Plague Diaries – Week#11

Plague Diaries – Week#11

I Am The One and Only

So, in their infinite wisdom, the British Government is intent on relaxing lock-down rules, perhaps not based on any grand plan, but simply trying to create the illusion that things are moving forward.

Personally, I’m not convinced it’s the right thing to do, or that we’re embarking on a safe and measured approach. Quite simply, I don’t trust them.

Leaving aside (if you can, and I’ll understand perfectly if you cannot) their appalling double-standards and hypocrisy, succinctly embodied in one particularly arrogant, rule-violating SpAd – after all, double-standards and hypocrisy seem to be the lingua franca of all governments, regardless of political persuasion. Instead, let’s look at the simple, irrefutable and objective facts. The statistics clearly show that under this governments watch, the UK has suffered the second-highest rate of deaths from the coronavirus in the world.

In. The. World.

UK suffers second-highest death rate from coronavirus | Financial Times

So while BoJo witters on about British exceptionalism and promulgates the illusion we’re a world-beating country, lets just recall that the thing we actually seem best at is killing our own citizens. With such a fumbled response so far, too many excuses and a host of broken promises, how confident are you that they’ve got it right this time?

Anyway, from Monday, the relaxed rules mean that, amongst other things, people in England will be allowed to meet in groups of up to six, outside, while maintaining a two-metre distance.

Entirely the best thing to come out of this announcement was the outpouring of social media sympathy for S-Club 7, although one commentator cruelly declared that they were probably better off dropping the dopey looking bloke at the back anyway.

Amongst our club socialmediaites, it meant quickly fomenting plans to meet up and run out in groups of six, perhaps starting as early as Wednesday evening.

Personally, I’ll be following British Cycling advice which has all club and group activity suspended until the 4th July, subject to fortnightly review and two weeks’ notice of any change. So, in other words, no group riding yet.

While references to a disappointed S-Club 7 made me chuckle, the biggest laugh of the week had to be the news that someone had developed a mod to sync your home-trainer, Zwift-style, with the Grand Theft Auto video game. Now you can ride around a gorgeously rendered L.A. game-world, while porting a high-powered, personal arsenal in your jersey pockets so you can, should you wish, indulge in the odd pedal-by ass-capping (P-Bac.)

Who hasn’t dreamed of using Molotov’s to thin out the traffic?

With the promise of glorious sunshine throughout the weekend, for my strictly solo, non-virtual ride, I decided to indulge in a little grand theft larceny myself, pinching bits of bike-touring company, Saddle Skedaddle’s “Giro di Castelnuovo.” route. They billed this as “a challenging guided road ride taking in some of the finest climbs in County Durham, including the infamous Passo di Crawleyside” – and promised around 130 kms (80miles) including 1,500 to 2,000 metres of climbing.

I would be modifying the route somewhat, mainly as I didn’t fancy riding into Newcastle to their start point, the Cycle Hub on the north side of the Tyne, just to ride straight back out again. I also planned a different route out of the Tyne valley to get onto the Whittonstall road, while adding an extra descent, so I could climb Burnmill Bank from the bottom, instead of joining it halfway up.

The bit of the route I wasn’t familiar with led from Blanchland to Stanhope, so, on my phone, I noted the 6 hamlets I’d need to pass through en route to Crawleyside and trusted the road signs would be good enough to see me through.

As promised, Saturday was a clear, cloudless day and already starting to warm up as I set off. I tucked a pair of arm warmers into a back pocket, just in case. I shouldn’t have bothered.

Down the hill, I pushed west through Blaydon, Ryton and Bywell to Crawcrook, where I swung north to cross the river at Wylam. Here I was caught once again behind the level crossing as the (tortuously) slow train to Newcastle rumbled past. I must have been on the road later than last time, or the train was actually running early, as I joined at the back of a small queue of cars and didn’t have to wait too long for the barriers to jerkily raise themselves and clear the way.

I pushed along the north bank of the river, pausing at Ovingham to admire the sudden appearance of a half-dozen or so scarecrows just outside the care home. Apparently, what I saw was only a small portion of the 58 fantastic scarecrows built for the village scarecrow competition. By far my favourite was a Trump figure, complete with MAGA cap and intent on wassailing, with a bottle of bleach to liberally imbibe from.

Back over the river at Stocksfield, I took the Broomley climb up through Shilford Woods. From there it was on to Whittonstall, perhaps the most hateful climb of the day – 2.5km up a slope that appears to get consistently steeper the closer you get to the top. It doesn’t help that, like the Ryals, it’s a straight road and you can see what’s coming from miles away as you approach.

By the time I dragged myself over the top I had all the evidence I needed that I’d left my climbing legs at home today and I began to wonder just how sensible my plan was.

I dropped down the other side into the Derwent valley, pausing just above Shotley Bridge for belated breakfast and quick rest to see if I could recover any.

Then it was back to the climbing, up through Snod’s Edge, noticing that traffic was much busier than I’d seen for a long time and being abused by a car passenger for … well for just being on a bike, I think. “Get off the road” was (I believe) the generally incoherent, but obviously wholly reasonable admonition.

