Plague Diaries – Week#27

Plague Diaries – Week#27

A licky boom, boom down

So following discussion, the investigation of all possible loopholes, wormholes and arseholes, no end of reading and research, questioning British Cycling and the Police and anyone else who’d listen, there was no clarity and no certainty, but it looked like club runs, even in groups of 6 were verboten. Sigh.

It seemed clear cut to me that we’d be back to solo rides and that’s what I planned for, even as the debate continued. Finally “the Amorphous We” called off the club ride for the weekend, although G-Dawg did suggest that if everyone just so happened to be at the cafe at a certain time and we strictly enforced social distancing, we could at least benefit from such a serendipitous and guileless coincidence.

So then, I had a start point and I had an end point complete with a rendezvous time. It was just a case of filling in the middle. Before all that however, I had a bit of unfinished business, a side mission to reclaim a Strava K.O.M. that I’d lost while on holiday.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a hotly contested segment that hundreds of people are striving to capture, but a quiet stretch of road I use on my commute’s home. I’d set the record somewhat inadvertently coming back from work on my single-speed and, since it’s the only K.O.M. I’ve ever had, or I’m likely to ever have, I have a certain attachment to it.

My thinking was that if I tackled it at the start of my ride and on my good bike, and made a deliberate run at it, there was a reasonable chance I could snatch it back, even if it was just for a week or two. So, I took a circuitous route down the Heinous Hill, circled around my target, found the right gear and bashed my way upwards.

It felt fast, but I wouldn’t know if I’d been successful until I got home and downloaded the file to Strava.

I got back on course, crossing the river at Newburn and tackling the climb up Hospital Lane, before taking a left through Westerhope instead of my usual right. I found myself climbing Penny Hill from top to bottom for the first time. I was just over half way up when the unmistakable figure of G-Dawg in his multi-coloured Mapei jersey emerged from a side road ahead of me.

I accelerated to greet my clubmate and slowly began to close, until he looked back, saw he was being stalked by another cyclist, raised himself out of the saddle, stomped forcefully on the pedals … and rode away.

I’d already been climbing for about 5-minutes and had no response as G-Dawg disappeared around a corner in the distance ahead, probably not even realising who was trying to ride across to him just to say hello.

Then again, maybe he knew exactly who was chasing him …

I rounded the corner to find G-Dawg momentarily stopped by some temporary traffic lights and I arrived just as they turned green. I used my momentum to nip past, complaining loudly about the length of the hill I’d just been forced to climb and pushed on toward Stamfordham. I assume G-Dawg took a different route by dint of the fact that he didn’t catch and pass me somewhere along the way.

From Stamfordham I took the road to Whittle Dene reservoir, then followed the signs for Stagshaw. Climbing up through the plantations I had an awkward encounter with a black-eared hare that decided to belt straight down the road in front of me, instead of simply stepping to one side and disappearing into a hedge.

Every time my momentum saw me catch up with it I tapped my brakes and every time the hare heard the zissing of the pads it started to jink erratically, zig-zagging crazily across the tarmac in a manoeuvre obviously designed to make a predator miss.

This happened three or four times and I was getting embarrassed for the poor critter, until the light finally dawned in its little brain and it stepped off the road and into cover.

I pushed on through Matfen, turned for the Quarry and ran slap bang into a stiff headwind that was going to dog me pretty much the rest of the ride, as I routed through Belsay, Ogle and on to Kirkley and our low key club rendezvous.

The cafe was quiet today. I got served quickly and there was more than enough space for everyone to sit 3 or 4 metres apart.

Crazy Legs, G-Dawg, TripleD-Be and Triple D-El were already widely spaced around a table and it wasn’t long before Aether joined our impromptu collective, with a few others rolling up later.

Everyone seemed to be fully enjoying the Tour, little knowing at that point that the rather inevitable procession toward Paris was due a further surprise twist, one that would upend the Rog and Pog show to supplant it with the Pog and Rog show. Incredible.

Considering the Giro and Vuelta are generally more open and entertaining than the Tour – and we have both yet to come, it could be a vintage year for cycling’s Grand Tours, despite everything.

Even better, we have almost a full suite of Classics to look forward to, including, as Crazy Legs reminded us, an autumn Paris-Roubaix with a strong possibility of atrocious weather to spice things up even further.

Not everyone is a fan though, G-Dawg admitting he couldn’t see the novelty of riding on gravel, or cobbelstones, be it the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, or the sterrati of the Strade Bianche. His argument was that there were perfectly good roads leading to the same destination, so why would you use something inferior and from ages past. He does, I concede have a point, after all no one is competing in these races on ancient steel-framed clunkers. Secretly I suspect he’s just averse to the thought of all those nice shiny bikes getting trashed beyond even his cleaning and restorative prowess.

Crazy Legs informed us that he’d been well into his ride, when he determined his shorts were unbearably uncomfortable and it was a good while longer before he realised why – in a faux pas previously only committed by the Garrulous Kid, he found was still wearing his underpants. He then had to seek out a private and secluded stopping spot in order to more or less completely disrobe to remove the offending article.

Now, like an unrequited Tom Jones fan, he was carrying around his pre-worn knickers in his back pocket and offering them as an extra thermal layer to anyone who complained it was a bit chilly outside. As far as I’m aware there were no takers.

This got me wondering if there was an opposite to “going Commando” – perhaps “going Home Guard” or maybe “going Quisling?” Yeah, I know, it’ll never catch on.

Crazy Legs then asked everyone, “Would you grass your neighbours up for breaking quarantine rules?”

TripleD-Be looked mightily confused. “Grass?” he queried.

“Grass. Snitch. Nark. Fink?”

“Huh?”

“Become a stool pigeon?” I suggested, thinking that Kid Creole and the Coconuts perhaps-maybe could have troubled the Eurocharts back in the day?

TripleD-Bee looked even more bewildered now.

“Stool pigeon?” He mulled the alien phrase over, “As in a stool you sit on and pigeon like the bird?”

“Err – yes.”

“Informer,” someone suggested and that seemed to do the trick, he at least knew what we were getting at.

“But, why stool pigeon, where does this term come from?” he returned to the topic of Kid Creole’s 15-minutes of fame.

I had to admit I had absolutely no idea, perhaps leaving him even more confounded by the absurdity of the English language.

(The most plausible explanation I can find after additional research is that the term derives from the French estale, a pigeon used to entice a hawk into a net.)

Talk then meandered its way to the club time-trial.

“When is it?” TripleD-El queried.

“Next August,” Crazy Legs informed her.

“Ah, good, I don’t have to start training yet,” –

“Yeah, you do,” Crazy Legs shot back.

Ooph. Burn.

TripleD-El was left speechless, while TripleD-Be collapsed in a fit of giggles.

We left soon afterwards, before Anglo-Dutch relations became more fractious, each going our separate ways.

I routed home through Ponteland, finding I now had Snow’s “Informer” as the soundtrack to my ride. Stopped at the traffic lights just past the airport car pulled up behind and blasted me with a snarky sounding horn. I was stopped at a red light, standing perfectly still and composed, what could I possibly have done to earn the ire of this particular motorist? I decided to ignore it and pushed on when the lights changed.

The car pulled up alongside, the passenger window slid down and I braced myself for a stream of invective, or worse.

“Halloo there!” I glanced across to see the BFG leering at me from behind the wheel of his mini.

“Oh, hi.”

He doffed an imaginary hat and sped away. Oh well, looked like I was going to avoid ugly confrontations with arse-hat motorists. This week at least.

Plague Diaries – Week#26

Plague Diaries – Week#26

The Joy of Six

Woah! Week#26 of this stuff already – half an entire year and still no end in sight.

Oh, if you’re at all concerned at the loss of week#24 and #25, they were taken up by a deserved holiday in North Yorkshire. I’ve never seen so much rain. This was then followed by an entire weekend decorating Sur La Jante Towers while trying to dry out.

In the time I’ve been away from club riding, the pandemic has tightened its grip on the UK, cases are rising again and tighter restrictions on social gatherings are about to be implemented – the so called Rule of Six, which sounds to me like Bo-Jo the Clown channeling the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Anyway, since it doesn’t look good to have up to 30 cyclists hanging round, talking bolleaux, guffawing loudly and generally cluttering up the pavement,we decided on collective, pre-emptive action.

Orchestrated through various social media channels, everyone was encouraged to wear masks at the meeting point, wait under the eaves of the multi-story car park instead of out on the pavement and, as soon as we we could form each group of 6, we determined they should head straight out and not wait for the usual 9:15 collective start time. It seemed like an obvious, eminently practical and sensible variation on how we usually do things and would allay any negative perceptions that we were flouting social-distancing procedures.

