I was expecting a dry day, for a final run out on the white bike before packing it up for hibernation and that’s what I got. Well eventually. As it was the first hour of my ride was spent in light drizzly rain that wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but I would have happily missed. Still, the rain did clear and temperatures topped out at credibly perky and comfortable 19℃, not bad for September in North East England.
At the meeting point, Crazy Legs was enthused by Newcastle’s 1-1 draw with Leeds United the previous night, playing in what he described as a hugely entertaining game that could as easily have ended with 10 goals apiece.
“That’s what you get with two teams that don’t know how to defend,” G-Dawg suggested, perhaps speaking with the hard fought wisdom of a Sunderland fan. Still, despite not being able to score and a complete inability to defend, somehow Crazy Legs seems remarkably optimistic about The Toon’s chances of avoiding relegation (which seems to be the lofty pinnacle of achievement they’ve set themselves.)
Meanwhile, confusion reigned over an Agnes Obel concert at the Whitley Bay Playhouse, which Sneaky Pete and I have tickets for. Originally scheduled for 4th April 2020, but postponed because of COVID, I’d followed the announcements on the Playhouse website and had told Sneaky Pete last week that it was now going to take place this Thursday, 16th September 2021. He’d not been around for the revised date, so had gifted his tickets to his daughter to attend in his absence. Then, last Tuesday I’d checked the rather confused website to find the concert has now been moved to September 2022! Meanwhile, Sneaky Pete’s daughter had undergone some pre-concert investigation, decided she quite likes Miss Obel’s music and is keeping his ticket, thank you very much.
Hopefully it’ll be worth the wait and my yellowed, ageing and sun-bleached ticket will actually be legible enough to use some 27 months later.
OGL arrived inexplicably layered up for winter in bib-tights, a long-sleeve base layer over a winter jersey and topped with a gilet. I know the forecasts have been a little awry of late, but this was taking it to extremes and everyone else was more than comfortable in short-sleeved jerseys and shorts. We wondered if he’d received one of those dire predictions of impending doom that regularly emanate from his contacts, all of whom seemed to be based somewhere just inside the Arctic Circle.
At least he wouldn’t be riding with us, so could take things at his own pace and hopefully not overheat, as with the Beaumont Trophy and Curlew Cup running next weekend, he’d tasked himself with riding to the top of the Ryals to see if the white prime line was still visible at the top of the slope.
Aether had designated a route that was deliberately less hilly than previous weeks, reasoning everyone deserved a rest from climbing after their travails following the Tour of Britain, or our rash incursion south of the river. It was a nice idea, but I still ended up with over a thousand metres of climbing – the curse of living atop a very big hill.
We had enough for three groups, but after the first bunch got clear, everyone seemed to coalesce into one big clump and stayed that way until just before Stamfordham, when I was tasked with Brassneck to accelerate off the front and force a split. Which I have to say I quite enjoyed.
All the while, as we rode along, the pair of us we entertained ourselves with listing all the bands and artists we could think of that made up a less than inspiring North East music scene, a paltry and anaemic collection in comparison to say Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Glasgow.
Our list ranged from the grudgingly obvious, “ok, but no thanks” picks such as Sting and Mark Knopfler, through to up and coming hopefuls, like The Pale White, and on to the wilfully obscure, Lanterns on the Lake and Punishment of Luxury. (PuniLux anyone? No, thought not.) Like famous Cumbrians though, there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about, even though we were convinced we were missing someone completely obvious.
Still, this kept us distracted until we reached Ryal village, were we met OGL heading the other way to check his white lines were (still) as pure as the driven snow. Bay-bee.
From there we regrouped and headed for the Quarry and alongside Brassneck we finally relinquished our lead on the front. I was slotted in behind Captain Black as we began the climb of the steepest part of the Quarry, changed down a couple of gears and was just powering up the legs when my chain seized suddenly and I performed an involuntary “front wheelie” – a stoppie or endo in motorcycling terminology.
Having the tarmac riush toward your face gives you a bit of a turn, so I immediately stopped pedalling, my rear wheel thumped back down to the ground and I climbed off. I spun the pedals by hand and everything worked perfectly. That was an odd, but I couldn’t find the cause and no damage seemed to have been done, so I remounted and finished the climb.
For our final run to the café, Liam, our Chinese rock star, hit the front and started to wind things up, so I plonked myself on his back wheel, happy to sit there as long as I could. This proved to be only until he came into one corner much too hot, swinging wide and engaging in a bit of verge-surfing and grass-cutting that robbed him of all momentum.
Luckily Big Dunc, Brassneck and Captain Black surged through and I was able to drop in behind them without the need to spend too long on the front in the wind.
At the café we joined the back of a long queue, which moved with glacial slowness, so it took us half an hour to get served, eating into our opportunities to sit around and talk utter bolleaux.
When it was finally his turn to be served, Captain Black went for the mint Aero tray bake and was rewarded with what he was told was the biggest slice available. Aether and Brassneck followed suit and even close up inspection couldn’t discern any size advantage for Captain Black. Was this just a a sop to those getting disgruntled after waiting so long to be served, or some sort of clever marketing ploy? If the latter, they really need to speed up the service as we were desperate for any distraction as we waited and carefully comparing the relative size of slices of cake proved mildly engaging at this point.
We hadn’t been sat down for long when the multi-layered OGL turned up, looking slightly hot and bothered, either because of the warm sun that had decided to make an unexpected appearance, or because he’d discovered his white line had faded. Or maybe both.
He declared he was off home to get some fresh white paint and I think it was pure coincidence that immediately after he departed Brassneck started asking around to see if anyone had any black paint, or even paint stripper on them …
We took the slightly longer route home via Saltwick Hill and I swung off for home at the end of the Mad Mile, pedalling along and mulling over earlier conversations. Hold on. The Tygers on Pan Tang! Absolutely not a genre I’m familiar with, so I can’t tell you if they’re any good at all (although I have my suspicions.) Nevertheless worth a mention as not only a North East band, having formed in Whitley Bay, but one with a name that’s almost as stupid as Toad the Wet Sprocket.
Let’s see what other obscurities Brassneck can come up with – he’s got at least two weeks to think about it as I’m working next weekend so no club run for me.
I can’t say I’m at all happy with the Tour of Britain organisers, after excelling themselves by channelling the 2019 edition right past my front door, they decided to spoil things for 2021 with a route that wouldn’t come any closer than 1.7 miles of home. That’s 2.7 kilometres to those not using retard units. What on earth were they thinking?
Clubmates had all sorts of plans for taking in the event, ranging from travelling to the Grand Depart, in Carlisle, to cycling out to meet the race somewhere along it’s sinuous and very lumpy 2,000 kilometres and accompanying 3,000 metres of vertical gain (ulp!) A fun day off, although anticipation and plans were somewhat tempered by poor weather forecasts.
Crazy Legs, our reporter on the ground at the Grand Depart in Carlisle cast Cav and Alaphillipe as a couple of naughty schoolboys amongst the serious and sober adults, while anyone who travelled further out than me were likely to have witnessed the unlikely sight of the Tour de France’s most successful sprinter showing off his climbing chops and leading an early breakaway over some serious hills.
I’d picked out two potential viewing spots for myself, Busty Bank, leading from Rowlands Gill up to Burnopfield, 1.5 km at an average of 9%, or Pennyfine Road, skirting Burdon Moor to the top of Haggs Lane, 1.2km at only 5%, but with long, straight and wide open views. The latter was closest, so that’s what I went for, tracking the race progress on TV before skittering out to watch it go past.
TripleD-El and Triple D-Be had already reported Cav’s break had been caught from where they were stationed on Busty Bank. Minutes later, when the race arrived where I was, a small, select group including Julian Alaphillipe, Wout Van Aert, Dan Martin, and Ethan Hayter were being led by impressive Spanish youngster Carlos Rodríguez and trying to claw back an attack by Mike Woods.
The rest of the field were smashed to pieces and scattered all over the road behind and it must have been a hard stage as I’ve never seen professional cyclists grimacing quite so much on (for them) such relatively benign slopes. Rolling down the bank toward home, I bumped into TripleD-El and Triple D-Be and stopped for a chat as we waited for the remnants of the peloton to roll through, almost 30 minutes behind the leaders.
As usual. it was great to get up close to the action, especially given the stellar field using the Tour of Britain as preparation for the World Championships.
The next day I had planned the long demanded, long delayed (Lazy. Indolent. Remember?) journey south of the river and into the dread lands of Mordor. With my original route covering 125km and close to 2,000 metres of climbing including some steep gradients, I planned an early 8am start, just to make sure I got everyone back home before dusk, come what may. Unimpressed with the thought of getting up at 6am to cycle across to the meeting point, I decided to drive, figuring this would save my legs a well as some time.
The excesses of the day before on the Tour of Britain route knocked out a hatful of contenders for the ride and when Cowboys cried off sick there were just 4 of us plucky, but trepidatious hobbits willing to take on this particular unexpected journey. I met Crazy Legs and Brassneck at the meeting point, with plans to pick up the Ticker en route, at The Sign of the Prancing Pony (I think that’s what he said) somewhere in Wylam.
Our early departure meant we could say hi-and-bye to the Judean People’s Front, also leaving early for their own mini-epic. They we heading north, we were heading south and apparently the Prof was taking a group west. It only needed G-Dawg to take our regular Saturday ride east and we’d have all the cardinal points covered.
Crazy Legs had blackmailed the much-cossetted Ribble out into last weeks rain with whispered promises of a new cassette and had made good on his promises with the cleanest, shiniest set of cogs I’ve ever seen. Sadly though, it just made his chain look tired and dirty. He also hadn’t tested it extensively, but that was fine, as I guessed we’d very quickly know if he couldn’t select the full range of climbing gears.
So away we went, bolstered by the first earworm of the day courtesy of Mr. Iggy Pop as, according to Crazy Legs, we started to ride through the city’s backsides. I knew on the very first climb I was having a jour sans, the legs felt heavy and tired, but I reasoned that was fine as everyone would wait for me if I was too slow – one of the perks of being the designated ride leader on roads nobody else knows.
We seemed to have caught a break with the weather which was pleasantly warm and dry, although a fairly strong wind kept things a couple of notches below ideal and might be a problem once we were out into the exposed North Pennines.
Our trio were soon dropping down toward Wylam and our rendezvous with the Ticker. He wasn’t there when we arrived, so Crazy Legs went off in search of a shop while I waited with Brassneck. Moments later the Ticker arrived, but the minutes crawled past and Crazy Legs failed to return.