Well, there’s something I haven’t really missed in the past few weeks of quieter, seemingly calmer and saner road usage, let’s welcome back all the arse-hat drivers and their super-witty passengers. Sadly, I didn’t have a pocket-full of Molotov’s to share with them.

I descended to skirt the reservoir, now seemingly open for business, with all the road blocks removed and stay away signs taken down. The Muggleswick silver Toyota pick-up is still there though and remains unsold (if you’re interested.)

The bikers were out in force, nosily running the lanes between Edmundbyers and Blanchland, as well as numerous picnicking older couples, oddly pulled just off the side of the road and reclining on camp chairs and rugs, I guess to watch the traffic pass by – maybe they’ve been missing the smell of exhaust fumes?

There were one or two cyclists out as well, but not as many as I would expect on such a glorious day.

Passing through Blanchland, I picked up signs for my first target, Baybridge and then in quick succession, Hunstanworth and Townfield. At this point I should have followed the signs to Rookhope, but a post knowingly pointed it’s stiff finger toward Stanhope, I knew that was my ultimate destination, so I followed it.

All seemed well for a short-time, before the road doubled-back on itself and I realised I was heading toward Blanchland again and guessed I’d then be climbing Meadow’s Edge in the opposite direction to the way I usually do. From there it made the most sense to head directly back through Edmunbuyers, by-passing Stanhope and the testing Passo de Crawleyside. Oh well, I’ve ridden it a few times before anyway. Maybe next time.

My wrong turn came with two notable features. The first was a long sloping field that, somewhat strikingly, seemed to have been overrun by purple wildflowers that the camera on my phone couldn’t do justice.

The second was being escorted out of the area by a large, white-bodied, black-winged bird that flew 20 metres in front of me for about a kilometre, screeching and jabbering back in disgust. Later investigation suggested I’d been dissed by an angry lapwing, who was apparently telling me in avian terms to “get off the road.”

My intuition proved correct and I was soon climbing up Meadow’s Edge, the first part of which seems much harder than the climb up the other side from Edmunbuyers. It’s also noticeably more barren and empty looking when you’re struggling upwards, rather then zipping down the road. Being relatively high up and endlessly exposed, I now had a stiff wind to contend with too and it was, naturally blowing head-on.

At the last junction and the highest point of the ride, I passed another cyclist I’m sure I seen around 2 hours ago approaching Whittonstall, apparently pondering which way to go next. Then I began my long, long descent toward Edmundbuyers, rattled over the cattle-grid and started to pick my way home.

I hadn’t covered the 80-miles promised by Saddle Skedaddle, but by the time I’d clambered up through Burnopfield, I’d topped 1.500 meters mark and found a few viable options for extending one of my favourite rides south of the river.

Love at First Bike

Love at First Bike

A guest blog by Tony Clay

Some people remember and like to reminisce about their first love, the smallest details recalled with pinpoint accuracy, burned and burnished in vivid, Kodachrome memory. Some people constantly hearken back to their school days, sometimes seen as the zenith of their life, the time when they were at their happiest.  For others, their powerful, memorable moments came attending the birth of their children (personally, although indelibly burned on my cerebral cortex, it was an experience I’d rather forget – I’ve never felt more useless and powerless, but that’s just me).

For others though … well, apparently, they can recall their first proper bike in glorious, intimate and scarily forensic detail.

Hmm, I remember my first proper bike. It was blue … or was it red? I know it had two wheels and a saddle and … handlebars? It did, didn’t it?

Luckily then, you don’t have to rely on my ever-fallible memory to fill a blerg post reminiscing about the dim and distant detail and provenance of my first bike, we’ve brought in an outside obsessive to do all that for us.

You may recall leaving this particular obsessive on the road to Hexham, astride a borrowed bike, but startled by the revelation of briefly riding a real racing bike.  This was an experience that lit a fire that burns to this day.

We pick up the story shortly after this transformative event.

SLJ 28.05.2020


So, I had survived my first real bike ride, our 50-mile trip to Hexham in the summer of 1974.

Aye, I was hooked. I hung onto Dick Taylor’s Raleigh Clunker™ for as long as possible, but I only managed to eke out about 3 weeks before he started getting impatient. And he was a very Big Lad!

A search for my own bike began.

The first and most obvious step was to go to our (very) Local “Bike” Shop, Tommy Braunds. Well, I say bike shop, but it just happened to sell bikes alongside toys, model kits, dolls, prams and other assorted odds and ends. We used to pass it most days on the way home from school.

There was a lovely purple and chrome 5-speed Carlton Corsa in the window, £55. But my Dad wasn’t prepared to shell out that much for something that he thought might just turn out to be a short-lived fad. [SLJ: by the magic power invested in me via Google, I can tell you that £55 then is equivalent to £576.99 today. Well, sort of, approximately.]  

Continuing my search, I found a bike that I fancied in our ‘Littlewoods Catalogue’, I can’t remember the make, but it was 10-speed, bright green and was £2 a week for 39 weeks. As my pocket money was only £2.50 a week, and most of that already earmarked for Airfix model kits and the latest singles and LP’s, it was out of my reach.

