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.

“Moist is a State of Mind”

“Moist is a State of Mind”

Club Run, Saturday 8th June, 2019

My ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:88 km/55 miles with 422 m of climbing
Riding Time:3 hours 40 minutes
Average Speed:23.8km/h
Group Size:7 riders, no FNG’s
Temperature: 12℃
Weather in a word or two:It rained. Lots.

Ride Profile

Be thankful for what you’ve got, Willie DeVaughn once sang. Maybe he had the right of it, too…

I complained about the weather being dry, but grey, dull and chilly for the past few weeks and, in response good old Mother Nature took note and upped her game … giving us a full night and day of perpetual rainfall.

Conditions were so bad that, unlike last week, I only so one other brave/foolish (delete as applicable) rider on my trip across to the meeting point. In direct contrast though, there were maybe a dozen runners out and pounding the pavements. Maybe they’re like slugs and snails and only come out when it’s wet?


Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:

I spotted G-Dawg and Taffy Steve in the multi-storey car park where they were sheltering from the rain and bumped up the kerb to join them. As I drew to a halt, I was immediately informed UCI Extreme Weather Protocols were in place and, as the highest ranking official of the Flat White Club present, Taffy Steve had already declared it to be a Flat White Ride.

Perfect.

Crazy Legs rolled in behind me. “Lovely weather. You know what I’m going to suggest?”

“Already decided, mate,” Taffy Steve told him. “Flat White Ride.” Although nothing more than a formality, it was good to have the decision ratified by the Flat White Club President himself.

We were joined by the Garrulous Kid, OGL and Sage One, the relative newcomer who has joined us to help her train for a London to Paris charity ride.

“How’s the training going?” I wondered.

“Hmm, well, it isn’t really, I’ve been on holiday for 3-weeks.” In fact the last time she’d been out with us was the last time we’d had such dreadful weather. Things were so bad then, she’d made her boyfriend meet her half way home and bring her some dry socks!

Despite the rain, the Garrulous Kid was wearing little else but a £5.99 Decathlon jersey.

He tried to convince us it was waterproof. “Yeah right, ” G-Dawg, declared, “It’s waterproof. Until it gets wet.”

Still, Crazy Legs commended the Garrulous Kit on his shiny, clean shoes (they were wet), while I wondered if his chain might not emerge from the ride actually cleaner than it had been going in.

Despite the rain, G-Dawg was wearing his usual dark glasses.

“Can you actually see anything through them in these conditions?” Crazy Legs wondered, before declaring, “You look like a blind man. In fact, you look like that feller from Peter’s and Lee.”

Ooph! Dangerous ground, but luckily, neither of us could remember any Peter’s and Lee songs, so we felt we dodged a bullet and avoided a very, very, unfortunate earworm.

But then, deep in the bowels of a depressing, dank, dark, multi-storey car park, G-Dawg started to mouth half-remembered words like some strange incantation and, hesitantly at first, those words joined up with a formless tune and a song began to unfold. Then with gathering force, as synapses clicked and sparked and the words came back to him in a rush, he started to royally serenade us:

I’m so alone, my love without you,
You’re part of everything I do,
When you come back, and you’re beside me,
These are the words I’ll say to you,

Then, a big intake of breath, before belting out …

Welcome home, welcome,
Come on in, and close the door …

Aagh! Now I remember that song, the kind of thing grannies and parents buy in their droves to keep it hanging around in the charts. My young life was blighted and my soul was scarred by this kind of thing. Peters and Bleedin’ Lee, Demis bleedin’ Roussos, Nana bleedin’ Mouskouri, Jennifer bleedin’ Rush and Tony bleedin’ Orlando and his bleedin’ Yellow Ribbon. Dark, dark days.

Luckily the earworm didn’t immediately take and we quickly scuttled off into the rain to put as much distance as possible between it and us.

As a (fairly) interesting aside before we go, Lennie Peters, aka Gary Hall, or Leonard George Sargent (but surprisingly never known as Lucky Lennie) was blinded in one eye in a car accident when he was five years old. He was blinded in his other eye when someone threw a brick at him when he was sixteen. Just be thankful for what you’ve got.


After a while the Garrulous Kid bolted away and disappeared up the road. I assume he’d finally realised that it was raining, quite heavily and he was heading home for a jacket. Or, perhaps he was intent on breaking his own record for the shortest club run ever. I then wondered if his mother would let him out again, or ground him in case he caught some nasty sniffles.

We briefly discussed taking a different route so he wouldn’t be able to find us when he tried to catch up. But only briefly.

Well, for just ten or fifteen minutes, anyway.

