Plague Diaries – Week#16

Plague Diaries – Week#16

The Lone Bellow

While idly meandering through various social media (mediums?) this week, this picture was perhaps the most arresting that I came across …

And I quite liked the analogy that related it to the pandemic, inferring that you need to account for the idiots who could unwittingly cause harm to both themselves and others.

Still, as much as the photo fits the compelling narrative of the caption, it sadly isn’t at all accurate. It didn’t take much digging to identify that the picture is actually from the Algerian War of Independence and shows French Legionnaires rescuing a malnourished donkey and carrying it to their base, where it would be nursed back to health and adopted as the the unit mascot.

Still, does that knowledge invalidate the message and make it any less apt?

I’m still not quite there with group rides yet, so planned another solo adventure for Saturday. Actually, suggesting I had a plan is giving myself far too much credit, what I actually had was inkling of an idea and an odd yen to climb the Trench, reasoning it’s been months since I travelled those roads and it might be quite … well, refreshing?

(I guess anyone who’s actually climbed the Trench will recognise just how odd a yen this was.)

My route there, or at least the only route I could trust myself to follow, included a clamber up the short-but-steep Mur du Mitford and from there my way home would be traced via that perennial club favourite, Middleton Bank. In effect, with the Mur, Trench and Middleton Bank, I’d set my sights on a triumvirate of torture.

Throw in the climb of Hospital Lane to get out of the Tyne Valley and my usual drag up the Heinous Hill to cap things off and it was actually more like a pentagram of pain. Perfect.

The weather promised to be decidedly “meh” though – almost unbroken cloud cover and occasional showers. The start was dank and dismal too, a light, weeping and ever-present drizzle, that slowly soaked everything, whilst the roads were still awash from an overnight downpour.

I’d learned my lesson last week having indelibly besmirched another pair of pristine, white socks and turned them a poisonous shade of dingy grey that no amount of Persil will ever rectify. This week I went for navy socks and hid my shame under a pair of light overshoes. Jersey, shorts, arm warmers and a rain jacket completed my super-stylish ensemble and I was good to go, hoping I’d be able to ship the jacket somewhere along the way.

There was movement out on the river this week, rowing is back underway and the water was dotted with single sculls. No sign of the crewed fours, or eights yet, but an indication things are slowly returning to normal.

There was another sign of returning to normal at Westerhope, where, at 8:50 and presumably still ten minutes before opening time, a queue of raggedy-haired, mop-topped blokes was already forming a disorderly queue on the pavement outside the barbers, desperate for a post-lockdown shearing.

I dropped down the hill toward Kingston Park, slowing to remove my specs and thread them into my helmet vents as they were becoming increasingly opaque as as the mist-come-rain speckled the lenses. My bike frame was beaded with glistening droplets of moisture too and starting to resemble something you might find in an exotic soft-porn shoot.

Or so I’ve been led to believe…

From Kingston Park , I picked up standard club run routing through Dinnington, then running up Bell’s Hill, confident I knew where I was going. Only the road was closed just past the climb and I was forced into a slight detour. Still, even then the surroundings were reassuringly familiar and I was soon through Tranwell Woods and closing in on Mitford.

It was here that I encountered my first group of riders, around a dozen or so cheery female cyclists, travelling well-spread out in three or four distinct clumps. I would later wonder how I missed the memo about it being National Women’s Cycling Day, as at least every other rider I passed thereafter seemed to be female. It was good to see so many out enjoying the riding, if not the less than perfect weather.

At Mitford, I stopped for a cereal bar breakfast and to peer through the drizzle at the ruins of the castle. We always scamper past this en bloc and at relatively high pace, so I’ve never really stopped to consider it. Internet sleuthing tells me it built as a motte and bailey castle by the Normans in the late 11th Century, only to be destroyed, burned and abandoned two hundred or so years later.

Sight-seeing and needless, pedantic sight-seeing commentary over with, I pushed on to the Mur de Mitford, where I found the left-hand lane demarcated by a long, frayed streamer, a coppery-blue-hued, glistening rainbow of spilled diesel, stretching all the way up the climb, from top to bottom.

Luckily the road was otherwise empty, so I switched to the far right-hand lane to clamber up, warily avoiding the evil gleam of the oil spill that promised an immediate loss of traction and potential pratfall.

From there it was a straightforward run to the bottom of the Trench and a fairly civilised, I might almost say enjoyable, climb through it, although the legs were tiring as I pushed over the top and on to Dyke Neuk. Here I decided on the spur of the moment that I might as well go for the full set of club climbs and take in the horrid grind up to Rothley Crossroads too.

Instead of back-tracking, I took the road toward Hartburn, turning right just before the dip and rise to the village and heading north once again. This is a road we often traverse in the other direction and now I know why, it’s actually a testing little climb going the other way.

