What a great week for cycling fans in the North East, as the travelling circus that makes up the Tour of Britain hit the town. As previously stated, I’m not convinced that Britain has the requisite terrain, or the Tour organisers the required nous, to make compelling stage race in Britain that doesn’t just devolve into a series of hotly contested sprints. This year though, at least they brought the Tour (quite literally) to my doorstep.
On the Monday I had casually wandered out of the office at about half past three and moseyed over to a packed Grey Street in time to catch Dylan Groenewegen zip past, both arms up in the air, as he won a brutish uphill sprint at the end of Stage 3.
I’d found a good viewing spot, against the barriers in the run-off area just past the finish line, which put me in touching distance of all the riders as they were herded into a short decompression zone following their super-fast finish. Here, I found myself literally rubbing shoulders with Mikel Landa, while, in amongst the confused mass of milling riders, I was also able to spot Matteo Trentin, Eddie Dunbar and a blue-jawed, unhappy looking Cav. There really is no other sport in the world where you can get quite so close to its superstars.
I also spotted an AG2R rider who I think was their Lithuanian, points jersey wearer, Gediminas Bagdonas, providing conclusive proof, (should there be any doubt), that brown shorts are a really, really bad sell in terms of achieving harmonious colour coordination.
Even better was to come, as the next day the “Queen Stage” left from the Gateshead Quayside, to loop around the Angel of the North, before climbing up through the Silver Hills, scene of much of my formative cycling years. It then zipped right past my front door, en route to one of my favourite climbs, up Burnmill Bank and through the delightfully-titled village of Snods Edge. [The name is supposedly derived from the term snow’s edge, with the village having sufficient elevation and proximity to the North Pennines to lie right on the snowline. ]
Too good to miss, I took the day off work and endured the hardship of camping out on my sofa, eating biscuits and drinking coffee, while I watched the live feed, and waited for the race to whoosh past.
45 minutes before the stage had even started, spectators started appearing on the streets, bolstered by groups of cheering, chatting school-children. It all seemed a bit premature to me, but I’m pretty certain the schoolkids didn’t mind.
Even Cat#2 got in on the act, finding a good perch on the roof from which to eyeball all the action.
By the time the race came past, Axel Domont and Dylan Van Baarle were off the front and there was a small gap of maybe twenty or thirty seconds, before the rest of the peloton swept by.
4 or 5 minutes later, the rest of the race caravan was past and I could safely cross the road and return to the sofa for the first half of the stage, spent traversing some very familiar roads. Great stuff.
My usual Saturday started a bit different, as I found myself driving across to the meeting point in order to transport a car load of jerseys and shorts for my fellow riders try on for size. Uninspired by the current, unloved club jersey, I’m looking at an alternative and Satini had sent lots of samples to see what would best fit.
This not only lopped a good twenty or so miles off my run, but also gave me an extra hour in bed, so when I rolled up at the meeting point – actually 10 minutes later than usual, despite driving there (go figure) – I was feeling fairly sprightly.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
It was discovered that, according to the directional arrows on his tyre, Jimmy Mac had his on the wrong way. Despite possibly negligible consequences, he took this as a ready made excuse for poor cornering and a general loss of power and actually spent the time to unhitch his wheel and flip it around.
I then spent a good few minutes with Caracol and OGL trying to decipher an ad in on the bus shelter that stated Red, Red, Wine (or Red, Red, Whine, in my estimation) and You Be Forty. It wasn’t until the crowd parted slightly that we realised it was an ad for Spotify, celebrating the 40th Anniversary of UB40 turning Neil Diamond’s song into a reggae dirge.
Buster outlined the planned route for the day and with another big group topping over 30, we aimed for even split, but as I joined the front group it looked like we’d already picked up about two thirds of all the available riders as we set out.
With G-Dawg and TripleD-Bee (a.k.a.Double Dutch Dude) on the front we set a fairly sedate and relaxed pace out toward the village of Stamfordham, where we were going to briefly coalesce before splitting into different routes.
15 mile in and my right knee, still heavily strapped, started to feel hot, but it was pain free, so I assumed this was a consequence of its wrapping, more than a reaction from the injury, so on we went.
