Ozzie Rules

Ozzie Rules

Club Run, Saturday 2nd September, 2017

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                   108 km/67 miles with 1,105 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                           4 hours 30 minutes

Average Speed:                                   24.0 km/h

Group size:                                           31 riders, 0 FNG’s

Temperature:                                      19°C

Weather in a word or two:              Pleasant


 

2 sep
Ride Profile

The Ride:

You can’t say I hadn’t been warned and I should have known what to expect, after all I’d already managed two bike commutes into work during the week. On both occasions the cold had made me grateful for the light, long fingered gloves (my favourite and highly recommended, Galibier Roubaix Vision 4’s) that I’d used both mornings, before switching to mitts for the considerably warmer return journey.

But, Saturday morning looked bright and breezy and I was setting off an hour later than I do when travelling into work – surely it wouldn’t be so cold that I’d need to supplement arm-warmers with gloves? It was though, and dropping down the Hill at high speed didn’t help. The cold attacked my hands, especially through the chilled metal of the brake levers I had covered throughout the descent.

Along the valley floor I tried to find some relief and to break the wind chill – hands positioned on the very tops of the bars, just before the warm tape gave way to icy metal, fingers curled up tight and bundled together like cold kittens, with only the runts of the litter, my two thumbs, still exposed to the air flow and slowly turning numb.

Despite the frigid, early morning conditions, it looked like being a great day once the air warmed up a little, the pale blue above only lightly smudged with milky ripples and whorls of cloud, like a giant had left his fingerprints across the sky. It was simply a case of surviving until the suns warming influence could be felt, perhaps one of the last, fine days before the dark, cold, winds and rain of late autumn descend and so, not to be missed.

The promise of decent weather was a real incentive to get out for the Saturday Club Run, overcoming the twin challenges of illness and a sore knee. I’d missed time at work on the Tuesday, feeling sick – high temperature, nausea, stomach cramps and a headache. I still wasn’t fully 100% but had determined to try and ride through it.

Then on Thursday I’d noticed my right knee was sore, especially when climbing. I’d shared the first half of my evening commute with Mr. T (aka The Man with the Van and the Plan) on Friday. He’s trying to reach his annual mileage target, so wanted a longer route home. During the ride he wondered if I’d done anything to actually injure the knee, but nothing came to mind.

It wasn’t until later, when climbing the Heinous Hill with little stabs of pain sparking in the offending joint, that I remembered slipping on the office stairs on Wednesday morning. Perhaps that was the source of the injury? I hope so, as it beats the alternative, that my aged and decrepit knee joints are just worn out, crumbling and terminally failing.

Still, as I crossed the river, admiring a small flotilla of single-sculls arrowing downstream, I felt fine, any knee pain was at least temporarily quiescent and the bike was whirring along smoothly and quietly. All seemed well with the world.

I reached the meeting point in good time and in good order and drew up to wait for everyone else alongside the early arrivals, Crazy Legs and the Garrulous Kid.


Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:

The Garrulous Kid reported great success with his GCSE exams, especially Chemistry, Physics and Maffs. Apparently he’d passed his English too and with flying colours, causing me to enquire if there was an oral element to his testing and how well he’d fared at that part. (There wasn’t).

Crazy Legs thanked Zardoz for his moral and very vocal support during last week’s 4-Up Team Time Trial. Apparently Zardoz’s bellowing of, “you’ve almost caught your minute-men!” halfway around the course had been invigorating and motivating, even as Crazy Legs immediately realised it was a complete and utter lie.

Aether rolled up and we awarded him a full ceremonial fanfare as this week ride leader. We all genuflected in his august presence and I’m sure, out of the corner of my eye I even saw the Garrulous Kid attempt an awkward curtsy.

With another good turnout spilling across the pavement, Aether recognised the need to split us into two, but we still haven’t quite got the hang of this and we ended up with a pair of very lopsided groups, one of about twenty-strong, the other of no more than a dozen. Sadly this was just an excuse for those who don’t agree with splitting into groups to complain that it doesn’t work. And they did. A lot.

A small few of us hung back to form the core of the second group, even rolling up to the lights on green and refusing to go through them in order to allow the bunch out front plenty of time to get clear.

The lights finally cycled round to green again and we pushed off, clipped in and rode out.


Crazy Legs and Taffy Steve took to the front for the first part, while I slotted in behind them, alongside the Garrulous Kid, with Big Dunc and Zardoz following in turn and in our wheels. On past Dinnington, the front two peeled off, I pushed through with the Garrulous Kid and Zardoz, realising he was getting perilously close to the front immediately called for a pee stop, so he could slip quietly back down the order. We naturally ignored him and pressed on.

We drove the pace on, up past the Cheese Farm, trying to see how many “ease up!” cries we could generate on the climb, but they were disappointingly scarce. Passing under the A1 just outside of Morpeth, we ceded the front to Zardoz and Big Dunc. A large contingent of Grogs slipped away off the back to head straight to the café and when Moscas turned early for home shortly afterwards, there was just the front group and OGL left – a Malignant Seven – average age about 50, or if you exclude the Garrulous Kid, about 56.

We swung round a sharp corner onto the bottom of the Mur de Mitford, I changed down and attacked the slope. Ouch, big mistake, as someone introduced my knee to a little needle of niggling, sharp pain. Ah! So that injuries still there, then …

I tried to spin up, putting as little force as possible through my right leg, which felt a bit odd. It wasn’t hugely painful, but uncomfortable and the joint felt weak and somewhat femmer – definitely not something I wanted to put too much strain through.

We regrouped and pressed on. The weather had started to warm up, the sun was high and bright and I was able to abandon the arm warmers. It was, finally, a glorious day. All around us the countryside was blooming richly and riotously. Glossy blackberries dotted all the hedgerows and while a few fields had already been shaved back to a dry stubble, in the Font valley the maize was already reaching over head-height.

We swung left, onto the Coldlaw Wood Climb running parallel to the Trench and took the opportunity for a pee stop, while OGL shipped and stowed his gilet. The Garrulous Kid complained there was nowhere to pee. Crazy Legs raised a quizzical eyebrow and looked around the shady, secluded country lane, lined with a wall and hedge to one side and tall trees to the other?

“What more do you want,” he asked, somewhat exasperated, “A Dyson air-blower to dry your hands?”

“We’ve got one of them.” I added nodding back down the lane, where OGL was shoving a gilet into his back pocket.

“Nah,” Crazy Legs concluded, “Dyson’s need to be able to produce at least 100 watts.” Oh, dear … average age of 50 and we’re still such shockingly childish, immature and caustic bitches.

As the climb levelled off we swung left, while OGL, looking for a shorter, easier route went right. Rolling round a bend we passed our first group, all clustered at the side of the road while the Red Max worked feverishly to fix a rear wheel puncture.

We had no intention of stopping and rolled past, now forming the clubs advance party, or tête de la course, if you prefer, travelling down toward Dyke Neuk on a road we more typically travel up. Slow-witted as usual, it took me an absolute age to realise I actually knew where we were!

Just before dropping down the dip toward Hartburn, OGL was spat out of a side road ahead of us – now our virtual leader on the road. Once again though he didn’t press his advantage, taking a different, shorter route at the top of the climb, while we followed the less well-travelled ride plan, up to Scots Gap, before starting to close on Middleton Bank.

I drifted off the back of the group as we rolled toward the climb, happy to ride  at my own pace and nurse my sore knee along, only to find I’d acquired a pilot fish, as Crazy Legs dropped back to check on me.


NOVATEK CAMERA


The group splintered apart, Zardoz and Big Dunc riding off the front, with the Garrulous Kid in hot pursuit, while I spun up the climb alongside Crazy Legs, slowly closing the gap to Taffy Steve.

Over the top, Zardoz and Big Dunc were pressing on for home without regrouping. Crazy Legs took over on the front, checked I was happy with the pace and set off for home. “All aboard the gimp express!”

We caught Taffy Steve in short order. “All aboard!” I called, easing back to open a space behind Crazy Legs’ back wheel. Taffy Steve slotted in, Crazy Legs blew an imaginary train whistle … and then we started to eat into the gap up to the Garrulous Kid.

The Garrulous Kid appeared to be lost in a daydream and seemed a bit startled as we thundered past, but managed to respond to the call, “All aboard!” tagging onto the back of our line.

We never did catch the rampaging Zardoz, or the only slightly-less rampaging Big Dunc, but then again, despite all expectation, our erstwhile front group of runners and chasers never caught us either.

We managed to keep our small group all together until the rollers just after the Milestone Woods, when Taffy Steve drifted off the back. I hung on down the descent and around the corner to the final climb, before Crazy Legs and the Garrulous Kid romped away to contest the minor placings in the sprint.

Ahead of me, OGL emerged yet again from another side road and I swooped around him and then eased to roll up to the café.


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

The café has new coffee mugs, which are, apparently easier to carry, so I think the staff quite like them.  Or at least they did –  until they had to contend with a bunch of awkward, obstreperous cyclists insisting – beyond all reason and even after practical demonstration – that they were smaller than the previous version and we were all being short-changed.

