Saturday found me up and out early for, barring catastrophic bike failure, an early rendezvous with Crazy Legs to hand over his new long-sleeved jersey. This item was rolled into a tight cylinder and stuck into a jersey pocket, taking up so much room that I couldn’t fit a light rain jacket in there too, so decided just to wear it for the ride across to the meeting point. As soon as started to pick up momentum, running down the Heinous Hill, I was glad I had the jacket on, it was much, much colder than it had first appeared and I shivered my way to the bottom.
I made it to the rendezvous with time to spare and perched my backside on the wall, soaking in some early morning sun that, in the microclimate of the Regent Centre Bus Station (sorry) Transport Interchange, at least managed to take the edge off the chill.
Being there early for ulterior motives, both Crazy Legs and I had the pleasure of once again meeting up with our lost brethren of the new splinter cell, the Judean People’s Front, as I think they want to be known. Only half a dozen strong this week and conspicuously sans the Prof.
Crazy Legs referenced a previous splinter cell, the Early Morning Crew, or Ee-Em-Cee and suggested the new rebels could do a lot worse than calling themselves EMC2. I laughed, but they weren’t buying. Oh well, at least it gave me an agreeable Big Audio Dynamite earworm for the rest of the ride.
We then had a bit of an issue explaining to an old new guy, or maybe he was a new old guy? Perhaps a bit of both, exactly what was going on. He apparently used to ride with the club many, many years ago, but had since moved to Scotland. Now back to visit relatives, he’d thought to once again share our ride for old times sake. I’m sure none of these shenanigans came as a particular surprise to him as I’m pretty certain our club politics haven’t evolved at all in the years he’s been absent.
It wasn’t long before we had a group of 20 plus stacked up, including Szell, uncharacteristically breaking his winter hibernation and no doubt supremely disappointed to learn that his his bête noire, Middleton Bank, wasn’t on our route as we’d ridden it last week.
With bikes and bodies stacking up, Crazy Legs chivvied together the semblance of a medium-paced group and we got out of Dodge while the gotting was good.
I joined Crazy Legs, along with Aether, persistent new guy, James III, Taffy Steve, the old new guy and another new guy. There were 7 of us, but who’s counting. A bit further along and while paused at traffic lights, yet another rider tagged onto our group and rounded our number up to eight. Well, if we were going to break the rule of six, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
The interloper would prove good company and we spent a while talking about and admiring his smart, steel-framed (and eye-wateringly expensive) Jaegher Interceptor, apparently Tom Boonen’s bike of choice these days.
Things were going smoothly until one of either Aether or Crazy Legs had a brain fart. One of them went right at a roundabout, the other ploughed straight on and they came together like the bouncing balls of a Newton’s Cradle, or Clackers, if you can remember that far back, bumping together and rebounding violently away again. Luckily both managed to remained upright until they regained control and we pressed on somewhat chastened.
Slight amendments to the route due to road works had us travelling through Ponteland and then up Limestone Lane. Another of our groups caught and passed us just before the junction, where they swung right, while we kept to the planned route and turned left.
We passed them again, just past Stamfordham, heading in completely the wrong direction, and then once again travelling back from the Ryals as we followed the correct route toward them.
“Are they lost, do you think?” Crazy Legs pondered.
“Probably looking at the route map upside down,” Aether chuckled.
We zipped down the Ryals then clambered back through Hallington, where the wet roads suggested we missed a heavy rain shower and provided all the vindication Crazy Legs needed to affirm his decision not to ride the much cossetted Ribble was justified.
We then took the run along the fell side toward Capheaton, with one last, sharp climb to set us us up for the long, fast and slightly downhill run to the café at Belsay. As we swung onto this road we passed Homeboy, out for a ride with a colleague and briefly paused at the side of the road. Crazy Legs directed what was intended as a comradely pat on the back toward Homeboy, but increasing momentum and inaccuracy turned it into a full force rabbit punch to the kidney’s. Ouch, that had to smart.
Rattling along beside Crazy Legs in Taffy Steve’s wake, with the speed slowly building, he nodded his head forward at the muscular exertions going on in front of him.
“He’s going to go for it,” he predicted.
“Definitely,” I agreed, “Now all the pesky hills are out of the way.”
Sure enough it wasn’t long before Taffy Steve jumped away, Crazy Legs responding immediately, the pair quickly opening up a sizable gap.
I tried towing the rest across, but it was hard going and into a headwind and momentum died before the catch was made. Luckily the Interloper swished past, I dropped onto his wheel and we finally bridged over. Past the West Belsay junction and Taffy Steve jumped again, I hauled myself around Crazy Legs and jumped out of the saddle, slowly winding him in, until he faded and I scooted past, only for the old new guy sprang out from where he’d been sheltering on my wheel and nab the glory.
Queuing in a socially distanced sort of way outside the café, we got talking to the 4-Mile FNG and learned he was a both a Texan and in the UK teaching psychology (not that the two are in anyway mutually exclusive.)
Taffy Steve recalled having an office next to the Psychology department on one university campus and how this was when he realised Estate Manager’s could have a sense of humour, when they stuck a big sign up saying, “This Building is Alarmed.”
We talked race positioning and saving energy when the FNG returned, citing Zardoz for our master-class group, Zardoz, while the 4-Mile FNG lauded various Dutch women for perfect positioning in sprint finishes. He didn’t know there names but he was sure there were several van-something-or-other’s in their number.
“Of course,” OGL interjected, “the best sprinters of all time were Dutch…” Barely pausing before adding, “Hertz van Rental and Avis van Hire.”
Once again G-Dawg had pressed Mrs. G-Dawg into providing taxi service to the café so he didn’t feel too left out of proceedings. He reported that he has new wheels, but I don’t think his NHS cast iron wheelchair is quite up for a club run. Nevertheless, it has allowed him some opportunity to take his two Labradors for their required walks. I had visions of them pulling him along at speed, like Ben Hur in his chariot, but he said the reality was that if he wanted to head north, then one would always run off due east, while the other headed directly west. Sounds like they’re as difficult to control as a bunch of cyclists.
It was cold in the café garden and even colder back out on the road again and halfway to Ogle we were caught in a sudden, sharp shower, just prolonged enough to soak everything and leave us even more chilled. With Crazy Legs complaining about his frozen face, we moved onto the the front on the climb of Berwick Hill and pushed the pace to try and warm up.
We were still there and it was almost working by the time we’d clawed our way past the airport and had thankfully stopped raining by the time I’d pushed on through the Mad Mile and gone solo.
Conditions improved and it was a relatively pleasant ride back, climbing up the Heinous Hill with just a little more energy than usual and finding I’d clocked up over 110km.
While emptying out my pockets I noticed I had a missed call from Patrick at Brassworks Bicycle Co. They’d managed to extricate enough of the carbon fibre seatpost on the Holdsworth to get a new one safely installed and now just needed a saddle so they could check and cut the replacement seatpost to size. Bugger. Oh well, no time like the present, so I grabbed the saddle, stuffed it in my back pocket and headed out again. I remounted the bike and dropped back down the Heinous Hill to the workshop at Pedalling Squares, not really looking forward to the prospect of climbing it twice in one day.
By pure chance, the replacement seatpost proved to be exactly the right height, so no cutting was needed and so I now have two serviceable good weather bikes and a shed that is getting uncomfortably crowded. Something will have to go.
Given (to my mind) the onerous task of devising a route for this week’s ride, at the coffee stop last week Crazy Legs had felt impelled to resurrect our Classic Club Café sprint for next Saturday, over the rollers and up the long drag to Belsay. He even suggested stopping at the café there for old time’s sake. I happened to mention, for some misguided reason, that I was feeling nostalgic for Middleton Bank, a climb I hadn’t suffered on for at least a year and, hey presto, he had the bones of a route. A quick double-check to ensure the café at Belsay would actually be open for business and Crazy Legs went away to fill in the rest of the ride and post it up for people to accept or ignore, depending on their inclination.
With the Holdsworth still undergoing remedial surgery and not wanting to waste another good day riding the heavy winter bike, I had a week to find and secure a replacement mount. Surprisingly, this proved considerably easier than I imagined, when Gumtree directed me to a nearly new, barely ridden velocipede in the care of a 77-year old cyclist whose knees had given out and prevented him from riding.
So, for a few hundred quid, I’m now the owner of what is (solely in my estimation, of course) Halford’s most aesthetically pleasing creation, an Intuition 13 Alpha, from a very brief time when the UK’s biggest and possibly most maligned motorist discount store was dabbling in (semi-)performance bikes. I do seem to have an penchant for picking up a manufacturers fin de cycle products (if you’ll excuse the pun.) The Intuition range is no longer manufactured, while the Holdsworth Stelvio was one of the last frames produced by that venerable company before they caved and were acquired by Planet-X. Even my winter bike, the Peugeot CR23 was part of a 2 bike range they pulled together for the briefest of ill-founded forays back into the UK market, via an exclusive deal with Evans that only seemed to have lasted 12 months.
Where the Holdsworth is the epitome of gaudy overstatement, a violent clash of glossy black, red and yellow, with the brand name unforgivably and inexplicably plastered a dozen times across its frame, the chalk-white 13 is at the opposite extreme, a model of simplistic minimalism, the most striking feature being an odd, inversed 13 “dossard” stuck on the back of the seat post. It adds nothing and I’m not sure I like it, but has survived. For now.
The bike was in mint condition, having been ridden only twice in anger and pretty much ready to roll. I switched out the stock 23mm Vittoria Zafiro’s for my favoured 25mm Rubino’s and will eventually get round to replacing the SPD’s for my usual Look Keo pedals and, maybe the wheels (although the current set seem light, roll well and are carefully colour coordinated). Still, minor details aside, there was nothing to prevent its debut and participation in the club run on Saturday.
The same can’t be said for G-Dawg, who, just a few days after this blerg noted how many middle-aged blokes seem to suffer serious injuries playing five-a-side, went out to play five-a-side and broke his leg. Apparently, according to his social media posts, that means he’ll now have to play in goal for his team next week and, possibly worse, he’ll be off the bike for an extended period of time. Yikes!
On Saturday morning, last minute tinkering with this, that and t’other, had me leaving the house half an hour behind schedule, so I had no choice but to engage in a bit of dual-carriageway surfing, cross the river at the nearest bridge and push hard all the way to the meeting point, arriving completely winded, already tired, but almost on time, with Jimmy Mac already leading out the first group of fast-men and racing snakes (the two are not mutually exclusive.)
I paused only long enough to catch OGL offering up a free, used torque wrench to anyone who had a need.
“Is this the same torque wrench you were trying to sell me for a tenner last week?” Goose enquired ruefully. Apparently it was, but that’s as much of the conversation as I caught as I formed up with Aether, who was leading out the second group and away we went. When I finally had time to look back and determine who I was riding with, alongside Aether, I found myself in the company of Spoons and 3 FNG’s.
Up past the Cheese Farm and out through Tranwell, I noticed the rape seed is starting to flower and it’s pervasive and slightly sickly aroma already hung heavy over the lanes.
We dropped down toward the River Wansbeck, by-passing the entrance to the Mur de Mitford to take the gentler climb westward out of the valley. Then it was through Dyke Neuk to the dip and rise through Hartburn.
We knew somewhere along this route we were supposed to take a secret turn onto a road that had been on our routes a few times, but no one I’ve been with has ever found. Aether had prepared for this test in advance, tracing our proposed route on Google maps, before switching to the satellite view to try and spot an obvious landmark that could guide us.
“I managed to spot a big, round thing,” he told me.
“I thought so too, so I zoomed in for a closer look.”
“It was a tree…”
“Oh. Right-o. So we’re looking for a tree then? Well, that certainly narrows things down.”
Still, somehow Aether managed to pick the right tree out of the hundreds of thousands that lined our route and we traversed the secret road before pushing on to Scot’s Gap. A left turn onto the still incredibly crappy road surface and we were heading straight for Middleton Bank. Off the back, heavy-legged and struggling upwards, I seriously started to question my own sanity and what it was about the climb that had inexplicably created a sense of longing to relive the experience.
Still, once over the climb, I managed to coax a little more speed out of the legs and we coalesced as a single group again and hauled ass for the café. Here at least there were patches and strips of new road surface, making a welcome change and encouraging a little more speed. I attacked over the rollers – you know, just because – and found Aether jumping at the same time. Hmm, maybe I’m becoming predictable. Then we re-grouped on the descent and started the long drag up to the café, more or less in formation and at a relatively sedate pace. On the front alongside one of the FNG’s I nudged my wheel slightly ahead of his and so, by default, won a sprint he didn’t even know we were contesting. Well, they all count in my book.
