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.

Plague Diaries – Week#6

Plague Diaries – Week#6

The loneliness of the long distance cyclist

Into week#6 of the lockdown (but who’s counting) and G-Dawg took to social media to celebrate 30 days of quarantine with a link to the Chuck Berry’s classic, “30 Days.”

I immediately added this to my Coronavirus Top 10 playlist, which is coming along quite nicely now:

  1. My Sharona Corona – by The Knack. Crazy Legs’ original, all conquering ear-worm.
  2. Don’t Stand So Close To Me – by The Police, a plaintive paean to maintaining social-distancing.
  3. Isolation – by Joy Division, a breezy little ditty, recorded during one of their more sunny and carefree periods.
  4. Train in Vain – by The Clash, in celebration of all the exercise I’m doing, with no way to show off any (no doubt marginal) gains. I could as easily have picked Clampdown, or Armagideon Time, from the same peerless album/period.
  5. Smells Like Teen Spirit – by Nirvana, for prophetically appropriate lyrics, “I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.” (See also: Thea Gilmore singing on Mainstream about “another kind of war that is raging in our bloodstream.”
  6. Are Friends Electric? – by Tubeway Army, for all the Zwifters amongst us. (I could, of course, have chosen any Taylor Zwift song … (well, if I actually knew any).
  7. You’re A Germ – by Wolf Alice, perhaps a more contemporary song than my original choice, Germ Free Adolescent, by X-Ray Spex.
  8. World Shut Your Mouth – by Julian Cope masterful advice from a former member of the self-proclaimed, Crucial Three. His contemporaries might have contributed “The Disease” – Echo and the Bunnymen, or “Seven Minutes to Midnight” – Wah! Heat (although to be fair, these days it’s probably a lot closer than 7 minutes on the old Doomsday Clock).
  9. Spread The Virus – by Cabaret Voltaire – perhaps what Covid-19 might sound like, if given voice!
  10. 30 Days by Chuck Berry. I’ve got the feeling G-Dawg might soon be cuing up 40 Days, by Slowdive and, I hope I’m wrong, but maybe even looking up some songs by 90 Day Men before this is over.

Any other suggestions?

In the news this week, Mrs. SLJ finished laying waste to our hedges and turned her dauntless topiary skills to the top of my head. If I had to guess, I think the look she was she was aiming for was Action Man circa his flock hair period.

It’s not the best haircut I’ve ever had, but by no means the worst either. Anyway, I think you’ll agree, she did a much better job than Melania…

As a consequence my helmet fits again and feels unimaginably cooler. Just in time, as we head into the weekend with the promise of fine, warm weather.

Even better, I get to wear our new, custom Santini kit for the first time, only a long 10-months after we started the procurement process in June last year!

Again with nothing pre-planned, I found myself crossing the river and climbing out of the valley via Hospital Lane. Having failed to find any sign of a hospital along its length, I concluded it was so called because you’re likely to need emergency care after scrambling up it.

From there I ticked off all the standard tropes of a fairly standard club run, through Ponteland to Limestone Lane, Stamfordham, Matfen and then down the Ryals, all done at a brisk enough pace to have my legs stinging and the breath wheezing in and out of my lungs like a pair of leaky bellows.

The long descent of the Ryal’s left me feeling chilled, so I pulled to a stop beside the war memorial at the bottom and parked myself on the bench there to let the sun warm my bones.

It really was a delightfully peaceful and bucolic scene, the roads empty of traffic and the only sounds were the buzz of fat bees droning through the grass and an almost constant chorus of chirpy, cheerful, chatty birdsong, punctured by the occasional plaintive bleat of newborn lambs.

I managed to stir myself before I got too comfortable, choosing, on the flip of a (mental) coin, to head up through Hallington. I was appalled by the deteriorating road surface here, which was even worse than I recall, but made it through without incident.

It was then our standard route home, through Belsay, Ogle and Kirkley. As I was heading back, everyone else seemed to be heading out into the now positively warm weather and I was passed by a constant stream of other cyclists in singles and in pairs.

I was particularly surprised by how many women cyclists I passed, which is brilliant, but did make me wonder where they usually ride and why we never seem to pass them?

