Plague Diaries – Week#11

Plague Diaries – Week#11

I Am The One and Only

So, in their infinite wisdom, the British Government is intent on relaxing lock-down rules, perhaps not based on any grand plan, but simply trying to create the illusion that things are moving forward.

Personally, I’m not convinced it’s the right thing to do, or that we’re embarking on a safe and measured approach. Quite simply, I don’t trust them.

Leaving aside (if you can, and I’ll understand perfectly if you cannot) their appalling double-standards and hypocrisy, succinctly embodied in one particularly arrogant, rule-violating SpAd – after all, double-standards and hypocrisy seem to be the lingua franca of all governments, regardless of political persuasion. Instead, let’s look at the simple, irrefutable and objective facts. The statistics clearly show that under this governments watch, the UK has suffered the second-highest rate of deaths from the coronavirus in the world.

In. The. World.

UK suffers second-highest death rate from coronavirus | Financial Times

So while BoJo witters on about British exceptionalism and promulgates the illusion we’re a world-beating country, lets just recall that the thing we actually seem best at is killing our own citizens. With such a fumbled response so far, too many excuses and a host of broken promises, how confident are you that they’ve got it right this time?

Anyway, from Monday, the relaxed rules mean that, amongst other things, people in England will be allowed to meet in groups of up to six, outside, while maintaining a two-metre distance.

Entirely the best thing to come out of this announcement was the outpouring of social media sympathy for S-Club 7, although one commentator cruelly declared that they were probably better off dropping the dopey looking bloke at the back anyway.

Amongst our club socialmediaites, it meant quickly fomenting plans to meet up and run out in groups of six, perhaps starting as early as Wednesday evening.

Personally, I’ll be following British Cycling advice which has all club and group activity suspended until the 4th July, subject to fortnightly review and two weeks’ notice of any change. So, in other words, no group riding yet.

While references to a disappointed S-Club 7 made me chuckle, the biggest laugh of the week had to be the news that someone had developed a mod to sync your home-trainer, Zwift-style, with the Grand Theft Auto video game. Now you can ride around a gorgeously rendered L.A. game-world, while porting a high-powered, personal arsenal in your jersey pockets so you can, should you wish, indulge in the odd pedal-by ass-capping (P-Bac.)

Who hasn’t dreamed of using Molotov’s to thin out the traffic?

With the promise of glorious sunshine throughout the weekend, for my strictly solo, non-virtual ride, I decided to indulge in a little grand theft larceny myself, pinching bits of bike-touring company, Saddle Skedaddle’s “Giro di Castelnuovo.” route. They billed this as “a challenging guided road ride taking in some of the finest climbs in County Durham, including the infamous Passo di Crawleyside” – and promised around 130 kms (80miles) including 1,500 to 2,000 metres of climbing.

I would be modifying the route somewhat, mainly as I didn’t fancy riding into Newcastle to their start point, the Cycle Hub on the north side of the Tyne, just to ride straight back out again. I also planned a different route out of the Tyne valley to get onto the Whittonstall road, while adding an extra descent, so I could climb Burnmill Bank from the bottom, instead of joining it halfway up.

The bit of the route I wasn’t familiar with led from Blanchland to Stanhope, so, on my phone, I noted the 6 hamlets I’d need to pass through en route to Crawleyside and trusted the road signs would be good enough to see me through.

As promised, Saturday was a clear, cloudless day and already starting to warm up as I set off. I tucked a pair of arm warmers into a back pocket, just in case. I shouldn’t have bothered.

Down the hill, I pushed west through Blaydon, Ryton and Bywell to Crawcrook, where I swung north to cross the river at Wylam. Here I was caught once again behind the level crossing as the (tortuously) slow train to Newcastle rumbled past. I must have been on the road later than last time, or the train was actually running early, as I joined at the back of a small queue of cars and didn’t have to wait too long for the barriers to jerkily raise themselves and clear the way.

I pushed along the north bank of the river, pausing at Ovingham to admire the sudden appearance of a half-dozen or so scarecrows just outside the care home. Apparently, what I saw was only a small portion of the 58 fantastic scarecrows built for the village scarecrow competition. By far my favourite was a Trump figure, complete with MAGA cap and intent on wassailing, with a bottle of bleach to liberally imbibe from.