We found the Colossus already seated at the café.
“How’s your dad taking his injury?” I enquired, “Already stir crazy and unbearable?”
Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes.
“Even more to the point,” Aether wanted to know, “How’s your mum coping?”
The Colossus just shook his head in quiet resignation. Hmm, not good.
Talking about dangerous sports, one of the FNG’s told us the most violent sport he’d ever witnessed had been a game of football for the blind, played on an enclosed pitch with the players often running full tilt into each other and any inanimate objects, as they chased pell-mell after a ball with a bell inside.
“You should see the mayhem if a pet cat gets loose on the pitch, too!” Another FNG added.
Before leaving I had a chat with Crazy Legs. He’d had a superb great morning riding with OGL and ribbing him mightily every time his expensive Di2 system shipped his chain, which was apparently far too often. We arranged to meet early next week before the ride so I could finally deliver him his new jersey. This might stop his constant carping, but I seriously doubt it.
Then it was time to go and as our group left the table it seemed to signal a mass exodus and we all gathered in the car park as a small, white car pulled up. The passenger side door swung fully open and out came a shiny, metal crutch. Then another. And then a foot in a plaster cast and finally, G-Dawg slowly and awkwardly emerged. He can’t ride, but Mrs G-Dawg had agreed to drive him to the café in an attempt to stop his constant sulking.
Saluting G-Dawg had us all bunched together leading the café, so I injected a bit of pace on Berwick Hill to break us up. The fast group took the opportunity to zip past near the top and gave me a target to chase and I was able to go full pelt with absolutely no danger of ever closing the gap to them.
Yet another FNG (where are the all coming from) spelled me on the from Dinnington to just past the airport, then I was into the Mad Mile and swinging away for the solo trek home.
The new bike served perfectly, I’m sure the ride wouldn’t have been as enjoyable on the Peugeot, but the chalk-white finish may be a little difficult to maintain, so assuming the Holdsworth is restored to full functionality, the 13 might get the cossetted, Ribble-esque treatment and get to avoid the rain like a hydrophobic cat.
Internet oddity of the week came from reading about a medical scare in late Victorian Britain that saw doctors warning women about the deleterious effect vigorous cycling would have on their health. Apparently, “over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance” was thought to cause bicycle face “hard, clenched jaws and bulging eyes” accompanied by “a flushed complexion, with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes”.
Most agreed that bicycle face could strike anyone, but women were disproportionately affected. Some implied the effects could be permanent, while others maintained that, given enough time away from a bicycle, it would hopefully subside.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
I decided it was time to bite the bullet and rejoin civilisation, or at least that small portion of civilisation that is (very) loosely embodied in a local cycling club. The hardest part was getting out the door by a set time to get me to the meeting point on schedule. After weeks of a laissez faire, I’ll leave when I’m ready attitude, this was a bit of a shock to the system. Must do better.
Still, I managed somehow and rolled up to the meeting point to find G-Dawg talking to a complete stranger in full Aberdeen University kit, who turned out to be none other than the Garrulous Kid … but all growed-up.
Even more surprising, that elusive, seldom-spotted, Sasquatch-like, Strava-stalker, the BFG was there too and I haven’t seen him out and about on two wheels for over a year. Strange times.
G-Dawg was proudly wearing perhaps one of the gaudiest kits ever inflicted on the pro-peloton, a classic Mapei jersey with it’s jumble of primary coloured cubes, once aptly described by Simon Smythe in Cycling Weekly as “a design that looked like someone had detonated a car bomb beneath a Rubik’s cube.”
He even had Mapei socks and cap, but, “No matching shorts?” I queried.
“I thought they were a little over the top,” he deadpanned.
The BFG decided we all had the air of survivors from a nuclear war, emerging from the solitude of our bunkers to blink, blearily uncertain into the dim light of the future and wonder what remained of the world we’d once known. I don’t think he was too far off the mark.
By the time we had tamped down the blather and were ready to move, we had assembled a small congregation of 15 riders. G-Dawg had posted up a route he invited everyone to follow, the end point of which was an 11.30 re-gathering at the cafe at Kirkley. He then led the first small, select group of 6 out and away.
We gave them a bit of time and space, then, along with Goose, the Ticker and Fourth Down, we formed a rather unlikely quartet and pushed out to follow. None of us had paid much attention to the proposed route and we deviated almost from the off, being the only group to head out along Broadway, but we all seemed happy to accept our personal deviations from the norm.
We were travelling at a fair clip as we pushed through Ponteland, along Limestone Lane to Stamfordham and then out to the reservoir. From there we climbed up through the plantations to get to the Matfen road, then on to the Quarry and through to Belsay.
At this point we were about 2 hours into the ride and had the choice of stopping at Belsay, or pressing on and meeting everyone at Kirkley. No contest really, even if Goose has severe reservations about the Kirkley scones and their current currant content (or lack thereof.)
Just about everyone else had made it to the cafe in good order, along with those who’d ventured out solo, or in smaller groups from a different start point and it was good to catch up. Even better, Goose found an acceptable alternative to the disappointing scones.
I found a seat next to prognosticator-in-chief the Garrulous Kid, who was predicting the end of all things Chris Froome, in particular any further Grand Tour wins. This was expounded with almost as much conviction and fervour as his frequent proclamations that Germany were a nailed-on certainty to win the last World Cup. (We all know how that turned out, so feel free to put a fiver on Mr. Froome for this years Tour.)
We then learned too much about the wild, debauched drinking parties at university, one of which apparently featured a manly imbibing of … err, Prosecco? It was unclear whether these parties were so extreme, wild and debauched that participants even refused to raise their pinkie finger from the glass while downing their Spumante.
There was just time to catch up on the whereabouts of Taffy Steve via Sneaky Pete (still incapacitated with a severe rotator cuff injury) and the Monkey Butler Boy via the Red Max (apparently developing a severe case of bicycle face while not riding bicycles, per se). Then, with Jimmy Mac’s passionate defence of wearing orange socks still burning my ears, we started to slowly disperse.
Crazy Legs and Sneaky Pete were adding on a slightly longer loop home, up Saltwick Hill and I tagged along, realising as soon as I hit the climb that my legs were well and truly shot.
I dropped back using the ungodly racket of the much cossetted Ribble’s creaking bottom bracket and its assault on my ears as an excuse. Crazy Legs wasn’t kidding when he mentioned his bike was still complaining vigorously, despite all his mechanical ministrations.
Jimmy Mac and G-Dawg blew past us just before we entered the Mad Mile, depositing the Garrulous Kid and a gasping Cowin’ Bovril on our back wheels as they flew by.
Cowin’ Bovril suggested he’d been out for a pleasant, solo ride when they caught him and for some mad reason he determined to hang onto the back of the group for the run home. I think we represented a much more sensible and civilised option for the last few miles.
Minutes later and I was flying solo, picking my way through to the river and home. Luckily there were no wandering Victorian chirurgeon’s around as I began to climb up the Heinous Hill, so I managed to avoid being condemned and confined with what I can only assume by then was my own, very bad case of grimacing bicycle face.
Saturday promised to be a most splendid day for piloting a bike around a suitably sunny and bucolic Northumberland and, with the SLJ household all out and about, I had the entire day free and absolutely no impetus to return at a set time.
Given the good weather and the near certainty that the cafe at Kirkley would be open, Crazy Legs suggested it was a good opportunity for a belated-club rendezvous and catch up, which he pencilled in for 10.30 onward, all riders welcome.
Small groups agreed to form up at the regular place and at the regular time to ride out together, with the intention of arriving at Kirkley for the 10.30 meet, while I changed my intended route to put me within what I hoped would be striking distance of the cafe for about the right time.
I was a bit delayed by dithering, but finally got out the house at about half eight, crossing the river at Newburn and climbing out the other side of the valley toward Throckley.
Here I passed a bloke on the other side of the road out walking the family pets, or perhaps, pet in the singular? It was either three individual, but perfectly matched, large, black pedigree dogs, walking in perfect lockstep, bodies pressed so tightly together they merged into one long, expanse of glossy sable fur and muscle, three identical pink tongues all lolling out the right hand side of three identical jaws – or I’d just passed Cerberus, the three-headed, canine gate-keeper of Hades!
Well, Throckley is quite a strange place, so I didn’t immediately discount this as some sort of mythological encounter.
From there, I unsuccessfully tried to find a route through the labyrinthine streets of Heddon-on-the-Wall and out the other side. Apparently I was attempting the impossible and had to back-track to pick up the road again, to travel around, rather than through the village.
Finally free, I pushed on to Horsley, before dropping back down into the valley at Ovingham, noting it was now the turn of dozens of bright yellow buttercups along the river bank to mark the flow of days on my (strictly amateur) flower almanac.
I was briefly joined in appreciation of this floral display by a small, black-tailed ferret, that wandered out into the road, belatedly noticed me and, as most wildlife seems capable of doing, instantly disappeared without trace. That’s the kind of trick that makes you immediately doubt it was ever there.
I followed the river almost as far as Corbridge, taking the Aydon road to vault me safely up and over the A69 and from there pushed my way on to Matfen.
As I approached the village it was ten past ten and the signs told me I was 10 miles from Ponteland. This was going to be a hell of a time-trial if I wanted to get to Kirkley, a few mile beyond Ponteland, by half past.
I got down into the drops and picked up the pace, swerving around the massive, bloody cadaver of a badger, splayed over the road as if one of Ridley Scott’s aliens had burst out of its chest cavity. I was pleased to be travelling fast enough not to see some of the more gruesome details and be well down the road and past the rotting stink before it really registered.
Like several of the roads around here, the route from Matfen through to Stamfordham has a brand new surface. This would normally be the cause for rejoicing, but the new surface feels rough, grippy and heavy. The combination of the bright sunlight and my sunglasses also seemed to give it a rather disconcerting, blue-metallic sheen, as if coated in a thin layer of oil.
Through Stamfordham, then Dalton and back to more normal roads, I hit the long, straight, relatively smooth and slightly downhill passage of Limestone Lane and picked up the pace, watching my speed creep up … 25.6 mph … 27.4 mph … 29.8 mph … no matter how hard I pushed I couldn’t break the 30 mph barrier …
… And I needn’t have bothered.
At the end of Limestone Lane I ran abruptly into some temporary traffic lights that held me for what seemed like five or six minutes. I could just have pootled along and got there at the exact same time and a lot fresher too.
Finally released by the lights I pushed as hard as I could through Ponteland and out toward Kirkley, but I was tiring rapidly now and it had become hard work.
Still, I made decent time and was soon turning off and threading my way toward richly deserved coffee and cake.
And what a great delight to see so many familiar faces, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg, Jimmy Mac and Plumose Pappus, Aether, Ahlambra and Richard of Flanders were already there and others would trickle in, solo or in small groups – Buster, the Big Yin, our Double Dutch tag-team, Sneaky Pete, Caracol, Red Max, and Mrs. Red Max.
Benedict, the Ticker, Mini Miss, Princess Fiona, Spoons and Front-Wheel Neil made it too, but were late arrivals, having had a few issues after the pedal on Front-Wheel Neil’s new bike unwound and came off still attached to his cleats.
Crazy Legs was in full lament mode with bike issues of his own, complaining something along the lies of “j’aime mon Ribble, mais mon Ribble ne m’aime pas” after discovering an annoying squeak on the much-cossetted Ribble. Stripping it to the bone, he’d carefully cleaned and lubed everything before re-assembling to find the annoying squeak yet persisted.
Halfway through his re-build he’d also found he had to buy a 14mm Allen key to remove the bottom bracket, something we decided was really atypical on bike builds, the type of tool that perhaps only plumbers would have a common use for.
“Nah,” Aether informed us, “Merckx commonly use them.”
“Huh?” G-Dawg, looked confused, if King Ted’s bikes used them, that seemed like a mighty endorsement. “What do they use them for?”
“Mostly on the engine blocks.”
G-Dawg looked even more confused.
“No, no, the cars, Mercs. Mercedes-Benz!”
Crazy Legs was confounded that any Merc owner would ever deign to get there hands grubby doing DIY on their cars, besides, weren’t they meant to self-heal?
