Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch

Club Run, Saturday, 16th March 2019

My ride (according to Strava):

Total Distance:87 km/54 miles with 446 m of climbing
Riding Time:3 hours 49 minutes
Average Speed:22.5km/h
Group Size:7 riders, no FNG’s
Temperature: 8℃
Weather in a word or two:Hmm, wintry?

An Oddly Surreal Ride Profile

Saturday morning kicked off as it was forecast to continue, an indeterminate, ever-changing mix of snow, sleet and rain, bitter cold and, to top it all, increasingly gusting winds. It was going to be constantly wet. It was going to be freezing cold. It was going to be utterly filthy. It was going to be bleak and miserable, brutal and uncomfortable.



It was going to be great.

Club runs in such extreme, adverse conditions tend to attract the minimum number of die-hard riders, but the maximum amount of quality banter, or much talking of complete and utter bolleaux, if you prefer.

Now, perhaps this might be banal and boring to the huge majority of the population, but the gallows-humour and collective discomfort of a small group of cyclists prepared to laugh in the face of adversity is, for me, entertainment of the highest order.

But, first I have to get there.

I dress as best as I can, my thickest base-layer, winter jacket with heavy duty waterproof on top, headband to keep my ears warm, under a cap to keep the spray out of my eyes, trusty thermolite socks, winter boots and mighty lobster mitts.

Following Red Max Edict#37, I even remember to stuff a spare pair of gloves in my back pocket, so I have a dry set to pull on after the cafe stop.

[I confess, I sadly failed to follow Red Max Edict#38, which states that you should make a great show of producing said dry gloves and conspicuously place them in plain view on the table in the cafe, before sitting down with a smug look on your face. This is the prescribed method to transmit your superior level of preparedness to all those futilely trying to dry out their wet gloves by melting them on the stove, or anticipating the horror of trying to jam fingers back into cold, clammy and sodden garments.]

I leave it as late as possible, letting the latest squall clear, before scurrying out the door. I’m 20 minutes behind my usual time for setting off, but I’ve followed bike paths and trails to the nearest bridge before and plan on doing the same again.

I surf, slide and skate down the Heinous Hill, trying to stay in the tyre tracks of the cars and avoid the long, curving moraines of icy, dark slush. The rain is bouncing off my helmet and jacket and, worse, the spray kicked up by my speed downhill has me soaked from the knees down in an instant. No matter whether my foot is at the top of a pedal stroke, or at the bottom, I can’t seem to find a way of reducing the amount of water being flung at my legs.

Down the hill and a sharp right, I roll over a small humped-back bridge and hit the bike trails and cycle paths. Unlike last time I took this route, it’s a bit lighter and I can actually see where I’m supposed to be going. I pick up the pace, bumping over tree roots that appear to have taken on the role of natural speed bumps, slicing through mud, muddy puddles and gravel and swerving around the chicanes provided by scattered park benches and random dog walkers.

I eventually reach the gate that leads across the railway tracks, dismount and make my way across. I’ve survived the icy downhill sweep, the slippery mud, gravel, tree roots and potholes of the bike trail, but now, as I walk my bike across the railway lines, I lose my footing on a super-slick timber walkway and almost go my length, clinging desperately onto the bike in support.

I manage to stay (barely) upright and remount to follow the river toward the bridge. Rowers pass downstream, fully into their strokes and travelling much faster than they usually appear when I see them, bobbing around just outside their club house.

Across the river, I decide against the dark, debris strewn underpass and cross the four lanes of the Scotswood Road on the footbridge, a sort of mini-Alpe d’Huez with half a dozen sharp hairpins. One wrong turn at the other side, followed by a bit of back-tracking and then I’m travelling familiar roads and climbing out of the valley.

Detours and a bit of off-roading all worked out well and I was the first rider to arrive at the meeting point, rolling into the gloom of the multi-storey car park to shelter and wait to see which other idiots felt like riding out…


Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:

… where I was met by OGL, climbing out from the warm cocoon of his car. Deciding not to ride himself, he was there to see for himself the idiots who would brave the horrible weather and, as an aside, issue numerous dire warnings about flooded roads, blizzards engulfing Stamfordham and the imminent threat of glaciers to the rural communities around Rothbury.