The pace was perhaps too relaxed, as we soon had the second group bearing down on us, but we picked things up enough to maintain a workable gap through to the rendezvous.
From Stamfordham, it was a tried and tested route over the Military Road, skirting Whittledene reservoir, before some extended climbing up through the plantations.
Here I found myself sitting on Zardoz’s wheel for a masterclass in how to surf through a bunch, as he slid from wheel to wheel, looking for the path of least resistance and the best way to conserve energy.
We worked our way to Matfen, took a sharp left turn up the hill and then things really started to kick off. Andeven ghosted onto the front alongside TripleD-B and the pace immediately ratcheted up. A gap opened between the front pair and Benedict and I eased into the space to fill it. Then, it seemed like full bore to the quarry, as Andeven accelerated and dragged us out into a single, long line.
It was about all I could do to cling onto TripleD-B’s rear wheel as we continued at an unrelenting pace, touching 50 kph as we swept through the lanes. Just before the turn for the Quarry, TripleD-B slipped off Andeven’s wheel and I dragged myself around him to fill the gap.
We took the sharp, right hand without pause and hammered on, steadily climbing now. I dropped back a little, once more swapping places with TripleD-B. This was really hurting now, it was head down, mouth agape and barely hanging on, and I had no opportunity or inclination to look back, so no idea if anyone was behind and following.
Hitting the final, steep ramp of the Quarry I couldn’t hold the wheel and a massive gap immediately yawned open. I clawed my way up the rest of the climb as best I could, swung left and tried to recover. A very quick glance back seemed to show no one close behind and no chance of any help as I set off in pursuit of TripleD-B, who himself now seemed to have been distanced by Andeven.
I started to pass riders who’d taken a shorter route, OGL, Goose and the Monkey Priest and suspected I’d picked up a couple of followers on my back wheel, but no one came through to take a turn as I slowly, slowly closed the gap to TripleD-B.
Finally I caught him and pushed past, as the road tipped down toward the Snake Bends, I kept the pace high, but had no answer as Goose darted off my wheel and away, followed seconds later by TripleD-B.
As always, hard work, but great fun.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
In the cafe garden, I dropped into the seat opposite TripeD-B.
“How did you find Norway?”
He looked at me blankly, “Norway?”
“Didn’t you recently get a new job, in Norway?” I was convinced that’s what TripleD-L (Double Dutch Distaff) had told me a couple of weeks ago.
“Ah, not Nor-way, she meant Nor-which,” he laughed.
“It’s the English language, the pronunciation, the place names, are just so arbitrary and inconsistent.”
I had visions of him eviscerating our mother tongue, much as he had the Imperial System of weights and measures, before declaring it as a hopelessly retarded language and kicking it, battered and bleeding into a ditch.
Some local place names an their perceived punctuation were discussed, Prudhoe (Prudah, or Prude-ho?), Ponteland (Pon-tee-land or Ponty-land?) and Houghton (Ho-ton, How-ton, or as an Irish work colleague of mine would insist, Hoofton?)
My all-time favourite though, had to be the anecdote of a cricket commentator, who’d been stopped by a tourist with a strong strine accent and asked if he knew the way to Luger-Broogah.
Caracol highlighted some other idiosyncrasies of English, with the had-had example: “James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher.” Which he insisted could be read to make perfect sense.
[If you’re wondering, trying to read it as: “James, while John had had “had“, had had “had had“; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher.”]
After the ride, TripleD-B sent me this statement, just to highlight how absurd and inconsistent some of the rules of English could be: “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”
As incomprehensible as English might have been, we decided nothing was quite as illogical as Movistar team tactics that were once again proudly on display in the Vuelta.
This is, lest we forget, a team that attacks when a rival race leader crashes, earning universal condemnation, only to suddenly stop driving before achieving anything of value – all that pain, for no gain?
It’s a team that will consistently chases down breaks featuring one, or more of their own presumptive leaders, then the next day ask another rider to drop off the front, on a potential stage winning move, to “pace” said presumptive leaders for all of 200 metres up a mountain.
