Heavy overnight rain passed, but left a rearguard of sporadic, unpredictable, light showers that punctuated the early morning, occasionally sweeping past, before fading quietly away.
I pulled on a showerproof jacket as I left the house and it stayed on my back for most of the ride out. Dropping off the hill, I spotted a couple of cyclists ahead of me as I traversed the valley floor and gave chase. Always a good incentive to pick the pace up, and I caught and passed them as we cut through Blaydon.
Luckily, the stiff headwind that had blown down the Tyne Valley last night and that I had battered myself against on the commute home, seemed to have dissipated. It was just as well, as we were heading straight upriver, to just outside Corbridge for our annual club hill climb up Prospect Hill.
I crossed the river, turned my back on what little wind remained and pushed through to the meeting point arriving in good time.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
OGL turned up, checking we had enough volunteer officials for the event, before driving out to Prospect Hill to set up. Crazy Legs and G-Dawg had once more volunteered as official starters and time-keepers at the bottom of the hill, with Benedict set to provide timings at the top.
Mindful of typical Hill Climb weather (usually very cold and very wet) each had prepared appropriately, with Crazy Legs packing at least two jackets, while G-Dawg was wearing a heavily insulated, quilted winter jacket. Perhaps most sensibly, Benedict had a kit bag stuffed with warm clothing that he gave to OGL to transport to the hill for him.
Before leaving, OGL asked who was actually going to ride the event. Out of the twenty plus riders there, only Rainman stuck his hand up. The rest of us were all wimps, or had tried-and-died once too often on the slopes of Prospect Hill. (One day I might return for a final crack at our Hill Climb but not this year.)
What can I say, Rainman is either brave, or foolish. Or both. Then again he is Dutch, so maybe normal rules don’t apply.
The poor response caused a suitably disgusted OGL to wonder what kind of riders we actually were. Some would argue sensible and sane, but I know that’s a lie, so I’m not sure what the answer should be.
On other fronts, Crazy Legs was eagerly awaiting the publication of this years Tour de France route, primed for an excursion via camper van to the venerable Bourg d’Oisans campsite, to watch the pros take on some iconic Alpine climbs, such as the Alpe d’Huez, Col de la Croix de Fer and the Galibier.
The only hint we had about the route was a rumoured time-trial up the Planche de Belle Filles, or, perhaps if the gravelled section was used Super Planche de Belle Filles.
This, we quickly decided, was far too much of a mouthful for us ignorant and lazy Brits, so it quickly became PDF and Super-PDF – a diminutive that I feel is likely to stick.
I’m not sure whether his plans will need to change, given the subsequent unveiling of a rather unusual Tour route, that seems to deliberately avoid all the traditional, tried and tested big climbs.
With around 24 riders gathered, even if not everyone was riding the hill, we felt we’d be able to at least provide support for our Go-Ride kids, as they hurled themselves upward with mad abandon. I’d even tried downloading a cow bell app to my phone, but had to admit being unimpressed with its desultory, sotto voce, and unremarkably dull clunking. It wouldn’t get used.
With the need to get to the hill as quickly as possible, G-Dawg had us marshalled and ready to go bang on 9:15, although, as he rightly acknowledged, they (literally) “can’t start without us.”
We picked our way out of the city en masse and I’d pushed onto the front alongside G-Dawg as we made the turn toward the river. Just past the corner, Crazy Legs looked back.
“Bloody hell,” he wondered, “Where’s everybody gone.”
Our numbers had essentially halved. Support on the hill was going to be noticeably muted and quite sparse then.
On we went, threading our way through periodic sharp showers and bursts of bright sunlight, angling ever westwards, occasionally flanked with arcing rainbows that seemed to mark out our final destination.
Every time we were lashed with another sharp shower, Crazy Legs gleefully reminded us that the weather forecast promised “only a two percent chance of rain.” It seemed to be a line he was able to trot out on more than half a dozen occasions.
Down into the valley and along the river, G-Dawg found himself over-heating in his padded, quilted jacket and seemed to be looking forward to the odd, cooing rain shower, even as they became less and less frequent.
He checked everyone had the requisite documentation and inoculations, before bravely leading us across the bridge and into wild, savage lands, south of the river … welcome to Mordor, have a nice day.
We were on the final push now, pausing only to carefully skirt a devastating roadkill, an untidy pile of featureless, pink, blancmange like sludge, scraped into mouldering heap in the middle of the road. Try as we might, we were completely unable to discern any trace of features that would give us a clue and help us determine what type of poor creature had contributed its corporeal body to form this unsightly splatter.
Rainman roared off the front for an extended warm-up and by the time we’d reabsorbed him, we were at our destination – by G-Dawgs reckoning we covered around 40kms at a decent clip and in less than an hour and a half.
Perhaps shamed into riding, 7 or 8 of the seniors decided they would give it a go and joined the swarms of happy, excited Go-Ride kids, queuing up to sign on to ride the hill. Even our FNG decided to take part. Will he ever forgive us?
I helped pin on a few numbers, before making my own way up the hill to a junction about halfway up where I could provide some slight vocal encouragement and snap a few photos of the contestants for the group Facebook page.
It was great to see the kids hurling themselves uphill with reckless abandon, sometimes on their own, sometimes with parental outriders providing escort duties.
Cowin’ Bovril volunteered to escort one of the kids, acting in loco parentis and later admitted he’d had a good workout and he struggled to stay ahead of his young charge with the finish line approaching.
As the last riders came past I was joined by Rainman and Buster, both celebrating new best times on the hill. We made our way down to the start line again, where numbers were unpinned and all the shed weight (bottles, pumps, jackets et al) reclaimed.
We then just had to wait for Princess Fiona and Mini Miss to rejoin us. Neither had been seen since they’d finished their efforts up the hill, and had taken OGL’s advice on the best route back down to the start. They eventually appeared from completely the wrong direction, having been who knows where and complaining bitterly that they’d been sold a pup.
We then let Den Hague guide us through the tortuous labyrinth of Corbridge’s one-way traffic system, before we made our way to Valhalla, no, hold on, that’s not right, to Vallum, our cafe of choice for the day.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop
A quick check of phones revealed that Eliud Kipchoge had managed to break the two hour record for the marathon. You can’t help but be impressed by someone running a 100 metres in about 17 seconds and then doing it again and again and again, without pause, 421 more times in a row.
Spry, seemed slightly underwhelmed though, pointing out it wouldn’t be a recognised world record, as this wasn’t an open competition, Kipchoge was led by a pace car and accompanied by a phalanx of pace-setters, with bike riders on hand to hand over fluids as needed.
Kipchoge even had a laser directed at the road in front of him to keep him on pace, something I seem to recall was proposed for the Wiggins’ Hour Record, but the UCI rejected. (I’ve seen Cat#1 wildly chasing the red dot of a laser pointer and can confirm it is the most insidious form of mechanical doping known to man. Or feline.)
Anyway, we suggested that Spry take to Twitter to inform Kipchoge his record was worthless. Having already used this medium to allegedly enrage Elaine Paige fans as well as lambast Philip Deignan for having the temerity to marry Lizzy Armitstead, we reasoned adding one more mortal enemy on social media wouldn’t be too much of a burden.
By the way, can I please ask why long distance runners have taken to wearing arm warmers with a vest? At least Kashoge’s managed to match his to his top, unlike recent shocking efforts from Sir Mo, but nonetheless, it’s not a good look.
Meanwhile, Spry confirmed his single-handed, Go-Pro-armed, vigilante crusade to eradicate bad driving on the mean streets of the nation’s capital was going well – with 17 incidents reported to the police, of which 15 had resulted in cautions being issued. Not exactly crime-fighting worthy of a superhero, but you’ve got to admire his efforts.
As we were leaving, Crazy Legs vowed to hmm, maybe, perhaps, possibly, consider taking part in next years hill climb, before looking at me meaningfully, as if to remind me that as a friend I’d promised to never let him do it, ever again and I had a solemn duty to protect him from himself.
Leaving the cafe, we were soon skirting Whittle Dene Reservoir and, with the time already rapidly approaching when I’d usually be home, I swung off to head back down into the valley to make my way home.
The sky had cleared, it was a bright warm day and I had a good trip back, arriving just in time to catch the last 40kms of Il Lombardia. The Race of the Falling Leaves always signals the end of the pro-cycling season to me, despite whatever nonsense the UCI gets up to in the Far East. It’s a sign that winter is approaching and shiny plastic bikes are soon to be packed away until better weather returns.
Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter and there wont be too many interruptions to our rides. Still, I’m sure the Flat White Club is primed and ready if the conditions get too testing.
YTD Totals: 6,298 km / 3,914 miles with 83,003 metres of climbing
A misty start to the day, but there was a promise of much better weather, if only we could avoid the widely forecast thunderstorms.
I pushed away from the kerb and was quickly reaching for my brakes as a car shot past and then cut in front of me, either racing the changing traffic lights, or determined not to be held up by a cyclist descending the Heinous Hill. Once again I was struck with the idea that many drivers have no real understanding of just how fast a descending bike can go. I frequently get cars pulling out of junctions directly in-front of me on the long downhill I use on my commute. This either means a rapid application of brakes, or, if I have momentum and a clear road, a bit of over-taking that I’m sure the drivers think is completely reckless and dangerous.
Here, I just had to engage in a bit of tail-gating, stuck behind a car travelling much slower than I would have been, if I didn’t have to hang on the brakes all the way down. I would like to think the sight of a cyclist louring in their rear-view mirror had an intimidating effect, but I very much doubt my presence even registered.
Luckily the rest of my ride across town was incident free and the sky had even shaken of its milky, misty filter by the time I was climbing back out of the river valley.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point
I found club run irregular and Steven Kruisjwijk look-alike Eon waiting with G-Dawg at the meeting point. Eon suggested this was one of his rare penance rides, when he joins a club run just to ensure he exacts the full value out of his £10 annual membership fees.
“I was expecting more out today, though,” he added.
“Well, it’s early yet, let’s wait and see.”
We didn’t actually have all that long to wait, as numbers kept building until we had almost 40 riders and bikes packed like sardines on the pavement. It was going to be a big, big group.
Crazy Legs spotted a couple hanging slightly back from the fray, determined that they were first-timers and invited them into the fold. They had exotic accents, by which I guessed they weren’t from around these here parts…
“Your not Dutch are you?” I challenged, “Because I think we’ve already exceeded our quota on Dutch cyclists.”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Double Dutch Distaff added.
They seemed rather relieved to be able to claim American citizenship, while at the same time quickly disassociating themselves from the Dutch, while no doubt wondering what bunch of lunatics wouldn’t want more lovely people from the Hollow Lands to come out and ride with them.
“Where are you from anyway?” Crazy Legs wondered.
