The road up Monte Cassino is a twisting, calf-cramping series of switchbacks, but it is only eight kilometres long. After a screaming 25K downhill from our lunch spot by Lago Selva, this is our final reward. It is the last climb of our trip at the end of a week of cycling down the Adriatic Coast of Italy with Wounded Warriors Canada. We are finding the path of Canadian soldiers who fought in the Italian Campaign during the Second World War. Often dubbed the “D-Day Dodgers,” these Canadians fought a hard campaign to push the German armies back out of Italy.
The ethos of Wounded Warriors Canada is to Honour the Fallen, Help the Living. Our ride is in support of the many programs Wounded Warriors sponsors to help veterans and first responders and their families who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. About 70 riders have gathered for the third year of the Canadian Battlefield Bike Rides. About half of the riders are military veterans, many of whom are dealing with PTSD.
Our ride begins at Ravenna, where we have a fairly short day of about 30K to kick things off and tune up the bikes. At the Ravenna War Cemetery, we have our first opportunity to honour the fallen with a brief service. These cemeteries are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and are all immaculately kept. Our group of Calgary riders finds and gathers at the grave of Capt. D.G. Fraser of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, on behalf of his family back home. The family had been able to find and visit the graves of three of the four fallen relatives, but not this one, until now.
Our first two days of riding are mostly flat, along country roads and pathways through irrigated fields of grapes, corn, parsley, jasmine and so many other crops and flowers I don’t recognize. The smells are marvelous and the birds seem to never stop singing. On the afternoon of Day 2, we pay tribute to “Smoky” Smith, one of three Canadians decorated with the Victoria Cross in Italy. It’s Sunday and the Italian cyclists are out in full force; peletons go zipping past our strung-out group. We cross the Rubicon River as Julius Caesar did on his way to Rome in 49 B.C.
And then come the hills. Days 3 and 4 are our longest, 90 and 122K respectively and the hilliest. From Rimini we climb inland, then back to the coast into Monte San Bartolo Regional Park, climbing again to some of the most spectacular views over the Adriatic Sea.
Signs, signs, always looking for the signs. Our route is signed ahead of us each day then the signs are picked up by our sweeper. I give full credit to our guides from Magic Places Tours who have scoped out the route and figured out the best way to get us from town to town each day. Some of the routes are very imaginative. For the most part we can avoid the major highways, but every once in a while, we have to be on very busy roads. Shoulders are almost non-existent. Italian drivers understand cycling, but they also don’t tolerate foolish riding. We stay right and, for the most part, ride single file. But there are also long stretches of beachside bike paths where the biggest hazard is pedestrians, not cars.
On our way further south, the Apennine Mountains are on our right and forests of beach umbrellas on our left along the coast. The beaches are fairly empty, even in mid-June. I can’t imagine what they are like when all the umbrellas are booked in July and August.
Ortona, dubbed the Little Stalingrad of Italy, is where Canadian troops fought house to house and 1,375 Canadians and 1,300 citizens of Ortona lost their lives. At the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery, the grave of a 16-year old soldier speaks volumes.
On Day 7 at the Cassino War Cemetery, before climbing Monte Cassino, we have our last wreath-laying ceremony. A family from Brampton, Ont., happens to be there to find the grave of an uncle as we arrive. We include them in our ceremony to honour the many fallen from Canada and other nations who made up the Allied Forces. Our bugler plays the Last Post for the final time on this ride.
Battlefield Bike Rides
Since 2014, Wounded Warriors Canada has spearheaded memorial cycling trips through European battlefields to honour Canadian veterans.
- 2017: Vimy 100, Birth of a Nation (600K)
Canterbury, England to Vimy Ridge, France – June 9.
- 2016: The Italian Campaign (550K)
Ravenna to Monte Cassino, Italy.
- 2015: Liberation of the Netherlands (600k)
Vimy Ridge, France to Groesbeek Cemetery, Nijmegen.
- 2014: 70th Anniversary of D-Day (700K)
Juno Beach to Vimy Ridge, France.