Sol y Solero

Sol y Solero

Club Run, Saturday 19th May, 2018

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                116 km / 72 miles with 1,183 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                        4 hours 20 minutes

Average Speed:                                26.8 km/h

Group size:                                       34 riders, 0 FNG’s

Temperature:                                   23°C

Weather in a word or two:          Muy agradable


 

SYS
Road Profile

Saturday again and everything was looking good. It had been so cold during a couple of early morning commutes that I’d been forced back into wearing gloves, but the temperatures were creeping up as we approached the weekend. The arm warmers were still a necessary accessory, but I felt safe in discarding the windproof jacket as I took to the roads.

A pipe had burst at the top of the Heinous Hill and water was bubbling up around a manhole cover in the middle of the road. I rode downstream, getting a somewhat uncomfortable early shower for my efforts. I would like to say that it was refreshing and woke me up, but all it did was make the descent a little chillier.

At the roundabout in Blaydon there was yet more water washing across the tarmac, although this time I couldn’t determine its source. Again, I was liberally and unpleasantly sprayed and chilled, but the road was soon climbing and fighting the slope warmed me up again.

The factory digital readout I passed said 24°C already and once again, I questioned how accurately it had been calibrated. It was however undeniably pleasant out, the traffic was relatively light and I passed numerous other cyclists as I made my way across to the meeting point. With the good weather and a certain over-blown event in Windsor to try and avoid, I suspected it was going to be a well-attended ride.


Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:

Caracol arrived on a new bike, a Parlee frame that he’d built up from scratch. The only problem was, something around the back end was constantly rattling and it was driving him too distraction.

“Too much oil on the chain,” Crazy Legs suggested knowingly, he thought a bit more, “Or, maybe too little oil on the chain.”

A few people had a good look and a poke around, but the source of the annoying rattle remained elusive.

OGL was looking for volunteers willing to ride the 106 mile Cyclone Route and generate a Strava file for him. Although he’s very much a Strava-denier, British Cycling have requested the files, so he doesn’t seem to have a choice. He seemed blissfully unaware that you can plot a route without actually having to ride it and, as a result, he’s intent on setting out early on Sunday morning for a 6-hour plus excursion to plot the 90-miler himself.

I suggested that if he did need to physically record the ride, he could do it a lot quicker and easier in a car, but he just looked at me blankly, so I left him to it.

I’m no Strava-superfan, but it definitely beats colouring-in the little 10-mile blocks on a mileage chart pulled from Cycling Weekly and pinned to the bumpy supaglypta in my bedroom in the “good old days” (i.e. when everything was … well, all a bit crap, really). I always started out with good intentions, but don’t think I ever fully completed one of those charts across a full year.

As suspected a combination of good weather and a desire to avoid a sadly unavoidable, turgid, bombastic and anachronistic event happening about 300 miles away, drew out a bumper group of over 30 cyclists, who, it just so happened, appeared to be exclusively male.

Jimmy Mac took to the pulpit-wall to outline the route for the day. As threatened, it included a rare ascent of the Ryals, perhaps as a sop to the Garrulous Kid (who has probably ridden up them more times in the past 4 months than I have in my lifetime) – or perhaps because Jimmy Mac was feeling underutilised and unappreciated at work and wanted to drum up a few more vascular surgeries. Then again, perhaps he’s just a sadist of the highest order.

(We have asked the Garrulous Kid why he has such an affinity to the Ryals, which are a short, violent and not especially enjoyable climb and learned that “they’re fun” and “good training.” Good training for what I’m not quite sure, other than riding up and down the Ryals. We expected him to show a high degree of expertise when we finally got there.)

Our group included Big Dunc in a new, riotously colourful, Bardiani CSF jersey, which we all felt would make a decent, exotic substitute for our own remarkably unloved club jersey. OGL studiously ignored it.

The good weather had even drawn out Famous Seans, a triathlete who, even by triathlete standards, is a bit different and resolutely marches to the beat of his own drum. As usual, he expressed his individuality by wearing very long, knee length socks and short-shorts – he was probably exposing as much flesh as everyone else, it was just framed a little higher.

The plan was to split into two groups and I hung back to try and assess just how well we managed this simple-sounding, but seldom successful task. Miracle of miracles, for once the front group actually looked slightly smaller than the one behind, so I tagged onto the back of it and away we went.


Heading out along Brunton Lane, we passed a high-speed Captain Black heading in the opposite direction, having forsaken his clubmates for a solo run and evidently intent on getting home in time to watch the Royal Wedding.

Through Ponteland, buzzed and flipped off by a motorist overtaking at high speed, Richard of Flanders fully embraced his, Grey Pilgrim/Gandalf persona, chasing down the car at some traffic lights before intoning, “You cannot pass!” to its clearly Balrog occupants.

He tried reasoning with them and even went as far as gesturing to the Garrulous Kid and explaining we were riding with youngsters and such driving was decidedly anti-social, if not downright dangerous. For his part, the Garrulous Kid tried to duck down and look younger than his years. It didn’t work, but I’m not sure it would have made any difference anyway.

Through the town and we picked up a waiting Cowin’ Bovril, who’d used the pre-published route to intercept us without having to ride to the meeting point. He rode with us for a while, before I confirmed his mates were riding in the second group and he dropped back to join them.

We set a fairly brisk pace, covering much of the route that will be used for the National Road Championship in July and noting just how bad the road surface is in places, gravel-strewn, potholed and broken up. So bad, in fact that on the downhill from Hallington and travelling just behind me, Famous Seans hit a pothole with a yelp and pulled over.

As we turned onto the main road leading to the Ryals, I told Jimmy Mac about the possible mechanical and the call went out for everyone to wait at the top of the hill to regroup and assess the damage.

I slowed as the slope loomed ahead and found Crazy Legs cruising along, suffering from a self-confessed jour sans. He gestured at the Ryals and told the Garrulous Kid that this is what he’d been waiting for and to go and get on with it. The Garrulous Kid raced away and I followed at a more considered pace, running my chain up the block as the first and steepest ramp started to bite.

Ahead of me, the Garrulous Kid began thrashing and flailing his way upwards, all jutting elbows and a too-busy style, like Fabio Aru trying to simultaneously shake off a cloud of flies while keeping both hands gripped firmly on the bars. He spearheaded a small knot including Keel and the Rainman as they clawed their way, slowly up into the sky.


Untitlsysed 2


Cresting the first ramp, I changed down, accelerated toward the second, slightly easier slope and started climbing out of the saddle. Then, in super-slow-motion, I started to winch back those ahead of me. I swung across into the opposite lane and eased past a flagging and weaving Keel, then passed the Rainman, before tracking back to the left to draw alongside the Garrulous Kid as the slope finally started to level out

Digging in, a re-invigorated Rainman found the impetus to latch onto my wheel as I passed and I pulled him over the crest. As the gradient lessened, he accelerated away and I dropped in behind for a fast tow up to the village.

Regrouping, we learned that Famous Seans had jarred his tri-bars loose, but was good to continue, so we pressed on toward the Quarry.

“I’m gonna put you in the shade!” Biden Fecht declared as he eased out in front of me, blocking the sun. I told him I’d always consider myself as riding in his shadow.

Away up the Quarry we went, swinging right at the top this time to avoid any chance of a repeat of last week’s double-puncture disaster. The pace increased and I took whatever opportunities I could to move up the outside, before slotting into fourth place with just Jimmy Mac, the Colossus and Caracol in front.

I wanted to put in a little dig on the rises up to the final junction, but approaching traffic kept me confined to the left hand lane. At the junction itself, a call of “bike left” made me hesitate and look twice and a small gap opened in front of me as we turned onto the road down toward the Snake Bends. I worked to close it, even as the Colossus and Caracol put clear air between themselves and Jimmy Mac as they fought out the final sprint.

Slowly, painfully, I closed on Jimmy Mac’s rear wheel, until I reached a point when I thought, you know, if I really shred my legs, burst my heart, trash my lungs and inflict horrible injury on myself, I might just be able to squeeze ahead of him … but, was it even worth trying?

Well, of course it was …


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

We arrived to find the café almost completely empty, but the garden already half full. It was good timing, as by the time everyone else had piled in, the café would still be empty, but the queue would extend out the door and the garden would be ringed in a perimeter of bikes, sometimes two or three machines deep. Much to the disgust of the Monkey Butler Boy he even found that someone had dared to carefully lean their bike up against his brand new machine. For one moment I thought he might cry.

Caracol was still perturbed by his mysterious rattle and had decided that when he got home he’d try swapping out different parts to try and locate the errant component. He started a litany of things he could consider changing over:

“Wheels … cassette … derailleur … pedals, even though I know it’s not the pedals … brakes …saddle …”

“The frame?” someone suggested helpfully.

A late arriving Red Max press-ganged the Monkey Butler Boy into getting him a Coke and a cake and a coffee, and Caracol offered up his mug for a refill too; “While you’re there.” It all seemed simple enough and reluctantly the Monkey Butler Boy dragged himself off to join the queue.

5 minutes later and he was back, Caracol’s still empty coffee mug swinging loosely in his hand.

“What did you want again?” he asked the Red Max.

“A Coke and a cake and a coffee.”

“Oh, yeah. Got it” Off he went to join the back of the queue again.

I took a few mugs in for a refill and found the Monkey Butler Boy about a third of the way through the queue. I relieved him of Caracol’s mug, thinking it would ease some of the pressure on the Red Max’s terribly complex order. If pressed, I would swear the Monkey Butler Boy was standing there mumbling too himself, “err … a Coke and cake and a coffee … a Coke a cake and a coffee …”

Sometime later, the Monkey Butler Boy returned triumphantly. With a Coke and a cake…

Meanwhile, the Garrulous Kid had appeared, pointed to a teeny-tiny graze on his elbow and informed us that he’d punctured and not only punctured, but fallen off too. I’m still not sure if the two actions were in any way related. Close questioning was no help in revealing how, or when, or where these events occurred, but we may just have been distracted by the concept of the Garrulous Kid successfully sorting out his own puncture.

Slow Drinker wandered past and Crazy Legs wished him a happy birthday for the day before. Crazy Legs then spotted that he too seemed to have been in the wars, as the Slow Drinkers legs were marred with grazes.

“Oh, have you come off?” Crazy Legs wondered.

