As threatened, my work colleague Mr. T has kindly agreed to chronicle his pursuit of something estimable, novel and worthwhile – the restoration of Citroën H van back from a wreck to full working glory.
The ultimate plan is to not only enjoy this unique piece of motoring and cycling history, but to have it grace cycling events, or serve as a support vehicle for riders and racers. In this role it will bring a note of the exotic – unique and redolent with associations to the Tour de France of the 1970’s and legends such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Thévenet, Freddy Maertens and Bernard Hinault.
Seemingly inspired by the inane ramblings of Sur La Jante, or possibly just to show how easy good blogging actually is, Mr. T has agreed to file episodic, irregular reports outlining the pursuit of his dreams and his experiences wrestling with his own inner demons, dwindling bank balance, better judgement and the vicissitudes of dealing with the Great British Craftsman™.
So, without further adieu (as an old boss of mine is fond of misquoting) here is his tale.
[PS: I can’t decide yet if this is a salutary warning to those with grand ambitions, or a tale of heroic fortitude, perseverance and inspiration. Perhaps, once we know the (still unwritten) ending, it will all become much clearer.] SLJ 09/04/2017.
The Man with the Van and the Plan (well … sort of)
A Guest Blog presented by Mr. T
My ride: (according to my fallible memory and rather poorly kept diary)
Total distance: Not sure, but I know we’re not there yet
Ride time: 1 year, 9 months, 4 days and 8 hours and counting
Average Speed: 0 km/h. Unless you count how quick my bank balance has shrunk
Group size: 7
Temperature: Temperate. So far.
Weather in a word or two: Turbulent – but with a bright outlook?
It started as most stories do on this sorry excuse for a blog, on a random morning one weekend. It wasn’t planned. It was completely spontaneous. You know, David Hockney once suggested you have to plan to be spontaneous. Well, sorry David, but your wrong … and you’ve never been more wrong.
So anyway, there I was, a Saturday or Sunday morning, relaxed, sipping a fine coffee and fully enrapt in Cycling Weekly and only very occasionally wondering where my club run was heading today and what I might be missing.
MGL (My Glorious Leader or My Good Lady – she who must be obeyed, or Mrs. T if you like) was quietly passing the time in companionable silence, flicking through fleaBay, apparently just for want of something better to do.
“There’s a van here, the type you like. It’s in Newcastle.”
Fully engrossed in an article about the rolling resistance associated with different tyre widths, I gave a Mr Delaney-type, distracted response, “Huh?”
MGL continued: “It says here it was used in the Tour de France”.
And that’s how this ride started…
fleaBay did indeed show a Citroën H van dating from 1973 and the copy did claim links to the Tour de France. After discussion with MGL about the benefits (I know … seriously?) owning such a van might bestow and what we might do with it, I was given permission to contact the vendor and organise a viewing.
The vendor, the BMX Bandit, gave the all clear and so I arranged to pop round one day after work. It was a cycle commute day, so it not only added a few welcome miles to my (paltry, by all accounts: SLJ) Strava totals, but seemed appropriate too.
Somewhat fittingly, given its poor overall state of health, the van was parked up in the BMX Bandits front garden within sight of the local hospital. It looked strangely alien and out of place next to the neighbours fine collection of eclectic garden ornaments, but the BMX Bandit had an almost identical H van that showed what could be achieved.
Look, I say the vans were almost identical, but only in the same way those before and after pictures in women’s magazines claim to show the same person. One was beautifully and painstakingly restored, taxed and tested, white and gleaming and in full working order.
The other … well, the other, the van I’d come to see, looked like it needed a heart op or maybe even a full transplant. So, noting the need for what I euphemistically deemed some “engine work” I had a look around, not that I knew what I was looking for, but I took plenty of photos anyway to share with MGL on my return to base.
This van definitely need some TLC and I’m useless at mechanicals as anyone in the bike club will tell you. So if we were going to take this on then it wouldn’t be me. Aha! What about Enzo? Our friend Enzo had rebuilt an historic Italian small car for us. He might fancy a challenge.
Before any excitement with fleaBay, a quick call to Enzo was required. The response was a little disappointing, “Merde!”said Enzo, “I don’t do French …”
“But … I know a man who might.”
It transpired that Enzo, the man who did Italian, but didn’t do French, knew a man, Herman Vee-Dubs, who did German and might do French. This maybe has to be one of the great unwritten benefits of closer European integration!
I left it with Enzo to put a call into Herman, who “normally did German but might do French” – if only for the novelty of attempting something different. Enzo knew we had a time limit and the clock was ticking.
Good news came through while I was out for an evening leg spin with Toposan. Herman, it seemed was was up for the challenge.
But, later that week we were outbid on fleaBay.
By an American.
To be continued...
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Total Distance: 102 km/63 miles with 754 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 18 minutes
Average Speed: 23.6 km/h
Group size: 26 riders, 1 FNG
Weather in a word or two: Damp
While last week’s weather watch always showed a picture that was unremittingly bleak and rain-swept, this Saturday’s forecast was for grey, cloudy and overcast skies, but revealed not the slightest hint of a shower. It was disappointing then to wake to the sound of rain ticking heavily on the windows. Hmm, that wasn’t in the plans.
Luckily, by the time I’d dressed, had breakfast and assembled all the usual crap I cart around with me, the rain was easing and by the time I reached the meeting point it had all but cleared away. Maybe a soaking like last weekend wasn’t on the cards after all?
Main topics of discussion at the start
The limping BFG was firmly ensconced at the meeting point when I arrived, astride what he described as his Frankenbike, made from lots of spare and cast-off parts he’d found “just lying around.” Ooph! His idea of a Frankenbike is substantially better appointed than my best bike and far, far too good for a winter “hack.” I did however question his oddly squared off, Prologo Nago saddle which had “nack” stencilled on the rails and I hoped this wouldn’t prove prophetic.
