The Plague Diaries – Week#3

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

Splendid Isolation

Week#3 under lock-down and I’m well into the groove of this working from home malarkey. I’m getting up at the same time I would under normal circumstances and then, in the time I would have wasted commuting into work, I have a quick morning run (recklessly burning my allotted “exercise time.) This sets me up for the day and replaces the bike commutes I’m missing on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

I’m not the most accomplished runner, but I can now brag that I’ve already completed a marathon in 2020. (Although for the sake of transparency, I have to admit it’s taken me 94 days to do the required distance.)

I guess I’m lucky that I can work just as effectively from home as I can in the office. Who knows, maybe it’s the future.

One thing I am worried about during our current lock-down is that my barbers are indefinitely closed. This means my ears are no longer regularly subjected to the wild ministrations of a Turkish pyromaniac and may soon be overwhelmed by a carpet of dense, luxurious hair. (I’m not wholly convinced this is an actual possibility, but they do seem to revel in their flamboyantly twirled fire-brands and I don’t want to be a killjoy.)

What is a problem however, is my hair is starting to grow exponentially. outwards. I may need a bigger size in helmet before we see the end of this.

Ultimately, this could, in extremis, lead to some DIY hairdressing and the return of the sort of criminally bad hairstyle I haven’t sported since my early teens.

Contemplation of this horror led me to recollect (with a shudder) the K-Tel Hair Magician – a cheap-looking, white plastic comb with a razor blade clamped between the teeth, a (quote) “precision instrument” that allows “any mother to give her family professional haircuts.” Ahem.

Yes, our family had one. No, it didn’t live up to the hype (you’ll be surprised to learn) – but was excellent at painfully tugging indiscriminate clumps of hair directly out of your scalp.

I often wonder happened to K-tel and Ronco and all those other purveyors of astonishingly crap, cheap consumer products – they must have sold by the millions to afford all those shameless adverts that cluttered up the TV channels.

(I realise Alan Sugar briefly tried to reprise their business model with his Amstrad brands, but surprisingly and despite his best efforts, the products weren’t quite crass enough.)

So, no more K-tel Hair Magician, or Ronco Buttoneer, no more Veg-o-matic, or the much improved (really?) Veg-o-matic II. No more Brush-o-matic, Peel-o-matic, or even, I kid you not, Tie-o-matic. (I’m beginning to sense a clever trend with the product names.)

No more cordless power scissors, or Rotato. I never actually seen a Rotato – the rotating potato peeler, and can’t help feeling my life is poorer because of this omission.

Anyway, no matter how desperate, I will not be scouring eBay for a K-tel Hair Magician, even bolstered by one of my Dad’s (oft-repeated) pearls of wisdom, that there’s only two weeks between a bad haircut and a good one…

Dad wisdom is great. I especially like the epigram espoused by the dad of my work colleague, the bloke formerly known as Fat Dave. His dad, always insisted that when planning a trip, you should never take an idiot with you, as you’ll easily be able to pick one up at your destination.”

Sage advice.

Anyway, Saturday found me once again heading out for a solo ride and, since last weeks run seemed to turn into a bit of a hill-fest, I decided I’d treat myself and head straight down the Tyne Valley, avoiding the lumpy bits on either side.

I realised the drawback with my plan as soon as I reached the bottom of the Heinous Hill and struck out up-river, the wind was blowing directly from the west, straight down the valley and I’d be riding into the teeth of it all the way out.

Undeterred, I took my standard route across to the north bank , finding the water flat and completely empty as I rolled over the bridge. I guess both rowing clubs have shutdown for the duration and there were no boats out.

I turned left at the end of the bridge, instead of my usual right and soon found myself on the Sustrans cycleway, heading toward Wylam. I skirted a golf course, as empty as the river had been and I was “gannin like a rocket” as I swept past the cottage where George Stephenson had been born. (Did you notice what I did there?)

At the end of the trail I was bombed by an inattentive mountain-biker sweeping out of the trees and obviously failing to see and/or hear my approach. I took evasive manoeuvres, but despite my best efforts, couldn’t maintain correct social distancing. Luckily the authorities weren’t around to impose sanctions.

I pushed on and was approaching Ovingham when a cyclist from the St. Nicks club swept past without a word, nod or wave of acknowledgement. Pah, how rude, there’s no need for that.

The competitive fires were lit and I gave chase. Please understand, I didn’t want to, but it’s an uncontrollable chemical reaction that simply won’t be denied. I had no choice in the matter, just ask the Red Max.

Try as I might, I couldn’t close the gap, my legs felt heavy and tired and didn’t seem to have any zip in them, something I attributed to my series of morning runs.

It wasn’t until I was approaching Ovington, already 10-mile into my ride, that I noticed a rhythmic sissk-sissk-sissk noise coming from the front end of the bike and discovered my brake pads were rubbing slightly on the wheel.

I stopped to make adjustments and pressed on. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a grind into a headwind and I wasn’t suddenly gifted with an immense burst of speed, but the toiling definitely got easier.

I caught the St. Nicks rider, stopped just before the Stocksfield Bridge and studiously intent on his Garmin screen, so he still didn’t have to acknowledge my existence. I failed to make eye contact and passed him as I swung left and crossed the river back to the south side.

I traced my way through Riding Mill and out past Prospect Hill, venue for our lung-shredding annual hill climb, and just kept going.

The white plumes of the Egger chipboard factory at Hexham were soon in sight, the first time I was aware that chipboard manufacturing was an essential occupation, as the plant was very clearly still operational during our national shutdown.

At this point I was starting to get a bit bored with the relatively flat terrain, wide, straight roads and constantly nagging headwind, so I eenie-meenie-minie-moe’d and swung left at one of several junctions with signs pointing toward Slaley and Blanchland.

My plan was to take in a swift sharp climb out of the Tyne Valley and drop down into the Derwent Valley for the run home. Good plan …

Awful execution.

The road I’d chosen climbed stiffly south for a bit, then swung back to the west, running parallel to the route I’d just left, so back into the headwind, but now with the added impediment of a long dragging climb upwards.

I crawled past a lumberyard and garden centre with cafe, that I vaguely recalled stopping at during a midweek ride out with the Tyne Valley Cycling Club. From here, I knew I would get to where I wanted to be if I just persevered. So I did.

Just outside Slaley, I stopped for a cereal bar breakfast and to admire the super-cute, spring-loaded, new lambs, bounding through the air, like miniature fuzzy, four-legged Kung Fu fighters. They were having fun at least.

Dropping down toward Blanchland, I stopped again to try and understand the post-apocalyptic landscape presented by this corner of Slaley Forest. What had once been a dense, towering plantation of dark evergreens’ had now been stripped almost bare, as far as the eye could see, except for a few desultory, skeletal trees, left poking stiffly upwards.

It reminded me of pictures of the devastation in the wake of the meteorite strike at Tunguska. Had someone dropped a nuclear bomb just outside Blanchland? To be fair, it wouldn’t surprise me if they had and no one had noticed.

It had started to rain at this point, so instead of heading down into Blanchland, I swung east, skirting this odd, desolate landscape, heading toward Whittonstall and glad to put the rain at my back.

From there I was able to retrace my steps from a couple of weeks ago and find where my route planning had gone horribly wrong. Encouraged by my success, I then took the Derwent Valley heading eastwards and home, climbing out via Burn Top, as a welcome change from the Heinous Hill.