For reasons that I might get around to explaining one day, this was the first time I’d ever done a club ride with a knapsack on my back. Val-deri, val-dera, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha and all that. This was fine when I started out fresh and it was empty, but as the day wore and I filled it with more and more of my clubmate’s jersey’s, it seemed to get heavier and heavier, bulged more and became more of an aerodynamic drag, a literal and metaphorical anchor on my back. At least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. (It was only loaded with 1.9 kgs of stuff, but it felt like so much more!)

I’ve also just swapped out my venerable, chunky Garmin Edge for a sleek, Decathlon Van Rysel bike computer and this was its first outing (it does pretty much the same things as the Garmin, but for half the price).

Unfortunately, I was too lazy/impatient to set it up properly and format the displays, which was something I didn’t discover until 10-minutes into my ride, when I realised I could see my maximum achieved speed, but none of the various screens I flicked through showed me what time it was.

I guess I could have stopped and checked the time on my phone, but … well, where’s the fun in that? So, I pressed on, picking up the pace just to make sure I wouldn’t be late. I needn’t have worried, I made it in plenty of time and joined earliest arriving rider, Richard Rex in the car park. We masked up, before shooting the breeze about the Tour: young tyro-cyclists like Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogačar, sly, old cyclists Like Alessandro Valverde and, for a change of pace, the unpredictable weather in the Lake District

Crazy Legs and G-Dawg arrived in tandem, but sadly not on a tandem. They quickly gathered four others and away they went. Smooth as you like, our first group were out on the road and we were up and running. Another group quickly formed up and followed, before our newly organised Newbie group got underway too.

Then OGL arrived, found half of us had left already and embarked on an epic, apoplectic rant about us leaving in small groups, not waiting until the allotted time and apparently running roughshod over all sorts of long-held club mores, traditions and values.

And the reason for all the vituperative ire? In the biggest self-own imaginable, apparently he wanted to get us all clustered closely together so he could address the gathered masses and tell us we needed to reconsider our social-distancing arrangements.

Aether took the brunt of the attack and simply tried to explain that it was down to individual choice and that we had all, collectively arrived at a practical, pragmatic and much needed decision, that had been widely discussed and agreed across a range of social media. This did not, he admitted when challenged, include the “official” channels of the club Facebook page or website, because a large number of legitimate and fully-paid up club members have been arbitrarily excluded from actually accessing them.

I’ve never been good arguing with incoherence and lack of logic, so stood politely, if rather awkwardly aside until the storm blew itself out to dark mutterings. I never did quite grasp what his suggestions actually were for improving our response to social-distancing guidelines, other than some scare-mongering about our chosen coffee stop and some random, non-cycling people being fined in, err … Salford was it?

The furore interrupted our efforts to set everyone off in groups, rather than have us mingling and potentially raising the ire of Priti Vacant Patel, but we finally hustled the last few groups out onto the road. I joined up with route architect Aether, root architect Ovis, Famous Sean’s and Sneaky Pete to form a quality quintet and, somewhat belatedly, we got underway too.

Aether confided he was confounded beyond belief that OGL hadn’t taken the opportunity to congratulate us on our pre-emptive initiative and well-thought out social distancing rules enacted for the benefit of all club members. Ha ha.

I had a catch up with Famous Sean’s who I hadn’t seen for a good while. In the middle of our chat I almost fell into the trap of talking about how borderline chilly it was, but then I looked over and noticed that, as usual, Famous Sean’s was almost completely mummified in layers of clothing – a long-sleeved jacket, buff, tights and overshoes. I reasoned he probably didn’t have the faintest inkling of what the weather was like outside his protective carapace, so I let it slide. “I was going to put my winter gloves on,” he later confided, “But thought people might laugh at me.”

Still, at least he wasn’t wearing his entire wardrobe all at once, like the time he made it onto one of our winter rides with a silhouette resembling a bomb-disposal expert in full blast armour.

Halfway up Berwick Hill we passed one of our earlier groups, wrestling with Captain Black’s tyre after an unfortunate puncture. We zipped past and pressed on, swapping turns on the front until we reached the bottom of the Mur de Mitford and Sneaky Pete sneaked away rather than face the steep drag up.

The second group having made the necessary repairs were right on our heels as we tackled the climb and Jake the Snake, the Dormanator, attacked from that group and whooshed past as we dug into the climb.

“Ah, the exuberance of youth,” Ovis remarked wistfully, although he was gliding up the steep slope without apparent effort.

I asked how he was doing. “Ouh, a’m not gowin’ too bad att’a moment,” he replied modestly, before confiding he’d recently ridden the entire Marmotte route on Zwift. Just because he could.

With only the four of us to swap places on the front and battling a surprisingly stiff breeze, we somehow stayed ahead of the group behind, but as we took the climb parallel to the Trench, the Dormanator was once again flitting past to attack the slope with gusto.

Aether was flagging a little as we made it over the top. “I still haven’t found my climbing legs,” he confided, pausing in contemplation before adding, “and it’s been fifteen years now.”

Up past Dyke Neuk, we dropped down the other side and were just making our way toward Meldon and more climbing, when Aether pulled over with a puncture. We got things sorted pretty niftily and were almost done when the group behind churned past, putting us firmly into last place on the road again. I hoped this might play to our advantage and let the cafe queue die down a little before we got there.

My wishes were semi-granted, the queue wasn’t too long and we were served without the usual interminable wait. Armed with coffee and yet another crumbling scone on a paper plate, I meandered across the grass looking for a bench to perch my posterior on.

Spotting me approaching the table where he was sitting with G-Dawg and the Colossus, Crazy Leg hooked his leg around the spare chair beside him and drew it in under the table and out of reach. The. Bastard.

I moved toward the next table to join a couple of furious wasps who were dive-bombing it’s surface in apparent agitation, but at least appeared more welcoming. Crazy Legs relented though and invited me to sit with the cool kids after all, although he did check that I wasn’t carrying jam or anything else that might attract flying pests’ having been caught out before when sitting next to Szell and his wasp-magnet confiture.

This remembrance did gift us a quick sing-a-long round of “K-K-K-Kenny and the wasps” but luckily it wasn’t enough to gift either of us an Elton John ear-worm.

I wondered how the Colossus had been faring in the sneakily gusting wind, riding his TT bike with the solid disc wheel and he admitted it certainly made life a little interesting.

As a counterpoint to this discussion, a capricious gust of wind then picked up my plate and hurled it away, jettisoning my scone, which grazed Crazy Legs’ temple as it spun past. He looked up in pained surprise, but luckily it didn’t have the concrete hardened crust of a stale pork pie, because if that had caught him in the eye, Crazy Legs would have bit the dust.

I retrieved my scone from several metres away where it had finally come to rest. They may be flat and they may be crumbly, but they are impressively aerodynamic for baked goods.

I then commended everyone for making an early start this morning and missing out on an epic OGL rant, as he complained about the further Covid-19 precautions we’d taken, because he wanted to discuss taking further Covid-19 precautions. Still, I needn’t have worried as he turned up out of nowhere for the singular purpose of delivering a full-throated reprise of his earlier rant, just so no one felt left out.

Never. A. Dull. Moment.

With everyone gathering their gear to leave I told Captain Black not to wait as I was thinking of heading straight home through Ponteland. Ovis though was hanging back to wait for me and I was coerced into joining up with him, Aether, Captain Black, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg on a more circuitous return up Saltwick Hill.

At one point everyone else dropped back to wait for Aether, but I was flagging, so I kept plugging along, tiring rapidly and with the rucksack starting to give me a sore back. It’s ok for 20km round commuting trips, but not so comfortable on extended club runs.

The group caught me once again just past the airport and I tagged onto the back for a while, but it wasn’t long before I was on my own again and this time for the rest of the ride. Crawling up past the golf course into a direct headwind wasn’t much fun, but it was largely downhill to the river from there and once across I had a tailwind to usher me to the foot of the Heinous Hill. A last clamber up and I was done for another week.

STOP PRESS: The entire North East is now subject to tighter lockdown restrictions. We (or, “the amorphous we” as OGL has disparagingly named us) have decided to suspend group rides for now, so it’s back to solo undertakings for the time being and until further notice.

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

Plague Diaries – Week#21

Plague Diaries – Week#21

A quick one. In all senses of the word.

Once again the North East missed out on the raging heatwave and produced perfect cycling weather for the Saturday run, dry, bright and sunny, but not too hot and with a noticeable, cooling wind.

It was one of those very, very rare occasions when I even felt brave enough to dispense with a base layer. I’m such a risk taker.

I had a good run across town and arrived at the meeting point with plenty of time to spare, perching on the wall and enjoying the warm sunshine until others started to arrive.

First in was Double-Decker who I hadn’t seen for a long, long time and had a litany of complaints: allergic rhinitis, bursitis, arthritis and possibly several other itis’s too.