I took time out to compliment Plumose Papuss on his lockdown hairstyle, which rather fittingly made him look like a dandelion clock. G-Dawg, who does his own hair (probably with an angle grinder, in much the same way that Desperate Dan shaves with a blowtorch) offered to render assistance, but was very politley rebuffed. Can’t think why, although he did mention a recent episode when the guard slipped and he carved a huge bald tranche across the top of his scalp by mistake, which he said made him look like Tintin.
Sitting in the sun, we enjoyed the usual blather and general congeniality, before people started drifting away.
Not ready for home yet, I took in a loop north, Shilvington, Whalton and Belsay, before heading back. At a pee-stop at the bottom of Berwick Hill I spotted a tiny bird with gold bars on its wings that I think was a Common Firecrest (although they’re obviously not all that common, as I can’t remember ever seeing one before.)
By the time I was climbing the Heinous Hill, I’d topped 70 miles and was satisfyingly weary. Good weather, a good ride and it was great to catch up with everyone. Perhaps there is a faint glimmer at the end of the tunnel after all.
The weather forecast said rain and the traditional milestone of the hill climb has now been passed, all of which suggested it was time to break out the winter bike until the glorious rebirth of carbon next Spring.
In preparation for this day, the Peugeot had undergone a full service, new headset, bottom bracket, chain ring, chain, cassette, cables and tyres. Phew. It seemed good to go. I pulled it out of the shed and went back in to fetch a water bottle. As I stepped back outside, the rear tyre gave out a wet, flatulent guff and the back of the bike sank slowly and gracefully to the ground. Was it something I said?
Not a great start, but at least it happened outside my front door and not halfway down the hill. I worked to replace the tube in the comfort and warmth of the dining room, finally leaving, but now almost twenty minutes behind schedule.
Needing to shorten my route, I once more took to the muddy trails and bike paths that can, if you navigate them right, take you right up to the foot of the nearest bridge, without ever having to tangle with the busy dual-carriageways that make up the more standard approach.
Notice, I mentioned if you navigate them right. I think I’ve tried this on maybe three or four occasions and every time I’ve ended up in a slightly different place. Today was no different and somehow the trail spat me out on the fringes of that monument to Mammon, the Metrocentre shopping centre. I didn’t have the time or the will to backtrack, so took to the dual-carriageway at this point for the short hop to the bridge.
Luckily, it was still early and the roads were relatively car free. I made it across the river and picked up the pace to arrive at the meeting point more or less at the usual time.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting place:
Expecting a smaller than usual turnout, with a contingent off for some mountain-biking in the Kielder forest, I was surprised when Crazy Legs turned up, expecting him to be one of the key protagonists for some fat-tyre fun.
“I’ve torn something in my groin,” he explained.
“A guh-guh-guh-roin injury?”
His pronouncement had immediately caused flashbacks to the Cheers episode, where Sam as TV-sports pundit tried his hand at rapping … “Time to rap about a controversy…Gonna take a stand, won’t show no mer-cy… Lotta folks says jocks shouldn’t be…doing the sports news on TV…I don’t wanna hear the latest scores…from a bunch broadcast school boys…So get your scores from a guy like me…who knows what it’s like to have a guh-roin injury….Guh-guh-guh-roin, guh-guh-guh-roin injury.”
“Hmm, was this caused by some exotic, over-energetic, sexual misadventures?” I mused.
Apparently not, Crazy Legs explained it was actually the result of an incredible lightness of well-being – plagued by a (very) long-standing chest infection, he had just finished a course of antibiotics that left his lungs and airways uncharacteristically free of any breathing impediment. Buoyed by this startling feeling, Crazy Legs had decided to give the last half a mile of a ride home “the full welly” at maximum warp. The lungs had held up well, but the rest of his body decided to rebel instead.
Now he had no choice but to take things easy. “I won’t just be the slow group,” he confirmed, “I’ll be the ultra-slow group.”
“OK, the Ultra’s it is then,” I acknowledged, which cheered him up no end as the Ultra’s sounded much, much cooler than the Ultra Slow Group.
As an alternative to the main ride and the Ultra’s ride, Sneaky Pete had hatched a sneaky plan to hold a meeting of the Flat White Club targeted on the Gubeon cafe. This, Crazy Legs affirmed, would also be a good destination for the Ultra’s too.
Wincing and hobbling across to perch gingerly on the wall, the Crazy Legs wince deepened into a concerned scowl when the Cow Ranger rolled up on a Ribble he’d decided to convert to a winter bike. Identical to the much cossetted Ribble, this particular model had (in the eyes of Crazy Legs) been sacrilegiously yoked to full mudguards and heavy winter tyres, with the intent on riding it even when the weather wasn’t completely perfect.
Worse was to come, as the Cow Ranger determined he’d got a slow puncture in the front tyre. He took the wheel out, then bodily lifted the bike overhead and hauled it over the wall and out of the way.
“I thought you were just going to dump it in the bin there,” OGL quipped.
Everyone laughed. Well, everyone except for Crazy Legs, who just scowled with a face like thunder and told anyone who’d listen that he wasn’t happy …
Plumose Pappus reported that he’s already miserably failed in an attempt to be amongst the worlds most qualified unemployed, having just secured a job with the local NHS Trust. He’d even been out the night before to celebrate, discovering an unexpected love of karaoke and apparently finding his pièce de résistance in a full-throated rendition of The Proclaimers “500 miles“.
Once the Cow Ranger’s new winter bike was restored to working order, we were ready to go. I just had the chance to wonder how he could possibly cope with a bike that didn’t keep dropping its chain, when we were off, heading toward the lights and waiting for them to release us out onto the roads.
As we rotated in and out of the line, I had a chat with Sneaky Pete about Venetian detectives, French cop-shows and the possible casting of Tom Hanks as a grumpy Swedish man called Ove.
I then found myself alongside the Hammer, only riding with us for a while, as he’d promised to take his 13-year old daughter on the People’s March in Newcastle, where she was looking forward to heckling Brexiteers. I was just advising him not to treat her to a milkshake, when his chain started clunking and clanking.
“I’m going to stop to sort this out,” he told me, “just keep going.”
He slipped to the side and drifted back and, as instructed, we just kept going. Well, we did, until someone shouted “mechanical!” a sort of over-dramatic, premature ejaculation, if you will.
The pace instantly dissipated as the front pair eased uncertainly and we began to bunch up and fill out the lane on a dangerous stretch of road near the airport. This led to more unintelligible shouting and bellowing, with OGL and Taffy Steve becoming involved in an unseemly spat.
We found a safe place to pull over for a bit more kvetching and bitching and a shouty-sweary, handbags-at-ten-paces, sort of clamour, even as the Hammer sailed serenely past, brief mechanical almost instantly sorted.
Oh well …
Dropping down from Dinnington, the Cow Ranger determined things just weren’t right with his bike and decided to abort his ride. No doubt this secretly pleased Crazy Legs, who was probably convinced the Ribble had rebelled at the utter indignity of being treated as a winter bike and simply decided to stop working in protest.
Past the Cheese Farm, up Bells Hill and into Tranwell Woods we went, at which point, Aether had inserted one of his patented “there and back again” Twizzel Twists into our route. Biden Fecht flung out his arm to indicate we were turning left and almost smacked his riding companion in the face.
Dear me, we were a fractious lot today.
We rolled round the corner, found a lay-by and called a pee stop. Carlton enquired after Crazy Legs’ injury and wondered how he’d hurt himself. I assured him it wasn’t a result of any “carnal gymnastics” – a phrase he seemed to take such delight in, I invited him to use it as often as liked and suggested he should even consider building it into his c.v.
Under way again, the young FNG, Sid, pushed onto the front and was left dangling there, with all the grizzled vets queued up in the shelter of his rear wheel.
I eventually took pity on him and pushed up alongside him on the front, until the climb up to Dyke Neuk, where I let myself slide to the back. Once there we hung around, chatting about nothing in particular, while re-buffing Aether’s earnest attempts to get us moving again.
He finally prevailed and off went, the indefatigable Sid still on the front, but this time alongside Biden Fecht. I found myself riding with Plumose Pappus, ardently keen to convert me to his new-found love of all things karaoke. He even replayed last night’s highlight, his resolute rendition of The Proclaimers “500 Miles” complete with authentic accent, well … it would have been authentic, if The Proclaimers happened to be Irish and hailed from Dublin.
From there, the conversation took an unexpected turn to cover popular artists who all became a bit too self-importantly pompous and wont to disappear up their own rissoles. My prime example was Bono, who once booked his hat a $1,700 first-class seat on a trans-Atlantic flight. I assume Bono accompanied said hat on its trip, but who knows …
Plumose Pappus wondered if Sting belonged in this particular group, before wondering where Sting was now.
“Is he even still alive?” Plumose Pappus pondered.
“Ah, sort of death, where art thou Sting?” I queried, drawing a blank from Plumose Pappus, but a wry chuckle from Biden Fecht. To be fair, I think that was a cheap laugh, as even the most tenuous allusion to John Donne is likely to meet with the approval of our Professor of Renaissance Literature and Culture, Biden Fecht.
I followed up by explaining the last time I’d heard of Sting he was, somewhat preposterously singing about TWOC’ing cars in a Paris suburb, in duet with slinky French siren, Mylene Farmer.
Plumose Pappus then revealed that his mother had actually had some kind of close physical encounter with Sting, back in the day, which (I felt) I was able to top with my experience of peeing in the same urinal as AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson.
This inevitably led to some excited follow-up questions – (Oh OK, perhaps, it was more a feeling of dear-lord-what-is-he-on about-we’d-better-indulge-him, rather than actually excited.)
“The same urinal? At the same time?”
Well, it was technically a trough, so yes …
“Did you talk to him?”
I’m a bloke, standing peeing in a public toilet. What do you think?
“Was he wearing his cap?”
Obviously … but I don’t know if it had its own seat.
“Where was this?”
Lobley Hill Social Club.
“What was Brian Johnson, multi-millionaire, lead singer of mega rock band AC/DC doing in Lobley Hill Social Club?”
That I didn’t know – perhaps he was there for the Bingo?
I found myself at the back of the group as we closed on Middleton Bank. I managed to pass a few stragglers as we went up, but my legs suddenly felt weak and empty.
“I’m too old for this,” I gasped as I drew alongside Aether. He didn’t disagree. How rude.
Over the top, I gave chase to the front group, even though I already suspected I was never going to close the gap.
I did catch the young, indefatigable Sid on the approach to the Rollers, however, as he finally showed he was actually fatigable and we pushed on to the cafe together.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop
Aether learned that Mr. Boom was actually called Danny and sparked a table-wide rendition of Danny Boy.
“Oh Danny boy, the pipes the pipes are calling, From glen to glen and down the mountain side …”
For some bizarre reason, this prompted Biden Fecht to try remembering a song about a mouse that nobody else recognised. Did he mean Em-I-See-Kay-Ee-Why-Em-Oh-You-Ess-Ee?
I saw a mouse?
No – but this did prompt him into song, although I had to pull him up when what he started warbling was prime Barrington Levy …
A wa do dem? A wa do dem dem dem? A wa do dem? A wa do dem dem dem? And me nuh know, and me nuh kno-o-ow Me nuh know, and me nuh kno-o-ow
Honestly, you’d think a professor of renaissance literature would have a better understanding of the distinction between singjay and ragga reggae…
I had a further chat with Plumose Pappus on the way home. Now gainfully employed, he was looking forward to getting married, starting a family, crippling himself with a massive, unaffordable mortgage and the first signs of male pattern baldness, all before the end of the year.
I began to wonder if he wasn’t more mayfly than thistledown.
We contrasted his seemingly heavily-strictured, pre-ordained and homogenised life path, with that of our ex-companion and his near contemporary, Yoshi, who, in his latest adventure had travelled to Shanghai to pick up a new Giant bike, that he was now riding home, documenting his journey in a video-diary.
Undoubtedly an adventurous, profoundly life-changing and exciting experience though this is – and one Plumose Pappus suspected his mother might heartily encourage him to take on – we agreed that neither of us were cut out for such extreme stuff, while wondering what Yoshi could possible find to do next that wouldn’t seem impossibly dull and restricting.
As we entered the Mad Mile the rain started and once I’d struck out on my own, I stopped to pull on a rain jacket, suspecting that as soon as I did so the rain would stop.