“No, no, they’re just carpet burns,” Slow Drinker replied cryptically, before wandering away.

Must have been one hell of a birthday party…

The Monkey Butler Boy confessed he’d almost been late this morning as he’d been cornered in the bike shed by his arch nemesis a wasp. Luckily, he’d somehow managed to batter his way out of this dire predicament by using a spare pair of wheels as an improvised, giant fly-swatter. I thought such undaunted bravery deserved a mention.

He also revealed his dad had told him if he shaved off his incipient, bum-fluff moustache, it would grow back thicker, stronger and much manlier. Two months on and with a completely bare upper lip, he’s still waiting.

The Garrulous Kid had family commitments and had to leave early. This coincided with OGL’s departure for a ride back “at his own pace.” It looked like they’d have the opportunity to ride together…

“I don’t know which one to pity the most,” I confessed to the Colossus.

He reassured me not to worry, they’d probably ride the whole way back separated by about 10 yards and in stoic silence.


When it was out turn to leave, we got split into two groups by traffic and as we left the main road for quieter lanes, I decided to try and bridge across to the front group. I made good progress at first, but they weren’t hanging around and as I drew closer I found myself battering head-on into a stiff breeze that had blown up out of nowhere.

I was just deciding whether to sit up, or give it one last effort to avoid an embarrassing stint of chasse-patate, when the Monkey Butler Boy announced from behind that he’d decided to come across too. He took the lead, I dropped onto his wheel and with added impetus quickly closed the gap to the front group.

Here I had time to learn from the Red Max that last week,  I had correctly identified the Monkey Butler Boy as a virulent, sock-length fascist, before the group started shedding riders as we each took our own route home.

Despite the nagging headwind, the sky was bright and clear and it was still  uncommonly hot. For perhaps the first time this year, I noticed a clammy feeling of sweat forming behind my knees as I pushed the pedals round. The water, from who knows where, was still washing across the road in Blaydon, but this time I welcomed the cooling, impromptu shower thrown up by my tyres.

Sadly, the effect didn’t last long and I was soon heading uphill and hot and bothered.

Finally I stepped across the kitchen threshold, over-heated and gasping from climbing the Heinous Hill. Here, with impeccable timing Mrs. Sur la Jante pressed a Solero ice cream into my sweaty hand. Now that’s what I call service.


YTD Totals: 2,952 km / 1,834 miles with 34,562 metres of climbing

An Amicable, Amiable Amble

An Amicable, Amiable Amble

Club Run, Saturday 18th November, 2017             

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  94 km / 58 miles with 980 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          3 hours 51 minutes

Average Speed:                                24.5 km/h

Group size:                                         22 riders, 1 FNG

Temperature:                                    8°C

Weather in a word or two:          Bright but raw


 

18 nov
Ride Profile

The Ride:

A band of heavy rain passed over in the night, but by morning the skies were clear, it was bright, but cold and the wind had a raw edge to it. I’d misplaced my Galibier “disco-headband” and suspected my ears were going to suffer unless I found them some cover.

Rather handily, there were a couple of girly hairbands that either Thing#1, or Thing#2 had carelessly abandoned on the sideboard. The red, sparkly one was a bit garish, but the black one would just about do. I slid it up into my hairline, pulled it down low at the sides to cover my ears and plonked my helmet on top. Perfect – almost as if they’d been made for this very purpose…

I was a little late leaving, so went with the quicker route option and the closer bridge over the river, looping west to approach from the east and minimising the amount of dual-carriageway surfing I needed to do. Swinging left onto the span I was somewhat surprised to find an Ee-Em-Cee rider approaching directly from the south, a route I’ve never attempted, suspecting the traffic’s a bit too busy and wild. He’s a braver man than me, or maybe just more confident.

Anyway, I was glad of the company as he dropped in behind me on the bridge, figuring two riders were a little easier for motorists to spot than just the one. Unfortunately, we never got to chat as once across, he followed the river west, while I took a sharp right and started my climb out of the valley, arriving at the meeting point in good order.


Main topics of conversation at the start:

G-Dawg was once again out on his best bike, this time using the excuse of a new pair of shoes that he needed to road test, before packing them away for the summer. His new Sidi kicks, a very welcome birthday present, were super-classy, super-stiff, super-light and super-bling – I did however question their inherent thermal properties and suspected G-Dawg might have to suffer a little for his sartorial splendour – but he obviously couldn’t have desecrated the Sidi’s by hiding them under overshoes or Belgian booties. Just for the record, I was wearing winter boots and my trusty Prendas Thermolite socks and my toes were only just ok throughout the ride.

It turned out G-Dawg was not the only one with shiny new toys, the Colossus having acquired a new turbo trainer. Crazy Legs suggested it wasn’t the one voted “Best Buy” in Cycling Weekly, but the Colossus was unmoved as his turbo had red and blue light’s!

Crazy Legs persisted, this time with the suggestion you could tell how hardcore and pro a rider was by the fans they deployed with the turbo. He said there should be a minimum of two, slightly off-set at a 18° angle to maximise bodily surface exposure to the airflow and at least 60% of their construction had to be in carbon-fibre.

The Colossus countered that the only specialist equipment he felt needed was one of those triangular sweat nets. Someone suggested that a sweat net would be relatively easy to make from an old pair of tights, while I felt the answer was fisherman’s waders, with regular waddles to the bathroom to empty them out during the turbo-session.

An FNG rolled up and greeted us with what I took to be a pronounced Antipodean twang. “I’m guessing you’re not from around these parts?” I suggested.

“Aw, I’ve bean heer twinny yeehz,” he assured us. He turned out to be an Ironman triathlete, who’d seen us ride past his home on many a Saturday morning and he’d finally decided to come over to the dark side.

Crazy Legs tried to explain to the FNG an unseemly, on-going social-media spat between the absent Prof and OGL, by drawing parallels between Kin Jong Un and Donald Trump’s slightly less fraught and contentious relationship.

G-Dawg also explained Our Glorious Leader wouldn’t be riding today as he was off to a British Cycling meeting which, according to some rather self-serving Facebook posts, OGL claimed he was looking forward to, as a chance to relax without having to wear a stab-proof vest to protect his back. Huh?

Taffy Steve simply welcomed the opportunity for a good ride, as we were absent at least three potential sources of friction that he could think of. Ultimately, he had the right of it.

Aether was set to lead the ride and had picked a route that Crazy Legs had posted in the summer, emphasising we didn’t need a new and novel plan every week and there was no harm in repeating things. He hoped this would encourage others to set and lead future rides and briefed the opportunity in, along with outlining the planned route for the day.

Another decent turnout of 22 riders, all seemingly in a relaxed and rather amenable mood, pushed off, clipped in and rode out.


As we turned off toward towards Great Park and the filthy, muddy, potholed and often thorn-strewn Brunton Lane, G-Dawg took his regular detour, aimed at keeping his good bike and fancy new shoes in pristine condition at the expense of a slightly longer and busier route out of the city.

As we emerged from the end of the lane and scurried uphill, an injection of pace had us all spread out. Mini Miss eased alongside me and asked, “Is it just me, or is the speed really high this morning?”

I peered up to the front where the Colossus and Caracol were driving us on, with Rainman waiting in the wheels to take over if either faltered and let the speed drop.

“Nope,” I replied, “It’s fast,” before kicking to close a gap that was threatening to yaw open.

The pace was evidently too fast for G-Dawg, whose detour usually spits him out well ahead of the group, just before we hit Dinnington. This time he wasn’t there waiting for us and when I looked down the road he would emerge from, it was completely empty.

Having missed us and then waited at the junction thinking we may have been held up by a mechanical, G-Dawg spent the rest of the morning trying to find the right time and place to intersect with our ride.


18 non


We continued for some distance at a pace I felt was just the tiniest increment above comfortable and it would be some time before I was able to infiltrate the front alongside Crazy Legs and drop the speed by a good 2mph or more. No one seemed to be struggling particularly, but I needed a bit of a breather, even if everyone else was ok.

We then found that Aether’s cunning plan of using one of Crazy Legs’s summer routes was not without its flaws, the small lane we took before Meldon being wet, slippery and thick with mud kicked up by farm traffic. At this point the FNG punctured and, while we were stopped for repairs, the Colossus discovered G-Dawg was still missing and set off to find him.

As we waited, Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs kept me entertained with tales of the labyrinthine, convoluted and quite frankly bizarre local government rules and regulations relating to business expenses. I think my soul is still scarred from this nonsense.

We then pushed through to Dyke Neuk, where we unleashed the now twitchy racing snakes and shooed them away for a faster, longer, harder ride before they became too irritable. The rest of us pushed on, down the dip through Hartburn and toward Middleton Bank at a more considered pace. As we approached the hill, we met G-Dawg flying down the other way and he was able to swing round and rejoin us, reunited at last.

Reaching the steepest part of Middleton Bank and, just for the hell of it, I bounced off the front and opened up a gap before sitting back down and easing over the top. We slowed to regroup and Crazy Legs, who had no intention on mixing it in the café sprint on his fixie, offered to provide a lead out. I dropped onto his back wheel as he slowly began to wind up the pace and lined us out. Perfect it was like having my own personal derny moped.

Crazy Legs pulled us past Bolam Lake and then, with a professional flick of the elbow, peeled away and I took over at the front and tried to hold the pace he’d set, as we rattled through Milestone Woods. I attacked up the first of the Rollers and as my pace slackened G-Dawg rode off my wheel and away, the others only slowly coming around me in pursuit, as we tipped down the other side. As we began the last drag no one was committing to bringing back G-Dawg’s lead, so I dug in and accelerated to the front again.

I pulled everyone to within maybe 5 metres of G-Dawg’s back wheel, just before he nipped around the last corner, but that was it, I was done and cooked and sat up. The others zipped past, but I suspected it was too late and G-Dawg was long gone.


Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop:

The main topic of conversation at the café was the dark, dangerous and twisted plotting within the Byzantine world of cycling club politics, but this is a family friendly blerg … so let’s move swiftly on…

Somehow the conversation eventually morphed into a discourse on political leaders, with Taffy Steve’s assertion that all you needed to succeed was a good haircut, sharp suit and a pithy slogan, “You know,” he outlined, “Make Uh-murica Great, or Strong and Stable Leadership, Things Can Only Get Better, that kind of thing”

“Ah, like Strength Through Joy?” I suggested helpfully.

