Back to self-propelled methods for getting across to the meeting place, ironically I found myself 10 minutes early, compared with last week when I’d driven there and been 10 minutes late.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I found G-Dawg and Crazy Legs sitting on the wall, enjoying the warm sunshine and chatting with an FNG.
“Interesting documentary on Fleetwood Mac on BBC4,” the FNG opined, “They were all at it with each other, well all bar the drummer.”
“Drummers, eh? They are a breed apart,” I suggested.
“I’m a drummer,” the FNG replied.
“Yeah, drummers, there a bit like goalies,” Crazy Legs volunteered, “Oddly different.”
“I’m a goalie, too.” the FNG asserted, “although I sometimes play left-back, because I kick a ball left-footed.”
At this point I thought it was probably polite not to express any kind of view of left-footers and maintained a diplomatic silence.
The FNG then told us he’d been doing a lot of riding in London, in a group who seemed to do nothing but ceaselessly circle Regent’s Park at break-neck speed, all on hugely expensive bikes and all kitted out with the latest Rapha gear – sort of all dressed-up with no where to go. It should make anyone who lives within a stones throw of our outstanding countryside eternally grateful – even if the roads can sometimes resemble the Somme after a particularly intense, heavy artillery stonk.
Our interlocutor then said he’d been tempted to try some Rapha kit himself and had wandered into one of their shops, boutiques, sorry, err … clubhouses to browse their wares.
The decided racing-snake fit had prompted him to ask the staff if he was in the wrong department and if they had any adult clothing, before he decided that it just wasn’t mean’t to be…
Aether had planned the route for the day, with a trip down the Ryals before the climb back through Hallington. I like this route, the weather was good, my knee had been set free of all protective bracing and all was well with the world. It promised to be a good one.
Off in the first group, I dropped in alongside Ovis as we followed Caracol and the Cow Ranger out at a decidedly brisk pace. Then, approaching the airport, the Cow Ranger managed to ship his chain (something that’s becoming a common occurrence) and as he dropped back I pushed up to replace him on the front.
“So, that planned chain drop worked well again,” Caracol noted as I replaced the Cow Ranger. I agreed it was a good trick and one I’m keen to master.
Heading toward Darras Hall, home to posh people, lumbering 4×4’s and (what passes as royalty in these parts) Premiership footballers, young and old – Ovis replaced Caracol on the front and on we went.
Someone called for a break, then, a bit further on we stopped again, potentially to reform once the second group joined us, but then we dithered and then we pressed on without them. So a fairly standard day for decisive decision making then.
By the time we’d dropped down the Quarry and reached the top of the Ryal’s, G-Dawg had worked his way to the back of the group, conscious of the speed-wobbles he’s experienced on the Ryal’s descent and giving himself room to manoeuvre, should the worst happen.
As we approached drop an older looking feller topped the crest on a sit-up-and-beg bike laden with panniers, completely unruffled by the long climb and breathing easily.
“Got to be an e-bike,” Crazy Legs observed and so it was, making a mockery of the Ryal’s fearsome reputation.
It was our turn for some fun then, tipping over the edge to let gravity have its wicked way with us … wheeee … over 60kph without even trying.
At the bottom, I joined up with Crazy Legs as we took the turn to Hallington. Other riders pressed on for a longer sweep around the reservoir, while ahead of us we saw Ovis, caught between waiting for us to catch him and chasing down Rainman.
We soft-pedalled, waiting for G-Dawg, still alive and chatting animatedly with Otto Rocket and Buster as he caught us up. He confirmed he’d had no issues, but his experiences have instilled a high degree of caution in his approach to the descent.
Our small group then set off to climb up through Hallington and onto the road above Kirkheaton, occasionally fracturing and reforming over the hills. The top road is usually a fast paced, roller-coaster ride, but today there was a stiff headwind and it was tough going.
We scrambled up Brandywell Bank and started to pile on the pace. I dropped in behind Crazy Legs as we took the drop down toward the Snake Bends as he rode down the white lines in the middle of the road to try and find the smoothest passage.
An approaching car forced us back to the left and, after it passed and Crazy Legs swung back into the middle, I accelerated down the inside and kept going as hard as I could until G-Dawg surged past me, quickly opening an unassailable lead.
Everyone else swept passed and I sat up, rolling to the junction where we regrouped, seeming to wait an interminable amount of time before finding space to dart through the heavy traffic and wend or way through to the cafe.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Everyone seems to be looking forward to next weeks World Championships in Yorkshire, especially Rainman, whose national proclivities are to the fore, as he touted the chances of a Dutch successor to Valverde, while simultaneously disparaging any Belgian contenders.
In short order he had built up the chances of Mathieu van der Poel and Dylan van Baarle, while demolishing those of Remco Evenepoel, Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen.
“Ere, ere,” Caracol pulled him up sharply, his west country burr to the fore, “You can’t possibly go around pronouncing every riders names correctly and expect us to know who you’re talking about!”
There then followed and extended, bizarre discussion about whether the West Country accent was more representative of pirates or farmers, which concluded with the Caracol’s startling conclusion: “farmers, pirates, they’re one and the same really.”
This left us confused and wondering if pirates were the cut-throat homesteaders of the high seas, or farmers were the freebooters of terra firma.
I don’t know, maybe it’s both?
An elder gent from the Vagabonds cycling club was at the cafe with his missus, who was accompanying him on an e-bike. An intrigued Otto Rocket was curious about the e-bike and was offered a chance to try it for herself.
“We don’t actually know her, she just turned up in a taxi,” Crazy Legs quipped as Otto Rocket swung her leg over the frame and disappeared out the car park. The e-biker owner laughed, only ever-so-slightly uneasily.
Otto Rocket duly returned and pronounced the e-bike brilliant. Of course, Crazy Legs had to have a go too, whirring back to the cafe to second the opinion that e-bikes were brilliant. We all agreed they were highly likely to feature in our (not too distant) riding futures.
The ride home once again featured a quickening of the pace as we powered our way up Berwick Hill, but nothing quite so savage and unrelenting as last weeks madness. Still it wasn’t long before I was following G-Dawg through the mad mile, before casting off and striking out for home.
Great weather and a great ride, I wouldn’t object to a few more days like that before the winter takes hold.
YTD Totals: 5,898 km / 3,665 miles with 77,491 metres of climbing
Another chilly, but dry Saturday, decent conditions for a club run and I was on one of those all too rare days, when everything comes easy and the pedals seem to spin of their own volition. It’s that butterfly feeling, it doesn’t hang around long and is hard to pin down, the best you can do is enjoy it while it sticks around.
The only thing that slowed my magisterial progress on the way across to the meeting point was having to wait for what seemed about 5 or 6 minutes at a level crossing.
Finally, after much delay, a creaking, clanking, small, local train, had emerged. It must have been the oldest, still working rolling-stock in the North East outside of Beamish Museum and it rattled and rumbled and crawled past and away up the tracks.
The windows were filled with lots of bored looking, glum passengers, staring blankly out of the filth encrusted panes. They looked like they’d been in their all night and probably felt they could have walked to their destination faster, if someone would just let them off. Maybe they need to buy bikes?
Finally, with one last noxious billow of greasy, black smoke, the train clanked past, the barriers hummed upwards and I set about making up for lost time.
The climb out of the valley was fast (relatively speaking and based on my own standards, of course) and I was soon homing in on the meeting point well within schedule.
I passed Captain Black heading in the opposite direction. He too had ridden in through the Tyne Valley, having stayed at his parents in Prudhoe overnight. He was off home to dump his kit and swap bikes, keen to avoid another bout of winterbikitis this time out.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
We were joined by an FNG, but only after she had extricated herself from amongst the serried ranks of the Muckle CC, who were meeting up at the other end of the concourse, before starting their own ride. She’d felt a little lost amongst their regimented seriousness and for some reasonfound our rag-taggle and motley crew slightly more approachable.
She said she was signed up to ride a London-Paris event in the summer and just wanted a few longer rides in preparation, even though she’d already successfully completed London-Brussels the year before.
OGL rolled in and spotted the FNG’s bike.
“Ah, Genesis, I used to work for them,” he pronounced.
This was instantly followed by Taffy Steve’s flawless impersonation of OGL at his most bombastic:
“Ah, Genesis, that’s a book that’s all about ME!“
I thought we might have to call emergency services for the Colossus, who was slumped across his frame, shoulders shaking in paroxysms of silent laughter.
G-Dawg was looking slightly the worse for wear, having slipped and face-planted in a restaurant mid week, then having trouble escaping A&E as they worried he might have suffered concussion. Needless to say he didn’t take my advice and answer all the assessment questions with the same random phrase:
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“How old are you?”
“What’s your name?”
OGL told the tale of a crash by some ex-club member he referred to as the Binman. I don’t know if this related to said person’s job, some kind of predilection he had for bin-dipping, or was perhaps a random name to throw off concussion protocols.
In the tale, the Binman crashed outside St. Mary’s Hospital and an ambulance was called. Trying to assess how compos mentis the victim was, the ambulance crew had asked him where he’d come from?
The Binman, who OGL described as “not the sharpest tool in the box,” had just pointed at the ground where he’d fallen and muttered, “There.”
Taffy Steve watched the Muckle Crew form up and ride out in close formation and, smart and uniform as their team kit was, he wondered why they’d seemingly chosen something from the urban camouflage collection, allowing them blend seamlessly into their surroundings.
Continuing with his theme of jersey critique as he positioned himself for the role of club Gok Wan, Taffy Steve then tuned his attention to inveterate Rapha wearer, Slow Drinker, approaching with a group of Grogs.
“Wow, he’s changed from his trademark all black with hot pink highlights, to all black with burnt orange highlights,” Taffy Steve announced, somewhat surprised at such a wholesale change.
Crazy Legs peered out in confusion, then lifted his yellow tinted specs off his eyes.