We took advantage of the good weather to sit outside in the garden, reasoning there can’t be many more opportunities to do that this year.

Perhaps though, we should be more thankful we live in such a temperate climate, it is after all just a matter of perspective. OGL related how one of our club members was currently living in Las Vegas and didn’t seem too happy about it – perhaps because he can’t walk the dogs in the afternoon as the pavement (sorry, sidewalk) is so hot their paws blister.

Not that he can even get out himself either, as his steel gates expand so much in the heat they jam closed. Apparently the strict grid-like layout of American urban areas and the surrounding blank, flatness of Nevada ensure that all his Strava routes could be easily replicated by a child on an Etch-A-Sketch.

Crazy Legs recalled riding with the guy on one club run, in mid-autumn when it was typically wet, blustery and cold and everyone was complaining about the weather, apart from our ex-pat, who positively revelled in it and couldn’t have been happier. You see, perspectives.

Gazing into a nearby field, the Garrulous Kid seemed excited to see a black lamb amongst all its snow-white brothers. (He doesn’t get out much.) OGL revealed this was the field he was planning to use if he’d won the charity auction for Sean Kelly’s donkey at one of the Braveheart dinners. Luckily he was outbid at the last.

(I’ve yet to discover what possessed him to even think about bidding to win Sean Kelly’s donkey, or perhaps more accurately how much alcohol you have to consume before bidding for Sean Kelly’s donkey seems (even remotely) like a good idea.)

I felt duty bound to ask if OGL hadn’t felt a bit of an ass, while Crazy Legs wanted to know if the donkey had later wandered up to his room and “brayed on the door.” Well, it kept us vaguely amused anyway.


Coming out of the café and setting off home, the Garrulous Kid and Monkey Butler Boy got into a bitch-boy slap-fight, which the Monkey Butler Boy seemed to win, simply by virtue of his well-honed, rapier-sharp wit, as evidenced by his final retort – “Blah-blah, bler-bler-bler.”

“Blah-blah, bler-bler-bler?” I enquired.

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Your scintillating wit, bon-mots and clever word-play really would put Oscar Wilde to shame.”

“Who?”

“Oscar Wilde?”

“Never heard of the feller.”

I cocked an imaginary pistol, Contador-style, pointed it at the Monkey Butler Boy’s head and (figuratively) shot him dead.

“You’ve never even heard of Oscar Wilde?”

“Well, you’ve got to remember, I’m only young … I wasn’t around in the ‘80’s.”

Sigh.

The Monkey Butler Boy rode away to continue his fractious discussions with the Garrulous Kid, leaving me in splendid isolation, where I found I was continuously yawning. I mention this because it seemed so utterly incongruous – I can’t remember ever needing to yawn while cycling before – and now I couldn’t seem to stop.

I also began to feel nauseous and strangely displaced. This wasn’t good. At the next junction, I baled, swinging right to track through Ponteland for a shorter route home, while the bunch sped left. I started to feel chilled, even though I was sweating, but it was the clammy cold sweat of not being well, rather than the good, honest sweat of a hard workout and my speed began to drop away.

I stopped to throw up and pull on my arm-warmers – completely separate actions I’m afraid, I’m not that good at multi-tasking – before pushing grimly on.

At one point I suffered a too-close pass by a learner driver and started to wonder what exactly they were teaching them these days – but more or less forgave the driving-instructor when the car then bounced off the verge in a puff of dust and I saw him wrestling with both the wheel and the driver, trying to centre the car back into the middle of the road.

I finally made it to that Hill and crawled up it using gears I haven’t troubled since L’Alpe d’Huez, managing to make it home before an unfortunate attack of the Dumoulin’s. Well, that scuppered any chance of riding out Monday to catch the Tour of Britain – not that it was heading anywhere particularly scenic mind …


 

SWP_OVO_ENERGY_TOUR_OF_BRITAIN_0017x-1024x681
In a picture stolen from the OVO Tour of Britain website, the peloton rides past Bamburgh Castle, en route through one of my favourite places, the remarkably beautiful, Northumberland coast.

Actually, now that I think about it, the familiar scenery is about the only thing the OVO Tour of Britain has going for it – what an incredibly dull … I was going to say race, but “series of  unconnected sprints” would be a better description – they’ve managed to make it almost as uninspiring as the women’s version.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for both races as an opportunity to see professional cycling on British roads. I want them to succeed and spread the appeal of the sport and I’d rather watch even this level of racing ahead of just about any other sport you care to mention … but … what remarkable lack of ingenuity was employed in designing this race and does anyone want to see a GC largely decided among sprinters on bonus seconds?

How come the Tour de of Yorkshire (despite its sad, naming pretensions) can come up with an interesting parcours and compelling competition based on a couple of days of racing in just a single county, yet our National Tour, which should be the showcase event for cycling, has the whole, infinitely variable landscape of the British Isles to choose from (and a super-strong start-list), yet is so completely lifeless? Got to hope for better next year.

Right, time to rest up the knee and hopefully get better before next weekend.


YTD Totals: 5,253 km / 3,264 miles with 60,111 metres of climbing

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There and Back Again

There and Back Again

Day#3  L’Alpe d’Huez

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

Ride Time:                                         1 hours 50 minutes

Average Speed:                                13.6 km/h

Group size:                                         3

Temperature:                                    31°C

Weather in a word or two:           Hotter


 

taba

The Ride


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

“Whassup?”

“I’m going to ride up the Alpe.”

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

“Wait, I’m coming.”

“How long do you need?”

“15 minutes.”

“Ok.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


huezs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


alpe
Reg in repose © Clive Rae

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

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


me
© Griffe Photos

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


hans
©Anthony Jackson

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

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

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

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

Home, safe and sound and largely intact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

The Circle of Death

The Circle of Death

Day#2 Saturday, 17th June, 2017

Col du Glandon | Col del la Croix de Fer | Col du Télégraph | Col du Galibier | Col du Lautaret

Total Distance:                                  168 km / 104 miles with 4,246 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          9 hours 8 minutes

Average Speed:                                18.4 km/h

Group size:                                         6

Temperature:                                    26°C

Weather in a word or two:          Still Hot


CoD

The Ride

Relive the Ride


Part One. Reservoir Dogs

Day#2 of our grand adventure was all about the Crazy Legs master-plan, a long, looping clockwise ride around the area, taking in 5 major cols, including the fearsome Galibier. We were expecting a long day and had accordingly planned an early start, rolling out at just after 8 o’clock when the air was still relatively cool and pleasant.

The first few pedal strokes were absolute agony on my back, which I think I must have damaged lugging the bike box around in supremely ugly and inappropriate ways. The pain was so intense I wondered if I’d even make it out of the town, but luckily it settled down to a dull throb and occasional sharp twinge once I got a bit warmed up. Later Captain Black would set himself up as our “main man” and started dealing from his precious stash of Nurofen. He had many takers and became the most popular person in our group that day. I’m sure the two were in no way related.

We slipped out of the campsite and took the road north from Bourg d’Oisans, following the course of the wild flowing La Romanche all the way to Allemont. The roads were wide with a plush (by British standards) cycle path, shaded by trees and relatively traffic free so early on a Saturday morning. It was a very agreeable start to the day and we made good time, with Crazy Legs in particular driving hard on the front and seemingly eager to get going.

Reaching Allemont, the Hammer and Goose stopped off to look for an ATM, while the rest of us started the zig-zagging ride up the face of the barrage. At the top we paused to look down and heckle our returning companions, before regrouping and rolling across the top of the dam and turning up into the wooded hills that skirt the reservoir.


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This was the start of a long, shaded and pleasant climb up to the village of Le Rivier d’Allemont, where we stopped for a leisurely coffee and to allow Crazy Legs to endear himself to the café patron with his valiant attempts to ask for a strawberry ice cream in French. He was quite proud when his language skills were judged to be “not the worst” that had ever been heard in the village.

As we were leaving we spotted a public drinking fountain and stopped to fill our bottles, only to back away from a hastily scribbled notice that warned tests were underway and that we roughly translated as meaning: “drink this and you’ll probably die a horrible death.”

We actually had no shortage of intestinal distress already and needed to take no further risks in this area. Just past the water fountain, Crazy Legs spotted a public toilet and ducked inside. We thought he’d just gone for a quick pee and rode slowly on, not realising we were witnessing a Dumoulin moment and our own defegate, until the French equivalent of a NEST team turned up in hazmat suits and quarantined the whole area.

Our whole round trip can then probably be traced by all the now radioactive toilets we desecrated and devastated at each stop, in what the French authorities would later declare as a major act of eco-terrorism so horrendous that even ISIS wouldn’t dare claim responsibility. They’re still hunting the perpetrators, who somehow managed to slip the police cordon. Truth be told, I think we were all suffering from a combination of the heat, hard work, foreign food and far too many gels, energy bars and isotonic drinks.

