I hadn’t even left the house first thing Saturday and our WhatsApp group was buzzing with people crying off as freezing fog was blanketing the North East and upping the potential for icy roads. Others decided to delay an hour or two before venturing out, hoping to see things improve.
Me? I was up. I was ready. I didn’t feel like waiting. I took a peek out and decided it just didn’t look that bad and decided to give it a go and see how far I got, reasoning I could always turn back for home again. Anyway, it was our Christmas jumper ride and others were now invested in my ride. Thing#2 had a hand designing my wardrobe. She’d first selected one of her navy sweatshirts with a natty(?) tartan collar and an ugly kitten escaping from a gift-wrapped, be-ribboned Christmas present on the front. Now don’t get me wrong, this was truly naff, but it was also a little too sober and understated.
So, she dug deep into the dark, dark recesses of her wardrobe and returned with a horror of a Christmas jumper (she assures me she likes it) which was suitably gaudy and the epitome of bad taste – a festive green with white reindeer and snowflakes, red poinsettia and a massive rendering of David Attenborough’s face emblazoned on the front (alongside a green(?) and red robin.)
Luckily it said ATTENBRRRR under this picture, otherwise, you would have absolutely no idea who the jumper was trying to depict. It reminded me of those epic-fail likeness’s too often seen tattooed across some poor blokes back, where an utterly talentless artist has taken a photograph of his beloved family members, sometimes wives, but most often young kids, and rendered them in tattoo form as some deformed and mutated alien monster from my darkest nightmares.
For her part, Thing#1 had bedecked my bike in twinkling, much too subtle fairy lights and wrapped the top tube and seattube in luxuriously thick golden tinsel.
Ok. Let’s give it a go.
My first impression, as I dropped down the hill, was that it was indeed bitterly cold and Christmas jumpers are not even remotely windproof and I stayed uncomfortably cold until I was made to climb out the other side of the valley.
Before that, I crossed a still, silent river unaware if any rowers had braved the freezing temperatures, as everything under the bridge was invisible and swathed under a thick blanket of fog. I couldn’t even tell how high, or low the water was.
I reached the other bank and turned east, passing a small knot of Muckle riders churning in the opposite direction, obviously intent on a serious ride with no indulging the frivolity and stupidity of any of that Christmas jumper nonsense. I can’t help thinking they’ve got the right idea.
By the time I made the meeting point, I could see a band of ice crystals had started to form around the cuffs of my jumper and the final downhill stretch had chilled me once again. It was cold. Not as cold however as the -6℃ that OGL claimed it to be when he drove to the meeting point just to warn us that it was cold. Unless of course, he’d just driven in from Outer Siberia rather than Outer Fenham.
Despite being out on four wheels instead of two, he was fully dressed in full cycling kit, en route to the café at Belsay where a gathering of veterans was meeting to celebrate the achievements of local racing legend Ray Wetherell. G-Dawg would be our lone envoy at the event and our route was largely determined to get him there in time for the presentation.
G-Dawg and Aether were already at the meeting point, the former clearly surprised that even two others had turned up as he was expecting to ride on his own. As it was, we were then joined by the Cow Ranger, Teri TK and a Tri-Guy I wasn’t at all familiar with – to form a handy sextet.
We’d all made at least a token effort on the Christmas jumper front and Aether had seemingly swathed every square centimeter of his bike frame in thick, long-stranded, golden tinsel, even down to the long rear mudguard.
“Well, if nothing else,” I told him, “At least you’ll be invisible to radar.”
In the absence of a Christmas Jumper, Teri TK had gone with a navy blue Hawaiin shirt emblazoned with bright red Santa’s, only G-Dawg thought it might have been a pyjama top and asked jealousy if he’d managed to perfect the art of rolling straight out of bed and onto his bike.
Crazy Legs wandered up in civvies with his dog in tow, or perhaps it was the other way round, as Crazy Legs had tried tip-toeing carefully across icy pavements, only to be hauled enthusiastically forward by fearless Reggie, on much surer, four-footed traction. Anyway, the pair had arrived safely to spread seasonal greetings and good cheer, as Crazy Legs was one of those who’d delayed their ride to see if conditions improved, so he wasn’t sure of seeing us out on the road.
We had a bit chuckle about some recent transactions on our WhatsApp group, where someone had sold an office chair within seconds of posting it up, while MiniMiss had offered up two free tickets to see Gary Barlow live at the Arena … and had no takers. After a couple of hours of complete radio silence on the tickets, I’d concluded that a second-hand office chair had more pulling power than a former member of Take That and sparked an inevitable pile-on. This not only provided great entertainment but had left the original poster and office chair somewhat bemused and bewildered by the sudden, unexpected popularity of his second-hand furniture.
As we chatted, whenever Crazy Legs hands got cold he would pick up poor Reggie and bury his frozen digits in the dog’s fur, to leech away some warmth. It really was that cold, too cold to hang around for long and as soon as the clock hit 9:15 we determined there were no more lunatics likely to join us and we had to move before we froze in place.