“Nope, that’s the usual black and pink,” he affirmed, “but don’t worry, I’ve got my happy, always bright and sunny specs on too.”
Taffy Steve took off his own specs and, I assume, orange turned to pink. “Oh yeah,” he conceded, “Not orange at all. And the weather’s not all that good either…”
Meanwhile, Sneaky Pete related how he’d been listening to the radio on the way in, when someone described the population of the world as being divided between those who see only black when they close their eyes and those who see different shapes and colours. He said he had to resist a compelling urge to close his eyes to determine which he was. (If there was a sudden surge in the rate of MVA’s at around 8:45 on Saturday morning I might be able to pinpoint why.)
I encouraged him to take the opportunity to check now, rather than waiting until we were out on the roads and riding in close formation.
G-Dawg outlined the route (a shorter one, this week he suggested) which would also be our first foray of the year down into the Tyne Valley. I dropped onto the back of the first group and away we went.
Things were going well as I rode along, chatting with Zardoz as we made our way to the top of the Tyne Valley before the long swoop down into Wylam. I then found myself alongside Zip Five, who reached for a bottle and came away empty handed. I wondered if he’d lost it somewhere along the way, bottles having a nasty habit of bouncing out on all the potholes, ruts and divots in these roads, but he decided he must have let it on the kitchen table on his way out.
We started the ascent and I tucked in to pick up speed. Toward the bottom, we found a new, smooth road, which seemed good, until we hit the blunt row of bricks they’d embedded in the surface, like ogre molars.
Perhaps these were meant as a gentle reminder to speeding traffic that it was approaching the village. Alternatively, they could have been designed and installed by someone with a pathological hatred of cyclists. What was a gentle reminder to speeding traffic was a teeth-rattling, palm-stinging, nasty little jolt to speeding cyclists and forcibly ejected my bottle.
OK, so lets amend that, bottles have a nasty habit of bouncing out on all the potholes, ruts, divots and traffic calming measures in these roads. I stopped to retrieve the bottle, re-started the descent and raced to catch up to the pack.
All back together again, we pushed on past Stocksfield, before we started to climb out the valley. I found myself riding along with Ovis as we both tried to recall if we knew the particular exit route. Fairly predictably neither of us could recall it.
We then had our usual, real-life game of Frogger, daring the traffic to cross the A69 and remarkably eliciting only a single, solitary horn toot from drivers who seem to believe we ignore them to run like headless chickens through 4-speeding lanes of traffic. Or, maybe they just don’t like us invading “their space.”
Zardoz was the most daring and made it across first, immediately starting on the long and fairly demanding, Strava 4th Cat climb, up to Newton and beyond. The rest picked our way across the dual carriageway in twos and threes and followed him up.
I caught up with Zardoz as the road kicked up on the approach to the first of the houses.
“It was worth risking my life, just to get a good head start,” he puffed.
On we climbed and then on some more, up past the Plantations and onto more travelled roads, stopping to regroup along the way. As we started towards Matfen, I joined the Garrulous Kid on the front and we pushed the pace up, sweeping through the village and out toward the Quarry.
We were on the course of the Blaydon 2 UP Time Trial now, with various pair of cyclists shooting past in the opposite direction, some looking good, some looking ragged, but everyone giving their all. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the Monkey Butler Boy and his luckless partner, so didn’t get the opportunity to shout abuse at anyone.
At the top of the Quarry we stopped to regroup and have a chat with one of the TT marshals and to appreciate the sound of a couple of solid disc back wheels sweeping through the junction.
Then we started our final run in toward the cafe. I sat on the front with Rab Dee, up and through the crossroads down the other side and up to the junction with the road leading down to the Snake Bends. I pushed through the junction and then swung over, unleashing the sprinters for a brief, glorious skirmish, won (I think) by Caracol.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The Garrulous Kid claimed to have no fear. Not rats, nor spiders, not sharks, nor dogs, not heights or wide open spaces, not even the number 13. Nothing. He’s fearless. I know, because he told us so.
“So, you wouldn’t be afraid of a rabid hyena?” I asked. (I don’t know why I picked a hyena, or why it had to be rabid).
“Nope. I’d just run away”
“What if the rabid hyena was on a Focus Cayo?” Caracol countered.
But no, not even then.
Caracol recalled diving amongst black tipped reef sharks and being understandably careful around them, but the Fearless Garrulous Kid scoffed at this, suggesting black tipped reef sharks were much too small and puny to pose any kind of threat.
We then wondered what was more dangerous, an alligator, or a crocodile, before concluding that being attacked by either was probably not conducive to a long and healthy lifestyle and you were probably wouldn’t be all that concerned with identifying the exact genus of crocodilia if you were unfortunate enough to find one chomping down hungrily on your leg.
Talk of dangerous sea-critters, led to talk of sea-based sports and how our local coastal waters don’t particularly lend themselves to such activities. Benedict recalled scuba-diving in the North Sea, sinking inches below the surface and almost immediately losing sight of his diving companions, even though they were directly in front of him.
Surprisingly though, Tynemouth has a thriving surf scene, though obviously not on par with Florida, where the Garrulous Kid apparently learned to surf. He couldn’t tell me if he was a goofy foot though. Benedict assured me that he was.
Perhaps showing growing signs of triskaidekaphobia, the Garrulous Kid informed us he’d worked out that he “only has firteen weeks and firteen club rides left” before leaving for university in August.
By my reckoning there are still 20 Saturday club run possibilities left before the end of August, but the Kid’s the (alleged) maffs genius here, so I’m happy to go along with his firteen and start cutting notches in my handlebars to countdown the days.
Chatting with Ovis about his semi-retired state, the Garrulous Kid was astounded to learn Ovis was a dentist … “I fort you were a mechanic.” Even worse, he suggested Archie Miedes believed our esteemed colleague Biden Fecht, senior lecturer and widely published expert on Renaissance literature … was a Gypsy.
I wondered what had prompted this? Had Biden Fecht tried to force lucky heather on him, or sold him a peg, or offered him a hedgehog sandwich? But then I ran out of both time and offensive racial stereotypes, so had to let it go.
Maybe it was the shorter ride, or non-participation in the sprint, but I was still feeling good on the way back. When the Colossus and Caracol surged at the end of the Mad Mile, I went with them and then enjoyed a brisk clip home. Even the drag past the golf course and final assault on the Heinous Hill proved almost enjoyable.
No doubt there’ll be a return to normal, pain and grinding to look forward to next week
YTD Totals: 2,191 km / 1,361 miles with 29,607 metres of climbing
The amber tinted lenses of my Agu cycling specs can usually make even the bleakest of days appear bright and sunny, but they must have developed a fault and stopped working on Saturday. The sky was sombre-hued and oppressively dark, piled with heavy clouds, while at ground level, a dull, chilly mist hung low, wet and stifling. Still, I thought happily, dank, damp and dreary as it is, at least it’s not actually raining…
Front and back lights on and blinking away furiously in the murk, I dropped off the hill and began to make my way to the meeting point.
I found both sides of the bridge swarming with cars, trailers, boats and over 100 crews, all congregating for the Rutherford Head of the River Race, which promised a pretty full day of competition out on the water.
The Tyne Rowing Club would later describe this event as being held in “excellent conditions” although they did qualify this with the admission that they just meant it was excellent for rowing – i.e. calm and windless. They did acknowledge that crews, launch drivers, marshals and umpires suffered mightily in the freezing cold rain.
This freezing cold rain featured in our ride too, starting almost the moment we left the meeting point and continuing, without pause, for the entire duration of our ride and beyond. Another bleak and brutal day – to be endured as much as it was enjoyed.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I noticed G-Dawg had relocated his big brass bell to the side of his stem. This, he explained, was not only more discrete, but stopped him sounding like a struck gong whenever he rode through a pothole. Besides, I suggested, he could always ring it with his knee, like the cycling equivalent of a one man band. G-Dawg then fondly reminisced about utterly destroying the down-tube shifter on his old mountain bike, when he kneed it into oblivion during a particularly vigorous, out of the saddle climbing exercise.
We were hoping that Goose would turn up with the new 1,500 lumen front light he’s been boasting about, but it wasn’t to be. Sensibly he’d decided that his already weighty, steel behemoth of a grand touring bike, burdened under multiple pannier racks, was handicap enough, without adding the additional weight of his new portable searchlight and separate battery pack.
He did suggest the new lamp was good for picking out bombers on a moonless night, communicating with fishing boats far offshore, or just turning midnight into midday. I wondered if it would also be useful for lamping rabbits and badgers, a use Goose hadn’t previously considered, but now began to seriously think about.Perhaps it could even have brightened the gloom of this particular morning …
But then again, probably not.
Goose sought out OGL for advice about swapping out the cantilever brakes on his steel behemoth for something more effective. The price of this advice was, of course, the standard, ritual condemnation of his bike, this time with the added spice of an assertion that Goose’s rear wheel was, in highly technical terms, fucked. The rim apparently badly worn and the tyre bulging.
“She’s gonna blow,” I think was the exact phrase used, something I never thought I’d hear outside of Hollywood’s hoariest movie cliche’s. (According to the Short List, it belongs in the top 20 most over-used lines in Hollywood blockbusters, having appeared, with scant variation, in 53 different movies.)
Shockingly, it was Garmin Muppet Time +2, before a seriously tardy Aether called for attention and began to address the gathered riders, “Hello, for those of you who don’t know me, my name is Richard … and this is the route for the day.”
The plan was to include an ascent of the Quarry climb, before a general re-grouping, with longer route options around Capheaton and Hallington.
Crazy Legs outlined the Third Way, a more refined, relaxed and genteel, Flat White Ride, that would once again make use of the excellent cafe facilities at Matfen. I flashed him a quick thumbs up – it seemed like a grand plan.
