Time for one last hurrah, one more brief spin out, before breaking down and packing up the bike for the return home. Steadfast and the Hammer have disappeared for solo ride’s, off up the valley, the Big Yin is, I believe treating himself to a ride up the Col d’Ornon, while Caracol is riding Oulles and the Col d’Ornon as a warm up for another assault on the l’Alpe d’Huez.
That leaves six of us for a slow-paced amble back up the Alpe, complete with multiple stops and a vague plan to arrive at the top in time for a relaxed lunch. From there, thoughts go no further than a quick zip back down the mountain to the campsite.
Not a very taxing day, but for me it’s going to be enough. I remember doing the exact same thing last time around when, the day after the Circle of Death, I felt someone had poured concrete into my legs. Things weren’t as bad today, but I was still mightily tired and anything beyond a slow-paced amble was completely beyond me.
All traces of the bad weather from yesterday had blown over and it looked like being a good ‘un, the sky a backdrop of deep blue, scratched with a few gauzy, high altitude contrails and dotted with bright, primary coloured highlights from a handful of drifting paraglider wings.
So, up we went, slowly spinning the legs back up to speed, as chains rolled up cassettes, again and again and again. And again. We initially rode en bloc, at a comfortable pace, enjoying the sunshine and chatting away quietly.
We stopped every three or four corners to enjoy the views and watch the sparse, but steady flow of riders heading up, or zipping down. Crazy Legs felt our presence kept those descending honest, as no one wanted to misjudge a corner and mess up in front of a critical jury of smart-arse cyclists.
We greeted and encouraged those clambering upwards, they were almost unfailingly cheerful, despite the rigours of the task they’d assigned themselves. What is it about bikes and mountains that makes us want to ride up them and makes us happy to do it, too?
After exchanging pleasantries with one fellow-Brit, he then looked behind and shouted down words of encouragement to his companion, toiling upwards in his wake,”Come on, Paul.”
We immediately took up the chorus, encouraging Paul to greater efforts,
“Come on, Paul!”
“You can do it, Paul!”
As he drew level, no doubt wondering who this bunch of piss-taking, miscreants were, Kermit gave it one last shot.
“Come on, Paul,” he paused for dramatic effect, “We’ve heard so much about you!”
As we dissolved into giggles, Paul hauled himself past and around the corner, shaking his head and no doubt cursing the lolling, goggling, gaggle of lazy, smart-arse cyclists, who didn’t even have the ability to ride up on their own without stopping at every corner.
Undeterred, at some point we resumed our super-relaxed ascent and I found myself riding alongside Ovis as the others stretched away out in front.
We were just discussing whether riding up a mountain was actually a good choice for a recovery ride, when Ovis jinked into my path. This forced me toward the low wooden barrier, that was all that stood between the road and a precipitous drop over the other side. I had visions of him body-checking me over the edge as he quipped, “Oh yeah, try recovering from that, then!”
Apparently though, this was just my paranoid delusions and we pressed on without any further overt attempts on my life.
At the next stop a German couple seemed hugely amused by our antics and banter, I suppose for them it was almost as entertaining as spotting a troupe of wild Barbary apes cavorting across the Rock of Gibraltar. They must have eventually decided that we were mostly harmless and possibly even trustworthy, so they co-opted Ovis into taking a few photos for them.
On we went again, all the way up to the village of Huez, where a little leafy shade perfectly framed what we determined would be our final stop before the summit.
Running Up That Hill
After another suitably elongated rest, replete with idle chatter, off we went again, slowly catching and passing a runner pounding her way resolutely upwards. Crazy Legs had a brief chat, learned she was a visiting American and she gave him the answer to his most burning question: what would she do once she got to the top? She said she was just going to turn herself around and run straight back down again!
I can’t help thinking running down a mountain would be as punishingly hard, if not actually harder, than running up one. And I thought cyclists were crazy …
Once more our group became naturally stratified by the slope and I found myself riding at the back with Ovis as we rounded the photographers. Yet again I got undeserved grief for hogging the limelight.
We had a bit of a chat about the possibility of extending our trips over a few more days, but given I was so deeply tired already, I wondered how enjoyable that would actually be. Perhaps we would need to plan a rest day in the middle, or, Ovis suggested, maybe we’d just need to avoid mega-long, multiple mountain marathon’s, like yesterday’s “Circle of Death.”
Then we were on the long straight up through the first ski chalet’s, following the road as it dog-legged left around one last corner and riding across the official-unofficial finish line with its barriers and bunting and podium.
Done. That was it for the day, there was never any intention of pushing through the town and up to the actual finish this time around. We clambered off and joined the rest of our group who’d already staked out a table in our favourite bar.
Here we would enjoy a few cold drinks, have a bite to eat and generally watch the world go by on two wheels.
One rider wandered past clad in a specially made, one-off, bright pink jersey, featuring a bigger than life, sublimated image of Donald Trump’s snarling face, all sneering mouth, tiny, piggy eyes and ridiculous, Shredded Wheat hairstyle. The rider was at pains to tell anyone who’d listen that he wasn’t a fan of the 45th President of the US of A, but then, we wondered why he’d gone to all that trouble and expense of making and wearing the jersey?
Crazy Legs told him an orangutan-orange jersey would have been much more appropriate, which seemed to be the only sensible response to this particular horror.
A few of our mob wandered off to do some souvenir shopping, while I sat with Crazy Legs, watching a large group of strapping, young men, all of a similar age and build, ride past. They all wore identical, understated kit, all-black, save for one red, white and blue, tricolour sleeve. I suspect they were from the armed forces, maybe French Marines or similar, speculation that was reinforced when one of them strode past later, with shiny metal prosthetic’s where an arm and a leg were missing.
We then idly wondered if perhaps we’d just been presented with the ideal way of coming up with a tasteful club jersey that could still pay homage to our established, traditional and sadly lurid, club colours of tangerine and green.
Crazy Legs reminisced about the last time we were here, when he’d had to break the news to a disbelieving Englishman that, although he’d crossed the unofficial-official finish line, with its barriers and bunting and podium, he hadn’t actually completed the climb.
We’d watched him quickly run through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance and resignation, before wandering away disconsolately. I’m not sure he liked us after that. He certainly didn’t seem inclined to hang around and chat.
It’s all downhill from here
Well fed and watered and with souvenir jersey’s and t-shirts safely tucked away, we rolled out and started our final, glorious, sweep down – a last twenty minutes of unabashed fun.
Around the first few curves and we passed Caracol pounding up the other way, cheering him on. He never did manage to better his time from the first day, but then again, after yesterday and his testing idea of a warm-up, it wasn’t a great surprise.
Back at the campsite, the bike broke down and packed away without any problems. I wandered into the chalet next door to find Crazy Legs and Steadfast watching the Tour de Suisse on their TV. I have to admit, despite wandering past it for 3 days, it hadn’t actually registered with me that we had a TV.
He wins it by a chin
It wasn’t a particularly interesting stage, but it did allow Crazy Legs to indulge in his rather unconventional dislike for the ultimate winner on the day, Luis León Sánchez Gil. Apparently, it’s all about the chin, as he bears no particular malice for the riders results, team, nationality, history or other physical traits and positively admires LL’s “older twin brother” (ahem), Samuel “Samu” Sánchez González…
Crazy Legs was only appeased by a brief cameo from one of his all-time favourite riders, Domenico Pozzovivo, who he much admired for his openness and honesty in clearly demonstrating he doesn’t give a rat’s arse, whenever he can’t give a rat’s arse.
Once the Tour de Suisse, boo-hiss pantomime was complete, we wandered into town for a Last Supper at the Dutch bar, once again deflecting the owners offer of a table for ten inside and even managing to persuade him we were trustworthy enough to fit ten chairs around a table for eight.
We had an extended discussion about where we could cycle next year with, naturally, no real conclusions reached.
We then tested Caracol’s knowledge of dead minor-celebrities, during which we (rather alarmingly) learned that much-beloved-by-grandparents, comedy double-act, Cannon and Ball were behind the book, “Christianity for Beginners.”
Someone wondered if Cannon and Ball were still working as a double-act and it was my sad duty to inform everyone that this was no longer the case, as I was pretty sure I’d heard that “Cannon fired Ball.”
That seems a suitably low enough point to draw a veil over this particular evening. We finished up and wandered back, only to be distracted by the moon rising over the mountain peaks. A suitably picturesque grand finale.
We were up early the next day to clean out the cabin, wash everything down and brush and mop the floors. This time around the nit-picking, cabin inspection Nazi’s were apparently on a day off, so we all passed muster quite comfortably, loaded up the vans and away we went.
Eye of the Spider
Our return trip was spent in much the same way as the inbound one, keeping an eye on the directions for our stalwart, designated driver, Kermit, while tuning to various radio stations to try and keep us entertained.
The highlight was undoubtedly Survivor, belting out one of their ultra-cheesey, Rocky theme-songs. (No, not that one). Google informs me (sorry, I’ve never felt the remotest desire to actually watch a Rocky film), that the song in question was Burning Heart, from the motion-picture, Rocky IV.
We listened in hushed awe as the complex, poetic imagery of this magnificent opus unfolded, until Biden Fecht turned to me, perplexed.
“Did he just sing ‘climbing up like a spider?'” he asked, somewhat bewildered.
“Ah, I think the actual lyrics were ‘rising up like a spire,'” I sadly had to inform him. Much more mundane. But then again, I was sure I could find a use for the phrase “climbing up like a spider.”
Wholly inadequate French signage had one more mean trick to pull, before I could escape its malign influence. We completely missed the turn-off for the French side of Geneva airport and ended up passing through customs at the border and trying to return the car to the Swiss side.
Luckily the car rental rep put us right, tapping the correct destination into my phone’s Sat-Nav with such efficiency and aplomb, that I couldn’t help conclude we were not the first to make this mistake and he’d probably had to do something similar for hundreds, if not thousands of confused travellers before us.
We back-tracked through customs again and immediately slowed to a crawl. We knew the junction we needed was here somewhere, but it was remarkably well hidden.
“Across there,” I was finally able to declare, pointing across the two lanes of traffic queuing to enter the customs checkpoint.
Kermit somehow forced us a way through to where an anonymous, unimpressive and almost apologetic, small, Secteur Français sign pointed the way.
We turned onto a characterless, unremarkable B-road that resembled nothing so much as the delivery entrance to a shopping centre, but we were at least re-assured by the appearance of the first car rental signs. What a bizarre route into a major international airport.
It wasn’t much longer before we could abandon the van and make our way into the airport to check our bike bags and boxes onto our return flights.
Things went smoothly enough from that point and it wasn’t long before we were airborne on the first leg of our trip home. The Big Yin send a couple of photo’s to our group chat, but they were too clever for me and I had to ask for a direct interpretation.
They showed, he explained, the passenger cabin altimeter and corresponding view out of the window as we reached 2,400 metres above sea-level – or, in other words, the height we attained at the top of the Galibier.
Steadfast left us at Heathrow, while the rest of us transferred onto the Newcastle flight via the Terminal 5 Wetherspoons pub. And then we were home and all our bike bags and boxes belatedly appeared, as the airport ground crew had to manually carry them up all the stairs from the tarmac. They didn’t seem all that pleased about it.
Still, all the bags were there and everything seemed intact, which was a major advance on last year.
So, another enjoyable trip and, even with the same rides, a different experience from two years ago.
By the numbers …
My flights, from what I can recall cost me £160, the three bedroom chalet/cabin was £115 each, van hire, fuel and road tolls around £100 each, so the trip cost about £375 plus food and drink.
Across the 3-days we managed 249 kilometres, or 155 miles, with 6,831 metres of spectacular climbing and descending. Yet again, another brilliant trip, conceived, planned and successfully executed by our very own Tour Director, Crazy Legs.
7:40 Saturday morning and five of us are lined up at the gates to the campsite ready to embark on our mini-epic: The Circle of Death. Not bad for us, as we’re only running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but it would have been much more impressive if all eight of us managed to be there.
We suspect that Steadfast and Ovis have pushed on ahead, but have no confirmation. When queried, Crazy Legs reports they’ve definitely left the chalet, but they’re not at the gate, and we can’t find then en route to the gate, so our suspicions seem reasonable.
We’re still missing the Big Yin, even though he’s hard to miss, but then he appears riding up from the direction of the town, having been who knows where. The six of us form up and set off after our early break-away companions.
Huh, Club Run Pace?
