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.

Plague Diaries – Week#11

Plague Diaries – Week#11

I Am The One and Only

So, in their infinite wisdom, the British Government is intent on relaxing lock-down rules, perhaps not based on any grand plan, but simply trying to create the illusion that things are moving forward.

Personally, I’m not convinced it’s the right thing to do, or that we’re embarking on a safe and measured approach. Quite simply, I don’t trust them.

Leaving aside (if you can, and I’ll understand perfectly if you cannot) their appalling double-standards and hypocrisy, succinctly embodied in one particularly arrogant, rule-violating SpAd – after all, double-standards and hypocrisy seem to be the lingua franca of all governments, regardless of political persuasion. Instead, let’s look at the simple, irrefutable and objective facts. The statistics clearly show that under this governments watch, the UK has suffered the second-highest rate of deaths from the coronavirus in the world.

In. The. World.

UK suffers second-highest death rate from coronavirus | Financial Times

So while BoJo witters on about British exceptionalism and promulgates the illusion we’re a world-beating country, lets just recall that the thing we actually seem best at is killing our own citizens. With such a fumbled response so far, too many excuses and a host of broken promises, how confident are you that they’ve got it right this time?

Anyway, from Monday, the relaxed rules mean that, amongst other things, people in England will be allowed to meet in groups of up to six, outside, while maintaining a two-metre distance.

Entirely the best thing to come out of this announcement was the outpouring of social media sympathy for S-Club 7, although one commentator cruelly declared that they were probably better off dropping the dopey looking bloke at the back anyway.

Amongst our club socialmediaites, it meant quickly fomenting plans to meet up and run out in groups of six, perhaps starting as early as Wednesday evening.

Personally, I’ll be following British Cycling advice which has all club and group activity suspended until the 4th July, subject to fortnightly review and two weeks’ notice of any change. So, in other words, no group riding yet.

While references to a disappointed S-Club 7 made me chuckle, the biggest laugh of the week had to be the news that someone had developed a mod to sync your home-trainer, Zwift-style, with the Grand Theft Auto video game. Now you can ride around a gorgeously rendered L.A. game-world, while porting a high-powered, personal arsenal in your jersey pockets so you can, should you wish, indulge in the odd pedal-by ass-capping (P-Bac.)

Who hasn’t dreamed of using Molotov’s to thin out the traffic?

With the promise of glorious sunshine throughout the weekend, for my strictly solo, non-virtual ride, I decided to indulge in a little grand theft larceny myself, pinching bits of bike-touring company, Saddle Skedaddle’s “Giro di Castelnuovo.” route. They billed this as “a challenging guided road ride taking in some of the finest climbs in County Durham, including the infamous Passo di Crawleyside” – and promised around 130 kms (80miles) including 1,500 to 2,000 metres of climbing.

I would be modifying the route somewhat, mainly as I didn’t fancy riding into Newcastle to their start point, the Cycle Hub on the north side of the Tyne, just to ride straight back out again. I also planned a different route out of the Tyne valley to get onto the Whittonstall road, while adding an extra descent, so I could climb Burnmill Bank from the bottom, instead of joining it halfway up.

The bit of the route I wasn’t familiar with led from Blanchland to Stanhope, so, on my phone, I noted the 6 hamlets I’d need to pass through en route to Crawleyside and trusted the road signs would be good enough to see me through.

As promised, Saturday was a clear, cloudless day and already starting to warm up as I set off. I tucked a pair of arm warmers into a back pocket, just in case. I shouldn’t have bothered.

Down the hill, I pushed west through Blaydon, Ryton and Bywell to Crawcrook, where I swung north to cross the river at Wylam. Here I was caught once again behind the level crossing as the (tortuously) slow train to Newcastle rumbled past. I must have been on the road later than last time, or the train was actually running early, as I joined at the back of a small queue of cars and didn’t have to wait too long for the barriers to jerkily raise themselves and clear the way.

I pushed along the north bank of the river, pausing at Ovingham to admire the sudden appearance of a half-dozen or so scarecrows just outside the care home. Apparently, what I saw was only a small portion of the 58 fantastic scarecrows built for the village scarecrow competition. By far my favourite was a Trump figure, complete with MAGA cap and intent on wassailing, with a bottle of bleach to liberally imbibe from.