Continue searching…

Word came that a lad at our school, Dave Curry, had ‘some’ bikes that he might sell for a couple of quid. He lived not far from me, so I wandered down to his one evening and found him in his backyard, completely surrounded by frames, wheels and components. It transpired that he was probably one of the first ‘re-cyclers’ as most of his stuff had been gathered from derelict houses (we lived on the edge of a slum clearance area), skips and, in the case of my eventual frame, the local (heavily polluted) river Team.

I knew it had come out of the river because of the stinky black mud still lurking inside the bottom bracket, seat tube and fork steerer. Still, I had a frame, and it only cost me £1.50. I’m not sure of the make, possibly a Raleigh, Sun or BSA, but it was sound and had half chrome front forks. Class!

Dave dug out some additional parts from his “bike store” (a.k.a. the coal shed) and I was set. Over the next couple of weeks, I cleaned up the frame, gave it a coat of ‘rattle-can’ paint, and polished up the rusty bits. They were all chromed steel, so just needed a few hours with the wire wool and Autosol. Some parts I had to buy new including a rear mech, a Huret Svelto at a whole £2.50, the cheapest you could get, but very simple and reliable.

When complete, my bike had mismatched front and rear brakes, a saggy leather saddle and an alloy stem with steel handlebars. I found out later that this combination of steel and alloy was actually quite dangerous as the alloy stem doesn’t hold the steel bars securely and they can slip, often prompting an unscheduled trip to the dentist. Fortunately, this never happened to me.

Still, it was my bike and rode it as often I could.

Gradually, bit by bit (quite literally) I managed to improve it by finding good second -hand kit, or occasionally a new part, after I’d saved up a bit and I started swapping the old stuff out.

Fiddling about with my bike so much, often breaking it down to ball-bearing level and rebuilding it, had made me quite handy at fixing them and I could make a fair job of truing a wheel. I ended up working on most of my mate’s bikes too.

I’m not quite sure of how it came about but, one day I got a phone call from my Aunty who had gone to school with Mrs. Braund, Tommy’s wife. Tommy, the eponymous owner of my LBS, had died in his shop of a heart attack. His wife had heard I was handy with bikes and she needed a Saturday mechanic, £4 a day and 10% discount on all bike stuff, (although sadly not Airfix Models!) [SLJ: Once again, Google suggests about £41.96 in today’s money].

I had a wage! I could now start thinking about getting some real kit and started saving.

The first significant upgrade was when I bought a pair of ‘sprint wheels’, Mavic rims and Campagnolo Nuovo Tipo hubs, £35 [SLJ: that’s £367.18 today, you bloody spendthrift!]

Even though the ‘tubs’, Hutchinson Aguiras at £2.50 each, were the worst I ever, ever had, like tractor tyres and a nightmare to repair, riding on the light wheels, even with the dodgy tubs, was great.

A really key moment was when I spotted a real bargain in a local second-hand shop. I’m sure he didn’t know what he had, when I bagged a fully chromed Reynolds 531 Condor with a Campagnolo Nuovo Record groupset, Universal Brakes, Cinelli bars and stem with sprints and tubs, all for the princely sum of just £30. To put that into perspective, a brand-new Raleigh Chopper back then was about £65 [SLJ: £681.90! No wonder I could never afford one].

The seat tube on the Condor was 22 ½ inches and way too big for me, but I had a ‘pukka gen’ racing bike and did a fair amount of miles on it.

Denton’s Cycles (227/9 Westgate Road, Newcastle) [SLJ: Once, but sadly no more] was always the place to go for quality kit and we’d spend hours drooling over the unaffordable bikes and all the shiny components on display.

It was there that in February 1976 my Dad bought me a beautiful sky-blue Denton frame for my 16th Birthday, and it was the correct size too – 21 inches. Full Reynolds 531, double butted tubing with Campagnolo forged ends and fitted with a Stronglight headset for £65… SIXTY FIVE QUID just for the frame?! My Dad nearly had a bloody seizure! [SLJ: well, I’m not surprised, he could have bought a new Raleigh Chopper for that!]

1975 Denton

So, I stripped all the kit off the Condor, thoroughly cleaned, polished and lubed it all and transplanted it onto the Denton. It made a really nice bike. A very dear friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, had started racing in the early 50’s when kit was in extremely short supply after the war. He once told me, ‘Nivvor hoy owt away!’ and, over the years I’ve pretty much stuck to that maxim.

Never throwing anything away was brilliant in one way, as I’m now using some of that exact same kit from the Condor/Denton to renovate a 1976 Team Raleigh, meaning I don’t have to pay extortionate ‘Eroica’ inflated eBay prices for second-hand 70’s kit.

But on the flip side, my flat is full of box after box of components and bits and pieces that, realistically, may never get used [SLJ: Ahem … may never get used???] But there is another plus side. Last year a guy posted on a vintage bike Facebook page that he was desperate for a lock nut for a 1970’s Campagnolo Record rear hub to complete a renovation. Of course, I had one. I let him have it for the cost of postage. Where did I have to send it? Victoria, Australia!

I had no idea about structured training and just enjoyed being out on ‘me bike’. Alone or in a small group, sometimes with SLJ, I’d ride to the coast or down to the lovely city of Durham. At Durham we would sit on the banks of the River Wear, not the River Tyne, as “whistling genius” Roger Whittaker would have you believe in ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’.