Having completed a big loop around Dyke Neuk, I was soon back on the road leading from the top of the Trench and passing through Longwitton, and climbing to the crossroads.

I don’t know what it is about this climb, it’s not particularly steep and shouldn’t be half as hard as it actually is, but it’s a constant grind, difficult to find the right cadence on … and it hurts like hell.

I was halfway up when the silence was split by the hollow, lone bellow of a cow, evidently in extreme discomfort. “You and me both,” I muttered to myself.

The commotion seemed to be coming from the field off to my right, but its source was screened by a dense line of trees . Once again the cow brayed its distress and I couldn’t help thinking that if my legs were to be given voice at that precise moment, that would be the exact sound they’d make too.

A brief pause at the crossroads, then I dropped through to Scots Gap and up Middleton Bank, where a toiling cyclist ahead of me provided an additional bit of motivation. Cresting the top I finally decided it was safe to remove my jacket and shoved it messily in a back pocket.

Then it was homeward bound, Bolam, Belsay, Kirkley in short order, through Dinnington, out to Westerhope (the queue outside the barbers was long gone) and across the river at Newburn.

The volume of cars on the road is back to near normal levels, so I abandoned the main road up the Heinous Hill about three-quarters of the way up, taking to the side streets to avoid the queuing traffic stretching from the traffic lights back down the bank. Well, that was nice while it lasted.

Then, one last short, steep ramp, and I was home again.

The Plague Diaries – Week#15

The Plague Diaries – Week#15

On Me Tod

So, more relaxation of the lockdown rules and, according to the Daily Heil Mail at least, it’s all going swimmingly. Well, as long as you don’t mention Liverpool football fans, Bournemouth beach-goers and an army of illegal ravers, or dozens of other totally alarming issues.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the utter stupidity of people by now, but they do keep finding ways to exceed my already dismally low expectations. Let’s just see where we are in a week or two, when the consequences of these types of events have had a chance to play out. And hope.

Right now though, I’ll go along with journalist John Crace, who suggested that with Boris at least as keen to open up the economy as he is to save lives, we shouldn’t rush to change arrangements. He concludes that if there hasn’t been a second spike in infections after a month, maybe he’ll feel safe to come out and finishes, “but I’m not holding my breath. Or rather, I am.”

So, for the time being at least, I’ll stick to riding on my own, even though I know we have small groups organised to head out from the usual place, at the usual time and they’re probably fine.

Just to illustrate the nonsensical, arbitrariness and inconsistencies of Government thinking though, somewhat bizarrely, cricket, you know the sport where 13 players and two officials socially isolate on at least 8,000 square metres of field, is not one of the sports given permission to restart.

Football however, 22 players and three officials running, jostling, shouting, swearing, sweating, tackling, spitting and colliding around a field of 7,140 square metres. Well, that’s OK. Why? Because our Prime Minister deems that a cricket ball, not a football, nor an open pub, not a beach, or restaurant, nor a 1 metre space between people, but a cricket ball, is “a natural vector for disease.”

Anyway, back to a sport I actually care about, a flash sale this week saw me acquire a new pair of bibshorts from a company I’ve previously had little experience of, Blueball Sports. Apparently Blueball are based somewhere in the Basque country, which, I guess gives them a degree of credibility, it’s an area frequently referred to as a hot bed of cycling and their fans are seen as passionate, knowledgeable and politeley restrained.

I know the shorts are Blueball’s, because they’re cleverly branded with … err … a big, white circle on the front of one leg? Because they’re Basque we can, I think, forgive them a little for not quite considering the association of their brand name with the medical condition epididymal hypertension, let alone its less savoury use as a euphemism for intense testicular discomfort.

What I’m less forgiving of is the amount of spurious garbage written across the seat pad, all of which seems rather overdone and totally superfluous.

“High protection?” Fair enough. “Impact Zone” and “Anti-Shock Gel” and “3D”? Hmm, all right. But, “Air Cool?” Really? I don’t think so. And then, what am I to make of “Moisture Evacuation” and perhaps most perplexing of all, the simple injunction, “be present.”

I’m bemused.

Still, back to matters in hand, the hot flush of high temperatures was already starting to fade by the weekend, even before it was rudely hustled out the door by a series of crashing thunderstorms as the weather turned decidedly unsettled. The forecast for Saturday was for cool temperatures with a high chance of heavy, intermittent showers and occasional but brief sunny spells.

Mrs. SLJ was at pains to tell me where the sunscreen was as I made to depart on Saturday morning. I managed not to laugh at her, but really wasn’t convinced I’d be needing it and, just for once, I was right. (I have to celebrate these small victories – they’re very few and far between.)

