Dear Lord, I’m getting tardy with these things and I’m running about a week behind. Busy times, folks …
Anyway, here we go again, surfing the fringes of Storm Aidan, I was prepared for another wet and windy Saturday, still on the single-speed in anticipation of the widely forecast rain dumping itself on my head. Plus ça change.
On the river, the rowing clubs were out with a full complement of boats, including several 8-man crews, something I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Not sure how the Rule of Six applies in a rowing hull, but there you go. I wish I could say this was a harbinger of a return to some form of normality, but we all know that’s not how this is going to work out.
Despite the obvious drawback of being without gears, I decided I couldn’t restrict my route too much, otherwise I’d be forced to trudge around the same circuit, over and over again, like some sort of two-bit, enfeebled cycling Sisyphus. This is Northumberland after all, so you don’t have to go too much out of your way to find hill or two. With this in mind I aimed vaguely toward Whittle Dene Reservoir, happy just to see how hard the going was and adjust as needed.
Just outside Dalton, I passed Aether heading in the opposite direction, I think that was my first sight of another cyclist since setting out. I cut through Stamfordham and out to the Reservoir. Here the water was an inky, impenetrable black, but there were more fishermen out than I’d seen in a long time, all clustered under the southern embankment to escape the wind and hopefully provide a bit of shelter when the rain arrived. Would it, I wondered – I’d already enjoyed a much drier ride than anticipated.
Clambering up through the plantations towards Stagshaw, I made it onto the road for Matfen when that moment arrived and the rain suddenly cut in. I stopped to pull on a jacket before continuing, passing Carlton and Cowin’ Bovril just outside the village, heading the other way and already looking wet and suitably miserable.
The rain was enough to dissuade me from further wandering, so I started to plot a route toward Kirkley – cake, coffee, comrades, craic and a little bit of shelter in the big, chill barn.
En route I passed a solo OGL, seemingly heading home and then, a few moments later a solo Dabman, seemingly just heading out, off into the downpour and putting a brave face on things.
At the café and in a break with tradition, I ordered a piece of corned beef pie, before grabbing a coffee and wandering off into the big chill barn to find Crazy Legs, G-Dawg, Richard of Flanders, Taffy Steve, Sneaky Pete and Aether already comfortably ensconced.
The corned-beef pie arrived on a plate covered with a tea towel. We wondered if this was for the big reveal when the tea towel was whisked away to display the fabulous dish beneath.
“Nah, it’s just to keep the rain off,” the waitress told us bluntly. Oh well, so much for theatre.
The pie was actually worth a bit of a fanfare and a reveal though. They’d obviously decided they weren’t going to get too many customers today, so served up a piece that would have covered a third of a large dinner plate.
It was good, too, although I’m not sure I could eat that amount every week.
We then engaged in a game of one-upmanship that was like an enactment of the scar-bragging scene from Jaws, just with all the noteworthy cicatrices replaced with troublesome small, furry rodents.
G-Dawg started it off, complaining that “the cat” – he won’t admit to actually owning it, climbs up onto the bedroom windowsill outside and howls to be let in at night. Nervous of the awful racket disturbing the neighbours, G-Dawg eventually relents and opens the window so the small feline harridan can clamber in. Bad enough that his sleep is so disturbed, but last week when he opened the window, the cat, like a swashbuckling pirate carrying a dagger, had a live mouse clenched between its teeth . The cat hopped in and immediately released its prey into the bedroom. Cue instant mayhem.
I described being woken in the middle of the night to find one of our cats prowling around a basket in the hallway. I’d unthinkingly moved the basket to investigate and a large rat had scurried out, ran down the hallway and disappeared into the darkened bedroom, where a blissfully unaware Mrs SLJ was about to get a rude awakening.
Turning the lights on revealed no intruder, so I figured it must be hiding under the bed. I ventured downstairs to retrieve a red, plastic handled mop and after, several minutes of waggling it under the bed managed to cause the rat to flee.
I followed in mad pursuit, the cat at my heels, stark-bollock naked, swearing loudly, while wildly swinging the mop at the rat, only for my weapon of choice to start to disintegrate into red shiny splinters with every errant blow.
Down the hallway, down the stairs, by the time we got the rat cornered in the lobby I was holding a rather short, rather useless stump of the mop handle. Still, while the rat was distracted, actually attacking the cat, I managed to apply the coup de grace with a cycling shoe to the head. Now I know why they’re made with super stiff soles – and all this time I’ve been thinking it was for an efficient transfer of power from foot to pedal!
“Well, that’s nothing,” Crazy Legs began, telling of a fated holiday in Greece when, one night, they discovered a mouse scurrying around the apartment. Once again the stark naked man in the story picked up a broom and gave chase, round and round the apartment while an equally naked Mrs. Crazy Legs leapt up onto the middle of the bed shrieking like a Tom and Jerry character.
“Out the door, get it out the door,” Mrs. Crazy Legs had screamed, so Crazy Legs flung the door wide open, only to be confronted by his neighbours returning from a late night out.
Uncomprehendingly, they took in the naked screaming woman on the bed and the panting, naked man brandishing a broom.
“Oh, hello there,” Crazy Legs finally ventured as a way of breaking the rather uneasy silence.
“Err, hi,” the neighbours finally responded, trying to shuffle quietly away, as Crazy Legs nodded solemnly, just the once … and slowly closed the door on the unfortunate scene.
Even Richard of Flanders’ tale of a holiday complete with a snake in the toilet couldn’t top that one.
Slowly and reluctantly we set out to leave in ones and two’s. Still chomping my way through the mammoth pie I was the last one standing, when Mini Miss arrived with a runner turned newly-minted cyclist in tow, the change in sport prompted by brutalised knee-joints.
I had a brief chat with them, before joining the exodus and heading for home.
This proved a bit of a struggle through intermittent showers, a buffeting headwind, slick and slippery roads, waterlogged clothing and desperately tired legs. I didn’t so much climb the Heinous Hill as grovel my way upwards, still I’d ridden where I wanted, my ride total topped the usual 1,000 metres of climbing and the single-speed had proven itself a reliable alternative.
Day of the Condor – Continuing a tenuous avian theme established by last weeks cameo from a stool pigeon. Ha cha cha cha.
For those of you who hate cliff hangers and are too lazy to look things up on Strava (yes, I’m looking at you, Monsieur Crazy Legs) then yes, I managed to snatch back my Strava KOM and everything is good with the world.
I actually quite enjoyed my little extra-curricular challenge last week and since I have no need to be at a particular meeting point at a given time for the foreseeable future, I might try further Strava segment smash and grabs.
It’s a bit like the cycling equivalent of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange – once you’ve smashed it open and snaffled one segment, you always want more.
There’s one in particular KOM that ends almost practically outside my front door, so I feel obliged to give that one a go next. The trouble is, its a very short, steep ramp with a brutal speed bump half-way, ideally placed to disrupt your rhythm just as things turn nasty. It’s also so short a segment that the record is just 16 seconds, so I suspect you have to be travelling at maximum speed before you hit the start and then slam on the brakes before you hit the end – a junction onto a busy main road. There’s absolutely no margin for error.
Three guys and one girl have done it in 16 seconds, while my best is a whole second slower, good enough for a top 5 place along with a whole slew of others. By my reckoning, if I can hit and hold 50 kph for that short, handful of seconds it takes to get to the top, I should be in with a shout.
Today’s first effort was woeful. The gear I chose was too big and I ran out of momentum before the top, finishing in a totally unconvincing 20 seconds. Still, maybe next week.
Today was a chilly but bright day, so I venured out wearing both a long sleeved baselayer and armwarmers, legwarmers, thermal socks, a cap and long-fingered gloves. For once I got it about right and never felt over-dressed.
Following my lung and leg shredding failed KOM effort, I dropped down into the valley, crossed the river and started climbing out the other side again.
I pretty much followed the route I’d taken last week up Hospital Lane, before taking a quick detour, following the signs for Chapel House on a whim. I expected a picturesque village built up around a small kirk, but found nothing but a long loop through a modern and rather uninspiring housing estate. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a place by its name for that matter.
Through Callerton and approaching Penny Hill, I was stalking another cyclist who seemed to be travelling at least as fast as I was on the flat, but slightly slower on the hills. As we started up the climb I closed on him – a tall, slender man, on a tall slender, steel-framed bike. Just before I caught up, a blocky-burly-beardy-bloke bustled past. I dropped onto his wheel and he pulled me past Slender Man, then I overtook Blocky Burly Beardy Bloke as the climb stiffened and his bustle degenerated to a slow grind.
The road levelled and I kept going toward Stamfordham. About 10km later, Slender Man slid past me, with a nod and a garbled message.
“I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so windy,” he’d apparently said, words instantly snatched away by that very wind, obviously looking to prove a point. It wasn’t until he repeated what he said that I got their gist and could agree with him.
I tagged along behind him for a while, not quite in his wheel, but within a socially restrained 3 or 4 metres that still gave me a little drafting benefit. Then, on the rise just before Stamfordham I eased past and onto the front again.
Passing Whittle Dene Reservoir and I slowed for a cyclist stopped by side of road, checking he was ok and Slender Man caught me and we rolled along on either side of the road, chatting for a while.
He asked if I too was heading toward Corbridge, his intended destination and I confessed I was just wandering aimlessly, then we discussed old bike brands, the sorry demise of Holdsworth and his trust of steel-frames not to catastrophically fail like carbon, while I admired his pristine Condor.
We climbed to the top of the road to Newton and then parted, as he swung left to dip into the Tyne Valley and I pushed on toward Stagshaw and then Matfen. Through Matfen, I was half-minded to drop down the Ryals, but the wind put me off, so I routed up past the Quarry again and then down to Belsay.
From there I headed toward Whalton, instantly regretting my choice as I found they were cutting back the hedges along this stretch of road. I say cutting back, but it’s more like they thrash them into submission, scattering a wide swathe of detritus across the road surface. This almost invariably contains a large serving of the infamous Northumbrian steel-tipped thorns – which add a super high likelihood of you picking up punctures.
I picked my way through the debris as best I could, breathed a huge sigh of relief when I exited the zone of destruction with both tyres intact, then instantly cursed myself for inviting disaster with such reckless self-congratulatory thinking. I was inviting disaster.
I found that, like a lot of the roads in this area, the stretch from Belsay to Whalton has also been given that heavy, rough and grippy, open-textured and horrible, fresh surface that seems to have become the new norm. I think I preferred the old one, even with all its potholes and fissures.
At the Gubeon, I turned for home, calling in for a quick stop at Kirkley to re-fuel and on the off chance of bumping into a familiar face or two. I found G-Dawg on one of the benches, pressed up against the wall to try and find some shelter from the biting wind. Other than one other auld feller riding on his own, the place was otherwise deserted, so plenty of space for social distancing and no issues getting served quickly. Even chill weather has to have some benefits.
By the time I got from the serving hatch to the bench, my coffee had gone cold and OGL had arrived, probably just stopping by to see who was mad enough to be out.