Again a decent run on pleasingly quiet roads, but still with over a 1,000 metres of climbing sprinkled across my 75 kilometre route. So much for my intention to have a less hilly ride.

Along the way I spotted several cats, squirrels, pheasants and chickens, almost revelling in the quiet roads. There were also many more cyclists out than I saw last week, or maybe that’s jus a consequence of where I decided to ride.

I would have to say that only around half of them were riding solo and very few of the assorted pairs I passed looked like they belonged to the same family/households. Unless there’s been a sudden spate of same-sex marriages in the North East, then I’m not sure there’s been a strict adherence to the social distancing guidelines.

Hopefully no harm will come of it, but in these uncertain times, who knows? Personally, as much as I miss the camaraderie of group rides, I’ll stick to solo ventures until things return to normal.


Footnote: all weekend the media has been full of news of people not complying with social-distancing guidelines, including pictures of some astonishingly large groups of cyclists. This is not going to end well and is inviting the government to implement even tougher guidelines. I’m going to be utterly pissed if even solo rides are curtailed due to the selfish activities of a small bunch of complete and utter dickheads. But I can see it coming.

The House of Dying Flaggers

The House of Dying Flaggers

Club Run and Hill Climb, Saturday 14th October, 2017    

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  112 km / 70 miles with 703 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          4 hours 42 minutes

Average Speed:                                23.9 km/h

Group size:                                         28 riders

Temperature:                                    15°C

Weather in a word or two:          Dank, damp, dark and diluvial


 

hill climb
Ride Profile


Anyone with any sort of connection to a British cycling club will realise we are in the midst of hill climb season, a peculiarly national, highly traditional affectation, that encourages even those of advanced years and who really, really should know better, to bodily hurl themselves at short, steep hills to see how fast they can be ridden up.

The fact that this hurts like hell, puts immense strain on your heart and lungs and leaves you jelly-legged and coughing, spluttering and wheezing like a 40-a-day-smoker for a week afterwards is, apparently, all part of the appeal. In fact, British hill climbs are such a fixed, established tradition that they have their own National Championship and this has even inspired a book, the truly excellent A Corinthian Endeavour by Paul Jones.

Jones suggests it is the brutal simplicity of the hill climb that makes it so compelling. In his words you “ride uphill until your eyeballs explode and the fastest time wins – the paradox is that such a savage and unkempt experience can be so life-affirming.” Hmm, life-affirming? I’m not so sure.

Still, despite Mr. Jones’ claims, I would suggest any of our Continental, Trans-Atlantic or Antipodean cousins stumbling across a hill climb, would probably back away quickly, shaking their heads at the eccentric, nay, certifiably insane excesses of the British cyclist.

This was to be my 7th participation in the futile endeavour that was our club confined Hill Climb and I’ve said I’ll stop as soon as I can no longer improve on the time I set the previous year. Each time I think that day is coming closer – I’m not getting any younger and I can’t think of anything equipment-wise I could buy that would make me demonstrably quicker (well, aside from the obvious PED’s, or hidden motors.)

Still, I cling to the fact that I’m a year older, a year nearer to retirement, a year nearer being fully licenced to wear Farah trousers and dress exclusively in beige. Something has to give, surely. So I was semi-hopeful this year would be the last, results would finally show a deterioration and I’d be free of the curse.

As the day started to loom I had a lot weighing on the plus side and had started to marshal a veritable cornucopia of excuses lined up in anticipation of failure (or, do I actually mean success?)

Preparation hadn’t been ideal – a lengthy knee injury has hampered me recently, although sadly it seems to have cleared, so I can’t use that as an excuse not participate. I’ve also been plagued with random, seemingly migratory abdominal pains and been extensively poked and prodded and pricked and sampled and trialled and tested by my GP – all to no avail. I’m a medical conundrum.

Along with seemingly most of the medical community, I’m still in the dark as to the cause and awaiting further scans. An ECG did however come back clean, robbing me of another potential excuse for not riding, but not to worry, I’ve plenty of others…

My fair-weather commuter bike of choice, my shingle-shpeed Trek (I’ve no idea why I need to pronounce it in my head like Schteve McClaren impersonating a Dutchman speaking English – perhaps I’ll just call it the Shrek from now on) has been out of action with a seized rear wheel, while my winter bike, the Pug (Peugeot) has also been laid up in the LBS with the rear mech and hanger inextricably fused together. This still worked after a fashion, but made removing and replacing the rear wheel a tricky, almost Herculean task, so needed fixing before the inevitable puncture on a cold and wet winter ride in the middle of nowhere.

All this meant I’d done far less commuting in the past fortnight than I would have liked, (or, to be more precise, exactly none) but as of last weekend both bikes have been restored to full working order.

I’ve been suffering with a heavy cold all week, but remembered the patented Crazy Legs cure, as he swears by trying to ride through them, so I’d managed to commute on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with this in mind. Halfway through and I was already imagining the ensuing conversation in my head:

Me: “I had a cold last week and remembered how you always try to ride through them, so thought I’d give it a go.”

Crazy Legs: “How did that work out for you, then?”

Me: “Just made me feel worse.”

Crazy Legs: “Yeah, it’s always the same for me…”

Oddly though, it does seem to have helped, or maybe the cold has just run its natural course regardless of what I was doing. Anyway, by the Saturday I was starting to feel on the mend, although still plagued by a head full of intractable, irradiated, green snot. On a positive note, it did stir up some nostalgia, reminding me of the thick, viscous Gloy gum we used to have at school.

I had planned to take it easy on the Friday, but encountered what may have been the vanguard to Hurricane Ophelia and couldn’t resist the strong, strangely warm tailwind that whipped me into a drag race, daring me to see just how fast I could actually ride in to work. The “easy” return in reverse, then became a solid grind into blustery, strong headwinds. (Not that gurning my way up the Heinous Hill on the shingle-shpeed Shrek can ever be considered especially easy.)

Still, the weather looked like being just about perfect for Saturday, warm and dry, so a lack of grip and traction wasn’t going to assist me to underachieve, the wind would be a non-factor and it wasn’t going to be cold enough stop my legs, muscles and lungs performing at their usual modest levels. With the forecast looking so benign and amenable, I planned to ride, instead of drive across to the meeting point and even allowed myself an extra quarter of an hour so I could arrive relatively fresh.

Saturday morning revealed the weather forecast had been nothing but a malicious fantasy, the sky was bleakly and uniformly grey beneath a low cloud base that leeched an intermittent, sifting, and drifting mist of cold rain. All the while the temperature just barely struggled into double figures.

On went a pair of arm warmers, on went the long fingered gloves and then I pulled on a rain jacket and, leaving it as late as possible, reluctantly left the warmth of the house.

The weather had cleared a little by the time I got to the meeting point about an hour later, but it still wasn’t warm enough to persuade me to shuck and stow the jacket.


Main topics of conversation at the start:

G-Dawg was waiting at the meeting point on his fixie, a deliberate choice to ensure that, no matter how tempted, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the hill climb for fear of blowing out his knees. Instead G-Dawg had volunteered to help out as holder and had co-opted Crazy Legs to help as official starter and timekeeper. With OGL handling timings at the finish at the top of the hill, we were all set.

