Another Saturday, another brush with early morning rain that had me stopping to pull on a rain jacket halfway across to the meeting point.
There, with a new order of unofficial club kit imminent, people were still trying to get a grip on Santini’s Italian sizing, which, while not quite as severe as Castelli’s, still lends a bit of a gamble to any order. You know when normal-sized blokes are ordering in XXL that something’s been lost in translation. To counteract this we had an intense round of “what size are you wearing?” and even some physical swapsies as people tried on various bits of kit for fit.
I took my queue from the Cow Ranger and removed my rain jacket once he’d determined the worst of the rain had passed. A few minutes later he pulled his back on, but I decided to stand pat. One of us at least would get it right. (Surprisingly it was me and we had to have an unscheduled jacket doffing stop an hour or so into the ride.)
OGL didn’t sound all that sympathetic when discussing Aether’s tumble last week, implying it was his own fault for riding with too much pressure in his tyres. He then prefaced a comment with that immortal phrase involving grandmothers and egg-sucking, which invariably means you’re going to be told something you already know, much in the same way someone saying “no offence, but …” is just about to mortally insult you.
This time we received a lecture on wheel wear, with instruction for anyone riding Shimano wheels to periodically “run their finger over their rim hole.” Well, whatever floats your boat.
For some the rain had prompted an early return to the purgatory of winter bikes, which found Richard of Flanders pitting his steel-framed, pannier rack-equipped Genesis in a weigh-off against Goose’s Raleigh Panzerkampfwagen™ touring bike. I could have told him he would lose before he managed to grunt the Raleigh a couple of inches off the ground as, not only is it replete with innumerable racks and rails and cages and fittings for bags, but its also cast entirely from pig iron.
Jimmy Mac briefed in the route which had to avoid a closed Berwick Hill. I picked out the most important bits, the climbs of the Mur de Mitford and the Trench, then missing Middleton Bank en route to a cafe stop at Capheaton. I completely ignored the bit about getting home again, but in the end, as Chester Bennington once observed, it didn’t even matter.
We’ve been having a remarkably consistent 20 or so riders each week for the past month or so, and this Saturday was no different. Two groups were called for, but this time we struggled with numbers in the first group, so after a bit of hesitation I leant myself to the cause and 8 of us formed the vanguard for the day.
I dropped onto the back alongside Not Anthony who was hoping we wouldn’t be called to the front until we found a tailwind, but things obviously don’t work like that and we were called into action soon after scaling a very slimy and slippery Mur de Mitford.
Onto the Trench and the Cow Ranger and Jimmy Mac rode off the front while the rest of us followed at a more sustainable pace. There was a fluffed gear change and a bit of a shuffle and kerfuffle behind me, but at this point I was fully invested in the climb, so just kept going without looking back.
About half way up, Biden Fecht passed me and I dropped onto his wheel and clung on. When the slope bit again and he changed up, I returned the favour, pushing past to pace the rest of the way up the climb. We regrouped at the top, where Richard of Flanders was found to be suffering an extreme case of winterbikitis – a debilitating disease that can cause all sorts of aches, pains and a feeling of weakness in the legs. It catches up with us all, sooner or later.
We pushed on, through the Hartburn dip and swoop, skirting the base of Middleton Bank toward Wallington, and then shimmied across the A696. As we started the final climb to the cafe I managed to hang onto Jimmy Mac and the Cow Ranger over the steepest, first section, before being cast adrift and breathless as the slope ground on, and they slowly pulled away.
In the cafe we found a convalescing Buster, not yet allowed out au velo following a major operation, but obviously hopelessly missing our bravura banter and brilliant bursts of bolleaux. (The only other explanation is that he’s slightly stir crazy from being confined at home for so long that even our testing and irritating company is some kind of welcome relief. But come on, no one is going to believe that.)
We did our best to keep him royally entertained, none more so than Goose, who is obviously in the market for a new casquette, so was trying everyone else’s helmet on and taking a bunch of selfies of himself trying to look serious.
Either that, or he just likes trying other peoples things on.
We brought Buster up to speed on Aether’s crash last week and OGL’s reaction that it was a self-inflicted consequence of over-inflated tyres. Unsurprised, he reminded us of the official reaction to Zardoz’s tumble, which had been dismissed as largely inconsequential because he hadn’t paid his membership fees at the time.
At some point almost our entire table stood as one and swarmed the counter for coffee re-fills, only to be sent away for overwhelming the service, returning with disgruntled, hang dog expressions. They cheered up instantly though when one of the waitresses brought a coffee jug across and we were treated to the luxury of table service. That was very civilised, I could get used to it…
I felt it was chilly coming out of the cafe, so pushed on while others seemed to dawdle. I had a decent gap by the bottom of the descent from Capheaton and was only just beginning to warm up. I was also enjoying a rare, good day where the legs were turning more or less effortlessly, so I just decided to press on and see how far I could get before I was caught.
If I’d been thinking, or even paying attention, I would have realised they were probably taking a completely different route home to avoid Berwick Hill, while I was doing my standard routing through Ponteland from Kirkley.
So, I guess everyone took a right at West Belsay, while I followed our usual Belsay-Ogle-Kirkley trail. As a consequence, I didn’t see anyone else until Not Anthony popped up briefly on my back wheel just past the airport. That was fine though, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and don’t think my speed had dipped much below 20mph at any point of the run back.
It also meant I was a little more attuned to the environment, and was able to add to Sam-Aye-Am’s discovery of the scent of watermelon around Ogle with the not so unusual smell of freshly turned earth then, somewhat more bizarrely, bourbon biscuits and then boiled rice.
Unfortunatley, I wont have the opportunity to discover other odd, olfactory occurrences next week as I’ll be depositing Thing#2 at University and then seeing how well me and Mrs. SLJ cope as empty-nesters.
With luck, I might make it out on the Sunday though and, if not, I can always defy British Cycling’s spectacularly, misguided and ill-judged advice and actually dare to ride my bike on the day of the queen’s funeral.
#Shock #Horror not all of us are all that interested in the replacement of one supremely privileged, unelected head of state with yet another.
As if a switch has been flipped, we’ve moved seamlessly from constant, bright blue skies to overcast and a slow fade to grey. As I dropped down the Heinous Hill it prompted me to run through my repertoire of Visage’s greatest hits – which, to be fair, didn’t take all that long. I was done by the bottom and luckily escaped without inflicting an annoying earworm on myself.
Despite the impenetrable cloud cover, it was a decent enough day, cool rather than cold and with only a gently tugging breeze to impede movement. There was rain forecast, but not until just after midday. Or so they said.
I crossed the river and followed my new, preferred route up Hospital Lane, annoyed to find my shoe sliding around sloppily and feeling dangerously close to pulling itself out of the pedal’s grasp. I didn’t remember my cleats being so loose last time out but made a mental note to increase the tension in the pedals and, that done, spent the rest of the climb concentrating on keeping my foot planted squarely and still engaged.
This small distraction aside, I made good time and was closing in on the meeting place when I stopped for a pee. Stepping away from the bike I was accompanied not by the usual clip-clop from my colourful clown shoes, but an odd clip-clop-clop. l reached down and found the cleat had worked itself loose and was sliding around, largely untethered. Like the world’s most ungainly stork I removed the shoe and balanced precariously on one leg as I tightened up the bolts. A simple fix, even in the field, but I’ve never had cleats work loose before and can’t work out why they had this time?
At the meeting place Ahlambra was intrigued by the stock wheels that came off my 13 bike and had been press ganged into service on Reg, in particular the single red spoke on each. I told him this was apparently to mark where the valve hole is, because, well, you know, they’re really, really hard to find with the naked eye. Or something.
This led to a discussion about wheel building, spoke choice and another paean from G-Dawg, lamenting how silver spokes and rims were no longer commonplace, but had at one time fuelled his descent into unspeakable Duraglit addiction.
As we talked the showers scheduled for that afternoon decided to put in a very early, surprise appearance, offering up the chance to demonstrate cyclists know enough to come in out of the rain. This was an opportunity that we did eventually take, shuffling under the eaves of the multi-storey car park and managing the task before we were completely soaked through.
Several of the group were planning a ride out midweek to see the Tour of Britain but, even though our former clubmate beZ is riding with his Ribble-Weldtite team, I’m boycotting the race this year after their unconscionable decision not to route it past my front door, or even through my immediate neighbourhood. It’s just not good enough.
Plans are afoot to travel out to watch Stage 3, which would include a trek out into Cumbria toward Alston and potentially up Hartside Pass. A mere mention of this climb was enough to have OGL wax lyrical about epic winter rides in adverse conditions – the good old days of 130 mile plus club runs.
“130 miles, eh?” G-Dawg laughed, “And this from the bloke who is adamant club runs are getting longer!”
Our numbers seem to be holding steady at about 20 riders, give or take, so we split into two (naturally unbalanced) groups and away we went.
I dropped into the second group with G-Dawg and maybe half a dozen others and things were progressing relatively normally, if at a rather glacial pace as we found a new, very pleasant, quiet road with a perfect surface. The only drawback was it didn’t really lead anywhere we couldn’t get to more directly. Still, if nothing else it served to pad out our mileage.
A brief halt to gather up stragglers somehow turned into an impromptu pee break, so we’d no sooner re-grouped than been split in two again and had to stop a second time to try and corral everyone. OGL was last to arrive, delayed, according to Cowin’ Bovril, because he’d begun “filming a porno” – forgetting he had a rear-facing camera on his bike that was capturing his micturition attempts in glorious technicolour.
Cowin’ Bovril suggested the wide-angle lens might at least provide a flattering image, only to be told by OGL that he wasn’t previously known as, ahem, “the ginger pendulum” for nothing.
That was uncalled for.
The declaration was met with a universal rolling of eyes and a unanimous, clearly audible groan. I mean, after the last person caught in self-aggrandising braggadocio had ended up holding the nuclear football for a 4-year term, I’m not sure we should be indulging such “locker-room banter” and, err, “alpha-male boasting” anymore.
We tried to move swiftly on, only to encounter a sign bearing the dire warning that there were slow birds on the road. Eh?
Then, round a gloomy bend under some trees we slowed as we came across one of the worst sights you can see on a club run, bikes abandoned on ether side of the road, typically in response to some form of accident. In this case, it had been in our front group, where Aether’s wheels had slid out on the greasy surface and he’d brought the Soup Dragon down on top of him. They were both up on their feet again, but Aether was hobbling, while the Soup Dragon was bleeding from nose and mouth.
I had no idea if they’s ignored all the warnings and somehow slow birds were involved.
(Aether would later spend 11 hours in A&E to be told: “Yes, you have a pelvic fracture.” This, he calculated, was approximately two hours wait for each word of his assessment, proof, if we were in any doubt, that the NHS is in dire need of better financial and governmental support.
Our second group stopped briefly to see if any assistance was needed, but there were plenty of willing helpers, so we were encouraged to clear the road and keep going. And so we did, working our way out past Dyke Neuk and toward Longwhitton before the start of the long, grinding drag up to Rothley crossroads.
“Last chance to cut the route short,” G-Dawg identified, and Taffy Steve paused to weigh the options. His head, he revealed, said go, but his legs said no. In such instances I recommended that you should always listen to your legs as mine, at least are twice as smart as my head. He took the advice and he and Big Dunc hung a left toward Hartburn, leaving me, G-Dawg and Sam-Aye-Am to complete the full route, up to the crossroads, before scaling Middleton Bank and picking up the pace for a fast run to the cafe.
