Plague Diaries – Week#5

Plague Diaries – Week#5

I am a rock. I am an island.

It took 5 weeks, but finally the club tried a group ride on Zwift. I excused myself as soon as I learned they’d chosen to wear orange jersey’s and green socks for easy identification. Read that carefully. They. Chose. Green socks!

Shudder!

Seriously though, I’m with Mikel Landa, last seen on Twitter approaching his turbo trainer with an axe in hand and malicious, black intent in his heart. The indoor trainer is the very last resort for me, it’s there strictly for extreme weather, or if the lockdown ever becomes so stringent that you’re not allowed out for exercise.

Sadly then, I can’t report on the joys, or otherwise of group riding with Zwift, although someone else might step up to the mark if we’re lucky? Anyone? C’mon, don’t be shy …

Judging by the amount of social chatter it generated, it wasn’t the smoothest experience, but everyone seems committed to giving it another go, so there must be some benefit and it’s another way of filling the void.

As a reminder of what we’re missing, here’s another little dip into Thing#1’s survey of a typical North East road club ramshackle collective from her project on community groups, this time, responses to the question:

What makes the cycling community, or your road club special to you?

  • Camaraderie on rides.
  • Riding in a group is a shared effort – you put in effort that helps others, others put in effort that helps you. When you ride regularly with a group sometimes, you’re strong and can pull hard for the group, other times you appreciate the shelter of others. Either way sharing hard efforts and unforgiving weather brings people together.
  • I have made some great friends.
  • Common interest in cycling, good craic, fun.
  • Self-deprecation, humour, hiding, people always willing to push themselves.
  • Knowing that there will be a group to cycle with if I turn up at a certain time and place.
  • The members of my club, the humour we share and the general disregard of an extremely serious approach to riding (e.g. no endless discussion of gear ratios – boring! Or snobbishness towards those on sub £3k bikes).
  • The willingness to be critical of those who make decisions and think about what can be offered to those not members of the club.
  • The endless exploration of Northumbrian roads (often when not on official club rides).
  • The encouragement I got when I first joined opened up the wider range of disciplines of the sport.
  • It’s like extended family.
  • Camaraderie.
  • Enjoying the company of others.
  • I feel protected and loved.

Gosh, that almost brought a tear to my eye …

Saturday morning found me inadvertently going commando as I set out for a ride – I’d somehow forgotten to charge my Garmin and it was declaring a low battery as soon as I turned it on. Not wanting it to crap out halfway around my route, I left it on the kitchen bench and relied on the Strava app on my phone, tucked safely away in my back pocket.

I was riding then with no sense of pace, or distance and just a vague idea of the time of day. It was unusual and a little bit uncomfortable. Sadly, I have to confess I prefer having that sort of information to hand and I’ll make sure the Garmin is fully charged next week.

There was no consensus on the weather, Rainman and Richard of Flanders returned from (separate, I hasten to add!) rides and reported they were happy with their choice of full winter gear, while G-Dawg declared he went out in full summer kit and it was glorious, but we all know he’s not completely human. I tried a Tørm thick(ish) merino jersey, gloves, shorts, arm warmers and knee warmers. It was decidedly chilly on some of the descents and I certainly never felt over-dressed, so guess I got it just about right.

I had vague intentions of heading generally west, with no ultimate destination in mind. I crossed the river and made my way to Heddon-on-the-Wall, which, believe it or not, lies athwart the route of the Hadrian’s Wall, from which it takes its name. I know, hard to believe ….

There are even some remaining blocks of stone, like a knuckled, yellowed spine poking through the earth as a testament to the build quality of Roman fortifications, construction having been completed over 1,894 years ago.

I didn’t quite realise at the time, but the ancient Roman Empire was to provide a coherent theme running through my ride.

Just outside Heddon, I picked up a sign that said Chollerford was 15 miles distant and, in want of an actual plan I decided to make this my destination. I pointed my front wheel in that direction and rolled with it.

I was going to be travelling along the Military Road, something cyclists usually avoid as its typically fraught with HGV’s and speeding reckless motorists. If you’re going to ride it though, this is the perfect time as seemed totally bereft of traffic. Between passing Albermarle Barracks and the junction with the A68, some 20 kilometres later, I was passed by just two cars and a tractor.

All this way, the only company I had was the sun, sitting off my left-hand shoulder and my shadow on the ground to the right. My shadow was intent on remorselessly half-wheeling me, but I’m used to riding with the Red Max, so I’ve learned not to respond to such provocation.

The road was straight and true and heading almost directly westward, as good an example of a Roman road as I could imagine, and I definitely felt I was following in their footsteps. To be fair the signs were a bit of a giveaway too.

I was later surprised to learn the Military Road is not one of those things that the Romans had done for us, having been built in 1746 by Hanoverian soldiers heading up North to squabble with the Jacobites.

I also realised I was missing Taffy Steve, who I’m sure could have kept me entertained with a precisely recalled, pitch perfect rendition of the “what have the Roman’s ever done for us” scene from Monty Python’s, Life of Brian.

