Plague Diaries #Week 31

Plague Diaries #Week 31

Against the Odds

A year that’s already been grim and dark and difficult took an even blacker turn last weekend when my Dad died. Dad, Grandad, husband, brother, son, uncle, rugby player, ballroom dancer, draughtsman, engineering designer … all that and much more.

His death leaves an unfillable void, his life an indelible mark.

These sad circumstances kept me off the bike just when I could have done with the therapeutic, head-clearing relief of a long ride, so I was particularly determined to get out this weekend.

The weather was an issue with a rainy midweek only starting to clear as the weekend approached, but Saturday, the forecasts assured everyone, with a sly wink and a smile would be ok. Only an 11% chance of short, swiftly passing showers the BBC weather app proclaimed. Reasonable odds. I’ll take those.

Except Friday night was unexpectedly wet and there was plenty of surface water still around when I woke on Saturday morning. I decided I needed mudguards, but with Peugeot temporarily hors de combat, laid up with a seized rear-derailleur, I was left with a (Hobson’s) choice of my commuting single-speed, or a wet backside.

I’m not sure I’d enjoy a normal club ride on the mongrel single-speed, which is suitably tatty, odd-looking and mismatched enough that it can be left safely, chained up on campus in the full knowledge it will attract absolutely no interest whatsoever from even the most desperate of blind bicycle thieves.

Mechanically it’s sound and its simplicity makes it a joy to ride, but its designed to give me a fighting chance of making it up the big hills at either end of my commute. This means it’s got a 34 x 14 gear ratio, so my legs spin out at about 23 mph – which would be pretty hopeless for any mad dash to the café. As I’d be riding solo, however and maintaining strict social-distancing at all times, I decided I could get away with it, as long as I found a route with no particularly steep, sharp climbs.

As an afterthought, just before I set off I crammed a light jacket in my back pocket, just in case, against all odds, I did actually encounter some rain on my travels.

It was a stop-start sort of beginning, rolling down the Heinous Hill I found I couldn’t clip in and had to stop to dislodge a sliver of dried mud from under my cleat. I still can’t work out how it got there.

Then, once over the river, I glanced down at my Garmin and found I’d already covered over 70 kilometres! Oops, looked like some idiot forgot to reset their bike computer. I stopped to correct my lapse, then pushed on, climbing out of the valley to route through Denton Burn, Kingston Park and out into the countryside.

At that point a third stop was called for as a dank, cold, rain started sifting down until the air was sodden and everything, which most definitely included me, was quickly soaked through. And that’s how it stayed for the rest of the morning, wet and chilly, with my afterthought jacket providing some relief, until it too became water-logged.

Still, the climb up Berwick Hill was about the perfect steepness for me, taken at a brisk pace that soon had me warmed up. I routed through Kirkley, past the café and out toward the Gubeon. Just past the café I passed two cyclists going the other way and it wasn’t until I was level that I realised it was Taffy Steve and Sneaky Pete. Sneaky Pete would later apologise for not acknowledging me, being cold, wet and huddled within his own private bubble of misery. I told him he should just use my favourite excuse, that he’d been travelling at such speed he’d never had a chance to recognise who he passed.

A few miles further up the road, a group of about half a dozen riders, dragged themselves past, clustered together and obviously feeling no need for social distancing. I don’t agree, but it’s their call. An even bigger breach of etiquette in my books was the complete lack of mudguards on what seemed to be their very best, shiny plastic bikes and they kicked up rooster tails of dirty spray behind them as they ground by.

As the road started to develop a few testing bumps and lumps, I made an effort to catch and overtake them, just nudging ahead before having to take evasive action to avoid another cyclist who’d lurched into the road having seemingly emerged out of the hedgerow.

“Oh, hello,” said the erratic cyclist, as I scurried past. I immediately recognising the Prof under all his layers of protective wear.

“Bonjour Monsieur,” I greeted him.

“You’re not who I was expecting to see,” the Prof exclaimed, then, “Ah, there they are!” Apparently I’d just been overtaken, and then overtaken in turn, a gaggle of Backstreet Boys (and at least one Backstreet Gal.) They all reformed behind me, but luckily were going right at the next junction, while I was heading left.

I pressed on through Whalton, passing the Colossus who, somewhat disappointingly (but understandably) was not on on his Time-Trial bike today. Routing through Belsay, I took the lane to Ogle, passing a couple of tractors hacking back the hedges on either side of the road and yet again escaping without finding an errant thorn embedded in my tyre. This luck can’t last.

I pulled into the café at Kirkley chilled and soaked through, but generally in good spirits, wandering into the barn just as the Backstreet Boys exited, to find G-Dawg and the Colossus huddled around one of the tables they’d set up inside.

It wasn’t going to be the cosiest of café stops, but it was dry, out of the wind and, if G-Dawg was to be believed noticeably warmer than standing outside in the rain. I’m not wholly convinced, but it was shelter of a kind.

I complained bitterly that the forecast had predicted only the smallest chance of brief, passing showers and demanded to know where this prolonged, incessant downpour had sprung from. No one could help me.