 


Part Two. Toad in the Road

We were now on the Route Des Cols and a quick descent hustled us across the river and onto a short, sharp ramp to begin our climb toward the Col du Glandon and Col de la Croix de Fer.

We became spread out and I was climbing on my own, as the road rose to top another barrage and then continued, up and up until the surface of the Lac de Grand Maison was a glittering, blue-grey mirror far below. Another rider caught me up and started chatting away immediately in English. I’d wondered how he knew my nationality, but Crazy Legs and Steadfast had already been laughing at the less than subtle branding that had the quintessentially English name, Holdsworth stamped across Reg’s small frame in at least 14 different places. Alternatively, maybe he just guessed?

Anyway, I learned he was riding following surgery for a prolapsed disc (which put my own back pain into perspective) and was the rabbit being chased by a couple of friends down the road. He pushed on not wanting to be caught (I only remember one other rider, who was obviously a local passing me, so presume he managed to stay out in front.)  He pressed on the pedals and accelerated away in that strange mountain climbing time perspective, which meant that after 10 minutes of hard effort he’d gained about 50 yards on me.

The road topped out and I began a long, fast drop through a valley pass. I couldn’t help hating this descent, which frittered away a load of hard won altitude I’d sweated to accumulate. At the same time it shattered any climbing rhythm I had managed to find. By the time the road started to rise again toward the summit of the Glandon I felt like I was starting from scratch and a nagging headwind added to the difficulty.

I negotiated a photographer in the middle of the road who snapped away despite my distressed countenance and then pressed his card into my hand.  Not sure those pictures are worth buying, mate. I soon found myself skirting a massive flock of brown, alpine sheep whose bells tinkled away merrily and then the climb stiffened under my wheels and up we went again.

After a bit more climbing the road split in two and I guessed wrong, following a rider down the right hand route toward the Croix de Fer summit, only to be called back by Crazy Legs behind me. I back-tracked and joined him, Steadfast and Goose on a short detour and quick haul up to the top of the Col du Glandon, in what apparently was the ultimate BOGOF (buy one get one free) offer on French summit finishes.

At the Glandon, we press-ganged some friendly Dutch cyclists into taking a commemorative picture of us next to the summit marker and heard all about Crazy Leg’s highlight of the ride, a massive, crisp and limbless toad he’d spotted baked black and pressed flat into the tarmac.


glandon
© Angus McMillan, 2017

We dropped down again and picked up the hairpins heading up to the Croix de Fer, where we waited for the Hammer and Captain Black, who’d beaten us up the Glandon, but had stopped off in the café there. Reunited again, we coerced an English cyclist into taking the obligatory commemorative photo with the summit marker and there, at the point of no return, discussed our options.


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We agreed by a vote of 4 to 2 to press on toward the Télégraph and Galibier, rather than turn back to re-trace our steps. I was one of the two voting to turn back, figuring we could run the Galibier the next day. Damn, don’t you hate democracy!

We then began a fun, high speed drop down from the Croix de Fer, while keeping our eyes open for a suitable lunch venue. We finally spotted a suitable candidate, a crêperie with decking that extended out over the mountain and ducked inside. Here we had a pleasant and relaxed lunch while watching the buzzards riding the thermals around the peaks on the opposite side of the valley.

Back on the bikes, the descent continued, but was more gradual now as we followed the course of swift flowing, turbulent L’Arvan  for a few miles, before scrambling up a short climb, whipping past a group of very tentative descenders and rolling down toward Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.


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Just before joining the main A43 carriageway to head south east, we were stopped by a gendarme to allow a pro race to pass through. This was the Tour de Savoie-Mont Blanc, which would be won by the latest Colombian climbing sensation Egan Bernal, allegedly on his way to Team Sky for next season, where he can be carefully neutered, roboticized and stripped of all attacking intent.

This stop also marked the first sighting of what would soon became our arch enemy; hugely fat, sweating, middle-aged, pretend biker gangs on Harley Davidsons. A suitably unimpressed motorcycle gendarme disdainfully escorted a swarm of their ridiculously noisy, filthy, rumbling, farting and belching, noxious machines off the road to let the cyclists through.

The front of the race whipped quickly past, spearheaded by a break of half a dozen, with an AG2R rider in desperate pursuit. Then the main peloton followed, already a couple of minutes back, a gleaming, multi-coloured cavalcade that whirred cleanly away at high speed and in a blare of horns and sirens.

We were released onto the road and followed the perimeter cycle-lane, dodging the occasional discarded bidon or musette left behind by the rampaging peloton.

 


Part Three. Hog Hell

At Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne we found the town centre swarmed with more fat, hairy, utterly boorish, pretend- bikers, hooting and hollering and revving their stinking, too-loud engines to screaming excess, chaotically slaloming down the road and generally being as noisy and anti-social as they could possibly be.

In direct stark contrast was a woman in cool looking cream leathers, riding a gleaming white and chrome motorbike that emitted a rumble like a purring snow leopard. She glided serenely through the chaos, like a swan parting a crowd of squabbling and squawking ducklings and then was gone.

We dropped into a café for a quick drink and to see these huge, bloated bikers close-up, red-faced and sweating in their dusty leathers, shovelling food and swilling beers into gaping maws, while swaggering around like the hard-asses they undoubtedly weren’t. Attila the Stockbroker, anyone?

Having had enough of the aural assault, we rode on, swung south, crossed the river and were immediately of the climb of the Col du Télégraph. Even here though we couldn’t escape the stupid bikes and bikers that reminded me of nothing more than being stuck in a room with a swarm of fat bumbling, annoying bluebottles that continually buzz around your ears.

They were intent on roaring up and down the mountainside, often passing deliberately and intimidatingly close, racing each other around blind bends and occasionally grounding and grinding away bits of the road as they tried to guide their own monstrous, ungainly, fume spewing machines around the tight corners.

 


Part 4. Ingénue Ascending

We were now on a steady climb of 12 kms at around 8%, winding up to the top of the Col and the Fort du Télégraph.  On reviewing the ride, I think we were all surprised at just how much this route twisted and turned as it climbed, but the views are generally closed in with trees and you never get the open vista revealing the line of the road you’re following.

As we started up a slender, dark-skinned, French ingénue in Liv pro-team livery rode up alongside Crazy Legs.

“Ça va?” she enquired.

“No, I’m English … and it’s too bliddy hot!” Crazy Legs replied smoothly.

She laughed, turned the pedals over lightly and started to pull ahead and the Hammer followed like a puppy on a lead. He later revealed that up ahead he’d almost had to do a track-stand as her team car forced its way in alongside her, blocking the road, before handing over a bottle, which she took a tiny, delicate sip from, before handing it back. What was the point in that?

Approaching the top of the Télégraph my Garmin beeped loudly to announce low power and eventually shut down just before the summit. I had to ask Crazy Legs to share his file for the ride and he would later compare our two efforts side-by-side and concluded we were remarkably similar riders!


telegrapge
© Angus McMillan, 2017

The café at the top provided more liquid refreshment, before we found someone willing to take on the most risky of photo-assignments yet, capturing our collective clustered around the summit sign, while simultaneously dodging the stupid Harley’s that still buzzed and bumbled loudly up and down the road.

 


 Part Five. It’s Like You’re Riding Into the Sky*

And then we went on, heading toward the famed Galibier, a climb 20km longer than l’Alpe d’Huez and rising twice as many vertical metres to 2,645 above sea level, where the oxygen starts to get thin. It’s just 100 metres shy of being 35km in length and there is 17km of climbing at over seven per cent, with a real sting in the tail – the steepest ramps are in the final 2 kilometres.

Dropping down off the Télégraph and once again lamenting the loss of hard won height, we first had to thread our way through Valloire, which proved to be the source of the infestation of stupid Harley bikers. The town was holding the Punta Bagna Festival, advertised with the words: “bike show, run wild, custom culture.” Huh? There were thousands of big, ugly bikes crowded into just about every space available, and plenty of big, ugly bikers too.


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Off the bike and having to rely on their own locomotion, they appeared particularly inept, unable to cope with traffic unaided and we had to weave our way around several rotund, stationary forms, seemingly frozen into indecisiveness in the middle of the road.

Finally out of town we climbed up the long straight valley following the tumult of La Valloirette river for about 10km, a long, boring uphill grind. At one point we passed a field with signs advertising helicopter rides up the col for €50 and I have to admit to giving it very serious consideration.

A few scattered wooden structures at Plan Lachat marked the end of the valley. A bridge was thrown across the river and from there the road twisted and turned, climbing with serious intent now, as it soared up the mountain. The Hammer had gone on ahead, but the rest of us agreed to stick together as all the initial skirmishes were put behind us as  and we began our battle royalé with the beast of the Galibier.

Round the corner, with the snow mantled peaks above us, we passed the rather incongruous sight of a couple sunbathing on a picnic blanket by the side of the river. Then we swept over the bridge and started climbing, trying to stay away from the right hand verge, where the land fell away precipitously.