OGL was even more demanding, wanting to know what make of chain he had fitted and railing about mixing Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano components. Sacrilegious, apparently, although he did admit it does usually work.
The attention-seeking, BFG then tried to insist he was actually a camera-shy, retiring sort of individual and as supporting evidence cited the fact that he’d only stuck a camera on his bike once. He’d then managed to spear his head on an errant branch and crashed horribly, captured for all the world to see in full technicolour glory.
This, he suggested, was all the proof needed to confirm his shy and reclusive nature, as he blamed the crash on being pressured into performing for the camera, it had felt unnatural, he’d tensed up and then it all went horribly wrong. A very sound and compelling argument I feel. Especially if made by someone who doesn’t have a record of errant riding and occasional accidents …
Meanwhile, after all the time, effort and money Rab Dee invested into his BMC Time Machine, it had proved far too refined for the hurly-burly of club runs and the ravaged and parlous state of the local roads. He’d cut his losses, stripped and sold the frame and taken on-board (with far less aggravation and delay in getting it roadworthy) a Cannondale Evo instead.
Following on from last week’s discussions about G-Dawg’s OCD tendencies and how he would be unable to exist in the same house as a dirty and neglected bike, Taffy Steve hatched a cunning plan to utilise him as some kind of cycling-focussed, surrogate Rumpelstiltskin, if you can imagine such a thing. This scheme involved finding a bike in a poor state of repair, smuggling it into G-Dawg’s house and returning the next morning, when it would undoubtedly be magically restored to its full pristine glory.
It seemed a workable plan, after all this is a man who buffs his chain to a mirror shine, managed to retain spotless white bar tape for over a year of hard riding, gets nostalgic about the smell of Duraglit and bemoans the trend towards black spokes that “you can’t really polish” (although I’m sure he still tries.)
I suspected this wasn’t a good week to trial the scheme however, as both G-Dawg and Son of G-Dawg were still on their “best” summer bikes and I suspect they would have their work cut out cleaning those after today’s ride.
Zeb arrived on what was truly a Frankenbike, in a fugly shade of flat, paint-primer in battleship grey. True to his upbringing and in the spirit of cobbled-together, gimcrack solutions loved by the Prof, he’d substituted a missing stay on an antique set of aluminium mudguards, with one taken from a set of plastic Race Blades. I can’t decide if this type of innovation is clever or parsimonious – perhaps though he’s taking his newly acquired persona of poor, penniless student just a little too far?
Meanwhile, seemingly just to rub his nose in it, his sparring partner for the day, Jimmy Cornfeed was luxuriating in the double-protection provided by both full length mudguards and an ass-saver. I know we had really bad weather last week, but this still seemed like overkill.
Taffy Steve declared that the “time sponsored by Garmin” was ripe for our departure and in the absence of Crazy Legs invited me to lead out with him. We wove our way through the aimlessly milling crowd of cyclists to the kerb, pushed off, clipped in and were off for another frolicking and fun-filled ride.
After a bit of slow pedalling and waiting to regroup, we finally formed up and beZ and Jimmy Cornfeed took up the front and led us through the suburbs and out onto the open roads. Riding behind beZ I couldn’t help noticing that his jerry-rigged mudguard was swaying extravagantly from side-to-side like a drunken, snake-charmed cobra, while his saddle-bag did a particularly deft impersonation of a sagely nodding dog. Between the two objects moving in odd, contradictory patterns I began to feel a rising sense of motion sickness, so I was immeasurably pleased when the pair relinquished the front as we turned off for the Cheese Farm.
At the head of the group and rolling around a corner beside Taffy Steve, we startled a young deer that was obviously picking its way across the road and had almost made it to the other side. It panicked and spun around to backtrack, the hooves skittering and sliding across the slimy tarmac as it sought to find a purchase. It reached the edge of the road, found some traction and sprang away through the hedge. Gone in an instant. With a flash of white scut.
As we started to pull the group up Bell’s Hill we were closing in on one of the Prof’s preferred peeing-places and predictably the call came up that his infinitesimally small and weak bladder had already started nagging him and we should stop.
At the junction on the crest of the climb though, two toffs* stood astride horses, calling urgently down to me, “I say, cycling-chappies, which way are you going?”
I indicated we’d be swinging to the left and they began to back their rather skittish mounts up the opposite lane and away from our route. One of the horses was still panicked by the bikes and spun in a full 360 with a clatter of hooves as the rider fought to regain control. This was all the encouragement we needed to petition for a postponement to the Prof’s preferred pee-stop until we were presented a place less perilous and populated.
(*I always assume horsey people out in the countryside are toffs, which I know is possibly probably a horribly clichéd stereotype on my part. Guilty as charged M’Lud.)
Around the corner and well out of sight of our excitable equine friends, we finally pulled over for the Prof’s postponed pee. Someone queried why we hadn’t stopped in our usual place and a straight-faced Taffy Steve declared that we didn’t want to give the horse’s a sense of inadequacy when the Prof unleashed his, err… prodigiously proportioned pointer.
With the perfect timing of a natural-born comedian, beZ then swung past and announced he’d be calling in to the Prof’s later that day as he needed to “borrow the hose” – the cue for an eruption of much schoolboy sniggering and snorting.
During this enforced stop one of the Monkey Butler Boy’s contemporaries, the Garrulous Kid looked at my frame and declared, “I never knew Peugeot made bikes.”
For a moment I was utterly and completely speechless – or gobsmacked in footballer parlance. I can sorta-maybe-kind-of get that kids today may never have heard of Holdsworth, they were in the grand scheme of things a largely domestic, perhaps arguably provincial team on distinctly British bikes. But Peugeot? A behemoth amongst elite professional teams, steeped in the heritage of our sport and home to some of the greatest riders of the past?