One benefit of bad weather was the lack of a queue and I was quickly served and on my way back to the barn when a flatus-powered (by his own admission) Crazy Legs arrived to join us.

G-Dawg bemoaned the on-going Covid restrictions and the 3-tier system recently introduced by a Government seemingly flailing to find something that might just about work and more concerned with finding a catchy (i.e. banal) slogan in lieu of a way of reducing infections. As evidence I give you the nonsensical “Stay Alert” a wannabe-nursery rhyme “Hands, Face, Space” and the Arthur Conan Doyle “Rule of Six.”

The latest is a 3-tier, truncated DefCon scale, which saw Front Wheel Neil beating all the tabloid press to the punch, when he announced that he’d told us it would all end in tiers, almost as soon as the initiative was launched.

We quickly summarised the three tiers as:

Tier#1 – you’re up shit creek

Tier#2 – you’re still up shit creek, but now you’ve lost your paddle

Tier#3 – you’re up shit creek without a paddle, your boat is taking in water and there’s a tsunami brewing on the horizon.

G-Dawg was particularly perplexed that the guidelines for moving between tiers were unknown and totally depressed by the thought that there was no safe tier – Tier#0 for example, where life was normal. Surely, we surmised, there must be a small village in the Cotswolds, or a remote island off the coast of Scotland, that was safe enough to be free of any restrictions?

As we discussed such weighty matters, Buster emerged from the gloom outside, cold, wet and complaining about the weather forecast and how he’d been duped into believing the chance for rain was miniscule.

He’d been so taken in that he’d ventured out on his brand new “good bike” – a Cervelo he’d earmarked for only riding in perfect conditions. Maybe this also explains the Backstreet Boys lack of mudguards and perhaps they’re deserving the benefit of doubt?

Maybe.

When Busters food order hadn’t arrived tout de suite, Crazy Legs persuaded him to go check on it, suggesting the café had an unfortunate habit of misplacing orders, especially, rather bizarrely, when it wasn’t too busy.

“Don’t worry though,” he assured Buster as he got up, “If they have forgotten, they tend to slip a fried egg on top as compensation.”

“Hmm, I’m not sure I’d like a fried egg plonked on top of my Victoria sponge,” I offered.

We decided this probably would be an unwelcome gift on Victoria sponge, but perhaps a worthy addition to a fruit scone, as long as, Crazy Legs determined, it was an especially runny egg. Who knows, one day we might even try it.

The rest of the conversation was taken up with discussing the current state of professional cycling. The Giro, was seen as high entertainment, but with a bizarre list of contenders. “You know things aren’t normal when Pozzovivo is up there challenging for the lead, ” Crazy Legs asserted, although pleased as punch for one of his favourite riders.

The bizarreness of the Giro was in direct contrast to an absolutely enthralling Classics seasons, with Alaphillipe, van der Poel, van Aert and assorted others providing spills and thrills in equal measure and the faintest glimmer of normality.

By the time we were ready to leave the rain had passed, it was warming up and dangerously close to pleasant. I was almost dry by the time I made it to the bottom of the Heinous Hill, the bike had served me well and I won’t hesitate to use it again for longer rides, but I must admit there are times when an additional gear or two wouldn’t go amiss and this was one of them.

Plague Diaries – Week#29

Plague Diaries – Week#29

Among My Swan – still continuing an extremely tenuous avian theme.

When even the so-called “world’s most powerful man” (not for much longer if we’re lucky) isn’t safe from the Covid-19 pandemic, then who is?

Then again, most of us have changed our behaviour to try and mitigate the risk, both to ourselves, but even more importantly, to those we may come into contact with who are potentially more vulnerable. I would never rush to wish ill-health on anyone, but there’s a certain Karmic retribution at play whenever a Covid-denier and especially the world’s most powerful Covid-enabler, the Obfuscator-in-General himself, gets hoist by their own petard.

I have to admit, it also provided a few moments of real levity. Trump’s tweet about testing positive was met with an immediate response that this was probably the only positive thing he’d ever tweeted (twet? twatted?) – while it was noted that his test was probably the only one where he hadn’t felt compelled to cheat.

Someone else revealed they’d tested positively as wholly unsympathetic, while another reminded us an underlying symptom of Covid-19 was a complete lack of taste … and wondered what excuse Trump had for all the other blighted lifestyle choices he’d made before falling ill.

Anyway, back to more important stuff. Saturday, 3rd October, summer is officially over and the day is a complete washout.

It started raining late Friday night and hadn’t stopped and didn’t look like stopping anytime on Saturday. If there been a club run I would have been out sharing the misery, but there wasn’t. So I didn’t.

Sunday then, and there may have been water, water everywhere (nor any drop to drink) but there were patches of blue in the sky and a much better day beckoned for a little bikling.

Heading out for a jaunt up the Tyne Valley, I dropped toward Wylam to cross the river. It might have been a Sunday, not a Saturday, and I might have been arriving at an unusual time, but my timing was still impeccable synchronised to coincide with a long freight train of gravel-filled hopper cars, that trundled slowly by while I was caught at the level-crossing.