We’d also go up into the Silver Hills that rose up from the Team Valley in Gateshead and in our young, teen imaginations we were in the Alps and Pyrenees, battling it out ‘mano a mano’ with Merckx and Gimondi up the Iseran and Tourmalet. The rides were usually a good couple of hours long and I gradually got fitter and more skilled at bike handling.

Then one weekend, near what is now ‘Beamish Open Air Museum’, we happened upon an actual bike race. It whizzed past us all bronzed limbs, rainbow coloured peloton and sparkling spokes and looked so exciting.

Now, I could really fancy having a go at that …  


STOP PRESS!

This afternoon I’ve just sorted out a guy with a 1980’s Campagnolo Super Record seat pin clamp bolt, and he’s in Pennsylvania!

Plague Diaries – Week#10

Plague Diaries – Week#10

The Tranquillity of Solitude

*** NOTE: OFFICIALLY, THIS NEVER HAPPENED ***

Ok, now I know that last weeks stiff breeze was just a prelude, a dress rehearsal and a precursor for the main event, today’s sustained high winds. Apparently, according to the Met Office, 50 or 60 mph gusts are “very unusual” for this time of year. That’s good to know. Doesn’t make riding in it any easier though.

I could see the results of two days of tree-shaking blasts as soon as I stepped onto the pavement outside the house. It had given the neighbourhood trees a good thrashing and ripped off leaves to form a tattered, green confetti that had then been driven to shoal against the kerb at the side of the road.

The wind was unrelenting still and as I placed the bike on the road and swung a leg over the frame, I was being peppered with assorted debris, stripped from the trees and hurled down at me. This was going to be a little wild.

I decided I would set out and ride as much as possible into the wind to start with, try and get the worst bits over with and hopefully have a tailwind for the way back. It seemed like a decent plan, I’m just not sure I executed it all that successfully.

I picked my way carefully down the hill, the front wheel twitching a little nervously whenever the buildings and hedges opened up to let the wind scour through. Taking the turn ridiculously wide at the bottom, I turned upriver and into constant driving gusts. This’ll be a nice work out, then.

Crossing the river at Newburn, I started to climb up toward Throckley, stopping briefly to watch the bunting left over from the VE Day celebrations audibly snapping and cracking in the wind.

Past Albermarle Barracks and into the wide open expanse approaching Harlow Hill, I was getting the full force of the wind head-on, my pace slowed to a crawl and it was a real grind

Every hedgerow offer a little sanctuary, but every gap where a gate cut through was a potential trap, funnelling the wind through to unexpectedly snatch at your wheels and send you careering across the road. Even the cows seemed to have had enough and they were all huddled miserably in the corners of the fields, like boats driven from their moorings and piled against the shore.

The Military Road was much busier than the last time I’d travelled it and, struggling to maintain a straight line and facing increased speeding traffic, I bailed at Whittle Dene, taking to quieter and less exposed country lanes.

The wind didn’t seem to deter the anglers here, the lane was lined with cars and the lakeside with their owners, all hunkered down against the chill blasts and to all intents and purposes (but, who knows?) enjoying themselves.

From the reservoir I picked up a typical club run route, up to Mowden and Wall Houses and then through to Matfen.

It seemed like the wind had scoured all other cyclists from the roads, even on these well-travelled and popular routes. Where was everyone? I only saw two or three solo riders out and about – there was definitely no flouting of social-distancing guidelines today.

Just through Matfen and as the road passed through a small copse of trees I would say (without even needing to invoke my provisional poetic licence) that I could actually hear the wind roaring as it shook the branches overhead.

Pushing past the turn for the Quarry, I had a vague notion of dropping down the Ryals and looping through Colwell and around Hallington Reservoir, before heading home. It wasn’t the best thought-out plan, something I realised the moment I started the long, slow grind toward the village of Ryal. The wind, now full-bore and head-on, was driving a sputtering, stinging rain straight into my face as well as applying maximum drag. Hmm, this was unpleasant.

After what seemed a ridiculously long and hard slog, I finally crested the hill and started the long drop down the other side, relived just to be able to freewheel a little bit – I had no intention of pushing hard, that seemed suicidal.

As it was, I can honestly say I’ve never had a less enjoyable traversal of the Ryals, even when travelling the other way, up its damned slopes!

The wind was an immense, bellowing, battering force, blasting cold rain straight at me, while intermittently trying to wrench the front wheel sideways. I fought the bike all the way down until the hedgerows closed in on either side of the road and offered some relative calm and still air. If I’d thought about it, perhaps this was the day I should have been riding up the Ryals and aiming for a wind-assisted PR.

I re-assessed things at the bottom of the climb, noting the weather had turned ominously grey and suspecting it was closing in, I changed plans, cut my intended route short and started to climb out through Hallington.

I then picked up the road through Little Bavington, followed by a fast run down the side of the Blyth valley toward Capheaton. I stopped here to munch a cereal bar and worry some sheep, before pressing on and running down toward the Snake Bends and Belsay, right down the white line in the middle of the road as the surface is so crappy to either side.

