A Racing Certainty

June 4, 2012


Based on the belief by the British strategic planners that Belgium would rapidly be overrun by the Warsaw Pact in any future conflict the Vehicle Depot in Belgium consisted of a series of individual camps and sub depots spread over a wide area, in the region surrounding Antwerp. Each site, sparsely signposted, concealed in woods and copses, was difficult to locate. This was true for both newly arrived troops, usually sober, and for soldiers returning from local hostelries, invariably drunk.

“A” Camp, Olen, where the majority of the depot’s military personnel were billeted, was adjacent to, but hidden from, the main road from Herentals to Aarschot. Public transport was negligible and taxis were few. When they were available, the price was exorbitant. Facilities for extra mural activities, such as sports or hobbies were non-existent and cinemas, such as the Olen Fleapit, held no attraction for the single soldier. The troops spent many hours pursuing the age-old pastime of drinking, interspersed with fights with the locals or plundering local orchards and gardens.

There were many cafes and bars in the area, some of which
were only a few yards apart. However, the British soldier, who in the annals of his military history, has demonstrated a much vaunted prowess of marching from one hellhole to another, has a strong aversion to voluntary walking, especially after the consumption of alcohol. This is
evidenced throughout those areas of Europe, where Tommy has served, by the high incidence of bicycle theft. Technically the offence should not be construed as theft since each perpetrator had no intention of keeping the cycle but used it only to reach his billet where it would be abandoned just short of the main gate. This continued until visits by the Gendarmes had become so frequent that Commanding Officers intervened prompting the ‘rustlers’ to dispose of the push-bikes in canals, woods and ditches.

Belgians relied heavily on bicycles for transportation and until the arrival of British troops had no need for security or locking devices. Hence, the tandem bought at a local market, by Lofty and Gubby, was all the more noteworthy, since these two had been the leading “borrowers” in the region.

Soon the tandem became more than a means of transport for the duo. As a vehicle, in a country where the bicycle was king, a tandem was a remarkably rare sight. The Belgians, who at that time, dominated the sport of cycle racing with riders like Rik van Looy, four times world champion, believed no other nationalities could successfully manage a bicycle. This arrogance was the basis of Lofty’s confidence trick which was to work exceedingly well during the long hot months of that summer.

Lofty, a six foot three broad-shouldered Northerner, and Gubby, a ruddy faced good-natured ploughman from Gloucestershire, who deceptively appeared slow-witted, would arrive, expending great effort, on the tandem at a cafe in full view of the local tipplers. Gubby caused the impression of exertion, in the second saddle, by surreptitiously applying and maintaining pressure on the brakes. The tandem would invariably be the subject of discussion, and before long the two squaddies would claim that they could cover a certain distance in a specified time. This would cause amusement and such cynical responses from the Belgian side that wagers were the logical progression. The lap would be defined, the time established, a timekeeper appointed and everyone would gather outside as the duo mounted the tandem and set off.

Since both men were, despite their frequent carousing, physically in good shape, the stretch would be covered well within the stipulated time.

Like all good things, this scheme ended.

Lofty regularly had to steer the tandem home with an inebriated and dysfunctional Gubby aboard but declared one evening that Gubby had to remain sober to ‘drive.’ Gubby agreed but reneged on his promise. In the course of the evening he became totally drunk. He took his place, however, as tandem driver and they set off for home. Before long Gubby succumbed to the alcohol and fell asleep at the handlebars. The tandem left the road, remained upright down a very steep bank, and disappeared into the Albert Canal, just as the two racers fell off.

Unfortunately, patrolling gendarmes saw them and promptly took them into custody for disposing of stolen property. The tandem was never recovered.

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