Back over the river at Stocksfield, I took the Broomley climb up through Shilford Woods. From there it was on to Whittonstall, perhaps the most hateful climb of the day – 2.5km up a slope that appears to get consistently steeper the closer you get to the top. It doesn’t help that, like the Ryals, it’s a straight road and you can see what’s coming from miles away as you approach.

By the time I dragged myself over the top I had all the evidence I needed that I’d left my climbing legs at home today and I began to wonder just how sensible my plan was.

I dropped down the other side into the Derwent valley, pausing just above Shotley Bridge for belated breakfast and quick rest to see if I could recover any.

Then it was back to the climbing, up through Snod’s Edge, noticing that traffic was much busier than I’d seen for a long time and being abused by a car passenger for … well for just being on a bike, I think. “Get off the road” was (I believe) the generally incoherent, but obviously wholly reasonable admonition.

Well, there’s something I haven’t really missed in the past few weeks of quieter, seemingly calmer and saner road usage, let’s welcome back all the arse-hat drivers and their super-witty passengers. Sadly, I didn’t have a pocket-full of Molotov’s to share with them.

I descended to skirt the reservoir, now seemingly open for business, with all the road blocks removed and stay away signs taken down. The Muggleswick silver Toyota pick-up is still there though and remains unsold (if you’re interested.)

The bikers were out in force, nosily running the lanes between Edmundbyers and Blanchland, as well as numerous picnicking older couples, oddly pulled just off the side of the road and reclining on camp chairs and rugs, I guess to watch the traffic pass by – maybe they’ve been missing the smell of exhaust fumes?

There were one or two cyclists out as well, but not as many as I would expect on such a glorious day.

Passing through Blanchland, I picked up signs for my first target, Baybridge and then in quick succession, Hunstanworth and Townfield. At this point I should have followed the signs to Rookhope, but a post knowingly pointed it’s stiff finger toward Stanhope, I knew that was my ultimate destination, so I followed it.

All seemed well for a short-time, before the road doubled-back on itself and I realised I was heading toward Blanchland again and guessed I’d then be climbing Meadow’s Edge in the opposite direction to the way I usually do. From there it made the most sense to head directly back through Edmunbuyers, by-passing Stanhope and the testing Passo de Crawleyside. Oh well, I’ve ridden it a few times before anyway. Maybe next time.

My wrong turn came with two notable features. The first was a long sloping field that, somewhat strikingly, seemed to have been overrun by purple wildflowers that the camera on my phone couldn’t do justice.

The second was being escorted out of the area by a large, white-bodied, black-winged bird that flew 20 metres in front of me for about a kilometre, screeching and jabbering back in disgust. Later investigation suggested I’d been dissed by an angry lapwing, who was apparently telling me in avian terms to “get off the road.”

My intuition proved correct and I was soon climbing up Meadow’s Edge, the first part of which seems much harder than the climb up the other side from Edmunbuyers. It’s also noticeably more barren and empty looking when you’re struggling upwards, rather then zipping down the road. Being relatively high up and endlessly exposed, I now had a stiff wind to contend with too and it was, naturally blowing head-on.

At the last junction and the highest point of the ride, I passed another cyclist I’m sure I seen around 2 hours ago approaching Whittonstall, apparently pondering which way to go next. Then I began my long, long descent toward Edmundbuyers, rattled over the cattle-grid and started to pick my way home.

I hadn’t covered the 80-miles promised by Saddle Skedaddle, but by the time I’d clambered up through Burnopfield, I’d topped 1.500 meters mark and found a few viable options for extending one of my favourite rides south of the river.

Plague Diaries – Week#10

Plague Diaries – Week#10

The Tranquillity of Solitude

*** NOTE: OFFICIALLY, THIS NEVER HAPPENED ***

Ok, now I know that last weeks stiff breeze was just a prelude, a dress rehearsal and a precursor for the main event, today’s sustained high winds. Apparently, according to the Met Office, 50 or 60 mph gusts are “very unusual” for this time of year. That’s good to know. Doesn’t make riding in it any easier though.

I could see the results of two days of tree-shaking blasts as soon as I stepped onto the pavement outside the house. It had given the neighbourhood trees a good thrashing and ripped off leaves to form a tattered, green confetti that had then been driven to shoal against the kerb at the side of the road.

The wind was unrelenting still and as I placed the bike on the road and swung a leg over the frame, I was being peppered with assorted debris, stripped from the trees and hurled down at me. This was going to be a little wild.