By the time I crested Berwick Hill, I was paying the price for my early exuberance, the legs were heavy and shaky and I was running on empty. The trip home then was, by necessity, a much more sedate affair. By the time I’d dragged myself up the Heinous Hill I’d covered 60-miles, yet perversely thoroughly enjoyed my ride out. It’s fair to say I’m looking forward to a very lazy Sunday, a long lie-in, nothing too strenuous beyond a family walk. And hopefully a chance for a bit of recovery, before it all starts again.

Hang in there, we’re going to get through this.

Plague Diaries – Week#5

Plague Diaries – Week#5

I am a rock. I am an island.

It took 5 weeks, but finally the club tried a group ride on Zwift. I excused myself as soon as I learned they’d chosen to wear orange jersey’s and green socks for easy identification. Read that carefully. They. Chose. Green socks!

Shudder!

Seriously though, I’m with Mikel Landa, last seen on Twitter approaching his turbo trainer with an axe in hand and malicious, black intent in his heart. The indoor trainer is the very last resort for me, it’s there strictly for extreme weather, or if the lockdown ever becomes so stringent that you’re not allowed out for exercise.

Sadly then, I can’t report on the joys, or otherwise of group riding with Zwift, although someone else might step up to the mark if we’re lucky? Anyone? C’mon, don’t be shy …

Judging by the amount of social chatter it generated, it wasn’t the smoothest experience, but everyone seems committed to giving it another go, so there must be some benefit and it’s another way of filling the void.

As a reminder of what we’re missing, here’s another little dip into Thing#1’s survey of a typical North East road club ramshackle collective from her project on community groups, this time, responses to the question:

What makes the cycling community, or your road club special to you?

  • Camaraderie on rides.
  • Riding in a group is a shared effort – you put in effort that helps others, others put in effort that helps you. When you ride regularly with a group sometimes, you’re strong and can pull hard for the group, other times you appreciate the shelter of others. Either way sharing hard efforts and unforgiving weather brings people together.
  • I have made some great friends.
  • Common interest in cycling, good craic, fun.
  • Self-deprecation, humour, hiding, people always willing to push themselves.
  • Knowing that there will be a group to cycle with if I turn up at a certain time and place.
  • The members of my club, the humour we share and the general disregard of an extremely serious approach to riding (e.g. no endless discussion of gear ratios – boring! Or snobbishness towards those on sub £3k bikes).
  • The willingness to be critical of those who make decisions and think about what can be offered to those not members of the club.
  • The endless exploration of Northumbrian roads (often when not on official club rides).
  • The encouragement I got when I first joined opened up the wider range of disciplines of the sport.
  • It’s like extended family.
  • Camaraderie.
  • Enjoying the company of others.
  • I feel protected and loved.

Gosh, that almost brought a tear to my eye …

Saturday morning found me inadvertently going commando as I set out for a ride – I’d somehow forgotten to charge my Garmin and it was declaring a low battery as soon as I turned it on. Not wanting it to crap out halfway around my route, I left it on the kitchen bench and relied on the Strava app on my phone, tucked safely away in my back pocket.

I was riding then with no sense of pace, or distance and just a vague idea of the time of day. It was unusual and a little bit uncomfortable. Sadly, I have to confess I prefer having that sort of information to hand and I’ll make sure the Garmin is fully charged next week.

There was no consensus on the weather, Rainman and Richard of Flanders returned from (separate, I hasten to add!) rides and reported they were happy with their choice of full winter gear, while G-Dawg declared he went out in full summer kit and it was glorious, but we all know he’s not completely human. I tried a Tørm thick(ish) merino jersey, gloves, shorts, arm warmers and knee warmers. It was decidedly chilly on some of the descents and I certainly never felt over-dressed, so guess I got it just about right.

I had vague intentions of heading generally west, with no ultimate destination in mind. I crossed the river and made my way to Heddon-on-the-Wall, which, believe it or not, lies athwart the route of the Hadrian’s Wall, from which it takes its name. I know, hard to believe ….

There are even some remaining blocks of stone, like a knuckled, yellowed spine poking through the earth as a testament to the build quality of Roman fortifications, construction having been completed over 1,894 years ago.

