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’.
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!
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.)
‘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!
I wasn’t out last week, because, well … World Cup, baby! My work colleague, the bloke formerly known as Fat Dave, eruditely swayed my internal dilemma by arguing it had been 12 long years since the England rugby team last made a final, so I wasn’t likely to have this opportunity again until 2031, when I’d be … ulp … fast bearing down on my 70th birthday.
Apparently, in joining 12.8 million other disappointed TV-viewers, I’d missed a decent day for a bicycle ride, with an assortment of around 20 Celts, Continentals and hardened rugby-deniers out and about. It had obviously been a complete contrast to today, where, with temperatures hovering around freezing and the potential for ice on the roads, social media was already active with “should I ride?” queries.
Ride leader for the day, Benedict, had already peered outside and determined the conditions were marginal, at best. Meanwhile Aether was lobbying (apparently unsuccessfully) for a later start to give the sun a fighting chance, just time enough to eke out a little bit of warmth and reduce the likelihood of ice.
I’d stepped outside to pull the bike from the shed and immediately hustled back in, to change my thick base layer for the thickest I had. I pulled an old Castelli, long-sleeved, thermal jersey over this, topped it off with a winter jacket and stuffed a light rain jacket in my back pocket for god measure. I wasn’t expecting rain, but felt an extra windproof layer might be useful.
Shorts under winter tights, disco headband, buff, glove liners, thick gloves, trusty Thermolite socks, shoes and shoe covers and I felt I was just about good to go.
So I did.
I rolled slowly down the hill, looking for any signs of ice creeping out from the gutters, while carefully avoiding the wet and slippery mass of yellow leaves that lined the road.
Halfway down and the world suddenly turned white, as I passed into a thick, still and smothering shroud of freezing fog, that appeared to have been poured into the valley bottom. I checked my lights were on and blinking away furiously, as I slipped silently into this dim and clinging mist.
The windscreens of all the cars parked up on the side of the road were opaque with thick feathers of ice, while the grass was frozen stiff, white and curled up protectively. The cold struck at my fingers and toes and any area of exposed flesh on my face and I began to wonder if perhaps I needed further layers on top of my layers. It was chilly.
I don’t know if the stillness of the air played a part, but the Blaydon roundabout stank of spilled diesel. I couldn’t help channelling my inner Colonel Kilgore, but luckily no one was around to overhear my mad mutterings:
“Smell that? You smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell? It smells like … victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…”
2℃ the readout on the factory unit told me, as I crossed the train lines, before taking to the empty pavement to defy the traffic lights and cross the river without waiting. The bridge seemed to be floating in mid-air and if any rowers had been out I wouldn’t have spotted them through the opaque, milky whiteness that obscured the river surface.
Climbing out the other side of the valley, the transition was just as sudden, misty-fog giving way to clear, bright air between one pedal stroke and the next.
A cold but brilliant sun now bounced off the wet road, turning intermittent spots of diesel into shining, metallic-rainbow coloured blooms. I was obviously following a badly wounded bus and, with a little better knowledge of routes, I could probably have identified it from the tell-tale trail it had left in its wake and tracked it all the way back to its lair.
Distractions aside, I arrived at the meeting place at the usual time to find a solitary G-Dawg standing and waiting astride his fixie. We agreed we were likely to have a very small group defying the bitter cold to ride today.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting place:
While we waited to see who else was stupid brave enough to be out, we compared notes on the rugby. Neither of us had been remotely surprised by the result and we agreed the most deserving team had won on the day.
And, moving swiftly on …
We were eventually joined by Alhambra, OGL and two relatively new guys, lets call them Cowboys and Bison for now … just, because.
Alhambra won the prize for having the filthiest, mud-spattered bike and was immediately taken to task by OGL.
He did a quick, comedy double-take and tried on an astonished expression. “I swear it was clean when I left the house.”
No one was buying and he finally admitted he’d been so busy decorating at home, he’d never gotten around to the part of his to-do list that included cleaning his bike.
OGL was leant on for an extended discourse on the different through-axle options for disc wheels, as Bison is in the process of buying a new bike. At least he didn’t physically have to do anything, although it remains quite a popular option for someone to turn up with this, that, or the other wrong with their bike and needing some expert tinkering with.
G-Dawg expected that sooner or later someone would take this to the ultimate extreme and walk to the meeting place carrying an unrideable bike, before demanding OGL laid healing hands on it, to make everything work again.
Zardoz was the last to join us, making up a slightly less than magnificent seven. That looked like being it for the day.
A couple of minutes past our usual departure time, with no more joiners likely, we discussed ride options and decided to stick to main roads and bus routes that we hoped would be gritted and ice free, then off we went.
I pushed out onto the front with G-Dawg. It was a largely still day, so I held position for most of the ride. One benefit of this, I found when I got home, was a pristine, completely clean jacket, lacking the usual spots and dots of road grime picked up from the filthy, wet roads when riding amongst wheels with variable mudguard coverage.
Speaking of which, OGL wondered if anyone else had seen the “10 best winter bikes” feature on one of the inter-webby sites that cyclists are supposed to follow. Much to his amusement every other “winter” bike recommended had a carbon fibre frame and, more astonishingly, not a single one was shown with mudguards. Evidently these were designed for the South of France, not the harsh realities of a North East winter.
It was still decidedly chilly once we’d left the exotic micro-climate of the transport interchange centre bus station behind us, but, try as we might, we couldn’t find any ice and, all in all, if you got the protection right, it was a pleasant day for a ride.
G-Dawg was happy just to be able to wear his quilted and heavily insulated bike jacket again, something so warm, he reckons conditions only warrant its use just once or twice a year.
There were no Flat White adherents out with us and it wasn’t cold enough to impose UCI/Flat White extreme weather protocols, so we passed by the cafe at Kirkley Cycles with nothing more than a wistful glance and kept going.
