Anti-Cyclone

Anti-Cyclone

Club Run, Saturday 30th June, 2018

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                 118 km / 73 miles with 1,242 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         4 hours 30 minutes

Average Speed:                                26.2 km/h

Group size:                                       7 riders, 0 FNG’s

Temperature:                                   24°C

Weather in a word or two:          Hot


anti
Ride Profile

I couldn’t summon up even a single jot of enthusiasm for doing the Cyclone this year, so while the majority discussed their 106-mile, 90-mile and 64-mile ride options, I cast about for other, like-minded club members to see if we could have a normal-ish Saturday club run.

The Red Max and Taffy Steve seemed up for doing something “not-different” – so we put it out there as an alternative to see who else we might entice along.

Saturday morning was grey and overcast, seeming to promise a brief interlude to all the hot, sunny weather we’d been experiencing all week. It was still indecently warm and a dry day seemed guaranteed, so I gave the weather no more thought as I clipped in and pitched down the Heinous Hill.

After two week absence, I was pleased to find the bridge at Newburn still closed to cars, although less pleased that the ramp over the washed out section of road had collapsed somewhat. I grounded my chain coming off it and decided it was probably best if I no longer used it as an impromptu time-trial start gate.


Main topics of conversation at the start

I arrived at the meeting point just in time to spot the backside of Richard of Flanders disappearing out of sight as he attacked the ramps leading up to the top of the multi-storey car park. I wondered if he had a secret Strava KOM up there. He suggested he’d just never been up before, so wanted to see what it was like. Hmm.

Slowly a small knot started to coalesce and by the time we’d rolled out, we were 7 strong – the Anticyclone Seven, as Taffy Steve would dub us.

The Red Max has been organising regular Wednesday evening runs, a leg-shredding, set 30-mile loop run at full-bore, on-the-rivet, balls-to-the-wall, maximum speed. This Darwinian, survival of the fittest has already reduced grown men to tears, including the likes of Carlton (who vowed never to do it again, before promptly turning up for another go a few weeks later).

I’ve started referring to the rides as the Circus Maximus and suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Red Max turns up with scythes attached to his wheels.

Richard of Flanders has thrown himself wholeheartedly into this madness, apparently shouting “Have it!” as he continually attacks off the front, is caught and immediately attacks again.

I suggested what he was probably shouting was actually “Havoc!” as a prelude to letting slip the dogs of war…

Now Max suggested that Taffy Steve might enjoy the Circus Maximus experience too.

“What ride 10 mile in from the coast after work, red-line my heart, shred my legs, burn out my lungs for an hour and then ride 10 mile back to the coast?” Taffy Steve enquired.

“Yes!” a gleeful Red Max insisted, his evident enthusiasm over-riding any perceived negatives in this plan.

“Err .. No, thanks.”

Richard of Flanders described downloading an Irish narrator/navigator to his Sat-Nav, hoping for some soft, lyrical, lilting and calm directions. I was only at the start of a very long road trip that he belatedly discovered what he’d actually selected was a rampant, rabid, Ian Paisley/Nationalist Ulsterman.

“I think yeell find ye don’t want to go dine thar!” it shouted, before declaiming loudly, “Ye should just go dine sighff!”

Luckily, we had no need of a Sat-Nav today as the Red Max had something in mind, which thoughtfully included several stops for coffees.

As we started the countdown toward Garmin Muppet Time, the sun broke through the clouds and I was able to shed and stow the arm warmers. This was the start of what would be a long and sustained bout of unexpected sun, which would see me getting home with bright red, burned kneecaps. Where’s the cloud when you need it?


The ride was progressing well as we traversed the Mitford Steads. I was on the front with Richard of Flanders when we rounded a corner and startled a young roe deer casually ambling across the road. The deer’s flight instincts kicked in so hard that it lost all traction on the tarmac and I could hear its claws skittering and skeetering across the top of the slick road as it did a quick Bambi on ice impersonation, before finding its feet and crashing away into the woods.

We paused at Dyke Neuk, which was a mistake as we were now on the route of the Cyclone and had to wait for a break in the stream of passing cyclists before we could get going again. When we did, the Red Max switched to full-on, loopy-Labrador mode and started chasing down anything that moved, gradually working his way up the stream of riders by jumping from wheel to wheel.

Luckily, the Cyclone was routed up the next right hand turn and we were able to regroup before howling down the Hartburn dip and up the other side. We started plugging our way toward Scot’s Gap, catching and passing a lone cyclist. Rab Dee glanced round, saw the Cyclone number on the rider’s bars and told him he had missed a turn and was off course. The Cyclonist turned around to retrace his steps and hopefully, find the right route.

In the distance, Rab spotted another lone cyclist and took off to see if they too were riding the Cyclone and had gone astray. Accelerating to catch her, we found that she too had missed the turn and was heading in the wrong direction. She had apparently started out in a group of friends, but had been dropped and left to her own devices. The Red Max provided instructions for her to re-join the course without having to backtrack and we pressed on.

Through Scot’s Gap and on to Cambo, the Red Max sniffed the air and decisively declared, “Coffee!” We swung left off the road and into one of the Cyclone feed stations, where the welcoming local residents had opened up the Church Hall to sell cakes and coffees.


Coffee Interlude#1

We grabbed coffee and cake and wondered outside to sit on the grass and enjoy the sun.  Here we discussed unequal wear of pedals and cleats, which was largely dependent on which foot you tended to release when you clipped out. Most of us were left-footers, but Rab Dee was a right footer. With his right pedal worn out from over-use, but the left almost as good as new, he wondered if there was the potential for a pedal-exchange programme with a suitably discomfited left-footer.

As we preparing to leave, one our earlier strays turned up, having failed to follow the Red Max’s explicit instructions. She’d done about 26 miles of the 64-mile route and had less than 20 still to do. Still, on the positive side, she was well ahead of the people she’d been riding with and had a chance to either beat them home, or wait around to join them, fresh for the last leg.


cyc2


We were back on the Cyclone route for the bad descent down through Wallington (high speed, vicious rumble strips and a narrow bridge make this a bit tricky for the unwary) but we were ahead of most cyclists at this point.

We then left the route as it headed for the Ryals and had a fast run toward Capheaton. At the junction, Richard of Flanders and Slow Drinker set off for home and Rab Dee went off for a longer ride out. I pushed on with the Red Max, Taffy Steve and Zardoz toward more coffee at the Capheaton Tea Rooms.


Coffee Interlude#2

“The problem with multiple coffee stops,” the Red Max explained, “Is multiple coffee stop sprints.”

We got coffee and cake and found a table on the tearoom balcony. Here we heard all about the Monkey Butler Boy, lavishing all the money from his new Call Centre job on bike bits – much to the disgust of an old timer sitting next to us, who couldn’t work why anyone needed a power-meter. (I had a lot of sympathy for his view).

The Red Max outlined a plan to take Coffee Interlude#3 at Stamfordham and then pick up the tail-end of the Cyclone route, once all the riders had an ascent of the Ryals in their legs, at which point he conjectured they’d be easy pickings!

We left our shady sanctuary and took to the sunny roads again, stopping to try to work out what the odd machine perched in the bed of a truck was. After careful examination, Zardoz and the Red Max concluded it was a vintage, steam powered, electrical generator. I bowed to their superior engineering expertise, quite frankly I didn’t have a clue.

For a refreshing change, we went down the Quarry climb, joined the Cyclone route just after the Ryals and pushed on for Stamfordham.


Coffee Interlude#3

The Red Max and Zardoz stopped for coffee and ice cream, but I decided it was getting late and it was time to head for home. Taffy Steve agreed and we set off at a decent clip, working our way around a steady stream of tired Cyclonists as we pushed on.