I didn’t quite realise at the time, but the ancient Roman Empire was to provide a coherent theme running through my ride.

Just outside Heddon, I picked up a sign that said Chollerford was 15 miles distant and, in want of an actual plan I decided to make this my destination. I pointed my front wheel in that direction and rolled with it.

I was going to be travelling along the Military Road, something cyclists usually avoid as its typically fraught with HGV’s and speeding reckless motorists. If you’re going to ride it though, this is the perfect time as seemed totally bereft of traffic. Between passing Albermarle Barracks and the junction with the A68, some 20 kilometres later, I was passed by just two cars and a tractor.

All this way, the only company I had was the sun, sitting off my left-hand shoulder and my shadow on the ground to the right. My shadow was intent on remorselessly half-wheeling me, but I’m used to riding with the Red Max, so I’ve learned not to respond to such provocation.

The road was straight and true and heading almost directly westward, as good an example of a Roman road as I could imagine, and I definitely felt I was following in their footsteps. To be fair the signs were a bit of a giveaway too.

I was later surprised to learn the Military Road is not one of those things that the Romans had done for us, having been built in 1746 by Hanoverian soldiers heading up North to squabble with the Jacobites.

I also realised I was missing Taffy Steve, who I’m sure could have kept me entertained with a precisely recalled, pitch perfect rendition of the “what have the Roman’s ever done for us” scene from Monty Python’s, Life of Brian.

The only bit of this route I really recognised was dropping down toward Whittle Dene reservoir. I watched another cyclist anxiously scurry across at the junction ahead of me – the same as we have done on countless club runs, leery of speeding traffic suddenly appearing over the brow of the hills on either side.  I could feel his eyes tracking me as I reached the crossroads and didn’t turn to join him, but kept going straight up the Military Road. He probably thought I had some sort of death-wish.

(Oh, and I remember the Vallum café too, which for the past three years has been our traditional stop after the club hill climb.)

Finally, a long fast descent deposited me in Chollerford. To be honest, the journey was more rewarding than the destination. Even if it hadn’t been in lockdown, I’m not sure there’s a huge amount to see or do in Chollerford. I stopped on the bridge for a few pics of the North Tyne, turned round and headed back, looking for a sign that promised the road would take me to Hexham, where I could cross back to the south side of the river and home.

The North Tyne from Chollerford

Through the imaginatively titled village of Wall (guess what you can see there?)  and through the mean looking streets of Acomb, I picked up a cycle path that ran alongside the A69 before vaulting up and over on a light bridge seemingly enmeshed in chicken wire. I paused halfway across, brought to a stop by the sight of the A69 completely and utterly devoid of traffic in both directions.

An eerily quite A69 just outside Hexham

It was so quiet, I could probably have ridden it all the way home in complete safety, but I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have endeared me to the few motorists who were actually out and about. It’s their road, don’t you know.

I crossed the river at Hexham and then had a pretty straight route, back down the valley and home, my only regret being the run was into a headwind all the way.

Home again and another enjoyable ride out. I saw less cyclists than I did last week, perhaps because the weather wasn’t as pleasant, and those I did see were riding solo, or from obvious family groups. Who knows, maybe the message is beginning to sink in.

I can’t help feeling better weather is just around the corner. Bring it on.


The Plague Diaries Week#3 (Monday Supplement)

A Guest Post by Tony Clay

Another guest blogger has kindly stepped up to the mark in our time of need! This contribution is from my old (old, old, old!) mate, Tony Clay, who describes himself as a long-distance member of our cycling club, before explaining that by this he means he lives a long way from Newcastle and not that he rides long distances anymore!

Currently residing in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, Tony still has dual nationality and a Geordie passport and recalls his formative years “happily riding around Northumberland and Durham with some great people.”

This is a faithful telling of how he (and then, by association, yours truly) came to be cyclists, rather than … I don’t know … golfers? … lard-arsed sofa surfers? … sane and mellow normal people without a Lycra fetish? Maybe all, or none of these.