The Garrulous Kid was next in, thankfully wearing new, stolen, or recently rediscovered tights. (We couldn’t quite follow the exact, jumbled explanation of their provenance.)

Then the Colossus and G-Dawg arrived and for a while, that looked to be it, a fabulous, fearsome foursome.

G-Dawg was counting on the usual suspects, so expected one or two more, although he realised a still ailing Crazy Legs was unlikely to be out.

Just as we thought that was it, Taffy Steve rolled in from the coast, lit up like a Christmas tree in Vegas. Unbelievably, he told us he’d nearly been broadsided by a motorist who somehow failed to spot him, despite being adorned by more blinking warning lights than the dashboard of a 747 experiencing total systems failure. SMIDSY.

He was followed in by Aether and suddenly numbers were about what we expected.

Story Number 5, please …

“Did I ever tell you about the time we were racing on the North York Moors and had to follow behind a snow plough up one of the hills?” OGL mused.

“Yes. Last week,” G-Dawg replied flatly.

“What about …”

“Yes, that too. Last week.”

OGL then did a quick double-take, “You’re all on winter bikes with mudguards!” he exclaimed, stepping back in apparent disbelief.

“Well, yes,” I told him, “We might all be mad, but we’re not insane.”

He took one last opportunity to warn us that it was, raining, it was cold and the roads were wet out, before climbing back in his car and scuttling off to a warm gym.

We watched him leave. Looked out at the weather. You know, he was right, it was raining and the roads were wet …

Not for the first time, the Garrulous Kid declared that Facebook is shit and Instagram and Snapchat far, far superior. The Colossus argued that they were ultimately all the same and no one was better than any other. He did concede however that Snapchat is probably a better platform for OGL to use, as his drunken rants would be automatically deleted by the time he sobered up.

Someone suggested that what we probably needed was an app that began a 2 hour countdown as soon as he was detected leaving an off-licence and locked him out of all social media until the following morning.

The Prof had threatened to ride with us today, as the Back Street Boys tribute act don’t ride in the rain (perhaps it interferes with the timing of their carefully choreographed dance routines?) There was no sign of him though, so we assumed he’d wimped out too. (The white feather’s in the post.)

At an unfeasibly early 9:14 then, one full minute before official GMT (Garmin Muppet Time) we decided no one else was going to bolster our meagre numbers, the weather wasn’t going to miraculously (or even marginally improve) and it was time to get moving.


I spent the first few miles riding alongside the Colossus, following G-Dawg and trying to determine how the arc of spray off his rear wheel managed to completely by-pass his mudguard. I’m still none the wiser.

At Dinnington, we picked up the Big Yin waiting for us and concluded it was just as well we’d left a minute early, otherwise the Big Yin might have looked more like the Big Ycicle by the time we got to him.

So, we then became The Magnificent Seven, I earned a Clash earworm (no bad thing) and on we pressed.

The Big Yin was the only one whose bike wasn’t equipped with mudguards, so he took great pains to ride at the back and not shower us with whatever his wheels kicked up off the road surface. It was a noble effort to try and keep us dry, but somewhat akin to opening an umbrella when you’re up to your neck in a river.

“We’ve made it through Dinnington,” the Colossus announced, “We can turn back at any time now and not have the ignominy of completing the world’s shortest club run. Ever.” he said, looking pointedly at the Garrulous Kid.

Bolstered by this relative success, we pressed on.



We took the turn off to the Cheese Farm and hit our first flooded section, an expanse of dirty cold water stretching from verge to verge. Everyone crowded toward the highest point of the roads camber, right down the middle, but the water was bottom bracket deep nonetheless. Even worse for G-Dawg, the Garrulous Kid cut through in front and kicked up a bow wave that engulfed him and blew through his overshoes to soak his feet.

Not that I think anyone fared much better – the water was deep enough to overtop my boots and water started to leak in.

I actually enjoyed the climb of Bell’s Hill as chance to stretch the legs and the increase in pace added a little body heat to proceedings.

The ride progressed for some way in this manner, enjoying the hills when the extra effort created a bit of warmth and dreading the descents where just a few extra kph in speed exponentially and noticeably increased the wind chill.

At one point we passed the spot where G-Dawg was marshalling during the National Time Trials and Geraint Thomas almost came to grief, misjudging the corner, running wide across the verge and barely missing the fence.