The seemingly indefatigable Steadfast led and I got the impression he could continue riding this way for hour upon hour yet. Goose and Crazy Legs followed his lead, while I dragged along at the back with Captain Black who was beginning to cramp up and almost looked to be suffering as much as I was.

Up and up we dragged ourselves, but accumulated fatigue was soon making itself felt, breathing becoming more demanding and I think we were all struggling. We took to pausing at every kilometre marker for a brief respite, which not only let us rest for a moment, but also let us appreciate the spectacular views, both up to the snow-capped summit and back down along the twisting, torturous route we’d followed to get to this point. It was absolutely wild, beautiful and stunning and gave us a real sense of accomplishment.


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Col du Galibier © Jeff Wilson, 2017

At one of our stops we spotted a fat marmot, happily frolicking in the grass at the side of the road. At another, agonisingly, the kilometre marker was missing and our exhausted brains couldn’t make the decision to stop without a visual reminder. Crazy Legs was insistent we then rode three whole kilometres without a rest stop, Goose and Steadfast were adamant it was only two. I wasn’t bothered as long as it got us closer to the end.

Finally, we reached the point where the odd patches of snow thickened and all merged together to give the landscape a thick, uniform and glittering white coating. The snow exuded a welcome chill, piled high in crusty hummocks either side of the black, glistening road and providing a constant stream of runoff that trickled away, happy to succumb to gravity rather than fight it like an idiot cyclist.

Someone said only two kilometres now and I looked up … and then up some more, to see the summit was really close, almost in touching distance. Then my heart sank, as I realised it only looked so close because the last stretches of road raked up at a completely hellish angle.

Still, nearly there. I let the others ride on ahead, took one last, deep breath and pushed on, struggling with even basic tasks like clipping in. I remember nothing about that last 2,000 metres, no pain, no elation, no wonder, no big sense of accomplishment. One moment I was below the summit, the next I was at the top, grinning and lining up for the obligatory photo, before pulling on arm warmers and a rain jacket for the descent.


galibier
© Clive Rae, 2017

I looked around, content and enjoying the view, trying to imprint it on my mind – “Look Ma, top o’ the world!” – but it was too cold to hang around long and I followed Crazy Legs as the road tipped down and we began the long, screaming descent.

* “It’s like you’re riding into the sky.” Andy Schleck’s description of climbing the Galibier.

 


Part Six. Christ on a Bike

I let the bike run and was soon picking up speed, the rain jacket fluttering, flapping and snapping in the wind and the freewheel whirring crazily as I followed the winding road down and around all the bends.

At one point we passed more Harley bikers spluttering up in the opposite direction and seeming to want all of the road surface to play with. Several where sticking their inside legs out stiffly into the middle of the road as if dribbling a football alongside their bikes. What the hell was that all about – are the Harley’s so unbalanced and ungainly they need a counterweight, or is it just to take up more room and intimidate passing cyclists? I pressed a bit closer toward the cliff face on my right hand side, but ahead of me a thoroughly disgruntled Crazy Legs decided enough was enough and planted his bike firmly in the middle of the road in a game of chicken.

The bikers flinched first and gave ground. Crazy Legs flashed past them, then I did too and we were around another bend and far away before their indignation filtered through to their dullard brains and one of them finally leant on his horn in futile rebuke.

Following behind us, the Hammer reported one of the idiots had then stood bolt upright, arms stretched out to either side, like Christ on a bike, all the while trundling along inches from the edge of the road with a long, long drop to his right. Ass hat.

At the top of the Col du Lautaret, we stopped to regroup and the Hammer disappeared into the Hôtel des Glaciers and returned with a round of ice cold Coke’s for everyone. Top man. Off we went again, racing the oncoming darkness with the sun already starting to dip behind the mountains and throw out long shadows.

The descent down from the Col du Lautaret was utterly brilliant, on wide empty roads, with long sweeping bends that encouraged you push on ever faster and dare not to brake. Despite the fatigue I hit the big ring and hammered downwards as fast as I could go, sweeping through tunnels and villages, crouched low over the bike and whooping with joy.

All good things must come to an end though and we were soon back in the valley of La Romanche and pushing toward home. With the Tunnel Du Chambon closed following damage in 2015, we crossed the river and took to a (remarkably decent) temporary road, which skirted the southern edge of the lake.

A few, slight inclines reminded us of our accumulated fatigue and stung the legs and Captain Black fought a series of debilitating cramps as we plugged on. There was a distinct feeling of twilight encroaching on us as we hit the last stretch of road and here Goose accelerated off the front with a startling injection of pace. At first I thought he was responding to an emergency call of nature and dashing back to the campsite as quickly as possible, but Crazy Legs reassured me it was just his way of riding on the front and shepherding us all home. We finally closed on him, sat on his back wheel and he brought us, at long last back to camp.

We’d been out for over 12 hours, ridden for at least 9 of these, covered over 100 miles and encompassed over 4,000 metres of climbing. In that period, we’d gone through every single emotion on our “cycle of acceptance” and then some.

An exhausted Captain Black was perhaps in the worst state, declaring his bike had let him down bigtime, he never wanted to see it again and he was changing its name from “Old Faithful” to “Twatty-Mac Twat-Face.”

 


Part Seven. Ice Cold in Bourg d’Oisans

We showered and changed and headed into town for some much needed food, aiming for the first restaurant we stumbled across. Someone mentioned spaghetti bolognese and once the thought took hold it spread like a forest fire, becoming an instant fixation and the only thing that would satisfy our needs.

The walk seemed incredibly long and impossibly hard on our exhausted bodies, but we finally found a likely-looking restaurant and circled the seating area like a starving pack of skinny, feral dogs. A waitress with blue hair approached and Crazy Legs cut straight to the quick.

“Do you do spaghetti bolognaise?”

“Yes,” she smiled, looking somewhat bemused.

“Ah, good. Table for six, please.” It was a demand, not a request.

She wondered away to sort out a table and I scored some menu’s and handed them around ,while we quickly confirmed what already knew we wanted.

The waitress got us seated and returned with menus, which we waved away and made our order, not wanting any further delay. Six grand biere’s arrived for the conquering heroes and Crazy Legs spotted and claimed the only tankard with a handle, so he could indulge in some proper wassailing.

“Salut!” the glasses clinked together and in a real “Ice Cold in Alex” moment the beer slid very, very easily, down 6 parched throats. Perfect.

The spaghetti bolognaise filled the craving and was good, but surprisingly no one seemed to have a massive appetite and we were all quickly replete, ready for the long walk back and a collapse into bed.

Vague plans were made for our last day, with a relax by the pool, or a short ride out for coffee all mooted. Captain Black was all for sawing his bike into pieces and introducing it to the river, while I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew I’d be out riding. Again.


YTD Totals: 3,651 km / 2,269 miles with 44,466 metres of climbing

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

#2 Up the Alpe

Alpe d’Huez | Col de Sarenne

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

Ride Time:                                         3 hours 24 minutes

Average Speed:                                17.1 km/h

Group size:                                         6

Temperature:                                    31°C

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


LADH
The Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, but there’s no milk in it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uno-dos-tres … five!

Eins-zwei-drei … five!

Uno-due-tre … five!

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

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

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


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

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List

Part#1 – Getting to the Go

It seems an age ago, way back at the start of the year, when Crazy Legs first outlined his ambitious plans to re-enact Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and put out a call for volunteers to fill the role of lumbering, slow-witted pachyderms, transported from their natural habitat to an exotic, alien and dangerous place, seemingly for the express purpose of becoming over-worked, over-heated and dying in pain, far from home.

Even so, how could I possibly have refused such a call? What club cyclist doesn’t dream of testing themselves on the mythic, Grand Tour climbs, roads replete with the ghosts of past champions and freshly stained with the multi-coloured daubing’s celebrating cycling’s current crop of racing aspirants?

A plan then was hatched and agreed for an extended weekend break in France, in July, running from a Thursday to the Monday, which coincided happily (if not deliberately) with the Cyclone weekend. Having carefully negotiated permission to go, I signed up alongside Goose and Captain Black, and we formed the original Four Riders of the Alps-Bucket-List.

British Airways flights from Newcastle to Heathrow and then from Heathrow to Geneva were booked well in advance and for what seemed a rather reasonable £160. Then, I more or less forgot about the whole venture.

Behind the scenes though, others beavered away tirelessly on my behalf. Crazy Legs found us two chalets, with three berths each at the Cascades campsite in Le Bourg-d’Oisans – basic, cheap and cheerful chipboard cabins, with two very strict rules you especially needed to adhere to:

Rule#1 – Do not take your bike into the cabin, as the curtains have a magical, magnetic effect that can draw chain oil through thin air by osmosis and then print it directly and indelibly into the fabric.

Rule#2And, no matter how strong the urge, don’t pee in the eponymous waterfall. We don’t know what the exact consequences of this misdemeanour are, but all indications are that they are dire.

Even better, Le Bourg-d’Oisans lies right at the bottom of the magnificent L’Alpe D’Huez, a snaking 14-kilometre climb through 21 numbered hairpins, each named after past Tour de France stage winners. Dubbed the Tour’s “Hollywood Climb” it’s regarded as the most famous of all the summit finishes, at least amongst casual cycling fans, if not the cognoscenti.