Back over the river at Stocksfield, I took the Broomley climb up through Shilford Woods. From there it was on to Whittonstall, perhaps the most hateful climb of the day – 2.5km up a slope that appears to get consistently steeper the closer you get to the top. It doesn’t help that, like the Ryals, it’s a straight road and you can see what’s coming from miles away as you approach.

By the time I dragged myself over the top I had all the evidence I needed that I’d left my climbing legs at home today and I began to wonder just how sensible my plan was.

I dropped down the other side into the Derwent valley, pausing just above Shotley Bridge for belated breakfast and quick rest to see if I could recover any.

Then it was back to the climbing, up through Snod’s Edge, noticing that traffic was much busier than I’d seen for a long time and being abused by a car passenger for … well for just being on a bike, I think. “Get off the road” was (I believe) the generally incoherent, but obviously wholly reasonable admonition.

Well, there’s something I haven’t really missed in the past few weeks of quieter, seemingly calmer and saner road usage, let’s welcome back all the arse-hat drivers and their super-witty passengers. Sadly, I didn’t have a pocket-full of Molotov’s to share with them.

I descended to skirt the reservoir, now seemingly open for business, with all the road blocks removed and stay away signs taken down. The Muggleswick silver Toyota pick-up is still there though and remains unsold (if you’re interested.)

The bikers were out in force, nosily running the lanes between Edmundbyers and Blanchland, as well as numerous picnicking older couples, oddly pulled just off the side of the road and reclining on camp chairs and rugs, I guess to watch the traffic pass by – maybe they’ve been missing the smell of exhaust fumes?

There were one or two cyclists out as well, but not as many as I would expect on such a glorious day.

Passing through Blanchland, I picked up signs for my first target, Baybridge and then in quick succession, Hunstanworth and Townfield. At this point I should have followed the signs to Rookhope, but a post knowingly pointed it’s stiff finger toward Stanhope, I knew that was my ultimate destination, so I followed it.

All seemed well for a short-time, before the road doubled-back on itself and I realised I was heading toward Blanchland again and guessed I’d then be climbing Meadow’s Edge in the opposite direction to the way I usually do. From there it made the most sense to head directly back through Edmunbuyers, by-passing Stanhope and the testing Passo de Crawleyside. Oh well, I’ve ridden it a few times before anyway. Maybe next time.

My wrong turn came with two notable features. The first was a long sloping field that, somewhat strikingly, seemed to have been overrun by purple wildflowers that the camera on my phone couldn’t do justice.

The second was being escorted out of the area by a large, white-bodied, black-winged bird that flew 20 metres in front of me for about a kilometre, screeching and jabbering back in disgust. Later investigation suggested I’d been dissed by an angry lapwing, who was apparently telling me in avian terms to “get off the road.”

My intuition proved correct and I was soon climbing up Meadow’s Edge, the first part of which seems much harder than the climb up the other side from Edmunbuyers. It’s also noticeably more barren and empty looking when you’re struggling upwards, rather then zipping down the road. Being relatively high up and endlessly exposed, I now had a stiff wind to contend with too and it was, naturally blowing head-on.

At the last junction and the highest point of the ride, I passed another cyclist I’m sure I seen around 2 hours ago approaching Whittonstall, apparently pondering which way to go next. Then I began my long, long descent toward Edmundbuyers, rattled over the cattle-grid and started to pick my way home.

I hadn’t covered the 80-miles promised by Saddle Skedaddle, but by the time I’d clambered up through Burnopfield, I’d topped 1.500 meters mark and found a few viable options for extending one of my favourite rides south of the river.

Plague Diaries – Week#10

Plague Diaries – Week#10

The Tranquillity of Solitude

*** NOTE: OFFICIALLY, THIS NEVER HAPPENED ***

Ok, now I know that last weeks stiff breeze was just a prelude, a dress rehearsal and a precursor for the main event, today’s sustained high winds. Apparently, according to the Met Office, 50 or 60 mph gusts are “very unusual” for this time of year. That’s good to know. Doesn’t make riding in it any easier though.