It was duly noted that no sooner had we sent the Garrulous Kid packing, back to University in Aberdeen, than that whole city was placed in lock-down. A coincidence? I don’t think so.

A couple of us spent time pondering Jimmy Mac’s exotic looking (in the sense of exotic being a euphemism for pug-ugly) and undoubtedly expensive brake calipers, singularly failing to identify the make which seemed to be branded with, err … what are they? Two coffee beans? I think they may have been Cane Creek eeCycleworks creations and the coffee beans may have been artistically rendered “ee’s” – but who knows?

Then Crazy Legs told me to immediately go away and eat a pork pie because I was looking too thin. I protested that I was about as heavy as I’ve ever been, a rather enhanced, lockdown fighting weight of 67 kilograms, or 10 st and 8 lbs for those of us who still use retard units. He was having none of it, the old cynic and all round disbeliever.

Something does seem to have changed though. I used to kid myself I was a slightly above average grimpeur (by our club standards, anyway and making generous allowances for my advanced age and general decrepitude) while being a below average rouleur, but in recent weeks I seem to have suffered a role reversal, seemingly more capable of “booling” along at a high pace than clambering upward.

At the same time I seemed to have found some extra speed on the descents, but can’t understand why, or where it might have come from. Today’s run was going to illustrate all these points and has me thinking about consciously trying to lose some weight to see if it makes much difference on the climbs. Still, that’s more than enough self-reflection to last me two or three months at least.

G-Dawg outlined the “open route” for the day, the option being to follow as required, or modify to suit as, once again we planned to set off in socially-distanced groups of six, with a planned rendezvous late on at the cafe at Kirkley.

The run would be taking us down the Ryals and G-Dawg kindly asked whoever he was riding with to wait for him at the bottom, as he would be “bricking it” on the descent, where he’s had several terrifyingly scary, speed wobbles. Despite swapping his Boardman for a brand new Canyon, it’s still not a descent he feels at all comfortable with.

With over two-dozen of us, we started to form into groups of six and I gravitated to the second group, nominally led by Rainman, as a “faster” front group was called for and started to coalesce around Jimmy Mac.

This front group pushed off, we gave them a while to get clear then made to follow, only to find Jimmy Mac doubling back to pick up more people as the his group was light on bodies. I nudged forward into this group, expecting one or two others to join and even things up a bit. The traffic lights turned green, we pushed off out onto the open road, I glanced back and found I’d been abandoned. thrown to the wolves without mercy.

Even worse, there was only three others in the front group with me: Jimmy Mac, Fourth Down and Spry, all of them considerably younger, leaner, meaner, fitter and faster. This was going to be a little bit testing and it was a case of when, not if I got dropped and just how long I could hang on.

I took things up at the front alongside Spry and then, when he dropped back, alongside Jimmy Mac. He wondered if I was going to ride on the front all day. I didn’t have any breath to spare to confirm or deny it.

I was trying to keep the pace high enough to dissuade anyone from getting fidgety, or pushing onto the front and injecting more speed than I could cope with. I managed to hold my own for about 25km, until we turned for the run through Stamfordham, when Spry and Fourth Down swept past and we all accelerated. The fuse to the powder keg in my legs was duly lit and began sputtering away, burning merrily. Now it was just a case of hanging onto the wheels until it exploded.

We dipped in and out of Matfen, I picked up a handful of Strava PR’s and then we started closing on the village of Ryal.

I was just about still in contact, a few metres off the back, as we crested the infamous Ryals climb and started the steep descent. As a last hurrah, I tucked in tight and slid past everyone to lead the way down, netting 3 more Strava PR’s along the way.

We then turned toward Hallington and started to climb and I knew I was done. I shouted up to Forth Down not to wait and for them to keep going. They did and were soon disappearing uphill as I rolled the chain up the cassette and began climbing at a more sustainable pace.

By the time I was on the top road running toward Capheaton the group was long gone and I considered calling into the cafe there, where I’d be guaranteed good cake. I decided to press on to Kirkley for a regroupement, at the risk of slightly dodgy scones.

On the road past Belsay, I saw a rider in the distance turning off toward Ogle and gave chase, thinking the surprisingly visible dark jersey with the bold white stripe down the back could actually be a clubmate.

Through Ogle I gained ground, until I recognised Aether’s Bianchi and I caught up on the climb and slotted in alongside him as we made our way to the cafe, once again arriving pretty much bang on the scheduled 11.30 meet up time.

As usual the place was heaving, the queue long and the service slow, not helped by the cashiers strapped up arm, which along with a grazed chin, showed her injuries from flying over the handlebars of her bike.

I risked a scone, declining one fresh from the oven, but that was enough to pique Aether’s interest. My scone was mostly disappointing, flat and crumbly, those fresh from the oven were no better.

Our disappointment prompted a question and answer session with the Big Yin, interested in mastering the making of his own scones as part of his rehabilitation as a new Renaissance Man.

Aether provided most of the answers, explaining the base recipe and process was the same, whether you were making sweet or savoury scones and then it was just a choice of choosing from hundreds of potential flavours, cherry, cheese, almond, currant, blueberry, raspberry …

“Pilchard,” I added, trying to be helpful as Aether’s list seemed to be floundering a little. Surprisingly, the Big Yin seemed totally engaged in the discussion and all-in for mastering the fine art of the “sconier” (okay, I just made that up) – well, certainly more engaged than the the cafe seems to be. He even pondered where scone making might sit on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and if indeed it was the very pinnacle of self-actualisation.

Rainman wandered up and flopped into a chair beside us. “I was really surprised when you went off with that first group,” he deadpanned.

Yeah, you and me both, mate …

He then had a barked, quickfire, chat with 3D-L in their mother tongue, which was probably along the lines of can you believe this idiot went off with the fast group, or maybe just one gripe about the English measuring everything in retard units.

I checked in with G-Dawg to see how his descent of the Ryals had gone, different bike, different wheels, same rider, same result. Somehow the speed-wobble that had manifest on the Boardman had managed to make the unlikely jump to the Canyon. He was beginning to wonder if perhaps he was the problem and recognised it could all just in his head now. I’m pretty sure he wont be taking us on that route again anytime soon.

Everyone else went left exiting the cafe, while I swung right, pulling out just in front of Spry who’d scampered away from the rest of our front group somewhere on the climbs where I’d been distanced. He’d then stopped at the Belsay cafe before adding on a few more miles around Whalton and was now heading home.

We rode together as far as Ponteland chatting about life under lockdown and Fabio Jakobsen’s horror crash in the Tour of Poland, before we split.

Solo again and just to underscore I’m not imagining this odd influx of downhill speed, I picked up top 4 and top 10 all-time placings on a couple of Strava segments down to the river. I’ve never managed anything like that before and I was almost as pleased as I was surprised.

Plague Diaries – Week#20

Plague Diaries – Week#20

Ponderosa Glee Boys

Internet oddity of the week was a report in multiple newspapers that Safari park baboons had been armed with knives, screwdrivers and a chainsaw, with keepers suspecting pranksters had tooled up the simians so they could damage visitors’ cars ‘for a laugh’

The best quote from Knowsley Safari Park claimed their park was “just as safe as a McDonalds drive-thru.” Hmm, not tremendously reassuring.

Well, the Met Office confirmed Friday was third hottest day on record in the UK as temperatures reached almost 38℃ “doon sooth” and they weren’t too shabby “oop north” either. Not the best when you’re too pre-occupied with work to step out, but a few of my luckier clubmates managed to enjoy long rides in the sun. Still, even as temperatures began to drop from their record highs, it seemed like things would be just fine for Saturday and so it proved.

In fact it was a very bright early start to the day that slowly started to cloud over, but still a perfectly warm and pleasant for a bit of free-range bikling -and we were even graced by the occasional burst of bright sunshine.

Jimmy Mac had prepared one of those cunning routes that took a tried and tested club run and reversed it, providing something novel that was a bewildering and disorientating surprise and yet at the same time oddly familiar – a sort of collective bike ride powered by déjà vu.

It was also a route that proved fast, flat and fun, lacking any signature big hills, to such an extent that I only just topped a 1,000 metres of climbing for the entire day.

I’d arrived at the meeting point early to find the a newly chunky, Monkey Butler Boy had emerged from a long period of aestevation, complete with a brand new pair of aero-socks, which he claimed would save him an additional 4 watts of energy, before adding the small print, sotto voce: if he could somehow manage to ride at 40kph for 45 minutes. Somehow, I didn’t think it would be enough of an advantage for him to survive the ride after neglecting the bike for so long.

As one young ‘un returned, another prepared to depart, this being the last ride of the Garrulous Kid before his return to university. Still, there was one final opportunity for G-Dawg to carry out an impromptu chain inspection. It was no great surprise to anyone when the Garrulous Kid failed the test and G-Dawg spent the rest of the ride with a pore-deep, grungy black smear indelibly tattooed into his thumb pad. It’ll probably still be there when the Kid returns at Christmas.