“What shop did he say he was going to?” Brassneck enquired.
“Fenwick’s,” the Ticker shot back, quickly, naming the venerable department store in Newcastle city centre some 15 miles distant.
While we waited, our attention wandered to a small park across the road where a man was walking a small dog.
“Hold on,” the Ticker exclaimed, “Is’nt that Rudy Giuliani?”
“It looks like Giuliani,” the Ticker insisted, “And walks like Giuliani …”
We peered across the road. You know, maybe he was right.
It did look like Giuliani and certainly the posture and the walk resembled that of the ex-mayor of New York City and ex-President’s lawyer. I mean there was no dye dripping down this fellers face, but then again it was a bit too chill for that and, we concluded, what better place to hide from a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit, professional disbarment and general ridicule than a small village in the Tyne Valley? Crazier, more unbelievable things have happened. Well, at least according to Mr. Giuliani and his ilk.
Crazy Legs finally returned from breaking what was perhaps the only card payment system in the entire village and we left Rudy with his cover intact to follow the river out to the bridge at Bywell where we crossed to the south side of the river, Crazy Legs crossing himself, muttering a prayer to the heavens and taking one last gulp of good northern air across with him.
From the top we dropped down a little just to get a good run at the climb to Whittonstall and I had to tell the Ticker to keep pedalling as the noise of his Hope freewheel was scaring the sheep. The climb to Whittonstall reminds me of the Ryals (but without the dip in the middle) the approach road is wide open and draggy and, like the Ryals, you can see it coming from miles away. It hurts about as much too.
From there we had the respite of a nice long descent down to Ebchester, crossing over the River Derwent and heading almost due south until Shotley Bridge, where we crossed back over the river and started the climb of Burnmill Bank.
Half way up the climb, just before the small cluster of houses making up Snod’s Edge, Brassneck recognised the football pitch somewhat incongruously carved into the side of the hill in the middle of nowhere, remembering years back when his work team used to play a rival firm there every week.
Further on, having topped the climb and taken in a long descent down toward the reservoir, we passed Muggleswick and Crazy Legs recalled how his gran had been in service at Muggleswick Hall. She only had half a day off work a week, so every Sunday afternoon she’d walk the 6 or so miles that was either up hill or down, along the route we’d just covered, to Shotley Bridge. There she caught a train to take her to Newcastle and home, where she stayed until leaving to catch the last train back to Shotley Bridge, then retracing her steps, 6 miles up and down hill, often in the dark and in whatever weather was thrown at her.
Much different times and, as Crazy Legs confirmed, his gran had truly been as hard as nails.
To complete the set, the route also stirred some deep-seated recollections in the Ticker too, but these were not quite of the rosy-eyed nostalgia variety. His recall was of the “twattin’ climb out of Blanchland” that we were going to be taking.
The road past the reservoir was as busy as I’ve ever known it and we had to single out until we reached Edmunbuyers as a constant stream of traffic squeezed past. Then, somewhat eerily, the traffic just disappeared. In the village we were almost lured into The Baa which, according to its website, “might be the smallest pub in the world, but probably isn’t.” Nevertheless it looked very welcoming, yet we somehow we managed to resist the temptation and pressed on, rattling over the cattle grid to pass out on the wiley, windy moors.
This was going to be our longest climb of the day and on exposed roads along the side of Harehope Hill, just over 5.3 kilometres and with the wind constantly pushing us backwards. This meant that the Ticker could only freewheel intermittently and it wasn’t enough to scare off the sheep who would crowd unconcerned onto the road to watch the idiots grunt and gurn their way past. Well, it was their domain after all.
The Ticker and Brassneck pushed on ahead, while I rode with Crazy Legs as long as I could, before slipping out of the shelter of his back wheel to find a pace I was more comfortable with. We regrouped at the turn off toward Blanchland, climbing to our highest point of of the day before our descent into the village.
Refreshments were taking at the White Monk Tearoom, bacon sandwiches and coffees all round (we like to keep it simple) and we took up residence in the garden along with our bikes, joining a gang of bikers, looking uncomfortably warm and sweaty in their thick leathers.
Unfortunately they left quite soon after we arrived. Before that they seemed to have been doing sterling job of attracting the local wasps, but once they’d gone the pesky blighters decided to harass us instead. Coffee and sarnies were good, if maybe a little too exotically priced for the frugal cyclist at a tenner a head. (I recall G-Dawg observing that cyclists don’t seem to mind dropping £8-£10 grand on a bike, but are super-sensitive when it comes to the spare change they have to cough up for their coffee and cake.)
We manged to escape without annoying the wasps too much and after Crazy Legs managed to recover from an insane and unexpected fit of giggles. Then it was back onto the bikes to take on the “twattin’ climb out of Blanchland.”
Crazy Legs complained his current earworm of “Super Trooper” wasn’t really cutting it, but he soon found it could have been a lot worse, as having visited the toilets in the tearoom, the Ticker had been subjected to the Dr. Hook Classic, “When You’re in Love With A Beautiful Woman” and now had that uncomfortably lodged in his brain. I think I dodged a bullet as my own musical accompaniment to the bathroom was Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” I could live with that.
I snuck onto the granny ring on the triple to tackle to 20%+ inclines on Park Bank and managed to spin up plonked firmly on the saddle and without too much effort then, banking off of the northeast winds, we were heading home and all the major climbing was behind us.
We made it back to Whittonstall and enjoyed a short, unspectacular descent that seemed to bear little resemblance to its long, steep and grinding ascent. A swift downhill run to the river placed us back in Stocksfield and we were soon traversing the bridge over the Tyne and celebrating our return to civilisation.
As we approached the end of the bridge we passed another cyclist heading the other way and greeted him warmly, only to be rebuffed by a growling admonition, “Keep to yer lane!” Perhaps it was the trepidation of riding south of the river that made him so tetchy? Maybe we should have told him it wasn’t as bad as people made out?
From there we decided to head to Wylam and climb out of the valley there, rather than taking in the final climb of Hospital Lane up from Newburn. Near the top I was caught and passed by a swift moving white blur that turned out to be Spry, who’d been following the route, but had probably started two or more hours after us.
The Ticker left us at this point to track his own way home, while the rest of us took on the final, relatively flat final 10km back to where we started. We survived and everyone seemed to enjoy the ride, so I’m guessing we’ll be doing it again next year, once the weather starts to pick up.
118km/73 miles with 1,550m of climbing
5 hours 4 minutes
4 plucky but trepidatious hobbits, with a brief cameo from Legolas
So, the week before last I had yet another birthday, which is a bit strange since it’s only seems a year or so since the previous one. Anyway, belated thanks to all those who sent through best wishes and that I was too lazy and indolent to reply to. It’ll have to do.
I know they say age is just a number, but does it have to be such a big one? To counteract this I’ve decided to only count my age in prime numbers and so, by my careful calculation this was my 17th birthday.
Being (as already mentioned) lazy and indolent, and easily distracted too, I never got around to writing up our ride from two weeks ago, so bits of that will probably stray into this particular blerg post, maybe by way of little random cameo’s, but probably in a more organised, chronological fashion as that’s easier to write (and you know. Lazy. Indolent.)
This more elastic, elongated view has made me realise that for the past month and a half our weather has been a remarkably consistent, Russian-roulette coin-flip, offering up just two variations. Randomly flip heads and you get dry, overcast, very occasionally sunny. Flip tails though and you get wet, overcast and frequently delugional. I know, I know, no such word exists. Until now. (Although Mr. Google has just told me Delugional is a font “representing the typeface of a lost civilisation.” Huh?)
So, with our bipolar weather we have experienced, or perhaps endured:
31st July (Droond Rats) = Tails. Cold and miserable with non-stop rain to accompany a miserable grind up the Ryals.
7th August (Venga! Venga! Venga!) = Heads. Ideal weather for taking an unplanned, unexpected adventure (aka getting lost.)
14th August (Hokey Cokey) = Heads. So pleasant it had us talking about tan lines and swapping arm warmers for bare arms willy-nilly.
21st August (Put on the Red Light) = Tails. Wet, wet, wet. The heavens wept. Maybe it was appropriate.
28th August (last week) = Tails. You guessed. Wetness and plenty of it.
4th September (this week) = Heads. No sun, but warm and just one light shower to dampen or ardour.
This list also serves to show just how shit an August we’ve had. What’s even more remarkable is that for every single one of those days the BBC Weather app has given us a copy-and-paste forecast: Overcast they said. Light winds they said. Small chance of light showers they said. All lies. On not one of those days has the weather remotely matched the forecast. Even a broken clock is right with greater frequency.
So, 28th August, (the ride with no name) saw me pulling my rain jacket on and off and on again, until we left the meeting point when it was firmly on and staying in place. It was warm enough, but as wet as an otter’s pocket. Or as wet as an eagle I guess, if you happen to be a Peep Show aficionado.
I travelled out in the third group, which, despite constant carping about the pace from OGL (or maybe because of it) was travelling so fast we had the second group in our sights by the time we passed the Cheese Farm and were closing rapidly. We would have caught them too, had not the curse of Buster’s leaky bladder struck at the top of Bell’s Hill, forcing us into an impromptu pee stop. He’s like a dog with a lampost fixation now, goodness knows what he’ll be like when he’s racked up 17 or more prime numbers in age.
We then had a false start, forced to stop and pull our bikes up onto the grass verge to allow the passage of a giant combine harvester that took up all of the lane and more. Then, a few metres further up the road we were forced repeat the process, this time making way for a tractor transporting the combine’s header unit which took up even more space and was definitely not something you want to tangle with.
It was beginning to look a lot like harvest-time and there was a good chance we’d have close encounters with tractors and combines all day, although I’m certain at that point we didn’t realise just how close.
Our route took us through the outskirts of Morpeth to Netherwitton and up the Trench. Buster chased Young Dinger up the climb at a remarkably furious pace, while the rest of us followed much more sedately. We paused at the top long enough to regroup.
“Aha,” I said, noticing Buster’s new ‘Band of Climbers’ socks, “Did you’re new socks inspire you to ride so furiously up the Trench?”
“No, I was just desperate for another pee,” Buster confessed.
