A little bit about Pavia, Piacenza and the first clashes of the 2nd Punic War between Carthage and Rome:
Some stats for the end of filming for episodes 3 and 4...670km to where we split at the base of the Col de Galibier. By the time we got across to Italy we had done between 800 and 900km.
Our route from Russan to the Col du Lauterat
Our separate routes over the Alps into Italy. Sam = red, Danny = green and Ben = blue (our shirt colours)
We are in Cortona - a beautiful hilltop town and Michael Knight would have (once again!) been proud of our efforts to get here. A lovely night time ride in an upwards direction along a very straight road but once we got here our dinner in a restaurant in the main square was probably our best yet. At the hotel I had to explain that my brother Ben and I were brothers not lovers, in order to convince the hotelier to give us sheets so we could separate the double bed into its two single components - and it was worth it because we both slept very well. Wood Brother Sam is in a triple room next door with two friends who have joined us to cylce from Florence to Rome: Perry and Will. They were very game today and went like the clappers on their bikes during our 100 km ride from Florence to Arezzo. Now Perry can barely walk and Will who is always up for a late night was very happy to come back to his hotel bed and go to straigt to sleep.
We had a lovely ride through Florence this morning - a circuit of the Duomo and its unusual marble exterior and crossing over a beautiful bridge which showed off great views up and down river towards gorgeous contryside and appealng Italianate villas. But the countryside surrounding they city was probably even more beautiful - right out of a Renaissance painting of picturesque scenery: rolling hills, cypress trees, vineyards.
Are you talkin to me? (photo by Zissi Kausch)
A few months ago I was cycling in a very different place - through the arid landscapes of Almeria in southern Spain. I was there partly to do some long cycle rides around Cabo de Gata national park but mainly to have a holiday with my flatmates Kristina and German. In the the history museum in the city of Almeria you'll find a cleverly arranged exhibit based on excavations of some early bronze age sites, little villages and the like. The most impacting stuff was on life expectancy based on testing the age of the excavated human bones. If they were lucky, the majority of the adults whose remains were found in these tombs lived until they were aged thirty, sometimes forty. I turn forty in a couple of months and after five weeks on the road I can understand why our ancestors four thousand years ago at my age may have been on his or her last legs. Cycling for the last six weeks or so, being out in the elements all day, on the move all the time has had its effect on all of us. Im not about to die, but I have an everlasting tiredness that never seems to leave me. I feel hardier, fitter and stronger, but I know that I dont feel as healthy. That sounds like a contradiction but I think my brothers would agree. We are all in better bike riding shape, but it's like we are burning the wick at both ends.
Crossing the Alps on a bicycle should be more in this vein of Rambo style physical adventure like Sam's impressive Col de la Traversette performance, and Ben's grim determination on Clapier, but in my case at least, it was a bit of a dwardle. Montgenevre is the smallest of our three possible 'Hannibal was here' mountains. It is under two kilometres high and my ride to get there was only 13 kilometres. It was uphill of course, but a pretty easy ride with some lovely views back down the valley towards my staging post of Briancon. As I was riding out of Briancon towards Montgenevre, on the one hand I felt relieved but on the other a bit disappointed that I wasnt doing something a bit more difficult. But it was still fun. I was riding by myself for the first time and there was an extra feeling of freedom in that. And in a way, this part of the journey was a bit of a scientific experiment. We were all applying a number of criteria to each of our mountains to see if they really could be the crossing point for Hannibal's army and elephants. Those criteria are based on what we can read about the crossing in the works of Polybius and Livy (which is not very much!) and include a suitable campsite near or on the summit, a spectacular view of Italy and snow on top of old snow from the previous year (see the BBC History magazine for more details). Today Montgenevre is a ski village so as soon as I was nearing the summit my images of a Carthaginian army struggling along in a harsh natural landscape were erased by perfect ashfelt roads running past cafes and restaurants. There wasnt any snow yet and the view towards Italy wasnt spectacular but before the ski village was constructed there would have been plenty of room for an army to camp. In our humble opinions, Montgenevre is probably third in line to Clapier and Traversette as a crossing contender but in reality it is very difficult if not impossible to determine Hannibal's route based on the literature alone. We will have to start excavating to see where he really went.
Ben's favourite joke is if you say you have something which is big or best or something grand then he will immediatly reply that his is bigger or better or greater! This stems from those annoying people who always have to go one better whenever you tell a story whether it be they have travelled more than you, do whatever it is better than you or maybe even earn more than you. So this blog is based on this, my Col is longer, harder and better than Ben's!
It really seemed like we were trying to be scared off Traversette - an archaeologist the BBC consulted said it was treacherous and too dangerous for us to climb. The guides who took us up to the pass, also said, on the morning we met them (I was later told) that we would never make it.
