Wooler-Wooler-Huh, Tell Me More, Tell Me More…

Wooler-Wooler-Huh, Tell Me More, Tell Me More…

The Wooler Wheel Classic, Saturday 7th October, 2017  

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  104 km / 65 miles with 1,451 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          4 hours 10 minutes

Average Speed:                                24.9 km/h

Group size:                                         4 riders and 521 others

Temperature:                                    15°C

Weather in a word or two:          Bright and breezy


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The Route
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Ride Profile

The Ride:

A Saturday morning with a difference found me up before the sun, wolfing down a quick breakfast and heading out into the still-dark for an hour long drive into north Northumberland to start the Wooler Wheel Classic sportive.

This was to be my third participation in the event, which this time around was confined to a 100km ride, rather than the early season Borderlands ride of over 170km or 107 miles. The Wooler Wheel events are usually low-key affairs, characterised by good routes and incredibly helpful, friendly and supremely well organised marshals. Combine this with what promised to be bright and dry, if chilly weather and the fantastic scenery of the Cheviots and it had all the promise of a great day out.

All of this, before I even mention the piece de resistance, the real kicker that makes the event almost unmissable – never mind the free T-shirt, but every rider is rewarded with a hot drink and lavish helping of pie and peas on completion. Pure, unalloyed genius.

A Gang of Four planned to meet up to tackle the ride together, Crazy Legs, Ovis, Richard of Flanders and me. As a consequence, the first order of the day was likely to prove the most onerous, locating my ride partners and getting everyone organised to set off at the same time.

As luck would have it, I joined up with a long stream of bike-carrying traffic on the way to the ride headquarters and was fairly certain I’d spotted a celeste Bianchi and a blue Orbea on a car upfront – Crazy Legs and Richard of Flanders travelling up together?

Instinct was correct and directed into a field to park, I found myself pulling up only one car removed from two-thirds of my group. Good start.

We went to sign on, trudging through the livestock pens of the cattle market, where numerous carbon steeds waited placidly to be auctioned for their riders to set them free. Crazy Legs looked around the bleak, basic shed, concrete ramps and gated pens. “It’s depressing, isn’t it?”

I agreed, it was far too easy to see them using it as a set from Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List (or Ark for the bibliophiles amongst us.)

We all signed on, collected our bikes, attached the event numbers and made our way toward the start, eagerly scanning the crowd for the distinctive blue and yellow of Ovis’s Rochdale Tri top as we went.


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A quick stop at the port-a-potties and then we stationed Richard of Flanders outside the main hall, Crazy Legs ducked inside to search for Ovis, while I rode around toward the start gate to see if he was loitering there. Our searches proved fruitless, so Crazy Legs dialled up Ovis on his mobile and we learned he was currently deeply engaged … in the crapper.

“Ah,” Richard of Flanders said, “I thought I heard someone thrashing around in the stall next to mine.”

We all turned our attention to the long line of port-a-potties and watched and waited, as each one disgorged at least one relieved cyclist, all apart from the one slap bang in the middle. Finally, the door swung open and a fellow that looked like Ovis staggered out into the fresh air, breathed deeply, saw our welcome committee and ambled across.

He was difficult to miss in a new, very bright high-viz waterproof, but it wasn’t the electric blue and acid yellow kit we were expecting. Much to Crazy Legs’ relief, he did unzip his jacket to reveal the stalwart Rochdale Tri kit lurking safely beneath.

Bikes were recovered and we made our way through the pens toward the start gate. I swung my leg over the bike, put my left foot on the pedal and pushed off. My foot slipped instantly off the pedal, I stumbled, the crank whirred around and cracked me in the right shin. Ouch.

I tried again. Same result and then again. I now had a large dint and corresponding bruise in my shin. It still smarts and I’ve been wearing one sock at half mast all week now.

Taking note of the slippery state of my cleats, a hangover of the damp grass, mud and assorted animal effluvia, I concentrated hard and very carefully tried again. With a satisfyingly loud click, pedal embraced cleat and we were off, riding through the timing gate to a cacophony of beeps like a short-circuiting answerphone.

Richard of Flanders kicked the conversation off in style, by suggesting that for the Christmas Jumper ride this year we should all wear smoking jackets, or smirking jackets if we are to continue to pay homage to Ashingternean speak in this blog blerg.

Crazy Legs however is nothing if not bang-up-to-date and countered that the more modern, discerning smoker would demand we wear vaping jackets, not smoking jackets. I’ve no idea what a vaping jacket looks like, but it sounds intriguing.