The club had made plans to meet up again at the cafe at Kirkley, but the timing was vague and I decided the weather wasn’t really good enough to encourage sitting around outside talking constant blather. (To clarify, I mean the sitting around outside bit, we never need any encouragement to blather.)

I decided then to give that particular cyclist cafe a miss, but the Rainman had promised that the one at Capheaton was open, so I had this as a possible destination in the back of my mind.

To start I decided on a bit of route reversal, so instead of riding along the Tyne Valley and then hopping across to the Derwent Valley, I did it the other way round, heading south, south-west initially towards Burnopfeld, before dropping down to Hamsterly and through to Ebchester, then climbing the Dere Road up to Whittonstall.

It had the potential to be a pleasant route, but as soon as I crested the first climb past Whickham Golf Club the rain started lashing down. I stopped to pull on a light rain jacket but it was totally inadequate for the job in hand and was quickly soaked through as the heavy rain battered it effortlessly aside.

The drop down toward Hamsterly was taken at a cautious pace, partly because the road was awash with run-off and partly to try and lessen the amount of cold, dirty spray being kicked up by my wheels.

Nevertheless, my shoes quickly became water-logged and my socks an unappealing shade of grey. There’d be no tan-lines today, but some impressive grime-lines instead. Deciding the jacket wasn’t really doing much for me, I bundled it into a tight ball and stuffed it into a jersey pocket, where it would weep cold, miserable tears for a while, lamenting its cavalier abandonment.

The climb up from Ebchester to Whitton Stall was a new one to me, relatively straight and regular, my only complaint was it seemed to have an infinite horizon, you always sensed you were nearing a crest, then it would leap on ahead another couple of hundred metres infront of you

I was pleased the traffic was relatively quiet so I could ride straight up the centre line of the road, avoiding the small stream had formed at the verge to make its way downhill and the middle of the lane that was rutted and uneven.

The rain eased as I dropped down the fast descent from Whitton Stall, involuntarily tailgating a car as my speed crept past 40 mph. I then made my way through the pretty village of Hindley, only marred by a shockingly bad patch of road right in the centre, before dropping down to Stocksfield and crossing the Tyne.

This week’s entry into my Amateur Floral Almanac belongs to the many wild hawthorn blossoms threaded through the hedges, a delicate white with a barely discernible pink blush.

I cambered up to the A69 and crossed to take in the climb up to Newton, then through the Plantations and onto the Matfen Road. From Matfen, I took a dip down the Ryals and it was here, at the bottom of the climb and after 26.5 miles covered, that I encountered my first fellow cyclist of the day.

From the Ryals I scribed a wide circle around Hallington Reservoir, then made my way through Little Bavington and out to Capheaton.

Somewhere along this road the fields had been shaved back to a bright ochre stubble that was swarmong with the black specks of dozens of opportunistic crows. I turned back to grab a picture, but naturally only managed to startle most of them into flight.

Rainman had promised the cafe at Capheaton was open and so it proved. The coffee was good, the carrot cake even better, but here too it was quiet, my short break only disturbed by just a cycling couple, who arrived as I gathered my stuff up to leave.

I took the road down toward West Belsay junction. As anticipated it has acquired a new surface, but as I discovered last week, it’s rough, open-textured, gravelly and crumbling, slow and heavy and only a slight improvement on the rutted and fissured original. I shudder to think the damage you could do coming down on this at speed, it would be like sliding the wrong way down a cheese grater.

From Belsay, a bit more reverse engineering of a typical club ride took me out through Whalton to the Gubeon, before heading toward Kirkley and home. Along this road I passed Sneaky Pete, getting in a few sneaky training miles. He was past me almost before I recognised him.

Crossing back over the river at Newburn, I picked up a fellow cyclist and we both moaned as the traffic built up and slowed our progress coming into Blaydon.

“McDonalds is busy again, I see,” he noted, correctly identifying the cause of the queuing traffic. No surprise I guess, if people are odd enough to queue for hours to get into a Primark, or Ikea, hell, why not half an hour to get a McDonalds too?

“Are you tempted?”

“Nope” he snorted.

Me neither. It probably couldn’t offer anything half as good as the carrot cake at Capheaton.

My temporary companion took the first part of the Heinous Hill ahead of me before swinging away to the left, leaving me to crawl the rest of the way up on my own, even as the clouds opened and the rain came lashing down again.

Soaked at the start and drenched at the end is not ideal, but at least the middle bit of my ride was good.

Plague Diaries – Week#14

Plague Diaries – Week#14

The Odyssey

Saturday promised to be a most splendid day for piloting a bike around a suitably sunny and bucolic Northumberland and, with the SLJ household all out and about, I had the entire day free and absolutely no impetus to return at a set time.

Given the good weather and the near certainty that the cafe at Kirkley would be open, Crazy Legs suggested it was a good opportunity for a belated-club rendezvous and catch up, which he pencilled in for 10.30 onward, all riders welcome.