It’s a team that’s just been shorn of three potential GC contenders, yet has brought in no one of quality to replace them. Next year they’ll have to rely an ageing, visibly diminished, 40-year old Valverde and the improving, but still less than imposing, Marc Soler.
Now that’s incomprehensible.
Heading home and, as usual it all kicked off on Berwick Hill, with a sudden acceleration and mass splintering, that this week refused to settle. We were still jumping and chasing each other all the way down the other side, through Dinnington and out around the airport.
I knew that it had been hectic, when even Caracol declared he was done and dropped off the pace. Then I was swinging off with everyone else, just before the Mad Mile as some semblance of order was finally restored. From there we picked our way through the busy traffic to the car park where I’d abandoned the car.
To a passer-by, what followed must have looked like an impromptu drug-deal for performance enhancing substances, or perhaps a refined form of dogging, as a dozen or so cyclists clustered around the car, pulling on, taking off and swapping different jerseys. Still, it seemed to serve its purpose and gave people an idea of what to expect from the Santini kit.
All done, I loaded the bike back into the car and drove home. Checking back, despite the rather benign start, but greatly helped by the shorter distance, lack of solo riding and the removal of the Heinous Hill from my itinerary, I’d managed an astonishing (for me anyway) average speed of over 29km/h across the 85km of my ride.
I think I earned a lie down.
YTD Totals: 5,709 km / 3,547 miles with 74,983 metres of climbing
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.
Total Distance: 111 km / 69 miles with 1,159 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 10 minute
Average Speed: 26.6 km/h
Group size: 31 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Perfect
Saturday morning proved a good bit warmer than Thursday and Friday, when my commutes had been distinctly chilly affairs. Perhaps this was due to the insulating effect of fairly solid cloud cover that gave the early morning light a dimly suffused and milky quality and turned the river a notable flat and evil-looking slate grey. Still it was dry and, apart from a niggling, occasional bit of wind, looked like being a perfect for a ride.
I was pleased to find the bridge across the river still closed to cars, but it’s surely only a matter of time before they finally finish the longstanding repairs and I no longer get sole and unhindered use of its nice, shiny new surface. I’ve no idea what’s causing the delay, it’s been closed since May, but for once I’m happy to celebrate the inefficiency of the great British workforce.
I was first to arrive at the meeting point, just a little ahead of G-Dawg and the Colossus who I spotted approaching on my own run in.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Seeing one of our number wearing the new Holdsworth racing team jersey, OGL was unsurprised to learn it had been on special offer, revealing that he understood the team was going to fold before it had even got really started. If true, then they would join the likes of Aqua Blue and One Pro Cycling as emblems of the parlous state of British professional bike racing.
The complete and utter malfunction in marketing of Aqua Blue was also discussed as a quick, straw-poll of all those gathered revealed that only one of us realised Aqua Blue was actually a website selling cycling gear, similar to Wiggle or Chain Reaction . We variously thought it was a brand of designer water, a type of deodorant … or a make of prophylactic.
The lone person amongst us who recognised that Aqua Blue was, ahem, “the No.1 marketplace for all things pedal powered” was the Colossus and he only knew this because Aqua Blue ads constantly kept appearing on all his social media sites. In fact he said they were so intrusive, so frequent and so annoying, that he vowed never to visit the website out of principle.
Wasps were to become a recurring theme throughout the day and the little beggars provided Crazy Legs with an opportunity to expound on his interesting factoid of the week – apparently figs have to be pollinated by a wasp crawling through a hole, so small and tight that its wings are ripped off in the process. (Think of something akin to a normal sized human trying to squeeze into a medium sized Castelli jersey). The wasp becomes trapped and is then digested by enzymes in its fruit cell – one explanation for the crunchy bits in figs.
Crazy Legs said when someone first told him this, he immediately called bullshit, but a bit of research proved it was true and he challenged us to do our own research if we didn’t believe him. He also reassured us the crunchy bits in figs were just the seeds and not partially digested wasp parts.