I could see the results of two days of tree-shaking blasts as soon as I stepped onto the pavement outside the house. It had given the neighbourhood trees a good thrashing and ripped off leaves to form a tattered, green confetti that had then been driven to shoal against the kerb at the side of the road.

The wind was unrelenting still and as I placed the bike on the road and swung a leg over the frame, I was being peppered with assorted debris, stripped from the trees and hurled down at me. This was going to be a little wild.

I decided I would set out and ride as much as possible into the wind to start with, try and get the worst bits over with and hopefully have a tailwind for the way back. It seemed like a decent plan, I’m just not sure I executed it all that successfully.

I picked my way carefully down the hill, the front wheel twitching a little nervously whenever the buildings and hedges opened up to let the wind scour through. Taking the turn ridiculously wide at the bottom, I turned upriver and into constant driving gusts. This’ll be a nice work out, then.

Crossing the river at Newburn, I started to climb up toward Throckley, stopping briefly to watch the bunting left over from the VE Day celebrations audibly snapping and cracking in the wind.

Past Albermarle Barracks and into the wide open expanse approaching Harlow Hill, I was getting the full force of the wind head-on, my pace slowed to a crawl and it was a real grind

Every hedgerow offer a little sanctuary, but every gap where a gate cut through was a potential trap, funnelling the wind through to unexpectedly snatch at your wheels and send you careering across the road. Even the cows seemed to have had enough and they were all huddled miserably in the corners of the fields, like boats driven from their moorings and piled against the shore.

The Military Road was much busier than the last time I’d travelled it and, struggling to maintain a straight line and facing increased speeding traffic, I bailed at Whittle Dene, taking to quieter and less exposed country lanes.

The wind didn’t seem to deter the anglers here, the lane was lined with cars and the lakeside with their owners, all hunkered down against the chill blasts and to all intents and purposes (but, who knows?) enjoying themselves.

From the reservoir I picked up a typical club run route, up to Mowden and Wall Houses and then through to Matfen.

It seemed like the wind had scoured all other cyclists from the roads, even on these well-travelled and popular routes. Where was everyone? I only saw two or three solo riders out and about – there was definitely no flouting of social-distancing guidelines today.

Just through Matfen and as the road passed through a small copse of trees I would say (without even needing to invoke my provisional poetic licence) that I could actually hear the wind roaring as it shook the branches overhead.

Pushing past the turn for the Quarry, I had a vague notion of dropping down the Ryals and looping through Colwell and around Hallington Reservoir, before heading home. It wasn’t the best thought-out plan, something I realised the moment I started the long, slow grind toward the village of Ryal. The wind, now full-bore and head-on, was driving a sputtering, stinging rain straight into my face as well as applying maximum drag. Hmm, this was unpleasant.

After what seemed a ridiculously long and hard slog, I finally crested the hill and started the long drop down the other side, relived just to be able to freewheel a little bit – I had no intention of pushing hard, that seemed suicidal.

As it was, I can honestly say I’ve never had a less enjoyable traversal of the Ryals, even when travelling the other way, up its damned slopes!

The wind was an immense, bellowing, battering force, blasting cold rain straight at me, while intermittently trying to wrench the front wheel sideways. I fought the bike all the way down until the hedgerows closed in on either side of the road and offered some relative calm and still air. If I’d thought about it, perhaps this was the day I should have been riding up the Ryals and aiming for a wind-assisted PR.

I re-assessed things at the bottom of the climb, noting the weather had turned ominously grey and suspecting it was closing in, I changed plans, cut my intended route short and started to climb out through Hallington.

I then picked up the road through Little Bavington, followed by a fast run down the side of the Blyth valley toward Capheaton. I stopped here to munch a cereal bar and worry some sheep, before pressing on and running down toward the Snake Bends and Belsay, right down the white line in the middle of the road as the surface is so crappy to either side.

Then again, I did spot 3 or 4 huge mounds of stone chippings piled up at the junction with the road from Wallridge. Does this mean they’re going to resurface this stretch? That would be nice, it would also make the run-in to one of our regular cafe sprints much less of a tooth-jangling, jolting, jarring horror show. We live in hope.

I swept through Belsay, noticing the cafe was now open, for takeaway’s at least, then it was Ogle, Ponteland and home.