He was from Wisconsin, the girl from a state not a million miles from Wisconsin, but still a sizeable distance away from America’s Dairyland. (Which is my feeble way of saying I didn’t quite catch her reply.)
“Where’s Wisconsin then, is that in the North, on the border with Canada?”
“Hmm, not quite.”
“Is it in the East then?” Crazy Legs continued, undeterred.
“In the West? The Middle?”
“Kinda, North Central.”
“Oh!” I’m not sure we were any wiser really.
“Are you a Packers fan, though?” I wondered.
“Well, you’ve kind of have to be,” he answered, not especially enthusiastically, perhaps worried I’d think he was secretly Dutch if he claimed to be an ardent Cheesehead.
OGL arrived in time to condemn the unwashed state of the Monkey Butler Boy’s bike. It seemed only natural to progress from there to the state of the Garrulous Kid’s bike and in particular his filthy, grungy chain (well, it is about 3 months since his bike was last serviced, which was when it was last clean.)
“And black socks too!” OGL despaired, “That would have resulted in an instant disqualification in my day.”
“Well, they were actually white when he set out this morning,” G-Dawg quipped, “But with that chain, you know …”
Aether outlined the route for the day and the need to split such a big group into at least two. The first group pushed off and started to form up at the lights, but their numbers looked a little light and someone called for additional riders.
Ah, shit, is this what I really wanted to do after a week of indolence, sitting around a pool doing nothing but eating and drinking? I reluctantly bumped down the kerb and tagged onto the back of the group with a few others. I was going to regret this, I was sure.
I slotted in alongside Plumose Pappus, where we tried to determine if there was any pattern to Eon’s seemingly irregular appearances on a club run. We determined that he probably had a number of different groups he rotates through, smashing each one in turn before moving onto the next one and, sportingly, allowing them all 3 months to recover before he puts in another appearance to repeat the cycle.
We then had an involved, entertaining and engaging conversation about beach volleyball. Hold on, I know what your thinking, but this was actually a conversation about a beach volleyball rather than the sport (game?) of beach volleyball itself. Suffice to say, Plumose Pappus may soon be the proud owner of his very own, completely free, beach volleyball. Why? I hear you ask, but I’ll simply paraphrase his well-reasoned answer: Well, why not?
On the narrow lanes up toward the Cheese Farm, three approaching cars in quick succession pulled over to the side of the road and cheerfully waved us through. Perhaps it was just as well though, as we were churning along like a runaway express. Caracol and Rab Dee had kicked things off, the Garrulous Kid and the Dormanator, Jake the Snake (recently rechristened Jake the Knife by Crazy Legs) had added fuel to the fire and then Eon and Andeven increased an already brutal pace.
From 30kms into my ride to the 55km mark, across 32 different Strava segments, I netted 16 PR’s, culminating in a 20km/h burn up the Trench itself.
Prior to that, we had tackled the Mur de Mitford, pausing briefly at the top to regroup, where the Garrulous Kid was invited to lead us to the Trench.
“Take it to the Trench!” I extemporised, channelling just a teeny bit of James Brown.
The Garrulous Kid hates hills now, so refused, claiming he’d just get dropped on the climb.
“Well, just take us to the bottom of the Trench,” someone suggested. Even better, there was a bridge at Netherwitton, just before the Trench.
“Yeah! Take it to the bridge!” I was quite enjoying myself now. The Garrulous Kid just looked at me blankly with a WTF expression and steadfastly refused to lead us out.
Eon and Andeven then pushed onto the front and off we rolled.
Get up-a, git on upp-ah…
And upp-ah we went-ah … up the Trench, a tight knot of us clustered around Eon’s rear-wheel, while trailling a long, broken tail of discarded riders.
Once more, we stopped to regroup at the top, where the Monkey Butler Boy spotted a small knot of dithering sheep in the middle of the road. It looked like they’d escaped from a nearby field only to discover the grass really wasn’t any greener on the other side. The sudden appearance of wild, potentially dangerous animals gave the Monkey Butler Boy strange, flashbacks to a time when he claimed he’d passed a pack of wolves on this very road. Nobody had the faintest recollection of this, or any idea what incident he was actually referring to. Perhaps they’d been a pack of hounds, he concluded lamely … or vampire sheep, I helpfully suggested.
I took the lead alongside Biden Fecht, who had the great joy of calling out a warning of “Sheep!” as we passed the panicking, evidently non-vampiric, ovine escapees. Anyway, a simple pleasure and one that makes a refreshing change from constantly having to shout out Pots! Gravel! Car! or other, equally mundane cycling hazards.
Half way up Middleton Bank and I was done in by the relentless pace, bad gear choice and rampaging speed. Gapped over the top, I chased fruitlessly for a kilometre or two, before giving up, forming an impromptu, very small and select grupetto with the Monkey Butler Boy to cruise the rest of the way to the cafe. I did still manage a quick dig up and over the rollers – but it was just for forms sake.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
I wandered into the garden, sitting down in time to catch the end of an anecdote in which the usually mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky, Crazy Legs, admitted he’d recently snapped, losing it and going absolutely postal with a driver who’d shouted at him for not riding in a segregated bike lane.
On being told he was a stupid idiot, Crazy Legs had fully admitted the possibility, but suggested that at least he wasn’t going to keel over and die of a heart-attack anytime soon, unlike his fat, lazy, lard-arsed adversary.
Dinger listened with some sympathy, having himself fallen into the trap of hurling childish insults at a “speccy-four-eyes, bastid” driver in the heat of the moment, before admonishing himself with the simple question, “What am I, five again?”
Elsewhere, we learned that a disgruntled Big Yin had been complaining that Stage 18 of this years Tour de France saw Nairo “Stoneface” Quintana climbing up the Galibier in a time that was considerably faster than the Big Yin had managed going down.
Crazy Legs had caught an interview with Marcel Kittel in which he came across as knowledgeable, humorous, likeable and engaging person, suggesting a stint as a TV-pundit wouldn’t be a bad call if he couldn’t get his cycling career back on track.
I thought this would probably have to wait until the unforeseen time when his hair-modelling options inexplicably and improbably dried up. Crazy Legs then wondered what damage Kittel could do to the Alpecin brand, if he suddenly revealed his hair was falling out. I was all for him shaving his head bald and blaming a certain, caffeine-shampoo for the hair loss, but realised this was unlikely as it would severely curtail hair-modelling opportunities.
We found a fantastically ostentatious, bright red Ferrari in the car park as we made to leave. “That’s worth more than my home,” someone quipped.
“It’s worth more than my family,” I assured them.
G-Dawg looked at the car somewhat askance, before shaking his head in dismay. “You’d never fit a bike rack on that,” he concluded dismissively.
And away we went … Even with early departures, it was still a big, big group that set out for home. Things were fine until we took the lane up toward Berwick Hill, noticing the road was closed just past the junction. This didn’t affect us, but seemed to have forced a huge volume of traffic to share the lane with us, some caught behind with no room to pass, while we had to constantly single out, slow down and hug the hedges for the stream of cars approaching from the other end of the lane.
At one point we passed a group of cyclists heading in the opposite direction, being led by a woman who looked fully enraged. I’ve never seen such anger on a bike, although I suppose Crazy Legs may have approached such levels of incandescent fury during his altercations with his lard-arsed adversary.
I wondered aloud what her problem was, maybe the cars stacked up behind, or the the sea of cyclists filtering past? Surely it couldn’t be the weather, which had been beyond even my most optimistic expectations?
“RBF,” Caracol concluded.
“Resting Bitch Face,” he clarified.
Not a phrase I was overly familiar with, but apparently a recognised phenomena, with its own Wikipedia page! Resting Bitch Face is defined as a facial expression that unintentionally makes a person appear angry, annoyed, irritated, or contemptuous, particularly when the individual is relaxed, resting or not expressing any particular emotion.
Hmm, perhaps he had the right of it.
Up the hill to Dinnington and one of the youngsters was struggling to hold the wheels, so I dropped in alongside him and matched my pace to his. Up ahead I could seen Carlton looking back concernedly and rightly concluded this was probably another Carlton prodigy I was escorting and he would be ripping our legs off in a (short) few years.
While the main group disappeared up the road, a few of us dialled back the speed a little for the final mile. As they all turned off I started my solo run for home. The legs were tired and heavy, but it had been a good ride and the decent weather was a real bonus.
It almost felt like summer.
YTD Totals: 4,991 km / 3,101 miles with 66,160 metres of climbing
7:40 Saturday morning and five of us are lined up at the gates to the campsite ready to embark on our mini-epic: The Circle of Death. Not bad for us, as we’re only running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but it would have been much more impressive if all eight of us managed to be there.
We suspect that Steadfast and Ovis have pushed on ahead, but have no confirmation. When queried, Crazy Legs reports they’ve definitely left the chalet, but they’re not at the gate, and we can’t find then en route to the gate, so our suspicions seem reasonable.
We’re still missing the Big Yin, even though he’s hard to miss, but then he appears riding up from the direction of the town, having been who knows where. The six of us form up and set off after our early break-away companions.
Huh, Club Run Pace?
Once through the town, the Hammer seems keen to wind up the pace, but I’m conscious of the fact we have a long day ahead of us and don’t want to start out at break-neck speed. I deliberately let Caracol’s wheel go and watch the gap to the front pair widen, working on the assumption they’ll eventually look back and hopefully adjust their speed to suit.
None of the others push past me to take up the chase, so I assume they’re happy with a more relaxed start too. The roads are relatively quiet, the cycle lane’s are wide, well-surfaced and good, so I’m happy to bool along, taking in the sights, fields of lavender and wild poppies, a gleaming river off to our right and a backdrop of snow-mottled mountains, wrapped in tattered ribbons of cloud.
At the next, small hamlet, the front pair finally look behind and the speed at the front gets knocked back. We reform into a single group and are together for the dramatic zig-zagging climb up the face of the dam at Allemont.
The road then has us skirting the Lac de Vernay, before we start to climb, up through densely wooded hills and the first distance markers for the distant summit of the Col du Glandon appear.
Its remarkably peaceful on the road, with only the whirring of chains, an occasional bit of chatter and rhythmic breathing of my companions to provide the backdrop to the fluting, piping calls of unseen birds in the woods around us.
As the gradient varies, the Big Yin starts to yo-yo off the back, until Kermit drops back to ride with him and we continue to work our way through the trees, the road always climbing. It’s hot and humid under the canopy of the leaves, the sun is starting to burn through the cloud cover and is promising better weather than yesterday.
Then we burst out into the open, with spectacular views of the peaks off to the right, as we enter Le Rivier d’Allemont, our first port of call for a welcome jolt of wake up coffee.
