Total Distance: 118 km / 73 miles with 1,242 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Average Speed: 26.2 km/h
Group size: 7 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Hot
I couldn’t summon up even a single jot of enthusiasm for doing the Cyclone this year, so while the majority discussed their 106-mile, 90-mile and 64-mile ride options, I cast about for other, like-minded club members to see if we could have a normal-ish Saturday club run.
The Red Max and Taffy Steve seemed up for doing something “not-different” – so we put it out there as an alternative to see who else we might entice along.
Saturday morning was grey and overcast, seeming to promise a brief interlude to all the hot, sunny weather we’d been experiencing all week. It was still indecently warm and a dry day seemed guaranteed, so I gave the weather no more thought as I clipped in and pitched down the Heinous Hill.
After two week absence, I was pleased to find the bridge at Newburn still closed to cars, although less pleased that the ramp over the washed out section of road had collapsed somewhat. I grounded my chain coming off it and decided it was probably best if I no longer used it as an impromptu time-trial start gate.
Main topics of conversation at the start
I arrived at the meeting point just in time to spot the backside of Richard of Flanders disappearing out of sight as he attacked the ramps leading up to the top of the multi-storey car park. I wondered if he had a secret Strava KOM up there. He suggested he’d just never been up before, so wanted to see what it was like. Hmm.
Slowly a small knot started to coalesce and by the time we’d rolled out, we were 7 strong – the Anticyclone Seven, as Taffy Steve would dub us.
The Red Max has been organising regular Wednesday evening runs, a leg-shredding, set 30-mile loop run at full-bore, on-the-rivet, balls-to-the-wall, maximum speed. This Darwinian, survival of the fittest has already reduced grown men to tears, including the likes of Carlton (who vowed never to do it again, before promptly turning up for another go a few weeks later).
I’ve started referring to the rides as the Circus Maximus and suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Red Max turns up with scythes attached to his wheels.
Richard of Flanders has thrown himself wholeheartedly into this madness, apparently shouting “Have it!” as he continually attacks off the front, is caught and immediately attacks again.
I suggested what he was probably shouting was actually “Havoc!” as a prelude to letting slip the dogs of war…
Now Max suggested that Taffy Steve might enjoy the Circus Maximus experience too.
“What ride 10 mile in from the coast after work, red-line my heart, shred my legs, burn out my lungs for an hour and then ride 10 mile back to the coast?” Taffy Steve enquired.
“Yes!” a gleeful Red Max insisted, his evident enthusiasm over-riding any perceived negatives in this plan.
“Err .. No, thanks.”
Richard of Flanders described downloading an Irish narrator/navigator to his Sat-Nav, hoping for some soft, lyrical, lilting and calm directions. I was only at the start of a very long road trip that he belatedly discovered what he’d actually selected was a rampant, rabid, Ian Paisley/Nationalist Ulsterman.
“I think yeell find ye don’t want to go dine thar!” it shouted, before declaiming loudly, “Ye should just go dine sighff!”
Luckily, we had no need of a Sat-Nav today as the Red Max had something in mind, which thoughtfully included several stops for coffees.
As we started the countdown toward Garmin Muppet Time, the sun broke through the clouds and I was able to shed and stow the arm warmers. This was the start of what would be a long and sustained bout of unexpected sun, which would see me getting home with bright red, burned kneecaps. Where’s the cloud when you need it?
The ride was progressing well as we traversed the Mitford Steads. I was on the front with Richard of Flanders when we rounded a corner and startled a young roe deer casually ambling across the road. The deer’s flight instincts kicked in so hard that it lost all traction on the tarmac and I could hear its claws skittering and skeetering across the top of the slick road as it did a quick Bambi on ice impersonation, before finding its feet and crashing away into the woods.
We paused at Dyke Neuk, which was a mistake as we were now on the route of the Cyclone and had to wait for a break in the stream of passing cyclists before we could get going again. When we did, the Red Max switched to full-on, loopy-Labrador mode and started chasing down anything that moved, gradually working his way up the stream of riders by jumping from wheel to wheel.
Luckily, the Cyclone was routed up the next right hand turn and we were able to regroup before howling down the Hartburn dip and up the other side. We started plugging our way toward Scot’s Gap, catching and passing a lone cyclist. Rab Dee glanced round, saw the Cyclone number on the rider’s bars and told him he had missed a turn and was off course. The Cyclonist turned around to retrace his steps and hopefully, find the right route.
In the distance, Rab spotted another lone cyclist and took off to see if they too were riding the Cyclone and had gone astray. Accelerating to catch her, we found that she too had missed the turn and was heading in the wrong direction. She had apparently started out in a group of friends, but had been dropped and left to her own devices. The Red Max provided instructions for her to re-join the course without having to backtrack and we pressed on.
Through Scot’s Gap and on to Cambo, the Red Max sniffed the air and decisively declared, “Coffee!” We swung left off the road and into one of the Cyclone feed stations, where the welcoming local residents had opened up the Church Hall to sell cakes and coffees.
We grabbed coffee and cake and wondered outside to sit on the grass and enjoy the sun. Here we discussed unequal wear of pedals and cleats, which was largely dependent on which foot you tended to release when you clipped out. Most of us were left-footers, but Rab Dee was a right footer. With his right pedal worn out from over-use, but the left almost as good as new, he wondered if there was the potential for a pedal-exchange programme with a suitably discomfited left-footer.
As we preparing to leave, one our earlier strays turned up, having failed to follow the Red Max’s explicit instructions. She’d done about 26 miles of the 64-mile route and had less than 20 still to do. Still, on the positive side, she was well ahead of the people she’d been riding with and had a chance to either beat them home, or wait around to join them, fresh for the last leg.
We were back on the Cyclone route for the bad descent down through Wallington (high speed, vicious rumble strips and a narrow bridge make this a bit tricky for the unwary) but we were ahead of most cyclists at this point.
We then left the route as it headed for the Ryals and had a fast run toward Capheaton. At the junction, Richard of Flanders and Slow Drinker set off for home and Rab Dee went off for a longer ride out. I pushed on with the Red Max, Taffy Steve and Zardoz toward more coffee at the Capheaton Tea Rooms.
“The problem with multiple coffee stops,” the Red Max explained, “Is multiple coffee stop sprints.”
We got coffee and cake and found a table on the tearoom balcony. Here we heard all about the Monkey Butler Boy, lavishing all the money from his new Call Centre job on bike bits – much to the disgust of an old timer sitting next to us, who couldn’t work why anyone needed a power-meter. (I had a lot of sympathy for his view).
The Red Max outlined a plan to take Coffee Interlude#3 at Stamfordham and then pick up the tail-end of the Cyclone route, once all the riders had an ascent of the Ryals in their legs, at which point he conjectured they’d be easy pickings!
We left our shady sanctuary and took to the sunny roads again, stopping to try to work out what the odd machine perched in the bed of a truck was. After careful examination, Zardoz and the Red Max concluded it was a vintage, steam powered, electrical generator. I bowed to their superior engineering expertise, quite frankly I didn’t have a clue.
For a refreshing change, we went down the Quarry climb, joined the Cyclone route just after the Ryals and pushed on for Stamfordham.
The Red Max and Zardoz stopped for coffee and ice cream, but I decided it was getting late and it was time to head for home. Taffy Steve agreed and we set off at a decent clip, working our way around a steady stream of tired Cyclonists as we pushed on.
Just before Callerton, I split from Taffy Steve and the Cyclone route and started my drop down toward the river and home.
I was back just a couple of minutes later than usual, having had a thoroughly relaxed and enjoyable alternative Cyclone.
YTD Totals: 3,914 km / 2,4,32 miles with 49,186 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 40 km / 25 miles with 1,286 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
Average Speed: 17.5 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Hot
Sunday morning and we meet up at the campsite entrance ready for our last day of riding. “Time for business,” Caracol mutters, setting Crazy Legs off on a Flight of the Conchords song:
It’s business time…
Hmm, business time indeed, but first we had to wait for the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob to clear the campsite entrance with their farting, spluttering machines. Once they’d buzzed off, trailing a cloud of exhaust fumes and waves of pungent aftershave, we mount up and ride out.
It promised to be another hot, hot day, with traffic surprisingly busy for a sleepy Sunday morning, so we had quite a delay getting out the campsite. Not that we were in any great hurry, we only had one goal today, the Hautacam and back by the most direct route and preferably in time so the boys could watch the England vs. Panama kickball game.
We snaked our way through the village, crossed a bridge over the turbulent and swift-flowing, Gave de Pau and almost immediately found ourselves heading uphill. We were planning on passing through the summit of the Hautacam and its traditional Tour de France finish and pressing on, right up to the top of the Col de Tramassel. I would understand why when we got there.
So on the menu today was a hors catégorie climb of around 16km and up to a height of 1,190 metres, running at an average gradient of 7.5%. Kermit told me it no lesser a rider than Alberto Contador had described it as one of the hardest climbs he’d ever faced, although I couldn’t find any source to support this. Anyway, I would question Contador’s judgement, after he allegedly claimed OGL was one of the greatest descenders ever to ride a bike (that’s according to OGL anyway.)
Through the village of Ayros, the gradient stiffens and the signs warn the next kilometre is at an average of 10%. We’re already slightly strung out along the road, but at this point the gaps start to seriously attenuate. Caracol and Kermit skip lightly upwards, while I lumber in pursuit of the Hammer, closing in on the steeper sections, but falling back again when the road levels – (“levels” being a purely relative term, I mean of course where the slope eases ever so slightly). The rest of our group are strung out at various points behind.
Just after the village of Arbouix, Captain Black bridges across to join me and I share his company for the next few kilometres. The gradient hits 13% through some hairpins, as we catch and pass another couple of Brits. I beg them to tell me it gets easier, even if it’s a lie.
Following the road around the perimeter of a narrow field, a couple of bare-chested farm labourers are struggling to clear out some bushes. It looks like dry, dusty and hard work. Meanwhile, just by the side of the road, their small dog lies dozing comfortably in the shade of a leafy, green tree, seemingly intent on proving that it retains all of its mental faculties and feels no need to join the Englishman out in the (near) midday sun.
I read somewhere that the Alps are more uniform than the Pyrennees because Napoleon (once an artilleryman, always an artilleryman) had their roads engineered with regular gradients. This was to ease towing gun carriages up and down the mountains, thus enabling his need to invade sundry other countries and kill lots of their citizens.