Although shorn of the actual and original Monkey Butler Boy this week, his Wrecking Crew of Monkey Butler Boy Mini-Me’s all congregated at the start, aiming to set out with us, like a fighter escort for a group of heavy bombers. After brief exposure to their chatter, I’ve decided the most appropriate collective noun for a group of Monkey Butler Boys is a squabble.
Ignoring the squabble, who would we know, abandon us after just a few miles, there were 24 of us and we decided to split into two groups. Numbers looked suspiciously low in the front group as they started to form up, so I bumped down off the pavement and joined up, hoping to even things out a little.
With Jimmy Mac, Kermit, the Cow Ranger and Rainman driving things along on the front, we started fast and just kept going.
The pace was so high that when Caracol dropped back to pull on a waterproof jacket in the face of rapidly intensifying rain, he had a real chase just to catch back on.
Then, once they reached Bingo Fuel, the squabble made off like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. I thought at one point they had managed to abduct the Garrulous Kid in his ruby red jacket. Somehow though he managed to extricate himself from their evil clutches and slowly dropped back and into our group again.
I hung at the back, catching-up with Kermit, before dropping in alongside a relative FNG, Baby Doc, for much of the ride.
With his help I charted the ingress of cold water as it breached my defences, first the waterproof gloves, then the waterproof boots and finally the forearms of my waterproof jacket. I made use of his medical expertise to check out known cures for trench foot, reasoning it could be knowledge I might need before the end of the ride.
We also discussed why certain drivers, particularly those who struggle to wear a cap the right way round, pay good money to make their cars sound broken. We reached no conclusions.
As we hammered through Matfen, I was tempted to peel off into the cafe and await the appearance of Crazy Legs and the rest of the Flat White Crew, but the opportunity went past long before cryogenically sluggish limbs could respond to my frantic brain signals.
Caracol shipped his chain on the climb, so we had a brief pause to regroup, before the pace was pushed up again, as we drove toward the Quarry seemingly anxious just to get the ride over with.
I was in tight and up close to Rainman, as we made the run to the bottom of the Quarry Climb. Too close, as a matter of fact. He jumped out of the saddle and there was that dreaded micro-pause as he suddenly stopped pedalling and his bike seemed to lurch back at me.
With a loud “bzzzzt” my front tyre butted his rear wheel and was flicked to the right. I twitched it back, through a more prolonged “bzzzzt, zzzzt” as I brushed his tyre again, but this time going in the opposite direction. Then he was pulling clear, I steadied the bike, breathed a sigh of relief and, still resolutely upright, on we went.
The top of the Quarry climb was the designated point for everyone to coalesce before splitting into fast and slow, short and long rides. Most of us though had seen quite enough of the foul weather and decided to cut the ride short and head straight for the cafe.
G-Dawg said he would hold back to meet up with the others, while Caracol, Ovis and a few other brave and hardy souls decided to complete the full ride.
I was left alone with lots of big, powerful and fast units. Oh and Kermit. Jimmy Mac, Rainman, the Cow Ranger and Baby Doc began driving the pace up and up as we closed on the cafe.
I hung on with a bit of late braking and tight cornering, even hitting the front on the grind up to Wallridge Crossroads in a show of ill-conceived bravado. I was helped in my task by members of the local hunt, ambling their mounts up and down the road and causing the racing peloton to briefly slow and give the sometimes skittish horses a wide berth.
As the final sprint wound up I was on Kermit’s wheel until he decided he’d had enough, eased and dropped away. By the time I’d rounded him the gap had blown wide open and there was no closing it, so I rolled into the cafe on my own.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Talking about my touch of wheels, the Cow Ranger declared that, “it caused a ripple through the entire peloton.”
“Well, it caused a ripple through my entire colon, too,” I offered.
Riders kept pitching up to drop new, wet articles on top of the pile of discarded hats, gloves, caps and buffs already laid in a steaming pile on top of the stove. Rainman played Mother, deftly flipping gloves and hats like the world’s best short-order cook, ensuring they were evenly toasted on both sides and encouraging their wet dog smell to pervade the entire cafe.
Kermit, with access to the stove blocked by our “Frying Dutchman”™ took to drying his hat on over his teapot, which wore it like a bad, cycling tea cosy – perhaps something Rapha would make and sell for a small ransom.
His cap was soon steaming briskly and I wondered how he was going to explain away a scalded scalp when he arrived at A&E, having clapped it onto his head without letting it cool slightly.
Then, of course, because I was surrounded by a bunch of medical types, they started to regale us with all the odd insertions they’d recovered from their patients body cavities and all the convoluted excuses used to explain them, such as one unfortunate trying to justify to the Cow Ranger how they accidentally ended up with a toilet brush firmly wedged up their rectum – bristle end first.
Jimmy Mac recalled one particularly delicate operation to remove a broken Coke bottle from an anal passage, after which the medical team were challenged by the supervising surgeon to explain why the patient had used a Coke bottle.
After a few minutes of rejecting all their wild and inaccurate medical and anatomical speculation, it was revealed that the correct answer was, “because he couldn’t get 7-Up.” This, I think just goes to show that even the most elevated and refined amongst us aren’t immune to the allure of bad Dad jokes.
Across the next table a fellow cyclist was brought a plate of steaming poached eggs on toast and a suddenly interested Kermit wondered if he’d be allowed to drop his cap over them, to help dry it out a little more.
I then pulled my buff back on and Kermit told me it made me look like Eton-and Oxford educated, Tory Euroseptic (sic) and Bullingdon Club Grand Poobah, the privileged, bigoted, supremely condescending and quite abhorrent, Jacob Rees Mogg. Kermit, you complete and utter bastard. I. Hate. You.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Mac wondered why everyone seemed so keen to set their gloves to smouldering on the wet stove. “I think cold and wet is much more preferable to warm and wet,” he declared.
I wondered if this was a general life choice, or only extended to water-logged articles of cycle clothing. He defended his position by referring to the phenomena of boiling water freezing much quicker than cold water, arguing you’d be chilled quicker in warm wet gloves, than in just wet gloves.
Often referred to as the “Mpemba Effect” – Jimmy Mac explained that the most likely explanation for this was “entropy.” I was in no position to argue and took him at his word. (Trying to read up about it later, I would be defeated by the sentence, “hydrogen bonds are weaker than covalent bonds but stronger than the van der Waals forces that geckos use to climb walls” – so let’s just leave it there and go for entropy as an adequate enough explanation, ok?)
“See,” Jimmy Mac declared, “I think we’ve genuinely raised the level of cycling club talk to a whole new, stratospheric, super-enlightened height.”
A few breaths later and we were back discussing the value of waterproof socks and neoprene overshoes. I looked across at Jimmy Mac and mimed a plane nose-diving into the ground. Well, he’d tried.
At the cafe early, we set off for home early, in the same small group, again ramping the pace up for the first few miles, just to try and warm up. At the Kirkley junction, I swung away for route through Ponteland and past the airport, making a bee-line for home and not even considering my usual short-cut which grants me quieter roads, in return for a bit more climbing.
As I dropped down toward the river, the valley floor was shrouded in low, wet and clinging cloud – ideal conditions for the dozens of crews scattered across the Tyne? Maybe not.
The same, thick, wet fog served to decapitate part of the Heinous Hill, but I sadly knew it was an optical illusion and the road still dragged all the way up to the top. Despite carrying perhaps an extra 4 or 5lbs in excess water in my sodden clothing, I managed the climb reasonably well, spurred on by thoughts of a hot shower, although dreading the pain it would bring as the blood flooded back into my frozen extremities.
Before disappearing to scream like a girl in the shower, I discarded a pile of water-logged outer kit on the tiles in front of the washing machine. It looked as if someone had caught the Wicked Witch of the West in our kitchen, poured a bucket of cold, dirty water over her head and watched her dissolve until there was nothing left but a puddling heap of sad and sodden, dirty clothes on the floor.
So, not the most pleasant of rides, still it had its moments and was suitably entertaining despite everything. Hopefully things will be better when we give it another go, next week.
YTD Totals: 6,936 km / 4,310 miles with 84,684 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 100 km / 62 miles with 1,013 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 13 minutes
Average Speed: 23.6 km/h
Group size: 28 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Bright with brass monkeys
As the country braces itself for the imminent arrival of a disruptive winter weather front from Siberia, colourfully labelled the “Beast from the East” – we were served up another cracker for our club run. Almost identical to last week. It was a blend of bitterly cold, beautifully bright and (most importantly) crisp and bone-dry.
Double base layers, lobster mitts with liners and a buff pulled up to cover as much of my face as possible were deployed early on, as the wind had a distinctively chilly, razor-edge to it and any exposed skin rapidly became numb. Nevertheless, it already looked like being a great day as a coppery new sun lent the sky a putty-coloured, green tinge before brightening to form a burnished vault of clear, limitless blue.
I trailed a nervous learner driver down the Heinous Hill, at a speed so slow that it made even my cautious, controlled, half-an-eye-out-for-ice approach, seem positively reckless in comparison. Luckily, they turned right before the bottom, while I swung away left, finally able to release my rictus hold on the brakes and get my legs working to generate a bit of much needed warmth.
The river itself seemed to act as a heat sink, sucking a couple more degrees from already chilled air. Stopped at the lights, my breath plumed out visibly in the air, like a deranged and louche Soup Dragon on the Clangers moon, toking madly on an e-cigarette. It would definitely be chilly for the rowing crews who were starting to gather on the water for yet another busy day of competition.
Pushing on, for once I was glad to start climbing out of the valley and frigid air that seemed to have pooled in its bottom.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Making decent time, I arrived early enough to watch the Monkey Butler Boy engage in some cosmetic bike tinkering par excellence. First, he reached into a back pocket, extracted a multi-tool kit and carefully assembled a small torque wrench. He then applied this to his seat pin and then, painstakingly eased the seat post up 0.75mm, tightened everything up, disassembled the tool and packed it away.