The only bit of this route I really recognised was dropping down toward Whittle Dene reservoir. I watched another cyclist anxiously scurry across at the junction ahead of me – the same as we have done on countless club runs, leery of speeding traffic suddenly appearing over the brow of the hills on either side.  I could feel his eyes tracking me as I reached the crossroads and didn’t turn to join him, but kept going straight up the Military Road. He probably thought I had some sort of death-wish.

(Oh, and I remember the Vallum café too, which for the past three years has been our traditional stop after the club hill climb.)

Finally, a long fast descent deposited me in Chollerford. To be honest, the journey was more rewarding than the destination. Even if it hadn’t been in lockdown, I’m not sure there’s a huge amount to see or do in Chollerford. I stopped on the bridge for a few pics of the North Tyne, turned round and headed back, looking for a sign that promised the road would take me to Hexham, where I could cross back to the south side of the river and home.

The North Tyne from Chollerford

Through the imaginatively titled village of Wall (guess what you can see there?)  and through the mean looking streets of Acomb, I picked up a cycle path that ran alongside the A69 before vaulting up and over on a light bridge seemingly enmeshed in chicken wire. I paused halfway across, brought to a stop by the sight of the A69 completely and utterly devoid of traffic in both directions.

An eerily quite A69 just outside Hexham

It was so quiet, I could probably have ridden it all the way home in complete safety, but I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have endeared me to the few motorists who were actually out and about. It’s their road, don’t you know.

I crossed the river at Hexham and then had a pretty straight route, back down the valley and home, my only regret being the run was into a headwind all the way.

Home again and another enjoyable ride out. I saw less cyclists than I did last week, perhaps because the weather wasn’t as pleasant, and those I did see were riding solo, or from obvious family groups. Who knows, maybe the message is beginning to sink in.

I can’t help feeling better weather is just around the corner. Bring it on.


Plague Diaries – Week#4

Plague Diaries – Week#4

Just Me, Myself and I

So, 4 weeks in and so far, so good. The working week has settled into a solid routine and to be I’m still enjoying working from home, even after the novelty has worn off.

One of the main purposes in scrawling this blerg was to celebrate the unique experience that is the club run and it’s diverse pool of characters, endless craic, camaraderie and good humour. I’m thinking all that might be becoming a bit hard to recollect, after all if a week is a long time in politics, then four weeks without a club ride must be an eternity.

Here then is a timely reminder of what the club run means, not to me, but culled from the wise and measured words of my cycling comrades. This is what we’ve got to look forward to when this whole sorry episode is over. It’s taken from research conducting by Thing#1, who’s first assignment at University was to design a flyer to celebrate and promote a local group, or community and for some reason she thought a basket-case cycling club might be a good source of inspiration …

So, the first question of a series went: “outline three qualities of your cycling community that should be celebrated” and the answers were:

  • Looking out for others, connecting with the local countryside, respecting the environment.
  • Social interaction to improves sense of community, helping reduce carbon emissions, improving the health of the nation.
  • Diverse, friendly and supportive.
  • Friendliness, inclusivity, fun.
  • Making cycling more visible to the general public, helping the local café network(!), camaraderie.
  • Social interaction and exercise helping mental health, shared views and belief in promoting cycling.
  • The enthusiasm to ride as part of an often-marginalised community, the supportive way of treating each other and helping each other out, the appreciation of living and cycling in the North.
  • Inclusiveness, enthusiasm, high performance.
  • Sociable. Supportive. Inspiring.
  • Friendly. Approachable. Accepting.
  • Shared sense of purpose, fitness and health.
  • Teamwork – surprising for an individual sport but the team aspect is important. Getting a mate over a big climb, or working together to catch a breakaway are some of the best moments
  • Healthy – despite our love of cake, we all take our health seriously. Honest. Competition – the rides are just for fun. Except when the cafe is 10km away. Then everyone goes quiet and the speed slowly creeps up. It. Is. On. Race!!
  • The racing, the friendliness, the whole support from different clubs.
  • Camaraderie, humour, health and fitness.

More later …

Somehow we’ve survived without more stringent lockdown measures being imposed – no thanks to a small minority out there who obviously can’t stand spending any time alone, I don’t know, perhaps it’s in case they’re forced to confront their own shrivelled, selfish souls?

The weather has ticked up a notch too and Saturday’s forecast was to be as close to “shorts weather” as we’ve seen all year. A few chilly showers swept in overnight though, and the morning was still dank and chill. I paired knee warmers with shorts, light weight gloves and a long sleeved jersey and I was good to go.

I planned on running my favourite, much-travelled loop around the Derwent Reservoir, but didn’t fancy an early and cold tilt down the Heinous Hill to start with, so cut up the Fell to Burnopfield and dropped into the Derwent Valley from there.

Things were going well, other than the fact I had a severe case of earworm featuring, for some unfathomable reason, Dua Lipa. This stayed with me until I was skirting the reservoir and noted that the daffodils look lovely today and then The Cranberries took over.

Half way up Burnmill Bank and it had warmed up enough that I stopped to shed my gloves en route to cresting the top, where I stopped for a quick photo opp, before the fast descent to the reservoir.

The sign here told me I was entering the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and who am I to disagree.

And the daffodils look lovely today …

At Edmondbuyers I had a choice of continuing south, up into the hills toward Stanhope, or swinging north and picking my way to Blanchland. The cold, harsh headwind coursing down from the hills decided for me and I turned north, skirting the reservoir as I made for Blanchland.