Small groups agreed to form up at the regular place and at the regular time to ride out together, with the intention of arriving at Kirkley for the 10.30 meet, while I changed my intended route to put me within what I hoped would be striking distance of the cafe for about the right time.

I was a bit delayed by dithering, but finally got out the house at about half eight, crossing the river at Newburn and climbing out the other side of the valley toward Throckley.

Here I passed a bloke on the other side of the road out walking the family pets, or perhaps, pet in the singular? It was either three individual, but perfectly matched, large, black pedigree dogs, walking in perfect lockstep, bodies pressed so tightly together they merged into one long, expanse of glossy sable fur and muscle, three identical pink tongues all lolling out the right hand side of three identical jaws – or I’d just passed Cerberus, the three-headed, canine gate-keeper of Hades!

Well, Throckley is quite a strange place, so I didn’t immediately discount this as some sort of mythological encounter.

From there, I unsuccessfully tried to find a route through the labyrinthine streets of Heddon-on-the-Wall and out the other side. Apparently I was attempting the impossible and had to back-track to pick up the road again, to travel around, rather than through the village.

Finally free, I pushed on to Horsley, before dropping back down into the valley at Ovingham, noting it was now the turn of dozens of bright yellow buttercups along the river bank to mark the flow of days on my (strictly amateur) flower almanac.

I was briefly joined in appreciation of this floral display by a small, black-tailed ferret, that wandered out into the road, belatedly noticed me and, as most wildlife seems capable of doing, instantly disappeared without trace. That’s the kind of trick that makes you immediately doubt it was ever there.

I followed the river almost as far as Corbridge, taking the Aydon road to vault me safely up and over the A69 and from there pushed my way on to Matfen.

As I approached the village it was ten past ten and the signs told me I was 10 miles from Ponteland. This was going to be a hell of a time-trial if I wanted to get to Kirkley, a few mile beyond Ponteland, by half past.

I got down into the drops and picked up the pace, swerving around the massive, bloody cadaver of a badger, splayed over the road as if one of Ridley Scott’s aliens had burst out of its chest cavity. I was pleased to be travelling fast enough not to see some of the more gruesome details and be well down the road and past the rotting stink before it really registered.

Like several of the roads around here, the route from Matfen through to Stamfordham has a brand new surface. This would normally be the cause for rejoicing, but the new surface feels rough, grippy and heavy. The combination of the bright sunlight and my sunglasses also seemed to give it a rather disconcerting, blue-metallic sheen, as if coated in a thin layer of oil.

Through Stamfordham, then Dalton and back to more normal roads, I hit the long, straight, relatively smooth and slightly downhill passage of Limestone Lane and picked up the pace, watching my speed creep up … 25.6 mph … 27.4 mph … 29.8 mph … no matter how hard I pushed I couldn’t break the 30 mph barrier …

… And I needn’t have bothered.

At the end of Limestone Lane I ran abruptly into some temporary traffic lights that held me for what seemed like five or six minutes. I could just have pootled along and got there at the exact same time and a lot fresher too.

Finally released by the lights I pushed as hard as I could through Ponteland and out toward Kirkley, but I was tiring rapidly now and it had become hard work.

Still, I made decent time and was soon turning off and threading my way toward richly deserved coffee and cake.

And what a great delight to see so many familiar faces, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg, Jimmy Mac and Plumose Pappus, Aether, Ahlambra and Richard of Flanders were already there and others would trickle in, solo or in small groups – Buster, the Big Yin, our Double Dutch tag-team, Sneaky Pete, Caracol, Red Max, and Mrs. Red Max.

Benedict, the Ticker, Mini Miss, Princess Fiona, Spoons and Front-Wheel Neil made it too, but were late arrivals, having had a few issues after the pedal on Front-Wheel Neil’s new bike unwound and came off still attached to his cleats.

Crazy Legs was in full lament mode with bike issues of his own, complaining something along the lies of “j’aime mon Ribble, mais mon Ribble ne m’aime pas” after discovering an annoying squeak on the much-cossetted Ribble. Stripping it to the bone, he’d carefully cleaned and lubed everything before re-assembling to find the annoying squeak yet persisted.

Halfway through his re-build he’d also found he had to buy a 14mm Allen key to remove the bottom bracket, something we decided was really atypical on bike builds, the type of tool that perhaps only plumbers would have a common use for.

“Nah,” Aether informed us, “Merckx commonly use them.”

“Huh?” G-Dawg, looked confused, if King Ted’s bikes used them, that seemed like a mighty endorsement. “What do they use them for?”

“Mostly on the engine blocks.”

G-Dawg looked even more confused.

“Merckx?”

“Yes.”

“Merckx bikes?”

“No, no, the cars, Mercs. Mercedes-Benz!”