A Revelation on the Road to Damascus Hexham by Tony Clay

For the record, my other clubs – Tyne Road Club (at the same time as Joe Waugh(1)), Whitley Bay Road Club (at the same time as Mick Bradshaw(2)) Tyne Velo, Sheffield Phoenix, Sharrow CC, Meersbrook CC, Rutland CC (at the same time as Malcolm Elliott(3)), Thurcroft CC and my current local Club – Rotherham Wheelers (100 years old this Summer).

I’ve a couple of years on SLJ and have known him since I was 14. One of my fond memories is when he and I went on a YHA cycling tour around Devon and Cornwall in 1978. We had some laughs. I think it was £2 per night in the Youth Hostels back then and I booked and paid in advance by Postal Order, do they even exist today? (Mr. Google suggests that indeed, they still do, but I’ve never heard any one use, or even talk about them for decades!)

But anyway, let’s go back to my childhood… I had to visit a Psychotherapist some years ago and, though it sounds cliched, that was actually about the first thing he said to me, ‘Tell me about your childhood.’

Well, there was a small gang of us 14/15 year olds at school, a mixture of lads and lasses who ‘knocked about’ together, all very innocent. We all went to the after-school clubs, the youth club, the ‘movies’, walking, camping and canoeing together. Simpler times.

The summer holidays in 1974 saw some lovely weather.  We all got the train to South Shields now and again for a day at the beach with Frisbees, burgers, coke and ice cream.

I can’t remember who suggested it but someone said, ‘let’s go for a bike ride’.

YEAH! Brilliant!

But I didn’t have a bike…

But, asking around I managed to borrow Dick Taylor’s bike. The bike was a Sturmey Archer, 3-speed ‘all steel’ Raleigh. I’m not sure what happened to the bike, but Dick Taylor went on to a place in the GB Olympic Kayak Team and, even at 16, he was quite an impressive physical specimen, tall, blonde and ‘fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog’. Perhaps he got that way riding his beast of a bike?

So, beastly bike sorted, where would we go? 

The obvious choice was South Shields, only a 20-mile round trip and we could go on the beach with Frisbees, burgers, coke and ice cream.  Perfect!

But no.

We decided to go to Hexham.

Initially not a bad idea as we knew Hexham quite well as we had been there many times at ‘Dukeshouse Wood’ School Camp, very happy times.

What we didn’t factor in was the distance… we didn’t even think about what is essentially a 50-mile round trip.

50 miles! I’d never ridden further than the local shops on my tricycle as a bairn!

So the ‘Liste de Engagements’ was:-

‘Rowesy’ riding his brother’s Holdsworth.

‘Fat Rowesy’, – no relation and earned the epithet “fat” principally to differentiate the two Rowesy’s. Fat Rowesy was on his brother’s Carlton Kermesse (a lovely bike which I later bought off him.)

‘Fat John’ on a BSA Tour of Britain.

‘Erra’ on a flat handlebar Raleigh Roadster.

‘Gutha’ on his brother’s Carlton, horribly hand painted with Hammerite.

‘Doddsy’ on his very own (he was posh) Carlton Ten. A really sound touring bike, in mint condition. They sell for around £250 to the ‘Eroica’ enthusiasts today.

‘Maundy’ on his PUCH (PUKE!) International, really cheap and horrible, horrible, horrible; (I could never determine if it was meant to be pronounced puke, or if this was some subtle kind of Austrian humour and should perhaps be pronounced poosh. You know, like a poosh bike? Ah, forget it.)

And…

‘Bryan’ so utterly nondescript he didn’t even earn a nickname… and I can’t remember his bike either!

(It’s brilliant to realise that teenage kids are every bit as accomplished at coming up with pithy, creative nicknames as some of our, err, “mature” professional sportsmen. I’m looking at you Wrighty, Gazza, Giggsy, Waughy, Cookie, Floody et al. Simple rules – if the surname is too long, truncate it a bit, then all you have to do is stick an “ee” or “ah” on the end. Why didn’t I think of that, could have save myself a huge amount of time and soul-searching!)

Having no idea what we were letting ourselves in for, nobody had any food or drink and a couple of us didn’t even take any money, so we all had to chip in to get them their ‘burgers, coke and ice cream’ when we got there.