Back in the shelter of the house, my day ended on a low note when I dropped my Garmin directly into a fresh mug of tea, where it did a passable imitation of a mini depth-charge. I know they’re supposed to be water-resistant, but this was a real test of concept.

Rescued and exiled to a bag of rice to dry out for a couple of hours, I turned it on with some trepidation. All seems to be working fine, but my ride file had somehow been corrupted, or in Strava terminology, “malformed”.

Which obviously means …

Luckily for me I’m still using the Road ID app so the family can track and trace me when I’m out on my lonesome, enjoying the tranquillity of solitude.

So, while officially this ride didn’t ever happen and will never pad out my Strava statistics, at least I know where I’ve been.

BTW – the Road ID app is totally free, and is an invaluable safety net for lone cyclists – and I don’t just mean when Strava fails them. I even seem to recall reviewing it 5 years ago! https://surlajante.com/2015/10/14/the-road-id-app-review/

Ooph! that makes me feel old …

Plague Diaries – Week#9

Plague Diaries – Week#9

Solitude Standing

Well UK lock-down conditions have been eased, somewhat chaotically and confusingly, but eased nonetheless. In real terms it makes no difference to the viability of group riding, so I’m still in solo mode, as I head out on a bright, somewhat chilly, Saturday morning.

(Every time I see or hear Bo-Jo’s “Stay Alert” imperative I’m not only reminded how nonsensical it sounds, but also that old chestnut – “Be Alert. Britain Needs Lerts.”)

As I dropped down the Heinous Hill, I felt the wind warping through my wheels and tugging at the rims. It was the first, rather testy appearance of what would be an almost constant companion throughout the day, a nagging, stiff breeze and one that I’d be turning directly into as soon as I hit the valley floor.

I headed up river, looking to cross over at Wylam, but as I approached the bridge, the blinking lights at the level crossing brought me to a halt. A good few seconds later, the barriers jerked into motion and slowly lowered. I guess if I’d been quick I could have nipped across, a la Paris-Roubaix 2015, but there were no prizes at the end and no peloton to escape from, so I stayed put.

I would have been perfectly safe crossing as it seemed a ridiculoulsy long wait, maybe around 5 minutes before the train finally trundled past. It took so long in fact, that at one point I was eyeing up the pedestrian footbridge and considering hoisting the bike on my shoulder and tackling its steep stairs cyclo-cross style, up and over the tracks.

While we waited, the traffic built up behind me until there were perhaps 4 or 5 cars queued there. Otherwise un-noteworthy in more normal times, this has to be considered major congestion these days. If it had been a weekday, this massive “traffic jam” might even have made the local radio station’s travel bulletin.

As cars built up on my side of the tracks, cyclists built up on the other. The pair opposite me arrived at different times, but were obviously acquainted and had the chance to catch up, while a family of four loitered behind them.

Finally, the train rumbled through the junction, the barriers stuttered into motion and at last we were all able to get under way again.

I made my way along the Tyne Valley, through Ovingham and toward Stocksfield, following the path that runs close to the river. Rolling along happily despite the headwind, noticing the bright green verges were sprinkled and spangled with all kinds of wild flowers. I recognised bright, sunny fringed dandelion heads, delicately-hued bluebells, tall foxgloves and the emerging, still green-tinged-white of young cow parsley, but had very little idea what the hundreds of bright magenta flowers were, or their smaller, pale blue cousins.

Just past Stocksfield I picked up a shadow, who rode in my wake for a mile or two, riding the fine line between drafting and maintaining correct social distancing. I either lost him on one of the hills, or he turned early to take a different route, as he was gone by the time the road spat me out just above Corbridge.

I guess I could easily have crossed the A69 at any one of three or four points along my route, given the lack of traffic, but I was aiming for Aydon, where the bridge took me up and over the road. As I suspected traffic on the dual-carriageway below was relatively light, although not as empty as the last time I’d crossed over it.

I climbed out of the valley and was soon on familiar club-run roads heading toward Matfen, Just after the Quarry turn, I stopped for a quick break, before tackling the climb, then swinging left and following the road down and through to the Snake Bends, deliberately not sprinting toward them and quite enjoying the fact.