Just before Callerton, I split from Taffy Steve and the Cyclone route and started my drop down toward the river and home.

I was back just a couple of minutes later than usual, having had a thoroughly relaxed and enjoyable alternative Cyclone.


YTD Totals: 3,914 km / 2,4,32 miles with 49,186 metres of climbing

There and Back Again

There and Back Again

Day#3  L’Alpe d’Huez

Total Distance:                                25 km / 16 miles with 1,033 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         1 hours 50 minutes

Average Speed:                                13.6 km/h

Group size:                                         3

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:           Hotter


 

taba

The Ride


I awoke rather groggily to find someone had broken in during the night and filled my legs full of concrete and it took me a while to get moving. When I did, I found Crazy Legs busily flitting around and dressed to ride.

“Whassup?”

“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”

I needed to ride to try and rediscover where my legs were.

“Wait, I’m coming.”

“How long do you need?”

“15 minutes.”

“Ok.”

As we reached agreement, Captain Black emerged, blinking and yawning. Rest had obviously done him good and Twatty MacTwat Face had reverted back to being Old Faithful. I told him the plan and he hauled his ass into gear too – 3 for the Alpe!

It wasn’t much longer than 15 minutes later and we turned right out of the campsite, pushed the pedals around half a dozen times and found ourselves once again on the first ramp up the mountain to L’Alpe d’Huez.

I took the first couple of hairpins out of the saddle and turning a modestly large gear, until feeling returned to my lower extremities and the stiffness stated to dissipate. I then dropped onto the granny ring, and plonked myself down to spin slowly upwards.

Behind me Captain Black got half way round the first hairpin and was shocked to find just how hard it was. Just before he turned round to head back, thinking he obviously hadn’t recovered from the day before, he finally looked down and realised he was still on the big ring. There was a sudden, resounding, clunking, wince-inducing clang of stressed and tortured metal that reverberated around the mountains, as he changed down under intense pressure and finally found instant relief and his climbing form.

The three of us worked our way slowly up the mountain, pausing frequently at various shady vista’s and viewpoints, picking out the past winners signs on the corners, taking photos and chatting with other cyclists.

The signs were a roll-call, highlighting some of cycling’s great and good (and occasionally villainous) – both past and present, ranging from the imperious, il campionissimo, Fausto Coppi in 1952, right up to Thibaut Pinot in 2015.

I found signs commemorating wins by Bernard Hinaut, Gianni Bugno, Stephen Rooks, Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, Carlos Sastre, Andy Hampsten and Hennie Kuiper among the more famous and celebrated of the winners.

Lance Armstrong’s name is still up there (twice) despite having his Tour victories annulled, along with two for the equally dubious and questionable Marco Pantani, who still holds the record for the fastest ascent of the mountain in an astonishing – no doubt rocket-fuelled, but still astonishing time of under 38 minutes.

I have to admit though, that even taking time to hunt them out and read the signs, I still missed one or two, including Joop Zoetemelk’s 1976 sign which I’d vowed to desecrate in honour of Lucien Van Impe. (Only kidding, nice Dutch folk!)

As previously mentioned, I found the signs totally underwhelming – so much so that I didn’t even bother photographing any of them – but here’s one I prepared earlier (or pinched from the Internet anyway).


huezs


As we were making our way around one hairpin, our bête noire from Saturday made a reappearance, as a bumbling Harley Davidson blatted loudly up the road and awkwardly around the bend, leaving a trail of greasy exhaust fumes in its wake.

“Your bike’s shit!” an indignant Crazy Legs shouted after the motorcycle, unfortunately just as another rider pulled up alongside him. This rider gave him a long, quizzical look before deciding he was in the presence of a sun-touched Englishman and he didn’t need to defend the honour of his Cannondale SuperSix. Just to be sure, he accelerated smartly away to avoid further insult to his bike and Crazy Legs can at least take a little credit for spurring one rider on to set a good time.

At the village of La Grade we stopped in a welcome patch of shade, where an elderly rider and his support-vehicle-driving wife were sitting enjoying the views. Our talk turned to decomposition rates as Captain Black enjoyed a belated breakfast banana and Crazy Legs described in intimate detail how the discarded skins turned black, slimy and wizened along the way. “Speaking of black, slimy and wizened,” he declared, starting to reach down the front of his shorts, “My knackers could do with a bit of relief.”

“Hey, nice day, isn’t it?” the support-vehicle-driving wife drawled, stepping in with a nice bit of deflection.

“Oh, hello,” Crazy Legs responded, quickly withdrawing his probing digits and thinking fast, “I thought you were Dutch …”

It turned out they were American, from California, on holiday so the husband could enjoy a second-crack at riding the Alps. We then had a brief chat which concluded rather awkwardly when the wife offered sympathy over the “terrible, tragic things” in the UK and we had to ask whether she meant the terror attacks, the Grenfell Tower fire, or being lumbered with lame-duck, Prime Minister who would sell her own mother cling to power.

She meant the tower fire, which is obviously a cataclysmic tragedy, but not something we were ever likely to be personally invested in and it seemed an odd, discordant thing to bring up with total strangers on a bright sunny day, half-way up a mountain in France.

We kept going and stopped again at what we think was Dutch Corner, afforded the opportunity to look down and appreciate how far we’d climbed, the vista opening out to show the road below, twisting and turning sinuously through multiple hairpins as it snaked up the mountain. Crazy Legs recalled watching the Dauphine from this vantage point in 2010 as a rampant Alberto Contador made multiple impressive attacks before breaking clear to win the stage.


alpe
Reg in repose © Clive Rae

As we pushed on the other two slowly drew ahead and I was happy to trundle along at my own pace, slowing down and swinging right across the road to peer myopically at the signs on the hairpins and try to pick out past Tour stage winners.

More snaps from the photographers, the long drag upwards, a sarcastic slow-hand clap from the inflatable King of the Mountains and I was across the finish line and taking a seat next to Crazy Legs and Captain Black in the same café we’d stopped at the first time up the Alpe. Captain Black won the race to first beer of the day.


me
© Griffe Photos

And then we spaced ourselves well out for the fun of the descent. It was to be this, more than anything, which gave me an appreciation of just how big a task cycling up a mountain actually is – it took almost 15 minutes to whirr down to the bottom and every hairpin I thought was the last one was followed by another and then another. Looking back around the corners was also the first time I appreciated just how steep some of the ramps actually were, it’s not something you get a good impression of while struggling up them.


alpdown
Captain Black assures me that tiny speck in the road is me descending the Alpe © Anthony Jackson

And then, sadly it was over, we were done and back at the campsite and climbing off for the last time.

By this time my legs no longer felt like concrete, maybe more like hard cheese – a Cheshire or a Red Leicester perhaps. Either way an improvement of sorts. We broke the bikes down and packed them up, then picked up Steadfast and wondered into town for a few drinks and a late lunch.

The patron of the bar was apparently quite upset she couldn’t offer us any food, “Je suis desole!” but we were happy with baguettes and cornets des frites to accompany the beer. The Hammer joined us, fresh from a ride up to Allemont and then finally Goose appeared after a day alternatively spent walking and lazing by the pool. A few beers and we wandered up to the Dutch restaurant for the last supper.

All this time we talked an unending stream of nonsense (as usual): how Pierre Latour somehow acquired the name Roger, the immorality of any sport that needs judges to decide a winner, Tyneside legend Dave the Dwarf, once spotted drinking in the incongruous company of towering Scottish lock forward Doddie Weir. This led to an attempt to calculate how many dwarves you could reasonably expect in China’s 1.4 billion population and serious concerns about where all the Chinese dwarves are hiding.