The Monkey Butler Boy was obviously taking the whole thing very seriously and rolled up in his club skinsuit and brandishing magnetic number holders. I joked that they looked heavier than safety pins, but apparently not, as they are infinitesimally lighter and that’s before you even consider their more advanced aerodynamic properties. Allegedly.

The Red Max wandered behind the Monkey Butler Boys bike and returned smiling contentedly. The Monkey Butler Boy looked all around, fear and real concern in his eyes.

“What’s he done? What did he just do to my bike?” he demanded to know. Luckily his paranoia was quickly diverted when, to his everlasting shame and horror, he discovered a perfectly formed, chain-ring tattoo branded on his calf. Amateur.

He was then taken to task for seriously over-lubing his chain. In demonstration, like the pickiest ever contestant on 4-in-a-Bed, G-Dawg ran a finger along his own, gleaming, shining silver links and showed us the faintest trace of clean oil forming a slight snail-trail across the pad of his finger. Repeating the process with the Monkey Butler Boy’s chain his finger came back stained with a thick, grungy, greasy smear that he ostentatiously wiped off on the grass. And then returned to wipe some more, as the filthy black grunge proved surprisingly sticky and indelible.

The meeting place has sprouted a new bin that seems to have grown up organically, straight through the pavement. Being deeply conservative and suspicious of anything new, we kept a good distance and eyed it warily as we waited to leave – delaying until the last possible minute to ensure we captured a full contingent of hill climb victims participants.


I rode out with Biden Fecht, chatting about this and that, everything and nothing, as we picked our way up through Dinnington, before swinging left to head down into the Tyne Valley. This was to be the plucky fellers first hill climb and the usual gallows humour had already started to infect him. He confessed to thinking about staging an accident to avoid the hill climb, if only he could find a suitable grassy knoll. I made him promise to make sure he brought me down if he found the right opportunity.

We dropped down through Wylam and started skirting the river, all bundling into a parking area at the bottom of the climb to regroup and for everyone to pull on jackets as the intensity of the rain increased and started to bounce back off the tarmac.

We picked our way along the north bank of the river, while I had a chat with the Hammer about creeping paranoia and the fear of being a dissident. Or, at least I think that’s what we were discussing, he’ll probably deny it under oath.

We paused at Stocksfield to regroup again and I took the opportunity to ride out onto the bridge to look over the parapet at the river, flowing fast and high beneath us. We crossed into more rain and took to the wide, but fast and busy road up through Riding Mill toward Corbridge and our chosen scene of torture, Prospect Hill.

The group splintered on a couple of rises and I found myself chasing across the gap onto the Red Max’s wheel, sitting just off centre of his rear wheel and trying to find some shelter from the wind, while avoiding the arc of cold water his tyre was kicking up into my face.

A sharp left and we were there, joining a throng of happily babbling kids, our Go-Ride section, who all looked delighted to be riding up a steep hill in the cold and pouring rain.

“Have we started yet?” G-Dawg enquired, before remembering he was the actual starter and no one was going without his say-so.

I signed on and press-ganged Captain Black into slapping my number on my back, “any-which-way.” He was surprisingly adept at any-which-way and I was soon ready to start. Unfortunately, I think I was number 22 or so, with all the young kids setting off first so we could get them out of the cold and the rain as quickly as possible – although they seemed to be coping with the grim weather conditions much better than all us grumbling, auld gits – they were excited and happy and hyper and it was brilliant.

It could have been a lot worse, I think last year we probably had over 40 starters, but the weather had obviously put a damper on things and deterred a lot of participants. Still it meant I had 20 minutes or so to hang around and get progressively colder and damper.

We stood chatting aimlessly for a while, talking the usual nonsense. The Natty Gnat outlined his strategy, which included waiting until “he could see the line” before changing up and charging at it. I suggested if he could see the line, he was probably doing it all wrong and he amended his strategy to” sensing the line” through the red-haze of hypoxia and tunnel-vision of hurt.

I checked that Jimmy Mac our Consultant Vascular and Endovascular Surgeon was ahead of me in the start list and would be at the top and able to help the old feller in crisis who would come staggering up behind him. I then realised his services might be in high demand and in any triage situation I was unlikely to be a priority. I could feel his eyes already coldly appraising me, with a look that seemed to suggest, “this one’s too old, far too troublesome and not worth saving.”

Meanwhile firm-favourite to win, broad shouldered, Steven Kruijswijk look-alike, Eon discovered his Di2 had given up the ghost and he’d be essentially reduced to riding the hill in just a single gear. What to me would have been the perfect excuse to scrub the ride was just seen as an additional challenge to Eon, who considered and discarded the idea of borrowing someone else’s bike and decided he just needed to choose his one gear very, very carefully.

With ten minutes to go I went for a short spin to try and warm up a little. Then the bike and pockets were stripped of any extraneous weight and finally and very, very reluctantly I slipped out of my rain jacket and took my place in line behind a visibly shivering Colossus.

With just a long, last, blood-chilling glower at Crazy Legs, our official timekeeper for the day (as if this was all his fault!) the Colossus roared away and I was next up. I nudged up to the line and was clamped in place by G-Dawg on one side and another big bloke I didn’t recognise on the other. I was now locked in, rock-solid, unwavering and utterly motionless.

“Thirty seconds,” Crazy Legs informed me brightly.

I clipped in and paused.

“Hold on! I’ve changed my mind, I want to get off.”

I could feel the unknown bloke wavering, his grip loosened just a little. G-Dawg though was unmoveable, implacable and his hold unrelenting, there was no escape, I wasn’t going anywhere…

Crazy Legs then began a very fine impersonation of Ted Rodgers doing the 3-2-1 countdown, or maybe it was that Phones-4-U thing. Either way I’m not sure the UCI would have approved and his struggles would later find him practicing his manual dexterity in the café. In his defence, I have to say that both the double-digit and single-finger salute he greeted my gentle ribbing with were delivered with suitable aplomb and professionalism.

“5-4-3-2-1 – go, go, go!”

Shit! Shit! Shit! I was released, managed not to fall over and headed for the bottom of the first ramp, legs quickly whirring up to speed

I was determined not to bury myself too deeply on the first corner, despite the encouragement of a group of “cycling moms” who’d stayed behind to add their support to the senior riders with much shouting and the shaking of home-made rattles. Great stuff, thanks ladies.

I exited the first corner in good order, distractedly noting that at some point I’d actually managed to stop shivering. Unfortunately, I think I’d also been a little too relaxed and I wasn’t carrying enough momentum with me. The speed began to drop and I did what I usually do, leapt out of the saddle and tried to add a little oomph.

Nope, not happening, not today…

The rear wheel slipped and slid with no traction, the ground was much too wet and too greasy for a sudden application of power. Three times the wheel spun ineffectively as I teetered on the edge of disaster, before it finally bit and I was back in control and climbing upwards again.

Now I started to notice how bad the road actually was, the surface was rough, cracked and pitted with potholes, while the corners were strewn with dead leaves and gravel and, just outside a new construction site, liberally daubed with slippery mud.

I was now concentrating on trying to pick a clean line, while running my chain up the cassette, trying to find the right gear that would let me accelerate while staying rooted firmly to the saddle. I already knew this wasn’t going to be a good time but pressed on, legs burning, lungs strangely okay and breathing not quite as distressed as usual.