I decided I would set out and ride as much as possible into the wind to start with, try and get the worst bits over with and hopefully have a tailwind for the way back. It seemed like a decent plan, I’m just not sure I executed it all that successfully.

I picked my way carefully down the hill, the front wheel twitching a little nervously whenever the buildings and hedges opened up to let the wind scour through. Taking the turn ridiculously wide at the bottom, I turned upriver and into constant driving gusts. This’ll be a nice work out, then.

Crossing the river at Newburn, I started to climb up toward Throckley, stopping briefly to watch the bunting left over from the VE Day celebrations audibly snapping and cracking in the wind.

Past Albermarle Barracks and into the wide open expanse approaching Harlow Hill, I was getting the full force of the wind head-on, my pace slowed to a crawl and it was a real grind

Every hedgerow offer a little sanctuary, but every gap where a gate cut through was a potential trap, funnelling the wind through to unexpectedly snatch at your wheels and send you careering across the road. Even the cows seemed to have had enough and they were all huddled miserably in the corners of the fields, like boats driven from their moorings and piled against the shore.

The Military Road was much busier than the last time I’d travelled it and, struggling to maintain a straight line and facing increased speeding traffic, I bailed at Whittle Dene, taking to quieter and less exposed country lanes.

The wind didn’t seem to deter the anglers here, the lane was lined with cars and the lakeside with their owners, all hunkered down against the chill blasts and to all intents and purposes (but, who knows?) enjoying themselves.

From the reservoir I picked up a typical club run route, up to Mowden and Wall Houses and then through to Matfen.

It seemed like the wind had scoured all other cyclists from the roads, even on these well-travelled and popular routes. Where was everyone? I only saw two or three solo riders out and about – there was definitely no flouting of social-distancing guidelines today.

Just through Matfen and as the road passed through a small copse of trees I would say (without even needing to invoke my provisional poetic licence) that I could actually hear the wind roaring as it shook the branches overhead.

Pushing past the turn for the Quarry, I had a vague notion of dropping down the Ryals and looping through Colwell and around Hallington Reservoir, before heading home. It wasn’t the best thought-out plan, something I realised the moment I started the long, slow grind toward the village of Ryal. The wind, now full-bore and head-on, was driving a sputtering, stinging rain straight into my face as well as applying maximum drag. Hmm, this was unpleasant.

After what seemed a ridiculously long and hard slog, I finally crested the hill and started the long drop down the other side, relived just to be able to freewheel a little bit – I had no intention of pushing hard, that seemed suicidal.

As it was, I can honestly say I’ve never had a less enjoyable traversal of the Ryals, even when travelling the other way, up its damned slopes!

The wind was an immense, bellowing, battering force, blasting cold rain straight at me, while intermittently trying to wrench the front wheel sideways. I fought the bike all the way down until the hedgerows closed in on either side of the road and offered some relative calm and still air. If I’d thought about it, perhaps this was the day I should have been riding up the Ryals and aiming for a wind-assisted PR.

I re-assessed things at the bottom of the climb, noting the weather had turned ominously grey and suspecting it was closing in, I changed plans, cut my intended route short and started to climb out through Hallington.

I then picked up the road through Little Bavington, followed by a fast run down the side of the Blyth valley toward Capheaton. I stopped here to munch a cereal bar and worry some sheep, before pressing on and running down toward the Snake Bends and Belsay, right down the white line in the middle of the road as the surface is so crappy to either side.

Then again, I did spot 3 or 4 huge mounds of stone chippings piled up at the junction with the road from Wallridge. Does this mean they’re going to resurface this stretch? That would be nice, it would also make the run-in to one of our regular cafe sprints much less of a tooth-jangling, jolting, jarring horror show. We live in hope.

I swept through Belsay, noticing the cafe was now open, for takeaway’s at least, then it was Ogle, Ponteland and home.

Back in the shelter of the house, my day ended on a low note when I dropped my Garmin directly into a fresh mug of tea, where it did a passable imitation of a mini depth-charge. I know they’re supposed to be water-resistant, but this was a real test of concept.

Rescued and exiled to a bag of rice to dry out for a couple of hours, I turned it on with some trepidation. All seems to be working fine, but my ride file had somehow been corrupted, or in Strava terminology, “malformed”.

