So the gauntlet, or Great Cycling Mitt of the Very Reverend SLJ was thrown down, and having partially provoked the challenge, I had no choice put pick it up off the ground, wipe it, wash my hands to the sound of [insert inane nursery rhyme of choice] and get typing.
First please understand that the following has been translated from the original Cockney-Gaelic, which accounts for all errors and seeming cold-as-ice-slanders.
Any road up, so I thought back over two-wheeled adventures in the dim-distant past and those more recent. What would be worthy of SLJ?
Perhaps I could fill in some history from the murky past of two-wheeldom? You might for instance be interested to know that the feared mountain range, last seen bordering France and Spain, and home of the infamous Col du Tourmalet, takes its very name from the sport of cycling.
According to local legend, it was in fact an early member of a certain Northumbrian cycling club (founded shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain led by General Chorus Campagnolo in 53 BC according to historical Super Record. (That’s 73 BGRC in local parlance.)
This storied club, we have been repeatedly told, was down to -16 members, during the Black Death, as many of those buried in the Club Chapel had not paid their subscriptions and were hence denied an official gravestone and there names struck from the records. Yet despite these travails, somehow it still survives to this day.
Anyway, as I was saying, it appears that the naming rights of this particular mountain range were bagged by one of these strange Novocastrian psychlers (as they were known, back in the day), struggling up one or other godforsaken 15% incline in the vicinity.
Armed with a manly 21 rear sprocket, and bristling a 39 tooth (why would you even need that?) inner ring in hope of grinding the mountain to dust, it seems the ill-fated psychler came a cropper, split apart his mid-leg and cried out in pain, “’Paar a knees! I need a new paar a knees!”’
And so, dearly beloved, our mountainous range came, to be called the Pyrenees (since les Francais cannot spell proper). And surely, it has sounded the death knell to many jangling cartilage containers ever since.
But, turning aside from this bad turn up the Tourmalet, let me turn back over my own cyclepath of history, and pluck out a ride – not quite at random – and chase it along the keyboard.
It’s never quite clear, what makes a ride a great ride. Often those ones with ‘epic’ written all over the packaging can shine a bit brighter in advance, or in the re-telling, than in the doing. Sometimes the best rides aren’t so easy to recount – which to my mind makes the achievements of the Rev SLJ all the greater. But sometimes those rides are the ones we return to and relive even if there’s no 2,000m climb or breakneck descent, and that’s the case with this one.
A couple of years back the S.O. in my life (the Fechtette w whom I bide?) was taking part in the Loch Ness Marathon, a frankly incomprehensible (to me) affair, where they transport poor souls into the middle of nowhere – literally to a place where there are no roads and so no spectators may follow them – and then make them run the 26 miles back to the civilisation of Inverness. (No jokes please, I happen to love Inverness, but that’s another story).
So, wanting to fully support this first marathon adventure, I headed north, bike in tow, and finding the runners would depart at 5.30 for the bus out to the Loch, I made quick plans to put my two wheels to use, aiming to return in time to dutifully cheer on my S.O. at the finish line.
Some of you might perhaps know of the Black Isle? – but if you’re thinking of the Tintin story I’m afraid that doesn’t cut much ice, Snowy notwithstanding. The real Black Isle is no more of an island than the Isle of Dogs (Translators note: no known equivalent for this Cockney-Gaelic term). It is in fact a peninsula that isn’t really on the road to anywhere. The A9, the main highland artery, cuts across its mainland shoulder, but otherwise it’s largely a footnote. I set off for it, cheerfully hapless and mapless, with a sense of the shape of the ride I needed to follow more than an actual route.
Out of Inverness it was gloomy with rain falling as the dawn was sluggish in materialising, while the heavy road hugged the bay of Beauly Firth westward, against the wind. Finally turning inland there was a long slog to Beauly itself where the road crosses the cunningly named River Beauly (anyone else thinking that Beauly has a bit of an ego issue?)
It’s here that the ride really started as the road turned north east, and I headed back out towards the sea. A series of climbs, or maybe rather just endless undulations, up via Muir of Ord and all its many family members – in that way, where when you’re riding a road you don’t know, and can’t see far ahead, you never know how many more lie over that ridge.
Starting to flag, I dragged myself up the slope at Mulbuie, where one of those weird monuments to nothing very obvious was sitting waiting for me – think, modest Presbyterian version of the Kirkley obelisk without the cows.
Just about then the sun got its act together and the landscape opened out and I got a view across the Cromarty Firth. And for the next 30 odd miles I was flying along one of those roads that rewards every pedal stroke tenfold, carrying more speed than it seemed like I was earning, and luckily with not a car in sight, since my eyes kept drifting across to the deep blue of the firth, and the sun on the hills beyond.
It was one of those roads you want to go on forever, where you’re torn between giving it everything to the max, and slowing up cause you want to sustain the enjoyment. The road rose up gently, along the spine of the Black Isle, then ducked down to trace the northern shore into the deserted ferry stop at Cromaty. I stopped there to refuel and skim a few stones in the hope of concussing a haddock or two, but on that front, no joy.
Cromarty is the tip of the Isle, and from there much of the road back works its way through forests, and by this time what passes for traffic in these parts was starting to close pass. I worked my way back, stopping at a fork in the road to debate with myself whether to chance my legs on the mighty A9 suspension bridge, and save a good 25 miles.
But what am I actually saving here? I figured to myself and plowed on. Some few miles down the track, as I was about to leave the isle and re-join the Inverness road, I noted a hawk or falcon type thing, hovering some 20 foot above my right shoulder, just in the near blind spot. Perhaps coincidentally I picked up my pace a little at that point for the run into Beauly where I stopped for the espresso I needed to power me on back to Inverness.
Once back in town it was a quick shower and I headed off to the marathon finishing line to find I’d missed a certain talented debutante coming in well ahead of target time, some 10 mins earlier.
Can’t say I regret it though.
Not sure why, but this ride is one I find myself going back to in my head and reliving. And if someone were to ask me why the f*** does a 50 year old guy like me continue to ride around on a bike, I might not bother to answer, but this right here would be one of the reasons why.
With special thanks for an assist and full naming rights to Mr. Steve Britton
More schizophrenic weather to confuse and bemuse the best of us, but this time veering as wildly as the Garrulous Kid in a sprint, all the way across onto the positive side of the ledger.
It was dry and bright, if still a little chilly and with a distinct raw edge to the wind. Still, it was deemed good enough to break out the Holdsworth, despite a route plan by Richard of Flanders that was issued with the warning that one leg would be down a farmyard track and good bikes were to be used at the riders peril.
Some level of fitness seems to be slowly returning too and I was looking forward to completing a relatively long ride, in relatively benign conditions.
The journey across to the meeting point was without incident, or note and I joined the already formed nucleus of what would turn into well-attended club run.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I found Crazy Legs in the middle of discussing some of the finer functions on his turbo, “… and the blinking lights change from blue to red when your putting out more than 350 watts.”
I cocked a quizzical eyebrow at him.
“Or, at least that’s what I’ve read, anyway…”
The Garrulous Kid scorched in down the pavement, swerved violently to the right and came to a shuddering halt beside the grit bin.
“Just as well that wasn’t a turn to the left,” Taffy Steve told him, “or you’d have been in that bin headfirst.”
G-Dawg brought up the near sprint disaster from last Saturday, reciting the Garrulous Kids words back to him with a special emphasis on the last part, “Well, that’s what happens when you hit your knee off your bike, as you do?”
“As you do?” he repeated with incredulity, “I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t routinely knee my bike.”
He threw it open to the floor, but nobody else seemed to think kneeing your own bike was routine and should be an expected outcome of sprinting.
G-Dawg then reported back on the Bullocksteads sports development meeting he’d attended with OGL, reporting at one point the Chair had politely asked OGL to pipe down to give other people a chance to have a say.
“Well, did he?” some innocent asked the inevitable question.
“Well, yes, for about 5 minutes, anyway.”
Apparently one of our favoured routes out of the city was closed due to building works and others were clogged with construction traffic, mud and debris. Taking this into account, Richard of Flanders went around canvassing opinion and trying to build a consensus around one or other of the alternatives. In this he proved about as successful as Theresa May negotiating an acceptable Brexit deal. He finally realised the futility of his task, threw his hands up in exasperation and simply told us which route to take. Benevolent dictatorship, I tell you, it’s the way forward.