We’d left the cafe choice open, but the rain had turned drizzly and then stopped, the weather was warm and brightening and Bolam Lake was G-Dawgs preferred choice, I’m sure not at all influenced by his opinion that they were the purveyors of the very best in bacon sarnies. (I trust his assessment, he is clearly a connoisseur of such things.) Anyway, he was on the front as we reached the junction and seemed to decide instinctively, while I just followed the wheels.
We arrived to find Taffy Steve and Big Dunc already ensconced, the former somewhat perturbed having complimented the cafe staff on finally installing electronic payment and hearing how the card-reader wasn’t the only small, buzzing electronic device the waitress liked. All delivered with a rather knowing wink.
(Speaking of which, and as a total aside, I heard this week that Ewan McGregor’s fighter-pilot brother goes by the call-sign of Obi Two. That’s way cooler than Maverick, or Iceman.)
Survivors from the the front group joined us and conversation turned to cyclists riding with quite ridiculous injuries, typified by Tyler Hamilton who finished 4th in the 2003 Tour despite riding most of the way with a broken collarbone. This was a follow-up to a 2nd place in 2002 Giro achieved with a broken shoulder and, on that occasion he’d apparently ground his teeth so hard through the pain that he had to have 11 of them capped or replaced after the race.
We touched on the Commonwealth Games track cycling, which featured some para-athletes on tandems and Chris Boardman commentating that crashes were not only very common but, he suggested, inevitable.
Once again the violent depredations of wheelchair, rugby, tennis and basketball were touched on, before someone mentioned blind football again and I was able to steal someone else’s line about it all being well and good chasing around pell-mell, trying to hoof a ball with a bell in it, until the neighbours cat wandered out into the arena.
We coalesced into one large group for the ride home, which was proceeding rather unremarkably, until Sam-Aye-Am insisted he could smell watermelon as we passed through Ogle. I had to admit there was a distinctive and fresh odour being carried on the breeze, but I’m fairly certain that, despite global-warming, the climate in the North East still isn’t conducive to the cultivation of watermelon. Then again, there was that odd moment earlier in the year when Newburn had the odd scent of grapefruit …
G-Dawg stretched us out up Berwick Hill and I pushed onto the front alongside him as we began the descent, straight into an easterly headwind that seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere and made the usually easy downhill bit an absolute grind. It certainly didn’t make me envious of Taffy Steve’s route home, all the way out to the coast directly into that.
There was then only time for some juvenile farmer in a tractor to vigorously insist that G-Dawg was a serial self-abuser (for no discernible reason we could see) and then I was splitting off and heading for home and an appointment with the sofa in front of what’s turning out to be a rather entertaining Vuelta.
Well back to a normal club run affairs after a mischievous and thoroughly enjoyable dabbling with time trials. Well, almost back to normal. This weekend marked the sombre, 2nd anniversary of the untimely death of club mate, Gavin Husband, who collapsed and died while riding home at the end of a Saturday club run.
Gavin occasionally graced this humble blerg in the guise of Benedict, but my inane witterings went no way toward capturing the kindness and generosity of spirit that were the hallmarks of the man. His first memorial ride had passed in a never-ending deluge of Biblical proportions, which somehow seemed appropriate to the occasion and at least made it unforgettable. This time around things looked significantly more agreeable.
Biden Fecht organised the ride utilising one of Gavin’s old routes and had thrown it open to anyone who knew Gavin, regardless of any club affiliation. He’d also set up a Just Giving page to raise money for the Great North Air Ambulance, while Gavin’s widow was set to meet us at the cafe for a moment of remembrance.
I was slightly late leaving the house, so modified my usual route to take in the climb of Hospital Lane. I’d learned from my Clickbait adventures that this would shave about a mile off my route and save me 4 or 5 minutes, at the cost of a stiffer climb out of the valley. This worked to perfection and I reached the meeting point bang on 09.00 to find a fairly large group already assembled.
I had a chance for a long overdue catch up with Kermit, before Biden Fecht briefed in the route and we started to get groups out and away. A sizeable first group was followed by an over-sized second group, so I hung back to join a rather diminished third joining Crazy Legs, Taffy Steve and a handful of others.
Within minutes of our grand depart a couple of drivers saluted our cycling prowess with a stunning duet, a near note perfect rendition of what I believe was Mozart’s 4h Horn Concerto, although I have to admit I’ve always been tone death. Minutes later, white van man’s contribution was less tuneful and slightly more strident. He seemed deeply troubled by something or other on this fine, fine morning, but I couldn’t work out was bothering him.
The aural assaults were bad enough, but then a white ‘hot hatch’ came screaming past us on a bend and nearly lost it on the roundabout ahead, rising up until the two nearside wheels almost lifted off the ground, before slamming down again and fishtailing wildly across the road until control was restored and it roared away.
“Hmm,” Taffy Steve remarked dryly, “Two strident motorists, white van man and then a turbo-nutter bastard? Your blog title almost writes itself.”
And thus, it was so. I mean, who am I to deny the Fates.
I did a decent turn on the front up and through Ponteland and then again through Meldon. We paused momentarily at Dyke Neuk and then cut a corner off to route through Hartburn and out toward Middleton Bank, where we followed another large group onto the climb. From a little distance away this looked to be a contingent from the Blaydon club, riding up the slope impressively en bloc, while we were shattered and scattered down its length. We then took an age to regroup, before settling in for the last push to the cafe.
We were nearly there and slightly ahead of the second group courtesy of our shortcut around Hartburn. They caught us with about 1km to go and our group was sucked along in their slipstream as they sprinted toward the cafe. Despite the injection of pace though, everyone failed to beat the rain, which started to hammer down just as we pulled to a stop.
Cafe service was surprisingly quick and we all gathered in the dark and dank barn to listen to the rain drumming relentlessly on the roof.
The Red Max, Mrs Max and the Monkey Butler Boy were there in mufti, the Red Max being sidelined with a sore elbow, although he disputed my assertion that this was the result of playing too much tennis, golf, croquet, or other bourgeois sporting endeavour.
The Monkey Butler Boy towers over everyone now, so more Silverback Butler Boy than monkey these days. One thing that hasn’t change though is his penchant for bright, white shoes, although we were disappointed to learn he wasn’t quite as obsessive in keeping these as pristine as his cycling slippers and no longer carried baby wipes expressly for this purpose.
We did hear that father and son had momentarily bonded over a joint hacksaw assault on a recalcitrant gear hanger. Red Max suggesting such accord did happen periodically, but only around once every 5-years. I suspect it most usually coincides with some diabolical partnership in controlled engineering destruction.
The interchange between the pair reminded Taffy Steve of a Mark Twain quote – “When I fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Funny feller that Twain guy.
G-Dawg put on his serious specs to deliver a brief eulogy to missing friends, topped with a minutes applause as tribute. We emerged, blinking into the newly-washed sunshine, where Goose assured me I could safely stow my rain jacket for the ride home.
I had a brief moment to admire the perfectly formed chainring tattoo on his less than perfectly formed calf. Such adornments are becoming an increasingly common feature of his appearance, which Goose suggested might be the consequence of him having one calf bigger than the other.
As well as leaving you with disgraceful penchant for chainring tattoo’s, he then told me asymmetrical calves are also potentially symptomatic of an acute pulmonary embolism. Despite the reason we were all out here today though, he seemed blithely unconcerned by this, so I trust he’s had it checked out.
Anyway, he was correct in his assessment of the weather at least, as I enjoyed the rest of my ride home in a pleasant spell of sunshine.
Now, I’m going a way for a while in order to turn 60 (I’ve heard it can be quite a long and taxing transformation) – so see you on the other side.
Day & Date:
The 2nd Gavin Husband Memorial Ride, Saturday 20th August 2022
Early Saturday and after days of a stifling heatwave (typically anything above 20℃ in the North East of England is considered extreme) it was quite pleasant to find myself descending through the cooling, clinging mist that had settled overnight, although my arm warmers, shorts and the lenses on my specs were soon beaded with jewelled dewdrops and I had to ship the latter and store them in my helmet vents.
I had my second time trial lined up for tomorrow, so was conscious of not wasting too much energy as I fumble towards finding the best preparation. With this in mind, I bumbled happily along at a fairly relaxed pace, reaching the meeting point without the need for any round-the-houses diversions to fill in a little time.
When I arrived I was introduced to a returning rider who has officially re-joined the club after a notable absence and in the process became about the 29th member called Paul.
I also learned that last week, in his fairly new, official capacity as Membership Secretary, Crazy Legs had serenaded our latest recruit with his very own new club member welcome song. She’d not returned this week and I’m not sure anyone had altogether enjoyed the experience, so that idea has been shelved. At least for now.
I of course had missed this singing celebration because of my mechanical travails last week. Every cloud has a silver lining, eh?
Speaking of last week, Biden Fecht had no sooner condemned me to a 2-up TT and put our official entry in, when the event was cancelled due to a safety issue with roadworks on the course. Everyone who’d signed up expressed their utter dismay, none so forcefully as Captain Black, although his Cheshire Cat grin did somewhat undermine his sincerity.
OGL turned up, I think principally to show everyone the mark on his arm, which he assured us wasn’t just any old, common, or garden insect sting, nor even a spider bite, but the result of a sustained and vicious attack by what he described as “some kind of flesh-eating arachnid.”
“Have you noticed any new superpowers?” Caracol enquired innocently.
Apparently he hadn’t. Or at least that’s what I interpreted from his rather salty reply.
Now the mist had burned off it looked like being a decent enough day, but our numbers didn’t quite match-up and we only just topped 20 riders. There was enough for a split though and we managed to get 8 or 9 into the first group without too much cajoling.
I joined the second group and off we went, heading for a drop into the Tyne Valley and a traipse along the river. G-Dawg and Crazy Legs led us out to Medburn, before ceding the front and I pushed through alongside the Soup Dragon. A little confusion reigned as the group split and took two separate descents down into the Tyne valley, so I found myself waving cheerfully at a bunch of cyclists emerging from the village, until I realised it was the back half of my own group. Not that I felt stupid or anything …
Strung out from both the descent and the split, we used the valley road to try and round everyone up again.
“Shout if you’re not back on yet,” Biden Fecht called out from the front.
We heard nothing but silence, so assumed it was gruppo compatto and pressed on.
Just beyond Ovingham, we passed the Famous Cumbrian, on his own and wrestling with a tyre change. Odd that he’d been abandoned by the first group. I asked if he was ok and got an affirmative, so kept on keeping on, down the steep ramp to the riverside path, where I spotted rest of his group, seemingly loitering with intent, soft pedalling and occasionally looking back. They seemed to assume our arrival relieved them of any responsibility to wait around any longer, quickly picked up speed and disappeared up the road again.
We agreed to stop and wait for the Famous Cumbrian at the Bywell Bridge, where Mini Miss climbed a fence to search for some nettles to irrigate, while the rest of us stood around, talking bolleux and enjoying the warm sunshine.
After a good 10-minutes or so with still no sign of the Famous Cumbrian, Crazy Legs retraced our route to go look for him. A further 5 minutes or so went by and Captain Black had a call from Crazy Legs to say the Famous Cumbrian had a puncture in his tubeless set up, was struggling to now get a tube in as a stop-gap fix and we should just push on without them.
Captain Black and Biden Fecht went back to reinforce the rescue mission and to make sure no one was left to ride the rest of the route on their own, while the rest of us carried on.
Just before Corbridge we took the bridge over the A69 at Aydon and started the long climb out of the valley. Here I played the “TT tomorrow card” to blinding effect, letting the front group go, while I tackled the climb at a much more relaxed pace.