At Whalton about 30km into the ride we called a halt to ponder our route options. This gave Bison a chance to spot the defibrillator inside an old-fashioned red phonebox and idly wonder if it could transmit a shock powerful enough to restore feeling to his toes.
OGL set course straight to the cafe, while the rest of us took on a loop to Bolam Lake, with Cowboys darting off the front as we took the hill out of the village.
“That’s a very early break for the cafe,” G-Dawg mused.
I assured him it was more likely just a desperate attempt to warm up, before I pushed up alongside Cowboys on the front.
At the lake, Zardoz decided it was still too early for us to head to the cafe, so we tacked on another few miles, before heading off for some much deserved coffee and cake.
Main topics of conversation at the Coffee stop:
Zardoz had been watching video of King Ted winning the Giro in 1974 and marvelled at the sheer grind and superhuman effort of climbing mountains with massive gears back in the day.
“Ah,” G-Dawg interjected, putting himself in the shoes of one of those prototypical hard-men racers, “Only 5 miles to the top of this mountain, so only another hour of this and then I can sit down again!”
OGL remembered the first time the cycling community were introduced to the compact, 34-tooth chainring that would allow almost anyone to spin up hills, rather than grunt, gurn and grind their way painfully upwards. The general consensus in the North East was that it would never catch on and it was really only for the most effete of poseurs.
“It didn’t help that they couldn’t work out whether it was supposed to go on the front, or the back of the bike.” G-Dawg quipped.
Talk of transgender cyclists, by way of Caster Semenya, led to G-Dawg realising he’d heard Pippa York on racing commentary, but had never actually seen her.
“You can still tell wee Bobby’s in there,” OGL said.
“Woah, that’s a bit personal,” Bison decided, “Anyway, you do know that size doesn’t matter, don’t you.”
Apparently it does though, as this led OGL and G-Dawg to recollect attending one of the Braveheart, Scottish Cycling dinners, alongside German track sprinter, the rather disproportionately shaped Robert Forstermann.
The 5’7″ tall Fostermann is renowned for having astonishing 34 inch thighs.
The chafing must be something awful and I argued he was the only person who could start a fire just by running down the street.
G-Dawg recalled the bizarre sight of stumbling into the Gents toilets only to find Robert Forsterman and a bunch of other pro-cyclists, lined up with their kecks around their ankles, comparing thigh girth.
OGL said that Forstermann had then appeared in a kilt, perhaps to more easily flash his famous thighs, possibly as a tribute to his hosts, or maybe because a visit to Scotland proved a eureka moment for a man for whom finding trousers that fit must be a real headache.
Talk of men in skirts and dresses reminded Zardoz of a Grayson Perry talk he’d recently heard. As well as being a ceramic artist of some repute, TV personality and cross-dresser, Perry is a keen mountain-biker who lauded the development of dropper seat posts, so he could choose to ride his bike in either cycling shoes, or wedges.
Zardoz reported that Perry has developed a whole routine about different cycling tribes, in which he suggests the term MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) is a bit of a misnomer and he thinks PUFFIN is far more accurate, or in Perry’s words, Piss Ugly Fat Feckers in Nylon.
82-year old Russ Mantle got a name check for becoming the first person in the UK to cycle one million miles – the equivalent of completing this year’s Tour de France route over 470 times. On average, the redoubtable Mr, Mantle reports riding around 15,000 miles every year and is looking forward to his next million miles.
With that as inspiration, we set out to pad our own, much more modest mileage totals and make our way home, deciding to stick to our usual route, although we suspected the lane through to Ogle would be flooded.
The good news was the lane was dry, the bad news was that Cowboys picked up a puncture. While OGL conducted an FNG Masterclass in puncture repair, we stood around and did what we do best, providing a running commentary, talked a load of bolleaux and mercilessly taking the piss.
On the repair front, things were going well, until OGL went to retrieve his pump from his bike and couldn’t detach it from the bottle cage.
“It’s not going to budge, do you think the hose is long enough to stretch from there?” I queried.
“If not, he’s going to have to bench-press the entire bike over his head 50 or 60 times to work the pump and get some air into the tyre,” G-Dawg suggested.
Luckily, the pump was finally released and could be applied in the more traditional manner. Bison watched on intently, admitting he wouldn’t have a clue how to change a tube, but then again, it didn’t matter anyway, because he never carried any spares!
I look forward to the certainty of his future induction into our Hall of Shame, reserved for those cyclists who find themselves stranded by the side of the road without the means and wherewithal to repair a simple mechanical problem.
Back up and running, on we went and it wasn’t long before G-Dawg was towing me through the Mad Mile and I could strike out for home. The fog had burned off by the time I was dropping back into the valley. Unfortunately, so had any reserves of energy I had left, I was running on fumes and starting to seriously bonk. I know this, because my mind became obsessively fixated on Mars bars, confectionery I would never even consider buying under normal circumstances.
Fighting the urge to succumb to sugary-sweetness almost as much as I fought dwindling energy resources and the gradient, I crawled with glacial slowness up the Heinous Hill and finally home, somehow without any detours to the local shops for sustenance. A victory of sorts.
YTD Totals: 6825 km / 4,240 miles with 89,241 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 111 km / 69 miles with 1,037 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 16 minutes
Average Speed: 26. km/h
Group size: 28 riders, 1 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Bright and breezy
The weather forecast had predicted wall-to-wall sunshine, but as I stepped outside I realised the air was still surprisingly chilly and quickly ducked back inside to find and pull on some arm warmers. A quick squirt of WD-40 cleared up an annoying, squeaky cleat and I was off.
