"A GUEST ON GALLIPOLI" - Ned Boulting
Bike races, by definition, visit remarkable places. Even the unremarkable ones. A few years ago, when I’d just started commentating, I took up the offer of a job at the Tour of Taihu Lake; one of the world’s least exciting sporting spectacles played out in one of the flattest and ugliest parts of the world I have ever visited. But even in its sheer unremarkableness, I found it totally fascinating.
For example, I learned that there were whole metropolises on this planet that I had never heard of. Take Wuxi, for example. Six million people call it home. China seems intent on dotting the landscape west of Shanghai with as many Wuxis as it can mix the concrete for. First, before the housing, the airport and the narrowly demarcated, if vast, industrial zone, they build a massive, opulent five star hotel. This, they reckon, brings in the world’s investors. Then they build an equally massive city hall, whose subterranean bunkers are rumoured to be staffed by hundreds of young university graduates, employed on shady online hacking exercises. Who knows. China remains a mystery to me.
Yesterday, the Tour of Turkey visited the Gallipoli peninsular. It was curious, really. The official road book made little play of where, exactly, the race was going to finish, and which extraordinary landscape it would pass through, which rich and bloody history it would touch. The official race guide simple called the finish Eceabat, which is the name of the distinctly modest little ferry port on the European side of the Dardenelles strait. They didn’t mention the war.
Dardanelles! What a word. It leapt out at me, jumping off the pages of dusty school text books into reality. As we drew closer to the last three kilometres, which climbed up to a heavily wooded hillside, it slowly dawned on me that we were passing along the famous front line of the 1915 allied campaign to seize this peninsular from their enemy, gain control of the entry to the Sea of Marmara and then march to Istanbul, the heart of the Ottoman Empire.
Instead, they met with organized, well equipped and highly motivated Turkish resistance, marshaled by none other than Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose control of the 57th Infantry Regiment is remembered in a breathtaking monument, handily placed next to the finish line and my commentary booth. I view Atatürk’s legacy with a Westerner’s scepticism that perhaps the majority of Turkish people do not share. For most in this vast and unique land, he is a secular deity.
As Sam Bennett climbed to victory number two, he passed by half a dozen such memorials, to both sides of the fighting. So many in fact, that the race coverage was frequently interrupted by another deservedly lingering helicopter shot of another stone cross, or martial statue. It made commentating with the proper respect paid to the past and the unfolding present quite a challenge.
The allied graveyards are mirror images of those which pepper Flanders fields, yet overlooking the antique blue Aegean, instead of the furrowed brown landscape of their northern brethren. The fallen Turkish fighters are remembered in more epic rendering, often with little translation to benefit overseas visitors (like myself) too uneducated to understand the local tongue. They did, after all, win. But the eight month combat cost over 130,000 lives.
Now here’s the thing. The narrative we receive in the Anglophone world makes particular mention of the traumatic national hurt and sacrifice of the New Zealand and Australian people. In a week’s time, thousands will gather here to watch the sun rise over the Dardanelles on April 25th, the anniversary of the date when the first ANZAC troops landed and entered hell. It will herald a welcome influx of guests seeking hotel rooms and meals in this hard-pressed neck of the woods. For those visitors, it will be profoundly moving.
But, in much the same way that, during the 2014 Tour de France, I became aware that Verdun was, for the French, just as powerful a national wound as the Somme is for the British, so I now understand Gallipoli in a somewhat wider context. Ottoman victory cost 86,000 lives. Total ANZAC losses were 11,488. Furthermore, more than 21,000 British and Irish soldiers fell as well as 1,358 Indians. I didn’t know this about the fighting, and the cost it exerted in ghastly, raw numbers. I have rebalanced my understanding to this extent.
This morning, crossing by ferry to the Asian side of the straits, I spoke to a French colleague, whose job it is to install the finish line technology, about his impression of the previous day. I asked him if he knew that official estimates suggest 10,000 French soldiers had been killed trying to snatch this thin, beautiful strip of land. He, like me, had not previously been aware of this side of the story, and he was visibly quite rocked by the realization.
All this is, once again (and I’m sorry if I am repeating myself), by way of saying that bike races are about so much more than bike races.
It was odd to sit there in the sunshine, 104 years later, watching sponsor’s flags waving in the wind, and observe a small platoon of young Turkish men struggle to put out barriers on the steeper sections of the climb. It was rather tawdry, perhaps to surround Attatürk’s Regimental memorial with hundreds of metres of TV cables.
But all in all, it was a hell of a lot better to hold a bike race in Gallipoli than to use this blessed, cursed plot of land to blast each other to pieces.
On we go.