Passing through Belsay and on to Ogle, G-Dawg then ended up playing chicken with an approaching tractor when the driver decided he had the right of way across both lanes and was intent on using the full width of the road, no matter what. He obviously felt no need to slow down while passing other vulnerable road-users either and even gave G-Dawg a sharp horn-blast in reprimand for refusing to cede the metre wide ribbon of tarmac he’d left us which, horror of horrors, made him have to plant his left wheel on the opposite verge.
It was touch and go, but we made the café at Kirkley without any of us being harvested. There, over coffee and cake, I had a good chat with Zardoz about veteran, octogenarian (and more) cyclists. You know the kind, they’re instantly recognisable: rake thin, barely able to stand straight from prolonged crouching over the bars, their stooped shoulders and odd gait giving them the appearance of some awkward, arthritic wading-bird. That is of course until they swing their leg over a bike and take flight, becoming instantly transformed into a tidy figure of grace, speed and power.
Zardoz regularly meets up to ride with his old crew from back home who are all like this and he was happy to confirm their competitive spirit remains undimmed. This gives me the hope that I’ll be able to make my 23rd (prime number) birthday still forlornly chasing people up hills and revelling in the knockabout absurdity of the café sprint.
It had been a thoroughly enjoyable, pleasant and innocuous sort of ride, where not a lot had happened, either good or bad and everything was chilled and relaxed as we left the café and made the turn onto the narrow lane toward Berwick Hill. Crazy Legs was rolling on the front, the pace deliberately low while we waited for everyone to catch up and he was all for keeping it pegged there as we ambled homeward.
Then, the Nutter appeared, just to remind us how quickly things can turn ugly and how injury or worse lurks around every corner. I was up near the front as we crossed over the river Pont and started to climb, when there was a muffled thud from behind and some incoherent shouting that then transformed into vociferous swearing. The Nutter, on a life and death mission to who knows where and taking a rat-run away from major roads, had decided he wasn’t going to wait behind a group of cyclists clogging up the narrow lane and had tried to squeeze by where there was no room to pass, bringing down one of our number, in what Crazy Legs would later contend was a deliberate act.
He’d then stopped, just long enough to get out of his vehicle, shout and swear some more and accuse the rider of attacking his car, (“He tried to smash my wing mirror off with his face, officer!”) as a prelude to refusing to give any personal details and fleeing the scene of the accident.
Our rider picked himself up, bloodied but thankfully unbroken and, Johnny Hoogerland-style, insisted he was good to press on. So we did, ending what had been a good ride up to that point in somewhat subdued fashion.
So onto another week and another run, with luck one that managed to avoid kamikaze tractor drivers and homicidal motorists. This time we were repeating one of Jimmy Mac’s new routes, crossing over to the south of the river and taking in a scrabble up our hill climb course, Prospect Hill just outside Corbridge. As an added attraction, this included a stop at a new café, the Bywell Coffee Barn. Others had done the same route while I’d been away on holiday and it had been well received and lauded, but not nearly as much as the new café was. The Bywell Coffee Barn had instantly become a favourite – even after just one visit. Hopefully it would live up to the hype.
Our Johnny H. wannabe failed to show, suggesting either bike or rider were more damaged in last weeks Nutter-incident than suspected at the time – although hopefully there’s a more innocent and much less sinister explanation. As a substitute though, the day marked the re-emergence of Dave from Cumbria, last seen ignoring our shouted instructions and ploughing on, straight-past the turn-off at the top of the Trench to disappear up the road. He’d either managed to find his own way home and been avoiding us in a fit of pique since then, or he’d spent the last few weeks circumnavigating the entire globe to return to the spot where he started.
Again our numbers were pushing 30 as we split up and rolled out and I joined the second group. I took a turn at the front alongside Cowboys as we passed through Darras Hall, catching and passing OGL who we’d left behind at the meeting point, but who had obviously taken a short-cut up Broadway. (Yes, the very same Broadway he’d previously refused to ride along and declared an absolute death trap.)
OGL was accompanied by just one solitary rider, who I recognised from other runs, but don’t think I’ve ever spoken to. “Did you see the look on his face?” Crazy Legs would later cackle. “His eyes were already haunted and silently pleading for us to take him away with us.”
I stayed on the front after we’d stopped to don rain jackets in the face of a sudden shower, and I was still there as we started to descend into the Tyne Valley. There my bottle took advantage of the crappy, lumpy road surface to bolt from its cage, performing a graceful double Salchow and twist as it somersaulted and bounced freely away.
I pulled to a stop and luckily Brassneck trailing behind me proved a true gent and retrieved the errant bottle, skidding to a stop just in front of me to hand it back while grinning about how ineffectual his rim brakes are in the wet.
We pushed on to Bywell Bridge were we stopped and G-Dawg asked if anyone wanted to go straight to the café. Luckily it had stopped raining by now, so there was no excuse to alter our route and we all declined. Crazy Legs then got into a conversation about mistaking Not Anthony for Cowboys, while the Big Yin looked on bemused.
“But are you not Anthony?” he asked Cowboys, with furrowed brow.
“Well, he’s not Not Anthony,” Crazy Legs confirmed. The Big Yin looked none the wiser, as we quickly clipped in and pressed on.
We cut through Corbridge, crossed the river and made our way to Prospect Hill, where it was every man for himself as we tackled the infamous 9 hairpins that made up our annual hill climb course. I’ve never ridden the climb at anything other than eyepoppin’ heartstoppin’ legshreddin’ heavysleddin’ bloodboilin’ stomachroilin’ musclestrainin’ bodypainin’ stillcoughin’ lungfrothin’ race-pace, so it was interesting to try it without worrying about “setting a time.” It was still bloody horrible though, especially the first section so churned up and rutted it looked as if a giant hand had crumpled up the road in disgust and then thought better of it and tried to smooth it back into place again.
“I can’t believe we actually try to race up here,” I gasped as I winched myself past G-Dawg who was trying to hide the shame of being caught using his inner ring.
At the top I was commended by Crazy Legs for steadfast fellowship as he recalled the conversation we’d had after his last attempt at the hill climb. “Your my friend,” he’d implored me, “Don’t ever let me do that again.” So far so good, but the way he was talking about specifically training for the event, perhaps the memory of the pain is starting to fade?
We took in a long loop back down to the valley and I nudged ahead of the rest and caught up with Crazy Legs on the descent. “Careful,” he warned, “There’s a car coming.” I’m not sure how he knew, it was a blind bend and I heard nothing. Maybe he has preternaturally acute hearing, or he’s clairvoyant, or maybe he has one of those special radars that allow motorists to overtake cyclists when approaching a bend, safe in the knowledge nothing is coming the other way? I suggested I started calling him Raedar, which he admitted was at least a step up from a similar nickname he had in his schooldays.
On the valley floor we turned east before crossing the river back to the sanctuary of the north side via Bywell bridge, then it was a straight up toward the new cafe.
“Swash-swash-swash,” I chanted rythmically as I pulled up alongside G-Dawg on the long climb.
“Swash-swash-swash,” his deep-rim carbon wheels replied for him, as he stood up, stomped on the pedals and we settled into the climb, thinking it was was the perfect excuse to reward ourselves with coffee and cake. About three-quarters of the way up the hill we swung left for the delights of the Bywell Coffee Barn and our just reward.
First impressions were it was a really pleasant place, the coffee smelled great, the cake display was mightily impressive and the staff seemed genuinely welcoming. The same however can’t be said for the other customers.
“Are there going to be any more of youse?” a tight-faced, twin-set-and-pearls type demanded pointedly, all the while sucking on an imaginary lemon. It gave me great pleasure to politely inform her there was at least one other group behind us, although this strangely didn’t seem to cheer her any.
They served a damn fine cup of Joe (flat white with a default double-shot of espresso), the cake was good and the service friendly and efficient. Hell, even the receipts were printed on thick, luxurious paper. It was while admiring these that we noticed that both Brassneck and G-Dawg had not only placed identical orders, but they’d both been assigned the same order number 12. Hmm, in a straight up, knockdown fight over a lone bacon sandwich, I wasn’t sure which of them I’d back. Luckily it never came to that as both orders were fulfilled at precisely the same time and we were all able to breather a little more easily.
Bacon sandwiches can be an emotive subject at the best of times, but there seemed to be a consensus around the table that there would be many more vegetarians in the world but, well … bacon.
The outstanding feature of these particular specimens was the large, glistening asparagus spear nestled atop the soft, pink rolls of bacon – a decidedly eclectic garnish and perhaps a little-too refined for a bunch of hairy-arsed bikers? In fact, on a quick list of accompaniments to the perfect bacon sandwich, asparagus surprisingly didn’t feature at all amongst popular runners-up such as egg, mushrooms, tomatoes, sausage, black pudding. It stands to reason then that asparagus had absolutely no chance of toppling the undisputed king of accompaniments: more bacon.
Talk turned a little surreal with discussions about the home-brew fad, that at one point or other seemed to have infected everyone’s parents as they fermented and distilled all sorts of weird grains, berries, fruits and vegetables into largely undrinkable effluvium. Brassneck’s dad took first prize for his attempt at home-brew Malibu. Just. Why?
From home produced effluvium to mass produced, we marvelled at the one-time popularity of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, while Crazy Legs said he knew of a shop renowned for selling every possible type of Lambrini. What? Wait. There are different types of Lambrini? Well, apparently so, according to Wikipedia this “light and fruity perry” has been manufactured (my emphasis) in Liverpool since 1994 and you can enjoy it in original, cherry, peach and strawberry flavours, all the while indulging your desire for the cheapest alcohol in wine measured on a price per unit basis. Yeah, think I’ll pass.
Time to leave and I swear the waiter came out to fondly wave us on our way. We’ll be back, but whether his other customers appreciate that is still a moot point.
We climbed up to the rest of the way to the A69 which has once again returned to 4 thundering lanes of seemingly nose to tail traffic. There’s certain things about the pandemic lockdown I’m actually going to miss. We then spent an age waiting to dart across in ones and twos and then more climbing followed until we could turn off for Whittledene. From there it then it was a straight run through Stamfordham and toward Heddon, where I left the group to travel straight on while they all swung left.
The run for home was good, the route was good, the new café was excellent and no one tried to run us off the roads. That’s a major success in my books.
Saturday marked a full year since friend, clubmate and all-round good guy, Gavin Husband (aka Benedict) collapsed and died on the return leg of one of our club runs. To mark this sombre anniversary, Biden Fecht arranged and publicised a memorial ride that would follow one of Gavin’s favourite routes, before delivering us to Kirkley. Here the café had reserved a section of the field for us to use and Gavin’s widow would be traveling out there to meet us. Biden Fecht had also set up a JustGiving page in Gavin’s memory with the monies being donated to the North East Air Ambulance, as worthy a cause as you can get.