As the road dug eastwards, I glanced over the dry stone wall to my left and saw the murky, misty clouds in the valley slowly burning off, lifting and blowing away as the sun lanced through in bright columns. I think I might have appreciated the sight for at least a nano-second, before it was back to the task in hand and I was threading my way around a gravel moraine, skirting the edge of an elongated crevasse and pushing my way around one more corner.

I rose out of the saddle a few times, but far more circumspectly now, trying to gradually add power without losing grip, working constantly upward. The tyres were still slipping a little, but it was far more controlled and through it I was able to slowly pile on a little more speed.

I rounded the final bend, squinting toward where a hazy collection of people outlined in bright sunlight marked the finish. I crashed back down the cassette, willed my legs to maintain the same cadence and closed quickly, throwing the bike over the line.

I hung over the frame for a minute or two trying to control my ragged breathing, before turning and looking back down the road. Shattered riders and discarded bikes were scattered on the grass verges like a column of refugees after a strafing attack by dive bombers.

I slowly made my way back to the finish line, congratulating Biden Fecht on a good ride and in time to cheer on Buster, the Monkey Butler Boy and, last man up, the Garrulous Kid, all of whom did great rides.

Me? I came home in 6:24, that’s 23 seconds down on the previous year. I am officially no longer getting any faster.


HClimb
The law of diminishing returns


Jimmy Cornfeed helped me unpin my number and I picked my way back down the hill now there were no more contestants racing up it. At the bottom I met up with G-Dawg, Crazy Legs and others, as we set out to find a café – hopefully in Corbridge, but definitely anywhere other than Brockbushes, where we have been made to feel especially unwelcome in the past few years.

We failed to locate a café rolling through Corbridge and set out in a wide loop around the town, before heading to a place the Red Max had pinpointed as a potential stop. As we pressed on into the wilderness and seemingly angling North toward the border, Biden Fecht cheered me up by suggesting that if all else failed he knew of a good café in Jedburgh. Then as we pressed on further with no relief in sight, he concluded there was always our usual stop at Belsay.

This slight detour turned into a bit of a grind, as the rain started falling again. Crazy Legs and G-Dawg had set off at a pace designed to restore some circulation and warmth to their much beleaguered bodies. They must have had it even worse than the participants, having stood around from start to finish of the event, without the benefit of even the most ineffectual warm up, or the opportunity to actually ride the hill.

So, while they pressed on, full of energy and desperate to warm up, I found my legs drained of any strength and on a long, dragging climb drifted slowly off the back of the group. On we pushed, seemingly with a final destination in mind, but finally regrouped so I could find a bit of shelter in the wheels and hang on grimly.

“A right turn, somewhere along here …” G-Dawg informed us.

“Or here?”

“Maybe here?”

“Ah, here.”

We turned in, Biden Fecht read the sign as Valium Farm, but that was only wishful thinking on his part – the great horde of unwashed cyclists had finally descended on the otherwise peaceful and sedentary Vallum Farm Tea Rooms.


Main conversations at the coffee shop:

The Garrulous Kid was found wandering around asking people the quickest way home as he had an appointment with his lah-di-dah hairdressers for another fresh trim. Earlier, G-Dawg had patiently explained how he could retrace his steps back, crossing the river at Stocksfield.

“You know where that is, don’t you?”

The Garrulous Kid just looked blank.

“Wylam? You know Wylam and how to get back from there?”

The Kid still looked blank.

He’d asked me the quickest way to get home and I unhelpfully suggested he cadge a lift back with someone who’d brought a car. In retrospect, perhaps it was the most sensible suggestion he’d got all day.

Now, the Red Max, who seemed to be the only one who actually knew where we were, told him to turn left out the farm, then first right and then right again and he’d be on the road to Stamfordham.

The Kid still looked blank, but left regardless. We still have no idea if he’s actually made it home yet, let alone in time for his salon appointment.

I got my time for the hill climb – significantly slower than last year. I said I would stop once my time started to regress, so “never again!” I vowed to anyone who cared to listen.

The possibility of transporting a set of rollers up to the start of the hill climb for a more considered warm up was discussed. Caracol was surprised the Red Max hadn’t pulled a set out of his “bag of tricks” while G-Dawg wanted to see someone riding with a set of rollers strapped to their back. In his absence, we all volunteered the Garrulous Kid to transport them to the bottom of the hill climb for us next year.

Crazy Legs pondered whether you couldn’t make some exceedingly narrow, portable rollers and wondered how narrow they could be made before they became unusable.

OGL left, returned to tell us he’d been harangued by an old harridan who objected to cyclists clogging up the country lanes (for once he didn’t seem keen to acknowledge any form of leadership over our ranks). He left again, then returned realising he hadn’t paid (important in case we wish to return to this venue next year, hopefully without circumnavigating the whole of the Tyne Valley to get there) and then, he finally left for good.

As we packed up and made to follow, Crazy Legs congratulated the Red Max on finding an even more expensive café than our usual haunt. The Colossus tried to wipe down his chair and I followed suit, finding a cold, damp and gritty film had permeated the seat.

“Yeuk!” I observed.

“Yep,” the Colossus agreed, I don’t like sitting in that, I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to.”

Hmm, perhaps we won’t be welcome back here next year after all, even if we all remembered to pay our bills.


We followed the Red Max out into the dank and dark day, as he followed the directions he’d given the Garrulous Kid, turning left, then right, then right again. True to his word (I know, I checked the map – but only after the event) we were now running just south of Stamfordham, but the road we were on was slick with mud and grit and who knows what else.

“Don’t ever let my Dad choose the route again,” the Monkey Butler Boy protested as he bounced and rattled along the smashed up surface and his bike, shoes and new skinsuit developed a thick coating of filth. I felt even worse for the Natty Gnat on his all-white bike and predominantly white University of Newcastle cycling kit. I must admit I don’t recall ever getting the bike this filthy and it took 3 full buckets of car shampoo to get it clean again.


shoes
White bike, white kit, white shoes … all a big mistake


A little further on and we slowed for three horses and riders, at the same time as a car approached from the opposite direction. One of the horses baulked, crabbing sideways, before turning a full 180° and trotting back past us, the rider wearing a rueful grin and trying to pretend that he was still the one in charge. As we rode past we were somewhat surprised to find the riders all dressed in tweeds and ties and formal shirts, despite the foul weather. Skinsuits be damned, we vowed we’d have to organise our own Gentleman’s club run in woollen plus fours, knitted ties, brogues and flat caps.

Aware that time was pressing on and I was already late getting back, I saw a sign for Stocksfield at the next junction, knew it was south of the river, so split with the group for (hopefully) a more direct route home. I soon found myself passing the familiar roads around Whittledene Reservoir and having to track west to find a place to cross the A69, before heading east again.

The usually buzzing A69 dual carriageway was eerily quiet and I rode quickly across without having to pause. It wasn’t long before I was dropping down into the Tyne Valley again, crossing the river and heading home.

That was a long day, over 70 miles and with lots of hills, despite the usual rain foreshortened climbing metres on my Garmin. This somehow recorded a total less than the previous year, when I’d driven across to the meeting point and hadn’t climbed in and out of the Tyne Valley five times, or tacked the Heinous Hill onto the end of my ride.