I’ve no idea if this is true, but even by Pyrenean standards the Hautacam seems to have a point to prove. It goes out of its way to be as irregular and erratic as possible, with ramps of various pitches all jumbled together within its kilometre sections, making the average gradients all but useless when judging how hard the next section will be.
At one point, a sign declaring a 7.5% average became somewhat more foreboding when it is immediately followed by a sustained and prolonged downhill section. We knew we would be paying for this brief respite just a little further on.
“In the granny ring yet?” Captain Black enquired as we topped another steep ramp. I assured him I was and had been for a long, long time. Despite this I seemed to be climbing out of the saddle with more power and without spinning my legs quite so futilely. I attributed to the extreme steepness of the slope. Hmm…
We hit sections of 15% and 16% and the Captain slowly started to pull away. I found myself alone, again. Naturally.
As a distraction, I start counting pedal strokes between the kilometre markers and reckon there was about 750 of them, although if I’d miscounted, or even double-counted I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised.
On one, aggressively steep section, I pushed the right hand lever hard left. It was already against the stops and I knew it, but I had to try anyway, just in case a new gear had miraculously manifested.
I then glanced down and found I was still in the middle ring. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but immediately dropped onto the granny ring, although the worst of the climb seems to be behind me. I was now out beyond the tree line, rattling over another Passage Canadien and could see the road twisting and turning across the open pastureland ahead and a long trail of riders clambering up behind me.
(In)Sole of the Mountain
Off to the right I saw the totally incongruous sight of a solitary, discarded insole by the side of the road Who? What? Why? When and how? Answers on a postcard, please.
The gradient has eased back to an 8% average and, as I pass the summit sign, the road yawns wide open. It feels like I’m riding across the deck of an aircraft carrier, a flat sea of empty, rather dusty, black and featureless tarmac, capped by nothing but a blank, blue sky overhead.
When the Tour de France finishes up here, this area will be transformed into a busy finish hub, with cars and caravans, coaches, tents, barriers, crowds and the works. Right here and now though, it’s all a bit disorientating, just a big empty car park. I feel as if I’m suffering a mild attack of agoraphobia and I stop pedalling and coast, looking around for where to go next.
The two Brits I had passed further down the slope work their way up and past me and I wait to tag onto their wheels and tentatively follow, trying not to make it too obvious that I’m not quite sure where I’m going.
They find a road out of the car park and we’re back on track and set to climbing again. Another 1.5 kilometres or so up the road from the Hautacam is the summit of the Col du Tramassal, and a café promising cake and coffee. What further incentive does a man need?
I’m still feeling pretty good, so roll the chain down the cassette and attack the last few slopes, rising out of the saddle and bursting past the two Brits, who must have wondered what the hell I’d been snorting back there in the car park.
Around a final shoulder of the mountain, the road zigs and zags upwards toward the cafe, a natural amphitheatre, where our front-runners are now sitting along the crest of the slope, enjoying the sun while they look down and cheering everyone through the final few hundred metres.
I join them to encourage the others in, take a few photos and to admire the fantastic views of the Col d’Aubisque and the other snow-capped peaks across the wide-open valley. It is utterly stunning up here and it only takes a thoroughly enjoyable ride to experience it.
4 Days of Bullshit
We retire to the café terrace where the question du jour is why the bear in the TV series, BJ and the Bear, was played by a monkey? We decided that the pilot probably cast a proper Grizzly in the lead role, but it proved too hard to control and savagely mauled its co-star. We then imagined the Hollywood producer-types trying to determine how best to replace the Grizzly and save their series?
“I know guys, what about an alligator? Mountain lion? Ok, ok … how about a camel?”
I have a chat with Crazy Legs who asks if I’ve enjoyed the trip. “What, four days of unadulterated bullshit? What’s not to like?”
“Ah,” he suggests, “You’ve got a blog title already.”
Briefly Airborne & Then Done
For some reason, I’m the first off on the descent and lead the way for the first three-quarters or so, until the Hammer edges in front. As we sweep through one of the villages, I hit a speed bump and become briefly airborne.
As the road straightens, Caracol surges past, pedalling furiously and we drop onto his wheel. The three of us ride full-bore all the way back to the campsite, opening up a big gap on everyone else.
And we’re done. I can’t help thinking I’ve got another mountain or two left in my legs, but I’m pretty sure that’s just bravado.
Lost in Translation
We retire to the bar to watch the football, where England record a handsome victory, albeit built on a rather homely looking performance.
We also get the short-end of a cultural exchange with the barman. We helpfully tell him Crème Anglaise is custard in English, but he fails to reciprocate in like fashion when Crazy Legs enquires after the French equivalent of the term “built like a brick shithouse.” I guess somethings get lost in translation.
We stayed long enough to watch the start of a Grand Prix, typically the only interesting bit of these races. Sure enough, there was the usual carnage and crashes off the grid. We left shortly afterwards to ponder why they had soft, super-soft and ultra-soft tyres (I guess hard, medium and soft doesn’t sound dramatic enough, but what they’ve chosen sounds like different grades of toilet paper?)
The campsite bar is closed Sunday evenings, so we need to head into town for ravitaillement. Goose wanders off as our advance party to scout out food and drink options, while the rest disperse to start packing up our bikes.
Reg breaks down and packs away handily and with surprising ease and I wander around the campsite just to fill in some time. Here I find Caracol, struggling to fit everything into his bike box, and looking gaunt and washed-out again. He cries off from the evening’s excursion and retires to his bed, still seemingly suffering the after effects of heat stroke and his exertions across the three days.
The rest of us congregate on a chalet porch to finish off any remaining supplies and then take a two mile or so walk into the town to find Goose.
Goose Gets Paella
He’s discovered in a bar with a friendly waiter who Goose insists is Spanish, despite the lack of any kind of supporting evidence. He’s now communicating with his “new best friend” in pidgin-Spanish, even though the waiter speaks perfect English (and probably Spanish too.)
The bar is good, beer is good, company is good and the menu looks good . The only downside seems to be a bunch of English cyclists, all uniformly dressed in tuxedo-printed cycling kit (hilarious and original) and straw Panama hats. Rightly or wrongly (and I’m still leaning heavily toward rightly) we take an instant dislike to them, but luckily they’re just there to pour a few beers into their faces and soon wander away.
After days of wanting a paella, talking about paella and how best to prepare and cook paella, Goose finally gets to eat paella, which he declares is very good, very big and suitably filling.
Along with Crazy Legs, I choose the cassoulet, which is also tasty and big enough for hungry cyclists. The rest have various pasta dishes, all of which are deemed at least adequate, except for Steadfast’s lasagne, which is about the size of a choc ice and soon disappears without touching the sides. We wonder if he hasn’t accidently ordered from the children’s menu.
Goose Invents Ebola
With a big clean-up of the chalets scheduled for tomorrow, Goose describes an advert, that seemingly only he has ever seen, of someone cleaning a kitchen work top with a chicken breast. He also revealed a dark and distant past part-time job as a “professional” cleaner. Apparently, he was somewhat less than diligent and claims to have inadvertently invented MRSA and maybe Ebola too.
Carry On Regardless, Part 1.
For some reason talk turns to Carry On films, which, through the power of Google, Kermit reveals number an astonishing 31 titles!
Unfortunately, he then starts listing each one individually:
“Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Nurse, Carry On Teacher, Carry On Constable …”
“Ok, we get the picture.”
He “carries on” undaunted.
“Carry On – Follow That Camel, Carry On Doctor, Carry On Up the Khyber, Carry On Camping….
“No really, stop now.”
“But, I’m almost finished. That’s Carry On! Carry On Emmannuelle and … [dramatic pause] … Carry On Columbus.”
He takes a deep breath, “Several other films were planned and scripted, but unmade…”
We discuss options for a trip next year, perhaps somewhere we can fly direct to from Newcastle and doesn’t include a long car transfer. Perhaps that way I won’t suffer that first night travel-sickness-thing again? (Or whatever it is.)
We have lots of ideas, but nothing is decided, well, other than to cross off Goose’s suggestion of Chernobyl as a destination. I’m sure the roads are lovely and quiet, but there are sadly no direct flights to Boryspil Airport in Kiev and even if there were, it’s still a 3 hour drive from there to Pripyat.
We wander back to the campsite. Ably assisted by good food, red wine, beer and the cumulative efforts of several days riding, sleep comes easily.
In the morning, we clean out the cabins and handover the keys. Unlike last year, there’s no forensic inspection and no accusatory interrogations and we’re free to go without even a cursory glance at our, nonetheless spotless accommodation.
We plan and execute a quick detour to take in crepes atop the Col de Peyresourde. It looks like a fantastic climb from the west and it would make it onto my bucket list if I had such a thing. The crepes were good too. I’ll be looking forward to the Tour’s super short, Stage 17 this year, which starts at Bagnères-de-Luchon and immediately tackles this route.
Then it’s the long drive to the airport, arriving in plenty of time for check-in.
Carry-on Regardless, Part 2.
As we wait to check-in Kermit starts to get antsy about his big, red, oversized carry-on bag again, convinced he’s going to be stopped and charged for exceeding his baggage allowance. He starts eyeing up the ground crew, trying to determine which one looks the most benevolent and identifying the stern, stone-faced ones he hopes to avoid – a sort of baggage Russian Roulette.
Before we make it that far, an announcement informs us that the flight will be busy, so passengers are invited to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Kermit breathes a sigh of relief. Nonetheless, he gets a ticking off from the ground crew for having such a ridiculously large carry-on bag and somehow manages to feign both innocence and remorse, as he’s relieved of his big, red burden.
I’m the last to check-in and everyone else has disappeared by the time I make my way to the over-sized baggage drop off. Five minutes on intense, unfriendly scrutiny and unnecessarily prescriptive instructions from a taciturn, French baggage handler and the bike bag goes one way and I go the other.
I catch up with the others, just before boarding and notice we’re sharing the flight with some Panama hat wearing, English cyclists that may just have tuxedo-printed cycling kit tucked somewhere in their luggage. Crazy Legs even gets to sit in the same row of seats as one of them, but is luckily buffered from direct contact by another innocent passenger playing piggy-in-the-middle. As such, his curled-lip disdain goes unremarked.