G-Dawg and Aether led us out and alongside Teri TK, I slotted in behind them. There was something surreal about my view of Aether’s tinsel-enveloped bike from the back – it looked like he was riding an Afghan hound, with the slight sway of the rear mudguard resembling a tail, swishing from side to side.
Despite the bitter cold, the roads appeared ice-free fog and once the fog burned off, it was a beautiful crystal clear day, although the silvery-bright sun held no warmth whatsoever. The hedgerows out in the countryside were all ice-shrouded, still, white and glistening. Although bitterly cold, Aether reported his Garmin was reading -2.4℃ at one point, it was an extremely pleasant and convivial ride.
Through Stamfordham and the Cow Ranger and Tri Guy took to the front and they led through to Matfen, where they kept going, but the remaining four of us decided to adopt a Flat White ride protocol and stop for coffee.
The Matfen café was very welcoming, the coffee was good and G-Dawg was indulged with an early Christmas treat, the largest slice of corned beef pie I’ve ever seen.
Strange connections led from queries about if Frankenstein’s monster ever had a name, to Harry Potter’s owl, to Aether’s fascinating revelation that Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr had invented a frequency-hopping torpedo guidance system for the Allies during the war.
We had a chat with a local on leaving the café, then we were underway again, deciding to risk the Quarry en route to Belsay. Climbing out of Matfen we rode through the slightly unsettling phenomena of the rime encrusted trees occasionally shedding a tinkling cascade of ice pellets in our path, presumably a sign that the temperature had ticked up a degree or so.
The Quarry was the highest point of our ride and the crystal clear, still air provided spectacular views down into the Tyne Valley, where a thick bank of white fog still clung to the river. Even with the additional elevation and exposure, the top of the Quarry was still ice-free and we were soon cresting the slope and dropping down toward Belsay. G-Dawg offered Aether the chance to win the café sprint again, but he declined, wanting to win by stealth and subtlety rather than default. We rolled through Belsay, G-Dawg peeled off for the café and the three of us remaining set course for Kirkley, with potential rendezvous with any of the later starters, or G-Dawg, depending on how long he spent at Belsay.
As we approached Ogle I was eyeing the road suspiciously, unable to tell if its evil gleam was just because it was wet and the sun was bouncing directly off it, or there was a layer of ice lurking for the unwary. I voiced my concerns, asking Aether if he thought it was icy. He wasn’t sure either, but we weren’t kept in suspense for long.
We pushed through the cluster of houses, swung right and had just started to scale the rise out of the hamlet, when my wheels slid away from under me and I came down with a clatter. Behind me, either finding his own patch of deadly black ice, or startled because of my sudden nose-dive, Terri TK suddenly banged down too. I lay there for a moment, unable to unclip as my leg was cramping up, then slowly disengaged and untangled myself from the bike.
The fall had tried to even out all sticky-out bits down my right-hand side, so the point of my shoulder, elbow, top of my thigh and knee had all been subjected to a little gentle grating across the road surface. My brake lever was similarly scratched up and there was a hole in my favourite bibtights, but luckily all the damage was superficial.
Terri TK too reported no major injury, so we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down then walked our way very gingerly to the top of the slope. Before remounting, Aether phoned G-Dawg to warn him to be careful on this stretch, while I posted a similar warning on our WhatsApp ride group.
We later learned that the Big Yin and the Cow Ranger had both come down in the same spot, but luckily they too experienced no major damage. The Cow Ranger also said that on leaving us he and Tri-Guy had been tempted to go down the Ryalls until they met a bloke pushing his bike back up after hitting ice on the descent and sliding 30 metres down on his arse.
At Kirkley, Terri TK pushed on for home, while Aether and I called into the café for one last cup of coffee for the road and one last cup of coffee before I’d go to the valley below… No one else had shown by the time we left and we split shortly after leaving, Aether to try the potentially problematic lane up to Berwick Hill, while I followed shorter, more certain roads home through Ponteland.
The river valley and most of the hills south of the river were still shrouded in freezing fog and I was a little concerned the Heinous Hill might be a bit slippery, especially as I would have to climb most of it out of the saddle. Luckily my fears were unfounded and I made it back without the indignity of falling over again.
After a couple of nights sticking to the sheets and only being able to lie on one side, I’m mostly recovered now and looking forward to our last club ride of the year, the Monday after Christmas Day, weather permitting.
|Day & Date:||Saturday 18th December 2021|
|Riding Time:||96km/60 miles with 912m of climbing|
|Riding Distance:||4 hours 35 minutes|
|Group Size:||6 riders, 0 FNG’s|
|Temperature:||-2℃ to 3℃|
|Weather in a word or two:||The brass monkeys sang soprano|
|Year to Date:||4,813km/2,990 miles with 51,376m of climbing|