So another year and another hill climb ticked off. Now I’ve had time to reflect and recover, will I do it again? I’m not ruling it completely out, but won’t feel as compelled to keep the streak going. So if the weather isn’t filthy, rotten, dirty, cold and wet and I’m relatively fit I might line up. If not, I’ll hopefully be able to shrug, give the thing a miss and not feel any remorse.


YTD Totals: 6,053 km / 3,761 miles with 68.935 metres of climbing

Eyepoppin’ heartstoppin’ legshreddin’ heavysleddin’ bloodboilin’ stomachroilin’ musclestrainin’ bodypainin’ stillcoughin’ lungfrothin’ hill climb

Eyepoppin’ heartstoppin’ legshreddin’ heavysleddin’ bloodboilin’ stomachroilin’ musclestrainin’ bodypainin’ stillcoughin’ lungfrothin’ hill climb

Club Hill Climb, Saturday 8th October, 2016

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                  81 km/50 miles with 713 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                          3 hours 06 minutes

Average Speed:                                26.0 km/h

Group size:                                         34 riders

Temperature:                                    14°C

Weather in a word or two:          Bright and cool


 

hill-climb
Ride Profile


The Ride:

Well, it’s that Saturday again, the one all but the very young, very light or insanely masochistic among us seem to hate with equal measure. It’s a day when people who should know better will hurl themselves up a hill, putting more strain on their bodies in that 6 or 7 minutes of unequal battle with gravity and encroaching decrepitude than anything else they’ve done that year. Or, possibly even more strain than everything they’ve ever done that year.

Of course some of us have realised it’s an unequal, unwinnable battle and have waved the white flag, denying themselves the fundamental, innate, inner-truth of the hill climb test.  The rest of us though, well we’ve yet to see the light and are doomed to repeat our past mistakes, like Sisyphus with his rock and there’s a sort of epic heroism in our struggles.

I have to admit the hill climb has been lurking at the back of my mind since late August, with a mixture of unease and trepidation. You recall the pain from the previous year, but after so long it tends to fade just a little, and there’s always the hope that somehow, some way, it’ll be different this time. It never is. The best you can hope for is that it’s worth it and you’re happy with your final time.

Actual preparation began on Wednesday and Thursday, when the commute into work was an opportunity to trial a new pair of shoes before riding out to the hill climb and discovering they’re uncomfortable and crippling. Then on Friday I swapped the single-speed for the winter bike so I could take it a bit easier on the way home and use the gears to avoid my typical gurning, body contorting and leg-straining, out-of-the-saddle grind up the Heinous Hill.

On Saturday morning I drove across to our meeting point, which not only saved my legs a little but also afforded me an extra half an hour in bed –  I like bed, so it’s not a luxury to be sniffed at. It also ensured I was back at about the usual time and didn’t have to worry about night encroaching on my slow and wasted crawl home.


Main topic of conversation at the start:

The ailing BFG defended his decision not to do the hill climb and claimed he had a note from his doctor. “That’s nothing,” The Red Max countered, “I’m not doing the hill climb and I’ve got a note from me Mam.”

The Prof arrived on the Frankenbike rather than one of his myriad, small-wheeled velocipedes, leading to speculation that he must, surely have applied for a BUE.

Crazy Legs was reporting a less than ideal prep, a lingering cold that he’d unsuccessfully tried to burn away with a midweek ride, but felt he was starting to recover now.

The Son of G-Dawg also described less than ideal preparation, when his planned early night was waylaid by the seductive charms of an Indian takeaway, several large drinks and some late night boxing on the TV. Still, he happily concluded that he was becoming used to riding with a hangover and too-little sleep and anything different might have been disconcerting.

The BFG admitted he hadn’t attended our newly convened and hugely successful social night out because he “couldn’t be bothered.” Sigh, doesn’t he realise that apathy is a leading cause of, you know, whatever…


Somewhat fresher than usual then, I joined 30 or so clubmates, a mix of both the doomed and the hill-climb-deniers, as we pushed off, clipped in and rode out, starting to wend our way up the Tyne Valley to our destination 25 mile or so to the west: Prospect Hill, just outside Corbridge.

The scene of our self-induced, masochistic debasement is a 1.5km long climb at a 7% average incline with a maximum gradient of 15.5%. It’s a fairly narrow, twisting track that runs upwards through 9 bends and I don’t think it would be fair to describe the road surface as somewhat challenging.

As we set out, I dropped in beside the BFG, who’s had one of his knees condemned and is awaiting micro-surgery. They’re going to drill holes in him and have a bit of a poke around to see what they can find. I think he’s hoping the procedure will not only cure a long-standing injury, but might also produce beneficial weight savings.

Today he was struggling and complaining that his tendons were as taut as harp strings. My sympathy was somewhat tempered by a fascination about what sort of Ennio Morricone, “Fistful of Dollars” type soundtrack he might be able to generate on long descents, with the wind whistling through the holes in his knees and his hamstrings twanging away like a demented, drunken harpist.

He also confided he’d been skipping this blog as he hadn’t been riding with us and he wasn’t interested if he didn’t feature. An understandable attitude, but one that I’m afraid is based on a mistaken assumption.

Lingering discomfort would eventually persuade the BFG to turn for home early, but before this he was delighted to overhear a conversation between the two riders behind him:

“Been riding long?”

“I’m Dutch…”

Cue long, long silence.

Q.E.D?

I glanced behind and, sure enough saw Mellstock Quire riding alongside our new Dutch friend, De Uitheems Bloem, who was once again dressed from head to toe in heavy-duty, black garb, with only a tiny crescent of pale flesh showing between his shades and high collar. I can’t help wondering how much more he can actually don to protect himself once the weather turns really cold and if he might end up resembling a Michelin Man in negative.

Looking at his typical grimpeur frame, Crazy Legs then questioned Mellstock about his weight and concluded glumly that he was not only giving away an advantage of over 20 kilos but probably an equal number of years as well.

We swooped down into the Tyne valley and raced en masse through the villages, where at one point we were greeted by cheers and prolonged clapping. (I can only assume they don’t get out much.)

“What, no cow bells?” Crazy Legs commented and for a brief, dread instant I thought he was channelling his inner Cowin’ Bovril and complaining there were “no cowin’ bells.”

We then became entangled with a bunch of MTB’ers as we all jostled for hedge space at our traditional pee stop – and evidently theirs too. We finally managed to extricate ourselves and made it to the course in good order, where Taffy Steve and the Red Max led the deniers away on a more traditional group ride.

Everyone else was then left to mill around, causing traffic chaos and blocking the road while signing on and building our own version of a modest, chaste and wholly innocent circle jerk in order to pin numbers onto one another’s backs.

Although by no means warm, the weather was much kinder than last year, when a cold, dank and dreary mizzle had engulfed the hillside and chilled us all to the bone. This had not only made hanging around to start almost unbearable, but made a complete mockery of any warm-up attempts. This time I shed my jacket with far less reluctance, and began to empty pockets and unload the bike of bottles and anything else that could be easily stripped off to save that crucial, scintilla of weight.

Zardoz approached as I was shuffling reluctantly toward the start line, clapped his hands on my helmet and dragged my head round so I faced him directly. “Just making sure I can remember how you look with actual blood in your face!” he quipped, before walking away chuckling to himself.