I stopped again by one of the turn-offs to the reservoir to read the sign. It was clear enough.

I was starting to pass more and more groups of cyclists now, drawn out by the good weather and yet again only around half appeared to be riding solo, the others seemingly needing the security blanket of someone else to ride alongside them.

The early mist had burned off by now, the sun was high in a peerless blue sky and my shadow sharp and clear. It was bright and warm enough to persuade me to doff my casquette. This is not meant to be a euphemism along the lines of bashing the bishop, but it is a testament to the central vent in my Ekoi helmet that provides such a constant cold stream of air over my head, I’ve been wearing a cap under it since late September.

I zipped down into Blanchland and climbed out through the bitching 25% gradients on the other side. I was feeling pretty sprightly and racked up a series of personal Strava PR’s, probably more a reflection on how slowly I’ve grovelled up this slope in the past, rather than anything to crow about.

I turned right at the same point as last week, near the site of the Tunguska Incident, before the long descents of Park Bank and South Tank Woods, where I tucked up low on the bike and zipped down, passing an almost continuous line of cyclists toiling up the other way, (one of who may, or may not have been, my brother-in-law.)

From there I picked my way home, tacking on the climb up to Byermoor, before admitting I’d had more than had my allotted portion of daily exercise and sweeping back home, tired, heavy-legged, but happy.

The Plague Diaries Week#3 (Monday Supplement)

A Guest Post by Tony Clay

Another guest blogger has kindly stepped up to the mark in our time of need! This contribution is from my old (old, old, old!) mate, Tony Clay, who describes himself as a long-distance member of our cycling club, before explaining that by this he means he lives a long way from Newcastle and not that he rides long distances anymore!

Currently residing in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, Tony still has dual nationality and a Geordie passport and recalls his formative years “happily riding around Northumberland and Durham with some great people.”

This is a faithful telling of how he (and then, by association, yours truly) came to be cyclists, rather than … I don’t know … golfers? … lard-arsed sofa surfers? … sane and mellow normal people without a Lycra fetish? Maybe all, or none of these.


A Revelation on the Road to Damascus Hexham by Tony Clay

For the record, my other clubs – Tyne Road Club (at the same time as Joe Waugh(1)), Whitley Bay Road Club (at the same time as Mick Bradshaw(2)) Tyne Velo, Sheffield Phoenix, Sharrow CC, Meersbrook CC, Rutland CC (at the same time as Malcolm Elliott(3)), Thurcroft CC and my current local Club – Rotherham Wheelers (100 years old this Summer).

I’ve a couple of years on SLJ and have known him since I was 14. One of my fond memories is when he and I went on a YHA cycling tour around Devon and Cornwall in 1978. We had some laughs. I think it was £2 per night in the Youth Hostels back then and I booked and paid in advance by Postal Order, do they even exist today? (Mr. Google suggests that indeed, they still do, but I’ve never heard any one use, or even talk about them for decades!)

But anyway, let’s go back to my childhood… I had to visit a Psychotherapist some years ago and, though it sounds cliched, that was actually about the first thing he said to me, ‘Tell me about your childhood.’

Well, there was a small gang of us 14/15 year olds at school, a mixture of lads and lasses who ‘knocked about’ together, all very innocent. We all went to the after-school clubs, the youth club, the ‘movies’, walking, camping and canoeing together. Simpler times.

The summer holidays in 1974 saw some lovely weather.  We all got the train to South Shields now and again for a day at the beach with Frisbees, burgers, coke and ice cream.

I can’t remember who suggested it but someone said, ‘let’s go for a bike ride’.

YEAH! Brilliant!

But I didn’t have a bike…

But, asking around I managed to borrow Dick Taylor’s bike. The bike was a Sturmey Archer, 3-speed ‘all steel’ Raleigh. I’m not sure what happened to the bike, but Dick Taylor went on to a place in the GB Olympic Kayak Team and, even at 16, he was quite an impressive physical specimen, tall, blonde and ‘fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog’. Perhaps he got that way riding his beast of a bike?

So, beastly bike sorted, where would we go? 

The obvious choice was South Shields, only a 20-mile round trip and we could go on the beach with Frisbees, burgers, coke and ice cream.  Perfect!

But no.

We decided to go to Hexham.

Initially not a bad idea as we knew Hexham quite well as we had been there many times at ‘Dukeshouse Wood’ School Camp, very happy times.

What we didn’t factor in was the distance… we didn’t even think about what is essentially a 50-mile round trip.

50 miles! I’d never ridden further than the local shops on my tricycle as a bairn!

So the ‘Liste de Engagements’ was:-

‘Rowesy’ riding his brother’s Holdsworth.

‘Fat Rowesy’, – no relation and earned the epithet “fat” principally to differentiate the two Rowesy’s. Fat Rowesy was on his brother’s Carlton Kermesse (a lovely bike which I later bought off him.)

‘Fat John’ on a BSA Tour of Britain.

‘Erra’ on a flat handlebar Raleigh Roadster.

‘Gutha’ on his brother’s Carlton, horribly hand painted with Hammerite.

‘Doddsy’ on his very own (he was posh) Carlton Ten. A really sound touring bike, in mint condition. They sell for around £250 to the ‘Eroica’ enthusiasts today.