You Say Tomay-toe
We catch up with Ovis and Steadfast, already royally ensconced in the cafe and enjoying the early morning sunshine. The Hammer plans to break his fast here and politely asks for a savoury crêpe, but instead, gets a lesson in French cuisine.
“Non, pas une crêpe, c’est une galette!”
Ah, OK, pleased we cleared that up.
Before we finish our coffee, Ovis and Steadfast are up and away again, obviously hoping to maintain their advantage over the peloton. We slowly move to follow, finish up and settle the bill, while the Hammer wanders in to find out how his crêpe galette is doing.
They haven’t even started thinking about it, let alone cooking it. Well, you know you can never rush an artist and his work. The Hammer cancels his order and in a show of Anglo defiance buys a Mars bar instead. Haute cuisine? My arse.
Ring of Fire
This is the first time the Hammer has brought his own bike rather than hire one and he admits the bike is brilliant, but the copyright for the saddle seems to belong to Torquemada and it’s causing him exquisite pain. “Ring of Fire” becomes the unofficial theme song, not just for the day, but for the rest of the trip.
Back on our bikes, we climb out of the village, then there’s a brief and joyful swoop down and over the river, before the road starts to relentlessly climb again. I drop back to pace the Big Yin and the rest slowly pull away from us.
Up we go, climbing above the dam, which they spectacularly routed the Tour up a couple of years ago and onto the balcony road high above the Lac de Grand Maison.
As we climb I notice the first snow banks, dirty and crusted by the side of the road, but still surviving well into June. It makes me wonder what we might find on the Galibier.
I hate the next bit, a too long descent where all you can think about his how much altitude you’re losing and how much work you’ll need to do to win those precious metres back. As the road inevitably starts to climb again, a photographer is waiting to ambush us and capture our distress and stupid gurning faces, just in case living through that horrid transition once, from descending to steeply uphill, wasn’t quite enough.
The Big Yin spots and points out what I take to be a marmot, scurrying through the meadow in a flash of russet and yellow and then we’re past the scenic pastures, as I escort the Big Yin up to the summit of the Glandon, barely giving him time to catch his breath and take in his surroundings, before I hustle him into turning around and we drop down to start the clamber up to the Croix de Fer.
We find the others there and waiting. The Big Yin puffs out his cheeks and declares that if Buster was expecting an easy day, just making it to the Croix de Fer would disabuse him of that notion.
Someone snaps a pic of me. Weirdly, I almost look happy …
We then reiterate that this is the point of no return for anyone who wants to turn back, once you’re on the descent, you’re committed. No one does, they’re all committed. Or, at least they should be.
We’ve got maybe a 25km downhill run, once we tip over the other side. Caracol leads us off and is quickly several hairpins below me, as I watch him gaining rapidly on a white camper van. Luckily the driver realises that cyclists are descending considerably faster than he can manage and he doesn’t try to get into a drag race, moves aside and lets Caracol slide swiftly past.
A handful of seconds later and I’m whistling past as well, just letting the bike run and riding in the Hammer’s wake. We literally rattle through a couple of sleepy, one street towns, the road surface as rough and chewed up as anything at home in rural Northumberland, and start skirting the noisy tumult of the fast-flowing L’Arvan river.
We stop briefly to regroup, right next to where someone has ingeniously formed a map of our twisting descent on top of the wall, using nothing more than the decapitated corpse of a snake. Are we heading toward that pool of dried blood where the head used to be?
There’s an unwelcome and rude bit of climbing on a 4th Category hill, we dart through a tunnel or two and then it’s a long, straight descent from Pierrepin to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. I max out at 71km/h down here, without even trying, but still some way behind the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Lilian Calmejane and Tiesj Benoot, who averaged 84km/h down the same stretch.
Reforming at the bottom, we decide to push on to Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne before stopping for lunch, at which point we’ll only be a handful of metres away from the foot of the Col du Télégraphe.
This is one of the worst bits of the ride, along the valley floor on a dual-carriageway. Even though the bike lane is good and the traffic relatively light, it’s an uncomfortable, somewhat exposed ride. To add to our woes, its hot, the sun is beating down hard and we’ve lost the cooling breeze of descending.
Perhaps trying to get this bit over with, or maybe sensing that a food stop is imminent, the speed at the front ramps up. I wonder if they’re considering a cafe sprint, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort to keep up and, as I’m on the back and there’s no one relying on me to hang on, I ease back and let a gap grow.
I rejoin the group in the same cafe we stopped at last time, although it was much more pleasant this time around, without the presence of raucous,beer swilling, fat bikers and with the street free from scores of filthy, fume-belching, Harley Davidson riders, having an inane competition to see who could rev their engine the hardest and loudest.
There wasn’t a great deal of choice on the menu and most of us go with a burger of some description. They’re good, but massively heavy and probably not ideal for what’s to come next. We wondered what Team Ineos “coaching guru” Tim Kerrison would have made of our selection and where burgers might sit in the pantheon of marginal gains.
The Big Yin suggests we’re at the halfway point and technically, in terms of mileage, yes we are. I don’t bother to tell him that the worst is yet to come.
The burger’s lying like a lead weight in my stomach, but at least we’ve had plenty to drink and all the water bottles are topped up. We’re just about to start rolling, when Biden Fecht finds he has a puncture.
Steadfast and Ovis decide to press on and the Hammer follows, as I hold up Biden Fecht’s bike and let him slide out his rear wheel to change the tube. After a bit of prevarication, the Big Yin determines he too needs a head start on the climb and sets off too.
I hang around long enough to help roll the tyre back onto its rim, then assured everything is in good order, leave Biden Fecht, Caracol and Kermit to force some air into the new tube, while I start my own ascent of theTélégraphe.
The climb is both longer and harder than I remember. There’s also fewer trees and much less shade than I recall too. It’s perhaps the hottest part of the day and it’s baking. I try to ride as close as possible to the rock walls at the side of the road to maximise the shade, but it doesn’t help all that much.
Electra-Glide in High Viz#2
On the first slopes I’m passed by a woman who powers past churning a massive gear, limbs gleaming with sweat and working hard. In contrast, I’m then passed by another who coasts effortlessly by on an e-bike, barely working at all and so relaxed and unflustered by the heat, that she’s wearing a high-viz jacket zipped up to the neck.
I think e-bikes are the future, I can see myself riding one when (surely it won’t be long now) I’m too weak and decrepit to keep up on a club run without mechanical assistance. I also have this glorious vision of a government that gives everyone an e-bike, makes public transport free and then bans cars. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
I can’t quite see the challenge of travelling all the way to France to zip up and down mountains on one though – especially when you’re young, healthy and look fit enough to climb up under your own steam. But then, what do I know?
I’m starting to close on a trio of hard-working Englishmen, when Caracol storms past. He bridges across to the three ahead, slides by and they immediately give chase, while I chuckle to myself ruefully, thinking that’s not a wheel they should be trying to follow.
One of them, in a Bianchi jersey, is almost immediately blown out the back and abandoned by his companions, who disappear around the bend, out of the saddle and flailing along in high pursuit.
On the straighter bits of road I keep catching glimpses of the Big Yin, Ovis and Steadfast climbing ahead of me, as I reel them slowly in. A kilometre or so later and I’ve caught the Big Yin, he’s completely cooked in the sun and starting to suffer like a dog. He mutters that he’s really struggling as I push past and continue upwards.
Three or four kilometres from the top and I keep catching glimpses of Ovis and Steadfast, tantalisingly close, but I’m unable to bridge the gap. I’m starting to develop an irrational hatred of their blue and yellow and orange jersey’s – always hanging there, tantalisingly close, but out of reach.
Cutting across the steepest, shortest inside of one corner, I manage to close to within maybe 20 metres, when they spot Bianchi man ahead and accelerate to try and catch him. I’m not able to get any closer and as we finally approach the summit, the gap begins to go out again.
You’re Awesome, Man
Still, not much further. The summit is aswarm with Americans who’ve ridden up to where their local guide is waiting with a van laden with anything and everything they could possibly need, food, drinks, towels, blankets, spare clothing and, who knows, maybe a soigneur or two and fistfuls of performance enhancing drugs.
The riders are loud and overly-familiar in that endearing, over-whelming and almost childlike, way that Americans seem to have, something that makes us Brits inwardly wince a little.
“You’re awesome man! You can do this! Believe in yourself! Go! Go! Go! This is unreal!”
“Err, OK. Thanks old chap… I think.”
I spot the rest of our crew sitting outside the cafe and make to hang my bike on one of the nearby racks and go and join them.
“Non, monsieur, privé, privé.” The guide from the American party is warning me away from the bike racks? Because they’re reserved for his clients? WTF? Is my bike going to contaminate theirs? Are they suddenly going to break out twenty more bikes and fill up the entire rack? I shrug, roll the bike away a couple of metres and lean it against a wall. It all seems a bit over the top.
Death on the Mountain
I grab a cold drink inside and join the others. As with last year, Caracol is struggling with the heat and looks flushed and glassy-eyed. Even worse, the Big Yin finally hauls himself to the top of the climb looking grey-faced and declaring himself as sick as a dog. The heat and the climb have clearly got to him, he’s not sure he can go on and needs an escape route. He slumps to the ground and lies there like a fresh cadaver, trying to recover, while we discuss options.
After a while he slowly rises, like a monster from the slab, and wanders down to the guide from the American party. They look like they have room in the van for one more and plenty of space for another bike too. I suspect though that I know the outcome of their chat, even before it begins and so it proves. Privé, privé. And no succour for the sick and needy.
Wile we watch an AG2R squad, accompanied by their team car, briefly stop at the summit of the climb. I hadn’t realised just how vibrant the blue on their kit was, it always looks quite dull on the TV and is much better in real-life. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the brown shorts, which remain a crime against humanity.
We determine that the best plan of action would be for the Big Yin to wait at the cafe until he’s recovered a little, roll down the valley to the town of Valloire and see if he can get a taxi from there, either back to the campsite, or over the Galibier where he can meet us at the cafe on the Col du Lautaret. I’d just been to a cash-point the night before and had €100 or so stuffed in my back pocket which I handed over to fund his rescue mission.
Then our reduced bunch is off descending to Valloire, which is mercifully free of fat, hairy bikers this time around. We pick our way through the town and are soon climbing again and heading for the pinnacle of our route, the monstrous Col du Galibier.
Overhead, the sky darkens and quickly fills in with grey cloud, the temperature plummets and we start to get peppered with chilling rain. Even worse, a cold wind is blowing straight down the valley and into our faces.
Caracol winds up the pace and slowly rides away from the rest of us, as Steadfast and Ovis take manly turns at the front until, as the road noticeably kicks up, Kermit takes over and drags us along behind him. The pace is slow enough that there’s probably no benefit in draughting and there’s not a great deal of shelter from the wind. Nevertheless, it’s easier to follow and just concentrate on holding onto the wheel in front.