We learned that Goose had been inspired by tales of a granny who was arrested for pointing a hairdryer at speeding cars in her village during a (seemingly hugely successful) attempt to get them to slow down. He revealed he had then taken this as inspiration for his own brand of traffic vigilantism, patrolling the streets around his home and leaping unexpectedly out at any motorist he suspects of speeding, arm raised, hand out while intoning a very simple, authoritative and stentorian: “No!”

We managed to calculate bills and work out a way where no one (hopefully) felt out of pocket and discussed doing something similar next year, or the following, although Crazy Legs declared he’s more or less done with the Alps, so we thought up a few alternatives such as Spain – the Pyrenees or Basque region, Tuscany, or perhaps, radically even somewhere flat like the Netherlands.

And then we wandered back, packed and slept, woke and showered, loaded the van, endured an unfriendly chalet inspection, settled our bills, waved off the Hammer and set out for home.

Swiss custom officials were strangely no happier to see us go than they had been to see us arrive and Heathrow customs officials managed to outdo them in terms of inertia, apathy and glowering disaffection.

We bade “bon voyage” to Steadfast, returning to his home along the south coast and the Goose wandered off in search of the best deals he could find on Toblerone. While we waited for our connecting flight, Captain Black stood us a round of coffee’s and had to double-check the price several times before he realised he wasn’t in Geneva airport and didn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.

The “barista” asked for his name and he momentarily confused me by saying Ant rather than Captain Black, or just the Captain. He obviously confused the barista even more as the coffee’s arrived with “Hans” carefully scribed on every cup.


hans
©Anthony Jackson

“Oh no,” I suggested to Crazy Legs, “That makes you Knees and me Boomps-a-Daisy.”

We then sat around discussing the worlds woes and how to correct them, until Crazy Legs looked at the flight board and realised our gate was closing in 10 minutes and we were in real danger of being left behind!

A quick, power-walk through the terminal had us tagging onto the very back of the queue, before clambering aboard our connecting flight to Newcastle and home.

At the other end we kept an intent and anxious watch on the baggage carousel, waiting for the arrival of bike bags and boxes and getting a little concerned as time dragged on, the crowd started to thin and the conveyor belt slowly emptied. Then Goose took a step backwards and fell over our bikes which the ninja baggage handlers had delivered by hand and stealthily dropped off right behind us.

Home, safe and sound and largely intact.

So, two days of travelling, Thursday 15th June and Monday 19th June bookended 3 days of riding, the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Over the three days we were out on the bikes for 22½ hours, rode 251 kilometres or 156 miles in around 14 hours with almost 6,900 metres of climbing including, L’Alpe d’Huez (twice), the Sarenne, Lauterat, Glandon, Croix de Fer, Télégraph and mighty Galibier.

BA Flights form Newcastle to Geneva via Heathrow cost £160 each.

Budget Car van hire, plus fuel was £478.24, or £95.65 per person (5 people)

Two chalets at the Cascades Campsite, Bourg d’Oisans, cost £698.41, or £116.40 per person (6 people)

The total cost for my trip was around £372, plus meals, food and drinks.

Having been back a couple of weeks now, I can honestly say if someone offered me the exact same trip, with the exact same rides (even including all the pain and misery of the Circle of Death) I wouldn’t hesitate and I’d sign up immediately.


YTD Totals: 3,844 km / 2,304 miles with 46,068 metres of climbing

 

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

#2 Up the Alpe

Alpe d’Huez | Col de Sarenne

Total Distance:                                 58 km / 36 miles with 1,602 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                         3 hours 24 minutes

Average Speed:                                17.1 km/h

Group size:                                         6

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:          Hot, hot, hot


LADH
The Ride

I awoke feeling relatively decent after the previous days privations and joined my chalet mates in a breakfast of pain au chocolat and cafe au lait. Very continental. There was then a period of frenzied activity as we unpacked and assembled our bikes. Oddly, I seemed not to have packed my set of allen keys so had to borrow the two different types I needed from Goose. Naturally the errant tools turned up, hiding in plain sight as soon as I opened the box to pack the bike away 3 days later.

There was then a short detour to the supermarket to collect some water, bottles were filled and then we could put off the inevitable no longer. We rode back past the campsite entrance and the Hammer took a flyer and disappeared around the corner. The other five of us followed in a tight knot, at a more sedate pace, freewheeling around the bend to find ourselves straight onto the climb of l’Alpe d’Huez.

There was no preparation, no anticipation, no sense of looking ahead to the mountain louring down from above us, no gentle introduction to warm the legs up. One second the road was flat, the next it was rising, up and up, through the first of the famous 21-hairpin bends and it would continue rising without relief for the next 14 kilometres.

There was a frenzy of clicking from our group as chains were coaxed up cassettes in anticipation of the first hairpin, then my right-hand brake lever hit the stop and could be pushed inwards no more. “Oops,” I complained, “I’m out of gears.”

I rose out of the saddle and pushed my weight through the pedals, cutting in tight around the first corner. I remembered Crazy Legs and Steadfast saying the first few ramps were the steepest, but I’d shred my legs if I had to keep climbing like this. I plonked myself down in the saddle again, flicked the left-hand STI lever and dropped my chain onto the granny ring. It provided instant relief, but there was nowhere else for me to go now and my chain would now stay resolutely as far left as it could possibly go until I reached the very top of the climb and started to descend back down to the village of l’Alpe d’Huez.

I spun up the gear until I found a comfortable cadence and settled in for the long haul. Our group became strung out and I found myself climbing with Captain Black and Steadfast, while all the while the opening lines from the Comsat Angels song Birdman got stuck on repeat and continuously ran through my brain like a mantra: gravity is my enemy … gravity is my enemy


NOVATEK CAMERA


Once I’d settled into a sustainable rhythm, I started to take more notice of my surroundings. I wish I could say I was paying enough attention to give a detailed account of every bend in the road and every ramp, but all I actually recall are a series of fleeting impressions:

Numbered signs marked each hairpin, counting down from 21 to 1, and each sign carried not only the elevation but the names of one or two previous Alpe d’Huez winners, but the signs were disappointingly small and nondescript. They seemed to be not exactly a grand statement and fitting homage to extraordinary sporting feats, but more of an afterthought and they were very much an anti-climax. I noticed maybe half of them and most of these were too small and too far away for me to read, let alone absorb.

Given that in most instances there was a massive, blank cliff face framing the signs, I felt they could have made a much greater statement – a grand gesture if you like.

If they’ve done a poor job of showcasing the history of the climb, you’d have to say that the French engineers have done a remarkable job of actually constructing the road.  As you exit every hairpin pedalling suddenly eases and you get a tiny kick of speed, as if you’ve hit a sudden downhill section, even though the route still winds resolutely upwards. How do they do that?


NOVATEK CAMERA


The road itself was surprisingly smooth and well-maintained – a nice contrast to the climb to the Col de Sarenne that we would complete later in the day, which was rough, gravel strewn and almost as lumpy as anything in the wilds of Northumbria.

The surface of l’Alpe was liberally daubed with paint, names and inspirational messages, but the majority of these seemed to be celebrating your every day, Joe the Cyclist, rather than elite professionals. Not that I have any kind of problem with that – everyone tackling this beast needs all the encouragement they can get. I missed the “May the Force be with you” sign splashed across the tarmac and being English and incredibly immature, I couldn’t help feel that a massive cock and balls was the only thing missing and would have been the perfect piece de resistance.