We then had a chuckle that Bradley Wiggins felt he had in somehow been exonerated from the “living hell” of his “malicious witch hunt” by the conclusions of the UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) investigation into the contents of the now infamous Jiffy bag. Under the circumstances, UKAD appear to have done as good a job as possible and their conclusion of “no definitive evidence” was logical. As far as I can tell, this is a very neutral statement that exonerates no one.

It’s laughable that Wiggins and Team Sky claim there was no wrongdoing on their part and both think the verdict backs this up. The assertion by Shane Sutton that they would “game the system” and use TUE’s for marginal gains sounds much closer to the truth and more adequately explains the injections (injections, Bradley?) of triamcinolone Wiggins received before several races. As for what was actually in the Jiffy bag – the truth is, we’ll never know.

A group of  cyclists from the University made their way, wide eyed and blinking into the café and Sneaky Pete and I rolled our eyes at the folly of youth and the fact they chose to ride out in weather like today only wearing shorts and short-sleeved jerseys. The fact there flesh looked raw and marbled like corned beef seemed to suggest we well-wrapped, old curmudgeons had the greater sense.


Outside and I had a quick look at the FNG’s Trek Madone Aero bike with fairings over the front brakes that opened and closed like aircraft ailerons whenever he turned the bars – it seemed like an awful lot of engineering for a very minimal gain.

The FNG himself said he’d enjoyed his first ride out with the club and it made a companiable change from all the solitary Ironman training on his TT bike.

A blast up Berwick Hill tracking Biden Fecht got the blood flowing and it wasn’t long after that I was swinging away for my ride back home, reflecting on what had been a perfectly amiable, amenable, run, with no objectionable shouting or swearing and no encounters with dangerously crazed motorists.

Things weren’t quite so peaceful at home though, where Thing#1 and Thing#2 were engaged in a spat over Thing#2’s missing black hairband. I ‘fessed up to being the guilty party, pulling the offending article out from under my helmet and proffering it back to Thing#2 on the end of my index finger, where it hung, limp, damp and shapelessly unappealing.

“Ugh! It’s all sweaty.”

Oh. Sorry.


YTD Totals: 6,819 km / 4,237 miles with 78,229 metres of climbing

SLJ’s Tips for Winter Riding

I’m not alone within our club in wanting to continue to ride throughout the year, and some of our best and most enjoyable club runs take place against the typical backdrop of winter in the sometimes inhospitable far North East of England – in other words freezing cold, soaking wet and impossibly windy.

There’s something about being out with a smaller, select group of foolhardy mates and battling everything Mother Nature has to throw at you. In one sense, the worse the weather is, the more challenging the ride becomes and the greater the sense of personal achievement. On top of this the difference in form and fitness between those who ride and those who hibernate until the Spring is always quite marked.

Oh and as an added benefit, the queues in the café are generally much, much shorter in winter too.

Winter rides actually give us some of the best the weather has to offer, crisp, clear winter days under sparkling blue skies. There is of course also a fair share of rain, drizzle, sleet, hail and snow, gales and gusts of wind, frost and deadly ice and filthy-dirty, hacky-mucky, muddy-clarty road surfaces, liberally dotted with craters, crevasses, splits and fissures, pools, puddles, swamps and lagoons of freezing cold rainwater.

There’s lots of websites offering tips on winter riding, although I don’t think any of them have ever changed what I do, so I guess a lot of what they purport to teach you is just common sense and a bit of a waste of time.

Anyway, no one ever accused me of originality, so for what it’s worth here’s my one one-hundred-and-twentieth of a pound and hopefully, 1 or 2 tips that actually make it beyond the: “Yeah, so what, tell me something new” filter.

Dress the Part

Make sure your extremities are well covered – feet, fingers and ears are the bits of me that suffer the worst, so they’re the bits I pay most attention to.

Invest in a good pair of socks. Apparently the trick here is not to pile on so many layers that you have to squeeze your feet into your shoes, restricting blood flow and actually making things worse.

My own personal favourites are Prendas Thermolite socks, which I’d heartily recommend, even if I always think Thermolite sounds like some kind of extremely dangerous and volatile explosive.

Thermolite fibres, I’m continually being told, mimic “polar bear fur” and you’ve never seen a polar bear shiver have you? That’s because they wear Thermolite socks their fur is hollow and provides excellent insulation – and so apparently are Thermolite fibres.


polar-bear-socks
“Aha! Excellent – Thermolite socks, my feet are bloody freezing.”

Of course socks actually made of polar bear fur would ultimately be the best, but good luck trying to shear one of those suckers. (Now there’s a challenge for Rapha, and something that might actually justify their elitist pricing policies).

I’ve tried other Thermolite socks (Agu do a relatively cheap pair via Planet X) but haven’t found any that are near as good, but your mileage may vary. The best thing about the Prendas ones are that they retain their warmth even when wet through – something that seemed to be a worrying trend last year as we saw extensive flooding and forged through some impressively deep puddles.

In extremis, a thin pair of over-socks, or Belgian booties worn over your shoes, but under neoprene, waterproof shoe covers can provide an additional bit of insulation. It’s even a simple enough task to make your own Belgian booties from an old pair of socks, just remember to cut a hole in the bottom to accommodate your cleats!

It has the benefit of giving you something else to do with old socks, once you’ve had your fill of sock puppets and if you’re wearing them under overshoes, Auntie Vera will never know her hideous, unwelcome Christmas gifts have been cruelly desecrated to fuel your cycling obsession.

Up top, I find wearing a hat under my helmet a little too warm, so wear a headband that covers my ears, but leaves the rest of my head uncovered for ventilation. Of course I’ll admit the drawback is it makes me look like sad disco diva from the 80’s (I’ll admit I can be a bit of a diva, but disco? Never!) Still, I feel it’s a small price to pay for toasty ears.

In heavy rain, a cycling cap worn under the helmet also works well, the peak will divert a lot of the road spray out of your eyes and it can also be useful to combat a low winter sun.

I have various different weights of glove depending on the temperature outside. Mightiest of all are some “Mr. Krabs” lobster mitts that look utterly ridiculous, but are the warmest I’ve found yet and, again keep their insulating properties even when completely waterlogged.

For less extreme days I choose the gloves to suit, often paired with a thin pair of silk glove liners that can be worn for added warmth, or quickly pulled off and tucked away in a back pocket. The glove liners were only a couple of quid on eBay and well worth the price. They were however dispatched from China seemingly by an over-worked, under-nourished, asthmatic carrier pigeon, so are probably best ordered before July if you want to wear them through the winter months.

A few club-mates have taken to carrying a spare pair of gloves so they can swap them out if the originals get soaked through. This certainly beats the singed-wool and wet-dog smell of gloves steaming on the fireplace at the café, or the utter horror and impossibility of trying to pull cold, wet gloves back on after they’ve been abandoned in a sodden, muddy heap on the floor.

A buff or tube scarf is another useful, inexpensive article – (I’ve seen it referred to as a neck gaiter in some quarters – please don’t use this term I always read it as goitre and it makes me feel very queasy.) Anyway, this is supremely practical to plug the gap between collar and neck, or it can be worn as a head covering, or pulled up to cover your chin, mouth, nose or lower face (if you’re feeling particularly bad ass and gangsta).


neck
Neck gaiter, good … neck goitre bad

It’s also supremely useful just to wipe sweat, dirt and accumulated crud from your face, hands, specs, or even your bike.

In direct contravention of Velominati Rule # 34, I use MTB pedals and shoes on my winter bike. The recessed cleat gives you at least a fighting chance if you need to push or carry your bike over any distance.

For example, just last year we had to clamber over walls and trek through the thick undergrowth of a wood when a felled tree blocked the road and a ride which ended in a snowstorm saw me pushing the bike uphill on the pavement as the only way to avoid the cars sliding sideways down the road toward me. Both these incidents would have been infinitely more difficult to cope with in my road shoes with their big plastic cleats and super-stiff soles.

Of course there’s a bit more expense involved if you need to buy both MTB shoes and road shoes, but decent MTB shoes are relatively cheap, last forever and save you destroying your best, carbon-soled racing slippers by riding them throughout the winter.

A few riders in our club use dedicated, waterproof winter boots rather than overshoes. This also might seem like an expensive option, until you consider the fact that overshoes tend not to last much beyond a year and are in almost constant need of replacing. I would imagine the investment in a dedicated pair of winter boots would not only keep your feet warmer and drier, but pay for themselves in the long run. Hopefully I’ll soon find out, I’ve added a pair to my Christmas list.

Of course, if any water does get in to these boots, it tends to stay there, which is what happened to Crazy Legs on one of the more extreme, rain-swept Wooler Wheel sportive rides. He eventually had to stop to take his boots off and pour out all the accumulated water, which I guess was a better option than a developing a severe case of trench foot.

I also use a range of good base layers of varying thickness and insulating properties and have even been known to wear two at a time. For the extreme cold a thick merino version has yet to be bettered.

My go to winter jacket is my Galibier Mistral, which is at least water-resistant if not downright waterproof. If it’s looking like a lot of rain, I usually put a waterproof over the top of this jacket. I’ve just bought a heavier Santini “Rain” jacket for just this purpose, and I’m reasonably confident I’ll get a chance to field test it very soon.

On the legs, tights or legwarmers made of that Roubaix fabric with the brushed back always seem a reliable choice. I quite like tights without a pad so they can be worn over shorts. This provides a bit more protection to the thighs through the double layer of shorts and tights. It’s also useful because I have half a dozen or more pairs of shorts, but only 3 or 4 pairs of tights. I can wear the same leggings for all my weekly rides by simply changing the shorts underneath for a clean pair everyday.

Some people suggest tights with a bib can serve better to keep your lower torso a little more protected and warm, but I can’t honestly say I’ve ever noticed that much of a difference, although they do as a rule seem more comfortable for longer rides.

I use a pair of “waterproof” tights for commuting, but haven’t found them particularly effective and faced with a downpour I’m more likely to take a spare pair of shorts in my backpack so I have something dry for the ride home, even if the tights have become soaked through and don’t dry off in time.

The Ride

Winter means winter bikes for those that can afford them, or more precisely those who’ve been riding long enough to have bought a better bike and consigned their original steed to winter hack duties.

