The House of Dying Flaggers

The House of Dying Flaggers

Club Run and Hill Climb, Saturday 14th October, 2017    

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  112 km / 70 miles with 703 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          4 hours 42 minutes

Average Speed:                                23.9 km/h

Group size:                                         28 riders

Temperature:                                    15°C

Weather in a word or two:          Dank, damp, dark and diluvial


 

hill climb
Ride Profile

Anyone with any sort of connection to a British cycling club will realise we are in the midst of hill climb season, a peculiarly national, highly traditional affectation, that encourages even those of advanced years and who really, really should know better, to bodily hurl themselves at short, steep hills to see how fast they can be ridden up.

The fact that this hurts like hell, puts immense strain on your heart and lungs and leaves you jelly-legged and coughing, spluttering and wheezing like a 40-a-day-smoker for a week afterwards is, apparently, all part of the appeal. In fact, British hill climbs are such a fixed, established tradition that they have their own National Championship and this has even inspired a book, the truly excellent A Corinthian Endeavour by Paul Jones.

Jones suggests it is the brutal simplicity of the hill climb that makes it so compelling. In his words you “ride uphill until your eyeballs explode and the fastest time wins – the paradox is that such a savage and unkempt experience can be so life-affirming.” Hmm, life-affirming? I’m not so sure.

Still, despite Mr. Jones’ claims, I would suggest any of our Continental, Trans-Atlantic or Antipodean cousins stumbling across a hill climb, would probably back away quickly, shaking their heads at the eccentric, nay, certifiably insane excesses of the British cyclist.

This was to be my 7th participation in the futile endeavour that was our club confined Hill Climb and I’ve said I’ll stop as soon as I can no longer improve on the time I set the previous year. Each time I think that day is coming closer – I’m not getting any younger and I can’t think of anything equipment-wise I could buy that would make me demonstrably quicker (well, aside from the obvious PED’s, or hidden motors.)

Still, I cling to the fact that I’m a year older, a year nearer to retirement, a year nearer being fully licenced to wear Farah trousers and dress exclusively in beige. Something has to give, surely. So I was semi-hopeful this year would be the last, results would finally show a deterioration and I’d be free of the curse.

As the day started to loom I had a lot weighing on the plus side and had started to marshal a veritable cornucopia of excuses lined up in anticipation of failure (or, do I actually mean success?)

Preparation hadn’t been ideal – a lengthy knee injury has hampered me recently, although sadly it seems to have cleared, so I can’t use that as an excuse not participate. I’ve also been plagued with random, seemingly migratory abdominal pains and been extensively poked and prodded and pricked and sampled and trialled and tested by my GP – all to no avail. I’m a medical conundrum.

Along with seemingly most of the medical community, I’m still in the dark as to the cause and awaiting further scans. An ECG did however come back clean, robbing me of another potential excuse for not riding, but not to worry, I’ve plenty of others…

My fair-weather commuter bike of choice, my shingle-shpeed Trek (I’ve no idea why I need to pronounce it in my head like Schteve McClaren impersonating a Dutchman speaking English – perhaps I’ll just call it the Shrek from now on) has been out of action with a seized rear wheel, while my winter bike, the Pug (Peugeot) has also been laid up in the LBS with the rear mech and hanger inextricably fused together. This still worked after a fashion, but made removing and replacing the rear wheel a tricky, almost Herculean task, so needed fixing before the inevitable puncture on a cold and wet winter ride in the middle of nowhere.

All this meant I’d done far less commuting in the past fortnight than I would have liked, (or, to be more precise, exactly none) but as of last weekend both bikes have been restored to full working order.

I’ve been suffering with a heavy cold all week, but remembered the patented Crazy Legs cure, as he swears by trying to ride through them, so I’d managed to commute on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with this in mind. Halfway through and I was already imagining the ensuing conversation in my head:

Me: “I had a cold last week and remembered how you always try to ride through them, so thought I’d give it a go.”

Crazy Legs: “How did that work out for you, then?”

Me: “Just made me feel worse.”

Crazy Legs: “Yeah, it’s always the same for me…”

Oddly though, it does seem to have helped, or maybe the cold has just run its natural course regardless of what I was doing. Anyway, by the Saturday I was starting to feel on the mend, although still plagued by a head full of intractable, irradiated, green snot. On a positive note, it did stir up some nostalgia, reminding me of the thick, viscous Gloy gum we used to have at school.