Captain Black arrived on a different bike, a new Trek to replace his old Trek, the somewhat bipolar, “Old Faithful” or “Twatty MacTwat Face” the name being very much dependent upon how its riders legs were feeling at any given moment. The new bike has in-built vibration dampening and fat 32mm tyres, promising a plush ride, even on the worst of Northumberland’s disintegrating roads.

Once again there were 25 or so riders at the start and we left in groups of six. This time I formed part of the rear-guard, the last group out alongside Captain Black, Big Dunc, Benedict, OGL and Carlton. Suffering from hay-fever, OGL stayed with us until Bolam Lake before bailing to head to the cafe at Belsay, while the rest of us started the route reversal portion of the planned ride.

Around 40km into the ride and approaching a downhill run of Middleton Bank, we caught a glimpse of the next group on the road and began closing. Benedict took a timeout to attend to a call of nature and the rest of us eased onto the climb up to Scots Gap, letting the group ahead pull out a bigger lead until they were safely out of sight again.

We regathered and pushed on, the wrong way through the swoop and dip past Hartburn and then flicking left and right at speed through the bends passing Dyke Neuk, the building on our right instead of the usual left, all the while gathering pace as we went.

By the time we were running through Mitford we’d caught and latched onto the group ahead. This was a problem as we were now travelling in a pack of more than six, but much more importantly, it put would put us at the back of the queue when we reached the cafe at Kirkley.

The overwhelming majority (well, all but one of us, truth be told) seem to have adopted Kirkley as our ordained coffee stop, primarily because it has such a massive outside seating area, with plenty of space for social distancing. On the downside, service is glacially slow and it gets very busy.

Captain Black had a quick consult with the rest of our group and gave me the nod, Carlton and Big Dunc seemed happy to hang back, but the rest of us had permission to push on.

I waited until we hit the climb out of Mitford, before running down the outside of the group and accelerating away, with Captain Black and Benedict in close attendance. By the top of the climb we had a workable lead and it was just a case of maintaining the gap as we closed on the cafe for a bit of sneaky, unadulterated queue jumping.

Safely at Kirkley, Jimmy Mac got lots of deserved kudos for the route, which although all on well traveled roads, had never been put together in that combination or direction before. G-Dawg in particular was well pleased with the speed the front group had managed, clocking a 30 km/hour average throughout, even allowing for his slow amble down to the meeting point that morning.

Crazy Legs revealed that he’d taken to wearing a mask like … well, like a duck to water, the one drawback being that it inevitably provoked him into making comedy wahk-wahk-wahk duck noises.

I suggested it was fun to wear a mask, but I felt it would be even better with a six-shooter holstered on my hip. Yippy-kay-ay. Crazy Legs agreed and said he’d felt like a particularly bad-ass hombre when pairing his mask with a leather stetson, while we touched on the irony of having to wear a mask before you went into a bank these days.

There was also a shout out for Egan Bernal’s comedy effort …

Crazy Legs then said he’d seen that someone had developed an athlete specific mask for wearing during exercise – the major drawback being it closely resembled a horses nosebag. I wondered if it would be useful for holding a handful of oats for mid-ride nutrition, while he suggested a watertight one students could fill with alcohol, needing only to tip their heads back to sup … and we were almost back where we left off last week with his suggestion that students wear a cone of shame …

Finally served and at a table (it was apparently a good scone week, this week, but I’d gone with a flapjack instead) we showed a near preternatural level of forward planning by discussing our options for cafe stops during winter club runs, when the small indoor area here would swiftly be overrun.

This turned into a discussion about how many would actually bother riding throughout the winter when there were “fun” alternatives (their words, not mine) available like Zwift.

Apparently we haven’t quite got the comms set up on the system we’re currently using for collective turbo rides and the only form of communication available is a simple thumbs-up. This seemed mighty limited vocabulary to me and, even if confined to basic hand gestures, I could think of one or two others that might come in useful.

I demonstrated for good effect, making a fist and boldly raising my middle-finger. “Yes,” Crazy Legs confirmed, “That would be useful.”

I then curled my fingers into a loose fist and shook it vigorously up and down in imitation of Gareth Hunt demeaning his craft in order to hock instant coffee, or, if that particular image offends (and I can see why it might) miming the universal sign for an onanistic self-abuser.

“Hah!” Crazy Legs interjected as my actions reminded him of something, “we passed a bloke today blowing up his tyre and he was holding his pump between his legs and furiously making that exact same motion. From a distance I didn’t know whether to offer to help or call the police.”

Crazy Legs then declared he’d just been to see a physio and had happily now regained full movement of his arm. To demonstrate, he lifted his left arm, bent it over the top of his head and touched his right ear. “I couldn’t do that a week ago, it hurt too much.”

“Why on earth would you ever need to do that though?” the Ticker wondered aloud.

“Well, you know, to wash your hair,” Crazy Legs challenged.

The Ticker doffed his casquette, lowered his head and presented Crazy Legs with his perfectly bald pate.

“Ah, right…”

Groups started to form up and drift away, while I stopped to have a quick chat with the late arriving Biden Fecht. I could have tagged onto the last group again, but felt I’d done enough for the day, so as everyone swung left, I tracked right, through Ponteland, heading directly for home.

At Blaydon, traffic was backed up on the roundabout waiting to turn left, either into the shopping centre or the McDonalds. I hope it was the former, but suspect the latter. I caught a rider in the colours of the Blaydon club trying to work his way through the cars on the inside and not getting very far, so I flicked across to the outside and was quickly clear.

As I turned and started up the Heinous Hill the Blaydon rider caught me and swished past, then swung left and then right, past Pedalling Squares. He didn’t, as I expected drop into the cafe, but looked to be taking the exact same route up the hill as me – and there was still around three-quarters of the climb to go.

OK then … game on!

Plague Diaries – Week#17

Plague Diaries – Week#17

One a Dem

Internet oddity of the week came from reading about a medical scare in late Victorian Britain that saw doctors warning women about the deleterious effect vigorous cycling would have on their health. Apparently, “over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance” was thought to cause bicycle face “hard, clenched jaws and bulging eyes” accompanied by “a flushed complexion, with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes”.

Most agreed that bicycle face could strike anyone, but women were disproportionately affected. Some implied the effects could be permanent, while others maintained that, given enough time away from a bicycle, it would hopefully subside.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

I decided it was time to bite the bullet and rejoin civilisation, or at least that small portion of civilisation that is (very) loosely embodied in a local cycling club. The hardest part was getting out the door by a set time to get me to the meeting point on schedule. After weeks of a laissez faire, I’ll leave when I’m ready attitude, this was a bit of a shock to the system. Must do better.

Still, I managed somehow and rolled up to the meeting point to find G-Dawg talking to a complete stranger in full Aberdeen University kit, who turned out to be none other than the Garrulous Kid … but all growed-up.

Even more surprising, that elusive, seldom-spotted, Sasquatch-like, Strava-stalker, the BFG was there too and I haven’t seen him out and about on two wheels for over a year. Strange times.

G-Dawg was proudly wearing perhaps one of the gaudiest kits ever inflicted on the pro-peloton, a classic Mapei jersey with it’s jumble of primary coloured cubes, once aptly described by Simon Smythe in Cycling Weekly as “a design that looked like someone had detonated a car bomb beneath a Rubik’s cube.”

He even had Mapei socks and cap, but, “No matching shorts?” I queried.

“I thought they were a little over the top,” he deadpanned.

Hmm. Quite.

The BFG decided we all had the air of survivors from a nuclear war, emerging from the solitude of our bunkers to blink, blearily uncertain into the dim light of the future and wonder what remained of the world we’d once known. I don’t think he was too far off the mark.

By the time we had tamped down the blather and were ready to move, we had assembled a small congregation of 15 riders. G-Dawg had posted up a route he invited everyone to follow, the end point of which was an 11.30 re-gathering at the cafe at Kirkley. He then led the first small, select group of 6 out and away.

We gave them a bit of time and space, then, along with Goose, the Ticker and Fourth Down, we formed a rather unlikely quartet and pushed out to follow. None of us had paid much attention to the proposed route and we deviated almost from the off, being the only group to head out along Broadway, but we all seemed happy to accept our personal deviations from the norm.

We were travelling at a fair clip as we pushed through Ponteland, along Limestone Lane to Stamfordham and then out to the reservoir. From there we climbed up through the plantations to get to the Matfen road, then on to the Quarry and through to Belsay.

At this point we were about 2 hours into the ride and had the choice of stopping at Belsay, or pressing on and meeting everyone at Kirkley. No contest really, even if Goose has severe reservations about the Kirkley scones and their current currant content (or lack thereof.)

