On Hannibal's Trail Episode 4

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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 - it's called Les Rambeaux:

The only problem was that after riding through the town we were all signing the lyrics to "It's a long road" - a song from the critically accaimed first installment 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...

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 Traversette 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 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 with lights on. 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 through the 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 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)

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!

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

Thanks again to Zissi for all of the great photos!


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.

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" (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 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.


BBC History Magazine - Over the Alps
October 16, 2009 12:33 by Sam

Our latest instalment is here:


The Longer March to Traversette
October 20, 2009 13:36 by Sam

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.

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!

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!

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


Life Expectancy and Crossing Montgenevre
October 22, 2009 14:31 by Danny

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. Two friends who have joined us to cylce from Florence to Rome: Perry and Will were very game today and went like the clappers on their bikes during our 100 km ride from Florence to Cortona.  Now Perry can barely walk and Will who is always up for a late night was very happy to come home 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.

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.


End of Episodes 4
October 23, 2009 12:28 by Ben

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)

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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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