We drag our way up to Plan Lachat, cross the river and the real climbing begins. We forge on, into a gathering darkness and occasional lashing rain showers.
Are Friends Electric?
Through some tight-hairpins and the e-bike rider is back, whizzing past us as we strain upwards, like a high-viz mosquito.
“That’s cheating! It doesn’t count,” the Hammer calls after her fast retreating figure. I assume it’s a joke, the e-bike rider though has seriously misheard and is lurking at the next corner.
“What did you call me?” she demands. Oh, dear, someone seems overly sensitive.
“I said that’s cheating and it doesn’t count,” the Hammer replies, truthfully.
There’s a bit more verbal to and fro, when she claims she’s not trying to prove anything and then concludes that the Hammer is just “a horrible man.” Ah well, if she’d asked I could have told her that for nothing.
Once more, she whizzes away, while Biden Fecht calls for a bit of peace and calm. We keep working our way upwards.
The snow is starting to build up at the side of the road, occasionally hiding the kilometre markers. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, it worries me when the time between sightings attenuates, suggesting we’re going slower and slower, but it can also deliver a pleasant bonus, such as when I miss the 6 km to the summit marker and suddenly “leap” (I use the term loosely) from 7 km to just 5 km to go.
Ha-ha, just 5km to go.
We’re becoming more spread out on the road, Kermit spearheading our push for the summit, with Biden Fecht just ahead of me and Steadfast a few metres back, as I ride alongside the Hammer in companionable silence. I’m struggling to keep the wheel pointed straight up the road and seem to be weaving a slightly undulating, wavering path, twitching constantly as the wheel rocks a little from side to side. I’m tired.
At some point the Hammer drops back and somehow finds the energy to snap a photo as we enter the snowfields. My once pristine white socks are already grey, soaked through with rain and road spray, I’m probably wet to the skin, but keeping warm with the effort.
As I remember it, the final few kilometres look really daunting, with the road rising to a sharp crescendo, twisting up and away over your head. Still, it means that the end is in sight. Steadfast eases away past us, obviously spurred on by sight of the summit, while I keep plugging away with the Hammer, as the road cuts through the snow banks, which rise on either side of us until they tower overhead, easily twice my height.
A couple of Englishmen descend from the summit to take a few photos of each other climbing against the backdrop of the wall of snow. A nice memento, that I haven’t the energy, or will to reenact. Just as we pass them, there’s a dull crack and a flat rumble that slowly fades as it echoes around the mountains. Thunder?
“Have you got a sprint finish in you?” I challenge the Hammer. He suggests it would be more appropriate riding over the summit side-by-side à la Hinault and LeMond. Thank goodness for that, I think a sprint might have finished me off.
Riders on the Storm
Kermit and Biden Fecht are at the top, taking in the sights and pulling on jackets for the descent. Kermit pushes away and starts down, but Biden Fecht is distracted by a bright, actinic flash away in the distance.
“Is that lightning?” he asks, just as another rumble of thunder answers for him.
I also notice our e-biker, being wrapped in blankets and towels from her support vehicle as she’s force fed a hot beverage. She’s obviously gone well beyond her limits … or something.
The sky is turning black and ominous, while over to my right, the distant peaks are rapidly dissolving into a grey blanket of rain. I hurriedly pull on my light rain jacket, arm warmers and thankfully, some long fingered neoprene gloves that I’d only shoved in my pocket as an afterthought.
The Hammer and Biden Fecht seem intent on watching the storm come in. I’m just intent on getting out of there.
We would later learn that this is the same storm that capsized and damaged boats on Lake Geneva, where a tourist drowned after her yacht was swamped. 70 mile an hour winds and torrential rain had lashed the city for hours, causing enough floods and incidents to almost overwhelm the emergency services.
It was the same storm that brought a tree down on a German camper in the Haute-Savoie region, killing him outright.
It was the same storm that inundated the finishing straight of that days Criterium de Dauphine stage, so winner Wout Poels literally left Emu Buchmann and Jakob Fuglsang in his wake as he sprinted to the line. It was so bad that the organisers considered enacting UCI extreme weather protocols midway through the stage.
It was the same storm we were now caught in 2,645 metres above sea level, with nowhere to shelter and a fast, exposed and twisting descent with sheer drops off to the side to contend with.
On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness
As I pushed off, the freezing rain came lashing in and I was instantly soaked and shivering. It was grey and gloomy, so I turned on my lights, reasoning that, at worst, their intermittent flashing might help locate my broken body if I went over the edge. Ahead of me a camper van was running with full lights on and really struggling with the hairpins. I braked hard, cut inside and undertook it on a bend, this wasn’t the time for niceties.
I told myself I was probably safe from lightning strikes, insulated from the road by two ridiculously thin rubber tyres. Nonsense of course, but I semi-convinced myself and couldn’t really see an alternative.
Then, it was just a case of trying to get down the mountain as quickly and as safely as possible, letting the bike run on the straights, but braking hard and trying to be cautious on the corners, where sheets of water were washing across the road surface.
Halfway down and my shoulders were already aching with the constant effort of pulling hard on the brakes that had lost their immediacy in the wet. I shot past a truly miserable looking Kermit, who was taking a more cautious approach, but with the drawback of greater exposure to the cold and the wind and the rain.
Ahead of me, Ovis had been halfway down when he said his front wheel started shaking so much he was convinced his headset had suddenly disintegrated. He’d slowed a little to try and asses the damage, before he realised his bike was fine, he was just shivering so violently he was having trouble steering.
Later, Caracol reported that after clocking a temperature in the mid-20’s on the Télégraphe , it had been no more than 3℃ on the descent of the Galibier, even before taking into account the windchill.
I finally spotted the cluster of isolated buildings formed on the summit of the Col du Lautaret, swooped across the car park of the Hotel des Glaciers and found a space to abandon the bike amongst the dozens of others lined up there. I climbed off stiffly and made my way into the Irish bar. (Although none of us realised it was supposed to be an Irish bar, until the owner told us!)
I stood dripping on the threshold frozen, wet, shivering uncontrollably and momentarily dull-witted and confused, as I scanned the tables for familiar faces, before realising our group were sitting right in front of me. Perhaps I was shaking so hard my eyes couldn’t focus, or my companions were shaking so hard there faces all blurred together – I don’t know how else to explain my temporary befuddlement.
I stripped of gloves, helmet and rain jacket, sat down, then almost immediately stood up again to pace about and try to control the uncontrollable shuddering. I wandered into the toilets and plunged my hands into a sink full of hot water. It helped. But not much.
At the table, we ordered hot drinks and I get a mug of cocoa, that I couldn’t actually lift without spilling everywhere. I left it on the table to drop my head and occasionally sip from it, like a dipping bird.
Thankfully the remainder of our crew, the Hammer, Biden Fecht and Kermit all made it down safely behind me, but all of us were equally blue and shaking and we sit huddled miserably around the table, trying to warm up and devouring hot drinks and food while the rain continued to lash down outside.
At the next table, a large group of Italian cyclists were chatting and laughing and having a whale of a time, despite being caught in the same downpour we were. Either they’re more hardened to these extremes, or they were dressed considerably better for the conditions.
I couldn’t help thinking we must look like Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, trapped inside meagre shelter by a savage storm and just waiting the inevitable end.
We check our phones to try and determine how the Big Yin was doing. He’s left a message saying he’s feeling a lot better and didn’t come all this way to ride around in a taxi, so he’s set off to ride the Galibier.
In this weather?
But also, ever so slightly bonkers.
We contact Crazy Legs, safely back at the campsite and he agrees to drive out to us, in case we need a rescue mission to bring the Big Yin down off the mountain.
An elderly Englishman and his son dash inside and out of the rain, in as bad a state as we were, or probably worse as neither has a jacket to their name. The bar owner hands the old fellow a big, fluffy, towelling dressing gown, as we look jealously on.
The Italian’s pack up to leave. Apparently they’re happy because the day’s riding is done for them and they don’t have to go back out and ride in the rain. Much to the bar owners disgust, they wheel their bikes into his lobby, before starting to break them down to pack into their van.
In other news, Vailloire is twinned with Newcastle upon Tyne
We’re starting to get a little anxious about the Big Yin, when the big galoot suddenly materialises out of the rain in the car park. He hustles in to join us and we demand to know what on earth possessed him to continue to ride.
“Oh, once the rain started and the temperature dropped, it just felt like being home in Newcastle, so I kept going.”
His madness would continue, as he’s determined to finish the ride now.
Kermit and Biden Fecht though have had enough and have decided to wait for Crazy Legs and the voiture-balai. That leaves at least one spare berth in the car, but, strange, masochistic bunch as we undoubtedly are, no one wants it.
Stack Up, Baby, Stack Up (with apologies to A Certain Ratio)
We’ve sheltered so long from the storm, that we’re well-behind schedule now, with around 40 km still to ride, albeit most of it on a fast, downhill run. The Hammer decides that when we leave, we need to do it as quickly as possible, with no faffing about. So, we all get ready and stack up at the door, like a well-oiled SWAT Team about to breach and clear a room.
We get a “Go!” and we’re dashing through the still falling rain for the bikes and setting off. It’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
This would be a brilliant road to ride, in the warm and dry, when you’re not on the limits of your endurance. Even with these limitations, it’s still kind of fun, almost all downhill with long sweeping curves and wide, open roads.
We all actually need to pedal though and as hard as possible, to try and generate some warmth and we’re all travelling at different speeds and well strung out. I’m also hoping that the lower we get, the warmer it will be.
I’ve got a feeling Caracol is away out front and out of sight, while I’m trailing Ovis and the Hammer, with Steadfast and the Big Yin behind me.
Coming to one of the tunnels I slow, while I fiddle to get my lights on and, by the time I’m out of the other side, the road ahead of me is empty. I look back. There’s no one in sight behind me either. I keep going regardless, it’s too cold to stop and wait and it’s meant to be a fairly straightforward run back, so hopefully I wont get lost.
There are a few more tunnels to contend with and I’m in two minds about them. It’s good to get a break from the rain for a while, but the air in the tunnels seems much chillier. I’m still occasionally shivering, but at least its no longer the full-on, uncontrollable shaking following the Galibier descent.
I think I recognise the detour we’d taken last time, set up when one of the road tunnels had collapsed and they’d routed us around the lake. It had been a pleasant diversion and Steadfast had talked about possibly using the same route today. It was closed though, so even if we’d wanted a more scenic amble it wouldn’t have been possible.
The actual tunnel has been repaired, or maybe completely rebuilt and it was plush, long, well-lit and with a super-smooth road surface. I blasted through onto a long, straight road, as completely empty ahead of me as it was behind.