Richard of Flanders, often referred to as ROFL in my post-ride notes, which I find amusing, not ROFL amusing, but still chucklesome (sorry I digress) then leapt up onto the wall and described the route for the day, detailing every village, every burgh, every hamlet, every ville, settlement, outpost and commune we would pass by, through, or around.
It was a very extensive list and I didn’t know that half the places he mentioned actually exist (assuming they actually do).
“Then,” he continued, finally drawing breath, “Crazy Legs will entertain us in the cafe with some jokes, before the usual route back.”
“Can you repeat that, with just the highlights?” some wag asked.
Crazy Legs glanced at his watch as Richard started up again, “By the time he’s finished it’ll almost be time to head back home,” he quipped.
“Hey! Save it for the cafe,” I told him.
We split into two groups and then, there was just time for the Garrulous Kid to eye-up Plumose Pappus speculatively.
“Have you lost weight?” he demanded.
Whatever answer Plumose Pappus gave was lost in a fusillade of cleats clipping into pedals, like pistol shots from a drive-by shooting and we were out and onto the open roads.
I slotted in alongside Ovis for the first part of the ride out, checking he was carrying his usual brick of malt loaf and chatting about this, that and t’other.
After a couple of switches on the front, we were being led by the Garrulous Kid and the even younger Jake the Snake, the Young Dormanator, off the leash as his dad, Carlton was away in the Lakes. After a stint of manful work on the front, Jake the Snake started to falter as the road began to climb, so I slipped past to relieve him at the head of affairs and found myself alongside the Garrulous Kid.
Here I learned that the Garrulous Kid now fancies himself as a bit of a fastman and apparently has developed a new sprinting style, with his whole body hunched over his front wheel and nose inches from his tyre. Hmm, I think we need to revise the exclusion zone and allow him much more than the regulatory 2 metres now.
He’s also found a new cycling hero, Super Mario, Cipo, Il Re Leone, the Lion King himself, Mario the Magnificent, Mario Cipollini.
I must admit I’m failing to see any resemblance between the brash, pompous, colourful, swashbuckling, controversial, flamboyant, smooth, super-fast, successful, always superbly turned out, stylish Italian and our young tyro, well, other than the fact that neither is perhaps as good as they think they are and they’ve both managed to collect an impressive array of nicknames.
I like to think I have a decent imagination, but when I think of the Garrulous Kid sprinting, I can’t say I’m even remotely reminded of Mario Cipollini …
Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, though?
Now, that I can see…
I was so distracted by the Garrulous Kids revelations that I failed to notice a large pothole in the road and ran both wheels straight through it. Ooph! Behind me and following in my tracks about half a dozen other riders followed suit. Oops. Sorry guys.
Luckily nothing seemed damaged and we pushed on, finally reaching the turn for the Quarry, where we pulled over to wait for the second group, before splitting into several different rides.
As we waited, I caught up with the Colossus, one of the few still on his winter bike, which surprised me as he’ll typically chance a bike change in conditions I would consider marginal. He revealed though that it was only a logistical hiccup that kept him off the good bike today.
“Anyway,” he determined, “when the clocks go back next week it’s a bit of a watershed moment. After that, the default will be good bike unless the weather turns really bad.” Seems about right.
Perhaps the lack of summer bike encouraged the Colossus to head up the Quarry for a shorter ride to the cafe, along with others including G-Dawg, Ovis, Crazy Legs and the Garrulous Kid.
The rest of us were due to go plummeting down the Ryals before climbing back up toward the cafe, using various different routes. I turned around and tagged along for the longer ride.
A few people seemed intent on attacking the Ryal’s, but I was determined not to pedal if I didn’t have to, so tucked in low and just let gravity have its wicked way with me. I took advantage of a lack of cars and unimpeded views straight down the road, swinging wide across the centre line and running down the outside of our flying mob. I always enjoy this descent, and managed to top out at about 65 kph before sitting up and freewheeling as we started to coalesce into different groups at the bottom.
I like the climb up through Hallington almost as much as the descent, but Taffy Steve hates it and wanted to take in a longer loop around the reservoir instead, so that’s what we did.
As we started to clamber upwards again, Goose and Biden Fecht romped away off the front and I drifted back toward Taffy Steve, thinking there was just the four of us on this longer route, until more and more riders appeared and joined on.
I then found myself riding alongside the Ticker. “It’ll be good to get out of the wind,” he confessed.
“When are you thinking that’ll be?” I wondered, “mid-May?”
We reached a junction and regrouped before pushing on again. The route started to climb and once more Goose pushed off the front and opened up a sizable gap.”
“He’s flying today.”
Taffy Steve felt this probably had to do with him having pushed and pulled and grunted and gurned his way around all the winter club runs on his massive touring bike, the steel-behemoth, a.k.a. the panzerkampfwagen. Now with his svelte, carbon summer bike under him he must have felt unleashed and that riding was almost embarrassingly easy.
I pushed along on the front with Plumose Pappus and we caught up with Goose on Humiliation Hill. We crested the top and took a right toward Capheaton, pausing briefly to collect our group together again.
The road across the top here is fast, rolling and good fun, so we kicked up the pace and strung everyone out. As we worked toward the summit of one long rise, Plumose Pappus suggested he was just about on the limit. Goose wasn’t though and went romping on ahead and we couldn’t close him down until we approached the crossroads at the end.
Once more we stopped to regroup and determine what everyone wanted to do. Straight across, the road followed the planned route down to a farm track, while to the right, our usual way, led down toward the Snake Bends and then on to the cafe.
I think a few braved the farm track and reported it was a good option, but, with the hint of cake and coffee in my nostrils, I was happy to take the more direct run in.
We had one last climb to break things up a little, the short but steep Brandywell Bank, so I tried to select the biggest gear I thought I could keep churning over as my momentum died a horrible death … and attacked at the bottom.
It almost went to plan, but the gear was just a shade too big and I had to dig in and grind the final few metres. Still, I made it over the crest at the head of affairs and, without pausing, or checking to see who was with me, started hammering away down toward the Snake Bends.
I clunked my chain down the cassette and powered on. My first goal was still to be leading as we topped the slight rise before, finally, the road starts to dip. It’s not noticeable enough to call a climb, it just feels like one when your already dangerously close to your max.
I made it and as the road started to drop down the other side, clunked the chain down a few more cogs and took up position in the middle of the road, riding the white lines where the surface wasn’t quite as broken up and roughened.
Goal number two was now to still be leading as we passed the final junction and the descent started to level off. I made it unchallenged and kept going, hammering toward a puddle which filled the entirety of the inside lane.
I heard a warning shout from those behind which I interpreted as car back, but I swung wide, into the opposite lane anyway and held my line until I was past the water, before carving back toward the left.
This elicited a startled yelp from Biden Fecht, who I nearly put into the hedge as he was charging unseen up my inside. He was momentarily distracted and hesitated, as Plumose Pappuss jumped away on the other side of me, with Archie Miedes glued on his wheel.
Biden Fecht tried to give chase, but his moment of hesitation proved decisive and he soon sat up. Up ahead and despite extended spells on the front, Plumose Pappuss seemed to have the measure of his challenger in the final sprint.
The Flying Goose caught us at the busy junction through the Snake Bends and then it was back on pace, all the way to the cafe.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Princess Fiona joined us at the table and expounded the virtues of an Open Water Swimming holiday, hopping from island to island, in Croatia.
This was too much for Taffy Steve, already deeply suspicious of anyone choosing to have a holiday that included physical hurt, ridiculous amounts of exercise and excess amounts of discomfort. He can’t for example get his head around our cycling sojourn’s into the Alps or Pyrenees, especially when we have somewhere nice and flat like the Netherlands practically on our doorstep. An open water swimming holiday somehow seemed especially mad.
The absent Carlton was mentioned as someone who has sometimes been known to tour the Alps by bike.
“He’s a mentalist too,” Taffy Steve concluded.
“I think they prefer the term psychiatrist these days,” I suggested.
“That’s going in the blerg, isn’t it?” Buster suggested.
(Well, I would hate to disappoint).
Talk turned to the Garrulous Kid with Taffy Steve claiming he was a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside a Castelli jacket. As evidence, he cited last week when the Garrulous Kid was unnecessarily ripping everyone’s legs off in a small group and then, this week, totally wimping out and going for the shorter ride.
“He’s like a woman,” Taffy Steve concluded, “I don’t understand them and I don’t understand him at all.”