In some ways a true winter bike is more interesting, unique, more colourful and will have more character and more anecdotes attached to it than your more refined, “best bike.” Many will have long and varied back-story and an uncertain pedigree and provenance.

The incomparable, always entertaining Doc Hutch, writing in Cycling Weekly suggests, “a true winter bike is the one that just coalesces in a corner of the garage. Long forgotten and usually deeply-flawed components quietly gather themselves together until one day you find there are enough to build a bike. It’ll be a bike like no one else’s.”

He goes on to suggest, “It will be uncomfortable and it will rattle, but it will be yours in a way your summer carbon wonder-bike never will be. You will hate it, of course you will. But you’ll love it too.”

And here I think is the nub of the issue. The more you hate your winter bike, the less likely you are to ride it and given our long winters and poor weather is likely to last at least a quarter of the year, that’s a whole lot of riding to miss out on.

Even Taffy Steve can just about tolerate his thrice-cursed winter bike, although maybe he just tolerates it in order to keep his titanium love-child safe from harm and to build the anticipation of returning to it once the weather improves.

At worst then, I feel you need to lavish enough care, attention and unfortunately money on your winter bike to at least make it a neutral if not total pleasurable riding experience, even if it’s too unlovely to fully embrace.

The bare essentials I would insist on are a decent, tried and tested, comfortable saddle, full mudguards and winter specific tyres.

A few personal pointers:

Valve caps. You know those useless, little bits of plastic that the Velominati rules declare as useless and never to be used? How unseemly an impact do they have on how your bike looks? How much additional weight and drag do they add? How much quicker can you repair a flat without having to remove them? The answer to all these questions should of course contain the word “negligible” and you’ll find they’re actually a very valuable and useful asset in winter.

Without them the valves can become encrusted in salt and mud and crud, and almost impossible to open without resorting to mole grips or pliers, or in desperation teeth. Not a good place to be if you need to add (or remove) a little air from your tyres.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to drop your wheels out of the bike regularly when cleaning, just to check your quick release or wheel bolts haven’t seized solid. Bad enough to give your own personal spanner-monkey fits at home, but an absolute nightmare if you puncture in the middle of nowhere and can’t get the wheel out to change the tyre.

Our Glorious Leader even suggests that you occasionally remove, lube and replace your brake callipers, as he’s finding more and more bikes coming into his workshop with the brake fittings seized into the frame.

It’s worth buying spare brake pads so you have a set “in stock” ready at any time. The winter seems particularly harsh, chewing through them with great relish, often accompanied by that awful, gritty, grinding noise, that seems to signify your rims being ground to fine aluminium space dust before your eyes.

Your braking is likely to be compromised anyway by the fact that you’re on a heavier bike, with less effective equipment and often in wet and slippery conditions. That’s bad enough to contend with before you throw badly worn brake blocks into the mix.

Mudguards are often seen to be more trouble than they’re worth, ruining the aesthetic look of your bike and constantly and irritatingly rubbing and squeaking. But they’re worth putting up with for the benefits they can bring, most especially to anyone else you’re riding with.

Again, Doc Hutch through the auspices of Cycling Weekly suggests, “anyone whose winter bike doesn’t feature mudguards is both a fool and a blackguard.”

He adds that, “the carefree joy of guard-free riding is further enhanced while riding in a group, where the pressure hose of crap coming off the back wheel of the rider in front means you can pass the subsequent winter evening in front of the fire gently exfoliating your eyeballs every time you blink.”

As with all things winter bike related, I think the trick is to actually embrace them, rather than fit them grudgingly. Then again, once you’ve experienced the difference mudguards can make to your posterior, feet, bike, laundry and the disposition of your fellow riders after a wet, chilly ride, you’ll never go back. An asssaver might look hardcore, but it’s ridiculously ineffective in comparison to full length mudguards.

Really there’s no excuse for not using guards, given the wide variety of choice and fitting systems available – there must surely be a solution for every bike out there. My own advice would be:

Make them as wide as your frame will allow so you have the option for wider winter tyres and there’s less chance of them rubbing and driving you slowly crazy.

If they do start to rub, don’t try and adjust them on the fly. I tried to do this riding up a hill and caught my hand in the front wheel, getting a vicious, stinging slap for my stupidity, and very bruised, lacerated, bent and sore fingers too. It was a minor miracle I didn’t fall off to fully compound my idiocy.

Make your mudguards as long as possible. I recently laughed at Son of G-Dawg for wearing a full-facial mud pack which I was convinced wouldn’t help his complexion in the slightest. I was surprised when he told me it was the result of riding behind me, despite my standard issue long mudguards. I’ve since added additional mud flaps and have people squabbling to get on my back wheel now, knowing they’re going to be well shielded from spray and crud.

You can of course make your own mud flaps and I particularly like those homemade ones where you can still see the provenance of the plastic used – bright blue with a big label reading Domestos or the like.


mudflaps
Either one will work, but I particularly like the mudflap made from a bottle of honey as featured on Sheldon Brown’s website

For the lazy and cack-handed (like me) however there are store bought solutions readily available. I bought a front and back set from RAW that were a doddle to fit and I’m hugely pleased with. As well as adding additional protection for riders behind, I’m surprised how much drier the front one keeps my feet.

RAW also do mudflaps in a whole host of different colours and designs. These not so humble flaps can even be customised with your club colours and logo, although I’m already on record as declaring such frivolities as exceedingly gauche.

A few of my clubmates switch to fixies or single-gear when the weather gets really brutal, with the obvious benefits that there’s so much less to clean and maintain and fewer things that can go wrong. There’s also an appealing simplicity to riding a bike without gears.

I haven’t tried a club run on my single-speed yet, but perhaps with some heavier tyres I might give it a go, although I suggest it’ll probably be the end of me.

It’s worth investing in a decent set of winter tyres, even if it means more weight and rolling resistance. Fixing a filthy tyre in the freezing rain has no known positives, so the more you can do to avoid this scenario the better.

As far as tyres go, fatter seem to be better, offering more grip and a more comfortable ride at lower pressures. I’ve ridden Continental Gatorskins in the past but switched to Schwalbe Durano Plus to try and find a bit more grip without sacrificing too much puncture resistance. Others swear by Continental Four Seasons or Schwalbe Marathon’s.

I’m semi-tempted to try Schwalbe Marathon tyres once my current ones are past their shelf-life, although I’m somewhat leery of them too, as they are notoriously difficult to mount and I have the upper body strength of an anorexic, prepubescent girl, coupled to a grip akin to what your Grandad’s aged and massive Y-fronts exert through their perished elastic.

I’m also a little put-off by the fact that their advocates constantly refer to them through the much over-used term “bombproof” – a phrase evidently employed by people much given to hyperbole and possessing a very poor understanding of the destructive powers of explosive ordnance.

Some winter hazards to watch out for:

Cross winds and unexpected gaps in hedges – the two simply don’t mix. Beware the sudden gust that can scatter a group of well-organised cyclists like a bowling ball smacking the king pin full force.

Ice, ice baby. Ice is about the only thing that will keep large numbers of our group indoors, turning grip and traction into a lottery. Crazy Legs has a patented pre-ride ice test involving running out into the street in his slippers and taking a running jump into the nearest puddle. If he lands with a momentous splash and drenches himself in frigid water, all well and good. If he skids across the surface of the puddle and falls on his arse, it’s probably too cold to ride.

If you do think the roads are likely to be icy, its best to try and stick to main, bus routes which have a greater chance of being gritted. You should also be particularly wary of ice lingering in the shadows at the side of the road, even on the brightest of winter days. It goes without saying that any hazards when wet – white lines, fallen leaves, gratings and manhole covers, are likely to be even more hazardous when icy.

Experience has also taught us that, if you stop to help push a car out of a ditch after it’s skidded across the road on black ice, it’s probably best to assume that the road will be equally as unforgiving to cyclists (and most especially to Dabman’s brittle bones) and it’s probably best to turn around and find a different route.

Thorns. Farmers seem to take great delight in hacking back their hedges at this time of the year and liberally scattering the roads with their cuttings and numerous unavoidable, steel-tipped, mega-thorns. These are probably the cause of more punctures in our group than all the glass, flints and pinch flats combined. I haven’t yet found a tyre they can’t defeat and can’t see how they can be avoided. The best you can do is be aware and be prepared for the worst.

Finally, beware assorted toffs, often found milling aimlessly around in the middle of the road in winter – often in tweed and silly hats, occasionally carrying firearms and invariably accompanied by packs of barely-trained quadrupeds. They’re generally very jolly, but it’s best not to startle them too much, or get in their way.

So, there you have it all the encouragement and advice needed to keep you riding though the winter and the worst of the weather, it beats another torture session on the turbo every time.

Hell Among the Yearlings


Club Run, Saturday 6th February, 2016

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                102 km/63 miles with 813 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                           4 hours 28 minutes

Average Speed:                                   23.0 km/h

Group size:                                           34 riders, no FNG’s

Temperature:                                      6°C

Weather in a word or two:              Filthy

Main topic of conversation at the start:

Taffy Steve was the first to bring up “motorised doping” with his wry comments that just when athletics was being seen as the bad boy of international sports, cycling somehow found a way to shoot itself in the foot and re-claim the low ground. Again.

OGL rightly pointed out that the worst fallout from Femke Van den Driessche “borrowing a friends bike” (complete with in-built motor) for only the single most important race of her season, was it detracted from a very worthy winner.

So, in my own small and meaningless way to try and redress the balance, congratulations to Britain’s new Women’s U23 World Cyclo-cross Champion, Evie Richards who won with style and panache by riding away from all the older, more established competitors in dreadful conditions on a wind blasted, rain lashed course. And she’s only 18. And it was her first ever continental race. Impressive.

Crazy Legs decided that Taffy Steve deserved the acronym MIR following his Most Improved Rider award. He also made it clear that any likeness to a large, obsolete piece of Russian space junk, prone to a decaying orbit and likely to burn up in the atmosphere was purely intentional.

Somewhat predictably, this set him off on a tribute to Billy Bragg and a quick rendition of New England. It’s wrong to wish on space hardware, but I think Taffy Steve somewhat wished he’d never become embroiled in the conversation.