Leaving the plane, I can’t help but notice all the HSBC adverts plastering the air bridge, welcoming us to Heathrow and extolling our “United Kingdom.” I can’t help wondering if this is supposed to be ironic, or is just very badly misinformed.
De-planed (as they insist on saying in the business) we all congregate at the other end, minus Steadfast, who has already taken a flyer into the seething morass that is a hugely overcrowded, glacially slow Heathrow passport control.
We’re about to plunge into this very maelstrom ourselves, when Captain Black spots signage directing us elsewhere for our connecting flight. We find ourselves in some kind of placid, quiet backchannel, quickly passing through a fully-automated passport control system and then smoothly released into the general departure lounge.
We stop in the Wetherspoons for some food and then we’re on the last leg and being hustled on to the plane for the short hop back up to Newcastle. Well almost, Goose gets stopped at the gate and we pause to laugh at his startled, rabbit in the headlights act as he screws up the facial recognition sensors and then desperately tries to get them to recognise him.
At the other end, our baggage arrives in dribs and drabs and we depart piecemeal. As such I’m well on my way home before Kermit realises his bright green bike box isn’t going to put in an appearance.
“It’s Big & Green and Nowhere to be Seen” : Kermit
Kermit’s bike box is eventually tracked down to Zurich and is finally returned to him a few days later. Before this, however, it seems to have been fed through a threshing machine and both box and bike are badly damaged. An insurance claim is on-going, while in the meantime, Kermit has to resort to his winter-bike, at a time when we’re enjoying the longest spell of fair weather we’ve had for years.
I have a feeling though that even this isn’t going to put any of us off signing up for similar adventures if offered next year.
Chevauchée Pyrenees Totals: 228 km / 142 miles with 5,570 metres of climbing
YTD Totals: 3,741 km / 2,324 miles with 47,054 metres of climbing
Col d’Aspin (west side) Col du Tourmalet via La Mongie
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 125 km / 78 miles with 2,707 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 6 hours 4 minutes
Average Speed: 20.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Baking
Early morning, feeling better for a good night’s rest – or at least a sustained period of unconsciousness – I still can’t face a proper breakfast, but cram down a cereal bar and as much water as I think I can hold.
Today is going to be our “Big One” – although not quite on a par to last year’s Circle of Death, it is going to be a long day in the saddle and promises to be red hot too. Hopefully I’ll fare batter. Kermit is up and fuelling on multiple bowls of cereal and the Breakfast Club are just returning from their sumptuous petit dejeuner.
We congregate at the entrance to the campsite and wend our way through a sleepy Argelès Gazost, crossing the bridge over the permanently tumultuous, Gave d’Azun. Its spray gives a pleasant, brief interlude of comfort cooling, then we’re through the town and out onto open roads under a hot sun.
The Hammer seems to be on a mission, or perhaps chasing a personal Strava segment, either way he’s winding up the pace on the front. It’s too much too soon, so in tacit, unspoken agreement with Crazy Leg’s, we give up the chase and back off to let a gap grow. Finally, the Hammer realises he’s ploughing a lone furrow and we slowly coalesce into a single group again, a cycling embolism … a slow moving clot.
Heading east, we pick our way through the anonymous commercial outskirts of a quite unremarkable Lourdes, well, at least the portion of it we traverse, well away from any of the religious razzamatazz and what we’ve been led to believe is a vast array of astonishingly nasty and tacky religious tat.
Then we swing south along a valley, following the course of the river L’Adour which Google tells me actually rises from our ultimate destination, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
We’re about 35km into the ride and the road is already starting to rise as we hit the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and get caught behind traffic filtering into the town centre.
Ribble Rousers Meet Again
While queuing behind the cars, a group of cyclists’ weave through the traffic and pass us. It’s the two Ribble Rousers and the cheery Dutchman on his town-bike we’d met on the Col d’Aubisque yesterday.
We find a café by the side of the road and settle in for perfectly polite elevenses. Here we have a brief chat with the Ribble Rousers, one of whom couldn’t have been half bad as he was a fellow Vittorian.
They were on their last day, just winding down and pottering around before leaving for a 14-hour, 1,500km drive home (eek!) to the Midlands. This had to include a detour via a local bike hire shop, after one of them somehow managed to destroy his gear hanger on a descent, luckily quite close to where they were staying. Naturally, whatever gear hangers the local bikes stocked, none of them had anything that would fit a Ribble
Hold on there, Bald Eagle…
We settled down for a relaxed coffee or two, each one served with a slice of the local delicacy, nougat.
“Ah, nugget!” the Hammer proclaimed, adopting the full Geordie-kid pronunciation of “noo-garr.” Brilliant. In a small corner of my heart, it will forever be nugget. Toblerone? That’s nugget, mate. Snickers? That’s nugget too. And who could forget the short-lived Texan bar in the eighties, it sure was a mighty chew.
Goose was found once again rhapsodising over cycling caps, for him the revelation of last year’s trip. They are now an essential part of his kit, worn under his helmet to protect his bare noggin from the sun.
Crazy Legs queried if Goose would turn back the clock, given the choice and return to having a full head of hair.
“I’ll have to mullet over,” Goose quipped. Ba-boom. (A front-runner in the Bad Dad Joke of the Day competition, but not the winner.)
He then revealed he never did have a mullet (“business at the front, party at the back”) – but had been known to sport an outrageously enormous flat-top. Now there’s a photo I’d like to see – if only because I can’t imagine it.
By way of the Hammer complimenting Captain Black on his baby-smooth skin and obviously first class moisturising regimen, talk turned to Steadfast’s Arse-Butter™ – which he revealed came in two varieties – Standard or European. The difference, apparently was the European version gave you a bit of tingle …
“Ooph! Have you tired that Tea Tree Oil shower gel,” Goose exclaimed. “I can’t use it, it’s too nice!”
Did he really just say that out loud?
With enough nonsense talked to keep us going for a while longer, we paid our dues and got back to the serious business of the day. We were already climbing on grades of around 5% as we reached the small village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the group decided to split.
Still suffering horribly from his chest-infection and problems breathing, Crazy Legs decided to skip the Col d’Aspin and just ride the Tourmalet. The Hammer decided this was a good plan and having himself already conquered the Aspin, decided he’d tag along too.
As a vital prelude, they decided a stop in the bar on the corner of the village square for further ravitaillement was in order, before attempting the climb. Meanwhile, the remaining six Aspin virgins set off for the lesser of the two peaks.
Six Virgins of the Aspin and the Kenny Clone
As the road climbed out of the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, we passed an old bloke in a bright orange jersey, riding a touring bike, his reflection glowering at us in his mirrors as he ground his way uphill. The road dropped down and while we saved energy and free-wheeled he pedalled furiously past, only to get caught and left behind as the road ramped up yet again.
He repeated this performance a few times, until the climb stiffened and there were no more downhill interludes for him to attack. We dubbed him “Kenny” in honour of our own Szell back home, whose particularly fond of charging to the front on downhills, before fading horribly on the subsequent climb and just getting in the way. I had a feeling we’d see “Kenny” again, before the day was out.
Up we went, with nothing too testing to start with and it was a very pleasant climb, even chugging along well off the back of the group.
The ascent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is about 13km long and adds another 650 or so metres to the height we’d already gained, at an average gradient of 5%. The Aspin tops out at 1,489 meters, the climbing stiffens at the top with the final 5km averaging about 7.5%.
It really is a pleasant climb to begin with, up through a lush, coniferous forest that provides lots of welcome shade. In many ways it reminded me of the Col du Telegraph, although minus the thoroughly annoying Harley bikers we’d encountered on that climb last year.
Passing through the ski station at Payolle, with about 6km to go, you are out of the trees into open pastureland, with the ubiquitous Alpine cattle clanging away on all sides. At the ski station the road briefly levels out to a false flat, before kicking up appreciably and then it starts to wind all about the mountain looking for the path of least resistance.
Despite these desperate manoeuvres, it still averages over 10% in places and a kilometre or so from the top there’s a final ramp approaching 20% just to test already tired legs.
Cow Lickin’ Good
There’s nothing really at the top, besides fantastic views down both sides of the mountain. Oh, and the cows, lining up to lick any, apparently delicious, salty-sweaty cyclist who gets too close.
We dropped into the grass at the side of the road, resting up and taking our fill of the scenery. It was at this point that someone voiced what we’d all been thinking, “Did Crazy Legs and the Hammer know something we didn’t and should we be concerned that the only veterans of these mountains had decided to skip their chance to climb the undeniably pretty Col d’Aspin?”
We finally pulled ourselves away from the views, donned jackets for the descent and started to retrace our way back down the mountain to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and the route up the Col du Tourmalet.
As we tipped over the crest and started to gather speed, up huffed “Kenny” – he’d made it. Chapeau to that man.
At the village, we followed the example of Crazy Legs and the Hammer, stopping for a few drinks and a quick baguette in the bar just off the village square, before filling our bottles at the water fountain, where all the local cyclists were congregating.
With a Mighty High-Ho, Silver!
Then, with a mighty, High-Ho, Silver, or maybe just a tiny whimper, depending on what you want to believe, we started our ascent of the Col du Tourmalet.
If the Aspin reminded me of the Telegraph, then the Tourmalet was the crazed, bastard half-brother of the ferocious Galibier. Likewise, it was still marred by banks of dirty snow lurking in the hollows on its upper slopes, as sure a sign of thuggishness as the wispy moustache on the over-sized, over-developed, pre-teen classroom bully.
“The Col du Tourmalet is a legendary place for cycling, steeped in history and steep in slope” read one of the many descriptions of this beast that I found. It was the first climb above 2,000 metres ever used in a race and is the most used col of the Tour de France. By the time the peloton crests its summit this year, they’ll have been up it on 86 separate occasions.
You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.
Apparently, the name “Col du Tourmalet” is often wrongly translated into English as “Bad Trip” – it might be factually incorrect, but nevertheless seems entirely fitting. At an elevation of 2,115m it is often referred to as the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the eastern climb is 17.2 km gaining 1,268 m at an average of 7.4%, while my Strava recorded a maximum of more than 18% on one of its many, variable slopes.
So, upwards we went and downwards we started counting the kilometre markers to the summit, again my speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the slope, or the thankfully light, but still noticeable wind.