‘Maundy’ on his PUCH (PUKE!) International, really cheap and horrible, horrible, horrible; (I could never determine if it was meant to be pronounced puke, or if this was some subtle kind of Austrian humour and should perhaps be pronounced poosh. You know, like a poosh bike? Ah, forget it.)

And…

‘Bryan’ so utterly nondescript he didn’t even earn a nickname… and I can’t remember his bike either!

(It’s brilliant to realise that teenage kids are every bit as accomplished at coming up with pithy, creative nicknames as some of our, err, “mature” professional sportsmen. I’m looking at you Wrighty, Gazza, Giggsy, Waughy, Cookie, Floody et al. Simple rules – if the surname is too long, truncate it a bit, then all you have to do is stick an “ee” or “ah” on the end. Why didn’t I think of that, could have save myself a huge amount of time and soul-searching!)

Having no idea what we were letting ourselves in for, nobody had any food or drink and a couple of us didn’t even take any money, so we all had to chip in to get them their ‘burgers, coke and ice cream’ when we got there.

The journey and return is perhaps a story for another day, but the key moment in that ride was when I swopped bikes with Fat Rowesy for a few miles as we passed through Corbridge.

Going from a 3-speed steel ‘clunker’ to a real racing bike was amazing. A real revelation. His Carlton Kermesse had 10 gears, tubular tyres and lots of alloy kit. It zinged. It seemed to smoothly glide along and was utterly effortless to ride.

That is the precise moment, 46 years ago, when I got hooked on cycling.

To be continued?


(1) Joseph Alexander Waugh.
Twice National Hill Climb Champion
King of the Mountains,1975 Milk Race
2nd, at 5 Seconds, 1976 Milk Race, riding in support of the winner Bill Nickson
2nd to Robert Millar (Pippa York) National Road Race Championships 1979
Gold Medallist 100km TTT 1982 Commonwealth Games, with Malcolm Elliott

(SLJ: Also occasionally known as Joey Wah-oogah to eagle-eyed readers of this blerg.)


(2) Mick Bradshaw.

Gold, Silver and Bronze Medallist in National Time Trial Championships at 25, 50 and 100 miles.

And, after a heart transplant he came back to win medals in the World Transplant Games, coincidentally held in Newcastle, one tough cookie.

(3) Malcolm Elliott.
What needs to be said?
National Hill Climb Champion, National Road Race, National Criterium Champion, Milk Race Winner (and holds the record for the number of stage wins), Tour de France rider (read ‘Wide Eyed And Legless’), Vuelta a Espana Points Classification Winner, Gold Medallist 100km TTT 1982 Commonwealth Games AND the Road Race… and was still racing, very successfully, as a pro aged 49! And a lovely friendly guy!

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

Splendid Isolation

Week#3 under lock-down and I’m well into the groove of this working from home malarkey. I’m getting up at the same time I would under normal circumstances and then, in the time I would have wasted commuting into work, I have a quick morning run (recklessly burning my allotted “exercise time.) This sets me up for the day and replaces the bike commutes I’m missing on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

I’m not the most accomplished runner, but I can now brag that I’ve already completed a marathon in 2020. (Although for the sake of transparency, I have to admit it’s taken me 94 days to do the required distance.)

I guess I’m lucky that I can work just as effectively from home as I can in the office. Who knows, maybe it’s the future.

One thing I am worried about during our current lock-down is that my barbers are indefinitely closed. This means my ears are no longer regularly subjected to the wild ministrations of a Turkish pyromaniac and may soon be overwhelmed by a carpet of dense, luxurious hair. (I’m not wholly convinced this is an actual possibility, but they do seem to revel in their flamboyantly twirled fire-brands and I don’t want to be a killjoy.)

What is a problem however, is my hair is starting to grow exponentially. outwards. I may need a bigger size in helmet before we see the end of this.

Ultimately, this could, in extremis, lead to some DIY hairdressing and the return of the sort of criminally bad hairstyle I haven’t sported since my early teens.

Contemplation of this horror led me to recollect (with a shudder) the K-Tel Hair Magician – a cheap-looking, white plastic comb with a razor blade clamped between the teeth, a (quote) “precision instrument” that allows “any mother to give her family professional haircuts.” Ahem.

Yes, our family had one. No, it didn’t live up to the hype (you’ll be surprised to learn) – but was excellent at painfully tugging indiscriminate clumps of hair directly out of your scalp.

I often wonder happened to K-tel and Ronco and all those other purveyors of astonishingly crap, cheap consumer products – they must have sold by the millions to afford all those shameless adverts that cluttered up the TV channels.

(I realise Alan Sugar briefly tried to reprise their business model with his Amstrad brands, but surprisingly and despite his best efforts, the products weren’t quite crass enough.)

So, no more K-tel Hair Magician, or Ronco Buttoneer, no more Veg-o-matic, or the much improved (really?) Veg-o-matic II. No more Brush-o-matic, Peel-o-matic, or even, I kid you not, Tie-o-matic. (I’m beginning to sense a clever trend with the product names.)

No more cordless power scissors, or Rotato. I never actually seen a Rotato – the rotating potato peeler, and can’t help feeling my life is poorer because of this omission.