I hit a town, at speed, neck on a swivel, desperately looking for a sign or some directions. Finally I spot one, another classic of French minimalism, attached high up on a building and almost completely blending into its surroundings.
It points the way to Bourg d’Oisans and I take up its mute invitation. I keep hoping the sun might break through and warm me up a little, but even as the skies clear a little, the sun is starting to sink and never generates much warmth.
A bit further up the road and a car with steamed up windows pulls up alongside me and Biden Fecht’s head pops out the back.
“D’you want a lift?”
I’m good, I tell him and wave them on, re-assured that I’m definitely on the right road.
Crazy Legs would later tell me when he’d picked Kermit and Biden Fecht up, they’d both been shivering so badly they couldn’t lift their bikes into the back of the car. He’d put Kermit in the front, in charge of the heater, which he’d cranked up to the maximum 29℃, where it had stayed for the duration of their journey, while Crazy Legs had sweated and chugged bottles of water to try and avoid extreme dehydration.
I finally recognise the route we took back from the “pelmet ride” yesterday and then I’m onto the final stretch, past the town and turning, at last, into the campsite.
Kermit and Biden Fecht are back in the chalet and look to have recovered from their ordeal. I learn that, sterling and stalwart fellows that they are, Crazy Legs and Buster have cooked us dinner and we wont have to drag our sore, sorry and abused bodies into town to forage for food.
Before that though, I have a pressing appointment in the camp shower-block, where I spent 40 minutes and gallons of hot water trying to feel human again.
Soaking wet kit is hung out to dry, before I make my way to the chalet next door, find a chair and slump down.
Buster hands me a piping hot plate of pasta and sauce … I don’ think it’s seemly to cry, so I just ask him if he’ll marry me on the spot.
Wednesday finds me piloting a car utterly packed to the gunwales through a downpour of truly Biblical proportions, as I transport Thing#1 and sooo much stuff back from University. Her First Year Is done, dusted and in the bag. Already. It seems like only yesterday we were taking her down and years are becoming too short a currency to measure time by. Like the old Soviet Union, I think I need to start thinking and planning in 5-year cycles.
The electronic ghost of Josh Ritter’s riding shotgun and providing the soundtrack, warbling about steamboats, gold leaf pyramids and wearing an iron albatross on his bonnet, as I find the outside lane of the motorway and accelerate. A pigeon spirals lazily down from an overhead gantry and lands directly into my path. There is a dull thump, the pigeon disappears and I suspect I’ve left a sodden corpse in a feathering pile somewhere in my hissing wake.
Arriving home I find the pigeon corpse is actually deeply embedded in the front grille of the car, it’s wings spread-eagled (spread-pigeoned?) outwards, like some grotesque and macabre hood ornament. My own personal albatross? I hope it’s not an omen, as this particular ancient mariner is packing to journey southwards…
Thursday Morning, 7 A.M.
Seven o’clock in the bleary morning, the very next day and, more by luck than good management, I join a line of skinny blokes, carting over-large bags through a relatively quiet Newcastle International Airport. Four of us, myself, Crazy Legs, the Hammer and Steadfast are returning to the scene of past crimes, hoping the good citizens of the Haute-Savoie have forgotten about us, or forgiven the trail of desecrated and devastated toilets we left across the region two years ago – a serious international incident at the time that had left the OPCW scrambling to respond.
Having been blooded in our Pyrenean Expeditionary Force last year, Kermit and Caracol have signed up too, along with rookies Buster, Biden Fecht, the Big Yin and Ovis, bolstering our numbers and replacing missing comrades, Goose and Captain Black.
Clearing check-in, baggage dump and security, nervous flyer, Buster heads for the nearest bar for a little Dutch courage, with the Big Yin in tow. The rest of us desport ourselves in the café to indulge in idle banter, hot beverages and breakfast bites.
Ten of us, in total then, are heading to the Cascades Campsite in Bourg d’Oisans, our base of operations for various sorties into the high Alps by velocipede.
Lord have mercy on our souls.
Maps and Legends
In the cafe, the Hammer unfolds a large map of our Area of Operations and points out lines of supply, strongpoints we need to conquer and various lines of retreat. Rides are discussed, but with it being a much bigger group, there’s plenty of scope for different options. Personally though, I’m planning something similar to two years ago, with only minor variations:
Day#1 – an ascent of Alpe d’Huez with additional bits tagged on to test the legs and the bikes.
Day#2 – the Circle of Death, a 9-hour monster loop taking in the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Col du Lauteret – 165km with over 4,000 metres of elevation gain, seemingly always destined to end with a race against the sinking sun. Caracol has determined finding travel insurance while suggesting you are going to be engaged in an activity known as “The Circle of Death” is somewhat problematic and has been seeking a more user-friendly name for this ride.
Day#3 – a leisurely amble back up the Alpe, for lunch at the top, ideal for shredded legs and a bit of sight-seeing and souvenir shopping, before retiring to the town for a congenial round of celebratory, ice-cold beverages.
Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?
Clothing restrictions for using the camp swimming pool are discussed, with the Hammer insisting that in France, for some unknown reason, only budgie smugglers will cut it. Swimming shorts and anything else that doesn’t make you look like a pallid version of Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast are strictly verboten. Or interdit, if you prefer.
Biden Fecht expresses disappointment that he wont be allowed to wear his traditional kilt to the pool.
“But, you’re not Scottish,” Crazy Legs insists.
Biden Fecht declares he’s of mixed-race and questioning his ethnicity is akin to extreme racial prejudice, venal bullying and personal harassment.
And so the banter begins…
Chatting about films, Ovis reveals he’s always getting Matt Damon confused with “that other actor.” His observation is somewhat spoiled as he can’t remember the actual name of “that other actor.”
“Is it Denzel Washington?” I ask, helpfully.
“Is it not Jackie Chan?” Crazy Legs wonders.
Caracol tells us he’s left behind a small leak in his kitchen, with nothing but a bucket to collect the intermittent dripping. We naturally spend a good ten minutes conjuring up a series of disaster scenario’s he’ll find when he returns to a devastated and destroyed home. He’s far too laid back to bite.
And then the gate is called and we’re all shuffling off for the first stage of our journey…
Leaving On a Jet Plane
… which proves relatively uneventful, especially as this time Crazy Legs manages to avoid being trapped in his seat by an overlarge, ridiculously solid, prop forward looking to make a name for himself with a French rugby club.
We are disgorged from the plane, pass down a bland, corporately decorated corridor and are spat out into Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, in the Departure Hell (sic) opposite the giant Starbucks. We then trail Crazy Legs from one end of the airport to the other, sensing he has some unspoken mission that’s driving him ever onward.
He’s looking for the Starbucks…
We reach the end of the terminal, a series of desolate, empty and uninhabited gates and then start to backtrack. The Hammer wonders if I might like to visit one of the champagne and oyster bars, the perfect repast, he suggests, for someone who’s been as sick as a dog the first two times we’ve made similar trips. I (very) politely decline.
We backtrack, all the while Kermit complains about the amount of walking we are having to do, obviously concerned about saving his legs for travails ahead. Still, at least this year he isn’t trailing cabin baggage large enough to smuggle a small child in, so manages to skip along relatively unburdened – even if he does have to take two steps for every stride the Big Yin takes.
We finally find the Starbucks (again) and settle in to kill a little more time. Here we learn Steadfast has made it in safely from his home on the south coast and will join us, once he’s finished wallowing in the somewhat more rarefied atmosphere of the Executive Lounge. He proves understandably reluctant to smuggle any of us chancers in with him, or even liberate any of the free goodies on offer and bring them out to us, so we’ll not see him until we’re at the plane.
Band on the Run
We meander to the gate for our Geneva flight, where we queue with a group of extraordinary Italian gentlemen. Their leader appears to have modelled himself on a cross between Al Pacino, circa Dog Day Afternoon and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He has big floppy hair with enormous chads, Ray-Ban aviators, open-necked shirt with a collar wide enough to park a car on, over a tan leather jacket with lapels that somehow manage to dwarf the shirt collars. He’s also wearing an enormously wide pair of flares containing enough loose material to re-upholster a small sofa, should you ever want a purple paisley sofa.
His collection of mid-70’s styled colleagues, sport an arresting array of big hair-do’s, cravats, gold chains, wide-lapelled, leather jackets in lurid autumnal colours, flares worn with belt-buckles the size of dinner plates, platform shoes and everything else bad from fashion’s darkest, most tasteless era.
We surmise they are possibly wearing what is considered the very latest, cutting-edge, haute couture in Geneva – it seems a logical assumption, the place does seem to be 40 years behind the rest of Europe, but, it’s just as likely they could be a highly sophisticated Italian stag-party.
We’re scattered throughout the plane for another largely uneventful flight and I pass the time between reading and sleeping.
War Without Frontiers
At the other end, the glowering version of passport control from two years ago seems to have been replaced with one of studied indifference. I’m not sure this Mark 2 variant is an improvement. “Welcome to Geneva and have a nice day. If you must.”
By the time I’m through, into the Baggage Hell, the bike bags and boxes have miraculously appeared and all have been accounted for. I realise that, like cats, cyclists don’t take well to herding, but I thought we had a general consensus as, after extended dallying, we finally make for the exit and the car rental desks.
I was wrong. At the other end though we score a measly 6 out of 10 for togetherness, Buster, the Big Yin, Kermit and Biden Fecht have all disappeared.
Frantic texting reveals that Kermit has hired his car from the French side of the airport and, as I’m travelling in his party, I’m in the wrong place. I have to work my way back up and through the terminal, passing the Big Yin and Buster heading the other way. I then get to experience the humourless, unwelcoming security and passport control all over again. Joy. Luckily, I still have a boarding card for my inbound flight on my phone. If I’d had a paper one, I might well have discarded it once out of the airport and I don’t think I’d have been allowed through again.
Later, Crazy Legs reveals the League of Extraordinary Italian Gentlemen are actually a band working a 70’s pastiche angle. Pastiche? I prefer shossage rowlsh, as a much funnier person than me once commented. At the car rental desk the assistant is warily eye-balling their instrument cases and, assuming Crazy Legs and Ovis are part of the band, trying to work out what sort of hellish, exotic and bizarre instruments, they might have packed into their over-sized, square boxes.
Having re-crossed the frontlines, I join up with Kermit and Biden Fecht on the French side of the airport and after trawling up and down several flights of stairs we finally locate our rental van. We load her up, I figure out how to work the Sat-Nav and we consign ourselves to the tender mercies of our French guide.