I crossed the river, high, roiling brown with soil and debris and buckled into angry white-capped waves, pressing on on out of the village, only to have to turn back as the road along the river to Ovingham was completely closed for repair.

Ooph. Plans already scuppered, I climbed out of Wylam up the same hill we usually come screaming down and ended up on the Military Road, heading for Whittledene Reservoir for the third week in a row. I’m getting predictable.

The reservoir looked high and bloated with rainfall, which seemed to have attracted a ballet, a bevy, a drift, a herd, a regatta, or a whiteness of swans, depending on your collective noun preference. Well, possibly not a whiteness, as a couple of these were youngsters and still a soft, fuzzy brown rather than pristine white.

From the reservoir, I took my usual route toward Stagshaw and through to Matfen. Climbing out the village and looking to change things up a little, I then took the first turn I came to and ended up on the Reivers Cycleway for a spell. This dropped me off at Ryal village and it seemed churlish at that point not to take advantage and drop down the Ryals.

Whoosh …

Fun over, I turned to climb up through Hallington.

Just past the village the road was flooded and I picked my way carefully through, knowing just how rutted this road was and fearing submerged potholes or worse.

I then took the road toward Capheaton and eenie-meenie-miney-mo’d whether to call in to the café there, or press on to Kirkley. Kirkley won (just) and I routed through Belsay and straight down the main road until I’d by-passed Ogle, before turning onto quieter lanes.

I found our Dutch tag-team, TripleD-El and TripleD-Be, comfortably ensconced in the café, having smartly eschewed riding yesterday in the deluge.

Shortly after they left I was joined by Ahlambra and, in wide ranging and hugely entertaining discussion covering Covid-19, local lockdowns, the CIA, light-bulb inventors, US Presidents, the Clinton Foundation, false flag operations, Benghazi and a race of intergalactic, shape-shifting, immortal reptilian overlords (ok, I may have made that last one up) I realised I was in the presence of the clubs premier conspiracy theorist – and not everything is as it seems.

Sadly though, even hardened conspiracy theorists aren’t immune to the cold and while Ahlambra was warming to his topic, he was also beginning to feel the chill. Enough was enough, so we packed up and went our different ways – mine leading to a comfy seat in front of a double screened computer to simultaneously watch Stage 2 of the Giro and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Not a bad day at all.

Plague Diaries – Week#28

Plague Diaries – Week#28

Day of the Condor – Continuing a tenuous avian theme established by last weeks cameo from a stool pigeon. Ha cha cha cha.

For those of you who hate cliff hangers and are too lazy to look things up on Strava (yes, I’m looking at you, Monsieur Crazy Legs) then yes, I managed to snatch back my Strava KOM and everything is good with the world.

I actually quite enjoyed my little extra-curricular challenge last week and since I have no need to be at a particular meeting point at a given time for the foreseeable future, I might try further Strava segment smash and grabs.

It’s a bit like the cycling equivalent of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange – once you’ve smashed it open and snaffled one segment, you always want more.

There’s one in particular KOM that ends almost practically outside my front door, so I feel obliged to give that one a go next. The trouble is, its a very short, steep ramp with a brutal speed bump half-way, ideally placed to disrupt your rhythm just as things turn nasty. It’s also so short a segment that the record is just 16 seconds, so I suspect you have to be travelling at maximum speed before you hit the start and then slam on the brakes before you hit the end – a junction onto a busy main road. There’s absolutely no margin for error.

Three guys and one girl have done it in 16 seconds, while my best is a whole second slower, good enough for a top 5 place along with a whole slew of others. By my reckoning, if I can hit and hold 50 kph for that short, handful of seconds it takes to get to the top, I should be in with a shout.

Today’s first effort was woeful. The gear I chose was too big and I ran out of momentum before the top, finishing in a totally unconvincing 20 seconds. Still, maybe next week.

Today was a chilly but bright day, so I venured out wearing both a long sleeved baselayer and armwarmers, legwarmers, thermal socks, a cap and long-fingered gloves. For once I got it about right and never felt over-dressed.

Following my lung and leg shredding failed KOM effort, I dropped down into the valley, crossed the river and started climbing out the other side again.

I pretty much followed the route I’d taken last week up Hospital Lane, before taking a quick detour, following the signs for Chapel House on a whim. I expected a picturesque village built up around a small kirk, but found nothing but a long loop through a modern and rather uninspiring housing estate. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a place by its name for that matter.

Through Callerton and approaching Penny Hill, I was stalking another cyclist who seemed to be travelling at least as fast as I was on the flat, but slightly slower on the hills. As we started up the climb I closed on him – a tall, slender man, on a tall slender, steel-framed bike. Just before I caught up, a blocky-burly-beardy-bloke bustled past. I dropped onto his wheel and he pulled me past Slender Man, then I overtook Blocky Burly Beardy Bloke as the climb stiffened and his bustle degenerated to a slow grind.

The road levelled and I kept going toward Stamfordham. About 10km later, Slender Man slid past me, with a nod and a garbled message.