Once through the town, the Hammer seems keen to wind up the pace, but I’m conscious of the fact we have a long day ahead of us and don’t want to start out at break-neck speed. I deliberately let Caracol’s wheel go and watch the gap to the front pair widen, working on the assumption they’ll eventually look back and hopefully adjust their speed to suit.
None of the others push past me to take up the chase, so I assume they’re happy with a more relaxed start too. The roads are relatively quiet, the cycle lane’s are wide, well-surfaced and good, so I’m happy to bool along, taking in the sights, fields of lavender and wild poppies, a gleaming river off to our right and a backdrop of snow-mottled mountains, wrapped in tattered ribbons of cloud.
At the next, small hamlet, the front pair finally look behind and the speed at the front gets knocked back. We reform into a single group and are together for the dramatic zig-zagging climb up the face of the dam at Allemont.
The road then has us skirting the Lac de Vernay, before we start to climb, up through densely wooded hills and the first distance markers for the distant summit of the Col du Glandon appear.
Its remarkably peaceful on the road, with only the whirring of chains, an occasional bit of chatter and rhythmic breathing of my companions to provide the backdrop to the fluting, piping calls of unseen birds in the woods around us.
As the gradient varies, the Big Yin starts to yo-yo off the back, until Kermit drops back to ride with him and we continue to work our way through the trees, the road always climbing. It’s hot and humid under the canopy of the leaves, the sun is starting to burn through the cloud cover and is promising better weather than yesterday.
Then we burst out into the open, with spectacular views of the peaks off to the right, as we enter Le Rivier d’Allemont, our first port of call for a welcome jolt of wake up coffee.
You Say Tomay-toe
We catch up with Ovis and Steadfast, already royally ensconced in the cafe and enjoying the early morning sunshine. The Hammer plans to break his fast here and politely asks for a savoury crêpe, but instead, gets a lesson in French cuisine.
“Non, pas une crêpe, c’est une galette!”
Ah, OK, pleased we cleared that up.
Before we finish our coffee, Ovis and Steadfast are up and away again, obviously hoping to maintain their advantage over the peloton. We slowly move to follow, finish up and settle the bill, while the Hammer wanders in to find out how his crêpe galette is doing.
They haven’t even started thinking about it, let alone cooking it. Well, you know you can never rush an artist and his work. The Hammer cancels his order and in a show of Anglo defiance buys a Mars bar instead. Haute cuisine? My arse.
Ring of Fire
This is the first time the Hammer has brought his own bike rather than hire one and he admits the bike is brilliant, but the copyright for the saddle seems to belong to Torquemada and it’s causing him exquisite pain. “Ring of Fire” becomes the unofficial theme song, not just for the day, but for the rest of the trip.
Back on our bikes, we climb out of the village, then there’s a brief and joyful swoop down and over the river, before the road starts to relentlessly climb again. I drop back to pace the Big Yin and the rest slowly pull away from us.
Up we go, climbing above the dam, which they spectacularly routed the Tour up a couple of years ago and onto the balcony road high above the Lac de Grand Maison.
As we climb I notice the first snow banks, dirty and crusted by the side of the road, but still surviving well into June. It makes me wonder what we might find on the Galibier.
I hate the next bit, a too long descent where all you can think about his how much altitude you’re losing and how much work you’ll need to do to win those precious metres back. As the road inevitably starts to climb again, a photographer is waiting to ambush us and capture our distress and stupid gurning faces, just in case living through that horrid transition once, from descending to steeply uphill, wasn’t quite enough.
The Big Yin spots and points out what I take to be a marmot, scurrying through the meadow in a flash of russet and yellow and then we’re past the scenic pastures, as I escort the Big Yin up to the summit of the Glandon, barely giving him time to catch his breath and take in his surroundings, before I hustle him into turning around and we drop down to start the clamber up to the Croix de Fer.
We find the others there and waiting. The Big Yin puffs out his cheeks and declares that if Buster was expecting an easy day, just making it to the Croix de Fer would disabuse him of that notion.
Someone snaps a pic of me. Weirdly, I almost look happy …
We then reiterate that this is the point of no return for anyone who wants to turn back, once you’re on the descent, you’re committed. No one does, they’re all committed. Or, at least they should be.
We’ve got maybe a 25km downhill run, once we tip over the other side. Caracol leads us off and is quickly several hairpins below me, as I watch him gaining rapidly on a white camper van. Luckily the driver realises that cyclists are descending considerably faster than he can manage and he doesn’t try to get into a drag race, moves aside and lets Caracol slide swiftly past.
A handful of seconds later and I’m whistling past as well, just letting the bike run and riding in the Hammer’s wake. We literally rattle through a couple of sleepy, one street towns, the road surface as rough and chewed up as anything at home in rural Northumberland, and start skirting the noisy tumult of the fast-flowing L’Arvan river.
We stop briefly to regroup, right next to where someone has ingeniously formed a map of our twisting descent on top of the wall, using nothing more than the decapitated corpse of a snake. Are we heading toward that pool of dried blood where the head used to be?
There’s an unwelcome and rude bit of climbing on a 4th Category hill, we dart through a tunnel or two and then it’s a long, straight descent from Pierrepin to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. I max out at 71km/h down here, without even trying, but still some way behind the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Lilian Calmejane and Tiesj Benoot, who averaged 84km/h down the same stretch.
Reforming at the bottom, we decide to push on to Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne before stopping for lunch, at which point we’ll only be a handful of metres away from the foot of the Col du Télégraphe.
This is one of the worst bits of the ride, along the valley floor on a dual-carriageway. Even though the bike lane is good and the traffic relatively light, it’s an uncomfortable, somewhat exposed ride. To add to our woes, its hot, the sun is beating down hard and we’ve lost the cooling breeze of descending.
Perhaps trying to get this bit over with, or maybe sensing that a food stop is imminent, the speed at the front ramps up. I wonder if they’re considering a cafe sprint, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort to keep up and, as I’m on the back and there’s no one relying on me to hang on, I ease back and let a gap grow.
I rejoin the group in the same cafe we stopped at last time, although it was much more pleasant this time around, without the presence of raucous,beer swilling, fat bikers and with the street free from scores of filthy, fume-belching, Harley Davidson riders, having an inane competition to see who could rev their engine the hardest and loudest.
There wasn’t a great deal of choice on the menu and most of us go with a burger of some description. They’re good, but massively heavy and probably not ideal for what’s to come next. We wondered what Team Ineos “coaching guru” Tim Kerrison would have made of our selection and where burgers might sit in the pantheon of marginal gains.
The Big Yin suggests we’re at the halfway point and technically, in terms of mileage, yes we are. I don’t bother to tell him that the worst is yet to come.
The burger’s lying like a lead weight in my stomach, but at least we’ve had plenty to drink and all the water bottles are topped up. We’re just about to start rolling, when Biden Fecht finds he has a puncture.
Steadfast and Ovis decide to press on and the Hammer follows, as I hold up Biden Fecht’s bike and let him slide out his rear wheel to change the tube. After a bit of prevarication, the Big Yin determines he too needs a head start on the climb and sets off too.
I hang around long enough to help roll the tyre back onto its rim, then assured everything is in good order, leave Biden Fecht, Caracol and Kermit to force some air into the new tube, while I start my own ascent of theTélégraphe.
The climb is both longer and harder than I remember. There’s also fewer trees and much less shade than I recall too. It’s perhaps the hottest part of the day and it’s baking. I try to ride as close as possible to the rock walls at the side of the road to maximise the shade, but it doesn’t help all that much.
Electra-Glide in High Viz#2
On the first slopes I’m passed by a woman who powers past churning a massive gear, limbs gleaming with sweat and working hard. In contrast, I’m then passed by another who coasts effortlessly by on an e-bike, barely working at all and so relaxed and unflustered by the heat, that she’s wearing a high-viz jacket zipped up to the neck.
I think e-bikes are the future, I can see myself riding one when (surely it won’t be long now) I’m too weak and decrepit to keep up on a club run without mechanical assistance. I also have this glorious vision of a government that gives everyone an e-bike, makes public transport free and then bans cars. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
I can’t quite see the challenge of travelling all the way to France to zip up and down mountains on one though – especially when you’re young, healthy and look fit enough to climb up under your own steam. But then, what do I know?
I’m starting to close on a trio of hard-working Englishmen, when Caracol storms past. He bridges across to the three ahead, slides by and they immediately give chase, while I chuckle to myself ruefully, thinking that’s not a wheel they should be trying to follow.
One of them, in a Bianchi jersey, is almost immediately blown out the back and abandoned by his companions, who disappear around the bend, out of the saddle and flailing along in high pursuit.
On the straighter bits of road I keep catching glimpses of the Big Yin, Ovis and Steadfast climbing ahead of me, as I reel them slowly in. A kilometre or so later and I’ve caught the Big Yin, he’s completely cooked in the sun and starting to suffer like a dog. He mutters that he’s really struggling as I push past and continue upwards.
Three or four kilometres from the top and I keep catching glimpses of Ovis and Steadfast, tantalisingly close, but I’m unable to bridge the gap. I’m starting to develop an irrational hatred of their blue and yellow and orange jersey’s – always hanging there, tantalisingly close, but out of reach.
Cutting across the steepest, shortest inside of one corner, I manage to close to within maybe 20 metres, when they spot Bianchi man ahead and accelerate to try and catch him. I’m not able to get any closer and as we finally approach the summit, the gap begins to go out again.
You’re Awesome, Man
Still, not much further. The summit is aswarm with Americans who’ve ridden up to where their local guide is waiting with a van laden with anything and everything they could possibly need, food, drinks, towels, blankets, spare clothing and, who knows, maybe a soigneur or two and fistfuls of performance enhancing drugs.
The riders are loud and overly-familiar in that endearing, over-whelming and almost childlike, way that Americans seem to have, something that makes us Brits inwardly wince a little.
“You’re awesome man! You can do this! Believe in yourself! Go! Go! Go! This is unreal!”
“Err, OK. Thanks old chap… I think.”
I spot the rest of our crew sitting outside the cafe and make to hang my bike on one of the nearby racks and go and join them.
“Non, monsieur, privé, privé.” The guide from the American party is warning me away from the bike racks? Because they’re reserved for his clients? WTF? Is my bike going to contaminate theirs? Are they suddenly going to break out twenty more bikes and fill up the entire rack? I shrug, roll the bike away a couple of metres and lean it against a wall. It all seems a bit over the top.
Death on the Mountain
I grab a cold drink inside and join the others. As with last year, Caracol is struggling with the heat and looks flushed and glassy-eyed. Even worse, the Big Yin finally hauls himself to the top of the climb looking grey-faced and declaring himself as sick as a dog. The heat and the climb have clearly got to him, he’s not sure he can go on and needs an escape route. He slumps to the ground and lies there like a fresh cadaver, trying to recover, while we discuss options.
After a while he slowly rises, like a monster from the slab, and wanders down to the guide from the American party. They look like they have room in the van for one more and plenty of space for another bike too. I suspect though that I know the outcome of their chat, even before it begins and so it proves. Privé, privé. And no succour for the sick and needy.
Wile we watch an AG2R squad, accompanied by their team car, briefly stop at the summit of the climb. I hadn’t realised just how vibrant the blue on their kit was, it always looks quite dull on the TV and is much better in real-life. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the brown shorts, which remain a crime against humanity.
We determine that the best plan of action would be for the Big Yin to wait at the cafe until he’s recovered a little, roll down the valley to the town of Valloire and see if he can get a taxi from there, either back to the campsite, or over the Galibier where he can meet us at the cafe on the Col du Lautaret. I’d just been to a cash-point the night before and had €100 or so stuffed in my back pocket which I handed over to fund his rescue mission.
Then our reduced bunch is off descending to Valloire, which is mercifully free of fat, hairy bikers this time around. We pick our way through the town and are soon climbing again and heading for the pinnacle of our route, the monstrous Col du Galibier.
Overhead, the sky darkens and quickly fills in with grey cloud, the temperature plummets and we start to get peppered with chilling rain. Even worse, a cold wind is blowing straight down the valley and into our faces.
Caracol winds up the pace and slowly rides away from the rest of us, as Steadfast and Ovis take manly turns at the front until, as the road noticeably kicks up, Kermit takes over and drags us along behind him. The pace is slow enough that there’s probably no benefit in draughting and there’s not a great deal of shelter from the wind. Nevertheless, it’s easier to follow and just concentrate on holding onto the wheel in front.