The climb is almost all south facing and the exposed sections were baking hot. We found ourselves hugging the cliff face and trying to spend as much time in its shade as possible. An occasional stream frothed and gurgled down from the slopes above, before diving into a culvert to pass under the road, and whenever we rode past these there was a welcome draught of chill, damp air to provide instantaneous, but too brief cooling.

We overhauled a few riders and one or two passed us, but this was all done in extreme slow motion as no one was moving at great speed relative to anyone else. You’d start catching a rider up ahead and have them in your sights for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before you caught their back wheeled and dragged yourself around them, and then they hang there for an age until, inch by inch you’d slowly leave them behind.


NOVATEK CAMERA


At hairpin 7, named for Gianni Bugno (1990) the air was heavy with the resinous scent from a small copse of mountain pine, while at hairpin 6, also named for Gianni Bugno, (but this time his 1991 win) it stank of noxious burning clutch or brakes, left trailing in the wake of a car that disagreed with the descent.

In the valley, we’d noticed a group of well-drilled, colour co-ordinated, club riders, maybe Dutch or German all in matching blue kit, except for one rider bedecked in the glorious yellow of the maillot jaune.  We passed him about halfway up the climb, sitting on the wall by the side of the road next to his “team van” and apparently having abandoned. I couldn’t help thinking that if you’re going to wear the yellow jersey, you should really put on a better show than that. We then caught and passed this erstwhile leaders team, strung out in a long line and evidently struggling in the heat, most of the had taken their helmets off and they swung loosely from the handlebars as the riders plugged away, ever upwards.

At one point, we passed a photographer and I managed to give him a big cheesy grin and very cheery wave which Captain Black instantly dubbed my swan moment – where I looked to be calm and serene, gliding across the surface of the water, but underneath my legs were thrashing at twenty to the dozen and my heartbeat was off the scale.  I actually felt quite comfortable and was still riding within myself as we pressed on.


NOVATEK CAMERA


Toward the top the road straightened with two last, massive zig-zagging dogs legs before disappearing around the corner into the village of L’Alpe d’Huez. The Captain applied a bit more pressure to the pedals and he slowly and inexorably pulled away from me, rounded the bend and was lost from sight.

A bit further on and I could feel the backs of my thighs tightening up and the first indications of cramp, so I dropped back the pace a little as I pushed into the village. The place was mobbed, with bikes and cyclists everywhere and I slowed even further and spent a few anxious moments scanning the crowds to see if I could find the Hammer or Captain Black already safely ensconced in one of the café’s and sinking a celebratory grand biere.

I had to circumnavigate a massive Pyrenean Mountain Dog that wandered aimlessly into the road and as I straightened saw an underpass in front of me and recalled that the official Tour de France finish wasn’t in the village centre, but a bit further up the mountain.

I’d already passed a sort of official finish line set up outside one of the cafés and I wondered how many riders it had duped into quitting within reach of the true end of the climb?

I ducked through the underpass I vaguely recalled from those frenetic last few hundred metres of Tours stages and kept on climbing, choosing roads more or less at random and uncertain if I was on the right route or not. The road finally looped around a group of chalets and headed back down the mountain, so I cut through a massive empty car park and followed it down.

I was just picking up speed when, rather fortuitously, I passed Crazy Legs, working his way up the other side of the road, so I stopped, swung round and started climbing after him.  In this way I was finally able to find everyone else clustered around the official finish sign, which I’d unwittingly managed to sail past once already.

I stopped and very slowly and very stiffly somehow managed to clamber off the bike. The backs of my thighs felt as taut as piano strings and hurt like hell. I hobbled down to where everyone was clustered around the finish sign and Crazy Legs co-opted a French Raphalite from Annecy into taking a photo for us.


top alpe


I had to squeeze onto the end of the line, pushed off the kerb and into the road and giving everyone else a distinct height advantage. Crazy Legs found this highly amusing and he hoped a bit of forced perspective meant I would look like a hobbit in the commemorative picture.

There was then only time for Goose to engage in a bit of unseemly, dry-humping with the road (he pretended it was for a bad back) and we descended to the village for a hard-earned cup of coffee and to discuss what to do next.

Strava would later reveal it had taken me 1 hour 14 minutes and 37 seconds to climb the Alpe, apparently good enough for the 1,355th best time so far this year. That doesn’t sound too bad to me – anyway I’ve no intention of going back to try and improve it.

I’d also learned some valuable lessons and in particular that during over-long, sustained efforts like this I needed to occasionally stand out of the saddle, not so much to make climbing any easier, but just to change position and spread the workload and blood flow around different muscles.

We dropped back down into the village centre and took a seat in one of the cafés adjacent to the first finish line I’d noticed on the way up. The café was marked by what seemed to be a damaged, giant inflatable cyclist in the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey. There was obviously a leak in one of the arms and every time the generator cycled, the figures hand popped in and out with a loud crack. Maybe it was just me, but this sounded like the most sarcastic, slow hand-clap of all time, waiting to greet each new rider as they reached the village.

We quickly placed our order – a coke for Steadfast, cafe au lait for Crazy Legs and the Hammer and Americano’s for Captain Black, Goose and me. It was here that the Goose started to reveal his deep grasp of the French language and the nuances of foreign cuisine.

“There’s no milk in my coffee.” Goose complained.

“Didn’t you order an Americano?” Crazy Legs queried.

“Yes, but there’s no milk in it.”

“If you wanted milk, you should have asked for a cafe au lait.” Crazy Legs explained patiently.

“No, I wanted an Americano,” Goose countered, “With milk.”

“Olé, Olé” he started shouting, like a drunken Spanish bull-fighter with Tourette’s, until finally the waitress took pity on him and brought out some milk, rolling her eyes at the mad Englishmen in her midst. (I suspected she’d seen it all before.)

Finally able to relax, we discussed next moves and agreed by a vote of 5 to 1 to press on to the Col de Sarenne, rather than descend straight back down the Alpe.

On leaving the café, Crazy Legs had a chat with an English rider hoping he’d reached the end of the climb and horribly disappointed to learn he still had to work his way through the underpass and further uphill to reach the official Tour de France finish. We’re not sure if he pressed on or not, he certainly didn’t seem very enthusiastic.

There was then only time for Goose to engage in some more, dramatic dry-humping with the road, top up our bottles from the public drinking fountain and wince at the tacky podium set up for “epic” photo opportunities and we were on our way. We picked our way out of the village, past the heliport and giant stationery ski lift stations and then out onto the road to the Col de Sarenne.

The top of the Col de Sarenne lies about 9km beyond l’Alpe D’Huez and involved more climbing, but nothing worse than we’d previously encountered. There was a long, fast descent in the middle and then a lengthy drag up to the summit, our highest point of the day, at just under 2,000 metres.

The road itself feels very remote and is narrow, twisty and broken up in places, with loose gravel strewn across the corners and adorned with lots of “Yates You Can” messages splashed across its surface. The mountainside would occasionally fall dramatically away from the edge, engendering what my eldest daughter refers to as a “shaky bottom” moment, but luckily it was much quieter than the Alpe and we were able to keep well to the left and away from the vertiginous drops. We encountered only one or two other riders and no cars that I can recall.

Once at the top of the Col de Sarenne there is a huge technical switchback descent down to the barrage at Lac du Chambon at the foot of Les Deux Alpes. Crazy Legs took off down the descent like a bat out of hell and I followed, rather more cautiously and circumspectly with the rest strung out behind. The descent was good fun and not too technical and while it occasionally looked like the corners were gravel strewn, the surface was fissured but actually largely intact.

We regrouped at the bottom and endured an anxious wait for the Hammer. He finally appeared after a few moments, having had the rear of his hire bike step out from under him, forcing him to back off until he became accustomed to its handling characteristics.