At one point I heard Taffy Steve asking Sage One how her training was going for the big ride…

And then we were at Relief Station#1, the cafe at Kirkley Cycles, where the Garrulous Kid, more sensibly attired in a rain jacket now, rejoined our small, select group.


Main topics of conversation at coffee stop#1:

I ordered an unfeasibly large scone with a mug of coffee and (as I would later learn) double-fisted my way to the table with my haul. The scone looked like it had been zapped with an incredible growth ray-gun, as it overhung the plate, piled up like a pale mole-hill. It was so big that, when I cut into it, the middle was still warm, although it had probably been out the oven for a good couple of hours. Fabulous. All that and I got change from a fiver too. I’ll come here again.

The in-house dog appeared to hoover up a few stray crumbs and stopped to give Sage One’s helmet a desultory lick in passing.

“The dog’s licking your helmet,” I informed her, but our infantile, schoolboy humour wasn’t quite as funny as when it was just the boys involved. Still, I had to try.

Speaking of the fairer sex, Crazy Legs confessed he was still traumatised after being on the Metro on Thursday night, when it was mobbed by an army of shrieking, cackling, guffawing, middle-aged wimmin’, recently disgorged from the Spice Girls concert at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. Heavily bladdered on an excess of Prosecco and spirits, raucous and bellowing out tuneless, badly remembered Spice Girls hits, interspersed with banter that would make even Roy Chubby Brown’s ears burn, the hordes of haridans were, by all accounts, a fearsome and intimidating sight.

Crazy Legs had stuck his ear buds in and tried to look as innocuous as possible as he slunk down into his seat, before abandoning the Metro at the earliest opportunity.

Sage One had been amongst the concert-goers, reliving her own past glories, but she too had been shocked by the behaviour on display and admitted the sight of far too many, far too-tight, Union Jack mini-dresses, over-spilling with bulging, pallid and wobbling flesh was, in her professional opinion, “just minging.”

Taffy Steve thought a contingent of these drunken Geordie wimmin’ should be immediately parachuted into Portugal, where he thought they’d sort out the England football hooligans in short order.

For my own torrid tale of public transport, I recalled a late night journey from a music festival in Loch Lomond to Glasgow, on a bus with a bunch of drunken Scotsmen who were so enraptured by a football game in which Italy had trounced England, they’d spent the entire journey gleefully singing:

“Y’ Italee, Y’Italee, Yooze hae ne’er been fooked, til yae’ve been fooked by Y’Italee …”

Like Crazy Legs, I’d spent uncomfortable moments slunk down in the seat, hoping to pass unnoticed.

The Garrulous Kid followed up with his own anecdote about a school bus trip. It wasn’t particularly amusing, but after hearing this, Crazy Legs sat back in astounded amazement, then reached across the table to shake the Garrulous Kid’s hand, before thanking him profusely.

“Thank you! Thank you!”

The Garrulous Kid took the profferred hand, but looked somewhat bemused.

“Eh? What?”

“Thank you,” Crazy Legs repeated, “That’s the first time you’ve ever told a story that’s been in any way related to what we’d actually been discussing. It makes a pleasant change to know you can follow the thread, rather than hurling something completely random into the conversation, such as the toilets on the Space Station are so good because they’re made by German engineers.”

Crazy Legs then noted my skinned knuckles and wondered if I’d been in a pub brawl. I had to admit to a rookie mistake, when changing the brake blocks on my single-speed, I’d run the rear wheel up to check the brakes weren’t catching, only to find the only thing catching was the back of my hand on the spinning tyre. It had only taken off the top layer of skin and I hadn’t even noticed until I washed up afterwards, but the wounds had scabbed over quite dramatically and the injuries looked much worse than they were.

Taffy Steve suggested bladed spokes were particularly lethal if you caught your fingers in them. I agreed, having once tried to adjust a rubbing mudguard while cycling up a steep hill and receiving a fearsome crack across my knuckles for my stupidity. I’m still amazed I managed not to fall off during that particular escapade.

With time moving on and a need to fit in another cafe stop, we decided to push on again, zipped up and braced ourselves for the worst, before leaving the warm, welcoming confines of the cafe for the rain outside.


OGL left our group to head directly to our second cafe rendezvous, while the remaining six set off for a loop around the Gubeon, to get a few more miles in.

Crazy Legs tried out a few Spice Girls songs, but it really wasn’t working for him. Half way round and I started to think I was hallucinating, as I was certain I heard the Garrulous Kid qualify one of his statements with the postscript, “well, in my opinion, anyway.”

Apparently not though, as G-Dawg picked up on it too. “You should try using that ‘in my opinion’ phrase more often,” he suggested, “It makes you sound less like an opinionated dick.”