We drag our way up to Plan Lachat, cross the river and the real climbing begins. We forge on, into a gathering darkness and occasional lashing rain showers.
Are Friends Electric?
Through some tight-hairpins and the e-bike rider is back, whizzing past us as we strain upwards, like a high-viz mosquito.
“That’s cheating! It doesn’t count,” the Hammer calls after her fast retreating figure. I assume it’s a joke, the e-bike rider though has seriously misheard and is lurking at the next corner.
“What did you call me?” she demands. Oh, dear, someone seems overly sensitive.
“I said that’s cheating and it doesn’t count,” the Hammer replies, truthfully.
There’s a bit more verbal to and fro, when she claims she’s not trying to prove anything and then concludes that the Hammer is just “a horrible man.” Ah well, if she’d asked I could have told her that for nothing.
Once more, she whizzes away, while Biden Fecht calls for a bit of peace and calm. We keep working our way upwards.
The snow is starting to build up at the side of the road, occasionally hiding the kilometre markers. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, it worries me when the time between sightings attenuates, suggesting we’re going slower and slower, but it can also deliver a pleasant bonus, such as when I miss the 6 km to the summit marker and suddenly “leap” (I use the term loosely) from 7 km to just 5 km to go.
Ha-ha, just 5km to go.
We’re becoming more spread out on the road, Kermit spearheading our push for the summit, with Biden Fecht just ahead of me and Steadfast a few metres back, as I ride alongside the Hammer in companionable silence. I’m struggling to keep the wheel pointed straight up the road and seem to be weaving a slightly undulating, wavering path, twitching constantly as the wheel rocks a little from side to side. I’m tired.
At some point the Hammer drops back and somehow finds the energy to snap a photo as we enter the snowfields. My once pristine white socks are already grey, soaked through with rain and road spray, I’m probably wet to the skin, but keeping warm with the effort.
As I remember it, the final few kilometres look really daunting, with the road rising to a sharp crescendo, twisting up and away over your head. Still, it means that the end is in sight. Steadfast eases away past us, obviously spurred on by sight of the summit, while I keep plugging away with the Hammer, as the road cuts through the snow banks, which rise on either side of us until they tower overhead, easily twice my height.
A couple of Englishmen descend from the summit to take a few photos of each other climbing against the backdrop of the wall of snow. A nice memento, that I haven’t the energy, or will to reenact. Just as we pass them, there’s a dull crack and a flat rumble that slowly fades as it echoes around the mountains. Thunder?
“Have you got a sprint finish in you?” I challenge the Hammer. He suggests it would be more appropriate riding over the summit side-by-side à la Hinault and LeMond. Thank goodness for that, I think a sprint might have finished me off.
Riders on the Storm
Kermit and Biden Fecht are at the top, taking in the sights and pulling on jackets for the descent. Kermit pushes away and starts down, but Biden Fecht is distracted by a bright, actinic flash away in the distance.
“Is that lightning?” he asks, just as another rumble of thunder answers for him.
I also notice our e-biker, being wrapped in blankets and towels from her support vehicle as she’s force fed a hot beverage. She’s obviously gone well beyond her limits … or something.
The sky is turning black and ominous, while over to my right, the distant peaks are rapidly dissolving into a grey blanket of rain. I hurriedly pull on my light rain jacket, arm warmers and thankfully, some long fingered neoprene gloves that I’d only shoved in my pocket as an afterthought.
The Hammer and Biden Fecht seem intent on watching the storm come in. I’m just intent on getting out of there.
We would later learn that this is the same storm that capsized and damaged boats on Lake Geneva, where a tourist drowned after her yacht was swamped. 70 mile an hour winds and torrential rain had lashed the city for hours, causing enough floods and incidents to almost overwhelm the emergency services.
It was the same storm that brought a tree down on a German camper in the Haute-Savoie region, killing him outright.
It was the same storm that inundated the finishing straight of that days Criterium de Dauphine stage, so winner Wout Poels literally left Emu Buchmann and Jakob Fuglsang in his wake as he sprinted to the line. It was so bad that the organisers considered enacting UCI extreme weather protocols midway through the stage.
It was the same storm we were now caught in 2,645 metres above sea level, with nowhere to shelter and a fast, exposed and twisting descent with sheer drops off to the side to contend with.
On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness
As I pushed off, the freezing rain came lashing in and I was instantly soaked and shivering. It was grey and gloomy, so I turned on my lights, reasoning that, at worst, their intermittent flashing might help locate my broken body if I went over the edge. Ahead of me a camper van was running with full lights on and really struggling with the hairpins. I braked hard, cut inside and undertook it on a bend, this wasn’t the time for niceties.
I told myself I was probably safe from lightning strikes, insulated from the road by two ridiculously thin rubber tyres. Nonsense of course, but I semi-convinced myself and couldn’t really see an alternative.
Then, it was just a case of trying to get down the mountain as quickly and as safely as possible, letting the bike run on the straights, but braking hard and trying to be cautious on the corners, where sheets of water were washing across the road surface.
Halfway down and my shoulders were already aching with the constant effort of pulling hard on the brakes that had lost their immediacy in the wet. I shot past a truly miserable looking Kermit, who was taking a more cautious approach, but with the drawback of greater exposure to the cold and the wind and the rain.
Ahead of me, Ovis had been halfway down when he said his front wheel started shaking so much he was convinced his headset had suddenly disintegrated. He’d slowed a little to try and asses the damage, before he realised his bike was fine, he was just shivering so violently he was having trouble steering.
Later, Caracol reported that after clocking a temperature in the mid-20’s on the Télégraphe , it had been no more than 3℃ on the descent of the Galibier, even before taking into account the windchill.
I finally spotted the cluster of isolated buildings formed on the summit of the Col du Lautaret, swooped across the car park of the Hotel des Glaciers and found a space to abandon the bike amongst the dozens of others lined up there. I climbed off stiffly and made my way into the Irish bar. (Although none of us realised it was supposed to be an Irish bar, until the owner told us!)
I stood dripping on the threshold frozen, wet, shivering uncontrollably and momentarily dull-witted and confused, as I scanned the tables for familiar faces, before realising our group were sitting right in front of me. Perhaps I was shaking so hard my eyes couldn’t focus, or my companions were shaking so hard there faces all blurred together – I don’t know how else to explain my temporary befuddlement.
I stripped of gloves, helmet and rain jacket, sat down, then almost immediately stood up again to pace about and try to control the uncontrollable shuddering. I wandered into the toilets and plunged my hands into a sink full of hot water. It helped. But not much.
At the table, we ordered hot drinks and I get a mug of cocoa, that I couldn’t actually lift without spilling everywhere. I left it on the table to drop my head and occasionally sip from it, like a dipping bird.
Thankfully the remainder of our crew, the Hammer, Biden Fecht and Kermit all made it down safely behind me, but all of us were equally blue and shaking and we sit huddled miserably around the table, trying to warm up and devouring hot drinks and food while the rain continued to lash down outside.
At the next table, a large group of Italian cyclists were chatting and laughing and having a whale of a time, despite being caught in the same downpour we were. Either they’re more hardened to these extremes, or they were dressed considerably better for the conditions.
I couldn’t help thinking we must look like Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, trapped inside meagre shelter by a savage storm and just waiting the inevitable end.
We check our phones to try and determine how the Big Yin was doing. He’s left a message saying he’s feeling a lot better and didn’t come all this way to ride around in a taxi, so he’s set off to ride the Galibier.
In this weather?
But also, ever so slightly bonkers.
We contact Crazy Legs, safely back at the campsite and he agrees to drive out to us, in case we need a rescue mission to bring the Big Yin down off the mountain.
An elderly Englishman and his son dash inside and out of the rain, in as bad a state as we were, or probably worse as neither has a jacket to their name. The bar owner hands the old fellow a big, fluffy, towelling dressing gown, as we look jealously on.
The Italian’s pack up to leave. Apparently they’re happy because the day’s riding is done for them and they don’t have to go back out and ride in the rain. Much to the bar owners disgust, they wheel their bikes into his lobby, before starting to break them down to pack into their van.
In other news, Vailloire is twinned with Newcastle upon Tyne
We’re starting to get a little anxious about the Big Yin, when the big galoot suddenly materialises out of the rain in the car park. He hustles in to join us and we demand to know what on earth possessed him to continue to ride.
“Oh, once the rain started and the temperature dropped, it just felt like being home in Newcastle, so I kept going.”
His madness would continue, as he’s determined to finish the ride now.
Kermit and Biden Fecht though have had enough and have decided to wait for Crazy Legs and the voiture-balai. That leaves at least one spare berth in the car, but, strange, masochistic bunch as we undoubtedly are, no one wants it.
Stack Up, Baby, Stack Up (with apologies to A Certain Ratio)
We’ve sheltered so long from the storm, that we’re well-behind schedule now, with around 40 km still to ride, albeit most of it on a fast, downhill run. The Hammer decides that when we leave, we need to do it as quickly as possible, with no faffing about. So, we all get ready and stack up at the door, like a well-oiled SWAT Team about to breach and clear a room.
We get a “Go!” and we’re dashing through the still falling rain for the bikes and setting off. It’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
This would be a brilliant road to ride, in the warm and dry, when you’re not on the limits of your endurance. Even with these limitations, it’s still kind of fun, almost all downhill with long sweeping curves and wide, open roads.
We all actually need to pedal though and as hard as possible, to try and generate some warmth and we’re all travelling at different speeds and well strung out. I’m also hoping that the lower we get, the warmer it will be.
I’ve got a feeling Caracol is away out front and out of sight, while I’m trailing Ovis and the Hammer, with Steadfast and the Big Yin behind me.
Coming to one of the tunnels I slow, while I fiddle to get my lights on and, by the time I’m out of the other side, the road ahead of me is empty. I look back. There’s no one in sight behind me either. I keep going regardless, it’s too cold to stop and wait and it’s meant to be a fairly straightforward run back, so hopefully I wont get lost.
There are a few more tunnels to contend with and I’m in two minds about them. It’s good to get a break from the rain for a while, but the air in the tunnels seems much chillier. I’m still occasionally shivering, but at least its no longer the full-on, uncontrollable shaking following the Galibier descent.
I think I recognise the detour we’d taken last time, set up when one of the road tunnels had collapsed and they’d routed us around the lake. It had been a pleasant diversion and Steadfast had talked about possibly using the same route today. It was closed though, so even if we’d wanted a more scenic amble it wouldn’t have been possible.
The actual tunnel has been repaired, or maybe completely rebuilt and it was plush, long, well-lit and with a super-smooth road surface. I blasted through onto a long, straight road, as completely empty ahead of me as it was behind.
I hit a town, at speed, neck on a swivel, desperately looking for a sign or some directions. Finally I spot one, another classic of French minimalism, attached high up on a building and almost completely blending into its surroundings.
It points the way to Bourg d’Oisans and I take up its mute invitation. I keep hoping the sun might break through and warm me up a little, but even as the skies clear a little, the sun is starting to sink and never generates much warmth.
A bit further up the road and a car with steamed up windows pulls up alongside me and Biden Fecht’s head pops out the back.
“D’you want a lift?”
I’m good, I tell him and wave them on, re-assured that I’m definitely on the right road.
Crazy Legs would later tell me when he’d picked Kermit and Biden Fecht up, they’d both been shivering so badly they couldn’t lift their bikes into the back of the car. He’d put Kermit in the front, in charge of the heater, which he’d cranked up to the maximum 29℃, where it had stayed for the duration of their journey, while Crazy Legs had sweated and chugged bottles of water to try and avoid extreme dehydration.
I finally recognise the route we took back from the “pelmet ride” yesterday and then I’m onto the final stretch, past the town and turning, at last, into the campsite.
Kermit and Biden Fecht are back in the chalet and look to have recovered from their ordeal. I learn that, sterling and stalwart fellows that they are, Crazy Legs and Buster have cooked us dinner and we wont have to drag our sore, sorry and abused bodies into town to forage for food.
Before that though, I have a pressing appointment in the camp shower-block, where I spent 40 minutes and gallons of hot water trying to feel human again.
Soaking wet kit is hung out to dry, before I make my way to the chalet next door, find a chair and slump down.
Buster hands me a piping hot plate of pasta and sauce … I don’ think it’s seemly to cry, so I just ask him if he’ll marry me on the spot.
I wake hale and hearty after a reasonable night’s sleep, much to everyone’s consternation as, based on past experience, they were expecting a shambling, pallid, hollowed out, shell of a man to emerge after a night of intense sickness.