“I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so windy,” he’d apparently said, words instantly snatched away by that very wind, obviously looking to prove a point. It wasn’t until he repeated what he said that I got their gist and could agree with him.

I tagged along behind him for a while, not quite in his wheel, but within a socially restrained 3 or 4 metres that still gave me a little drafting benefit. Then, on the rise just before Stamfordham I eased past and onto the front again.

Passing Whittle Dene Reservoir and I slowed for a cyclist stopped by side of road, checking he was ok and Slender Man caught me and we rolled along on either side of the road, chatting for a while.

He asked if I too was heading toward Corbridge, his intended destination and I confessed I was just wandering aimlessly, then we discussed old bike brands, the sorry demise of Holdsworth and his trust of steel-frames not to catastrophically fail like carbon, while I admired his pristine Condor.

We climbed to the top of the road to Newton and then parted, as he swung left to dip into the Tyne Valley and I pushed on toward Stagshaw and then Matfen. Through Matfen, I was half-minded to drop down the Ryals, but the wind put me off, so I routed up past the Quarry again and then down to Belsay.

From there I headed toward Whalton, instantly regretting my choice as I found they were cutting back the hedges along this stretch of road. I say cutting back, but it’s more like they thrash them into submission, scattering a wide swathe of detritus across the road surface. This almost invariably contains a large serving of the infamous Northumbrian steel-tipped thorns – which add a super high likelihood of you picking up punctures.

I picked my way through the debris as best I could, breathed a huge sigh of relief when I exited the zone of destruction with both tyres intact, then instantly cursed myself for inviting disaster with such reckless self-congratulatory thinking. I was inviting disaster.

I found that, like a lot of the roads in this area, the stretch from Belsay to Whalton has also been given that heavy, rough and grippy, open-textured and horrible, fresh surface that seems to have become the new norm. I think I preferred the old one, even with all its potholes and fissures.

At the Gubeon, I turned for home, calling in for a quick stop at Kirkley to re-fuel and on the off chance of bumping into a familiar face or two. I found G-Dawg on one of the benches, pressed up against the wall to try and find some shelter from the biting wind. Other than one other auld feller riding on his own, the place was otherwise deserted, so plenty of space for social distancing and no issues getting served quickly. Even chill weather has to have some benefits.

By the time I got from the serving hatch to the bench, my coffee had gone cold and OGL had arrived, probably just stopping by to see who was mad enough to be out.

He rolled off after singing the virtues of his new Vittoria tyres (he was preaching to the choir) while I gulped down cold coffee and a large if uninspiring serving of carrot cake. After 20 minutes the chill was starting to bite and I was packing up to leave. G-Dawg was determined to brave the elements for a few more minutes to see if anyone else was out and also because if he fears if he gets home too early, he thinks he’ll be expected to get back at that exact same time every week.

I had the wind firmly behind me most of the way home and was feeling good, the pedals seeming to float around on their own. It was a decently fast run back and I found I was home an hour before my usual arrival. Luckily no one else was in the house.

I think I got away with it.

Plague Diaries – Week#22

Plague Diaries – Week#22

Seven Nation Army

What a mizzly, horrible start to the day. The cloud was low over the hills, weeping fine drizzle in enough volume that I kicked a rooster tail of spray off my rear wheel descending the Heinous Hill and received a most unwelcome and unpleasant, early morning douche for my troubles.

Eech.

I’d gone for the lightest jacket I own, reasoning I’d be able to to ditch it fairly early on in the ride, if the weather forecast was to be believed. It served its purpose and I was grateful for the extra layer of protection for what turned out to be a fairly miserable start to proceedings.

I arrived at the meeting point to find the long AWOL Taffy Steve, not fully recovered from his rotator cuff injury, but keen to start riding again. As he said, the power data didn’t lie and he now had all the strength of an anorexic, pre-pubescent at the end of a long fast. (And with none of the accompanying weight advantages either.) The Red Max and Mrs. Max have started running a well-received starters group parallel to our standard runs and Taffy Steve had been persuaded this would be the perfect re-introduction to group rides.

Various complaints about the weather in August led someone to claim that it was actually the wettest month in the North East of England, an assertion that failed to win much support. Post-ride research suggests the wettest month is actually November which has 10mm, more precipitation than August. To be fair though, with 60mm of rain on average, an amount shared with several other months, August is not that far behind. If that wasn’t depressing enough, it seems we also enjoy a rather paltry 1,445 sunshine hours per year. The inference seems to be to make the most of it.

I carefully avoided he front group this week and, when they couldn’t make their numbers add up to the magical, mystical six, it was G-Dawg who bravely stepped forward to take one for the team. I’m sure he made a better fist of it than I did last week.

I looked to be heading out in the third group when, for unknown reasons, the Big Yin pulled out and returned. Careful of another trap, I checked the composition of the second group, Crazy Legs, Aether, Ahlambra, Richard of Flanders and the Ticker. Yeah, I could probably live with that. I pushed up and joined them, filling out the full complement of six and away we went.

Just past Dinnington and pelted by a sudden shower of rain, we stopped to make some adjustments to gear, pulling on jackets arm warmers and gilets. I’d only just ditched the jacket so stood pat.