To add on a few more miles, I then took one of our standard cafe run-ins and reversed it, up and over the Rollers, sweeping around Bolam Lake and then heading to Hartburn via Angerton. I could write that on part of this route I actually had a bit of a cross-tailwind, instead of a full-bore headwind … but nobody would believe me.

Instead of turning right and climbing up to Hartburn, I stayed on the road that finally brought me out just before the village of Middleton. I don’t think we’ve ever been this way before, I certainly don’t recall ever seeing the Marlish Water site where “spring water takes over 150 years to slowly filter through the rock strata”.

I wonder if it’s worth the wait?

My next landmark was Middleton Bank, taken at a fairly relaxed pace, I was tiring now and looking to head for home. Over the top, I passed Spry flying in the opposite direction, looking cool and resplendent in a replica Maglia Rosa.

A few more moments passed and then, trailing just behind him, came his dad, Andeven, looking slightly less assured and chasing hard (although if you asked him, he’d probably just claim that he was just following correct social distancing protocol.)

I was on the way home now, passing many other cyclists heading in both directions. I stopped just outside Ponteland to pull on a pair of arm warmers. It turned out it was too warm to wear them, but too chill not too. Oh well.

I persevered while feeling a little too warm and was soon climbing back up the hill and home, another 100km’s solo banked under my wheels and in my legs.

Plague Diaries – Week#8

Plague Diaries – Week#8

Six-Hundred and Fifty Kays of Solitude

Well, six-hundred and forty-eight kilometres actually, since lock-down, but I do have a provisional poetic licence and besides, what’s 2km between friends?

That, by the way represents 31 hours and 14 minutes of solo riding, in my own company.

It’s just as well I almost like myself …

Today was the perfect day to build this total, the sky exposed in huge patches of blue, so the sun beamed down brightly for extended periods – strong enough and long enough in fact, that I would make a very credible start on this years tan lines – well, once I’d ditched the arm warmers, which only lasted until I’d made it to the bridge.

Across the river and went climbing straight back out of the valley, up Hospital Lane, through Westerhope and out onto typical club run roads. I looked at the route on Strava afterwards and was surprised how much it was pretty much a straight north-south line.

I went through Ponteland, Kirkley and then, after around 30km, I found myself at the junction for the road that would lead toward Whalton and homeward. I was enjoying myself though and still hadn’t had enough, so I took a right here, turning away from Whalton, to add on a further loop through Molesden and Meldon.

That makes it sound like I had some sort of grand plan in mind, but to be honest I was happy to be riding, revelling in the weather and instinctively following wherever my front wheel decided to take me.

I might have been riding solo, but I was far from alone and must have passed dozens and dozens of other cyclists, out enjoying the weather and their allotted exercise period. The majority were club riders, but there were also plenty of civilians too, typically with their saddles set too low and knees sticking out like knobbly wind-brakes.

No matter, everyone seemed genuinely happy and riding with a smile on their face and it was great to see so many people enjoying the simple, pure pleasure of piloting a bike. In fact the only dissenting voice I heard came from a horsewoman on a sleek-looking, grey horse. She seemed mildly disappointed the weather wasn’t blazingly hot and demurred when I suggested we had “a nice day for it.”

At the Gubeon, I passed Alhambra, flying in the opposite direction, our hastily shouted hello’s the only direct contact I’ve had with the club since this whole sorry Covid-19 episode began.

I completed my loop and stopped at a random gate just outside Belsay for a quick break and the now obligatory photo of the bike propped against a random piece of scenery.

It was here I noted the shiny black flying insects, swarming over the top of every hedgerow in some kind of mad mating, or feeding frenzy. I’d been aware of them throughout the ride, occasionally pinging off my specs, rattling around in the vents of my helmet and once even dive-bombing, kamikaze-style, straight at my mouth, I just hadn’t realised just how many of the blighters were out and about.

Still, they seemed harmless, if occasionally annoying when they wandered inadvertently into my path. I left them alone and for the most part, they left me alone too.

From my resting place, I picked up a road for Ponteland, which soon deposited me on the Ogle road and back on familiar terrain, as I started to retrace my steps. I noticed the rape seed is coming in strongly now, huge swathes of land stained a bright and alien, acid yellow.