We were soon split up and scattered over the road, and even though there was generally only a couple of hundred metres between everyone, this represented massive gaps in terms of time.
I remember passing the sign for 10km to the summit, glancing down and noticing I was riding at about 5mph and running through some quick and very rough calculations … 5 miles an hour … that’s about 8 kilometres an hour … that means it’s only going to take … another hour and a quarter.
Only going to take another hour and a quarter? Only? An hour and a quarter? Climbing all the way?
We must be mad.
At 7km from the summit, there is, apparently a memorial to Eugene Christophe at the spot where his forks broke in 1913. Nope, I can’t say I noticed.
At 6km to go, I passed through the first avalanche shelter. I didn’t trust myself to reach down and grab a drink, while keeping the bike moving in a relatively straight line, so I pulled over to the side of the road for a drink and a rest.
At this point Steadfast rode past me and I was last man, tail-end Charlie again. I remounted and rode on.
Riding with the Ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins
At 5km to go I was passing through the ski town of La Mongie, on what I thought was one of the hardest parts of the climb. The streets were wide and open and steep and, try as I might, I couldn’t go fast enough to put the spectacularly ugly ski apartments behind me and out of sight.
Like a random collection of brown Lego bricks, dropped from a great height, this monstrous collection of jutting angles was an affront to the eyes and horribly marred the otherwise spectacular scenery. “When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as I like to think a suitably apoplectic Gerard Manley Hopkins might have commented as he rode past.
At 4km to go I notice an Italian tricolori off by the side of the road. A bit closer and it resolved itself into an abandoned pizza box and badly gnawed pizza. Even in my oxygen deprived, single-minded focus on keeping the pedals turning, this distracted me and raised some serious questions: Who would want a pizza out here? How did the Deliveroo rider react when told he had to make a delivery three quarters of the way up the Tourmalet? And who the hell is moronic enough to litter this astonishing landscape with fast food cartons. Arse hat.
Hot Foot to the Top
At 3kms to go, my right foot became almost unbearably hot and I developed a shooting, stabbing pain through the big toe. I stopped and let the pain slowly ebb away.
At 2kms to go, I can look up and see the summit and it’s lined with the dark shapes of a troupe of llamas, like an army of rapacious Zulus looking down on Rourke’s Drift. My wildly floating thoughts had become detached from their moorings, perhaps in a futile attempt to ignore the pain signals my body has been incessantly firing at it. I remember hoping they weren’t an, as yet unheard of breed of feral, carnivorous llamas, then wondering if a dalai of llamas was a suitable collective noun. I know, I know. Sorry.
With less than 1 km to go, I pass a young ingénue with pigtails, looking suitably cool in a long-sleeved white jersey and pushing (?) her bike down (?) the mountain. I theatrically puff out my cheeks and slowly draw a finger across my throat. I’m cooked.
“Well done, keep going, you’re almost there,” she calls out in perfect, but slightly accented English.
She’s not lying just to encourage me, either. Round one last corner and I’ve suddenly reached the summit and the unprepossessing silver-grey sculpture of the Géant au Col du Tourmalet. It’s done.
I find the rest of the crew relaxing on the terrace the picturesque café at the top and wander inside to confront the horribly unfriendly staff and buy some food and drink. Even as a fully-paying customer, they refuse to fill my bidon for me, though they will sell me a bottle of water so I can do it myself. Pah!
I learn that Caracol had suffered on the climb even more than I had. Bordering on serious heat stroke, he’d been forced to take refuge in the shade of one of the avalanche shelters to try and recover. He still looked pale and raw-boned, but seemed over the worst of it.
Captain Black reported encountering the pizza-eating poltroon at a point that coincided with him unleashing a majestic and nostril-burning guff, a gaseous discharge of such epic proportions and expanding so rapidly from ground zero, that he then struggled to outpace it up the slope.
We decided the pizza-poltroon had caught a whiff of this unpleasant miasma, determined his pizza was suddenly on the turn and abandoned it in its half-eaten state. The Captain was immensely pleased to know that I though I could still detect a lingering, unpleasant smell as I passed the same spot, some minutes behind him.
As the slowest descender, Kermit begged the indulgence of being first off on the descent, reasoning we would catch him before the bottom anyway, so it would reduce our waiting time. Captain Black followed, then Goose and Caracol.
Still soaked from my efforts on the climb, I pulled on my light, windproof jacket, zipped up, counted to ten and set off in pursuit.
Down Side of Me
Well ,this bit was certainly fun, with the wind snapping at the sleeves of my jacket so they fluttered with a noise like ripping silk, I was quickly up to speed and leaning sharply round the corners.
Ahead of me and still a couple of bends away, Goose and Captain Black were slowed by catching Kermit and, braking late, I rapidly closed the gap and followed them around him. I dropped into their wheels until I had a chance to slide past further down the mountain, just before the characteristics of the road started to change. Gone were the tight hairpins in favour of sweeping bends and long straights, where you could just let the bike run and quickly build up speed.
I tucked in tight and as low as I could get and started pulling back the flying Caracol, hitting 74.9km/h at one point and slowly closing the gap, churning away on the big ring whenever the pace threatened to drop. I was on terms before the descent ran out and then we were both braking hard as we swept into a built up area, before stopping to allow everyone to regroup.
Luckily, there was very little climbing left to do and the run back to the campsite was mainly flat or slightly downhill. We made good time and were very soon home and hosed.
After showering, we congregated on a porch for pre-prandial drinks and nibbles, learning that Crazy Legs had been bonding with his new chalet neighbours, a contingent of exuberantly raucous, French motor bikers, of the mid-life crisis variety. Eeh, the devils.
Around, 30 or 40 strong, the bad news was we’d be sharing the bar and our evening meal with them. The good news? The campsite was finally going to fire up the truly enormous paella pan that had proved so intriguing to Goose.
We learned he was the proud owner of his own, oversized outdoor cooking apparatus. This he claimed was called a wok-i-wok, a cast iron behemoth complete with metre wide wok or paella pan, incorporating a giant pizza stone and barbecue grill, with the whole assembly easily convertible to a patio heater, potters wheel, garden waste incinerator or portable forge for some crude iron working.
All, shipped direct from China for a mere £150, although Goose reported that sadly, they no longer seem available. (I guess it would have been churlish of me to suggest I wasn’t surprised, as I could actually only think of one, single person who might be interested in buying such a monstrosity.)
But the revelations were by no means complete, as we then had a masterclass in the cooking the perfect giant paella in a wok-i-wok, giant paella pan. The secret apparently is all down to layering – all ingredients have to be prepared in advance and then layered into a extra large Lakeland, Tupperware pail (I think this was a grandiose way of saying a bucket) – but, and here’s the trick, they have to be added in the reverse order to which they’ll be used.
Talk turned to the local cattle, complete with their clanging bells, which Goose presumed were only put on the Alpha Males of the herd. It was time to strike for Bad Dad Joke of the Day and with no shame I accepted the challenge – “I don’t know why they need bells, they’ve all got horns.” (I don’t think I’ll be invited back next year.)
A suitable point to retire for dinner…
In the bar the giant paella pan had been fired up for the Mid-Life Motorcycle Mob, piquing the interest of Goose, who naturally had to get involved and share tips and secrets with the taciturn cook. He was especially intrigued by one ingredient a huge quantity of a bright red elixir, which he guessed was some super-exotic, local speciality, that would give the paella a unique flavour and character.
“Non,” he was told,”Ee’s just food colouring.”
Oh well …
The paella was just for the Gallic Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob, not for the British Mid-Life Crisis Cyclists, we had to choose from the standard menu, but had some consolation in prime seats to follow the Germany vs. Sweden World Cup game.
Crazy Legs seemed to have found a new hero in Polish footballer, Łukasz Piszczek, whose name he thought was brilliant. I felt it was a name that was likely to give Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs fell into conversation with a Dutch couple, who kindly queried after my health, having seen me looking like a zombie extra from the Walking Dead at dinner last night.
Match ended and paella despatched, the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob broke out a guitar for an impromptu sing-along. Perhaps expecting some French culture, things got off to a bad start with a raucous rendition of Volare and then the Gypsy Kings Bamboléo.
“Well, it’s not Jacques Tatti,” Crazy Legs observed dryly (or Jackie the Spud as he’s known on Tyneside.)
Sing-along degenerated into massed chanting. A couple of “oggie, oggie, oggies” which then gave way to something that sounded disconcertingly like “Sieg Hiel.”
As the guitar was picked up again and the mob launched into an off-key, off kilter version of La Bamba, we suddenly remembered we had to be up early tomorrow to ride up a mountain and quietly slipped away.
Col du Soulour from Argeles Gazot/Col d’Aubisque east side from Soulour
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 63 km / 39 miles with 1,577 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Average Speed: 19.5 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Hot and humid
It’s maybe two o’clock in the morning and I’ve been sleeping fitfully for the past couple of hours. It’s stiflingly hot and uncomfortable in the chalet and now I’m awake with a brutal, killer headache, as if someone’s wrapped a band of steel around my skull and is slowly ratcheting it tighter and tighter.
The pain intensifies horribly and flashing lights explode behind my eyes if I try to lie down, so I’m sitting up in bed, back against the wall, trying to forcibly scrub, or pull, or push the waves of pain away and out of my head. It’s not working.
I turn the light on, fumble through my rucksack, find some Paracetamol and choke a couple down, bone dry, chalky and hard to swallow.
At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake suddenly, drenched in sweat and stagger to the bathroom to throw up. I rinse and repeat the process a few times and every time my stomach heaves out its contents, the pain explodes behind my eyes. I choke down more pills and somewhere, somehow, as the sky starts to grey with dawn, I manage to grab a couple of hours of disturbed sleep.
Clanking and clunking from the living room wakes me. Surprisingly it’s not the ghost of Jacob Marley, but Kermit, in an up-and-at-‘em mood and starting to drag his bike outside to start building it back up.
I get up slowly, check the time and make to follow. We’d agreed a 10.00 o’clock depart for the first ride, so I had a couple of hours to try and pull both myself and the bike back together. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to be making the breakfast we’d hastily arranged with the campsite the night before.
The bike had survived its transit without mark, or mar and slotted together without too many issues, although at one point I did have to abandon my post and hurdle over Kermit and bits of his scattered bike in a crazed dash to the toilet. After this, I was thinking I couldn’t possibly have anything left to throw up. But, I was wrong.