We tied to find somewhere for lunch in Mizoën, but everywhere seemed closed to so we pushed on to the lake at the bottom of the hill. Here we had an enforced stop as Crazy Legs punctured and we had to change the tyre in the broiling sun, with no shade to be found anywhere. Investigation of the tyre revealed no damage, despite the long gash in the tube, so we suspected the heat generated by braking had caused it to blow. Luckily the tube had lasted until we were on the wider, straighter and better surfaced roads.

We decided to head straight back to the campsite without further stops to try and find ravitaillement, a fairly fast trip involving a bit of tunnel-surfing and duelling with lumbering cement trucks. We made good time, until Crazy Legs dropped off the back, worried that he didn’t have enough pressure in his tyre and it was in danger of rolling off the rim, possibly as the heat had made it more pliable than usual.

Captain Black dropped back to escort him in, earning himself the accolade of a true gentleman, while we were all branded as bastards for riding on ahead – something we’d only done, I hasten to add, after checking that everything was ok with Crazy Legs and being waved away.

Happy to have survived day one and feeling much better than the previous night, we showered and got changed and wandered into Bourg d’Oisan for some beer and food. Once again in the restaurant, Goose endeared himself to the staff and proved his mastery of the native tongue when smoothly counting out the beer order: “Un-deux-trois … five!” he declared loudly, holding up a hand with all the fingers spread wide to emphasise his order.

This became a bit of a catchphrase that would haunt him for the rest of the trip and we even had it handily translated into different languages, just in case we all decide to embark on another foreign adventure elsewhere:

Uno-dos-tres … five!

Eins-zwei-drei … five!

Uno-due-tre … five!

The quite remarkable Goose then declared that what was needed was a proper book written for beginner cyclists with such helpful tips as don’t wear underpants with your cycling shorts and that you can actually rest your hands on top of the brake hoods and still operate the brakes. This, Crazy Legs suggested had been an absolute revelation to Goose, which he’d only discovered after seeing someone doing it two years after he’d begun cycling seriously!

We then tried to define a cycle of acceptance for rides that went though a host of different phases – shock, disbelief, disorientation, denial, blame, disconnect, fear, anger, confusion, depression, despair, pleading and finally acceptance and hope.

Little did we know we were going to be subjected to each and every one of these emotions on the ride tomorrow.


YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 40,220 metres of climbing

Sketchy, Skatey, Skitey, Slippery Slick

Sketchy, Skatey, Skitey, Slippery Slick

Club Run, Saturday 7th January, 2017

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  98 km/59 miles with 868 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          4 hours 33 minutes

Average Speed:                                21.4 km/h

Group size:                                         7 riders, 1 FNG

Temperature:                                    10°C

Weather in a word or two:          Dull and damp


 

15-jan
Ride Profile

The Ride:

In terms of the weather, things started deteriorating on Friday last week, unfortunately the only day I could manage for a bike commute. I woke to a blanket of quite deep and very wet snow that clung to everything and furred up the roads in a slick, thoroughly sodden layer. Despite days of advance warning, I suspect none of the roads had been treated and early morning traffic had churned the lying snow to frozen, dirty slush.

The ratbag mountain bike probably offers substantially better grip than a road bike, but mudguards and rider protection are far less effective and the chunky tyres tend to hurl spray to the winds. The worst seemed to come from the front wheel, which directed a freezing jet of ice water onto my feet and ankles, rapidly soaking through my leggings and eventually trickling insidious, cold fingers down into my boots. Not pleasant.

The descent to the valley was undertaken at a snail’s pace, helped by temporary traffic lights half way down the bank that at least gave me a reason to inch gingerly down, carefully perpendicular, hogging the entire lane on the corners and obstructing any following cars from trying to squeeze past.

Once down, a quick blast through a housing estate brought me out onto the riverside cycle-path, a gleaming and pristine white, unsullied by the passage of any cars, or bikes, or even early morning dog walkers.

A dip, a sharp, 90⁰ right-turn and steep ramp up to a bridge over the River Team though proved my undoing, the wheels slid out from under me and I thumped down wetly into the snow. Ooph! Still, at least there were no witnesses to my ignominy and I picked myself up, dusted myself down and was soon underway again, my only regret being that I didn’t think to look back to see what kind of graceless, uncoordinated snow angel my floundering imprint had left in the snow.


 

random-16-1


A little more cautious now, I dismounted and walked down the very slippery ramp to the Millennium Bridge, which I crawled across at low speed – I don’t trust the slick metal surface of its cycleway even when its dry.

By the time I returned home, the snow had largely disappeared everywhere, except for the top of the Heinous Hill, where the extra couple of metres of altitude were enough to still make things troublesome.

The problem now though was plunging and depressed temperatures, with the forecasts suggesting a hard frost overnight and a high the following day that would struggle to reach 3⁰C in the city. This suggested something only a little above freezing out in the sticks and the real danger of any club run encountering ice-slick roads.

A quick discussion on Facebook soon hatched plans for a G-Dawg led, off-road, mountain bike expedition for those who wanted to brave the conditions on Saturday. While a few cried off for the entire weekend, I suggested Sunday was the more promising day as, although heavy rain was forecast from early in the morning to late in the afternoon, the lowest temperature was set for a relatively balmy 5⁰C.

OGL interjected with a social-media version of his “we’re all doomed” routine, suggesting even off-road, a ride on Saturday might be sketchy and that the temperatures could get as low as -5⁰C, leaving G-Dawg to politely suggest he must have been looking at the forecast for Reykjavik instead of Newcastle.

So the stage was set: a brave few would venture off-road on fat-tyred bikes on Saturday and a few more would trade a reduced risk of ice for what promised to be a very, very wet Sunday ride.

[Special mention and a “Chapeau!” has to go to the Prof though, who managed to ride both days, Saturday and Sunday]

So, a pleasant and indolent Saturday morning in bed, soon gave way to a dull, grey Sunday morning with the rain hammering on the roof and windows. Luckily the weather eased as I set off and although the ride was never completely dry, the heavy rain forecast seemed to have skipped over us and riding conditions were a lot more pleasant than predicted.

The Sunday morning roads were also very quiet and the Peugeot decided to be at its most refined best too, with no creaking, clunking, whisking or rattles. At one point the only sound I could hear was the gentle ticking of the rain bouncing off my helmet and jacket.

I arrived at the meeting point and ducked into the shelter of the multi-storey car park to settle down and see who else was going to brave the weather.


Main topics of conversation at the start:

Mini Miss was one of the first to arrive, bringing with her tales from our Club Annual Dinner and Awards from the previous night, which prior family engagements had given me an excuse to avoid. Despite OGL promising to spring a number of surprises during the evening, the most unexpected and noteworthy thing seemed to have been the lasagne, which engendered a raging debate about whether it could technically be called a lasagne.

I suggested to Carlton that he was wearing his helmet in a rather louche manner, the straps loose and dangling like Bassett Hound ears. He admitted that the intricacies of helmet engineering and the practical adjustment of straps had left him completely baffled and befuddled – somehow he just couldn’t seem to get to grips with them.

Apparently manual dexterity isn’t really his forte and as illustration, he said he’d managed to make it through medical school without ever mastering the art of sutures. Now, if he needed to stitch anything at home he was more likely to resort to Wundaweb. I couldn’t help suggest that iron-on hemming wasn’t really an option when it came to dealing with injured patients …

The Prof enlightened us with tales of the derring-do of our handful of brave, mountain bikers on the Saturday ride. The whole experience seems to have been great fun, although the time when their trail petered out to nothing and they had to build a human chain to ferry the bikes across a swollen brook seemed a little extreme.