Naturally it did, but it was only a temporary pause and as I was crossing the river, it came back with a vengeance.
Unusually, climbing Heinous Hill, I found myself in the company of another cyclist closing in on home. We had a brief chat as we toiled breathlessly upward, though, to be fair it wasn’t really the time, or the place to be sociable.
Still, it’s good to know I’m not the only bike in the village. Or something.
YTD Totals: 6,478 km / 4,025 miles with 85,188 metres of climbing
No surprises certainly, as yet again we are treated to an unseasonably chill, generally dull and cloudy day, with an increasing threat of rain showers the longer we stay out.
Still, there was no delay, drama or diversion on the first leg of my journey and I found myself rolling into the meeting point in good time and in good order.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I found G-Dawg alone once more, without the Colossus, who seems to have fallen out of love with his road bike following one too many altercations with psychotic drivers. Or, as G-Dawg phlegmatically determined, “He’s gone and done a Kittel.” Now the Colossus was heading out for peaceful, quiet and, most importantly, car-free trails on his mountainbike instead.
Not only was one part of our well-established dynamic duo missing, but one part of our latest dynamic duo was missing too, with Distaff Double Dutch away in Canada, so Double Dutch Dude was out on his own.
Speaking of dynamic duo’s, Crazy Legs had dared to venture out on his much-cossetted Ribble, defying both tradition and the auguries that suggested that, sooner or later, we were bound to encounter some rain today. This was a real sign of increasing desperation and frustration, with Crazy Legs acknowledging he’d never made it into May before without having at least one opportunity to ride his best bike.
Sneaky Pete had been listening to an interview with poet, Simon Armitage, (I can’t say I’m familiar with any of his work, but any who would describe Tom McRae as “one of our greatest living songwriters” can’t be all that bad). Apparently, part of the remuneration Armitage will receive for being the new poet laureate is a “butt of Canary wine” which, as an aside, apparently translates to 720 bottles of sherry.
Sneaky Pete wondered what would be adequate remuneration for our in-house, club blergger in general, Sur La Jante.
“A beaker of battery acid?” I suggested. It seemed appropriate.
Benedict briefed in the route which included the Mur de Mitford and then a slightly less-travelled route to the Trench, avoiding Pigdon. Numbers were bolstered by an unexpected group of Ee-Em-Cee riders; ex-club members, or those who had second-claim membership status with us, so we split into two, and away we went.
I started the day on the front with the Garrulous Kid, chatting about the sad loss to the peloton of Marcel Kittel (and, far more importantly, the sad loss to the peloton of Marcel Kittel’s hair) the Giro and the various sprinters who were likely to dominate the next week or so. The race is so loaded with mountains in the third week, I can’t help thinking not many of these gentlemen will make it all the way to the finish in Verona.
We held the front for the first 15km or so, passing apparent, occasional club member, The Silence (he blanked us) as we rode the Cheese Farm and up Bell’s Hill, before peeling away and inviting the next pair through. I dropped back through the group and was still there sometime later, as we scrambled up the Mur de Mitford. I was then in pole position to watch as a very animated Goose, deeply engaged in conversation, led us straight past the turn we were supposed to take to loop around Pigdon. (Not that I would have realised, if G-Dawg hadn’t pointed it out.)
Oh well, we weren’t going to be using that particular wrinkle to our route today.
Someone called a rest break and we pulled into the junction that led up to Curlicue Hill. Once again the Garrulous Kid was disappointed with the toilet facilities, even when Caracol invited him to step into the field of head-high, painfully yellow, almost buzzing, rapeseed. I encouraged him to adopt a Theresa May persona and go skipping through the fields with gay abandon. He wasn’t interested.
Off we went again, working our way to the bottom of the Trench which we seemed to ascend effortlessly, en masse and as one compact group. We took the dip and swoop through Hartburn and then the turn to Angerton, avoiding Middleton Bank.
Around Bolam Lake the pace picked up, increasing all the way until we hit Milestone Woods, where there seemed to be a slight lull and a bit of hesitation – relatively speaking of course, we were still thundering along at over 25 mph. I was on the outside, surfing a few wheels back from the front, there was space to pass and we were approaching the foot of the rollers. It looked like an open door … how could I possibly resist kicking at it?
I accelerated down the outside and off the front as the first slope bit. I’ve no idea if I had a gap, provoked a response, or caused anyone to be shelled out the back, I just kept going, over the second and third bump without looking back. Unfortunately, there was no tractor waiting to pace me this week, as I tipped down the other side and pushed on.
As the road started to climb again, a tight knot of riders burned past, followed by a long tail in one’s and two’s, as I slipped form first to last place, trying to recover. As the road kicked around the bend and onto the final drag, I managed to accelerate and then it was just a case of seeing how many back-markers I could catch and pass before I ran out of road.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Somewhat surprisingly, it was just about warm enough to tempt us to sit out in the garden. We just had to get there. This proved a breeze for G-Dawg and me, but we were followed out by the Garrulous Kid, who seemed to be really struggling to walk and balance a tray at the same time.Luckily, he didn’t have any gum to chew.
He emerged from the doorway and took his first, tiny, tentative baby step toward us, tray in a white-knuckled, double-handed death grip as he tried, largely unsuccessfully, not to spill coffee over everything. G-Dawg looked down at his plate, speared a chunk of his ham and egg pie on his fork and started chewing thoughtfully. He looked up again …
The Garrulous kid was creeping toward us with all the speed of an approaching Ice Age.
“Have you actually moved?” G-Dawg asked, before returning for another bite of pie.
“Actually, is he not going backwards?” he asked when once again he checked on the Garrulous Kid’s progress.
Finally, after a tortuous, extended period of tottering, stiff-legged steps, that made him resemble a stilt-walker who’d crapped their pants, the Garrulous Kid made it to the table and plonked down a tray awash with coffee.
In direct contrast and moments later Goose swept through the cafe door, tray balanced expertly on the splayed fingertips of one extended hand as he sashayed nimbly around a group of departing cyclists, stepped around a pile of abandoned bikes and strode quickly and purposefully to the table. There, he spun the tray fully through 180 degrees and deposited it, with a flourish on the table.
I commended him on his very stylish, professional busboy technique.
“Yeah, but I spilled coffee everywhere…”
Despite having promised to set the world to rights, deride the current running of the club and speak out as a representative for all the poor, oppressed yoofs, the Garrulous Kid had remained meekly silent and quiescent during a recent club meeting.
We determined that he was either an “all mouth and trousers,” blustering, braggart, or an agent provocateur, working directly for OGL and tasked with sowing discord, while encouraging dissidents to implicate themselves.
“Hold up,” Caracol challenged, “Are you wearing a wire?”
This, we decided was probably why the Garrulous Kid was so particular in finding a pee place where he couldn’t be overlooked and his duplicitous double-dealing discovered. And here I was thinking it was just because of some hideous deformity he was trying to hide.
We learned that the morning’s influx of Ee-Em-Cee riders was prompted by large portions of their club being away on holiday/training camp in Majorca, leaving only a smattering of riders behind. These had been either too few, or otherwise disinclined to form their own club run, so we had been a welcome refuge.
Goose was interested in how far and how fast their typical club runs were (it goes without saying that they were obviously much longer, faster and much, much harder than ours). One of them gave Goose typical distances and average speeds in miles per hour.
“These, what is it … Imperial measurements you call them?” he continued, “We always refer to them as retard units.“
He then started to ask a number of very awkward questions – how many ounces are there in a pound? How many pounds in a stone? How many inches in a foot? Feet in a yard? Yards in a mile? How many pints in a quart? How many quarts in a gallon?*
(Unfortunately, he didn’t ask how many bottles of sherry there were in a butt, I knew that one.)
We knew some, we guessed others, we argued over a few more. It was enough to prove his point. Imperial measurements are now wholly devoid of ryhme, reason, or logic, they are arcane, unguessable and unusable.
[* 16, 14, 12, 3, 1760, 2, 4 and 72, respectively. I think]
“Every child in Holland knows there’s 100 centimetres in a metre and 1,000 grams in a kilogram,” The implication was clear: Imperial = retarded. QED.
The Monkey Butler Boy distracted us, talking about a hand-built set of carbon wheels made by the Walker Brothers.
“The Walker Brothers?” I queried, immediately thinking to myself that the sun ain’t gonna shine anymore and regretting that Crazy Legs was absent, otherwise we might have had a little sing-along.
“Yeah, the Walker Brothers,” the Monkey Butler Boy replied, completely oblivious to what I was hinting at, or why I found the name so amusing.
“He doesn’t get the reference,” G-Dawg let me down gently. Oh well, I don’t know why I was surprised, after all this was the same Monkey Butler Boy who excused his ignorance of Oscar Wilde (“never heard of the feller”) by reminding me he was “only young, so wasn’t around in the 1980’s.”
There was some gentle ribbing of the Monkey Butler Boy for wearing Velotoze time-trial socks on a club run. Apparently, they can save him up to 3 seconds on a 10-mile time trial, but take him 15 minutes of sweating and straining effort to pull on.
Life’s too short.
Then, there was just time for the Garrulous Kid to badly fail the most basic, Bike Knowledge 101, (being unable to identify where his jockey wheels were located) and we were packing up to go.
I was chatting with Goose as we approached the bottom of Berwick Hill, when the Monkey Butler Boy surged off the front. I immediately dropped onto his wheel and was sitting there trying to look calm and composed when he looked around to see how big a gap he’d opened up. He swung away and I took over the pace-making on the front, dragging everyone up and over the crest.
The rain had obviously swept through here moments before and the road ahead was soaking wet and still sheeted in water. In seconds my socks were soaked and had gone from pristine white, to grimy grey.
“Ha! bet you wish you had Velotoze on now,” the Monkey Butler Boy crowed.
“Still,” he continued, “It could be a lot worse, at least we’re on the front.”
He was right, we were safely out of the spray being kicked up by everyone’s wheels, we just had to stay there. We did, by keeping the pace high enough to discourage anyone else from coming through, as we drove to the bottom of the hill, up through Dinnington, past the airport and finally down into the Mad Mile.
It could also have been worse if we’d been in the second group on the road, who said they took a real battering from rain and hail as they passed through Ogle. This was a rain storm we were happy to have missed. I’ve yet to find out if Crazy Legs’ much cossetted Ribble will ever forgive him for this ultimate of betrayals.
At the end of the Mad Mile, I swung off and away for home, with the sun occasionally breaking through and the roads starting to dry out. My clothes followed suit, so I was bone dry by the time I hauled ass up the Heinous Hill, though my socks remained a grainy, grungy, grimy grey and may have to be abandoned. Do you think I need Velotoze?
YTD Totals: 3,075 km / 1,911 miles with 40,367 metres of climbing
Another Saturday, another cloudy, overcast and chilly day. At least it’s not raining, I keep telling myself and anyone who’ll listen, but after one weekend of record setting high temperatures, we’ve now had several extremely cold ones, culminating in record setting lows. So, once again I’m bundled up against the chill and diving down the hill en route to the meeting point.
At least it’s not raining … although I am periodically blasted by billowing cherry blossom, stripped off the trees by the wind and hurled at me like a storm of confetti unleashed by the worlds most over-enthusiastic wedding guest.
Timing is bad again and once more I get stopped at the level crossing, but this time the train is heading up the valley and quickly rumbles past and away.
Over the river and back-tracking, I’m periodically passed by vintage motorbikes and scooters burbling away in the opposite direction. I assume they’re holding some sort of rally, but can’t find anything online to suggest who, what, where or when. A secret vintage biker meet?
Then I’m at the meeting point in good order and in good time. Here we go again …
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
G-Dawg is visibly shaken by the condition of the Garrulous Kid’s chain, black and glistening with evil intent, a thick, grungy coating of sticky black oil and accumulated gunk.
“It’s a black chain,” the Garrulous Kid insists, unconvincingly. No one’s buying.
It’s probably not going to cleaned until his bike needs a major service (considering it’s just had one, that’s probably some time in the future) or, he accidentally wipes it off on his calf for an epic chainring tattoo.
A couple of FNG’s or, to be more precise, an FNG couple, roll up to join us. Double Dutch! They are adventurers from the Hollow Lands, perhaps drawn here by our sunny weather, gentle rolling hills and the general feeling of compassion and empathy for cyclists exhibited by the average British motorist. Welkom goede Nederlandse mensen.