Elle à dit
Apparently, hiring a car from the French sector of the airport saves you paying a €40 vignette, or road tax to use Swiss motorways. Sadly, it also means you don’t get to use the Swiss motorways. And, while the car should come pre-equipped with a breathalyser kit, supposedly a legal requirement for any driving in France, as far as I can tell, isn’t actually enforced. The downside of missing Swiss motorways is a seemingly endless circumnavigation of the entire airport on minor roads, before you begin your journey proper.
We settle down for our two hour plus, elongated road trip, occasionally re-tuning the radio as the signals fade in and out and enjoying an eclectic mix of Euro-pop (only Mylène Farmer, The Dø and a French version of Snow’s, pseudo-reggae, “Informer” distinguish themselves) some golden oldies and, appropriately, if somewhat bizarrely, “Airport” by British one-hit wonders, The Motors.
Interspersed in-between the music are some truly execrable, unlovable radio ads, “Oui! Oui! Aussi!” – which serve only to advertise that the complete dearth of creative ad talent at home, is matched by an equal paucity in continental Europe.
We occasionally get sit-reps from the other groups who are encountering heavy traffic trying to leave Switzerland, but still seem well ahead of us and likely to arrive in Bourg d’Oisans long before we do.
Still, as if triggering a slow-motion Venus flytrap, the mountains start to rise up on either side, still resolutely snow-mantled and the sky retreats until it’s just a patch of bright blue directly overhead. We trace a fast-flowing, turbulent river upstream and into Bourg d’Oisans and I recognise “that Dutch bar” as we cut through the town centre. I direct Kermit to the campsite, past the counter which shows how many cyclists have climbed the Alpe d’Huez today.
We see Crazy Legs on our way in and learn everyone’s convening at “that Dutch bar.” Grand. We know where that is. We park up, quickly dump our bags in the cabin and head into town to join up with our compadres. The bikes can wait until the morning.
We’re all present and correct, a solid 10 out of 10 and it seems an auspicious start. What could possibly go wrong?
The weather was set to be perfect, bright, warm and dry, the sky without cloud and the land without wind. Still, it wasn’t quite there yet when I first set out, with the air still chilly, so I hid under arm warmers and full finger gloves, all pulled over a necessary layer of sun-cream.
I had a very pleasant and totally relaxed ride across to the meeting point and arrived in good time to join G-Dawg admiring the obscene graffiti on the wall, before it was obscured by a flash mob of milling cyclists.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
In the space of just seven days we found a startling contrast between last weeks wickedly cold start and this weeks balmy, sunny conditions. Everyone seemed to have dressed accordingly, well, other than Zip Five in tights, arm warmers over a long sleeved base-layer and overshoes and the Garrulous Kid, who was basically wearing the exact same kit he’s worn for the past 6-weeks… only this time it was appropriate to the conditions.
“You’re like a stopped clock,” Jimmy Mac informed him, “Just very occasionally you are, by default going to get it right.”
The Garrulous Kid is proving to be to football punditry what Theresa May is to international diplomacy and delicate negotiation. After his disastrous guarantee that Germany was going to sweep all before them and dominate the World Cup, his prediction that Man City were “nailed on” for a remarkable quadruple is starting too look ever so slightly suspect.
OGL rolled up, took a chemist’s prescription bag out of his back pocket and started emptying out the various contents, bottles, tubes and boxes of pills, to secrete about his person.
“What’s with the Jiffy bag?” some wag asked, while I started singing, “EPO, EPO, EPO” to the tune of “Here we go, Here we go, Here we go” – a variation of the fiendish complex, difficult to master, classic football-chant, devised by the veritable Toshi San to serenade David Millar on his return to racing on British Roads.
OGL had the Team Sky deflection tactics down pat though, immediately switching the conversation to boxer Jarrell Miller’s failed drug-test, where he’d secured the grand slam of being popped for EPO, HGH and GW1516 (whatever that is) all at the same time. Still, Miller has wholeheartedly apologised, held his hand up and admitted he’s made a mistake … so, no harm done eh?
OGL then advised that roadworks meant traffic was backing up through Ponteland, so recommended we changed our route into the village. With that agreed, we picked a rendezvous point, split into two groups and away we went.
Things started out well, the pace was high, the sun was shining and the company amenable. I was just rolling up the outside of the group, picking up too much speed on a downhill section and too lazy to brake, when ahead of me, Spry’s bike jettisoned his tool tub. Stuffed with spare inner tubes and various Allen keys, it bounced once end-over-end and then rolled under my front wheel. I hit it and there was a resounding crack. My front wheel twitched violently and then straightened and I rolled on checking for damage.
My bike seemed fully intact and there was no puncture to deal with, but the impact had shattered the lid of Spry’s tool tub. I apologised for the damage I’d done as I passed him, back-tracking to pick up his discarded essentials.
We pressed on through Stamfordham and then up the hill to the lay-by, used for the start and finish of numerous cycling events. We pulled over here to wait for our rendezvous with the second group.
They duly arrived and we hung around for too long just chatting aimlessly and enjoying the sunshine, until OGL got tetchy and, pausing only to rebuke Plumose Pappus for having a grungy, rusting rear cassette, nagged us all into action again. Various splits and routes were agreed and we finally started up again.
Heading up toward Capheaton, Mini Miss picked up a puncture and it was back to standing around, shooting the breeze and waiting. I had a chat with Captain Black about the missing BFG (presumed to be still alive, but probably living under a(nother) false name, somewhere in the UK). We reminisced about the time he’d taken his bike into Boots to find the exact colour of nail varnish to match his chipped frame and ended up with a bevvy of beauticians and shop assistants helping him out. (Rimmel’s Pinking Out Loud and Max Factor’s Broody Blood Bouquet were the recommended choices. Although grateful for all the help, I’m led to believe the BFG felt the need to push back when it was suggested his cuticles needed urgent attention and a full manicure wouldn’t go amiss.)
Repairs made and on we went, following the route of last years National Road Race and cutting across the hills, through Hallington, to the bottom of the Ryals. Once again we marvelled that people actually race at full tilt down this narrow, twisting, pot holed, gravel-strewn and over-grown farm track.
I caught up with Richard of Flanders and we both agreed it was too nice a day to ruin it with an assault on the Ryals, but that’s exactly where we were heading.
I was drifting toward the back of the group when we made the turn and hadn’t gone far, when Jake the Snake, the Dormanator, pulled up with a puncture.
Our calls went either unheard, or unheeded by those in front and they pressed on leaving six of us to help sort out the puncture and then make the run for the cafe. I joined Aether in helping Jake the Snake replace his tube, while an overheating Zip Five tried to shed some layers and Rab Dee, in a move that was pure Jacques Anquetil, drained his water bottles, declaring he didn’t want to carry any extra weight up the climb. The Ticker then admitted he was a Ryals virgin and this would be his very first introduction to their nasty, brutish ways.
Underway again and rolling toward the climb, I passed the Ticker, whistling a little too nonchalantly and I commended him on his show of bravado.
Then we hit the first ramp and started to go up. I followed Rab Dee and Benedict closely up the first ramp, but didn’t feel I was in a comfortable gear and I was spinning a bit too wildly. As the road dipped down before climbing again, they changed up and kicked on, opening up a gap while I freewheeled, trying to recover and find a comfortable gear for the second ramp.
Then the slope bit again and I gave chase, slowly closing the gap, but running out of hill before I made it all the way across. We rolled down to the turn for the Quarry, where we stopped to regroup. After several minutes, with no sign of the Ticker, I started to backtrack, hoping to pick him up.
I’d almost made it back to Ryal village when he finally appeared, having suffered what he hilariously described as a “chain wedgie” – shipping his chain and getting it jammed between chainring and bottom bracket, or cassette and free hub … or maybe both at the same time.
“That’s what you get when you’re desperately looking for the secret 12th sprocket on an 11-speed cassette,” I told him.
After the Ryals, we made short work of the Quarry and started to pick up speed for the cafe. Once again I found myself on the front for the drag up and through the crossroads. It’s becoming a very bad habit.
I stayed on the front up to the final junction, when Rab Dee took over and kicked away. Closing fast on the Snake Bends, I pushed in front of him again, he took the briefest of micro-pauses, just enough to collect his breath, before he surged away.
I couldn’t follow, but we seemed to have left everyone else trailing in our wake, so I sat up and coasted through the bends.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The day was nice enough to retire to the garden and there I joined the already firmly ensconced Goose, Captain Black and Mini Miss, the latter enjoying he wanton displays of bike porn, most especially someone’s pure white Storck. This was close to being her dream bike, although she admitted it would be a difficult decision between a Storck and a more traditional, celeste Bianchi.
We recalled Goose, perhaps the least brand aware amongst us, being accosted by the one-time distributor of Storck bikes in the UK, who gave him the full-court press in trying to persuade him to drop £3 grand or more on a new bike, without really being able to justify the price tag, or read his audience with any degree of accuracy or empathy.
In discussions with Captain Black, I did the Ryals a disservice by suggesting they didn’t get much above 7-8%. The VeloViewer site characterises the “official” climb as being 1.5 km long, with an average gradient of 4% and a maximum of 16.8%.
Whatever the actual statistics, I think my point is still valid, it’s not an epic, enjoyable, or particularly memorable climb and I never feel any great sense of achievement topping it. I can imagine it does become brutal if you race up it, full gas 3 or 4 times in a race (such as next weeks Beaumont, or the Nationals Road Race) though.
We then played a kind of cycling Top Trumps, with Captain Black selecting the Tourmalet as the hardest climb he’s done, while, along with Goose, I went for the Galibier.
At the next table, the Monkey Butler was getting grief for his white, aero socks, but I refused to join in and condemn him, when the Garrulous Kid had two hairy, shapeless, baggy and grungy socks of no discernible colour, pooled around his ankles like two used and discarded elephant condoms.
Then, in a concession to the heat and inadequate pre-planning of layers, the Monkey Butler Boy re-appeared wearing just a gilet on his top half, arms bare to the shoulder. Socks be dammed, I immediately told him he looked like a wannabe triathlete and he couldn’t ride with us. Standards must be maintained.
As a parting shot, as we were packing up to go, I turned to Mini Miss, “What’s it going to be then, a Bianchi, or a Storck?”
“Well,” she mused, “I think Bianchi …”
She paused a heartbeat, before adding, “But I wouldn’t mind meeting a man with a Storck.”
Oh dear, that didn’t sound right. Time to leave.
Having been delayed by a couple of punctures, we were running late, so I peeled off to pick my way over the airport and shave a little distance and time off my journey home.
A couple of others came with me, at least as far as Ponteland, so I at least got another opportunity to apologise to Spry for destroying his tool tub.
Through Ponteland, I passed the long tail of traffic OGL had warned about that morning, as it backed up through the roadworks. Uncharitable as it seems, I have to admit passing the long, long line of drivers, cooped up and sweltering in their cars, made me smile and it buoyed me all the way home.