I cram down a cereal bar and set to work re-assembling the bike. It seems to have survived its passage through three airports unscathed. The same can’t be said of the bike bag, which bears a large rip across the bottom. It’s more cosmetic than crucial, but annoying nonetheless.
It takes half an hour or so to build the bike up and then I’m good to go. (Lying to the British Airways baggage handler and assuring him my tyres were deflated helped. Contrary to popular myth, they didn’t explode in the hold and I’d read that keeping them inflated could help protect your rims, so that’s what I did. )
My cabin companions are not so lucky. Kermit finds his headset cap is missing, or more precisely, he suspects it isn’t missing, it just hasn’t travelled with him and is sitting proudly on display, in the middle of his kitchen table at home.
Even worse, he then discovers he’s forgotten to pack his pedals.
Meanwhile, Biden Fecht has assembled his bike, but his rear derailleur seems askew and is making his chain rattle like a rusty anchor dropping through a ships scupper.
An urgent trip is scheduled to the bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans, to be there as soon as they open. The van is loaded up with the bikes and away they go.
While we wait, after about seven years of riding with me, Crazy Legs finally notices how stupidly long my stem is. I explain it’s a consequence of having gibbon-like arms and I immediately become Mr. Tickle to Crazy Legs. Oh well, it keeps him tickled while we wait.
Then, Buster determines his derailleur is playing up. Shifting up the cassette is a decidedly hit-and-miss affair and then, after a bit of (supposedly) remedial fiddling, just a miss affair. Climbing the Alpe under the best of circumstances is a daunting prospect, doing it without leg-friendly, climbing gears sounds like utter madness, so Buster too departs for the local bike shops.
The rest of us are ready to go by the time Biden Fecht and Kermit return. Their trip has been a success, but they’ve still got a degree of fettling, preparation, essential male grooming and breakfasting to do. Crazy Legs suggest the rest of us make a start, while he hangs back to wait for Buster, Kermit and Biden Fecht and then they’ll follow in a second group.
It seems like a reasonable plan, so the rest of us saddle up, clip in and ride out.
At the entrance to the campsite we’re passed by a camper van trailing the unmistakable odour of burning clutch. Ah, the traditional smell I’ve learned to associate with l’Alpe d’Huez. I’m confused when we turn left onto the main road though, heading away from the climb and out into the town.
This diversion, it turns out is our warm up, a quick blast through town, an equally quick turnaround and then we’re heading for the Alpe. Ah OK, guess that makes sense, but I’m not sure it was all that effective as a warm up. We pass the entrance to the campsite and almost immediately begin to climb.
The first few ramps are by far the hardest and a shock to the system. It’s no surprise to hear a chorus of clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk-fuck! as everyone quickly finds they’ve run out of gears. The Hammer starts to open up a lead and I follow at a more relaxed pace, with Ovis and Steadfast in close attendance. The Big Yin and, more surprisingly, Caracol are hanging back.
Approaching the third hairpin and our way is blocked by a cyclist and what appears to be his support car. Neither of them are travelling all that fast, as the cyclist takes the longest sticky bottle hand-off I have ever seen. I’m talking minutes here. If the riders already struggling this much, I’m not sure how he’ll cope with the remaining hour plus he’ll need to climb the mountain.
We finally forge a way past the cyclist and support car and settle into a steady rhythm. It’s cool, the roads are wet and the air damp. I seemed to have found a pace that’s comfortable for Ovis and Steadfast and the three of us form a tight knot as we push upwards, occasionally swapping turns on the front.
At some point in the early stages of the climb Caracol glides past and slowly disappears up the road, en route to a sub-hour ascent.
I remember to occasionally rise out of the saddle, just so I don’t get locked in to one posture, and I count down the hairpins, once again squinting at the tiny signs to try read the TdF stage winners. I find a sign commemorating Joop Zoetemelk’s win, but its for his 1979 triumph on the mountain, not the ’76 version, where he had the temerity to beat Van Impe.
Armstrong’s still up there (#boohiss) but then again, so is Pantani (#boohisstoo). I quite easily spot those for the most recent winners (perhaps they’re a bit shinier?) – Turbo Peanut (as a website has fabulously nicknamed one of the two, great French hope’s for the Tour) and Geraint Thomas, the very first Brit (or Welshman if you prefer) to win a TdF stage on the Alpe. Still, I miss more of the signs and their associated names than I actually see.
It’s cold, overcast and a little rainy, but there’s never a point when I actually feel cool and the backwash of chilled air from the few streams that tumble down the hillside before ducking under the road, provides brief, welcome relief.
Names and messages of encouragement disappear under my wheels at regular intervals, scrawled across the road surface in spidery, mostly white lines. The majority seem to be aimed at everyday club riders, rather than the pro’s. None of them make much of an impression.
We’re too early in the morning for the first of the photographers, but the second one gets a few shots of our compact trio and I get complaints as I’m on the front and supposedly hogging the limelight. I don’t know … what do these people expect to happen when they choose to ride alongside someone so obviously charismatic and photogenic?
Meanwhile, back in reality, we’re onto the last, long and straight drag up to the village of Huez itself. We turn the corner and drive across the unofficial-official finish line, opposite the bars already busy with cyclists. Then of course we keep going, because, despite the finish line and the flags and bunting and the photo-podium, we know this isn’t actually the finish of the climb.
We head through the underpass, made famous by all those TV broadcasts of the Tour and continue to climb upwards. I took a wrong turn the last time and ended up completing a circuit of an immense empty coach park, right next to where the last few ski chalets petered out. I then had to drop downhill until I met Crazy Legs climbing up the other way, turn around again and follow him to the official finish.
This time I’m glad to have Steadfast in tow, assured he knows the right route. I’m also forearmed with instructions from Crazy Legs to turn right at the big boulders … except the boulders appear to have been removed and even Steadfast seems unsure of the way.
We zig and we zag our way across the mountainside, until we find what we think is the right road. In our defence, all of them, including the “right” one, look remarkably bland, characterless, municipal and indistinguishable from each other. We spot Caracol and the Hammer waiting, know we’re on the right track, so I kick hard and jump away from my two companions to finish with a bit of a flourish.
I needn’t have bothered, for whatever reason, but most probably operator error, my Garmin covered an entire 1 second of my ride from the campsite to the summit, so Steadfast had to “tag” me onto his Strava file and I shared the same time as him.
The actual finish is marked by the smallest, most easily overlooked, tattiest and most unprepossessing of signs. Perhaps it’s no wonder most people stop in the village, it’s certainly not worth the extra effort to get up here and see.
Inadequate signage seems to be a recurring theme in France-land. They’re not big on signs and what signs they do have are not big. I mean, I’m not asking for some of the visual graffiti you find in other urban landscapes, but there’s a fine line between discrete and invisible. A case in point, it’s not until we actually start to head back down to the village that I see a few “Route de Tour” signs directing you to the official finish. They’re small and blend so seamlessly into their surroundings that no one else in our group even seems to notice them.
I complained last time about the signs naming the hairpins on the Alpe being paltry and utterly underwhelming – they’re really difficult to read when riding up (and obviously impossible to read when swooping down). I still feel the same way – and personally think these near mythic rides and riders deserve celebrating with a grand gesture, not an afterthought.
Once we ‘ve all arrived safely, we press gang an innocent bystander into taking the obligatory group photo …
And then we head back to Huez to join the other cyclists in the cafe for some well-earned refreshments and to wait for the rest of our crew to appear.
The first through is Kermit, looking mildly startled by the sudden burst of cheering and applause that erupts from the side of the rode as he scoots past, failing to spot us. He’s followed in close order by Biden Fecht, Buster and Crazy Legs, all crossing the “finish line” in a burst of wild cheering and applause, before disappearing through the underpass and away.
It isn’t too long before they’re back and we’re a united group again. We order lunch and another round of drinks, the sun breaks out and we can sit back and relax for a while, watching all the coming and going’s and admiring some of the glossy, sleek bikes lined up in the racks at the side of the road.
We learn that all the local bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans are good, helpful and friendly. They’d fixed all our bikes and happily sold Kermit a brand new pair of pedals, that perfectly match the over-looked pair from home that he finally rediscovers in his bag later that day.
Buster’s problems were caused by a badly frayed gear cable, which could have snapped at any time, including halfway up a mountain. The mechanic also insists on changing out his worn brake blocks, which seems sensible as, I think even Biden Fecht might blanch at descending l’Alpe D’Huez without brakes, despite his past experience with such things.
As we’re sitting there, some sprightly, older feller, with a strong Central European accent, asks if he can borrow the posh, shiny and expensive-looking Cannondale hanging on the rack in front of us, apparently so he can be photographed with it. It seems like a harmless, but strange request. We explain it’s not our bike and he wanders off, before returning again, with the same odd enquiry.
“I’m sponsored by Cannondale,” he explains, “but I’m riding my Pinerello today.”
What? Yeah, right. Get-away …
We reiterate that it’s not our bike. He takes it anyway. Too weird.
We start to discuss our options, with no one in favour of a direct return to the campsite. We could continue on to the Col de Sarenne, which we did last time, or, the Hammer suggests we could descend almost to the bottom of the Alpe, to the village of La Garde and then take the road that clings to the side of the mountain, the Balcon d’Auris.
A Road By Any Other Name
The quartet who did the Sarenne last time all feel it wasn’t that great a route, so we agree on the balcony ride. It became a route whose name seemed to change every time we talked about it, until it became a bit of a running joke and was referred to variously as the balcony ride, the ledge ride, the mantelpiece ride, the pelmet ride, the shelf ride, the terrace ride and even, at one point, the skirting board ride.
It would add another 25km, or so to our total, heading along the “Route de la Roche” as we climbed from just over 700 to almost 1,600 metres, with a maximum gradient of 13%.
This road clings precariously to the side of the mountain, with a low, stone parapet the only thing shielding you from a long, vertical drop and doing nothing to restrict brilliant views right across the valley floor. In places the road narrows to about a cars width, but thankfully, on the day we rode it, is mostly traffic free. I think we only encountered one car on our great traverse, although even this produced a modicum of uncomfortable tension as it squeezed past.
Things were going well until just before the village of Le Cert, where we ran into a roadblock and route barrée signs. For once these signs were quite prominent and unmissable. Here we paused for a rest and to assess our options.
Should we ignore the signs and press-on, hoping that whatever disruption there was we could get through, or walk around, or should we follow the suggested diversion that could take us well out of our way and potentially lead back up the mountain.
One option discussed was to send Kermit on ahead, to see if he could get through, “our canary in a mine” as Crazy Legs put it. In the end we just bit the bullet and followed the diversion. Looking at the map afterwards, it seemed to add a kilometre or so to our journey and just a touch more climbing, before we were back on track and on the long snaking descent down to Le Frency d’Oisans.
Here, we took a wrong turn, up toward Lac de Chambon, but quickly realised our mistake and we turned back again, eventually rolling down into the valley of La Romanche, from where it was a straightforward run, following the river to the camp.
Back to “that Dutch bar” that evening, we spread across a couple of tables, while the owner desperately tried to persuade us to sit inside, where he had a criminally underused table that would actually seat ten together. We explained that we were British, so never got a chance to sit out at home and wouldn’t give up the option now.
As we ate, other packs of feral-looking Englishmen with lean looks, hungry eyes and odd tan lines circulated, or shuffled into the seats around us. It wasn’t as busy as a couple of years ago, but there were still plenty of cyclists in town.
We spent a good few minutes counting the hairpins on the Alpe, handily depicted on the restaurant place mats, concluding there were more than 21, before conversation turned to plans for tomorrow.
Along with the Hammer and Steadfast, I was happy to accompany any of the others brave (or foolish enough) to attempt the Circle of Death, a monster loop which is basically the Marmotte route minus the final ascent of l’Alpe D’Huez, yet still ran over 100 miles and with 4,000 metres of climbing.
From past experience this was going to be 9 hours of riding, plus re-fuelling and rest stops and first time we’d done it had been a struggle to get home before daylight ran out. We determined to have a little more discipline in planning and executing the stops and I pushed for as early a start as possible. We agreed to meet and ride out at 7.30. Ulp!
Crazy Legs and Buster decided to go on a shorter ride, to the Croix de Fer and back, with a few additional bits tagged on. They only mentioned a dozen or so times that they were looking forward to a long lie-in and much more relaxed start. Bastards… did they think they were on holiday or something?
