Roads Forgotten: Gravel and European History

Editor: In the noise and the static of the day-to-day, having the necessary space to simply think, to simply ask and to simply seek requires special roads and a special quiet. For many of us, that space is atop a bicycle where we can finally just... ponder.  

In the words that follow, a simple question led Max Leonard and his friends (and fellow wanderers) on a mission simply to seek. To seek hidden gravel roads cut through the Alps leading to military bunkers of a tougher time. Must we justify our questions and curiosities? Absolutely not! It is simply because we want to ask "why?" It is only human.

Without further ado, Max Leonard's words, photography from Camille McMillan and Antton Miettinen.

It's peaceful now. The gravel roads from a sinister past. Credit: Antton Miettinen.  

It's peaceful now. The gravel roads from a sinister past. Credit: Antton Miettinen.  

Remember I said last time that Europe did not have the same kind of dirt or gravel roads as the US? Well. I’ve been seeing in this gentle autumn by exploring forestry tracks and abandoned mining roads on my Stinner, and I may have revised my opinion. They are not so numerous here, as most of Western Europe doesn’t have the same large spaces and low population density, but they’re there if you seek them.

And what do we do on our bicycles other than seek?

Riding is where you keep your eyes open, look further, question why. In the mountains especially. If you don’t, you might just as well be giving yourself shit on a spin bike in the gym. And when it gets to something weird like that I struggle with the ‘why’.

Wondering Why and The Freedom to Find. Credit Camille McMillan

Wondering Why and The Freedom to Find. Credit Camille McMillan

We probably all ask ourselves that question, more or less constantly, but rarely find an answer. Or maybe the answer is not as important as the asking. My most recent ‘why’ was a long and profitable one. At least I thought so. Forgive me for being the White Rabbit leading you down the rabbit hole, but it grew over the course of several years exploring the roads of the Southern Alps and seeing squat blocks of crumbling concrete sitting above the passes. Military bunkers. Why were they here? What was worth defending in this, one of the most remote and beautiful places in Europe? 

The answers eventually became Bunker Research a book I made with cycling photographer Camille McMillan. We described it as the hidden history of modernism in the mountains, except now I’ve decided that’s not quite right. Because the Second World War, for which thousands of tons of concrete was poured in anger all across Western Europe, was where the modernism of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and others became brutalism. 

Cold Modernity? Bunker Research. Photo: Camille McMillan

Cold Modernity? Bunker Research. Photo: Camille McMillan

We explored by bicycle first, over many separate trips riding further and higher until one Easter we found ourselves on unpaved tracks, carrying bicycles over snowdrifts towards forts guarding a border that no longer was. We ranged wider even as our targets became more focused, narrowed down to precise GPS coordinates, and with every cycle and drive and hike, every scramble through bushes or up snowless black runs during the worst ski season this millennium, the secret history of this deserted back country became a little clearer.

Hidden and crumbling but the reason for roads to beautiful places. Photo: Camille McMillan

Hidden and crumbling but the reason for roads to beautiful places. Photo: Camille McMillan

These bunkers were an extension of the Maginot Line, albeit a forgotten one, to defend the border with Italy, against the threat emanating from the rise of Mussolini’s Fascism. They were sited according to strategic objectives that first were difficult to grasp. But once you did, you could guess that if there was one block on this side of the road, there would also be one on the other, with its dull steel cloche turned towards Italy. They were protecting the passes and covering the valleys, making sure that the Italian soldiers did not overrun the border and march down the hill to take Nice, Marseille, France. Bunker research was a revelation: we realised that Southern Alps were not just a cyclists playground of paved cols, mule tracks and forestry roads, but a military conundrum full of strongholds and weak points, surprises and redoubts. There were even abandoned Italian bunkers that, thanks to a change in the border, were now marooned in France. 

And what do we do on our bicycles other than seek? Credit: Antton Miettinen 

And what do we do on our bicycles other than seek? Credit: Antton Miettinen 

And many of roads we took, we eventually understood, were created by the army. Routes Stratégiques, the French call them. The most important were asphalted, but there remained a multitude of military supply routes – some from before the Second World War, to the time of Napoleon III or even hundreds of years before – that were now gravel tracks or hiking trails. 

These Alps are peaceful now, and the concrete sentinels are slowly crumbling into dust. But riding the Alps like this is riding back in time. Because once you intuit the sheer number of installations there are crowding the hills, you realise that these roads are no longer innocent, and you are under surveillance. There are dead eyes looking down on you, tracking your progress, ready to fire down. It is as if you have been drawn into the conspiracy. 

Eventually it was learned one could always go around, over, or through a militarized line. At least, now, we have gravel roads to beautiful places, and that's what matters most. Photo: Camille McMillan

Eventually it was learned one could always go around, over, or through a militarized line. At least, now, we have gravel roads to beautiful places, and that's what matters most. Photo: Camille McMillan