Next to me, Princess Fiona bristled and sprang to the defence of women everywhere.
Opposite, Zardoz mimed digging a hole, while nonchalantly whistling Bernard Cribbens’ Hole in the Ground:
“There I was, a-digging this hole A hole in the ground, so big and sort of round it was …”
“I’m just saying, I live with four women and they’re all bat-shit crazy.” Taffy Steve lined each one up in turn and gave us chapter and verse about their individual idiosyncrasies, complaining it was bad enough they were all bat-shit crazy, but even worse, there was no consistency and they were all bat-shit crazy in different and unfathomable ways.
Zardoz was still digging. Still whistling.
“There was I, digging it deep It was flat at at the bottom and the sides were steep.”
“I hope you don’t talk to them like that,” Princess Fiona admonished.
“Oh, I’m forever telling then they’re all fucking crazy,” Taffy Steve assured her.
He was taken to task for using the F-bomb so cavalierly, while Taffy Steve defended his word choice as adding colour, inflection and punctuation, besides which, he argued it was almost affectionate in its deployment.
“You wouldn’t talk to your daughters like that, would you?” Princess Fiona asked me.
“Well, no,” I affirmed, “but they’d probably use much worse language to me.”
“Well, if my son used such language … I’d … I’d call him out for disrespecting me.”
“Ooph!,” Taffy Steve drew back in alarm, “It’s a bit early to be deploying the D-bomb!” Like going from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1 with none of the stages in-between.
Thankfully a change in topic was in the offing, as Princess Fiona turned to Plumose Pappus.
“Have you lost weight?” she demanded.
As we were leaving the cafe, Zardoz started asking me if I’d lost weight. I couldn’t lie, told him it was all down to the whalebone cycling corset and left it at that.
I caught up with Plumosue Pappus, who admitted to being a little nonplussed that everyone thought he’d lost weight, when he patently hasn’t any to lose and considers himself to have the appetite of your average student, i.e. voracious and perpetually unsatisfied.
Back with his parents for his postgraduate study, he’s intent on eating double his own body weight every day and recounted being caught by his mum making two sandwiches. She thought it was sweet he’d taken time to make a packed lunch for her and he didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were actually both for him.
He also said he was younger brother was much taller, broader and heavier. In fact, suspiciously taller, broader and heavier, to such an extent that Plumose Pappus wonders if his brother is perhaps a cuckoo, or has been adopted.
I don’t like casting aspersions, but did have to query if perhaps it was Plumose Pappus who was the cuckoo…
Anyway, he concluded that the reason people thought he’d lost weight was the switch from bulky winter jackets to thinner, more form fitting summer gear. He then decided that whatever it is fashionista’s tell their acolytes to wear in order to appear slimmer, he’s going to wear the exact opposite. So, I look forward to a range of dazzling, multi-patterned cycling shorts, chunky shoes and light coloured jersey’s with multiple horizontal bands!
There was the usual split on Berwick Hill, Plumose Pappus escaped up the outside to join the front-runners, but I was content to tag along at the back.
Toward Dinnington though, we picked up Caracol who’d dropped out of the front group for a pee. Over the airport, I hit the front of the group and accelerated, pulling him clear. He then took over to pull me through the Mad Mile at pace and catapult me on my way home.
Good ride, good route, good banter, decent weather and another 70-miler tucked away. Thing’s are looking up.
YTD Totals: 1,860 km / 1,0156 miles with 25,338 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 109 km / 68 miles with 1,089 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 10 minutes
Average Speed: 26.1 km/h
Group size: 30 riders, 3 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Hot, hot, hot
Let’s skip a week shall we? The 7th July was another good club run in exceptional and hot weather, but with our Pyrenean misadventures taking up all my inane-wittering bandwidth, it kind of took a backseat.
Who knows, perhaps some day,some completion-obsessed, archivist will uncover this inchoate, hidden gem, tentatively titled “They Swarm” and it will be revealed to the world with huge fanfare* as an unfinished masterpiece to rank alongside Byron’s Don Juan, The Rat Patrol from Fort Bragg, or The Other Side of the Wind.
*I’m thinking maybe “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” played on a lone kazoo.
But for now, let’s put it to bed, US TV style…
Previously on Sur La Jante…
The hottest day we’ve had for years, but we didn’t have to worry as the Red Max had a cunning plan – all we had to do was ride harder and faster, he said and it would generate a beneficial cooling breeze…
It was a good route that picked out a section of newly surfaced road to let us ascend to the village of Ryal without having to tackle the infamous Ryal’s themselves. We didn’t realise that the road had actually been resurfaced with loose gravel, which was the perfect size, weight and composition to constantly get jammed under Taffy Steve’s fork crown, so the ascent became an irregular, stop-start sort of affair.
Not all was lost though, as Aether took the opportunity presented by all the mechanicals to successfully forage in the hedgerows for early blackberries. Luckily the Prof wasn’t with us, or we might still be there, taking advantage of all the free stuff.
Then, in the café garden a thousand and one, tiny black beetles fell in love with G-Dawg’s Molteni jersey (well the orange panels on it anyway) and descended upon him like a biblical plague. It was so bad, he ended up stripping down to his bibshorts, just for a bit of relief.
Stripping off all our tops for the ride home in show of mutual support and solidarity, was mooted, but quickly shot down, perhaps by Princess Fiona, although I couldn’t be sure who objected first.
A fully-clothed, return was then completed without incident and I made my way home having covered 113 km with 1,100 metres of climbing.
So, back to the present. Another fine, hot and sunny day was promised and didn’t disappoint. It was so hot in fact that for the first time in living memory I rode without a base layer of any kind and selected my lightest and theoretically coolest of jerseys.
The bridge at Newburn was still closed to cars, and they’ve taken the chance to resurface it. There is still a gaping hole at the north end where it was washed away though, so hopefully it’ll be a bit longer before it’s fully open again.
Despite the heat, the wind was up, keeping things cool, but also providing noticeable resistance whenever I found myself tackling it head on. Nevertheless, I made decent time across and arrived at the meeting place bang on schedule.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
The Garrulous Kid had been traumatised by having to use the Metro during the week, pressed uncomfortably cheek by jowl with the hoi poloi, amidst what he claims was a sustained and unprovoked attack by savage, M&M wielding chavs. They had apparently bombarded his train with the colourful, candy-coated confectionery so ferociously that grown men cowered in their seats and refused to leave the carriages at the station.
Taffy Steve was intrigued and posed the highly critical question we all wanted the answer to, were they hardcore gang-bangers, using peanut M&M’s, or just play-acting kids, wannabe-gangstas, restricting their attack to run-of-the-mill, plain M&M’s?
I think he was positing some kind of escalation in the seriousness of the assault depending upon the type of confectionery being used as ammunition.
This led to an exotic re-imaging of The Untouchables, with Kevin Costner’s Eliott Ness taking instructions from Sean Connery’s old-hand, Jimmy Malone:
“He pullsh a KitKat, you pull a Shnickers bar. He puts one of yoursh in the tuck shop, you put one of hish in the pic ’n’ mix aisle. That’s the Shouth Gosforth way!”
My dad-joke of the week also came from this unlikeliest of sources:
“What time did Sean Connery get to Wimbledon?”
It was so hot, the Garrulous Kid had frozen his bottle overnight, but by the time he reached the meeting point the ice seemed long gone. He picked the bottle up, peered myopically at its contents and gave it a prod with a bony finger.
“All the ice is gone,” he lamented, then, noticing a strange, opaquely white, foreign substance swirling around in the bottom of the bottle … “No, hold on there’s some left at the bottom.”
Goodness knows what he was seeing, but we pointed out that if it was ice, it would be floating – you know, icebergs never drag their feet along the seafloor.
The arrival of long-term absentee, Grover was greeted with a, “Bloody hell, is it that time of the year again?” from Crazy Legs.
“You said that last time,” Grover muttered drolly. Probably true, but it was still funny nonetheless.
It was indeed a day when many of our lesser-spotted luminaries would be tempted out, including the Antipodean Ironman, back from serious injury, the aforementioned Grover and even the Prof, given the day off from his role in a Back Street Boys tribute band, or perhaps lured out by the promise of free fruit just waiting to be picked along all the hedgerows.
Anyway, he would stay with us for, oh, I don’t know, maybe a whole, half an hour, before the collective responsibility of riding in a group began to chafe … and he buggered off without a backward glance.