As he approached the corner, G-Dawg remembered the DS in the car behind bellowing “Put the power down! power down!” when G-Dawg was thinking more along the lines of “Woah!” and “Slow Down!” Still “G” made it through (barely) and won, perhaps thanks to the risks he took at that very corner.

Citing adverse weather protocols, we petitioned the only official member of the Flat White Club, Taffy Steve, for special dispensation to call a mid-ride coffee( and thawing-out) stop. Permission granted, we then detoured from the official route and plotted a course direct to Kirkley Cycles.

As we approached the Garrulous Kid and Colossus seemed to kick up the pace on the front.

“Is there an intermediate cafe sprint?” I asked G-Dawg. Apparently not, they were just eager to find shelter, but G-Dawg wondered if we shouldn’t programme all the potential cafe stops into Strava and have a sprint for each one.

I don’t know why, but Kirkley Cycles was strangely quiet, with only one other cyclist to be seen, a kid riding around in the yard brandishing a pick axe handle as a makeshift sabre. We wondered if this was the type of implement we too should consider carrying on club runs …


Main topics of conversation at coffee stop #1:

Inside we found that Aether had turned a shocking shade of grey – probably something akin to the deathly pallor Crazy Leg sees in my face after a hill climb. He was a bit wobbly and light-headed, so at G-Dawg’s suggestion, lay out, full length across one the benches, like a corpse in the morgue.

Having felt we’d showed sufficient concern for our ailing comrade, we naturally returned to our endless blather.

Taffy Steve turned to the Colossus.

“You need a Raw flap,” he said.

He was, of course suggesting a simple and sensible extension to the Colossus’ mudguards, but we all sniggered and snorted like naughty schoolboys anyway.

We admired the selection of cycling spares and wares, concluding our other cafe stops could learn a thing or to about catering to their cycling clientele. They had at least one of almost anything you could possibly need – as well as one or two things you definitely wouldn’t.

We wondered if the miniature, but perfectly formed road-bike shaped earrings would appeal to the Colossus’ partner – perhaps as a sop after she discovered an odd charge for raw flaps on their bank statement.

He determined that, if he did buy them, he’d better have a legitimate, desirable and preferably expensive, alternative present to hand across immediately afterwards, or he’d be in big trouble.

At some point other cyclists hustled indoors, out of the cold, followed by some remarkably under-dressed gym goers, who looked someone askance at the stretched-out cadaver formally known as Aether.

And then, the stretched-out cadaver formally known as Aether sat up and slowly began to rise from his slab.

He lurched across to us and dropped heavily into a chair. Colour was slowly returning to his face and he was beginning to look less corpse-like.

“I’ll have a cup of tea,” he announced and stood up abruptly.

The next time I looked, he’d gone.

“Did he just say he was just going outside and may be some time?” I asked.

Luckily, we didn’t have to send out a search party, as our wannabe Captain Oates soon returned and then secured a cup of restorative tea.

We had a laugh at the British trait of treating any malady or ailment with a cup of tea, before deciding if more drastic action was needed. I’ve cut my arm off and the stump won’t stop bleeding. I know, I’ll have a cup of tea and then maybe go to A&E if that doesn’t help, etc.

For a reason I can’t remember, I had a conversation with Taffy Steve where we cast the Garrulous Kid as Steve McQueen’s “Cooler King” from the Great Escape. Perhaps it was something to do with his penchant for riding into fences?

We pictured him slumped on the floor in solitary, repeatedly bouncing a baseball off the floor, the wall and back again. Ba-Bump-Dap … Ba-Bump-Dap … Ba-Bump-Dap…

“You know, of course that he’d never, ever tire of doing it,” Taffy Steve concluded. Ba-Bump-Dap… “No matter how much it annoyed everyone else.”

Ba-Bump-Dap…

“Well,” the Colossus announced, We’d better get going if we’re to make it to the other cafe on time!”

So, off we shuffled, once more into the breach and all that. Although seemingly fully recovered, Aether decided a little caution was called for and set off to return home, while the rest of us pushed on.


As we rejoined the main road, the Colossus applied his brakes, barely slowed and winced at the grating noise of corrosive, grit-embedded brake blocks grinding away his rims. “All that noise and no discernible effect on your speed,” Taffy Steve noted, “Don’t you love it?”