Oh!

Crazy Legs was confounded that any Merc owner would ever deign to get there hands grubby doing DIY on their cars, besides, weren’t they meant to self-heal?

I took time out to compliment Plumose Papuss on his lockdown hairstyle, which rather fittingly made him look like a dandelion clock. G-Dawg, who does his own hair (probably with an angle grinder, in much the same way that Desperate Dan shaves with a blowtorch) offered to render assistance, but was very politley rebuffed. Can’t think why, although he did mention a recent episode when the guard slipped and he carved a huge bald tranche across the top of his scalp by mistake, which he said made him look like Tintin.

Sitting in the sun, we enjoyed the usual blather and general congeniality, before people started drifting away.

Not ready for home yet, I took in a loop north, Shilvington, Whalton and Belsay, before heading back. At a pee-stop at the bottom of Berwick Hill I spotted a tiny bird with gold bars on its wings that I think was a Common Firecrest (although they’re obviously not all that common, as I can’t remember ever seeing one before.)

By the time I was climbing the Heinous Hill, I’d topped 70 miles and was satisfyingly weary. Good weather, a good ride and it was great to catch up with everyone. Perhaps there is a faint glimmer at the end of the tunnel after all.


The Plague Diaries – Week 12

The Sign of Six

I learned this week that there are not always two side to every argument and occasionally some things are just so wrong that they’re completely indefensible.

Meanwhile, back to cycling. ..

Despite last weeks high volume of chatter about resuming group riding in line with new lockdown guidelines that allow groups six to congregate outdoors, the poor weather seemed to kibosh any intentions or experiments.

Spoons and Aether however tentatively agreed to give it a go this Saturday, planning to meet at the usual place and the usual time to ride together, along with any one else who felt inclined to join them.

Meanwhile, Crazy Legs suggested he’d be at the Kirkley Cafe from 10.30 onward on Saturday, holding court if anyone wanted to meet and find release for month upon month of pent up blather.

Taking note of the appalling weather forecast and thinking ahead, he even pondered whether the cafe would allow us to use the big barn-like structure where they’d parked the portable toilets for a meet up. This, he felt, would allow us to stay dry whilst having enough space to maintain social distancing.

An illicit rendezvous of damp lycra-fetishists around a remote, public toilet, you say? Oh yes, perfectly normal behaviour, Officer.

While the group debate about the safety of group rides raged across social media, talk turned to government protocols and it wasn’t long before someone mentioned official guidance from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. They recently amended their coronavirus advice to suggest single men and women in the Netherlands organise a seksbuddy (sex buddy) after criticism of rules dictating that home visitors maintain a 1.5-metre distance from their hosts during lockdown.

This inevitably found our Dutch contingent fielding a whole host of … well, let’s say … err, generous, well-intentioned(?) propositions, which in turn led to one late arrival questioning if he’d accidentally stumbled across the clubs Tinder page, rather then our ride-organising WhatsApp chat. Ha!

One of the great benefits (or potential drawbacks, from a motivational perspective) of having to ride solo, is there is no need to stick to meeting times, places, or even days.

So it was on Saturday morning, with a raging gale outside sounding like a cross between between a lumbering 747 taking off under heavy load and a seething, spring tide, trenching on a shingle beach, and with the rain furiously rattling on the roof and windows like a handful of flung gravel, I decided I could just as easily ride Sunday instead.

It wasn’t to be a peaceful morning however, constant driving rain and the wild wind kept the cats largely constrained to the house and sent them stir-crazy-over-the-edge. Yowling wildly, eyes wide and black and tails lashing ferociously, they chased and battered each other up and down the stairs, over all the furniture and throughout the house, burning off steam and excess energy.

Still, I can kind of understand. It must be really hard being a finely-tuned predator, attentive to even the slightest rustle in the undergrowth, only to step outside and find the entire world is in motion and your senses are totally overwhelmed.

I’m not sure how many rode on Saturday, but wedded as they were to a common cause, Spoons and Aether definitely made a go of it and then, after all that, had to report back that the cafe at Kirkley was closed.

Apparently, the owners decided the weather was so grim only the truly committed (or should-be-committed) were likely to be out and about. Somewhat surprisingly, these two groups aren’t actually numerous enough in the North East to justify opening up the cafe.

The weather did manage to improve a little for Sunday, in a swings-and-roundabouts sort of way. We transitioned from gales, heavy showers and intermittent patches of blue and sunshine, to uniformly grey, dank and dismal. And it was chilly. If last week had perfectly encapsulated a bright, summers day, then Sunday would be a very plausible parody of a winter ride, cold, damp and blustery.

In fact it was so chill, I went back in and pulled on some knee warmers to complement my long sleeve base layer, arm warmers, thick socks, cap, gloves and rain jacket. At no point in the ride, including a smattering of fairly challenging inclines, did I ever feel overdressed, or overheated.