Add in a smattering of FNG’s and there was about thirty of us altogether and we split into two groups before pushing out. A quick headcount saw the front group outnumbering the second, so I dropped back to the latter and away we went.
The Red Max and Taffy Steve led us from the start and we picked our way through Brunton Lane, where the good weather had encouraged the bushes and hedges into super-abundant, verdant and bucolic over-growth.
“Another couple of weeks of this and there’ll just be a cyclist-shaped hole in a wall of green,” Crazy Legs mused.
We took over on the front as we took the road up past the Cheese Farm, determined to set a perfectly reasonable pace and make it to the top of the hill without any complaints from behind.
Did we make it?
Well, what do you think?
We then stopped before taking a long loop that would see us heading south and generally slightly downhill to Twizzel, before stomping back up into a headwind. This engendered the first group split, with OGL and Grover deciding the loop was generally pointless.
Crazy Legs admitted the detour didn’t do anyone any favours, but I was happy to add a few more miles along previously uncharted roads and anyway, who could possibly resist a visit to a place called Twizzel at least once in a lifetime? Once is probably enough, though.
As we approached Dyke Neuk, I finally recognised the road and, from there it was a straightforward push through Whalton, then Hartburn and on to Middleton Bank. We stopped regularly to check everyone was ok and see if anyone needed a shorter route to the café, but everyone seemed to be holding up.
As we started to climb Middleton Bank, Andeven whirred rapidly and effortlessly away, showing us mere plodders and amateurs how it should be done. Meanwhile I got stuck twiddling too small a gear, too soon and it took me an age to get on top of it. As the ramps slowly steepened and the gears finally bit, I managed to work my way past the rest of the group and follow Crazy Legs catching onto his rear wheel as we went up and over the top.
Crazy Legs looked back, determined no one else was in sight and indicated he was going to drop back to wait. I decided to press on alone, coaxed the chain onto the big ring and started to pick up the pace.
Around the first corner and into some welcome shade from the trees around Bolam Lake, Benedict stormed up behind, called out, “hop on” and went surging past. I accelerated onto his wheel and we were off.
He took a big, long turn and then I spelled him until I could no longer keep the pace high enough and he accelerated onto the front again, leading us through the dip and curves as we arced through Milestone Woods.
As we hit the bottom of the rollers, I noticed a new set of temporary traffic lights half way up the slope had just turned green. Determined not to be caught by an inopportune red light, I came around Benedict and surged upwards. Benedict said he guessed what I was trying to do, but hesitated a micro-second and just missed latching onto my wheel as I hammered up through the lights and over the first couple of crests.
As I jumped out of the saddle to keep the momentum up to tackle the third and final ramp, I looked back, expecting Benedict to be camped on my six, or thereabouts, but there was a sizeable gap between us. I decided just to press on, expecting he would catch up on final scramble up to the café, but suspect he eased once we made the main road and I rolled in imperiously and surprisingly alone.
“Did you ride the full route?” the Garrulous Kid asked, obviously slightly taken aback by the fact that there was clear air between me and everyone else from the second group. Such a disturbing lack of faith…
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
A Woodland Burial site has opened just down the road from the café and OGL has apparently already been eyeing up a plot for the future, thinking it’ll be an ideal spot from which to come back to haunt us every Saturday.
Crazy Legs revealed he still has his Mum’s ashes under the sink and his Dad’s in the garage and doesn’t quite know what to do with them. I unconscionably suggested the latter might be useful if he ever has an icy drive to contend with one winter. The whole topic cued up a number of stories of people trying to dispose of ashes, only to have them blow back in their faces.
On a slightly less morbid note, initial discussions were made about travelling to take in the Tour of Britain in September, in particular stages 5 and 6. The first is an unusual Team Time Trial up Whinlatter Pass from the easier, western side (five kilometres averaging 4%), followed by the following days stage which tackles the climb twice more, but from the eastern side with averages nearer to 7%.
Taffy Steve sat down opposite me and the creaking bench tilted alarmingly and tipped me into his shoulder. I’m not sure this rickety garden furniture is going to last another season.
We applied some Archimedean physics to our problem, Taffy Steve shuffling closer to the pivot point, while I slid along toward the very end of the bench. That worked better, well, at least until one of us decided to stand up suddenly. It didn’t stop Benedict laughing at us and suggesting it was like watching two mismatched kids trying to work a see-saw.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs expounded on his new Novichok conspiracy theory, by pointing out the two incident locations, Salisbury and Amesbury were, strangely and coincidentally, almost equidistant from the British Chemical and Bacteriological warfare laboratory at Porton Down. The Novichok poisoning was then, either a leak from the government’s own facility, or its proximity was being used by the Russians to cover up their own nefarious “wet-work.”
Taffy Steve determined we deserved a sneaky third coffee and I readily agreed – after all, it was hot and we needed to stay hydrated.
We then had a chuckle at the Colossus who was sitting at the next table alongside the Garrulous Kid and looking extremely glum and fed up with life. We wondered what could possibly be upsetting him so much …
As we made our way home I caught up with Kermit, who thought he had a new bike sorted, a like-for-like replacement offer from his insurance company, after his Focus Cayo didn’t survive its trip back from the Pyrenees. (Or, to be more accurate, its whirlwind tour around Zurich and sundry other European airports.)
He’d been offered a Giant TCR Advanced which seemed like a great deal to me – then again, I’m not the one who has to ride it.
As we started up Berwick Hill our line attenuated and then fragmented and I had great fun slicing and sliding through the wheels, as I climbed from near the back to the front, dropping in behind leaders Crazy Legs and the Colossus as we crested the top.
On the reverse slope, the pair waved us through and I hit the front with Caracol, keeping the pace high all the way through Dinnington and onto the Mad Mile. The Colossus took over again, for this final stretch, before the remains of our group swept left and I peeled off to start my solo ride home.
I could get used to this fine weather.
YTD Totals: 4,251 km / 2,641 miles with 53,264 metres of climbing
Col du Soulour from Argeles Gazot/Col d’Aubisque east side from Soulour
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 63 km / 39 miles with 1,577 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Average Speed: 19.5 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Hot and humid
It’s maybe two o’clock in the morning and I’ve been sleeping fitfully for the past couple of hours. It’s stiflingly hot and uncomfortable in the chalet and now I’m awake with a brutal, killer headache, as if someone’s wrapped a band of steel around my skull and is slowly ratcheting it tighter and tighter.
The pain intensifies horribly and flashing lights explode behind my eyes if I try to lie down, so I’m sitting up in bed, back against the wall, trying to forcibly scrub, or pull, or push the waves of pain away and out of my head. It’s not working.
I turn the light on, fumble through my rucksack, find some Paracetamol and choke a couple down, bone dry, chalky and hard to swallow.
At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake suddenly, drenched in sweat and stagger to the bathroom to throw up. I rinse and repeat the process a few times and every time my stomach heaves out its contents, the pain explodes behind my eyes. I choke down more pills and somewhere, somehow, as the sky starts to grey with dawn, I manage to grab a couple of hours of disturbed sleep.
Clanking and clunking from the living room wakes me. Surprisingly it’s not the ghost of Jacob Marley, but Kermit, in an up-and-at-‘em mood and starting to drag his bike outside to start building it back up.
I get up slowly, check the time and make to follow. We’d agreed a 10.00 o’clock depart for the first ride, so I had a couple of hours to try and pull both myself and the bike back together. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to be making the breakfast we’d hastily arranged with the campsite the night before.
The bike had survived its transit without mark, or mar and slotted together without too many issues, although at one point I did have to abandon my post and hurdle over Kermit and bits of his scattered bike in a crazed dash to the toilet. After this, I was thinking I couldn’t possibly have anything left to throw up. But, I was wrong.
I finished the bike and checked it over. All seemed good, so I got changed into my cycling kit and slapped on some sunscreen. The day looked grey and dull, with plenty of cloud cover, but it was relentlessly hot and humid. Nevertheless, as I sat on the chalet porch and just tried to recover, I was chilled and shivering and pulled on some arm warmers and my fleece while I waited for things to settle down.
A few chalets along, the Breakfast Club had returned from their sumptuous feast and were preparing to ride. (I got good reports of the breakfast extravaganza, but wouldn’t get to sample it even once in the next few days.)
Extreme Weather Protocol
Crazy Legs swung by to inform us that in light of my bad case of malingering and, as a more gentle acclimatisation for everyone else, Extreme Weather Protocol had been invoked and agreement reached to swap around Day#1 and Day#2.