I was a bit uncertain if I’d be able to make the ride, but toward the back end of the week my diary cleared, which is more than can be said for the weather. Saturday morning found me doing a long double take between the weather forecast on my phone, promising relatively pleasant bursts of sunshine interspersed with intermittent showers, and the sky outside, which looked grimly dark and threatening.
Remembering a similar forecast from a few week ago, when “intermittent showers” manifest as continuous, heavy rain, I found myself pulling on my rain jacket and strapping mudguards to the bike before setting off, hoping I was being unnecessarily cautious, but knowing better.
Just before crossing the river I even stopped to take off the jacket, thinking conditions weren’t all that bad and actually looked to be improving. Fat chance. A few miles further and the jacket was back as drizzle gave way to deluge. Then it eased again and I repeated the process of stopping and stowing the jacket, this time getting no more than a few hundred metres before it was called back into service. From that point on the rain would occasionally ease briefly, but never actually relent.
It took a while, but I eventually realised we were being subject to intermittent showers exactly as the forecast had predicted – where I was going wrong was expecting these would be interspersed with dry spells, while what we actually got was intermittent showers with prolonged torrential downpours either side of them.
Still, somehow the dark, miserable weather seemed an appropriate backdrop to such a subdued occasion as we collected together under the dank eaves of the multi-storey car park and watched the rain bouncing off the roads.
Despite the horrible weather we had a reasonable turnout of around 30 or so riders, including a few friends of Gavin I didn’t know and several that I did, but hadn’t seen for a long time. This including many of the rebels, strays and outcast, who found OGL’s leadership style, well … let’s say less than endearing and so had long ago made alternative riding arrangements.
G-Dawg outlined our plans for the ride and aftermath, then handed over to Biden Fecht to brief in the route. Without further preamble we split into 3 fairly sizeable groups and pushed out into the rain.
I found myself in the second group, riding with Arnold and catching up now he’s a refugee of the Ee-Em-Cee club and we no longer even work in the same place either. This catch-up naturally included reference to the time he’d punctured and suffered the indignity of having to beg the lend of a pump. His own had broken the week before, so he’d requested a replacement for his birthday. Unfortunately though, this birthday wasn’t until the following day and his wife was unwilling to bend the rules and let him have his present early.
Later on, I found myself riding and chatting with Cowboys while assessing the relative performance of everyone’s rain jackets as water started invading the arms of mine. Arnold’s seemed stout and effective, but I was especially impressed by a Rapha jacket on some guy on the front as the water was visibly beading and running off without soaking through.
We made it through to Dyke Neuk where we split, half the group following the planned route out to Rothley crossroads, while the rest of us were happy to chop of a corner and pass through Hartburn and Middleton Bank instead. We splintered on the slopes of Middleton Bank, but regrouped over the top and then enjoyed the super-smooth road surface on a fast run through to Belsay.
We passed a solo OGL emerging somewhat furtively from behind a hedge on the lane just outside Ogle.
“Aye, aye,” the Big Yin enquired, “So that’s what you get up to when you’re off on your own.” I chuckled. Others, well others may not have been quite so amused.
Through to the café at Kirkley, and there we were met by the Garrulous Kid, back from university sans velo, which he he’d been unable to cart on the train with all his other stuff. Without a bike to ride, he’d caught the Metro to Ponteland and then walked the rest of the way in an impressive show of dedication.
After wringing out my waterlogged mitts I somehow managed to wrestle my wet jacket off, somewhat surprised to find I was only a bit damp around the edges, but not wholly soaked through, although everything from the waist down was miserably sodden. In posts afterwards, Mini Miss revealed that even her expensive Rapha jacket had finally been breached by the rain, so perhaps staying dry remains just a cyclists pipedream? Aether later concluded our rain jackets were so called not because they were waterproof but simply because they were what we wore when it was raining.
In addition to his own rain jacket, Aether was also sporting a pair of Spatz, knee-length neoprene overshoes, which he said were excellent – or at least had been until he’d made the mistake of putting them through the washing machine. Now they were just good.
Luckily, the café had also reserved the barn for us in case of inclement weather, so we had some shelter from the driving rain that drummed impatient fingers on the roof. I suspect it wasn’t strictly necessary, as the rain seemed to have washed away all their normal Saturday custom, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless.
Gavin’s widow thanked the group for the thoughtfulness of the memorial ride, as well as the “honour guard” of cyclists that had formed outside her home during the funeral, when numbers allowed to attend the actual service had been restricted by COVID.
G-Dawg thanked her in turn for the visit, remarking how everyone seemed to have managed to share their favourite anecdotes about riding with Gavin and he promised we’d do it all again next year. “But,” he joked, “Next time we’ll do it in August, so we can expect better weather!”
People were starting to get chilly and the rain showed no sign of relenting, so we saddled up and skedaddled.
Just after leaving the café we passed our 3rd group, including Princess Fiona, Captain Black and Mini Miss, arriving late after a multiple-puncture outing and looking even more wet and miserable than the rest of us.
I caught up with TripleD-El on the way back. She was already plotting how she could coerce TripleD-Be, newly returned from working abroad, to step up to the mark and clean her bike for her. Personally I couldn’t think of a better welcome for a travel-weary worker.
Then, as we tipped down the other side of Berwick Hill I found myself alongside Cowboys again and nodded toward Aether. I was, I admit, slightly troubled by the glistening appearance of his “wet-look” lycra and latex collection of skin-tight shorts and knee high overshoes. This, I remarked, looked like some strange Bacchanalian fever dream from a sportswear fetish bar. Cowboys wondered if Aether was touting for business, but I just nodded to the dormant tail light under his saddle.
“If he is, he needs to put on the red light,” I suggested and, just like that, I had an earworm to accompany me all the way home, although I have to admit it was definitely more Reggie Hammond in 48-Hours than vintage Gordon Sumner.
So, all in all a good way of remembering and honouring our missing friend, despite less than ideal conditions and with special thanks to G-Dawg and Biden Fecht for making it happen. We even managed to raise close to £1,000 for a good cause, which I think far exceeded expectations.
Another less than stellar summer day, but rain was only a possibility not an eventuality so it would more than do. The roads were quiet on my way across to the meeting point and the river was even quieter too – flat, grey and completely empty, both upstream and down. It looked like the rowers were having a day off or, more likely, were all away at a competition.
At the meeting point numbers slowly built until we were about 30 strong – probably the biggest turn out since all this pandemic malarkey started. It looks like it’s all drawing to a close now (touch wood) so it might even be time to ditch the Plague Diaries prefix?
Early questions were raised over whether we’d ever see our Ecuadorian FNG after a traumatic end to her ride last week. She’d apparently suffered an “irreparable puncture” on leaving the café, somehow managing to completely shred her tyre. G-Dawg and a few others had been on hand to assist and one guy was even carrying a spare tyre, but try as they might even the collected efforts of all those assembled couldn’t seat it on the rim, even after several attempts.
Someone else then provided a patch, which they’d finally fitted, changed the tube, inflated the tyre, reinstalled the wheel, packed up all their kit … then watched in dismay as with a defiant hiss the tyre slowly deflated again. The girl returned to the cafe to see if she could persuade anyone to pick her up, while TripleD-El headed for home to get her car in case no one else was able to help. Luckily rescue was arranged long before TripleD-El made it home. Quite surprisingly and despite these travails, our import all the way from the equator was back for more this week.
Brassneck declared how pleased he was at the return of his good wheelset. One of them had apparently failed him on a previous ride and had been returned to the manufacturer, Hunt Wheels who, from what I could gather had charged him several hundred pounds to have it fixed – or in other words about what I’d pay for a set of brand new wheels.
“So,” I suggested, “They only had to replace the hub, the bearings, the axle, the spokes and the rim then? I’m guessing the rim tape was salvageable.”
Ahlambra suggested the wheel was a bit like Trigger’s broom – famed for its longevity after surviving intact for 20 years during which time it only needed 17 new heads and 14 new handles.
G-Dawg briefed in the route for the day in the absence of the Hammer, who’d planned it out and was going to lead until he’d been “unexpectedly called away.” We were going to be heading mainly west and battering straight into quite a forceful headwind for a lot of the ride. This seemed to confirm an emerging theme. First Buster plans a ride that goes up the hated Ryals and then has to “self-isolate” due to COVID so he can’t accompany us, then Crazy Legs plans a longer than usual ride he suddenly can’t join because his pet pooch is poorly, then the Hammer plans a route directly into a headwind and suddenly he has business elsewhere? If we were a slightly more paranoid bunch we’d probably conclude that they just don’t like us.
We split into three rather unequal groups, but it would have to do. I joined the last group, the remnants of what was left. There were probably about 8 of us at the start, but OGL, the Cow Ranger and Carlton were all planning on splitting off sooner or later, so we’d probably be undermanned at the last.
I started out alongside Carlton and we took our turn on the front as we traced up through Darras Hall and out to Stamfordham, luckily turning away from a route that was being used for a long procession of pot-bellied bikers and their rumbling, grumbling, noise-polluting, filth-spewing “hogs”. From there we routed out to Matfen. After a slight bit of backtracking after missing the turn off for Great Whittington, we were soon turning north and heading toward the village of Ryal, but luckily avoiding its eponymously named climb.
“Where are we now?” our latest FNG wondered.
“Just approaching Ryal,” someone told him.
“Where?” he squeaked.
“Ah, ok. For a minute there I thought you’d said Carlisle!”
Truth be told we had been tracking west, but Carlisle was still a good 50 miles distant.
At around this point we passed our second group who called for a pee stop and I found myself on the very front as we swooped down and then clambered up to the village. At some point on the narrow lanes we found ourselves behind a man jogging while ostensibly supervising the two young kids on wobbly bikes and a hyperactive small dog that trailed him. I say wobbly bikes, but it was probably just the way they were being ridden that gave them the characteristics of a drunken sidewinder with motion sickness.
Every so often the jogger would look back to check on the road and his charges and seeing us approach he tried to corral the pinball-pooch and restrict the kids oscillations to just three-quarters of the width of the tarmac.
We singled out and swung as far to the right of the road as possible, easing our way past a potentially volatile set of obstacles. As we slipped past, the jogger glanced across.
“That,” I acknowledged, “Must be about as much fun as herding cats.”
He didn’t disagree.