The journey and return is perhaps a story for another day, but the key moment in that ride was when I swopped bikes with Fat Rowesy for a few miles as we passed through Corbridge.

Going from a 3-speed steel ‘clunker’ to a real racing bike was amazing. A real revelation. His Carlton Kermesse had 10 gears, tubular tyres and lots of alloy kit. It zinged. It seemed to smoothly glide along and was utterly effortless to ride.

That is the precise moment, 46 years ago, when I got hooked on cycling.

To be continued?


(1) Joseph Alexander Waugh.
Twice National Hill Climb Champion
King of the Mountains,1975 Milk Race
2nd, at 5 Seconds, 1976 Milk Race, riding in support of the winner Bill Nickson
2nd to Robert Millar (Pippa York) National Road Race Championships 1979
Gold Medallist 100km TTT 1982 Commonwealth Games, with Malcolm Elliott

(SLJ: Also occasionally known as Joey Wah-oogah to eagle-eyed readers of this blerg.)


(2) Mick Bradshaw.

Gold, Silver and Bronze Medallist in National Time Trial Championships at 25, 50 and 100 miles.

And, after a heart transplant he came back to win medals in the World Transplant Games, coincidentally held in Newcastle, one tough cookie.

(3) Malcolm Elliott.
What needs to be said?
National Hill Climb Champion, National Road Race, National Criterium Champion, Milk Race Winner (and holds the record for the number of stage wins), Tour de France rider (read ‘Wide Eyed And Legless’), Vuelta a Espana Points Classification Winner, Gold Medallist 100km TTT 1982 Commonwealth Games AND the Road Race… and was still racing, very successfully, as a pro aged 49! And a lovely friendly guy!

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

Splendid Isolation

Week#3 under lock-down and I’m well into the groove of this working from home malarkey. I’m getting up at the same time I would under normal circumstances and then, in the time I would have wasted commuting into work, I have a quick morning run (recklessly burning my allotted “exercise time.) This sets me up for the day and replaces the bike commutes I’m missing on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

I’m not the most accomplished runner, but I can now brag that I’ve already completed a marathon in 2020. (Although for the sake of transparency, I have to admit it’s taken me 94 days to do the required distance.)

I guess I’m lucky that I can work just as effectively from home as I can in the office. Who knows, maybe it’s the future.

One thing I am worried about during our current lock-down is that my barbers are indefinitely closed. This means my ears are no longer regularly subjected to the wild ministrations of a Turkish pyromaniac and may soon be overwhelmed by a carpet of dense, luxurious hair. (I’m not wholly convinced this is an actual possibility, but they do seem to revel in their flamboyantly twirled fire-brands and I don’t want to be a killjoy.)

What is a problem however, is my hair is starting to grow exponentially. outwards. I may need a bigger size in helmet before we see the end of this.

Ultimately, this could, in extremis, lead to some DIY hairdressing and the return of the sort of criminally bad hairstyle I haven’t sported since my early teens.

Contemplation of this horror led me to recollect (with a shudder) the K-Tel Hair Magician – a cheap-looking, white plastic comb with a razor blade clamped between the teeth, a (quote) “precision instrument” that allows “any mother to give her family professional haircuts.” Ahem.

Yes, our family had one. No, it didn’t live up to the hype (you’ll be surprised to learn) – but was excellent at painfully tugging indiscriminate clumps of hair directly out of your scalp.

I often wonder happened to K-tel and Ronco and all those other purveyors of astonishingly crap, cheap consumer products – they must have sold by the millions to afford all those shameless adverts that cluttered up the TV channels.

(I realise Alan Sugar briefly tried to reprise their business model with his Amstrad brands, but surprisingly and despite his best efforts, the products weren’t quite crass enough.)

So, no more K-tel Hair Magician, or Ronco Buttoneer, no more Veg-o-matic, or the much improved (really?) Veg-o-matic II. No more Brush-o-matic, Peel-o-matic, or even, I kid you not, Tie-o-matic. (I’m beginning to sense a clever trend with the product names.)

No more cordless power scissors, or Rotato. I never actually seen a Rotato – the rotating potato peeler, and can’t help feeling my life is poorer because of this omission.