He rolled off after singing the virtues of his new Vittoria tyres (he was preaching to the choir) while I gulped down cold coffee and a large if uninspiring serving of carrot cake. After 20 minutes the chill was starting to bite and I was packing up to leave. G-Dawg was determined to brave the elements for a few more minutes to see if anyone else was out and also because if he fears if he gets home too early, he thinks he’ll be expected to get back at that exact same time every week.
I had the wind firmly behind me most of the way home and was feeling good, the pedals seeming to float around on their own. It was a decently fast run back and I found I was home an hour before my usual arrival. Luckily no one else was in the house.
Internet oddity of the week was a report in multiple newspapers that Safari park baboons had been armed with knives, screwdrivers and a chainsaw, with keepers suspecting pranksters had tooled up the simians so they could damage visitors’ cars ‘for a laugh’
The best quote from Knowsley Safari Park claimed their park was “just as safe as a McDonalds drive-thru.” Hmm, not tremendously reassuring.
Well, the Met Office confirmed Friday was third hottest day on record in the UK as temperatures reached almost 38℃ “doon sooth” and they weren’t too shabby “oop north” either. Not the best when you’re too pre-occupied with work to step out, but a few of my luckier clubmates managed to enjoy long rides in the sun. Still, even as temperatures began to drop from their record highs, it seemed like things would be just fine for Saturday and so it proved.
In fact it was a very bright early start to the day that slowly started to cloud over, but still a perfectly warm and pleasant for a bit of free-range bikling -and we were even graced by the occasional burst of bright sunshine.
Jimmy Mac had prepared one of those cunning routes that took a tried and tested club run and reversed it, providing something novel that was a bewildering and disorientating surprise and yet at the same time oddly familiar – a sort of collective bike ride powered by déjà vu.
It was also a route that proved fast, flat and fun, lacking any signature big hills, to such an extent that I only just topped a 1,000 metres of climbing for the entire day.
I’d arrived at the meeting point early to find the a newly chunky, Monkey Butler Boy had emerged from a long period of aestevation, complete with a brand new pair of aero-socks, which he claimed would save him an additional 4 watts of energy, before adding the small print, sotto voce: if he could somehow manage to ride at 40kph for 45 minutes. Somehow, I didn’t think it would be enough of an advantage for him to survive the ride after neglecting the bike for so long.
As one young ‘un returned, another prepared to depart, this being the last ride of the Garrulous Kid before his return to university. Still, there was one final opportunity for G-Dawg to carry out an impromptu chain inspection. It was no great surprise to anyone when the Garrulous Kid failed the test and G-Dawg spent the rest of the ride with a pore-deep, grungy black smear indelibly tattooed into his thumb pad. It’ll probably still be there when the Kid returns at Christmas.
Captain Black arrived on a different bike, a new Trek to replace his old Trek, the somewhat bipolar, “Old Faithful” or “Twatty MacTwat Face” the name being very much dependent upon how its riders legs were feeling at any given moment. The new bike has in-built vibration dampening and fat 32mm tyres, promising a plush ride, even on the worst of Northumberland’s disintegrating roads.
Once again there were 25 or so riders at the start and we left in groups of six. This time I formed part of the rear-guard, the last group out alongside Captain Black, Big Dunc, Benedict, OGL and Carlton. Suffering from hay-fever, OGL stayed with us until Bolam Lake before bailing to head to the cafe at Belsay, while the rest of us started the route reversal portion of the planned ride.
Around 40km into the ride and approaching a downhill run of Middleton Bank, we caught a glimpse of the next group on the road and began closing. Benedict took a timeout to attend to a call of nature and the rest of us eased onto the climb up to Scots Gap, letting the group ahead pull out a bigger lead until they were safely out of sight again.
We regathered and pushed on, the wrong way through the swoop and dip past Hartburn and then flicking left and right at speed through the bends passing Dyke Neuk, the building on our right instead of the usual left, all the while gathering pace as we went.
By the time we were running through Mitford we’d caught and latched onto the group ahead. This was a problem as we were now travelling in a pack of more than six, but much more importantly, it put would put us at the back of the queue when we reached the cafe at Kirkley.
The overwhelming majority (well, all but one of us, truth be told) seem to have adopted Kirkley as our ordained coffee stop, primarily because it has such a massive outside seating area, with plenty of space for social distancing. On the downside, service is glacially slow and it gets very busy.
Captain Black had a quick consult with the rest of our group and gave me the nod, Carlton and Big Dunc seemed happy to hang back, but the rest of us had permission to push on.
I waited until we hit the climb out of Mitford, before running down the outside of the group and accelerating away, with Captain Black and Benedict in close attendance. By the top of the climb we had a workable lead and it was just a case of maintaining the gap as we closed on the cafe for a bit of sneaky, unadulterated queue jumping.
Safely at Kirkley, Jimmy Mac got lots of deserved kudos for the route, which although all on well traveled roads, had never been put together in that combination or direction before. G-Dawg in particular was well pleased with the speed the front group had managed, clocking a 30 km/hour average throughout, even allowing for his slow amble down to the meeting point that morning.
Crazy Legs revealed that he’d taken to wearing a mask like … well, like a duck to water, the one drawback being that it inevitably provoked him into making comedy wahk-wahk-wahk duck noises.
I suggested it was fun to wear a mask, but I felt it would be even better with a six-shooter holstered on my hip. Yippy-kay-ay. Crazy Legs agreed and said he’d felt like a particularly bad-ass hombre when pairing his mask with a leather stetson, while we touched on the irony of having to wear a mask before you went into a bank these days.
There was also a shout out for Egan Bernal’s comedy effort …
Crazy Legs then said he’d seen that someone had developed an athlete specific mask for wearing during exercise – the major drawback being it closely resembled a horses nosebag. I wondered if it would be useful for holding a handful of oats for mid-ride nutrition, while he suggested a watertight one students could fill with alcohol, needing only to tip their heads back to sup … and we were almost back where we left off last week with his suggestion that students wear a cone of shame …
Finally served and at a table (it was apparently a good scone week, this week, but I’d gone with a flapjack instead) we showed a near preternatural level of forward planning by discussing our options for cafe stops during winter club runs, when the small indoor area here would swiftly be overrun.
This turned into a discussion about how many would actually bother riding throughout the winter when there were “fun” alternatives (their words, not mine) available like Zwift.
Apparently we haven’t quite got the comms set up on the system we’re currently using for collective turbo rides and the only form of communication available is a simple thumbs-up. This seemed mighty limited vocabulary to me and, even if confined to basic hand gestures, I could think of one or two others that might come in useful.
I demonstrated for good effect, making a fist and boldly raising my middle-finger. “Yes,” Crazy Legs confirmed, “That would be useful.”
I then curled my fingers into a loose fist and shook it vigorously up and down in imitation of Gareth Hunt demeaning his craft in order to hock instant coffee, or, if that particular image offends (and I can see why it might) miming the universal sign for an onanistic self-abuser.
“Hah!” Crazy Legs interjected as my actions reminded him of something, “we passed a bloke today blowing up his tyre and he was holding his pump between his legs and furiously making that exact same motion. From a distance I didn’t know whether to offer to help or call the police.”
Crazy Legs then declared he’d just been to see a physio and had happily now regained full movement of his arm. To demonstrate, he lifted his left arm, bent it over the top of his head and touched his right ear. “I couldn’t do that a week ago, it hurt too much.”
“Why on earth would you ever need to do that though?” the Ticker wondered aloud.
“Well, you know, to wash your hair,” Crazy Legs challenged.
The Ticker doffed his casquette, lowered his head and presented Crazy Legs with his perfectly bald pate.
Groups started to form up and drift away, while I stopped to have a quick chat with the late arriving Biden Fecht. I could have tagged onto the last group again, but felt I’d done enough for the day, so as everyone swung left, I tracked right, through Ponteland, heading directly for home.
At Blaydon, traffic was backed up on the roundabout waiting to turn left, either into the shopping centre or the McDonalds. I hope it was the former, but suspect the latter. I caught a rider in the colours of the Blaydon club trying to work his way through the cars on the inside and not getting very far, so I flicked across to the outside and was quickly clear.
As I turned and started up the Heinous Hill the Blaydon rider caught me and swished past, then swung left and then right, past Pedalling Squares. He didn’t, as I expected drop into the cafe, but looked to be taking the exact same route up the hill as me – and there was still around three-quarters of the climb to go.
[With special bonus feature, incorporating the Plague Diaries – Week#18!]
Avid and astute SLJ readers (is there actually such a thing, I wonder?) may have noted no reporting from the front-lines last week. This was ostensibly because I was on holiday, but in reality it has more to do with me being plain lazy.
It wasn’t quite the holiday I was looking forward to, either. Instead of swanning off to some small, Mediterranean island, I had an enforced staycation and got up to such exciting things as deep-cleaning an oven and moving Thing#1 from her old student flat to a new student flat ahead of her final year at university, should it actually start as planned in September.
I did manage one ride of note, meeting up with 5 other club members on the Thursday, just so they could skip away from me on a series of hills out west and watch me flail and grovel my way up behind them. I stacked up 128 kms and over 1,300 metres of climbing, including several sections taken at a quite blistering pace. The weather was kind and good fun was had by all – well, me anyway, despite the grovelling.
Two days later and still not sure I’d fully recovered, I was up in time to make the rendezvous for a return to the “new normal” that our Saturday club run’s have morphed into.
So, 7:15 found me sitting at the table having breakfast, catching up on the news, while occasionally casting unhappy glances at the sky outside. The news was all dreadful and thoroughly depressing and it was perfectly matched by the weather. Dense black clouds were roiling overhead and a gusting wind pelted the glass with a constant tattoo of hard rain.I knew the weather was meant to clear in an hour or two, but reasoned I’d be soaked through by that point. I also knew the weather was forecast to be much better tomorrow.
“Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow” is an old family adage and seemed like the perfect advice for this time and place, so I slunk back to bed to try again on Sunday.
Seven of us were out the following morning, in much improved weather and it was actually pleasant, although chilly despite long periods of bright sunshine. We decided to (rather daringly) flout government guidelines and travel in one, ever so slightly too large group. In case we were stopped, I began rehearsing a plausible defence around needing to test my eyes for group riding by … err, indulging in some group riding.
We set the cafe at Capheaton as our ultimate goal, so it was just a case of feeling our way there through some suitably democratic decision-making-on-the-fly.
I fell in with Plumose Pappus as we pushed out, getting my excuses in early and telling him how I’d been royally smashed on the climbs on Thursday and didn’t think I’d recovered yet. Even though he himself is one of those nauseatingly flyweight, climbing mavens, he seemed even more keen than me to disparage and dish the dirt his own kind.
We determined they all had unresolved Mummy issues and suffered from a sibling-driven inferiority complex. Hills then became emblematic of the mother’s breast and the crest they all raced to was the symbolic location of the nipple. As a hotchpotch, utterly nonsensical, made-up and barking-mad theory, Plumose Pappus concluded, it was no more outlandish and absurd than some of Freud’s wilder suppositions and there was maybe, perhaps, just the teeny-tiniest grain of truth in there too.
We made Capheaton without too much splintering of the group and paused for well-deserved coffee and cake. They’d opened up the entire hall as a large communal space now and, although impressively busy with cyclists from near and far, there was enough room to maintain the prerequisite 1 metre plus distance.