Ah yes, I thought, as the Bard himself might once have said, on a particularly bad February club-run with the Avon Jacobean V.C. – winter braking, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I dropped in beside Taffy Steve and confessed how, perversely, I quite enjoyed these extreme rides in miserable conditions. He mentioned he’d been listening to a podcast about the Great War when the Germans and Turks at Gallipoli began to fear the ANZACS and Tommy’s were mad, because, as conditions got worse and worse, the laughter from the enemy lines just got louder and more frequent. Perhaps what I was experiencing was (at a much more modest scale) something similar, though quite different?

We pushed along for a good while, at one point trailing a low-flying duck that was spoiled for choice and couldn’t seem to decide which newly formed body of water to try next. Finally we reached a junction and paused to discuss various options for extending the ride, before deciding to just head straight for the cafe. Who could blame us?

As we closed on Whalton, G-Dawg revealed that they were contemplating a 20 mph speed-limit through the village, something that would almost certainly kill the long established and much used time-trial route that passes through it. I felt it was ironic that traffic calming measures could have such a profoundly negative effect on cycling.

Approaching the cafe, I dropped back to ride with Taffy Steve, ritually cursing his already thrice-cursed winter bike and taking on the hills at a more refined pace. From here I was well-distanced from the sprint, but close enough to hear the strangled shouts and see the Colossus veer violently across the road and into the opposite lane. Something had gone wrong up front, but disaster had been averted and we all made it to the cafe safely.


Main topics of conversation at coffee stop #2:

The sprint had apparently been rudely disrupted when a flailing Garrulous Kid had ended up swerving violently as he kicked his own frame, causing everyone near by to take immediate and drastic avoiding action.

The Garrulous Kid insisted he was a safe rider and good in a sprint. Taffy Steve suggested this was only because everyone knew his reputation and so always allowed a 2-metre exclusion zone around him, a moving bubble of protection. For our sake, not his.

The Garrulous Kid bit into his Dime bar tray bake and then picked bits of indeterminate material out of his teeth and dropped them on his plate, prodding at them uncertainly with a bony finger.

“There’s plastic in my cake,” he declared.

“I think you’ll find they’re just bits of chilled caramel,” the Colossus offered, “It’s a Dime cake, what do you expect?”

“No, it’s plastic.” He picked up a bit and chewed it experimentally, before dropping it back onto his plate and re-asserting, “Plastic.”

“Are you sure?”

Once again the Garrulous Kid picked up the offending morsel and nibbled away.

“Yep. Plastic.”

“Stop trying to eat it then.”

Oddly though, the Garrulous Kid stopped whining about his cake and had soon devoured it, more or less in its entirety.

G-Dawg suggested if he’d wanted to complain, he couldn’t really take an empty plate, decorated with just one or two half-chewed, spit-covered
(allegedly) plastic crumbs back to the counter and demand a refund or replacement.

The Big Yin told us his son had been on TV quiz show Eggheads and as a true Geordie, received what he described as the equivalent of a gaping open net, when asked to name the Premierships top goalscorer. (For the record, I would have failed miserably).

In turn, G-Dawg recalled a tale about Alan Shearer’s dad taking him to meet local footballing legend, Hughie Gallacher’s son and then telling him, “no matter how good you are, you’ll never be as good as Hughie Gallacher”. This, I celebrated, is as good an example as you could get of the Red Max school of parental encouragement.

Speaking of sporting legends, I related my own favourite tale of the week, reading about the peerless Beryl Burton, doing a 12 hour time-trial and going like a train as she passed the bloke who was on course to set a new men’s record! According to legend she’d slowed just long enough to ask if he might like a liquorice drop, before powering away and disappearing up the road.

We tried to determine if the Garrulous Kid had any topics of conversation outside of football, school/university and a seemingly unhealthy obsession with the Monkey Butler Boy. (Is it unrequited love?)

We were told he liked boxing and he liked rugby, because his dad liked rugby and used to play fly-half and he watches the rugby with his dad – (although obviously not close enough to know a fly-half wears the number 10 shirt.)

He added that he hated badminton though, which I assume is another of his dad’s sports, although it could just have been a product of his butterfly mind flitting gently from subject to subject.