I was surprised by the return of cycling heavyweight, Plumose Pappus and wondered when he’d be heading back to university, only to be even more surprised when he told me he’d finished his course, graduated with flying honours and was now looking to do a masters at Newcastle University. Has it really been 3 years? Have I been writing this drivel for that long? The horror…
Our leader for the week Aether outlined the route, including a late amendment which would have us using Broadway West as a route out of the city, ostensibly a measure to avoid the heavily potholed route through the Dinnington Badlands. Any other reasons for these last minute route change went unremarked and were, we felt, covered by plausible deniability.
With our numbers again bolstered by a large contingent of Grogs, we split into two groups and, seeing the balance of numbers lay with the second group, I tagged on to the back of the first one, as we pushed off, clipped in and rode out.
Yet again, we made it through Broadway West without incident. Benedict drifted to the back to ride alongside me and we passed the time chatting about commuting, cycling holidays, club runs and the like.
Today seemed to be National Cyclist Abuse Day, we had a number of drivers celebrating our very presence on their roads by serenading us sweetly with their horns – including one passing in the opposite direction at high speed, who barely had time to register his disapproval, let alone be in any way discomfited by our group.
Even the bikers wanted in on the act today though, with a particularly friendly specimen using sign language to query if we perhaps belonged to the lost tribe of Onan?
After the Monkey Butler Boy swept away to meet up with his hormonally charged Wrecking Crew, we shuffled around a bit and, once again, I dropped to the back where I was soon joined by the King of the Grogs, who’d bridged across from the second group and reported that they weren’t all that far behind.
Amongst other things, we had a brief chat about the clubs (complete lack of) succession planning for when OGL hangs up his wheels and retires, or, simply cannot summon the will to ride above the Augustus Windsock speeds that frustrate everyone else.
As we hit Whalton, he dropped back to wait for the second group, while I pushed on with the original members of the first group until we reached Dyke Neuk.
Here we paused to regroup, before choosing various shorter/longer, faster/slower options. Having been told the second group had been snapping at our heels only a few miles back, we didn’t expect a long wait, but minutes dragged past with no sign of them.
Finally the bulk of group 2 emerged, clambering up the hill to join us and we learned the King of the Grogs had hit a pothole and punctured at the bottom of the climb. We settled in for a longer than expected wait while repairs were made.
The delay gave the Red Max an opportunity to carefully inspect his rear tyre, revealing it was on its last legs and had previously been condemned to the turbo. It had been pressed back into service at short notice when the Monkey Butler Boy had decided to “borrow” Max’s Continental Grand Prix tyres to save his own, high-end, super-supple, Vittoria Corsa race tyres from unnecessary wear and tear.
Max then pointed to his front wheel, where the Monkey Butler Boy had also inexplicably swapped out the inner tube for one with a 60mm valve, 95% of which poked out, rudely and ridiculously from the skinny rims.
I couldn’t help thinking this was a case of biter-bit, recalling all the times throughout the winter when the Red Max had manically cackled about replacing one failing component after another with bits “borrowed “ from Mr’s Max’s bike.
“The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I suggested.
Combined, the Red Max and Monkey Butler Boy could probably strip a bike down to the frame, while removing all useful components, faster than Blofeld’s piranha pit could reduce a super-secret agent, or bumbling henchman to a loose collection of bare bones.
Apparently they could be just as lethal as well, with the Red Max stating he’d actually started one ride before he realised the Monkey Butler Boy had decided to ride alloy instead of carbon wheels that day and “borrowed” Max’s brake blocks when he made the switch.
With the puncture finally repaired, there was a brief coalescing before everyone split and I tagged onto the group heading up the hated climb to Rothley Crossroads and points beyond. We became strung out and splintered on the grinding climb and not a little disorganised. At the crossroads, I followed Caracol and Ovis straight across the junction. while behind some decided to wait, some went left and some, who had initially followed us, turned back again.
Caracol hesitated and looked at us quizzically. Ovis gestured we should just press on and I nodded in assent, so the three of us did just that, happy to ride as a small group. We would later learn that others had followed, but we didn’t see them and they never caught up.