As the most responsible, mature and sober-looking among us, the staff latched onto Jimmy Mac as our presumptive leader and he was asked to provide contact details for Covid tracing should the need arise. He somehow resisted the urge to give them OGL’s name and completed the formalities, while I got on with the serious business of devouring a chocolate brownie. This proved every bit as good, if not better, than the carrot cake I’d had the last time I stopped here.
We had a quick catch-up with the Prof, out once again with his Backstreet Boys tribute act, then it was back on the bikes and heading home.
This jaunt added another 115 km and 1,000 plus metres of climbing to Thursday’s efforts. I still haven’t recovered yet.
So finally, onto Week#19 and, approaching the Saturday, all early versions of the weather had darkly forecast thunderstorms, although that threat seemed to be diminishing as the weekend approached. Still, I was prepared for the worst and shipped out with a rain jacket stuffed in my rear pocket.
Riding through Denton toward the rather poetically named Silver Lonnen, (but still nowhere near as good a place-name as neighbouring, Two Ball Lonnen) – I was somewhat surprised to find a queue, 20 or 30 people long, waiting outside a new shop. I was even more surprised when I found out it was actually a butcher’s and wondered what strange and exotic meats they were offering to draw such a crowd.
At the meeting point it was as close to a normal club-run as I could imagine, reminding me of a time before all this Covid malarkey grimly manifested. It wasn’t long before the pavement was crowded with bikes and biklists, around 23 strong, with the typical outpouring of our usual prattling blather and bolleaux.
G-Dawg bemoaned the weather the past few weeks that had been generally all-round-awful, but never bad enough to stop him riding. In fact it neveris and he revealed Mrs. G-Dawg has given up asking if he’s “actually going to go out in that” because now she knows the answer. Yes. He is.
In direct contrast, Another Engine suggested his wife likes to have some “me-time” in the morning’s and really enjoys it when he’s out on the bike and not getting underfoot, to such an extent that she’ll excoriate him if his determination looks remotely like wavering. He described occasions when, peeking timidly around the bedroom curtains at angry, blackened skies, lashing rain and the treetops shaking in a raging gale, wondering if he should actually risk going out, only to be soundly berated from the warm confines of the bed he’d just abandoned: “Don’t be a pansy, go on, get yourself out, you wuss!”
Bless British Cycling, the’re doing their best in these unprecedented times, but the latest “easing of restrictions” that allow a small degree of road racing just seem nonsensical – “bunch racing is limited to 24 riders … and a maximum of 15 minutes per race.” That resembles no form of racing I’ve ever come across and everyone else seemed equally as bemused.
According to all accounts however, the local time-trialing scene appears to be flourishing and having to turn riders away, despite the new regulations that made Toshi San chuckle: the need for riders to bring their own pen to sign on.
The current restrictions mean there’s very little chance the local, elite level Beaumont Trophy and Curlew Cup races will go ahead this year, while hopes for the mass-participation, Cyclone sportive seems to be dangling by a thread.
For our ride, G-Dawg had devised a potential route and posted it up as a guide for whoever wanted to follow it. We split into groups of six, with a potential rendezvous at the Kirkley cafe arranged for 11.30. I pushed off and joined Jimmy Mac in leading the front group out … and away we went.
We were joined by G-Dawg, Crazy Legs, the Dormanator (aka Jake the Snake) and Kermit, to form a neat sextet, as we followed G-Dawg’s route down into the Tyne Valley.
Before we got there though we had to negotiate the suburbs, where we seemed to hit every red traffic light possible. I was only mildly disappointed that I couldn’t get a good chorus of Roxanne going, before we were out into the countryside, I was swinging over and someone else was pushing up to ride alongside Jimmy Mac.
This then pretty much set the pattern for the rest of the day. One of us would join Jimmy Mac on the front for a spell and peel off to rest and recover, while he just kept station, ploughing along with the pace high, through headwind, or tailwind, uphill or down and in and out the dusty bluebells to boot.
Into the valley and along the river, in the narrow lanes just past Ovingham a car somehow overtook us, squeezing past when there was no room to do so, a stupidly, dangerous manoeuvre that had the wing mirror millimetres from Jimmy Mac’s bars.
He had just about recovered his equilibrium and started checking behind, “to see if anyone else wants their car buffed,” when, moments later and with an explosive clatter and whir of furiously beating wings, a female pheasant launched itself from the hedgerow and swept past just under his nose. Close, but apparently not quite as close as the car had come.
We clawed our way out of the valley and dodged across the A69, regrouping before climbing the rest of the way clear and then dropping down to Whittle Dene Reservoir, running a section of an established club run in reverse.
Then it was straight through to Stamfordham, Callerton and a zig-zag route through the posh streets of Darras Hall, around numerous road works and lane closures to Ponteland. From there it was a fast burn along the winding, draggy road through to a grand finale, a frenetic uphill burst to the cafe, arriving, with incredible precision, spot on 11.30.
It wasn’t long until the rest of the mob arrived in their separate pods and one or two others joined from various solo or small group rides. By the time we’d been served and were sitting around the field, the sun had decided to join the party and it was blazing hot. Perfect for kicking back, relaxing and talking more balls than even Mitre manage.
Crazy Legs had been tickled by a video showing tourist boats at Niagara Falls, one American and one Candian, which seemed to perfectly encapsulate each countries contrasting approach to the Covid-19 threat. The US boat was rammed to the gunwales, with maybe sixty or seventy sweaty tourists, crammed cheek-by-jowl on its decks, while the similar sized Canadian boat had about a dozen passengers with plenty of space for social distancing and moving around.
We discussed our most likely national reaction to someone not wearing a facemask, or failing to maintain social distancing, which we decided was most likely be manifest not in a blazing argument, shanking with shiv, or capping of an ass, but that most censorious of British reactions, an almighty tut. (Isn’t the Almighty Tut one of Batman’s arch enemies?)
G-Dawg revealed he used to play football with a bloke who had the loudest tut known to man, perfectly audible anywhere on the pitch. Annoyingly, he wasn’t afraid to employ it either, in the face of any poor pass or mistimed tackle.
“He would tut so often, we called him Skippy,” G-Dawg revealed.
“Ah, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo,” a chuckling Crazy Legs reminisced, going rather misty eyed and finding a slight catch in his throat as he recalled the Australian TV version of Lassie, but one where the role of faithful and selfless animal-companion was changed from loyal, smart and intelligent dog, to a cantankerous, belligerent marsupial.
“‘Cept he wasn’t a kangaroo, but a wallaby,” I interjected in a smart-arse way, in part because I’d read this red-hot exposé in a gutter press Sunday tabloid, or similar, but mainly because I am indeed a smart-arse.
Further research suggests Skippy, or the numerous Skippy’s used in the filming this creaky, cheesy kids programme, were in fact Eastern Grey Kangaroos – at least one of which, as Crazy Legs reminded us, was probably maimed to provide the disembodied kangaroo arm with which “Skippy” would pick up or manipulate important plot items.
“I remember nearly being run over by a kangaroo when I went out for a jog once,” Jimmy Mac interjected. I assume he meant somewhere in the Outback and not more recently in the wilds of Northumberland.
Hmm, Jimmy Mac having a close shave at the hands of a dumb, thoughtless, unobservant animal. I sense a pattern here.
Meanwhile we watched Goose closely inspecting an e-bike parked next to the cafe. Crazy Legs recalled a patented Goose lecture about e-bikes at the top of a pass on one of our European Tours. His informed diatribe had lasted for a good 20 minutes, before he finally shrugged and blithely admitted that actually, he knew nothing about e-bikes whatsoever.
The Garrulous Kid is itching to get back to university and already looking forward to hitting the bars, parties and clubs – Covid be damned. G-Dawg mused that perhaps students should be made to wear something like a 2 metre diameter hula hoop to maintain correct social distancing at all times.
Crazy Legs had a much better idea and thought they should all be made to wear a plastic cone of shame, or Elizabethan collar, similar to those that vets use on dogs to stop them licking or scratching irritations. Obviously, we’d still want them to drink (we’re not that cruel) but I reasoned if the seal around the neck was watertight, they could just pour their drinks directly into the cone and then all they had to do would be to dip their heads and lap.
We think it’s a simple and elegant solution to a whole host of issues and can’t see any drawbacks. Patent pending.
Contemporaneously baked and chilled, we reluctantly decided it was time to leave and set out for home in our various groups, bringing to a close a club run that felt suspiciously normal.
So, more relaxation of the lockdown rules and, according to the Daily Heil Mail at least, it’s all going swimmingly. Well, as long as you don’t mention Liverpool football fans, Bournemouth beach-goers and an army of illegal ravers, or dozens of other totally alarming issues.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the utter stupidity of people by now, but they do keep finding ways to exceed my already dismally low expectations. Let’s just see where we are in a week or two, when the consequences of these types of events have had a chance to play out. And hope.
Right now though, I’ll go along with journalist John Crace, who suggested that with Boris at least as keen to open up the economy as he is to save lives, we shouldn’t rush to change arrangements. He concludes that if there hasn’t been a second spike in infections after a month, maybe he’ll feel safe to come out and finishes, “but I’m not holding my breath. Or rather, I am.”
So, for the time being at least, I’ll stick to riding on my own, even though I know we have small groups organised to head out from the usual place, at the usual time and they’re probably fine.
Just to illustrate the nonsensical, arbitrariness and inconsistencies of Government thinking though, somewhat bizarrely, cricket, you know the sport where 13 players and two officials socially isolate on at least 8,000 square metres of field, is not one of the sports given permission to restart.
Football however, 22 players and three officials running, jostling, shouting, swearing, sweating, tackling, spitting and colliding around a field of 7,140 square metres. Well, that’s OK. Why? Because our Prime Minister deems that a cricket ball, not a football, nor an open pub, not a beach, or restaurant, nor a 1 metre space between people, but a cricket ball, is “a natural vector for disease.”
Anyway, back to a sport I actually care about, a flash sale this week saw me acquire a new pair of bibshorts from a company I’ve previously had little experience of, Blueball Sports. Apparently Blueball are based somewhere in the Basque country, which, I guess gives them a degree of credibility, it’s an area frequently referred to as a hot bed of cycling and their fans are seen as passionate, knowledgeable and politeley restrained.
I know the shorts are Blueball’s, because they’re cleverly branded with … err … a big, white circle on the front of one leg? Because they’re Basque we can, I think, forgive them a little for not quite considering the association of their brand name with the medical condition epididymal hypertension, let alone its less savoury use as a euphemism for intense testicular discomfort.
What I’m less forgiving of is the amount of spurious garbage written across the seat pad, all of which seems rather overdone and totally superfluous.
“High protection?” Fair enough. “Impact Zone” and “Anti-Shock Gel” and “3D”? Hmm, all right. But, “Air Cool?” Really? I don’t think so. And then, what am I to make of “Moisture Evacuation” and perhaps most perplexing of all, the simple injunction, “be present.”
Still, back to matters in hand, the hot flush of high temperatures was already starting to fade by the weekend, even before it was rudely hustled out the door by a series of crashing thunderstorms as the weather turned decidedly unsettled. The forecast for Saturday was for cool temperatures with a high chance of heavy, intermittent showers and occasional but brief sunny spells.
