For the second year in a row, retired Canadian veteran John Lowe is headed to the battlefields of France to cycle hundreds of kilometers on a trip that sounds as physically punishing as it will be therapeutic.
And if the thought of riding his bike over cobblestones, around hairpin turns, and up huge hills wasn’t enough to keep him home, then the spectre of puncturing a bike tire twice in half an hour – thanks to shards of flint that lie in wait on those bucolic country roadways – wasn’t about to faze him.
Of course, the allure of fresh-baked croissants in the morning and sharing a cold beer at the end of a long day’s ride with other like-minded participants might have also played a role.
The group will be cycling approximately 100 km/day for eight days – a 700 km journey through the battlefields and cemeteries of the First and Second World Wars as part of the inaugural Wounded Warriors Canada Battlefield Ride.
The tour will take in the sights at Juno Beach this Friday, June 6 – the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, and wind up at Vimy Ridge, site of the towering Canadian First World War memorial.
Lowe and a half-dozen other veterans are leading 158 cyclists – civilians who will represent and honour each Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Lowe, 28, grew up in Cloverdale and now lives in Abbotsford. Last year, he rode from Paris to London, a 563-km journey with other combat veterans on the Battlefield Bike Ride, a U.K. initiative.
He was sponsored by Wounded Warriors Canada, an organization that helps Canadian forces members and reservists who have been injured or wounded, with a focus on mental health.
As the only rider from B.C., Lowe and five Canadian comrades joined 300 British, American and European combat veterans on a ride across France and England.
He’d initially been apprehensive; as he trained for the ride, he didn’t know how he’d fit in with the other veterans.
“You think that your experience is quite unique,” said Lowe, who served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry’s First Battalion in Afghanistan as part of reconstruction team Task Force 309 in 2009/2010.
“But the biggest thing is learning that all of our experiences are very similar.”
On the 2013 ride, he met other veterans who had served in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and even Bosnia and Kosovo.
Meeting and talking with other veterans made him realize they shared much in common, even though some spent their deployment in headquarters and not necessarily as an infantry soldier on the front lines, like he did.
“My experience [with post traumatic stress] is from being there and seeing it happen to people,” he told The Reporter earlier this week. “But for them, it was the helplessness they felt.”
Riding through the battlefields and First and Second World War cemeteries was cathartic.
“At the beginning of the trip, the leaders said, ‘You’re going to laugh. You’re going to cry, and all these emotions are going to happen. It turned out to be really kind of liberating to be in all these places along the way.”
He and the other riders were grounded in the knowledge that they were traveling through battlefields where many of their grandfathers had fought.
Lowe couldn’t help but wonder if one day future generations will ride through Afghanistan in the same way.
“Probably not,” he said.
Lowe has now reached the point where he’s comfortable sharing his stories and helping others to learn, and to heal.
He credits the support of Wounded Warriors Canada.
This time around, the riders will conclude their bike journey at the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, where there will be a ceremony; 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.
Last year, Lowe laid a wreath on the memorial before the start of the ride.
“That’s a part of Canadian soil right there,” he said. “It makes me proud.”
No matter what the critics will say in 15 years about Canada’s role in Afghanistan, Lowe will know he’s a part of the lineage of soldiers who have served their country.
“This trip is about realizing you’re not by yourself,” he said.
“Spending time in those places you realize, wow, that experience is shared and has been shared for decades. It makes me proud to be part of that story.”
Participants in the Wounded Warriors Canada Battlefield Ride 2014 are raising awareness and funds in support of Canada’s ill and injured armed forces members and their families.
– To lend support or follow the team, visit www.bbr14.ca.