Some of the roads they’d traversed had indeed proven to be a little sketchy, including the stretch from the café to Ogle, where standard icy operating procedures applied:

No sudden movements. Stay in the saddle. Don’t lean. Don’t steer. Don’t touch your brakes. And for goodness sake, no matter what happens, do not stop!


A hardy band then, a Magnificent 7 pushed off, clipped in and set out – myself, Mini Miss, the Prof, Carlton, Carlton’s young son: Jake, Kipper, Brink and a potential FNG, or Sunday only rider I’d only seen once before – a large, bearded feller, who became the Big Yin.

The Big Yin was strong as an ox, but appeared to lack any experience or affinity for group riding and was missing a degree of finesse or supplesse. I spent the first few miles riding alongside him on the front, trying to rein him in and maintain a pace that was comfortable and sustainable for everyone.


jan1


As with many big fellers, his particular kryptonite was the hills, where he tended to slide backwards, allowing Carlton’s son to prove he was much more deserving of the Dormanator tag Crazy Legs had bestowed on his Dad last week.

I was going to suggest the New Dormanator was like a mini-Esteban Chaves, but I’m not sure you can have a mini-Chaves? Maybe it would be more accurate to say he rode each hill like a full-sized, full-bore, shockingly enthusiastic Chaves replica – and one engaged in a vicious and incredibly close fight for the polka-dot jersey and convinced there were King of the Mountain points on offer at every crest.

I periodically managed to restore a bit of order at the front with the Prof as we pressed on, chatting away about home-made mudguards, letting your kids make their own mistakes, sailing, staying warm, modern musicals, the club’s succession policy, and a hundred and one other things, until we hit Stamfordham where Kipper and Brink took a more direct route to the café, while we pressed on for a loop around the Quarry.

The New Dormantor attacked early for his KoM prime at the top of the Quarry Climb, while I gave chase from the back of the group, closing on his wheel as the final steep ramp bit and he noticeably slowed.

“Making it look as effortless as ever.” Mini Miss suggested as I whirred past.

“I only wish it was.” I just about managed to gasp back through the pain and blood-boiling hypoxia.

Over the top the Big Yin barrelled his way to the front and set off for the café. I matched him for a while, but as he seemed intent on continuously ramping up the pace, I soon dropped onto his rear wheel and let him get on with it, as we slowly distanced everyone else.

I noticed he had a small commuting mirror on the right of his bars and he would occasionally check if anyone was following, so drifted to his left and stalked him silently. Then, as we approached a road spanning pool of water and he paused to freewheel through it, I kept pedalling, swung out and drove past, opening a sizeable gap that I held to the Bends. I couldn’t help but be smugly satisfied at another fine piece of immoral and ignoble, wheel-sucking skulduggery.

I don’t know whether my mugging upset the Big Yin, or if he still had energy to burn and wanted a longer ride, but he disappeared soon after and didn’t make it to the café. Meanwhile, I was pleasantly surprised at how waterproof my boots proved, despite a solid dunking along the flooded section of road.

The rest weren’t far behind as I unclipped at the café and watched the Prof skid the last few feet and stop his bike by slamming it into a fencepost. I couldn’t believe he travelled all that way on the open roads without incident, before almost coming to grief in a car park.


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

In an eerily quiet café, I managed to question Mini Miss about why she’d stopped so suddenly on a climb last week. She had absolutely no recollection of the incident, but after a huge amount of prompting, finally remembered her chain had seized. Good to know she hadn’t lost the plot, though now I suspect she may have lost her short-term memory.

She decided that when it came to cycling kit, you get what you pay for, with cheap tights equating to a cheap and uncomfortable pad. I suggested buying tights without a pad and wearing shorts under them, while Kipper had a more radical solution – padded shorts under padded tights, for a double-dose of cushioning.

“Is that not like wearing a nappy?” Mini Miss enquired.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember wearing nappies.” He replied laconically.

Digging in her pocket, she then unearthed a sorry looking, flatly compressed cake-bar that could probably have been successfully used as a door wedge. This bore an indeterminate sell by date that rather vaguely and unhelpfully just said September – no year was indicated. Since she couldn’t remember when she bought it, she decided it was probably out of date and decided to play it safe and ditch it. Of course given her fallible memory, she may only have bought it last week and it could still safely have an 8-month shelf-life, but no one was desperate enough to risk it.

Speaking of undateable things, I received a cryptic text message from Daughter#1 that she’s blaming wholly on auto-correct:

“What are ass burgers?”

Apparently the text had been prompted by the Undateables TV show she’s been watching, where someone couldn’t develop a relationship because he suffers from Asperger’s – which I guess might actually be less debilitating than ass burgers. Who knows?

Although we’d lost the Big Yin, we gained Laurelan, who’d ridden up on her own, on the off chance of meeting some company for the trip back. She was proudly displaying filthy-dirty hands, a badge of honour gained by successfully repairing her own puncture.

The Prof thought she could perhaps learn from Penelope Pitstop, who has us all so well-trained, she only has to mention a mechanical problem and a cadre of well-trained mechanics will leap into action and sort it, while she stands back and looks on in beatific contentment.

As we were gathering our stuff to leave, the Prof suggested he’d been so convinced we were going to get soaked on the ride that he’d followed Red Max protocol and brought along a spare pair of gloves. He turned round to display his jersey pockets, were a pair of brown, rubberised workmen’s gloves had been unceremoniously stuffed, cuff-first, so the fat fingers spilled over the top and looked like he was carrying a pocketful of Knackwurst. Only slightly less disturbing than the time he declared they were his udders.


We set off for home, the Prof dropping briefly back so he could bang his handlebars and brake levers back into position. He’d smacked the fence post harder than I realised. This left me on the front with Carlton, who’d decided to shed one of his layers in the café because he was too warm. Now though he was starting to feel chilled and needed to push the pace up to try and generate some heat.

I rode with the group until just passed Kirkley Hall, when they swung North, while I started South to cut the corner off my route home. Feeling quite strong, I was zipping along nicely, until I reached Ponteland, where I was forced to stop by a chain of pensioners crossing the road, obviously off to the bookies and pub, or perhaps to TWOC a hot hatchback and raise merry hell.

They crossed the road slowly and in single file – (perhaps like Sandpeople on a raid: to hide their numbers) – determinedly pushing Zimmer frames and walkers like a long crocodile of schoolkids with absolutely no road sense and the utter conviction that the traffic would mysteriously part for them. It made me smile.

At one point, closing in on home, the whirr of wheels alerted me to passing cyclists and a gang of four whipped past as I waited at a junction to turn onto their route. I naturally gave chase, but the gap never closed and I was soon left floundering in their wake. I was saved from embarrassing myself further when I got caught behind the flashing lights and descending barriers at a level crossing, while they thankfully rode off into the distance.

I made it home with the bike and body, grimy, dirty and mud-flecked, but surprisingly dry, despite the portents for a day of unremitting heavy rain. Not a bad substitute for a Saturday run, I’m pleased I made the effort to get out on Sunday. Now my only concern is finding time to try and chip some of the mud off the bike before next weekend.


YTD Totals: 264 km / 164 miles with 2,842 metres of climbing

The Christmas Cracker

The Christmas Cracker

Club Run, Saturday 17th December, 2016

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                104 km/65 miles with1,019 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                       4 hours 27 minutes

Average Speed:                              23.4 km/h

Group size:                                      28 riders, 0 FNG’s

Temperature:                                  7°C

Weather in a word or two:          Rinse and repeat?