Location sorted, Crazy Legs then began formulating a loose itinerary with rides on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which included a monstrous “queen stage” in the middle, vaguely based on the Marmotte Granfondo route and taking in the Col du Glandon, Col del la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraph, Col de la Galibier and Col du Lautaret. Eek.


CLIMBS2


Meanwhile Goose set to work arranging hire cars big enough for sundry riders and bike bags, both of which seem to be characterised by odd, angular and pointy, sticky-out bits with minimal padding, that make them rather awkward to accommodate and transport.

Along the way, Crazy Legs somehow coerced his brother-in-law, Johann the Steadfast into coming along and providing the gravity and thoughtful, moral ballast this type of expedition sorely needs. The Hammer signed up for the fun too, but was intent on making his own travel arrangements, which I suspect involved chauffeur-driven limousines, private jets and helicopter transfers.

The BFG also agreed to come, work permitting, but then wavered and then havered and firm commitment eroded to a maybe-wait-and-see, before finally crystallising into a, hmm-maybe-not-this-time. His loss.

As the days ticked down and the departure became more real and imminent, I had to start thinking seriously about how this might work and more importantly, how I might actually be able to survive with body and mind unbroken.

Despite over a century of years between us, Captain Black and I were very much Alpine climbing neophytes and neither of us knew what to expect, or if we would be able to cope. I was particularly concerned about how aged creaking joints and ancient brittle bones were going to react not only to the length and severity of the climbs, but tackling them three days in a row – my body tends to dislike longer distances with sustained efforts and seems to take increasingly longer periods to recover as I get older.

A couple of weeks beforehand, chatting nervously about bike set-ups and the like, Captain Black queried gearing for the trip and was pondering slapping on a 32-tooth cog or something similar. (He didn’t and I think may have learned to regret his decision).

I remember saying I felt good to go, as I ride a sneaky, triple-compact chain-set, something the venerable Toshi-San urged me to buy to avoid placing too much strain on ageing knee joints as I slowly returned to cycling from decades of inactivity.

In the past couple of years, I think I’ve only used the smallest, granny ring a couple of times – once when battling a headwind on the rather fearsome Rosedale Chimney in North Yorkshire, the other time when trying to drag my sorry ass up the Heinous Hill, hollowed out by the bonk after a long club ride. Now I was hoping it would be my ace in the hole in case I needed it once or twice, just to see me through any sticky patches I might encounter. Ha-ha-ha.

Ha-ha-ha.

Ha-ha-ha.

Delusional idiot.

I guess the trip had actually been playing on my mind more than I realised, as I’d started to pay just a little more attention to calorie intake, nothing particularly strict, just cutting out one or two sweet-treats and snacks along the way. Combined with an increase in commutes on the single-speed, my weight started to slowly drop and I went from 70 kilos at Christmas to around 64 kilos just before departure – reasoning I needed all the help I could possibly get and even small, incremental gains might just balance out in my favour.

Meanwhile, Crazy Legs parcelled out his hard-won wisdom like a parsimonious miser down to his last few pennies and you had to pay attention to catch all the useful bits: lights for the tunnels, rain jackets and arm warmers for descending through the snow line at the tops of the Col’s and a pillow case to avoid using the paper ones provided in the chalet’s. Paper pillowcases?

I missed the memo about the lock so you could leave our bikes outside the cabin. Ironically, we got away with it, while in Crazy Legs’ chalet they assiduously kept to the no bikes inside policy, yet still had to argue long and hard with the rather hard-faced, “Les Inspecteurs de Chalet” on the last day to ensure their deposit was returned. I suspect this was some kind of Brexit payback.

With a week to go, I borrowed a hard case bike box from the Red Max and spent Tuesday night breaking down and packing a rather startled Reg. Against airline advice, but on the recommendation of the cycling community and various forums, tyres were left inflated, but off came the wheels, handlebars, saddle, seatpost and rear derailleur and hanger. The bike was packed around with foam pipe insulation and all the spaces filled out with kit – shorts, jerseys, shoes, socks, helmet, tools, tubes, gels, energy bars, a towel and toiletries.

In fact, I did such a good job that the bike case was 28kg’s and earned me a big orange “Heavy!” warning sticker alongside the pretty pink “Fragile!” one at check-in. Like a red rag to a bull, I suspect the latter simply taunts baggage handlers to see just how much disdainful, ham-fisted flinging about they can subject your prized possessions to, but I may be wrong.

As it was, when I met up with Crazy Legs, Goose and Captain Black, early on Thursday morning at Newcastle Airport, I was only lightly burdened with a small, half-full rucksack containing a few T-shirts, money, travel documents and an Elsatoplast for emergencies.

“Is that all you’re taking?”

“Sorry, didn’t realise we were dressing for dinner, I must have missed the memo.”

“No dinner jacket?”

“Nope.”

“Tux?”

“Nope.”

“Oh.”

How gauche… what will the natives think? I somehow felt I was letting down the whole of the British Empire. Appearances must be maintained you know, eh what?

A bizarre discussion about sandals then ensued and we learned Goose recommended swimming in his, as he liked the odd sensation of his feet floating higher than his head. A later conversation about him not having brought his swimming costume and considering swimming in his bibshorts had me worried the buoyancy of his seat pad coupled with his super-floating sandals meant we were going to find him drowned in the camp pool, feet and arse sticking up in air and head forced under the surface like a giant mutant, bottom feeding duck. Or goose.

We sat at the gate for an interminable age as the British Airways gate crew boarded everyone in stages. First the Platinum and then Gold Executive Club members … then mothers with children and those needing special assistance … then Silver and Blue Club Members … then Sapphire and Emerald Alliance Partners…

We were already bored when they announced they’d next like to “invite” all Euro Travellers to board next. Bloody hell, when do we get a turn, we wondered, before one of us looked at the Boarding Pass and realised we were those self-same, Euro Travellers – the pointlessly polite name for “everyone else that’s still waiting” or, in other words the hoi polloi of cattle-class.

The flight down to Heathrow was short and uneventful, but we learned of a failure in the Terminal 5 baggage handling system and there were warnings that hold luggage couldn’t be guaranteed to make it through the transfer. Bah.

Along with Crazy Legs, I’d cleared the plane before the next announcement that all the baggage handling problems had seemingly been resolved and only earlier flights had been affected, but Goose and Captain Black were able to relay the good news. With Fignon’s crossed and hoping for the best, we hopped onto our flight for Geneva and waved goodbye to Blighty.

With some relief we found our bike bags waiting for us in baggage reclaim at Geneva airport having managed to arrive ahead of us, primarily because they didn’t have to queue for an age under the sullen, dismissive and utterly disinterested glare of grumpy Swiss custom officials. These guardians of Swiss border integrity had obviously been told they were legally obliged to let in a bunch of foreign nationals, but no one said they had to be happy and welcoming about doing it. You’d think if they hated their jobs so much they’d find something else to do with their lives.

(Actually, having the exact same treatment from their British counterparts on the return trip makes me think this is just a Customs Offical’s default setting. Perhaps they’re even trained to project this generally bored, sullen, world-weary and unwelcoming demeanour and it goes with the territory – regardless of the, err … territory, if you see what I mean.)

Not only did we find our bikes in the baggage hall, but we also found Steadfast, who’d arrived on an earlier flight along with his bike bag, but was missing the rest of his luggage. Reluctant to commit to riding naked, the good news was he’d been promised his missing bag would arrive on the next available flight, the bad news was that we’d have a 2½ hour wait to see if British Airways could keep a promise.

While Crazy Legs caught up with Johann the Steadfast, we decided to send an advance party out to see if we could sort out the car hire to minimise any further delay once the misplaced bags showed up. I tagged along with Goose and Captain Black, both of whom had either bravely volunteered, or perhaps been unwittingly press-ganged into serving as expedition drivers, and we made our way landside and out to the car hire desk.

I stood guard on the baggage while the Goose and Captain Black became embroiled in long and convoluted discussions with the car hire rep. The upshot was that Goose managed to parlay our original booking of two Opel Zafira people carriers into one 9-seater van. I couldn’t tell if this was skilled negotiation on Goose’s part, or a result of us having caught Budget Rental Cars on the hop and they didn’t actually have the two Zafira’s to give us.

As it was, he only had to point to me perched precariously atop a mound of rucksacks and bike bags for the car hire rep to realise he wasn’t going to be able to fob us off with two standard saloon cars. We agreed we’d have a look at the 9-seater van and check that everything fitted in, or else, as Captain Black intoned ominously, channelling his inner Terminator, “We’ll be baack!”

Actually, we all agreed, the 9-seater van was probably the better option, only 1 driver needed, only 1 vehicle to fuel, only 1 set of road tolls to pay. It all depended on us being able to squash 5 bike boxes in back.