The club is looking at ways to ease the passage of young riders from our thriving Go-Ride section into the senior ranks – as Big Dunc stated, if we can just bring half a dozen teens into the fold, we’ll be able to reduce the average age on club runs from 49 to, oh at least 48½.
To be able to do this though, British Cycling insist we have fully trained Ride Leaders (there’s a BC course for that) and said ride leaders have to have First Aid certification (and there’s no BC course for that).
“Don’t you have First Aid training already?” OGL enquires of Big Dunc,
“Technically, only in the event of oil rig evacuation, or an oil fire.”
“Well, that could prove useful,” G-Dawg muttered, once again looking askance at the Garrulous Kid’s oil clogged chain.
I complained to Big Dunc about the weather.
Ever phlegmatic, he shrugged, “At least we’re not in Yorkshire.”
He was, of course referring to the horrendous weather at the Tour de of Yorkshire, where extreme cold, high winds, hail and freezing rain have been battering the riders to such an extent that some of the women’s teams admitted to attacking just to stay warm.
We’re all watching, hoping for a glimpse of “old” boy and ex-clubmate beZ, riding for Ribble Pro Cycling and being paid to rub shoulders with the likes of Chris Froome and Greg van Anorak Avermaet. We can’t in any way claim to have been instrumental in guiding beZ from junior, to club-rider, to hardened pro-racer, but at least we didn’t irreparably break him along the way. Perhaps there’s hope for our Go-Ride youngsters after all?
Aether outlined the route for the day, including his signature Twizzel Twist, an odd phallic-shaped diversion, 5km down to the village and then 5km straight back out again on a parallel road. Captain Black speculated that Aether had been attempting some clever Strava art with his route planning, but had almost immediately lost interest when it proved too difficult.
A rendezvous point was agreed at Dyke Neuk and away we went.
I joined the first group, chatting with Andeven and Captain Black, before dropping in alongside a relative FNG who seemed keen to get more involved with the club. I learned I was in the company of another Dutch refugee, which if the pair from this morning stick around would mean that, along with Rainman, we would have four in the club. I’m not completely certain, but I’m sure that violates several UCI protocols.
We took the Twizzel Twist, dropping down at high speed with several of the group pushing away off the front. The FNG gave chase and nearly over-cooked it on a tight bend, braking furiously, unclipping and dabbing a foot down. G-Dawg swore he saw a trail of sparks where cleat kissed tarmac, then the FNG swung wide, off the road and through the grass verge, before correcting and powering on. Hey! Our very own Dutch Corner … and it almost gave me a Dutch Coronary.
Up toward the Gubeon, we called a halt for a pee, but the conditions were neither amenable, or luxurious enough for the Garrulous Kid, who crossed the road, squeezed through a fence and tried to pick his way into the woods for some privacy and a chance to commune with nature in splendid isolation.
We tracked his progress through the swaying of foliage, snapping of branches, a series of random grunts and the occasional startled exclamation.
“I’ve stepped on a fawn!” he announced at one point, but I very much doubt there were any deer within a thousand yards of his decidedly unstealthy bushcraft.
Captain Black wondered if the Garrulous Kid was recording his off-road adventures via his smartwatch.
“He’ll have a small Strava segment,” he declared, “And it will be small in this weather.” Ba-boom!
Finally, all fell silent amongst the trees.
“Ok, let’s go,” G-Dawg announced immediately.
“I’m here!” the Garrulous Kid announced, popping up suddenly beside the fence. Damn, that was quick. Missed opportunity.
Dropping down from Meldon, I swung wide and just let the bike run, new wheels picking up momentum quickly as I shot past everyone and onto the front. We swung left and started the climb up to Dyke Neuk and, as quickly as I’d hit the front, I drifted back, as everyone raced to be first to the top. We were stopping to regroup there anyway, so I was in no great hurry and followed at a more relaxed pace.
The Garrulous Kid had lots of queries about saddles with grooves and odd shaped protrusions. G-Dawg encouraged him to get a saddle with strategically placed cut-outs, suggesting he could then dangle his testicles through them and, whenever he was going too fast on the front, someone could grab one and give a little squeeze. Alternatively, if he was going too slow someone could “reach across and give him a little tickle” of encouragement.
Ahem. Yes, well … Hmm … maybe we’re not quite ready to include Go-Ride youngsters in our club runs just yet.
Luckily the second group arrived before the conversation had a chance to take an even more disturbing direction. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted an extended ride up the hated drag to Rothley crossroads and we all stuck to the original plan, but split into two groups.
I dropped back into the second group alongside G-Dawg and Captain Black and we set out for a run at the cafe via Middleton Bank. As we took the turn for the climb, we found ourselves being followed by a massive tractor hauling a large slurry tank. We were in full cry now though, speeding downhill toward the foot of the climb, so there was no way the tractor could get past here, or on the narrow ascent, so it would have to crawl up the hill behind us.
Zip Five took a flyer off the front, but I waited until the steepest part of the climb before slipping out from behind G-Dawg and giving chase, pulling Captain Black along with me as we passed everyone. We pushed over the top with a decent gap and then slowed to regroup.
As the road straightened to run past Bolam Lake, the tractor finally rumbled past, but to be honest it wasn’t travelling that much faster than we were, so we never lost sight of it.
On the front with Captain Black, we started to wind up the pace and were soon humming as we swept through Milestone Woods to the foot of the rollers, where … as foolish tradition dictates … I attacked. There wasn’t the usual out of the saddle flailing, I just stomped on the pedals a bit harder and managed to open a decent gap.
By the time we hit the second ramp, I’m usually a spent force weak legged, gasping and flapping like a fish out of water, but today the legs seemed pretty good, so I kept going.
I caught the tractor, just before the final bump and dropped in behind it as we started the descent to the final drag up to the cafe. It proved perfect for a sustained bout of illegal drafting and I tucked in tight behind the bouncing slurry tank, hoping the driver wouldn’t brake suddenly, or the tank start leaking its noxious contents over the road.
With the tractor travelling at a good clip, I was confident my mechanical assistance was going to make me hard to catch – and so it proved. I eased over the last section of road and let the tractor pull away, before swooping through the final junction, just behind the back-markers from the first group.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Space was at a premium in the cafe, where a shrieking coterie of middle-aged women had commandeered the big round table in the centre of the floor and were pressed in great number all around it. It looked like perhaps the most civilised (second? third?) hen party, ever. But maybe not.
A few of us squeezed onto a table alongside an octogenarian couple trying to enjoy a peaceful lunch. Sorry, citizens, we had no choice.
I caught up with Taffy Steve, who’d been riding with the Distaff Double Dutch and been teaching her new words to ease her assimilation into the clubs culture.
Having already covered off “knacker” and “minging” he was wondering what else she might need. I suggested “worky ticket” but (rather oddly) Taffy Steve didn’t think she’d have much need for such a pejorative term amongst our serried, serene and cultured ranks. “Paggered” the always erudite Biden Fecht suggested, a word I think he’s taken a bit of a shine to. So paggered it was.
Halfway through our stay, the octogenarian gent pointed over his wife’s shoulder and declared, “there’s a girly party going on over there.”
Andeven looked at me and mouthed “girly party?” and I only just managed not to burst out laughing. Luckily, he distracted me with descriptions of Spry’s new, all white Trek Madone. This, he suggested made his Colnago look astonishingly dated in a side by side comparison, but, he reasoned that, much like pet dogs, bikes have a tendency to grow to suit their owners. Or, perhaps owners grow to resemble their bikes …
Still. the ultimate, thousand dollar question remained – would the shiny, new Trek encourage a return of the white shorts?
We left the cafe and I found the Red Max, resplendent in a smart new winter top. He said he’d only just got it for his birthday and hadn’t thought he’d get a chance to wear it until at least October. It really was that cold. Later, Taffy Steve would echo the same sentiments when he asked if I ever thought I’d be wearing overshoes in May.
As we were about to leave, we found out Distaff Double Dutch had a flat. Most of the group pressed on for home, while half a dozen or so of us hung back to help.
Well, I say help, we actually huddled round the side of the cafe, out of the wind and called out criticism and helpful suggestions in equal measure from this surprisingly sheltered space.
Back out onto the roads, I had a chat with Distaff Double Dutch and learned she’s on a research contract at the University, so here for at least 3 years. Meanwhile, Dude Double Dutch was on the front, riding alongside the Red Max and the speed kept incrementally notching upwards.
“Is there a Dutch term for half-wheeling?” I wondered, hoping to contribute something to Taffy Steve’s cultural-exchange programme.
Sadly, there isn’t, but, when I described the phenomena, she instantly recognised exactly what I was talking about. She agreed that Dude Double Dutch was a fine proponent of the art, and yes, that’s exactly what he was doing at the moment, aided and abetted by that arch half-wheeler himself, the Red Max.
I sprinted forward and got them knock it off, well for a while at least.
We had a decently fast run back from there and I even had enough zip left in the legs to burst past everyone as we drove to the end of the Mad Mile. A quick slingshot round the roundabout and I was off and heading home, quite absurdly pleased with myself.
YTD Totals: 2,913 km / 1,810 miles with 38,425 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 107 km / 67 miles with 1,038 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 3 minute
Average Speed: 26.5 km/h
Group size: 33 riders, 2 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Chilly
A chilly start to the day and as I dropped downhill, gradually picking up speed I was glad of the arm warmers and long fingered gloves I’d dug out of deep storage.
First to arrive at the meeting point, I clambered up to sit on the wall, enjoying the deceptive warmth in the shelter of the Transport Interchange’s (i.e. Bus Station) micro-climate.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Szell was the first of my riding companions to arrive climbing stiffly off his bike and complaining of a stiff back which he felt was an occupational hazard common to all dentists.
Odd, as he’s not a dentist …
Oh, ok, I lied, he is really.
We had a discussion about holidays and I admitted the only thing remotely akin to cycling I’d managed in the past week was piloting a pedalo (badly) through a flotilla of yachts, speedboats and ferries.
In complete agreement with Mrs. Sur la Jante, Szell firmly declared that family vacations were not for cycling and he was always bemused when talk about a forthcoming holiday was interrupted by the inevitable “are you taking your bike?” query.
I told him I was largely detached in holiday destination selection and trip planning anyway, so I typically had a poor grasp of any cycling opportunities that could be on offer – my only tasks are to book the time off work and act as porter for numerous suitcases full of clothes, which invariably returned home in the same clean, unworn and uncreased state they left in.
Szell proved quite envious of my approach, seemingly in contrast to his own, where he does all the choosing, booking, preparations and arrangements, solely to provide his missus with a surfeit of ammunition to complain, berate, castigate and criticise all of his choices for the entire duration of their holiday.
The Red Max rolled up and added his own unique spin on the conversation – he has a whole three-weeks lined up in Spain (with bikes!) but he doesn’t go until the temperature is manageable and still has a seven long, long weeks to wait.
Everyone had responded to the chilly start to the day with a varied selection of gloves, arm warmers, legwarmers, jackets and gilet’s. Crazy Legs had taken things one step further, with winter boots, tights and gloves, a long-sleeved jacket, a gilet and a buff pulled up to his sunglasses to cover the lower half of his face. He looked like the Invisible Man, or at least a set of clothes the Invisible Man would be proud to be seen in. All apparently an attempt to, once and for all, rid himself of his lingering chest infection.
Spoons had bravely volunteered to plan and lead the ride and began outlining the route, reading from a carefully prepared crib sheet on his phone “Up Broadway West and …”
He was immediately and rudely interrupted by the return of the Lone Dissenting Voice. “Nah, nah, not Broadway,” it snarled, “It’s bloody lethal. Lethal! I’m not going up Broadway!”
Odd. I’ve been on countless rides where the Lone Dissenting Voice has led us merrily up Broadway West. Still, it’s a free country and everyone’s entitled to change their mind, I guess.
Spoons managed to complete the route outline without further interruption and a bumper mass of 33 riders (minus 1 exception) agreed to split, intending to rendezvous and regroup at the top of the Quarry.
I joined a disappointingly small, eight man front group and off we went, navigating up Broadway West, with great caution, huge amounts of trepidation and much muttering, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti …”
Having negotiated the road, surprisingly without incident or grievous harm, I fell into conversation with the Monkey Butler Boy. He said he was only going to accompany us for a short while, en route to meeting up with his callow Wrecking Crew, then they were off to tackle the Gibbet, a famous local climb just outside Elsdon.