He eye-balled his work briefly, then took the tool out again, re-assembled it, applied it to his bike and this time, carefully lowered the saddle by 0.5mm, while I looked on with Crazy Legs, both of us totally perplexed. Apparently, those micro-adjustments hit the sweet spot though and give the optimum riding position – although I’m not sure how you could tell without testing.
“Is that thing on?” the Garrulous Kid asked, bending down to grin and gurn madly into the lens of my sports-cam, “How can you tell if it’s on?” he demanded, prodding at the case with an extended digit. I was reminded of nothing so much as the monkey-selfie, with the Garrulous Kid taking the part of a Celebes crested macaque. They have the same hairstyle and the likeness was striking. Somehow, I doubt that if his grinning, gurning selfie ever sees the light of day, that he’ll have a crowd of people who really should know better, causing a ridiculous stink and defending his claim to receive royalties.
Well, the first hints of spring were definitely in the air, the hedgerows were alive with chattering birds, scattered tulips were poking tentative buds out of the frozen soil and, even at the outset of my ride, the sun was up and well established on its low trajectory across the sky.
Even more telling for any budding amateur climatologist, or observant weather watcher, was the first, elusive sightings of carbon, as conditions were finally deemed good enough to lure out a smattering of good, “summer bikes” – even if it was just for one week. G-Dawg, the Colossus and Jimmy Mac among others, had seized on the opportunity, while, a contrarian to the last, Crazy Legs had swapped last week’s spring/autumn Bianchi back to his winter fixie.
Taffy Steve stayed with the thrice-cursed winter bike, I kept faith with the Pug and the Goose persisted on his experiment with the steel behemoth. Everyone seemed happy enough with their individual choices, all except the Garrulous Kid, who pined for carbon, whinged about his winter bike and, after spending all day avoiding the front of the group, blamed his loss in the café sprint on his “heavy” aluminium Trek.
Leading the ride for the day, Crazy Legs did a swift head count and determined we should split into two. The route was revised slightly to take into account better than predicted conditions, a rendezvous point was agreed for a final coalescing before we split and got ready to roll.
There was just time for a quick double-take at the appearance of a Carlton doppelgänger (it was just a cunningly disguised Two Trousers, but for a moment he had both Crazy Legs and me utterly confused and convinced we were suffering double vision.)
Spirits were high, chatter was on full-bore and the only rude interruption to our contentment came from Taffy Steve’s brakes, which squealed like a badly stuck pig. He confessed he’d tried some WD-40 Motorcyle Dry Lube on his chain, anticipating it to be suitably protective and heavy duty, but discovering in truth that it was horribly thick, gunky, all together messy and capable of getting everywhere it shouldn’t.
He’d spent an age cleaning the gunk off his drive chain, frame and wheel rims, but had missed the brake blocks which whenever applied emitted a protesting, high-pitched warbling banshee scream that directly assaulted the eardrums. The Garrulous Kid in particular seemed directly affected by the “horrible” sound – perhaps the rest of us were insulated from its extreme harshness by our innate presbycusis?
We spent a good while trying to come up with a suitable analogy for the noise – an irate R2-D2 when plugging himself into a power outlet instead of the Death Star security-systems? A rabid, indignant and starving dolphin, demanding fish? The antique, unsettling warble of a computer program loading into a ZX Spectrum from audio-tape?
We finally settled on a juvenile seagull being caught up in the spokes of his front wheel. This segued into Taffy Steve describing his son’s invention of a Geordie seagull, lost on the Isle of Man, starving, unable to find the sanctuary of a Greggs and all the while wondering what all the skinny seagulls were doing, out on the water trying to catch fish. Comic genius and a perfect Viz character just waiting for visualisation.
As we were chatting, Slow Drinker cruised down the outside of the group, resplendent in his black and pink Rapha kit, which Taffy Steve suggested made him look like a Liquorice Allsort. We soon had a marketing campaign licked into shape, complete with epic voice-over, all ready to promote “Bertie Bassets Paris-Roubaix Collection™. (Also available in blue).”
Through Dinnington, we carefully wove our way through the most heavily pock-marked, pot-holed, bombed-out surface that the RAF haven’t tested JP233 runway denial munitions on. Or, maybe they have?
We were briefly heartened by assembled construction equipment, temporary traffic lights and road re-surfacing signs, but should have known better. Hopes for a smooth, new riding surface were immediately dashed when we encountered the solitary, lone workman, patching the road armed with just a single bucket of sticky, rapidly cooling tar.
We also seemed to have stumbled onto National Hedge Trimming Day and found ourselves continually picking our way past massive, yellow tractors, laying waste to the local hedgerows. There’s nothing subtle about the process, they don’t so much trim the hedge as thrash it into submission, liberally scattering a trail of pulverised leaves and twigs and thorns across the road. By some minor miracle, no one punctured.
As such, our ride progressed without incident until we reached the Gubeon and hauled ourselves into a lay-by to wait for the second group to put in an appearance. The over/under on the second groups arrival was 5 minutes, but they were well inside this, even though Crazy Legs insisted they’d stopped at a café en route for the now traditional and civilising, mid-ride, flat white.
Those seeking a shorter ride then took a left, while the rest of us swung to the right on a route that would pass through Dyke Neuk, then Hartburn and on to Middleton Bank. At Dyke Neuk we paused again to set a longer-harder-faster group on their way, at which point Sneaky Pete and Sneaky Taffy Steve, sneaked off for a bit of a head start on the final run in.
I was beginning to feel the pace and the legs were already heavy as we approached Middleton Bank and I had dropped right to the back of the group as we began to climb. I managed to catch and pass the Goose, manfully wrestling with the steel behemoth, then Cowin’ Bovril struggling with a lack of road miles, before hauling in and passing Mini Miss and Princess Fiona.
I was closing on Rick the Gigolo as we passed over the top of the climb, with the main group still a further 200 or 300 metres up the road. I set about closing the gap, only to discover that a vicious headwind seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere and I was working hard just to maintain the distance to the front group.
I plugged away resolutely, finally catching Rick the Gigolo, but up ahead the others had started to ride through and off, increased their pace and soon disappeared from sight.
I was now battering away, pulling a small group through a punishing headwind, thankfully with some help from Mini Miss. She led us through Milestone Woods and up the first of the rollers. Here Rick the Gigolo pulled out of line and into the wind, rolled up alongside me, grimaced, swore fluently, grasped his chest and slipped away again. Bloody hell, did he just have a heart attack?
Down the dip and onto the final climb, I passed Mini Miss. She later said she’d tried to respond, but her legs refused in several different languages. Non, No, Nyet, Nein, Nay, Nope.
I then thought I was clear and away on the last drag, until Rick the Gigolo came whirring smoothly past – for the first time I’ve been fooled by someone faking a mild cardiac infarction.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The Garrulous Kid kicked the madness off, leaning across the table and confronting Jimmy Mac.
“You’re German aren’t you?”
“Err … no,” a nonplussed Jimmy Mac replied.
“But you were born in Germany, right?” the Garrulous Kid persisted.
“No. No, I wasn’t.”
“Well, someone was born in Germany.” The Garrulous Kid boldly asserted.
“Quite a few people, I’d imagine,” I reasoned, “There’s that Adolph Hitl …oh, hold on, he was born in Austria.”
G-Dawg came to my rescue with the name of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was definitely born in Germany. This recognisable name seemed to satisfy the Garrulous Kid and we spent a few moments marvelling at Herr Schweinsteiger’s impressively Teutonic moniker.
G-Dawg and the Colossus managed to secure themselves a helping of ham and egg pie, this week without the unnecessary distraction of salad. I congratulated them on ticking off two of the cyclists 5 essential food groups in one meal – pastry and meat. (The others, of course are caffeine, cake and confectionery.)
We reflected on the less than surprising news from the Winter Olympics and the rather inevitable discovery that the Russians, though competing as non-Russian’s, were still doing deeply Russian things and heavily engaged in pharmaceutical skulduggery. It was mentioned that the cross-country skiing biathletes were regularly tested for alcohol, which we felt was a shame – what sport wouldn’t be improved as a spectacle by arming drunkards with guns?
Talk of alcohol, beta-blockers and the like led to discussions about “Big Bill” Webeniuk, the Canadian snooker player who averaged 30 pints of lager a day while competing. Whether it’s true or not, the man became a legend for claims he had a doctor’s prescription to serve as a sort of TUE for his excessive alcohol intake, which was supposedly necessary to control a hereditary nerve condition. Yeah, right. Still better, there were rumours that he even tried to claim tax relief on his “medicinal” lager consumption.
Sneaky Pete expressed huge displeasure with the current state of the scrum in rugby union, which he sees as largely de-fanged, sissified and dull, a travesty of its former glory and in danger of becoming as ridiculous a spectacle as that used by the rugby league lot.
“Why bother,” I agreed, “They should just hold hands.”
“Sing ring-o-rose’s and dance around in a circle,” G-Dawg suggested.
“Cover their eyes and count to 10?” Jimmy Mac, opined, “… No peeking!”
But, the Colossus had the best idea, suggesting they should put their foreheads onto an imaginary pole, quickly spin around it a dozen times until everyone was really, really dizzy, then hoof the ball into the air and see who could catch it and run in the right direction.
From this, the Colossus (quite rightly) concluded, that there wasn’t a sport we couldn’t improve upon and make an even bigger, better spectacle, if we were just given 5 minutes to sort it out.
The manner of Mark Cavendish’s, premature crashing out of the Tour of Abu Dhabi-Doo, within 5 kilometres of starting, astonished G-Dawg. His purely rhetorical question seemed to sum up our thoughts that some kind of organisational idiocy had taken place: “Hmm, I need a car for the commissioner to drive around in extreme close proximity to bunch of tightly packed, speeding cyclists. Ah, here’s one with an automatic braking system, that’ll do. After all, what could possibly go wrong?”