Anyway, no matter how desperate, I will not be scouring eBay for a K-tel Hair Magician, even bolstered by one of my Dad’s (oft-repeated) pearls of wisdom, that there’s only two weeks between a bad haircut and a good one…

Dad wisdom is great. I especially like the epigram espoused by the dad of my work colleague, the bloke formerly known as Fat Dave. His dad, always insisted that when planning a trip, you should never take an idiot with you, as you’ll easily be able to pick one up at your destination.”

Sage advice.

Anyway, Saturday found me once again heading out for a solo ride and, since last weeks run seemed to turn into a bit of a hill-fest, I decided I’d treat myself and head straight down the Tyne Valley, avoiding the lumpy bits on either side.

I realised the drawback with my plan as soon as I reached the bottom of the Heinous Hill and struck out up-river, the wind was blowing directly from the west, straight down the valley and I’d be riding into the teeth of it all the way out.

Undeterred, I took my standard route across to the north bank , finding the water flat and completely empty as I rolled over the bridge. I guess both rowing clubs have shutdown for the duration and there were no boats out.

I turned left at the end of the bridge, instead of my usual right and soon found myself on the Sustrans cycleway, heading toward Wylam. I skirted a golf course, as empty as the river had been and I was “gannin like a rocket” as I swept past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. (Did you notice what I did there?)

At the end of the trail I was bombed by an inattentive mountain-biker sweeping out of the trees and obviously failing to see and/or hear my approach. I took evasive manoeuvres, but despite my best efforts, couldn’t maintain correct social distancing. Luckily the authorities weren’t around to impose sanctions.

I pushed on and was approaching Ovingham when a cyclist from the St. Nicks club swept past without a word, nod or wave of acknowledgement. Pah, how rude, there’s no need for that.

The competitive fires were lit and I gave chase. Please understand, I didn’t want to, but it’s an uncontrollable chemical reaction that simply won’t be denied. I had no choice in the matter, just ask the Red Max.

Try as I might, I couldn’t close the gap, my legs felt heavy and tired and didn’t seem to have any zip in them, something I attributed to my series of morning runs.

It wasn’t until I was approaching Ovington, already 10-mile into my ride, that I noticed a rhythmic sissk-sissk-sissk noise coming from the front end of the bike and discovered my brake pads were rubbing slightly on the wheel.

I stopped to make adjustments and pressed on. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a grind into a headwind and I wasn’t suddenly gifted with an immense burst of speed, but the toiling definitely got easier.

I caught the St. Nicks rider, stopped just before the Stocksfield Bridge and studiously intent on his Garmin screen, so he still didn’t have to acknowledge my existence. I failed to make eye contact and passed him as I swung left and crossed the river back to the south side.

I traced my way through Riding Mill and out past Prospect Hill, venue for our lung-shredding annual hill climb, and just kept going.

The white plumes of the Egger chipboard factory at Hexham were soon in sight, the first time I was aware that chipboard manufacturing was an essential occupation, as the plant was very clearly still operational during our national shutdown.

At this point I was starting to get a bit bored with the relatively flat terrain, wide, straight roads and constantly nagging headwind, so I eenie-meenie-minie-moe’d and swung left at one of several junctions with signs pointing toward Slaley and Blanchland.

My plan was to take in a swift sharp climb out of the Tyne Valley and drop down into the Derwent Valley for the run home. Good plan …

Awful execution.

The road I’d chosen climbed stiffly south for a bit, then swung back to the west, running parallel to the route I’d just left, so back into the headwind, but now with the added impediment of a long dragging climb upwards.

I crawled past a lumberyard and garden centre with cafe, that I vaguely recalled stopping at during a midweek ride out with the Tyne Valley Cycling Club. From here, I knew I would get to where I wanted to be if I just persevered. So I did.

Just outside Slaley, I stopped for a cereal bar breakfast and to admire the super-cute, spring-loaded, new lambs, bounding through the air, like miniature fuzzy, four-legged Kung Fu fighters. They were having fun at least.