Although marked by an actual, reconstructed gibbet, the gallows marking the spot – where local ne’er-do-well and murderer William Winter was hanged in 1792 – there’s nothing particularly murderous about the climb and I was surprised by the Monkey Butler Boy’s claim he’d never ridden it before.
(The Red Max would later suggest that, “once again” the Monkey Butler Boy was talking complete and utter nonsense and had in fact tackled the climb on numerous occasions.)
The Monkey Butler Boy swept away and I dropped in alongside Richard of Flanders, as Caracol and Rab Dee set a furious pace on the front. Spoons and Benedict took over from them and then, as we approached Fenwick and turned both uphill and into the wind, it was suddenly our turn on the front.
Perfect timing. Thanks guys.
As I pushed on alongside Richard of Flanders, I was describing my latest work, improving ailing University courses and supporting the development of new ones. This, I explained had given me some hard-earned knowledge (but little understanding) of an eclectic range of subjects, such as Mechatronic Engineering, Cryptocurrencies, Merkle Trees and Animal Energetics.
Richard suggested things had changed rapidly since his days working in the Potteries, when every other client was a Nipple Knocker. Now he felt this much-storied profession was dying out, overtaken by sadly prosaic job titles such as Search Engine Optimisation Engineer.
He started to expound on the historical, philosophical, economic, social and nationalistic characteristics that might explain why the French seemed particularly interested in Robotics courses, before stopping mid-sentence to laugh at himself, “Listen to me, talking shite.”
He then declared that there was no greater pleasure than “talking shite on a bike” which we’ve found has particular synergies with talking shite in the pub, or talking shite over coffee and cake.
“This,” I explained, “Is the quintessential essence of club cycling. Talking shite on a bike is what keeps us coming back week, after week, after week.”
We then both commented on how odd it was to be approaching the Quarry climb relatively fresh and early, rather than toward the end of the ride, after much leg-shredding and as a prelude to a mass café gallop.
Then we were grunting and groaning up the ramps as we took the group up to the top. Here we settled in to wait for the rest, but after long minutes, with no one in sight, we started to imagine the worst and concluded that the second group had probably been decimated while trying to negotiate the acute, but well-hidden perils of Broadway West.
Rab Dee reckoned they’d all been picked off, one by one, in a macabre game of devil-take-the-hindmost, while Caracol imagined a series a floral, roadside shrines spaced at intervals along the route, each marking the final resting place of a fallen comrade, before culminating in a grandiose tomb for the Lone Dissenting Voice, bearing a simple, but pithy epitaph: “See, I told you it was lethal.”
We filled in some time discussing new bikes. Rab Dee has one he was using for the first time today, while Caracol had a new winter bike and had sentenced his old one to life on the turbo. This had him pondering the value of Zwift as a potential training aid.
I told him to ask Crazy Legs, who had used something similar and reported riding the Oslo World Championship course, in splendid isolation from the comfort of his own garage, but also, simultaneously in collective-cyberspace with a bunch of virtual strangers.
He’d ended up laughing at himself for futilely flicking out an elbow to try and get one of them to come through and do a turn on the front, before realising he was still in his garage, there was no one behind him to come through and no matter how professional his elbow waggling looked, no one could actually see it.
An amused Caracol wondered if he had also taken the time to point out any old oil spills or stray nails that might have been lurking on the garage floor.
After a long, long wait, we determined our second group had in fact encountered problems along the way, or had simply decided to take to different roads, so we pressed on without them.
We then took a circuitous route through Capheaton and up to Wallington. Richard of Flanders, Keel and Zardoz headed straight through to Middleton Bank from there, while the rest of us climbed up to Scots Gap before looping back to the hill.
When we got there, a frisky Caracol blasted away, with Rab Dee in hot pursuit, while the rest of us were left to follow as best we could.
Alongside Benedict, I caught up with a waiting Rab Dee as we crossed the top of the hill and, as the road levelled, we found ourselves with Caracol a distant speck in front and Spoons a similar distance behind. Our choices were simple, to wait, to chase, or to stay where we were, hanging somewhere between the two.
After a fairly lengthy consideration, we decided to chase (sorry, Spoons) and set off in pursuit of Caracol. With Rab Dee pushing on the front, we slowly reeled in our front runner, while I sat at the back, just about hanging on.
We were all together for the sweep around Bolam Lake and the swoop through Milestone Woods. Then we hit the rollers and I attacked up the first slope … because … well, because I always do. This gave Caracol and Rab Dee a springboard to slingshot around me as my legs inevitably failed on the last slope and while I chased hard, I had no chance of narrowing the gap on the final climb to the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The Red Max reported that the Lone Dissenting Voice had indeed rejected the planned route and led a splinter group away from the perils of Broadway West – the splinter group consisting of exactly one, single, solitary rider.
I can neither deny, nor confirm rumours that the Lone Dissenting Voice still found something to argue about, even as he rode off in his own company.
Crazy Legs then said a new guy had shown up just as the second group were pulling out and asked to join on. He had apparently “seen people riding in a group before” which Crazy Legs took as a tacit admission that he hadn’t actually done it himself.
The new guy, let’s call him Joe (simply because I understand that’s his actual name) seemed to be doing fine, until he showed a remarkable affinity for spelunking and drawn in by the lure of a deep, unfathomable pothole, planted his wheel in it, smashing down and fracturing his collarbone.
Emergency services and concerned-partner calls were made and Crazy Legs, Carlton and a delegation hung back to look after our fallen rider until the ambulance arrived, while the rest of the group pressed on. At some point the LDV had sailed past and away, I’m not sure what words were emitted at this point, but I do know his contributions were not well received.
Further mishap then befell the group, when Crazy Legs suffered a stupidly close punishment pass from a motorcyclist, tangled handlebars with Carlton and came down. Luckily his much cossetted Ribble managed to escape without harm, while Crazy Legs collected a few bruises and scratches, a hole in his leggings (which he thought added street cred) and a stinger from landing heavily on his side.
(For the sake of clarity, it’s worth pointing out that neither of these incidents occurred anywhere near Broadway West, although our mindless transgression of its sacred boundaries may have accrued the bad karma that contributed to them.)
I told the Red Max that Crazy Legs has form when it came to tangling with motorcyclists, remembering his game of chicken with the Harley Hogs when descending the Galibier at speed. We wondered (purely theoretically, of course) what the consequences of a more physical confrontation might have been had the motor cyclist bothered to stop to survey the damage he’d caused.
Crazy Legs was quite sanguine about his chances, suggesting cyclists were lighter and more nimble, so he could easily sway out of the way of jumbo haymakers and quickly jab back. He also felt if he could somehow bring the biker down, it would be game over – like a tortoise on its back, or an unhorsed knight in armour, there be no getting back up.
The Red Max appeared to support these fantastical delusions, insisting many cyclists and bikers shared a mid-life crisis engendered by the onset of inherent lardiness, but we channelled ours into physical activity that would directly address the issue, while they channelled theirs into a more sedentary activity that would simply exacerbate it.
Giving the cyclist vs. biker (or mods vs. rockers, if you will) fight-scenario far greater consideration than was justified, Crazy Legs concluded that his slippery cleats would put him at a disadvantage and determined it would be better to fight in his stockinged feet. This, he assured us, would be OK, as he would appeal to the sporting nature of his adversary and politely request that he too remove any footwear, in the interests of fairness.
Quite how he was going to land his punches through the letter box sized visor of a full face helmet I never did get a satisfactory answer to, luckily someone decided it was time to leave.
I joined a small group for the ride back, progressing at a sensible, sustained pace which was ideal for my tired legs that appeared to be suffering a holiday hangover. A larger group had coalesced in front of us, but no one had any inclination to chase them down and the gap simply expanded until we could no longer see them on the road.
As we set our own, comfortable pace back, I dropped in beside Sneaky Pete for a quick chat and learned that the heatwave is officially over, as he revealed he’d taken to wearing long trousers instead of shorts for the first time in 3 months.
Oh well, it’s been a good run…
YTD Totals: 5,014 km / 2,814 miles with 61,645 metres of climbing
Col d’Aspin (west side) Col du Tourmalet via La Mongie
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 125 km / 78 miles with 2,707 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 6 hours 4 minutes
Average Speed: 20.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Baking
Early morning, feeling better for a good night’s rest – or at least a sustained period of unconsciousness – I still can’t face a proper breakfast, but cram down a cereal bar and as much water as I think I can hold.
Today is going to be our “Big One” – although not quite on a par to last year’s Circle of Death, it is going to be a long day in the saddle and promises to be red hot too. Hopefully I’ll fare batter. Kermit is up and fuelling on multiple bowls of cereal and the Breakfast Club are just returning from their sumptuous petit dejeuner.
We congregate at the entrance to the campsite and wend our way through a sleepy Argelès Gazost, crossing the bridge over the permanently tumultuous, Gave d’Azun. Its spray gives a pleasant, brief interlude of comfort cooling, then we’re through the town and out onto open roads under a hot sun.
The Hammer seems to be on a mission, or perhaps chasing a personal Strava segment, either way he’s winding up the pace on the front. It’s too much too soon, so in tacit, unspoken agreement with Crazy Leg’s, we give up the chase and back off to let a gap grow. Finally, the Hammer realises he’s ploughing a lone furrow and we slowly coalesce into a single group again, a cycling embolism … a slow moving clot.
Heading east, we pick our way through the anonymous commercial outskirts of a quite unremarkable Lourdes, well, at least the portion of it we traverse, well away from any of the religious razzamatazz and what we’ve been led to believe is a vast array of astonishingly nasty and tacky religious tat.
Then we swing south along a valley, following the course of the river L’Adour which Google tells me actually rises from our ultimate destination, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
We’re about 35km into the ride and the road is already starting to rise as we hit the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and get caught behind traffic filtering into the town centre.
Ribble Rousers Meet Again
While queuing behind the cars, a group of cyclists’ weave through the traffic and pass us. It’s the two Ribble Rousers and the cheery Dutchman on his town-bike we’d met on the Col d’Aubisque yesterday.
We find a café by the side of the road and settle in for perfectly polite elevenses. Here we have a brief chat with the Ribble Rousers, one of whom couldn’t have been half bad as he was a fellow Vittorian.
They were on their last day, just winding down and pottering around before leaving for a 14-hour, 1,500km drive home (eek!) to the Midlands. This had to include a detour via a local bike hire shop, after one of them somehow managed to destroy his gear hanger on a descent, luckily quite close to where they were staying. Naturally, whatever gear hangers the local bikes stocked, none of them had anything that would fit a Ribble
Hold on there, Bald Eagle…
We settled down for a relaxed coffee or two, each one served with a slice of the local delicacy, nougat.
“Ah, nugget!” the Hammer proclaimed, adopting the full Geordie-kid pronunciation of “noo-garr.” Brilliant. In a small corner of my heart, it will forever be nugget. Toblerone? That’s nugget, mate. Snickers? That’s nugget too. And who could forget the short-lived Texan bar in the eighties, it sure was a mighty chew.
Goose was found once again rhapsodising over cycling caps, for him the revelation of last year’s trip. They are now an essential part of his kit, worn under his helmet to protect his bare noggin from the sun.
Crazy Legs queried if Goose would turn back the clock, given the choice and return to having a full head of hair.
“I’ll have to mullet over,” Goose quipped. Ba-boom. (A front-runner in the Bad Dad Joke of the Day competition, but not the winner.)
He then revealed he never did have a mullet (“business at the front, party at the back”) – but had been known to sport an outrageously enormous flat-top. Now there’s a photo I’d like to see – if only because I can’t imagine it.
By way of the Hammer complimenting Captain Black on his baby-smooth skin and obviously first class moisturising regimen, talk turned to Steadfast’s Arse-Butter™ – which he revealed came in two varieties – Standard or European. The difference, apparently was the European version gave you a bit of tingle …
“Ooph! Have you tired that Tea Tree Oil shower gel,” Goose exclaimed. “I can’t use it, it’s too nice!”
Did he really just say that out loud?
With enough nonsense talked to keep us going for a while longer, we paid our dues and got back to the serious business of the day. We were already climbing on grades of around 5% as we reached the small village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the group decided to split.
Still suffering horribly from his chest-infection and problems breathing, Crazy Legs decided to skip the Col d’Aspin and just ride the Tourmalet. The Hammer decided this was a good plan and having himself already conquered the Aspin, decided he’d tag along too.