The ride across to the meeting point was without incident, until Postman Plod (the miserable sod) clocked me approaching a roundabout at speed and decided his carefully honed-Formula 1 race reactions and uber-powerful van could safely squeeze into the gap. There may well have been … just … enough time and space, perhaps for Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes-Benz, but there certainly wasn’t for Plod and his coughing and spluttering van, especially after his shaky, jerky start, that perhaps only Billy-Ray Cyrus’s lyricist would have approved of.
He lurched out onto the roundabout in a loud squeal of tyres … and immediately stalled. I slalomed round the van, stationary in middle of the road and gave the driver my most censorious head shake, which I’m absolutely certain had precisely zero effect.
The only other thing of note on my journey was a de-badged, souped-up, boy-racer saloon car of rather indeterminate make, that had custom alloys in a deep, glittery purple. Dubious. Probably expensive and worth more than the rest of the car combined, but very dubious.
I met up with the Colossus of Roads approaching the meeting point and we rolled in together.
Main topic of conversation at the meeting point:
The Colossus reported that G-Dawg was still away on holiday, in his element and thoroughly enjoying sitting in cafes in Keswick, watching the world go by. I suggested all he really needed for it to be perfect break was an accompanying bevvy of cyclists to sit around the table and talk bolleaux with him.
G-Dawg is due to return tomorrow in time for the club 25-mile time-trial. The Colossus re-affirmed he had no intention of subjecting himself to such pain and misery, suggesting he has the same aversion to time-trials as root canal treatment.
Talk turned to gyms, with the Colossus impressed he’s somehow managed to avoid paying his gym membership, while somehow retaining access. I declared my own interest in gyms can be placed in pretty much the same category as time-trials and root canal.
OGL had his own tale of the gym – recently having found himself on a static bike next to four professional athletes, who turned out to be Newcastle United footballers. They were also (according to his tale) utterly clueless and totally disorganised.
“Ah, that’ll be their back four then.” Caracol quipped. (Oh, come on, you’d have to pay a host of script-writers a fortune for a killer line like that.)
OGL of course, never shy in coming forward, had to point out exactly what they were doing wrong and ensure they all benefited from an unexpected and unasked for dip in his vast pool of knowledge and experience. Surprisingly, he suggested one or two weren’t particularly receptive to his input …
The Garrulous Kid took me to task for grammatical errors and poor spelling throughout my blerg and wondered if I wasn’t perhaps dyslexic. He suggested my writing is littered with elementary and unforgiveable typo’s, such as spelling maths as maffs and three as free. Shoddy, must do better.
With the designated ride leader, the Hammer unavoidably delayed, Big Dunc manfully stepped up to the breach and determined we should stick to the route that had previously been planned and posted.
OGL interjected with some scaremongering, suggesting any pre-designated group hierarchy, or pre-publicised route would see the ride leader legally responsible and liable for everyone’s well-being, conduct and safe return.
“Ok, then” Big Dunc announced smoothly, “This is the wholly impromptu route we planned earlier.”
OGL then suggested that, as there were only 20 of us, we didn’t need to split into two groups.
“Huh?” The Colossus observed from his perch on high (atop the wall), “There’s got to be more than 20 of us here.”
“28 at the last headcount,” I confirmed, “Looks like we’re rounding down. Bigly.”
We pushed off, clipped in and rode out, but not before delaying our start slightly to deliberately manufacture several distinct groups on the road, maintaining the gaps until we were well clear of the suburbs and busy roads.
By the time we past the Cheese Farm, we were all together again. A bit further on and we cleverly stopped for a further regrouping, sprawled across the middle of a road junction (I’ve still no idea why) with seemingly no regard for other road users. From there we plunged downhill, before braking, almost to a standstill, for a sharp left turn that deposited us at the bottom of the Mur de Mitford.
On the uphill drag the order got all mixed up and I found myself riding alongside a girl I didn’t recognise. She told me she’d been out with the club on a couple of Sunday runs, but this was her first on a Saturday.
Originally from San Francisco, she’d been brought to the far more exotic environs of North East England on a temporary work assignment and had brought her bike with her. This was a particularly smart, vintage, steel Moser in blue and chrome and called “Peggy”. It was also a bit of a family heirloom, as it was the bike her mother had used when she had first started riding and had been in the family since new. How cool is that?
I noticed another rider I didn’t recognise, abruptly pull over to the side of the road.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Just a puncture.”
“Puncture!” I instantly shouted, to let everyone know and stop.
“Oh, I’m not with your group.”
Ah! Infiltrator. Oh, bugger. Sorry, guys.
At Netherwitton, we stopped to split the group, with most heading up the Trench, while I followed a handful of others on the longer route up Ritton Bank and the Rothley Lakes climb. Faced with his nemesis of the Trench, a climb he’d been complaining about miles in advance, Sneaky Pete immediately sneaked away to get a bit of a head start on everyone else, while I turned around and tagged onto the back of the group for the longer ride.
Heading up Ritton Bank, a cry of “Ease up!” floated up from the back, which was rather unfortunate as it immediately set Kermit off singing, “Ease up, Mother Brown, Ease up, Mother Brown.” Really, there’s no need for that.
We stopped at the top to regroup and pressed on, hitting the long, dragging climb up toward Rothley Crossroads, where the group splintered and it was every man for himself. Half way up the climb my Garmin beeped indignantly at me – I’d done 45 miles already and were still some miles out from the café, this was going to be a long one.
I hung around at the back, making sure we left no one behind, but needn’t have worried too much as everyone waited at the crossroads to regroup anyway.
Off again, I stayed with the front runners as we hit Middleton Bank, just so I could test my climbing legs. They were surprisingly still good and I romped up fairly easily (by my standards anyway) before pulling over to wait for our stragglers.
Others pushed on, while some waited with me, so we had a fairly tight group of half a dozen or so picking up speed as we made the run toward the café. As we swooped through Milestone Woods, Aether braked for a lorry turning on the opposite side of the road and I swept passed and attacked the rollers hard, managing to open up a sizable gap on everyone else.