I felt the need to defend badminton, good to play, if less then gripping to watch and to my mind a much better sport than tennis. He seemed surprised I didn’t like tennis and wondered why.

Uh-oh, dangerous. I could have given him chapter and verse about it’s exclusively middle-class strictures, the huge resources of time and money the BBC pours into what is essentially a minority sport, the ridiculous, stuffed shirt, stuck-up nature of the Lawn Tennis Association, the fact that you need up to 11 officials to determine a simple game between two players, those particular fans who have no interest in any sport, even tennis, other than for two weeks of the year, when they slavishly adopt a heightened, jingoistic nationalism, the elevation of the most mediocre of British talent into world-beaters, who after modest and moderate success can have the sinecure of a job, along with a whole raft of other ex-pro’s, sucking at the corporate teat of the (publicly funded) BBC, or the distinct lack of drug-testing (cough# Operación Puerto) … (Oh ok, I’m biased, I’ll admit it.)

Instead, I simply cited the fist shake – the awful, embarrassing, gesture that seems to be the staple of every tennis player, whenever they feel the need to snarl aggressively at their opponent because they’ve managed to pat a ball back over a net. I then picked out certain Mr. Andrew Barron Murray as the worst exemplar of this all to pervasive, inelegant, over-used and inappropriate gesture. In my mind, that’s enough to condemn the entire sport? Hey, I never claimed to be rational, or balanced.

For his part, Taffy Steve wondered how the seemingly brittle and shrill Judy Murray had somehow managed to parlay her sons’ successes into a kind of C-list celebrity. Where, he wondered was Mrs. Brownlee and Mrs. Yates and weren’t they deserving of some attention too?

Normal conversation resumed and the Colossus recalled a university night out, when TV Gladiators, Jet and Wolf, were paid to turn up and bash numerous drunk students with pugil sticks for fun.

As entertaining as that sounded, G-Dawg felt it probably wasn’t quite as good as watching the YouTube video of a 72-year old Buzz Aldrin sucker punching some ridiculous conspiracy-theorist who kept taunting him about the moon landings being a lie.

Then our allotted time ran out and we wrapped up, figuratively and literally and prepared to leave.

We were a little delayed as the Big Yin flipped his frying gloves over on the stove top, trying to ensure they were crisp and well browned on both sides before he pulled them on again.


Then it was out and into the weather. It had stopped raining and the sky was nudging toward brightness, so the only water we had to worry about now were the few flooded sections of road we encountered.

By the time I was dropped at the end of the Mad Mile the sun was actually out and the temperature was starting to creep up. The rest of the day and remainder of my ride would prove quite pleasant and those lucky enough to be out for a ride Sunday would enjoy cold, but bright and dry conditions.

It’s hard to think of a greater contrast from one day to the next, still, you don’t always need good weather to have a good time.


YTD Totals: 1,693 km / 1,052 miles with 22,962 metres of climbing

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Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

#2 Up the Alpe

Alpe d’Huez | Col de Sarenne

Total Distance:                                 58 km / 36 miles with 1,602 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         3 hours 24 minutes

Average Speed:                                17.1 km/h

Group size:                                         6

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:          Hot, hot, hot


LADH
The Ride


I awoke feeling relatively decent after the previous days privations and joined my chalet mates in a breakfast of pain au chocolat and cafe au lait. Very continental. There was then a period of frenzied activity as we unpacked and assembled our bikes. Oddly, I seemed not to have packed my set of allen keys so had to borrow the two different types I needed from Goose. Naturally the errant tools turned up, hiding in plain sight as soon as I opened the box to pack the bike away 3 days later.

There was then a short detour to the supermarket to collect some water, bottles were filled and then we could put off the inevitable no longer. We rode back past the campsite entrance and the Hammer took a flyer and disappeared around the corner. The other five of us followed in a tight knot, at a more sedate pace, freewheeling around the bend to find ourselves straight onto the climb of l’Alpe d’Huez.

There was no preparation, no anticipation, no sense of looking ahead to the mountain louring down from above us, no gentle introduction to warm the legs up. One second the road was flat, the next it was rising, up and up, through the first of the famous 21-hairpin bends and it would continue rising without relief for the next 14 kilometres.

There was a frenzy of clicking from our group as chains were coaxed up cassettes in anticipation of the first hairpin, then my right-hand brake lever hit the stop and could be pushed inwards no more. “Oops,” I complained, “I’m out of gears.”