The revised agenda for the day was now the Col du Soulour, followed straight up by the Col d’Aubisque. The washed out roads of the latter meaning we’d need to trace our way to it directly from the Soulour, rather than looping around to climb up from the other side as originally planned. In this way, we just about halved the distance and the amount of climbing.
At 10.00, or thereabouts, we slowly gathered, clipped in and rode out, following the road through Argelès Gazost before swinging away left, up the valley of le Gave d’ Azun, to start the approach to the Col du Soulour.
As we passed through the villages, gaps appeared in the clouds overhead and the sun poured down. This gave a bright, oily sheen to the new and smooth tarmac that glistened under our tyres, an indication that the Tour will be following these very same roads in just a few weeks’ time and preparations are in full-swing. I often wonder if, a bit like the Queen visiting the provinces, the Tour peloton get a ridiculously rose-tinted view of the state of the nation’s byways and highways.
At one point we passed a group of workmen busy branding stark, white, markings into the new road surface. The intense chemical smell of the epoxy they were using almost made me throw up and I was glad to quickly leave them behind.
I’d adopted a survival mode, bunkered down amongst the wheels, taking occasional small sips of plain water and hoping to keep it down.
We had to negotiate our way around a shirtless, deeply-tanned, golden-maned native, riding one massive, barrel chested, bay horse while leading two others behind and looking like the lone survivor from a failed raid of warrior Gaul’s. He was certainly far too cool to acknowledge Crazy Legs’ cheerful greeting. (I suspect he secretly covets the role of Xenophobix in the local Asterix the Gaul Re-enactment Society and is actually really friendly and welcoming, but he’s a method actor and has to stay aloof to remain in character.)
I also think I’d just discovered my own Asterix alter-ego for the day, too – Monosyllabix.
And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Snot
Our group slowly attenuated and then broke apart, everyone finding a pace they were comfortable with. I dropped off the back, riding for a while with Crazy Legs, who was still suffering from a ridiculously long-standing chest infection that he can’t seem to shift. He was really struggling with this, his asthma and the oppressively hot and humid conditions.
I followed in the wake of his coughing, hawking and spluttering expectorations, quietly giggling at the cloud of flies he’d acquired, like a dark halo circling his head, while realising I probably had a corresponding, buzzing accompaniment orbiting my own helmet.
At Arrans-Marsous, the road jinked to the right and the real climbing began through a series of tight, steep hairpins. I was travelling too slowly even for an ailing, lung-shot Crazy Legs now, so he checked I was ok and pressed on ahead. I found myself singing that old Gilbert O’Sullivan chestnut, “Alone Again, Naturally” as I ground my way upwards, although, in my defence I don’t actually recall anything but the title-line, which I found myself repeating, ad nauseam.
I wasn’t quite alone, however. A quick lizard snaked up the road in front of me, like a miniature Alberto Contador on the attack and a little further on, it was the turn of an intensely bright, iridescent beetle. It taunted me with both its flashiness and climbing speed, and when, with a bit of effort, I just about managed to catch it, it disappeared into the undergrowth.
I felt more empathy with a large fat bee I found, dressed much like me in black and yellow, seemingly shell-shocked, hunkered, head down, arse up and unmoving in the middle of the road. I was tempted to join him, but kept going.
A farmyard cat then watched me pass, wary and wide-eyed, it’s pupils reduced to vertical black hairlines by the bright sunlight.
Off to the left a sign seemed to point toward Bun. Or, maybe that was just a wilful hallucination…
Toil and Trouble
As I climbed and away from the settlements, the meadows became dotted with cows and the constant jangle of their bells accompanied my harsh breathing. Meanwhile, high overhead massive buzzards effortlessly circled in the thermals, marking my crawling progress and perhaps wondering if I’d provide them with easy pickings before the day was done.
I was starting to get a feel for the characteristics of Pyrenean climbs, wide sweeping bends that lacked the tight hairpins of the Alps and a gradient that seemed to annoyingly change around every corner and jarred you out of any rhythm you’d managed to establish.
The roads were also much quieter, both of cars and other cyclists and there was little evidence of the usual, faded fan graffiti on the climbs that we’d seen last year in the Alps. Perhaps the weather here is so much harsher that the road surface only lasts a season or two?
I suspect the roadside signs were designed to help struggling cyclists, counting down the distance to the summit every kilometre, with each one helpfully spelling out the average gradient across the next stretch of road too.
Occasionally this proved a little dispiriting, especially when you knew you faced an 8% average gradient for the next thousand metres and then the road eased, or heaven forbid, dipped downwards. This was an indication that a bit further along you’d be paying for the moments brief respite.
Depending on the gradient, my speed was like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl, wavering wildly between 6.5mph and 3.7mph. I was going nowhere fast, but I was still going. I have to admit I don’t remember all that much about the latter stages of the climb, I was in a sort of fugue state, not feeling particularly bad, just washed out, weak and powerless.
I finally made the top, saw a café by the side of the road and rolled through its car park. None of the parked-up bikes looked remotely familiar, so I re-joined the road and plugged away a bit more until I found the patiently waiting, motley crew outside a second café.
The Best Omelette in the Pyrenees … Allegedly
We trouped inside for lunch and were greeted by a jocular and friendly proprietor, who assumed we were Dutch. Crazy Legs surmised this because we looked far too happy and cheerful to be English and maybe he was right.
We were promised the best omelettes in the Pyrenees, which just about everyone plumped for, and a much needed round of drinks. I wish I could attest to the omelettes excellence, but I only managed to pick my way carefully through a few mouthfuls and I was done. Still, it stayed where I put it, so progress of sorts. Crazy Legs also struggled with the sheer volume of food, but made a better go of it, while the rest seemed to demolish their meals in short order.
Syncing Strava and the Bovine Menace
Outside, we set our sights on the Col d’ Aubisque, leaving Kermit behind as he fiddled with his Garmin which had annoyingly decided to play peek-a-boo with the satellites. The first part of the road was a descent down from the very summit of the Col du Soulour, with an unbarriered steep drop off to the right.
This was made slightly treacherous by the gravel strewn across the road surface and several large cows that seemed intent on meandering aimlessly across our path. Safely negotiating this moving, bovine chicane, we were soon rolling toward the gaping black maw of a tunnel cut straight through the side of the mountain.
Crazy Legs had forewarned us about the tunnel and suggested we take a leaf out of Sean Kelly’s book and close one eye as we approached, so it, at least, was adjusted to the dark by the time we got inside. I went one better and decided to close both eyes …
Ha-ha – only joking. The tunnel was as short and slimy as advertised and had a horrible ridged road surface that we all rattled uncomfortably across. I wasn’t looking forward to repeating that when we returned.
I managed to keep up with everyone on the descent, but soon the road began to climb again and I slipped off the back. Goose and Captain Black forged past and reported that Kermit was still missing.
I kept looking back to see if I could spot his red jersey, working its way up the ribbon of road that seemed to cling precariously to the steep mountain side, but nothing was moving behind me.
We were so high up that at one point I found myself riding along almost at eye level with a majestic, soaring buzzard. It seemed close enough for me to reach across to brush its wingtips, well, if I felt like leaning over the precipitous drop to my right. Then it tipped over on one wing and slipped silently away. Incredible.
As we climbed higher the clouds rolled in above and below, restricting what must have been spectacular views and I was soon climbing through a cool, muffling grey mist and wondering if it was worth turning my lights on.
Before I reached a decision, the air cleared again and then, somewhere along the way and much later than I expected, Kermit caught and passed me. He would later find his Garmin had failed to record his ascent of the Col Du Soulour and he even considered climbing it again, especially after we all convinced him that if it wasn’t on Strava ….
As the road entered a series of switchbacks, I was able to track my route by the progress of Kermit’s bobbing red jersey up ahead and judge just how far I had left and what was awaiting me around the next corner.
The climb wasn’t that hard and I don’t remember it being all that long either. At some point, I rattled across a Barrière Canadienne and wondered what it was the French had against Canuck’s that made them want to bar their access to the mountains.
Then we were at the top, hanging the bikes up in the rusting, creaking racks outside another café. A brief stop and then we gathered outside, pulling on jackets and gilets for the descent and stepping up for the obligatory group photo at the summit marker.