From there it was a short hop to Matfen and then up the Quarry, taking the more straightforward run to the cafe. I tried to give the group some impetus as we wound up for the traditional cafe sprint, then was able to sit up and coast home as the road dipped down and everyone blasted past for the usual fun and games.
It was out into the garden at the cafe on what was turning into another hot day – hot enough for the tables with a bit of shade to be at a premium. Talk turned to various Everesting attempts – a rather bizarre challenge that involves riding one selected climb over and over again, until you’ve ascended a total of 8,848m, or the height of Mount Everest above sea level.
I suppose it’s fair enough to attempt if you have some big hills, or ideally mountains in the area, but the flatter the terrain you choose the more laps you need to complete the challenge. G-Dawg referred to one attempt he’d heard of using the local Billsmoor climb. (I could see his lip curling with disdain even as he said it, as he positively loathes Billsmoor). At just 1.9 kilometres in length and a maximum gain of 138 metres, you’d need to ride up and down this climb 65 times just to complete the challenge. You’d also need to achieve an average speed of 34.6 kph if you wanted to beat the record (a mere 6 hours and 40 minutes, although most riders take close to 24 hours straight to complete the feat.)
This whole thing sounds like a swift path to madness (or zwift path, for those attempting vEveresting) and I can safely say I’ll not be giving it a try. But then you probably could have guessed that based on the fact that a 10-mile TT is challenge enough for me.
If Everesting seems a particularly odd activity, we decided actually climbing Everest is even more so, especially now it has become a fully commoditised and commercialised activity. It seems odd to think of having to queue for summit attempts in one of the most remote places on earth and the cost in both time and money (an estimated average $45,000) appears to be making people somewhat reckless to push the limits of safety, with deathly consequences.
We were of course, reminded that it’s also become the domain of B-list celebrities and we all felt truly sorry for the poor Sherpa tasked with hauling Brian Blessed up the mountain, with his voice booming in their ears the entire way.
Being cyclists, it wasn’t long until the seemingly ever-lachrymose and mentally fragile Victoria Pendleton got a mention, because oxygen deficiency can trigger depression, so it’s only natural that she should have been chosen to attempt to scale the world’s highest peak … I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
We left the cafe in good spirits for the ride back home and I left the group and routed through Ponteland to shave some distance off what was heading for fairly long 70+ mile run, completing the last part at a stress free, relaxed pace.
Then, an uncharacteristically early 06:15 start on Sunday found me driving out toward Cramlington for the Barnesbury CC 10-mile TT. I knew it was uncharacteristically early as the only other traffic out on the road was heading to the rugby club at the bottom of the hill for a car boot sale. I didn’t even realise these were still a thing.
The SatNav got me close enough to the race HQ before deciding to randomly send me the wrong way, but I spotted a shiny TT bike sat atop a BMW and followed this into the actual event car park.
There I found the usual cluster of expensive looking, angular bikes with shiny, solid disk wheels, and all sorts of bars and wings and things jutting out their front ends like stylised, heavily-industrialised antlers.
The owners of these machines are typically ridiculously fit and very, very fast and they take this endeavour very seriously. I haven’t quite developed that level of dedication and I’m still finding the attire slightly odd, from the knee-high aero socks to the gleaming Death Star helmets and ultra tight skinsuits (I swear I’ve seen a few of these advertised on eBay as “fetish wear.”)
These skinsuits typically come without pockets, so a lot of my fellow competitors don’t appear to carry all that much with them (unless they have it stashed internally!) That’s never going to work for me as I think I’d struggle without the reassurance of all the usual crap I carry – keys, phone, pump, tyre levers, multi-tool and wallet, along with a couple of spare tubes on the bike.
I got changed and signed on with about an hour to go before my designated 08:29 start and asking for some directions, took the bike out for a ride around the course. This has the secret-squirrel designation of M102C and is run on a flat and fast dual carriageway. It comprises a straight east bound run, then an equally straight northbound leg up to a big roundabout at the halfway point. You then sail around this in order to retrace your steps back toward the start. Simples.
I should have followed the instructions I had to find the start but saw one of the event directional signs and followed this to find myself on the northbound stretch leading up to the halfway turn. All the way around the roundabout, back over the bridge (avoiding the large, raised divot in the centre of the road) and then back the way I’d come.
The problem was one stretch of dual carriageway looks pretty much like any other and I missed the turn and found myself way off course. At 08:15 I was still looking for the right roundabout and beginning to think I was going to miss my start-time. I finally spotted one of the event marshals and he pointed me toward the finish where the time keeper was able to direct me to the start and I bustled my way there with just a couple of minutes to spare.
I arrived, slightly winded, to take my place in line behind a tall guy from Ferryhill Wheelers. Was that the ideal warm up? Hmm, maybe not.
The marshal asked for the race number of the guy in front as he checked his bike over and made sure he had the requisite lights front and back.
“Number 28,” the guy told him.
Satisfied the marshall looked at me enquiringly.
“Strangely enough, I’m number 29.”
“Well, look at that,” my fellow competitor announced, “Cyclists can actually count.”
He pinged his nail off his rear tyre two or three times, testing the pressure.
“It’s a bit late for that,” I told him and indeed it was, as he shuffled forward to the start line and clipped in.
Half a minute later he was gone and it was my turn … 5-4-3-2-1 … and off we went.
On the flat, fast course I was quickly up to speed and soon travelling at a decent clip in excess of 20 mph. I stayed on the hoods for the first few hundred metres to negotiate the first roundabout and then, as the course proper straightened out before me I tucked in and settled down onto the aerobars.
I might, in my own mind, have been travelling at a decent clip, but my minute man caught and passed me before I’d completed two miles. Like I said there are some very, very fast riders doing this stuff.
The second caught me as I was hesitating and trying to decide whether the approaching junction was the one I needed to take at the halfway point in order to head back. He helpfully shouted instructions to stay on the right all the way around and I managed to keep him in sight and follow onto the right exit back onto the main drag.
The third, and last, caught me on the uphill ramp to the junction where we’d be turning west toward the finish line. This was the only time I recall my pace dropping below 20 mph, though I still went up it quicker than the rider who’d just passed me, as the gap visibly narrowed.
Then it was the final long straight to the finish, pushing as hard as I could for the last couple of miles.
There was a car on the final roundabout and if I’d been 10 seconds later, I may have had a marginal decision to make about whether to brake, or try and nip in front of it. Luckily, I was able to keep my momentum going and sail safely by, long before it closed.
A minute or so more effort and I crossed the line, sat up to freewheel around one more roundabout and started to roll back to the race HQ. Done.
The bars seemed alarmingly wide after riding for almost half an hour crouched over the aerobars, but I was pleased to have been able to maintain the position for most of the ride. I was 31st out of 34 riders, completing the course in 26:45 at an average speed of 22.43 mph. This was exactly 1 minute faster than my only other 10-mile TT way back in 2018, so progress of sorts, although that was on a lumpier and windier course.
So there you have it, my brief race season lasted from just the 31st July to the 14th August, covered two events and lasted a mere 1 hour 3 minutes and 44 seconds.
Still, the hook has been set and I’ll aim to try more of this next year – I’m starting from a low base so there’s plenty of room for measurable improvement. If not, then I guess I’ll still hopefully and somewhat bizarrely find this whole thing an enjoyable experience.
Back home by 09.30, I felt I’d earned myself a very lazy afternoon, so settled down to watch the European Road Race, the highlight of which was the possibly dyslexic rider from Iceland grabbing up an Ireland musette. Later that day, someone told me they’d found a cure for dyslexia, which I have to say was music to my arse…
Sorry. Sorry, sorry.
That seems like a very good place to end this now …
Nah, thought not. Anyway since my last load of wild, incoherent blerg ramblings I’ve packed in a family holiday, sans velo, and then last Saturday didn’t participate in the club run as I’d rather foolishly decided to enter the clubs one and only organised time-trial the following day.
Of course there’ll be those purists and naysayers who would suggest that over-indulging in pastéis de nata and vinho verde is probably not good preparation for a high-level aerobic work-out. Well, I have news for them – on the balance of the evidence, they’re probably right.
So what were we looking at here?
Our Club Open TT was to run on the M12S course starting and ending at opposite ends of the village of Stamfordham. The route is a slightly odd 12 miles, or a 20km loop (if you don’t like retard units) which is an entire 2 miles longer than the only other time-trial I’ve ever ridden and, oh, about 11½ miles more than the distance I’m actually comfortable with.
The first half looked (and proved to be) extremely lumpy, a constant, gradual rise all the way to the top of the Quarry, which was frequently interrupted by sharper, more sudden ramps and bumpy-lumps. The descent of the Quarry then gave way to a theoretically fast, flat(ish) run for home.
The morning of the ride turned out to be a rather bleak, chill and rain sodden affair, but the rain had thankfully more or less passed by the time I’d pulled the bike out of the car, got changed and rolled out along the wet roads for a warm-up and a first look at the course. If a training regime of pastéis de nata and vinho verde is not conducive to good performance, and preparation is the key to success, then I’d doubly failed. Hey ho.
I started to trace the course out of the village, past the start-point and up. And up. And up. And up some more. Of course I’ve ridden these roads many times before, but mainly in a group, usually in the other direction and never in a race situation. I’d never realised just how much climbing was involved. This looked much harder than I’d anticipated, which was rather worrying for someone who’s quite good at imagining the worst … and there were long, long sections when I’d have to thrash my way upwards out of the saddle, in order to try and maintain any semblance of speed.
To make matter worse, my front wheel had started to cheerfully emit a bright, chiming tinkle-tinkle-tinkle as it rolled round, the noise of something loose and rattling freely around in the rim, which I could only think was the snapped off end of a spoke nipple. The wheel itself was now swaying like a slightly drunk, lovelorn sidewinder, coquettishly rearing back before summoning up the courage to rush in to plant a light kiss on my left-hand brake block. It was love. Apparently. The wheel was (relatively speaking) still true and rideable as long as the spoke remained embedded in the rim, so I decided to keep going, but have no idea if it was a sensible decision.
My half-arsed recce ride got as far as a crossroads where Andeven was marshalling and I stopped for a chat, assuming that at this point the climbing on the route was more or less done. By then it was getting close to my start-time anyway, so I turned around and rolled back down to the village.
Big Dunc was our official starter and Captain Black the volunteer holder.
“Do you want me to hold the front and back, or just hold the back?” he asked as my start time drew nigh and I nudged my way up to the line.
“Yes, definitely, just hold me back,” I deliberatly misheard him, “I’ve made a big mistake, I shouldn’t be doing this.”
The man has no heart.
The clock wound down and I was released, set free into the wild. I accelerated away and tried to find the right balance between riding fast uphill into a cross headwind and not blowing up in the first mile or so. I was struggling to keep my pace anywhere near the target 20mph pace I’d set myself and my lungs were already labouring like over-worked, very leaky and wholly ineffectual bellows. The fire in the forge was pretty feeble and this was just painful – painfully slow and yes, physically painful too.
It seemed like I was only a mile or two into the ride when my minute-man bustled past, a mixed metaphor of a bullet in black, going like a train. As he disappeared up the road, I was convinced he would mark the start of a steady procession of riders catching me and streaming by, so I was quite surprised to reach the finish without being passed by anyone else, although I suspect the rider who started two minutes back was hot on my heels, but ran out of road before he could make the catch.
Back out on the course I had taken the first turn, cheered on by the Big Yin out on marshalling duties, and ground my way slowly and painfully up to where Andeven was stationed for more, much needed encouragement. Here I learned that my assumption the road would start to flatten and even descend from this point proved laughably false and there was more interminable grinding uphill, past Crazy Legs working in his capacity as unofficial videographer and one-man cheerleader team.