Then again, I did spot 3 or 4 huge mounds of stone chippings piled up at the junction with the road from Wallridge. Does this mean they’re going to resurface this stretch? That would be nice, it would also make the run-in to one of our regular cafe sprints much less of a tooth-jangling, jolting, jarring horror show. We live in hope.

I swept through Belsay, noticing the cafe was now open, for takeaway’s at least, then it was Ogle, Ponteland and home.

Back in the shelter of the house, my day ended on a low note when I dropped my Garmin directly into a fresh mug of tea, where it did a passable imitation of a mini depth-charge. I know they’re supposed to be water-resistant, but this was a real test of concept.

Rescued and exiled to a bag of rice to dry out for a couple of hours, I turned it on with some trepidation. All seems to be working fine, but my ride file had somehow been corrupted, or in Strava terminology, “malformed”.

Which obviously means …

Luckily for me I’m still using the Road ID app so the family can track and trace me when I’m out on my lonesome, enjoying the tranquillity of solitude.

So, while officially this ride didn’t ever happen and will never pad out my Strava statistics, at least I know where I’ve been.

BTW – the Road ID app is totally free, and is an invaluable safety net for lone cyclists – and I don’t just mean when Strava fails them. I even seem to recall reviewing it 5 years ago! https://surlajante.com/2015/10/14/the-road-id-app-review/

Ooph! that makes me feel old …

Plague Diaries – Week#9

Plague Diaries – Week#9

Solitude Standing

Well UK lock-down conditions have been eased, somewhat chaotically and confusingly, but eased nonetheless. In real terms it makes no difference to the viability of group riding, so I’m still in solo mode, as I head out on a bright, somewhat chilly, Saturday morning.

(Every time I see or hear Bo-Jo’s “Stay Alert” imperative I’m not only reminded how nonsensical it sounds, but also that old chestnut – “Be Alert. Britain Needs Lerts.”)

As I dropped down the Heinous Hill, I felt the wind warping through my wheels and tugging at the rims. It was the first, rather testy appearance of what would be an almost constant companion throughout the day, a nagging, stiff breeze and one that I’d be turning directly into as soon as I hit the valley floor.

I headed up river, looking to cross over at Wylam, but as I approached the bridge, the blinking lights at the level crossing brought me to a halt. A good few seconds later, the barriers jerked into motion and slowly lowered. I guess if I’d been quick I could have nipped across, a la Paris-Roubaix 2015, but there were no prizes at the end and no peloton to escape from, so I stayed put.

I would have been perfectly safe crossing as it seemed a ridiculoulsy long wait, maybe around 5 minutes before the train finally trundled past. It took so long in fact, that at one point I was eyeing up the pedestrian footbridge and considering hoisting the bike on my shoulder and tackling its steep stairs cyclo-cross style, up and over the tracks.

While we waited, the traffic built up behind me until there were perhaps 4 or 5 cars queued there. Otherwise un-noteworthy in more normal times, this has to be considered major congestion these days. If it had been a weekday, this massive “traffic jam” might even have made the local radio station’s travel bulletin.

As cars built up on my side of the tracks, cyclists built up on the other. The pair opposite me arrived at different times, but were obviously acquainted and had the chance to catch up, while a family of four loitered behind them.

Finally, the train rumbled through the junction, the barriers stuttered into motion and at last we were all able to get under way again.

I made my way along the Tyne Valley, through Ovingham and toward Stocksfield, following the path that runs close to the river. Rolling along happily despite the headwind, noticing the bright green verges were sprinkled and spangled with all kinds of wild flowers. I recognised bright, sunny fringed dandelion heads, delicately-hued bluebells, tall foxgloves and the emerging, still green-tinged-white of young cow parsley, but had very little idea what the hundreds of bright magenta flowers were, or their smaller, pale blue cousins.

Just past Stocksfield I picked up a shadow, who rode in my wake for a mile or two, riding the fine line between drafting and maintaining correct social distancing. I either lost him on one of the hills, or he turned early to take a different route, as he was gone by the time the road spat me out just above Corbridge.

I guess I could easily have crossed the A69 at any one of three or four points along my route, given the lack of traffic, but I was aiming for Aydon, where the bridge took me up and over the road. As I suspected traffic on the dual-carriageway below was relatively light, although not as empty as the last time I’d crossed over it.

I climbed out of the valley and was soon on familiar club-run roads heading toward Matfen, Just after the Quarry turn, I stopped for a quick break, before tackling the climb, then swinging left and following the road down and through to the Snake Bends, deliberately not sprinting toward them and quite enjoying the fact.

To add on a few more miles, I then took one of our standard cafe run-ins and reversed it, up and over the Rollers, sweeping around Bolam Lake and then heading to Hartburn via Angerton. I could write that on part of this route I actually had a bit of a cross-tailwind, instead of a full-bore headwind … but nobody would believe me.

Instead of turning right and climbing up to Hartburn, I stayed on the road that finally brought me out just before the village of Middleton. I don’t think we’ve ever been this way before, I certainly don’t recall ever seeing the Marlish Water site where “spring water takes over 150 years to slowly filter through the rock strata”.

I wonder if it’s worth the wait?

My next landmark was Middleton Bank, taken at a fairly relaxed pace, I was tiring now and looking to head for home. Over the top, I passed Spry flying in the opposite direction, looking cool and resplendent in a replica Maglia Rosa.