Aside from the nagging headwind, the right home was straightforward and pleasant. The sky remained an unblemished, distant blue, the sun shone brightly, if lacking any warmth and the roads were dry and clear. I even found myself stopping at one point to pull off and pack away the lobster mitts that were simply too effective.
It was perhaps a little too chill to be riding completely without gloves, but I was home before second thoughts and numb fingers changed my mind.
YTD Totals: 1,145 km / 711 miles with 13,007 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 118 km / 73 miles with 1,120 metres of climbing
Ride Time:4 hours 36 minutes
Average Speed:25.6 km/h
Group size:22 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two:Bright and breezy
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I arrived at the meeting point five minutes before 9.00, surprised to find OGL uncharacteristically early and already there, waiting. Apparently, he’d had young pro James Knox (currently of Team Wiggins, but soon to be seen in the colours of Quick Step) visit his shop the day before and had extended an open invitation for the rider to join us on the club run.
Despite turning up ultra-early, keen, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, OGL had seemingly been abandoned, cruelly jilted at the altar and his pro-VIP never showed.
There were however enough riders wearing shorts to at least give him a moments distraction and the opportunity to declare them all crazy for exposing their knees in such weather.
The Garrulous Kid was uncharacteristically quiet, seemingly pre-occupied fiddling surreptitiously with his bike in a corner. Someone finally wondered what he was actually doing and we discovered he was futilely trying to force more air into a soft rear tyre.
The trouble was his every effort and fumble seemed to deflate the tyre just a little more. Finally, Grover took pity on him, looked things over and quickly came to the conclusion he wasn’t suffering from a slightly leaky tyre, but a terminal puncture requiring a tube change. He stopped the Garrulous Kid from any further flogging of this, by now quite dead, horse and set about helping him make repairs.
The Red Max was delighted to recount how the Monkey Butler Boy had been tasked by his coaches to undertake a fitness test and provide some performance numbers. Anticipating a grand show, Max had settled into his favourite comfy chair with a nice cup of tea and ready supply of biscuits to watch the Monkey Butler Boy turning himself inside out on a turbo in order to provide the necessary evaluation data.
Max seemed to particularly enjoy the pain and suffering, while obviously providing moral support and motivation in the form of a running commentary disparaging the Monkey Butler Boy’s efforts, cycling prowess and general manhood.
The Monkey Butler Boy himself was quietly content with his test results, which suggested only 16% body fat, but freakishly fat knees. This manifested as a huge roll of loose skin he could pick up and actually fold over the joint, a bit like a stretchable seat cover or pliable knee warmers.
“Is it like the equivalent of a granny’s bingo wings?” I enquired, somewhat repelled by the thought.
“Much, much worse,” the Red Max revealed.
Crazy Legs was intrigued by the possibility of producing the Geordie version of the Zero-Fat Diet, which he proposed was appropriately titled the “Nee-Fat” Diet, guaranteed to solve the rather disturbing phenomena of the Monkey Butler Boys fat knees.
Meanwhile, I wondered if pulling down on the knee flap would have a similar effect as giving the Monkey Butler Boy a bit of a face and neck-lift. The Red Max suggested the fat could even be rolled all the way down the legs to the ankles, removing any hint of a double chin and giving the Monkey Butler Boy a sharp profile and prominent cheekbones.
The downside however, was all the excess skin would pool around the Monkey Butler Boys ankles, making it look like he was wearing a pair of sloppy, flesh-coloured wellies or, worse a pair of the Garrulous Kids baggy socks.
The Garrulous Kid himself, now had both Grover and OGL working to fix his puncture. In what may have been a miradjee, or in the light of the numerous witnesses, perhaps a mass hallucination, several people attested to seeing OGL resorting to tyre levers to reseat the tyre on the rim.
As ride leader, the Red Max outlined the planned route for the day, having us split into two groups that would then re-form at a pre-determined rendezvous. At this point those masochistic souls who wanted yet another crack at the Ryals could tackle them again, while those, of a more sound-mind, would take a slightly less challenging route to the café.
Responding to the Red Max’s route as it was posted up on Facebook, a shocked Taffy Steve declared, “Not been to the Ryals for two years and now twice in a week. You, sir, are a very naughty boy.” The Red Max however was unrepentant and insisted the Ryals were merely “an option” that only the clinically insane would want to tackle. Like a self-serving Tory MP proposing private schools to expand the options of those who can’t afford them anyway, it was according to the Red Max, all about “providing choices.”
Quarter past and with the first group already on the road and the second group stacking up to go, the Garrulous Kid was still fiddling with his bike. Crazy Legs called it as it was – the longest tyre change in club history.
Meanwhile, the Monkey Butler Boy was enjoying pointing out at all the things the Garrulous Kid had been doing wrong and especially the fact that he was resting the weight of his bike fully on its rear derailleur once he removed the wheel. Then, when the Kid tried to put the wheel back in with his cassette on the opposite side to the chainset, I actually thought the Monkey Butler Boy was going to wet himself laughing.
Accidents narrowly averted, the second group finally meandered slowly out onto the roads, leaving the Garrulous Kid to pick up and pack up his gear, before racing out to catch us up.
For the first part of the ride I dropped in beside Slow Drinker and heard all about his recent experiences completing the epic Rapha Manchester to London Challenge – setting out at dawn to ride a rather lumpy 220 miles down through the Peak District, Midlands and Chilterns. Despite the distance and difficulty, he enjoyed the event so much that he’s planning on repeating it next year. That he managed to raise a ton of money for charity too, was just the icing on the cake.
Having been berated as one of the “you must be mad riders” who’d dared to wear shorts, Crazy Legs enjoyed a delighted, schadenfreude moment when he heard OGL bitterly complaining that his hands were freezing in their track mitts. Crazy Legs waved his full-fingered gloves around and suggested that not only were his fingers toasty, but his bare legs were nice and warm too, before disparaging those “amateurs” who don’t dress appropriately for the conditions.
Crazy Legs and Taffy Steve finished their stint on the front and I moved up along with Slow Drinker to lead us down and away from Dinnington. We split the group on the ascent of Bell’s Hill, but planned to wait at the top to regroup. Here though a handful of cyclists, including a couple of recognisable club members, stood clustered around an upended and obviously ailing machine.
We asked if they needed any help, but were waved away and told everything was fully under control. We believed them and they weren’t part of our original ride, so we pressed on. We later learned our first group, passing through the same spot a minute earlier, had also offered to help and been told all was in hand and there was no need to interrupt their ride.
Other people though, seemingly have an uncontrollable, compelling need to interfere, stick their nose in and prove their mechanical mastery of any situation. So, while the front part of our group rolled past and away from the scene, the second became embroiled in “Chaingate” – stopping to lend what I personally took to be totally unnecessary and unasked for assistance to fix a snapped chain.
Five us, Crazy Legs, Taffy Steve, Slow Drinker, the Garrulous Kid and me, freewheeled on, constantly looking over our shoulders and waiting for everyone else to catch up. At the next junction we concluded it wasn’t going to happen and the rest of the group had obviously stopped at the top of the hill.
Torn between pressing on and waiting, we decided on the latter. Ten to fifteen minutes later, we began to regret our decision and the Garrulous Kid was starting to get tetchy and kept urging us to leave. Still we waited.
To pass the time, Crazy Legs decided to declare a Be Nice to the Garrulous Kid Day. “What are you after?” the Garrulous Kid immediately demanded to know … and as quickly as the idea had been born, it died.
Finally, the rest of the group appeared, we waved them through and latched onto the back.
At the next junction, Pavlovian instinct took hold and we had to fight the urge to file straight across the road and instead take an ultra-rare and hugely uncharacteristic left-turn instead. Being slightly less confused than the others, I found myself back in the lead once again, this time alongside Radman, who blinked once or twice, looked round bewildered and demanded to know, “How did I end up on the front?”
I suggested we needed to fake a puncture or a slight mechanical to slip back again, but we pressed on regardless.
A long descent had us topping out at over 40 km/h, but it wasn’t until we were down that I realised it had been our old adversary and Szell’s bete noire, Middleton Bank in reverse. Characteristically, I didn’t recognise it at all and had no real idea where we were.
Crazy Legs spelled me on the front and I dropped back alongside Taffy Steve, where we tried and failed to decipher the name emblazoned on Radman’s shorts and jersey.
I know my memory is clearly fallible, but from what I can recollect it seemed to read, “Phtktpkoyuo,” or something similar.
I tried several times to try and pronounce the strange word, but gave up, deciding it had too many consonants, all crowded together like Dan Martin’s teeth.
I then wondered if it was an anagram, but couldn’t make anything resembling an English word from the weird amalgam of seemingly random letters. Taffy Steve thought it was perhaps just telling us in a strange phonetic way to eff off …
“Yeah? Well phtktpko yuo, too!”
Meanwhile, somewhere behind me I kept catching very odd snippets of conversation, as Aether and the Garrulous Kid became embroiled in a convoluted and involved conversation about space-time curvature. You hear the oddest things on club rides.
On a straight section of road, we had an insane motorcyclist hurtling toward us, as he swerved into our lane, trying to overtake a car where there was no space to do so. He waved his hands frantically at us, demanding we get out of his way. He received very short-shrift and a few of our own patented and very emphatic hand gestures back in return.
He shot past, much too fast and far too close, before disappearing up the road trailing the bellow of a screaming, over-revved engine behind him. Arse hat.
“Phtktpko yuo!” I would have shouted, if I’d just been quick enough and had ever managed to master that complex, alien phrase.
We reached the assigned rendezvous point to find the first group waiting for us. Despite our travails and delays, the Red Max reported they hadn’t been there too long. He then reiterated our choices: “That a-way for the Ryals … and this a-way to avoid them.”