I finished the bike and checked it over. All seemed good, so I got changed into my cycling kit and slapped on some sunscreen. The day looked grey and dull, with plenty of cloud cover, but it was relentlessly hot and humid. Nevertheless, as I sat on the chalet porch and just tried to recover, I was chilled and shivering and pulled on some arm warmers and my fleece while I waited for things to settle down.
A few chalets along, the Breakfast Club had returned from their sumptuous feast and were preparing to ride. (I got good reports of the breakfast extravaganza, but wouldn’t get to sample it even once in the next few days.)
Extreme Weather Protocol
Crazy Legs swung by to inform us that in light of my bad case of malingering and, as a more gentle acclimatisation for everyone else, Extreme Weather Protocol had been invoked and agreement reached to swap around Day#1 and Day#2.
The revised agenda for the day was now the Col du Soulour, followed straight up by the Col d’Aubisque. The washed out roads of the latter meaning we’d need to trace our way to it directly from the Soulour, rather than looping around to climb up from the other side as originally planned. In this way, we just about halved the distance and the amount of climbing.
At 10.00, or thereabouts, we slowly gathered, clipped in and rode out, following the road through Argelès Gazost before swinging away left, up the valley of le Gave d’ Azun, to start the approach to the Col du Soulour.
As we passed through the villages, gaps appeared in the clouds overhead and the sun poured down. This gave a bright, oily sheen to the new and smooth tarmac that glistened under our tyres, an indication that the Tour will be following these very same roads in just a few weeks’ time and preparations are in full-swing. I often wonder if, a bit like the Queen visiting the provinces, the Tour peloton get a ridiculously rose-tinted view of the state of the nation’s byways and highways.
At one point we passed a group of workmen busy branding stark, white, markings into the new road surface. The intense chemical smell of the epoxy they were using almost made me throw up and I was glad to quickly leave them behind.
I’d adopted a survival mode, bunkered down amongst the wheels, taking occasional small sips of plain water and hoping to keep it down.
We had to negotiate our way around a shirtless, deeply-tanned, golden-maned native, riding one massive, barrel chested, bay horse while leading two others behind and looking like the lone survivor from a failed raid of warrior Gaul’s. He was certainly far too cool to acknowledge Crazy Legs’ cheerful greeting. (I suspect he secretly covets the role of Xenophobix in the local Asterix the Gaul Re-enactment Society and is actually really friendly and welcoming, but he’s a method actor and has to stay aloof to remain in character.)
I also think I’d just discovered my own Asterix alter-ego for the day, too – Monosyllabix.
And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Snot
Our group slowly attenuated and then broke apart, everyone finding a pace they were comfortable with. I dropped off the back, riding for a while with Crazy Legs, who was still suffering from a ridiculously long-standing chest infection that he can’t seem to shift. He was really struggling with this, his asthma and the oppressively hot and humid conditions.
I followed in the wake of his coughing, hawking and spluttering expectorations, quietly giggling at the cloud of flies he’d acquired, like a dark halo circling his head, while realising I probably had a corresponding, buzzing accompaniment orbiting my own helmet.
At Arrans-Marsous, the road jinked to the right and the real climbing began through a series of tight, steep hairpins. I was travelling too slowly even for an ailing, lung-shot Crazy Legs now, so he checked I was ok and pressed on ahead. I found myself singing that old Gilbert O’Sullivan chestnut, “Alone Again, Naturally” as I ground my way upwards, although, in my defence I don’t actually recall anything but the title-line, which I found myself repeating, ad nauseam.
I wasn’t quite alone, however. A quick lizard snaked up the road in front of me, like a miniature Alberto Contador on the attack and a little further on, it was the turn of an intensely bright, iridescent beetle. It taunted me with both its flashiness and climbing speed, and when, with a bit of effort, I just about managed to catch it, it disappeared into the undergrowth.
I felt more empathy with a large fat bee I found, dressed much like me in black and yellow, seemingly shell-shocked, hunkered, head down, arse up and unmoving in the middle of the road. I was tempted to join him, but kept going.
A farmyard cat then watched me pass, wary and wide-eyed, it’s pupils reduced to vertical black hairlines by the bright sunlight.
Off to the left a sign seemed to point toward Bun. Or, maybe that was just a wilful hallucination…
Toil and Trouble
As I climbed and away from the settlements, the meadows became dotted with cows and the constant jangle of their bells accompanied my harsh breathing. Meanwhile, high overhead massive buzzards effortlessly circled in the thermals, marking my crawling progress and perhaps wondering if I’d provide them with easy pickings before the day was done.
I was starting to get a feel for the characteristics of Pyrenean climbs, wide sweeping bends that lacked the tight hairpins of the Alps and a gradient that seemed to annoyingly change around every corner and jarred you out of any rhythm you’d managed to establish.
The roads were also much quieter, both of cars and other cyclists and there was little evidence of the usual, faded fan graffiti on the climbs that we’d seen last year in the Alps. Perhaps the weather here is so much harsher that the road surface only lasts a season or two?
I suspect the roadside signs were designed to help struggling cyclists, counting down the distance to the summit every kilometre, with each one helpfully spelling out the average gradient across the next stretch of road too.
Occasionally this proved a little dispiriting, especially when you knew you faced an 8% average gradient for the next thousand metres and then the road eased, or heaven forbid, dipped downwards. This was an indication that a bit further along you’d be paying for the moments brief respite.
Depending on the gradient, my speed was like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl, wavering wildly between 6.5mph and 3.7mph. I was going nowhere fast, but I was still going. I have to admit I don’t remember all that much about the latter stages of the climb, I was in a sort of fugue state, not feeling particularly bad, just washed out, weak and powerless.
I finally made the top, saw a café by the side of the road and rolled through its car park. None of the parked-up bikes looked remotely familiar, so I re-joined the road and plugged away a bit more until I found the patiently waiting, motley crew outside a second café.
The Best Omelette in the Pyrenees … Allegedly
We trouped inside for lunch and were greeted by a jocular and friendly proprietor, who assumed we were Dutch. Crazy Legs surmised this because we looked far too happy and cheerful to be English and maybe he was right.
We were promised the best omelettes in the Pyrenees, which just about everyone plumped for, and a much needed round of drinks. I wish I could attest to the omelettes excellence, but I only managed to pick my way carefully through a few mouthfuls and I was done. Still, it stayed where I put it, so progress of sorts. Crazy Legs also struggled with the sheer volume of food, but made a better go of it, while the rest seemed to demolish their meals in short order.
Syncing Strava and the Bovine Menace
Outside, we set our sights on the Col d’ Aubisque, leaving Kermit behind as he fiddled with his Garmin which had annoyingly decided to play peek-a-boo with the satellites. The first part of the road was a descent down from the very summit of the Col du Soulour, with an unbarriered steep drop off to the right.
This was made slightly treacherous by the gravel strewn across the road surface and several large cows that seemed intent on meandering aimlessly across our path. Safely negotiating this moving, bovine chicane, we were soon rolling toward the gaping black maw of a tunnel cut straight through the side of the mountain.
Crazy Legs had forewarned us about the tunnel and suggested we take a leaf out of Sean Kelly’s book and close one eye as we approached, so it, at least, was adjusted to the dark by the time we got inside. I went one better and decided to close both eyes …
Ha-ha – only joking. The tunnel was as short and slimy as advertised and had a horrible ridged road surface that we all rattled uncomfortably across. I wasn’t looking forward to repeating that when we returned.
I managed to keep up with everyone on the descent, but soon the road began to climb again and I slipped off the back. Goose and Captain Black forged past and reported that Kermit was still missing.
I kept looking back to see if I could spot his red jersey, working its way up the ribbon of road that seemed to cling precariously to the steep mountain side, but nothing was moving behind me.
We were so high up that at one point I found myself riding along almost at eye level with a majestic, soaring buzzard. It seemed close enough for me to reach across to brush its wingtips, well, if I felt like leaning over the precipitous drop to my right. Then it tipped over on one wing and slipped silently away. Incredible.
As we climbed higher the clouds rolled in above and below, restricting what must have been spectacular views and I was soon climbing through a cool, muffling grey mist and wondering if it was worth turning my lights on.
Before I reached a decision, the air cleared again and then, somewhere along the way and much later than I expected, Kermit caught and passed me. He would later find his Garmin had failed to record his ascent of the Col Du Soulour and he even considered climbing it again, especially after we all convinced him that if it wasn’t on Strava ….
As the road entered a series of switchbacks, I was able to track my route by the progress of Kermit’s bobbing red jersey up ahead and judge just how far I had left and what was awaiting me around the next corner.
The climb wasn’t that hard and I don’t remember it being all that long either. At some point, I rattled across a Barrière Canadienne and wondered what it was the French had against Canuck’s that made them want to bar their access to the mountains.
Then we were at the top, hanging the bikes up in the rusting, creaking racks outside another café. A brief stop and then we gathered outside, pulling on jackets and gilets for the descent and stepping up for the obligatory group photo at the summit marker.
The Dutchman and the Brits
As we collected our bikes, Crazy Legs found himself bonding with a couple of fellow Ribble Rousers from the UK. They suggested we took time out to cheer on their colleague, a big Dutchman who was powering up the climb behind them in T-shirt and sandals, grinning from ear to ear while cheerfully piloting a massive steel, sit-up-and-beg town-bike up the col.
A few scattered, desultory signs appeared to suggest the road ahead was, as we suspected still closed and no one had any interest in finding out if it the route was still passable by bike, so we turned around and headed back the way we’d come.
I had no trouble keeping up with the others as we made our way downhill, catching and whipping past a tentative motorist just before rattling and shaking our way back through the slimy tunnel.
We regrouped at the top of the Soulour, before tipping down again, then were full bore all the way from the bottom of the descent back to the campsite.
Living to Fight Another Day
I retired to the shower block, intent on draining the campsites hot water supply. I didn’t quite manage, but feel I gave it my best shot, emerging slightly more wrinkled than usual, but starting to feel a whole lot better.
We congregated in the bar again for dinner and I managed to slide down about three-quarters of a pizza. I left the crew watching a World Cup match and trying to decide what ice creams they wanted for dessert. Making my excuses, I made my way to the chalet for an early night, crawled into bed and was gone. I don’t know if I slept, or just fell into a coma, but I wasn’t to stir for the next 12 hours.