Dropping down the other side, Taffy Steve led the chase behind, while I freewheeled as much as possible to try and save my legs for the final climb. I rounded the corner and dug in hard, but I was caught by Biden Fecht on the last ramp and we rolled into the café together.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
In the café queue, I found myself discussing plausible deniability with Taffy Steve (I don’t recall why) when he injected a few lines of the Usual Suspects into the dialogue. This gave him pause and he then mused, “There’s someone in the club nicknamed The Kaiser, isn’t there?”
I affirmed there was indeed.
“You know who it is don’t you?”
“You probably call him something else, though.”
“Ok, but don’t tell me, it seems fitting that I don’t know who Keyser Soze is.”
Sneaky Pete appeared to prove he isn’t quite as sneaky as he should be. In the absence of her regular man-servant, Captain Black, he had somehow been coerced into collecting Princess Fiona’s coffee refills and he was now wandering around carrying her dainty, little cup aloft like a trophy. Charging it with coffee and milk, he checked to ensure it was an acceptable colour and he would be granted the royal seal of approval, before returning with his prize.
I suggested about 10cc of milk would be about right …
Out in the garden we were plagued by swarms of tiny black flies that seemed particularly enamoured with the colour yellow. The relevant bits of Reg soon became flecked with a mass of shiny black carapaces and one or two of the critters infiltrated my cake. They neither improved or detracted from the flavour, but perhaps the added protein was beneficial.
The Garrulous Kid appeared out of nowhere to challenge Caracol, “You’re from Baff aren’t you, or is it Barf?”
I tried to settle this issue once and for all, by applying impeccable (and therefore dubious) Sur La Jante logic, “Look, you never hear that Jesus rode into Bethlehem on his arse, do you, so why would it be pronounced Barth.”
“Ok,” The Garrulous Kid was back on track now, “Is Baff not near London?”
“Your right, Bath is – not near London.” Caracol replied dryly and perhaps a bit too cryptically for the Kid.
We next learned the Garrulous Kid had never heard of the Beach Boys, that “Good Vibrations” sounds weird and dodgy and that all the Beatles songs are rubbish. I’m pleased we’ve got that cleared up.
I did later find out that, before my arrival the Garrulous Kid was extolling his love of wrestling, which I rank alongside his other inexplicable and slavish devotion to things I loathe, such as Gordon Ramsay, The Hangover series of films, Bear Grylls Celebratory Island, Porsche’s, BMW drivers and the Young Conservative Party. It wouldn’t surprise me if he liked golf and tennis too, but I digress.
Intent on tripping him up, OGL challenged the Garrulous Kid to prove he was a true aficionado of the “sport” and tell everyone Big Daddy’s real name.
“Oh, you mean Shirley Crabtree?” The Garrulous Kid replied, without skipping a beat.
An obviously narked and momentarily speechless (no small feat in itself) OGL then countered with a demand to know Robert Millar’s new name, but was quickly shouted down by everyone for being unfair. After all, and to the best of my knowledge, neither Robert Millar or Philippa York have ever been particularly renowned in wrestling circles.
On the return home I spent some time with Caracol and we concluded that Fabio Aru had all the characteristics of a young, awkward, amiable and lolloping Labrador. Caracol conjured up a delightful picture of Aru in the Astana team car, sitting in the front seat, head out of the window and tongue lolling in the airstream.
It’s a heavy burden to bear, but I think the lolloping Aru and the often aggressive and cerebral, Romain Bardet might just be our best chance to keep Le Tour interesting in the face of Chris Froome, Sky dominance and the devastation of the sprint contenders.
On the last run before the split, Taffy Steve was asking what I had in store for the rest of the day. I have a fairly set routine on a Saturday afternoon that involves tackling the family ironing while watching cycling, or failing that a TV box set or two, Breaking Bad, Penny Dreadful, Black Sails, The Wire, or something similar. I told him today it would be me, the ironing board, the family laundry and the Tour de France Stage 8 from Dole to Station des Rousses.
He wondered if I ironed any quicker when the action hots up in the cycling – but sadly not, in fact the reverse is generally the case, which is why I’ve petitioned the UCI to ensure only long, boring sprint stages, or individual time-trials are held on a Saturday. Taffy Steve recalled an aunt who used to knit through rugby matches and said every 5 metre scrum heralded a staccato flurry of needle clacking and a sudden surge in woolly jumper production.
And then we were done for another week and I was turning off for home and my appointment with the ironing board.
YTD Totals: 4,294 km / 2,668 miles with 50,396 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 102 km/63 miles with 754 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 18 minutes
Average Speed: 23.6 km/h
Group size: 26 riders, 1 FNG
Weather in a word or two: Damp
While last week’s weather watch always showed a picture that was unremittingly bleak and rain-swept, this Saturday’s forecast was for grey, cloudy and overcast skies, but revealed not the slightest hint of a shower. It was disappointing then to wake to the sound of rain ticking heavily on the windows. Hmm, that wasn’t in the plans.
Luckily, by the time I’d dressed, had breakfast and assembled all the usual crap I cart around with me, the rain was easing and by the time I reached the meeting point it had all but cleared away. Maybe a soaking like last weekend wasn’t on the cards after all?
Main topics of discussion at the start
The limping BFG was firmly ensconced at the meeting point when I arrived, astride what he described as his Frankenbike, made from lots of spare and cast-off parts he’d found “just lying around.” Ooph! His idea of a Frankenbike is substantially better appointed than my best bike and far, far too good for a winter “hack.” I did however question his oddly squared off, Prologo Nago saddle which had “nack” stencilled on the rails and I hoped this wouldn’t prove prophetic.
OGL was even more demanding, wanting to know what make of chain he had fitted and railing about mixing Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano components. Sacrilegious, apparently, although he did admit it does usually work.