As a vital prelude, they decided a stop in the bar on the corner of the village square for further ravitaillement was in order, before attempting the climb. Meanwhile, the remaining six Aspin virgins set off for the lesser of the two peaks.
Six Virgins of the Aspin and the Kenny Clone
As the road climbed out of the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, we passed an old bloke in a bright orange jersey, riding a touring bike, his reflection glowering at us in his mirrors as he ground his way uphill. The road dropped down and while we saved energy and free-wheeled he pedalled furiously past, only to get caught and left behind as the road ramped up yet again.
He repeated this performance a few times, until the climb stiffened and there were no more downhill interludes for him to attack. We dubbed him “Kenny” in honour of our own Szell back home, whose particularly fond of charging to the front on downhills, before fading horribly on the subsequent climb and just getting in the way. I had a feeling we’d see “Kenny” again, before the day was out.
Up we went, with nothing too testing to start with and it was a very pleasant climb, even chugging along well off the back of the group.
The ascent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is about 13km long and adds another 650 or so metres to the height we’d already gained, at an average gradient of 5%. The Aspin tops out at 1,489 meters, the climbing stiffens at the top with the final 5km averaging about 7.5%.
It really is a pleasant climb to begin with, up through a lush, coniferous forest that provides lots of welcome shade. In many ways it reminded me of the Col du Telegraph, although minus the thoroughly annoying Harley bikers we’d encountered on that climb last year.
Passing through the ski station at Payolle, with about 6km to go, you are out of the trees into open pastureland, with the ubiquitous Alpine cattle clanging away on all sides. At the ski station the road briefly levels out to a false flat, before kicking up appreciably and then it starts to wind all about the mountain looking for the path of least resistance.
Despite these desperate manoeuvres, it still averages over 10% in places and a kilometre or so from the top there’s a final ramp approaching 20% just to test already tired legs.
Cow Lickin’ Good
There’s nothing really at the top, besides fantastic views down both sides of the mountain. Oh, and the cows, lining up to lick any, apparently delicious, salty-sweaty cyclist who gets too close.
We dropped into the grass at the side of the road, resting up and taking our fill of the scenery. It was at this point that someone voiced what we’d all been thinking, “Did Crazy Legs and the Hammer know something we didn’t and should we be concerned that the only veterans of these mountains had decided to skip their chance to climb the undeniably pretty Col d’Aspin?”
We finally pulled ourselves away from the views, donned jackets for the descent and started to retrace our way back down the mountain to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and the route up the Col du Tourmalet.
As we tipped over the crest and started to gather speed, up huffed “Kenny” – he’d made it. Chapeau to that man.
At the village, we followed the example of Crazy Legs and the Hammer, stopping for a few drinks and a quick baguette in the bar just off the village square, before filling our bottles at the water fountain, where all the local cyclists were congregating.
With a Mighty High-Ho, Silver!
Then, with a mighty, High-Ho, Silver, or maybe just a tiny whimper, depending on what you want to believe, we started our ascent of the Col du Tourmalet.
If the Aspin reminded me of the Telegraph, then the Tourmalet was the crazed, bastard half-brother of the ferocious Galibier. Likewise, it was still marred by banks of dirty snow lurking in the hollows on its upper slopes, as sure a sign of thuggishness as the wispy moustache on the over-sized, over-developed, pre-teen classroom bully.
“The Col du Tourmalet is a legendary place for cycling, steeped in history and steep in slope” read one of the many descriptions of this beast that I found. It was the first climb above 2,000 metres ever used in a race and is the most used col of the Tour de France. By the time the peloton crests its summit this year, they’ll have been up it on 86 separate occasions.
You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.
Apparently, the name “Col du Tourmalet” is often wrongly translated into English as “Bad Trip” – it might be factually incorrect, but nevertheless seems entirely fitting. At an elevation of 2,115m it is often referred to as the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the eastern climb is 17.2 km gaining 1,268 m at an average of 7.4%, while my Strava recorded a maximum of more than 18% on one of its many, variable slopes.
So, upwards we went and downwards we started counting the kilometre markers to the summit, again my speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the slope, or the thankfully light, but still noticeable wind.
We were soon split up and scattered over the road, and even though there was generally only a couple of hundred metres between everyone, this represented massive gaps in terms of time.
I remember passing the sign for 10km to the summit, glancing down and noticing I was riding at about 5mph and running through some quick and very rough calculations … 5 miles an hour … that’s about 8 kilometres an hour … that means it’s only going to take … another hour and a quarter.
Only going to take another hour and a quarter? Only? An hour and a quarter? Climbing all the way?
We must be mad.
At 7km from the summit, there is, apparently a memorial to Eugene Christophe at the spot where his forks broke in 1913. Nope, I can’t say I noticed.
At 6km to go, I passed through the first avalanche shelter. I didn’t trust myself to reach down and grab a drink, while keeping the bike moving in a relatively straight line, so I pulled over to the side of the road for a drink and a rest.
At this point Steadfast rode past me and I was last man, tail-end Charlie again. I remounted and rode on.
Riding with the Ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins
At 5km to go I was passing through the ski town of La Mongie, on what I thought was one of the hardest parts of the climb. The streets were wide and open and steep and, try as I might, I couldn’t go fast enough to put the spectacularly ugly ski apartments behind me and out of sight.
Like a random collection of brown Lego bricks, dropped from a great height, this monstrous collection of jutting angles was an affront to the eyes and horribly marred the otherwise spectacular scenery. “When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as I like to think a suitably apoplectic Gerard Manley Hopkins might have commented as he rode past.
At 4km to go I notice an Italian tricolori off by the side of the road. A bit closer and it resolved itself into an abandoned pizza box and badly gnawed pizza. Even in my oxygen deprived, single-minded focus on keeping the pedals turning, this distracted me and raised some serious questions: Who would want a pizza out here? How did the Deliveroo rider react when told he had to make a delivery three quarters of the way up the Tourmalet? And who the hell is moronic enough to litter this astonishing landscape with fast food cartons. Arse hat.
Hot Foot to the Top
At 3kms to go, my right foot became almost unbearably hot and I developed a shooting, stabbing pain through the big toe. I stopped and let the pain slowly ebb away.
At 2kms to go, I can look up and see the summit and it’s lined with the dark shapes of a troupe of llamas, like an army of rapacious Zulus looking down on Rourke’s Drift. My wildly floating thoughts had become detached from their moorings, perhaps in a futile attempt to ignore the pain signals my body has been incessantly firing at it. I remember hoping they weren’t an, as yet unheard of breed of feral, carnivorous llamas, then wondering if a dalai of llamas was a suitable collective noun. I know, I know. Sorry.
With less than 1 km to go, I pass a young ingénue with pigtails, looking suitably cool in a long-sleeved white jersey and pushing (?) her bike down (?) the mountain. I theatrically puff out my cheeks and slowly draw a finger across my throat. I’m cooked.
“Well done, keep going, you’re almost there,” she calls out in perfect, but slightly accented English.
She’s not lying just to encourage me, either. Round one last corner and I’ve suddenly reached the summit and the unprepossessing silver-grey sculpture of the Géant au Col du Tourmalet. It’s done.
I find the rest of the crew relaxing on the terrace the picturesque café at the top and wander inside to confront the horribly unfriendly staff and buy some food and drink. Even as a fully-paying customer, they refuse to fill my bidon for me, though they will sell me a bottle of water so I can do it myself. Pah!
I learn that Caracol had suffered on the climb even more than I had. Bordering on serious heat stroke, he’d been forced to take refuge in the shade of one of the avalanche shelters to try and recover. He still looked pale and raw-boned, but seemed over the worst of it.
Captain Black reported encountering the pizza-eating poltroon at a point that coincided with him unleashing a majestic and nostril-burning guff, a gaseous discharge of such epic proportions and expanding so rapidly from ground zero, that he then struggled to outpace it up the slope.
We decided the pizza-poltroon had caught a whiff of this unpleasant miasma, determined his pizza was suddenly on the turn and abandoned it in its half-eaten state. The Captain was immensely pleased to know that I though I could still detect a lingering, unpleasant smell as I passed the same spot, some minutes behind him.
As the slowest descender, Kermit begged the indulgence of being first off on the descent, reasoning we would catch him before the bottom anyway, so it would reduce our waiting time. Captain Black followed, then Goose and Caracol.
Still soaked from my efforts on the climb, I pulled on my light, windproof jacket, zipped up, counted to ten and set off in pursuit.
Down Side of Me
Well ,this bit was certainly fun, with the wind snapping at the sleeves of my jacket so they fluttered with a noise like ripping silk, I was quickly up to speed and leaning sharply round the corners.
Ahead of me and still a couple of bends away, Goose and Captain Black were slowed by catching Kermit and, braking late, I rapidly closed the gap and followed them around him. I dropped into their wheels until I had a chance to slide past further down the mountain, just before the characteristics of the road started to change. Gone were the tight hairpins in favour of sweeping bends and long straights, where you could just let the bike run and quickly build up speed.
I tucked in tight and as low as I could get and started pulling back the flying Caracol, hitting 74.9km/h at one point and slowly closing the gap, churning away on the big ring whenever the pace threatened to drop. I was on terms before the descent ran out and then we were both braking hard as we swept into a built up area, before stopping to allow everyone to regroup.
Luckily, there was very little climbing left to do and the run back to the campsite was mainly flat or slightly downhill. We made good time and were very soon home and hosed.
After showering, we congregated on a porch for pre-prandial drinks and nibbles, learning that Crazy Legs had been bonding with his new chalet neighbours, a contingent of exuberantly raucous, French motor bikers, of the mid-life crisis variety. Eeh, the devils.
Around, 30 or 40 strong, the bad news was we’d be sharing the bar and our evening meal with them. The good news? The campsite was finally going to fire up the truly enormous paella pan that had proved so intriguing to Goose.
We learned he was the proud owner of his own, oversized outdoor cooking apparatus. This he claimed was called a wok-i-wok, a cast iron behemoth complete with metre wide wok or paella pan, incorporating a giant pizza stone and barbecue grill, with the whole assembly easily convertible to a patio heater, potters wheel, garden waste incinerator or portable forge for some crude iron working.
All, shipped direct from China for a mere £150, although Goose reported that sadly, they no longer seem available. (I guess it would have been churlish of me to suggest I wasn’t surprised, as I could actually only think of one, single person who might be interested in buying such a monstrosity.)
But the revelations were by no means complete, as we then had a masterclass in the cooking the perfect giant paella in a wok-i-wok, giant paella pan. The secret apparently is all down to layering – all ingredients have to be prepared in advance and then layered into a extra large Lakeland, Tupperware pail (I think this was a grandiose way of saying a bucket) – but, and here’s the trick, they have to be added in the reverse order to which they’ll be used.
Talk turned to the local cattle, complete with their clanging bells, which Goose presumed were only put on the Alpha Males of the herd. It was time to strike for Bad Dad Joke of the Day and with no shame I accepted the challenge – “I don’t know why they need bells, they’ve all got horns.” (I don’t think I’ll be invited back next year.)
A suitable point to retire for dinner…
In the bar the giant paella pan had been fired up for the Mid-Life Motorcycle Mob, piquing the interest of Goose, who naturally had to get involved and share tips and secrets with the taciturn cook. He was especially intrigued by one ingredient a huge quantity of a bright red elixir, which he guessed was some super-exotic, local speciality, that would give the paella a unique flavour and character.
“Non,” he was told,”Ee’s just food colouring.”
Oh well …
The paella was just for the Gallic Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob, not for the British Mid-Life Crisis Cyclists, we had to choose from the standard menu, but had some consolation in prime seats to follow the Germany vs. Sweden World Cup game.
Crazy Legs seemed to have found a new hero in Polish footballer, Łukasz Piszczek, whose name he thought was brilliant. I felt it was a name that was likely to give Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs fell into conversation with a Dutch couple, who kindly queried after my health, having seen me looking like a zombie extra from the Walking Dead at dinner last night.
Match ended and paella despatched, the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob broke out a guitar for an impromptu sing-along. Perhaps expecting some French culture, things got off to a bad start with a raucous rendition of Volare and then the Gypsy Kings Bamboléo.
“Well, it’s not Jacques Tatti,” Crazy Legs observed dryly (or Jackie the Spud as he’s known on Tyneside.)