“Only a couple of hundred metres to go!” he called out enthusiastically as I churned past. He later said he knew it was me as he recognised my usual sardonic expression, even underneath all the extreme gurning. (I’ve no idea what he’s on about.)
Anyway, I was momentarily spurred onwards by his words, but never did find out exactly what unfolded after “a couple of hundred metres to go” had gone? There seemed to be no noticeable change in my circumstances, I was still grinding slowly upwards and the road continued to rise ahead of me before disappearing around a long bend in the far distance.
Of course I knew exactly where I was and could probably have quite accurately guessed the exact distance to the top of the Quarry. Well, maybe if I’d been thinking straight and my brain hadn’t been suffering from mild hypoxia at this point.
Around that bend, then another, up another drag and I finally spotted the gilet jaune of the next set of marshals directing me down, down, down the Quarry climb. Relief. Surely that was the worst behind me now?
A small respite for tortured lungs, then the opportunity to drop down the cassette and settle into a (hopefully) slightly more aero form for the second half of the run.
My next marker was Cowboys, marshalling at the bottom of the Quarry and then it was on to Matfen, a sharp left turn patrolled by Mini Miss and her invited guest. From here I was on the last leg – perhaps metaphorically as well as in reality.
It was meant to be a straight, fast run for home, typically (so I’m told) aided by a beneficial tailwind. Trouble was, the wind hadn’t received the memo and it was just more of the rather annoying and unhelpful crosswinds to contend with.
No one had warned me about the monster hill that had suddenly sprung up just outside of Matfen either, and I almost came to a grinding halt on its savage slopes. (You’ll be pleased to know I’ve since ridden back over it and it has returned to its normal, innocuous and not at all imposing speed bump proportions.)
Further along and I was finally pleased to see the Stamfordham church spire poking out amongst the tree tops ahead, and even more pleased to roll over the finish line and slump over the bike at the side of the road where G-Dawg and Captain Black were waiting.
“How did you find that?” Captain Black enquired.
“Well, the first half fucks your lungs and then the second half fucks your legs,” I suggested. What wasn’t there to like?
“Oh well, at least you’ll never have to ride another race this side of 60,” Captain Black re-assured me.
We waited for the Hammer to finish his run and then were lured back to the Race HQ for rightous rewards of coffee and cake. Before dropping the bike back in the car I brushed my fingers over my wobbly frontwheel and the errant spoke came away in my hand. Hmm, that’ll need fixing, then.
So, how did I do? Well, I didn’t trouble the leaderboard, but that’s no surprise. I got round in a time of 36:59, which I’m told is an average speed of 19.468 mph – so well below my target of 20 mph. I finished 28th out of 31 riders but only 8 secs off the guy in front of me, so something to aim at. Also, as this was by default the clubs de facto timetrial championship, I came either 5th or last, depending on how you want to look at it. Finally, perversely, I rather enjoyed myself and signed up for a Barnesbury CC 10 mile TT in a couple of weeks too.
Help! I think I’m infected.
Big thanks to Richard Rex for organising on the event so expertly and all the marshalls and helpers from inside and outside the club for their time and effort. Much appreciated. Special thanks to Dub Devlin too, who seems to provide a superb photo record for all of these events with, as far as I can tell, no other incentive than serving the local cycling community. What a star.
My first port of call on returning was to pop down to see Patrick at the Brassworks, my LBS and have him lace up the errant spoke and true my front wheel as good as new. He even joked he’d thrown in a free nipple, prompting the only occassion I’ve ever been able to associate a bearded, flat-capped, guitar-slinging, bike mechanic with Florence Pugh …
Six days later and a more normal weekend, found me rolling out first thing Saturday morning for a regular club run in reasonably decent weather. It wasn’t until I’d swooped down the Heinous Hill and started working along the valley floor that I became aware of an awful rythmic, high-pitched creaking and clicking that I thought was coming from the front wheel. (Different bike, different front wheel)
I stopped to check that nothing was catching and everything was done up tight, gave the wheel a spin and it seemed fine. I even checked the spokes in case lightning does strike twice. I could find nothing wrong. I tried riding again. If anything the noise now seemed even worse, but I still couldn’t locate the source. A few more stops and starts and adjustments and futile bashing and I gave up. I couldn’t ride with that noise, it would drive me even further into madness, so I turned around and headed back home.
Climbing back up the Heinous Hill and stepping out of the saddle to stamp on the pedals, the noise wonderously stopped. Weight back on the saddle, back came the irritant clicking. At home again, and now concentrating on the rear of the bike, I found the seat clamp had worked loose and my seat post was imperceptibly moving and rubbing on the unextractable, seized remains of a snapped carbon post still buried deep within the frame. (Long story, don’t ask). I tightened up the seat clamp and order and tranquility was restored to my world.
Ok, time to try again. I left home and dropped down the hill for the second time, trying to remember the route for the day and calculate if it was worth trying to intercept one of our groups. Crossing the river I eschewed my usual meandering route and headed up Hospital Lane, a harder, but hopefully faster run. As I reached the top it was just approaching 09.00. I wasn’t certain I could get to the meeting point in 15 minutes, but I thought Icould definitely make Dinnington by then and hopefully pick up a group or two there.
I was there just before 09:15, saved my ride to date and re-started my computer because it had lost the GPS signal somewhere along the way and I wasn’t sure it was recording anything, which is why I ended up with two ride files.
I found a park bench and settled down to wait in the warm sunshine.
Just before half past I heard the babble of a bunch of happy cyclists approaching, but this proved to be a gaggle of Tyneside Vags riders who passed with cheery greetings.
It was well beyong half past when our fairly sizeable front group finally showed and I let them pass. They were being somewhat futilely chased by Liam the Chinese rockstar, who saw me, realised I was sensibly waiting for the second group and hung a U-turn to wait with me.
The second group finally appeared and I swung onto the back of what seemed a slightly too large bunch. I realised I was adding to the imbalance, but was uncertain if we had a third group and, if so, how much longer I’d have to wait for them.
On a few of the descents I worked my way through the group, having a brief chat with James III, who is one half of a number of club teams who have entered the upcoming NTR 2-up timetrial. He claimed he was actually enjoying the training he’d been doing with partner Caracol, but may have preferred a less aeordynamic partner to shelter behind!
I then found myself riding along with a relative newcomer who turned out to be Turkish, adding another country to our League of Nations membership.
Somwhere along the way we passed group 1, sidelined with a puncture. They re-took the lead just before the dip into Hartburn and I didn’t expect to see them again, until half of them took a wrong turn and we closed as they scrambled to sort out the confusion.
As it was we were close behind them as we made the final climb to the cafe at Capheaton and, with our 3rd group having taken a shorter route to arrive ahead of everyone else and plenty of other clubs and cyclists out too, the place was mobbed.
It was standing room only out in the sun, so we went for an inside table where I heard James III had been really confused when he received confirmation of his entry into the 2-up TT and found he’d been partnered with a vet, because he thought Caracol worked in Financial Services.
Still, they seemd the most advanced in their training, having actually ridden together, while Jimmy Mac was recuperating from a minor operation so hadn’t been out with the Hammer, Crazy Legs had only curated a training run with G-Dawg in his imagination and Goose and Captain Black hadn’t even entered and now their participation was doubtful, as Goose had learned that the pub on the course would be closed.
While convalescing Jimmy Mac had been watching the Commonwealth Games and been particularly engrossed in the Crown Green Bowling, although a little concerned when one participant kept bending down to caress the mat. It wasn’t until halfway through the contest that he realised he was watching the Para Bowls and the contestants were blind.
We tried to conceive of the level of trust it would take to run full speed and blind with a guide alongside you, or even worse, take part in a triathlon swim, tethered to someone acting as your eyes, but I guess none of us had the necessary imagination. Impressive stuff.
There seemed to be less enthusiasm for tomorrow’s road races, although we felt things could be enlivened if a “Jamaican bobsleigh” style team took part. There’s precious little cycling on the other channels anyway, so I will probably tune in at some point, if only to enjoy some Chris Boardman bon mots.
We only just managed to avoid Biden Fecht inflicting a Cliff Richard, “Wired for Sound” earworm on us and evacuated the cafe before it could take hold. Amassing into two large clumps we set out and I was nearly home, feeling quite safe and smug when Biden Fecht fired a shot across my bows. “Fancy doing this 2-up TT then?”
Damn! My first reaction (and undoubtedly the right one) was just to say no, but then he looked like the kid who’d lost a “one-potato, two-potato” contest in the playground and had been forced to pick his team last, with only the gangly, weak and weedy, uncoordinated and unpopular nerds at the very bottom of the school hierarchy to choose from.
I relented and agreed, although I did stress I’d likely be more of a burden than an asset and he’d need to temper any expectations accordingly. Dear Lord, what have I done?
So, what have we learned from this whole sorry episode. Well, we now know that not only does Captain Black have no heart, but his prognositications are wildly inaccurate too, as it looks like I’ll now be competing in two more events before I turn 60.
And of course the main takeway is just to reaffirm that there really is no fool like an old fool.
For a final act we’d chosen the Col d’Ornon, around 11km long with an average gradient just over 6%. It wasn’t a particularly difficult climb, the steepest sections being a little over 13% and had the benefits of being much quieter than the Alpe and providing stunning views off to either side.
Naturally, of course, we didn’t have the road all to ourselves. There were a few Porsche remnants to serve as a not-too-subtle reminder of noise pollution (and atmospheric, come to that) and several large road signs warned us that we could also be sharing the road with a cycling event.
This turned out to be the GFNY La Vaujany 2022, which the organisers promote as a race which lets you ‘BE A PRO FOR A DAY’® (their emphasis and registered trademark). It will even let you qualify for the GFNY World Championships in New York. Well, as long as you pay for the entry fee and your own accommodation and travel. Today’s event would see the riders take on a 145km ‘police-monitored’ loop with ascents of the Col de la Morte and Col d’Ornon, before finishing atop L’Alpe d’Huez.
From what I could gather the entry fee is around €60, which also nets you a GFNY ‘vivid green’ jersey. This actually seems fairly reasonable price, until you realise that it’s not a dare and you have to actually wear the vivid green jersey in order to take part.
All Together Now…
Once again we had the full complement make the rendezvous and someone even mentioned we’d had no incidents, accidents, mechanicals, or punctures. They were obviously quickly hushed and we could only hope the cycling gods hadn’t heard and wouldn’t exact retribution.
We started the climb more or less together and were a fairly compact group over the first third, before gaps started to open up. I followed Steadfast’s wheel for a while, before dropping back to ride with Goose and Crazy Legs.
We had a brief respite when we were held up by a red light at some roadworks, with any thoughts of riding through the cones quickly dispelled with a look over the missing parapet to a vertiginous drop beyond. From the lights onwards, Goose and Crazy Legs gradually pulled away, until I was riding once more in splendid isolation, well apart from the annoying corona of flies buzzing around me napper, trying, without too much success, to ignore the pain in my legs and fully take in and enjoy the surroundings.
The final few kilometres were across a plateau or false flat, which seemed quite exposed and tackled into a headwind that made the whole thing a bit of a grind. I was more than happy find everyone encamped at a cafe not much further ahead and more than ready for the promised coffee. And that was it, for me. To all intents and purposes all the serious climbing was now behind me for another visit.
Someone got word that the race was about to go by and we wandered down to the road where Crazy Legs got to talking to a French cyclist who’d ridden up to support his mate, Gwen, who was a participant.