I rose out of the saddle and pushed my weight through the pedals, cutting in tight around the first corner. I remembered Crazy Legs and Steadfast saying the first few ramps were the steepest, but I’d shred my legs if I had to keep climbing like this. I plonked myself down in the saddle again, flicked the left-hand STI lever and dropped my chain onto the granny ring. It provided instant relief, but there was nowhere else for me to go now and my chain would now stay resolutely as far left as it could possibly go until I reached the very top of the climb and started to descend back down to the village of l’Alpe d’Huez.

I spun up the gear until I found a comfortable cadence and settled in for the long haul. Our group became strung out and I found myself climbing with Captain Black and Steadfast, while all the while the opening lines from the Comsat Angels song Birdman got stuck on repeat and continuously ran through my brain like a mantra: gravity is my enemy … gravity is my enemy


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Once I’d settled into a sustainable rhythm, I started to take more notice of my surroundings. I wish I could say I was paying enough attention to give a detailed account of every bend in the road and every ramp, but all I actually recall are a series of fleeting impressions:

Numbered signs marked each hairpin, counting down from 21 to 1, and each sign carried not only the elevation but the names of one or two previous Alpe d’Huez winners, but the signs were disappointingly small and nondescript. They seemed to be not exactly a grand statement and fitting homage to extraordinary sporting feats, but more of an afterthought and they were very much an anti-climax. I noticed maybe half of them and most of these were too small and too far away for me to read, let alone absorb.

Given that in most instances there was a massive, blank cliff face framing the signs, I felt they could have made a much greater statement – a grand gesture if you like.

If they’ve done a poor job of showcasing the history of the climb, you’d have to say that the French engineers have done a remarkable job of actually constructing the road.  As you exit every hairpin pedalling suddenly eases and you get a tiny kick of speed, as if you’ve hit a sudden downhill section, even though the route still winds resolutely upwards. How do they do that?


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The road itself was surprisingly smooth and well-maintained – a nice contrast to the climb to the Col de Sarenne that we would complete later in the day, which was rough, gravel strewn and almost as lumpy as anything in the wilds of Northumbria.

The surface of l’Alpe was liberally daubed with paint, names and inspirational messages, but the majority of these seemed to be celebrating your every day, Joe the Cyclist, rather than elite professionals. Not that I have any kind of problem with that – everyone tackling this beast needs all the encouragement they can get. I missed the “May the Force be with you” sign splashed across the tarmac and being English and incredibly immature, I couldn’t help feel that a massive cock and balls was the only thing missing and would have been the perfect piece de resistance.

The climb is almost all south facing and the exposed sections were baking hot. We found ourselves hugging the cliff face and trying to spend as much time in its shade as possible. An occasional stream frothed and gurgled down from the slopes above, before diving into a culvert to pass under the road, and whenever we rode past these there was a welcome draught of chill, damp air to provide instantaneous, but too brief cooling.

We overhauled a few riders and one or two passed us, but this was all done in extreme slow motion as no one was moving at great speed relative to anyone else. You’d start catching a rider up ahead and have them in your sights for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before you caught their back wheeled and dragged yourself around them, and then they hang there for an age until, inch by inch you’d slowly leave them behind.


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At hairpin 7, named for Gianni Bugno (1990) the air was heavy with the resinous scent from a small copse of mountain pine, while at hairpin 6, also named for Gianni Bugno, (but this time his 1991 win) it stank of noxious burning clutch or brakes, left trailing in the wake of a car that disagreed with the descent.

In the valley, we’d noticed a group of well-drilled, colour co-ordinated, club riders, maybe Dutch or German all in matching blue kit, except for one rider bedecked in the glorious yellow of the maillot jaune.  We passed him about halfway up the climb, sitting on the wall by the side of the road next to his “team van” and apparently having abandoned. I couldn’t help thinking that if you’re going to wear the yellow jersey, you should really put on a better show than that. We then caught and passed this erstwhile leaders team, strung out in a long line and evidently struggling in the heat, most of the had taken their helmets off and they swung loosely from the handlebars as the riders plugged away, ever upwards.