Just about everyone else had made it to the cafe in good order, along with those who’d ventured out solo, or in smaller groups from a different start point and it was good to catch up. Even better, Goose found an acceptable alternative to the disappointing scones.

I found a seat next to prognosticator-in-chief the Garrulous Kid, who was predicting the end of all things Chris Froome, in particular any further Grand Tour wins. This was expounded with almost as much conviction and fervour as his frequent proclamations that Germany were a nailed-on certainty to win the last World Cup. (We all know how that turned out, so feel free to put a fiver on Mr. Froome for this years Tour.)

We then learned too much about the wild, debauched drinking parties at university, one of which apparently featured a manly imbibing of … err, Prosecco? It was unclear whether these parties were so extreme, wild and debauched that participants even refused to raise their pinkie finger from the glass while downing their Spumante.

There was just time to catch up on the whereabouts of Taffy Steve via Sneaky Pete (still incapacitated with a severe rotator cuff injury) and the Monkey Butler Boy via the Red Max (apparently developing a severe case of bicycle face while not riding bicycles, per se). Then, with Jimmy Mac’s passionate defence of wearing orange socks still burning my ears, we started to slowly disperse.

Crazy Legs and Sneaky Pete were adding on a slightly longer loop home, up Saltwick Hill and I tagged along, realising as soon as I hit the climb that my legs were well and truly shot.

I dropped back using the ungodly racket of the much cossetted Ribble’s creaking bottom bracket and its assault on my ears as an excuse. Crazy Legs wasn’t kidding when he mentioned his bike was still complaining vigorously, despite all his mechanical ministrations.

Jimmy Mac and G-Dawg blew past us just before we entered the Mad Mile, depositing the Garrulous Kid and a gasping Cowin’ Bovril on our back wheels as they flew by.

Cowin’ Bovril suggested he’d been out for a pleasant, solo ride when they caught him and for some mad reason he determined to hang onto the back of the group for the run home. I think we represented a much more sensible and civilised option for the last few miles.

Minutes later and I was flying solo, picking my way through to the river and home. Luckily there were no wandering Victorian chirurgeon’s around as I began to climb up the Heinous Hill, so I managed to avoid being condemned and confined with what I can only assume by then was my own, very bad case of grimacing bicycle face.

Plague Diaries – Week#14

Plague Diaries – Week#14

The Odyssey

Saturday promised to be a most splendid day for piloting a bike around a suitably sunny and bucolic Northumberland and, with the SLJ household all out and about, I had the entire day free and absolutely no impetus to return at a set time.

Given the good weather and the near certainty that the cafe at Kirkley would be open, Crazy Legs suggested it was a good opportunity for a belated-club rendezvous and catch up, which he pencilled in for 10.30 onward, all riders welcome.

Small groups agreed to form up at the regular place and at the regular time to ride out together, with the intention of arriving at Kirkley for the 10.30 meet, while I changed my intended route to put me within what I hoped would be striking distance of the cafe for about the right time.

I was a bit delayed by dithering, but finally got out the house at about half eight, crossing the river at Newburn and climbing out the other side of the valley toward Throckley.

Here I passed a bloke on the other side of the road out walking the family pets, or perhaps, pet in the singular? It was either three individual, but perfectly matched, large, black pedigree dogs, walking in perfect lockstep, bodies pressed so tightly together they merged into one long, expanse of glossy sable fur and muscle, three identical pink tongues all lolling out the right hand side of three identical jaws – or I’d just passed Cerberus, the three-headed, canine gate-keeper of Hades!

Well, Throckley is quite a strange place, so I didn’t immediately discount this as some sort of mythological encounter.

From there, I unsuccessfully tried to find a route through the labyrinthine streets of Heddon-on-the-Wall and out the other side. Apparently I was attempting the impossible and had to back-track to pick up the road again, to travel around, rather than through the village.

Finally free, I pushed on to Horsley, before dropping back down into the valley at Ovingham, noting it was now the turn of dozens of bright yellow buttercups along the river bank to mark the flow of days on my (strictly amateur) flower almanac.

I was briefly joined in appreciation of this floral display by a small, black-tailed ferret, that wandered out into the road, belatedly noticed me and, as most wildlife seems capable of doing, instantly disappeared without trace. That’s the kind of trick that makes you immediately doubt it was ever there.

I followed the river almost as far as Corbridge, taking the Aydon road to vault me safely up and over the A69 and from there pushed my way on to Matfen.

As I approached the village it was ten past ten and the signs told me I was 10 miles from Ponteland. This was going to be a hell of a time-trial if I wanted to get to Kirkley, a few mile beyond Ponteland, by half past.

I got down into the drops and picked up the pace, swerving around the massive, bloody cadaver of a badger, splayed over the road as if one of Ridley Scott’s aliens had burst out of its chest cavity. I was pleased to be travelling fast enough not to see some of the more gruesome details and be well down the road and past the rotting stink before it really registered.

Like several of the roads around here, the route from Matfen through to Stamfordham has a brand new surface. This would normally be the cause for rejoicing, but the new surface feels rough, grippy and heavy. The combination of the bright sunlight and my sunglasses also seemed to give it a rather disconcerting, blue-metallic sheen, as if coated in a thin layer of oil.

Through Stamfordham, then Dalton and back to more normal roads, I hit the long, straight, relatively smooth and slightly downhill passage of Limestone Lane and picked up the pace, watching my speed creep up … 25.6 mph … 27.4 mph … 29.8 mph … no matter how hard I pushed I couldn’t break the 30 mph barrier …

… And I needn’t have bothered.

At the end of Limestone Lane I ran abruptly into some temporary traffic lights that held me for what seemed like five or six minutes. I could just have pootled along and got there at the exact same time and a lot fresher too.

Finally released by the lights I pushed as hard as I could through Ponteland and out toward Kirkley, but I was tiring rapidly now and it had become hard work.

Still, I made decent time and was soon turning off and threading my way toward richly deserved coffee and cake.

And what a great delight to see so many familiar faces, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg, Jimmy Mac and Plumose Pappus, Aether, Ahlambra and Richard of Flanders were already there and others would trickle in, solo or in small groups – Buster, the Big Yin, our Double Dutch tag-team, Sneaky Pete, Caracol, Red Max, and Mrs. Red Max.

Benedict, the Ticker, Mini Miss, Princess Fiona, Spoons and Front-Wheel Neil made it too, but were late arrivals, having had a few issues after the pedal on Front-Wheel Neil’s new bike unwound and came off still attached to his cleats.

Crazy Legs was in full lament mode with bike issues of his own, complaining something along the lies of “j’aime mon Ribble, mais mon Ribble ne m’aime pas” after discovering an annoying squeak on the much-cossetted Ribble. Stripping it to the bone, he’d carefully cleaned and lubed everything before re-assembling to find the annoying squeak yet persisted.

Halfway through his re-build he’d also found he had to buy a 14mm Allen key to remove the bottom bracket, something we decided was really atypical on bike builds, the type of tool that perhaps only plumbers would have a common use for.

“Nah,” Aether informed us, “Merckx commonly use them.”

“Huh?” G-Dawg, looked confused, if King Ted’s bikes used them, that seemed like a mighty endorsement. “What do they use them for?”

“Mostly on the engine blocks.”

G-Dawg looked even more confused.

“Merckx?”

“Yes.”

“Merckx bikes?”

“No, no, the cars, Mercs. Mercedes-Benz!”

Oh!

Crazy Legs was confounded that any Merc owner would ever deign to get there hands grubby doing DIY on their cars, besides, weren’t they meant to self-heal?

I took time out to compliment Plumose Papuss on his lockdown hairstyle, which rather fittingly made him look like a dandelion clock. G-Dawg, who does his own hair (probably with an angle grinder, in much the same way that Desperate Dan shaves with a blowtorch) offered to render assistance, but was very politley rebuffed. Can’t think why, although he did mention a recent episode when the guard slipped and he carved a huge bald tranche across the top of his scalp by mistake, which he said made him look like Tintin.

Sitting in the sun, we enjoyed the usual blather and general congeniality, before people started drifting away.

Not ready for home yet, I took in a loop north, Shilvington, Whalton and Belsay, before heading back. At a pee-stop at the bottom of Berwick Hill I spotted a tiny bird with gold bars on its wings that I think was a Common Firecrest (although they’re obviously not all that common, as I can’t remember ever seeing one before.)

By the time I was climbing the Heinous Hill, I’d topped 70 miles and was satisfyingly weary. Good weather, a good ride and it was great to catch up with everyone. Perhaps there is a faint glimmer at the end of the tunnel after all.