Moments later, having crested Berwick Hill and heading downhill at pace, the Ticker and Richard of Flanders pulled to a sudden stop and the rest of us whipped past wondering why we were stopping yet again.

We eventually reformed and pressed on, following Aether’s plan that took our standard run home from Belsay and reversed it. On the front with Crazy Legs, passing through Walton, we both stuck out an arm and called “left” before swinging through the turn. Ahlambra and Aether followed, the Ticker tried and found Richard of Flanders in a world of his own and intent on heading straight on. Collision narrowly averted, we amused ourselves (we’re easily amused) for the next few miles calling out directions and then pedantically repeating them several times for our daydreaming colleague.

“Left here. Richard, we’re going left.”

“Left!”

“Right here. Which way are we going Richard?”

“That’s right. Right.”

Riding with Crazy Legs behind the Ticker, we spent time speculating about his pale blue Rapha jersey, proudly emblazoned with Push Cartel, trying to work out if there was some sort of Columbian connection and what it was exactly that they were pushing.

Curiosity became to much for Crazy Legs, so he eventually asked and we learned that Push Cartel was probably the poshest bike shop in the whole of Ambleside (I suspect the claim is justified, as I can’t imagine there’s a lot of competition.)

In fact, it’s probably incorrect to call Push Cartel a bike shop at all. According to their own website it’s actually, “the bespoke cycle atelier of the Lake District” who, if I understand correctly, don’t have stock to sell, but a “carefully curated portfolio of class leading brands.” Yer what?

Mind you, their “curated brands” include Cinelli, Cipollini, Parlee and Look and it was obviously these shiny bling-bikes that had drawn the Ticker, like a moth to the flame, to visit the store. That I could understand, we all like a bit of bike porn, such as the Cipollini RB1K – modestly branded as “The One” and representing as fine an example of bike porn as you’re likely to find:

Still, I really couldn’t say why the Ticker felt the need to buy the Push jersey and be associated with such pretentious marketing claptrap, perhaps it was the price of entry, or maybe exit?

Mention of Cipollini prompted Crazy Legs to ponder turning up at the club time trial in one of the Lion King’s (in)famous skinsuits. I suggested it was more likely someone turned up in a Lion King onesie than a Lion KIng skinsuit and we left it there.

The Lion King in … err. .. tiger stripes?

I pushed onto the front alongside the Ticker as we dropped down “Curlicue Hill” and pushed out along the Font Valley heading toward Mitford. Here I learned our unexpected stop earlier had been caused by a pesky wasp infiltrating the Ticker’s helmet and stinging him on the napper.

Still smarting from the infernal blow, he hadn’t dared look at the damage although Richard of Flander had offered to inspect the wound.

“He probably just wanted to cut a big cross in your head and suck the venom out,” I suggested. “Anyway, if you take your helmet off and your head swells, you’ll never get it back on.”

The aforementioned Richard of Flanders then took over at the front to lead us carefully down the Mur de Mitford, but obviously not carefully enough, as he locked his wheels up on a patch of diesel at the bottom and slid sideways to the bottom of the hill, where he came to a juddering stop just before the junction.

“Which way?” he queried, having regained at least some form of composure and he started to edge toward the left. “Right, Richard, right!” Surely, I thought, we’d done this routine to death already?

We climbed to and through Mitford and up to the Gubeon, which presented us with a straight run through to the cafe rendezvous at Kirkley. With the imagined scent of cake and coffee in the wind, I worked with Crazy Legs and the Ticker, swapping turns on the front to build our pace. Our group of six quickly became five … then four … then there was just the three of us in an exhilarating, long blast to the cafe.

Yee-hah!

There we found Captain Black and Goose, who hadn’t managed to form a group and had ended up riding as a pair, which is fitting as we often project them as an old, married couple. As Captain Black dryly noted, it was also the perfect opportunity for him to ride around and be talked at for a couple of hours.

The Ticker appeared, his head still “knacking” and told us Aether had just pulled the stinger out of his scalp, which suggests he was done-in by a bee rather than a wasp. He may also have been riding around with the stinger continuously dosing him with venom just to keep the the edge on his pain.

Crazy Legs suggested what he needed was a helmet with a bug mesh, marveling how well such a feature can trap a wasp in place, in the perfect position to sting you repeatedly.

We then had one of those entertaining, surreal conversations that started with Crazy Legs listing all the things he stuffs in his jersey pockets, up to, but not excluding an elephant, if he’s to be believed. This led to a discussion about the film Hannibal Brookes, which included a scene where it was claimed elephants couldn’t walk backwards, which reminded Crazy Legs of his claim that horses can only swim in a straight line and that, if you chased them into the North Sea, they’d just have to keep going “until they hit Norway.”

The Hannibal Brookes name check brought recollections of Oliver Reed’s (too numerous to mention) drunken appearances on talk shows, which led in turn to a discussion about George Best, which ended when G-Dawg joined our table and predicted Man City were going to win the Champions League. He must have taken over duff prognostication duties in the absence of the Garrulous Kid as, mere hours after this pronouncement, Man City were duly dumped out of the competition.