We naturally all got ready to cheer for Gwen, as a couple of motorcycles with flashing blue lights heralded the arrival of the head of the race – a small knot of maybe a dozen cyclists. Not realising at this point that this was a Granfondo-type event, I was expecting a riotous colour-explosion of different club jerseys, so was a little surprised when everyone who flashed past was wearing the same, anonymous green.
It didn’t help our companion identify his friend either, but he reported that he didn’t think Gwen was in the front group anyway.
“We would have seen him, because he’s …” He made vague, circular gestures with his hands.
“Fat?” Crazy Legs happily supplied, not quite knowing if big-boned would translate into French.
“No, no, no. Not fat,” long pause, “A … a … rouleur.”
Gwen either wasn’t present in the first few groups that day, or we (and his mate) simply missed him.
(With a bit of amateur sleuthing on the results page, I identified that Gwen was probably one of the two Gwenael’s taking part. One of these was 15th overall, but in the 40-44 age range, so probably not best friends with 20-something cyclist we’d been chatting to. The other fit-the-bill for our guy, he was 20th at 37 minutes back and having identified him from the official event photos, it seems he also prominently featured on the post-event video. So, there you go, with a bit more practice, I could yet make a passably good online stalker.)
With GFNY riders still passing, though now many minutes off the front, we decided to press on. Some of our group planned to descend off the Ornon, then climb the balcony road up to Oulle. Crazy Legs and the Ticker were, like me, done for the day and we were set on riding to Allemond straight from the bottom of the Ornon to go in search of lunch.
It was a smooth, fast and enjoyable descent, only slightly interrupted by some Granfondo riders and a large, slow-moving tractor. Halfway down, I slowed and pulled to the side to let a trio of hard-chasing, dangerously risk-taking GF riders through. Higher up the hill behind me, Crazy Legs couldn’t do the same without putting himself into the gutter so held his line resolutely and had to endure a tirade of complaints.
“Hey mate, it’s not like you’re going to win,” was his apt and succinct rejoinder.
Our trio regrouped at the bottom and took a slow amble to Allemond, arriving just before noon and finding a promising looking restaurant in the town square. I would have to say we didn’t get an exactly rapturous welcome as we grabbed a table and sat down. On finding out we wanted to eat, the proprietor summarily told us we couldn’t order anything before 12.00 and couldn’t even look at a menu until this magic hour had passed.
“De l’eau?” we asked plaintively and were acknowledged with a grunt.
It was some time after 12.00 before a waitress appeared, a couple of menus were slapped down on the table and we were able to order drinks and ask for water again.
The waitress returned with our drinks and to take our food order. The Ticker summoned the temerity to ask for water. Again. Politely.
“Je n’ai que deux mains!!!” the waitress snapped angily, while Crazy Legs dissolved into a fit of giggles.
As she turned away, Crazy Legs pleaded with the Ticker to let him sit in his lap and stick his arms out under Crazy Legs’ armpits. Crazy Legs would then be able to wave 4 hands at the waitress when she returned. Perhaps sensibly, given that our food had yet to be served, the Ticker didn’t think this was a good idea and flatly refused and luckily, Crazy Legs was distracted when another Englishman rode up on that strangest of all sights, another Holdsworth.
We had a quick chat with the guy who was from Hertfordshire, then he wandered off to find a table in the shade and quickly incur the wrath of the waitress by daring to sit at one of the many, many empty tables set for four, when he was quite clearly on his own.
Despite the service, the food was superb. Halfway through we were joined by the Big Yin who’d baled halfway up the road to Oulle citing the poor road surface and extreme narrowness of the track and we left together to take the river road home, leaving the rest of our group to discover for themselves the delights that awaited them at the restuarant.
The Big Yin disappeared to explore another bike track that branched off the one we were following and we escorted the Ticker back to Bourg l’Oisans, before I turned around with Crazy Legs and we rode the entire length of the river route again, just because it was so pleasant. Then finally it was back to the hotel and to start packing and breaking down the bikes for travel tomorrow.
We returned to La Muzzelle for one last meal, each wandering off when we’d had enough. Once talk turned into grisly stories of nights spent in police custody, I knew I had nothing to offer and it was my turn to wander back to the hotel.
Fortified by one last breakfast and not too distracted by the waitress, we were on the road fairly early and airport-bound.
Returning the van we met the others at the baggage drop and made our way airside through security, dispersing across the terminal. I sat chatting with Captain Black, while Goose wandered off for some gift shopping, just killing the time until our flight was called.
We found Crazy Legs at the gate, where he’d been royally entertained by some radgee trying to force his way onto the flight for Marrakesh, an escalating verbal altercation that apparently only ended when the police turned up and carted him away.
A relatively short flight, the usual queuing and nonsense at Heathrow and we were finally on the last leg, heading home and discussing next year, where we may have to pick up some unfinished business with Italy.
Harder, Hotter, Longer, Steeper and Slower
So another fabulous, wholly enjoyable venture, even if everything climb seemed harder, hotter, longer, steeper and slower than the last time. Then again, I am several years older, which I can’t do much about. I was also at least a couple of kilo’s off optimal weight, which I can do something about, so maybe there’s an opportunity to make things a little easier.
The big lesson though is not to ride with a deformed saddle. It very literally is a pain in the arse …
Our trip coincided with an ITT up L’Alpe d’Huez on the Saturday and they were busy constructing the start ramp as we took our now-favoured riverside route out to Allemond. A TT up a mountain in this heat? Mad dogs and cyclists …
Tosser Toss Up
It wasn’t the only major event in the area either, as the snappily-titled Porsche Savoie Cup 2022 Les Deux Alpes was also taking place over the weekend. This was a non-timed (yeah, right) rally for Porsche enthusiasts, giving them the opportunity to sit in convoy within an over-priced, over-heated tin box and speed around breathing in the exhaust fumes of a whole load of other tin boxes, while driving too fast up some narrow and restricted mountain roads, all the while trying to see just how loud they could make their engines scream. It was a real toss-up and quite a debating point about whether the Porsche drivers were more or less annoying than the Harley Bikers rally we stumbled across last time.
I can say they were a constant and occasionally dangerous feature all the way from Allemond to the Col de la Croix de Fer. That doesn’t sound all that far but, at the speed I was travelling, it represented an agonisingly prolonged exposure to their annoying presence.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
I knew what to expect on the climb up to Rivier d’Allemont and while it didn’t seem as far or as debilitating this time around, I was more than ready for the cola and coffee that awaited at the cafe.
Behind, Crazy Legs must have looked to be struggling so much that he actually got a generous push from a passing cyclist. He was grateful for the help, but our group was divided over whether this was a good thing, or a little showy. Personally, I’d more than welcome any assistance on the climbs.
The Big Yin set off from the cafe early to get a headstart. The rest of us ambled after him and were more or less together until we crossed the river d’Olle and the serious climbing picked up again, then it was every man for himself and each at a pace they could sustain.
It was baking hot, with the steep sides of the valley seeming to contain and radiate the heat back at you. By the time I caught the Big Yin he’d dismounted and was sitting in the shade of a tree, overheated and temporarily out of it, like Huck Finn waiting for his next adventure. This duly arrived in the shape of Crazy Legs and the pair reportedly frolicked gleefully in an Alpine stream to cool down before riding the rest of the way together, leaning on each other for moral support.
Once again I found myself cursing the descent down toward the Lac de Grand Maison which, although providing some cooling respite, utterly destroyed whatever pitiful climbing rhythm I’d managed to assemble. Still, I was soon at the blockhouse with a decision to make, left to the Glandon or right to the Croix de Fer?
Flip the Coin
I went Glandon first, but the only other person there was a French guy who was just to set out without his bidon, which I was able to reunite him with. I turned around and set my sights on the Col de la Croix de Fer. It was just 3km away, but I was really starting to flag now and it was slow painful progress – despite a little bit of pacing from the forgetful Frenchman.
It took a while, but I got there, completely wiped out and ready to throw my lot in with those planning to just turn around and head back, rather than descend to find the Lacets and have to climb up the other side of either the Croix de la Fer or the Glandon. It turned out the severe temperatures had even the most gung ho amongst us deciding not to press on, and there was a general feeling that we’d done enough for the day. A new plan was hatched to ride back to Le Riviere de Allemont for lunch.
Re-united again and fully fortified by another two cola’s, we clustered around the summit sign, press ganging a young French cyclist into photography duties. He was more than happy to oblige if we returned the favour and spent some time trying to guess which area of Ireland we were from.
He seemed to be a bit confused to be told we were actually from India, then Mexico then the Ivory Coast, but maybe not as confused when Crazy Legs told him we were from England and the orange, white and green were just traditional club colours we’d been lumbered with inherited.
Youth and Exuberance (Not Mine, Obviously)
We started the descent, with all of us except Goose taking the short diversion to the Glandon summit for further photo opportunities. First though we had to join with all the other cyclists and exert our collective ire with two dickheads who drove their (not at all) ostentatious sportscars up from the other side of the col and parked slap bang in front of the sign. I think they’d seriously misjudged their audience and just how much interest a bunch of sweaty cyclists had in their uber-expensive penis extensions and they were quietly persuaded to move along.
Amongst the groups of cyclists were a trio of girls in matching leopard print jerseys with bright pink socks and Crazy Legs negotiated photo duties with one of them. She duly complied and then it was Crazy Legs’ turn to repay the favour and he shuffled into position. This was all the signal the girls needed to lithely clamber up and drape themselves all over the sign, flashing peace signs and devil’s horns while waggling their tongues, giggling and fully enjoying themselves.
I couldn’t help but contrast their natural, unforced exuberance with us, slightly grumpy old blokes, stood around smiling uncertainly and looking slightly discomfited by the whole photo ordeal.
Then it was off for a long bit of fast descending back the way we’d come, with its smattering of gnarly climbs thrown in just to further shred the legs. It was astonishing how quickly it was over when compared with how long going the other way had taken.
Halfway down we rendezvoused at Les Favets for a most excellent lunch and pressed our favourite waitress into performing photo duties.
Then it was back onto the best bit, the last super-smooth and fast downhill run we’d taken on the first day, all the back down to Allemond. Coming off the descent, where at least the air was moving and providing some cooling relief and transitioning back to normal speeds, it felt like someone had suddenly opened an oven door and we were caught in an intense blast of hot, dry air. I’m not really sure I’d realised how hot it was until this point.
We ambled slowly back to town along the riverside route, where we split, with a few of us naturally drawn into the town in search of a cold beer.
More by luck than management, we managed to find the most unfriendly bar in Bourg d’Oisans, where the staff seemed to take great delight in finding new and creative ways of ignoring customers. We should have realised we weren’t welcome the minute the waitress castigated the Ticker for casually laying his helmet on the ground, because that might have been where she wanted to plant her foot in order to serve us our beer.
Still, once seated, no one was in any great hurry to get up and move again and so we endured, watching the passing traffic and speculating that the bar was just a money-laundering front so didn’t need to attract, please or keep customers.
If that bar was bad, then the bike shops were superb. Captain Black had determined that his braking wasn’t up to scratch and decided to call into one of the shops to have his Trek checked over. I tagged along for the ride and we ended up going to Bleach, Bike and Ski as they’d been good to Buster on his first trip.
The mechanic immediately took the bike into the workshop for a quick look and returned to tell us the brake pads were badly burned. He suggested Captain Black needed to try feathering his brakes not hauling back on the levers with all his might. In the Captain’s defence I guess the mechanic hadn’t been with us on that death slide down the Sarenne – I’m sure if he had he would have been more understanding.
As it was he set about replacing the pads straight away, with no waiting, or can you bring the bike back tomorrow. In short order, the job was done and the prices were very reasonable. So, Bleach, Bike and Ski … hugely recommended, that crappy bar on the corner? Best avoided.