The Dutchman and the Brits
As we collected our bikes, Crazy Legs found himself bonding with a couple of fellow Ribble Rousers from the UK. They suggested we took time out to cheer on their colleague, a big Dutchman who was powering up the climb behind them in T-shirt and sandals, grinning from ear to ear while cheerfully piloting a massive steel, sit-up-and-beg town-bike up the col.
A few scattered, desultory signs appeared to suggest the road ahead was, as we suspected still closed and no one had any interest in finding out if it the route was still passable by bike, so we turned around and headed back the way we’d come.
I had no trouble keeping up with the others as we made our way downhill, catching and whipping past a tentative motorist just before rattling and shaking our way back through the slimy tunnel.
We regrouped at the top of the Soulour, before tipping down again, then were full bore all the way from the bottom of the descent back to the campsite.
Living to Fight Another Day
I retired to the shower block, intent on draining the campsites hot water supply. I didn’t quite manage, but feel I gave it my best shot, emerging slightly more wrinkled than usual, but starting to feel a whole lot better.
We congregated in the bar again for dinner and I managed to slide down about three-quarters of a pizza. I left the crew watching a World Cup match and trying to decide what ice creams they wanted for dessert. Making my excuses, I made my way to the chalet for an early night, crawled into bed and was gone. I don’t know if I slept, or just fell into a coma, but I wasn’t to stir for the next 12 hours.
Encouraged by our super-successful, slightly-secretive, semi-selective, sterling-sojourn into the Alps last year (see: Riders of the Alps Bucket-List) – this time Crazy Legs had us targeting the Pyrenees for another raid, deep into traditional French cycling territory.
With his formidable planning skills to the fore, he picked a date, found flights and accommodation and then simply offered the opportunity up to anyone willing, able-bodied and crazy enough, to want to ride a bike up multiple mountain passes in searing heat.
All we had to do at this point was indicate our intent with a quick, “Oui” or, “Non.” Perfect.
Wholly unsurprisingly, all of last year’s sextet re-upped for a second Tour of Duty (or Tour of Doodie, if you happen to be American) – so that was Crazy Legs, Goose, Captain Black, the Hammer, Steadfast and me.
To these serried and honourable ranks we added some real climbing prowess, with Kermit, a sub-55kg, climbing spider-monkey and the larger, but somehow-even-faster-going-uphill, Caracol.
Buster hemmed and havered, but eventually gave a reluctant, “Non” – and so we were set – an octet of inappropriately optimistic, opportunists, intent on wrecking who knows what – legs? lungs? livers? … and probably, somewhere along the line, any hopes of post-Brexit, Anglo-French entente cordiale, too.
British Airways flights were booked to leave early Thursday morning, June 21st from Newcastle to Heathrow, where we would connect with Steadfast, before travelling on to Toulouse. The return was planned for the following Monday, allowing us 3-full days of riding.
As usual, the Hammer would travel independently (which our fevered speculation determined would be through a combination of private jet, chartered helicopter and chauffeur-driven limousine).
Due to arrive early as our advance party, he promised to gather the most basic essentials to fuel our trip, which, in order of importance, appeared to be beer, wine, beer, cheese, beer and pain au chocolat.
… and beer.
Crazy Legs had secured us four cabins at the Campsite du Lavadan, just outside Argelès Gazost and some 15kms due south of Lourdes. This would be our base of operations for our 3-days of cycling and would put us within the orbit of such famous Pyrenean climbs as the Tourmalet, Hautacam and Aspin.
Goose sought and negotiated transport from the airport to the campsite – one big, 6-seater-van and a large car, deemed sufficient for 7 skinny blokes and their oversized bike boxes. He and Kermit bravely volunteered to do the driving and we were not at all worried when Kermit kept asking which side of the road he would be driving on.
The flights cost £185, the car hire about £65 each and 4 nights’ accommodation was around £100, so the basic bones of the trip came together for a, fairly reasonable, £350.
Crazy Legs then devised and circulated a rough plan for the rides:
Day#1 – Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin – a 126km loop
Day#2 – Col du Soulor and Col d’Aubisque – a 120km loop
Day#3 – Hautacam – 40km – straight there and back again
Everything was agreed and booked by the time BA announced the cancellation of our return flights. Luckily, the available alternatives actually helped, rather than hindered, with a more relaxed timing for the return.
Then, like last year, I more or less forgot about the whole thing until a few weeks before we were set to go.
There was a little last minute uncertainty when flash floods hit the western Pyrenees and destroyed some of the roads around the region. Indications were that the route from the Col d’Aubisque through the village of Gourette was particularly badly affected and likely to be closed, but we determined to play it by ear and adapt our route on the day.
More seriously, any effect on the upcoming stages of the Tour de France, set to travel across the same roads for stages 19, remains to be seen.
Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
Like an anorexic, bulimic teenager, weight became a bit of an obsession on two fronts as, learning from the previous trip, I planned how to travel lighter, both personally and baggage-wise.
The latter was much the easiest to accomplish. I swapped last year’s borrowed, rigid bike box for a cheap Planet-X bike bag, which I would load up with the bare minimum. This I determined was: one T-shirt per day, the clothes I would travel in, three full sets of cycling kit, a few energy gels, a set of allen keys for building up and breaking down the bike, a couple of spare tubes and a few sticking plasters (in case of emergency).
I found the bike bag much easier to pack than a box. It had integral wheel compartments and a ton of internal pockets that proved incredibly useful for stuffing things in and keeping them tied-down and in place. I also found the bike would fit in easily, with only one pedal removed – and the less assembling and disassembling I do, the happier I am, so a win all round.
Wheels out, one pedal removed, seat post out, handlebars released from the stem and taped to the top tube, I removed the gear hanger and taped the rear mech up inside the stays. I mummified the whole rear triangle in bubble-wrap, added a few pieces of foam pipe insulation to protect the frame and held everything in place with copious amounts of masking tape. That’s it, I was done.
If anything, the bike bag proved too big and capacious. Even fully loaded with wheels, frame helmet and clothes, it was still only ¾ full. I could actually have done with it being not quite as tall and, while eminently luggable, a set of wheels on the base would have been a real boon.
I’d been paying a little more attention to my own weight than usual and, as mileage ticked up, this started heading in the right direction too. I was hovering around 65kg’s on the weeks leading up to departure and starting to feel stronger and better for it.
That was until, the weekend before, when I developed a sore throat and tried the patented Crazy Legs cure of riding through it. (Hint: he’s called Crazy Legs for a reason).
Exactly one week before the trip, I climbed off the bike after a difficult commute home, admitted defeat and crawled into bed for three days, laid low by some vicious, random bug that left me thoroughly drained, caused me to miss a slew of meetings at work and, more importantly, the Saturday club run.
The following Wednesday, D-Day Minus-1, I finally swung a leg over the bike for a lone, last commute and my final ride before travelling to the mountains. Not exactly the ideal preparation, but I was good to go.
Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees
Early Thursday morning and having submitted my (hopefully well-packed) and protected bike to the tender ministrations of the ground crew at Newcastle International Airport, I tracked down the rest of the mob, already happily ensconced in a coffee shop in Departures and slurping down a selection of premium, hot beverages.
I think Kermit had surmised his baggage allowance also took into account personal weight, which gave him a massive advantage over every other passenger. To exploit this to its fullest extent, he was trailing quite the biggest and reddest piece of “hand baggage” I think I’ve ever seen.
We naturally queried if it would fit within regulation, hand-baggage dimensions, knowing full-well that if he did, by some miracle, manage to jam it into one of those baggage-guidance stands, it would never come out again.
Taking our concern to heart, Kermit triumphantly zipped up the expandable gusset, reducing the bags width by, oh, I don’t know a whole 5cms, maybe, and effectively reducing its overall footprint by almost 2%. It still looked massive and Kermit started to fret a little about getting it on the plane without having to pay an excess baggage charge.
Meanwhile talk turned to marginal gains, with Kermit admitting to taking a hacksaw to his seatpost to shave off a few centimetres and a few excess grams. There was some involved discussion about whether leg shaving constituted a marginal gain, while Goose and Crazy Legs bemoaned their androgenetic alopecia … of the legs.
Kermit worried we must have sounded like a troupe of old queen’s sitting round talking about leg shaving, but I assured him we were much too ugly for anyone to make that kind of mistake.
Someone mentioned Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and it was a short-leap from there to Priscilla, Queen of the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, I briefly pondered if there’s a collective noun for a transvestites – a camp of transvestites the best I could find.