The attention-seeking, BFG then tried to insist he was actually a camera-shy, retiring sort of individual and as supporting evidence cited the fact that he’d only stuck a camera on his bike once. He’d then managed to spear his head on an errant branch and crashed horribly, captured for all the world to see in full technicolour glory.
This, he suggested, was all the proof needed to confirm his shy and reclusive nature, as he blamed the crash on being pressured into performing for the camera, it had felt unnatural, he’d tensed up and then it all went horribly wrong. A very sound and compelling argument I feel. Especially if made by someone who doesn’t have a record of errant riding and occasional accidents …
Meanwhile, after all the time, effort and money Rab Dee invested into his BMC Time Machine, it had proved far too refined for the hurly-burly of club runs and the ravaged and parlous state of the local roads. He’d cut his losses, stripped and sold the frame and taken on-board (with far less aggravation and delay in getting it roadworthy) a Cannondale Evo instead.
Following on from last week’s discussions about G-Dawg’s OCD tendencies and how he would be unable to exist in the same house as a dirty and neglected bike, Taffy Steve hatched a cunning plan to utilise him as some kind of cycling-focussed, surrogate Rumpelstiltskin, if you can imagine such a thing. This scheme involved finding a bike in a poor state of repair, smuggling it into G-Dawg’s house and returning the next morning, when it would undoubtedly be magically restored to its full pristine glory.
It seemed a workable plan, after all this is a man who buffs his chain to a mirror shine, managed to retain spotless white bar tape for over a year of hard riding, gets nostalgic about the smell of Duraglit and bemoans the trend towards black spokes that “you can’t really polish” (although I’m sure he still tries.)
I suspected this wasn’t a good week to trial the scheme however, as both G-Dawg and Son of G-Dawg were still on their “best” summer bikes and I suspect they would have their work cut out cleaning those after today’s ride.
Zeb arrived on what was truly a Frankenbike, in a fugly shade of flat, paint-primer in battleship grey. True to his upbringing and in the spirit of cobbled-together, gimcrack solutions loved by the Prof, he’d substituted a missing stay on an antique set of aluminium mudguards, with one taken from a set of plastic Race Blades. I can’t decide if this type of innovation is clever or parsimonious – perhaps though he’s taking his newly acquired persona of poor, penniless student just a little too far?
Meanwhile, seemingly just to rub his nose in it, his sparring partner for the day, Jimmy Cornfeed was luxuriating in the double-protection provided by both full length mudguards and an ass-saver. I know we had really bad weather last week, but this still seemed like overkill.
Taffy Steve declared that the “time sponsored by Garmin” was ripe for our departure and in the absence of Crazy Legs invited me to lead out with him. We wove our way through the aimlessly milling crowd of cyclists to the kerb, pushed off, clipped in and were off for another frolicking and fun-filled ride.
After a bit of slow pedalling and waiting to regroup, we finally formed up and beZ and Jimmy Cornfeed took up the front and led us through the suburbs and out onto the open roads. Riding behind beZ I couldn’t help noticing that his jerry-rigged mudguard was swaying extravagantly from side-to-side like a drunken, snake-charmed cobra, while his saddle-bag did a particularly deft impersonation of a sagely nodding dog. Between the two objects moving in odd, contradictory patterns I began to feel a rising sense of motion sickness, so I was immeasurably pleased when the pair relinquished the front as we turned off for the Cheese Farm.
At the head of the group and rolling around a corner beside Taffy Steve, we startled a young deer that was obviously picking its way across the road and had almost made it to the other side. It panicked and spun around to backtrack, the hooves skittering and sliding across the slimy tarmac as it sought to find a purchase. It reached the edge of the road, found some traction and sprang away through the hedge. Gone in an instant. With a flash of white scut.
As we started to pull the group up Bell’s Hill we were closing in on one of the Prof’s preferred peeing-places and predictably the call came up that his infinitesimally small and weak bladder had already started nagging him and we should stop.
At the junction on the crest of the climb though, two toffs* stood astride horses, calling urgently down to me, “I say, cycling-chappies, which way are you going?”
I indicated we’d be swinging to the left and they began to back their rather skittish mounts up the opposite lane and away from our route. One of the horses was still panicked by the bikes and spun in a full 360 with a clatter of hooves as the rider fought to regain control. This was all the encouragement we needed to petition for a postponement to the Prof’s preferred pee-stop until we were presented a place less perilous and populated.
(*I always assume horsey people out in the countryside are toffs, which I know is possibly probably a horribly clichéd stereotype on my part. Guilty as charged M’Lud.)
Around the corner and well out of sight of our excitable equine friends, we finally pulled over for the Prof’s postponed pee. Someone queried why we hadn’t stopped in our usual place and a straight-faced Taffy Steve declared that we didn’t want to give the horse’s a sense of inadequacy when the Prof unleashed his, err… prodigiously proportioned pointer.
With the perfect timing of a natural-born comedian, beZ then swung past and announced he’d be calling in to the Prof’s later that day as he needed to “borrow the hose” – the cue for an eruption of much schoolboy sniggering and snorting.
During this enforced stop one of the Monkey Butler Boy’s contemporaries, the Garrulous Kid looked at my frame and declared, “I never knew Peugeot made bikes.”
For a moment I was utterly and completely speechless – or gobsmacked in footballer parlance. I can sorta-maybe-kind-of get that kids today may never have heard of Holdsworth, they were in the grand scheme of things a largely domestic, perhaps arguably provincial team on distinctly British bikes. But Peugeot? A behemoth amongst elite professional teams, steeped in the heritage of our sport and home to some of the greatest riders of the past?
Peugeot were recently calculated to be the most successful cycling team of all time by the website cycleranking.com and their roll-call of riders included Charly Gaul, a young King Ted, Bernard Thévenet, Tom Simpson, Robert Millar, Steven Roche, Sean Yates and Phil Anderson among others.