YTD Totals: 2,582 km / 1,604 miles with 34,470 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 107 km / 67 miles with 1,038 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 3 minute
Average Speed: 26.5 km/h
Group size: 33 riders, 2 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Chilly
A chilly start to the day and as I dropped downhill, gradually picking up speed I was glad of the arm warmers and long fingered gloves I’d dug out of deep storage.
First to arrive at the meeting point, I clambered up to sit on the wall, enjoying the deceptive warmth in the shelter of the Transport Interchange’s (i.e. Bus Station) micro-climate.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Szell was the first of my riding companions to arrive climbing stiffly off his bike and complaining of a stiff back which he felt was an occupational hazard common to all dentists.
Odd, as he’s not a dentist …
Oh, ok, I lied, he is really.
We had a discussion about holidays and I admitted the only thing remotely akin to cycling I’d managed in the past week was piloting a pedalo (badly) through a flotilla of yachts, speedboats and ferries.
In complete agreement with Mrs. Sur la Jante, Szell firmly declared that family vacations were not for cycling and he was always bemused when talk about a forthcoming holiday was interrupted by the inevitable “are you taking your bike?” query.
I told him I was largely detached in holiday destination selection and trip planning anyway, so I typically had a poor grasp of any cycling opportunities that could be on offer – my only tasks are to book the time off work and act as porter for numerous suitcases full of clothes, which invariably returned home in the same clean, unworn and uncreased state they left in.
Szell proved quite envious of my approach, seemingly in contrast to his own, where he does all the choosing, booking, preparations and arrangements, solely to provide his missus with a surfeit of ammunition to complain, berate, castigate and criticise all of his choices for the entire duration of their holiday.
The Red Max rolled up and added his own unique spin on the conversation – he has a whole three-weeks lined up in Spain (with bikes!) but he doesn’t go until the temperature is manageable and still has a seven long, long weeks to wait.
Everyone had responded to the chilly start to the day with a varied selection of gloves, arm warmers, legwarmers, jackets and gilet’s. Crazy Legs had taken things one step further, with winter boots, tights and gloves, a long-sleeved jacket, a gilet and a buff pulled up to his sunglasses to cover the lower half of his face. He looked like the Invisible Man, or at least a set of clothes the Invisible Man would be proud to be seen in. All apparently an attempt to, once and for all, rid himself of his lingering chest infection.
Spoons had bravely volunteered to plan and lead the ride and began outlining the route, reading from a carefully prepared crib sheet on his phone “Up Broadway West and …”
He was immediately and rudely interrupted by the return of the Lone Dissenting Voice. “Nah, nah, not Broadway,” it snarled, “It’s bloody lethal. Lethal! I’m not going up Broadway!”
Odd. I’ve been on countless rides where the Lone Dissenting Voice has led us merrily up Broadway West. Still, it’s a free country and everyone’s entitled to change their mind, I guess.
Spoons managed to complete the route outline without further interruption and a bumper mass of 33 riders (minus 1 exception) agreed to split, intending to rendezvous and regroup at the top of the Quarry.
I joined a disappointingly small, eight man front group and off we went, navigating up Broadway West, with great caution, huge amounts of trepidation and much muttering, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti …”
Having negotiated the road, surprisingly without incident or grievous harm, I fell into conversation with the Monkey Butler Boy. He said he was only going to accompany us for a short while, en route to meeting up with his callow Wrecking Crew, then they were off to tackle the Gibbet, a famous local climb just outside Elsdon.
Although marked by an actual, reconstructed gibbet, the gallows marking the spot – where local ne’er-do-well and murderer William Winter was hanged in 1792 – there’s nothing particularly murderous about the climb and I was surprised by the Monkey Butler Boy’s claim he’d never ridden it before.
(The Red Max would later suggest that, “once again” the Monkey Butler Boy was talking complete and utter nonsense and had in fact tackled the climb on numerous occasions.)
The Monkey Butler Boy swept away and I dropped in alongside Richard of Flanders, as Caracol and Rab Dee set a furious pace on the front. Spoons and Benedict took over from them and then, as we approached Fenwick and turned both uphill and into the wind, it was suddenly our turn on the front.
Perfect timing. Thanks guys.
As I pushed on alongside Richard of Flanders, I was describing my latest work, improving ailing University courses and supporting the development of new ones. This, I explained had given me some hard-earned knowledge (but little understanding) of an eclectic range of subjects, such as Mechatronic Engineering, Cryptocurrencies, Merkle Trees and Animal Energetics.
Richard suggested things had changed rapidly since his days working in the Potteries, when every other client was a Nipple Knocker. Now he felt this much-storied profession was dying out, overtaken by sadly prosaic job titles such as Search Engine Optimisation Engineer.
He started to expound on the historical, philosophical, economic, social and nationalistic characteristics that might explain why the French seemed particularly interested in Robotics courses, before stopping mid-sentence to laugh at himself, “Listen to me, talking shite.”
He then declared that there was no greater pleasure than “talking shite on a bike” which we’ve found has particular synergies with talking shite in the pub, or talking shite over coffee and cake.
“This,” I explained, “Is the quintessential essence of club cycling. Talking shite on a bike is what keeps us coming back week, after week, after week.”
We then both commented on how odd it was to be approaching the Quarry climb relatively fresh and early, rather than toward the end of the ride, after much leg-shredding and as a prelude to a mass café gallop.
Then we were grunting and groaning up the ramps as we took the group up to the top. Here we settled in to wait for the rest, but after long minutes, with no one in sight, we started to imagine the worst and concluded that the second group had probably been decimated while trying to negotiate the acute, but well-hidden perils of Broadway West.
Rab Dee reckoned they’d all been picked off, one by one, in a macabre game of devil-take-the-hindmost, while Caracol imagined a series a floral, roadside shrines spaced at intervals along the route, each marking the final resting place of a fallen comrade, before culminating in a grandiose tomb for the Lone Dissenting Voice, bearing a simple, but pithy epitaph: “See, I told you it was lethal.”
We filled in some time discussing new bikes. Rab Dee has one he was using for the first time today, while Caracol had a new winter bike and had sentenced his old one to life on the turbo. This had him pondering the value of Zwift as a potential training aid.
I told him to ask Crazy Legs, who had used something similar and reported riding the Oslo World Championship course, in splendid isolation from the comfort of his own garage, but also, simultaneously in collective-cyberspace with a bunch of virtual strangers.
He’d ended up laughing at himself for futilely flicking out an elbow to try and get one of them to come through and do a turn on the front, before realising he was still in his garage, there was no one behind him to come through and no matter how professional his elbow waggling looked, no one could actually see it.
An amused Caracol wondered if he had also taken the time to point out any old oil spills or stray nails that might have been lurking on the garage floor.
After a long, long wait, we determined our second group had in fact encountered problems along the way, or had simply decided to take to different roads, so we pressed on without them.
We then took a circuitous route through Capheaton and up to Wallington. Richard of Flanders, Keel and Zardoz headed straight through to Middleton Bank from there, while the rest of us climbed up to Scots Gap before looping back to the hill.
When we got there, a frisky Caracol blasted away, with Rab Dee in hot pursuit, while the rest of us were left to follow as best we could.
Alongside Benedict, I caught up with a waiting Rab Dee as we crossed the top of the hill and, as the road levelled, we found ourselves with Caracol a distant speck in front and Spoons a similar distance behind. Our choices were simple, to wait, to chase, or to stay where we were, hanging somewhere between the two.
After a fairly lengthy consideration, we decided to chase (sorry, Spoons) and set off in pursuit of Caracol. With Rab Dee pushing on the front, we slowly reeled in our front runner, while I sat at the back, just about hanging on.
We were all together for the sweep around Bolam Lake and the swoop through Milestone Woods. Then we hit the rollers and I attacked up the first slope … because … well, because I always do. This gave Caracol and Rab Dee a springboard to slingshot around me as my legs inevitably failed on the last slope and while I chased hard, I had no chance of narrowing the gap on the final climb to the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The Red Max reported that the Lone Dissenting Voice had indeed rejected the planned route and led a splinter group away from the perils of Broadway West – the splinter group consisting of exactly one, single, solitary rider.
I can neither deny, nor confirm rumours that the Lone Dissenting Voice still found something to argue about, even as he rode off in his own company.
Crazy Legs then said a new guy had shown up just as the second group were pulling out and asked to join on. He had apparently “seen people riding in a group before” which Crazy Legs took as a tacit admission that he hadn’t actually done it himself.
The new guy, let’s call him Joe (simply because I understand that’s his actual name) seemed to be doing fine, until he showed a remarkable affinity for spelunking and drawn in by the lure of a deep, unfathomable pothole, planted his wheel in it, smashing down and fracturing his collarbone.
Emergency services and concerned-partner calls were made and Crazy Legs, Carlton and a delegation hung back to look after our fallen rider until the ambulance arrived, while the rest of the group pressed on. At some point the LDV had sailed past and away, I’m not sure what words were emitted at this point, but I do know his contributions were not well received.
Further mishap then befell the group, when Crazy Legs suffered a stupidly close punishment pass from a motorcyclist, tangled handlebars with Carlton and came down. Luckily his much cossetted Ribble managed to escape without harm, while Crazy Legs collected a few bruises and scratches, a hole in his leggings (which he thought added street cred) and a stinger from landing heavily on his side.
(For the sake of clarity, it’s worth pointing out that neither of these incidents occurred anywhere near Broadway West, although our mindless transgression of its sacred boundaries may have accrued the bad karma that contributed to them.)
I told the Red Max that Crazy Legs has form when it came to tangling with motorcyclists, remembering his game of chicken with the Harley Hogs when descending the Galibier at speed. We wondered (purely theoretically, of course) what the consequences of a more physical confrontation might have been had the motor cyclist bothered to stop to survey the damage he’d caused.
Crazy Legs was quite sanguine about his chances, suggesting cyclists were lighter and more nimble, so he could easily sway out of the way of jumbo haymakers and quickly jab back. He also felt if he could somehow bring the biker down, it would be game over – like a tortoise on its back, or an unhorsed knight in armour, there be no getting back up.
The Red Max appeared to support these fantastical delusions, insisting many cyclists and bikers shared a mid-life crisis engendered by the onset of inherent lardiness, but we channelled ours into physical activity that would directly address the issue, while they channelled theirs into a more sedentary activity that would simply exacerbate it.
Giving the cyclist vs. biker (or mods vs. rockers, if you will) fight-scenario far greater consideration than was justified, Crazy Legs concluded that his slippery cleats would put him at a disadvantage and determined it would be better to fight in his stockinged feet. This, he assured us, would be OK, as he would appeal to the sporting nature of his adversary and politely request that he too remove any footwear, in the interests of fairness.