I had planned to take it easy on the Friday, but encountered what may have been the vanguard to Hurricane Ophelia and couldn’t resist the strong, strangely warm tailwind that whipped me into a drag race, daring me to see just how fast I could actually ride in to work. The “easy” return in reverse, then became a solid grind into blustery, strong headwinds. (Not that gurning my way up the Heinous Hill on the shingle-shpeed Shrek can ever be considered especially easy.)

Still, the weather looked like being just about perfect for Saturday, warm and dry, so a lack of grip and traction wasn’t going to assist me to underachieve, the wind would be a non-factor and it wasn’t going to be cold enough stop my legs, muscles and lungs performing at their usual modest levels. With the forecast looking so benign and amenable, I planned to ride, instead of drive across to the meeting point and even allowed myself an extra quarter of an hour so I could arrive relatively fresh.

Saturday morning revealed the weather forecast had been nothing but a malicious fantasy, the sky was bleakly and uniformly grey beneath a low cloud base that leeched an intermittent, sifting, and drifting mist of cold rain. All the while the temperature just barely struggled into double figures.

On went a pair of arm warmers, on went the long fingered gloves and then I pulled on a rain jacket and, leaving it as late as possible, reluctantly left the warmth of the house.

The weather had cleared a little by the time I got to the meeting point about an hour later, but it still wasn’t warm enough to persuade me to shuck and stow the jacket.


Main topics of conversation at the start:

G-Dawg was waiting at the meeting point on his fixie, a deliberate choice to ensure that, no matter how tempted, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the hill climb for fear of blowing out his knees. Instead G-Dawg had volunteered to help out as holder and had co-opted Crazy Legs to help as official starter and timekeeper. With OGL handling timings at the finish at the top of the hill, we were all set.

The Monkey Butler Boy was obviously taking the whole thing very seriously and rolled up in his club skinsuit and brandishing magnetic number holders. I joked that they looked heavier than safety pins, but apparently not, as they are infinitesimally lighter and that’s before you even consider their more advanced aerodynamic properties. Allegedly.

The Red Max wandered behind the Monkey Butler Boys bike and returned smiling contentedly. The Monkey Butler Boy looked all around, fear and real concern in his eyes.

“What’s he done? What did he just do to my bike?” he demanded to know. Luckily his paranoia was quickly diverted when, to his everlasting shame and horror, he discovered a perfectly formed, chain-ring tattoo branded on his calf. Amateur.

He was then taken to task for seriously over-lubing his chain. In demonstration, like the pickiest ever contestant on 4-in-a-Bed, G-Dawg ran a finger along his own, gleaming, shining silver links and showed us the faintest trace of clean oil forming a slight snail-trail across the pad of his finger. Repeating the process with the Monkey Butler Boy’s chain his finger came back stained with a thick, grungy, greasy smear that he ostentatiously wiped off on the grass. And then returned to wipe some more, as the filthy black grunge proved surprisingly sticky and indelible.

The meeting place has sprouted a new bin that seems to have grown up organically, straight through the pavement. Being deeply conservative and suspicious of anything new, we kept a good distance and eyed it warily as we waited to leave – delaying until the last possible minute to ensure we captured a full contingent of hill climb victims participants.


I rode out with Biden Fecht, chatting about this and that, everything and nothing, as we picked our way up through Dinnington, before swinging left to head down into the Tyne Valley. This was to be the plucky fellers first hill climb and the usual gallows humour had already started to infect him. He confessed to thinking about staging an accident to avoid the hill climb, if only he could find a suitable grassy knoll. I made him promise to make sure he brought me down if he found the right opportunity.

We dropped down through Wylam and started skirting the river, all bundling into a parking area at the bottom of the climb to regroup and for everyone to pull on jackets as the intensity of the rain increased and started to bounce back off the tarmac.

We picked our way along the north bank of the river, while I had a chat with the Hammer about creeping paranoia and the fear of being a dissident. Or, at least I think that’s what we were discussing, he’ll probably deny it under oath.