The plan for the evening had been for the Oberlanders to join the others for a meal in the restaurant at their campsite, but by the time we’d returned to the hotel a thunderstorm was brewing, the wind had picked up and the rain was lashing down. We didn’t fancy the mile or so walk out to the campsite, so cried off and the three of us wandered into town for a meal.
It struck us that the thunderstorm probably would have coincided with us arriving at the top of the Galibier if we’d embarked on our Circle of Death ride. Hmm. Done that, don’t ever want to do it again, so it looks like we dodged a bullet.
Tomorrow, our last day, was all planned out too with a trip up the Col de Ornon as the centrepiece. I was hopeful the rain had cooled things down a little and looking forward to one more amble.
A decent night’s sleep was fortified by a sterling breakfast where our supremely attractive and very friendly waitress seemed to delight in adjusting her décolletage and pouting into the dining room mirrors solely for the edification of the hotel guests.
By 9:00 the Oberlanders were on the road in the bright sunshine and heading for our rendezvous at the foot of the Alpe. It was a pleasantly warm start on a day when the temperatures would soon climb into the very high twenties. Not quite as scorching as yesterday, but plenty hot enough for pale-skinned Northerners.
I was astonished to find we had a full house, our entire collective was up and ready to go and we were, very briefly, all together as we started to climb. The first few ramps soon took care of that and it wasn’t long before we were scattered all over the road. From this point on we wouldn’t be together again as a group until we sat down for our evening meal.
Big ring, inner ring, granny ring. I dropped down at the front, while the chain inexorably rode up the block at the back. It didn’t take long and then, that was it, I was out of gears. Most of the others stretched away as I settled down to the task of spinning upwards in my own time, knowing I had over an hour of work to do to reach the top.
Despite a full service and a brand new bottom bracket, the bike had developed an annoying creak whenever I put any power through the cranks, which would have been just one more excuse for my light-spinning approach. Or at least, it would have been if I felt I needed one. As it was, I contained the creak to the few moments when I stood out of the saddle, more to keep the blood flowing everywhere than out of any real necessity to climb faster. (The creak seems to have completely disappeared on return to the UK, which is rather confusing.)
Gianni Bugno Smells
The first few hairpins were pleasant, but the higher we climbed the more exposed the road became and the temperature was rising, probably at a faster rate than I was. Around the pair of Gianni Bugno hairpins (#6 and #7) the smell of burning brakes and clutch were unmistakable, although there was very little traffic to account for it.
Unfortunately, much of the traffic that there was, consisted of heavy, construction vehicles, as it looks like more ski accommodation is being thrown up right across the mountain. It made for some interesting overtaking manoeuvres that played out in extreme slow motion.
Steadfast was climbing at around the same pace as me, so was always in sight, but otherwise I don’t recall passing any serious cyclists and can only recall a handful passing me, it was a quiet day on the Alpe.
I was pleased to see the photographers, always camped out near the top, an indication that the end wasn’t too far off and judging by the number of (in)action shots they took of me, I think they were glad to see me too. I still couldn’t summon up a wave or a smile though.
All The Way to the Top
Up through the village, I scanned the cafe’s few occupants, hoping we’d decided to make this our official end point. No such luck, it looked like we were heading to the official Tour finish line higher up the mountain. I joined up with Steadfast going through the underpass and hoping he knew the route – I think I’ve been a different way every time.
His instincts proved right, we found the rest of the gang camped out at the display of past winners. That still wasn’t good enough for them though and they made me climb another 300 metres to the official sign, before we press-ganged a bystander into the obligatory group photo.
Other than Goose’s hilarious positioning and pose for the photo, the strangest sight on the day had to be the girl on a mountain-bike being towed up the climb by an indefatigable Jack Russell. We don’t know if it got a Strava PB, but the Big Yin claimed the pair had overtaken him quite easily.
As for the Big Yin, there was no sign of him. I took a can of cola (Coke to you and me, but maybe the French reserve that term for a certain white powder?) from the snack van and slumped on one of the picnic tables for a rest and to replenish liquids while we waited.
“Watch that doesn’t bite!” the Ticker warned me, pointing at a greenish-yellow insect that had landed on my knee. I flicked it away. Too late, a bright bead of blood bloomed on my skin. Guess the butterfly yesterday was just to lull me into a false sense of security.
Drink consumed and with still no sign of the Big Yin, we rolled back to the cafe in the town, thinking he might have stopped there. Nope, not there either.
“Café au lait, si vous plait?” Crazy Legs asked the waitress.
“Un?” she enquired.
“Deux – trois – quatre – cinq – six – sept,” we all individually added our orders in turn and then she turned to Goose last of all. We waited … tension building … he opened his mouth …
“Huit!” he finally barked. Internally I gave a silent cheer, but then … “Gracias!”
We’re the Fuquari
By the time we’d finished our coffee and were ready to move on, there was still no sign of the Big Yin. I messaged him. He’d been through the village, past the cafe and was (supposedly) on the road to our next destination, the Col de Sarenne.
A little later we received a screenshot of a map location with a red dot in the middle of a featureless nowhere and a plaintive “where am I.” We had no idea either. It turns out that, as we headed east toward the Sarenne, the Big Yin was working his way ever northwards until he reached Lac Besson where a local confirmed that no, he wasn’t on the road to the Sarenne, or indeed anywhere near it.
Down by one, we pressed on. The road was much, much rougher, narrower and more gravel-strewn than I recall. It would have reminded me of home, except I don’t think the clartiest farm track in the outer wilds of Northumberland is quite as bad, or certainly not as consistently bad over such a long distance. Traction around the corners felt like a bit of a lottery demanding caution and I was just waiting for a puncture as we rattled and bounced over pots and fissures and cracks, but it was worth it as the scenery was utterly spectacular. Luckily the route was also quiet and we only encountered a single car and a handful of cyclists as we dropped down and then started the climb up to the col.
The climb split us up again, as everyone took it at the own pace, allowing the Hammer time to clamber up above the road and frame me in splendid isolation against an empty landscape in what he termed his epic Rapha shot.
Behind me, Crazy Legs had run out of energy and said he was climbing so slowly that a butterfly had do-si-doed its way through his spokes totally unscathed. He was delighted to finally reach the Col de Sarenne sign, doubly so when he noticed its height was given as 1,999 metres, so he could taunt the Ticker that he hadn’t managed a climb over 2,000 metres yet.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
The Ticker wandered away to check out some goats in a nearby enclosure and returned fully impressed with just how generously well-endowed they were(?) Meanwhile, in the silent, pale blue high above us, vultures and buzzards circled effortlessly around the peaks.
We didn’t take a group photo around the Col de Sarenne sign, but several shots were added to the collective pool, our favourite resembling the perfect album cover for some moody, mid-80’s synth band, (think Blancmange, or maybe China Crisis.)
Crazy Legs announced he was turning back, ostensibly because his legs were empty, but in reality just so he could enjoy the plush, super-smooth descent of the Alpe. In retrospect, we probably should have done the same. The descent off the Sarenne was awful, a steep, narrow and broken track with multiple tight switchbacks, each one swathed in an unstable delta of loose gravel and melting tarmac. There was no opportunity to let the bike run as I followed the Hammer and Ticker down, almost constantly on the brakes. By halfway I was shaking out my hands and trying to gain some relief from the pressure of pulling hard and long on the levers, while from both above and below me the descent was punctuated by continual warning shouts of “gravel!”
On one uncharacteristically long straight, the Hammer called out for space from a French rider who was grinding his way upwards, head down and on the wrong side of the road. The Hammer appeared to get a mouthful of abuse for his warning. I don’t know, maybe the road was so bad it just made everyone tetchy?
The hairpins eased toward the bottom and things became a little easier and almost enjoyable. Then thankfully we were down, although it took a while to finally regroup and recover. The next order of the day was finding somewhere for lunch, which wasn’t looking all that promising as we sped through a number of small, seemingly shuttered hamlets, before stumbling on Les Filles in Mizoën.
They managed to pull together a table for the seven of us inside and served us excellent and inexpensive quiche and salads along with copious drinks. Duly fortified, we had a fast, much more pleasant descent down to a stunning vista above the barrage at Lac Chambon, before clambering into the next valley and taking the road northwest and back to Bourg d’Oisans.
Bomb the Base
Salt-encrusted, sun-baked and empty-legged, most of us sought out a bar in the town for some liquid recovery, while Goose determined he needed more cycling and set off toward Le Riviere d’Allemont, as if drawn there by some strange, unspoken compulsion …
Sitting down in the shade with a well-deserved beer, I was astounded when Buster unzipped to reveal that even in the extreme heat he was wearing a base layer under his jersey. I expected him to claim some sort of scientific mumbo-jumbo about its benefit in wicking away sweat to maintain core temperature, but he admitted it was just so his chest hairs didn’t poke through his jersey in an unsightly manner. Has any man ever suffered more to try and look good on a bike?
Unmuzzled at La Muzzelle
With remarkable foresight, Goose had booked us into a restaurant in town for the night, La Muzzelle and managed to secure a table for all nine of us. It wasn’t positioned exactly to his liking, but he somehow managed to endear himself to the staff while re-arranging their seating in the middle of a busy dinner service.
He then stress-tested his own claim that everything he says passes through careful filters by declaring his dislike of tattoo’s in front of our heavily tattooed waitress and while completely ignorant of any indelible body art his dining companions might be sporting. He then followed up by positing that bald blokes are much more likely to have accidents where they bang their heads.
In amongst this deluge of “carefully filtered” observation and (rocket) fuelled by our waitress introducing us to the local liqueur, Génépi, we tried to come up with a plan for the next day.
We already knew the traditional Circle of Death (5 cols, 170km and 4,250 metres of climbing) was a no-go because the Galibier was closed for resurfacing prior to the Tour. This had been confirmed by the Collapsing Cyclist group from the previous night, who’d ridden it despite being told it was closed and had to force their way back down through the newly laid tarmac. For their troubles, they’d then said they’d spent hours chipping the dried bitumen from their wheels and tyres with multi-tools, not an exercise we were at all keen to indulge in.
The consensus seemed to be to follow our original plan and ride up to Riviere d’Allemont for ravitaillement, keeping both Crazy Legs and Goose happy, then take in the Glandon/Croix de Fer BOGOF. From there, depending on how people felt, we could split, with those wanting to head out further perhaps taking in Les Lacets de Montvernier before returning by more or less the same route.
Once again we had somehow cobbled together a plan, a rendezvous point and a start time. We were all set for the next day.
It’s a truly ungodly hour, 4.10am, Thursday 16th June. The sun is barely above the horizon yet and I’ve already been up for more than three-quarters of an hour. Now I can be found desultorily dragging an over-sized bike bag across the dusty floor of Newcastle International Airport.
I’ve been slightly thrown off course by the closure of the main, A1 route to the airport and having (half-awake) to follow multiple, poorly positioned diversion signs, plus the fact that Mrs. SLJ had to pay £4.00 just for the very dubious privilege of dropping me off outside the airport. Four-feckin’ pounds to just pull up at a kerb and unload some baggage? Pure highway robbery and generating a feeling of resentment only slightly less dark than scrambling around to try and pay for parking when you’re visiting a dying relative in hospital.
So how did this come about? Well, I accept I’m partly to blame. After a two-year, COVID enforced absence, I signed up for yet another chevauchée des Alpes à vélo. We’d originally booked the slightly more civilised 06.00 flight from Newcastle to Heathrow, until British Airways decided to cancel this with no explanation. Given the choice between a flight at 05.25 and one at 09.15, we’d bit the bullet and chosen the earlier one.