Peugeot were recently calculated to be the most successful cycling team of all time by the website cycleranking.com and their roll-call of riders included Charly Gaul, a young King Ted, Bernard Thévenet, Tom Simpson, Robert Millar, Steven Roche, Sean Yates and Phil Anderson among others.
Even if they don’t relate the name to actual bikes, surely everyone knows the iconic white jersey with the black, chequerboard band of the Peugeot team? Does cycling for some people really start with Bradley Wiggins or Lance Armstrong? What a thoroughly depressing thought.
Relieved of duties on the front, Taffy Steve and I drifted back through the pack where we found Richard of Flanders, another rider who’d eschewed his winter-bike for one last blast on his high-priced carbon velocipede. Unfortunately, the lack of guards on his best-bike had given him an unsightly smear of dripping, congealed sludge between his buttocks and I suggested he looked like he’d “done a LeMond” and queried if he was all right.
If possible the roads seemed even more filthy than they’d been last week, which in itself was “a three bucket day” in terms of bike cleaning and no one seemed to have escaped the mud spatters and general road grime. As we rode through a long stretch of mud-caked track our wheels picked up and casually flung a cold shower of filthy water up and over everyone and I heard a plaintive cry of, “Me gansys aal clarty!” from OGL – or in rough translation from the idiomatic Geordie: “What-o chaps, my jersey is becoming somewhat mud-speckled.”
We split just before the clamber up to Dyke Neuk then worked our way through Angerton. With the group splintered and scattered on the final climb past Bolam Lake, Zardoz eased himself slowly to up to the front and waited a heartbeat. I could almost imagine him cackling loudly and rubbing his hands with glee as he then put the hammer down and we were strung out and hurtling toward the café. Again.
I was surfing the wheels, staying just back off the front group when we hurtled down into Milestone Woods, only to encounter a horse and rider blithely trotting along the verge. Brakes were forcefully applied and our momentum bled quickly away as we negotiated this unexpected impediment. Then safely around it, we hit the rollers with no time to build the speed back up and a few struggling trying to turn too big a gear.
I chased after the lead bunch, pulling the FNG with me as we rode down and passed a few of this groups cast-offs, including Zardoz who I caught just before the road tipped over for the winding descent to the last uphill scramble.
Around the last bend, the FNG sailed past on my outside with the distinctive, ticking thrum of slight chain rub, but his timing was poor and I caught and passed him on the final ramps as he faded and I closed, but couldn’t quite catch Goose ahead of me.
Bundling into the café we were again forced to haul on the brakes, not by a horse this time, but by the new till system that the staff were still struggling with. This time though they’d placed a big sign on the counter warning that service could be slow, while they tried to work out which buttons to press and paused occasionally to curse out the management who’d imposed the new system on them.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop
The Garrulous Kid arrived with a huge slice of cake he declared was Victoria Sponge, but sadly still no Spear & Jackson miniature cake spade to eat it with.
In between bites, he mentioned his school was awash with pupils who’d been saddled with truly preposterous names. None of the examples he gave were particularly startling or outlandish in the greater scheme of things, but we did wonder why parents burdened their kids with names that pegged them to a specific era, tied them to some ropey, cheesy, feckless celebrity or trashy TV show and so cruelly betrayed their worst chavvy, trailer-trash tendencies.
Taffy Steve declared his simple rule of thumb – to be applied equally to both girl and pet names – if it sounds like you’re calling for a stripper, then you might need a re-think – so no more Roxy, Bambi, Cheyenne, Crystal, Jewel, Kyla, Britney, Lacey, Lexi or Destiny.
His particular ire was drawn to “unusual” or “exotic” (i.e. dumbed down, awkward and simply bad) spellings of well-known names, a disdain he seemed to share with Mrs. Taffy Steve who he applauded for one epic put-down of a new pupil:
“But Miss, my name’s Chelsea. Spelt with a Y”
“Yes, well I can’t be accountable for your parents’ illiteracy.”
The Natty Gnat declared we needed to take control of this and called for government intervention. We all agreed that there should be a list of sanctioned names and approved spellings that everyone had to conform to when registering births. Failure to do so should result in a slap around the head, the admonishment not to be so bloody stupid and instructions to go away and try again.
We say: no more stupid celebrity names – no more Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches, Apple, Sage Moonblood or Reignbeu, no more Buddy Bear, no more Crux, no more Rumor.
We say: no more calling kids after places – no more London, Tokyo, India, Dallas, Manhattan, Chardonnay or Scunthorpe.
We say: no more dumbed down spellings – no more Chelsy or Raychul or Britni or Kortny.
You know we used to joke about giving kids stupid names – I always thought Debbie Dobbie or Robbie Dobbie would be a great idea … but it was only a joke.
I also used to work with a Maltese bloke call Bob Cardona, who said he wanted to call his son Barclay … but it was only a joke.
Or a boy at school called Nigel Long who wanted to call his son Ob … but it was only a joke.
So Kanye West, what flash of comedic brilliance encouraged you to call your kid North. Is it still funny? Will he be laughing in 10 years’ time? He has to carry that name for the rest of his life.
And Rob Morrow – I loved Northern Exposure, but then you had to go and call your daughter Tu. Tu Morrow. Ha-frickin’-ha.
(A special mention must go to a bloke that both Crazy Legs and Mrs. Sur La Jante knew through work – yes indeed, step forward Mr. Robert Sherunkel, or Bob as he was more commonly known. I don’t think he works with them anymore, perhaps he finally snapped and has been locked up for parricide.)
Other countries have taken a stand against this in-bred stupidity and I applaud them: in Italy, a jury prevented a couple from calling their kid Friday as they thought the name would expose him to mockery, while in Norway a woman was for jailed for two days for naming her child Bridge. Now that’s a result.