I’m not sure he could.
At the top of the climb up to Ryal village I called a halt so we could all regroup and I let G-Dawg’s group take up the vanguard again, much to the dismay of TripleD-El who was concerned about being at the back of the queue when we made the café. This was concerning her so much that she argued for skipping the next bit of the route and heading directly to the café.
She stripped off her arm warmers either in disgust, or because things were warming up and got going again, following in the wake of G-Dawg’s group and still, despite her lobbying, following the proposed route.
From the Quarry it was more or less a standard run back, via Belsay and Ogle to the café at Kirkley, where I lost a fiercely contested café sprint to Not Anthony, but still managed to stow my bike quicker and nip into the queue ahead of him. These things matter.
Luckily fortified by (much deserved) cake and coffee I began fielding questions about new club kit and various demands for matching socks. This one’s a potential Pandora’s box I’m not keen on opening – as colour and design were always going to be contentious enough without introducing the issue of sock length into the equation.
Sock length in cycling is apparently such a complex, hotly contested and personal issue it’s almost up there with the Shimano vs. Campagnolo, disc or rim brake, black or tan tyre walls and which-end-of-the-egg-to-break debates that consume disproportionate amounts of attention. Entire pages of social media are devoted to treatises on “correct sock length” with the governing body, the UCI enforcing a Byzantine rule that “socks used in competition may not rise above the height defined by half the distance between the middle of the lateral malleolus and the middle of the fibula head” and employing entire legions of inspectors and arcane instruments to ensure compliance. These things matter too. Apparently.
It seems that, within our club anyway, one of the issues with sock length wasn’t performance related, but had to do with tan lines. Mini Miss is already convinced the aero sleeve of the new jersey’s are too long and complained that blending in fake tan to match natural colour was becoming increasingly arduous and time consuming. As an extreme solution she even pondered jerseys with sleeves you could zip off and she was a strong advocate for minimal sock lengths.
TripleD-El confirmed that TripleD-Be ensured his cycling shorts, socks and tops were all the exact same length as his civilian clothes to maintain razor-sharp tan-lines all year around. You have to admire such dedication.
TripleD-El had somehow secured a piece of cake the approximate size, shape and density of a house brick. I couldn’t believe she was going to ingest it all, but I should have known better. She was also trying to decide if she could complete the ride with arm warmers on or off, having changed her mind about them half a dozen or more times already.
I suggested she could compromise. “Maybe ride with your left arm in and your right arm out?” I told her.
“Nah, already tried that!”
Meanwhile, the Big Yin admitted to Zwift-doping by seriously underestimating his actual weight, but apparently it’s no big deal as “everyone does it.” (I’m just putting that out there for those fellow-Zwifters he regularly rides with.)
We returned home via Saltwick Hill, which I think might be ideally placed close to the cafe should you ever feel the need to be quickly reunited with any coffee you’ve recently imbibed.
That slight obstacle survived and crossed off, it was a straightforward run for home.
Next week sees us holding a memorial ride for our friend Benedict who sadly died on a club run last year. I’m not sure I’ll make it, but hope the weather is kind, there’s a good turnout and everyone manages to find some enjoyment from such a sombre anniversary.
I was convinced we were going to be subject to a rinse and repeat of last week, with an unfortunate, heavy emphasis on the rinse, but while we saw only the sparsest glimmer of sunshine, it was pleasantly cool rather than chill and the much forecast rain showers never materialised. I would go as far as saying the conditions were about as perfect as they could be without tipping directly into the “good” weather bracket and I even managed a couple of extended periods with my arm warmers tucked away in a back pocket.
Just over 20 of us gathered for the off where a mountain-bike-riding, casually dressed Crazy Legs briefed in the ride he’d carefully planned, but would not be participating in, citing canine care committals. After what must be the now obligatory weekly-whinge from OGL, we split into two groups, G-Dawg leading out the first, while Not Anthony volunteered to lead the second “from the rear.”
I hung back to join up with the second group, which quickly became the first as, within 500 meters of setting out, we passed Caracol and the Cow Ranger furiously working to repair a puncture, while a bit further on the rest of G-Dawg’s group waited for them to rejoin.
I was chatting with La Pinta as we rode out, comparing notes on a running-cycling balance as she’s a runner whose found the joy of cycling, while I’m a cyclist who has discovered a true-hatred of running. After a quick shuffle in the order I then caught up with Spoons, who is counting down the remaining few days until he retires, the lucky beggar.
Another shuffle and I found myself alongside Szell, who’d originally set off in the first group, but had seemingly now infiltrated ours. I wondered what had happened.
“I looked around and realised there were no fat lads,” he explained, “then I looked back and there was only a racing-snake (Spry) lurking behind me, so realised I was completely out of my depth and on a hiding to nothing.” Discretion being the better part of valour, he’d wisely taken the opportunity of the impromptu puncture to swap groups. I couldn’t blame him, it seemed like the sensible thing to do.
I learned he too was contemplating retirement, but at least his release from work wasn’t quite as imminent as Spoons’ as Szell’s business is still recovering from COVID-19 and he needs to establish new premises with an extended lease in order to sell it as a going concern.
We shuffled yet again and I found myself alongside the new gal and I was relieved to find she is nowhere near being able to retire yet. A student from Ecuador, she was back in the UK to pick things up again after having been forced to abandon her studies and return home during the pandemic.
Ecuador adds another notch in our clubs cycling League of Nations, having already hosted in my time, Dutch, Poles, Spaniards, Basques, Nigerians, Chinese, Irish, Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Italians, as well as a wide assortment of Brits including Welsh, Scottish, Somters, Devonians, Geordies, Mackems, Smoggies, Yorkies, Cockneys, Cumbrians, Lancastrians, Brummies and Scousers. Sadly, no Eshingtonian’s yet, though I live in hope.
Along with TripleD-El and Taffy Steve, we tried encouraging the new gal to close up on the wheel in front, but she was distracted by all the shouts; car-up! gravel! pots! hor-sezzs! et al. The problem was she couldn’t understand any of them and so kept easing back, horrified in case she was being castigated for doing something wrong.
She particularly couldn’t understand the “warra-ragga-warra-shugga” Tasmanian Devil-like bellowing that was emitted from the back of our group, until it mercifully it went silent as the tail split off to take a differnt route. TripleD-El reflected that even after many, many months she still couldn’t translate what was being shouted from the rear, while I assured her it was probably best to ignore it anyway.
Yet another shuffle and I found myself on the front with TripleD-El comparing the fortunes of the respective British and Dutch Olympic teams to find we were both satisfied with the performances of our compatriots. TripleD-El was however much less sanguine about the muddy stretch of road we then found ourselves on, complaining that she’d only just cleaned her bike last week and didn’t want to have to do it again for at least another month!
Somewhere along the way we picked up Zardoz, out for a solo ride, but more than happy to tag along for some unexpected company. We went up the Quarry and stopped to regroup and then I was joined on the front by Princess Fiona for the last push up to the café at Capheaton.
I was going to suggest to Zardoz that I’d never seen the café quite as busy, until I realised we were the ones who were making it look busy.
Zardoz then queried if he was right in thinking the Vuelta starts next week and I confirmed that he was. This, prompted Taffy Steve to query if we’d ben watching “The Least Expected Day” – the behind-the-scenes documentary about Movistar that was on Netflix. This, he is convinced, shows that he has all the right qualities to be an excellent pro-cycling Directeur Sportif, or at least as good as the example served up by Eusebio Unzué. In other words, never have a plan, pointedly ignore any rider who asks about a plan, swear a lot when things go badly and, if by some chance things do go well and your rider somehow lucks himself into the lead, simply drive up alongside and holler Venga! Venga! Venga! at them non-stop until they’re caught.
In non-cycling related discussion, Brassneck found we all shared his complete lack of sympathy for the “poor” individuals who’d decided to travel over 5,000 miles for a holiday in Mexico and were now having to spend £8 grand for the privilege of flying immediately back home to avoid quarantine. I mean, what were they thinking? Oh, sorry. Obviously they weren’t …
Damn fine cake and coffee, along with the novelty of free refills kept us at Capheaton perhaps longer than planned, but soon we began to move out and form up into various groups for the ride home.
I found myself riding with Taffy Steve who was wondering if G-Dawg is in danger becoming more of a meme than a person, while he chuckled at the fact we’d stuck two small women, Princess Fiona and Mini Miss on the front, while a whole bunch of burly blokes took shelter on their back wheels. What can I say, we’re an equal opportunities club.
Finally Carlton and Not Anthony took over the lead as we routed toward Saltwick Hill. Once there, I took off to burn a little excess energy on the climb and then pushed the gap out a little more along some of the twisting lanes until, at one junction, I spotted a lone cyclist thrashing around by the side of the road. Assuming he had some sort of mechanical, I dropped down the hill to see if he needed assistance, only to find he’d lost one of his wireless earpieces from his headphones somewhere in the deep vegetation. His phone was telling him it was there or there abouts, but I didn’t rate his chances of actually finding the damn thing. It wasn’t until some miles later that I realised his best chance of recovering his earpiece would have been to crank up the volume of some scuzzy death metal to see if he could locate it by sound. Oh well, too late now, maybe he thought of that anyway?
While I’d been rendering no assistance whatsoever to my fellow cyclist, our group had turned at the junction and shouted down that I was heading the wrong way. After a cursory search for the missing earpiece I left him to his quest, turned around and gave chase to the group. Somewhere along the way I must have taken a wrong turn, or missed the right one and I ended up on the cycle path running alongside the A1. From there I had to extemporise a route back onto more familiar roads, an interesting detour, but slightly too urban for my tatstes. I was still thoroughly enjoying myself though, perfectly happy just to be out, rolling along without getting rained on.
I manged to find my way through Hazelrigg, which eventually spat me out onto our regular route just before the Mad Mile and from there it was plain sailing back home, to complete what was perhaps the longest ride of the year so far.
So, back from holiday, back to a Saturday club run and, yes, back to crap weather and unrelenting rain.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The forecast suggested light, intermittent showers and to be fair, it was fair, well at least to start with. This though lasted only as long as it took me to wrangle my way down into the valley, cross the river and climb up to the meeting point. There, as we sat shooting the breeze and waiting to coagulate into the slow moving clot, the cycling club thrombosis so beloved of motorists, the rain started in earnest and then it didn’t relent for more than a few minutes at a time until I was crossing back over the river and heading home 5 hours later.