A few more moments passed and then, trailing just behind him, came his dad, Andeven, looking slightly less assured and chasing hard (although if you asked him, he’d probably just claim that he was just following correct social distancing protocol.)

I was on the way home now, passing many other cyclists heading in both directions. I stopped just outside Ponteland to pull on a pair of arm warmers. It turned out it was too warm to wear them, but too chill not too. Oh well.

I persevered while feeling a little too warm and was soon climbing back up the hill and home, another 100km’s solo banked under my wheels and in my legs.

Plague Diaries – Week#8

Plague Diaries – Week#8

Six-Hundred and Fifty Kays of Solitude

Well, six-hundred and forty-eight kilometres actually, since lock-down, but I do have a provisional poetic licence and besides, what’s 2km between friends?

That, by the way represents 31 hours and 14 minutes of solo riding, in my own company.

It’s just as well I almost like myself …

Today was the perfect day to build this total, the sky exposed in huge patches of blue, so the sun beamed down brightly for extended periods – strong enough and long enough in fact, that I would make a very credible start on this years tan lines – well, once I’d ditched the arm warmers, which only lasted until I’d made it to the bridge.

Across the river and went climbing straight back out of the valley, up Hospital Lane, through Westerhope and out onto typical club run roads. I looked at the route on Strava afterwards and was surprised how much it was pretty much a straight north-south line.

I went through Ponteland, Kirkley and then, after around 30km, I found myself at the junction for the road that would lead toward Whalton and homeward. I was enjoying myself though and still hadn’t had enough, so I took a right here, turning away from Whalton, to add on a further loop through Molesden and Meldon.

That makes it sound like I had some sort of grand plan in mind, but to be honest I was happy to be riding, revelling in the weather and instinctively following wherever my front wheel decided to take me.

I might have been riding solo, but I was far from alone and must have passed dozens and dozens of other cyclists, out enjoying the weather and their allotted exercise period. The majority were club riders, but there were also plenty of civilians too, typically with their saddles set too low and knees sticking out like knobbly wind-brakes.

No matter, everyone seemed genuinely happy and riding with a smile on their face and it was great to see so many people enjoying the simple, pure pleasure of piloting a bike. In fact the only dissenting voice I heard came from a horsewoman on a sleek-looking, grey horse. She seemed mildly disappointed the weather wasn’t blazingly hot and demurred when I suggested we had “a nice day for it.”

At the Gubeon, I passed Alhambra, flying in the opposite direction, our hastily shouted hello’s the only direct contact I’ve had with the club since this whole sorry Covid-19 episode began.

I completed my loop and stopped at a random gate just outside Belsay for a quick break and the now obligatory photo of the bike propped against a random piece of scenery.

It was here I noted the shiny black flying insects, swarming over the top of every hedgerow in some kind of mad mating, or feeding frenzy. I’d been aware of them throughout the ride, occasionally pinging off my specs, rattling around in the vents of my helmet and once even dive-bombing, kamikaze-style, straight at my mouth, I just hadn’t realised just how many of the blighters were out and about.

Still, they seemed harmless, if occasionally annoying when they wandered inadvertently into my path. I left them alone and for the most part, they left me alone too.

From my resting place, I picked up a road for Ponteland, which soon deposited me on the Ogle road and back on familiar terrain, as I started to retrace my steps. I noticed the rape seed is coming in strongly now, huge swathes of land stained a bright and alien, acid yellow.

Meh, fields didn’t look like that when I was a nipper.

As I crested the top of Berwick Hill, I found I was enjoying myself and still hadn’t had enough, so I went right instead of left and back-tracked through Ponteland and out onto the High Callerton road. At Callerton itself, I was a bit disorientated to find a massive new housing estate had sprung up since the last time I took this route. Surely it wasn’t that long ago?

I kept going, but wasn’t reassured I hadn’t missed a turn until the landscape became familiar again and I was once more passing through Westerhope.

From there, I worked myself down to the river, across Newburn Bridge and struck out down the valley again. At the Blaydon roundabout, I found I was enjoying myself and still hadn’t had enough, so I took another detour, heading right along the Derwent Valley to Rowlands Gill.

From there, I took in the climb up to Burnopfield. Cresting this final, major hill of the day, I decided that was it, I really had had enough, so with no more detours, I skipped straight along the Fell and home.

Plague Diaries – Week#7

Plague Diaries – Week#7

Alone again. Naturally.

The club Zwifters seem to be getting their act together and enjoying themselves immensely. Along with all that technical talk about gear ratio’s and tyre pressures, they can now also obsess about direct drive, ANT+, Max Resistance, Gradient Simulation et al. Really oddly, no one seems to care what colour their home trainers are?

After the last ride they even posted pics up on social media (screen-grabs, or actual selfies I know not) an oddly lurid, background of starlight over a mountain range and with a bunch of garishly dressed cyclist clones in the foreground).

Ah … hmm .. well… just … eesh … err … oh … umh …

So, yet more filler in the form of further musings from our road club ramshackle collective…

Question#3. How do you feel, emotionally about being involved in your cycling community?