Even if they don’t relate the name to actual bikes, surely everyone knows the iconic white jersey with the black, chequerboard band of the Peugeot team? Does cycling for some people really start with Bradley Wiggins or Lance Armstrong? What a thoroughly depressing thought.
Relieved of duties on the front, Taffy Steve and I drifted back through the pack where we found Richard of Flanders, another rider who’d eschewed his winter-bike for one last blast on his high-priced carbon velocipede. Unfortunately, the lack of guards on his best-bike had given him an unsightly smear of dripping, congealed sludge between his buttocks and I suggested he looked like he’d “done a LeMond” and queried if he was all right.
If possible the roads seemed even more filthy than they’d been last week, which in itself was “a three bucket day” in terms of bike cleaning and no one seemed to have escaped the mud spatters and general road grime. As we rode through a long stretch of mud-caked track our wheels picked up and casually flung a cold shower of filthy water up and over everyone and I heard a plaintive cry of, “Me gansys aal clarty!” from OGL – or in rough translation from the idiomatic Geordie: “What-o chaps, my jersey is becoming somewhat mud-speckled.”
We split just before the clamber up to Dyke Neuk then worked our way through Angerton. With the group splintered and scattered on the final climb past Bolam Lake, Zardoz eased himself slowly to up to the front and waited a heartbeat. I could almost imagine him cackling loudly and rubbing his hands with glee as he then put the hammer down and we were strung out and hurtling toward the café. Again.
I was surfing the wheels, staying just back off the front group when we hurtled down into Milestone Woods, only to encounter a horse and rider blithely trotting along the verge. Brakes were forcefully applied and our momentum bled quickly away as we negotiated this unexpected impediment. Then safely around it, we hit the rollers with no time to build the speed back up and a few struggling trying to turn too big a gear.
I chased after the lead bunch, pulling the FNG with me as we rode down and passed a few of this groups cast-offs, including Zardoz who I caught just before the road tipped over for the winding descent to the last uphill scramble.
Around the last bend, the FNG sailed past on my outside with the distinctive, ticking thrum of slight chain rub, but his timing was poor and I caught and passed him on the final ramps as he faded and I closed, but couldn’t quite catch Goose ahead of me.
Bundling into the café we were again forced to haul on the brakes, not by a horse this time, but by the new till system that the staff were still struggling with. This time though they’d placed a big sign on the counter warning that service could be slow, while they tried to work out which buttons to press and paused occasionally to curse out the management who’d imposed the new system on them.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop
The Garrulous Kid arrived with a huge slice of cake he declared was Victoria Sponge, but sadly still no Spear & Jackson miniature cake spade to eat it with.
In between bites, he mentioned his school was awash with pupils who’d been saddled with truly preposterous names. None of the examples he gave were particularly startling or outlandish in the greater scheme of things, but we did wonder why parents burdened their kids with names that pegged them to a specific era, tied them to some ropey, cheesy, feckless celebrity or trashy TV show and so cruelly betrayed their worst chavvy, trailer-trash tendencies.
Taffy Steve declared his simple rule of thumb – to be applied equally to both girl and pet names – if it sounds like you’re calling for a stripper, then you might need a re-think – so no more Roxy, Bambi, Cheyenne, Crystal, Jewel, Kyla, Britney, Lacey, Lexi or Destiny.
His particular ire was drawn to “unusual” or “exotic” (i.e. dumbed down, awkward and simply bad) spellings of well-known names, a disdain he seemed to share with Mrs. Taffy Steve who he applauded for one epic put-down of a new pupil:
“But Miss, my name’s Chelsea. Spelt with a Y”
“Yes, well I can’t be accountable for your parents’ illiteracy.”
The Natty Gnat declared we needed to take control of this and called for government intervention. We all agreed that there should be a list of sanctioned names and approved spellings that everyone had to conform to when registering births. Failure to do so should result in a slap around the head, the admonishment not to be so bloody stupid and instructions to go away and try again.
We say: no more stupid celebrity names – no more Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches, Apple, Sage Moonblood or Reignbeu, no more Buddy Bear, no more Crux, no more Rumor.
We say: no more calling kids after places – no more London, Tokyo, India, Dallas, Manhattan, Chardonnay or Scunthorpe.
We say: no more dumbed down spellings – no more Chelsy or Raychul or Britni or Kortny.
You know we used to joke about giving kids stupid names – I always thought Debbie Dobbie or Robbie Dobbie would be a great idea … but it was only a joke.
I also used to work with a Maltese bloke call Bob Cardona, who said he wanted to call his son Barclay … but it was only a joke.
Or a boy at school called Nigel Long who wanted to call his son Ob … but it was only a joke.
So Kanye West, what flash of comedic brilliance encouraged you to call your kid North. Is it still funny? Will he be laughing in 10 years’ time? He has to carry that name for the rest of his life.
And Rob Morrow – I loved Northern Exposure, but then you had to go and call your daughter Tu. Tu Morrow. Ha-frickin’-ha.
(A special mention must go to a bloke that both Crazy Legs and Mrs. Sur La Jante knew through work – yes indeed, step forward Mr. Robert Sherunkel, or Bob as he was more commonly known. I don’t think he works with them anymore, perhaps he finally snapped and has been locked up for parricide.)
Other countries have taken a stand against this in-bred stupidity and I applaud them: in Italy, a jury prevented a couple from calling their kid Friday as they thought the name would expose him to mockery, while in Norway a woman was for jailed for two days for naming her child Bridge. Now that’s a result.
So come on, no more Zhaden, no more Zyler or Skyler, no more Jakasta or Chayse or Chelsie or Cortnee or Kade. Please, think of the kids.