With the back of our new jersey’s adorned with twin parallel white stripes, Crazy Legs had us adapt Seven Nation Army as a club anthem. A somewhat bemused Goose recognised the riff we bellowed and banged out on the table, but didn’t know what it was called, or who the artist was.

“Turn around,” Crazy Legs instructed me, then, channeling his inner Roy “Cathphrase” Walker, pointed at my back and urged Goose to “Say what you see, just say what you see”

“Err … skinny ass ugly fecker?” I supplied helpfully.

But Goose was unmoved and sure he could live perfectly happily without knowing who sang Seven Nation Army.

On departing most went left, but I turned right, planning to head through Ponteland and home, but I caught the back of our starters group and tagged along for the ride, up and down Berwick Hill and through Dinnington.

I had a brief chat with the Red Max who declared I was going to have the most leisurely and enjoyable ascent of Berwick Hill ever. And he wasn’t wrong.

Approaching Dinnington a lone cyclist buzzed past the group and I watched and waited for the inevitable. The Red Max’s homing radar whirred a little, then locked on and he kicked off a mad-ass pursuit. Anticipating the inevitable, I dropped onto his wheel and let him tow me across the gap to the lone cyclist, then, as the Red Max sat up to drop back to the group, I just kept going and started my solo ride home.

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#16

Plague Diaries – Week#16

The Lone Bellow

While idly meandering through various social media (mediums?) this week, this picture was perhaps the most arresting that I came across …

And I quite liked the analogy that related it to the pandemic, inferring that you need to account for the idiots who could unwittingly cause harm to both themselves and others.

Still, as much as the photo fits the compelling narrative of the caption, it sadly isn’t at all accurate. It didn’t take much digging to identify that the picture is actually from the Algerian War of Independence and shows French Legionnaires rescuing a malnourished donkey and carrying it to their base, where it would be nursed back to health and adopted as the the unit mascot.

Still, does that knowledge invalidate the message and make it any less apt?

I’m still not quite there with group rides yet, so planned another solo adventure for Saturday. Actually, suggesting I had a plan is giving myself far too much credit, what I actually had was inkling of an idea and an odd yen to climb the Trench, reasoning it’s been months since I travelled those roads and it might be quite … well, refreshing?

(I guess anyone who’s actually climbed the Trench will recognise just how odd a yen this was.)

My route there, or at least the only route I could trust myself to follow, included a clamber up the short-but-steep Mur du Mitford and from there my way home would be traced via that perennial club favourite, Middleton Bank. In effect, with the Mur, Trench and Middleton Bank, I’d set my sights on a triumvirate of torture.

Throw in the climb of Hospital Lane to get out of the Tyne Valley and my usual drag up the Heinous Hill to cap things off and it was actually more like a pentagram of pain. Perfect.

The weather promised to be decidedly “meh” though – almost unbroken cloud cover and occasional showers. The start was dank and dismal too, a light, weeping and ever-present drizzle, that slowly soaked everything, whilst the roads were still awash from an overnight downpour.

I’d learned my lesson last week having indelibly besmirched another pair of pristine, white socks and turned them a poisonous shade of dingy grey that no amount of Persil will ever rectify. This week I went for navy socks and hid my shame under a pair of light overshoes. Jersey, shorts, arm warmers and a rain jacket completed my super-stylish ensemble and I was good to go, hoping I’d be able to ship the jacket somewhere along the way.

There was movement out on the river this week, rowing is back underway and the water was dotted with single sculls. No sign of the crewed fours, or eights yet, but an indication things are slowly returning to normal.

There was another sign of returning to normal at Westerhope, where, at 8:50 and presumably still ten minutes before opening time, a queue of raggedy-haired, mop-topped blokes was already forming a disorderly queue on the pavement outside the barbers, desperate for a post-lockdown shearing.

I dropped down the hill toward Kingston Park, slowing to remove my specs and thread them into my helmet vents as they were becoming increasingly opaque as as the mist-come-rain speckled the lenses. My bike frame was beaded with glistening droplets of moisture too and starting to resemble something you might find in an exotic soft-porn shoot.

Or so I’ve been led to believe…

From Kingston Park , I picked up standard club run routing through Dinnington, then running up Bell’s Hill, confident I knew where I was going. Only the road was closed just past the climb and I was forced into a slight detour. Still, even then the surroundings were reassuringly familiar and I was soon through Tranwell Woods and closing in on Mitford.

It was here that I encountered my first group of riders, around a dozen or so cheery female cyclists, travelling well-spread out in three or four distinct clumps. I would later wonder how I missed the memo about it being National Women’s Cycling Day, as at least every other rider I passed thereafter seemed to be female. It was good to see so many out enjoying the riding, if not the less than perfect weather.

At Mitford, I stopped for a cereal bar breakfast and to peer through the drizzle at the ruins of the castle. We always scamper past this en bloc and at relatively high pace, so I’ve never really stopped to consider it. Internet sleuthing tells me it built as a motte and bailey castle by the Normans in the late 11th Century, only to be destroyed, burned and abandoned two hundred or so years later.