While the forecasts got the persistence and volume of rain spectacularly wrong, they were at least right to suggest we were at the mercy of raw weather fronts bearing down on use from out of the Arctic circle and correctly predicted a corresponding drop in temperatures. As a consequence I’d risked going with a thicker, long-sleeved jersey, which I was having second-doubts about on my way over, but which proved a good choice once the chill rain set in and the temperature dipped toward single figures. Others didn’t prove quite so lucky with their clothing gambles.
At the meeting point I caught up with Kermit before he departed for Judean People’s Front Ride. He knew I’d been on holiday up the Northumbrian coast at Guyzance and took great delight in telling me I’d found a place so remarkably unnoteworthy that its only claim to fame was being close to where 10 soldiers drowned while taking part in a military exercise on the River Coquet in 1945. According to Wikipedia, the river was in full flood and their boat was swept over Smeaton’s weir, after which it capsized and the men had all been so weighed down by their gear, they couldn’t escape. An extreme example of poor gear choices leading to unfavourable outcomes?
G-Dawg briefed in the route which would include an ascent of the Ryals and a coffee stop at Capheaton. He then put out a polite appeal for volunteers to undertake the British Cycling accredited marshal scheme, quickly followed up by OGL inviting us all to partake in our very own existential crisis and contemplate how useless we are. This is all beacuse he’s desperately short of marshals and drivers for an event next week that the majority had no idea was actually taking place. We were then roundly berated for not having stepped forward to help as apparently ignorance is no excuse, even when the radio silence from the club hierarchy is deafening.
At some point, mid-diatribe, Richard of Flanders rolled up, saw what was happening, turned tail and furtively scuttled away. Who can blame him?
One last rant about the excessive length of Saturday rides (largely unchanged in my almost decade with the club) and then we were off. I pulled out a rain jacket, zipped it up and left the shelter of the car park to join battle with the elements.
I slotted in alongside Captain Black and we hadn’t gone more than half a mile when he started cursing his Castelli rain jacket, which he said was meant to be at least showerproof, but apparently had all the water repellency properties of kitchen roll, and not even the quilted posh stuff either.
At the first corner we created a squall of wet disk brakes and I warbled along with their discordant song. My own rim brakes were mercifully silent, but lacked the same stopping power.
“Did you see that report on the local news about the increase in trespassing on British Rail train tracks,” I asked Captain Black. He hadn’t. “One of the drivers of an InterCity 125 said that if he pulls the emergency brakes on at top speed, the train’ll come to a halt in about a mile. I think that about matches my stopping distance today.”
Captain Black asked about our holiday, which I told him had been good, despite running into Goose on a remote Northumbria beach. I also mentioned Thing#1 and Thing#2 had especially enjoyed swimming in the frigid North Sea as they’re too young to know any better.
He shuddered inwardly. “It’s not Nice,” he affirmed.
“No. It’s not even nice,” I agreed.
This ride was proving to be both not Nice and not nice as well, but on we pressed under unrelenting rain, until we hit Matfen, where the roads were eerily dry for the briefest of respites. Then, as soon as we left the protective bubble over the village, undoubtedly built by some rural super villain, we were back to our earlier drenching.
Climbing up through Great Whittington we were assailed by a small yapping dog that hovered annoyingly around Cowboys spinnning pedals. I checked, but the general consensus was it would be considered bad form to knowingly run the dog over. Maybe that was just as well because I didn’t notice its potential protector, a massive bull watching us warily from the field opposite. Then again, maybe the bull wasn’t its protector and it might have approved if I removed the yapping irritant from its life.
We soon reached a junction with the A68, or Dere Street as my Strava route map euphemistically names it, a horrid stretch of winding, undulating road with a bad reputation for speeding, inattentive motorists and multiple accidents.
We were only going to be traversing it for 500 metres or so, but were understandably a bit cautious, especially given the wet surface and low visibility conditions and the fact we’d be travelling some distance in the middle of the road in order to take a right-hand turn. We decided to drop down its steep slope in pairs, giving each other plenty of space, like fugitives in a prison break, except we were desperate to be visible, not remain hidden.
This obstacle was negotiated safely and we pressed on to the next one, the climb of the Ryals, always difficult, never remotely pleasant and I swear the surface is getting worse each passing month. It’s especially challenging when slick with rain and on the steeper lower slope my back wheel slipped horribly and I lurched forward rapping my thigh against the end of my handlebars hard enough to tear a hole through my best shorts and leave me with an almost perfectly round bruise. I wobbled, but luckily remained upright and managed to drag my way to the top spinning the lowest gear I could find.
From there we negotiated a route around a rather sodden, but cheerful bunch from the Tyneside Vagabonds, turned up to the Quarry climb, were passed in turn by the Vags, then had to pick our way around them again as they pulled up when one of their number punctured.
The steep bit of the Quarry proved no challenge at all after the warm-up of the Ryals and then, a few more miles and a few more hills later, we found the welcome refuge of the Capheaton café and hustled inside to enjoy temporary sanctuary from the rain and some well earned coffee and cake.
We looked like a sorry bunch of drowned rats, trailing puddles of water behind us. I peeled off my Agu rain jacket, after a couple of hours I’d felt the water start to seep through a little on the sleeves, but I was damp rather than wet. No such luck for Captain Black who determined his Castelli rain jacket had failed so badly it would henceforth be know simply as his Castelli jacket.
Brassneck suggested his jacket had been impermeable to the rain, but he was still uncomfortably moist as the water seemed to have travelled up from his shorts by osmosis. I wondered if the purpose of pads in cycling shorts was just to act like a big sponge and soak up water.
“But at least no one was foaming at the arse this week,” Brassneck concluded.
Perhaps worst affected of all of us was G-Dawg, who’d ventured out clad only in shorts and a short sleeved jersey and felt the chill as soon as we’d stopped riding. He now found the radiators in the hall were on and glued himself to one of them, while TripleD-El commandeered the other one in a futile attempt to dry out some of her gear.
“It’s like a Belgian Spring Classic, but in August.” he noted dryly. (Or, perhaps wetly, depending on your point of view.)
He then declared it would be one of the rides when you step off the bike and straight into the shower.
“Or, just ride straight into the shower,” someone suggested.
“I only ever did that once!” G-Dawg protested, “Eeeh lad, it’s funny how that kind of reputation will stick to you!”
Meanwhile, TripleD-El found a current satellite image of the weather that seemed to show thin ribbons of rain running almost exactly along our route, the implication being that 50 metres either side and we might find dry weather.
We finally manage to peel G-Dawg off the radiator and reluctantly saddled up. Perhaps not surprisingly no one was interested in the slightly longer return home originally planned into the route. Still, things almost bearable once we got going and managed to warm up again and by the time we hit Kirkley the rain had all but passed.
I left the group and struck out on my own toward Ponteland, thinking I’d at least dry out around the edges before I got home, but dreading the state of the bike and the major clean-up job I had ahead of me.
I ended COVID self-isolation with a “celebratory” 10km run on Thursday morning. Probably not the wisest move, but after 10 days of home confinement and little exercise save for a stint on the turbo last Saturday, I felt I needed it.
Just for the record, I still hate running, even though Strava tells me I’ve done it 63 times this year already and racked up close to 350 begrudging kilometres. I’m still waiting for that light-switch moment, that grand epiphany everyone talks about of a “runners high” when the effort transcends being a quick and convenient form of exercise and actually becomes a joy. I’m not convinced it’ll every happen.
It also seems I’m not alone. In a 2020 Why We Run survey, Strava surveyed 25,000 athletes from all over the globe to find out what exactly motivates them and only 8% said they ran because they loved running. Conversely, 50% said they hate it, or merely tolerate it. I’m firmly entrenched in this camp, enduring what Strava dubbed the ‘runner’s paradox’ and even more closely aligned with the 63% of those who said the favourite part of a run was the finish line.
So, onto much, much more enjoyable forms of exercise and self-flagellation, with Saturday shaping up to be an absolute cracker, promising wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures upward of 25℃. About bloody time too!
I was up and out early, enjoying a warm start to the day and pure, unbroken blue skies, arriving at the meeting point ahead of schedule and wandering around the mean streets of Coxlodge for a while to fill in some time. I arrived to wave off the lepers of the Judean People’s Front, heading out to Bellingham. Again. I was surprised to see there were only 3 of them, as I thought the weather would be enticing hordes of cyclists out onto the roads today, but apparently not.
[Apologies to The Leprosy Mission who recently highlighted that leper is a pejorative term whose use has sadly proliferated in the media in connection with COVID-19!]
As the time approached 9:15 there were still only 22 of us gathered and I think we were all a little surprised by how few had ventured out. G-Dawg briefed in the route, which was essentially a tried and tested club run, but in reverse, with just one or two amends due to roadworks and road closures around Ponteland. He then suggested the first group get out and underway, but there was only half a dozen or so pushing off into the road. I hung back a bit, but the numbers weren’t working and we were in danger of having a couple of lop-sided groups, or splintering into three. So, after a moment’s hesitation, I pushed off too and then Aether and a late arriving Plumose Pappus joined to help balance out the numbers.
The pace was fast as I slotted in alongside Spry and we pushed through Dinnington and up Berwick Hill. From there we took over on the front and kept the speed up even as we ground into a surprisingly strong and persistent headwind. Leading, we took the group past Kirkley, through Ogle and out to Belsay, maybe 10-15km at the end of which my legs were heavy and beginning to feel empty and I was looking forward to dropping to the back for shelter and a little bit of recovery.
Except it wasn’t going to happen. As the road started to rise toward Wallridge crossroads, Spry rode off the front, going solo (I’m surprised he’d stayed with us mere mortals so long) and it was like a testosterone bomb had been denoted in the middle of our group. The pace went up exponentially as the front engaged in a forlorn chase and I slipped backwards, left exposed and battering upwards into the the wind, trying to keep the gap manageable. So much for taking a moment to try and recover. Even worse off was Aether who was left so far behind I couldn’t even see him when I turned to look back whenever the road straightened.
I finally ground my way to the top and swung left traversing the rolling terrain as I plugged on alone up to the crossroads, where the group were waiting to reform. I pulled over and unclipped, finally able to get a drink and try and rest up a little while we waited for the estranged Aether.
Foolishly, I thought things would calm down after that, but within 400 metres of restarting Aether was of out the back again and I was hanging on. We turned down the Quarry, the pace relentless and being driven up even on the downhill stretches. We seemed to have become overtaken by some kind of grand dick-swinging contest and looked to be winding up for the café-sprint already, less than half-way around the route.