So come on, no more Zhaden, no more Zyler or Skyler, no more Jakasta or Chayse or Chelsie or Cortnee or Kade. Please, think of the kids.
[By the way, Government research suggests pupils’ names are linked to differing success rates in exams, while a study found that psychiatric patients with more unusual names tended to be more disturbed.]
We had a brief discussion about unsavoury places to ride your bike – the kind of places you pray you don’t puncture or get stopped at the lights. Taffy Steve reflected that the number of big bore exhausts on annoyingly noisy, badly-driven small cars was a good warning indicator – the higher the number, the less you should be looking to linger. The proportion of gardens decorated by trampolines was another ready-reckoner, although he felt you could probably discount those with safety netting.
Talking about all the less than salubrious places we’d been, the Natty Gnat trumped us by claiming to have once lived in Middlesbrough and survived to tell the tale.
I wondered if anyone remotely famous had ever come from Middlesbrough, other than Paul Daniels of course and Taffy Steve was going to suggest Ridley Scott, before correcting himself when he remembered the film director was actually from South Shields.
With names being the topic du jour I suggested that perhaps nothing was quite so strange as a Belgium bicycle manufacturer naming themselves after a film director born on Tyneside and with no known affiliations or connections to cycling. Apparently Ridley CEO, Jochim Aerts named his bike company after film director Ridley Scott because it sounded right and added an international tone.
This led the Garrulous Kid to declare that at least Belgium had a great football team, a statement which brought a Cheshire Cat smile a mile wide to the face of our exiled Welshman, Taffy Steve.
Astonishingly and for perhaps the first time ever our route through the lanes past Kirkley Mill was completely empty of cars and we didn’t have anyone driving aggressively toward us, flashing their lights or leaning on their horns. G-Dawg suggested all the rat-running routes on the Sat-Navs must be turned off for the day.
We were leading as we began to pace the group up Berwick Hill, managing to keep the pace steady even as the gradient rose. “Any minute now.” G-Dawg suggested and began to countdown.
“Easy!” the shout came up from OGL, bang on cue.
“Ah, timing” I suggested, “The secret of good comedy.”
Well, with the Red Max away on holiday, someone had to step up and be shouted at.
This proved to be the last bit of excitement for the day and the ride home was smooth and uneventful.
YTD Totals: 5,774 km / 3,588 miles with 56,883 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 116 km / 72 miles with 1,097 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 57 minutes
Average Speed: 23.4 km/h
Group size: 26 riders, 2 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Cool, grey and damp. Again.
Main topic of conversation at the start:
I arrived at the meeting point to find Crazy Legs sitting on wall with a furrowed brow, 1,000-yard stare and slightly pensive air, seemingly lost in esoteric thought and obviously wrestling with one of life’s great and challenging conundrums. When pressed he admitted to be contemplating the life of hermit crabs and in particular their “house chain” – far worse than even the most protracted suburban one – as they queued up in size order, hoping and waiting for the biggest to find a new home before they all quickly swapped shells while keeping a wary eye out for opportune predators.
Meanwhile his much beloved and cossetted Ribble sat leaning nonchalantly against the wall, seemingly unconcerned that it was likely to encounter atmospheric precipitation for the first time in its life. Sources suggest Crazy Legs is coveting a brand new Bianchi, but cannot justify it if his “good” bike remains in pristine, good as new condition, so he’s now decided to ride it come what may.
The Prof rolled up on the Frankenbike, sporting bright orange gloves and a matching water bottle, which he instantly started to moan about because, although it met his most specific criteria for product selection – i.e. it was free, the walls were incredibly thin and femmer.
Crazy Legs wondered if it was one of those biodegradable ones, then answered his own musings by declaring it probably wasn’t and anyway he’d been using a biodegradable bottle for 5 years now and it was still going strong. We suggested this was very daring as the longer he used it the more likely it was to suddenly disintegrate and flood his bottom bracket with Ribena. Maybe that’s what he’s secretly hoping for so he can declare the Ribble a right-off and buy a new bike?
There was then a very strange (even by our standards) conversation about whether all-out thermonuclear war would speed up the biodegradation process, or whether AG2R bottles would still litter the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a lasting testament to the fact that pale blue and brown just don’t mix. Ever erudite, the Prof capped this morbid thought by stating that everything in existence was biodegradable – if you just waited long enough.
Sneaky Pete arrived sans Taffy Steve, even though they’d started to ride in from the coast together. Apparently he’d hung around the meeting point just long enough to not feel guilty before sneaking off, but was now a bit concerned by his companion’s non-appearance. He was just whipping out his phone to make a quick call when Taffy Steve rolled up, hale and hearty, but having been delayed by what the Eurosport commentators like to refer to as a natural break.
Szell was next to appear and, although I didn’t notice at the time, he’d traded in his old Trek for a new bike, the exact double of Taffy Steve’s titanium love-child. With a disarming (or perhaps highly calculated) lack of empathy he would later explain in a loud voice to all and sundry that he’d looked at Taffy Steve’s mount and decided that titanium was the material of choice “for a fat lads’ bike.” Ouch.
This was upsetting to Taffy Steve on a number of fronts, but mainly because Szell’s old Trek had been purchased second-hand from OGL and OGL had complained long, hard and very bitterly every time Szell dared adjust his “perfect” set-up, or considered replacing any of its parts. Taffy Steve had been in the process of organising a collection where everyone contributed to buying new parts for the Trek, just so he could watch OGL’s head explode in apoplexy, but he’d now missed the opportunity.
Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop:
Even though I was before him in the queue and it’s usually a very strict “we only serve one person at a time” type procedure, the waitress insisted on getting both my and Taffy Steve’s orders at the same time. Pretty much dismissing me and fluttering her eyelashes at him, she paused only long enough to confirm she had correctly remembered his regular order:
“So that’ll be a mug of coffee?”