We paused at Stocksfield to regroup again and I took the opportunity to ride out onto the bridge to look over the parapet at the river, flowing fast and high beneath us. We crossed into more rain and took to the wide, but fast and busy road up through Riding Mill toward Corbridge and our chosen scene of torture, Prospect Hill.

The group splintered on a couple of rises and I found myself chasing across the gap onto the Red Max’s wheel, sitting just off centre of his rear wheel and trying to find some shelter from the wind, while avoiding the arc of cold water his tyre was kicking up into my face.

A sharp left and we were there, joining a throng of happily babbling kids, our Go-Ride section, who all looked delighted to be riding up a steep hill in the cold and pouring rain.

“Have we started yet?” G-Dawg enquired, before remembering he was the actual starter and no one was going without his say-so.

I signed on and press-ganged Captain Black into slapping my number on my back, “any-which-way.” He was surprisingly adept at any-which-way and I was soon ready to start. Unfortunately, I think I was number 22 or so, with all the young kids setting off first so we could get them out of the cold and the rain as quickly as possible – although they seemed to be coping with the grim weather conditions much better than all us grumbling, auld gits – they were excited and happy and hyper and it was brilliant.

It could have been a lot worse, I think last year we probably had over 40 starters, but the weather had obviously put a damper on things and deterred a lot of participants. Still it meant I had 20 minutes or so to hang around and get progressively colder and damper.

We stood chatting aimlessly for a while, talking the usual nonsense. The Natty Gnat outlined his strategy, which included waiting until “he could see the line” before changing up and charging at it. I suggested if he could see the line, he was probably doing it all wrong and he amended his strategy to” sensing the line” through the red-haze of hypoxia and tunnel-vision of hurt.

I checked that Jimmy Mac our Consultant Vascular and Endovascular Surgeon was ahead of me in the start list and would be at the top and able to help the old feller in crisis who would come staggering up behind him. I then realised his services might be in high demand and in any triage situation I was unlikely to be a priority. I could feel his eyes already coldly appraising me, with a look that seemed to suggest, “this one’s too old, far too troublesome and not worth saving.”

Meanwhile firm-favourite to win, broad shouldered, Steven Kruijswijk look-alike, Eon discovered his Di2 had given up the ghost and he’d be essentially reduced to riding the hill in just a single gear. What to me would have been the perfect excuse to scrub the ride was just seen as an additional challenge to Eon, who considered and discarded the idea of borrowing someone else’s bike and decided he just needed to choose his one gear very, very carefully.

With ten minutes to go I went for a short spin to try and warm up a little. Then the bike and pockets were stripped of any extraneous weight and finally and very, very reluctantly I slipped out of my rain jacket and took my place in line behind a visibly shivering Colossus.

With just a long, last, blood-chilling glower at Crazy Legs, our official timekeeper for the day (as if this was all his fault!) the Colossus roared away and I was next up. I nudged up to the line and was clamped in place by G-Dawg on one side and another big bloke I didn’t recognise on the other. I was now locked in, rock-solid, unwavering and utterly motionless.

“Thirty seconds,” Crazy Legs informed me brightly.

I clipped in and paused.

“Hold on! I’ve changed my mind, I want to get off.”

I could feel the unknown bloke wavering, his grip loosened just a little. G-Dawg though was unmoveable, implacable and his hold unrelenting, there was no escape, I wasn’t going anywhere…

Crazy Legs then began a very fine impersonation of Ted Rodgers doing the 3-2-1 countdown, or maybe it was that Phones-4-U thing. Either way I’m not sure the UCI would have approved and his struggles would later find him practicing his manual dexterity in the café. In his defence, I have to say that both the double-digit and single-finger salute he greeted my gentle ribbing with were delivered with suitable aplomb and professionalism.

“5-4-3-2-1 – go, go, go!”

Shit! Shit! Shit! I was released, managed not to fall over and headed for the bottom of the first ramp, legs quickly whirring up to speed

I was determined not to bury myself too deeply on the first corner, despite the encouragement of a group of “cycling moms” who’d stayed behind to add their support to the senior riders with much shouting and the shaking of home-made rattles. Great stuff, thanks ladies.

I exited the first corner in good order, distractedly noting that at some point I’d actually managed to stop shivering. Unfortunately, I think I’d also been a little too relaxed and I wasn’t carrying enough momentum with me. The speed began to drop and I did what I usually do, leapt out of the saddle and tried to add a little oomph.