[By the way, Government research suggests pupils’ names are linked to differing success rates in exams, while a study found that psychiatric patients with more unusual names tended to be more disturbed.]
We had a brief discussion about unsavoury places to ride your bike – the kind of places you pray you don’t puncture or get stopped at the lights. Taffy Steve reflected that the number of big bore exhausts on annoyingly noisy, badly-driven small cars was a good warning indicator – the higher the number, the less you should be looking to linger. The proportion of gardens decorated by trampolines was another ready-reckoner, although he felt you could probably discount those with safety netting.
Talking about all the less than salubrious places we’d been, the Natty Gnat trumped us by claiming to have once lived in Middlesbrough and survived to tell the tale.
I wondered if anyone remotely famous had ever come from Middlesbrough, other than Paul Daniels of course and Taffy Steve was going to suggest Ridley Scott, before correcting himself when he remembered the film director was actually from South Shields.
With names being the topic du jour I suggested that perhaps nothing was quite so strange as a Belgium bicycle manufacturer naming themselves after a film director born on Tyneside and with no known affiliations or connections to cycling. Apparently Ridley CEO, Jochim Aerts named his bike company after film director Ridley Scott because it sounded right and added an international tone.
This led the Garrulous Kid to declare that at least Belgium had a great football team, a statement which brought a Cheshire Cat smile a mile wide to the face of our exiled Welshman, Taffy Steve.
Astonishingly and for perhaps the first time ever our route through the lanes past Kirkley Mill was completely empty of cars and we didn’t have anyone driving aggressively toward us, flashing their lights or leaning on their horns. G-Dawg suggested all the rat-running routes on the Sat-Navs must be turned off for the day.
We were leading as we began to pace the group up Berwick Hill, managing to keep the pace steady even as the gradient rose. “Any minute now.” G-Dawg suggested and began to countdown.
“Easy!” the shout came up from OGL, bang on cue.
“Ah, timing” I suggested, “The secret of good comedy.”
Well, with the Red Max away on holiday, someone had to step up and be shouted at.
This proved to be the last bit of excitement for the day and the ride home was smooth and uneventful.
YTD Totals: 5,774 km / 3,588 miles with 56,883 metres of climbing
So, there I was, awkwardly adrift in the cultural hellhole that was the early ‘70’s on Tyneside and entranced by an exotic sport held mainly in distant countries and with no media support to fuel a burgeoning fascination. In a time long before even World of Sport began their token showing of less than 1% of the world’s greatest, most gruelling, sporting extravaganza, the Tour de France, options for following races were as limited as your chances of buying a white Model T Ford.
The only Tour updates in those days were an occasional list of stage winners and, if we were very lucky, an updated top 10 GC, all hidden within the dreaded “Other Results” buried in the back pages of the Sports section of daily newspapers and usually secreted under all the football stuff that had already been reported elsewhere.
The cycling results were so small and so barely legible that they would have given actual small-print a bad name, and corporate lawyers a hard-on that could last for weeks.
Beyond these barest, most perfunctory of details, we restlessly devoured stage reports in Cycling (this was so long ago that it was even before the profound and dynamic name change to “Cycling Weekly”) to try and get a feel for the drama and the ebb and flow of the ongoing battle, but what came through was a generally disjointed and less than the sum of its parts.
For the young cycling neophyte the biggest treasures were a series of books published by the Kennedy Brothers following the narrative of each Grand Tour, imaginatively titled “Tour ’77” or “Giro ‘73” (you get the picture).
Although published weeks after the publicity caravans had packed away their tat and as the gladiatorial names garishly graffiti’d on the roads slowly began to fade, these books told a compelling narrative of the race, from the first to last pedal stroke, replete with some stunning high quality photos.
Opening the crackling white pages you could inhale deeply and almost catch a faint whiff of the sunflowers, Orangina and embrocation, as you were instantly transported to the side of the road to watch the peloton whirring by.
It’s in one of these Tour books that I first stumbled across a full-page photo of a boyish, fresh-faced young man, posed with some faceless fat functionary to receive a completely bizarre gazelle-head plaque. This may have been a prize for winning a stage, or the mountains classification, having the most doe –like eyes in the peloton, successfully passing through puberty, or something like that.
What struck me most though was that this hardened, elite, professional athlete didn’t look all that different from me – he wasn’t all that tall, very slight of build and looked so young – creating the impression of an instant underdog.
I would also later learned that under the jauntily perched cap was a head that would be subjected to some criminally bad hair moments too – instant empathy, although I never sank quite as low as having a perm.
It was hard to believe this rider was capable of comfortably mixing it up with the big, surly men of the peloton, with their hulking frames, chiselled legs, granite faces and full effusions of facial hair. Not only that, but when the road bent upwards he would fly and leave everyone grovelling helplessly in his wake.
The young man is Lucien Van Impe and the accompanying chapter of the book is titled Van Impudence, and relates in detail how he defied the hulking brutes of the peloton and their supreme leader King Ted, to wreak his own brand of cycling havoc in the mountains.
It was here that began my long-standing love affair with the grimpeurs, the pure climbers of the cycling world, those who want to defy gravity and try to prove Newton was a dunce.
Watch any YouTube videos of the time and you’ll see the big men of the Tour grinding horribly uphill, their whole bodies contorted as they attempt to turn over massive gears and physically wrestle the slopes into submission.
Merckx, indisputably the greatest cyclist of all time is probably the worst offender, and looks like he’s trying to re-align his top tube by brute strength alone, while simultaneously starring in a slow-motion film of someone enduring a course of severe electro-shock therapy.
Then look at Van Impe, at the cadence he’s riding at, the effortless style and how he flows up the gradients. Woah.
His one-time Directeur Sportif, and by no means his greatest fan, Cyrille Guimard would say, “You had to see him on a bike when the road started to rise. It was marvellous to see, he was royally efficient. He had everything: the physique, fluidity, an easy and powerful pedalling style.”