Once again I set out with no great plan, aiming to head out along the Tyne Valley at a brisk pace until I got tired and then decide what to do and where to go from there.

My first marker was to cross the river at Wylam, which I finally managed to do without having to stop for a train to pass – at only the third time of asking.

Just past the Stocksfield, I found one of the fields completely crammed with cows, with no opportunity to comply with social distancing protocols. I stopped to snatch a photo, at which point I was approached by a female pheasant (phemale feasant?) perhaps looking for a seksbuddy, before deciding I definitely wasn’t her type and squawking away in a burr of wings.

Along the riverside, wild poppies and gorse are starting to flower now, adding their own bright and cheery splashes of colour to an already multi-hued landscape.

I piloted my way through the eerily empty streets of Corbridge, crossing back to the south side of the river and was en route to Hexham when the trains had the last laugh. Progress was halted at another level crossing to allow some creaking, clanking rolling stock to lumber through. This is becoming such a common occurrence, I’m going to have to find new roads, study and synchronise with the local rail timetable, or in extremis, maybe take up train-spotting to add value to these interruptions.

Hmm, why is the book/film train-spotting so called? I’ll have to Google that …

Into Hexham and with a lack of decent signage I decided to just follow my instincts and find a way to hop over into the Derwent Valley and home. Sadly, I hadn’t accounted for my instincts finding what seemed to be the steepest possible route out of Hexham, which had me churning my way up what Strava informed me afterwards was the racecourse climb.

I think I’ve been up it once before, the time Mad Colin led a super-long club ride across to the dark side (i.e. south of the Tyne, a.k.a. Mordor) – this was the day a newbie tagged along, bonked and was so late getting back OGL, who wasn’t actually on the ride, was left fielding numerous phone-calls from his irate mother demanding to know what we’d done with her son.

Dragging myself to the top, with no sign of any racecourse, I have to add, once again I found all the signs seemed to have petered out. Back to trusting my all too fallible instincts, I was immediately disappointed by the long, fast descent I found myself on, quickly frittering away all the hard-earned altitude I’d so recently gained.

I pressed on regardless, until, just outside Juniper, I stopped to check the map on my phone, hoping I was more or less where I should be, or at least heading in the right direction and just to make sure I hadn’t somehow ended up on completely the wrong continent.

I seemed to be on track and it wasn’t much longer before I was on familiar roads, my route running through Slaley and down toward Blanchland. I turned left at the still devastated looking scene of our own Tunguska Incident, rather than dropping further into the valley. From there, I started to thread my way home.

Sunday rides instead of a Saturday? Yeah, why not, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if I’m out on my own and doubles-down on my chances of finding a window of decent weather too. We’ll see.

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#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#6

Plague Diaries – Week#6

The loneliness of the long distance cyclist

Into week#6 of the lockdown (but who’s counting) and G-Dawg took to social media to celebrate 30 days of quarantine with a link to the Chuck Berry’s classic, “30 Days.”

I immediately added this to my Coronavirus Top 10 playlist, which is coming along quite nicely now:

  1. My Sharona Corona – by The Knack. Crazy Legs’ original, all conquering ear-worm.
  2. Don’t Stand So Close To Me – by The Police, a plaintive paean to maintaining social-distancing.
  3. Isolation – by Joy Division, a breezy little ditty, recorded during one of their more sunny and carefree periods.
  4. Train in Vain – by The Clash, in celebration of all the exercise I’m doing, with no way to show off any (no doubt marginal) gains. I could as easily have picked Clampdown, or Armagideon Time, from the same peerless album/period.
  5. Smells Like Teen Spirit – by Nirvana, for prophetically appropriate lyrics, “I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.” (See also: Thea Gilmore singing on Mainstream about “another kind of war that is raging in our bloodstream.”
  6. Are Friends Electric? – by Tubeway Army, for all the Zwifters amongst us. (I could, of course, have chosen any Taylor Zwift song … (well, if I actually knew any).
  7. You’re A Germ – by Wolf Alice, perhaps a more contemporary song than my original choice, Germ Free Adolescent, by X-Ray Spex.
  8. World Shut Your Mouth – by Julian Cope masterful advice from a former member of the self-proclaimed, Crucial Three. His contemporaries might have contributed “The Disease” – Echo and the Bunnymen, or “Seven Minutes to Midnight” – Wah! Heat (although to be fair, these days it’s probably a lot closer than 7 minutes on the old Doomsday Clock).
  9. Spread The Virus – by Cabaret Voltaire – perhaps what Covid-19 might sound like, if given voice!
  10. 30 Days by Chuck Berry. I’ve got the feeling G-Dawg might soon be cuing up 40 Days, by Slowdive and, I hope I’m wrong, but maybe even looking up some songs by 90 Day Men before this is over.