Wednesday finds me piloting a car utterly packed to the gunwales through a downpour of truly Biblical proportions, as I transport Thing#1 and sooo much stuff back from University. Her First Year Is done, dusted and in the bag. Already. It seems like only yesterday we were taking her down and years are becoming too short a currency to measure time by. Like the old Soviet Union, I think I need to start thinking and planning in 5-year cycles.
The electronic ghost of Josh Ritter’s riding shotgun and providing the soundtrack, warbling about steamboats, gold leaf pyramids and wearing an iron albatross on his bonnet, as I find the outside lane of the motorway and accelerate. A pigeon spirals lazily down from an overhead gantry and lands directly into my path. There is a dull thump, the pigeon disappears and I suspect I’ve left a sodden corpse in a feathering pile somewhere in my hissing wake.
Arriving home I find the pigeon corpse is actually deeply embedded in the front grille of the car, it’s wings spread-eagled (spread-pigeoned?) outwards, like some grotesque and macabre hood ornament. My own personal albatross? I hope it’s not an omen, as this particular ancient mariner is packing to journey southwards…
Thursday Morning, 7 A.M.
Seven o’clock in the bleary morning, the very next day and, more by luck than good management, I join a line of skinny blokes, carting over-large bags through a relatively quiet Newcastle International Airport. Four of us, myself, Crazy Legs, the Hammer and Steadfast are returning to the scene of past crimes, hoping the good citizens of the Haute-Savoie have forgotten about us, or forgiven the trail of desecrated and devastated toilets we left across the region two years ago – a serious international incident at the time that had left the OPCW scrambling to respond.
Having been blooded in our Pyrenean Expeditionary Force last year, Kermit and Caracol have signed up too, along with rookies Buster, Biden Fecht, the Big Yin and Ovis, bolstering our numbers and replacing missing comrades, Goose and Captain Black.
Clearing check-in, baggage dump and security, nervous flyer, Buster heads for the nearest bar for a little Dutch courage, with the Big Yin in tow. The rest of us desport ourselves in the café to indulge in idle banter, hot beverages and breakfast bites.
Ten of us, in total then, are heading to the Cascades Campsite in Bourg d’Oisans, our base of operations for various sorties into the high Alps by velocipede.
Lord have mercy on our souls.
Maps and Legends
In the cafe, the Hammer unfolds a large map of our Area of Operations and points out lines of supply, strongpoints we need to conquer and various lines of retreat. Rides are discussed, but with it being a much bigger group, there’s plenty of scope for different options. Personally though, I’m planning something similar to two years ago, with only minor variations:
Day#1 – an ascent of Alpe d’Huez with additional bits tagged on to test the legs and the bikes.
Day#2 – the Circle of Death, a 9-hour monster loop taking in the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Col du Lauteret – 165km with over 4,000 metres of elevation gain, seemingly always destined to end with a race against the sinking sun. Caracol has determined finding travel insurance while suggesting you are going to be engaged in an activity known as “The Circle of Death” is somewhat problematic and has been seeking a more user-friendly name for this ride.
Day#3 – a leisurely amble back up the Alpe, for lunch at the top, ideal for shredded legs and a bit of sight-seeing and souvenir shopping, before retiring to the town for a congenial round of celebratory, ice-cold beverages.
Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?
Clothing restrictions for using the camp swimming pool are discussed, with the Hammer insisting that in France, for some unknown reason, only budgie smugglers will cut it. Swimming shorts and anything else that doesn’t make you look like a pallid version of Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast are strictly verboten. Or interdit, if you prefer.
Biden Fecht expresses disappointment that he wont be allowed to wear his traditional kilt to the pool.
“But, you’re not Scottish,” Crazy Legs insists.
Biden Fecht declares he’s of mixed-race and questioning his ethnicity is akin to extreme racial prejudice, venal bullying and personal harassment.
And so the banter begins…
Chatting about films, Ovis reveals he’s always getting Matt Damon confused with “that other actor.” His observation is somewhat spoiled as he can’t remember the actual name of “that other actor.”
“Is it Denzel Washington?” I ask, helpfully.
“Is it not Jackie Chan?” Crazy Legs wonders.
Caracol tells us he’s left behind a small leak in his kitchen, with nothing but a bucket to collect the intermittent dripping. We naturally spend a good ten minutes conjuring up a series of disaster scenario’s he’ll find when he returns to a devastated and destroyed home. He’s far too laid back to bite.
And then the gate is called and we’re all shuffling off for the first stage of our journey…
Leaving On a Jet Plane
… which proves relatively uneventful, especially as this time Crazy Legs manages to avoid being trapped in his seat by an overlarge, ridiculously solid, prop forward looking to make a name for himself with a French rugby club.
We are disgorged from the plane, pass down a bland, corporately decorated corridor and are spat out into Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, in the Departure Hell (sic) opposite the giant Starbucks. We then trail Crazy Legs from one end of the airport to the other, sensing he has some unspoken mission that’s driving him ever onward.
He’s looking for the Starbucks…
We reach the end of the terminal, a series of desolate, empty and uninhabited gates and then start to backtrack. The Hammer wonders if I might like to visit one of the champagne and oyster bars, the perfect repast, he suggests, for someone who’s been as sick as a dog the first two times we’ve made similar trips. I (very) politely decline.
We backtrack, all the while Kermit complains about the amount of walking we are having to do, obviously concerned about saving his legs for travails ahead. Still, at least this year he isn’t trailing cabin baggage large enough to smuggle a small child in, so manages to skip along relatively unburdened – even if he does have to take two steps for every stride the Big Yin takes.
We finally find the Starbucks (again) and settle in to kill a little more time. Here we learn Steadfast has made it in safely from his home on the south coast and will join us, once he’s finished wallowing in the somewhat more rarefied atmosphere of the Executive Lounge. He proves understandably reluctant to smuggle any of us chancers in with him, or even liberate any of the free goodies on offer and bring them out to us, so we’ll not see him until we’re at the plane.
Band on the Run
We meander to the gate for our Geneva flight, where we queue with a group of extraordinary Italian gentlemen. Their leader appears to have modelled himself on a cross between Al Pacino, circa Dog Day Afternoon and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He has big floppy hair with enormous chads, Ray-Ban aviators, open-necked shirt with a collar wide enough to park a car on, over a tan leather jacket with lapels that somehow manage to dwarf the shirt collars. He’s also wearing an enormously wide pair of flares containing enough loose material to re-upholster a small sofa, should you ever want a purple paisley sofa.
His collection of mid-70’s styled colleagues, sport an arresting array of big hair-do’s, cravats, gold chains, wide-lapelled, leather jackets in lurid autumnal colours, flares worn with belt-buckles the size of dinner plates, platform shoes and everything else bad from fashion’s darkest, most tasteless era.
We surmise they are possibly wearing what is considered the very latest, cutting-edge, haute couture in Geneva – it seems a logical assumption, the place does seem to be 40 years behind the rest of Europe, but, it’s just as likely they could be a highly sophisticated Italian stag-party.
We’re scattered throughout the plane for another largely uneventful flight and I pass the time between reading and sleeping.
War Without Frontiers
At the other end, the glowering version of passport control from two years ago seems to have been replaced with one of studied indifference. I’m not sure this Mark 2 variant is an improvement. “Welcome to Geneva and have a nice day. If you must.”
By the time I’m through, into the Baggage Hell, the bike bags and boxes have miraculously appeared and all have been accounted for. I realise that, like cats, cyclists don’t take well to herding, but I thought we had a general consensus as, after extended dallying, we finally make for the exit and the car rental desks.
I was wrong. At the other end though we score a measly 6 out of 10 for togetherness, Buster, the Big Yin, Kermit and Biden Fecht have all disappeared.
Frantic texting reveals that Kermit has hired his car from the French side of the airport and, as I’m travelling in his party, I’m in the wrong place. I have to work my way back up and through the terminal, passing the Big Yin and Buster heading the other way. I then get to experience the humourless, unwelcoming security and passport control all over again. Joy. Luckily, I still have a boarding card for my inbound flight on my phone. If I’d had a paper one, I might well have discarded it once out of the airport and I don’t think I’d have been allowed through again.
Later, Crazy Legs reveals the League of Extraordinary Italian Gentlemen are actually a band working a 70’s pastiche angle. Pastiche? I prefer shossage rowlsh, as a much funnier person than me once commented. At the car rental desk the assistant is warily eye-balling their instrument cases and, assuming Crazy Legs and Ovis are part of the band, trying to work out what sort of hellish, exotic and bizarre instruments, they might have packed into their over-sized, square boxes.
Having re-crossed the frontlines, I join up with Kermit and Biden Fecht on the French side of the airport and after trawling up and down several flights of stairs we finally locate our rental van. We load her up, I figure out how to work the Sat-Nav and we consign ourselves to the tender mercies of our French guide.
Elle à dit
Apparently, hiring a car from the French sector of the airport saves you paying a €40 vignette, or road tax to use Swiss motorways. Sadly, it also means you don’t get to use the Swiss motorways. And, while the car should come pre-equipped with a breathalyser kit, supposedly a legal requirement for any driving in France, as far as I can tell, isn’t actually enforced. The downside of missing Swiss motorways is a seemingly endless circumnavigation of the entire airport on minor roads, before you begin your journey proper.
We settle down for our two hour plus, elongated road trip, occasionally re-tuning the radio as the signals fade in and out and enjoying an eclectic mix of Euro-pop (only Mylène Farmer, The Dø and a French version of Snow’s, pseudo-reggae, “Informer” distinguish themselves) some golden oldies and, appropriately, if somewhat bizarrely, “Airport” by British one-hit wonders, The Motors.
Interspersed in-between the music are some truly execrable, unlovable radio ads, “Oui! Oui! Aussi!” – which serve only to advertise that the complete dearth of creative ad talent at home, is matched by an equal paucity in continental Europe.
We occasionally get sit-reps from the other groups who are encountering heavy traffic trying to leave Switzerland, but still seem well ahead of us and likely to arrive in Bourg d’Oisans long before we do.
Still, as if triggering a slow-motion Venus flytrap, the mountains start to rise up on either side, still resolutely snow-mantled and the sky retreats until it’s just a patch of bright blue directly overhead. We trace a fast-flowing, turbulent river upstream and into Bourg d’Oisans and I recognise “that Dutch bar” as we cut through the town centre. I direct Kermit to the campsite, past the counter which shows how many cyclists have climbed the Alpe d’Huez today.
We see Crazy Legs on our way in and learn everyone’s convening at “that Dutch bar.” Grand. We know where that is. We park up, quickly dump our bags in the cabin and head into town to join up with our compadres. The bikes can wait until the morning.
We’re all present and correct, a solid 10 out of 10 and it seems an auspicious start. What could possibly go wrong?
Be thankful for what you’ve got, Willie DeVaughn once sang. Maybe he had the right of it, too…
I complained about the weather being dry, but grey, dull and chilly for the past few weeks and, in response good old Mother Nature took note and upped her game … giving us a full night and day of perpetual rainfall.
Conditions were so bad that, unlike last week, I only so one other brave/foolish (delete as applicable) rider on my trip across to the meeting point. In direct contrast though, there were maybe a dozen runners out and pounding the pavements. Maybe they’re like slugs and snails and only come out when it’s wet?
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I spotted G-Dawg and Taffy Steve in the multi-storey car park where they were sheltering from the rain and bumped up the kerb to join them. As I drew to a halt, I was immediately informed UCI Extreme Weather Protocols were in place and, as the highest ranking official of the Flat White Club present, Taffy Steve had already declared it to be a Flat White Ride.
Crazy Legs rolled in behind me. “Lovely weather. You know what I’m going to suggest?”
“Already decided, mate,” Taffy Steve told him. “Flat White Ride.” Although nothing more than a formality, it was good to have the decision ratified by the Flat White Club President himself.
We were joined by the Garrulous Kid, OGL and Sage One, the relative newcomer who has joined us to help her train for a London to Paris charity ride.
“How’s the training going?” I wondered.
“Hmm, well, it isn’t really, I’ve been on holiday for 3-weeks.” In fact the last time she’d been out with us was the last time we’d had such dreadful weather.Things were so bad then, she’d made her boyfriend meet her half way home and bring her some dry socks!
Despite the rain, the Garrulous Kid was wearing little else but a £5.99 Decathlon jersey.
He tried to convince us it was waterproof. “Yeah right, ” G-Dawg, declared, “It’s waterproof. Until it gets wet.”