A short shuttle bus ride to a gloomy, hot and airless underground car park and we found the van. Things were looking good. Half an hour later and having found and discarded the car manual (it was in German) we had the back seats folded in half and began experimenting with various ways of fitting 5 bike boxes in. An hour later and following much crawling around on the floor and forensic inspection of the seats by torchlight, we finally got the seats folded more or less flat and this gave us yet more variations for packing the back.

Another hour broiling and choking on exhaust fumes and we got the good news that the bags had arrived and Crazy Legs and Steadfast were on their way. We went with van loading variation number#17 and we were finally off for the last part of our journey.

Now though, we were negotiating the centre of Geneva in Friday evening rush hour, the traffic was heavy and we were weaving from lane to lane trying to pick our way southwards. At one point Crazy Legs winced away from the shriek of disk brakes near the rear window as we almost broadsided a cycling commuter.

The cyclist admonished Goose’s driving by wagging a suitably laconic finger at the windshield and pointing to his head. Oops, sorry, citizen.

Finally free of the city, we were soon travelling on more open highways and Goose and the Sat-Nav sparked up a volatile and short-lived holiday romance. This lasted only as long as the fourth time the strident Fraulein indicated vee should leave zee motorway at zee next junction and zen immediately join it again, all in order to avoid non-existent traffic jams.

His love-hate relationship quickly reaching its limit, Goose stabbed the Sat-Nav on-off button and silenced his nagging, Teutonic co-pilot. Crazy Legs volunteered to pull up Google maps on his phone, but first the entire back row of the van had to re-enact “We Are the Robots” as a tribute to the Kraftwerk concert he’d seen the night before.

Ahead, the mountains slowly, slowly rose out of the horizon and then swept round on either side to hem us in, as the sky became nothing but a cap of deep blue high above the furled rock. And then we were there, finally pulling into the campsite that would serve as our base of operations for the next few days.

The Hammer had arrived long before our weary, delayed group and had already booked us in, so it was simply a case of dropping the bags off in the chalet and heading to town for some much needed refuelling. Bike building could wait until the morning.

The long day travelling, the heat and a couple of hours breathing in the fumes in an underground car park conspired to give me a massive, thundering headache and accompanying waves of nausea.

I began to feel noticeably queasy and had to wander away from the restaurant table at one point, dangerously of the verge of throwing up. I managed to poke down maybe a third of my pizza before we wandered back and I dropped a couple of Nurofen and fell exhausted into bed.

Tomorrow we’d be climbing up l’Alpe and I couldn’t help think my preparation had been less than ideal…


 

Can’t Bring Me Down

Can’t Bring Me Down

Club Run, Saturday 11th March, 2017

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  103 km / 64 miles with 986 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          4 hours 12 minutes

Average Speed:                                24.5 km/h

Group size:                                         28 riders, 2 FNG’s

Temperature:                                    12°C

Weather in a word or two:          Pleasantly cool with late showers


ride profile 11 March
Ride Profile

The Ride:

An extended period of warmer, dry weather saw a shuffling of the hierarchy in the Sur La Jante stable … or to be more accurate and less prosaic … the dingy, old bike shed. As a result, the ratbag mountain bike was relegated to the very darkest recesses, where it will sit and moulder until I can work up some enthusiasm for spending time and money on its sorry old carcase, or until the return of winter weather sees it dragged once more, limping and disabled into reluctant use.

To be honest it needs some real TLC as its slowly disintegrating round me. It’s already lost 70% of its functionality now, with only 8 of the original 27 gears in working order. The headset rattles like a bag of drop-forged spanners, while the 1½ functioning brakes have been possessed by a shrill and malevolent banshee. This evil spirit emits occasional and erratic blood-curdling screeches, like a rabid, feral cat being slowly dipped in boiling water.

Tucked in beside the MTB, the Pug got a good clean, wax and oil, before being prescribed bed-rest and set on reserve for emergency purposes only. Hopefully I won’t have to think about it again until at least October, when I have plans to upgrade most of the groupset from an awkward blend of Tiagra and Sora, to a more refined Shimano 105.

Out from its hiding place, the single-speed Trek has been shod with a new set of (Vittoria, naturally) tyres and last week it once again became the commuting bike of choice. And … from the other side of the shed … from its specially reserved space of splendid isolation, rising like lions after slumber, the Holdsworth has once again been unchained and unleashed.

The decision has been made and will not be retracted, best bikes are being broken out up and down the country and there is to be no turning back. Even the threat of rain showers later on Saturday wasn’t going to change anything.

Friday night saw me then, prepping my old friend Reg for Saturday’s ride, his first outing of the year. I’ve some new tyres (with added graphene!) to slap on at some point, but to be honest last years Corsa’s still looked to have plenty of life left in them, so that particular change can wait a while.

Saturday morning saw me dropping down the Heinous Hill faster and more assured than I had at any other time this year, revelling in pure speed, how the bike felt solidly planted and the turbo-charged tick-tick-ticking of the freewheel. I’d forgotten just how much fun this cycling lark could be.

Everything just seemed tighter and more refined, the brakes bit immediately and effectively, while gear changes were crisp and flowed smoothly. The transition was relatively smooth too, as I only once found myself reaching for a non-existent thumb-shifter.

Pushing out onto along the valley floor, the verges were scattered with the bright orange,yellow, purple and white studs of budding young tulips. It certainly feels like spring is just around the corner and it was beginning to look that way too.

A brief halt at the traffic lights on the bridge gave me the chance to watch the rowing club warming up with a serious of half-hearted shuttle-runs. There were at least 40 of them, several crews were already out on the water and there’s yet another club on the far bank. When did rowing get so popular?

Back underway, I found myself once again negotiating a serious of roadworks and temporary traffic lights, but seeming to catch my urgent need to maintain forward motion, this time I seemed to hit every one at just the right time and blew through them without delay, arriving at our meeting point in good time and in good order.


Main topics of conversation at the start:

As I pulled up in a bright blaze of vile red, poisonous black and bilious yellow, G-Dawg solemnly informed us that OGL had already issued a doom-laden proclamation. Apparently we  would be engulfed by rain of biblical proportions should we dare to spurn the will of the weather gods and try riding anything but winter bikes today.

We all naturally assumed the worst and that Horner’s Theorem™ would apply anyway. This rule irrefutably proves a direct relationship between the number of shiny, posh and clean carbon bikes out on a spring or autumn morning and the number of crap-covered farm tracks, pothole and gravel strewn roads, gates and cattle grids OGL will “accidently” try to include in our route.

Jimmy Mac looked to be the only one still out on his winter bike – apparently, his good wheels had been mysteriously detained in OGL’s workshop where they’d only gone for a quick service and tune up. I suspected this was just a ruse to ensure OGL wasn’t the only one out on his winter bike. Of course he announced they were now ready to pick up, but … oops … not in time for today’s ride.

We had an FNG in the shape of a new arrival to the North East, recently transplanted from his native Devon and looking for a good club to join. I’m not sure how he wound up with us…

An ex-racer, he would later find a kindred spirit in beZ and the pair would eventually leave us tootling, old guys and gals, to go try and rip each other’s legs off. In the meantime, he took the time to introduce himself to everyone, complete with a firm, manly handshake. A good first impression, though I’ll be hugely impressed if he can attach more than a handful of names to an array of too similar, anonymous looking, helmet encased, sunglasses wearing bike jockey’s.

Grover wheeled up for his first ride of the year, much like the budding tulips, a truly profound indication that spring is just around the corner. Recovering from our mild surprise and rubbing our eyes to make sure it wasn’t just a miradjee, someone wondered if Szell might be next up, although it was quickly agreed we’d have to wait another month or two before the emergence of this particularly exotic butterfly from its winter chrysalis.

There was a long and involved discussion about Jess Varnish and the state of our national cycling federation, apparently beleaguered amidst a sea of troubles. An expectedly myopic OGL wouldn’t have a word said against British Cycling, while Taffy Steve reasoned that if you employed a straight-talking, foul-mouthed, Australian bully for a coach, you should know exactly what you’re going to get. Meanwhile, Tom-Tom suggested bullying and sexism had no place within any professional institution, least of all the highly public, elite end of sport.

I didn’t have anything sensible to add to the discussion, but felt compelled to mention Jess Varnish was an obvious talent and she had a real good finish on her.

“Yes, satin semi-gloss.” Taffy Steve agreed, while the Prof just looked on befuddled and wondered what the hell we could possibly be talking about.

Our 9:15 Garmin Time start was somewhat delayed by OGL collecting club membership fees, which prompted the Prof to ponder what actually happened to the princely payments our president procured.

“You might as well take a big stick and go and stir up a hornets nest.” G-Dawg suggested in the shocked silence that followed the question.


A bumper pack of 28 lads and lasses were soon pushing off, clipping in and riding out in two long snaking lines.

I spent time sitting toward the back of the pack with Sneaky Pete as we rolled out, Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs shouldering the burden of the work on the front as we clambered out into the countryside via Berwick Hill.