“And toasted teacake.”
“And one of those tray bakes?”
“A glass of water?”
“And do you want ice in that?”
“Well, if it’s not too much bother, yes please.”
Bloody hell! When they started giggling about how he could have told her the price before she rang it into the till I began to feel like an awkward and uncomfortable interloper and for just an instant I thought I’d been completely overlooked and might even get away without paying. No such luck.
At the table we sat with Pierre Rolland look-alike Spry and we had a chat about his latest blog entry – a real labour of love where he’s tried to rank and quantify how exciting each Grand Tour has been using a considered, exhaustive (and no doubt exhausting) series of objective and measurable factors. It’s more interesting than I’ve made it sound and well worth a read.
Taffy Steve disappeared for coffee refills, taking Andeven’s cappuccino mug with him. You’re not supposed to get free refills on the posh coffee, which is why the mugs are a completely different shape and style, but sure enough he returned with all the mugs brimming having had to endure only a slight and playful admonishment. I simply can’t imagine how much eyelash fluttering went on to secure that concession.
This led to the assertion that the coffee available to cyclists at Box Hill was “even more expensive than the Blacksmith’s in Belsay” and didn’t even come in proper mugs, but cheap and nasty plastic cups. I don’t even think they’re biodegradable.
Saturday morning and the weather was almost an exact reprise of last week, cold, grey and decidedly damp around the fringes, chilly enough early on to again need the rain jacket for my trip to the meeting point.
Making my way out to the river crossing I was joined by a fellow cyclist from the Sunderland Clarion, who was even more out of his way than I was. We had a brief chat and he complimented me on the obvious effort that had gone into my co-ordinated look (there’s that word again) before admitting that it probably appealed to him because he was “a bit OCD anyway!”
I was at the meeting point with plenty of time to spare and was eventually joined by 26 lads and lasses, including a couple of FNG’s who’d actually been sticking around for a couple of weeks, but hadn’t quite lost FNG status yet.
Quarter past nine came and went with no indication that we were going to be starting anytime soon. Crazy Legs was just about to suggest we rolled out, when OGL started to move from where he was holding court and we all prepared for the off. We were to be disappointed however, he was just switching position so he could have a chat with Mad Colin and as their conversation grew in intensity it looked like we weren’t going anywhere soon.
After a round of polite coughing and watch-tapping failed to have any effect, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg started clipping in and out very noisily and ostentatiously. The fusillade of cleats on pedals sounded like a drive-by shooting in Compton and OGL finally took the hint and we were off.
I dropped towards the back of the group where I found Big Dunc and we had a chat about the Dauphine and Chris Froome’s attack to win Stage 5 to Vaujany. We agreed it was hugely impressive, but unfortunately he still looks far too ungainly and awkward on a bike, all sharply jutting limbs and staccato movements, like a preying mantis trying to charge through treacle.
It’s almost as funnily-embarrassing as watching pure climbers sprint, as evidenced by Ilnur Zakarin’s recent relegation during the Tour de Romandie and so perfectly highlighted by Bardet and Pinot’s wobbly fight for the line on Stage 6 of the Dauphine.
I think OGL has started to take note of low-key grumblings about riding the same routes week in and week out as, for a bit of a change we soon found ourselves swooping down into the Tyne Valley, although the long, looping descent was rather spoiled by too many cars travelling much too slowly and getting in our way.
As we levelled out along the valley floor, Sneaky Pete was already starting to worry about the climb out the other side again and wondered if there was a way this could be magically avoided. I suggested a cable-car solely for cyclists, or perhaps a funicular railway which would not only meet the needs of weak-legged local cyclists, but could be a tourist attraction in its own right.
We were enjoying the quiet ride along the banks of the Tyne, the water off to our left looking glassy and eerily placid and expected this to continue along the closed river road we’d taken a few weeks back when G-Dawg was leading. OGL had other ideas however and we were soon climbing out of the valley again to reach the imposing barrier of the A69 – four busy lanes of thundering, high speed traffic we had to find some way across. Oh great, real-life Frogger.
Our ill-considered route led us onto a footpath that petered out after a few metres, forcing everyone down a steep kerb to pick our way along the narrowest of hard shoulders where we were barely separated from the traffic that whistled past, oblivious to our presence and dangerously close.
A couple of hundred metres further on we were able to find a crossing point and finally in ones and twos, we were able to dash across the road in the short gaps between the hurtling lumps of steel.
We resumed climbing up the other side, finally escaping the valley and reaching recognisable, more travelled roads. We split the group at this point, with the faster, longer, harder group climbing up the village of Ryal via the back roads and avoiding the infamous Ryals climb we’re all looking forward to tackling on the Cyclone next week.
At the crossroads in the village we regrouped and waited for Mad Colin to appear after apparently puncturing on the ascent. Taffy Steve took this opportunity to force more air into his own rear tyre which was becoming noticeably squishy, hoping that this was only because the valve had been partially open and not the consequence of a slow puncture.
We set off again and dropped down the hill, swung a sharp left and began the approach to the Quarry Climb. Positioning himself for a heroic, climbing action-shot, Taffy Steve noticed my on-board camera was pointing downward at an odd angle. As the quickly appointed Key Grip of SLJ Film and Photography Productions LLC, he gave me directions as I tried fiddling with the camera, only to find the mount had worked itself loose and it was sliding about on the saddle rails.
Taffy Steve rode alongside to lend a hand with a bit of camera jiggling of his own, even as the pace increased, the road started to rise and we closed rapidly on the Quarry Climb. We had everything lined up as good as it was going to be as we hit the steepest ramp and I stood on the pedals and began to accelerate upwards, only to hear the tell-tale tinkling noise of one of the bolts on the camera mount finally working free to bounce off my frame and down to the road.