Mrs. SLJ was at pains to tell me where the sunscreen was as I made to depart on Saturday morning. I managed not to laugh at her, but really wasn’t convinced I’d be needing it and, just for once, I was right. (I have to celebrate these small victories – they’re very few and far between.)
The club had made plans to meet up again at the cafe at Kirkley, but the timing was vague and I decided the weather wasn’t really good enough to encourage sitting around outside talking constant blather. (To clarify, I mean the sitting around outside bit, we never need any encouragement to blather.)
I decided then to give that particular cyclist cafe a miss, but the Rainman had promised that the one at Capheaton was open, so I had this as a possible destination in the back of my mind.
To start I decided on a bit of route reversal, so instead of riding along the Tyne Valley and then hopping across to the Derwent Valley, I did it the other way round, heading south, south-west initially towards Burnopfeld, before dropping down to Hamsterly and through to Ebchester, then climbing the Dere Road up to Whittonstall.
It had the potential to be a pleasant route, but as soon as I crested the first climb past Whickham Golf Club the rain started lashing down. I stopped to pull on a light rain jacket but it was totally inadequate for the job in hand and was quickly soaked through as the heavy rain battered it effortlessly aside.
The drop down toward Hamsterly was taken at a cautious pace, partly because the road was awash with run-off and partly to try and lessen the amount of cold, dirty spray being kicked up by my wheels.
Nevertheless, my shoes quickly became water-logged and my socks an unappealing shade of grey. There’d be no tan-lines today, but some impressive grime-lines instead. Deciding the jacket wasn’t really doing much for me, I bundled it into a tight ball and stuffed it into a jersey pocket, where it would weep cold, miserable tears for a while, lamenting its cavalier abandonment.
The climb up from Ebchester to Whitton Stall was a new one to me, relatively straight and regular, my only complaint was it seemed to have an infinite horizon, you always sensed you were nearing a crest, then it would leap on ahead another couple of hundred metres infront of you
I was pleased the traffic was relatively quiet so I could ride straight up the centre line of the road, avoiding the small stream had formed at the verge to make its way downhill and the middle of the lane that was rutted and uneven.
The rain eased as I dropped down the fast descent from Whitton Stall, involuntarily tailgating a car as my speed crept past 40 mph. I then made my way through the pretty village of Hindley, only marred by a shockingly bad patch of road right in the centre, before dropping down to Stocksfield and crossing the Tyne.
This week’s entry into my Amateur Floral Almanac belongs to the many wild hawthorn blossoms threaded through the hedges, a delicate white with a barely discernible pink blush.
I cambered up to the A69 and crossed to take in the climb up to Newton, then through the Plantations and onto the Matfen Road. From Matfen, I took a dip down the Ryals and it was here, at the bottom of the climb and after 26.5 miles covered, that I encountered my first fellow cyclist of the day.
From the Ryals I scribed a wide circle around Hallington Reservoir, then made my way through Little Bavington and out to Capheaton.
Somewhere along this road the fields had been shaved back to a bright ochre stubble that was swarmong with the black specks of dozens of opportunistic crows. I turned back to grab a picture, but naturally only managed to startle most of them into flight.
Rainman had promised the cafe at Capheaton was open and so it proved. The coffee was good, the carrot cake even better, but here too it was quiet, my short break only disturbed by just a cycling couple, who arrived as I gathered my stuff up to leave.
I took the road down toward West Belsay junction. As anticipated it has acquired a new surface, but as I discovered last week, it’s rough, open-textured, gravelly and crumbling, slow and heavy and only a slight improvement on the rutted and fissured original. I shudder to think the damage you could do coming down on this at speed, it would be like sliding the wrong way down a cheese grater.
From Belsay, a bit more reverse engineering of a typical club ride took me out through Whalton to the Gubeon, before heading toward Kirkley and home. Along this road I passed Sneaky Pete, getting in a few sneaky training miles. He was past me almost before I recognised him.
Crossing back over the river at Newburn, I picked up a fellow cyclist and we both moaned as the traffic built up and slowed our progress coming into Blaydon.
“McDonalds is busy again, I see,” he noted, correctly identifying the cause of the queuing traffic. No surprise I guess, if people are odd enough to queue for hours to get into a Primark, or Ikea, hell, why not half an hour to get a McDonalds too?
“Are you tempted?”
“Nope” he snorted.
Me neither. It probably couldn’t offer anything half as good as the carrot cake at Capheaton.
My temporary companion took the first part of the Heinous Hill ahead of me before swinging away to the left, leaving me to crawl the rest of the way up on my own, even as the clouds opened and the rain came lashing down again.
Soaked at the start and drenched at the end is not ideal, but at least the middle bit of my ride was good.
Saturday promised to be a most splendid day for piloting a bike around a suitably sunny and bucolic Northumberland and, with the SLJ household all out and about, I had the entire day free and absolutely no impetus to return at a set time.
Given the good weather and the near certainty that the cafe at Kirkley would be open, Crazy Legs suggested it was a good opportunity for a belated-club rendezvous and catch up, which he pencilled in for 10.30 onward, all riders welcome.
Small groups agreed to form up at the regular place and at the regular time to ride out together, with the intention of arriving at Kirkley for the 10.30 meet, while I changed my intended route to put me within what I hoped would be striking distance of the cafe for about the right time.
I was a bit delayed by dithering, but finally got out the house at about half eight, crossing the river at Newburn and climbing out the other side of the valley toward Throckley.
Here I passed a bloke on the other side of the road out walking the family pets, or perhaps, pet in the singular? It was either three individual, but perfectly matched, large, black pedigree dogs, walking in perfect lockstep, bodies pressed so tightly together they merged into one long, expanse of glossy sable fur and muscle, three identical pink tongues all lolling out the right hand side of three identical jaws – or I’d just passed Cerberus, the three-headed, canine gate-keeper of Hades!
Well, Throckley is quite a strange place, so I didn’t immediately discount this as some sort of mythological encounter.
From there, I unsuccessfully tried to find a route through the labyrinthine streets of Heddon-on-the-Wall and out the other side. Apparently I was attempting the impossible and had to back-track to pick up the road again, to travel around, rather than through the village.
Finally free, I pushed on to Horsley, before dropping back down into the valley at Ovingham, noting it was now the turn of dozens of bright yellow buttercups along the river bank to mark the flow of days on my (strictly amateur) flower almanac.
I was briefly joined in appreciation of this floral display by a small, black-tailed ferret, that wandered out into the road, belatedly noticed me and, as most wildlife seems capable of doing, instantly disappeared without trace. That’s the kind of trick that makes you immediately doubt it was ever there.
I followed the river almost as far as Corbridge, taking the Aydon road to vault me safely up and over the A69 and from there pushed my way on to Matfen.
As I approached the village it was ten past ten and the signs told me I was 10 miles from Ponteland. This was going to be a hell of a time-trial if I wanted to get to Kirkley, a few mile beyond Ponteland, by half past.
I got down into the drops and picked up the pace, swerving around the massive, bloody cadaver of a badger, splayed over the road as if one of Ridley Scott’s aliens had burst out of its chest cavity. I was pleased to be travelling fast enough not to see some of the more gruesome details and be well down the road and past the rotting stink before it really registered.
Like several of the roads around here, the route from Matfen through to Stamfordham has a brand new surface. This would normally be the cause for rejoicing, but the new surface feels rough, grippy and heavy. The combination of the bright sunlight and my sunglasses also seemed to give it a rather disconcerting, blue-metallic sheen, as if coated in a thin layer of oil.
Through Stamfordham, then Dalton and back to more normal roads, I hit the long, straight, relatively smooth and slightly downhill passage of Limestone Lane and picked up the pace, watching my speed creep up … 25.6 mph … 27.4 mph … 29.8 mph … no matter how hard I pushed I couldn’t break the 30 mph barrier …
… And I needn’t have bothered.
At the end of Limestone Lane I ran abruptly into some temporary traffic lights that held me for what seemed like five or six minutes. I could just have pootled along and got there at the exact same time and a lot fresher too.
Finally released by the lights I pushed as hard as I could through Ponteland and out toward Kirkley, but I was tiring rapidly now and it had become hard work.
Still, I made decent time and was soon turning off and threading my way toward richly deserved coffee and cake.
And what a great delight to see so many familiar faces, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg, Jimmy Mac and Plumose Pappus, Aether, Ahlambra and Richard of Flanders were already there and others would trickle in, solo or in small groups – Buster, the Big Yin, our Double Dutch tag-team, Sneaky Pete, Caracol, Red Max, and Mrs. Red Max.
Benedict, the Ticker, Mini Miss, Princess Fiona, Spoons and Front-Wheel Neil made it too, but were late arrivals, having had a few issues after the pedal on Front-Wheel Neil’s new bike unwound and came off still attached to his cleats.
Crazy Legs was in full lament mode with bike issues of his own, complaining something along the lies of “j’aime mon Ribble, mais mon Ribble ne m’aime pas” after discovering an annoying squeak on the much-cossetted Ribble. Stripping it to the bone, he’d carefully cleaned and lubed everything before re-assembling to find the annoying squeak yet persisted.
Halfway through his re-build he’d also found he had to buy a 14mm Allen key to remove the bottom bracket, something we decided was really atypical on bike builds, the type of tool that perhaps only plumbers would have a common use for.
“Nah,” Aether informed us, “Merckx commonly use them.”
“Huh?” G-Dawg, looked confused, if King Ted’s bikes used them, that seemed like a mighty endorsement. “What do they use them for?”
“Mostly on the engine blocks.”
G-Dawg looked even more confused.
“No, no, the cars, Mercs. Mercedes-Benz!”
Crazy Legs was confounded that any Merc owner would ever deign to get there hands grubby doing DIY on their cars, besides, weren’t they meant to self-heal?
I took time out to compliment Plumose Papuss on his lockdown hairstyle, which rather fittingly made him look like a dandelion clock. G-Dawg, who does his own hair (probably with an angle grinder, in much the same way that Desperate Dan shaves with a blowtorch) offered to render assistance, but was very politley rebuffed. Can’t think why, although he did mention a recent episode when the guard slipped and he carved a huge bald tranche across the top of his scalp by mistake, which he said made him look like Tintin.
Sitting in the sun, we enjoyed the usual blather and general congeniality, before people started drifting away.
Not ready for home yet, I took in a loop north, Shilvington, Whalton and Belsay, before heading back. At a pee-stop at the bottom of Berwick Hill I spotted a tiny bird with gold bars on its wings that I think was a Common Firecrest (although they’re obviously not all that common, as I can’t remember ever seeing one before.)
By the time I was climbing the Heinous Hill, I’d topped 70 miles and was satisfyingly weary. Good weather, a good ride and it was great to catch up with everyone. Perhaps there is a faint glimmer at the end of the tunnel after all.
I learned this week that there are not always two side to every argument and occasionally some things are just so wrong that they’re completely indefensible.
Meanwhile, back to cycling. ..
Despite last weeks high volume of chatter about resuming group riding in line with new lockdown guidelines that allow groups six to congregate outdoors, the poor weather seemed to kibosh any intentions or experiments.