Apparently the Cycling Weekly reporter never made it to the café and his rendezvous with OGL last week, but will be returning at a later date for a full-on feature on the club.

We’ve been warned that only those in official club jersey’s will be allowed to partake in the accompanying photo-shoot. What effect massed ranks of our lurid, club jersey might have is hard to tell, but I’m predicting a sudden outbreak of subconjunctival haemorrhaging amongst the unsuspecting readership of Cycling Weekly.

Captain Black suggested the photo-shoot might provoke a Songs of Praise phenomena, when usually draughty, empty churches suddenly see congregations swell alarmingly as soon as the TV cameras show up to a service. There was even some speculation about a black market in illicit club jersey’s developing, perhaps signalling the first time this venerable piece of club kit has ever been even remotely desirable.

Footnote:

Not content with motor doping (allegedly) we have since learned that Van den Driessche’s father and brother (already a convicted bike doper) are facing criminal charges for trying to steal parakeets from a pet store.

In any sense of the word you want to take, I suggest it’s now fair to refer to the entire Van den Driessche family as “budgie smugglers” and treat them with all the opprobium and revulsion you would typically reserve for being confronted by a pale, wobbling, moob-endowed, hirsute man in too-tight Speedo’s. You know the sort, we’ve all seen them.

Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop:

OGL stopped by to inform us that new club skinsuits were now available for our Racing Snakes. I don’t want to prejudge, but I hope they’re a more sympathetic design than the current club jerseys, or I might be getting that “budgie smuggler” nausea all over again.

He also told us to be careful on the way back as a local Tri-Club were running a time trial down Berwick Hill. We convinced ourselves that the only way we would do this in weather like todays would be to have a hot tub at the finish. We reasoned that getting into the tub could even be used for transition practice, but then realised the idea would probably fail as once in the tub no one would be coming out in a hurry.

Again motorised doping reared its ugly head and Son of G-Dawg had perhaps the best idea, fitting pullback motors to cyclo-cross bikes, specifically for their “cavalry charge” starts. I can see it now, a long line of 50 or so riders dragging their bikes backward to wind up the spring, before being unleashed to race toward the nearest course bottle-neck. High speed carnage almost guaranteed.

Crazy Legs revealed a life-long ambition to be bundled into a mail pouch and snatched up by a speeding express train, apparently just for the buzz of that initial retina-threatening acceleration.

Perhaps this dare-devilry is purely genetic as he then told us of accompanying his 75 year old mother to an avant-garde installation in the BALTIC, where following a series of screens led them to the brink of a 12 foot high, stainless steel slide. Not only was his mother thoroughly undaunted by the slide, but demanded another go.


 

Ride 6 Feb
Ride Profile

The Waffle:

A dry if chill start to the day promised good riding and I dropped into the valley to find that the winds weren’t anywhere as bad as the storm-whipped, westerly gales of the past few weeks and had swung completely around to blow upriver just for a change.


 

budgie
Cycling style budgie smuggling

 

Without a debilitating wind to battle, I was early and the only one at the meeting point when OGL swung by in civvies, loaded down with a very large, shiny club trophy, which had apparently been donated by David Millar. I started to politely and modestly decline it, as I couldn’t see how I could possibly ride while burdened with a large piece of what footballers always, unimaginatively and predictably refer to as “silverware.”

OGL patiently explained that the trophy wasn’t for me and he was taking it to the Club’s Go-Ride event to present to Daniel Dixon, our best young rider. Well done Daniel, I didn’t touch it. Honest.

OGL also explained he wasn’t riding this week as he was full of cold. While Our Glorious Leader was crying off, this was the first Saturday in the month, so all our more advanced youngsters were out in force.

Their number included the Monkey Butler Boy, accompanied by the Red Max who was suffering from a particularly vicious bout of the lurgy, but had somehow managed to drag himself out despite being “as sick as a parrot” – another hoary old football cliché that seemingly fits alongside (dare I say dove-tails with?) a worryingly recurring avian theme this week.

With OGL being absent G-Dawg and Crazy Legs put their heads together, intent on devising a route that would be somewhat different from the usual. After a few minutes they offered a couple of alternatives, but were immediately shouted down – nobody wanted to think and have to make a choice. We didn’t want options, we just wanted to ride!

Point made they set out and 32 lads and lasses pushed off, clipped in and followed, not really sure of where we were going and not really caring too much either.

Loitering at the back I caught up with Andeven, recently returned from summer at the bottom of the world and finding acclimatising back to British winter a trifle depressing. I also discovered Rab Dee lurking here, out on a new winter bike for his first ride of the year and also finding the cold less than agreeable.

For a short while, on one of our less frequented routes, we sped down a narrow path bordering the A1: a cracked surface, rucked with tree roots and strewn with debris, but infinitely preferable to jousting with the thundering HGV’s on the main road.

Somewhat surprisingly, we survived without puncture or mishap, exiting onto a private road, where still in single-file a long line of us streamed through a quiet village.


 

NOVATEK CAMERA
The cycling gods weren’t happy and punished us with rain

 

I watched in amusement as a woman on the far side of the road picked up one of her small, yappy and obviously semiprecious, dog and clutched it to her chest protectively. She rather warily watched us go by with fear filled eyes that might, perhaps, be a suitable reaction to a horde of wild Cossacks intent on pillage, but seemed misplaced for a meandering line of mild-mannered, grinning and gurning cyclists. Maybe they don’t get many visitors from “the outside”

Freezing rain had started to liberally pepper us and we were losing order along with riders as they stopped to pull on waterproof jackets. Well, all apart from Shoeless who with seeming insouciance retrieved his rain jacket from a back pocket, shook it out, slipped it on and deftly managed to zip it up despite the massive winter gloves limiting his dexterity – all the while driving the pace at the front of the bunch.

We decided to stop under a road bridge to regroup and let everyone get sorted, before pushing out into what had now become a steady, icy downpour. I later learned that Keel had bizarrely decided the forecast was good enough to break his good bike out of hibernation and had obviously offended the cycling gods, who now punished us with earlier and heavier than forecast rain.


 

NOVATEK CAMERA
A general regrouping and chance to pull on rain jackets

 

I was braced for the steep climb of the Mur de Mitford, always a challenge and especially when the road is slick, but we by-passed this particular nasty and dragged ourselves up through the village of Mitford itself. From there we worked our way to Dyke Neuk and another quick stop for the Racing Snakes and braver amongst us split for the longer, harder, faster, Self-flagellation Ride™.

Our reduced group pressed on with thoughts of coffee and cake fuelling our pace, though we prudently scrubbed off the speed for the increasingly sketchy drop down the dip and then sharp clamber up to Hartburn.

Again we regrouped to allow stragglers to catch on, before sweeping down through Milestone Woods, and hitting the first rollers. Taffy Steve led the charge for home with a hopeless attack dedicated to the absent Red Max, but faded as the road ramped up.

I swung past on the back of a long line, but couldn’t hold the pace and the gap widened. A few riders nipped past, including Kipper, but he started to slow as the next gradient bit. I swung to the outside and started to ease past him, just as he swung right to avoid several potholes in the road and our bars became entangled like two ancient, rutting stags locking horns.

With a frantic bit of wrestling and a whole heap of wobbling, we finally managed to pull apart, but the momentum directed me laterally over the white line, right across the road and into the thick mud in the opposite gutter. Needless to say the driver of the fast approaching, sharply braking car was mightily unimpressed as I was swept across the road in front of him.

With wheels churning and spinning in thick mud, I clung to the very edge of the road to let the car slip past, waving sheepishly in embarrassed apology to the driver. Kipper apologised for not having seen me, but it was just one of those things that can happen and no harm was done, although the adrenaline spike to the heart wasn’t particularly pleasant.


 

NOVATEK CAMERA
Maybe it’s the camera lens, the adrenaline spike or pure terror, but I recollect the approaching car as being much closer as I skeetered uncontrollably across the road and into its path.

 

Clearing the café, the Prof took some of the others back by a longer route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to an extended ride, so most of us took the usual way home.

Somewhere along the way, I have a vague recollection of the Red Max drifting off the back in a case of illness induced enfeeblement. I’m guessing he should really have been home recuperating, instead of battering himself to try and contain our more enthusiastic youngsters and suffering through his own private hell among the yearlings.

Still, not all bad as I’m guessing the Monkey Butler Boy revelled in dropping his Pa – hey, a victory is a victory and you can only beat the competition that turns up on the day.

On splitting from the group I was relieved to find that, for once I wasn’t faced with punishing headwinds on my push for home and the miles were duly ticked off with no great trials or traumas.


YTD Totals: 533 km /331 miles with 5,207 metres of climbing

 

Vittoria’s Secret and the Cold Hand Gang


Club Run, Saturday 30th January, 2016

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                   100 km/62 miles with 1,156 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                           4 hours 28 minutes

Average Speed:                                   22.3 km/h

Group size:                                           14 riders, no FNG’s

Temperature:                                     5°C

Weather in a word or two:             Bright, blowy, brisk

Main topic of conversation at the start:

When G-Dawg rolled up wearing what looked like over-sized oven gloves and a muffler made of thick, carpet underfelt, we knew we were in for a cold, cold ride.

Crazy Legs was next in, lamenting that supplies of strawberry jam in his household were wholly depleted so breakfast had been a minor disappointment. As a consequence, and without its sugary boost, he declared his ride was probably doomed before it had even started. How fragile we are.

He’d already conducted his patented ice-test however, wandering out, into the road and finding a puddle to dip his finger into before declaring it safe to ride. I suggested he should just have jumped into the puddle, if it splashed everywhere then all was good, if he slipped and fell on his arse then a degree of caution needed to be exercised.

He said this was impractical as he wasn’t fully dressed at this point and during this exchange we discovered we both had an inimical hatred of slippers. Perhaps both of us thought that footwear that’s soft, fluffy, brightly patterned and utterly shapeless is the clearest indicator yet that you’d taken the first step (or shuffle) toward terminal decline and dotage, a road that all too easily leads to baggy, zip-up nylon cardigans, a complete wardrobe makeover to ensure all your clothes are the same dingy shade of beige or pale blue and a world where wing-backed La-z-boy chairs seem like a good idea.

We differed only in our solutions to this issue, he opts for a kind of hybrid sports slipper or plimsoll, while my choice are kung-fu shoes. Yes, we are officially weird.