Still, Crazy Legs commended the Garrulous Kit on his shiny, clean shoes (they were wet), while I wondered if his chain might not emerge from the ride actually cleaner than it had been going in.
Despite the rain, G-Dawg was wearing his usual dark glasses.
“Can you actually see anything through them in these conditions?” Crazy Legs wondered, before declaring, “You look like a blind man. In fact, you look like that feller from Peter’s and Lee.”
Ooph! Dangerous ground, but luckily, neither of us could remember any Peter’s and Lee songs, so we felt we dodged a bullet and avoided a very, very, unfortunate earworm.
But then, deep in the bowels of a depressing, dank, dark, multi-storey car park, G-Dawg started to mouth half-remembered words like some strange incantation and, hesitantly at first, those words joined up with a formless tune and a song began to unfold. Then with gathering force, as synapses clicked and sparked and the words came back to him in a rush, he started to royally serenade us:
I’m so alone, my love without you, You’re part of everything I do, When you come back, and you’re beside me, These are the words I’ll say to you,
Then, a big intake of breath, before belting out …
Welcome home, welcome, Come on in, and close the door …
Aagh! Now I remember that song, the kind of thing grannies and parents buy in their droves to keep it hanging around in the charts. My young life was blighted and my soul was scarred by this kind of thing. Peters and Bleedin’ Lee, Demis bleedin’ Roussos, Nana bleedin’ Mouskouri, Jennifer bleedin’ Rush and Tony bleedin’ Orlando and his bleedin’ Yellow Ribbon. Dark, dark days.
Luckily the earworm didn’t immediately take and we quickly scuttled off into the rain to put as much distance as possible between it and us.
As a (fairly) interesting aside before we go, Lennie Peters, aka Gary Hall, or Leonard George Sargent (but surprisingly never known as Lucky Lennie) was blinded in one eye in a car accident when he was five years old. He was blinded in his other eye when someone threw a brick at him when he was sixteen. Just be thankful for what you’ve got.
After a while the Garrulous Kid bolted away and disappeared up the road. I assume he’d finally realised that it was raining, quite heavily and he was heading home for a jacket. Or, perhaps he was intent on breaking his own record for the shortest club run ever. I then wondered if his mother would let him out again, or ground him in case he caught some nasty sniffles.
We briefly discussed taking a different route so he wouldn’t be able to find us when he tried to catch up. But only briefly.
Well, for just ten or fifteen minutes, anyway.
At one point I heard Taffy Steve asking Sage One how her training was going for the big ride…
And then we were at Relief Station#1, the cafe at Kirkley Cycles, where the Garrulous Kid, more sensibly attired in a rain jacket now, rejoined our small, select group.
Main topics of conversation at coffee stop#1:
I ordered an unfeasibly large scone with a mug of coffee and (as I would later learn) double-fisted my way to the table with my haul. The scone looked like it had been zapped with an incredible growth ray-gun, as it overhung the plate, piled up like a pale mole-hill. It was so big that, when I cut into it, the middle was still warm, although it had probably been out the oven for a good couple of hours. Fabulous. All that and I got change from a fiver too. I’ll come here again.
The in-house dog appeared to hoover up a few stray crumbs and stopped to give Sage One’s helmet a desultory lick in passing.
“The dog’s licking your helmet,” I informed her, but our infantile, schoolboy humour wasn’t quite as funny as when it was just the boys involved. Still, I had to try.
Speaking of the fairer sex, Crazy Legs confessed he was still traumatised after being on the Metro on Thursday night, when it was mobbed by an army of shrieking, cackling, guffawing, middle-aged wimmin’, recently disgorged from the Spice Girls concert at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. Heavily bladdered on an excess of Prosecco and spirits, raucous and bellowing out tuneless, badly remembered Spice Girls hits, interspersed with banter that would make even Roy Chubby Brown’s ears burn, the hordes of haridans were, by all accounts, a fearsome and intimidating sight.
Crazy Legs had stuck his ear buds in and tried to look as innocuous as possible as he slunk down into his seat, before abandoning the Metro at the earliest opportunity.
Sage One had been amongst the concert-goers, reliving her own past glories, but she too had been shocked by the behaviour on display and admitted the sight of far too many, far too-tight, Union Jack mini-dresses, over-spilling with bulging, pallid and wobbling flesh was, in her professional opinion, “just minging.”
Taffy Steve thought a contingent of these drunken Geordie wimmin’ should be immediately parachuted into Portugal, where he thought they’d sort out the England football hooligans in short order.
For my own torrid tale of public transport, I recalled a late night journey from a music festival in Loch Lomond to Glasgow, on a bus with a bunch of drunken Scotsmen who were so enraptured by a football game in which Italy had trounced England, they’d spent the entire journey gleefully singing:
“Y’ Italee, Y’Italee, Yooze hae ne’er been fooked, til yae’ve been fooked by Y’Italee …”
Like Crazy Legs, I’d spent uncomfortable moments slunk down in the seat, hoping to pass unnoticed.
The Garrulous Kid followed up with his own anecdote about a school bus trip. It wasn’t particularly amusing, but after hearing this, Crazy Legs sat back in astounded amazement, then reached across the table to shake the Garrulous Kid’s hand, before thanking him profusely.
“Thank you! Thank you!”
The Garrulous Kid took the profferred hand, but looked somewhat bemused.
“Thank you,” Crazy Legs repeated, “That’s the first time you’ve ever told a story that’s been in any way related to what we’d actually been discussing. It makes a pleasant change to know you can follow the thread, rather than hurling something completely random into the conversation, such as the toilets on the Space Station are so good because they’re made by German engineers.”
Crazy Legs then noted my skinned knuckles and wondered if I’d been in a pub brawl. I had to admit to a rookie mistake, when changing the brake blocks on my single-speed, I’d run the rear wheel up to check the brakes weren’t catching, only to find the only thing catching was the back of my hand on the spinning tyre. It had only taken off the top layer of skin and I hadn’t even noticed until I washed up afterwards, but the wounds had scabbed over quite dramatically and the injuries looked much worse than they were.
Taffy Steve suggested bladed spokes were particularly lethal if you caught your fingers in them. I agreed, having once tried to adjust a rubbing mudguard while cycling up a steep hill and receiving a fearsome crack across my knuckles for my stupidity. I’m still amazed I managed not to fall off during that particular escapade.
With time moving on and a need to fit in another cafe stop, we decided to push on again, zipped up and braced ourselves for the worst, before leaving the warm, welcoming confines of the cafe for the rain outside.
OGL left our group to head directly to our second cafe rendezvous, while the remaining six set off for a loop around the Gubeon, to get a few more miles in.
Crazy Legs tried out a few Spice Girls songs, but it really wasn’t working for him. Half way round and I started to think I was hallucinating, as I was certain I heard the Garrulous Kid qualify one of his statements with the postscript, “well, in my opinion, anyway.”
Apparently not though, as G-Dawg picked up on it too. “You should try using that ‘in my opinion’ phrase more often,” he suggested, “It makes you sound less like an opinionated dick.”
“Perhaps, even try an ‘in my humble opinion’,” I added, even as I realised you had to walk before you can run, or, just be thankful for what you’ve got.
As we closed on coffee stop#2, Sage one was struggling and Crazy Legs encouraged us to push on while he dropped off the front to escort her.
A mile down the road and seemingly oblivious to this interaction, the Garrulous Kid finally noticed our sextet had become foursome and pondered if we should wait. Taffy Steve applauded his concern for others, but did point out that they’d been adrift for 15 minutes or so and he’d only just noticed.
We pressed on, there was a slight quickening of the pace and then we were rolling into the cafe for some temporary relief from the rain.
Main topics of conversation at coffee stop#2
Crazy Legs arrived and declared he was slightly moist, but glowing.
“Moist is a state of mind,” Taffy Steve growled and left it at that. No, I don’t know what he mean’t, either.
Cultural barriers and regional misunderstandings dominated our discussion. As a teacher in Canada, OGL said he got peculiar looks by encouraging his pupils to always carry rubbers, of course meaning erasers and not prophylactics. Meanwhile, Crazy Legs reported being subject to gales of laughter in New Zealand whenever he talked about a super-computer-router, three words that all rhymed in his mind, but not in theirs.
Our Antipodean friends would (incorrectly, of course) refer to a router as a rowter. To them, a rooter is something completely different, as evidenced by Taffy Steve’s relish in declaring, “let’s go root in the ute,” in a pronounced Strine twang.
According to Crazy Legs, being loaded up with two cocktails, one in each hand, or I guess a giant scone and mug of coffee, is known as double-fisting in parts of the States. Needless to say, but double-fisting is not a skill you should admit to in a British bar.
Or then again … maybe it is?
Taffy Steve was amused by the thought that in America, there was an overwhelming number of wankers, who did’t know what a wanker was. This he thought was ironic, which just added fuel to the fire as “they don’t do irony, either.”
Crazy Legs remembered that the Garrulous Kid claims dual citizenship of the American colonies, having been born in either Norf, or Sowf Carolina (I forget which.) He asked the Garrulous Kid how he thought he would fit in, if transplanted across the Atlantic.
Seamlessly and effortlessly, according to the Garrulous Kid, although I’m not sure the Americans would truly appreciate just how honoured they would be to have such a humble and self-effacing paragon in their midst.
When we thought we’d dallied long enough so G-Dawg wouldn’t get into trouble for arriving home to early, we set out into the deluge once again.
I’m fairly certain on the ride back I heard Crazy Legs asking Sage One how the training was going …
Meanwhile, we all agreed these miserable, wet days, perversely produced some of the most enjoyable rides. Then, in short order, I was following G-Dawg through the Mad Mile and swinging away for my trip home.
On the drag up past the golf course, with the rain still tapping impatient fingers on my helmet and water dripping off the end of my nose, I was a little startled by a loud burst of chimes that I finally recognised as a distorted, amped-up version of “Greensleeves.” I seemed to be in the presence of either the regions most optimistic, or most desperate ice-cream seller.
After crossing the bridge, I stopped for pee and was just re-mounting when a one arm cyclist whirred past, the left hand sleeve of his Way of the Roses jersey, completely empty and flapping in the wind. He asked if everything was ok, I assured him it was, so he kept going.
He was evidently heading the same way and I started tracking him, but kept getting delayed, first at a level crossing and then at some traffic lights. I finally caught up with him when it was his turn to be stopped, at the lights in Blaydon.
“Lovely day for a ride,” I offered by way of a greeting.
He was remarkably chipper and cheerful and just happy to be out on his bike, whatever the weather. We swapped ride info – he’d just ridden out to Corbridge and back, a solid 40-miles plus.
I waved him away and slid past, but I was held up at the next roundabout. He timed his arrival to coincide perfectly with a gap in the traffic and sailed past me, as I pushed off from a standing start and tried to clip in again. I then trailed him up the first part of the Heinous Hill, until he took a sharp left and, with a cheery goodbye, dropped down to Pedalling Squares, the cycling cafe, for some much deserved cake and coffee. (I assume).
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to ride with just one arm: balance issues, braking and changing gear, unable to climb out of the saddle, unable to signal to traffic and the burning question I might have had the courage to ask if we’d ridden further together – how the hell do you cope with a puncture?
Just be thankful for what you’ve got, eh?
I pushed on to the top of the hill to end a short, but enjoyable ride. Despite the weather … or, just maybe, because of it.
Right, I’m away next week for a short holiday, hopefully the weather can raise its game for when I get back … but I’m not holding my breath.
YTD Totals: 3,785 km / 2,352 miles with 47,875 metres of climbing
The weather was about the same as last week, grey overcast, relatively chilly, but dry. An arm warmer kind of day. I hoped somewhere along the line I would be tempted to get rid of them, but it never happened.
I tracked and caught a fellow rider on my way to cross the river, resplendent in a bright red jersey with a big Isle of Man triskelion blazoned across the back.
“Are you lost?” I enquired when I caught up and passed him.
He looked at me blankly.
“You’re a long way from home,” I explained.
“Aah, the jersey. Hah, no,” his answer was delivered in pure Geordie, convincing me I was talking to a native and not some poor lost Manxman who needed directions.
The river was high, wide, flat, grey and fairly featureless, with not a boat in sight. Looked like the rowing clubs were off competing for the day and the crossing was quiet.
I clambered out the valley on the other side of the river and pushed through to the meeting point to join the slowly assembling crowd of chancer’s, wastrel’s and ne’er-do-well’s. (Or in other words, all the usual suspects.)