However...the walk was fantastic and totally safe but carrying my bike was one of dumbest things I have ever done. Taking what is basically a useless lump of metal in the conditions, which weighs around 30kgs (heavier than Ben's) to a pass which is close to 3000 metres high (Ben's was only 2550) and has no roads is not smart, but my reasoning for it was worse. My argument was that my bike was my metaphorical elephant.
One of the few spots when I tried to ride my bike!
Hannibal took 37 of them over the Alps (more than Ben) which may or may not include Traversette - until someone finds some archaeological evidence which links him to a specific pass we will never know which one he crossed to enter Italy. Hence our split at this stage so we could at least examine three passes. This lack of knowledge really maintains the mystery which makes this story so interesting. It also meant that no matter how silly I felt with my bike in the snow and rocks up the mountain, I knew that very possibly Hannibal had been there before with his savanah born elephants and he must have felt just as ridiculous!
John getting me to do it all one more time!
I did seriously regret the decision to take my bike when I realised I would not be pushing my bike, let alone riding my bike at all that day. I would have to carry it! Ben's was easier, he rode or pushed his the whole way. Mine was much much harder - it worked in rounds - I would carry my bike 20 metres then gulp for air, I did this repeatedly until we reached the top - usually I don't look forward to the filming bits particularly - I like to be off with my bike, but this time, because I was so tired (more than Ben), my bike came closs to being dumped or thrown off many cliffs and I was always hoping our director would call a halt for a shot or ptc, or John the cameraman would spot a good GV - usually he is unstoppable to the point of frustration at finding these when you want to get on with things but this time all of the ones he spotted to film generally involved me going back down the hill a bit to carry my bike up a second time - I am still not sure if he was doing this purposely!
Starting to feel the pain...
Luckily the conditions were perfect. Ben said that up Clapier there was lots of fog and it wasn't very nice - but climbing Traversette went brilliantly and it was an amazing trip, much more amazing than Clapier. John describes the day as one of his best working days ever, better than when he went to Clapier, and I would agree entirely although my work experience as a presenter totals 4 weeks (this trip)! It was defintely spectacular - we climbed to 2950 metres through steep rocky terrain over snow and ice to a pass from which you can see far into Italy. Mont Viso the mountain the Roman's thought was the highest in the Alps towered over us from the end of the valley. We got to the top without any trouble, I was almost collapsing but I didn't admit that to anyone! The guides also told us that 2 weeks before there was a metre of snow in the valley, this was all melted for us besides at top - If it had still been there I would have had an excuse to give up! We were very lucky all round, we could see that on a bad day Traversette could defintely cause problems, but on our day it was perfect - if I had not been carrying my bike I may have even enjoyed it (more than Ben enjoyed Clapier)
Thanks to Nicola and Gerard our guides they were both brilliant (better guides than Ben's) and to Gerard again for all of the great photos here.
Reaching the top with Nicola
The view from the top
Our latest instalment is here:
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 we drove up the Cenis pass told us about the houses that lined the route. 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 behind as the motor home following us looked to be manourvering slightly erratically. It was a dangerous trip, 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.
We 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. After a coffee from the local 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" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwlQ0qJxaGo). 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 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 but it was about to get even more epic. We dropped Gilbert back in Lanslebourg at around 10pm but we needed to get back to where Sam and Danny where staying in Briancon. This meant taking a tunnel that goes through the mountain we had just walked over. When we arrived half of it was closed for roadworks so traffic could only go in one direction - we waited an hour for our turn to use it. Then the toll road in Italy was closed and they had incomprehensible signs to Montgenevre - incomprehesible to Luca even and he is Italian. Anyway a 1.5 hour journey turned into nearly 5 and Luca drove the lot - an amazing feat of endurance after the mammoth hike. After nearly running over a huge reindeer Luca tried to get me with the fall asleep trick - a very good trick if you are driving with nervous passengers. First say how tired you are, perhaps say it twice - just make sure you keep saying it until it registers - often your passenger will offer to drive - this is good - refuse obviously. Then leave it for about 10 minutes, perhaps fiddle with your collar, blink your eyes hard, stretch your face a little - anything that makes it seem you are struggling to stay awake. Then Luca added an excellent twist here - he moved over in his seat so I couldn't see his eyes in the rear vision mirror - a commendable variation for increased panic causing effect. Then when your passengers are keenly noting how alert you are nod your head and quickly snap it up as if you have fallen asleep. The reactions are guaranteed to be excellent. I wasn't taken in this time as I noticed a little smile as Luca moved over in his seat but for that little slip it was a 10 out of 10 performance.
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 - http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/32878.Michel_Houellebecq )
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 most 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 presume....it 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 in the dark 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!
We have found the perfect town for wood Brothers headquarters - its called Les Rambeaux:
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
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...
Sam is sleeping next to me, hands still clasped next to the book he was reading, as we relax in a hotel 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 Hotel Paris 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
Our next instalment for the BBC History Magazine is here:
Have a look if you feel like a more historical read!