Plague Diaries – Week#13

Plague Diaries – Week#13

Binary Choices

Well, this weekend was supposed to mark our annual pilgrimage to a random mountain range in Europe to test just how slowly an ageing man can cycle up their slopes. This year we had chosen to base ourselves in Bormio, Northern Italy and within striking distance of such iconic and formidable climbs as the Passo dello Stelvio, Passo di Gavia and Passo di Mortirolo.

Bormio also just happens to be in Lombardy, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy and one of the worst affected regions, so we knew almost as soon as flight and accommodation confirmations started to come back that there was a real possibility the trip would be off.

And then it was…

Everyone now seems to have got their money back, so no damage done, other than the fact we missed out on our little adventure.

And when I say everyone got their money back, I mean that advisedly. What has started out as a half dozen or so annual pilgrims, had mushroomed to a trip of over 20 lads and lasses by the time we started nailing down the finer details.

Others, it seemed had somehow been drawn in by our tales of masochistic flailing, the prolonged torture of uphill grinding, the blood-frothing shredding of lungs and legs, acute intestinal distress, hypothermic exposure and intense sunstroke (often within hours of each other), metaphysical confrontations with Harley-Davidson gangs and e-bikers and, to top it all, the chance to pay a princely sum to partake in a bike-destruction lottery at the uncaring hands of airport ground crews.

Now our low-key, sojourn had taken on new dimensions and was starting to look suspiciously like an official-unofficial club trip.

While additional bodies opened up the possibilities of different options, both in terms of travel and organising ourselves once we got there, I couldn’t help but feel (based on no evidence whatsoever) that the additional numbers would irrevocably and inevitably change the very essence and nature of the trip. Perhaps for the better, but there was also the possibly that change would be for the worse too.

I also had the feeling (again based on no evidence whatsoever) that three times as many people would lead to a disproportionate and much more than threefold increase in opportunities for crashes, mishaps, mechanical failures, punctures, maladies, falling out’s and other associated, unforeseen incidents. Then again, that’s just the viewpoint of one curmudgeonly, pessimistic, anti-social, introvert. In reality, I’m sure it would have been good. Different maybe, but hopefully still enjoyable.

Who knows, we might even get the chance to finally test this theory, should we all sign up for another shot next year and the World can manage to stay relatively healthy.

Back at home, Thing#1 has been in the market for a new bike for a while now, a desire cemented by some recent adventures au velo on borrowed wheels. As a result I was co-opted in to finding her “dream machine” (or traumfahrrad, for the Teutonically-minded out there.)

Let me start by clarifying that, we’re not talking about a thoroughbred, skinny-tyred, racing machine here. I think Thing#1 had a vision of serenely gliding along towpaths wearing a floral summer dress, floppy straw hat, over-sized sunglasses and open-toed sandals, while regally upright astride a gleaming bike, complete with a basket on the front crammed with a picnic blanket, fresh baguettes, chilled wine and happy, over-excited puppies.

In fact this last detail seemed to be the prerequisite for considering any bike (the basket on the front, not necessarily the blanket, bread, wine and happy puppies.)

From a more practical standpoint and from the perspective of living at the top of a seriously long and steep hill, surrounded by rather lumpy terrain in all directions, I was looking for something that offered more than a single chainring and a handful of gears and preferably wasn’t reliant on coaster brakes. It would be a bonus if the bike came complete with mudguards and dynamo-driven lights, but this was never going to be a deal breaker.

A hybrid bike was the order of the day and after extensive sleuthing and digging around the Internet, we decided that Decathlon’s Elops Hoprider 100 was the best value for money at a reasonable £299.99 (Oh! plus £14.99 for the all important basket.)

Of course, choosing the actual bike and actually buying it are two completely different things in a time of pandemic. Apparently, all those stories about there being a boom in cycle sales during lockdown are true. The Decathlon website reported the bike was out of stock, they had restricted bike building capacity and so there was a limit on the number of bikes they could supply, with the counter being reset every day at 11.00am.

We tried unsuccessfully sniping the website on several days, tracked and traced alternatives, but all to no avail. New bikes apparently, are about as common as hen’s teeth, or, to update the idiom slightly, I could use Thing#2’s lament about the impossibility of finding “pissing Miso paste in a lockdown.” She does have a charming turn of phrase. Must have learned that from her mother…

Last Monday, with lockdown easing, we actually paid an early morning visit to the now re-opened local Decathlon store and saw for ourselves row upon row of empty racks, where they’d sold almost their entire stock of bikes, with no idea of when they’d be getting a re-supply.

We wandered across to the local Halfords just on the off-chance and joined the social distancing queue. There we had to wait twenty minutes for the mechanics to finish up with their latest customer – a dad paying to have a puncture on his sons bike fixed and the tyres inflated. There may have been an outbreak of bike riding, but there’s been no corresponding increase in even simple cycling self-sufficiency, it seems.

When we finally got into the store we were initially attracted by the My Buddy pink unicorn or green dinosaur balance bikes, but sadly, we quickly determined they didn’t have them in Thing#1’s size.

The only other likely candidate was a single, Apollo Excelle, marooned and forlorn in an otherwise empty rack. It was the right size, had 18 gears and V-brakes. It was an inoffensive white.

The critical question …

“Could it take a basket?”

“Yes.”

“Did they have a basket?”

“Yes.”

“Would they fit a basket?”

“Yes.”

I didn’t want to push our luck and ask if they had any baguettes, chilled wine or happy, over-excited puppies.

“How much is the bike?”

“£135.”

“Sold. We’ll take one.”

After a bit of key rattling and screen prodding, “Sorry, we’ve got none in stock. Actually, that ones been on display for about 3-years now, it’s the last one we have and I don’t know if we’ll be getting any more.”

Channelling her inner Sid the Sloth, Thing#1 turned to me and lisped, “Ah, the lasht dandelion.” And so, Dandelion the bike got its name.

“Can we have that one?”

I don’t know why, but they seemed strangely reluctant to sell us the bike, but then just as suddenly relented. The search was finally over and now Dandelion has a new home (and a new basket) and is jostling for space in a frankly too full bike shed.

It”s been out twice already, once for an ultra-unofficial Flat White Ride along the river to Backyard Bikes, situated under the Tyne Bridge. As well as providing staging and support for the Prof’s Backstreet Boys cycling-tribute act, it turns out Backyard Bikes are also purveyors of very fine coffee and cake too.

I’m sure more adventures (preferably with coffee and cake) await.

Once again the weather this weekend looked slightly better on the Sunday rather than Saturday – where early forecasts highlighted the potential for thunderstorms. (Some intense reading around the subject following our scary descent off the Galibier last year has convinced me Vittoria Rubino rubber (or any other tyres for that matter) are absolutely no protection whatsoever from a random lightning bolt.

So … Saturday or Sunday? … heads or tails? … in or out? … yin or yang? … Ant or Dec?

Hmm, tails-out-yang-dec apparently, I would be riding Sunday.

It was a murky, misty start on what would prove to be a cool day, with a fine misting rain courtesy of the low, dripping cloud draped over the hill tops. The valley floor was a little clearer as I started out upriver. I was almost immediately gifted a group of two other cyclists to chase through Blaydon and then, immediately afterwards, another pair to reel in and pass on the way to Crawcrook. It’s always good to have a bit of an incentive to pick up the pace, even if my quarry had no inkling they were actually in a race.

I crossed the river at Wylam, passing through Ovingham and Stocksfield before looking for a route out of the valley, stopping briefly to shed my jacket before the hills began in earnest.

I crossed the A69 en route to the Newton climb, the road noticeably busier than in recent weeks and a sign of the lockdown easing. From there I picked up our standard route, up through the plantations, before working my way through to Matfen, with a just a slight detour and turnaround on Miller’s Lane when progress was blocked by a gate. We may well have been that way before and I’m pretty certain there’s a route through, but I wasn’t in the mood for wrestling with gates and wasn’t sure where the track led, so I turned around and traced a route back to the main road.

From Matfen through to the Quarry turn the road markings had disappeared under shoals of loose gravel and stone chippings. It looks like we’re going to have a new stretch of tarmac to look forward to here soon. The same can’t be said for the stretch between the West Belsay Farm junction and the Snake Bends. I was hopeful this was due for a little remedial re-surfacing too, but it appears they may have done the stretch leading down to the junction instead. Too be fair that was the roughest bit, it’s just I wouldn’t be travelling over it today.

I looked in on the cafe at Belsay as I rolled by, it looked busy with a couple of groups of cyclists hanging around outside (well, they were either cyclists, or civilians with a high-viz fetish). I didn’t see anyone I knew, but wasn’t really looking to stop either, I was heading home now.

All was good until I started the steepest section of the Heinous Hill, following a long curve in the road and not noticing a long, thin, rusted iron rod in my path, just as my front tire rode over it. The rod rolled away and took my wheel with it and I came down in a clatter. Ooph!