I was hoping everything would hold together long enough to crest the rise, but it wasn’t to be and upward progress was aborted as the camera jettisoned itself and clattered away. I reached the top and rolled back down to retrieve it, stuffing it unceremoniously into a back pocket before climbing back up the hill.
The others had pressed on, but Taffy Steve was waiting and we tried to re-join the main group who were in full flight, the smell of cake and coffee spurring their efforts on. We gave futile chase for a while, until Taffy Steve sat up, his tyre once again losing air and his rear wheel starting to rumble sur la jante.
We pulled over and after much searching finally located a tiny puncture in the tyre carcase where the air was slowly bubbling through. We were both convinced the hole was just a few inches past the valve and as Taffy Steve stripped out the inner tube we started looking for the damage on the inner surface of the tyre to check there wasn’t a thorn or some other piece of nastiness still lurking there mischievously.
Try as we might we couldn’t locate the hole, despite working backwards and forwards either side of the valve. In a fit of desperation Taffy Steve inflated the tube again and began a painstaking search across its entire surface area. Nothing.
I was beginning to think we were both going mad when he forced yet more air into the tube and finally was able to hear the tell-tale whisper of escaping air and locate the infinitesimally small nick in the rubber – almost exactly opposite the valve and as far away from the area we’d been concentrating our searches on as you could possibly get. Idiots.
Taffy Steve made certain the tyre was clean and clear and swapped the tube out. A few blows from his mighty frame pump and we were back underway and heading for much deserved coffee and cake.
We were pretty much the last to arrive and fittingly the last to leave, long behind everyone else – although we did pick up Sneaky Pete for the return leg home.
For some reason the trip back was punctuated by a discussion about Evel Knieval, the American stunt motor-cyclist, infamous for multiple crashes, broken bones and threatening to jump the Grand Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. He was quite a big deal when I was growing up and garnered a lot of attention with his fancy-dan white leather cat-suit, like a poor man’s Elvis.
It didn’t take a massive leap of imagination to wonder if Eddy Merckx and cycling in general hadn’t missed a publicity trick – with his dark quiff and sideburns, King Ted would have made a suitably convincing “Belgian Elvis”. I can easily picture him in a white leather cat-suit bedecked with rhinestones and a long flowing cravat streaming out over his shoulder as he pedalled along singing Hound Dog. Uh-huh, thank-you-very-much.
There was only time for me to giggle childishly when Taffy Steve asked Sneaky Pete if he wanted to be taken up the dirt alley (he politely declined) and we were onto and then through the Mad Mile and I was spinning off to make my own way home. Another decent ride in the bag and just long enough to have my yearly total ticking over to 2,000 miles.
YTD Totals: 3,219 km / 2,000 miles with 31,142 metres of climbing
So, there I was, awkwardly adrift in the cultural hellhole that was the early ‘70’s on Tyneside and entranced by an exotic sport held mainly in distant countries and with no media support to fuel a burgeoning fascination. In a time long before even World of Sport began their token showing of less than 1% of the world’s greatest, most gruelling, sporting extravaganza, the Tour de France, options for following races were as limited as your chances of buying a white Model T Ford.
The only Tour updates in those days were an occasional list of stage winners and, if we were very lucky, an updated top 10 GC, all hidden within the dreaded “Other Results” buried in the back pages of the Sports section of daily newspapers and usually secreted under all the football stuff that had already been reported elsewhere.
The cycling results were so small and so barely legible that they would have given actual small-print a bad name, and corporate lawyers a hard-on that could last for weeks.
Beyond these barest, most perfunctory of details, we restlessly devoured stage reports in Cycling (this was so long ago that it was even before the profound and dynamic name change to “Cycling Weekly”) to try and get a feel for the drama and the ebb and flow of the ongoing battle, but what came through was a generally disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.
For the young cycling neophyte the biggest treasures were a series of books published by the Kennedy Brothers following the narrative of each Grand Tour, imaginatively titled “Tour ’77” or “Giro ‘73” (you get the picture).
Although published weeks after the publicity caravans had packed away their tat and as the gladiatorial names garishly graffiti’d on the roads slowly began to fade, these books told a compelling narrative of the race, from the first to last pedal stroke, replete with some stunning high quality photos.
Opening the crackling white pages you could inhale deeply and almost catch a faint whiff of the sunflowers, Orangina and embrocation, as you were instantly transported to the side of the road to watch the peloton whirring by.
It’s in one of these Tour books that I first stumbled across a full-page photo of a boyish, fresh-faced young man, posed with some faceless fat functionary to receive a completely bizarre gazelle-head plaque. This may have been a prize for winning a stage, or the mountains classification, having the most doe –like eyes in the peloton, successfully passing through puberty, or something like that.
What struck me most though was that this hardened, elite, professional athlete didn’t look all that different from me – he wasn’t all that tall, very slight of build and looked so young – creating the impression of an instant underdog.
I would also later learned that under the jauntily perched cap was a head that would be subjected to some criminally bad hair moments too – instant empathy, although I never sank quite as low as having a perm.
It was hard to believe this rider was capable of comfortably mixing it up with the big, surly men of the peloton, with their hulking frames, chiselled legs, granite faces and full effusions of facial hair. Not only that, but when the road bent upwards he would fly and leave everyone grovelling helplessly in his wake.
The young man is Lucien Van Impe and the accompanying chapter of the book is titled Van Impudence, and relates in detail how he defied the hulking brutes of the peloton and their supreme leader King Ted, to wreak his own brand of cycling havoc in the mountains.
It was here that began my long-standing love affair with the grimpeurs, the pure climbers of the cycling world, those who want to defy gravity and try to prove Newton was a dunce.
Watch any YouTube videos of the time and you’ll see the big men of the Tour grinding horribly uphill, their whole bodies contorted as they attempt to turn over massive gears and physically wrestle the slopes into submission.