Encouraged by our super-successful, slightly-secretive, semi-selective, sterling-sojourn into the Alps last year (see: Riders of the Alps Bucket-List) – this time Crazy Legs had us targeting the Pyrenees for another raid, deep into traditional French cycling territory.
With his formidable planning skills to the fore, he picked a date, found flights and accommodation and then simply offered the opportunity up to anyone willing, able-bodied and crazy enough, to want to ride a bike up multiple mountain passes in searing heat.
All we had to do at this point was indicate our intent with a quick, “Oui” or, “Non.” Perfect.
Wholly unsurprisingly, all of last year’s sextet re-upped for a second Tour of Duty (or Tour of Doodie, if you happen to be American) – so that was Crazy Legs, Goose, Captain Black, the Hammer, Steadfast and me.
To these serried and honourable ranks we added some real climbing prowess, with Kermit, a sub-55kg, climbing spider-monkey and the larger, but somehow-even-faster-going-uphill, Caracol.
Buster hemmed and havered, but eventually gave a reluctant, “Non” – and so we were set – an octet of inappropriately optimistic, opportunists, intent on wrecking who knows what – legs? lungs? livers? … and probably, somewhere along the line, any hopes of post-Brexit, Anglo-French entente cordiale, too.
British Airways flights were booked to leave early Thursday morning, June 21st from Newcastle to Heathrow, where we would connect with Steadfast, before travelling on to Toulouse. The return was planned for the following Monday, allowing us 3-full days of riding.
As usual, the Hammer would travel independently (which our fevered speculation determined would be through a combination of private jet, chartered helicopter and chauffeur-driven limousine).
Due to arrive early as our advance party, he promised to gather the most basic essentials to fuel our trip, which, in order of importance, appeared to be beer, wine, beer, cheese, beer and pain au chocolat.
… and beer.
Crazy Legs had secured us four cabins at the Campsite du Lavadan, just outside Argelès Gazost and some 15kms due south of Lourdes. This would be our base of operations for our 3-days of cycling and would put us within the orbit of such famous Pyrenean climbs as the Tourmalet, Hautacam and Aspin.
Goose sought and negotiated transport from the airport to the campsite – one big, 6-seater-van and a large car, deemed sufficient for 7 skinny blokes and their oversized bike boxes. He and Kermit bravely volunteered to do the driving and we were not at all worried when Kermit kept asking which side of the road he would be driving on.
The flights cost £185, the car hire about £65 each and 4 nights’ accommodation was around £100, so the basic bones of the trip came together for a, fairly reasonable, £350.
Crazy Legs then devised and circulated a rough plan for the rides:
Day#1 – Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin – a 126km loop
Day#2 – Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque – a 120km loop
Day#3 – Hautacam – 40km – straight there and back again
Everything was agreed and booked by the time BA announced the cancellation of our return flights. Luckily, the available alternatives actually helped, rather than hindered, with a more relaxed timing for the return.
Then, like last year, I more or less forgot about the whole thing until a few weeks before we were set to go.
There was a little last minute uncertainty when flash floods hit the western Pyrenees and destroyed some of the roads around the region. Indications were that the route from the Col d’Aubisque through the village of Gourette was particularly badly affected and likely to be closed, but we determined to play it by ear and adapt our route on the day.
More seriously, any effect on the upcoming stages of the Tour de France, set to travel across the same roads for stages 19, remains to be seen.
Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
Like an anorexic, bulimic teenager, weight became a bit of an obsession on two fronts as, learning from the previous trip, I planned how to travel lighter, both personally and baggage-wise.
The latter was much the easiest to accomplish. I swapped last year’s borrowed, rigid bike box for a cheap Planet-X bike bag, which I would load up with the bare minimum. This I determined was: one T-shirt per day, the clothes I would travel in, three full sets of cycling kit, a few energy gels, a set of allen keys for building up and breaking down the bike, a couple of spare tubes and a few sticking plasters (in case of emergency).
I found the bike bag much easier to pack than a box. It had integral wheel compartments and a ton of internal pockets that proved incredibly useful for stuffing things in and keeping them tied-down and in place. I also found the bike would fit in easily, with only one pedal removed – and the less assembling and disassembling I do, the happier I am, so a win all round.
Wheels out, one pedal removed, seat post out, handlebars released from the stem and taped to the top tube, I removed the gear hanger and taped the rear mech up inside the stays. I mummified the whole rear triangle in bubble-wrap, added a few pieces of foam pipe insulation to protect the frame and held everything in place with copious amounts of masking tape. That’s it, I was done.
If anything, the bike bag proved too big and capacious. Even fully loaded with wheels, frame helmet and clothes, it was still only ¾ full. I could actually have done with it being not quite as tall and, while eminently luggable, a set of wheels on the base would have been a real boon.
I’d been paying a little more attention to my own weight than usual and, as mileage ticked up, this started heading in the right direction too. I was hovering around 65kg’s on the weeks leading up to departure and starting to feel stronger and better for it.
That was until, the weekend before, when I developed a sore throat and tried the patented Crazy Legs cure of riding through it. (Hint: he’s called Crazy Legs for a reason).
Exactly one week before the trip, I climbed off the bike after a difficult commute home, admitted defeat and crawled into bed for three days, laid low by some vicious, random bug that left me thoroughly drained, caused me to miss a slew of meetings at work and, more importantly, the Saturday club run.
The following Wednesday, D-Day Minus-1, I finally swung a leg over the bike for a lone, last commute and my final ride before travelling to the mountains. Not exactly the ideal preparation, but I was good to go.
Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees
Early Thursday morning and having submitted my (hopefully well-packed) and protected bike to the tender ministrations of the ground crew at Newcastle International Airport, I tracked down the rest of the mob, already happily ensconced in a coffee shop in Departures and slurping down a selection of premium, hot beverages.
I think Kermit had surmised his baggage allowance also took into account personal weight, which gave him a massive advantage over every other passenger. To exploit this to its fullest extent, he was trailing quite the biggest and reddest piece of “hand baggage” I think I’ve ever seen.
We naturally queried if it would fit within regulation, hand-baggage dimensions, knowing full-well that if he did, by some miracle, manage to jam it into one of those baggage-guidance stands, it would never come out again.
Taking our concern to heart, Kermit triumphantly zipped up the expandable gusset, reducing the bags width by, oh, I don’t know a whole 5cms, maybe, and effectively reducing its overall footprint by almost 2%. It still looked massive and Kermit started to fret a little about getting it on the plane without having to pay an excess baggage charge.
Meanwhile talk turned to marginal gains, with Kermit admitting to taking a hacksaw to his seatpost to shave off a few centimetres and a few excess grams. There was some involved discussion about whether leg shaving constituted a marginal gain, while Goose and Crazy Legs bemoaned their androgenetic alopecia … of the legs.
Kermit worried we must have sounded like a troupe of old queen’s sitting round talking about leg shaving, but I assured him we were much too ugly for anyone to make that kind of mistake.
Someone mentioned Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it was a short-leap from there to Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, I briefly pondered if there’s a collective noun for a transvestites – a camp of transvestites the best I could find.
Our flight was called and we made our way to the gate, half of us taking the escalator to jeers about “marginal gains” – which no doubt thoroughly bewildered other passengers. I felt I was doing ok, as, although I used the stairs, I was drafting Caracol the whole way.
On the plane, Crazy Legs found himself sitting next to a bloke who looked like a rugby prop forward, he was as wide as he was tall and solid. He initially took the aisle seat, hoping the plane wasn’t full and he wouldn’t have to squeeze into the middle of the row. No such luck, a late arriving passenger appeared to claim the aisle seat and the prop forward was soon pressed in tightly against Crazy Legs, blocking most of the light filtering in from the window and causing the seat in front of me to creak alarmingly.
Close proximity, coupled with abundant, natural Crazy Legs bonhomie, soon had the muscled-mass talking and it emerged he actually was a prop forward, from Leeds Carnegie Academy and travelling to France for a little continental seasoning at one of their pro clubs.
The Return of Hans
At Heathrow, with time to kill, we gravitated toward the Costa Coffee where we’d been sitting, talking our usual brand of unadulterated bullshit on the return last year, only to forget about the time. We’d had to dash to the gate, making it just as the last flight home was closing.
In commemoration of that anniversary, Captain Black informed the staff his name was Hans, which they duly inscribed on his coffee-cup, as they had the year before when he’d told them his actual name. I’m still at a loss to understand how they could have misinterpreted Captain Black quite so badly that they arrived at Hans.
We found five seats and Kermit perched on his big, red case to sup his drink. (Ah, so that’s why he brought it). British Airways announced our connecting flight was full and were offering to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Hoping to avoid any unwelcome arguments, Kermit gave up his impromptu perch and had it checked in. One less thing to worry about.
As Kermit returned from the baggage drop, we were discussing the photos of Donald Trump alongside Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, which seemed to prove that the President of the United States was lying (yes, I know – it’s hard to believe isn’t it) about his height. The photographic evidence suggested that he isn’t the 6’3” he claims and, given his weight, can officially be classified as obese.
Still, I’m not sure if this matters, after all a wholly impartial, completely objective and scrupulously honest physician has already unequivocally informed us, that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Kermit only caught the tail-end of this conversation and then spent five minutes wondering what Jump Judo was and whether it was worth catching on Eurosport.
Dead or Alive?
A discussion about the Orange Dotard’s tiny hands morphed into a discussion about Jeremy Beadle and the Kenny Everett character, the spectacularly stupid, Brother Lee Love, who had giant hands. From these humble beginnings the trip tradition and a new game, Dead or Alive? was born. The rules were quite simple, whenever someone moderately famous, or mildly notorious was mentioned, someone (usually me) would invariably pipe up to query: “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Backed up by Google, the most astonishing thing we found was how many people we thought were dead, were still hanging on, hale and hearty, and how many we thought were still with us that had, in fact long since departed.
We eventually relinquished the seats in Costa’s and made our way to a quiet gate, where we could sit and people-watch. Here we enjoyed the drama of a futilely sprinting, late-arriving passenger pleading to be allowed onto a flight that had already closed.
(I thought he lost his case through over-acting, especially when he clasped his hands together in prayer and begged. At this point went from being a somewhat sympathetic character to overly-dramatic and slightly unhinged.)