The first hill bit and Richard of Flanders, naturally in full Belgian team kit, slipped slowly off the back to tackle its incline at his own pace. The rest of us waited to regroup at the top, where Crazy Legs waved through other cyclists, declaring we were “waiting for our classics rider” – not all that happy on the hills, but essential later on in the ride for when the echelons formed in the crosswinds.

Indeed, the wind was to be our constant, nagging and awkward companion for much of the ride, although we were anticipating the last few kilometres at least to gift us with a tailwind – the only issue was getting to this point. Luckily Ovis was on a 3-Shredded Wheat day, or in his own understated words, “going quite well at the moment.”

On we went and I started counting the roadkill, but soon ran out of fingers and toes. I wonder what the death toll is for small furry critters on the roads of Northumberland? At one point, passing the seemingly unmarked, unsullied corpse of a grey squirrel, we debated the relative appeal of a Dead Squirrel Club and whether it would sound more interesting than Chris Boardman’s Secret Squirrel Club.

Another, “ah, poor furry animal” quickly turned to a “yeach” moment as a potential, fluffy squirrel-corpse turned out to be a rather large and fearsome dead rat. Then the highlight of the day as Crazy Legs spotted a dead frog, although it wasn’t quite up to the standards of the splattered, flattened and sun-blasted toad we’d seen on the road up the Col du Glandon.

Richard of Flanders kept himself distracted and us entertained with a series of Viz jokes and recollections and suggested we’d know when he was struggling as the constant flow of verbiage would slowly dry up.

As he started singing “Howay the Lads” in a non-regulation Geordie accent, Crazy Legs mused on what a strange group he found himself riding with – a Lancastrian, a Yorkshireman and someone who lives so far south of the river he’s practically a Mackem…

Another hill and climbing past a group of girls, one of them looked across at Crazy Legs and squealed, “Eee! That’s my bike.” For one moment I thought there was going to be a bit of a tussle over the provenance of a certain celeste Bianchi, but it soon became apparent she merely meant she had the same make and model and an unseemly catfight was avoided. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and we pressed on – I’m not sure it was a fight we could have won.

Yet another hill and a marshal guided us down a left turn and told us not to miss the lady with the jelly babies. Sure enough a couple of hundred yards further on and we found the lady with the jelly babies, holding out a large bowl that she proffered to each passing cyclist.

Like a pro in a feedzone, Crazy Legs swept passed, extended a long arm and grabbed up a few treats without stopping. I pulled up long enough to grab an ample fistful and thanked the Jelly Baby Lady for providing “the best part of the ride” – even though I knew it was a lie – jelly babies are good but pie is better.

I set off in pursuit of my comrades, somewhat hindered as I chewed my way through mouthfuls of jellied sweetness that made breathing just a little bit awkward.

Another turn and up onto Branxton Moor and we were climbing up past Flodden Field, the scene of a bloody skirmish in 1513 when a band of belligerent Scots accused an Englishman of stealing one of their classic Italian velocipedes … or some other, equally as heinous transgression.

Ovis suggested a contingent of archers had travelled all the way up from Rochdale for the bash, but confessed he didn’t know how they’d got there. I naturally suggested the Trans-Pennine Express, which was all that was necessary to set Crazy Legs away on a Kraftwerk inspired song cycle.

Luckily I heard him singing “we are the robots” just before he became engaged in some exaggerated, robotic-style arm-waving, otherwise I would have been swerving across the road trying to avoid some imaginary potholes I thought he was trying to point out in a really eccentric style.

More climbing, just for a change and we stopped at a road junction to regroup once again. Here a couple of riders from the Berwick Wheelers swept past, giving Ovis a long appraising look. Crazy Legs suggesting they were just checking out his Rochdale Tri jersey which bore a remarkable resemblance to their own livery.

Back together again, we caught and passed the two Berwick Wheelers, who sat on for a while, before deciding we were going too slow. One of them pulled out, overtook us and suddenly realised just how strong the headwind was, as his pace immediately dropped down to match ours. We naturally had no intention of looking a gift horse in the mouth and piled onto the shelter of his back wheel, happy to have someone to share the workload with.

The other Berwick Wheeler then joined his compadre on the front for a long stint, before ceding the front to Crazy Legs and Ovis again, as we continued in a long arc that would draw us back toward Wooler.

The cohesiveness of our impromptu group was ruptured on the next climb and then lost for good as I punctured on the descent. An audible Phztt…Phztt…Phztt announced a rapidly deflating front tyre, while sounding like a cartoon bomb rolling over and over on its fuse. We stopped and pulled over to make repairs.

Underway again, a long descent deposited us onto the Milfield Plain, where scores of ominous black carrion crows circled us cawing loudly and watching eagerly for any faltering cyclist to provide a quick meal. The seemed to particularly gather around Richard of Flanders, who’d gone ominously silent and was looking perhaps the most likely to give them what they were waiting for.