Anyway, no matter how desperate, I will not be scouring eBay for a K-tel Hair Magician, even bolstered by one of my Dad’s (oft-repeated) pearls of wisdom, that there’s only two weeks between a bad haircut and a good one…

Dad wisdom is great. I especially like the epigram espoused by the dad of my work colleague, the bloke formerly known as Fat Dave. His dad, always insisted that when planning a trip, you should never take an idiot with you, as you’ll easily be able to pick one up at your destination.”

Sage advice.

Anyway, Saturday found me once again heading out for a solo ride and, since last weeks run seemed to turn into a bit of a hill-fest, I decided I’d treat myself and head straight down the Tyne Valley, avoiding the lumpy bits on either side.

I realised the drawback with my plan as soon as I reached the bottom of the Heinous Hill and struck out up-river, the wind was blowing directly from the west, straight down the valley and I’d be riding into the teeth of it all the way out.

Undeterred, I took my standard route across to the north bank , finding the water flat and completely empty as I rolled over the bridge. I guess both rowing clubs have shutdown for the duration and there were no boats out.

I turned left at the end of the bridge, instead of my usual right and soon found myself on the Sustrans cycleway, heading toward Wylam. I skirted a golf course, as empty as the river had been and I was “gannin like a rocket” as I swept past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. (Did you notice what I did there?)

At the end of the trail I was bombed by an inattentive mountain-biker sweeping out of the trees and obviously failing to see and/or hear my approach. I took evasive manoeuvres, but despite my best efforts, couldn’t maintain correct social distancing. Luckily the authorities weren’t around to impose sanctions.

I pushed on and was approaching Ovingham when a cyclist from the St. Nicks club swept past without a word, nod or wave of acknowledgement. Pah, how rude, there’s no need for that.

The competitive fires were lit and I gave chase. Please understand, I didn’t want to, but it’s an uncontrollable chemical reaction that simply won’t be denied. I had no choice in the matter, just ask the Red Max.

Try as I might, I couldn’t close the gap, my legs felt heavy and tired and didn’t seem to have any zip in them, something I attributed to my series of morning runs.

It wasn’t until I was approaching Ovington, already 10-mile into my ride, that I noticed a rhythmic sissk-sissk-sissk noise coming from the front end of the bike and discovered my brake pads were rubbing slightly on the wheel.

I stopped to make adjustments and pressed on. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a grind into a headwind and I wasn’t suddenly gifted with an immense burst of speed, but the toiling definitely got easier.

I caught the St. Nicks rider, stopped just before the Stocksfield Bridge and studiously intent on his Garmin screen, so he still didn’t have to acknowledge my existence. I failed to make eye contact and passed him as I swung left and crossed the river back to the south side.

I traced my way through Riding Mill and out past Prospect Hill, venue for our lung-shredding annual hill climb, and just kept going.

The white plumes of the Egger chipboard factory at Hexham were soon in sight, the first time I was aware that chipboard manufacturing was an essential occupation, as the plant was very clearly still operational during our national shutdown.

At this point I was starting to get a bit bored with the relatively flat terrain, wide, straight roads and constantly nagging headwind, so I eenie-meenie-minie-moe’d and swung left at one of several junctions with signs pointing toward Slaley and Blanchland.

My plan was to take in a swift sharp climb out of the Tyne Valley and drop down into the Derwent Valley for the run home. Good plan …

Awful execution.

The road I’d chosen climbed stiffly south for a bit, then swung back to the west, running parallel to the route I’d just left, so back into the headwind, but now with the added impediment of a long dragging climb upwards.

I crawled past a lumberyard and garden centre with cafe, that I vaguely recalled stopping at during a midweek ride out with the Tyne Valley Cycling Club. From here, I knew I would get to where I wanted to be if I just persevered. So I did.

Just outside Slaley, I stopped for a cereal bar breakfast and to admire the super-cute, spring-loaded, new lambs, bounding through the air, like miniature fuzzy, four-legged Kung Fu fighters. They were having fun at least.

Dropping down toward Blanchland, I stopped again to try and understand the post-apocalyptic landscape presented by this corner of Slaley Forest. What had once been a dense, towering plantation of dark evergreens’ had now been stripped almost bare, as far as the eye could see, except for a few desultory, skeletal trees, left poking stiffly upwards.

It reminded me of pictures of the devastation in the wake of the meteorite strike at Tunguska. Had someone dropped a nuclear bomb just outside Blanchland? To be fair, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had and no one had noticed.

It had started to rain at this point, so instead of heading down into Blanchland, I swung east, skirting this odd, desolate landscape, heading toward Whittonstall and glad to put the rain at my back.

From there I was able to retrace my steps from a couple of weeks ago and find where my route planning had gone horribly wrong. Encouraged by my success, I then took the Derwent Valley heading eastwards and home, climbing out via Burn Top, as a welcome change from the Heinous Hill.

Again a decent run on pleasingly quiet roads, but still with over a 1,000 metres of climbing sprinkled across my 75 kilometre route. So much for my intention to have a less hilly ride.

Along the way I spotted several cats, squirrels, pheasants and chickens, almost revelling in the quiet roads. There were also many more cyclists out than I saw last week, or maybe that’s jus a consequence of where I decided to ride.