“Perhaps, even try an ‘in my humble opinion’,” I added, even as I realised you had to walk before you can run, or, just be thankful for what you’ve got.

As we closed on coffee stop#2, Sage one was struggling and Crazy Legs encouraged us to push on while he dropped off the front to escort her.



A mile down the road and seemingly oblivious to this interaction, the Garrulous Kid finally noticed our sextet had become foursome and pondered if we should wait. Taffy Steve applauded his concern for others, but did point out that they’d been adrift for 15 minutes or so and he’d only just noticed.

We pressed on, there was a slight quickening of the pace and then we were rolling into the cafe for some temporary relief from the rain.


Main topics of conversation at coffee stop#2

Crazy Legs arrived and declared he was slightly moist, but glowing.

“Moist is a state of mind,” Taffy Steve growled and left it at that. No, I don’t know what he mean’t, either.

Cultural barriers and regional misunderstandings dominated our discussion. As a teacher in Canada, OGL said he got peculiar looks by encouraging his pupils to always carry rubbers, of course meaning erasers and not prophylactics. Meanwhile, Crazy Legs reported being subject to gales of laughter in New Zealand whenever he talked about a super-computer-router, three words that all rhymed in his mind, but not in theirs.

Our Antipodean friends would (incorrectly, of course) refer to a router as a rowter. To them, a rooter is something completely different, as evidenced by Taffy Steve’s relish in declaring, “let’s go root in the ute,” in a pronounced Strine twang.

According to Crazy Legs, being loaded up with two cocktails, one in each hand, or I guess a giant scone and mug of coffee, is known as double-fisting in parts of the States. Needless to say, but double-fisting is not a skill you should admit to in a British bar.

Or then again … maybe it is?

Taffy Steve was amused by the thought that in America, there was an overwhelming number of wankers, who did’t know what a wanker was. This he thought was ironic, which just added fuel to the fire as “they don’t do irony, either.”

Crazy Legs remembered that the Garrulous Kid claims dual citizenship of the American colonies, having been born in either Norf, or Sowf Carolina (I forget which.) He asked the Garrulous Kid how he thought he would fit in, if transplanted across the Atlantic.

Seamlessly and effortlessly, according to the Garrulous Kid, although I’m not sure the Americans would truly appreciate just how honoured they would be to have such a humble and self-effacing paragon in their midst.

When we thought we’d dallied long enough so G-Dawg wouldn’t get into trouble for arriving home to early, we set out into the deluge once again.


I’m fairly certain on the ride back I heard Crazy Legs asking Sage One how the training was going …

Meanwhile, we all agreed these miserable, wet days, perversely produced some of the most enjoyable rides. Then, in short order, I was following G-Dawg through the Mad Mile and swinging away for my trip home.

On the drag up past the golf course, with the rain still tapping impatient fingers on my helmet and water dripping off the end of my nose, I was a little startled by a loud burst of chimes that I finally recognised as a distorted, amped-up version of “Greensleeves.” I seemed to be in the presence of either the regions most optimistic, or most desperate ice-cream seller.

After crossing the bridge, I stopped for pee and was just re-mounting when a one arm cyclist whirred past, the left hand sleeve of his Way of the Roses jersey, completely empty and flapping in the wind. He asked if everything was ok, I assured him it was, so he kept going.

He was evidently heading the same way and I started tracking him, but kept getting delayed, first at a level crossing and then at some traffic lights. I finally caught up with him when it was his turn to be stopped, at the lights in Blaydon.

“Lovely day for a ride,” I offered by way of a greeting.

He was remarkably chipper and cheerful and just happy to be out on his bike, whatever the weather. We swapped ride info – he’d just ridden out to Corbridge and back, a solid 40-miles plus.

I waved him away and slid past, but I was held up at the next roundabout. He timed his arrival to coincide perfectly with a gap in the traffic and sailed past me, as I pushed off from a standing start and tried to clip in again. I then trailed him up the first part of the Heinous Hill, until he took a sharp left and, with a cheery goodbye, dropped down to Pedalling Squares, the cycling cafe, for some much deserved cake and coffee. (I assume).

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to ride with just one arm: balance issues, braking and changing gear, unable to climb out of the saddle, unable to signal to traffic and the burning question I might have had the courage to ask if we’d ridden further together – how the hell do you cope with a puncture?

Just be thankful for what you’ve got, eh?

I pushed on to the top of the hill to end a short, but enjoyable ride. Despite the weather … or, just maybe, because of it.

Right, I’m away next week for a short holiday, hopefully the weather can raise its game for when I get back … but I’m not holding my breath.


YTD Totals: 3,785 km / 2,352 miles with 47,875 metres of climbing