Any other suggestions?

In the news this week, Mrs. SLJ finished laying waste to our hedges and turned her dauntless topiary skills to the top of my head. If I had to guess, I think the look she was she was aiming for was Action Man circa his flock hair period.

It’s not the best haircut I’ve ever had, but by no means the worst either. Anyway, I think you’ll agree, she did a much better job than Melania…

As a consequence my helmet fits again and feels unimaginably cooler. Just in time, as we head into the weekend with the promise of fine, warm weather.

Even better, I get to wear our new, custom Santini kit for the first time, only a long 10-months after we started the procurement process in June last year!

Again with nothing pre-planned, I found myself crossing the river and climbing out of the valley via Hospital Lane. Having failed to find any sign of a hospital along its length, I concluded it was so called because you’re likely to need emergency care after scrambling up it.

From there I ticked off all the standard tropes of a fairly standard club run, through Ponteland to Limestone Lane, Stamfordham, Matfen and then down the Ryals, all done at a brisk enough pace to have my legs stinging and the breath wheezing in and out of my lungs like a pair of leaky bellows.

The long descent of the Ryal’s left me feeling chilled, so I pulled to a stop beside the war memorial at the bottom and parked myself on the bench there to let the sun warm my bones.

It really was a delightfully peaceful and bucolic scene, the roads empty of traffic and the only sounds were the buzz of fat bees droning through the grass and an almost constant chorus of chirpy, cheerful, chatty birdsong, punctured by the occasional plaintive bleat of newborn lambs.

I managed to stir myself before I got too comfortable, choosing, on the flip of a (mental) coin, to head up through Hallington. I was appalled by the deteriorating road surface here, which was even worse than I recall, but made it through without incident.

It was then our standard route home, through Belsay, Ogle and Kirkley. As I was heading back, everyone else seemed to be heading out into the now positively warm weather and I was passed by a constant stream of other cyclists in singles and in pairs.

I was particularly surprised by how many women cyclists I passed, which is brilliant, but did make me wonder where they usually ride and why we never seem to pass them?

By the time I crested Berwick Hill, I was paying the price for my early exuberance, the legs were heavy and shaky and I was running on empty. The trip home then was, by necessity, a much more sedate affair. By the time I’d dragged myself up the Heinous Hill I’d covered 60-miles, yet perversely thoroughly enjoyed my ride out. It’s fair to say I’m looking forward to a very lazy Sunday, a long lie-in, nothing too strenuous beyond a family walk. And hopefully a chance for a bit of recovery, before it all starts again.

Hang in there, we’re going to get through this.

Plague Diaries – Week#5

Plague Diaries – Week#5

I am a rock. I am an island.

It took 5 weeks, but finally the club tried a group ride on Zwift. I excused myself as soon as I learned they’d chosen to wear orange jersey’s and green socks for easy identification. Read that carefully. They. Chose. Green socks!

Shudder!

Seriously though, I’m with Mikel Landa, last seen on Twitter approaching his turbo trainer with an axe in hand and malicious, black intent in his heart. The indoor trainer is the very last resort for me, it’s there strictly for extreme weather, or if the lockdown ever becomes so stringent that you’re not allowed out for exercise.

Sadly then, I can’t report on the joys, or otherwise of group riding with Zwift, although someone else might step up to the mark if we’re lucky? Anyone? C’mon, don’t be shy …

Judging by the amount of social chatter it generated, it wasn’t the smoothest experience, but everyone seems committed to giving it another go, so there must be some benefit and it’s another way of filling the void.

As a reminder of what we’re missing, here’s another little dip into Thing#1’s survey of a typical North East road club ramshackle collective from her project on community groups, this time, responses to the question:

What makes the cycling community, or your road club special to you?

  • Camaraderie on rides.
  • Riding in a group is a shared effort – you put in effort that helps others, others put in effort that helps you. When you ride regularly with a group sometimes, you’re strong and can pull hard for the group, other times you appreciate the shelter of others. Either way sharing hard efforts and unforgiving weather brings people together.
  • I have made some great friends.
  • Common interest in cycling, good craic, fun.
  • Self-deprecation, humour, hiding, people always willing to push themselves.
  • Knowing that there will be a group to cycle with if I turn up at a certain time and place.
  • The members of my club, the humour we share and the general disregard of an extremely serious approach to riding (e.g. no endless discussion of gear ratios – boring! Or snobbishness towards those on sub £3k bikes).
  • The willingness to be critical of those who make decisions and think about what can be offered to those not members of the club.
  • The endless exploration of Northumbrian roads (often when not on official club rides).
  • The encouragement I got when I first joined opened up the wider range of disciplines of the sport.
  • It’s like extended family.
  • Camaraderie.
  • Enjoying the company of others.
  • I feel protected and loved.