Sight-seeing and needless, pedantic sight-seeing commentary over with, I pushed on to the Mur de Mitford, where I found the left-hand lane demarcated by a long, frayed streamer, a coppery-blue-hued, glistening rainbow of spilled diesel, stretching all the way up the climb, from top to bottom.

Luckily the road was otherwise empty, so I switched to the far right-hand lane to clamber up, warily avoiding the evil gleam of the oil spill that promised an immediate loss of traction and potential pratfall.

From there it was a straightforward run to the bottom of the Trench and a fairly civilised, I might almost say enjoyable, climb through it, although the legs were tiring as I pushed over the top and on to Dyke Neuk. Here I decided on the spur of the moment that I might as well go for the full set of club climbs and take in the horrid grind up to Rothley Crossroads too.

Instead of back-tracking, I took the road toward Hartburn, turning right just before the dip and rise to the village and heading north once again. This is a road we often traverse in the other direction and now I know why, it’s actually a testing little climb going the other way.

Having completed a big loop around Dyke Neuk, I was soon back on the road leading from the top of the Trench and passing through Longwitton, and climbing to the crossroads.

I don’t know what it is about this climb, it’s not particularly steep and shouldn’t be half as hard as it actually is, but it’s a constant grind, difficult to find the right cadence on … and it hurts like hell.

I was halfway up when the silence was split by the hollow, lone bellow of a cow, evidently in extreme discomfort. “You and me both,” I muttered to myself.

The commotion seemed to be coming from the field off to my right, but its source was screened by a dense line of trees . Once again the cow brayed its distress and I couldn’t help thinking that if my legs were to be given voice at that precise moment, that would be the exact sound they’d make too.

A brief pause at the crossroads, then I dropped through to Scots Gap and up Middleton Bank, where a toiling cyclist ahead of me provided an additional bit of motivation. Cresting the top I finally decided it was safe to remove my jacket and shoved it messily in a back pocket.

Then it was homeward bound, Bolam, Belsay, Kirkley in short order, through Dinnington, out to Westerhope (the queue outside the barbers was long gone) and across the river at Newburn.

The volume of cars on the road is back to near normal levels, so I abandoned the main road up the Heinous Hill about three-quarters of the way up, taking to the side streets to avoid the queuing traffic stretching from the traffic lights back down the bank. Well, that was nice while it lasted.

Then, one last short, steep ramp, and I was home again.

The Plague Diaries – Week#15

The Plague Diaries – Week#15

On Me Tod

So, more relaxation of the lockdown rules and, according to the Daily Heil Mail at least, it’s all going swimmingly. Well, as long as you don’t mention Liverpool football fans, Bournemouth beach-goers and an army of illegal ravers, or dozens of other totally alarming issues.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the utter stupidity of people by now, but they do keep finding ways to exceed my already dismally low expectations. Let’s just see where we are in a week or two, when the consequences of these types of events have had a chance to play out. And hope.

Right now though, I’ll go along with journalist John Crace, who suggested that with Boris at least as keen to open up the economy as he is to save lives, we shouldn’t rush to change arrangements. He concludes that if there hasn’t been a second spike in infections after a month, maybe he’ll feel safe to come out and finishes, “but I’m not holding my breath. Or rather, I am.”

So, for the time being at least, I’ll stick to riding on my own, even though I know we have small groups organised to head out from the usual place, at the usual time and they’re probably fine.

Just to illustrate the nonsensical, arbitrariness and inconsistencies of Government thinking though, somewhat bizarrely, cricket, you know the sport where 13 players and two officials socially isolate on at least 8,000 square metres of field, is not one of the sports given permission to restart.

Football however, 22 players and three officials running, jostling, shouting, swearing, sweating, tackling, spitting and colliding around a field of 7,140 square metres. Well, that’s OK. Why? Because our Prime Minister deems that a cricket ball, not a football, nor an open pub, not a beach, or restaurant, nor a 1 metre space between people, but a cricket ball, is “a natural vector for disease.”

Anyway, back to a sport I actually care about, a flash sale this week saw me acquire a new pair of bibshorts from a company I’ve previously had little experience of, Blueball Sports. Apparently Blueball are based somewhere in the Basque country, which, I guess gives them a degree of credibility, it’s an area frequently referred to as a hot bed of cycling and their fans are seen as passionate, knowledgeable and politeley restrained.

I know the shorts are Blueball’s, because they’re cleverly branded with … err … a big, white circle on the front of one leg? Because they’re Basque we can, I think, forgive them a little for not quite considering the association of their brand name with the medical condition epididymal hypertension, let alone its less savoury use as a euphemism for intense testicular discomfort.

What I’m less forgiving of is the amount of spurious garbage written across the seat pad, all of which seems rather overdone and totally superfluous.

“High protection?” Fair enough. “Impact Zone” and “Anti-Shock Gel” and “3D”? Hmm, all right. But, “Air Cool?” Really? I don’t think so. And then, what am I to make of “Moisture Evacuation” and perhaps most perplexing of all, the simple injunction, “be present.”