By the time we hit the T-junction at the bottom of the Quarry road I was detached again, once more grinding alone and uphill into the wind. At the village of Ryal, I took the left hand turn, glad to be out of the wind and finally finding the front of the group pulled over and waiting in the shade of a few sparse trees. Channelling my inner-OGL (well, over a decade listening to him bellyache and complain has to have some benefits eventually) I suggested to them it was utterly pointless waiting for people if they were immediately going to piss off again. My pronouncement raised a few chuckles, but sadly little in the way of introspection. I guess that was probably too much to hope for. I didn’t bother stopping and rode straight through the group and continued down the road.
They caught me and Goose pulled up alongside to suggest the pace was a lot more comfortable now, but finding me uncommunicative, he drifted away again. Dave from Cumbria eventually pushed forward alongside me on the front as we passed through Matfen. Then, a mile or so further down the road I wondered what the hell I was doing working on the front again with everyone sheltering, camped out on on my rear wheel. I deliberately dropped back and slotted in behind Dave from Cumbria, expecting someone else would push forward and take my place on the front, but apparently we weren’t doing that anymore.
So for the next mile or so we rode in this strange formation with the front two riders single file and everyone else stacked up behind. That lasted until we were approaching Fenwick when some poor bloke, out for a bit of quiet, solo training on his TT-bike, had the temerity to try and pass us and immediately found a bunch of ill-mannered Yahoo’s swarming all over his back wheel and trying to prove they were faster than he was.
I doubt I could have held onto the group much longer anyway, but I was completely embarrassed by our antics now, so just sat up and let the gap go out. By the time I’d negotiated on-coming traffic while trying to pass a removal van and then got held up for an interminable amount of time by roadworks just outside Stamfordham, I knew there was no chance of catching the group again, even if I’d wanted to.
Not convinced I knew the planned route I started to plot my own course to the cafe, down Limestone Lane and through Ponteland, hoping to find a way through the road closures G-Dawg had outlined.
I found the joy of being out in such fine and novel weather starting to return and somewhere along the way I passed and saluted Taffy Steve riding carefree and solo in the opposite direction. Just past Dalton, hundreds of crows silently lifted out of the field on my left, looped overhead and settled straight down into the field on my right, while I rode under an arch of their beating black wings, starkly silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Gifted the perfect ear-worm for the rest of my ride courtesy of one Roberta Joan Anderson, I pressed on.
The way around the road closures in Ponteland proved simplicity itself and I was soon turning into the café at Kirkley, surprised yet again at how few cyclists seemed to be out in this damn fine weather. The place was relatively quiet and the queues waiting to be served almost non-existent.
I was delighted to find Zardoz holding court at a table having semi-returned from his broken-collar bone and smashed up ribs. I greeted the old rascal by, well by calling him out as an old rascal. It seemed appropriate.
In conversation with G-Dawg later, Zardoz confirmed his collar bone hadn’t quite healed, but his family found him a pain to live with whenever he missed a ride, so the compromise was to let him out, but only under the careful supervision and strict chaperoning of one of his daughters. A thankless task for her and a great sacrifice, but I’m sure the ends justified the means and it helped restore some form of familial harmony.
Comparing recent wounds and treatments, like hoary old fishermen about to tangle with a Great White, G-Dawg and Zardoz reached the conclusion that they are both past the age when the NHS are going to do anything beyond the bare minimum to help with their recovery – so no plate for Zardoz’s collar bone, or pins for G-Dawg’s broken leg. The message is harsh and clear: we’re no longer worth the effort, fuss and expense.
It was a 2 cans of Coke type of day for Brassneck, a measure of just how hot it was. He downed the first in short order and sitting back contentedly, surveyed the vast array of bike porn on offer around him, a shiny selection of the best and newest bits from the catalogues of Trek, Specialized, Bianchi, Canyon, Cervélo and the like.
I hated to think just how much all these shiny machines were collectively worth, while G-Dawg found great irony in people dropping £4-£5,000 on a bike just so they could ride to a café and complain about the price of coffee and cake.
Our musings were interrupted by a very brief cameo from OGL, apparently missing from the start this morning due to a serious hangover, but now recovered enough to subject us to a quick drive-by bitching.
A few moments after he’d left a contemporary rolled in, took the table next to us and mentioned he’d just past OGL, but had managed to ignore him, before he was ignored. I think he was implying he’d got his retaliation in first.
“I knew it was him,” he added, “I could see the scowl from 400 yards away.”
“And that,” I suggested, “Was when approaching him from behind, too.”
Last to arrive from our starting group was Homeboy who’d been doing some shepherding, looking after an FNG who’d rocked up in trainers, full-length leggings, football shorts and a long-sleeved, micro-fleece. He’d made it to Belsay before seriously over-heating and only recovered after downing several bottles of water. We left them seeking further hydration opportunities and squabbling over who would pay and I joined a small group of Brassneck, Princess Fiona and Spoons, heading home via Berwick Hill. Others were planning a slightly longer route via Saltwick, but I’d already covered more than 50 miles and, fun as it was, my legs were now pretty much shot.
I managed a good chat with Brassneck about American indie-alt band Throwing Muses along the way, before I was left to pick my way home alone. It was 1:30 and possibly the hottest part of the day as I started up the final drag of the Heinous Hill with over 70 miles under my wheels and for the first time it was starting to get uncomfortable. Still, I’ll take that over the cold and rain any day and I’m not going to complain because we all know it isn’t going to last. In fact, I’m off for a family holiday next week, so an end to the good weather is almost guaranteed.
It was the Cyclone sportive this weekend, but there didn’t seem much appetite for a mass-participation event that would allow gasping strangers to breathe all over you, even if it was in the fresh, open air of Northumberland. Too early. Add to that the Scots and Yorkshiremen amongst us have a natural aversion to paying good money to ride the same roads they ride for free every weekend and there were very few up for participating , although G-Dawg was unluckily roped in to help with the organisation on the day.
That left a good number looking for a normal club run, so Aether planned a ride that would, for the most part, avoid the Cyclone route. Meanwhile Taffy Steve and Red Max were offering up their traditional Anti-Cyclone, a chance to ride parts of the course and take advantage of the numerous market stalls and church halls that were preparing enticing spreads to attract in hungry cyclists and lighten their wallets and purses.
I made it across to the meeting point in good order, where I found Taffy Steve rubbing his hands with glee and already contemplating all the coffee and cake he was going to consume on his Anti Cyclone. I figured he was going to end up dangerously hyperglycaemic and so wired on caffeine he probably wouldn’t sleep for a week. And he happily agreed.
We’d gathered under the eaves of the multi-storey car park, ostensibly to be a little more discrete, but perhaps because of the superior acoustics so we could appreciate the full resonance of the Ticker’s ridiculously loud Hunt freewheel as he rolled up. I heard him coasting in from about a 100 metres away and didn’t even have to turn round to know exactly who was approaching.
Moments later, when Buster arrived with a twin, equally ostentatious freehub, again courtesy of Hunt, I wondered if we could somehow tune and synchronise the pair so they would anti-phase and act like noise-cancelling headphones. The Hunt owners were naturally horrified by such a suggestion.
Aether briefed in the ride, which would take us down the Tyne Valley and out to Corbridge, safely removed from the Cyclone route and following a previously suggested ride that we’d had to alter because of roadworks just before the town. There were around 20 of us gathered and we set off with the intention of forming into two groups, but once the Anti-Cyclone riders were taken into account, we all merged into one single, biggish ride instead.
I took to the front with Caracol and off we went, although initially slowed when Spoons dropped his chain and then by roadworks and traffic lights that had us threading through the streets of the Kingston Park housing estate to avoid long queues.
For a change we had decided to take the Twin Farms turn just beyond the rugby stadium, up the long drag past the golf course that features on all my rides home. From there we started heading west, up the climb of Penny Hill and I dropped into second wheel alongside erstwhile FNG, Brassneck.
Regrouping after the climb, we took a left hand turn to head toward the river and, with a shuffling of the pack, I found myself on the front again. “This is going to work out perfectly,” Brassneck decided, “Up this climb and then it’s downhill all the way to the river. It’s the ideal time to be on the front.”
He wasn’t wrong either.
Our relatively easy stint up front completed, we dropped back just before Ovingham and I was still pretty much there, enjoying the view of our entire group in front of me as we swooped into the quiet market town of Corbridge, in my imagination at least, like wild Visigoths storming the streets of Ancient Rome, or a bunch of dirty, despicable bandito’s raiding a poor Mexican pueblo. I swear one or two of the good denizens of this picturesque burgh looked at us with fear as much as curiosity.
My concerns about being lost in the mean one way streets of Corbridge were unfounded, as we sailed in and then almost immediately out again and began to climb out of the valley bottom up Shibdon Hill. It was here I was treated to the remarkable sight of Spoons unclipping and repeatedly smashing his heel into his recalcitrant front mech, like a motorcyclist trying to kick-start his bike. Whatever works, I guess, as I assume he found his inner ring.
I made my way gradually though the group as we climbed and stayed near the front until I followed Caracol down a wrong turn and we were called back by Aether. From front to back in one easy move. As we entered narrow and overgrown lanes I was chatting to Caracol about Cycling Tips’s Secret Pro and his latest column, which suggested Peter Sagan was disliked in the pro ranks as … well, as a selfish arse, who often caused crashes.
Just then a car sped around the corner up ahead, there was an emergency application of brakes, Caracol nudged into my rear wheel and did a slow motion forward roll across the tarmac. I wobbled but stayed upright and felt I’d perhaps done enough for Caracol to label me a selfish arse, who often caused crashes. Sadly, that’s where any similarity between me and Peter Sagan end.
Caracol picked himself up and dusted himself down. There didn’t seem to be any lasting damage and we pressed on. Past the reservoirs and into Stamfordham, I was surprised when ahead of us, James III seemed to suddenly conquer his natural aversion to inclines and burst off the front, opening a sizeable gap and absolutely killing it on the hill … until he managed to ship his chain and ground to a halt just before the summit, cursing as he was forced to resume his more traditional place toward the back.
Through Ogle and I fell in alongside Plumose Pappus to hear about OGL’s absolutely outrageous claim to have invented the stotty, or stottie cake, the Geordie flat disc of bread, traditionally made from left-over dough and baked on the bottom of the oven. I know OGL is old, but he’s not Methuselah. Local chef Terence Laybourne could recall his mother making stotties during the Twenties and Thirties and I suspect they were around a long time before that.