I would have to say that only around half of them were riding solo and very few of the assorted pairs I passed looked like they belonged to the same family/households. Unless there’s been a sudden spate of same-sex marriages in the North East, then I’m not sure there’s been a strict adherence to the social distancing guidelines.

Hopefully no harm will come of it, but in these uncertain times, who knows? Personally, as much as I miss the camaraderie of group rides, I’ll stick to solo ventures until things return to normal.


Footnote: all weekend the media has been full of news of people not complying with social-distancing guidelines, including pictures of some astonishingly large groups of cyclists. This is not going to end well and is inviting the government to implement even tougher guidelines. I’m going to be utterly pissed if even solo rides are curtailed due to the selfish activities of a small bunch of complete and utter dickheads. But I can see it coming.

The Plague Diaries – Week#2 (Sunday Supplement)

Fechten Talk by Biden Fecht.

So the gauntlet, or Great Cycling Mitt of the Very Reverend SLJ was thrown down, and having partially provoked the challenge, I had no choice put pick it up off the ground, wipe it, wash my hands to the sound of [insert inane nursery rhyme of choice] and get typing. 

First please understand that the following has been translated from the original Cockney-Gaelic, which accounts for all errors and seeming cold-as-ice-slanders.

Any road up, so I thought back over two-wheeled adventures in the dim-distant past and those more recent. What would be worthy of SLJ?

Perhaps I could fill in some history from the murky past of two-wheeldom? You might for instance be interested to know that the feared mountain range, last seen bordering France and Spain, and home of the infamous Col du Tourmalet, takes its very name from the sport of cycling.

According to local legend, it was in fact an early member of a certain Northumbrian cycling club (founded shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain led by General Chorus Campagnolo in 53 BC according to historical Super Record. (That’s 73 BGRC in local parlance.)

This storied club, we have been repeatedly told, was down to -16 members, during the Black Death, as many of those buried in the Club Chapel had not paid their subscriptions and were hence denied an official gravestone and there names struck from the records. Yet despite these travails, somehow it still survives to this day.

Anyway, as I was saying, it appears that the naming rights of this particular mountain range were bagged by one of these strange Novocastrian psychlers (as they were known, back in the day), struggling up one or other godforsaken 15% incline in the vicinity.

Armed with a manly 21 rear sprocket, and bristling a 39 tooth (why would you even need that?) inner ring in hope of grinding the mountain to dust, it seems the ill-fated psychler came a cropper, split apart his mid-leg and cried out in pain, “’Paar a knees! I need a new paar a knees!”’

And so, dearly beloved, our mountainous range came, to be called the Pyrenees (since les Francais cannot spell proper). And surely, it has sounded the death knell to many jangling cartilage containers ever since.

But, turning aside from this bad turn up the Tourmalet, let me turn back over my own cyclepath of history, and pluck out a ride – not quite at random – and chase it along the keyboard. 

It’s never quite clear, what makes a ride a great ride. Often those ones with ‘epic’ written all over the packaging can shine a bit brighter in advance, or in the re-telling, than in the doing.  Sometimes the best rides aren’t so easy to recount – which to my mind makes the achievements of the Rev SLJ all the greater.  But sometimes those rides are the ones we return to and relive even if there’s no 2,000m climb or breakneck descent, and that’s the case with this one.

A couple of years back the S.O. in my life (the Fechtette w whom I bide?) was taking part in the Loch Ness Marathon, a frankly incomprehensible (to me) affair, where they transport poor souls into the middle of nowhere – literally to a place where there are no roads and so no spectators may follow them –  and then make them run the 26 miles back to the civilisation of Inverness. (No jokes please, I happen to love Inverness, but that’s another story).

So, wanting to fully support this first marathon adventure, I headed north, bike in tow, and finding the runners would depart at 5.30 for the bus out to the Loch, I made quick plans to put my two wheels to use, aiming to return in time to dutifully cheer on my S.O. at the finish line. 

Some of you might perhaps know of the Black Isle? – but if you’re thinking of the Tintin story I’m afraid that doesn’t cut much ice, Snowy notwithstanding.  The real Black Isle is no more of an island than the Isle of Dogs (Translators note: no known equivalent for this Cockney-Gaelic term). It is in fact a peninsula that isn’t really on the road to anywhere. The A9, the main highland artery, cuts across its mainland shoulder, but otherwise it’s largely a footnote.  I set off for it, cheerfully hapless and mapless, with a sense of the shape of the ride I needed to follow more than an actual route.


Distance: 126Km Time: 4 hours 50 minutes Elevation: 995 meters


Out of Inverness it was gloomy with rain falling as the dawn was sluggish in materialising, while the heavy road hugged the bay of Beauly Firth westward, against the wind. Finally turning inland there was a long slog to Beauly itself where the road crosses the cunningly named River Beauly (anyone else thinking that Beauly has a bit of an ego issue?) 

It’s here that the ride really started as the road turned north east, and I headed back out towards the sea. A series of climbs, or maybe rather just endless undulations, up via Muir of Ord and all its many family members – in that way, where when you’re riding a road you don’t know, and can’t see far ahead, you never know how many more lie over that ridge. 