In his book, Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins writes that, “Van Impe’s style is effortless and majestic. Watching him, one can’t help but think that riding up mountains is the easiest thing in the world. His is no heavy-footed stomp, but an Astaire-like glide.”
Many cycling fans prefer the rouleurs and barradeurs, the big framed, hard-men, the grinders who churn massive gears with their endless, merciless attacks, dare-devil descending and never-say-die attitudes.
Others seem to like the controllers who grind their way to victory, eating up and spitting out mile after mile of road at a relentless, contained pace, regardless of whether they’re riding a time-trial, a mountain stage or across a pan flat parcours.
For me though pure poetry lies in those slight, mercurial riders, who would suddenly be transformed – given wings and the ability to dance away from the opposition when the road tilts unremittingly skyward.
Even more appealing, they’re all just a little skewed and a bit flaky, wired a little bit differently to everyone else or, as one of my friends would say, “as daft as a ship’s cat”. The best can even be a little bit useless and almost a liability when the roads are flat, or heaven forbid dip down through long, technical descents.
The power of the Internet and YouTube in particular has even let me rediscover some of the great climbers from before my time, the idols who inspired Van Impe, such as Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes.
This pair, the “Angel of the Mountains” and “Eagle of Toldeo” respectively, both had that little bit of extra “climber flakiness” to set them apart. Bahamontes was terrified of descending on his own and was known to sit and eat ice-cream at the top of mountains while waiting for other riders so he had company on the way down.
Gaul’s demons were a little darker, once threatening to knife Bobet for a perceived slight and for a long period in his later life he became a recluse, living in a shack in the woods and wearing the same clothes day after day.
As Jacques Goddet, the Tour de France director observed, Van Impe also had “a touch of devilry that contained a strong dose of tactical intelligence” and was referred to as “l’ouistiti des cimes” – the oddball of the summits in certain sections of the French press.
Goddet went on to describe the climber as possessing “angelic features, always smiling, always amiable,” and yet Van Impe was known to be notoriously stubborn and difficult to manage, requiring careful handling, constant reassurance and a close coterie of attendants who would cater to his every whim away from the bike.
Cyrille Guimard, who coached, cajoled, goaded and drove Van Impe to his greatest achievement, Tour de France victory in 1976, described him as “every directeur sportif’s nightmare.”
While I’ve enjoyed watching and following many good and some great riders, it’s always the climbers who’ve captivated me the most, although just being a good climber doesn’t seem to be enough. In fact it’s quite difficult to define the exact qualities that I appreciate – Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiapucci never “had it” and nor does current fan favourite and, ahem, “world’s best climber” the stone-faced Nairo Quintana.
There has to be a little something else, some quirk or spark of humanity that I can identify with and that sets the rider apart and makes them a joy to watch and follow. Of today’s climbers I’m most hopeful for Romain Bardet – he seems to have character, style and a rare intelligence, but only time will tell if he blossoms into a truly great grimpeur.
From the past, our very own Robert Millar of course was up there with the best (although my esteem may be coloured by intense nationalism). Andy Hampsten, on a good day, was another I liked to watch and, for a time the young Contador, when he seemed fresh and different and believable.
Still, none have come close to supplanting Van Impe in my estimation and esteem. He would go on to win the Tour in 1976 and perhaps “coulda/shoulda” won the following year, if not for being knocked off his bike by a car while attacking alone on L’Alpe D’Huez. See, that sort of shit happened even back in the “good, old days.”
By the time Van Impe’s career was finally over (including a retirement and comeback) he’d claimed the Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey on a record 6 separate occasions (matching his hero Bahamontes) and a feat that has never been bettered. (Fuck you Richard Virenque and your performance enhanced KoM sniping, I refuse to acknowledge your drug enabled “achievements”).
In contrast, both during and after his professional career, Van Impe never tested positive, never refused a doping test and has never been implicated in any form of doping controversy – he’s either incredibly, astonishingly lucky, clever and cunning, or the closest thing you’ll ever get to the definition of a clean rider.
So, if you follow the Kitty Kelley premise that “a hero is someone we can admire without apology,” then Van Impe resolutely ticks all the boxes for me.
During his career he also managed to pick up awards for the most likeable person in the peloton and the Internet is replete with video and images of him as a good-natured and willing participant in some weirdly bizarre stunts, such as his spoof hour record attempt – proof he was an all-round good guy who never seemed to take himself too seriously.
In all Van Impe completed an incredible 15 Tour’s, never abandoning and was an active participant and presence in all of them.
He won the race in 1976 and was 2nd once and 3rd on three separate occasions, finishing in the Top 5 eight times. Along the way he won 9 individual stages and achieved all this while riding for a succession of chronically weak teams and competing when two dominant giants of the sport, Merckx and Hinault, were in their pomp.
Van Impe was also 2nd overall in the Giro, winning one stage and two mountains classifications on a couple of rare forays into Italy.
Not just a one-trick pony though, he could ride a decent time-trial and won a 40km ITT in the 1975 Tour, when he handily beat the likes of Merckx, Thévenet, Poulidor and Zoetemelk.
Even more surprisingly for a pure climber he even somehow managed to win the Belgian National Road Race Championship in 1983 after coming out of retirement.
I’m not sure if this represents Van Impe’s skills and talent, a particularly favourable parcours, or simply the nadir of Belgian cycling. Maybe all three?
In October this year Van Impe turned 70 and until recently was still actively engaged in cycling through the Wanty-Groupe Gobert Pro-Continental Team. He lives with his wife, Rita in a house named Alpe D’Huez, a reminder of the mountain where he set the foundations for his greatest triumph and perhaps suffered his most heartbreaking defeat.
Not bad for the one time newspaper delivery boy and apprentice coffin-maker from the flatlands of Belgium.