Spoons and Aether however tentatively agreed to give it a go this Saturday, planning to meet at the usual place and the usual time to ride together, along with any one else who felt inclined to join them.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs suggested he’d be at the Kirkley Cafe from 10.30 onward on Saturday, holding court if anyone wanted to meet and find release for month upon month of pent up blather.
Taking note of the appalling weather forecast and thinking ahead, he even pondered whether the cafe would allow us to use the big barn-like structure where they’d parked the portable toilets for a meet up. This, he felt, would allow us to stay dry whilst having enough space to maintain social distancing.
An illicit rendezvous of damp lycra-fetishists around a remote, public toilet, you say? Oh yes, perfectly normal behaviour, Officer.
While the group debate about the safety of group rides raged across social media, talk turned to government protocols and it wasn’t long before someone mentioned official guidance from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. They recently amended their coronavirus advice to suggest single men and women in the Netherlands organise a seksbuddy (sex buddy) after criticism of rules dictating that home visitors maintain a 1.5-metre distance from their hosts during lockdown.
This inevitably found our Dutch contingent fielding a wholehost of … well, let’s say … err, generous, well-intentioned(?) propositions, which in turn led to one late arrival questioning if he’d accidentally stumbled across the clubs Tinder page, rather then our ride-organising WhatsApp chat. Ha!
One of the great benefits (or potential drawbacks, from a motivational perspective) of having to ride solo, is there is no need to stick to meeting times, places, or even days.
So it was on Saturday morning, with a raging gale outside sounding like a cross between between a lumbering 747 taking off under heavy load and a seething, spring tide, trenching on a shingle beach, and with the rain furiously rattling on the roof and windows like a handful of flung gravel, I decided I could just as easily ride Sunday instead.
It wasn’t to be a peaceful morning however, constant driving rain and the wild wind kept the cats largely constrained to the house and sent them stir-crazy-over-the-edge. Yowling wildly, eyes wide and black and tails lashing ferociously, they chased and battered each other up and down the stairs, over all the furniture and throughout the house, burning off steam and excess energy.
Still, I can kind of understand. It must be really hard being a finely-tuned predator, attentive to even the slightest rustle in the undergrowth, only to step outside and find the entire world is in motion and your senses are totally overwhelmed.
I’m not sure how many rode on Saturday, but wedded as they were to a common cause, Spoons and Aether definitely made a go of it and then, after all that, had to report back that the cafe at Kirkley was closed.
Apparently, the owners decided the weather was so grim only the truly committed (or should-be-committed) were likely to be out and about. Somewhat surprisingly, these two groups aren’t actually numerous enough in the North East to justify opening up the cafe.
The weather did manage to improve a little for Sunday, in a swings-and-roundabouts sort of way. We transitioned from gales, heavy showers and intermittent patches of blue and sunshine, to uniformly grey, dank and dismal. And it was chilly. If last week had perfectly encapsulated a bright, summers day, then Sunday would be a very plausible parody of a winter ride, cold, damp and blustery.
In fact it was so chill, I went back in and pulled on some knee warmers to complement my long sleeve base layer, arm warmers, thick socks, cap, gloves and rain jacket. At no point in the ride, including a smattering of fairly challenging inclines, did I ever feel overdressed, or overheated.
Once again I set out with no great plan, aiming to head out along the Tyne Valley at a brisk pace until I got tired and then decide what to do and where to go from there.
My first marker was to cross the river at Wylam, which I finally managed to do without having to stop for a train to pass – at only the third time of asking.
Just past the Stocksfield, I found one of the fields completely crammed with cows, with no opportunity to comply with social distancing protocols. I stopped to snatch a photo, at which point I was approached by a female pheasant (phemale feasant?) perhaps looking for a seksbuddy, before deciding I definitely wasn’t her type and squawking away in a burr of wings.
Along the riverside, wild poppies and gorse are starting to flower now, adding their own bright and cheery splashes of colour to an already multi-hued landscape.
I piloted my way through the eerily empty streets of Corbridge, crossing back to the south side of the river and was en route to Hexham when the trains had the last laugh. Progress was halted at another level crossing to allow some creaking, clanking rolling stock to lumber through. This is becoming such a common occurrence, I’m going to have to find new roads, study and synchronise with the local rail timetable, or in extremis, maybe take up train-spotting to add value to these interruptions.
Hmm, why is the book/film train-spotting so called? I’ll have to Google that …
Into Hexham and with a lack of decent signage I decided to just follow my instincts and find a way to hop over into the Derwent Valley and home. Sadly, I hadn’t accounted for my instincts finding what seemed to be the steepest possible route out of Hexham, which had me churning my way up what Strava informed me afterwards was the racecourse climb.
I think I’ve been up it once before, the time Mad Colin led a super-long club ride across to the dark side (i.e. south of the Tyne, a.k.a. Mordor) – this was the day a newbie tagged along, bonked and was so late getting back OGL, who wasn’t actually on the ride, was left fielding numerous phone-calls from his irate mother demanding to know what we’d done with her son.
Dragging myself to the top, with no sign of any racecourse, I have to add, once again I found all the signs seemed to have petered out. Back to trusting my all too fallible instincts, I was immediately disappointed by the long, fast descent I found myself on, quickly frittering away all the hard-earned altitude I’d so recently gained.
I pressed on regardless, until, just outside Juniper, I stopped to check the map on my phone, hoping I was more or less where I should be, or at least heading in the right direction and just to make sure I hadn’t somehow ended up on completely the wrong continent.
I seemed to be on track and it wasn’t much longer before I was on familiar roads, my route running through Slaley and down toward Blanchland. I turned left at the still devastated looking scene of our own Tunguska Incident, rather than dropping further into the valley. From there, I started to thread my way home.
Sunday rides instead of a Saturday? Yeah, why not, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if I’m out on my own and doubles-down on my chances of finding a window of decent weather too. We’ll see.
I wasn’t out last week, because, well … World Cup, baby! My work colleague, the bloke formerly known as Fat Dave, eruditely swayed my internal dilemma by arguing it had been 12 long years since the England rugby team last made a final, so I wasn’t likely to have this opportunity again until 2031, when I’d be … ulp … fast bearing down on my 70th birthday.
Apparently, in joining 12.8 million other disappointed TV-viewers, I’d missed a decent day for a bicycle ride, with an assortment of around 20 Celts, Continentals and hardened rugby-deniers out and about. It had obviously been a complete contrast to today, where, with temperatures hovering around freezing and the potential for ice on the roads, social media was already active with “should I ride?” queries.
Ride leader for the day, Benedict, had already peered outside and determined the conditions were marginal, at best. Meanwhile Aether was lobbying (apparently unsuccessfully) for a later start to give the sun a fighting chance, just time enough to eke out a little bit of warmth and reduce the likelihood of ice.
I’d stepped outside to pull the bike from the shed and immediately hustled back in, to change my thick base layer for the thickest I had. I pulled an old Castelli, long-sleeved, thermal jersey over this, topped it off with a winter jacket and stuffed a light rain jacket in my back pocket for god measure. I wasn’t expecting rain, but felt an extra windproof layer might be useful.
Shorts under winter tights, disco headband, buff, glove liners, thick gloves, trusty Thermolite socks, shoes and shoe covers and I felt I was just about good to go.
So I did.
I rolled slowly down the hill, looking for any signs of ice creeping out from the gutters, while carefully avoiding the wet and slippery mass of yellow leaves that lined the road.
Halfway down and the world suddenly turned white, as I passed into a thick, still and smothering shroud of freezing fog, that appeared to have been poured into the valley bottom. I checked my lights were on and blinking away furiously, as I slipped silently into this dim and clinging mist.
The windscreens of all the cars parked up on the side of the road were opaque with thick feathers of ice, while the grass was frozen stiff, white and curled up protectively. The cold struck at my fingers and toes and any area of exposed flesh on my face and I began to wonder if perhaps I needed further layers on top of my layers. It was chilly.
I don’t know if the stillness of the air played a part, but the Blaydon roundabout stank of spilled diesel. I couldn’t help channelling my inner Colonel Kilgore, but luckily no one was around to overhear my mad mutterings:
“Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell? It smells like … victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…”
2℃ the readout on the factory unit told me, as I crossed the train lines, before taking to the empty pavement to defy the traffic lights and cross the river without waiting. The bridge seemed to be floating in mid-air and if any rowers had been out I wouldn’t have spotted them through the opaque, milky whiteness that obscured the river surface.
Climbing out the other side of the valley, the transition was just as sudden, misty-fog giving way to clear, bright air between one pedal stroke and the next.
A cold but brilliant sun now bounced off the wet road, turning intermittent spots of diesel into shining, metallic-rainbow coloured blooms. I was obviously following a badly wounded bus and, with a little better knowledge of routes, I could probably have identified it from the tell-tale trail it had left in its wake and tracked it all the way back to its lair.
Distractions aside, I arrived at the meeting place at the usual time to find a solitary G-Dawg standing and waiting astride his fixie. We agreed we were likely to have a very small group defying the bitter cold to ride today.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting place:
While we waited to see who else was stupid brave enough to be out, we compared notes on the rugby. Neither of us had been remotely surprised by the result and we agreed the most deserving team had won on the day.
And, moving swiftly on …
We were eventually joined by Alhambra, OGL and two relatively new guys, lets call them Cowboys and Bison for now … just, because.
Alhambra won the prize for having the filthiest, mud-spattered bike and was immediately taken to task by OGL.
He did a quick, comedy double-take and tried on an astonished expression. “I swear it was clean when I left the house.”
No one was buying and he finally admitted he’d been so busy decorating at home, he’d never gotten around to the part of his to-do list that included cleaning his bike.
OGL was leant on for an extended discourse on the different through-axle options for disc wheels, as Bison is in the process of buying a new bike. At least he didn’t physically have to do anything, although it remains quite a popular option for someone to turn up with this, that, or the other wrong with their bike and needing some expert tinkering with.
G-Dawg expected that sooner or later someone would take this to the ultimate extreme and walk to the meeting place carrying an unrideable bike, before demanding OGL laid healing hands on it, to make everything work again.
Zardoz was the last to join us, making up a slightly less than magnificent seven. That looked like being it for the day.
A couple of minutes past our usual departure time, with no more joiners likely, we discussed ride options and decided to stick to main roads and bus routes that we hoped would be gritted and ice free, then off we went.
I pushed out onto the front with G-Dawg. It was a largely still day, so I held position for most of the ride. One benefit of this, I found when I got home, was a pristine, completely clean jacket, lacking the usual spots and dots of road grime picked up from the filthy, wet roads when riding amongst wheels with variable mudguard coverage.
Speaking of which, OGL wondered if anyone else had seen the “10 best winter bikes” feature on one of the inter-webby sites that cyclists are supposed to follow. Much to his amusement every other “winter” bike recommended had a carbon fibre frame and, more astonishingly, not a single one was shown with mudguards. Evidently these were designed for the South of France, not the harsh realities of a North East winter.
It was still decidedly chilly once we’d left the exotic micro-climate of the transport interchange centre bus station behind us, but, try as we might, we couldn’t find any ice and, all in all, if you got the protection right, it was a pleasant day for a ride.