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I pulled up, clambered off and found a perch on the wall alongside the Monkey Butler Boy. He was smugly pleased with his brand new Kask helmet, bought to replace the one he’d used as an emergency brake during a recent crash. I was then in prime place when his acolyte, the Money Priest, rolled in and approached.
There was no excited jabbering this week, just a silent, rather uncomfortable and over-long pause as the Monkey Priest stood face to face with the Monkey Butler Boy, faces scant inches apart, as they stared deeply and lovingly into each other’s eyes.
I didn’t want to break this beautiful moment, this rare meeting of minds and young hearts, but this was quite uncomfortable and I found myself coughing apologetically…
I was just about to suggest they “get a room,” when the Monkey Priest broke the spell.
“New sunglasses then?”
“Let’s have a look …”
There was then a discussion about their new club jersey. Apparently, the Monkey Priest was wearing one and the Monkey Butler Boy wasn’t. I’m pleased they told me this, otherwise I would never have known.
They both agreed the new jersey was much, much better than the old one. I did a double-take.
And then another.
And again, slower and more considered.
Nope, they both looked absolutely identical to me. I had to ask.
“What’s different?” the Monkey Butler Boy shook his head in despair at my distinct lack of acuity.
He pointed to one out of half a dozen sponsor names encapsulated in half inch squares that ran in a line across his chest.
“Le Col have replaced this sponsor,” he said, and then, as if this alone wasn’t a momentous, earth-shattering change in its own right, he pointed to another tiny sponsor name on his sleeve. “And they’ve changed too…”
Ah, so the kind of blatantly obvious difference you would expect in a fiendishly difficult “spot the difference” picture quiz. Now I get it.
While the Monkey Priest’s near identical jersey was “clearly superior,” his shorts were an entirely different matter. He too seems to have conspired to crash recently and had ripped a hole in the front of his shorts. (The front?)
He had a cunning plan though, they would be meeting up with their coach a little later and he’d be bringing a new pair of shorts for the Monkey Priest to change into.
“On the fly?” the Hammer asked.
“Well, I bet Alberto Contador could do that,” I reasoned, having once watched him change shoes mid-race, without stopping, or even slowing.
We then wondered if the coach would just hold the shorts up for the Monkey Priest to snatch as he rode past, “like a musette in the feed-zone” the Hammer suggested.
Sadly, the actual plan was much more prosaic, but probably a lot safer. The Monkey Priest had earmarked some bushes he could retire to in order to protect his modesty while performing his costume change.
Crazy Legs rolled up on his much cossetted Ribble, which we all took to be a sign from the gods that we would have no rain on the ride. He said he’d read two forecasts, one promising a dry day with sunny intervals, the other overcast with intermittent showers. He’d only dared to share the first of these with his recalcitrant Ribble.
Just like last week, we were graced with a load of old hands and intermittent irregulars, including what I think might have been a first outing of the year for Grover and Famous Sean’s. Our numbers slowly built up to top 30 again.
There was an enlightened discussion about cable rub, but no one could answer how brake cables managed to move, seemingly of their own volition, to so deftly avoid the protective patch you’ve carefully applied to the frame, even though it’s exactly where the paint was first abraded.
I was messing about with my camera, so missed the front group leaving, but was more than happy to tag onto the always slightly less frenetic second group, as we clipped in, pushed off and rode out.
I dropped in alongside Sneaky Pete, just behind Crazy Legs and Ovis, as they led us out of the ‘burbs and into the countryside. I took over on the front with Sneaky Pete for the push through Ponteland and down to Limestone Lane, before swinging over for Taffy Steve and Carlton to pull through. All seemed to be going smoothly and everyone seemed content.
The front pair then ceded to OGL and whoever’s ear he was intent on bending at the time and we started to push up a slight incline. Almost immediately Grover was struggling and became detached. Crazy Legs drifted back to check on him and reported that Grover was more than happy to ride in his own company and at his own pace and didn’t want to hold anyone up.
Crazy Legs admired the, quiet dignity, stoicism and the self-awareness necessary to realise when your own lack of ability or fitness was an impediment to the rest of the group. Rather uncharitably, I suggested Grover was like an old bull-elephant, quietly slipping away from the rest of the herd to seek out the elephant’s graveyard.
We pressed on, until another change in the front saw Radman and Mini Miss taking over. Almost immediately OGL was blustering and growling about the pace. “I’m breathing out me arse, here!” was, I believe, the precise aphorism deployed – a term I’ve never quite understood, I mean, I get the general sentiment, but … eh? … what?
(Taffy Steve would later, rather naughtily, contend that OGL spends so much time talking out his arse, that breathing out of it should be second nature by now. Ouch.)
The grumbling continued.
“But you’re the only one whose been dropping people,” Crazy Legs innocently informed OGL, while I rode behind them, snorting with suppressed laughter.
We reached the top of the Quarry (yes, I know, the top!) and paused to regroup. OGL claimed infirmity from a bad chest infection and made straight for the cafe, while the rest of us dropped down (yes, I know, down!) the Quarry Climb.
We passed another club grinding up the Quarry and looking miserable, as we harnessed gravity to its full effect and zipped down past them. I know which direction is the easiest.
At the junction at the bottom of the Quarry we paused again, while Crazy Legs outlined route options.
“Left is the shorter ride, which is shorter and right is … err, a longer ride that’s … err … longer,” Crazy Legs concluded lamely, before adding, “Oh and right goes down the Ryals.”
“Which way are you going? I don’t want to be left on my own,” Mini Miss asked me.
“Rye-urhls!” I groaned in my best guttural, Neanderthal-zombie-meets-Frankenstein-monster voice.
Double-Dutch Distaff eyed me warily, no doubt wondering what had set the lunatic off and what kind of gibberish he was bellowing. It didn’t put her off though. The Red Max lead a contingent left for a shorter loop to the cafe, while the rest of us swung right for a gleeful swoop down the Ryals.
Reaching the crest, I kicked onto the front, tucked in and plunged, four minutes of unbridled fun as I recorded my fastest time yet for the descent, hitting over 74 kph, or 20 meters per second, on the double-dip down. (That’s 46 mph if you want it in retard units.) Crazy Legs, Double Dutch and Taffy Steve followed in close attendance and we seemed to open up a gap on the rest of the group.
As we slowed to reassemble at the bottom, Crazy Legs suggested we were in danger of being early at the cafe, so we could amend the route and put more miles in by looping around the reservoir, rather than taking the scramble up through Hallington. This got the immediate support of Taffy Steve, who likes this loop almost as much as he detests climbing through Hallington, so our course was set.
I pushed out onto the front alongside Ovis as we swung in a wide arc around the (always hidden from view) reservoir and up to where we would have emerged if we’d taken the planned route. Around the corner, I drove us up a segment known on Strava as Humiliation Hill (I know not why). This had everyone stretched out into a long line and we paused at the next junction to re-assemble.
As our last riders pulled through I looked back down the road and saw the flashing of florescent green cycling socks.
“Is that one of us?” I asked Taffy Steve.
“Nope, we’re all here.”
I hung back a little just to make sure, confirmed I didn’t know the lone rider and then hustled to catch up with the rest.
The unknown, rider in the florescent green socks passed us as we dawdled along, then Big Dunc put in a Big Dig. Everyone responded and we all bustled past Green Socks, until Big Duncs attack was foiled by temporary traffic lights and we all slowed and stopped.
Green Socks took the opportunity to nip in front of us as the lights changed. Crazy Legs caught him and sat on his wheel for a while, before dropping back, while I accelerated to take his place and started winding up the pace.
I passed Green Socks as the road began to climb and pushed on with Ovis, increasing the pace as we raced toward the end of the road, reaching the junction and then stopping to let everyone regroup. Green Socks passed us while we waited and disappeared down the road, probably glad to see the back of us.
We regrouped again and started the final push to the cafe, with Crazy Legs and Double Dutch on the front. As we approached the short, steep, Brandy Well Bank, Crazy Legs started to explain that, in about 3-4 kilometres, it would all kick-off toward a final sprint before the cafe. In normal circumstances he would have been dead right, but I didn’t fancy my chances in a straight-up sprint, so decided not to hang around and attacked.
I accelerated toward the climb and tried to keep my legs spinning as the gradient bit. It wasn’t like last week though, when I’d done hardly any work before hitting the same climb, I had tired legs and momentum dropped quickly, until I had to haul myself out of the saddle to keep going.
I paused at the top, part hesitation, wondering if the attack was premature, part from the needing to drag some air into tortured lungs and let the pain in my legs subside. Then I pushed on …
I was just starting to flag, when Ovis nudged past and I dropped onto his wheel. Now, slowly, but surely we started to reel in the lone rider in the florescent green socks and Ovis pulled us around him. Yet again. He must have been sick of the sight of us.
As the road started to drag upwards, I bustled back onto the front, trying to find a good line across the battered and lumpy road surface. Down toward the Snake Bends, we passed a lone Grover, seemingly still happy in his own company and I briefly stopped the frenetic pedalling to greet him in passing.
The road levelled out and I pushed on, until Ovis roared past me with an astonishing burst of speed. I had no response. Seconds later a hard-charging Crazy Legs and Mini Miss zipped past, but they were too late and Ovis was long gone, while Taffy Steve caught me just before the Bends.
As ever, great fun.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Carlton wondered if anyone had been watching the Chernobyl TV-series, which one of my work colleagues, Big Dave, described as unremittingly bleak. He reported that in the first 5 minutes alone, some bloke fed his cat, then hung himself and it the just got darker from that point on. (I guess it could have been worse and he could have left the cat to starve.)
I prefer my end-of-the-world, Armagideon Time to have a dash more humour, so was more interested in the recently released, TV adaptation of the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book, Good Omens.
“Are you a Terry Pratchett fan, then?” Crazy Legs enquired.
“No, not really, but I like Neil Gaiman. Then again,” I added, “I do have to acknowledge the particular genius of inventing a character called Quoth the Raven. That’s very clever.”
Crazy Legs looked at me blankly, “Eh? What?”
“Quoth. The Raven.”
“Nah, don’t get it?”
Everyone else around the table looked suitably blank too.
“You know, from the Edgar Allan Poe poem, The Raven.”
“Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.'”
Across from me, Famous Sean’s suddenly giggled.
“See, he gets it …”
But no, he didn’t, it was more a nervous laugh, the kind you might emit if you were embarrassed on someone else’s behalf.
“Oh, I give up, you’re all a bunch of bleedin’ Philistines.”
“You’re on a table full of scientists, mathematicians and engineers,” Crazy Legs consoled me, “What do you expect?”
I left to get some coffee refills and to see if I could find some more erudite cycling companions. The first bit was relatively easy, the second though … well, the jury’s still out.
Still, at least it gave me an opportunity to briefly ear-wig on an delightful conversation between two old biddies in the queue, carried out almost entirely in question form.
“Do you know Annie?” the first pondered.
“Ooh, Canny Annie?”
“No, no, smaller Paula.”
I would like to have hung around to hear more, but was conscious of Philistine cyclists requiring further injections of caffeine.
When I returned Double Dutch Dude who’d been in the first group, was dragging Double Dutch Distaff away, to get some more miles in. Meanwhile, conversation had returned to less culturally divisive subjects … or maybe not … as Taffy Steve expressed his love for Gogglebox, a TV programme about people watching TV programmes. We wondered where it would end – was there, for example, an opportunity for a TV programme about people who watched TV programmes in which people watched TV programmes?
G-Dawg briefly joined us, having sneaked out from the cafe for a bit of peace and to try and quell a strange, incessant clamouring in his ears. Sadly though, the strange incessant clamouring followed him out.
I noticed he seemed to be a riot of colours today; green shoes, yellow socks, blue shorts and a red jersey. Still, I’m sure last week’s civilian, who complained about cyclists dressed all in black, would have found some other reason to disparage him.
Famous Sean, being one of those weird triathlete-types, started undertaking a series of stretches in preparation for us leaving. He’d left the fat velcro straps of his triathlon shoes unfastened and they flopped over to lie flat on the grass, making him look like Big Bird, all skinny legs and big feet.
Crazy Legs had to ask if the velcro actually worked on grass and if that was why Famous Sean’s could touch his toes without toppling over.
We lined up and rode out, for what would prove to be a remarkably unremarkable trip back, the only thing of note I recall was being subjected to a short, sharp shower half way up the Heinous Hill,
Our first June club run complete then and still we wait for some good better weather. Come on, make it happen…
YTD Totals: 3,604 km / 2,240 miles with 46,106 metres of climbing
A decent day, still chilly, but dry and largely windless. I’ll take it.