Starting to flag, I dragged myself up the slope at Mulbuie, where one of those weird monuments to nothing very obvious was sitting waiting for me – think, modest Presbyterian version of the Kirkley obelisk without the cows. 

Just about then the sun got its act together and the landscape opened out and I got a view across the Cromarty Firth.  And for the next 30 odd miles I was flying along one of those roads that rewards every pedal stroke tenfold, carrying more speed than it seemed like I was earning, and luckily with not a car in sight, since my eyes kept drifting across to the deep blue of the firth, and the sun on the hills beyond.

It was one of those roads you want to go on forever, where you’re torn between giving it everything to the max, and slowing up cause you want to sustain the enjoyment. The road rose up gently, along the spine of the Black Isle, then ducked down to trace the northern shore into the deserted ferry stop at Cromaty.  I stopped there to refuel and skim a few stones in the hope of concussing a haddock or two, but on that front, no joy.  

Cromarty is the tip of the Isle, and from there much of the road back works its way through forests, and by this time what passes for traffic in these parts was starting to close pass. I worked my way back, stopping at a fork in the road to debate with myself whether to chance my legs on the mighty A9 suspension bridge, and save a good 25 miles.

But what am I actually saving here? I figured to myself and plowed on. Some few miles down the track, as I was about to leave the isle and re-join the Inverness road, I noted a hawk or falcon type thing, hovering some 20 foot above my right shoulder, just in the near blind spot.  Perhaps coincidentally I picked up my pace a little at that point for the run into Beauly where I stopped for the espresso I needed to power me on back to Inverness. 

Once back in town it was a quick shower and I headed off to the marathon finishing line to find I’d missed a certain talented debutante coming in well ahead of target time, some 10 mins earlier.

Ooops! 

Can’t say I regret it though.  

Not sure why, but this ride is one I find myself going back to in my head and reliving. And if someone were to ask me why the f*** does a 50 year old guy like me continue to ride around on a bike, I might not bother to answer, but this right here would be one of the reasons why.


The Plague Diaries – Week#2

The Plague Diaries – Week#2

Life Under Lockdown

Covid-19. The Coronavirus. Just a quick note to acknowledge it’s a serious thing. A deadly serious thing. It might only represent a very minor inconvenience to you, should you be unlucky enough to catch it, but somewhere down the line, with the person you pass it on to, or they pass it on to, or beyond that, the consequences might be fatal.

So don’t be a dick, think about what you’re doing, follow the guidelines and stay well.

That said, we still have to get through this, so hopefully a little gallows humour and the odd, ostensibly cycling-related bit of frivolity might help.



So let’s plunge into Week#2 of The Plague Diaries…

First up, will someone please explain to me why people stared panic buying toilet paper?

Food or water I can at least understand (I still think it’s stupid, but I can understand it.) Antibacterial hand sanitizer, I can understand. But loo roll? Bog paper? Toilet tarp? the Daily Mail™?

Why?

What’s the worst that could happen if you run out? How did the … err … run on toilet paper start and why? Will we ever know?



I completed my second-solo ride under lockdown and now that we’re being advised to ride in groups of “fewer than two” I guess everyone else in the club is doing something similar.

I went mostly south, managing about 40,very lumpy miles in chill, but for the most part dry conditions. I only got lost once or twice.

Self-inflicted earworm, accompanying most of the day, was Tenpole Tudor’s “Swords of a Thousand Men.” I guess it could have been worse, I’m just not sure how.


I shaved for this? It wasn’t worth it …
The old vs the new – wind turbines framed by the old pit wheel at Burnhope.

Anyway, regulated and imposed riding on your own is different, but not without a few positives to balance out the negatives, you know, ups and down, snakes and ladders, swings and roundabouts, a bit of yin to balance out a smattering of yang.

So, my list so far:

Positives:

  • There’s very little traffic (and as a consequence the air is noticeably cleaner.)
  • If I’m riding solo, I can’t get dropped. Ever.
  • I can ride at my own pace.
  • I’m not going to get shouted at (for any reason, or even for no reason whatsoever.)
  • I don’t have to worry about the rider in front standing up to climb and momentarily stopping their pedalling, so their back wheel suddenly lurches toward my front wheel.
  • There are no unexpected salvoes of snot rockets to avoid.
  • I’m not under pressure to leave the house by a certain time to make the rendezvous.
  • It’s a chance to explore new, or seldom used routes.
  • I only have to contend with self-inflicted earworms (although on today’s evidence, even that’s an issue.)
  • I don’t have to worry about the rider behind, so I don’t need mudguards = summer bike, even if it pours. (Yay!)
  • If I puncture, I wont feel the pressure of a hyper-critical audience watching my every move, as I fumble around trying to change a tube.
  • There’s a slim chance I could win a non-cafe sprint.
  • You can stop for a pee almost anywhere and not be disturbed.

Negatives:

  • No witty, erudite banter and thoughtful insight to entertain me.
  • No one to draft behind in a headwind.
  • No cafe’s = no (richly deserved) coffee and cake.
  • The pressure of having to choose my own route.
  • (Related) The ease with which I can get lost.
  • The temptation to take it easy, or just head straight home.
  • No one to laugh at, or take the piss out of beside myself.
  • The lack of motivation to get out of bed and actually ride.
  • The miles seem to crawl by, literally and metaphorically.