Merckx, indisputably the greatest cyclist of all time is probably the worst offender, and looks like he’s trying to re-align his top tube by brute strength alone, while simultaneously starring in a slow-motion film of someone enduring a course of severe electro-shock therapy.
Then look at Van Impe, at the cadence he’s riding at, the effortless style and how he flows up the gradients. Woah.
His one-time Directeur Sportif, and by no means his greatest fan, Cyrille Guimard would say, “You had to see him on a bike when the road started to rise. It was marvellous to see, he was royally efficient. He had everything: the physique, fluidity, an easy and powerful pedalling style.”
In his book, Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins writes that, “Van Impe’s style is effortless and majestic. Watching him, one can’t help but think that riding up mountains is the easiest thing in the world. His is no heavy-footed stomp, but an Astaire-like glide.”
Many cycling fans prefer the rouleurs and barradeurs, the big framed, hard-men, the grinders who churn massive gears with their endless, merciless attacks, dare-devil descending and never-say-die attitudes.
Others seem to like the controllers who grind their way to victory, eating up and spitting out mile after mile of road at a relentless, contained pace, regardless of whether they’re riding a time-trial, a mountain stage or across a pan flat parcours.
For me though pure poetry lies in those slight, mercurial riders, who would suddenly be transformed – given wings and the ability to dance away from the opposition when the road tilts unremittingly skyward.
Even more appealing, they’re all just a little skewed and a bit flaky, wired a little bit differently to everyone else or, as one of my friends would say, “as daft as a ship’s cat”. The best can even be a little bit useless and almost a liability when the roads are flat, or heaven forbid dip down through long, technical descents.
The power of the Internet and YouTube in particular has even let me rediscover some of the great climbers from before my time, the idols who inspired Van Impe, such as Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.
This pair, the “Angel of the Mountains” and “Eagle of Toldeo” respectively, both had that little bit of extra “climber flakiness” to set them apart. Bahamontes was terrified of descending on his own and was known to sit and eat ice-cream at the top of mountains while waiting for other riders so he had company on the way down.
Gaul’s demons were a little darker, once threatening to knife Bobet for a perceived slight and for a long period in his later life he became a recluse, living in a shack in the woods and wearing the same clothes day after day.
As Jacques Goddet, the Tour de France director observed, Van Impe also had “a touch of devilry that contained a strong dose of tactical intelligence” and was referred to as “l’ouistiti des cimes” – the oddball of the summits in certain sections of the French press.
Goddet went on to describe the climber as possessing “angelic features, always smiling, always amiable,” and yet Van Impe was known to be notoriously stubborn and difficult to manage, requiring careful handling, constant reassurance and a close coterie of attendants who would cater to his every whim away from the bike.
Cyrille Guimard, who coached, cajoled, goaded and drove Van Impe to his greatest achievement, Tour de France victory in 1976, described him as “every directeur sportif’s nightmare.”
While I’ve enjoyed watching and following many good and some great riders, it’s always the climbers who’ve captivated me the most, although just being a good climber doesn’t seem to be enough. In fact it’s quite difficult to define the exact qualities that I appreciate – Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiapucci never “had it” and nor does current fan favourite and, ahem, “world’s best climber” the stone-faced Nairo Quintana.
There has to be a little something else, some quirk or spark of humanity that I can identify with and that sets the rider apart and makes them a joy to watch and follow. Of today’s climbers I’m most hopeful for Romain Bardet – he seems to have character, style and a rare intelligence, but only time will tell if he blossoms into a truly great grimpeur.
From the past, our very own Robert Millar of course was up there with the best (although my esteem may be coloured by intense nationalism). Andy Hampsten, on a good day, was another I liked to watch and, for a time the young Contador, when he seemed fresh and different and believable.
Still, none have come close to supplanting Van Impe in my estimation and esteem. He would go on to win the Tour in 1976 and perhaps “coulda/shoulda” won the following year, if not for being knocked off his bike by a car while attacking alone on L’Alpe D’Huez. See, that sort of shit happened even back in the “good, old days.”
By the time Van Impe’s career was finally over (including a retirement and comeback) he’d claimed the Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey on a record 6 separate occasions (matching his hero Bahamontes) and a feat that has never been bettered. (Fuck you Richard Virenque and your performance enhanced KoM sniping, I refuse to acknowledge your drug enabled “achievements”).
In contrast, both during and after his professional career, Van Impe never tested positive, never refused a doping test and has never been implicated in any form of doping controversy – he’s either incredibly, astonishingly lucky, clever and cunning, or the closest thing you’ll ever get to the definition of a clean rider.
So, if you follow the Kitty Kelley premise that “a hero is someone we can admire without apology,” then Van Impe resolutely ticks all the boxes for me.
During his career he also managed to pick up awards for the most likeable person in the peloton and the Internet is replete with video and images of him as a good-natured and willing participant in some weirdly bizarre stunts, such as his spoof hour record attempt – proof he was an all-round good guy who never seemed to take himself too seriously.
In all Van Impe completed an incredible 15 Tour’s, never abandoning and was an active participant and presence in all of them.
He won the race in 1976 and was 2nd once and 3rd on three separate occasions, finishing in the Top 5 eight times. Along the way he won 9 individual stages and achieved all this while riding for a succession of chronically weak teams and competing when two dominant giants of the sport, Merckx and Hinault, were in their pomp.
Van Impe was also 2nd overall in the Giro, winning one stage and two mountains classifications on a couple of rare forays into Italy.
Not just a one-trick pony though, he could ride a decent time-trial and won a 40km ITT in the 1975 Tour, when he handily beat the likes of Merckx, Thévenet, Poulidor and Zoetemelk.
Even more surprisingly for a pure climber he even somehow managed to win the Belgian National Road Race Championship in 1983 after coming out of retirement.