I slotted into line between a pensive looking Monkey Butler Boy and Richard of Flanders, already poised at the timing gate for his roll-out. Crazy Legs was somewhat horrified to see him still in the big ring, but he was gone before anyone suggested he change down – I guessed there was a very good chance he’d realise his mistake fairly early on.

I had a brief chat with the Monkey Butler Boy who was looking forward to catching me and gurning into the camera still slung under my saddle. I asked which side he was going to pass me on, but to be honest I didn’t expect to see him unless I was having an outrageously bad day – always a possibility, but thankfully not a probability.

At the start line we had two volunteers who clamped onto my bike and held it rock steady. Mrs. Prof, press-ganged into helping out with the timing called out at the 30 second mark and I clipped in and waited, exchanging a few words with Carlton and Cowin’ Bovril who were riding on up ahead to provide vocal encouragement to all, but especially Carlton’s young son doing his first hill climb.

10-9-8-7-6. A last deep breath.

5-4-3-2-1. I rocked my weight forward and was off to a chorus of shouts, probably stealing a full second on the “Go!” command, spinning up to a decent speed as the first corner approached quickly and the road started to kick upwards.

I threaded the needle between Cowin’ Bovril and Carlton, out of the saddle with the front wheel snaking extravagantly from side to side. Apparently Cowin’ Bovril pulled a celebratory wheelie as I bundled past, but tunnel vision had already descended and I saw nothing but a flash of hi-viz yellow and heard nothing beyond my harsh panting, each breath resounding in my ears like a damaged steam train pulling a heavy load through a long, uphill tunnel.

But … I was through the steepest and hardest section of the climb and unlike previous years I wasn’t yet getting that hollowed-out, empty feeling in my legs as all the strength drained away. Now the only limit seemed to be how much oxygen I could bundle through to my already burning lungs, yet I couldn’t work out how I could breathe any harder or any faster. Now I understand the allure of EPO or blood-doping if it increases the aerobic capabilities and efficiency of your body – how much faster could you go if you could just stoke more fuel onto the fire?

The rest of the ride was a blur of fleeting images and impressions, punctuated always by my harsh, bellowing, rasping breaths:  a tantalising glimpse of Richard of Flanders just up ahead on the one long, straight section, picking my way carefully through hissing and spitting gravel around a bend, a random mother and child walking up the hill and cheering me onwards, a careful and considerate driver trying to pick their way down the hill and give me as much room as possible, looping across the road to avoid a deep, ugly divot carved out of the apex of a corner and the tiger-striped pattern of tree shadows thrown across the road by a low, bright sun.

Then a clump of colour coalesced into a group of people at the finish line. Hating myself, I clicked down once and then again and tried to pick the tempo up for one last push … and then it was over, I was through and done for another year and could slow to a juddering halt and hang gasping over the top tube, panting harder than a fat, black Labrador locked inside an airless car abandoned in Death Valley at midday.


wlf
Finishing fast and gripped by white line fever. With thanks to Craig Cushing for the photo.


Several minutes seemed to crawl past as I hung there, trying to control seemingly out-of-control panting, until the pain and tightness stated to ebb away and I could look up. A few yards further back Son of G-Dawg hung similarly boneless and loose limbed across his bike, chest heaving, while on the grass verge before him Richard of Flanders lay prostrate and in evident distress. I was just beginning to worry when he started to stir and pull himself together, returning from whatever dark place his efforts had driven him, either that or his prayer session had ended prematurely.

Making my way back to the finish, I saw Crazy Legs ploughing across the line and dropping to the side of the road in a tangle of limbs. I gave him a minute or two to recover and approached carefully. He looked up at me myopically through a fog of hypoxia induced delirium and began to plead, “Paul, you’re my friend. Please, please say you don’t want to do this anymore, so I’ve got an excuse to stop as well.”

Of course, ten minutes later, somewhat recovered and realising he’d smashed his previous best time, he was already planning next year’s assault.

With the conditions near perfect, everyone seemed to be on their game and riding well. Bez won in a new course record of 4.00 – agonisingly close to a sub-4.00 ride and we had two of the youth team crack the top 10. The amount of young talent in the club at the moment is incredible (and somewhat daunting to us old dinosaurs.)

Standout performance of the day however has to go to Zardoz, whose genial, avuncular façade of a twinkle-eyed octogenarian, hides the dark-heart of a cold-blooded assassin. Not planning to ride at all he decided at the last moment to give it a go, completing the course in a hugely credible time of 6:24 while riding stripped down to his string vest, extravagant handlebar moustache bristling magnificently and, tweed plus-fours flapping wildly in the wind.

Although (as ever) employing a questionable degree of artistic licence and hyperbole, it’s worth pausing to note that the estimable Zardoz is a super-fit, hyper enthusiastic, 69 years young and did in fact strip down to a base layer for the climb. Obviously he doesn’t feel the cold like us “young ‘uns” – which is perhaps the legacy of him and his wife partaking in early morning swims in the North Sea every day, all year round – regardless of the weather!

For my own part, I managed a time of 6:00, taking into account the second I may, or may not have stolen at the start. That’s a decent 16 seconds faster than last year and I’m still improving, which is a shame as I’ve convinced myself I can honourably retire as soon as my times start slipping backwards.


hill-climb-times
A progression of sorts.


By the time we’d wound our way back down the hill to the start, the last rider was already off and running. We collected our kit and started to make our way to the café at the Brockbushes Garden Centre, perhaps the least welcoming, unfriendliest place known to cycling kind.

In years past, OGL has called into the café on the morning of the hill climb to let them know we’d be descending en masse afterwards. This common courtesy and guarantee of additional custom however had earned us no consideration whatsoever and we always seem to be an unwelcome imposition that earned service with a snarl.

But first we had to get there, which meant crossing the river and climbing up the other side of the valley, no small feat when even the camber on the bridge hurts legs already brutalised by the hill climb. Still the lure of richly deserved cake and coffee, even in such an unwelcoming venue, was not to be denied.

Access to the garden centre is through a narrow, dark tunnel that dives under the main A69 dual-carriageway. I pulled Crazy Legs back  as a car was barrelling through the tunnel toward us as we approached. Once the way was clear we pushed on through and had almost made it out the other side when the tunnel was filled almost wall to wall with a massive Chelsea Tractor, the driver of which was travelling fast and blind, with no consideration of what might be coming the other way.

She saw us late in darkness that was such a sharp contrast to the bright and low winter sun outside and stamped on the brakes while we swept around to either side. Obviously discomfited by having to slow down and interrupt her journey by a massive 10 seconds, the driver wound-down her window and announced in an incredibly disgruntled, plummy voice, “This is quite ridiculous!”

“Yes. You are.” I heartily agreed with her. Seriously, I would have tugged my forelock if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, what more did she want?

We usually park around the back and enter the café through the rear, but the fence was firmly closed and chained off this time around. If I was cynical I might have felt they’d rushed out to lock us out of this section as soon as they got wind of our arrival, but probably not. As it was we had to make do with sitting perched on a narrow apron of concrete out front, enjoying the beautiful vista of a half-full car park.

We stacked our bikes up and made for the doors while I suggested the piano and all conversation was going to stop as soon as we crossed the threshold and predicted all the in-breeds would turn and fix us with glassy, malevolent stares. Still, cake and coffee wait for no man. Onward, brave cyclists!