18 days later British Airways also deemed it necessary to cancel (again without explanation) our connecting, 09.25 flight from Heathrow to Geneva and we ended up on the 08.20 instead, so change all round. Still, somewhere along the line, we managed to dodge a bullet as the alternative 09.15 flight from Newcastle to Heathrow which had also been an option, was cancelled while we were actually in the airport – and just hours before it was due to depart.
I made it through the formalities of check-in, security and baggage drop, quite pleased to discover my bike bag weighed in at just over 16kgs. I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of this travelling light malarkey. As a precaution, shoes, helmet and most of my cycling kit were packed into my hand baggage in case the bike went AWOL and I had to hire a replacement.
So the bike was ready to go, but the same couldn’t be said of the rider who was way off his fighting weight and pushing close to a portly 70kgs. It was definitely going to make the up bits a bit more of a struggle, but would maybe add a little impetus to the descents.
Relieved of the bike bag, I wandered upstairs to Departures and tracked down the rest of the crew, lurking in our traditional pre-flight venue, the Caffè Ritazza. I was the last to arrive so the usual suspects had already convened: Crazy Legs, the Hammer, Goose, Captain Black and, new conscript to our ranks, the Ticker. Meanwhile, tremulous-flyer Buster and the Big Yin are off seeking dronkemansmoed encouragement in one of the bars and we’ll not see them until after the flight is called.
Not the Fat Controller
Busy times at the airport. Crazy Legs said the oversize baggage handler (the handler of over-sized bags, not some Ivor the Engine-type Fat Controller) had revealed they had 50 bikes going out on flights today. Actually, they had at least 51 as, unlike my compadres, I’d taken the British Airways website at its word and hadn’t pre-informed them I would be flying with a bike. (Although, as a precaution, I had taken a screenshot of the webpage that said you didn’t need to let them know in advance that you are bringing a larger bag or item.)
There was some discussion about a name change for the Ticker, whose beloved Hunt wheels, with their ridiculously loud freehub, have worn out and been replaced with quietly refined Mavic’s – which on a positive note means much more peaceful free-wheeling within our group.
With temperatures in Grenoble, near our destination, currently residing in the mid-30’s, we were heading into especially hot weather and there was some discussion about whether this might affect our rides. Goose took this as a reminder to go and buy some sunscreen and then had the dilemma of trying to determine if we’d need to pass through security again at Heathrow, in which case the sunscreen would be well above his 100ml liquids hand baggage limit and would need to be abandoned.
“It could always be inserted into a body orifice and smuggled through,” I suggested.
“Good plan!” he replied quick as a flash, “Just bend over there will you … “
And we were off!
Crazy Legs was delighted that the Ticker was sitting flanked by two babies when he took his seat on the plane and they naturally started howling in stereo as soon as the plane began to gain serious altitude. “That’s just how they clear their ears,” he helpfully suggested later. I wondered whether I should just scream incoherently rather than pinching my nose and trying to blow out, I mean it wouldn’t be particularly dignified, but it might be an entirely more effective way of dealing with changes in air pressure.
We picked up Steadfast at Heathrow to complete the gang and there was just time for us to grab some lunch and for Captain Black to tell the Starbucks staff his name was Hans. I’m not sure they were aware they were engaging in a much valued and time-honoured tradition. Then we were being hustled aboard our short flight to Geneva.
Games Without Frontiers
I managed to reclaim a little sleep on the flight and we passed seamlessly through passport control. The stern and hostile border officers of our first trip that had transitioned to completely indifferent border officers on the second, had now been replaced by cheerful, happy, warm and welcoming types. Perhaps too welcoming, as the Hammer couldn’t get away from his, a guy who’d studied at Newcastle University and wanted nothing more than a good chinwag about the changing fortunes of our local football team.
With typical Swiss efficiency, the bike bags were awaiting pick-up – alongside many, many others, in what looked to be at the very least a “special operation,” if not an outright invasion of continental Europe by British cyclists.
Elevator, Going Up!
We then had to make our way to the French side of the airport to pick up the hire cars, passing through a security checkpoint and manouvering our bags and boxes into a lift for a short hop up to the next floor. The doors behind us swooshed closed, the lift lurched up and then the doors in front opened so we could step off without turning around. The doors closed again and the lift disappeared, heading down, while we pulled to one side and waited for it to disgorge the next batch of cyclists.
With a bright ‘bing’ the lift returned and the doors rolled open to reveal not a bunch of hairy-arsed cyclists and their bikes, but an old couple with two fully loaded trolleys that they’d pushed into the lift, then jammed side by side so they couldn’t push them out again. No matter how hard they barged and banged at the trolleys, twisting them this way and that, they were stuck fast and not moving. The doors silently closed on their struggles and the lift descended again.
‘Bing!’ A few minutes later the lift reappeared and the doors open on the same couple, with the same stuck trolleys and the same frantic efforts to try and move two immoveable objects. Nope. No go. Down they went again and then back they came. Again.
Bing! This time Crazy Legs leapt forward like a madman and started wrestling suitcases off the trolleys until he’d created enough space to pull first one and then the other out of the lift, watched all along by the appreciative, somewhat sheepish couple and the rest of our gang, who’d given up on the lift and decided to use the escalator instead.
Jumpy Around! Jumpy Around!
After that mini-drama, the car hire pickup all went surprisingly smoothly and quickly, but, despite two identical orders, we ended up with two different vans, with vastly different capabilities. I was assigned to the first, a Citroen Jumpy, the other was a Ford Transit. The Transit was brilliant, with loads of space and highly efficient air-con. The Jumpy? Well, that was a bit crap. The seats seemed immovable (or at least the car hire rep didn’t know how to move them and we couldn’t figure it out). Our designated driver, Goose, also felt it was a bit underpowered and the air con struggled with the 37-38℃ we experienced on our journey.
Still, we managed to jam 4 people and 4 bike bags inside, but that was the limit. On the return the Ford took 6 people and 6 bags, so would be the vehicle of choice if we could ever specify. Unfortunately, the best you can ask for is a large van and then it’s a bit of a lottery what you actually get after that. With two Jumpy’s I think we would have struggled mightily, so thumbs up Ford and big thumbs down to Citroen.
We were “entertained” on our road trip by Goose’s play-list, a somewhat eclectic mix of Radiohead, Abba, Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, the Glee soundtrack, a heavy smattering of The Gypsy Kings and some American feller I’ve never heard of that Goose referred to as Jay-Zed. I would like to say it helped pass the time …
Still, we did all right, with no delays or missed turns and, dropped Steadfast off at his campsite at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez to await the others, while I pressed on with Goose and Captain Black, through the centre of Bourg d’Oisans to the Hôtel Oberland where we’d booked a room for the duration.
The early flights did have one benefit, we were here already and there was still plenty of daylight left, so we set to assembling the bikes for an afternoon ‘leg loosener.’
I thought my bike had survived intact, but somewhere along the way my saddle had taken a hefty knock, the rails were crushed and it was deformed. I continued to ride it throughout, though it’s fair to say that after a good few hours it very literally became a real pain in the arse.
The three of us set out with a vague idea of heading to the next town down the valley, Allemonde, and then doing a short loop that Steadfast had used on one of his previous trips. It was a good plan, only complicated by the fact that we had only the vaguest notion about which right-hand turn we were supposed to take to circumnavigate the village.
Though late afternoon, it was still what would in North East of England, have been classified as an absolutely scorching day, and it was nice to get moving and get the air flowing as we pushed our way down the main road. There’s a well-marked and maintained cycle path here, but your still mixing with a lot of commercial traffic on a fairly busy route.
At one point a butterfly came and kissed me on the lips and then fluttered away and even this unwanted attention seemed superior to the swarms of black flies we’d encountered a few weeks ago back in Northumberland. (This gentle introduction to the region’s insect life would prove somewhat duplicitous.)
There was some serious road re-surfacing going on in Allemonde itself, which makes me suspect the Tour de France is going to be routed through the town in a few weeks. Still unable to find the right-turn we were meant to take, I suggested we just take the Route des Cols, the start of the climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer and then we could call at Crazy Legs’ all-time-most-favourite crêperie/cafe, Les Favets at Le Rivier d’Allemont.
In lieu of a better plan from anyone else, this seemed acceptable and so we started our zig-zagging way up the face of the barrage skirting Lake Verney and heading up into the hills beyond.
Goose was hugely intrigued by a group of teens jumping from a viaduct into the lake and took a lot of dissuading from joining in. We suspect on some of the solo outings he tacked onto the end of our group rides he’d visit this spot and try to work up the courage to hurl himself into the lake. The only alternative explanation we could attach to his meanderings was an infatuation with the waitress at Les Favets, with him passing this spot multiple times on his odyssey to pay homage to her.
Leaving the lake and heading under the trees, the climbing proper began and, even under the shade of the leafy canopy, it was still brutally hot as we crawled slowly upwards.
“Is it much further?” Goose asked plaintively after we’d been working away on the climb for a good while. Truth be told we were all finding it much longer and much harder than we recalled,
“Another 3 or 4km,” I suggested, although I was just guessing. Then a few houses appeared at the crest of a rise.
“… Though hold on though, maybe not.”
This was a false dawn though, the few houses were all there was to the very quiet hamlet of Articol (I think) and our destination was still further up the climb, with 3 or 4 km being surprisingly prescient.
The cool air exuded from the streams and rivulets that rushed down the mountain and dashed under the road proved temporary relief, but never lasted long enough and we were all dripping with sweat and in need of liquid replenishment as the gradient slightly levelled and we finally reached our destination.
I told you half and hour ago I’d be ready in 5 minutes!
We arrived at the cafe just after 5pm, just as the place was due to close. Throwing ourselves on the tender mercies of the extremely pleasant and friendly waitress, we didn’t have to try too hard to project the image of sun-frazzled and tired cyclists in desperate need of refreshments. For whatever reason she took pity on us, “Okay, but we’re closing in five minutes!” We ordered cola’s all around and my companions indulged in a beer for that Ice Cold in Alex experience, as we took our seats in the shade, admiring the views up to the peaks above.
Our five minutes respite had turned into fifteen by the time a group of Swiss motorcyclists took the table behind us.
“We’re closing in 5 minutes!” the waitress cheerfully called out to them in passing.
“Yes,” I assured them, “She told us that 10 minutes ago, too.”
The motorcyclists were largely appalled that we chose to go on holiday to ride up mountains and suggested in Switzerland the general form was to drive your car to the top of a mountain, unload your bike from the back then enjoy an effortless descent. You know, on face value that seems eminently sensible, but maybe it’s cutting out half the fun …
As we were leaving a new set of tourists sauntered up to the familiar refrain of “We’re closing in 5 minutes.” I do wonder what time they actually managed to close.
Most of the road down to Allemont had been resurfaced as it featured in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné the upcoming Tour de France. It’s a fast, easy descent anyway, with long, sweeping bends and not too many pinch points, but the plush surface just encouraged more speed, so I laid off the brakes and let gravity run its course. I managed to hit over 80kph before I caught a white Hyundai Tucson and couldn’t find a way past, Nonetheless, great fun. while it lasted. Maybe the Swiss have the right idea after all?
We stumbled across the rest of the crew as we passed through Allemond and they tagged on for the ride back. We’d just crossed the bridge and were about to start down the man arterial road, when Goose spotted a sign for a cycle-track, off to the left and supposedly also heading back to Bourg d’Oisans. We decided to give it a go and called everyone back.