 

 

ride-profilr-17-dec
Ride Profile

 


The Ride:

For what was surely an unprecedented third week in a row, we were rewarded with surprisingly mild December weather for what would be an important club run – our annual Christmas Jumper ride. Having determined that next week’s Christmas Eve ride might be less well populated as family concerns get in the way of the serious business of bike riding, this was the chosen day for fun, frivolity and … err … looking a bit of a tit.

one
The Christmas Cracker – featuring the artistic talents of Mr Phil Smith …

In a “if you can’t beat ‘em, embrace em” moment, I’d blinged up the Pug with tinsel and fairy lights wrapped around the top tube and found a workable, half-assed concession to tastelessness: a bright red Star Wars-themed jumper featuring repeating patterns of storm troopers, AT-AT’s Tie Fighters, light sabres and Darth Vader as a passable substitute for snowflakes, garlands, holly, snowmen, Santa Claus and all that usual festive guff. It would have to do.

NOVATEK CAMERA
… a “blinged-up” Pug …

Making my way across to the meeting point reminded me why, despite ridicule from the general public, cycling specific clothing is really the only sensible stuff to wear on a bike. A rapid descent found the wind cutting straight through the jumper and chilling me instantly, while clambering back up the other side of the valley, its lack of breathability soon had me sweating and soaked.

Combine the two effects and repeat several times and you have the recipe for a truly uncomfortable ride. It was like stepping back in time to when I first started cycling – a period before lycra and other high-tech sports fabrics – a time of cotton undershirts, thick woollen jerseys and shorts with real chamois leather inserts. Despite the fashion for all things vintage, trust me, the clothing of this period was largely impractical and had nothing to recommend it.


Main topics of conversation at the start:

My arrival at the meeting point was at least welcomed by the Garrulous Kid, dressed as a Christmas Elf and standing between the BFG and Red Max, in their usual cycling kit, the pair having made no concession to the seasonal occasion.

The Garrulous Kid was starting to suspect he’d been the victim of a cruel hoax and made to dress like an idiot, while everyone else would appear in their normal gear, so he greeted my arrival with a growing sense of relief.

His fears were further allayed when Crazy Legs, G-Dawg, OGL, Princess Fiona, Laurelan, Sneaky Pete, Taffy Steve, Penelope Pitstop, Mini Miss and others arrived in their festive garb. Special mention has to go to Captain Black, in a natty, understated Christmas jumper that was (naturally) black, while Son of G-Dawg wore and elf costume, complete with stripy hot-pants that drew appreciation from the ladies and, rather unexpectedly from OGL. Hmm, yes … moving swiftly on.

Surveying the assorted Christmas jumpers, costumes, accessories and bling, the BFG looked down at his sober and sombre riding kit and quipped, “I’m starting to feel a bit silly, now.”

The Prof then appeared wearing a towering, knitted woolly hat with a massive pom-pom.

“Is there a helmet under there?” I asked.

“That’s a euphemism, isn’t it?” Crazy Legs suggested helpfully, before adding, “I think the jury’s still out on that one.”

I checked-in with the post-operative BFG, who assured me he was in the best of health now, the doctors having declared he has the heart of a teenager, but the knees of an obese 80-year-old, arthritic trampolinist. These are apparently shot and crumbling like a Cadbury’s flake and will eventually need replacing. Gentlemen, we can re-build him.

Much like cycling kit, the advances in medical technology truly are remarkable and the Red Max declared he never thought while watching the Six Million Man that it would ever be anything but fiction.

I wondered if the BFG would prefer Campagnolo or Shimano knee joints and he quickly sided with the Italians, reasoning it would be no good having tiny little Japanese knees on his massive hulking frame.

Meanwhile, OGL started his doom and gloom pitch, beginning with his bad back and ending with dire warnings from his contact in the Outer Hebrides that we were likely to encounter “sheet, black-ice” everywhere.

“Is there anything quite as sad,” Crazy Legs enquired, “as a grumpy old man in a jolly Christmas jumper.”


28 lads and lasses pushed off, clipped in and rode out to chase down the alluring Christmas Elf in his hot-pants, mainly following the main roads until we assured ourselves that there was very little chance of encountering any ice, even in the darkest, shadiest hollows that abound in the wilds of deepest, sun-deprived Northumberland.

I dropped in beside Sneaky Peter for discussions about the physics of braking, rubbish TV, the film about the Potomac crash pilot, recent Scandi-thrillers, riding the Cold War borders on the East German equivalent of a Boris Bike (in the middle of winter) and my own recent and unfortunate initiation into the fine art of naked rat-clubbing.

At the first stop I joined Taffy Steve and the Red Max who were holding an impromptu inquisition into why the Garrulous Kid hadn’t been out on last week’s ride and found them thoroughly unconvinced by his lame, tissue-thin excuses – principally that he’d been getting a haircut.

Several times in the next few hours I was to remind the Garrulous Kid of the adage: if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. But my advice went sadly unheeded.

Blustering never seems to work as vindication and through its application the Kid foolishly revealed that he couldn’t escape getting his hair cut … because he had to go with his mum.

It then transpired that he hadn’t gone to a normal, walk-in barbers, but to a hairdressing salon … and not even a unisex hairdresser, but a fully-appointed, la-di-dah ladies’ salon … somewhere exclusive, where you had to make an appointment weeks in advance … and then, not to some local, corner-shop operation, but a high class, high-cost, exclusive salon, slap-bang in the city centre.

And the hole kept getting deeper and deeper, while we all gathered around and peered down at the accused at the bottom, still digging and still serving up excuses, though his voice was growing fainter and fainter as he delved further and further down into trouble.

He was now grasping at straws, suggesting a “free” complementary cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows was a motivating factor and then began a horrifying, risible series of comments about how using hair-straighteners wasn’t all that bad, about how they had washed and blow-dried his hair before it was cut and how he’d never, ever, set foot in any kind of establishment with a red and white striped pole outside, or subjected his head to mechanical clippers and a numbered haircut.

Condemned by his own words and for failure to provide a sufficiently robust and manly excuse for not riding last week, Red Max and Taffy Steve declared the Garrulous Kid would have until we reached the café to come up with a sincere apology, or a more acceptable excuse. Then, as punishment, he would have to stand on a table in the middle of the café and beg forgiveness from each and every one of us.

There was only time then to laugh at Mini Miss, who’d become so over-heated in her Christmas jumper that she’d tied the arms around her neck and was wearing it like a cape, a dodgy 80’s affectation from around the time Haircut 100 (rather fittingly) regularly featured on Top of the Pops.

Onward we rode, with his impending punishment obviously weighing heavily on the Garrulous Kid. He asked me what would happen if he didn’t apologise and I suggested we would snap his pump in half and strip him of his tyre levers.

He then wanted to know how the café staff would react if he was to stand on a table and I told they were well used to it and then, when he wondered how OGL would take it, I suggested he actually looked forward to these ritual humiliations.

A dispirited Garrulous Kid then drifted back and I heard him have almost the exact same conversation with Crazy Legs and then one or two others.

We split the group at Dyke Neuk and I joined the longer, harder, faster group, where I found Crazy Legs and Taffy Steve sharing a bottle in a style I thought reminiscent of Coppi and Bartali, but which Crazy Legs assured me was more like an ancient RAF VC10 tanker refuelling an equally aged Victor bomber in mid-air. 100,000 shaking rivets flying in a tight formation and barely holding everything together.

untitled-2
… an unintended homage to Coppi and Bartali …

We split from the self-flagellation ride, with De Uitheems Bloem sowing instant confusion in our ranks by going the wrong way and then turning around in the middle of a narrow lane. Further on and after dropping down and climbing up to Hartburn, it was Laurelan’s turn, performing an abrupt and chaotic volte face to head back down the hill.