Luckily I was travelling uphill at about 5 mph, rather than sweeping down at 5 or 6 times that speed and I escaped with nothing more than a bashed and bruised knee, sore wrist and injured pride.

The worst thing was getting going again on the steep incline, but I finally managed and made it the rest of the way home without further incident and only the smallest loss of blood and skin.

The Plague Diaries – Week 12

The Sign of Six

I learned this week that there are not always two side to every argument and occasionally some things are just so wrong that they’re completely indefensible.

Meanwhile, back to cycling. ..

Despite last weeks high volume of chatter about resuming group riding in line with new lockdown guidelines that allow groups six to congregate outdoors, the poor weather seemed to kibosh any intentions or experiments.

Spoons and Aether however tentatively agreed to give it a go this Saturday, planning to meet at the usual place and the usual time to ride together, along with any one else who felt inclined to join them.

Meanwhile, Crazy Legs suggested he’d be at the Kirkley Cafe from 10.30 onward on Saturday, holding court if anyone wanted to meet and find release for month upon month of pent up blather.

Taking note of the appalling weather forecast and thinking ahead, he even pondered whether the cafe would allow us to use the big barn-like structure where they’d parked the portable toilets for a meet up. This, he felt, would allow us to stay dry whilst having enough space to maintain social distancing.

An illicit rendezvous of damp lycra-fetishists around a remote, public toilet, you say? Oh yes, perfectly normal behaviour, Officer.

While the group debate about the safety of group rides raged across social media, talk turned to government protocols and it wasn’t long before someone mentioned official guidance from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. They recently amended their coronavirus advice to suggest single men and women in the Netherlands organise a seksbuddy (sex buddy) after criticism of rules dictating that home visitors maintain a 1.5-metre distance from their hosts during lockdown.

This inevitably found our Dutch contingent fielding a whole host of … well, let’s say … err, generous, well-intentioned(?) propositions, which in turn led to one late arrival questioning if he’d accidentally stumbled across the clubs Tinder page, rather then our ride-organising WhatsApp chat. Ha!

One of the great benefits (or potential drawbacks, from a motivational perspective) of having to ride solo, is there is no need to stick to meeting times, places, or even days.

So it was on Saturday morning, with a raging gale outside sounding like a cross between between a lumbering 747 taking off under heavy load and a seething, spring tide, trenching on a shingle beach, and with the rain furiously rattling on the roof and windows like a handful of flung gravel, I decided I could just as easily ride Sunday instead.

It wasn’t to be a peaceful morning however, constant driving rain and the wild wind kept the cats largely constrained to the house and sent them stir-crazy-over-the-edge. Yowling wildly, eyes wide and black and tails lashing ferociously, they chased and battered each other up and down the stairs, over all the furniture and throughout the house, burning off steam and excess energy.

Still, I can kind of understand. It must be really hard being a finely-tuned predator, attentive to even the slightest rustle in the undergrowth, only to step outside and find the entire world is in motion and your senses are totally overwhelmed.

I’m not sure how many rode on Saturday, but wedded as they were to a common cause, Spoons and Aether definitely made a go of it and then, after all that, had to report back that the cafe at Kirkley was closed.

Apparently, the owners decided the weather was so grim only the truly committed (or should-be-committed) were likely to be out and about. Somewhat surprisingly, these two groups aren’t actually numerous enough in the North East to justify opening up the cafe.

The weather did manage to improve a little for Sunday, in a swings-and-roundabouts sort of way. We transitioned from gales, heavy showers and intermittent patches of blue and sunshine, to uniformly grey, dank and dismal. And it was chilly. If last week had perfectly encapsulated a bright, summers day, then Sunday would be a very plausible parody of a winter ride, cold, damp and blustery.

In fact it was so chill, I went back in and pulled on some knee warmers to complement my long sleeve base layer, arm warmers, thick socks, cap, gloves and rain jacket. At no point in the ride, including a smattering of fairly challenging inclines, did I ever feel overdressed, or overheated.

Once again I set out with no great plan, aiming to head out along the Tyne Valley at a brisk pace until I got tired and then decide what to do and where to go from there.

My first marker was to cross the river at Wylam, which I finally managed to do without having to stop for a train to pass – at only the third time of asking.

Just past the Stocksfield, I found one of the fields completely crammed with cows, with no opportunity to comply with social distancing protocols. I stopped to snatch a photo, at which point I was approached by a female pheasant (phemale feasant?) perhaps looking for a seksbuddy, before deciding I definitely wasn’t her type and squawking away in a burr of wings.

Along the riverside, wild poppies and gorse are starting to flower now, adding their own bright and cheery splashes of colour to an already multi-hued landscape.

I piloted my way through the eerily empty streets of Corbridge, crossing back to the south side of the river and was en route to Hexham when the trains had the last laugh. Progress was halted at another level crossing to allow some creaking, clanking rolling stock to lumber through. This is becoming such a common occurrence, I’m going to have to find new roads, study and synchronise with the local rail timetable, or in extremis, maybe take up train-spotting to add value to these interruptions.

Hmm, why is the book/film train-spotting so called? I’ll have to Google that …

Into Hexham and with a lack of decent signage I decided to just follow my instincts and find a way to hop over into the Derwent Valley and home. Sadly, I hadn’t accounted for my instincts finding what seemed to be the steepest possible route out of Hexham, which had me churning my way up what Strava informed me afterwards was the racecourse climb.

I think I’ve been up it once before, the time Mad Colin led a super-long club ride across to the dark side (i.e. south of the Tyne, a.k.a. Mordor) – this was the day a newbie tagged along, bonked and was so late getting back OGL, who wasn’t actually on the ride, was left fielding numerous phone-calls from his irate mother demanding to know what we’d done with her son.

Dragging myself to the top, with no sign of any racecourse, I have to add, once again I found all the signs seemed to have petered out. Back to trusting my all too fallible instincts, I was immediately disappointed by the long, fast descent I found myself on, quickly frittering away all the hard-earned altitude I’d so recently gained.

I pressed on regardless, until, just outside Juniper, I stopped to check the map on my phone, hoping I was more or less where I should be, or at least heading in the right direction and just to make sure I hadn’t somehow ended up on completely the wrong continent.

I seemed to be on track and it wasn’t much longer before I was on familiar roads, my route running through Slaley and down toward Blanchland. I turned left at the still devastated looking scene of our own Tunguska Incident, rather than dropping further into the valley. From there, I started to thread my way home.

Sunday rides instead of a Saturday? Yeah, why not, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if I’m out on my own and doubles-down on my chances of finding a window of decent weather too. We’ll see.

Plague Diaries – Week#9

Plague Diaries – Week#9

Solitude Standing

Well UK lock-down conditions have been eased, somewhat chaotically and confusingly, but eased nonetheless. In real terms it makes no difference to the viability of group riding, so I’m still in solo mode, as I head out on a bright, somewhat chilly, Saturday morning.

(Every time I see or hear Bo-Jo’s “Stay Alert” imperative I’m not only reminded how nonsensical it sounds, but also that old chestnut – “Be Alert. Britain Needs Lerts.”)

As I dropped down the Heinous Hill, I felt the wind warping through my wheels and tugging at the rims. It was the first, rather testy appearance of what would be an almost constant companion throughout the day, a nagging, stiff breeze and one that I’d be turning directly into as soon as I hit the valley floor.

I headed up river, looking to cross over at Wylam, but as I approached the bridge, the blinking lights at the level crossing brought me to a halt. A good few seconds later, the barriers jerked into motion and slowly lowered. I guess if I’d been quick I could have nipped across, a la Paris-Roubaix 2015, but there were no prizes at the end and no peloton to escape from, so I stayed put.

I would have been perfectly safe crossing as it seemed a ridiculoulsy long wait, maybe around 5 minutes before the train finally trundled past. It took so long in fact, that at one point I was eyeing up the pedestrian footbridge and considering hoisting the bike on my shoulder and tackling its steep stairs cyclo-cross style, up and over the tracks.

While we waited, the traffic built up behind me until there were perhaps 4 or 5 cars queued there. Otherwise un-noteworthy in more normal times, this has to be considered major congestion these days. If it had been a weekday, this massive “traffic jam” might even have made the local radio station’s travel bulletin.

As cars built up on my side of the tracks, cyclists built up on the other. The pair opposite me arrived at different times, but were obviously acquainted and had the chance to catch up, while a family of four loitered behind them.

Finally, the train rumbled through the junction, the barriers stuttered into motion and at last we were all able to get under way again.

I made my way along the Tyne Valley, through Ovingham and toward Stocksfield, following the path that runs close to the river. Rolling along happily despite the headwind, noticing the bright green verges were sprinkled and spangled with all kinds of wild flowers. I recognised bright, sunny fringed dandelion heads, delicately-hued bluebells, tall foxgloves and the emerging, still green-tinged-white of young cow parsley, but had very little idea what the hundreds of bright magenta flowers were, or their smaller, pale blue cousins.