  • I get really grumpy when I’m not involved!
  • It means a lot. I look forward to club rides and I’m grateful for the club, and the friends I’ve made. It’s been an important part of my life and I know it’s been really important for my mental health.
  • Love it. Cycling had helped my physical health, mental health and social life.
  • Welcome.
  • Privileged to have discovered something others drive past.
  • It warms the cockles of my heart.
  • I feel a bond with all cyclists and care towards them, given the negative and often hostile attitude towards the group.
  • I identify strongly with being a cyclist and it has affected me in other areas of life, It has given me the confidence to push myself professionally. It gives me an outlet for frustrations and helps to keep my mental health where it should be. I feel calmer, stronger and happier when I ride.
  • Proud.
  • Genuinely happy.
  • We are brothers and sisters, something to be proud of and to share
  • It gives me an outlet away from work. It makes me feel relaxed.
  • It helps me relieve stress and pressure.

Another decent Saturday, time for an old favourite, a blast out along the Derwent Valley, then up through Snod’s Edge, dropping down to the Derwent Reservoir and then climbing up into Weardale, before retracing the route home.

In part this followed the route of Stage 4 of last year’s Tour of Britain. You remember, when cycle racing was an actual thing? I would later note that I’d climbed Burnmill Bank almost 4 minutes slower than Davide Cimolai, the Israel Start-up Nation sprinter. Bet he didn’t have to pull over half way up to let a tractor past, though.

At the top, it was time for a reprise of the Daffodil Lament, but this time for the actual flowers, whose brief, bright glory had waxed and quickly waned in the few weeks we’ve been huddled indoors trying to avoid a rampant epidemic. Now, their browned, crumpled and discoloured, desicated heads nodded rather sadly as I passed.

Down a long descent and past the turn-off for the Harry-Potteresque hamlet of Muggleswick, there’s a silver pick-up parked in the lane here with a “for sale” notice propped against the windscreen. I recall seeing it the last time I was out this way 3-weeks ago. With passing traffic being so light, I can’t help thinking its going to be there the next time I swing past too, no matter how much of a bargain it might be.

Shortly afterwards, I was entering the Land of the Prince Bishops and stopped for another of those interminable, but now obligatory bike-propped-up-against-landmark moments.

Into Edmundbuyers, I had to take evasive action to avoid three black-faced sheep trotting down the middle of the street. They seemed to have been lured down off the moors to investigate the eerily quiet and empty village. If they were looking for a wild time, I think they would have been disappointed, the pub in Edmunbuyers, aptly named The Baa, was closed.

I rumbled over the cattle grid and started climbing toward Stanhope, 8km at a 4% average, up, up and then up some more.

I don’t know if it was the relative absence of traffic on the route (it’s never exactly been a super-highway) or the weather, or time of year, but the sheep seemed to crowding the road much more than usual and there was the added complication of their skittish lambs getting spooked and darting about erratically.

Remembering Ovis’s hard won nickname and his disastrous close-encounter with ninja sheep, I tacked from side to side of the road in long arcs, trying to give my new ovine friends as much leeway and road space as possible.

As I started up, the moorland was alive with birdsong, continuous piping trills, occasionally interrupted by the long pee-whit call of lapwings. Try as I might, I never did spot their source

Halfway, and there was another obligatory stop for a bike and sign shot, this time proclaiming I was now entering Weardale. A little bit higher still, my ears popped and the wind picked up, just to add a chill edge to proceedings.

The bird song had died away, but an occasional flash of red helped me spot what I would later learn were male red grouse, scurrying through the gorse. The bright red wattle above their eyes was a dead give away in the drab and dun moorland. (I always want to refer to them as grice, following The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s depictions of Prince Phillip.)

At the top, I swung off the road toward Blanchland, climbing to the highest point of the ride, before the long descent down toward the village. I missed my usual turn off on the drop down Bales Hill and found myself actually riding into Blanchland, where I was faced with two choices for climbing out again, the bitching 25% road heading north, or the slightly less bitching 16% hill heading west.

Yes, your right, that’s really no choice at all. I winched myself up the lesser slope and was soon on my way back toward Edmundbuyers.

Before getting there, I sneaked past the quarantine closed signs, into Pow Hill Country Park, finding a bench overlooking the reservoir for a quick rest and a fine repast of a cereal bar and some lukewarm water. Reading the information board, I discovered that Blanchland was built in the 18th century from the ruins of the medieval Premonstratensian monastic church.

I’ve never heard of Premonstratensian monks, apparently also known as the Norbertines, or the White Canons (from the colour of their habit). Wikipedia tells me they were (are?) a religious order of the Catholic Church founded in Prémontré near Laon in 1120 by Norbert of Xanten. Yes, that Norbert of Xanten.

No?

Me neither.

As Einstein sagely noted, “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”

A fast descent down Burnmill Bank deposited me back on the valley floor and heading for home. Passing through Ebchester, I spotted a pair of cyclists from the Blaydon Club hammering away in the distance and picked up the pace to try and close them down.

I got near enough to see they were a couple, the man on the front driving the pace and the woman draughting close behind. The man was, as an old mate would say, “giving it beans” (I never did understand the origin of the phrase, but I think the intended meaning is clear) and the pair were travelling.