“What’s happening?” I called as I passed Crazy Legs, pulled over and waiting for her by the side of the road.

I didn’t quite catch what he was saying and my brain seemed to interpret his words into the phrase “She’s gone to rescue a bird.” Hah! Weird.

“What,” I asked Cowin’ Bovril, seeking clarification, “Is happening?”

“She’s gone to rescue a bird,” he replied.

Huh?

Still dissatisfied, I dropped back to Carlton and tried again, convinced there was a massive disconnect between my ears and my brain.

“She’s gone to rescue a bird.” he said.

OK, that was unexpected.

You can read more of Laurelan’s dramatic Robin Rescue in her own words here, but in short, on the wild descent she’d seen the little fellow in the middle of the road, went back to collect him, check him over for obvious damage and then transfer him to the relative sanctuary of a hedgerow. Why the bird was sitting unconcernedly in the middle of the road and seemingly so placid I don’t know, but at least he was spared a gruesome end under the wheels of a car (or rampaging cyclist).

rob
… and Laurelan’s helping hands

We pressed on, minus the Avian Rescue Brigade, becoming strung out as the route began to rise up toward Angerton. Cowin’ Bovril and then Taffy Steve became distanced, so at the top of the last, nasty little climb to Bolam Lake I called on Sneaky Pete to drop back with me and wait.

Taffy Steve re-joined and moved straight to the front to set a brisk pace that soon had us catching and overhauling the Garrulous Kid and then Carlton, disgorged from the front group, slowly dying a thousand deaths and grateful for a wheel to cling to.

As we swooped through the Milestone Woods and up onto the rollers, I took over at the front and we began to close down on the leaders, but they were soon duking it out for the sprint on the final hill and pulled away again, while I tried to keep our pace steady all the way to the café.

I hung around outside long enough to see the Garrulous Kid roll in with Cowin’ Bovril – he’d been distanced at the last and I was beginning to wonder if he’d decided not to stop in case we really did make him stand on a table and apologise to everyone.


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

With the Garrulous Kid still protesting his hair cut excuse was perfectly valid, strange tales and reminiscing about encounters with proper barbers abounded, a fascinating peek into a decidedly odd, male preserve and its  peculiar rite of passage.

I suggested barbers were great because it was the only time you ever got to read The Sun or Daily Star and, as I understood it, by law you are actually compelled to at least pick up and look at these publications as an integral part of your visit.

Captain Black recalled his Turkish barber using a candle to burn the hairs out of the inside of his ears, which not only produced a fearsome and horrifying crackling noise that still haunts his nightmares, but a lingering stink of burning hair that survived multiple washing attempts. I think he was particularly grateful his nose hairs weren’t subjected to the same, rather scary treatment.

Along with Son of G-Dawg, I was unconscionably proud of the fact our haircuts cost less than a tenner, including a very generous tip, while the Red Max recalled overhearing a rather disturbing conversation in a Wallsend barbers:

“So, how old are you, son?”

“Twelve.”

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Dunno.”

“I wanted to be a porn star. That didn’t really work out…”

On a similar note, the BFG recalled being asked if he required “anything for the weekend” and replying that he was only 10.

Meanwhile, Buster reported his own acute discomfort, suffered when starting a conversation with a beautiful black girl who was cutting his hair. She was surprised when he correctly identified her accent as coming from the Natal region of South Africa and he explained he’d once gone out with a girl who’d moved to the area from the same region, someone called Taonga.

“Oh!” the girl replied, “My mother’s called Taonga…”

We then tried to convince the Garrulous Kid that it was traditional to follow the Christmas Jumper Ride with a Bikini Ride the following week. The Red Max suggested he had a spare bikini he was willing to lend the Kid if he didn’t have one and that it was an appropriate, itsie-bitsie, teeny-weenie, red and white spotted number, in tribute the King of the Mountains jersey in the Tour. I told him I would be “rocking” a lime green mankini and we impressed on him the importance of not letting the side down next Saturday.

Thankfully, the conversation turned to unassailable Strava KoM’s and I declared I was thinking of setting one up for my own driveway. We then decided that the ultimate, nightmare scenario for the worst possible burglary of all time, would be when someone broke in, nicked your best bike and unwittingly set an unassailable new record on your personal driveway KoM as they were making a quick getaway on your pride and joy.


We paused for a Christmas jumper photo opportunity outside the café, where Son of G-Dawg discovered that his “elf hot-pants” had dyed his saddle a deep and unfortunate shade of pink. I consoled him with the thought that he’d probably be able to sell it to zeB now, who seemed to have a penchant for unusual and contrasting (if not downright clashing) coloured saddles.

“Hee-hee,” OGL cackled, “It looks like he’s on his menstrual cycle!”

“Oh,” I responded, refusing to sink quite so low, “I thought he was on his Trek.” [Sorry.]

As I split from my group for the ride home, I couldn’t help notice how strangely, but pleasantly quiet the roads were, even those around and leading up to that Mecca to Mammon and Mayhem, the MetroCentre.

Soon I was waiting at the traffic lights to cross the river, where I managed to catch a glimpse of what must have been the ultimate Christmas Club Ride approaching from the opposite direction.

The lead rider was dressed in full Santa Claus regalia, including a long, fake beard, while behind him came a Herald Angel in white robe/sheet, with glittery wings and a tinsel halo bobbing above his helmet. The third rider in line though appeared to have the prize for the best costume fully (ahem) “wrapped up” as he appeared to be riding with a large, fully decorated, Christmas tree strapped to his back and towering up above his head!

I crossed the bridge, rounded the bend and pulled over to wait for them to pass, so I could take in the full details of their festive excess. Sadly, however they must to have turned off the main road onto the river-side path immediately after crossing, so I was unable to see them in all their glory, or pick up any tips for next year’s Christmas ride.

As I clawed my way up the last, steepest ramp of the Heinous Hill, and old feller walking down the other way called out

“You must be fit.”

“Hmm, maybe.” I agreed, “Either that, or mad.”

Still, that’s likely “it” – I’m done for the year, unless someone organises a sneaky, mid-holiday/mid-week ride, or I can somehow shoe-horn a foreshortened Christmas Eve run in, around family commitments.

So on that note, let the madness cease and the legs pause and rest for a while – well, at least until next year, when we might just start all over again…


YTD Totals: 7,117 km / 4,422miles with 74,102 metres of climbing

Van Impudence!


An ode to grace …

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.


 

kennedy bros


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.


 

492771


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.


 

Cyclisme : Tour de France - Alpe D Huez - 1976
An Astaire-like glide

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.”


 

Lucien_Van_Impe_-_Tour_1976
A decent time trialist on his day, this is Van Impe during the 1976 Tour ITT – in yellow and on his way to overall victory

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.


 

13c2e23ee9e4f4a3e794ddb7d5d8cad1
Van Impe wears the green jersey of the Giro’s best climber with much more aplomb than the highly suspect perm

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.


 

gb
Gaul and 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.”


 

9dffdfaa764277adcca44449fc717410
Van Impe doing what he does best

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.


 

cbd6dc651672d698559e2f1099d211ce
“Always smiling, always amiable”

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”).


 

1975%20Tour
On the attack, in the jersey he became synonymous with

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.


 

hour
In this bizarre and apparently hilarious (if you speak Flemish) YouTube clip, Van Impe is seen challenging Moser’s Hour record

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?


 

van_impe
Belgian National Champion

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.


 

lucien
An elder Van Impe – still active in cycling

Not bad for the one time newspaper delivery boy and apprentice coffin-maker from the flatlands of Belgium.

Vive Van Impe!