Red Max, Taffy Steve, G-Dawg, Zardoz, Sneaky Pete and the Colossus all made toward “this a-way” leaving only Crazy Legs, Aether and me to accompany an equal number of scarily eager young-uns “that a-way” for the climb. Oh no, what am I doing?
Even Carlton, the original Dormanator, couldn’t be persuaded to join us to alternatively chaperone and then be humiliated by his own kid. With a huge sense of relief, he gratefully entrusted us with proxy-parenting responsibilities, before he too slipped away with the main group.
So, off we went – Mr. Boom, the Dormanator Mk2, a.k.a. Jake the Snake and the Garrulous Kid, an average age just barely into teen years, alongside three superannuated grouches with an average age well past fifty. Sounds like the perfectly balanced group.
I trailed along at the back, keeping an eye on everyone as Crazy Legs led us up through Hallington and then down to the bottom of the Ryals. There, the Garrulous Kid attacked the climb savagely, flailing away all pointy knees and elbows, like Fabio Aru with Saint Vitus’ dance. Mr. Boom and the Dormanator gave chase, while I eased out of the saddle to climb alongside Crazy Legs as we tackled the steepest, first ramp at a more restrained pace, which was actually pretty much all I could manage.
As we started up the second ramp we had a grandstand view of the battle up ahead, with Jake the Snake topping the climb first, followed by Mr. Boom, with the Garrulous Kid trailing.
“This seems harder than last week,” Crazy Legs suggested. “Perhaps the run-in was harder?” he grasped for plausible excuses.
“Could be,” I managed to gasp, “Don’t think there’ll be any new PR’s this time.” (I had more or less the same conversation with Sneaky Pete later at the café, so have to admit to total surprise when Strava informed me I had actually set new PR’s on 3 of the 4 climb segments.)
We regrouped over the top and pushed on the Quarry, where Crazy Legs drove up the slope at top speed, swinging right as he crested the climb. As we later agreed, after the Ryals, the Quarry Climb just seems like a mere, irritating, little pimple. I chased onto his back wheel, finally managing to claw my way up alongside him, as we accelerated and set a high pace, leading the rest in the run to the café.
With such a small select group and having spent all day pushing into a headwind, we weren’t expecting any kind of sprint as we approached the Snake Bends, but the Garrulous Kid attacked anyway and we just let him go. Apparently he likes to “test himself.”
As the Garrulous Kid flitted across the main road ahead of us and ducked down the parallel lane, Crazy Legs decided, as we were running fairly late, to take the more direct route to the café and stick to the main road. He had Jake the Snake tuck in tight on his rear wheel and I dropped in behind, trying to form a protective pocket around him, as we pushed to the café and a reunion with the Ryal-deniers.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
During a discussion about passports and nationalities, Aether suggested that, given the choice he would rather carry a Scottish passport than a UK one. The Garrulous Kid insisted he was American and had an American passport as he’d been born in Sowf Carolina (or was it Norf Carolina?)
Crazy Legs surmised holding an American passport was actually about the only thing worse than a British one, should you fall into the hands of fundamentalist terrorists.
The Garrulous Kid went to extreme lengths to convince us that there was a world of difference between Sowf Carolina and Norf Carolina and even between those from Carolina and those from Texas. “They’re all different heights and sizes and hair colours” he explained breathlessly – which is quite revelation in Garrulous Kid world, where all Italians are small of stature, have black hair and dark eyes and everyone in France and Germany is a tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed Aryan.
He went then on to tell Mr. Boom that he would have no problems travelling on his Nigerian passport, because he seemed “such a nice bloke.” Crazy Legs thought that was a brilliant test to foil international terrorism, all we have to do is determine if someone is a nice bloke and if they’re not bar them from entering the country. What could possibly go wrong?
The conversation turned to air travel and the increased security Jake the Snake had encountered travelling through Heathrow. The Garrulous Kid then told us how he’d set the alarms off in one airport when his braces registered on the metal detector.
“Did you have to take your braces off?” Crazy Legs enquired.
“And did your pants fall down?” Zardoz deadpanned, easily stealing the quip of the day prize.
Sneaky Pete sneaked up to tell us he was sneaking away early, just before he sneaked away. He then had to explain to Crazy Legs that he’d been missing the past couple of weeks as he’d been away on holiday in Cannes.
Crazy Legs gestured at Sneaky Pete’s rather reddened nose and wondered if he’d caught the sun too much. Pete revealed it was actually a jellyfish sting, inflicted when he swam face first through one of the critters trailing tentacles while posing with a bit of stylish freestyle.
“Oh, I would have pissed on your face if I’d been there.” Crazy Legs affirmed. I can’t think of a more warming and touching declaration of friendship, it almost brought a tear to my eye.
A slightly rushed, second cup of coffee and we began stacking up ready to head home after a longer than normal ride and Chaingate delays.
I spent the first part of the ride back chatting with the Prof, mainly in forensic detail about obscure, Belgian-TV, detective shows. Heading down Berwick Hill, we began closing on another bunch of cyclists and caught them at the foot of the sharp climb into Dinnington. As we closed I suggested to Zardoz that chaos would likely ensue.
I identified the other group as Ee-Em-Cee riders, once a splinter group from our own august club and titularly named after their penchant for leaving on rides long before everyone else is awake.
“They’re not riding very well,” Zardoz suggested.
“Well, they are the Early Morning Crew – it’s now after 1 o’clock,” I reasoned.
“I think it must be way past their bed-times, then,” Zardoz declared.
Naturally, being cyclists, they didn’t respond particularly well to being caught by another group of cyclists – and as G-Dawg moved out to go around them on the climb there was a general quickening of the pace all around.
The two groups were now racing through the village, almost in three lines and directly toward a large, blunt and immoveable double-decker bus, that had stopped to pick up passengers and was blocking the entire lane. OGL screamed there were cars coming the other way and the back of the group slowed.
At the front though, competitive juices were flowing and the two groups went almost sprinting into the narrow gap between bus and the oncoming traffic, as they quickly disappeared around it.
I approached the back of the bus and peered cautiously around its bulk. Luckily the driver of the car travelling in the opposite direction had seen the swarm of approaching cyclists and stopped.
I cautiously pulled out and led the rest around the side of the bus, waving my thanks and trying to convey a measure of contrition to the driver. He waved and gave me a wry smile, seemingly understanding exactly what had been going on and being totally relaxed about it. A rare gem amongst motorists then, a patient, forgiving and considerate driver.
I rode past and gave a quick double-take – he was sitting in a low-slung, rumbling and sleek black Audi. It’s an age of miracles, I tell you.
Luckily the EMC group took the next left turn and a degree of order was restored, although as a leftover we still maintained the same high-speed our sparring with them had injected into the ride. We barrelled past the main turn-off, where most of the group split away and burned through the Mad Mile, before I swung off, eased and started to pick my way home, solo and at a much more sustainable pace.
YTD Totals: 5,775 km / 3,588 miles with 65,619 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 105 km/65 miles with 1,030 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 38 minutes
Average Speed: 22.6 km/h
Group size: 13 riders, no FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Like riding through a slushie
Main topic of conversation at the start:
G-Dawg turned up replete with the bright blue oven gloves again, but having swapped out the carpet-felt muffler for knee-high hiking gaiters. I can’t decide if this is an inspired choice of winter accoutrements or just plain odd. Maybe if the gaiters had Castelli emblazoned across them I would be more accepting?
Crazy Legs wondered if the oven gloves were there so G-Dawg could help out in the kitchen at the café, but even professionally equipped, I didn’t think there was a hope in hell they’d let him anywhere near the bacon and egg pies as they emerged hot from the oven.
Unbelievably the weather mid-week had been so good that G-Dawg had felt the need to unleash his good bike and had temporarily hung up the winter fixie for the Wednesday run out. He managed to enjoy his freewheelin’ fun, despite an unadvisable tendency to try and slow down by simply adding a bit of pressure to the pedals. Where was that good weather now?
Crazy Legs told us a salutary tale of steppin’ out to see Joe Jackson in concert, deciding to miss the support act in favour of a pint or three, and then turning up to find Mr. Jackson already on stage and mid-song, halfway through his set as there had been no support act.
Crazy Legs therefore missed the iconic “Different for Girls” but I assume caught “Steppin’ Out” and “Is She Really Going Out with Him” – and sadly that’s just about where my limited knowledge of the Joe Jackson oeuvre ends, although I always coveted a pair of those cool, Cuban-heeled, side-laced pointy-toed Beatle boots that adorned one of his early albums. Maybe in a more utilitarian black not white though, after all I’m not a total fop.
Anyway, Crazy Legs saw enough of the show to highly recommend it and I’ll be taking heed of his warnings not to arrive late for my hugely anticipated trip to see the mighty Shearwater in some pokey hole on the banks of the Tyne later this month.
Readying ourselves to ride out we held back as we noticed a late arriving cyclist carefully weaving his way through the traffic and street furniture toward us. “Who’s that?” someone asked.
“It’s that Scottish feller” Crazy Legs finally determined
“Yeah,” I agreed, “The one from Ireland.”
Oh hell, I guess they’re all Celts, aren’t they?
Main topic of conversation at the coffee stop:
As we reached the café my lobster mitts finally succumbed to the weather and cold water began to seep through their linings. We decided that the holy grail for cyclists were fully waterproof gloves, which seem to be an impossible dream, although G-Dawg did suggest a pair of Marigolds. Of course we agreed these would need a little Sharpie branding to make them acceptable to cyclists, but someone got there before us …
It amused me when I Googled “cycling Marigolds” and found a great picture by photographer Steve Fleming of one of our youngsters scaling Hardknott Pass during last years Fred Whitton Challenge, all the while sporting yellow gloves that the photographer purports are in fact Marigolds. I’m not wholly convinced they were, but must remember to ask.