I caught them as we passed through Hamsterly, and tried to look cool as I breezed past, just before Lintzford. They caught and burned past me again heading into Rowlands Gill, then immediately swung left. They were home, I still had a few miles left. Hah! That’ll teach me to go all Red Max on complete strangers.

The chase had just about emptied the tank and I crawled up from Rowlands Gill to Burnopfield via Busty Bank, surprising myself by netting a completely unexpected PR on the way. I must have been really out of sorts the last time I venture up there. Then it was just a short hop, skip and jump along the Fell and I was done for another week.

Plague Diaries – Week#6

Plague Diaries – Week#6

The loneliness of the long distance cyclist

Into week#6 of the lockdown (but who’s counting) and G-Dawg took to social media to celebrate 30 days of quarantine with a link to the Chuck Berry’s classic, “30 Days.”

I immediately added this to my Coronavirus Top 10 playlist, which is coming along quite nicely now:

  1. My Sharona Corona – by The Knack. Crazy Legs’ original, all conquering ear-worm.
  2. Don’t Stand So Close To Me – by The Police, a plaintive paean to maintaining social-distancing.
  3. Isolation – by Joy Division, a breezy little ditty, recorded during one of their more sunny and carefree periods.
  4. Train in Vain – by The Clash, in celebration of all the exercise I’m doing, with no way to show off any (no doubt marginal) gains. I could as easily have picked Clampdown, or Armagideon Time, from the same peerless album/period.
  5. Smells Like Teen Spirit – by Nirvana, for prophetically appropriate lyrics, “I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.” (See also: Thea Gilmore singing on Mainstream about “another kind of war that is raging in our bloodstream.”
  6. Are Friends Electric? – by Tubeway Army, for all the Zwifters amongst us. (I could, of course, have chosen any Taylor Zwift song … (well, if I actually knew any).
  7. You’re A Germ – by Wolf Alice, perhaps a more contemporary song than my original choice, Germ Free Adolescent, by X-Ray Spex.
  8. World Shut Your Mouth – by Julian Cope masterful advice from a former member of the self-proclaimed, Crucial Three. His contemporaries might have contributed “The Disease” – Echo and the Bunnymen, or “Seven Minutes to Midnight” – Wah! Heat (although to be fair, these days it’s probably a lot closer than 7 minutes on the old Doomsday Clock).
  9. Spread The Virus – by Cabaret Voltaire – perhaps what Covid-19 might sound like, if given voice!
  10. 30 Days by Chuck Berry. I’ve got the feeling G-Dawg might soon be cuing up 40 Days, by Slowdive and, I hope I’m wrong, but maybe even looking up some songs by 90 Day Men before this is over.

Any other suggestions?

In the news this week, Mrs. SLJ finished laying waste to our hedges and turned her dauntless topiary skills to the top of my head. If I had to guess, I think the look she was she was aiming for was Action Man circa his flock hair period.

It’s not the best haircut I’ve ever had, but by no means the worst either. Anyway, I think you’ll agree, she did a much better job than Melania…

As a consequence my helmet fits again and feels unimaginably cooler. Just in time, as we head into the weekend with the promise of fine, warm weather.

Even better, I get to wear our new, custom Santini kit for the first time, only a long 10-months after we started the procurement process in June last year!

Again with nothing pre-planned, I found myself crossing the river and climbing out of the valley via Hospital Lane. Having failed to find any sign of a hospital along its length, I concluded it was so called because you’re likely to need emergency care after scrambling up it.

From there I ticked off all the standard tropes of a fairly standard club run, through Ponteland to Limestone Lane, Stamfordham, Matfen and then down the Ryals, all done at a brisk enough pace to have my legs stinging and the breath wheezing in and out of my lungs like a pair of leaky bellows.

The long descent of the Ryal’s left me feeling chilled, so I pulled to a stop beside the war memorial at the bottom and parked myself on the bench there to let the sun warm my bones.

It really was a delightfully peaceful and bucolic scene, the roads empty of traffic and the only sounds were the buzz of fat bees droning through the grass and an almost constant chorus of chirpy, cheerful, chatty birdsong, punctured by the occasional plaintive bleat of newborn lambs.

I managed to stir myself before I got too comfortable, choosing, on the flip of a (mental) coin, to head up through Hallington. I was appalled by the deteriorating road surface here, which was even worse than I recall, but made it through without incident.

It was then our standard route home, through Belsay, Ogle and Kirkley. As I was heading back, everyone else seemed to be heading out into the now positively warm weather and I was passed by a constant stream of other cyclists in singles and in pairs.

I was particularly surprised by how many women cyclists I passed, which is brilliant, but did make me wonder where they usually ride and why we never seem to pass them?

By the time I crested Berwick Hill, I was paying the price for my early exuberance, the legs were heavy and shaky and I was running on empty. The trip home then was, by necessity, a much more sedate affair. By the time I’d dragged myself up the Heinous Hill I’d covered 60-miles, yet perversely thoroughly enjoyed my ride out. It’s fair to say I’m looking forward to a very lazy Sunday, a long lie-in, nothing too strenuous beyond a family walk. And hopefully a chance for a bit of recovery, before it all starts again.

Hang in there, we’re going to get through this.