I’m bemused.

Still, back to matters in hand, the hot flush of high temperatures was already starting to fade by the weekend, even before it was rudely hustled out the door by a series of crashing thunderstorms as the weather turned decidedly unsettled. The forecast for Saturday was for cool temperatures with a high chance of heavy, intermittent showers and occasional but brief sunny spells.

Mrs. SLJ was at pains to tell me where the sunscreen was as I made to depart on Saturday morning. I managed not to laugh at her, but really wasn’t convinced I’d be needing it and, just for once, I was right. (I have to celebrate these small victories – they’re very few and far between.)

The club had made plans to meet up again at the cafe at Kirkley, but the timing was vague and I decided the weather wasn’t really good enough to encourage sitting around outside talking constant blather. (To clarify, I mean the sitting around outside bit, we never need any encouragement to blather.)

I decided then to give that particular cyclist cafe a miss, but the Rainman had promised that the one at Capheaton was open, so I had this as a possible destination in the back of my mind.

To start I decided on a bit of route reversal, so instead of riding along the Tyne Valley and then hopping across to the Derwent Valley, I did it the other way round, heading south, south-west initially towards Burnopfeld, before dropping down to Hamsterly and through to Ebchester, then climbing the Dere Road up to Whittonstall.

It had the potential to be a pleasant route, but as soon as I crested the first climb past Whickham Golf Club the rain started lashing down. I stopped to pull on a light rain jacket but it was totally inadequate for the job in hand and was quickly soaked through as the heavy rain battered it effortlessly aside.

The drop down toward Hamsterly was taken at a cautious pace, partly because the road was awash with run-off and partly to try and lessen the amount of cold, dirty spray being kicked up by my wheels.

Nevertheless, my shoes quickly became water-logged and my socks an unappealing shade of grey. There’d be no tan-lines today, but some impressive grime-lines instead. Deciding the jacket wasn’t really doing much for me, I bundled it into a tight ball and stuffed it into a jersey pocket, where it would weep cold, miserable tears for a while, lamenting its cavalier abandonment.

The climb up from Ebchester to Whitton Stall was a new one to me, relatively straight and regular, my only complaint was it seemed to have an infinite horizon, you always sensed you were nearing a crest, then it would leap on ahead another couple of hundred metres infront of you

I was pleased the traffic was relatively quiet so I could ride straight up the centre line of the road, avoiding the small stream had formed at the verge to make its way downhill and the middle of the lane that was rutted and uneven.

The rain eased as I dropped down the fast descent from Whitton Stall, involuntarily tailgating a car as my speed crept past 40 mph. I then made my way through the pretty village of Hindley, only marred by a shockingly bad patch of road right in the centre, before dropping down to Stocksfield and crossing the Tyne.

This week’s entry into my Amateur Floral Almanac belongs to the many wild hawthorn blossoms threaded through the hedges, a delicate white with a barely discernible pink blush.

I cambered up to the A69 and crossed to take in the climb up to Newton, then through the Plantations and onto the Matfen Road. From Matfen, I took a dip down the Ryals and it was here, at the bottom of the climb and after 26.5 miles covered, that I encountered my first fellow cyclist of the day.

From the Ryals I scribed a wide circle around Hallington Reservoir, then made my way through Little Bavington and out to Capheaton.

Somewhere along this road the fields had been shaved back to a bright ochre stubble that was swarmong with the black specks of dozens of opportunistic crows. I turned back to grab a picture, but naturally only managed to startle most of them into flight.

Rainman had promised the cafe at Capheaton was open and so it proved. The coffee was good, the carrot cake even better, but here too it was quiet, my short break only disturbed by just a cycling couple, who arrived as I gathered my stuff up to leave.

I took the road down toward West Belsay junction. As anticipated it has acquired a new surface, but as I discovered last week, it’s rough, open-textured, gravelly and crumbling, slow and heavy and only a slight improvement on the rutted and fissured original. I shudder to think the damage you could do coming down on this at speed, it would be like sliding the wrong way down a cheese grater.

From Belsay, a bit more reverse engineering of a typical club ride took me out through Whalton to the Gubeon, before heading toward Kirkley and home. Along this road I passed Sneaky Pete, getting in a few sneaky training miles. He was past me almost before I recognised him.

Crossing back over the river at Newburn, I picked up a fellow cyclist and we both moaned as the traffic built up and slowed our progress coming into Blaydon.

“McDonalds is busy again, I see,” he noted, correctly identifying the cause of the queuing traffic. No surprise I guess, if people are odd enough to queue for hours to get into a Primark, or Ikea, hell, why not half an hour to get a McDonalds too?

“Are you tempted?”

“Nope” he snorted.

Me neither. It probably couldn’t offer anything half as good as the carrot cake at Capheaton.

My temporary companion took the first part of the Heinous Hill ahead of me before swinging away to the left, leaving me to crawl the rest of the way up on my own, even as the clouds opened and the rain came lashing down again.

Soaked at the start and drenched at the end is not ideal, but at least the middle bit of my ride was good.

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.