Our flight was called and we made our way to the gate, half of us taking the escalator to jeers about “marginal gains” – which no doubt thoroughly bewildered other passengers. I felt I was doing ok, as, although I used the stairs, I was drafting Caracol the whole way.
On the plane, Crazy Legs found himself sitting next to a bloke who looked like a rugby prop forward, he was as wide as he was tall and solid. He initially took the aisle seat, hoping the plane wasn’t full and he wouldn’t have to squeeze into the middle of the row. No such luck, a late arriving passenger appeared to claim the aisle seat and the prop forward was soon pressed in tightly against Crazy Legs, blocking most of the light filtering in from the window and causing the seat in front of me to creak alarmingly.
Close proximity, coupled with abundant, natural Crazy Legs bonhomie, soon had the muscled-mass talking and it emerged he actually was a prop forward, from Leeds Carnegie Academy and travelling to France for a little continental seasoning at one of their pro clubs.
The Return of Hans
At Heathrow, with time to kill, we gravitated toward the Costa Coffee where we’d been sitting, talking our usual brand of unadulterated bullshit on the return last year, only to forget about the time. We’d had to dash to the gate, making it just as the last flight home was closing.
In commemoration of that anniversary, Captain Black informed the staff his name was Hans, which they duly inscribed on his coffee-cup, as they had the year before when he’d told them his actual name. I’m still at a loss to understand how they could have misinterpreted Captain Black quite so badly that they arrived at Hans.
We found five seats and Kermit perched on his big, red case to sup his drink. (Ah, so that’s why he brought it). British Airways announced our connecting flight was full and were offering to check hand baggage into the hold for free. Hoping to avoid any unwelcome arguments, Kermit gave up his impromptu perch and had it checked in. One less thing to worry about.
As Kermit returned from the baggage drop, we were discussing the photos of Donald Trump alongside Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, which seemed to prove that the President of the United States was lying (yes, I know – it’s hard to believe isn’t it) about his height. The photographic evidence suggested that he isn’t the 6’3” he claims and, given his weight, can officially be classified as obese.
Still, I’m not sure if this matters, after all a wholly impartial, completely objective and scrupulously honest physician has already unequivocally informed us, that Trump would be “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Kermit only caught the tail-end of this conversation and then spent five minutes wondering what Jump Judo was and whether it was worth catching on Eurosport.
Dead or Alive?
A discussion about the Orange Dotard’s tiny hands morphed into a discussion about Jeremy Beadle and the Kenny Everett character, the spectacularly stupid, Brother Lee Love, who had giant hands. From these humble beginnings the trip tradition and a new game, Dead or Alive? was born. The rules were quite simple, whenever someone moderately famous, or mildly notorious was mentioned, someone (usually me) would invariably pipe up to query: “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Backed up by Google, the most astonishing thing we found was how many people we thought were dead, were still hanging on, hale and hearty, and how many we thought were still with us that had, in fact long since departed.
We eventually relinquished the seats in Costa’s and made our way to a quiet gate, where we could sit and people-watch. Here we enjoyed the drama of a futilely sprinting, late-arriving passenger pleading to be allowed onto a flight that had already closed.
(I thought he lost his case through over-acting, especially when he clasped his hands together in prayer and begged. At this point went from being a somewhat sympathetic character to overly-dramatic and slightly unhinged.)
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs tried to decipher the complex code behind all the rank markings on the epaulettes of the aircrews. The conclusion seemed to be they were mainly for show and generally meaningless.
At some point, we were joined by Steadfast, who lives just a short drive away from Heathrow and then we were all filing on board and bound for France. Goose snagged a Financial Times to read on the plane, but would later complain there were too few pictures to hold his interest for long.
On the flight I swapped seats so a pair of separated, second, or third time-around (I assume) honeymooning Americans could sit together and I managed to sleep through most of the flight.
At the other end, we queued dutifully for our bike bags with a motley collection of other Anglo-cyclists, then suffered through the seemingly interminable process of collecting our rental cars. Why such a simple process always takes such a long, long time remains one of life’s great mysteries. Finally, we were sorted and started to move.
We hit the van first, Goose and Captain Black finally remembering how we’d managed to fold the rear seats flat after a fair amount of pondering, head scratching and trial and error. We managed to load 6 of the bikes into the back of the van, squeezed in four passengers, with Goose as a driver and off they went.
The second vehicle turned out to be a new, very square, very big and very ugly, ultra-white Jeep. I would have been embarrassed to be seen in such a (# cough # wanker tanker # cough #) monstrosity at home and I think my bike bag felt the same as it curled up and hid, alone and a little lost in the Jeeps rear compartment.
I finally got to grips with a recalcitrant SatNav, tapped in details of the campsite and then Kermit got us moving for a couple of hours driving, with arrival scheduled at the campsite just as the sun was setting.
We made it to our destination without incident, bikes and bags were quickly unloaded into the cabins (all decent looking and a step up from last year’s – not that we’d ever do much but sleep and shower in them anyway.)
We picked up our advance party, the Hammer and all piled into the campsite bar. There, hard bargaining with a somewhat angry and prickly site manager, managed to make Brexit negotiations look simple, straightforward and positively jocular, but our unwavering stance finally netted us four buckets of moules et frittes and four platters of ham, eggs and chips. This seemed just about acceptable to everyone.
I stocked up on calories, washed everything down with a couple of beers and retired to the cabin, looking forward to a good night’s sleep, an early breakfast and the chance to calmly build up the bikes before we began our first ride tomorrow.
Total Distance:105 km / 65 miles with 960 metres of climbing
Ride Time:4 hours 1 minute
Average Speed:26.1 km/h
Group size:28 riders, 1 FNG
Weather in a word or two:Warm and bright
I set out first thing Saturday morning still in the dark as to whether climbing in the Alps is a help or hindrance to cycling form. I got an early indication of which way the coin would fall though, when I turned up at the meeting point some 20 minutes early and had to take a long, impromptu peregrination around Fawdon to fill in some time. I’ve nothing personally against Fawdon, but I’m sure even its most ardent resident would agree it’s not the best place in the world to kill some time on a bike.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
In honour of the Tour de France start, Crazy Legs had donned an ancient Ariostea pro-team top, a riot of zig-zagging diagonal lines in bright red and yellow – it’s perhaps offensive enough to even match my bike. I lamented the lack of truly standout, hideous jersey’s in the pro peloton today – although I find Cannondale’s green and red combination a little unsettling, it’s tame compared to the glories of the past such as Ariostea, Mapei and Teka.
In contrast, another rider was wearing a white version of the La Vie Claire jersey, which still remains a timeless classic.
Crazy Legs mentioned it was the Queen Stage for Mini Miss, currently away enjoying sun and smooth roads in Majorca, and (probably) looking forward to Sa Colabra today.
“Psycha-what?” The Prof enquired.
“Sa Colabra,” I explained, “It’s a style of folk dance, popular in the Balearic Islands.”
“No, no, it’s a spirit-based drink, infused with Mediterranean herbs.” The BFG piped up, further confusticating the issue and leaving the Prof suitably bewildered.
The Garrulous Kid wanted to know how probable it was that one of his riding colleagues had seen a raccoon while out on a bike. (Just to be clear, the Garrulous Kid’s riding colleague was out on the bike, not the masked, furry North American mammal.) I suggested what he actually might have seen was a polecat, which are ever so slightly more prevalent than raccoons in rural Northumberland.
“No, pole – cat.”
“P-O-L-E-C … oh, I give up.”
Crazy Legs wanted to know if the Garrulous Kid remembered the time he’s been afraid of his own tyres. Meanwhile, testing his brakes, the Prof found that, despite all the benefits afforded from its hand-built construction in the most advanced bike factory in the world, by the planet’s greatest race of precision engineers and bike designers, the Kid’s Focus had a loose headset.
“Bring that bike here, boy” he demanded in a voice that brooked no argument, “And fetch me an Allen key.”
“Ooh, I’ve got one of those!” the Garrulous Kid squealed, digging frantically through his saddle bag, scattering tubes, tyre levers and repair patches everywhere, but singularly failing to turn up his famed Allen key. This was a shame as I was particularly interested to see which one size he had decided to carry from all the myriad choices available.
The Prof whipped out his own multi-tool, slackened off the stem, gave the cap bolt half a dozen full turns and then tightened the stem back up again.
“That was really loose.” The Colossus of Roads observed as he gazed down benevolently from on high (well, the top of the wall where he’d perched his butt) and noted the spacers spinning as freely as a roulette wheel.