Gosh, that almost brought a tear to my eye …

Saturday morning found me inadvertently going commando as I set out for a ride – I’d somehow forgotten to charge my Garmin and it was declaring a low battery as soon as I turned it on. Not wanting it to crap out halfway around my route, I left it on the kitchen bench and relied on the Strava app on my phone, tucked safely away in my back pocket.

I was riding then with no sense of pace, or distance and just a vague idea of the time of day. It was unusual and a little bit uncomfortable. Sadly, I have to confess I prefer having that sort of information to hand and I’ll make sure the Garmin is fully charged next week.

There was no consensus on the weather, Rainman and Richard of Flanders returned from (separate, I hasten to add!) rides and reported they were happy with their choice of full winter gear, while G-Dawg declared he went out in full summer kit and it was glorious, but we all know he’s not completely human. I tried a Tørm thick(ish) merino jersey, gloves, shorts, arm warmers and knee warmers. It was decidedly chilly on some of the descents and I certainly never felt over-dressed, so guess I got it just about right.

I had vague intentions of heading generally west, with no ultimate destination in mind. I crossed the river and made my way to Heddon-on-the-Wall, which, believe it or not, lies athwart the route of the Hadrian’s Wall, from which it takes its name. I know, hard to believe ….

There are even some remaining blocks of stone, like a knuckled, yellowed spine poking through the earth as a testament to the build quality of Roman fortifications, construction having been completed over 1,894 years ago.

I didn’t quite realise at the time, but the ancient Roman Empire was to provide a coherent theme running through my ride.

Just outside Heddon, I picked up a sign that said Chollerford was 15 miles distant and, in want of an actual plan I decided to make this my destination. I pointed my front wheel in that direction and rolled with it.

I was going to be travelling along the Military Road, something cyclists usually avoid as its typically fraught with HGV’s and speeding reckless motorists. If you’re going to ride it though, this is the perfect time as seemed totally bereft of traffic. Between passing Albermarle Barracks and the junction with the A68, some 20 kilometres later, I was passed by just two cars and a tractor.

All this way, the only company I had was the sun, sitting off my left-hand shoulder and my shadow on the ground to the right. My shadow was intent on remorselessly half-wheeling me, but I’m used to riding with the Red Max, so I’ve learned not to respond to such provocation.

The road was straight and true and heading almost directly westward, as good an example of a Roman road as I could imagine, and I definitely felt I was following in their footsteps. To be fair the signs were a bit of a giveaway too.

I was later surprised to learn the Military Road is not one of those things that the Romans had done for us, having been built in 1746 by Hanoverian soldiers heading up North to squabble with the Jacobites.

I also realised I was missing Taffy Steve, who I’m sure could have kept me entertained with a precisely recalled, pitch perfect rendition of the “what have the Roman’s ever done for us” scene from Monty Python’s, Life of Brian.

The only bit of this route I really recognised was dropping down toward Whittle Dene reservoir. I watched another cyclist anxiously scurry across at the junction ahead of me – the same as we have done on countless club runs, leery of speeding traffic suddenly appearing over the brow of the hills on either side.  I could feel his eyes tracking me as I reached the crossroads and didn’t turn to join him, but kept going straight up the Military Road. He probably thought I had some sort of death-wish.

(Oh, and I remember the Vallum café too, which for the past three years has been our traditional stop after the club hill climb.)

Finally, a long fast descent deposited me in Chollerford. To be honest, the journey was more rewarding than the destination. Even if it hadn’t been in lockdown, I’m not sure there’s a huge amount to see or do in Chollerford. I stopped on the bridge for a few pics of the North Tyne, turned round and headed back, looking for a sign that promised the road would take me to Hexham, where I could cross back to the south side of the river and home.

The North Tyne from Chollerford

Through the imaginatively titled village of Wall (guess what you can see there?)  and through the mean looking streets of Acomb, I picked up a cycle path that ran alongside the A69 before vaulting up and over on a light bridge seemingly enmeshed in chicken wire. I paused halfway across, brought to a stop by the sight of the A69 completely and utterly devoid of traffic in both directions.

An eerily quite A69 just outside Hexham

It was so quiet, I could probably have ridden it all the way home in complete safety, but I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have endeared me to the few motorists who were actually out and about. It’s their road, don’t you know.

I crossed the river at Hexham and then had a pretty straight route, back down the valley and home, my only regret being the run was into a headwind all the way.

Home again and another enjoyable ride out. I saw less cyclists than I did last week, perhaps because the weather wasn’t as pleasant, and those I did see were riding solo, or from obvious family groups. Who knows, maybe the message is beginning to sink in.

I can’t help feeling better weather is just around the corner. Bring it on.


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.