Nope, not happening, not today…

The rear wheel slipped and slid with no traction, the ground was much too wet and too greasy for a sudden application of power. Three times the wheel spun ineffectively as I teetered on the edge of disaster, before it finally bit and I was back in control and climbing upwards again.

Now I started to notice how bad the road actually was, the surface was rough, cracked and pitted with potholes, while the corners were strewn with dead leaves and gravel and, just outside a new construction site, liberally daubed with slippery mud.

I was now concentrating on trying to pick a clean line, while running my chain up the cassette, trying to find the right gear that would let me accelerate while staying rooted firmly to the saddle. I already knew this wasn’t going to be a good time but pressed on, legs burning, lungs strangely okay and breathing not quite as distressed as usual.

As the road dug eastwards, I glanced over the dry stone wall to my left and saw the murky, misty clouds in the valley slowly burning off, lifting and blowing away as the sun lanced through in bright columns. I think I might have appreciated the sight for at least a nano-second, before it was back to the task in hand and I was threading my way around a gravel moraine, skirting the edge of an elongated crevasse and pushing my way around one more corner.

I rose out of the saddle a few times, but far more circumspectly now, trying to gradually add power without losing grip, working constantly upward. The tyres were still slipping a little, but it was far more controlled and through it I was able to slowly pile on a little more speed.

I rounded the final bend, squinting toward where a hazy collection of people outlined in bright sunlight marked the finish. I crashed back down the cassette, willed my legs to maintain the same cadence and closed quickly, throwing the bike over the line.

I hung over the frame for a minute or two trying to control my ragged breathing, before turning and looking back down the road. Shattered riders and discarded bikes were scattered on the grass verges like a column of refugees after a strafing attack by dive bombers.

I slowly made my way back to the finish line, congratulating Biden Fecht on a good ride and in time to cheer on Buster, the Monkey Butler Boy and, last man up, the Garrulous Kid, all of whom did great rides.

Me? I came home in 6:24, that’s 23 seconds down on the previous year. I am officially no longer getting any faster.


HClimb
The law of diminishing returns

Jimmy Cornfeed helped me unpin my number and I picked my way back down the hill now there were no more contestants racing up it. At the bottom I met up with G-Dawg, Crazy Legs and others, as we set out to find a café – hopefully in Corbridge, but definitely anywhere other than Brockbushes, where we have been made to feel especially unwelcome in the past few years.

We failed to locate a café rolling through Corbridge and set out in a wide loop around the town, before heading to a place the Red Max had pinpointed as a potential stop. As we pressed on into the wilderness and seemingly angling North toward the border, Biden Fecht cheered me up by suggesting that if all else failed he knew of a good café in Jedburgh. Then as we pressed on further with no relief in sight, he concluded there was always our usual stop at Belsay.

This slight detour turned into a bit of a grind, as the rain started falling again. Crazy Legs and G-Dawg had set off at a pace designed to restore some circulation and warmth to their much beleaguered bodies. They must have had it even worse than the participants, having stood around from start to finish of the event, without the benefit of even the most ineffectual warm up, or the opportunity to actually ride the hill.

So, while they pressed on, full of energy and desperate to warm up, I found my legs drained of any strength and on a long, dragging climb drifted slowly off the back of the group. On we pushed, seemingly with a final destination in mind, but finally regrouped so I could find a bit of shelter in the wheels and hang on grimly.

“A right turn, somewhere along here …” G-Dawg informed us.

“Or here?”

“Maybe here?”

“Ah, here.”

We turned in, Biden Fecht read the sign as Valium Farm, but that was only wishful thinking on his part – the great horde of unwashed cyclists had finally descended on the otherwise peaceful and sedentary Vallum Farm Tea Rooms.


Main conversations at the coffee shop:

The Garrulous Kid was found wandering around asking people the quickest way home as he had an appointment with his lah-di-dah hairdressers for another fresh trim. Earlier, G-Dawg had patiently explained how he could retrace his steps back, crossing the river at Stocksfield.

“You know where that is, don’t you?”

The Garrulous Kid just looked blank.

“Wylam? You know Wylam and how to get back from there?”

The Kid still looked blank.