“Was it dangerous?” the Garrulous Kid wondered.
“No, but you probably felt your whole bike shudder when you were braking.” The Colossus replied.
“And now you’ll know exactly what to do when it happens again.” The Prof observed at his pedagogic best.
“Yep,” The Garrulous Kid replied dutifully, “Take it straight back to the bike shop.”
The Prof outlined the planned route for the day and had us split into two, with an ultimate destination of Bellingham for the long distance randonneurs, but with plenty of options for groups to step off at various points to tailor the ride to their preference.
I dropped into the second group and we waited a couple of minutes for the first bunch to clear, before we pushed off, clipped in and rode out.
With a build-up of cars trailing us into Ponteland, we singled out to encourage them pass, but no matter how much frantic waving Crazy Legs engaged in, the driver of the first car refused to overtake – perhaps blinded, mesmerised or simply intimidated by the aggressive and unsettling design of his Ariostea jersey.
I spent some time behind the Colossus and got my first good look at his custom-painted cassette spacers, in the same colours and sequence as the World Champion Rainbow bands. He too had made the pilgrimage to the local model shop to baffle them with enquiries about what paints worked best on Shimano cassette’s.
He told me everything had worked perfectly, except for the bright fluorescent green, which initially looked black when applied, so he’d had to switch to a white undercoat. (I include this information simply as a public service, in case you’re ever tempted to paint your own cassette spacers.)
At the first stop, I noticed slightly different micturition practices, as one of the group pulled up a shorts leg to pee – while I always pull down the waistband. Perhaps this could be a bone of contention and spark a Lilliputian vs. Blefuscan conflict of Brobdignagian proportions. Or, maybe not.
It was during this stop that Crazy Legs overheard a conversation in which one of our esteemed members claimed to have been informed he was a peerless descender by no lesser authority than “world champion (sic) Alberto Contador.”
Options were outlined and decision were made on different route choices, with the first splinter group happily turning to head up the Quarry, while the rest of us went tearing down the Ryals.
I tucked in, freewheeling all the way and quickly picked up speed, hitting the front until the Red Max and the Plank, swept past pedalling furiously. As soon as they eased I closed them down again, all the while pulling Crazy Legs along behind me as he surfed in my slipstream.
At the bottom and while everyone flashed past and on to loop around Hallington Reservoir, I turned right and pulled over to wait for Sneaky Pete, having previously agreed to take the shorter, but much hillier option up past Hallington Hall, Sol Campbells stately pile. This narrow, partly shady, tree-lined route, climbs and twists through a series of relatively sharp ramps and is one of my favourite roads, if only because we don’t use it all that often.
I was climbing well and felt good as we crested the hill and started to drop back down to the junction with the main road. This spat us out directly in front of a bunch of cyclists that I thought were the group we’d just left, but actually turned out to be our first group. As we closed on the testing drag, up Humiliation Hill, beZ and Andeven whirred past, followed a split second later by Shoeless and the rider in the old La Vie Clair jersey and I dropped in behind them.
beZ and Andeven started to pull away on the climb, so I threaded the needle between Shoeless and La Vie Claire (or perhaps from their perspective, simply barged them out of the way) and gave chase. Tagging onto the back of the front two, I camped there comfortably as they swept uphill, quickly pulling away from everyone else, before we swung east and powered toward Capheaton.
At the last, steep clamber up to road that leads to the Snake Bends, I floated up beside beZ and we rolled the rest of the way, chatting about his experiences of mixing it with the big boys during the Beaumont Trophy and where he needs to improve his bike handling skills and confidence, seemingly the only thing limiting his brilliant performances from being bloody brilliant performances.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
At the café, I joined Captain Black and Princess Fiona at one of the tables outside. She’d just returned from a cycling-motorbiking trip to the Pyrenees. First reassuring myself that she hadn’t been on a Harley, I was interested to know what it was like as Crazy Legs is eyeing up this area for our next foreign expedition.
Talk of the Pyrenees and the Tour, had me extolling the Cycling Anthology series of books and in particular Volume 5 which includes a chapter on Superbagnères by Edward Pickering. This described Stage 15 of the 1971 Tour de France, which was a balls-to-the-wall, short stage of just 19.6km straight up from Bagnères-de-Luchon to the summit. The author described the action as being like a mass start time-trial, with every man for himself. The stage was won by Jose Manuel-Fuente, but all 99 riders in the field were separated by just 10 minutes and the biggest group across line was only 4 strong.
Apart from reminding me of Fuente, a rider whose name I was particularly fond of chanting to encourage struggling riders up hills when I was a kid … Foo-entay! … Foo-entay! … I thought the idea of a super-short, chaotic and uncontrollable stage, straight up a mountain was well worth revisiting – a real mano a mano contest among the climbers and GC riders, stripping away all the team support and tactical “footsie” that usually takes place before a decisive summit finish.
Recognising the stage would be perhaps too short to make good TV, it could then be combined with the sort of downhill time-trial Sean Kelly seems to advocate. I’d watch anyway.
With the first cup of coffee consumed, Princess Fiona somehow manouvered Captain Black into attending to her refill needs, before presenting him with her dainty, little cup.
Captain Black looked quizzically at it:
“It’s because she’s a lay-dee.” I explained.
Captain Black listened carefully to the very precise specification required for Princess Fiona’s coffee refill, tugged his forelock, bowed and backed away from the table.
He then wandered into the café, determined to get it wrong so he’d never be asked again.
Princess Fiona and Captain Black decided to take the long route back via Stamfordham and started to gather their things together to leave.
“Is there anything you need him to carry for you?” I joked, but could see Princess Fiona giving the question very serious consideration, before she demurred.
As they left, I moved across to the next table, where the Colossus was handing out free advice on how to go about painting cassette spacers. Given the fact he’d bought 3 different paint colours (green, red and blue) to go with G-Dawg’s yellow to recreate the World Champion bands and used only a tiny amount of each, there was talk of establishing a set of “club paints” that could be handed to those most in need. It was decided however that these would probably go the way of the semi-mythical “club rollers” that we know exist, we just don’t know where they are and who has them.
Appreciation of the La Vie Clare jersey brought a slightly too enthusiastic, near orgasmic, “Oh, yes,” from Taffy Steve, in a voice that was an unfortunate cross between the Churchill dog, a Kenneth Williams, “ooh matron” and a Terry Thomas-style, “ring-a-ding-ding.” Not that we drew any attention to it, of course.
Talk turned to upcoming movie releases, with the majority expressing their boredom with super-hero movies, for which the best antidote was deemed to be Lego Batman.
The Garrulous Kid though wasn’t done with super-heroes.
“I’m really looking forward to Four. Will you go and see that?” he asked me.
“Well, no, I haven’t seen One, Two or Three, so there doesn’t seem much point.” I replied, struggling to keep a straight face.
“No, I mean Four:Free.”
“Huh?” I feigned incomprehension.
“You know, the one with Four, the Norse God of Funder…”
As we were leaving the Garrulous Kid announced that now he’s finished school for the summer he was free to ride at any time. He asked if there were any mid-week groups he could join up with.
“Don’t you regularly go out on a Wednesday?” I innocently asked Sneaky Pete, earning a very sneaky kick in the shin for my efforts as he shushed me. Ouch!
We set off for home and I found myself climbing Berwick Hill with Crazy Legs.
“How you doing?” he asked and I had to admit I was floating and feeling good. Bet that’s not going to last.
As I turned off for home and left the others behind, Princess Fiona sailed past in the opposite direction having completed the longer route back through Stamfordham. Then, the obligatory 5 paces behind, Captain Black followed, undoubtedly slowed-down by all the baggage he was carrying for her.
Dropping down toward the river I had one last challenge as a racing trap sped past at a full speed gallop on the road below. I swung through the junction onto the road behind and gave chase. At about 25 mph I think I was beginning to close it down, but the driver was already easing the horse back to a trot. Those things are fast.
Across the river I found myself in the middle of a massive traffic jam and took to a bit of pavement surfing and threading between the cars, which earned me at least one “dick-head” comment from a very frustrated driver. A small price to pay to avoid being stuck for half an hour or more, sucking up exhaust fumes and going nowhere fast.
After that it was a relief to break out onto quieter roads, even if they did lead straight up the Heinous Hill to home.
YTD Totals: 4,140 km / 2,572 miles with 48,613 metres of climbing