Quite how he was going to land his punches through the letter box sized visor of a full face helmet I never did get a satisfactory answer to, luckily someone decided it was time to leave.
I joined a small group for the ride back, progressing at a sensible, sustained pace which was ideal for my tired legs that appeared to be suffering a holiday hangover. A larger group had coalesced in front of us, but no one had any inclination to chase them down and the gap simply expanded until we could no longer see them on the road.
As we set our own, comfortable pace back, I dropped in beside Sneaky Pete for a quick chat and learned that the heatwave is officially over, as he revealed he’d taken to wearing long trousers instead of shorts for the first time in 3 months.
Oh well, it’s been a good run…
YTD Totals: 5,014 km / 2,814 miles with 61,645 metres of climbing
Total Distance:25 km / 16 miles with 1,033 metres of climbing
Ride Time:1 hours 50 minutes
Average Speed:13.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two:Hotter
I awoke rather groggily to find someone had broken in during the night and filled my legs full of concrete and it took me a while to get moving. When I did, I found Crazy Legs busily flitting around and dressed to ride.
“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”
I needed to ride to try and rediscover where my legs were.
“Wait, I’m coming.”
“How long do you need?”
As we reached agreement, Captain Black emerged, blinking and yawning. Rest had obviously done him good and Twatty MacTwat Face had reverted back to being Old Faithful. I told him the plan and he hauled his ass into gear too – 3 for the Alpe!
It wasn’t much longer than 15 minutes later and we turned right out of the campsite, pushed the pedals around half a dozen times and found ourselves once again on the first ramp up the mountain to L’Alpe d’Huez.
I took the first couple of hairpins out of the saddle and turning a modestly large gear, until feeling returned to my lower extremities and the stiffness stated to dissipate. I then dropped onto the granny ring, and plonked myself down to spin slowly upwards.
Behind me Captain Black got half way round the first hairpin and was shocked to find just how hard it was. Just before he turned round to head back, thinking he obviously hadn’t recovered from the day before, he finally looked down and realised he was still on the big ring. There was a sudden, resounding, clunking, wince-inducing clang of stressed and tortured metal that reverberated around the mountains, as he changed down under intense pressure and finally found instant relief and his climbing form.
The three of us worked our way slowly up the mountain, pausing frequently at various shady vista’s and viewpoints, picking out the past winners signs on the corners, taking photos and chatting with other cyclists.
The signs were a roll-call, highlighting some of cycling’s great and good (and occasionally villainous) – both past and present, ranging from the imperious, il campionissimo, Fausto Coppi in 1952, right up to Thibaut Pinot in 2015.
I found signs commemorating wins by Bernard Hinaut, Gianni Bugno, Stephen Rooks, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Carlos Sastre, Andy Hampsten and Hennie Kuiper among the more famous and celebrated of the winners.
Lance Armstrong’s name is still up there (twice) despite having his Tour victories annulled, along with two for the equally dubious and questionable Marco Pantani, who still holds the record for the fastest ascent of the mountain in an astonishing – no doubt rocket-fuelled, but still astonishing time of under 38 minutes.
I have to admit though, that even taking time to hunt them out and read the signs, I still missed one or two, including Joop Zoetemelk’s 1976 sign which I’d vowed to desecrate in honour of Lucien Van Impe. (Only kidding, nice Dutch folk!)
As previously mentioned, I found the signs totally underwhelming – so much so that I didn’t even bother photographing any of them – but here’s one I prepared earlier (or pinched from the Internet anyway).
As we were making our way around one hairpin, our bête noire from Saturday made a reappearance, as a bumbling Harley Davidson blatted loudly up the road and awkwardly around the bend, leaving a trail of greasy exhaust fumes in its wake.
“Your bike’s shit!” an indignant Crazy Legs shouted after the motorcycle, unfortunately just as another rider pulled up alongside him. This rider gave him a long, quizzical look before deciding he was in the presence of a sun-touched Englishman and he didn’t need to defend the honour of his Cannondale SuperSix. Just to be sure, he accelerated smartly away to avoid further insult to his bike and Crazy Legs can at least take a little credit for spurring one rider on to set a good time.
At the village of La Grade we stopped in a welcome patch of shade, where an elderly rider and his support-vehicle-driving wife were sitting enjoying the views. Our talk turned to decomposition rates as Captain Black enjoyed a belated breakfast banana and Crazy Legs described in intimate detail how the discarded skins turned black, slimy and wizened along the way. “Speaking of black, slimy and wizened,” he declared, starting to reach down the front of his shorts, “My knackers could do with a bit of relief.”
“Hey, nice day, isn’t it?” the support-vehicle-driving wife drawled, stepping in with a nice bit of deflection.
“Oh, hello,” Crazy Legs responded, quickly withdrawing his probing digits and thinking fast, “I thought you were Dutch …”
It turned out they were American, from California, on holiday so the husband could enjoy a second-crack at riding the Alps. We then had a brief chat which concluded rather awkwardly when the wife offered sympathy over the “terrible, tragic things” in the UK and we had to ask whether she meant the terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, or being lumbered with lame-duck, Prime Minister who would sell her own mother cling to power.
She meant the tower fire, which is obviously a cataclysmic tragedy, but not something we were ever likely to be personally invested in and it seemed an odd, discordant thing to bring up with total strangers on a bright sunny day, half-way up a mountain in France.
We kept going and stopped again at what we think was Dutch Corner, afforded the opportunity to look down and appreciate how far we’d climbed, the vista opening out to show the road below, twisting and turning sinuously through multiple hairpins as it snaked up the mountain. Crazy Legs recalled watching the Dauphine from this vantage point in 2010 as a rampant Alberto Contador made multiple impressive attacks before breaking clear to win the stage.
As we pushed on the other two slowly drew ahead and I was happy to trundle along at my own pace, slowing down and swinging right across the road to peer myopically at the signs on the hairpins and try to pick out past Tour stage winners.
More snaps from the photographers, the long drag upwards, a sarcastic slow-hand clap from the inflatable King of the Mountains and I was across the finish line and taking a seat next to Crazy Legs and Captain Black in the same café we’d stopped at the first time up the Alpe. Captain Black won the race to first beer of the day.
And then we spaced ourselves well out for the fun of the descent. It was to be this, more than anything, which gave me an appreciation of just how big a task cycling up a mountain actually is – it took almost 15 minutes to whirr down to the bottom and every hairpin I thought was the last one was followed by another and then another. Looking back around the corners was also the first time I appreciated just how steep some of the ramps actually were, it’s not something you get a good impression of while struggling up them.
And then, sadly it was over, we were done and back at the campsite and climbing off for the last time.
By this time my legs no longer felt like concrete, maybe more like hard cheese – a Cheshire or a Red Leicester perhaps. Either way an improvement of sorts. We broke the bikes down and packed them up, then picked up Steadfast and wondered into town for a few drinks and a late lunch.
The patron of the bar was apparently quite upset she couldn’t offer us any food, “Je suis desole!” but we were happy with baguettes and cornets des frites to accompany the beer. The Hammer joined us, fresh from a ride up to Allemont and then finally Goose appeared after a day alternatively spent walking and lazing by the pool. A few beers and we wandered up to the Dutch restaurant for the last supper.
All this time we talked an unending stream of nonsense (as usual): how Pierre Latour somehow acquired the name Roger, the immorality of any sport that needs judges to decide a winner, Tyneside legend Dave the Dwarf, once spotted drinking in the incongruous company of towering Scottish lock forward Doddie Weir. This led to an attempt to calculate how many dwarves you could reasonably expect in China’s 1.4 billion population and serious concerns about where all the Chinese dwarves are hiding.
We learned that Goose had been inspired by tales of a granny who was arrested for pointing a hairdryer at speeding cars in her village during a (seemingly hugely successful) attempt to get them to slow down. He revealed he had then taken this as inspiration for his own brand of traffic vigilantism, patrolling the streets around his home and leaping unexpectedly out at any motorist he suspects of speeding, arm raised, hand out while intoning a very simple, authoritative and stentorian: “No!”
We managed to calculate bills and work out a way where no one (hopefully) felt out of pocket and discussed doing something similar next year, or the following, although Crazy Legs declared he’s more or less done with the Alps, so we thought up a few alternatives such as Spain – the Pyrenees or Basque region, Tuscany, or perhaps, radically even somewhere flat like the Netherlands.
And then we wandered back, packed and slept, woke and showered, loaded the van, endured an unfriendly chalet inspection, settled our bills, waved off the Hammer and set out for home.
Swiss custom officials were strangely no happier to see us go than they had been to see us arrive and Heathrow customs officials managed to outdo them in terms of inertia, apathy and glowering disaffection.
We bade “bon voyage” to Steadfast, returning to his home along the south coast and the Goose wandered off in search of the best deals he could find on Toblerone. While we waited for our connecting flight, Captain Black stood us a round of coffee’s and had to double-check the price several times before he realised he wasn’t in Geneva airport and didn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.
The “barista” asked for his name and he momentarily confused me by saying Ant rather than Captain Black, or just the Captain. He obviously confused the barista even more as the coffee’s arrived with “Hans” carefully scribed on every cup.
“Oh no,” I suggested to Crazy Legs, “That makes you Knees and me Boomps-a-Daisy.”
We then sat around discussing the worlds woes and how to correct them, until Crazy Legs looked at the flight board and realised our gate was closing in 10 minutes and we were in real danger of being left behind!
A quick, power-walk through the terminal had us tagging onto the very back of the queue, before clambering aboard our connecting flight to Newcastle and home.
At the other end we kept an intent and anxious watch on the baggage carousel, waiting for the arrival of bike bags and boxes and getting a little concerned as time dragged on, the crowd started to thin and the conveyor belt slowly emptied. Then Goose took a step backwards and fell over our bikes which the ninja baggage handlers had delivered by hand and stealthily dropped off right behind us.
Home, safe and sound and largely intact.
So, two days of travelling, Thursday 15th June and Monday 19th June bookended 3 days of riding, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Over the three days we were out on the bikes for 22½ hours, rode 251 kilometres or 156 miles in around 14 hours with almost 6,900 metres of climbing including, L’Alpe d’Huez (twice), the Sarenne, Lauterat, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraph and mighty Galibier.
BA Flights form Newcastle to Geneva via Heathrow cost £160 each.
Budget Car van hire, plus fuel was £478.24, or £95.65 per person (5 people)
The total cost for my trip was around £372, plus meals, food and drinks.
Having been back a couple of weeks now, I can honestly say if someone offered me the exact same trip, with the exact same rides (even including all the pain and misery of the Circle of Death) I wouldn’t hesitate and I’d sign up immediately.
YTD Totals: 3,844 km / 2,304 miles with 46,068 metres of climbing