Meh, fields didn’t look like that when I was a nipper.

As I crested the top of Berwick Hill, I found I was enjoying myself and still hadn’t had enough, so I went right instead of left and back-tracked through Ponteland and out onto the High Callerton road. At Callerton itself, I was a bit disorientated to find a massive new housing estate had sprung up since the last time I took this route. Surely it wasn’t that long ago?

I kept going, but wasn’t reassured I hadn’t missed a turn until the landscape became familiar again and I was once more passing through Westerhope.

From there, I worked myself down to the river, across Newburn Bridge and struck out down the valley again. At the Blaydon roundabout, I found I was enjoying myself and still hadn’t had enough, so I took another detour, heading right along the Derwent Valley to Rowlands Gill.

From there, I took in the climb up to Burnopfield. Cresting this final, major hill of the day, I decided that was it, I really had had enough, so with no more detours, I skipped straight along the Fell and home.

Plague Diaries – Week#4

Plague Diaries – Week#4

Just Me, Myself and I

So, 4 weeks in and so far, so good. The working week has settled into a solid routine and to be I’m still enjoying working from home, even after the novelty has worn off.

One of the main purposes in scrawling this blerg was to celebrate the unique experience that is the club run and it’s diverse pool of characters, endless craic, camaraderie and good humour. I’m thinking all that might be becoming a bit hard to recollect, after all if a week is a long time in politics, then four weeks without a club ride must be an eternity.

Here then is a timely reminder of what the club run means, not to me, but culled from the wise and measured words of my cycling comrades. This is what we’ve got to look forward to when this whole sorry episode is over. It’s taken from research conducting by Thing#1, who’s first assignment at University was to design a flyer to celebrate and promote a local group, or community and for some reason she thought a basket-case cycling club might be a good source of inspiration …

So, the first question of a series went: “outline three qualities of your cycling community that should be celebrated” and the answers were:

  • Looking out for others, connecting with the local countryside, respecting the environment.
  • Social interaction to improves sense of community, helping reduce carbon emissions, improving the health of the nation.
  • Diverse, friendly and supportive.
  • Friendliness, inclusivity, fun.
  • Making cycling more visible to the general public, helping the local café network(!), camaraderie.
  • Social interaction and exercise helping mental health, shared views and belief in promoting cycling.
  • The enthusiasm to ride as part of an often-marginalised community, the supportive way of treating each other and helping each other out, the appreciation of living and cycling in the North.
  • Inclusiveness, enthusiasm, high performance.
  • Sociable. Supportive. Inspiring.
  • Friendly. Approachable. Accepting.
  • Shared sense of purpose, fitness and health.
  • Teamwork – surprising for an individual sport but the team aspect is important. Getting a mate over a big climb, or working together to catch a breakaway are some of the best moments
  • Healthy – despite our love of cake, we all take our health seriously. Honest. Competition – the rides are just for fun. Except when the cafe is 10km away. Then everyone goes quiet and the speed slowly creeps up. It. Is. On. Race!!
  • The racing, the friendliness, the whole support from different clubs.
  • Camaraderie, humour, health and fitness.

More later …

Somehow we’ve survived without more stringent lockdown measures being imposed – no thanks to a small minority out there who obviously can’t stand spending any time alone, I don’t know, perhaps it’s in case they’re forced to confront their own shrivelled, selfish souls?

The weather has ticked up a notch too and Saturday’s forecast was to be as close to “shorts weather” as we’ve seen all year. A few chilly showers swept in overnight though, and the morning was still dank and chill. I paired knee warmers with shorts, light weight gloves and a long sleeved jersey and I was good to go.

I planned on running my favourite, much-travelled loop around the Derwent Reservoir, but didn’t fancy an early and cold tilt down the Heinous Hill to start with, so cut up the Fell to Burnopfield and dropped into the Derwent Valley from there.

Things were going well, other than the fact I had a severe case of earworm featuring, for some unfathomable reason, Dua Lipa. This stayed with me until I was skirting the reservoir and noted that the daffodils look lovely today and then The Cranberries took over.

Half way up Burnmill Bank and it had warmed up enough that I stopped to shed my gloves en route to cresting the top, where I stopped for a quick photo opp, before the fast descent to the reservoir.