What I presume was a mother and daughter approached us to ask if we knew where Bulman House, or some such place was. As we dithered, Taffy Steve popped up out of nowhere to display an encyclopaedic grasp of the local area that would shame “The Knowledge” of a competent cab driver. Even more startling, he’s “not from around these parts” and doesn’t actually live anywhere close to our meeting point.

He proceeded to confidently and assuredly issue precise, step-by-step instructions and the couple disappeared in the indicated direction.

As the woman returned sans daughter, Crazy Legs cheerily asked if she’d found the building, then as she passed archly suggested that the daughter was stealthily working her way around behind us and didn’t want to be caught and have to admit we’d suckered her into going in completely the wrong direction.

Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop:

Carlton declared this was officially a Cold Hand Day – his unique measuring system for defining exact ride temperature, so now we knew we were operating somewhere between a Frozen Toes Day and a Frost-bitten Face Day.

Goose recalled having a steel-framed Peugeot which would be classed as a vintage bike nowadays and we briefly discussed the provenance of my winter bike, a (fairly) modern, aluminium framed Peugeot. These had only been available for one year before seemingly disappearing without trace as Peugeot re-entered the bike market, then just as quickly abandoned it again.

The cold had obviously addled our brains because Goose then asked if Peugeot still made cars and I have to admit I had to think really long and hard about it, before unconvincingly confirming they did.

One of OGL’s long-term acquaintances was at the café when we arrived and he kept us hugely entertained with a series of anecdotes of spurious origin, all wickedly laced with the type of language that might make Chubby Brown blush. In that instant my Teacake Haiku inspired dream of a cadre of sensitive, poetry writing cyclists, staring thoughtfully out of the café window before illuminating their experiences in contemplative verse, died a quick and horrible death.

At some point in our ride, Crazy Legs had wandered off for adventures on his own and entered the café late to tell us how he’d ran into the back of a car that had stopped suddenly as the driver dithered and changed their mind when approaching a junction. When Crazy Legs clambered off and approached the driver to apologise for the tyre sized groove he’d left imprinted in the rear bumper, she’d taken fright and bolted.

Discussion about the inability to stop a fixie quite so unexpectedly inevitably led to the issue of disk brakes. Crazy Legs informed us he was very impressed with the brakes on his new mountain bike but felt the “cockpit” (as the trade magazines like to call the handlebar area) was incredibly cluttered and restrictive. He demonstrated this by wiggling outstretched fingers and flapping his elbows in and out, doing a fair approximation of the funky chicken.

G-Dawg dryly queried if this wasn’t more akin to a demonstration of one-man-band skills rather than bike-handling and wondered whether Crazy Legs preferred cymbals or a horn under his arms.


Ride 20 January
Ride Profile

 The Waffle:

Isn’t the Internet a strange and wonderful thing?  Not only because my witless meanderings find an audience, who amazingly seemed to appreciate and, even more astonishingly, occasionally  ask for more. There also seems to be quite a refreshingly friendly community amongst bloggers, who all provide slightly different perspectives, read each other’s work, contribute with insightful or amusing comments and promote competitor blogs to their own readers.

This week I was able to offer a tiny modicum of help to a club mate who’s undertaking the rather daunting and Herculean task of building a searchable database of all the grand tour stage winners, complete with their nationalities, ages, teams, bikes et al. For an esoteric take on cycling stats and an eclectic mix of pro cycling insights, try SiCycle.

Sur La Jante also got a name check in a blog entry from the The Lonely Cyclist  who provides a completely different perspective on British cycling and cycling clubs, not surprising really as the Lonely Cyclist is neither male, middle-aged, cynical, sardonic nor quite as jaded as this old blogger. Hmm, now I think of it, old blogger sounds somewhat pejorative, if not quite as bad as arse hat.

Then, either inspired by my teacake haiku, or alternatively wholly embarrassed by my putrid efforts, Ragtime Cyclist responded with a haiku of his own:

What is riding for?
If not the mid-ride teacake.
Helps to shut up legs.

For one, brief moment I had a clear, lofty vision of cycling clubs up and down the land immortalising their weekly rides in verse form, and presiding over a renaissance of British poetry … but the dream didn’t survive the hard reality of first contact with my fellow cyclists.

It’s well worth stopping by to see what the Ragtime Cyclist has to say, such as his take on Haribo abuse – it made me laugh and I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

This week I was also proud to learn I’m a Vittorian. Somewhere along the line my appreciation of Vittoria tyres has seen my details captured in a random database and now I receive periodic copies of their newsletter; The Vittorian. This is obviously a thoroughly gripping (no pun intended) read, dedicated to all things tyre-related and doubtless ripe for parody on Have I Got News for You.

Through this less than august journal, I found out their secret for the new season – tyres reinforced with graphene, the wonder-substance that’s a 100 times stronger than steel. I wonder how long it will be before we’ll all be lusting after exquisitely light, super-strong and shockingly expensive graphene frames and our love affair with all things carbon will be dead and buried.

We’ll still be going no faster, but the bike manufacturers will be rubbing their hands with glee. This also makes we worry about what we’ll do with all the useless discarded carbon frames that are all but indestructible and non-biodegradable.

Anyway, I digress wildly. Feeling much, much better than last week I was looking forward to another club run, despite the temperature which would struggle to reach a heady 5°C and gusting westerly winds predicted to hit 45 mph.

Just in case of any lingering ice, I eased down the hill slowly and immediately turned to greet this wind head-on for a slow grind to cross the river. Here I could enjoy a brief respite with added tailwind benefits before I had to clamber out of the valley again.

I had just about found the right gear and cadence to battle my way into the wind when, seemingly out of nowhere, a black clad, ninja cyclist cruised past, greeted me with the universal and UCI approved, “How do?” and invited me onto his wheel. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I latched on behind and had a couple of miles of relative shelter until I decided his pace was slightly too high, too early in the ride.


 

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My mystery benefactor, providing shelter from the wind

 

As I dropped off and turned to cross the river he disappeared up the road, pounding away into the headwind that seemed to be having no appreciable effect on his speed and effortless riding.

14 lads and lasses eventually gathered at our rendezvous point, where surprisingly there was no mention of ride etiquette, mechanical or wardrobe faux pas or overdue club fees. We pushed off, clipped in and rode out, looking for routes that might give a modicum of shelter and some small relief from a gusting wind.

We were warned however to be on our best behaviour at the café, as OGL was meeting some journalist from Cycling Weekly – presumably for a forthcoming feature on the Cyclone Festival of Cycling™.

As we rode out I immediately dropped to the back of the group, my usual position, but more imperative on a day like this when I didn’t really fancy sticking my nose into the wind.

Here I found Mad Colin, riding with us mere mortals, whilst bemoaning age and responsibility and we were soon discussing daughters, body building, structured training, proper rest, drugs and Lance Armstrong. He revealed how he felt that, even before Jon Tiernan-Locke registered his breakthrough wins on the Continent, racing against him was a somewhat, err shall we say, other-worldly experience.


 

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Some of the local road surfaces are in a shocking state – we probably spend more time pointing out pots than holding the bars

First OGL, then Crazy Legs, Red Max, G-Dawg, Taffy Steve and Carlton all took turns at the front as, pummelled by the incessant wind, we started to track 3 riders in the far distance. I felt sooner or later their lack of numbers would tell and we’d catch them, but we weren’t rotating off the front often enough to keep our pace really high.

With the other group dangling annoyingly in front of us for what seemed miles, Mad Colin finally took a hand, rode to the front and with Crazy Legs pushed the pace up a notch higher. We closed in, finding much to everyone’s disbelief one of them riding in shorts and his raw, angry legs looked the colour and texture of corned beef. Luckily we were soon past and leaving this uncomfortable sight behind.


 

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Despite the cold it was a very bright, very breezy day

 

As we made the turn for the café, I dropped back to check on Taffy Steve who was starting to feel the effects of prolonged efforts riding on the front. Then, as we battered up the Quarry Climb, he became slightly detached with OGL and cresting the climb they found themselves stuck behind a huge, slow-moving tractor and trailer at the precise moment that the Red Max launched a Forlorn Hope attack.

Max quickly gained about 100 to 150 metres lead with Goose stuck firmly to his wheel and Carlton queried whether we shouldn’t be chasing them down. I told him to wait and explained that it was still far too early.

We duly held formation until the road began to rise and Max’s efforts began to get a bit ragged, then a quick injection of pace had the group reforming before the road kicked down again. Meanwhile, further behind, Taffy Steve having failed to convince OGL to join the chase, finally overtook the tractor and began a madcap pursuit on his own, closing fast, but ultimately running out of road.

On the next descent and aided by some daredevil cornering, Max attacked again and again managed to open up a sizeable lead only for Mad Colin, G-Dawg and Son of G-Dawg to quickly overhaul him as once more the road kicked up.

With the strong riders pulling away up front, I dragged myself through the last junction slightly distanced from a group that included Goose, Red Max and Shouty. I pressed harder on the pedals to pick up speed and with glacial slowness the gap started to close. I made contact and decided to keep going, swinging over onto the other side of the road and sliding past down the outside of the group.


 

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Did I mention it was bright?

 

I’d just eased past Max when we hit the approach to the Snake Bends and braking sharply we zipped and switched our way through and into the final run to the café.

We left OGL at the café staring morosely into a second and now empty cup of coffee and still waiting for his contact from Cycling Weekly to show, as we piled out and saddled up for an uneventful ride home. The group split and we entered the Mad Mile, where the pace was kicked up I slipped slowly backwards through the group.

As everyone else zipped left, I swung to the right, then right again until I was pointed directly into a headwind that I suspect had been waiting for this precise moment to amp up its intensity. As I started the long drag uphill I quickly ran through the gears, trying to find something that I could spin relatively easy but still feel like I was making some headway.

I settled into the grind, watching the fog of my breathing starting to coalesce in the cold air as the temperature noticeably dropped. A stinging shower of ice-hail-snow was swept horizontally down the road to needle my face numb for the last few miles, until I could once again cross the river and ride the tailwind home.


 

YTD Totals: 392 km /244 miles with 3,855 metres of climbing

Van Impudence!