 


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

Approaching the almost empty counter, Crazy Legs had barely opened his mouth to place his order when the cashier jumped in;

“I’ve already had one lot of youse in here. I’ve got 6 staff off sick and I’m under-manned, you’ll have to wait for your order. We’ll get to it as soon as we can.”

Err, ok then. We just checked they knew where we would be sitting, that they would bring our orders out to us, paid up and beat a hasty retreat. It’s an interesting concept in customer care, but I’m not sure it deserves to catch on.

Mind you, for all that the coffee, when it did arrive was good.

OGL had a laugh at Yoshi as he waddled past like a pregnant duck, his back pockets resembling a lumpy makeshift bustle, so stuffed were they with bottles, spares and tools. His explanation: “Bottle cages are heavy.”

Another weight handicap was discovered when a large, somnolent bee was rescued from Crazy Leg’s back, where it had been hitching a free ride for goodness knows how long. I suspect it was even more debilitating than the bottle cages, or the money spider I was transporting last week, after all bees are notoriously un-aerodynamic aren’t they. Next year, without the uninvited guest he might be able to ride the course even faster.


The ride home was conducted at a fast pace that left little room for talking, as I hung on grimly while one of our racing snakes – Johnny Reb, the King of Spin hammered away on the front. It was an interesting form of warm-down, but at least got us home in good time.

I’m not sure I slept much on Saturday night, rather I think I simply blacked out for long periods. Still recovery is well underway now, the climbers cough slowly diminishing in frequency and force and we now have a full year’s grace before we have to start thinking about that damn hill again.


YTD Totals: 5,533 km / 3,438 miles with 54,079 metres of climbing

Ghostface Killah


Club Run and Hill Climb, Saturday 3rd October, 2015

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:                                    89 km/55 miles with 924 metres of climbing

Ride Time:                                             3 hours 46 minutes

Group size:                                           No more than 20 –2 FNG’s

Weather in a word or two:               Extremely chilly

Main topic of conversation at the start: Crazy Legs gives voice to what I suspect all the regulars are thinking – how much we hate this day. No matter how good you’re feeling, I’m not sure anyone actually looks forward to the hill climb and its attendant hurt.

He then suggested we have a whip around to hire a Portaloo for the start of the hill climb. I countered by saying what we really need is a patio heater. The general consensus was we were both wrong and what we actually need is both a Portaloo and a patio heater.

A couple of FNG’s, or more accurately an FNG couple, exiled from Sarf Larnden, spotted Reg and we had a good chat about the original Holdsworth shop in Putney, which was their LBS and they remember as being loaded with a cornucopia of memorabilia from the mighty Holdsworth-Campagnolo pro team.

The store closed in October 2013 after 86 years, according to my interlocutor’s because it was located in some prime real estate that the owner’s family sadly wanted to cash in on. Although Reg’s carbon frame was probably mass produced by a faceless squad of minions in an ultra-high-tech, utterly sterile, Far East factory, I like to think it has some spiritual connection and shares just a little bit of heritage with this illustrious and successful British bike brand.

Fallout from last week’s plethora of punctures saw Crazy Legs check the pressure in his repaired tyre on returning home – to reveal a massive 20psi. This was despite his and Red Max’s efforts with both the molto piccolo and Max’s uber-pump. Some discussion was had about Szell’s spectacular blowout and whether it was caused by the inner tube trying to squeeze out between tyre casing and dangerously worn rims.

Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop: Hill Climb day is the only time we use this particular café, and then we all turn up coughing and spluttering with climbers cough1., like a consumptive poet dying of TB. We often wonder what the staff make of us and whether they think we’re the most unfit cycling club in existence, or are perhaps sponsored by Rothmans and contractually obliged to smoke 40 a day.

Zardoz told me he was out again on Wednesday with the Retired Gentleman’s Combative Cycling Club, when the conversation rolled around to Il Lombardia, and someone asked where the race was and received the very obvious and undoubtedly correct answer: Lombardy. Then there were blank stares and silence all around as everyone realised they didn’t quite know where Lombardy actually was.

Apparently the Cyclone Sportive and associated events which OGL organises may be without a headline sponsor this year, as negotiations with Virgin Money to renew seem to have reached something of an impasse. I must admit OGL seemed remarkably sanguine about the whole thing.

Coffee, and the supposition that Britain has the worst tasting coffee, with the highest caffeine content. Discuss.


Ride Profile (Hill Climb highlighted)
Ride Profile (Hill Climb highlighted)


The Waffle:

Hope you’re sitting comfortably, this could be a long one …

We’re into October and all the portents are pointing assuredly toward this being the start of winter. Il Lombardia or to use this classics most poetic title, la classica delle foglie morte, closed out the pro season on Sunday2., and as if on cue all the leaves at home are suddenly turning golden and starting to sift down.

Darkness is beginning to slowly steal away precious minutes of daylight at both ends of the day and the weather is developing a distinctive chilly bite to it. And if all this wasn’t enough, the final indicator that we’re at the back end of the cycling year is that the traditional British hill climb season is now in full swing.


Fabulous Lombardy poster from the Handmade Cyclist
Fabulous Lombardy poster from the Handmade Cyclist


Not to be outdone, this weekend was our turn to pander to our worst masochistic, self-harming instincts, with a tilt at the club hill climb. The chosen arena for our self-flagellation is Prospect Hill, near Corbridge in the Tyne Valley. The climb is about 1.5km long at a 7% incline, with a maximum of 15.5% and runs through 9 bends, several of which are almost tight enough to be classed as hairpins.


Prospect Hill
Prospect Hill and our TT course


The forecast for the day was an early mist that would eventually burn off, but with temperatures subsequently depressed and unlikely to claw their way up into double figures. My breakfast and ride preparations are interrupted by about half a dozen trips to the toilet. Nerves? Possibly.

Knowing it’s going to be chilly out, compounded by the lengthy wait hanging around for a start slot, I choose a base layer, club jersey, arm and knee warmers, long gloves and a windproof jacket over the top of everything. I’m attempting to walk the razor-fine line between not overheating on the ride to the hill and trying to stay reasonably warm once I get there. I’m somewhat shocked to find how surprisingly capacious my club jersey has become.

After last week’s mega turn out, the numbers at the meeting point are disappointingly low, even though they’re bolstered by a few of the racing snakes, who don’t usually deign to ride with us mere mortals, but have been lured out by the thrill of competition.

Several notable absentees can be explained by conflicting events, G-Dawg and the Prof are doing the Kielder Run-Bike-Run, while Red Max and the Monkey Butler Boy are tackling the Autumn Wooler Wheel Sportive, but where’s everyone else?


The original Holdsworth store
The original Holdsworth store


Even with the juniors making their own way to the climb, numbers are significantly down on previous years, and several of those at the meeting point are just out for a normal ride and have no interest in seeing if they can cough out their own lungs by riding as fast as possible up a hill, just to turn around and come back down again. Oh well, at least it should help get things over with fairly quickly.

The temperature dropped even further as we swept down into the bottom of the Tyne Valley to follow the road upstream, and as we approached the start we could see the hillside above us shrouded in a dense grey blanket of wetly-dripping mist.

A rival club was holding their own “chrono escalada” up the other side of the hill, but thankfully they’re early starters (and probably punctual too!) They were just about done and dusted by the time we rolled up, avoiding the potentially catastrophic (if comic) opportunity for two, charging, heads-down and rapidly converging riders lunging for the same line and colliding in an explosion of flailing limbs and carbon fragments.