The sign here told me I was entering the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and who am I to disagree.

And the daffodils look lovely today …

At Edmondbuyers I had a choice of continuing south, up into the hills toward Stanhope, or swinging north and picking my way to Blanchland. The cold, harsh headwind coursing down from the hills decided for me and I turned north, skirting the reservoir as I made for Blanchland.

I stopped again by one of the turn-offs to the reservoir to read the sign. It was clear enough.

I was starting to pass more and more groups of cyclists now, drawn out by the good weather and yet again only around half appeared to be riding solo, the others seemingly needing the security blanket of someone else to ride alongside them.

The early mist had burned off by now, the sun was high in a peerless blue sky and my shadow sharp and clear. It was bright and warm enough to persuade me to doff my casquette. This is not meant to be a euphemism along the lines of bashing the bishop, but it is a testament to the central vent in my Ekoi helmet that provides such a constant cold stream of air over my head, I’ve been wearing a cap under it since late September.

I zipped down into Blanchland and climbed out through the bitching 25% gradients on the other side. I was feeling pretty sprightly and racked up a series of personal Strava PR’s, probably more a reflection on how slowly I’ve grovelled up this slope in the past, rather than anything to crow about.

I turned right at the same point as last week, near the site of the Tunguska Incident, before the long descents of Park Bank and South Tank Woods, where I tucked up low on the bike and zipped down, passing an almost continuous line of cyclists toiling up the other way, (one of who may, or may not have been, my brother-in-law.)

From there I picked my way home, tacking on the climb up to Byermoor, before admitting I’d had more than had my allotted portion of daily exercise and sweeping back home, tired, heavy-legged, but happy.

The Plague Diaries Week#3 (Monday Supplement)

A Guest Post by Tony Clay

Another guest blogger has kindly stepped up to the mark in our time of need! This contribution is from my old (old, old, old!) mate, Tony Clay, who describes himself as a long-distance member of our cycling club, before explaining that by this he means he lives a long way from Newcastle and not that he rides long distances anymore!

Currently residing in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, Tony still has dual nationality and a Geordie passport and recalls his formative years “happily riding around Northumberland and Durham with some great people.”

This is a faithful telling of how he (and then, by association, yours truly) came to be cyclists, rather than … I don’t know … golfers? … lard-arsed sofa surfers? … sane and mellow normal people without a Lycra fetish? Maybe all, or none of these.


A Revelation on the Road to Damascus Hexham by Tony Clay

For the record, my other clubs – Tyne Road Club (at the same time as Joe Waugh(1)), Whitley Bay Road Club (at the same time as Mick Bradshaw(2)) Tyne Velo, Sheffield Phoenix, Sharrow CC, Meersbrook CC, Rutland CC (at the same time as Malcolm Elliott(3)), Thurcroft CC and my current local Club – Rotherham Wheelers (100 years old this Summer).

I’ve a couple of years on SLJ and have known him since I was 14. One of my fond memories is when he and I went on a YHA cycling tour around Devon and Cornwall in 1978. We had some laughs. I think it was £2 per night in the Youth Hostels back then and I booked and paid in advance by Postal Order, do they even exist today? (Mr. Google suggests that indeed, they still do, but I’ve never heard any one use, or even talk about them for decades!)

But anyway, let’s go back to my childhood… I had to visit a Psychotherapist some years ago and, though it sounds cliched, that was actually about the first thing he said to me, ‘Tell me about your childhood.’

Well, there was a small gang of us 14/15 year olds at school, a mixture of lads and lasses who ‘knocked about’ together, all very innocent. We all went to the after-school clubs, the youth club, the ‘movies’, walking, camping and canoeing together. Simpler times.

The summer holidays in 1974 saw some lovely weather.  We all got the train to South Shields now and again for a day at the beach with Frisbees, burgers, coke and ice cream.

I can’t remember who suggested it but someone said, ‘let’s go for a bike ride’.

YEAH! Brilliant!

But I didn’t have a bike…

But, asking around I managed to borrow Dick Taylor’s bike. The bike was a Sturmey Archer, 3-speed ‘all steel’ Raleigh. I’m not sure what happened to the bike, but Dick Taylor went on to a place in the GB Olympic Kayak Team and, even at 16, he was quite an impressive physical specimen, tall, blonde and ‘fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog’. Perhaps he got that way riding his beast of a bike?