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs tried to decipher the complex code behind all the rank markings on the epaulettes of the aircrews. The conclusion seemed to be they were mainly for show and generally meaningless.
At some point, we were joined by Steadfast, who lives just a short drive away from Heathrow and then we were all filing on board and bound for France. Goose snagged a Financial Times to read on the plane, but would later complain there were too few pictures to hold his interest for long.
On the flight I swapped seats so a pair of separated, second, or third time-around (I assume) honeymooning Americans could sit together and I managed to sleep through most of the flight.
At the other end, we queued dutifully for our bike bags with a motley collection of other Anglo-cyclists, then suffered through the seemingly interminable process of collecting our rental cars. Why such a simple process always takes such a long, long time remains one of life’s great mysteries. Finally, we were sorted and started to move.
We hit the van first, Goose and Captain Black finally remembering how we’d managed to fold the rear seats flat after a fair amount of pondering, head scratching and trial and error. We managed to load 6 of the bikes into the back of the van, squeezed in four passengers, with Goose as a driver and off they went.
The second vehicle turned out to be a new, very square, very big and very ugly, ultra-white Jeep. I would have been embarrassed to be seen in such a (# cough # wanker tanker # cough #) monstrosity at home and I think my bike bag felt the same as it curled up and hid, alone and a little lost in the Jeeps rear compartment.
I finally got to grips with a recalcitrant SatNav, tapped in details of the campsite and then Kermit got us moving for a couple of hours driving, with arrival scheduled at the campsite just as the sun was setting.
We made it to our destination without incident, bikes and bags were quickly unloaded into the cabins (all decent looking and a step up from last year’s – not that we’d ever do much but sleep and shower in them anyway.)
We picked up our advance party, the Hammer and all piled into the campsite bar. There, hard bargaining with a somewhat angry and prickly site manager, managed to make Brexit negotiations look simple, straightforward and positively jocular, but our unwavering stance finally netted us four buckets of moules et frittes and four platters of ham, eggs and chips. This seemed just about acceptable to everyone.
I stocked up on calories, washed everything down with a couple of beers and retired to the cabin, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, an early breakfast and the chance to calmly build up the bikes before we began our first ride tomorrow.
Total Distance: 118 km / 73 miles with 1,023 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 18 minutes
Average Speed: 27.3 km/h
Group size: 24 riders, 1 semi-FNG
Weather in a word or two: Temperate
Another chilly start to the day, my ride across to the meeting point was wholly unremarkable, except for miles and miles of road south of the river that were lined with yellow traffic cones. Because I’m quick off the mark, I was able to guess that there was obviously some event or other taking place.
If I’d realised it was the 9th June, I might just have made the connection and understood the significance, still, even without this hint, I somehow managed to correctly guess that all the activity was somehow related to the Blaydon Race, although I also thought (incorrectly) it was scheduled for Sunday.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Jimmy Mac was already at the meeting point, showing off a huge patch of road rash on his calf that looked like someone had blasted a muddy football off his leg. He’d been involved in a mass pile-up during the Tour Of Cambridgeshire Chrono + Gran Fondo and, considering the circumstances, escaped relatively unscathed.
The same can’t be said for his Storck bike, Zipp wheels, Assos shorts or Specialized shoes, all of which were well and truly written off, although he appeared remarkably chipper about the whole thing, I think if I’d travelled 200 odd mile and sustained losses of maybe £2-3,000 or more, I’d still be crying and cursing the cycling gods.
Still, here he was, bright and early, out on his winter bike sans mudguards and ready to lead the ride. Perhaps his general insouciance can be attributed to the fact he took out a massive new insurance policy on the Storck just the day before he left for the event?
While posting up today’s intended route of Facebook, Jimmy Mac had jokingly referenced the Velominati Rule#5, which had inadvertently triggered a (somewhat predictable) bad tempered, off-kilter, nonsensical tirade from OGL.
This was so completely inarticulate, we wondered if it was a cry for help from someone suffering a stroke while actually furiously bashing at a keyboard. We even tried to identify the precise point in his messages when the blood flow was suddenly cut off from the brain, but it could have been at any one of a dozen points.
A worried G-Dawg had immediately queried if OGL was quite ok and whether this incoherence was due to predictive text or excessive wine, while Radman concluded it was obviously predictive wine. Still, OGL had the perfect comeback, invoking the deeply mysterious, startling succinct, cutting and insightful reply of “2.”
No, I don’t know either…
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs related that he’d been tempted to buy some new socks when he saw Castelli Corsa Rosso – 6 socks for £8.00 on Wiggle. His keen brain quickly worked out that this was just £2.66 per pair of socks, an absolute bargain for such quality kit and too good a chance to miss.
On receiving just a single pair of socks with his order, he quickly checked the webpage before succumbing to an apoplectic e-mail rant. There he learned he could not only buy Corsa Rosso – 6 socks, but also Corsa Rosso –9 socks, or even Corsa Rosso 13 socks, all named for the length of the cuff and completely unrelated to how many items you get per pack.
To add insult to injury, he didn’t even get any free Haribo with his lone pair of socks.
Jimmy Mac outlined the route for the day, which included a few roads we hadn’t ventured down for quite some time and a few more we’d be travelling down rather than up, or vice-versa. Included in the middle was a, still novel, descent down Middleton Bank.
Mention of a road up through Molesden caused much head-scratching from Goose. With a deeply furrowed brow, he conveyed his confusion with a simple, “Huh?”
“Where the mad farm dog is,” someone volunteered.
“Ah!” the veil parted, “The mad farm dog.” He knew exactly where we meant now.
Jimmy Mac had us split into two groups, I dropped into the front group and away we went.
More by evolution than conscious design, the front group is starting to be characterised by a faster pace and today was no different. It’s an arrangement the consensus of regular riders seem to have been working toward for some time, but we really need to start making it more explicit – anyone suffering a jour sans, or not quite on their game is naturally going to be more comfortable in the second group.
How much faster is the first group? Well, in the first 30kms or so, on a route I’ve ridden dozens of times in the past 5 or 6 years, I netted twenty-two Strava PR’s, five 2nd fastest and two 3rd fastest times across a stretch of 37 segments.
It reached a peak on Bell’s Hill when I followed the Colossus and Ovis up at such a breathless pace, that I had to rein them in at the top after they’d blown the group apart. It was so fast, that Ovis, once again intent on fuelling his ride with an entire malt loaf, didn’t even get the opportunity to pluck it out and unwrap it, let alone eat the damn thing. He was so busy riding hard, it stood out, proudly outlined, a square, brick-sized lump in his pocket, weighing him down like a solid lead ingot.
We started to slowly shed riders as we progressed. The Garrulous Kid was the first to go, rather inexplicably declaring he didn’t much “like the road” we were travelling on. I’m not certain what particular arrangement of tarmac, slope, gravel, pots and bordering foliage he took exception to – it looked no different to what had gone before, what was yet to come and pretty much the exact same of what could be found around every single corner, no matter which route was chosen.
Then, after hammering down Middleton Bank, the Red Max and Monkey Butler Boy took a sharp left for a shorter run to the café, while later, Benedict and Caracol (and maybe one or two others) pushed on for a longer ride.
Somewhere along the way we lost an FNG who wasn’t really an FNG, but had apparently been riding with the club off and on for the past 10 years. (I’m guessing more off than on as I didn’t recognise him).
By the time we had locked-in and started the long burn toward the café, there were just six of us left. I hit the front on the short, sharp climb of Brandywell Bank and pushed as fast as I could, as far as I could down toward the Snake Bends. As the road finally levelled and then started a long gradual dip down, everyone roared past and I dug in, gave chase and just about managed to hang on the coattails as we swept through the bends and out onto the main road to the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The main conversation point at the café was best way to gauge the volumetric capacity of the human mouth. The Red Max asserted that the correct and only unit of measurement was the Twix-biscuit and his record was 12 Twix-biscuits, entirely complete, whole and undamaged.
Given Crazy Legs’ number confusion with socks, the Colossus was undertsndably keen to understand if this was 12 individual Twix fingers, or 12 standard Twix packs and therefore 24 individual biscuits – (the former), while I queried if they were fun-sized fingers or full-sized – (the latter, obviously).
Someone suggested the number of sideways inserted Mars bars might provide a better measure, while from a professional, medical perspective, Jimmy Mac recommended using a liquid, such as ale, or coffee. He then cautioned that if things went wrong the autopsy might prove challenging – explaining how the subject drowned in a mouthful of beer would be difficult enough, even before considering what implications could be drawn from a Mars bar lodged horizontally in the throat.
OGL’s absence was briefly queried and we were reminded that the last time he hadn’t turned up for a ride, he was miffed that no one had bothered to check whether he was actually all right. No one volunteered in this instance either, nor would have if any other regular failed to turn up for a particular club run. Yes, we’re a mean, selfish and self-centred lot.
And then, we were off, for a fairly fast-paced, generally uneventful ride for home.
I split from the group and made my way across the river, hitting Blaydon at just about the same time as some kind of family fun run was finishing. Luckily, this was just a prelude to the main event, the Blaydon Race, which was still an hour or two away from starting, so at least I didn’t have to share the road with 4,000 or so rabid-runners as I pushed on for home.
YTD Totals: 3,297 km / 2,049 miles with 38,651 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 118 km / 73 miles with 1,023 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 18 minutes
Average Speed: 27.3 km/h
Group size: 30 riders, 2 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Warm and cool
Here we go again, tipping down the Heinous Hill under dull skies. It was warm, muggy and sticky, with the incipient potential for a heavy, clearing downpour at any time. If we were lucky, we’d avoid it, if not, I suspected we’d be getting very, very wet. As it was a light shower was already an intermittent companion, fading in and out as I turned off down toward the river.
I couldn’t help feeling unprepared, strangely listless throughout three days of commuting, I think I was suffering not so much un jour sans as une semaine sans. I’d also accidently left my Garmin on overnight so, like me, it was in danger of running low on power.
Briefly delayed at the level crossing by the passage of a squealing, clackety and rackety local train lumbering slowly eastwards down the Tyne Valley, I found the bridge still closed to vehicles and once more threaded my way across on the footpath. Suits me – from a purely selfish perspective, I hope they take an absolute age to repair it.