At one point, we passed a photographer and I managed to give him a big cheesy grin and very cheery wave which Captain Black instantly dubbed my swan moment – where I looked to be calm and serene, gliding across the surface of the water, but underneath my legs were thrashing at twenty to the dozen and my heartbeat was off the scale.  I actually felt quite comfortable and was still riding within myself as we pressed on.


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Toward the top the road straightened with two last, massive zig-zagging dogs legs before disappearing around the corner into the village of L’Alpe d’Huez. The Captain applied a bit more pressure to the pedals and he slowly and inexorably pulled away from me, rounded the bend and was lost from sight.

A bit further on and I could feel the backs of my thighs tightening up and the first indications of cramp, so I dropped back the pace a little as I pushed into the village. The place was mobbed, with bikes and cyclists everywhere and I slowed even further and spent a few anxious moments scanning the crowds to see if I could find the Hammer or Captain Black already safely ensconced in one of the café’s and sinking a celebratory grand biere.

I had to circumnavigate a massive Pyrenean Mountain Dog that wandered aimlessly into the road and as I straightened saw an underpass in front of me and recalled that the official Tour de France finish wasn’t in the village centre, but a bit further up the mountain.

I’d already passed a sort of official finish line set up outside one of the cafés and I wondered how many riders it had duped into quitting within reach of the true end of the climb?

I ducked through the underpass I vaguely recalled from those frenetic last few hundred metres of Tours stages and kept on climbing, choosing roads more or less at random and uncertain if I was on the right route or not. The road finally looped around a group of chalets and headed back down the mountain, so I cut through a massive empty car park and followed it down.

I was just picking up speed when, rather fortuitously, I passed Crazy Legs, working his way up the other side of the road, so I stopped, swung round and started climbing after him.  In this way I was finally able to find everyone else clustered around the official finish sign, which I’d unwittingly managed to sail past once already.

I stopped and very slowly and very stiffly somehow managed to clamber off the bike. The backs of my thighs felt as taut as piano strings and hurt like hell. I hobbled down to where everyone was clustered around the finish sign and Crazy Legs co-opted a French Raphalite from Annecy into taking a photo for us.


top alpe


I had to squeeze onto the end of the line, pushed off the kerb and into the road and giving everyone else a distinct height advantage. Crazy Legs found this highly amusing and he hoped a bit of forced perspective meant I would look like a hobbit in the commemorative picture.

There was then only time for Goose to engage in a bit of unseemly, dry-humping with the road (he pretended it was for a bad back) and we descended to the village for a hard-earned cup of coffee and to discuss what to do next.

Strava would later reveal it had taken me 1 hour 14 minutes and 37 seconds to climb the Alpe, apparently good enough for the 1,355th best time so far this year. That doesn’t sound too bad to me – anyway I’ve no intention of going back to try and improve it.

I’d also learned some valuable lessons and in particular that during over-long, sustained efforts like this I needed to occasionally stand out of the saddle, not so much to make climbing any easier, but just to change position and spread the workload and blood flow around different muscles.

We dropped back down into the village centre and took a seat in one of the cafés adjacent to the first finish line I’d noticed on the way up. The café was marked by what seemed to be a damaged, giant inflatable cyclist in the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey. There was obviously a leak in one of the arms and every time the generator cycled, the figures hand popped in and out with a loud crack. Maybe it was just me, but this sounded like the most sarcastic, slow hand-clap of all time, waiting to greet each new rider as they reached the village.

We quickly placed our order – a coke for Steadfast, cafe au lait for Crazy Legs and the Hammer and Americano’s for Captain Black, Goose and me. It was here that the Goose started to reveal his deep grasp of the French language and the nuances of foreign cuisine.

“There’s no milk in my coffee.” Goose complained.

“Didn’t you order an Americano?” Crazy Legs queried.

“Yes, but there’s no milk in it.”

“If you wanted milk, you should have asked for a cafe au lait.” Crazy Legs explained patiently.

“No, I wanted an Americano,” Goose countered, “With milk.”

“Olé, Olé” he started shouting, like a drunken Spanish bull-fighter with Tourette’s, until finally the waitress took pity on him and brought out some milk, rolling her eyes at the mad Englishmen in her midst. (I suspected she’d seen it all before.)

Finally able to relax, we discussed next moves and agreed by a vote of 5 to 1 to press on to the Col de Sarenne, rather than descend straight back down the Alpe.