An ode to grace …

So, there I was, awkwardly adrift in the cultural hellhole that was the early ‘70’s on Tyneside and entranced by an exotic sport held mainly in distant countries and with no media support to fuel a burgeoning fascination. In a time long before even World of Sport began their token showing of less than 1% of the world’s greatest, most gruelling, sporting extravaganza, the Tour de France, options for following races were as limited as your chances of buying a white Model T Ford.

The only Tour updates in those days were an occasional list of stage winners and, if we were very lucky, an updated top 10 GC, all hidden within the dreaded “Other Results” buried in the back pages of the Sports section of daily newspapers and usually secreted under all the football stuff that had already been reported elsewhere.

The cycling results were so small and so barely legible that they would have given actual small-print a bad name, and corporate lawyers a hard-on that could last for weeks.

Beyond these barest, most perfunctory of details, we restlessly devoured stage reports in Cycling (this was so long ago that it was even before the profound and dynamic name change to “Cycling Weekly”) to try and get a feel for the drama and the ebb and flow of the ongoing battle, but what came through was a generally disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.

For the young cycling neophyte the biggest treasures were a series of books published by the Kennedy Brothers following the narrative of each Grand Tour, imaginatively titled “Tour ’77” or “Giro ‘73” (you get the picture).

Although published weeks after the publicity caravans had packed away their tat and as the gladiatorial names garishly graffiti’d on the roads slowly began to fade, these books told a compelling narrative of the race, from the first to last pedal stroke, replete with some stunning high quality photos.

Opening the crackling white pages you could inhale deeply and almost catch a faint whiff of the sunflowers, Orangina and embrocation, as you were instantly transported to the side of the road to watch the peloton whirring by.


 

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It’s in one of these Tour books that I first stumbled across a full-page photo of a boyish, fresh-faced young man, posed with some faceless fat functionary to receive a completely bizarre gazelle-head plaque. This may have been a prize for winning a stage, or the mountains classification, having the most doe –like eyes in the peloton, successfully passing through puberty, or something like that.


 

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What struck me most though was that this hardened, elite, professional athlete didn’t look all that different from me – he wasn’t all that tall, very slight of build and looked so young – creating the impression of an instant underdog.

I would also later learned that under the jauntily perched cap was a head that would be subjected to some criminally bad hair moments too – instant empathy, although I never sank quite as low as having a perm.

It was hard to believe this rider was capable of comfortably mixing it up with the big, surly men of the peloton, with their hulking frames, chiselled legs, granite faces and full effusions of facial hair. Not only that, but when the road bent upwards he would fly and leave everyone grovelling helplessly in his wake.

The young man is Lucien Van Impe and the accompanying chapter of the book is titled Van Impudence, and relates in detail how he defied the hulking brutes of the peloton and their supreme leader King Ted, to wreak his own brand of cycling havoc in the mountains.

It was here that began my long-standing love affair with the grimpeurs, the pure climbers of the cycling world, those who want to defy gravity and try to prove Newton was a dunce.


 

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An Astaire-like glide

Watch any YouTube videos of the time and you’ll see the big men of the Tour grinding horribly uphill, their whole bodies contorted as they attempt to turn over massive gears and physically wrestle the slopes into submission.

Merckx, indisputably the greatest cyclist of all time is probably the worst offender, and looks like he’s trying to re-align his top tube by brute strength alone,  while simultaneously starring in a slow-motion film of someone enduring a course of severe electro-shock therapy.

Then look at Van Impe, at the cadence he’s riding at, the effortless style and how he flows up the gradients. Woah.

His one-time Directeur Sportif, and by no means his greatest fan, Cyrille Guimard would say, “You had to see him on a bike when the road started to rise. It was marvellous to see, he was royally efficient. He had everything: the physique, fluidity, an easy and powerful pedalling style.”


 

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A decent time trialist on his day, this is Van Impe during the 1976 Tour ITT – in yellow and on his way to overall victory

In his book, Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins writes that, “Van Impe’s style is effortless and majestic. Watching him, one can’t help but think that riding up mountains is the easiest thing in the world. His is no heavy-footed stomp, but an Astaire-like glide.”

Many cycling fans prefer the rouleurs and barradeurs, the big framed, hard-men, the grinders who churn massive gears with their endless, merciless attacks, dare-devil descending and never-say-die attitudes.


 

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Van Impe wears the green jersey of the Giro’s best climber with much more aplomb than the highly suspect perm

Others seem to like the controllers who grind their way to victory, eating up and spitting out mile after mile of road at a relentless, contained pace, regardless of whether they’re riding a time-trial, a mountain stage or across a pan flat parcours.

For me though pure poetry lies in those slight, mercurial riders, who would suddenly be transformed – given wings and the ability to dance away from the opposition when the road tilts unremittingly skyward.

Even more appealing, they’re all just a little skewed and a bit flaky, wired a little bit differently to everyone else or, as one of my friends would say, “as daft as a ship’s cat”. The best can even be a little bit useless and almost a liability when the roads are flat, or heaven forbid dip down through long, technical descents.

The power of the Internet and YouTube in particular has even let me rediscover some of the great climbers from before my time, the idols who inspired Van Impe, such as Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.


 

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Gaul and Bahamontes

This pair, the “Angel of the Mountains” and “Eagle of Toldeo” respectively, both had that little bit of extra “climber flakiness” to set them apart. Bahamontes was terrified of descending on his own and was known to sit and eat ice-cream at the top of mountains while waiting for other riders so he had company on the way down.

Gaul’s demons were a little darker, once threatening to knife Bobet for a perceived slight and for a long period in his later life he became a recluse, living in a shack in the woods and wearing the same clothes day after day.

As Jacques Goddet, the Tour de France director observed, Van Impe also had “a touch of devilry that contained a strong dose of tactical intelligence” and was referred to as “l’ouistiti des cimes” – the oddball of the summits in certain sections of the French press.

Goddet went on to describe the climber as possessing “angelic features, always smiling, always amiable,” and yet Van Impe was known to be notoriously stubborn and difficult to manage, requiring careful handling, constant reassurance and a close coterie of attendants who would cater to his every whim away from the bike.

Cyrille Guimard, who coached, cajoled, goaded and drove Van Impe to his greatest achievement, Tour de France victory in 1976, described him as “every directeur sportif’s nightmare.”


 

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Van Impe doing what he does best

While I’ve enjoyed watching and following many good and some great riders, it’s always the climbers who’ve captivated me the most, although just being a good climber doesn’t seem to be enough. In fact it’s quite difficult to define the exact qualities that I appreciate – Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiapucci never “had it” and nor does current fan favourite and, ahem, “world’s best climber” the stone-faced Nairo Quintana.

There has to be a little something else, some quirk or spark of humanity that I can identify with and that sets the rider apart and makes them a joy to watch and follow. Of today’s climbers I’m most hopeful for Romain Bardet – he seems to have character, style and a rare intelligence, but only time will tell if he blossoms into a truly great grimpeur.


 

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“Always smiling, always amiable”

From the past, our very own Robert Millar of course was up there with the best (although my esteem may be coloured by intense nationalism). Andy Hampsten, on a good day, was another I liked to watch and, for a time the young Contador, when he seemed fresh and different and believable.

Still, none have come close to supplanting Van Impe in my estimation and esteem. He would go on to win the Tour in 1976 and perhaps “coulda/shoulda” won the following year, if not for being knocked off his bike by a car while attacking alone on L’Alpe D’Huez. See, that sort of shit happened even back in the “good, old days.”

By the time Van Impe’s career was finally over (including a retirement and comeback) he’d claimed the Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey on a record 6 separate occasions (matching his hero Bahamontes) and a feat that has never been bettered. (Fuck you Richard Virenque and your performance enhanced KoM sniping, I refuse to acknowledge your drug enabled “achievements”).


 

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On the attack, in the jersey he became synonymous with

In contrast, both during and after his professional career, Van Impe never tested positive, never refused a doping test and has never been implicated in any form of doping controversy – he’s either incredibly, astonishingly lucky, clever and cunning, or the closest thing you’ll ever get to the definition of a clean rider.

So, if you follow the Kitty Kelley premise that “a hero is someone we can admire without apology,” then Van Impe resolutely ticks all the boxes for me.

During his career he also managed to pick up awards for the most likeable person in the peloton and the Internet is replete with video and images of him as a good-natured and willing participant in some weirdly bizarre stunts, such as his spoof hour record attempt – proof he was an all-round good guy who never seemed to take himself too seriously.


 

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In this bizarre and apparently hilarious (if you speak Flemish) YouTube clip, Van Impe is seen challenging Moser’s Hour record

In all Van Impe completed an incredible 15 Tour’s, never abandoning and was an active participant and presence in all of them.

He won the race in 1976 and was 2nd once and 3rd on three separate occasions, finishing in the Top 5 eight times. Along the way he won 9 individual stages and achieved all this while riding for a succession of chronically weak teams and competing when two dominant giants of the sport, Merckx and Hinault, were in their pomp.

Van Impe was also 2nd overall in the Giro, winning one stage and two mountains classifications on a couple of rare forays into Italy.

Not just a one-trick pony though, he could  ride a decent time-trial and won a 40km ITT in the 1975 Tour, when he handily beat the likes of Merckx, Thévenet, Poulidor and Zoetemelk.

Even more surprisingly for a pure climber he even somehow managed to win the Belgian National Road Race Championship in 1983 after coming out of retirement.

I’m not sure if this represents Van Impe’s skills and talent, a particularly favourable parcours, or simply the nadir of Belgian cycling. Maybe all three?


 

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Belgian National Champion

In October this year Van Impe turned 70 and until recently was still actively engaged in cycling through the Wanty-Groupe Gobert Pro-Continental Team. He lives with his wife, Rita in a house named Alpe D’Huez, a reminder of the mountain where he set the foundations for his greatest triumph and perhaps suffered his most heartbreaking defeat.


 

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An elder Van Impe – still active in cycling

Not bad for the one time newspaper delivery boy and apprentice coffin-maker from the flatlands of Belgium.

Vive Van Impe!


 

 

Random Rambles and Esoteric Observations # 4 – Planet X vs. Rapha – The Throwdown


A very personal viewpoint…

Trying to find some clever way of segmenting buying behaviour within the cycling market for a colleague developing a new business concept, I half-jokingly suggested we could measure attitudes to spending on a scale where one end was represented by Rapha and the other end Planet X.