I’m sure there’s more. What have I missed?

A Random Ramble …

Words. You know I love words. I feel sorry for them if they’re alone, so always encourage them to cram-up together. Like some kind of wholly unscrupulous, evil, people-trafficker (not that there’s any other kind?) I’ll stuff as many of the poor blighters as I can into any free sentence without a care for syntax, structure, legibility, legality or readability. Well, you know “quantity has a quality all of its own,” as Napoleon once famously didn’t say.

But there are certain words and phrases that seem to get picked up by the media and get used by lazy journalists over and over and over again, ad nasueum, like a stuck record, without even the subtlest hint of variation or variety, or thought behind its use.

I’m sure I’ve already mentioned in this venerable blerg the lazy over-use of the suffix: “gate” to describe any kind of scandal – you know, Pizzagate, Contragate, Deflategate, et al.. This is still true, even though I had to swallow my own distaste when we had our own scandal that could only properly be described as Gategate.

The “so-called Islamic State” was another recent example, used to describe the entity that did actually refer to itself as Islamic State, or could just as easily be referred to as Isis, Isil, IS, or Daesh. It didn’t take too long for the term “so-called Islamic State” to really, really grate.

At the moment the phrase du jour that’s really starting to annoy me is “underlying conditions.” I know, we get it, certain people who have sadly succumbed to corona virus weren’t in the best of health anyway, but with no further information about what these underlying conditions are, it’s a bit spurious, unhelpful and wholly unnecessary.

I also wonder if downplaying the potential, fatal seriousness of the virus is sending the wrong message to those stupid enough to think the threat is overly-exaggerated, or worse yet, a hoax.

Anyway, a new word has just entered my watch-list and I’m sure we’re going to hear more of it in the coming weeks. That word is furlough. I was also surprised to hear a rather well-known BBC presenter exclaim he’d never, ever come across the word, before discussing it with a guest and suggesting it might be related to that agricultural term for leaving a field unplanted for a season … sigh.

And a final note …

So, that thing about people contributing stuff so we could all retain some sense of connection and community and enjoy something mildly diverting at the same time?

Well, it seems that Biden Fecht has bravely picked up his own gauntlet, so keep an eye out for the excellent Fechting Talk, heading your way very shortly.


Plague Diaries – Week#1

Plague Diaries – Week#1

Cycling in the Time of Covid-19 – week ending 22nd March

Well, that’s typical, no sooner do I start riding again and club runs become verboten.



As the country’s somewhat fumbled response to the Corona Virus continued to evolve haphazardly, gatherings became restricted to six people as we moved toward the weekend and social media was alight with queries and concerns about our regular club runs.

In the face of limited, changing and confusing official guidance, some of our Saturday regulars decided to coalesce around our meeting point as usual, before forming into ad hoc small groups of three or four and heading out for a ride.

I decided it wasn’t worth trekking all the way across to the meeting point and settled on a solo run, largely staying south of the river. Others had similar ideas, while for some the purgatory and self-flagellation of turbo-trainers seemed to call.

Earlier in the week I’d been contacted by one of our club regulars, the estimable Biden Fecht. He described fleeing Scotland as the shutters came down, making his escape sound as dramatic as leaping onto the last Huey just as its skids lifted from the US embassy roof in Saigon. (It would be a great analogy, if the embassy staff had been evacuated on venerable and clanking 1990’s era rolling stock.)

Anyway, now safely under house arrest in Newcastle for the duration, he’s weirdly concerned he’s going to miss us (no, me neither) and is looking at ways we can support each other, stay in touch and maintain some sense of communal spirit.

As an option of last resort, he wondered if I’d throw open the pages of this venerable blog/blerg to any and all contributions, running the whole gamut from A to B. So from braggadocio to venting, from the asinine to extraordinary, any and all contributions are welcome be they inspiration, entertainment, or elucidation.

If you want to add, club member or not, send your contributions to surlajante@imap.cc and certain fame infamy is sure to follow.

No rules, although at least a tenuous link to cycling is expected. So let us know what you’re doing, how you’re doing and why you’re doing whatever it it that your doing. We might be able to keep each other sane and make it through this yet.

(I will of course take full credit for anything that is well received and goes … err .. viral?)

I’m still waiting for a contribution from G-Dawg, titled “Hills in the North East You Can’t Climb on the Big Ring”. To be fair, he has already sent me an email with an attachment, but both were blank. I’m not sure what’s gone wrong there.

I’m also expecting a top-10 of quarantine themed ear-worms from Crazy Legs, although its my understanding that The Knack’s “My Corona” has already secured top-spot.

In the meantime – this is Biden Fecht’s contribution, a selfie including a wall in Whalton and daringly, breaking social distancing rules with his own shadow.


My own contribution also features a wall, somewhere near Newlands, as I tried to recon a route we could use for the club to venture south of the river … but got hopelessly lost.



I’ll spare you a selfie of my grizzled visage as I’ve taken home-working as an excuse not to shave. As my work colleague, the bloke formerly known as Fat Dave commented, by the time we come out of the other side of this, I’ll probably look like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway.

Be safe and be good, I’ve got a feeling we’ve a long. long way to go yet.