As we milled around, horribly messing up the signing on process and allocation of numbers in the disorganised chaos that only cyclists seem capable of achieving, the cold really started to bite. We stood around shivering, with fumbling fingers occasionally bypassing jersey material to pin numbers directly through benumbed, frozen flesh, but at least they were well secured and not likely to flap in the wind.

Rab Dee offered me some of his home made energy bar, which is reportedly so dense it absorbs light. It didn’t seem to be the sort of extra weight I should be taking on board before hauling ass up a steep hill, so I politely declined.

Then, in a break with tradition, instead of being snooty and snotty and whingeing at us for having the temerity to use the public road outside their homes, one of the local households decided to embrace the annual invasion of slightly mad cyclists, and sent out a sacrificial daughter with a tray of freshly baked brownies. Not only did they taste great, they were actually still hot, and several groups of cyclists formed a huddle around them trying to warm their hands.

I discussed tactics for the climb with a horrendously hung over Son of G-Dawg, who  blasphemously suggested starting on the inner ring. Luckily his Pa wasn’t around to hear, but it seemed the sensible decision anyway, as there’s less to go wrong if you’re not dropping from the big to smaller chainring under pressure.

A bit of riding around to … I was going to say warm up, but I think “not feel quite so cold” is closer to reality, and then it’s time to strip both myself and bike as I jettisoned water bottle and tool tub, sunglasses, gloves and finally, and with great reluctance, my jacket.

It was good to see one of our semi-FNG’s, Avatar: The Last Air Bender lining up directly in front of me, ready to hurl himself recklessly at the hill in his first ever club competition. I’m not sure he realised when he rocked up this morning that we would be doing the hill climb, so he gets extra kudos for not backing out. Chapeau!

I only have time to note that one of the young kids is set to follow me, then I’m on the line ready to start, not really concentrating and feeling quite disassociated from the entire process. The timekeeper tells me 30 seconds, and I lift my foot, clip in and settle. 15 seconds. Breathe deep. The 10 second countdown starts, I tense, the hand comes down and I’m off.

I quickly roll up a decent cadence, reach a bend and sweep around it to attack the first ramp, cresting it and pushing on toward the second bend and probably the steepest part of the course. The first slopes however have sapped just a little too much speed, the gear is too big and I’m now losing momentum and dying dismally.

The next section is a real struggle as impetus drops sharply and I’m forced out of the saddle to grind away to the accompaniment of my cleat creaking horribly on the pedal. Or at least I think it’s my cleat, it could just as easily be one of my ancient, fragile knees humming discordantly as it vibrates under the pressure in an audible warning that it’s about to explode.

An awful moment appears to attenuate into long, torturous minutes, and I can’t help gratefully thinking that unless the kid behind me is one of our outrageously talented youngsters, I should at least manage not to be caught by him. Gradually the slope eases, and I’m able to flop down heavily in the saddle and roll the chain up a couple of gears.

I try to find a rhythm now, and maintain the pace, but can’t go any faster without jumping out of the saddle and stamping hard on the pedals, and this burns up oxygen quicker than I can suck it down.

As if still influenced by last week’s blood moon, I’m in full Laurens Ten Dam “werewolf” mode now, mouth agape and thrashing like a basking shark stranded on a beach and with great strings of snot and slobber, spit and drool pouring from my mouth and nose and eyes. My chest is heaving like over-worked, over-extended bellows, sucking in huge lungful’s of the freezing, burning, damp and clammy air. And it’s not enough.


Full Ten Dam mode
Full Ten Dam werewolf mode


I round another bend. All I can hear now is my rasping, too-quick panting that seems to be in wild syncopation with my thudding, banging heart. Is it natural to try and breathe so damn fast? As the bend straightens I almost plough into the back of a couple of ramblers walking blithely up the middle of the road, studiously and very deliberately ignoring each one of the gasping, labouring cyclists who have had to haul themselves around this unexpected impediment.

I swerve wide to the right to pass them, and almost immediately have to dive to the left as a huge 4 x 4 sweeps past, heading downhill with headlights blazing in the gloom. Everything is hurting now and I can’t distinguish individual areas of pain as I try to raise my speed.

Ahead of me in the mist and murk, almost always just disappearing around the next bend, I keep catching the occasional glimpse of another rider, my minute man, who’s craftily chosen a fog coloured jersey to blend in and not give me a distinct target to chase. Not fair.

I recognise I’m approaching the final section, and against all reason and the silent screaming of my body I click down one, then two gears and just push and hope. I think I’m still accelerating as I shoot over the line, then freewheel and finally remember I have to brake. Some 100 yards past the finish line I finally stop, but the pain doesn’t, and I slump over the crossbar, trying to control what feels like supernaturally fast panting.


To be read in your most hysterical Phil Liggett voice:
To be read in your most hysterical Phil Liggett voice: “Just who is that rider coming up behind in the mist – because that looks like La Jante! That looks like Sur La Jante… it is, it’s Sur La Jante!”


After a few minutes I manage to get turned around and slouch my way to the finish, where Zardoz cheerfully informs me I look like a ghost and wonders aloud how I managed to so successfully drain all the blood from my face. I might have laughed, but was instantly consumed with my first bout of climbers cough.

Another year, another hill climb. So how did I do? I was 17th out of 33 riders and 4th out of the vets. Much more importantly, I posted a personal best time of 6 minutes and 16 seconds, 11 seconds better than the previous year.


My Hill Climb Times
My Hill Climb Times


In fact it’s pleasing to see the steady, if unspectacular progression I’ve made year on year. At 53 however I’m not looking forward to the inevitable day when age conspires to erode any improvements I can make through increased training, better equipment or smarter preparation, but at least for today I can feel I’m still winning the battle with time.

In the café I hang back to stand guard on the wallets, phones and helmets that get abandoned as a few go off to pay, and the first of our group splits and disappears up the road. I decide to take the more direct route home along the valley floor, rather than climbing out to the north and then dropping down again and strike out on my own.

I make good time on the flat, but every little incline hurts. At the bottom of the Heinous Hill I decide to postpone the inevitable a little longer and drop into the Pedalling Squares café to arrange a much overdue service for my ratbag mountain bike. Suitably fortified with one of their excellent espresso’s, the clamber up the hill and home turns out to be not quite as bad as I imagined it would be.


Footnote 1.

During a hill climb, cyclists are breathing as hard as their lungs will allow, so hard in fact, that their airway gets eroded from the air passing through it. This erosion causes irritation in the airway which leads to the dreaded climbers cough (or in running parlance, “track hack”).

This irritation can cause the membranes to produce mucous for protection and lubrication, which can lead to phlegm in the cough, and may even break little capillaries in the airways causing the taste of blood, or a metallic taste in the mouth. Hmm, nice.

Footnote 2.

The inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour doesn’t count – I’m willing to be proven wrong, but this just looks like a shameful, money-grubbing exercise by RCS and/or the UCI, and likely to be as dull, tedious and anodyne as all the other interminable Gulf Tours. I think a certain Mr. Cavendish is the only person who feels mass sprint finishes are the acme of cycle racing.


YTD Totals: 4,975 km/ 3,091 miles with 56,247 metres of climbing.