G-Dawg was happy just to be able to wear his quilted and heavily insulated bike jacket again, something so warm, he reckons conditions only warrant its use just once or twice a year.
There were no Flat White adherents out with us and it wasn’t cold enough to impose UCI/Flat White extreme weather protocols, so we passed by the cafe at Kirkley Cycles with nothing more than a wistful glance and kept going.
At Whalton about 30km into the ride we called a halt to ponder our route options. This gave Bison a chance to spot the defibrillator inside an old-fashioned red phonebox and idly wonder if it could transmit a shock powerful enough to restore feeling to his toes.
OGL set course straight to the cafe, while the rest of us took on a loop to Bolam Lake, with Cowboys darting off the front as we took the hill out of the village.
“That’s a very early break for the cafe,” G-Dawg mused.
I assured him it was more likely just a desperate attempt to warm up, before I pushed up alongside Cowboys on the front.
At the lake, Zardoz decided it was still too early for us to head to the cafe, so we tacked on another few miles, before heading off for some much deserved coffee and cake.
Main topics of conversation at the Coffee stop:
Zardoz had been watching video of King Ted winning the Giro in 1974 and marvelled at the sheer grind and superhuman effort of climbing mountains with massive gears back in the day.
“Ah,” G-Dawg interjected, putting himself in the shoes of one of those prototypical hard-men racers, “Only 5 miles to the top of this mountain, so only another hour of this and then I can sit down again!”
OGL remembered the first time the cycling community were introduced to the compact, 34-tooth chainring that would allow almost anyone to spin up hills, rather than grunt, gurn and grind their way painfully upwards. The general consensus in the North East was that it would never catch on and it was really only for the most effete of poseurs.
“It didn’t help that they couldn’t work out whether it was supposed to go on the front, or the back of the bike.” G-Dawg quipped.
Talk of transgender cyclists, by way of Caster Semenya, led to G-Dawg realising he’d heard Pippa York on racing commentary, but had never actually seen her.
“You can still tell wee Bobby’s in there,” OGL said.
“Woah, that’s a bit personal,” Bison decided, “Anyway, you do know that size doesn’t matter, don’t you.”
Apparently it does though, as this led OGL and G-Dawg to recollect attending one of the Braveheart, Scottish Cycling dinners, alongside German track sprinter, the rather disproportionately shaped Robert Forstermann.
The 5’7″ tall Fostermann is renowned for having astonishing 34 inch thighs.
The chafing must be something awful and I argued he was the only person who could start a fire just by running down the street.
G-Dawg recalled the bizarre sight of stumbling into the Gents toilets only to find Robert Forsterman and a bunch of other pro-cyclists, lined up with their kecks around their ankles, comparing thigh girth.
OGL said that Forstermann had then appeared in a kilt, perhaps to more easily flash his famous thighs, possibly as a tribute to his hosts, or maybe because a visit to Scotland proved a eureka moment for a man for whom finding trousers that fit must be a real headache.
Talk of men in skirts and dresses reminded Zardoz of a Grayson Perry talk he’d recently heard. As well as being a ceramic artist of some repute, TV personality and cross-dresser, Perry is a keen mountain-biker who lauded the development of dropper seat posts, so he could choose to ride his bike in either cycling shoes, or wedges.
Zardoz reported that Perry has developed a whole routine about different cycling tribes, in which he suggests the term MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) is a bit of a misnomer and he thinks PUFFIN is far more accurate, or in Perry’s words, Piss Ugly Fat Feckers in Nylon.
82-year old Russ Mantle got a name check for becoming the first person in the UK to cycle one million miles – the equivalent of completing this year’s Tour de France route over 470 times. On average, the redoubtable Mr, Mantle reports riding around 15,000 miles every year and is looking forward to his next million miles.
With that as inspiration, we set out to pad our own, much more modest mileage totals and make our way home, deciding to stick to our usual route, although we suspected the lane through to Ogle would be flooded.
The good news was the lane was dry, the bad news was that Cowboys picked up a puncture. While OGL conducted an FNG Masterclass in puncture repair, we stood around and did what we do best, providing a running commentary, talked a load of bolleaux and mercilessly taking the piss.
On the repair front, things were going well, until OGL went to retrieve his pump from his bike and couldn’t detach it from the bottle cage.
“It’s not going to budge, do you think the hose is long enough to stretch from there?” I queried.
“If not, he’s going to have to bench-press the entire bike over his head 50 or 60 times to work the pump and get some air into the tyre,” G-Dawg suggested.
Luckily, the pump was finally released and could be applied in the more traditional manner. Bison watched on intently, admitting he wouldn’t have a clue how to change a tube, but then again, it didn’t matter anyway, because he never carried any spares!
I look forward to the certainty of his future induction into our Hall of Shame, reserved for those cyclists who find themselves stranded by the side of the road without the means and wherewithal to repair a simple mechanical problem.
Back up and running, on we went and it wasn’t long before G-Dawg was towing me through the Mad Mile and I could strike out for home. The fog had burned off by the time I was dropping back into the valley. Unfortunately, so had any reserves of energy I had left, I was running on fumes and starting to seriously bonk. I know this, because my mind became obsessively fixated on Mars bars, confectionery I would never even consider buying under normal circumstances.
Fighting the urge to succumb to sugary-sweetness almost as much as I fought dwindling energy resources and the gradient, I crawled with glacial slowness up the Heinous Hill and finally home, somehow without any detours to the local shops for sustenance. A victory of sorts.
YTD Totals: 6825 km / 4,240 miles with 89,241 metres of climbing
On with the rain jacket again, in the face of a chilly start and the forecast foretelling of persistent rain that never quite materialised.
The weather wasn’t dire enough to make a Flat White Ride a necessity instead of a luxury, but Taffy Steve had one organised regardless. He even pre-publicised it on the inter-web thingie, much to the confusion of our Dutch contingent, who read it and instantly became nostalgic for a club run, back in “Het Oude Land” – one totally devoid of any hills. They seemed horribly disappointed to learn a Flat White Ride had more to do with consuming hot beverages, than the topography of the route actually covered.
(Things were further confused by the Hammer misreading the post as promoting a Far Right Ride, leading to expectations that the run might end at the coast, where all “ferriners” would be forcibly ejected from the country.)
I suffered the first needless close pass of the day as I topped the final rise before a gradual descent down to the meeting place. Sadly, it wasn’t to be the last, which left me wondering if these things come in batches?
Despite this, I arrived safely and only a few minutes late, having been held up at a level crossing and then seemingly every single traffic light on my run in.
I joined the growing assembly of slightly damp cyclists under the dank eaves of the multi-storey car park.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Jimmy Mac was at pains to ensure everyone knew the great sacrifices he had made in order to plan and lead today’s run. He told us that had he known it would coincide with England’s Rugby World Cup semi-final, he would never have volunteered and he pleaded for sworn secrecy in the event that anyone was following the score live. I think he even considered confiscating everyone’s mobiles, before the practicality of riding around with jersey pockets stuffed with 20 odd phones struck home.
G-Dawg seemed unfazed by the prospect of hearing the result and confessed that he didn’t like the tension of watching games live. He preferred knowing the result before he sat down to watch a recording, rationalising he could then decide not to watch, if the team he was supporting had lost.
I wondered how this sat with his great love for the Sunderland football team and he ruefully admitted that, if he took this policy to its ultimate limit – and only watched when they won, he might never get to see them play ever again.
“I have a friend who’s a bit of an expert on rugby and he reckons 60/40 in favour of the All Blacks,” Crazy Legs proclaimed.
“He’s predicting a high scoring game then?” Biden Fecht apparently quipped cleverly, or so I found out when I tried out the exact same crack moments later. Sheesh, late to the party again. I was derided, ridiculed and sent to the back of the class.
Crazy Legs then spent some time wrestling with what I took to be a new Garmin device, which apparently had “gone dark” all of its own accord. I wondered, if perhaps it had been the threat of being confiscated by Jimmy Mac that had pushed it into going off grid.
Crazy Legs found that even peering at the dull display through his super-happy, sunny-yellow, sun specs didn’t help, even though said specs usually make him so happy he’ll spontaneously burst out singing his ultimate happy-smiley-song: “Best Day Ever” by a certain Mr. Spongebob Squarepants.
He wondered where our Garmin wizard, the Red Max was, reasoning he would be able to fix the display by pressing some arcane, ambidextrous combination of different buttons. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the time the Red Max set my Garmin up and managed to sync it to his own heart rate monitor. Or what an eye-popping revelation that had been …
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs became distracted by a great universal imponderable…
“What is on the upper floors of this car park, anyway?” he wondered.
None of us had ever had reason to venture up, so we couldn’t help, but he determined he would route his next ride up and down the car park ramps on a brave voyage of discovery. I can’t help thinking there might even be a Strava KOM in it.
Despite the weather and competing attentions of a certain game of rugby, we were twenty-strong by the time we pushed off, clipped in and rode out, with two late arrivals, Buster and Spoons, bolstering our numbers with perfectly timed late arrivals.
I had a chat with TripleD-Bee, resigned to a hilly ride after all, but not appreciating the threat of rain. He confessed he’d rather be in bed, but TripleD-El had shamed him into coming out.
As a bit of a novelty, our route out traced the same roads we travel over on our return leg, which gave us a double-dip into the dangerous overtaking of drivers on Berwick Hill. It also put the cafe at Kirkley Cycles in striking distance of the Flat White Club, who were soon breaking away for their caffeine and cake fix.
We pushed along and, as we started to climb up to Dyke Neuk, I slipped off the front and drifted to the back, determined to take an extremely relaxed approach and safe in the knowledge we’d be stopping at the top.
As we briefly paused, we learned that Mini Miss had taken her new Liv for a bike fit, but hadn’t used it since and now it was safely tucked away for the winter.
Goose recounted how the only thing he got out of his £180 bike fit was a solitary 1mm plastic shim, to place between one shoe and cleat. G-Dawg reasoned it probably served no earthly purpose, but was simply a token gesture by the bike-fitter to justify his high-prices.
A brief discussion about the lottery of being excluded from the clubs official Facebook page could shed no light on the seemingly random and arbitrary bans issued to various, long-standing club members, so we pushed on, just as perplexed as ever.
We dropped down Curlicue Hill and then started the climb back through the Trench. Behind G-Dawg was discussing his fixie and being asked about the gearing he used.
“38-14.” G-Dawg affirmed.
“38-14,” Biden Fecht repeated, in a voice loud enough to carry to the front, where Jimmy Mac was toiling away relentlessly. He paused masterfully, before adding, “Was that the final score, then?”
Ooph! Cruel …
By the time we topped the Trench I was feeling as tired as I had last week. I don’t know why, but I’m just not “feeling it” at the moment and everything seems to be harder than it should.
Things aren’t being helped by my saddle, a relatively new Fabric Line, which I just can’t get away with and seems to be becoming increasingly uncomfortable the more I use it. After years of using the ever-reliable Charge Spoon saddle for a comfortable, budget friendly seat, the (revamped and re-named) company’s replacement, the Line is a sore disappointment (both literally and metaphorically) and likely to be discarded soon.