We were starting to close rapidly on the finish now though and Ovis was happy to announce only two more climbs. I could only remember one of these, where our route took us up onto a narrow track the curved past a farm, a short sharp and very brutal ramp that formed a real, late sting in the tail of the route.

I remembered the climb from the 107 mile Borderlands run as it had almost brought me to a grinding halt. This time the approach seemed different as we swung left onto the climb, whereas I’m sure we approached from the other direction on the longer route.

While the approach was different, the severity of the climb was the same and I chased my chain up the cassette and hauled myself out of the saddle to follow Ovis. The pitted road surface was invisible under a thick blanket of mud, which at least evened out some of the bumps. Luckily it was bone-dry, or traction would have been a real issue.

Nevertheless, the slope claimed its sacrificial victims, one being the rider just in front of us who came grinding to a halt with cramp in both legs and lamenting the fact that this hill always seems to defeat him. As we eased over the first of two ramps another rider approached from behind muttering to himself and swearing like a trooper with Tourette’s – “rugga-fumba-rumba-bashta-gronk!”

“Does it help?” I enquired.

“Yes, I think so,” he politely replied.

He then swung round the corner to the bottom of the next rise and with a full-blooded roar of “Baaastard!” attacked the slope full on. As he winched his way around the corner and out of sight, his voice trailed faintly back down to us, “It definitely helps …”

Ovis was right and there was one more hill of note, but it wasn’t as bad as anything that had gone before and we were now pushing on and eager to finish. A few more miles saw us all through the “Welcome to Wooler” sign and then we were swinging right into the Cattle Market and back over the timing gate to finish.

T-shirt collected (and almost instantly snaffled by Daughter#1 when I got home) and more importantly with “pie vouchers” clasped in sweaty hands, we made our way to the event canteen for our much anticipated reward.

The steak pie was great, the paper plates and pliable plastic forks not so good – perhaps we’ll carry our own cutlery next time? Crazy Legs even went with the healthy option and had mushy peas with his (one of his five a day) and everyone seemed to agree the meal really hit the spot.

There was then just time for a Gang of Four, group picture and we were packing up to head home. As ever the event remains one of my favourites and I’ve no doubt we’ll be back next year for one, or both of the Wooler Wheel rides.

Oh, did I mention the pie?


YTD Totals: 5,888 km / 3,658 miles with 67,189 metres of climbing

 

 

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Wooler Wheel Borderlands Sportive – Saturday 16th May


My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                     172.6km/107 miles with 2,593 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                             6:58 hours

Group size:                                            8 less 2 (then 5, then 2, then 1)

Weather in a word or two:               Changeable


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No Club Run this week, as a bunch of us found ourselves getting up at an unfeasibly early, God-forsaken hour of Saturday morning to travel Even Further North™ in order to start the Wooler Wheel Borderlands Sportive at 7.30am.

For those who are geographically challenged, or lacking an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hidden rural enclaves of deepest, darkest Northumberland, Wooler, according to the event manual, is located in the far north-west corner of England, “perched perilously between the steep foothills of Cheviot and the Milfield Plain”. Strange, it didn’t seem all that dangerous a place when we got there, and I don’t recall much seismic activity in the Border Region from my Geography ‘A’ Level. Mind you, since I achieved that I think we’ve actually entered a completely new geological time period, so maybe things have changed.

Climbing out of Wooler, the route bends east to the North Sea, then turns quickly north before we get our feet wet, to run parallel to the beautiful Northumbria coastline for a while. Climbing over the border into Jockland, it then runs west along the Tweed Valley, climbing steeply to Scott’s View, dropping down into Teviotdale, and then climbing again, up and over the Cheviots to return to Wooler. Hmm, I’ve used climbing four times in that paragraph – that seems about right.

The Event HQ was located in a cattle market, which, although providing plenty of space and parking, did leave me with a somewhat sacrificial feeling, as we were herded through the dark and empty cattle pens to sign on, slipping and sliding down the same concrete ramps that I’m sure give our hooved bovine friends a similar feeling of nervous uncertainty.

From parking, to sign on, to fitting numbers to the bike, to lining up at the start gate, I managed to find, lose, find again, partially lose, search for and then find all 8 of the club lads and lasses set to ride, as well as a few others who were doing the shorter 100km route. Organising cyclists is an utterly thankless task, much akin to herding spooked cats in a thunderstorm. It was unsurprising therefore that by the time we’d rolled through the start gate minutes later our numbers were already down to 6, with 2 riders AWOL and never to be seen again. Maybe they fell foul of the hidden perils of the Milfield Plain?