Sing-along degenerated into massed chanting. A couple of “oggie, oggie, oggies” which then gave way to something that sounded disconcertingly like “Sieg Hiel.”
As the guitar was picked up again and the mob launched into an off-key, off kilter version of La Bamba, we suddenly remembered we had to be up early tomorrow to ride up a mountain and quietly slipped away.
Col du Soulour from Argeles Gazot/Col d’Aubisque east side from Soulour
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 63 km / 39 miles with 1,577 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Average Speed: 19.5 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Hot and humid
It’s maybe two o’clock in the morning and I’ve been sleeping fitfully for the past couple of hours. It’s stiflingly hot and uncomfortable in the chalet and now I’m awake with a brutal, killer headache, as if someone’s wrapped a band of steel around my skull and is slowly ratcheting it tighter and tighter.
The pain intensifies horribly and flashing lights explode behind my eyes if I try to lie down, so I’m sitting up in bed, back against the wall, trying to forcibly scrub, or pull, or push the waves of pain away and out of my head. It’s not working.
I turn the light on, fumble through my rucksack, find some Paracetamol and choke a couple down, bone dry, chalky and hard to swallow.
At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake suddenly, drenched in sweat and stagger to the bathroom to throw up. I rinse and repeat the process a few times and every time my stomach heaves out its contents, the pain explodes behind my eyes. I choke down more pills and somewhere, somehow, as the sky starts to grey with dawn, I manage to grab a couple of hours of disturbed sleep.
Clanking and clunking from the living room wakes me. Surprisingly it’s not the ghost of Jacob Marley, but Kermit, in an up-and-at-‘em mood and starting to drag his bike outside to start building it back up.
I get up slowly, check the time and make to follow. We’d agreed a 10.00 o’clock depart for the first ride, so I had a couple of hours to try and pull both myself and the bike back together. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to be making the breakfast we’d hastily arranged with the campsite the night before.
The bike had survived its transit without mark, or mar and slotted together without too many issues, although at one point I did have to abandon my post and hurdle over Kermit and bits of his scattered bike in a crazed dash to the toilet. After this, I was thinking I couldn’t possibly have anything left to throw up. But, I was wrong.
I finished the bike and checked it over. All seemed good, so I got changed into my cycling kit and slapped on some sunscreen. The day looked grey and dull, with plenty of cloud cover, but it was relentlessly hot and humid. Nevertheless, as I sat on the chalet porch and just tried to recover, I was chilled and shivering and pulled on some arm warmers and my fleece while I waited for things to settle down.
A few chalets along, the Breakfast Club had returned from their sumptuous feast and were preparing to ride. (I got good reports of the breakfast extravaganza, but wouldn’t get to sample it even once in the next few days.)
Extreme Weather Protocol
Crazy Legs swung by to inform us that in light of my bad case of malingering and, as a more gentle acclimatisation for everyone else, Extreme Weather Protocol had been invoked and agreement reached to swap around Day#1 and Day#2.
The revised agenda for the day was now the Col du Soulour, followed straight up by the Col d’Aubisque. The washed out roads of the latter meaning we’d need to trace our way to it directly from the Soulour, rather than looping around to climb up from the other side as originally planned. In this way, we just about halved the distance and the amount of climbing.
At 10.00, or thereabouts, we slowly gathered, clipped in and rode out, following the road through Argelès Gazost before swinging away left, up the valley of le Gave d’ Azun, to start the approach to the Col du Soulour.
As we passed through the villages, gaps appeared in the clouds overhead and the sun poured down. This gave a bright, oily sheen to the new and smooth tarmac that glistened under our tyres, an indication that the Tour will be following these very same roads in just a few weeks’ time and preparations are in full-swing. I often wonder if, a bit like the Queen visiting the provinces, the Tour peloton get a ridiculously rose-tinted view of the state of the nation’s byways and highways.
At one point we passed a group of workmen busy branding stark, white, markings into the new road surface. The intense chemical smell of the epoxy they were using almost made me throw up and I was glad to quickly leave them behind.
I’d adopted a survival mode, bunkered down amongst the wheels, taking occasional small sips of plain water and hoping to keep it down.
We had to negotiate our way around a shirtless, deeply-tanned, golden-maned native, riding one massive, barrel chested, bay horse while leading two others behind and looking like the lone survivor from a failed raid of warrior Gaul’s. He was certainly far too cool to acknowledge Crazy Legs’ cheerful greeting. (I suspect he secretly covets the role of Xenophobix in the local Asterix the Gaul Re-enactment Society and is actually really friendly and welcoming, but he’s a method actor and has to stay aloof to remain in character.)
I also think I’d just discovered my own Asterix alter-ego for the day, too – Monosyllabix.
And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Snot
Our group slowly attenuated and then broke apart, everyone finding a pace they were comfortable with. I dropped off the back, riding for a while with Crazy Legs, who was still suffering from a ridiculously long-standing chest infection that he can’t seem to shift. He was really struggling with this, his asthma and the oppressively hot and humid conditions.
I followed in the wake of his coughing, hawking and spluttering expectorations, quietly giggling at the cloud of flies he’d acquired, like a dark halo circling his head, while realising I probably had a corresponding, buzzing accompaniment orbiting my own helmet.
At Arrans-Marsous, the road jinked to the right and the real climbing began through a series of tight, steep hairpins. I was travelling too slowly even for an ailing, lung-shot Crazy Legs now, so he checked I was ok and pressed on ahead. I found myself singing that old Gilbert O’Sullivan chestnut, “Alone Again, Naturally” as I ground my way upwards, although, in my defence I don’t actually recall anything but the title-line, which I found myself repeating, ad nauseam.
I wasn’t quite alone, however. A quick lizard snaked up the road in front of me, like a miniature Alberto Contador on the attack and a little further on, it was the turn of an intensely bright, iridescent beetle. It taunted me with both its flashiness and climbing speed, and when, with a bit of effort, I just about managed to catch it, it disappeared into the undergrowth.
I felt more empathy with a large fat bee I found, dressed much like me in black and yellow, seemingly shell-shocked, hunkered, head down, arse up and unmoving in the middle of the road. I was tempted to join him, but kept going.
A farmyard cat then watched me pass, wary and wide-eyed, it’s pupils reduced to vertical black hairlines by the bright sunlight.
Off to the left a sign seemed to point toward Bun. Or, maybe that was just a wilful hallucination…
Toil and Trouble
As I climbed and away from the settlements, the meadows became dotted with cows and the constant jangle of their bells accompanied my harsh breathing. Meanwhile, high overhead massive buzzards effortlessly circled in the thermals, marking my crawling progress and perhaps wondering if I’d provide them with easy pickings before the day was done.
I was starting to get a feel for the characteristics of Pyrenean climbs, wide sweeping bends that lacked the tight hairpins of the Alps and a gradient that seemed to annoyingly change around every corner and jarred you out of any rhythm you’d managed to establish.
The roads were also much quieter, both of cars and other cyclists and there was little evidence of the usual, faded fan graffiti on the climbs that we’d seen last year in the Alps. Perhaps the weather here is so much harsher that the road surface only lasts a season or two?
I suspect the roadside signs were designed to help struggling cyclists, counting down the distance to the summit every kilometre, with each one helpfully spelling out the average gradient across the next stretch of road too.
Occasionally this proved a little dispiriting, especially when you knew you faced an 8% average gradient for the next thousand metres and then the road eased, or heaven forbid, dipped downwards. This was an indication that a bit further along you’d be paying for the moments brief respite.
Depending on the gradient, my speed was like a Geiger counter in Chernobyl, wavering wildly between 6.5mph and 3.7mph. I was going nowhere fast, but I was still going. I have to admit I don’t remember all that much about the latter stages of the climb, I was in a sort of fugue state, not feeling particularly bad, just washed out, weak and powerless.
I finally made the top, saw a café by the side of the road and rolled through its car park. None of the parked-up bikes looked remotely familiar, so I re-joined the road and plugged away a bit more until I found the patiently waiting, motley crew outside a second café.
The Best Omelette in the Pyrenees … Allegedly
We trouped inside for lunch and were greeted by a jocular and friendly proprietor, who assumed we were Dutch. Crazy Legs surmised this because we looked far too happy and cheerful to be English and maybe he was right.
We were promised the best omelettes in the Pyrenees, which just about everyone plumped for, and a much needed round of drinks. I wish I could attest to the omelettes excellence, but I only managed to pick my way carefully through a few mouthfuls and I was done. Still, it stayed where I put it, so progress of sorts. Crazy Legs also struggled with the sheer volume of food, but made a better go of it, while the rest seemed to demolish their meals in short order.
Syncing Strava and the Bovine Menace
Outside, we set our sights on the Col d’ Aubisque, leaving Kermit behind as he fiddled with his Garmin which had annoyingly decided to play peek-a-boo with the satellites. The first part of the road was a descent down from the very summit of the Col du Soulour, with an unbarriered steep drop off to the right.
This was made slightly treacherous by the gravel strewn across the road surface and several large cows that seemed intent on meandering aimlessly across our path. Safely negotiating this moving, bovine chicane, we were soon rolling toward the gaping black maw of a tunnel cut straight through the side of the mountain.
Crazy Legs had forewarned us about the tunnel and suggested we take a leaf out of Sean Kelly’s book and close one eye as we approached, so it, at least, was adjusted to the dark by the time we got inside. I went one better and decided to close both eyes …
Ha-ha – only joking. The tunnel was as short and slimy as advertised and had a horrible ridged road surface that we all rattled uncomfortably across. I wasn’t looking forward to repeating that when we returned.
I managed to keep up with everyone on the descent, but soon the road began to climb again and I slipped off the back. Goose and Captain Black forged past and reported that Kermit was still missing.
I kept looking back to see if I could spot his red jersey, working its way up the ribbon of road that seemed to cling precariously to the steep mountain side, but nothing was moving behind me.
We were so high up that at one point I found myself riding along almost at eye level with a majestic, soaring buzzard. It seemed close enough for me to reach across to brush its wingtips, well, if I felt like leaning over the precipitous drop to my right. Then it tipped over on one wing and slipped silently away. Incredible.
As we climbed higher the clouds rolled in above and below, restricting what must have been spectacular views and I was soon climbing through a cool, muffling grey mist and wondering if it was worth turning my lights on.
Before I reached a decision, the air cleared again and then, somewhere along the way and much later than I expected, Kermit caught and passed me. He would later find his Garmin had failed to record his ascent of the Col Du Soulour and he even considered climbing it again, especially after we all convinced him that if it wasn’t on Strava ….
As the road entered a series of switchbacks, I was able to track my route by the progress of Kermit’s bobbing red jersey up ahead and judge just how far I had left and what was awaiting me around the next corner.
The climb wasn’t that hard and I don’t remember it being all that long either. At some point, I rattled across a Barrière Canadienne and wondered what it was the French had against Canuck’s that made them want to bar their access to the mountains.
Then we were at the top, hanging the bikes up in the rusting, creaking racks outside another café. A brief stop and then we gathered outside, pulling on jackets and gilets for the descent and stepping up for the obligatory group photo at the summit marker.
The Dutchman and the Brits
As we collected our bikes, Crazy Legs found himself bonding with a couple of fellow Ribble Rousers from the UK. They suggested we took time out to cheer on their colleague, a big Dutchman who was powering up the climb behind them in T-shirt and sandals, grinning from ear to ear while cheerfully piloting a massive steel, sit-up-and-beg town-bike up the col.
A few scattered, desultory signs appeared to suggest the road ahead was, as we suspected still closed and no one had any interest in finding out if it the route was still passable by bike, so we turned around and headed back the way we’d come.
I had no trouble keeping up with the others as we made our way downhill, catching and whipping past a tentative motorist just before rattling and shaking our way back through the slimy tunnel.
We regrouped at the top of the Soulour, before tipping down again, then were full bore all the way from the bottom of the descent back to the campsite.
Living to Fight Another Day
I retired to the shower block, intent on draining the campsites hot water supply. I didn’t quite manage, but feel I gave it my best shot, emerging slightly more wrinkled than usual, but starting to feel a whole lot better.
We congregated in the bar again for dinner and I managed to slide down about three-quarters of a pizza. I left the crew watching a World Cup match and trying to decide what ice creams they wanted for dessert. Making my excuses, I made my way to the chalet for an early night, crawled into bed and was gone. I don’t know if I slept, or just fell into a coma, but I wasn’t to stir for the next 12 hours.