I was just gathering myself for a hurtful assault of Middleton Bank, when Mini Miss called out that she had a puncture. About half a dozen of us dropped back and got the tube changed without too much fuss. I did most of the heavy lifting, but left G-Dawg to the tricky cryogenics of freezing his fingers to the valve stem, as he deployed Mini Miss’ CO2 canister to quickly inflate the tyre.
With all impetus gone for our assault on Middleton Bank, we rode up it at a relatively comfortable pace and I was able to sit in the wheels until the final drag, where I eased back and let the cafe sprint unfold, participating purely as a spectator.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
There was a lot of adult talk at the table about skiing and different types of snow and chalet’s and resorts and … err, prostitutes, if I was following the conversation correctly. (To be fair, I probably wasn’t.)
Skiing sounds like great fun, but, you know, old dog/new tricks and all that. A combination of age, brittle bones, rickety knees and penury, combined with the opportunity cost of going on holiday somewhere cold instead of somewhere warm, means I’m very unlikely to ever give it a go.
New kid Sid brought me the news that Peter Sagan had agreed to ride the 2020 Giro d’Italia. He then entertained me with a series of photos of Sagan possessively cuddling the Trofeo Senza Fine, while Richard Carapaz looked on, wearing the kind of expression you’d find on a possessive and insecure husband watching a charismatic stranger pawing at his younger wife.
On the way home I dropped in alongside Carlton, who had recently joined a running club, but found the experience rather disconcerting, as no one there shouts at him and everyone seems to rub along without too much hysteria or fuss.
He suggested we were all mature, smart and phlegmatic, Brits (or Dutch), who didn’t need to over-dramatise the most innocuous of incidents and make mountains out of molehills.
As we set of along the lane to Berwick Hill a silver 4×4 swept past in the opposite direction, pointedly too fast and both deliberately and dangerously much too close. That’s what I would typically call a punishment pass, although punishment for what exactly I really don’t know.
He came within millimetres of Goose, whose taken to his steel touring behemoth for the winter, with all the antlers, prongs, pannier racks and cages. Luckily for Goose he was deeply engaged in conversation and the danger he was in didn’t really register until the car screamed past, at which point his eyebrows shot away to cower under his helmet.
Luckily for the driver, he didn’t come closer and tangle with the steel behemoth – it might have been an uneven challenge that he couldn’t possibly lose, but the steel behemoth was likely to inflict considerable damage on his shiny vehicle as it went down fighting.
A bit further along and we had another close call, as the driver of a small hatchback tried to squeeze past in too little space.
“Bloody hell, he’s a cyclist too – he has a bike in the back!” Biden Fecht complained, in a mixture of incomprehension and indignation .
“That’s probably from the last cyclist he hit,” I countered, “Like a serial-killer, he’s collecting trophies.”
Outlandish as this claim was, it was actually a more palatable explanation than “one of our own” going rogue and driving like an arse-hat, with no consideration for fellow cyclists and other road users.
A bit further on and young Sid took a sudden and unsignalled dart into a lay-by, causing a mass application of brakes and a dozen voices crying out “Whoa!” in perfect unison, before pressure was applied to pedals once more and on we whirred.
A fairly phlegmatic and undramatic response to a dodgy manoeuvre. I hoped Carlton didn’t feel too discomfited by our lack of hysteria and hyperbole-inflected ranting…
YTD Totals: 6,644 km / 4,128 miles with 87,130 metres of climbing
Saturday morning kicked off as it was forecast to continue, an indeterminate, ever-changing mix of snow, sleet and rain, bitter cold and, to top it all, increasingly gusting winds. It was going to be constantly wet. It was going to be freezing cold. It was going to be utterly filthy. It was going to be bleak and miserable, brutal and uncomfortable.
It was going to be great.
Club runs in such extreme, adverse conditions tend to attract the minimum number of die-hard riders, but the maximum amount of quality banter, or much talking of complete and utter bolleaux, if you prefer.
Now, perhaps this might be banal and boring to the huge majority of the population, but the gallows-humour and collective discomfort of a small group of cyclists prepared to laugh in the face of adversity is, for me, entertainment of the highest order.
But, first I have to get there.
I dress as best as I can, my thickest base-layer, winter jacket with heavy duty waterproof on top, headband to keep my ears warm, under a cap to keep the spray out of my eyes, trusty thermolite socks, winter boots and mighty lobster mitts.
Following Red Max Edict#37, I even remember to stuff a spare pair of gloves in my back pocket, so I have a dry set to pull on after the cafe stop.
[I confess, I sadly failed to follow Red Max Edict#38, which states that you should make a great show of producing said dry gloves and conspicuously place them in plain view on the table in the cafe, before sitting down with a smug look on your face. This is the prescribed method to transmit your superior level of preparedness to all those futilely trying to dry out their wet gloves by melting them on the stove, or anticipating the horror of trying to jam fingers back into cold, clammy and sodden garments.]
I leave it as late as possible, letting the latest squall clear, before scurrying out the door. I’m 20 minutes behind my usual time for setting off, but I’ve followed bike paths and trails to the nearest bridge before and plan on doing the same again.
I surf, slide and skate down the Heinous Hill, trying to stay in the tyre tracks of the cars and avoid the long, curving moraines of icy, dark slush. The rain is bouncing off my helmet and jacket and, worse, the spray kicked up by my speed downhill has me soaked from the knees down in an instant. No matter whether my foot is at the top of a pedal stroke, or at the bottom, I can’t seem to find a way of reducing the amount of water being flung at my legs.
Down the hill and a sharp right, I roll over a small humped-back bridge and hit the bike trails and cycle paths. Unlike last time I took this route, it’s a bit lighter and I can actually see where I’m supposed to be going. I pick up the pace, bumping over tree roots that appear to have taken on the role of natural speed bumps, slicing through mud, muddy puddles and gravel and swerving around the chicanes provided by scattered park benches and random dog walkers.
I eventually reach the gate that leads across the railway tracks, dismount and make my way across. I’ve survived the icy downhill sweep, the slippery mud, gravel, tree roots and potholes of the bike trail, but now, as I walk my bike across the railway lines, I lose my footing on a super-slick timber walkway and almost go my length, clinging desperately onto the bike in support.
I manage to stay (barely) upright and remount to follow the river toward the bridge. Rowers pass downstream, fully into their strokes and travelling much faster than they usually appear when I see them, bobbing around just outside their club house.
Across the river, I decide against the dark, debris strewn underpass and cross the four lanes of the Scotswood Road on the footbridge, a sort of mini-Alpe d’Huez with half a dozen sharp hairpins. One wrong turn at the other side, followed by a bit of back-tracking and then I’m travelling familiar roads and climbing out of the valley.
Detours and a bit of off-roading all worked out well and I was the first rider to arrive at the meeting point, rolling into the gloom of the multi-storey car park to shelter and wait to see which other idiots felt like riding out…
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
… where I was met by OGL, climbing out from the warm cocoon of his car. Deciding not to ride himself, he was there to see for himself the idiots who would brave the horrible weather and, as an aside, issue numerous dire warnings about flooded roads, blizzards engulfing Stamfordham and the imminent threat of glaciers to the rural communities around Rothbury.
The Garrulous Kid was next in, thankfully wearing new, stolen, or recently rediscovered tights. (We couldn’t quite follow the exact, jumbled explanation of their provenance.)
Then the Colossus and G-Dawg arrived and for a while, that looked to be it, a fabulous, fearsome foursome.
G-Dawg was counting on the usual suspects, so expected one or two more, although he realised a still ailing Crazy Legs was unlikely to be out.
Just as we thought that was it, Taffy Steve rolled in from the coast, lit up like a Christmas tree in Vegas. Unbelievably, he told us he’d nearly been broadsided by a motorist who somehow failed to spot him, despite being adorned by more blinking warning lights than the dashboard of a 747 experiencing total systems failure. SMIDSY.
He was followed in by Aether and suddenly numbers were about what we expected.
Story Number 5, please …
“Did I ever tell you about the time we were racing on the North York Moors and had to follow behind a snow plough up one of the hills?” OGL mused.
“Yes. Last week,” G-Dawg replied flatly.
“What about …”
“Yes, that too. Last week.”
OGL then did a quick double-take, “You’re all on winter bikes with mudguards!” he exclaimed, stepping back in apparent disbelief.
“Well, yes,” I told him, “We might all be mad, but we’re not insane.”
He took one last opportunity to warn us that it was, raining, it was cold and the roads were wet out, before climbing back in his car and scuttling off to a warm gym.
We watched him leave. Looked out at the weather. You know, he was right, it was raining and the roads were wet …
Not for the first time, the Garrulous Kid declared that Facebook is shit and Instagram and Snapchat far, far superior. The Colossus argued that they were ultimately all the same and no one was better than any other. He did concede however that Snapchat is probably a better platform for OGL to use, as his drunken rants would be automatically deleted by the time he sobered up.
Someone suggested that what we probably needed was an app that began a 2 hour countdown as soon as he was detected leaving an off-licence and locked him out of all social media until the following morning.
The Prof had threatened to ride with us today, as the Back Street Boys tribute act don’t ride in the rain (perhaps it interferes with the timing of their carefully choreographed dance routines?) There was no sign of him though, so we assumed he’d wimped out too. (The white feather’s in the post.)
At an unfeasibly early 9:14 then, one full minute before official GMT (Garmin Muppet Time) we decided no one else was going to bolster our meagre numbers, the weather wasn’t going to miraculously (or even marginally improve) and it was time to get moving.
I spent the first few miles riding alongside the Colossus, following G-Dawg and trying to determine how the arc of spray off his rear wheel managed to completely by-pass his mudguard. I’m still none the wiser.
At Dinnington, we picked up the Big Yin waiting for us and concluded it was just as well we’d left a minute early, otherwise the Big Yin might have looked more like the Big Ycicle by the time we got to him.
So, we then became The Magnificent Seven, I earned a Clash earworm (no bad thing) and on we pressed.
The Big Yin was the only one whose bike wasn’t equipped with mudguards, so he took great pains to ride at the back and not shower us with whatever his wheels kicked up off the road surface. It was a noble effort to try and keep us dry, but somewhat akin to opening an umbrella when you’re up to your neck in a river.
“We’ve made it through Dinnington,” the Colossus announced, “We can turn back at any time now and not have the ignominy of completing the world’s shortest club run. Ever.” he said, looking pointedly at the Garrulous Kid.
Bolstered by this relative success, we pressed on.
We took the turn off to the Cheese Farm and hit our first flooded section, an expanse of dirty cold water stretching from verge to verge. Everyone crowded toward the highest point of the roads camber, right down the middle, but the water was bottom bracket deep nonetheless. Even worse for G-Dawg, the Garrulous Kid cut through in front and kicked up a bow wave that engulfed him and blew through his overshoes to soak his feet.
Not that I think anyone fared much better – the water was deep enough to overtop my boots and water started to leak in.
I actually enjoyed the climb of Bell’s Hill as chance to stretch the legs and the increase in pace added a little body heat to proceedings.
The ride progressed for some way in this manner, enjoying the hills when the extra effort created a bit of warmth and dreading the descents where just a few extra kph in speed exponentially and noticeably increased the wind chill.