Just past Stocksfield I picked up a shadow, who rode in my wake for a mile or two, riding the fine line between drafting and maintaining correct social distancing. I either lost him on one of the hills, or he turned early to take a different route, as he was gone by the time the road spat me out just above Corbridge.

I guess I could easily have crossed the A69 at any one of three or four points along my route, given the lack of traffic, but I was aiming for Aydon, where the bridge took me up and over the road. As I suspected traffic on the dual-carriageway below was relatively light, although not as empty as the last time I’d crossed over it.

I climbed out of the valley and was soon on familiar club-run roads heading toward Matfen, Just after the Quarry turn, I stopped for a quick break, before tackling the climb, then swinging left and following the road down and through to the Snake Bends, deliberately not sprinting toward them and quite enjoying the fact.

To add on a few more miles, I then took one of our standard cafe run-ins and reversed it, up and over the Rollers, sweeping around Bolam Lake and then heading to Hartburn via Angerton. I could write that on part of this route I actually had a bit of a cross-tailwind, instead of a full-bore headwind … but nobody would believe me.

Instead of turning right and climbing up to Hartburn, I stayed on the road that finally brought me out just before the village of Middleton. I don’t think we’ve ever been this way before, I certainly don’t recall ever seeing the Marlish Water site where “spring water takes over 150 years to slowly filter through the rock strata”.

I wonder if it’s worth the wait?

My next landmark was Middleton Bank, taken at a fairly relaxed pace, I was tiring now and looking to head for home. Over the top, I passed Spry flying in the opposite direction, looking cool and resplendent in a replica Maglia Rosa.

A few more moments passed and then, trailing just behind him, came his dad, Andeven, looking slightly less assured and chasing hard (although if you asked him, he’d probably just claim that he was just following correct social distancing protocol.)

I was on the way home now, passing many other cyclists heading in both directions. I stopped just outside Ponteland to pull on a pair of arm warmers. It turned out it was too warm to wear them, but too chill not too. Oh well.

I persevered while feeling a little too warm and was soon climbing back up the hill and home, another 100km’s solo banked under my wheels and in my legs.

Plague Diaries – Week#7

Plague Diaries – Week#7

Alone again. Naturally.

The club Zwifters seem to be getting their act together and enjoying themselves immensely. Along with all that technical talk about gear ratio’s and tyre pressures, they can now also obsess about direct drive, ANT+, Max Resistance, Gradient Simulation et al. Really oddly, no one seems to care what colour their home trainers are?

After the last ride they even posted pics up on social media (screen-grabs, or actual selfies I know not) an oddly lurid, background of starlight over a mountain range and with a bunch of garishly dressed cyclist clones in the foreground).

Ah … hmm .. well… just … eesh … err … oh … umh …

So, yet more filler in the form of further musings from our road club ramshackle collective…

Question#3. How do you feel, emotionally about being involved in your cycling community?

  • I get really grumpy when I’m not involved!
  • It means a lot. I look forward to club rides and I’m grateful for the club, and the friends I’ve made. It’s been an important part of my life and I know it’s been really important for my mental health.
  • Love it. Cycling had helped my physical health, mental health and social life.
  • Welcome.
  • Privileged to have discovered something others drive past.
  • It warms the cockles of my heart.
  • I feel a bond with all cyclists and care towards them, given the negative and often hostile attitude towards the group.
  • I identify strongly with being a cyclist and it has affected me in other areas of life, It has given me the confidence to push myself professionally. It gives me an outlet for frustrations and helps to keep my mental health where it should be. I feel calmer, stronger and happier when I ride.
  • Proud.
  • Genuinely happy.
  • We are brothers and sisters, something to be proud of and to share
  • It gives me an outlet away from work. It makes me feel relaxed.
  • It helps me relieve stress and pressure.

Another decent Saturday, time for an old favourite, a blast out along the Derwent Valley, then up through Snod’s Edge, dropping down to the Derwent Reservoir and then climbing up into Weardale, before retracing the route home.

In part this followed the route of Stage 4 of last year’s Tour of Britain. You remember, when cycle racing was an actual thing? I would later note that I’d climbed Burnmill Bank almost 4 minutes slower than Davide Cimolai, the Israel Start-up Nation sprinter. Bet he didn’t have to pull over half way up to let a tractor past, though.

At the top, it was time for a reprise of the Daffodil Lament, but this time for the actual flowers, whose brief, bright glory had waxed and quickly waned in the few weeks we’ve been huddled indoors trying to avoid a rampant epidemic. Now, their browned, crumpled and discoloured, desicated heads nodded rather sadly as I passed.

Down a long descent and past the turn-off for the Harry-Potteresque hamlet of Muggleswick, there’s a silver pick-up parked in the lane here with a “for sale” notice propped against the windscreen. I recall seeing it the last time I was out this way 3-weeks ago. With passing traffic being so light, I can’t help thinking its going to be there the next time I swing past too, no matter how much of a bargain it might be.

Shortly afterwards, I was entering the Land of the Prince Bishops and stopped for another of those interminable, but now obligatory bike-propped-up-against-landmark moments.

Into Edmundbuyers, I had to take evasive action to avoid three black-faced sheep trotting down the middle of the street. They seemed to have been lured down off the moors to investigate the eerily quiet and empty village. If they were looking for a wild time, I think they would have been disappointed, the pub in Edmunbuyers, aptly named The Baa, was closed.

I rumbled over the cattle grid and started climbing toward Stanhope, 8km at a 4% average, up, up and then up some more.

I don’t know if it was the relative absence of traffic on the route (it’s never exactly been a super-highway) or the weather, or time of year, but the sheep seemed to crowding the road much more than usual and there was the added complication of their skittish lambs getting spooked and darting about erratically.

Remembering Ovis’s hard won nickname and his disastrous close-encounter with ninja sheep, I tacked from side to side of the road in long arcs, trying to give my new ovine friends as much leeway and road space as possible.

As I started up, the moorland was alive with birdsong, continuous piping trills, occasionally interrupted by the long pee-whit call of lapwings. Try as I might, I never did spot their source

Halfway, and there was another obligatory stop for a bike and sign shot, this time proclaiming I was now entering Weardale. A little bit higher still, my ears popped and the wind picked up, just to add a chill edge to proceedings.

The bird song had died away, but an occasional flash of red helped me spot what I would later learn were male red grouse, scurrying through the gorse. The bright red wattle above their eyes was a dead give away in the drab and dun moorland. (I always want to refer to them as grice, following The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s depictions of Prince Phillip.)

At the top, I swung off the road toward Blanchland, climbing to the highest point of the ride, before the long descent down toward the village. I missed my usual turn off on the drop down Bales Hill and found myself actually riding into Blanchland, where I was faced with two choices for climbing out again, the bitching 25% road heading north, or the slightly less bitching 16% hill heading west.

Yes, your right, that’s really no choice at all. I winched myself up the lesser slope and was soon on my way back toward Edmundbuyers.

Before getting there, I sneaked past the quarantine closed signs, into Pow Hill Country Park, finding a bench overlooking the reservoir for a quick rest and a fine repast of a cereal bar and some lukewarm water. Reading the information board, I discovered that Blanchland was built in the 18th century from the ruins of the medieval Premonstratensian monastic church.

I’ve never heard of Premonstratensian monks, apparently also known as the Norbertines, or the White Canons (from the colour of their habit). Wikipedia tells me they were (are?) a religious order of the Catholic Church founded in Prémontré near Laon in 1120 by Norbert of Xanten. Yes, that Norbert of Xanten.

No?

Me neither.

As Einstein sagely noted, “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”

A fast descent down Burnmill Bank deposited me back on the valley floor and heading for home. Passing through Ebchester, I spotted a pair of cyclists from the Blaydon Club hammering away in the distance and picked up the pace to try and close them down.

I got near enough to see they were a couple, the man on the front driving the pace and the woman draughting close behind. The man was, as an old mate would say, “giving it beans” (I never did understand the origin of the phrase, but I think the intended meaning is clear) and the pair were travelling.

I caught them as we passed through Hamsterly, and tried to look cool as I breezed past, just before Lintzford. They caught and burned past me again heading into Rowlands Gill, then immediately swung left. They were home, I still had a few miles left. Hah! That’ll teach me to go all Red Max on complete strangers.

The chase had just about emptied the tank and I crawled up from Rowlands Gill to Burnopfield via Busty Bank, surprising myself by netting a completely unexpected PR on the way. I must have been really out of sorts the last time I venture up there. Then it was just a short hop, skip and jump along the Fell and I was done for another week.