sommieres, Uzes. Ben's heart rate sat at 160+ most of one day, we are still not sure whether it was the volumes of coffees and coke he was drinking, maybe the religious guy who tried to convert us in Narbonnes got his heart racing (we told him we were Jewish then Muslim but nothing put him off!) or maybe he was genuinely ill. Danny cut his finger on Ben's leatherman, cutty cut cut!!

Vineyards - beautiful riding!

Pezenas - classic medieval town

We finished up here in Russan, a tiny authentic French town where we have recouped fully with wanders to the boulangerie in the mornings and touristy visists to places like the Pont du Gard - along of course with regular sleeps and big meals provided by our parents- Its excellent to be 30+ and still be taken care of!

Wood Family go to Arles

Statistics for Episode 2 - 879km Saguntum to Russan, Total Kms ridden 1440, Crashes 9 (Danny 7 Ben 1, Sam 1 - all minor and mostly when the bikes were not moving)

Tomorrow we ride on to Arles and Episode 3 begins as we cross the Rhone, hopefully on some sort of raft we will construct ourselves!

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About the authors

Danny, Ben and Sam Wood are three brothers who followed in the footsteps of three ancient Carthaginian brothers Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Mago. They cycled from Cartagena, Spain to Zama, Tunisia - the route that Hannibal and his army took over 2200 years ago. Along the way they filmed a documentary to be aired on the BBC in July 2010.


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