Motor-doping was back on the agenda, along with how an engine could be so difficult to detect. I suggested the UCI set off an electro-magnetic pulse halfway up an Alpine climb, just to see who then keeled over as their motors died a sudden and brutal death. My Strava-enamoured companions were somewhat horrified by my blasphemous suggestion that someone might deliberately fritz their beloved Garmin’s.
Talk of advances in bike technology led to reminiscing about the past, when specialist winter clothing wasn’t readily available for cyclists. OGL recalled wearing old-fashioned motorcycle gauntlets with a big flared cuff, which we decided would also be suitable for a bit of on-bike falconry. Never mind motor-doping, if you could tether an Eagle Owl or Andean Condor to your bike think how many more watts you could generate? And how cool would you look in the process.
We then indulged in a wide-ranging conversation that wrapped around cycling books, old-style, rock-hard chamois leather inserts, saddle sores and the Laurent Fignon and Lance Armstrong books. OGL mentioned the traditional method of alleviating the pain of saddle sores was to cut a hole in your saddle, or ride with raw steak down your shorts.
We speculated that when Fignon lost the 1989 Tour to LeMond by an agonising 8 seconds he may have ridden the final and decisive time-trial with steak down his shorts to ease the suffering and unbearable pain from his saddle-sores.
In an “if only” moment, Son of G-Dawg suggested Fignon may have gained a small measure of consolation and revenge if he’d proffered the used steak to his victor as some sort of rare, ultra-exotic, specially prepared, luxury dish, which LeMond would unwittingly have consumed after it had been carefully tenderised by the Frenchman’s thudding backside, basted in saddle sore secretions and liberally marinated in butt sweat –a “filet fignon” if you will. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
In a discussion about under-age drinking, OGL claimed to be in the Percy Arms and playing on their darts team at the exact time Kennedy was shot. Personally I thought it was a bit suspicious that he went to such lengths just to establish an alibi.
We also learned that both Crazy Legs and G-Dawg are strangely discomfited by the sound of cotton wool tearing. I just don’t think I’m empathic and mature enough, or have the proper medical and psychological training to properly respond to such a heartfelt revelation and strange revulsion …
Strava highlighted the ride temperature in blue once I’d finished, so I’m guessing it was officially cold out there by any measure and way beyond one of Carlton’s Cold Hand Days. Despite this I woke to find the curtains sharply silhouetted against an unexpected brightness from outside. Ever the pessimist my first thoughts were that I was either a target for an attempted alien abduction, or winter had returned with a vengeance and the light was bouncing off a deep, pristine layer of snow.
Thankfully I looked out to find the garden free of both extra-terrestrial lifeforms and snow and although the ground was wet there didn’t appear to be any frost or ice. Time to ride.
Even with the initial brightness it still looked cold, so I dressed accordingly, two long sleeved base layers, jersey and jacket, digging out the massive and ridiculous (but warm!) lobster mitts.
By the time I’d breakfasted and made it outside the initial brightness had been smothered by dark and threatening clouds. A quick check of the bike, a topping up of tyre pressures and I was dropping down the hill to the valley and straight into the teeth of a sharp, stinging hailstorm.
With the hail bouncing audibly off my helmet I stopped to pull my waterproof jacket over everything else and once on it never returned to my pocket for rest of the ride.
The shower passed to leave the air still and strangely hushed, seeming to carry and amplify the odd, random sound. There was the occasional whisk-whisk of tyre on mudguard, a ripping noise as I cut through random puddles and the low, ominous hum of power cables strung high over the road.
From somewhere unseen seagulls greeted me with a chorus of raucous shrieking. Did this mean the weather over the coast was particularly bad, or just that there were richer pickings to be had amongst the rubbish inland?
Thumbs and toes turned slowly numb and then, even more slowly, recovered as I warmed to the task and started to clamber out of the valley on the other side of the river. With time for a quick pee stop (cold and ancient bladders aren’t a great combination) I arrived at the meeting place with a handful of others, including OGL, slowly recovering from last week’s illness, but not quite there yet.
There were however a couple of noticeable absentees from the “Usual Suspects” who can be relied on to try riding regardless of the weather. I assume the Red Max had finally given up an unequal fight and decided to recuperate properly from his vicious illness, while the seagulls may have had the right of it and sensibly retreated from the coast where it looked like the weather was bad enough to keep Taffy Steve penned up.
It was a small group, a baker’s dozen if you will, who finally pushed off, clipped in and rode out, for once with no lasses present, although we did encounter both Mini Miss and Shouty at various points along our route.
I dropped to my usual position, hovering near the back where I started to chat to the “Scottish-Irish” feller. He’d begun riding with the club before I joined, but had been forced to stop because of family commitments (damn kids!) and had only just started again.
I was surprised to learn he’d actually been in the North East for over 8 years as we still hadn’t managed to knock the corners off his accent. While he could almost convincingly adopt the full Geordie, indignant-dolphin-squeak (well, far more convincingly than the Profs embarrassing Dick Van Dyke type stylings) –his underlying lyrical Irishness gave it a strangely odd and musical quality.
Being a feisty feller he began telling me a tale about confronting a speeding motorist, who’d ended up calling him a “Speccy, Scottish git.” Oh hell, I guess they are all Celts after all.
The blue flashing lights of a police car warned us of trouble ahead and we were forced to creep around a massive recovery vehicle squatting across two thirds of the road. Beside it sat the attendant police car and a battered and scraped silver pick-up truck that looked like it had been driven at high speed through a concrete pipe that was too narrow for its bulk.
I’ve no idea what actually happened, but couldn’t help feeling a degree of satisfaction that at least there was one less of these vehicles on the road. I know I shouldn’t stereotype all drivers based on their cars, but my only encounter with pick-ups has been when some homicidal, willfully careless, red-necked RIM has driven them directly at us too fast down too narrow lanes, with no intention of slowing and even a hint of accelerating toward us.
Having crested the first serious climb of the day we were halted by a puncture and instead of hanging around in the cold, the still-recovering OGL sensibly took this as an opportunity to strike out early and alone for the café.
While we waited for repairs to be effected the heads of state gathered to decide a new route in OGL’s absence. I had a brief chat with beZ to try and determine why he’d given up on the bright purple saddle that provided such a, err, startling contrast shall we say, to his pink bar tape. Apparently, although it might have looked “da bomb” it was too damn uncomfortable.
I idly speculated if anyone would ever come up with a heat mouldable saddle you could pop in the oven and then straddle when still hot to form it to your own unique contours. Alternatively, I guess you could just stick a sirloin down your shorts…
We pressed on as the weather began to get a little nasty and the roads a whole lot filthier. Son of G-Dawg pointed out the coating of snow and ice lurking in the grass at the road verges, as we discussed whether we should adopt the athletics ruling on false starts and apply this to punctures – we leave you behind on the second one, even if you were in no way involved in the first.
Almost in direct response the call came up that there had indeed been another puncture and we pulled over to wait before finally deciding to split the group. beZ and Aether went back to help out with the repairs and the remaining nine pressed on.
In horrible sleet and frozen rain we scaled the Trench, negotiated the dip and clamber through Hartburn and suffered the drag and grind from Angerton to Bolam Lake. From here speed started to build as the café beckoned, with Captain Black in fine form and continually driving us along from the front.
At the last corner three consecutive fast commutes in a row and the exertions of the day took their toll and I drifted off the back to finir sur la jante and in need of a quick caffeine fix.
Despite being royally beasted in the café sprint, when we hit the climb out of Ogle on the return home, my contrary legs felt suddenly transformed and I floated up it effortlessly.
We were then blasted by a sudden and harsh blizzard of wet stinging snow that lashed down, striking exposed skin like a hundred tiny micro-injections of novocaine which stung and then almost instantly turned flesh numb. With the likelihood of the weather worsening I decided to turn for home early and cut off a few miles by looping over, rather than under the airport.
Now I was able to ride at a good pace as if my legs had settled on a steady and comfortable rhythm. I found myself clipping along at a surprising 17-18mph even as the road started to tilt upwards, my momentum only occasionally interrupted when I slowed to wipe occluded lenses clear of the wet, clinging snow.
I took the long, hated grind up past the golf course in the big ring, and kept the pace high right until the descent down to the river. For some reason this winter has been especially hard on brake blocks and here I found braking that had been fine in the morning when I set out had become decidedly sketchy in the cold and wet.
Having trouble scrubbing off speed quickly, I eased gingerly downhill, pulling hard on the brakes all the way, despite the icy flood that welled from my waterlogged gloves every time I squeezed the levers.
Swinging across the river I pushed along until the next hill beckoned where progress was slightly interrupted. I’m usually quite content with the thumb operated shifters on my old Sora groupset, but the combination of cold, wet and numb fingers coupled with bulky lobster mitts meant I couldn’t drop down onto the inner ring without stopping and using my right hand to forcibly click the lever down.
With this task finally, if not smoothly accomplished, I scrabbled quickly up, away from the river and swung left for the last few miles home.
Considering I was carrying what felt like an extra 6 or 7 kilo in my waterlogged socks, gloves and jacket, the climb up the Heinous Hill was relatively accomplished. As I ground up the last but steepest ramp another punishing hail shower swept in, pinging off my helmet with a sound like frozen peas being poured into an empty pan.
Stung into action by the hail, I watched the white streak of one of our cats shoot across the neighbour’s front lawn at high speed before launching himself headfirst through the cat flap and disappearing with a loud clatter.
Shelter seemed like a sensible idea and I swiftly followed, temporarily abandoning the Peugeot in favour of a hot shower with bike drying and cleaning set for some indeterminable future when the weather improved.