On leaving the café, Crazy Legs had a chat with an English rider hoping he’d reached the end of the climb and horribly disappointed to learn he still had to work his way through the underpass and further uphill to reach the official Tour de France finish. We’re not sure if he pressed on or not, he certainly didn’t seem very enthusiastic.

There was then only time for Goose to engage in some more, dramatic dry-humping with the road, top up our bottles from the public drinking fountain and wince at the tacky podium set up for “epic” photo opportunities and we were on our way. We picked our way out of the village, past the heliport and giant stationery ski lift stations and then out onto the road to the Col de Sarenne.

The top of the Col de Sarenne lies about 9km beyond l’Alpe D’Huez and involved more climbing, but nothing worse than we’d previously encountered. There was a long, fast descent in the middle and then a lengthy drag up to the summit, our highest point of the day, at just under 2,000 metres.

The road itself feels very remote and is narrow, twisty and broken up in places, with loose gravel strewn across the corners and adorned with lots of “Yates You Can” messages splashed across its surface. The mountainside would occasionally fall dramatically away from the edge, engendering what my eldest daughter refers to as a “shaky bottom” moment, but luckily it was much quieter than the Alpe and we were able to keep well to the left and away from the vertiginous drops. We encountered only one or two other riders and no cars that I can recall.

Once at the top of the Col de Sarenne there is a huge technical switchback descent down to the barrage at Lac du Chambon at the foot of Les Deux Alpes. Crazy Legs took off down the descent like a bat out of hell and I followed, rather more cautiously and circumspectly with the rest strung out behind. The descent was good fun and not too technical and while it occasionally looked like the corners were gravel strewn, the surface was fissured but actually largely intact.

We regrouped at the bottom and endured an anxious wait for the Hammer. He finally appeared after a few moments, having had the rear of his hire bike step out from under him, forcing him to back off until he became accustomed to its handling characteristics.

We tied to find somewhere for lunch in Mizoën, but everywhere seemed closed to so we pushed on to the lake at the bottom of the hill. Here we had an enforced stop as Crazy Legs punctured and we had to change the tyre in the broiling sun, with no shade to be found anywhere. Investigation of the tyre revealed no damage, despite the long gash in the tube, so we suspected the heat generated by braking had caused it to blow. Luckily the tube had lasted until we were on the wider, straighter and better surfaced roads.

We decided to head straight back to the campsite without further stops to try and find ravitaillement, a fairly fast trip involving a bit of tunnel-surfing and duelling with lumbering cement trucks. We made good time, until Crazy Legs dropped off the back, worried that he didn’t have enough pressure in his tyre and it was in danger of rolling off the rim, possibly as the heat had made it more pliable than usual.

Captain Black dropped back to escort him in, earning himself the accolade of a true gentleman, while we were all branded as bastards for riding on ahead – something we’d only done, I hasten to add, after checking that everything was ok with Crazy Legs and being waved away.

Happy to have survived day one and feeling much better than the previous night, we showered and got changed and wandered into Bourg d’Oisan for some beer and food. Once again in the restaurant, Goose endeared himself to the staff and proved his mastery of the native tongue when smoothly counting out the beer order: “Un-deux-trois … five!” he declared loudly, holding up a hand with all the fingers spread wide to emphasise his order.

This became a bit of a catchphrase that would haunt him for the rest of the trip and we even had it handily translated into different languages, just in case we all decide to embark on another foreign adventure elsewhere:

Uno-dos-tres … five!

Eins-zwei-drei … five!

Uno-due-tre … five!

The quite remarkable Goose then declared that what was needed was a proper book written for beginner cyclists with such helpful tips as don’t wear underpants with your cycling shorts and that you can actually rest your hands on top of the brake hoods and still operate the brakes. This, Crazy Legs suggested had been an absolute revelation to Goose, which he’d only discovered after seeing someone doing it two years after he’d begun cycling seriously!

We then tried to define a cycle of acceptance for rides that went though a host of different phases – shock, disbelief, disorientation, denial, blame, disconnect, fear, anger, confusion, depression, despair, pleading and finally acceptance and hope.

Little did we know we were going to be subjected to each and every one of these emotions on the ride tomorrow.


YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 40,220 metres of climbing