Dropping down toward Blanchland, I stopped again to try and understand the post-apocalyptic landscape presented by this corner of Slaley Forest. What had once been a dense, towering plantation of dark evergreens’ had now been stripped almost bare, as far as the eye could see, except for a few desultory, skeletal trees, left poking stiffly upwards.

It reminded me of pictures of the devastation in the wake of the meteorite strike at Tunguska. Had someone dropped a nuclear bomb just outside Blanchland? To be fair, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had and no one had noticed.

It had started to rain at this point, so instead of heading down into Blanchland, I swung east, skirting this odd, desolate landscape, heading toward Whittonstall and glad to put the rain at my back.

From there I was able to retrace my steps from a couple of weeks ago and find where my route planning had gone horribly wrong. Encouraged by my success, I then took the Derwent Valley heading eastwards and home, climbing out via Burn Top, as a welcome change from the Heinous Hill.

Again a decent run on pleasingly quiet roads, but still with over a 1,000 metres of climbing sprinkled across my 75 kilometre route. So much for my intention to have a less hilly ride.

Along the way I spotted several cats, squirrels, pheasants and chickens, almost revelling in the quiet roads. There were also many more cyclists out than I saw last week, or maybe that’s jus a consequence of where I decided to ride.

I would have to say that only around half of them were riding solo and very few of the assorted pairs I passed looked like they belonged to the same family/households. Unless there’s been a sudden spate of same-sex marriages in the North East, then I’m not sure there’s been a strict adherence to the social distancing guidelines.

Hopefully no harm will come of it, but in these uncertain times, who knows? Personally, as much as I miss the camaraderie of group rides, I’ll stick to solo ventures until things return to normal.


Footnote: all weekend the media has been full of news of people not complying with social-distancing guidelines, including pictures of some astonishingly large groups of cyclists. This is not going to end well and is inviting the government to implement even tougher guidelines. I’m going to be utterly pissed if even solo rides are curtailed due to the selfish activities of a small bunch of complete and utter dickheads. But I can see it coming.

The Plague Diaries – Week#2 (Sunday Supplement)

Fechten Talk by Biden Fecht.

So the gauntlet, or Great Cycling Mitt of the Very Reverend SLJ was thrown down, and having partially provoked the challenge, I had no choice put pick it up off the ground, wipe it, wash my hands to the sound of [insert inane nursery rhyme of choice] and get typing. 

First please understand that the following has been translated from the original Cockney-Gaelic, which accounts for all errors and seeming cold-as-ice-slanders.

Any road up, so I thought back over two-wheeled adventures in the dim-distant past and those more recent. What would be worthy of SLJ?

Perhaps I could fill in some history from the murky past of two-wheeldom? You might for instance be interested to know that the feared mountain range, last seen bordering France and Spain, and home of the infamous Col du Tourmalet, takes its very name from the sport of cycling.

According to local legend, it was in fact an early member of a certain Northumbrian cycling club (founded shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain led by General Chorus Campagnolo in 53 BC according to historical Super Record. (That’s 73 BGRC in local parlance.)

This storied club, we have been repeatedly told, was down to -16 members, during the Black Death, as many of those buried in the Club Chapel had not paid their subscriptions and were hence denied an official gravestone and there names struck from the records. Yet despite these travails, somehow it still survives to this day.

Anyway, as I was saying, it appears that the naming rights of this particular mountain range were bagged by one of these strange Novocastrian psychlers (as they were known, back in the day), struggling up one or other godforsaken 15% incline in the vicinity.

Armed with a manly 21 rear sprocket, and bristling a 39 tooth (why would you even need that?) inner ring in hope of grinding the mountain to dust, it seems the ill-fated psychler came a cropper, split apart his mid-leg and cried out in pain, “’Paar a knees! I need a new paar a knees!”’

And so, dearly beloved, our mountainous range came, to be called the Pyrenees (since les Francais cannot spell proper). And surely, it has sounded the death knell to many jangling cartilage containers ever since.

But, turning aside from this bad turn up the Tourmalet, let me turn back over my own cyclepath of history, and pluck out a ride – not quite at random – and chase it along the keyboard. 