Then the more I thought about it, the more I realised that perhaps my mad idea held more than a grain of truth, and the two brands do in fact occupy completely opposite ends of the price spectrum.


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Rapha is a brand that so desperately wants to be seen as niche and elitist that it almost hurts, and I suspect the overblown prices are very much part of its appeal to a certain type of customer. While I don’t doubt its products are high quality, well-designed and built to last, I do have trouble believing they are 7 or 8 times better than the competition, which is what some of the pricing implies.

Planet X on the other hand trumpets no nonsense prices and its website and stores are replete with some astonishing deals. In fact they first came to my attention through one of their clearance sales, when I picked up a pair of my favourite Vittoria Corsa tyres for £9.99 each instead of the rrp of £49.99. Everyone loves a bargain, right?

But it’s not just the product and price positioning that sets Rapha and Planet X apart, they also seem fundamentally different on many other levels.

Take the brand names for a start: Rapha sounds like a somewhat louche, semi-successful, minor British film star. One of those slightly posh, thespian gentlemen with limited acting ability, who carefully manage to just about play themselves for most roles and manage to retain celebrity B-list status only by dint of constant tabloid headlines earned for all the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, where do you begin with Planet X? It’s a corny, half-baked, creaky, black and white Sci-Fi movie that wants to achieve “so bad it’s good” cult status and cool, but is just ultimately cheesy and unremittingly nerdy.


Whenever I see the Planet X logo I automatically make this unfortunate association...
Whenever I see the Planet X logo I automatically make this unfortunate association…

Rapha borrows heavily (some would say steals cynically and unashamedly) from the iconic heritage of vintage, continental cycling, the epic pain and suffering of cycling’s classic races and hardmen racers, all shot in black and white: straining bodies, serious faces and nary a smile to be seen. It’s such an overly-serious, po-faced approach – where’s the fun and the joy that’s so inherent to cycling?

This is a mythological version of cycling as it never was, all suffering and gladiatorial combat – and to me it’s so obviously a parody and fake in its own right that I’m surprised it’s still being parodied by others – and all without even the slightest whiff of irony.

Planet X on the other hand is all gruff, straight talking, down to earth stuff. A spade will always be a spade, never a lovingly hand-crafted, ergonomically designed earth shearing, turning and excavation tool, forged from high impact, low carbon tensile steel with a close-grained, oiled and carefully pollarded English yew shaft that’s been lovingly nurtured to maturity in the ancient and Royal Forest of Dean. Phew! And breathe. Planet X is the Ronseal of the cycling world – doing exactly what it says on the tin.

Rapha colours are unremittingly flat and dull, relying heavily on over liberal and much imitated use of black (as the new white, brown, grey, orange, black etc. – just delete as appropriate). They are minimalist to the point of bland. Their signature; the single, contrasting coloured band on the sleeve, leg or whatever, no longer looks clever to me (was it ever?) – just strangely unimaginative and rather tired looking. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Planet X designs on the other hand have none of the studied cool of Rapha and tend toward the garish and over-the-top – check out their Carnac team kit and bikes as a prime example.


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Carnac team kit – you can’t say it’s not distinctive.

Once stalwarts of the British pro scene via the RaphaCondor outfit, Rapha have moved up to the big time and are now the kit providers of choice to the elite of the elite pro teams, the one with allegedly the biggest budget in the peloton, and a team that is perhaps as divisive as the Rapha brand itself.

You don’t have to stray too far into the troll infested backwoods of the Internet to find that Sky are unremittingly seen as the bad guys, sucking the soul out of cycling through (shock! horror!) meticulous planning, innovative methods, spending as much budget as they can prise out of sponsors hands, employing the most talented riders, structured training, organisation, attention to detail and riding to their strengths, (all ladled with lashings of dark, innuendo about cheating and drug-taking.)

Rapha themselves have managed to take one of the duller team kits in the pro ranks and somehow make it even more boring and bland, (or understated, cool and minimalist, depending on your own point of view.) Oh, and then they’ve added those shudderingly hideous national flags to the sleeve cuffs for good measure … well, only one sleeve cuff, obviously.


There may be people out there who like this - but I'm not one of them.
There may be people out there who like this – but I’m not one of them.

Planet X on the other hand are unheralded sponsors of a host of domestic, young, up-and-coming, teams and individuals, kids, men and women, all flying pretty much under the radar, all in real need of support. They appear to do this with the sole intent of nurturing the grass-roots of the sport, although, if they’re really clever, perhaps they might be able to squeeze some small marketing return out of their investment.

Rapha are the perfect, text book example of how to build a premium, niche brand and as a marketing man I should be much, much more appreciative of their tight control over product and image and how they’ve created a brand with a real and enduring cachet. Their heritage may be at best overstated and at worst manufactured – but it’s obviously working for them and their target market.

There’s a lot to admire about Rapha – they are a relatively young, dynamically growing, internationally recognised and highly successful British brand that is seen as world leading and is much loved and valued by the only people who actually matter – their customers. I’m sure on many levels their devotees (Raphalites in my jargon) enjoy the scorn of their detractors as much as the product and brand image they are actually buying into.

From the outside Planet X sometimes appear a bit disorganised and all over the shop, willing to jump at any opportunity and conveying the wiles and opportunism of a wheeler-dealer market trader, a Del Boy made good? They appear content to be seen as bumbling along with no particular destination in mind and without any kind of blueprint for world domination.


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It’s difficult to imagine anyone actually coveting a Planet X product, and if they do the value for money pricing means it’s an itch that’s fairly easily scratched. Many, many people however will be more than happy to buy and use and endorse their products wholeheartedly.

Both companies have owners who profess a love of cycling, but for Simon Mottram of Rapha it’s the pure and unalloyed love of road racing. His avowed aim is to promote the sport he loves, and he wants it to be as big as football. It’s an interesting point of view, but I’m not sure it’s remotely attainable, or more importantly, even the least bit desirable.


“I think road cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, and the toughest sport in the world, and I think it should be the biggest sport in the world. I think more people should do cycling than watch football.”
“I think road cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, and the toughest sport in the world, and I think it should be the biggest sport in the world. I think more people should do cycling than watch football.” (Photo from Cycling Weekly)

I also struggle to forgive him his man-crush on Marco Pantani, who Mottram sees as a tragic icon of style(!) and the epitome of cool, while I just think of him as a fragile, ungainly, rocket-fuelled cheat, deserving as much approbation as a certain gentleman from Texas.

On the other side of the coin, Planet X is owned and run by Dave Loughran. A bit of a mongrel in terms of cycling background, first and foremost a triathlete, and then a mountain biker who has dabbled in dirt bikes, mountain bikes, fixies, or anything else that’ll turn a profit. By all accounts Loughran is an abrasive, hard-nosed, salesman and a bit of a wheeler-dealer who admires Mike Ashley of all people.

This is a man with (judging purely from what I’ve read, you understand) so many traits I don’t admire that I can’t say I have an interest in meeting him and I certainly can’t imagine myself ever working for him. Despite this he’s made a good impression on me (ironically in an excellent article written by Jack Thurston in Rapha’s “corporate” magazine Rouleur) and I’m really interested in seeing what he does next. It was while being interviewed for this article that, almost in an aside about business growth really stuck and resonated with me.

I can remember way back in my university days trying to write a Marketing Communications assignment and weave into it the universal truths of Nietzche’s writings and the startling insight of W B Yeats poetry, wrapped around a lengthy discourse on the largely unreported hijacking, total control and manipulation of the free press by the military during the American invasion of Grenada. (Pretentious. Moi? Look there’s only so much you can write about J.K. Galbraith, Drucker or Kotler without becoming deathly boring to yourself and, surely your tutors too…)

Around this time I unerringly stumbled across a lecture by E.P. Thompson which either coloured my thinking, or simply gave life to already ingrained beliefs. Thompson argued that the establishment controls the frame of reference in which all the political discourse takes place and stifles true debate so that, for example, it becomes a very narrow argument about which political party can best deliver economic growth and never an exploration of whether the blind pursuit of growth is actually necessary, or in the best interests of the country and its populace.

He likened this to a car, “bumming down the motorway with an accelerator pedal, but no steering … we rush on, faster or slower, but can’t take exits, go somewhere else, or even stop and turnaround.”

In 30 years of working for and on behalf of dozens, if not hundreds of businesses, both massive and micro, corporate conglomerates to Mom & Pop family-run affairs, I’ve seen the same single-minded, determined obsession with growth and never yet encountered an organisation that strayed far from the strategy of making as much money and profit as humanly (and occasionally inhumanely) possible.

Every business and many other types of organisation too, seem to have a default setting that says they have to measure themselves purely on financial performance. Year on year they set themselves bigger and bigger growth targets, regardless of whether this is necessary or actually in their best interests, regardless of the mental and physical well-being of the workers and the management and ignoring if this will actually improve what they deliver to their customers.

Now, many, many years later I’ve actually found a successful business man with a different view and judging from the articles, growth for growth’s sake also seems to be a bit of a bugbear for Loughran too.

He’s quoted talking about the plans to sell off his company, “All I’ve had for the last three years is ‘what’s our growth plan’: growth, growth, growth, how are we striving for growth? Growth became a number. We grew phenomenally in the last year and it became a pressure cooker of: ‘How do we build 300 bikes a week, how do we build 350, how do we build 400?’ It was all because my management team was driving for a buy-out and they had to show to all the vulture capitalists a £10, £15, £20, £25 million success story”.

And then he capped it all with this piece of what sounded like very heartfelt, hard-won wisdom. “We can build 300 bikes a week now and everyone can have a great life and the mechanics don’t have any pressure and we can have good availability. If we strove for 500 bikes a week we wouldn’t have the supply chain, everybody would hate each other, it wouldn’t be a nice company.” (My emphasis).

He then went on to talk about setting up an employee share ownership system that will eventually mean the company is co-owned by staff and an independent trust set up to safeguard the workforce. Sounds great – I’ll be watching.

And there you have it, a very rambling discourse on why I’m more interested in what Mr. Loughran does next, rather than Mr. Mottram’s next step toward world-domination. It’s also one reason why I’m more X-traterrestrial than a Raphalite – you see it isn’t just because I’m as tight as a wallaby’s sphincter.