Caracol led from the front, forging his way up Middleton Bank and then accelerating hard toward the café. Ovis and I contributed a couple of short turns, but I suspect we were only slowing things down and, after thrashing ourselves breathless we’d just drift back to hang off Caracol’s back wheel again, trying to recover.
Then we hit the rollers and I accelerated up and over the ramps, dragged our group up to the last corner and last climb, before I sat up. Caracol zipped past, Ovis followed a little bit later and a little more laboriously and I trailed the pair into the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
It was just about pleasant enough to sit outside in the garden, where we found ourselves constantly assailed by wasps, especially when Ovis broke the edict and had jam with his toasted teacake.
This was in direct contravention of Standing Order#414 and much to the chagrin of Carlton, who was sitting alongside him, suffering from the same over-attentive wasp activity, while looking ruefully between his own dry teacake and the one laden with gooey, sticky and sweet jam that Ovis was blithely chomping his way through.
Buster downed his cappuccino and declared it was good, much better in fact than the muddy, often tasteless big mugs of coffee we usually indulge in. This, we decided, was a classic case of quantity over quality. Not only was the cappuccino too small, effete and more costly, but crucially it didn’t come with the “free” refill. I could only quote that quantity has a quality all of its own, an aphorism I always associate with Napoleon, but has been variously attributed to Stalin, von Clauswitz and others.
After the wasp-fig bombshell from earlier this morning, Buster took up the cudgels on behalf of our vespidae friends (fiends?) He suggested that they were an essential part of the ecosystem, contributing massively toward insect pest control and that without them there’d be a massive increase in the use of pesticides.
He explained he knew so much about them because he participated in a study where members of the public were tasked with building wasp traps, collecting the contents, freezing all the little wasp corpses and them posting them off to the Royal Entomological Society for counting and identification.
This sounded like a Blue Peter appeal from some nightmarish alternate reality, with kids encouraged to make traps (out of beer bottles and baited with beer no less) and then collect dead animals. Still, probably easier and more worthwhile than collecting milk bottle tops.
We wondered why the wasps had to be frozen before posting, reasoning that they would thaw out in transit – unless, Caracol suggested, they were transported in one of those organ donor ice boxes. I could also see issues with people mistaking their collected wasp corpses for frozen mince and cooking a chilli with far more kick than intended.
Meanwhile, on an adjacent table, I could hear Crazy Legs, no doubt having already wowed his audience with facts about wasps and figs, describing how one of his neighbours had tackled a wasp nest with a Dyson…
We finally decided to retreat and leave the wasps in temporary charge of the garden, swiftly packing up to head home.
Conducting a quick headcount, G-Dawg wondered where everyone had gone. Someone pointed out the Grogs were predictably missing, having slipped away to do their own thing, while I could account for a few more who’d left early, setting out in one and two’s as they needed to get back home by a certain time.
“Oh,” I added, And Plumose Pappus was abducted by wasps. They picked him up and just flew away.” Somewhat surprisingly, everyone seemed to accept my explanation as at least plausible, if not 100% accurate.
I’m not so sure they believed my next assertion, that the wasps were going to make him their God-Emperor and the Chief Overseer of the wasp factory, responsible for making all the new wasps to replace the ones we’d killed today.
On the return I dropped in alongside Crazy Legs and we decided the Vuelta had become the Tour of Redemption for both the French, through Bouhanni and Gallopin and for previously hapless and winless, under-performing teams like EF Education First–Drapac, AG2R La Mondiale and Dimension Data.
While reminiscing about now dissolved retailer Toys R Us, Crazy Legs recalled a girlfriend who was convinced there name was actually pronounced Toysaurus. I guess either version is still better than Aqua Blue.
We’d made it almost to the top of Berwick Hill, when I declared, “Hey, no cars this week! Naturally, scant seconds later a car barrelled around the corner and we dived to the side of the lane so it could squeeze past. Me and my big mouth.
There was only time for G-Dawg to hope that if anyone did happen to have an accident on Broadway West, they would have the decency to drag their broken body and bike into a side street before calling for help, then I was swinging away and starting to pick my way back home.
A very brief shower peppered me as I crested the top of the Heinous Hill and disappeared as quickly as it came. Then I was back, done and dusted, home and hosed, or however else you want to describe it.
