The Last Watchmen

Max Leonard, author of the much-praised ‘Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France’, and Camille McMillan, renowned cycling photographer, have recently published Bunker Research, a ‘story of the hidden history of modernism in the mountains’. Below, Max tells us how the project came about:

Cycling up a mountain is a slow business, and one of the great pleasures of all that exertion is in engaging with the world – paying attention to what Mother Nature and humankind have placed around you. If you don’t, you may as well be on an exercise bike in a gym.

It was over the course of many rides in the southern Alps that I began to notice the bunkers. Of course, bunkers elsewhere had caught people’s eye before: JG Ballard wrote of the concrete fortifications on France’s beaches (made by the Germans, also during the Second World War) that they “had survived the war and seemed to be waiting for the next one, left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death”. However, these seemed undiscovered… these bunkers in the mountains seemed, if anything, more like UFOs: strange, alien constructions dropped from the sky into some of the most beautiful mountains in Europe.

And I couldn’t help wondering ‘Why?’, and wanting to see more.

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 ride, 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 backcountry became a little clearer.

Mountains are a natural barrier between nations, but they also have always been a contested space: the border between Italy and France has been subject to repeated incursions and attacks from the dawn of recorded history – Hannibal and his elephants – onwards. This particular stretch of the frontier came into being only in 1860, and its peaks and ridges are the vantage point for 19th-century forts that once kept vigil against the Italians. Later, when Mussolini began to threaten French territories, the French government responded by building the bunkers.

The Alpes Maritimes – the southernmost reaches of the Alps, which almost dip their toes in the Mediterranean on the Côte d’Azur – are less populated and even more isolated than the more famous ranges in the north. It’s strange to think that these remote, inaccessible spaces were once of key strategic significance. The roads and trails – many of which are military in origin – are now patrolled only by hikers and cyclists, marmots and the odd chamois.

A mountain road winds like a ribbon, wrapping itself across the contours as it climbs. It unfolds like an adventure as it takes you up to new vistas, new places in yourself, even back in time. But it is, above all, linear. Bunker Research taught me to read the mountains differently, to approach the landscape more laterally. The terrain became a game of axes and channels, weak points and redoubts, penetrations and surprises.

The history of the Second World War in these parts was complicated, but most of these bunkers never saw action. Now, they stand silently, ever-watchful sentinels at the corners of your vision, as they crumble slowly and disappear into the landscape. Unlike the mountains, which speak of an eternity, they speak of a moment – the instant of a terrible and decisive impact – a moment, moreover, that never arrived. They may seem less and less out of place, but they will forever be out of time, and they taught me to appreciate the mountains in a new way: in a sport that prizes speed above all else, Bunker Research helped me to slow down and start looking at what was around me.

‘Bunker Research’ is available to purchase here.