Then, quite out of left field Plumose Pappus, rather startlingly, started to … well … err, rap? This, I’m assured, is not the typical milieu of a whiter-than-white, masters educated, homeboy and I couldn’t quite take him seriously when he referred to leafy, upscale and distinctly “boujie” Jesmond as his ‘hood, but I have to admit his “rap flow” was pretty smooth.
We decided there was probably a niche in the market for a polite, mild mannered, middle-class, English rapper you could take home to meet your parents, although I wasn’t certain there was much gold to mine complaining about a lack of vegan options on menu’s, or rapping about non-dairy milk products, artisan coffee’s, or the late delivery of organic avocadoes to Waitrose.
Perhaps, like a mayfly, Plumose Pappus the Rapper, burned brightly, but briefly, just for that one, single ride and died a glorious death. Well, if we’re lucky, anyway.
At the café I went for a new Cherry and Almond loaf, which proved filling, but dull and even very careful scrutiny by the Ticker failed to reveal any actual cherries. Brassneck went for the delightful sounding Sicilian Lemon cake, which unfortunately was almost as dull. Meanwhile, James III and Captain Black went for the Mint Aero traybake, which not only seemed a better choice, but gave James III the opportunity to crow that he had two balls, while Captain Black only had one.
Luckily, James III’s attention was drawn away by a strange ringtone emanating from where the bikes were parked and he went to investigate, before returning to tell Mini Miss that her “Wahoo was wringing.” At least I think that’s what he said.
Meanwhile we learned that would-be rapper Plumose Pappus came in from work every evening and felt the need to immediately take a little nap. He definitely wasn’t living up to his bad boy image. Perhaps in an attempt to give his napping habit a bit of edge, he admitted his dog often joined him in bed, but I thought, no matter what slant he tried to put on it his “brand” was irrevocably damaged by these revelations.
A sudden rain shower hastened our departure and looked like being prolonged, so I left the group to route through Ponteland, finding myself amongst a trail of Cyclone riders, a few of whom were soaked through, miserable and pleased when I could tell them they only had a few kilometres left to go. Then once again I was retracing our earlier route, turning off opposite the Twin Farms to find my way down to the river and home.
Two days later, in Sur La Jante Towers, Thing#1 is back from university and has brought a little COVID-19 visitor with her. Now I can hear the ghost of Ian Curtis warming up in the background as the whole family embark on an enforced period of isolation. So no leaving the house for 10-days, not even for exercise, no commute’s to work, no running and definitely no club ride for me next weekend.
Just case all the fine weather of the past few weeks was in danger of making us soft, we were served up a real stinker this Saturday, a constant, miserable rain that didn’t so much as pour as drift down all around us soaking through everything. As I looked out the window my plans shifted from no jacket, to light jacket to full on rain jacket. I dug it out and pulled it on as I stepped out of the door and it never left my back until I was home, some six hours later.
I slipped down the Heinous Hill as slowly as I could, trying to minimise the spray being kicked up by my tyres, but nonetheless my socks and shoes were soaked by the time I reached ground zero and turned west with the rain now being driven into my face. This. Was. Unpleasant. Maybe I should have just stayed in bed?
Still, once you’re wet, you’re not likely to get any wetter, so I pressed on to the meeting place and took temporary shelter under the eaves of the multi-storey car park.
There, a fine collection of orange rain jackets slowly coalesced, much to the amusement of Mini Miss, who wondered if we’d all been burning up social media like needy teenage girls, just so we could present a co-ordinated look. We hadn’t. Honest. Meanwhile a vaguely recognised, so not really FNG watched a council workman (also nattily dressed in orange) unlock some kind of footlocker just along from where we were gathering.
“I thought he was getting out the salt to grit the road there,” he observed and I have to admit, it felt like one of those grey winter rides when ice was a distinct possibility. Indeed there was a good smattering of winter bikes out and Both G-Dawg and Crazy Legs had gone back to their fixies for the ride.
Another FNG arrived and peppered Crazy Legs with questions about ride length, timings, group sizes, speeds, return times et al. Crazy Legs told me later that he’d naturally wanted to know what level of experience we were dealing with here, so asked the obvious question, “have you ridden in a group before?”
“Extensively,” the FNG had shot back. Oooooh! Extensively!
OGL arrived for the predictable, regular and splenetic vituperation around slights real or imagined. I don’t know which because I’d switched off and wasn’t listening anymore. Then we split into two groups of about a dozen riders each and away we merrily went.
I found myself alongside James III, each taking turns to moan about the horrible weather. He admitted he’d left the house, prevaricated, turned around to head home, paused, prevaricated, turned back, hesitated and then reluctantly dragged his sorry carcase to the meeting point, all the while debating the wisdom of riding in the rain. This, I suggested was one of the reasons to belong to a club, the opportunity to share misery and the encouragement to ride no matter how bad the conditions. Peer pressure, I concluded was a terrible thing.
We’d just exited Brunton Lane and started to climb toward Dinnington when route-planner and leader for the day Richard of Flanders drifted back after a very truncated spell on the front.
“I’m going to lead from the back,” he declared cheerfully, invoking some of those great British generals of Somme-era offensives. “Leading from the back” struck me as almost as good an oxymoron as military intelligence, but I dutifully filled in the gap, going “over the top” to partner Goose on the front and have my ears aurally bombarded for the rest of the day.
Not much further along , Buster’s incredibly weak and leaky bladder got the better of him and he called for an early pee stop. We pulled over and subjected him to some very restrained and refined ribbing, which was still going on as our second group caught and passed us.
Then I was back on the front for an extended spell with Goose, which was fine as the pace wasn’t high and the wind fairly light too. We were on a standard, tried and tested club run, out to Stamfordham, past the reservoirs (where we passed our second group again and restored the rightful order) then climbing up through the plantations toward Stagshaw. Then it was Matfen, the Quarry and on to the café at Belsay, where, by good fortune, they’d just opened up the indoor seating area. Just as well as camping out in the garden in the rain would have been truly miserable and no one likes soggy cake.
I’d finally dropped off the front just as we took the turn for the Quarry and was sat at the back chatting with Mini Miss as we zipped through the Wallridge crossroads. As the road began to descend, things started getting frisky upfront, the speed was ratcheting upwards and gaps starting to grow. I hung back until we hit the grind up toward West Belsay, then started to chase, surfing the wheels, both literally and metaphorically and making it up to third place before running out of road and having to slow and ease into the Snake Bends.
From there it was just a short skip to the café, coffee and cake and a welcome opportunity to wring my seriously water-logged mitts out.
At the table with Goose, Carlton and the Big Yin, discussion turned things that you might find in the city of Norwich. I wish I knew why we were discussing Norwich, but I missed that part of the conversation. “Norwich City football club is in the city of Norwich,” the Big Yin suggested confidently. Then, tongue firmly lodged in cheek, “And Delia Smith, probably the greatest cook the world has ever known and probably the best football club chairman the world has ever known too.”
That was when the Big Yin’s Norwich-Knowledge faltered, which was fine, he’d already far surpassed mine.
At the next table, Crazy Legs was fantasising about developing a bike-sized stinger, spike-system to prevent any and all undesirable’s from joining club runs. I think he actually had a specific person in mind, too. He mimicked repeatedly deploying this device with an under-arm bowling motion, complete with “wick-choo!” sound effects. He was convinced he could organise a cadre of highly trained, volunteer ride-prevention ninja’s to deploy this figment of his imagination and stop unwanted cyclists in their tracks , although he noted that some people ride so slow, you might only ever be able puncture their front tyre with it.
Then G-Dawg confessed that the combination of continued rehabilitation of his broken leg and big-geared fixie had put him in so much pain trying to scale the Quarry, that he’d ended up getting off and walking up. I was going to suggest his dark secret was safe with us and it never happened, but Crazy Legs had different ideas and declared he would bear witness to this extraordinary moment.
“But, your not a credible source,” I argued.
“I have photographic proof!” he countered.
“He’ll obliterate your phone.”
“The photo’s are already uploaded to the cloud.”
“He’ll destroy the Internet!” we both reached this conclusion at the same time, worrying that we’d unwittingly set events in motion for a Skynet type Judgement Day and a Terminator Apocalypse. We decided to head for home before the machines took over.
Outside, into the miserable cold and wet again, sensibly the main bunch didn’t hang around, but I stupidly hung back and asked what the rest of us were waiting for. Buster, apparently. He was off seeing to the needs of his weak and leaky bladder.
We finally got moving and once again I found myself on the front with Goose and we drove the pace up on the road along to Ogle, trying to bring a little warmth back to shivering limbs. We took on the short climb out of the village at an increased pace only to have to ease back as we split the group. We then pushed along and reached Kirkley Hall before someone noticed Buster and the new girl were missing.
We stopped at the junction to wait and let them catch up, chatting somewhat idly, until Mini Miss dropped in a provocative and divisive question about whether we liked tyres with tan sidewalls. This must rank about third on the contentious cycling list, just behind the Shimano vs. Campagnolo and disc vs. rim brakes debates. I nailed my colours firmly to the black sidewalls only mast, others naturally differed.
“Would tan walls look cool on my bike?” Goose wanted to know.
“Nothing would look cool on your bike,” Captain Black instantly responded. Harsh. But then they are practically a married couple, so…
Ten minutes of waiting, with no sign of our errant riders and the chill starting to creep up on us again, tradition dictated we’d waited a sufficient amount of time, but we were still uncertain about what to do. Then, Captain Black played his self-effacing Captain Oates card – “Oh, I’ll just go back and look for them.”
Aagh! Peer pressure again.
Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno, or un pour tous, tous pour un, if you prefer. (Perhaps even WWG1WGA, if you’re not of a classical bent, and just so happen to be a swivel-eyed, bizarre conspiracy theorist completely unmoored from any sense of reality.)
More simply, back we all went.
“You’re alive!” boomed Goose, as we found our lost companions just outside Ogle. Apparently the new girl had suffered a puncture and, as Goose speculated, Buster hadn’t been much help fixing it as he’d been to pre-occupied looking for somewhere to pee.
Reunited, we pressed on and I found myself following Goose and Captain Black as we stormed up the hill and through Dinnington. When I looked back we’d managed to split the group again, but this time there was no waiting and no turning back. Time to head home and get out of this miserable weather. Hopefully it’ll be better next week.