YTD Totals: 861 km /535 miles with 8,519 metres of climbing
Trying to find some clever way of segmenting buying behaviour within the cycling market for a colleague developing a new business concept, I half-jokingly suggested we could measure attitudes to spending on a scale where one end was represented by Rapha and the other end Planet X.
Then the more I thought about it, the more I realised that perhaps my mad idea held more than a grain of truth, and the two brands do in fact occupy completely opposite ends of the price spectrum.
Rapha is a brand that so desperately wants to be seen as niche and elitist that it almost hurts, and I suspect the overblown prices are very much part of its appeal to a certain type of customer. While I don’t doubt its products are high quality, well-designed and built to last, I do have trouble believing they are 7 or 8 times better than the competition, which is what some of the pricing implies.
Planet X on the other hand trumpets no nonsense prices and its website and stores are replete with some astonishing deals. In fact they first came to my attention through one of their clearance sales, when I picked up a pair of my favourite Vittoria Corsa tyres for £9.99 each instead of the rrp of £49.99. Everyone loves a bargain, right?
But it’s not just the product and price positioning that sets Rapha and Planet X apart, they also seem fundamentally different on many other levels.
Take the brand names for a start: Rapha sounds like a somewhat louche, semi-successful, minor British film star. One of those slightly posh, thespian gentlemen with limited acting ability, who carefully manage to just about play themselves for most roles and manage to retain celebrity B-list status only by dint of constant tabloid headlines earned for all the wrong reasons.
On the other hand, where do you begin with Planet X? It’s a corny, half-baked, creaky, black and white Sci-Fi movie that wants to achieve “so bad it’s good” cult status and cool, but is just ultimately cheesy and unremittingly nerdy.
Rapha borrows heavily (some would say steals cynically and unashamedly) from the iconic heritage of vintage, continental cycling, the epic pain and suffering of cycling’s classic races and hardmen racers, all shot in black and white: straining bodies, serious faces and nary a smile to be seen. It’s such an overly-serious, po-faced approach – where’s the fun and the joy that’s so inherent to cycling?
This is a mythological version of cycling as it never was, all suffering and gladiatorial combat – and to me it’s so obviously a parody and fake in its own right that I’m surprised it’s still being parodied by others – and all without even the slightest whiff of irony.
Planet X on the other hand is all gruff, straight talking, down to earth stuff. A spade will always be a spade, never a lovingly hand-crafted, ergonomically designed earth shearing, turning and excavation tool, forged from high impact, low carbon tensile steel with a close-grained, oiled and carefully pollarded English yew shaft that’s been lovingly nurtured to maturity in the ancient and Royal Forest of Dean. Phew! And breathe. Planet X is the Ronseal of the cycling world – doing exactly what it says on the tin.
Rapha colours are unremittingly flat and dull, relying heavily on over liberal and much imitated use of black (as the new white, brown, grey, orange, black etc. – just delete as appropriate). They are minimalist to the point of bland. Their signature; the single, contrasting coloured band on the sleeve, leg or whatever, no longer looks clever to me (was it ever?) – just strangely unimaginative and rather tired looking. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
Planet X designs on the other hand have none of the studied cool of Rapha and tend toward the garish and over-the-top – check out their Carnac team kit and bikes as a prime example.
Once stalwarts of the British pro scene via the RaphaCondor outfit, Rapha have moved up to the big time and are now the kit providers of choice to the elite of the elite pro teams, the one with allegedly the biggest budget in the peloton, and a team that is perhaps as divisive as the Rapha brand itself.
You don’t have to stray too far into the troll infested backwoods of the Internet to find that Sky are unremittingly seen as the bad guys, sucking the soul out of cycling through (shock! horror!) meticulous planning, innovative methods, spending as much budget as they can prise out of sponsors hands, employing the most talented riders, structured training, organisation, attention to detail and riding to their strengths, (all ladled with lashings of dark, innuendo about cheating and drug-taking.)
Rapha themselves have managed to take one of the duller team kits in the pro ranks and somehow make it even more boring and bland, (or understated, cool and minimalist, depending on your own point of view.) Oh, and then they’ve added those shudderingly hideous national flags to the sleeve cuffs for good measure … well, only one sleeve cuff, obviously.
Planet X on the other hand are unheralded sponsors of a host of domestic, young, up-and-coming, teams and individuals, kids, men and women, all flying pretty much under the radar, all in real need of support. They appear to do this with the sole intent of nurturing the grass-roots of the sport, although, if they’re really clever, perhaps they might be able to squeeze some small marketing return out of their investment.
Rapha are the perfect, text book example of how to build a premium, niche brand and as a marketing man I should be much, much more appreciative of their tight control over product and image and how they’ve created a brand with a real and enduring cachet. Their heritage may be at best overstated and at worst manufactured – but it’s obviously working for them and their target market.
There’s a lot to admire about Rapha – they are a relatively young, dynamically growing, internationally recognised and highly successful British brand that is seen as world leading and is much loved and valued by the only people who actually matter – their customers. I’m sure on many levels their devotees (Raphalites in my jargon) enjoy the scorn of their detractors as much as the product and brand image they are actually buying into.
From the outside Planet X sometimes appear a bit disorganised and all over the shop, willing to jump at any opportunity and conveying the wiles and opportunism of a wheeler-dealer market trader, a Del Boy made good? They appear content to be seen as bumbling along with no particular destination in mind and without any kind of blueprint for world domination.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone actually coveting a Planet X product, and if they do the value for money pricing means it’s an itch that’s fairly easily scratched. Many, many people however will be more than happy to buy and use and endorse their products wholeheartedly.
Both companies have owners who profess a love of cycling, but for Simon Mottram of Rapha it’s the pure and unalloyed love of road racing. His avowed aim is to promote the sport he loves, and he wants it to be as big as football. It’s an interesting point of view, but I’m not sure it’s remotely attainable, or more importantly, even the least bit desirable.
I also struggle to forgive him his man-crush on Marco Pantani, who Mottram sees as a tragic icon of style(!) and the epitome of cool, while I just think of him as a fragile, ungainly, rocket-fuelled cheat, deserving as much approbation as a certain gentleman from Texas.
On the other side of the coin, Planet X is owned and run by Dave Loughran. A bit of a mongrel in terms of cycling background, first and foremost a triathlete, and then a mountain biker who has dabbled in dirt bikes, mountain bikes, fixies, or anything else that’ll turn a profit. By all accounts Loughran is an abrasive, hard-nosed, salesman and a bit of a wheeler-dealer who admires Mike Ashley of all people.
This is a man with (judging purely from what I’ve read, you understand) so many traits I don’t admire that I can’t say I have an interest in meeting him and I certainly can’t imagine myself ever working for him. Despite this he’s made a good impression on me (ironically in an excellent article written by Jack Thurston in Rapha’s “corporate” magazine Rouleur) and I’m really interested in seeing what he does next. It was while being interviewed for this article that, almost in an aside about business growth really stuck and resonated with me.
I can remember way back in my university days trying to write a Marketing Communications assignment and weave into it the universal truths of Nietzche’s writings and the startling insight of W B Yeats poetry, wrapped around a lengthy discourse on the largely unreported hijacking, total control and manipulation of the free press by the military during the American invasion of Grenada. (Pretentious. Moi? Look there’s only so much you can write about J.K. Galbraith, Drucker or Kotler without becoming deathly boring to yourself and, surely your tutors too…)
Around this time I unerringly stumbled across a lecture by E.P. Thompson which either coloured my thinking, or simply gave life to already ingrained beliefs. Thompson argued that the establishment controls the frame of reference in which all the political discourse takes place and stifles true debate so that, for example, it becomes a very narrow argument about which political party can best deliver economic growth and never an exploration of whether the blind pursuit of growth is actually necessary, or in the best interests of the country and its populace.
He likened this to a car, “bumming down the motorway with an accelerator pedal, but no steering … we rush on, faster or slower, but can’t take exits, go somewhere else, or even stop and turnaround.”
In 30 years of working for and on behalf of dozens, if not hundreds of businesses, both massive and micro, corporate conglomerates to Mom & Pop family-run affairs, I’ve seen the same single-minded, determined obsession with growth and never yet encountered an organisation that strayed far from the strategy of making as much money and profit as humanly (and occasionally inhumanely) possible.
Every business and many other types of organisation too, seem to have a default setting that says they have to measure themselves purely on financial performance. Year on year they set themselves bigger and bigger growth targets, regardless of whether this is necessary or actually in their best interests, regardless of the mental and physical well-being of the workers and the management and ignoring if this will actually improve what they deliver to their customers.
Now, many, many years later I’ve actually found a successful business man with a different view and judging from the articles, growth for growth’s sake also seems to be a bit of a bugbear for Loughran too.
He’s quoted talking about the plans to sell off his company, “All I’ve had for the last three years is ‘what’s our growth plan’: growth, growth, growth, how are we striving for growth? Growth became a number. We grew phenomenally in the last year and it became a pressure cooker of: ‘How do we build 300 bikes a week, how do we build 350, how do we build 400?’ It was all because my management team was driving for a buy-out and they had to show to all the vulture capitalists a £10, £15, £20, £25 million success story”.
And then he capped it all with this piece of what sounded like very heartfelt, hard-won wisdom. “We can build 300 bikes a week now and everyone can have a great life and the mechanics don’t have any pressure and we can have good availability. If we strove for 500 bikes a week we wouldn’t have the supply chain, everybody would hate each other, it wouldn’t be a nice company.” (My emphasis).
He then went on to talk about setting up an employee share ownership system that will eventually mean the company is co-owned by staff and an independent trust set up to safeguard the workforce. Sounds great – I’ll be watching.
And there you have it, a very rambling discourse on why I’m more interested in what Mr. Loughran does next, rather than Mr. Mottram’s next step toward world-domination. It’s also one reason why I’m more X-traterrestrial than a Raphalite – you see it isn’t just because I’m as tight as a wallaby’s sphincter.