So, beastly bike sorted, where would we go? 

The obvious choice was South Shields, only a 20-mile round trip and we could go on the beach with Frisbees, burgers, coke and ice cream.  Perfect!

But no.

We decided to go to Hexham.

Initially not a bad idea as we knew Hexham quite well as we had been there many times at ‘Dukeshouse Wood’ School Camp, very happy times.

What we didn’t factor in was the distance… we didn’t even think about what is essentially a 50-mile round trip.

50 miles! I’d never ridden further than the local shops on my tricycle as a bairn!

So the ‘Liste de Engagements’ was:-

‘Rowesy’ riding his brother’s Holdsworth.

‘Fat Rowesy’, – no relation and earned the epithet “fat” principally to differentiate the two Rowesy’s. Fat Rowesy was on his brother’s Carlton Kermesse (a lovely bike which I later bought off him.)

‘Fat John’ on a BSA Tour of Britain.

‘Erra’ on a flat handlebar Raleigh Roadster.

‘Gutha’ on his brother’s Carlton, horribly hand painted with Hammerite.

‘Doddsy’ on his very own (he was posh) Carlton Ten. A really sound touring bike, in mint condition. They sell for around £250 to the ‘Eroica’ enthusiasts today.

‘Maundy’ on his PUCH (PUKE!) International, really cheap and horrible, horrible, horrible; (I could never determine if it was meant to be pronounced puke, or if this was some subtle kind of Austrian humour and should perhaps be pronounced poosh. You know, like a poosh bike? Ah, forget it.)

And…

‘Bryan’ so utterly nondescript he didn’t even earn a nickname… and I can’t remember his bike either!

(It’s brilliant to realise that teenage kids are every bit as accomplished at coming up with pithy, creative nicknames as some of our, err, “mature” professional sportsmen. I’m looking at you Wrighty, Gazza, Giggsy, Waughy, Cookie, Floody et al. Simple rules – if the surname is too long, truncate it a bit, then all you have to do is stick an “ee” or “ah” on the end. Why didn’t I think of that, could have save myself a huge amount of time and soul-searching!)

Having no idea what we were letting ourselves in for, nobody had any food or drink and a couple of us didn’t even take any money, so we all had to chip in to get them their ‘burgers, coke and ice cream’ when we got there.

The journey and return is perhaps a story for another day, but the key moment in that ride was when I swopped bikes with Fat Rowesy for a few miles as we passed through Corbridge.

Going from a 3-speed steel ‘clunker’ to a real racing bike was amazing. A real revelation. His Carlton Kermesse had 10 gears, tubular tyres and lots of alloy kit. It zinged. It seemed to smoothly glide along and was utterly effortless to ride.

That is the precise moment, 46 years ago, when I got hooked on cycling.

To be continued?


(1) Joseph Alexander Waugh.
Twice National Hill Climb Champion
King of the Mountains,1975 Milk Race
2nd, at 5 Seconds, 1976 Milk Race, riding in support of the winner Bill Nickson
2nd to Robert Millar (Pippa York) National Road Race Championships 1979
Gold Medallist 100km TTT 1982 Commonwealth Games, with Malcolm Elliott

(SLJ: Also occasionally known as Joey Wah-oogah to eagle-eyed readers of this blerg.)


(2) Mick Bradshaw.

Gold, Silver and Bronze Medallist in National Time Trial Championships at 25, 50 and 100 miles.

And, after a heart transplant he came back to win medals in the World Transplant Games, coincidentally held in Newcastle, one tough cookie.

(3) Malcolm Elliott.
What needs to be said?
National Hill Climb Champion, National Road Race, National Criterium Champion, Milk Race Winner (and holds the record for the number of stage wins), Tour de France rider (read ‘Wide Eyed And Legless’), Vuelta a Espana Points Classification Winner, Gold Medallist 100km TTT 1982 Commonwealth Games AND the Road Race… and was still racing, very successfully, as a pro aged 49! And a lovely friendly guy!

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

The Plague Diaries – Week#3

Splendid Isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sage advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awful execution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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