He’d asked me the quickest way to get home and I unhelpfully suggested he cadge a lift back with someone who’d brought a car. In retrospect, perhaps it was the most sensible suggestion he’d got all day.

Now, the Red Max, who seemed to be the only one who actually knew where we were, told him to turn left out the farm, then first right and then right again and he’d be on the road to Stamfordham.

The Kid still looked blank, but left regardless. We still have no idea if he’s actually made it home yet, let alone in time for his salon appointment.

I got my time for the hill climb – significantly slower than last year. I said I would stop once my time started to regress, so “never again!” I vowed to anyone who cared to listen.

The possibility of transporting a set of rollers up to the start of the hill climb for a more considered warm up was discussed. Caracol was surprised the Red Max hadn’t pulled a set out of his “bag of tricks” while G-Dawg wanted to see someone riding with a set of rollers strapped to their back. In his absence, we all volunteered the Garrulous Kid to transport them to the bottom of the hill climb for us next year.

Crazy Legs pondered whether you couldn’t make some exceedingly narrow, portable rollers and wondered how narrow they could be made before they became unusable.

OGL left, returned to tell us he’d been harangued by an old harridan who objected to cyclists clogging up the country lanes (for once he didn’t seem keen to acknowledge any form of leadership over our ranks). He left again, then returned realising he hadn’t paid (important in case we wish to return to this venue next year, hopefully without circumnavigating the whole of the Tyne Valley to get there) and then, he finally left for good.

As we packed up and made to follow, Crazy Legs congratulated the Red Max on finding an even more expensive café than our usual haunt. The Colossus tried to wipe down his chair and I followed suit, finding a cold, damp and gritty film had permeated the seat.

“Yeuk!” I observed.

“Yep,” the Colossus agreed, I don’t like sitting in that, I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to.”

Hmm, perhaps we won’t be welcome back here next year after all, even if we all remembered to pay our bills.


We followed the Red Max out into the dank and dark day, as he followed the directions he’d given the Garrulous Kid, turning left, then right, then right again. True to his word (I know, I checked the map – but only after the event) we were now running just south of Stamfordham, but the road we were on was slick with mud and grit and who knows what else.

“Don’t ever let my Dad choose the route again,” the Monkey Butler Boy protested as he bounced and rattled along the smashed up surface and his bike, shoes and new skinsuit developed a thick coating of filth. I felt even worse for the Natty Gnat on his all-white bike and predominantly white University of Newcastle cycling kit. I must admit I don’t recall ever getting the bike this filthy and it took 3 full buckets of car shampoo to get it clean again.


shoes
White bike, white kit, white shoes … all a big mistake

A little further on and we slowed for three horses and riders, at the same time as a car approached from the opposite direction. One of the horses baulked, crabbing sideways, before turning a full 180° and trotting back past us, the rider wearing a rueful grin and trying to pretend that he was still the one in charge. As we rode past we were somewhat surprised to find the riders all dressed in tweeds and ties and formal shirts, despite the foul weather. Skinsuits be damned, we vowed we’d have to organise our own Gentleman’s club run in woollen plus fours, knitted ties, brogues and flat caps.

Aware that time was pressing on and I was already late getting back, I saw a sign for Stocksfield at the next junction, knew it was south of the river, so split with the group for (hopefully) a more direct route home. I soon found myself passing the familiar roads around Whittledene Reservoir and having to track west to find a place to cross the A69, before heading east again.

The usually buzzing A69 dual carriageway was eerily quiet and I rode quickly across without having to pause. It wasn’t long before I was dropping down into the Tyne Valley again, crossing the river and heading home.

That was a long day, over 70 miles and with lots of hills, despite the usual rain foreshortened climbing metres on my Garmin. This somehow recorded a total less than the previous year, when I’d driven across to the meeting point and hadn’t climbed in and out of the Tyne Valley five times, or tacked the Heinous Hill onto the end of my ride.

So another year and another hill climb ticked off. Now I’ve had time to reflect and recover, will I do it again? I’m not ruling it completely out, but won’t feel as compelled to keep the streak going. So if the weather isn’t filthy, rotten, dirty, cold and wet and I’m relatively fit I might line up. If not, I’ll hopefully be able to shrug, give the thing a miss and not feel any remorse.


YTD Totals: 6,053 km / 3,761 miles with 68.935 metres of climbing

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