YTD Totals: 5,182 km / 3,219 miles with 63,722 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 114 km / 71 miles with 1,237 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 20 minute
Average Speed: 26.3 km/h
Group size: 19 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Hot and cold
Some blog posts flow easily and just seem to write themselves. I don’t quite understand how or why, but this was one of them and consequently way ahead of schedule, even by my incredibly lax standards.
The run across to the meeting point this week was wholly uneventful and unsurpassingly dull, both physically and metaphorically. It was all carried out under grey and cloudy skies and the ever-present threat of a shower.
I did notice the wind picking up as I slipped back down the other side of the river and began to clamber up and out of the valley, but for the time being it was more a cooling help, than a hindrance.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
At the meeting point, the Garrulous Kid proclaimed complete mental and physical exhaustion, having been away all week at some kind of school camp in the darkest wilds of Pickering, North Yorkshire. Here he had been thoroughly dissolute and debauched, staying up until after 10pm almost every night – and even drinking a beer.
He said it had been a terrible ordeal, buried in a deep, dark, valley where a thready and intermittent, phone signal could only occasionally be found and even then you had to venture out beyond the chicken coop. As a consequence, he’d felt strangely dislocated, cut off from the real world and removed from all important news.
I wondered what he felt he had particularly missed out on, the spreading canker of unconscionable, Trump venality? The tangled, Gordian knot of the infinite-seeming Brexit negotiations? The growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen? Perhaps, the delicately balanced and fraught elections in Zimbabwe?
Nope, his actual concern seemed to be that Demi Lovato had apparently OD’d and he’d not known about it for 2 whole days …
He then began telling us something about Chris Hemsworth.
“Who?” I enquired, looking at G-Dawg for help, but he seemed equally as unenlightened.
“The actor who played for,” the Garrulous Kid offered.
“The actor who played for what?”
“No, no, the actor who played For. Tee-Haitch-Oh-Arr, as in For: Ragnarok,”the Garrulous Kid persisted.
“Oh. Sorry, no idea…”
(I was going to complain about his use of “haitch” instead of “aitch” but practical experience slapped me hard in the face and I realised it would be a hiding to nothing.)
Apparently, the people who ran the school camp had given the Garrulous Kid a brand new nickname, to go along with the 13 or so bestowed upon him by this here, humble blerg and his cycling companions.
Rather worryingly, he didn’t like this new one, either…
Crazy Legs has found watching the ITV coverage of the Toady France a bit of an ordeal, principally because of the constant, ire-inducing, Watchfinders sponsorship: corporate strapline (hah!) “There’s always someone stupid enough to squander a princely sum so they can have a big, ugly, garish and gaudy lump of bling strapped to their wrist, even when it’s not new.”
His complaint was not only with the ad showing someone changing a front wheel while committing the cardinal sin of laying the bike upside down, but why someone who could obviously afford a super-nice bike, along with a big, ugly, garish and gaudy lump of bling strapped to their wrist, should have to ride so painfully slowly.
Perhaps the watch is so heavy it weighs them down, or maybe it’s so expensive they daren’t ride any faster in case they fall off and smash it to smithereens? Or, perhaps they ride slowly so people can see the watch and admire their exquisite, understated style and exemplary taste?
Finishing his mini-rant, our planner and ride leader for the day, Crazy Legs, outlined the route and decided that, with a relatively compact 19 riders, we would roll out as one.
Somewhere along the way we’d be picking up the Colossus, but Richard of Flanders declared he was only out for the first hour, so numbers seemed manageable.
Apparently though, we were still a major and inconvenient impediment to rightful and righteous road-users and, while skirting the airport, we had to suffer a punishment pass from an arse-hat in a horn-blaring, black Range-Rover, sweeping by inches from my elbow as he overtook us around a blind bend. Dick.
One of our guys was wearing shoe covers and revealed he’d checked the BBC hour-by-hour forecast and, for each hour for the rest of the day, there was a 40-60% chance of rain. By his reckoning this was as good as a guarantee that, sooner or later, we were in for a right soaking.