It’s never quite clear, what makes a ride a great ride. Often those ones with ‘epic’ written all over the packaging can shine a bit brighter in advance, or in the re-telling, than in the doing.  Sometimes the best rides aren’t so easy to recount – which to my mind makes the achievements of the Rev SLJ all the greater.  But sometimes those rides are the ones we return to and relive even if there’s no 2,000m climb or breakneck descent, and that’s the case with this one.

A couple of years back the S.O. in my life (the Fechtette w whom I bide?) was taking part in the Loch Ness Marathon, a frankly incomprehensible (to me) affair, where they transport poor souls into the middle of nowhere – literally to a place where there are no roads and so no spectators may follow them –  and then make them run the 26 miles back to the civilisation of Inverness. (No jokes please, I happen to love Inverness, but that’s another story).

So, wanting to fully support this first marathon adventure, I headed north, bike in tow, and finding the runners would depart at 5.30 for the bus out to the Loch, I made quick plans to put my two wheels to use, aiming to return in time to dutifully cheer on my S.O. at the finish line. 

Some of you might perhaps know of the Black Isle? – but if you’re thinking of the Tintin story I’m afraid that doesn’t cut much ice, Snowy notwithstanding.  The real Black Isle is no more of an island than the Isle of Dogs (Translators note: no known equivalent for this Cockney-Gaelic term). It is in fact a peninsula that isn’t really on the road to anywhere. The A9, the main highland artery, cuts across its mainland shoulder, but otherwise it’s largely a footnote.  I set off for it, cheerfully hapless and mapless, with a sense of the shape of the ride I needed to follow more than an actual route.


Distance: 126Km Time: 4 hours 50 minutes Elevation: 995 meters


Out of Inverness it was gloomy with rain falling as the dawn was sluggish in materialising, while the heavy road hugged the bay of Beauly Firth westward, against the wind. Finally turning inland there was a long slog to Beauly itself where the road crosses the cunningly named River Beauly (anyone else thinking that Beauly has a bit of an ego issue?) 

It’s here that the ride really started as the road turned north east, and I headed back out towards the sea. A series of climbs, or maybe rather just endless undulations, up via Muir of Ord and all its many family members – in that way, where when you’re riding a road you don’t know, and can’t see far ahead, you never know how many more lie over that ridge. 

Starting to flag, I dragged myself up the slope at Mulbuie, where one of those weird monuments to nothing very obvious was sitting waiting for me – think, modest Presbyterian version of the Kirkley obelisk without the cows. 

Just about then the sun got its act together and the landscape opened out and I got a view across the Cromarty Firth.  And for the next 30 odd miles I was flying along one of those roads that rewards every pedal stroke tenfold, carrying more speed than it seemed like I was earning, and luckily with not a car in sight, since my eyes kept drifting across to the deep blue of the firth, and the sun on the hills beyond.

It was one of those roads you want to go on forever, where you’re torn between giving it everything to the max, and slowing up cause you want to sustain the enjoyment. The road rose up gently, along the spine of the Black Isle, then ducked down to trace the northern shore into the deserted ferry stop at Cromaty.  I stopped there to refuel and skim a few stones in the hope of concussing a haddock or two, but on that front, no joy.  

Cromarty is the tip of the Isle, and from there much of the road back works its way through forests, and by this time what passes for traffic in these parts was starting to close pass. I worked my way back, stopping at a fork in the road to debate with myself whether to chance my legs on the mighty A9 suspension bridge, and save a good 25 miles.

But what am I actually saving here? I figured to myself and plowed on. Some few miles down the track, as I was about to leave the isle and re-join the Inverness road, I noted a hawk or falcon type thing, hovering some 20 foot above my right shoulder, just in the near blind spot.  Perhaps coincidentally I picked up my pace a little at that point for the run into Beauly where I stopped for the espresso I needed to power me on back to Inverness. 

Once back in town it was a quick shower and I headed off to the marathon finishing line to find I’d missed a certain talented debutante coming in well ahead of target time, some 10 mins earlier.

Ooops! 

Can’t say I regret it though.  

Not sure why, but this ride is one I find myself going back to in my head and reliving. And if someone were to ask me why the f*** does a 50 year old guy like me continue to ride around on a bike, I might not bother to answer, but this right here would be one of the reasons why.