Which obviously means …

Luckily for me I’m still using the Road ID app so the family can track and trace me when I’m out on my lonesome, enjoying the tranquillity of solitude.

So, while officially this ride didn’t ever happen and will never pad out my Strava statistics, at least I know where I’ve been.

BTW – the Road ID app is totally free, and is an invaluable safety net for lone cyclists – and I don’t just mean when Strava fails them. I even seem to recall reviewing it 5 years ago! https://surlajante.com/2015/10/14/the-road-id-app-review/

Ooph! that makes me feel old …

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#8

Plague Diaries – Week#8

Six-Hundred and Fifty Kays of Solitude

Well, six-hundred and forty-eight kilometres actually, since lock-down, but I do have a provisional poetic licence and besides, what’s 2km between friends?

That, by the way represents 31 hours and 14 minutes of solo riding, in my own company.

It’s just as well I almost like myself …

Today was the perfect day to build this total, the sky exposed in huge patches of blue, so the sun beamed down brightly for extended periods – strong enough and long enough in fact, that I would make a very credible start on this years tan lines – well, once I’d ditched the arm warmers, which only lasted until I’d made it to the bridge.

Across the river and went climbing straight back out of the valley, up Hospital Lane, through Westerhope and out onto typical club run roads. I looked at the route on Strava afterwards and was surprised how much it was pretty much a straight north-south line.

I went through Ponteland, Kirkley and then, after around 30km, I found myself at the junction for the road that would lead toward Whalton and homeward. I was enjoying myself though and still hadn’t had enough, so I took a right here, turning away from Whalton, to add on a further loop through Molesden and Meldon.

That makes it sound like I had some sort of grand plan in mind, but to be honest I was happy to be riding, revelling in the weather and instinctively following wherever my front wheel decided to take me.

I might have been riding solo, but I was far from alone and must have passed dozens and dozens of other cyclists, out enjoying the weather and their allotted exercise period. The majority were club riders, but there were also plenty of civilians too, typically with their saddles set too low and knees sticking out like knobbly wind-brakes.

No matter, everyone seemed genuinely happy and riding with a smile on their face and it was great to see so many people enjoying the simple, pure pleasure of piloting a bike. In fact the only dissenting voice I heard came from a horsewoman on a sleek-looking, grey horse. She seemed mildly disappointed the weather wasn’t blazingly hot and demurred when I suggested we had “a nice day for it.”

At the Gubeon, I passed Alhambra, flying in the opposite direction, our hastily shouted hello’s the only direct contact I’ve had with the club since this whole sorry Covid-19 episode began.

I completed my loop and stopped at a random gate just outside Belsay for a quick break and the now obligatory photo of the bike propped against a random piece of scenery.

It was here I noted the shiny black flying insects, swarming over the top of every hedgerow in some kind of mad mating, or feeding frenzy. I’d been aware of them throughout the ride, occasionally pinging off my specs, rattling around in the vents of my helmet and once even dive-bombing, kamikaze-style, straight at my mouth, I just hadn’t realised just how many of the blighters were out and about.

Still, they seemed harmless, if occasionally annoying when they wandered inadvertently into my path. I left them alone and for the most part, they left me alone too.

From my resting place, I picked up a road for Ponteland, which soon deposited me on the Ogle road and back on familiar terrain, as I started to retrace my steps. I noticed the rape seed is coming in strongly now, huge swathes of land stained a bright and alien, acid yellow.

Meh, fields didn’t look like that when I was a nipper.

As I crested the top of Berwick Hill, I found I was enjoying myself and still hadn’t had enough, so I went right instead of left and back-tracked through Ponteland and out onto the High Callerton road. At Callerton itself, I was a bit disorientated to find a massive new housing estate had sprung up since the last time I took this route. Surely it wasn’t that long ago?

I kept going, but wasn’t reassured I hadn’t missed a turn until the landscape became familiar again and I was once more passing through Westerhope.

From there, I worked myself down to the river, across Newburn Bridge and struck out down the valley again. At the Blaydon roundabout, I found I was enjoying myself and still hadn’t had enough, so I took another detour, heading right along the Derwent Valley to Rowlands Gill.

From there, I took in the climb up to Burnopfield. Cresting this final, major hill of the day, I decided that was it, I really had had enough, so with no more detours, I skipped straight along the Fell and home.

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.