The weather was bright and breezy for the most part, occasionally interspersed with sudden heavy showers, and a westerly wind that seemed to gather in strength as the day wore on. This necessitated several stops to pull on and take off rain jackets as the squalls blew past. Other than that the day was warm enough to go without overshoes and just arm and knee warmers.

Out on the road, and one of our number started romping up the first serious hills like a supercharged and enraged Armstrong chasing a Simeoni break, but I wasn’t remotely tempted to join in. It’s been over 30 years since I’ve ridden over a hundred miles so I adopted a much more cautious and conservative approach, dropping to the back and matching pace with our slowest rider as I tried to casually spin out a low gear. It was surprising to find cyclists already walking up the hills, I hope they were on the shorter route.

We hit the coast for some spectacular views of Holy Island and the Farnes, and our first headwind, slowing progress and demanding a bit more grunt, but were still clipping along at a decent pace and chattering merrily as we crossed the border into Scotland.
The first water stop was an opportunity to recharge bottles. Luckily mine was still fairly full as the group taste-test concluded the replacement water was “minging” and tasted heavily of chlorine. The contents of several bottles were summarily jettisoned when we called a quick pee stop.

Our first marker was at around 36 miles, where I reckoned we’d completed the first third of the course. It was at this point that I realised just how far 107 miles actually is and how long the ride was going to take. It was around this time that we lost the first of our number who, deciding the pace was too high, sensibly dropped off the back to continue in a more leisurely manner.

50 miles came and went, and the chatter in the group became less and less while legs became heavier and heavier.

75 miles and we’re mainly riding in companionable silence, occasionally stopping to don or doff rain jackets as the weather couldn’t make its mind up. We’re now faced with a series of ramps that lead us onto the climb up to Whitton Edge and the 301 metre highpoint of the route. Up ahead, in what appeared to be an argyle chequered jersey of white black and purple, a rider was weaving across the road trying to keep his momentum going as he struggled with the incline. He ran out of road and shuddered to a halt on the verge. I rode around him and followed his companion, also clad in argyle like a Garmin-Cannondale negative. This rider had bright pink fluorescent socks (why?) that looked so absurd that I was momentarily distracted from the pain in my legs, and I followed him to the top.

A quick chat with a photographer at the water station there confirms there are only a couple of serious climbs left, and we tip over the summit for a scary-mad, narrow twisting, descent down to the valley floor. For the first time all day I’m in the big chain-ring  with enough momentum to carry me over the a few minor hills without changing down and I take a long pull on the front.

Now I’m fixated on my Garmin and the slow countdown, always having to add 7 to the quick calculation of 100 minus however many miles the computer shows that we’ve done. I’m beginning to really hate those extra 7 miles, and whoever was so untidy or just too lazy to devise a ride with a nice round number, and I’m becoming a little too fixated on them.

Several cruelly hard ascents follow. They would normally be nothing to fear, but given the distance we’ve covered already and the “grippy” road surface, they have us slowing to a sustained and painful crawl. 100 miles come and go under our wheels, and there’s just that awkward, bastard, tail-end, untidy, cast-off, the uncalled for and damned inconsiderate runt of 7 miles left.

I note 102 miles tick past, ride some more, look down and the screen still resolutely shows 102 miles. I ride some more, telling myself not to look, and then I do, and it still says 102 miles. Maybe I’m cracking up?

Finally, agonisingly the screen ticks over to 103 and we’re on the last leg. We’re strung out along the road now, heading in and burning whatever meagre supplies of energy we have left. I’m clinging to the rear wheel of the first rider in our group as the miles squirm past. 104-105-106 miles and now the road is pan flat, but there’s a savage headwind. I’m slowly detached from the wheel in front, but as I turn into the finish strait my companion has slowed and is waiting (what a gent!) and we freewheel across the finish line together reminiscent of LeMond and Hinault conquering L’Alpe in ‘86 – although I suspect our ride was much harder.

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The Wooler Wheel – like Alpe D’Huez, only harder.

All that was left was to collect our (rather tasteful) T-shirts (immediately bagged by daughter number#1) and enjoy a traditional pie and peas meal (haute cuisine to us Northerners, and a welcome savoury break from sickly sweet gels and energy bars.)

All in all a great day out, and a fantastically well-organised event with clear sign posting and marshalls on all the major junctions to not only point the way, but control what little traffic we encountered. The countryside was somewhat wild and remote, but beautiful and the weather decidedly changeable – I was very surprised to find I had sunburned calves at the end – thankfully tiredness numbed the pain.

YTD Totals:         2,160km/ 1,342 miles with 23,474 metres of climbing