Swinging right, the sun was now directly in front of me as I pushed on, only discernible as a small fuzzy patch of slightly brighter, white-gold in a blanket of grey. Although nearly every traffic light seemed against me, I was making decent time and was soon at the meeting point. Even better, the light, misting showers seemed to have run their course.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Much to the delight of all, but especially the Monkey Butler Boy, the Garrulous Kid inadvertently referred to his quick release skewers as tyre levers. We then wondered if perhaps there was an opportunity for quick release skewers to double up as actual tyre levers, although Crazy Legs idea of somehow using the levers on some kind of retractable wire, while they stayed in situ, through the hub, seemed a little too clever.
Crazy Legs meanwhile tried to convince the Garrulous Kid that, despite all evidence to the contrary, his new 25mm tyres meant he could balance his Bianchi so perfectly it would stand upright, without support. His first attempt, with the bars leaning lightly against my hand, was quickly spotted, as was the next attempt where he poised a supportive foot expertly under the pedals.
Crazy Legs nodded at the Garrulous Kid, before acknowledging, “He’s not as daft as he looks.”
“I’m not fick, you know,” the Garrulous Kid affirmed, before perching himself awkwardly on the wall, folded over like a gut-shot spider and barely supporting his bike with fully out-stretched fingertips. When questioned, he was adamant that it was a perfectly natural and fantastically comfortable pose and not at all as odd and graceless as it looked to everyone else. It would have been much cooler if he’d somehow managed to casually balance his bike upright and been able to push back and relax in his seat without having to hold it in position.
Meanwhile, OGL had arrived and hinted mysteriously at “big, big names” signing up for the National Time –Trial. I immediately wondered if Eritrean, Dimension-Data rider, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier Werkilul had perhaps applied for British Citizenship. Surely one of the biggest names in pro-cycling at the moment …
I never did find out though, as surprisingly and for once, OGL was actually keeping his own counsel, so we’ll just have to wait for the inevitable, predictable unveiling of Alex Dowsett, Steve Cummings, Geraint Thomas and … and … well, that’s about it in terms of the big, big name, British TT’ers I can think of. I’m taking it as a given that Chris Froome, not seen on British Shores since a brief cameo at the 2016 Ride London Classic, will continue to shun his own national championships.
G-Dawg stepped up to outline the ride for the day, which would see us trail down through Corbridge, before climbing back out via Aydon Road, a Strava 4th Category climb and a relatively new route for us. We were ready for the off, but OGL declared we were still two minutes away from official Garmin Muppet Time. (When did he become so time-conscious?)
We took this as an opportunity to organise our 30, or so into two separate groups. Once again, I hung back a little before divining that, yet again, the first group was outnumbered, before I dropped off the kerb and joined the back of their line. For once we achieved an almost, but not quite 50/50 split as we pushed off, clipped in and rode away.
The Colossus and Garrulous Kid punched out on the front and the speed started to build almost from the off. I suggested to G-Dawg that simple self-preservation was driving the Colossus to push the pace, perhaps desperate to quickly reach the velocity where wind noise would cancel out the idle chatter of his riding companion.
Once the first pair had done their stint and swung off the front, Kermit, Rainman, Biden Fecht and Caracol all lined up to take over and together they conspired to keep the pace high as we pushed on. I’ve no idea what particular demons were driving their frenetic pace, but in a 20km stretch of 11 Strava segments, I netted nine PR’s and a pair of 2nd fastest times, over fairly well-travelled roads.
We made it to Whittledene Reservoir in what must have been a remarkably fast time and hunkered down to wait for the second group. Some took the opportunity to refuel, while others doffed helmets and removed base layers in an attempt to cool off. Although the sun was still well shrouded, the day was muggy and uncomfortably sticky and humid.
The second group reached us after maybe five or so minutes waiting and G-Dawg indicated this was the first opportunity to turn off for a shorter ride. Only OGL, needing to be back in his shop early, took the more direct route to the café, everyone else seeming game for the hills to come and leaving a huge bunch to swarm into Corbridge and terrorise the locals.
Off we went, soon spread out by some sharp climbing and then descending the narrow lanes through Newton and into the Tyne Valley, a steep hill we more usually find ourselves grovelling up.
We were confined to a narrow strip either side of a thick line of dusty, yellow grit and gravel running down the centre of the lane and occasionally prey to snagging jerseys, or skin on the hedges, thorns and thistles that encroached from the banks on either side. Still, after countless cries of “pots!” throughout most of our ride, it was somewhat refreshing to hear Biden Fecht’s warning shout of “flowers!” instead.
A nostalgic Rainman suggested the tracks reminded him of lanes back home in Holland – I’m not sure he heard when I asked if they were all shit, too.
Hemmed in by gravel on one side and the rampant foliage on the others, a few of the riders were trying to pick their way down carefully and much too slowly for the Red Max. He let his wheels run and started sweeping past people, so I dropped into his wake and followed, weaving our way around the slower descenders and occasionally having to surf across the gravel centreline in a crunch of gravel and puff of dust.
We ducked through Brockbushes farm shop and café – home to several uncomfortable encounters with surly staff who seem to have an inherent dislike of cyclists, or maybe just customers in general. After being made to feel about as welcome as a hedgehog in a sleeping bag, we’ve taken our post-Hill Climb patronage (and money) elsewhere in recent times, so there was no chance we’d be stopping today.
We cut through the road tunnel (for once heading in the right direction and with the flow of traffic) to much whooping and hollering in its echo chamber confines, before being spat out on the road leading down into Corbridge.
Our best-laid plans were nearly led astray by a closed road sign in the town centre, but G-Dawg wasn’t to be denied and resolutely drove us through the traffic cones and almost immediately onto the climb.
We’d be heading uphill for the next 6 kilometres or so, but the testing, climb proper was a 1.6 km stretch at a 6% average and a maximum of 13%.
Caracol charged away and Kermit gave chase. I nudged onto the front with Goose and tried to set a steady and comfortable pace, even as others kept jumping past and into the gap, Benedict, Biden Fecht, Rainman and Spry all individually racing by, stretching out their legs in pursuit.
There were maybe half a dozen of us, forging upwards in a small knot behind the frontrunners and then everyone else strung out and scattered down the road in a long, long tail behind. G-Dawg called for a stop to regroup at the top and I whirred away toward this still distant point as the slope began to ease.
The riders out front weren’t stopping and had long gone by the time we’d gathered everyone together and set out again, sweeping through Matfen and up the Quarry. The group splintered apart again at this point and I took to the front as we approached the crossroads and tried to drive the pace as high as I could, through the last few bumps and up to the junction that put us on the road down to the Snake Bends.
A small group burst away to contest the sprint and I latched onto the wheels again as we rolled through the Snake Bends, onto the main road and up to the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
We’d only just gathered coffees and cakes and taken our seats in the garden, when a quite remarkable scene unfolded – a big bloke rolled through the car park, down onto the grass, braked sharply, stepped off his bike and … in a royal hissy-fit … hurled it petulantly to the ground and stomped away.
Recognising the rider as a fellow Ribble Rouser™ – Crazy Legs visibly blanched at the treatment being meted out to the twin brother of his own, highly pampered velocipede. Suffice to say, if it had been there, Crazy Legs’ much-cossetted Ribble would probably have needed crisis counselling after witnessing such an abhorrent behaviour. Luckily, today he was out on the street-brawling Bianchi and it just shrugged in a nonchalant, Italian, seen-it-all-before kind of way.
The stroppy bike throw had been performed with such vigour that the rider’s sun specs flew from his helmet as he stalked off. The Colossus retrieved them and followed to hand them back, reporting he barley received a grunt of acknowledgement, let alone any thanks. Someone, apparently, was in a really, really, bad mood.
Meanwhile, we learned that Mini Miss had found herself having to cope with the shitty hand dealt her in the second group.
It was so bad Crazy Legs felt compelled to enquire if she’d inadvertently “done a LeMond?” – while we all sombrely acknowledged the dangerous stuff that our fellow riders tyres could pick off the roads and flick our way.
Crazy Legs gave us a reprise of the debate he’d started with the Hammer on what sounded like a fun-filled Bank Holiday Monday amble, when they’d tried to determine who was better, the Beatles, or the Human League. This had seemingly ended prematurely when Old Grey Whistle Test presenter, “Whispering” Bob Harris got confused with first Rolf Harris and then, even more improbably, Arthur “Bomber” Harris.
Still, the debate was not wholly without merit as it lead to the rather dubious invention of a new, fun-filled game for all the family – “Paedo, or Predator?” This is a sort of variant of Snog, Marry, Avoid (or FMK, if you will) – but only involving celebrities accused of sexual deviances…
Yes, well … Moving swiftly on.
As we were packing to leave, Zardoz excused himself, saying he was going to stay back to chat with some of his Venerable Wrecking Crew of Gentlemen Cyclists, who’d arrived in our wake. He admitted he couldn’t miss the opportunity for more lively banter, along the lines of: “For over 40 years you’ve been wheel-sucking back there and you haven’t come around me yet.”
We set out for home and were pounding up Berwick Hill, when my Garmin let out an apologetic little beep and the screen flashed up the dread words: Battery Low.
This last happened to me half way up the Col du Télégraphe, but this time I wouldn’t have a fellow rider to loan me their files. I was now engaged in a race against the clock to see how much of my ride I could record before it was prematurely cut short and stopped being committed to Strava (and we all know if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen).
A larger group than usual entered the Mad Mile as the others turned off and G-Dawg was so engrossed chatting with Carlton that he didn’t respond when the Colossus jumped away to claim first shower. Sensing a lack of competition, the Colossus sat up, just as I decided he was having it far too easy. So, I attacked, carried the speed I’d built through the roundabout as I swept away from the others and launched myself away to start my solo drive for home.
After one brief hold up at a Metro crossing, the lights were with me the rest of the way, although I was travelling faster than the cars as I dropped down to the river and had to slow a little. I then started to time-trial along the valley floor. A thudding up and over the ramp on the bridge, a drop off the kerb, slalom through the traffic cones and I was now heading east again and closing on home.
Just before the short, but unforgivably steep ramp up from the river, my Garmin flickered and died. I had about 2 or 3 miles left to go and was on track for the longest ride of the year, but it wasn’t to be. This was where my ride officially ended.
I eased off and rolled the rest of the way home.
YTD Totals: 3,297 km / 2,049 miles with 38,651 metres of climbing