At one point we passed the spot where G-Dawg was marshalling during the National Time Trials and Geraint Thomas almost came to grief, misjudging the corner, running wide across the verge and barely missing the fence.
As he approached the corner, G-Dawg remembered the DS in the car behind bellowing “Put the power down! power down!” when G-Dawg was thinking more along the lines of “Woah!” and “Slow Down!” Still “G” made it through (barely) and won, perhaps thanks to the risks he took at that very corner.
Citing adverse weather protocols, we petitioned the only official member of the Flat White Club, Taffy Steve, for special dispensation to call a mid-ride coffee( and thawing-out) stop. Permission granted, we then detoured from the official route and plotted a course direct to Kirkley Cycles.
As we approached the Garrulous Kid and Colossus seemed to kick up the pace on the front.
“Is there an intermediate cafe sprint?” I asked G-Dawg. Apparently not, they were just eager to find shelter, but G-Dawg wondered if we shouldn’t programme all the potential cafe stops into Strava and have a sprint for each one.
I don’t know why, but Kirkley Cycles was strangely quiet, with only one other cyclist to be seen, a kid riding around in the yard brandishing a pick axe handle as a makeshift sabre. We wondered if this was the type of implement we too should consider carrying on club runs …
Main topics of conversation at coffee stop #1:
Inside we found that Aether had turned a shocking shade of grey – probably something akin to the deathly pallor Crazy Leg sees in my face after a hill climb. He was a bit wobbly and light-headed, so at G-Dawg’s suggestion, lay out, full length across one the benches, like a corpse in the morgue.
Having felt we’d showed sufficient concern for our ailing comrade, we naturally returned to our endless blather.
Taffy Steve turned to the Colossus.
“You need a Raw flap,” he said.
He was, of course suggesting a simple and sensible extension to the Colossus’ mudguards, but we all sniggered and snorted like naughty schoolboys anyway.
We admired the selection of cycling spares and wares, concluding our other cafe stops could learn a thing or to about catering to their cycling clientele. They had at least one of almost anything you could possibly need – as well as one or two things you definitely wouldn’t.
We wondered if the miniature, but perfectly formed road-bike shaped earrings would appeal to the Colossus’ partner – perhaps as a sop after she discovered an odd charge for raw flaps on their bank statement.
He determined that, if he did buy them, he’d better have a legitimate, desirable and preferably expensive, alternative present to hand across immediately afterwards, or he’d be in big trouble.
At some point other cyclists hustled indoors, out of the cold, followed by some remarkably under-dressed gym goers, who looked someone askance at the stretched-out cadaver formally known as Aether.
And then, the stretched-out cadaver formally known as Aether sat up and slowly began to rise from his slab.
He lurched across to us and dropped heavily into a chair. Colour was slowly returning to his face and he was beginning to look less corpse-like.
“I’ll have a cup of tea,” he announced and stood up abruptly.
The next time I looked, he’d gone.
“Did he just say he was just going outside and may be some time?” I asked.
Luckily, we didn’t have to send out a search party, as our wannabe Captain Oates soon returned and then secured a cup of restorative tea.
We had a laugh at the British trait of treating any malady or ailment with a cup of tea, before deciding if more drastic action was needed. I’ve cut my arm off and the stump won’t stop bleeding. I know, I’ll have a cup of tea and then maybe go to A&E if that doesn’t help, etc.
For a reason I can’t remember, I had a conversation with Taffy Steve where we cast the Garrulous Kid as Steve McQueen’s “Cooler King” from the Great Escape. Perhaps it was something to do with his penchant for riding into fences?
We pictured him slumped on the floor in solitary, repeatedly bouncing a baseball off the floor, the wall and back again. Ba-Bump-Dap … Ba-Bump-Dap … Ba-Bump-Dap…
“You know, of course that he’d never, ever tire of doing it,” Taffy Steve concluded. Ba-Bump-Dap… “No matter how much it annoyed everyone else.”
“Well,” the Colossus announced, We’d better get going if we’re to make it to the other cafe on time!”
So, off we shuffled, once more into the breach and all that. Although seemingly fully recovered, Aether decided a little caution was called for and set off to return home, while the rest of us pushed on.
As we rejoined the main road, the Colossus applied his brakes, barely slowed and winced at the grating noise of corrosive, grit-embedded brake blocks grinding away his rims. “All that noise and no discernible effect on your speed,” Taffy Steve noted, “Don’t you love it?”
Ah yes, I thought, as the Bard himself might once have said, on a particularly bad February club-run with the Avon Jacobean V.C. – winter braking, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I dropped in beside Taffy Steve and confessed how, perversely, I quite enjoyed these extreme rides in miserable conditions. He mentioned he’d been listening to a podcast about the Great War when the Germans and Turks at Gallipoli began to fear the ANZACS and Tommy’s were mad, because, as conditions got worse and worse, the laughter from the enemy lines just got louder and more frequent. Perhaps what I was experiencing was (at a much more modest scale) something similar, though quite different?
We pushed along for a good while, at one point trailing a low-flying duck that was spoiled for choice and couldn’t seem to decide which newly formed body of water to try next. Finally we reached a junction and paused to discuss various options for extending the ride, before deciding to just head straight for the cafe. Who could blame us?
As we closed on Whalton, G-Dawg revealed that they were contemplating a 20 mph speed-limit through the village, something that would almost certainly kill the long established and much used time-trial route that passes through it. I felt it was ironic that traffic calming measures could have such a profoundly negative effect on cycling.
Approaching the cafe, I dropped back to ride with Taffy Steve, ritually cursing his already thrice-cursed winter bike and taking on the hills at a more refined pace. From here I was well-distanced from the sprint, but close enough to hear the strangled shouts and see the Colossus veer violently across the road and into the opposite lane. Something had gone wrong up front, but disaster had been averted and we all made it to the cafe safely.
Main topics of conversation at coffee stop #2:
The sprint had apparently been rudely disrupted when a flailing Garrulous Kid had ended up swerving violently as he kicked his own frame, causing everyone near by to take immediate and drastic avoiding action.
The Garrulous Kid insisted he was a safe rider and good in a sprint. Taffy Steve suggested this was only because everyone knew his reputation and so always allowed a 2-metre exclusion zone around him, a moving bubble of protection. For our sake, not his.
The Garrulous Kid bit into his Dime bar tray bake and then picked bits of indeterminate material out of his teeth and dropped them on his plate, prodding at them uncertainly with a bony finger.
“There’s plastic in my cake,” he declared.
“I think you’ll find they’re just bits of chilled caramel,” the Colossus offered, “It’s a Dime cake, what do you expect?”
“No, it’s plastic.” He picked up a bit and chewed it experimentally, before dropping it back onto his plate and re-asserting, “Plastic.”
“Are you sure?”
Once again the Garrulous Kid picked up the offending morsel and nibbled away.
“Stop trying to eat it then.”
Oddly though, the Garrulous Kid stopped whining about his cake and had soon devoured it, more or less in its entirety.
G-Dawg suggested if he’d wanted to complain, he couldn’t really take an empty plate, decorated with just one or two half-chewed, spit-covered (allegedly) plastic crumbs back to the counter and demand a refund or replacement.
The Big Yin told us his son had been on TV quiz show Eggheads and as a true Geordie, received what he described as the equivalent of a gaping open net, when asked to name the Premierships top goalscorer. (For the record, I would have failed miserably).
In turn, G-Dawg recalled a tale about Alan Shearer’s dad taking him to meet local footballing legend, Hughie Gallacher’s son and then telling him, “no matter how good you are, you’ll never be as good as Hughie Gallacher”. This, I celebrated, is as good an example as you could get of the Red Max school of parental encouragement.
Speaking of sporting legends, I related my own favourite tale of the week, reading about the peerless Beryl Burton, doing a 12 hour time-trial and going like a train as she passed the bloke who was on course to set a new men’s record! According to legend she’d slowed just long enough to ask if he might like a liquorice drop, before powering away and disappearing up the road.
We tried to determine if the Garrulous Kid had any topics of conversation outside of football, school/university and a seemingly unhealthy obsession with the Monkey Butler Boy. (Is it unrequited love?)
We were told he liked boxing and he liked rugby, because his dad liked rugby and used to play fly-half and he watches the rugby with his dad – (although obviously not close enough to know a fly-half wears the number 10 shirt.)
He added that he hated badminton though, which I assume is another of his dad’s sports, although it could just have been a product of his butterfly mind flitting gently from subject to subject.
I felt the need to defend badminton, good to play, if less then gripping to watch and to my mind a much better sport than tennis. He seemed surprised I didn’t like tennis and wondered why.
Uh-oh, dangerous. I could have given him chapter and verse about it’s exclusively middle-class strictures, the huge resources of time and money the BBC pours into what is essentially a minority sport, the ridiculous, stuffed shirt, stuck-up nature of the Lawn Tennis Association, the fact that you need up to 11 officials to determine a simple game between two players, those particular fans who have no interest in any sport, even tennis, other than for two weeks of the year, when they slavishly adopt a heightened, jingoistic nationalism, the elevation of the most mediocre of British talent into world-beaters, who after modest and moderate success can have the sinecure of a job, along with a whole raft of other ex-pro’s, sucking at the corporate teat of the (publicly funded) BBC, or the distinct lack of drug-testing (cough# Operación Puerto) … (Oh ok, I’m biased, I’ll admit it.)
Instead, I simply cited the fist shake – the awful, embarrassing, gesture that seems to be the staple of every tennis player, whenever they feel the need to snarl aggressively at their opponent because they’ve managed to pat a ball back over a net. I then picked out certain Mr. Andrew Barron Murray as the worst exemplar of this all to pervasive, inelegant, over-used and inappropriate gesture. In my mind, that’s enough to condemn the entire sport? Hey, I never claimed to be rational, or balanced.
For his part, Taffy Steve wondered how the seemingly brittle and shrill Judy Murray had somehow managed to parlay her sons’ successes into a kind of C-list celebrity. Where, he wondered was Mrs. Brownlee and Mrs. Yates and weren’t they deserving of some attention too?
Normal conversation resumed and the Colossus recalled a university night out, when TV Gladiators, Jet and Wolf, were paid to turn up and bash numerous drunk students with pugil sticks for fun.
As entertaining as that sounded, G-Dawg felt it probably wasn’t quite as good as watching the YouTube video of a 72-year old Buzz Aldrin sucker punching some ridiculous conspiracy-theorist who kept taunting him about the moon landings being a lie.
Then our allotted time ran out and we wrapped up, figuratively and literally and prepared to leave.
We were a little delayed as the Big Yin flipped his frying gloves over on the stove top, trying to ensure they were crisp and well browned on both sides before he pulled them on again.
Then it was out and into the weather. It had stopped raining and the sky was nudging toward brightness, so the only water we had to worry about now were the few flooded sections of road we encountered.
By the time I was dropped at the end of the Mad Mile the sun was actually out and the temperature was starting to creep up. The rest of the day and remainder of my ride would prove quite pleasant and those lucky enough to be out for a ride Sunday would enjoy cold, but bright and dry conditions.
It’s hard to think of a greater contrast from one day to the next, still, you don’t always need good weather to have a good time.
YTD Totals: 1,693 km / 1,052 miles with 22,962 metres of climbing