Rotations off the front and a brief stop for a mechanical and then for the Prof to pee, saw the order change and I spent some time chatting with Grover (who was definitely not enjoying his first ride since November) and then the BFG.

At some point OGL led us out briefly out onto the A696, two lanes of screaming death metal, notorious for speeding and dodgy over-taking manouvres. We all got stacked up at a junction waiting to cross against the fast moving, high volume traffic heading north on what is, after all a major route up to Scotland. We stood there far too long, all crowded together and feeling vulnerable to anything travelling south with too much pace or not enough attention, before managing to effect an exit.

“Great,” Taffy Steve quipped, “Looks like Punishment Ride Number 8.”

That’s what you get for riding your best bike without permission, but the weather had been so fine for the past week that we failed to find any dodgy, dirty roads. Still, you can’t say we/he didn’t try.

At one point, I caught up with Keel, who is enduring life in a call-centre while he waits for his chosen industry to pick itself out of a slump to get his career back on track. He’s still plumbing the depths to try and find the lowest base level of human benevolence, empathy, compassion and understanding. This week’s candidate for Caller of the Year had excused their ignorance and rudeness by suggesting, “I can’t help it that I’m upper class and you’re working class.”


NOVATEK CAMERA


Next up was Cowin’ Bovril who revealed he’s planning a trip to the Alps with Carlton in June. Funny he should say that …

The road finally spat us out at the bottom of Middleton Bank, with Crazy Legs turning left, away from the climb for a slightly longer run to the café, simply because it’s a direction he’d never taken before. Just as he swung away, Sneaky Pete sneaked off after him, while I hesitated, before deciding not to follow.

Hitting the steepest ramps of the climb, I then found myself at the back and boxed in as the BFG drove a small group off the front. In giving chase, Tom-Tom opened up a small gap which I nipped through and I dropped onto his wheel as he passed a struggling Taffy Steve, caught in an unequal fight with both the slope and a rubbing tyre.

As the road straightened, I swung past Tom-Tom and dragged him across the gap to the front runners. Over the top, there was to be no regrouping after the climb this week,  both the BFG and Keel working hard to push the pace up on the front as we closed on the café. I drifted to the back of the group and followed the wheels as we swooped down through Milestone Woods and up the first and steepest of the rollers.

Here the BFG popped, swung over and was swept away. Half-way up the final climb, Keel also blew, G-Dawg, Jimmy Mac and Biden Fecht romped away to contest the sprint, while I tusselled wheel to wheel with the Prof for the minor places.


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

G-Dawg and Crazy Legs have organised an off-road , mountain bike excursion around Kielder next Saturday. Sounds like fun, but I suspect any kind of route more challenging than a riverside path is likely to shake my mountain bike to destruction. Besides this, it’s much too soon after re-discovering the joy of riding the Holdsworth again, so I had to pass.

Completely independent of Carlton and Cowin’ Bovril, Crazy Legs has also arranged a trip to France,  where he’ll re-enact Hannibal’s epic journey across the Alps. Captain Black, Goose and me have all volunteered for the role of the elephants, reasoning we probably climb like enormous, lumpen pachyderms anyway.

We fly to Geneva on the weekend of the Cyclone, with the idea of driving to France and setting up a base camp within striking distance of Alpe d’Huez, the Galibier, Col de la Bonette, Col d’Izoard and all those other legendary climbs that cyclists can usually only dream of. That should keep us well occupied for 3 or 4 days.

We represent then … drum roll please … “The 4 Riders of the Alps Bucket-List”  – although my carefully pre-prepared blerg title, has been somewhat ruined as Crazy Legs’ brother-in-law, or aunties, uncles, nephew’s son, or some such distant relative  will also join us.

The BFG too, might venture out, if the timings coincide with his human phases of the moon and even the elusive, semi-legendary recluse, Hammer has threatened to join us, although I understand he’ll be flying out by private jet and will probably take up residence on his super-yacht in Monaco for the duration.

While there’s no contest in a choice between the Alps and the Cyclone, the trip does mean I’ll miss the annual slug fest around Northumberland for the first time since 2010.   This not only breaks a 6 year tradition, but means there’s a sportive-sized hole in my annual schedule, which the talk at Saturday suggested could be filled by a return to the Wooler Wheel. There seems to be a lot of club interest in the ride, which I haven’t done for a couple of years, so it’s definitely-maybe a possibility.

Captain Black also helpfully reminded me of the post-ride grub the organisers provide, which is, I have to admit a real incentive and could yet sway my decision.

Crazy Legs wandered up in his role of Hannibal to discuss trip arrangements, picked up Princess Fiona’s Oakley’s by mistake and made to wander away. Called to account, he did have the excuse that her prize, expensive Oakley’s were identical in absolutely every way to his knock-off, uber-cheap Fauxley’s. He placed both pairs side by side to prove his point, but luckily didn’t shuffle them around and ask us to pick out the genuine article.

The Prof exulted in his original Ray Ban X-Rays, which he felt were old enough to be seen as not only a true classic, but apparently wholly original and positively vintage.

“And you’ve only ever had to replace the lenses 13 times and the frames 6 times.” Captain Black quipped.

With OGL dithering over another coffee, most of us were done and dusted and so we split the group and left.


On the way back I was chatting to Taffy Steve about local sports “heroes” – inevitably ours are cerebrally-challenged ex-footballers of dubious abilities, who manage to get continuous media work despite relying on the most mundane prognostications, unedifying insight and some truly banal cliché’s.

I told him how one famous son of Tyneside had rang the University demanding a place for his daughter and, on being told her qualifications simply weren’t good enough, had actually resorted to the cheesy old, “Do you not know who I am?”

(Of course, I always enjoyed the (probably) apocryphal story of the outraged airline passenger who used the same, “Do you have any idea who I am?” line, only for the ticket agent to fire up the public address and loudly announce, “We have a passenger here who can’t remember who he is. If anyone can help him, please come to gate 17.”)

I also had a laugh at Chris Waddle who it seems has singularly failed to master the word “penalty.”

“That’s a stone-wall pelanty!” he’ll shout excitedly down the radio, while I shake my head and sigh. No Chris, it’s not.

“That is good though,” Taffy Steve mused, “He can’t pronounce penalties and he can’t take them either.” Ooph!

As we made our way down Berwick Hill, the driver of a large white panel van we’d obviously delayed on his massively important journey for the briefest of nano-seconds, decided we didn’t have any right to be on the road. To make his point he decided it would be a good idea to overtake, pull sharply in front of us and then execute an exemplary emergency stop, in the hope that we would all pile into the back of his van and die in a horrible, mangled heap.

Sadly for him, our brakes and reflexes were more than adequate to cope with this utterly ridiculous and dangerous stunt and we all stopped admirably and without incident, albeit there was a fair bit of shouting.

Taffy Steve pulled up alongside the open window of the still rocking van to calmly inform the moronic driver that he’d been a very naughty man indeed and suggested we had 20 witnesses to a very clear case of dangerous driving, before riding nonchalantly away. These pronouncements seemed to leave the loon gibbering, spluttering and chittering incoherently in outraged apoplexy, while we all filed past and continued our ride. Complete and utter arse hat.

Exiting the Mad Mile, I latched onto the BFG’s wheel as his new lair lies a little way along my route home and so I enjoyed a bit of company for the first quarter of a mile or so. Then I was off, riding solo and still thoroughly enjoying myself.

Crossing the river, I was approaching a supermarket entrance, and noticed a car with Probationary driver plates waiting to pull out onto the road, piloted by a young, female. Feeling sure she’d noticed the vulnerable cyclist, or at least the line of cars stacked closely on my rear wheel, I gave it no further thought, until she pulled out directly in front of me.

I had no choice but to swerve into the opposite lane, which was thankfully empty, while wildly gesticulating with a universal “WTF” waving of my arms, which she studiously ignored. I passed down the left-hand side of the car as she slowed to turn immediately right, banging on the side-panel to try and get her attention and at least have her acknowledge I existed. Eyes fixed very firmly straight-ahead, there wasn’t even a flicker that she’d done something irrefutably stupid and wrong, before she turned the wheel and drove blithely away.

Y’gads, they’re everywhere! But, despite it all, malicious, ignorant or simply inattentive, asinine drivers failed to puncture my good mood. I can’t wait for next weekend and the chance to do it all again.


YTD Totals: 1,228 km / 763 miles with 13,060 metres of climbing

Van Impudence!


An ode to grace …

So, there I was, awkwardly adrift in the cultural hellhole that was the early ‘70’s on Tyneside and entranced by an exotic sport held mainly in distant countries and with no media support to fuel a burgeoning fascination. In a time long before even World of Sport began their token showing of less than 1% of the world’s greatest, most gruelling, sporting extravaganza, the Tour de France, options for following races were as limited as your chances of buying a white Model T Ford.

The only Tour updates in those days were an occasional list of stage winners and, if we were very lucky, an updated top 10 GC, all hidden within the dreaded “Other Results” buried in the back pages of the Sports section of daily newspapers and usually secreted under all the football stuff that had already been reported elsewhere.