Still suffering from a long-term, persistent chest-infection, Crazy Legs sounded like a consumptive raddled with tuberculosis, hacking away before spectacularly ejecting a bolus of vivid green mucous that would hit the road with a wet splat, like a fully-loaded pizza dropped face down from a great height.
After we’d swapped out the Colossus for Richard of Flanders, Crazy Legs set about organising an autobus for any riders not at 100%, finding the pace too high, or wanting a shorter, more relaxed run to the café. After a bit of horse-trading and negotiation, this groupetto formed at the back of our group and then they eased to allow smooth separation.
With reduced numbers, we pushed on, until force of habit had us swinging right at Matfen for our usual run to the Quarry. We were called back by G-Dawg, as this wasn’t today’s official route and everyone bar the Garrulous Kid turned around to get back to the plan. The Garrulous Kid wandered away for one of his solo romps that always make G-Dawg wonder why he bothers riding with us in the first place. The rest of us re-grouped and pressed on.
Pushing on the front alongside G-Dawg, we took the newly re-laid, back road up the village of Ryal. It seems to have lost most of the loose chippings from its surface, not that it mattered anyway, as Taffy Steve and his unique combination of frame geometry and sticky tyres were absent today and our passage was wholly without incident.
From the village we regathered, before pitching down the Ryals, hitting speeds over 65kph. Planning ahead, G-Dawg had swapped out his deep section carbon rims especially for this descent as, on at least two, previous occasions he’s battled terrifying speed wobbles, tearing down this road.
At the bottom, we swung first right for the sharp clamber up through Hallington and one of my favourite sections of road. As we reached the junction at the other end, we were peppered with a stinging, sudden shower and rain jackets were quickly pulled out and deployed.
At this point, we lost two more, as Rab Dee set off for home and Andeven went for a longer ride.
Ten minutes later and hot from yet more climbing, the sun broke out and jackets were quickly discarded again. We reportedly had it much better than our other group, as although separated by just a few odd miles, they were caught in a sustained hailstorm, while we only got a bit damp around the edges.
Swinging right just before Capheaton, we followed the dogleg route to the short, steep and painful Brandywell Bank climb, which spat us out onto the road down to the Snake Bends.
The speed ratcheted up and we were dragged from two abreast into one single file, riding hell-for-leather down the white lines in the middle of the road to try and avoid all the pots and cracks in the tarmac, which seem to be multiplying on a weekly basis.
I hung grimly onto the back of this compact, ultra-fast group, as Caracol, Rainman and the Colossus tried to outdo each other in a flat out sprint. Then we were sitting up and easing through the bends and onto the main road.
G-Dawg, hit the front and drove the pace up a notch and then I followed, before ceding to Caracol and then, G-Dawg again, as we closed rapidly on café and a much deserved break for coffee and cake.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
It was black bin bags all round, to sit on at the café as we were rather water-logged and, as I mentioned to the Colossus, each a couple of pounds heavier than when we set out.
G-Dawg revealed that, despite changing his wheels, he still had a heart-stopping speed wobble on the descent of the Ryals, so his deep-section, carbon rims weren’t the cause.
He’s now at a loss to explain the reason and not sure how to fix it, other than changing a few things and constantly hurling himself downhill to see if it makes a difference. As this would involve deliberately trying to induce a speed wobble, I can understand his reticence to investigate further.
The Colossus showed us video from up the coast of the impressive thunderstorms that had washed over us during the night. G-Dawg reported these had been so intense, the pre-season game between Sunderland and Middlesbrough – (I almost made the mistake of calling it a “friendly”) – had been abandoned, for fear of lightning strikes.
“Sunderland can’t really afford to lose any players,” G-Dawg concluded.
“Sunderland can’t really afford to lose any fans, either,” I suggested and G-Dawg wearily agreed.
Talk turned to more edifying sporting spectacles, in particular the Toady France, where I found unlikely sources of sympathy for two of the pelotons more maligned riders. Carlton suggested he was close to tears, when he realised Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome wasn’t going to win for a fifth time, while the Rainman was rooting for “Old Stoneface” Quintana, well, if a certain big Dutchman wasn’t going to take the title.