What a revelation, the track was a wide, smoothly tarmacked and traffic-free strip running alongside the Romanche river. It was perfect and became our go to route whenever the roads took us north. In fact, it was such a pleasure to use that on the last day I rode up and down it several times with Crazy Legs just as a superb way to decompress and spin the holiday out a little longer.
The meal that night saw us heading back to the Dutch bar where Goose revealed he has a very well-developed internal filter that he uses to carefully process everything he says before he gives it voice. It was quite a startling revelation and one that we all had cause to question in the coming days.
Our meal was somewhat interrupted when one of the guys at a table behind us passed out and dramatically collapsed. They were a bunch of English cyclists from Nottingham and had been touring around the country putting in huge distances by car each day to take in all the iconic climbs. It seemed one of them had been pushing it a bit too hard and was down and out with heat stroke, or possibly something even more dangerous.
His friends pulled him out of his chair, cleared some space and laid him on the ground while the manager of the restaurant hovered, concerned and with the number of the local emergency services tapped into his phone just in case. The guy seemed fully recovered after a few minutes, and appeared none the worse for the episode, even happily looking ahead to more climbing and pushing himself just as hard tomorrow.
We’d already found out today it was debilitatingly hot, even for the modest efforts we’d put in. For us at least this simply didn’t seem like the right time for any crazy long rides or heroics and I was already thinking our usual ‘Circle of Death’ – the Croix de Fer-Télégraphe-Galibier, long Saturday ride wasn’t on the cards this year.
Let’s see what tomorrow would bring. After the odd interruption to our meal, we all seemed a bit distracted and disorganised, so in lieu of any other suggestions, I (wholly uncharacteristically) proposed the Oberlanders would set out early tomorrow to climb Alpe d’Huez as the first order of business and we could decide what to do after that slight obstacle had been accounted for. I agreed with the Hammer we’d swing by their campsite at 9:15 to pick up anyone else who wanted to join us, but wasn’t hopeful we’d put on a unified front.
I’ve said it before, organising cyclists is like herding cats. In a thunderstorm. At night. On a ship. Still, half a plan is better than no plan, so let’s see what happens.
Cat#2 demanded to be let out of the back door first thing Saturday morning (he has a catflap, but it’s sooo much effort and besides, what else are stoopid humans good for?) and while acceding to his imperial highness, I noted just how chilly it was and pulled out a windproof jacket before setting out. It wasn’t until halfway down the Heinous Hill however that, jacket, fluttering like a moth broken on windscreen, I realised it was not only chilly, but another gusty, windy day. The temperature would rise eventually, but the wind refused to die and would just help make things a little bit harder wherever we went.
As I pushed out along the valley floor I was passed by a regular peloton of riders heading the other way. There must have been over a dozen middle-aged blokes, all dressed in matching white and green jerseys, with some kind of numbers on the front of their bikes, riding in a compact bunch with a couple of support cars trailing, laden with spares. They didn’t look lean and mean enough to be any kind of race team, so I assumed they were on some sort of sponsored ride for charidee. Then again, they were heading for Newcastle and it was the start of the weekend, so maybe this is just the latest stag-do trend?
Odd to think that I typed the above expecting the spellchecker to object to “charidee” – but apparently it’s now a recognised and accepted word!
Conspicuous charity, especially as part of a television promotion, or of an otherwise pointless exercise.
Isn’t English a wonderful, dynamic and ever-changing feast!
Crossing the bridge, nothing was moving on the river or from either boathouse, so it looked like our rowing clubs were away at some competition. The roads however were busy, with more traffic than I’ve seen in a long while, with no particular reason I could think of. Still, I arrived in plenty of time to watch our numbers slowly build until we had 33 riders clustered together and jostling for space across the pavement, the largest turnout for quite some time.
As we waited, Crazy Legs made the startling confession that he now thought Ed Sheerhan was “utterly brilliant”, having been dragged along to see his live show and undergoing some kind of startling, Damascene conversion. Luckily no one in my household is ever likely to drag me to such a show, so I can remain convinced Mr. Sheerhan remains a whiny, wey-faced poltroon with a penchant for bad 6th form poetry.
It was Crazy Legs’ turn to plan the route, which had us heading to the cafe at Capheaton, until we learned it was closed. I really don’t know what’s wrong with these people, thinking they can just waltz off on the pretext that they need a holiday. What about the well-being and mental health of the North East’s cycling contingent? Not to mention their coffee and cake addictions.
Crazy Legs tried to engineer a completely new route, but then decided we’d just use the Belsay cafe instead, so we’d ride past Capheaton, look longingly at its closed and shuttered facade, wipe away a tear and then press on another 9km or so to Belsay. It wasn’t a bad substitute to be fair and we’d need to return that way anyhow.
Crazy Legs was just reaching down to check his Garmin, to see if it was near departure time, when Carlton rolled to a stop. No need for a time-check, then, our metronome (metrognome?) had returned from holidays and was as punctual as ever.
Even better, we handily managed to get 10 or 11 volunteers into our first group and sent them on their way. I joined the second group, rolling up to join them at the traffic lights, where I found Goose confronting Not Anthony and Cowboys, declaring how discomfited he was to discover they were actually two completelydifferent people. Apparently Crazy Legs isn’t the only one who hasn’t realised Not Anthony is not Anthony.
We had noticeable crosswinds for the first part of the ride and then, just as the lead was ceded and I pushed onto the front with Goose, we reached Mitford and turned left instead of the more usual right, finding ourselves running directly west and straight into the wind.
“Have we been duped into doing something stupid,” Goose wondered, as we ducked down low and ground our way onwards. “Ah, well,” he consoled himself, “At least that farm dog doesn’t seem to bother us anymore.”
He was right. The rather ferocious, loud and very active hound that used to go crazy whenever it spotted a passing cyclist (especially if that cyclist happened to be Crazy Legs) was still there, but it stayed slumped and supine, not even bothering to open an eye and glare at us balefully as we sailed serenely past. Like most of our group it looks like old age, complacency and can’t-be-bovveredness has caught up with our canine adversary too – or perhaps the newly acquired muzzle it’s been forced to wear has taken all the fun out of chasing cyclists?
We led the group through Molesden and toward Meldon and were just discussing whether to stop as we rolled through the junction toward Dyke Neuk. Not only were we not stopping, but we were also going the wrong way, so we turned around and chased back on, going from front to back of the group in a few seconds. That, I think, was more than a just reward for our dithering and we could now find some shelter and recovery amongst the wheels.
We jagged north toward Hartburn, then west through Middleton, before finally turning back south again for the run through Capheaton. As we started climbing up toward the cafe and our highest point of the day, James III put in a burst of previously unheralded climbing prowess and the group fractured and became strung out. The last time we’d been up here he’d been struggling right at the back, only trailed by some idiot wrestling a single-speed, so things have definitely changed for the better. I worked my way through the luxury of a gear change, increased the tempo and along with G-Dawg, Goose and the Famous Cumbrian we started to close the gap.
We caught up with James III as we rolled past the cafe.
“There’s a big, big gap,” someone remarked.
“Good,” I replied.
I think they were pausing to let everyone regroup, but I wasn’t waiting and accelerated. At some point I realised I was riding alone and just kept going. It seems such a long time since anyone’s taken a flyer off the front, so I was happy to resurrect the idea of the forlorn hope attack. Anyway, it was only … err… umh … ah … 7km from Capheaton to our traditional cafe sprint-line …
Ok, truth is I really hadn’t thought this through all that well, but what the hell. I pressed on, never looking back, but noticing all the little impediments in my way: the fractured surface on the steep ramp up to the main road that had my wheels skipping and skittering as I barged upwards out of the saddle, the false flat that became a grinding, uphill slog, the wind from the left and right and front, but seemingly never behind me, the new road surface that should have helped, but was rough and heavy and seemed to suck the speed out of my tyres. Still, I’m pretty sure my face wore a stupid-ass grin as I frantically mashed the pedals around and around.
I made it to within maybe 250-300 metres of the imaginary finish line before the Famous Cumbrian buzzed past, with G-Dawg just launching a sprint from out of his slipstream. I managed to bridge across the Famous Cumbrian’s wheel and held on for a moment, but checking back, there was no one else close, so I eased and sat up, coasting to only 3rd, but a highly satisfactory and strangely enjoyable 3rd.
At the cafe I learned more about Tesla batteries than I’ll ever need to know. I also learned that Goose was inordinately proud of the 150,000 or so (and counting) unread emails on his phone that he has no intention of ever reading, or apparently, ever deleting either. Strangely, he’s just had to buy his daughter a new 256GB iPhone because she’s completely filled her original one up with photos, so I suspect the old adage about the fruit not falling far from the tree applies. I guess they have the ultimate solution though, we’ll just keep buying devices with bigger and bigger storage, so we can keep building up all the crap we can’t be bothered to edit and cull.
Recommendations to raise the age a person can buy cigarettes from 18 to 21 and then increase the age of sale by one every year thereafter prompted G-Dawg to imagine a dystopian, near-future when feral, middle-aged blokes would hang around outside corner shops, begging older folk to buy them cigarettes.
We also had a chuckle at the absurdity of hospital smoking shelters, invariably inhabited by wizened, infirm patients suffering smoking-related illnesses, but braving the British weather while dressed in nothing but a hospital gown and slippers, with a lit cigarette in one hand and IV stand and attached drip in the other.
Alhambra felt people abused the cigarette break excuse too much at his work, so started totting up the time they were taking and subtracting it from his own working week, boldly waving goodbye to everyone as he left early Friday afternoon.
“Here, where are you going?” his manager finally confronted him after a few weeks.
“I’m going home, mate.”
“But, you can’t do that.”
“Well, I’m just taking off the time I would be allowed off if I smoked, like you lot. See you later Dave, have a nice weekend.”
Apparently, his manager hasn’t found an argument against this yet and Alhambra says he’s now started taking note of all the prayer breaks some of his colleagues are getting too, and he could soon be well on his way to a 4-day week.
Heading back, I had a 5-minute catch-up with Taffy Steve, which is more than enough time for him to have me snorting with mirth. He is proudly anti-uniform and even when he was into diving would deliberately swim against the tide (boom-tsk!) and make sure none of his gear matched, while everyone else was carefully colour co-ordinating wetsuits with flippers and masks and snorkels and weight belts and the like.
I wondered if we’s be seeing the return of his old Marmite-branded cycling jersey soon, perhaps the most emblematic embodiment of divisiveness known to man, but he revealed he’d seen a fellow cyclist of a decidedly rotund disposition wearing one, and they’d looked so much like a little pot of Marmite on wheels, that he was now a bit wary of it.
He also revealed he’s been out with the Red Max on their newly introduced Tuesday evening, relaxed rides. Apparently, the Red Max had been a bit hyper on the first few, jumping around and madly chasing after other cyclists and cars and buses, but now Taffy Steve reckoned he’d reined him in and tamed his wilder impulses, so the rides have become quite civilised.
“No!” I protested, “You’ve broken him!”
We were strung out and split up as we crested Berwick Hill and started down the other side with the wind pushing us and demanding more speed. I’d soon rattled down the cassette and ran out of gears, but knew it was a brief reprieve as we’d soon be turning and then I’d be back fighting the wind most of the way home. And so it proved.
Oddly, while passing through Newburn I noticed a fleeting but intense smell of grapefruit. I have to admit the area isn’t one I’d normally associate with sub-tropical citrus fruit, or any other fruit for that matter, so maybe it was an olfactory hallucination. Phantosmia. Who’d have guessed they have a word for that too.
Otherwise, that was a very enjoyable ride, which is good as it’ll be the last club run I do for the next couple of weeks, let’s see what strangeness awaits when I return.