The cycling results were so small and so barely legible that they would have given actual small-print a bad name, and corporate lawyers a hard-on that could last for weeks.

Beyond these barest, most perfunctory of details, we restlessly devoured stage reports in Cycling (this was so long ago that it was even before the profound and dynamic name change to “Cycling Weekly”) to try and get a feel for the drama and the ebb and flow of the ongoing battle, but what came through was a generally disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.

For the young cycling neophyte the biggest treasures were a series of books published by the Kennedy Brothers following the narrative of each Grand Tour, imaginatively titled “Tour ’77” or “Giro ‘73” (you get the picture).

Although published weeks after the publicity caravans had packed away their tat and as the gladiatorial names garishly graffiti’d on the roads slowly began to fade, these books told a compelling narrative of the race, from the first to last pedal stroke, replete with some stunning high quality photos.

Opening the crackling white pages you could inhale deeply and almost catch a faint whiff of the sunflowers, Orangina and embrocation, as you were instantly transported to the side of the road to watch the peloton whirring by.


 

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It’s in one of these Tour books that I first stumbled across a full-page photo of a boyish, fresh-faced young man, posed with some faceless fat functionary to receive a completely bizarre gazelle-head plaque. This may have been a prize for winning a stage, or the mountains classification, having the most doe –like eyes in the peloton, successfully passing through puberty, or something like that.


 

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What struck me most though was that this hardened, elite, professional athlete didn’t look all that different from me – he wasn’t all that tall, very slight of build and looked so young – creating the impression of an instant underdog.

I would also later learned that under the jauntily perched cap was a head that would be subjected to some criminally bad hair moments too – instant empathy, although I never sank quite as low as having a perm.

It was hard to believe this rider was capable of comfortably mixing it up with the big, surly men of the peloton, with their hulking frames, chiselled legs, granite faces and full effusions of facial hair. Not only that, but when the road bent upwards he would fly and leave everyone grovelling helplessly in his wake.

The young man is Lucien Van Impe and the accompanying chapter of the book is titled Van Impudence, and relates in detail how he defied the hulking brutes of the peloton and their supreme leader King Ted, to wreak his own brand of cycling havoc in the mountains.

It was here that began my long-standing love affair with the grimpeurs, the pure climbers of the cycling world, those who want to defy gravity and try to prove Newton was a dunce.


 

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An Astaire-like glide

Watch any YouTube videos of the time and you’ll see the big men of the Tour grinding horribly uphill, their whole bodies contorted as they attempt to turn over massive gears and physically wrestle the slopes into submission.

Merckx, indisputably the greatest cyclist of all time is probably the worst offender, and looks like he’s trying to re-align his top tube by brute strength alone,  while simultaneously starring in a slow-motion film of someone enduring a course of severe electro-shock therapy.

Then look at Van Impe, at the cadence he’s riding at, the effortless style and how he flows up the gradients. Woah.

His one-time Directeur Sportif, and by no means his greatest fan, Cyrille Guimard would say, “You had to see him on a bike when the road started to rise. It was marvellous to see, he was royally efficient. He had everything: the physique, fluidity, an easy and powerful pedalling style.”


 

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

In his book, Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins writes that, “Van Impe’s style is effortless and majestic. Watching him, one can’t help but think that riding up mountains is the easiest thing in the world. His is no heavy-footed stomp, but an Astaire-like glide.”

Many cycling fans prefer the rouleurs and barradeurs, the big framed, hard-men, the grinders who churn massive gears with their endless, merciless attacks, dare-devil descending and never-say-die attitudes.


 

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

Others seem to like the controllers who grind their way to victory, eating up and spitting out mile after mile of road at a relentless, contained pace, regardless of whether they’re riding a time-trial, a mountain stage or across a pan flat parcours.

For me though pure poetry lies in those slight, mercurial riders, who would suddenly be transformed – given wings and the ability to dance away from the opposition when the road tilts unremittingly skyward.

Even more appealing, they’re all just a little skewed and a bit flaky, wired a little bit differently to everyone else or, as one of my friends would say, “as daft as a ship’s cat”. The best can even be a little bit useless and almost a liability when the roads are flat, or heaven forbid dip down through long, technical descents.

The power of the Internet and YouTube in particular has even let me rediscover some of the great climbers from before my time, the idols who inspired Van Impe, such as Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.


 

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Gaul and Bahamontes

This pair, the “Angel of the Mountains” and “Eagle of Toldeo” respectively, both had that little bit of extra “climber flakiness” to set them apart. Bahamontes was terrified of descending on his own and was known to sit and eat ice-cream at the top of mountains while waiting for other riders so he had company on the way down.

Gaul’s demons were a little darker, once threatening to knife Bobet for a perceived slight and for a long period in his later life he became a recluse, living in a shack in the woods and wearing the same clothes day after day.

As Jacques Goddet, the Tour de France director observed, Van Impe also had “a touch of devilry that contained a strong dose of tactical intelligence” and was referred to as “l’ouistiti des cimes” – the oddball of the summits in certain sections of the French press.

Goddet went on to describe the climber as possessing “angelic features, always smiling, always amiable,” and yet Van Impe was known to be notoriously stubborn and difficult to manage, requiring careful handling, constant reassurance and a close coterie of attendants who would cater to his every whim away from the bike.

Cyrille Guimard, who coached, cajoled, goaded and drove Van Impe to his greatest achievement, Tour de France victory in 1976, described him as “every directeur sportif’s nightmare.”


 

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Van Impe doing what he does best

While I’ve enjoyed watching and following many good and some great riders, it’s always the climbers who’ve captivated me the most, although just being a good climber doesn’t seem to be enough. In fact it’s quite difficult to define the exact qualities that I appreciate – Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiapucci never “had it” and nor does current fan favourite and, ahem, “world’s best climber” the stone-faced Nairo Quintana.

There has to be a little something else, some quirk or spark of humanity that I can identify with and that sets the rider apart and makes them a joy to watch and follow. Of today’s climbers I’m most hopeful for Romain Bardet – he seems to have character, style and a rare intelligence, but only time will tell if he blossoms into a truly great grimpeur.


 

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“Always smiling, always amiable”

From the past, our very own Robert Millar of course was up there with the best (although my esteem may be coloured by intense nationalism). Andy Hampsten, on a good day, was another I liked to watch and, for a time the young Contador, when he seemed fresh and different and believable.

Still, none have come close to supplanting Van Impe in my estimation and esteem. He would go on to win the Tour in 1976 and perhaps “coulda/shoulda” won the following year, if not for being knocked off his bike by a car while attacking alone on L’Alpe D’Huez. See, that sort of shit happened even back in the “good, old days.”

By the time Van Impe’s career was finally over (including a retirement and comeback) he’d claimed the Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey on a record 6 separate occasions (matching his hero Bahamontes) and a feat that has never been bettered. (Fuck you Richard Virenque and your performance enhanced KoM sniping, I refuse to acknowledge your drug enabled “achievements”).


 

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On the attack, in the jersey he became synonymous with

In contrast, both during and after his professional career, Van Impe never tested positive, never refused a doping test and has never been implicated in any form of doping controversy – he’s either incredibly, astonishingly lucky, clever and cunning, or the closest thing you’ll ever get to the definition of a clean rider.

So, if you follow the Kitty Kelley premise that “a hero is someone we can admire without apology,” then Van Impe resolutely ticks all the boxes for me.

During his career he also managed to pick up awards for the most likeable person in the peloton and the Internet is replete with video and images of him as a good-natured and willing participant in some weirdly bizarre stunts, such as his spoof hour record attempt – proof he was an all-round good guy who never seemed to take himself too seriously.


 

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

In all Van Impe completed an incredible 15 Tour’s, never abandoning and was an active participant and presence in all of them.

He won the race in 1976 and was 2nd once and 3rd on three separate occasions, finishing in the Top 5 eight times. Along the way he won 9 individual stages and achieved all this while riding for a succession of chronically weak teams and competing when two dominant giants of the sport, Merckx and Hinault, were in their pomp.

Van Impe was also 2nd overall in the Giro, winning one stage and two mountains classifications on a couple of rare forays into Italy.

Not just a one-trick pony though, he could  ride a decent time-trial and won a 40km ITT in the 1975 Tour, when he handily beat the likes of Merckx, Thévenet, Poulidor and Zoetemelk.

Even more surprisingly for a pure climber he even somehow managed to win the Belgian National Road Race Championship in 1983 after coming out of retirement.

I’m not sure if this represents Van Impe’s skills and talent, a particularly favourable parcours, or simply the nadir of Belgian cycling. Maybe all three?


 

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Belgian National Champion

In October this year Van Impe turned 70 and until recently was still actively engaged in cycling through the Wanty-Groupe Gobert Pro-Continental Team. He lives with his wife, Rita in a house named Alpe D’Huez, a reminder of the mountain where he set the foundations for his greatest triumph and perhaps suffered his most heartbreaking defeat.


 

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An elder Van Impe – still active in cycling

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

Vive Van Impe!