I arrive at the meeting point to find good numbers already waiting, the starting nucleus of what would grow be one of the best attended rides this year.
Ride leader for the day, Richard of Flanders was amongst those waiting, uniquely attired in our much unloved club jersey, which everyone else seems to have shunned. Our numbers also included a royal guest of honour, Mrs. Max, there perhaps to tackle the impossible and try keeping the Red Max and Monkey Butler Boy in line. (Good luck with that!)
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I queried with the Monkey Butler Boy how Mrs. Max had even managed to find a fully functional and completely intact bike, knowing that her husband and son were always circling it like voracious, starving vultures, ready to pick off the best bits, or use it as the prime source for any replacement parts they needed.
The Monkey Butler Boy admitted “they” (collectively, there was no attribution of actual guilt) had trashed her wheels, which might have been alright, but the Red Max had then singularly failed to fix them and in desperation had to take them to his local bike shop.
Stung by this apparent failure, the Red Max piped up, “Well, at least I was right in my diagnosis of the problem.”
“What was that then?” Kipper enquired dryly, “The fact that they were fucked?”
I confessed to Richard of Flanders that I’d seen his club jersey and almost ridden past, thinking I was in the wrong place. He was to have the last laugh though, as several more riders showed up sporting the tangerine and green colours, including several riders for whom a club ride is an annual rite of passage, rather than a weekly obsession.
Among these was Eon in a reworked club jersey which, as well as being a slightly improved design, was actually form fitting and had the benefit of not being constructed from acres of shapeless Crimplene.
This led to a discussion about the relative merits of the Bardiani CSF kit – the same basic tangerine and green as our club colours, but applied a little more, well, let’s say sympathetically.
“Not my favourite Italian pro-conti team, anyway” the Monkey Butler Boy sniffed, “I prefer Nipple-Vini Fantini, just for the name.”
Or, at least that’s what I think he said, while referring to the Nippo-Vini Fantine-Faizane team.
You can’t beat a plain black jersey, attested the Hammer, resplendent in his usual, long-serving, Tørm Merino wool number, a practical, pragmatic colour that, he suggested, could also flatter the fuller figure.
Eon was out for a rare club run in as a warm up for Sunday’s club 25 mile time-trial. The Monkey Butler Boy was also riding and concerned about the start, where the Red Max was official holder-up and pusher-offerer. (Is there not a proper, technical, UCI approved term for a time-trial pusher-offerer? Pusher-offerer just doesn’t sound right.)
The Monkey Butler Boy’s worry was that, as the starter and time-keeper (see, they have an official title) counted down to zero, the Red Max wouldn’t immediately release his bike and he’d end up spinning his wheels and losing valuable seconds before he was allowed to break away.
Surely though, the Red Max wouldn’t do that to his favourite (OK, only) son, would he?
Richard of Flanders outlined the route, complete with some last minute changes as several roads around the cafe had been completely closed for resurfacing. We then split into two (still large) groups and away we went.
I spent the first few miles alongside the Rainman, talking about the apparent influx of Dutch to the North East of England and pondering what might have triggered it. Although himself firmly rooted amongst us, he admitted that facing the same decision today he would probably not have moved here. It looks like our febrile Brexit discord and the rise of populist, right wing, political movements makes the UK look mean, intolerant, insular and unwelcoming. I don’t know, maybe some people think this is actually a good thing?
The Hammer had told everyone he could only manage a short spin today and would be leaving us after the first few miles. True to his word, on the slope down from Dinnington, the man in black waved his farewells and accelerated smoothly down the outside of the group and away … only to be chased by the Garrulous Kid who hared off in a disruptive, mad and utterly pointless pursuit.
At the junction, the Hammer turned right, while we waited for another group of cyclists to pass before we went left. We harboured brief hopes that the Garrulous Kid had managed to get himself enmeshed in this other group and carried away, but as we turned for the Cheese Farm, we found him waiting.
“Wanker!” G-Dawg admonished the Garrulous Kid, as he drew up alongside him and order was finally restored, “It’s supposed to be a group ride. What was the point in that?”
Sadly, I doubt the censure had any effect.
We pressed on and worked our way up to Dyke Neuk where we paused briefly. On the other side of the road the Backstreet Boys were loitering, practising Incomplete and Inconsolable. A few of our lot wandered across for a chat, while G-Dawg pondered the numerous, deeply worrying similarities emerging between the characters of OGL and the Garrulous Kid. This included a complete lack of self-awareness and not the remotest hint of modesty or humility. G-Dawg vowed that somehow, someway, he’d manage to get out here in 20 years time, even if it had to be on his mobility scooter, so he could hunt down the Garrulous Kid and see what a remarkable replica of OGL he’d morphed into.
Efforts were made to persuade the Garrulous Kid to go with the Backstreet Boys and then, failing that, with a group of ramblers who were starting to congregate in the pub car park.
“I’m not going wiff them,” the Garrulous Kid complained, “Walking wiff them would be like walking wiff … wiff dinosaurs!”
Oh well, we tried.
On we pushed once again, but the further we went, the more it became apparent that the FNG who’d joined us that morning had completely ran out of energy and was really struggling off the back. Just before Hartburn we called a halt and waited for him and his escort of Rab Dee and Eon to shepherd him up to us. We then decided to split into fast and slow groups, with Goose, G-Dawg, Aether, another relatively new Irishman, Homeboyz and me dropping back to try and nurse the FNG around.
The fast group soon disappeared up the road and, as I dropped back to chat with the FNG, it looked like the soft-pedalling slow group were in imminent danger of following suit. We really were travelling astonishingly slowly, especially when the road ticked up by even a few degrees. I was really struggling to contain my pace and match it to that of our FNG.
The rest of the slow group were waiting for us around the corner and when I caught up with G-Dawg, I told him I felt like I was in one of those competitions where cyclists perform track stands try to see who can take the most time to complete a circuit.
As we approached Scots Gap, Aether pondered if we shouldn’t take a short-cut, up Middleton Bank, rather than follow the proposed route through Wallington. This sounded good in theory, but would lead us up to where the roads might be closed and, if we couldn’t get through, we’d have to backtrack. Rather than risk it, we pressed on.
I stopped for a pee, urging the FNG to keep going and I would catch up. Re-mounting I spotted a large group of cyclists approaching, which I assumed was our second group. I rejoined our limping convoy as we pushed on to Kirkhalle and we started to climb, waiting for the group behind to catch us.
They did, about half way up the climb, riding past in a flurry of hi’s, hello’s and how you doing’s, which revealed they weren’t our second group at all, but a contingent from the Tyneside Vagabonds.
G-Dawg immediately accelerated, pulling Homeboyz with him, as he surged past the group, away up the climb, around the corner and smartly out of sight. As he would later explain, he couldn’t possibly let a group of Vags beat him up a hill.
Meanwhile, still only half way up the climb, Aether checked his Garmin and reported that the official route, as posted by Richard of Flanders, indicated we should be turning left. Along with Goose and the FNG, we tentatively swung off the road and onto a narrow farm track.
We hesitated. Was this right? Would it get us to where we were going, or would we end up miles off our intended course, or, perhaps, worst of all, be forced to retrace our steps?
With the FNG so obviously flagging, we decided it was worth the risk, Aether’s Garmin suggested there was a path through, it was heading in the right direction and it could save us a good few miles too. We reasoned that if G-Dawg and Homeboyz waited for us after their tussle with the Vags, they would soon realise we’d taken a detour and either follow, or make their own way to the cafe.
With a course of action determined, off we set, although we still occasionally queried if we were doing the right thing, especially when the track narrowed, sprouted a Mohawk haircut of springy green grass down it’s centre and the surface crumbled to loose gravel. I was just waiting for it to end in a farmyard, surrounded by fields with no way through.
Then we came to a gate (not THE gate, you understand, but still a definitive barrier across our track). This wasn’t looking promising, but we passed through and pressed on anyway. Another gate slowed our progress some more, but then we were rattling down toward a junction with a proper road and wondering just exactly where we were.
We found we’d been spat out onto the road to Capheaton. The short-cut had worked, we were within 5 or 6 miles of the cafe and well ahead of where we would otherwise have been. This was confirmed a few minutes later, when we were passed once more by the same whirring gaggle of Vagabonds. They’d obviously followed the route we had originally intended to take and our short-cut had put us ahead of them on the road. We hoped to see G-Dawg and Homeboyz trailing our rivals, but they were nowhere in sight.
We kept going and, with an excess of energy to burn, I sprinted up the short sharp incline of Brandy Well Bank and we then contested a pseudo-sprint into the Snake Bends, before picking up our FNG escort duties again, to shepherd him safely through to the cafe.
Maintopics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Perhaps as a consequence of our late arrival, or perhaps it was just one of those days, the cafe was mobbed and the queue doubled back though the conservatory and right down to the door. Luckily most of our crew had already been served and were already lining up coffee refills, but ahead of us were the Backstreet Boys (showing off their new kit) and a load of civilians. Luckily the Vagabonds had gone elsewhere, or they too would have beaten us in and would have been ahead of us in the queue.
One of the civilians started mock complaining about all the cyclists in the queue ahead of her, although I sensed the jocularity was a little forced and underneath she was actually quite irritated. She then introduced us to her friend by describing her most notable and defining characteristic, a deep anger at any cyclist who dared to wear black.
Apparently, any cyclist who chooses to wear black has a death wish and is solely to blame for any misfortune that befalls them. While the implication was that if she hit a cyclist dressed in black, then it was entirely their fault, the inference seemed to be that she felt she had a moral duty to actually run black clad cyclists off the road. I didn’t feel this was quite the right forum to discuss the slimming effects that black could have on the fuller figure…
We were finally served (cafe prices have gone up again) and made our way to the packed garden for a seat. I was midway through my expensive slice of cake, when the missing G-Dawg and Homeboyz belatedly appeared, having waited for us in vain. (Sorry guys, but I still think we did the right thing, or we would still be out there.)
By the time our late arriving pair had been served, everyone else was packing up to go. I had a quick chat with Alhambra, a guy who joined the club at the exact same day as I did, but who only gets out occasionally due to work and family commitments.
He’s obviously been sneaking off to the gym too as he now appears almost as broad as he is tall.
“As my daughters might say, you’re looking particularly hench,” I told him, trying out a word I had no business being around, like an aged billionaire with a trophy girlfriend.
“Hench. Sorry, yoof speak,” I explained.
We found common bafflement at some of the terms currently being bandied about by our offspring and determined we needed an interpreter.
“Pied-off,” I said, by way of another example.
“Yeah, pied-off, that’s a weird one,” he agreed. “What’s that all about?”
We caught up with Richard of Flanders and queried whether our trek down the gated road had actually been planned on the route he’d set up on Strava. Apparently it hadn’t been, but then again we decided to take everything he said with a healthy pinch of salt when he admitted his group hadn’t actually followed the planned ride … because he got lost.
On his own route?
While everyone else decamped and departed, I wandered back into the cafe for a refill, then joined G-Dawg and Homeboyz. The Garrulous Kid decided to hang back too, to lend moral support, or perhaps encouragement and entertainment on our way home.
There was no time for re-fills for either G-Dawg and Homeboyz, we were already well behind schedule when our quartet left the cafe. G-Dawg and the Garrulous Kid led us out and we hit a fairly brisk pace as we made the run for home.
After a few miles riding in the company of the Garrulous Kid yet again, I could tell G-Dawg had reached his limit by how terse his replies had become:
The Garrulous Kid: “Chunter, chunter chunter…”
The Garrulous Kid: “Chunter, chunter chunter…”
The Garrulous Kid: “Chunter, chunter, chunter, chunter, chunter!”
As we took the turn past Kirkley Hall, he looked back at me. “What have I done to deserve this?” he asked plaintively.
I saluted his martyrdom, but realised even martyrs have their limits, so I pushed onto the front alongside the Garrulous Kid to afford G-Dawg’s ears some respite.
Running late and still feeling relatively fresh following our stately progression around the second part of the route, we took a fast run up … and then down Berwick Hill. G-Dawg and Homeboyz took over to drag us through Dinnington and into the Mad Mile and then I was released for a solo ride home, managing to claw back some time and arriving not too far behind my usual schedule.
Well, that was different.
YTD Totals: 3,414 km / 2,121 miles with 43,785 metres of climbing