Caracol seemed most impressed with Primoz Roglic, but was worried that, sooner or later, he was going to do that ski-jump landing celebration on the podium, one foot forward, arms flung wide, and smack both podium girls in the face at once.
Personally, I don’t think anyone is ever going to top Sondre Hols Enger’s podium dance as a celebration…
… and, no matter how dangerous Roglic’s manouver, anything has to be an improvement on Nibali wiggling his fingers on top of his helmet in an extremely cheesy approximation of a shark fin.
Someone mentioned the women’s team kit with flesh coloured panels that made them look as if they were half-naked. The Rainman thought there was a new male variant, based apparently on a lime coloured mankini … and I sensed possibilities for a new club jersey…
Everyone had their own version of the worst jersey ever, Castorama dungarees got a mention, along with Carrera fake-denim, though somewhat surprisingly no one mentioned the brown shorts of AG2R.
Carlton disliked the super-bright, super-colourful Mapei kit, but conversely this was one of G-Dawg’s favourites and a serious contender for his next jersey purchase.
As we were tidying up as a prelude to leaving, the Garrulous Kid swung by and informed us he’d met up with the Crazy Leg’s grupetto just before the café, but had ridden right past them. We expressed some disapproval that he hadn’t lent his efforts to helping them out, but he insisted Crazy Legs himself had told him to ride on.
The Colossus nodded in understanding, then proceeded to give what we felt was probably a highly accurate re-enactment of what Crazy Legs had actually said, while shooing the Garrulous Kid up the road.
“Oh, go away … No, further … Further … Further still. Look, keep riding until you can’t hear my voice…”
We continued gathering our things, plonking wet helmets onto heads and squeezing fingers into sodden gloves. Quite unpleasant.
I started collecting the black bags to hand in. “Hey, “ the Colossus called, “You know you could almost use those to put rubbish in, as well.”
Good shout, I should probably mention that to the staff next time…
Outside and for the first time in about six or seven weeks, it actually felt cold, we were shivering and impatient to get away to warm up. We now found the wind had strengthened considerably and it was a real struggle on the front. It wasn’t all bad though, having blown up from the south and torn the clouds apart, so at least we had some bright and warm patches too.
Crazy Legs and Caracol drove us up and over Berwick Hill, before G-Dawg and Andeven took over, battling head on into the wind as we worked our way around the perimeter of the airport. Crowds lined either side of the road, perhaps drawn there, I thought, to witness the edifying, unequal battle of man against the elements.
But no, they were actually there for some plane spotting, as the airport was being used as a staging post for the Sunderland Airshow.
I was painfully reminded of this by the sustained, ear-shattering shriek of military jet engines, which someone said belonged to the Red Arrows, screaming down the nearby runway to take off in formation. I’ve no reason to doubt them, but I looked all around the sky and totally failed to spot any of the tell-tale, bright red, BAE Hawk’s, or anything else for that matter.
With G-Dawg visibly flagging in his unequal battle with the wind, Crazy Legs and Caracol took over on the front again and drove us down to the Mad Mile. There, I hung on the wheels until the last minute, before swinging away at the roundabout and turning right past the rugby ground.
I was soon battling solo with the wind and then, a few turns later, trying to climb uphill with it blasting full force into my face. Finally, cresting the valley and dropping down toward the river, I found even here I had to pedal to keep my momentum up and it was hard work.
Out onto the bridge and all the signs and barriers were blown flat, laid low by the gusting wind. I clung to the guardrail to let a MTB’er ease past. He could take the expediency of just riding over all the mesh fence panels, fallen road signs and plastic barriers, trusting to his fat, tractor tyres to negotiate the obstacles safely, while I hung back to give myself space to pick my way carefully through all the windblown debris.
“Bit blowy!” he confirmed, riding smartly past. I wasn’t about to disagree.
There was just one final obstacle to overcome, a clamber up the Heinous Hill into the unrelenting headwind. Not the best way to end a ride, but we made it, finally.
YTD Totals: 4,530 km / 2,814 miles with 56,420 metres of climbing