I’m not sure if this represents Van Impe’s skills and talent, a particularly favourable parcours, or simply the nadir of Belgian cycling. Maybe all three?
In October this year Van Impe turned 70 and until recently was still actively engaged in cycling through the Wanty-Groupe Gobert Pro-Continental Team. He lives with his wife, Rita in a house named Alpe D’Huez, a reminder of the mountain where he set the foundations for his greatest triumph and perhaps suffered his most heartbreaking defeat.
Not bad for the one time newspaper delivery boy and apprentice coffin-maker from the flatlands of Belgium.
Total Distance: 117.2km/72.8 miles with 739 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4:46 hours
Group size: A Dirty Dozen. No FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Dreich
Main topic of conversation at the start: How it’s always the same hard core (sad core, maybe?) of a dozen or so lunatics who turn up for club rides, no matter how bad the weather is
Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop: The unfeasible, unlikely and unattainable weight of the pro peloton “grimpeurs extraordinaire.” Domenico Pozzovivo, 53kg soaking wet! Over-the-top cakes featuring various countline confectionery bars in their entirety; Mars cakes, Snickers cakes, Rollo cakes et al.
I’m just guessing here, but I don’t think Snr. Pozzovivo and the triple layer chocolate and fresh cream, Mars bar brownie cake, with the Malteser topping have ever been formally introduced.
A small group, the Magnificent Seven were bolstered by a few late arrivals to form (very fittingly, judging by the end results) a Dirty Dozen brave lads and lasses who met up at our rendezvous point under cold leaden skies and a never ending supply of rain.
Off the leash without OGL we set our own route and travelled down roads a little less known and travelled, even foregoing our usual café stop for pastures new. Such an offence is usually worthy of excommunication, a public flogging with knotted inner tubes and having your micro pump snapped in disgrace.
Two random indignant motorist (RIM) encounters. The first over-taking impatiently on a blind bend, only to have to stamp ferociously on the brakes as an on-coming vehicle, (also travelling much too fast for the horrible conditions), came barrelling into sight. I hate these encounters because I can almost feel the driver wondering just how much damage would be done to his shiny automobile if he just slid the wheel, ever so slightly left to avoid a car on car incident and took out a bunch of skeletal blokes on plastic bikes instead.
Encounter number two had a driver making a slow pass (no, not that kind) so his passenger could lean out the window red-faced and apoplectic with rage and jabber incoherently at us; “Fuggar, cumma rubba, ronts!” We naturally gave him a very happy, cheery wave and a hearty thumbs-up. Unfortunately he didn’t take the opportunity of stopping so we could discover his nationality, and what strange dialect he was speaking. A shame really as I’m certain we could have broken down the language barrier, helped him with whatever his problems were and parted as new best-friends.
No mad heroics, long breaks or mad sprinting this week, but lots of sensible riding as a group and selfless riding by the stronger ones to shelter everyone else from headwinds. All in all, a grand day out.
Until next week…
YTD Totals: 1,957km/ 1,216 miles with 20,379 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 69.6km/43.2 miles with 316 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 2:32 hours
Group size: 25 cyclists at the start. No FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Monsoon
Main topic of conversation at the start: How the weather would hold dry until at least 1.00pm (Ha!)
Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop: Bear Grylls (consensus = nutter), the Darwin Awards and the (very) contentious issue of “the club jersey”. Don’t ask.
A mix of 25 brave lads and lasses met up at our rendezvous point, under the high white clouds and intermittent sunshine of a typical northern spring day.
The usual meeting place is a bus station, or to give it its more fanciful name a “transport interchange centre.” Here we can take a last breath of therapeutic diesel fumes to harden our lungs, before riding out to the clean, clear air of the countryside. As an added benefit we also get to annoy the bus drivers (although to be honest it doesn’t take much – it must irk them seeing us laughing and joking while they sit in a cramped glass cubicle, entombed inside a diesel spewing bus, engulfed in miles of traffic all day). We also seem to take a perverse delight in blockading the pavement with thousands of £’s worth of shiny carbon fibre, titanium and aluminium, sort of a polite bourgeois street protest or cycling flash mob. What’s that all about?
The weather was chilly, but bright and every last forecast assured us things would be dry until after midday. We set out with high hopes, waving a cheery goodbye to the bus drivers and finally releasing a backlog of pedestrians to flood across the footpath. 10 minutes in and everyone was diving to the side of the road to pull on rain jackets. 5 minutes after and with nary a mudguard amongst us (the winter bikes were put away weeks ago) my shoes were full of water, gloves wringing wet, and icy cold water had enveloped me from the waist down. My brand new, pristine-white socks had turned a dull and grimy shade of grey, a particularly difficult test-case I challenge any detergent manufacturers to accept.
One of our number on a vintage Ciocc peeled off shortly afterwards to head home, complaining his brakes and wooden rims(!) weren’t the most effective stopping combination in wet weather. I don’t think he appreciated one wags suggestion that he needed wet and dry sandpaper on his brake pads.
Through rain clogged specs I spend the next 30 minutes swinging from side to side, vainly trying to avoid the geyser of filthy, freezing water spraying off the wheel in front, and failing miserably as it seemed to follow me across the road with unerring accuracy. By the time the rain stopped everyone was pretty much soaked through and cold, but, as ever the ride went on.
A short sharp climb and general re-grouping was followed by the usual suspects making a long break for the café, and a mad chase ensued to guarantee everyone arrived wet and overheated at the stop.
Coffee and cake fuelled the ride home, and perhaps made the task of pulling on cold, wet gloves, caps and helmets slightly less unpleasant. Yet more torrential rain returned just to decrease comfort levels, but I guess once you’re wet you’re wet, so naturally everyone agreed it had been a good ride.
Until next week…
YTD Totals: 1,613km/ 1,002 miles with 16,889metres of climbing