The alarm on Saturday morning woke me to find a sustained rainstorm lashing the house and sheeting the roads with run off water. It was horrendous and I went back to bed.
When I woke again, the rain had largely petered out, but it was quarter to nine and I had half an hour to get up, get dressed and get across to the meeting place in time to join the club run. It wasn’t going to happen.
Instead I decided to stay south of the river for a solo ride, meandering aimlessly through the hills closer to home and tackling climbs I haven’t attempted since I was a junior. Despite the years and increasingly erratic and extreme weather conditions, I can report that I didn’t find any instances where erosion had noticeably lessened the steepness, severity or height of any of these hills.
If you squint hard enough, my ride profile could perhaps be seen as resembling an overused, worn out, old saw blade, but there was no discernible pattern to the route I inscribed across the map – a giant, formless, free-form squiggle that even Jackson Pollack would disown.
Still, I enjoyed my ride and managed to pack over a thousand metres of climbing into my sixty kilometres.
Hopefully, normal service will be resumed next week.
Oh … the cows. Daughter#2 needed some original photos of farm animals for one of her school projects, so when a herd of cows in a field adjacent to the road started keeping pace with me up one of the climbs, I backtracked down the hill and stopped to snap some pics of my bovine pacers on my phone. The photos were begrudgingly accepted, but only after I was accused of deliberately seeking out the North East’s ugliest, bong-eyed cows. That’s gratitude for you.
YTD Totals: 5,978 km / 3,715 miles with 78,970 metres of climbing
Back to self-propelled methods for getting across to the meeting place, ironically I found myself 10 minutes early, compared with last week when I’d driven there and been 10 minutes late.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I found G-Dawg and Crazy Legs sitting on the wall, enjoying the warm sunshine and chatting with an FNG.
“Interesting documentary on Fleetwood Mac on BBC4,” the FNG opined, “They were all at it with each other, well all bar the drummer.”
“Drummers, eh? They are a breed apart,” I suggested.
“I’m a drummer,” the FNG replied.
“Yeah, drummers, there a bit like goalies,” Crazy Legs volunteered, “Oddly different.”
“I’m a goalie, too.” the FNG asserted, “although I sometimes play left-back, because I kick a ball left-footed.”
At this point I thought it was probably polite not to express any kind of view of left-footers and maintained a diplomatic silence.
The FNG then told us he’d been doing a lot of riding in London, in a group who seemed to do nothing but ceaselessly circle Regent’s Park at break-neck speed, all on hugely expensive bikes and all kitted out with the latest Rapha gear – sort of all dressed-up with no where to go. It should make anyone who lives within a stones throw of our outstanding countryside eternally grateful – even if the roads can sometimes resemble the Somme after a particularly intense, heavy artillery stonk.
Our interlocutor then said he’d been tempted to try some Rapha kit himself and had wandered into one of their shops, boutiques, sorry, err … clubhouses to browse their wares.
The decided racing-snake fit had prompted him to ask the staff if he was in the wrong department and if they had any adult clothing, before he decided that it just wasn’t mean’t to be…
Aether had planned the route for the day, with a trip down the Ryals before the climb back through Hallington. I like this route, the weather was good, my knee had been set free of all protective bracing and all was well with the world. It promised to be a good one.
Off in the first group, I dropped in alongside Ovis as we followed Caracol and the Cow Ranger out at a decidedly brisk pace. Then, approaching the airport, the Cow Ranger managed to ship his chain (something that’s becoming a common occurrence) and as he dropped back I pushed up to replace him on the front.
“So, that planned chain drop worked well again,” Caracol noted as I replaced the Cow Ranger. I agreed it was a good trick and one I’m keen to master.
Heading toward Darras Hall, home to posh people, lumbering 4×4’s and (what passes as royalty in these parts) Premiership footballers, young and old – Ovis replaced Caracol on the front and on we went.
Someone called for a break, then, a bit further on we stopped again, potentially to reform once the second group joined us, but then we dithered and then we pressed on without them. So a fairly standard day for decisive decision making then.
By the time we’d dropped down the Quarry and reached the top of the Ryal’s, G-Dawg had worked his way to the back of the group, conscious of the speed-wobbles he’s experienced on the Ryal’s descent and giving himself room to manoeuvre, should the worst happen.
As we approached drop an older looking feller topped the crest on a sit-up-and-beg bike laden with panniers, completely unruffled by the long climb and breathing easily.
“Got to be an e-bike,” Crazy Legs observed and so it was, making a mockery of the Ryal’s fearsome reputation.
It was our turn for some fun then, tipping over the edge to let gravity have its wicked way with us … wheeee … over 60kph without even trying.
At the bottom, I joined up with Crazy Legs as we took the turn to Hallington. Other riders pressed on for a longer sweep around the reservoir, while ahead of us we saw Ovis, caught between waiting for us to catch him and chasing down Rainman.
We soft-pedalled, waiting for G-Dawg, still alive and chatting animatedly with Otto Rocket and Buster as he caught us up. He confirmed he’d had no issues, but his experiences have instilled a high degree of caution in his approach to the descent.
Our small group then set off to climb up through Hallington and onto the road above Kirkheaton, occasionally fracturing and reforming over the hills. The top road is usually a fast paced, roller-coaster ride, but today there was a stiff headwind and it was tough going.
We scrambled up Brandywell Bank and started to pile on the pace. I dropped in behind Crazy Legs as we took the drop down toward the Snake Bends as he rode down the white lines in the middle of the road to try and find the smoothest passage.
An approaching car forced us back to the left and, after it passed and Crazy Legs swung back into the middle, I accelerated down the inside and kept going as hard as I could until G-Dawg surged past me, quickly opening an unassailable lead.
Everyone else swept passed and I sat up, rolling to the junction where we regrouped, seeming to wait an interminable amount of time before finding space to dart through the heavy traffic and wend or way through to the cafe.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Everyone seems to be looking forward to next weeks World Championships in Yorkshire, especially Rainman, whose national proclivities are to the fore, as he touted the chances of a Dutch successor to Valverde, while simultaneously disparaging any Belgian contenders.
In short order he had built up the chances of Mathieu van der Poel and Dylan van Baarle, while demolishing those of Remco Evenepoel, Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen.
“Ere, ere,” Caracol pulled him up sharply, his west country burr to the fore, “You can’t possibly go around pronouncing every riders names correctly and expect us to know who you’re talking about!”
There then followed and extended, bizarre discussion about whether the West Country accent was more representative of pirates or farmers, which concluded with the Caracol’s startling conclusion: “farmers, pirates, they’re one and the same really.”
This left us confused and wondering if pirates were the cut-throat homesteaders of the high seas, or farmers were the freebooters of terra firma.
I don’t know, maybe it’s both?
An elder gent from the Vagabonds cycling club was at the cafe with his missus, who was accompanying him on an e-bike. An intrigued Otto Rocket was curious about the e-bike and was offered a chance to try it for herself.
“We don’t actually know her, she just turned up in a taxi,” Crazy Legs quipped as Otto Rocket swung her leg over the frame and disappeared out the car park. The e-biker owner laughed, only ever-so-slightly uneasily.
Otto Rocket duly returned and pronounced the e-bike brilliant. Of course, Crazy Legs had to have a go too, whirring back to the cafe to second the opinion that e-bikes were brilliant. We all agreed they were highly likely to feature in our (not too distant) riding futures.
The ride home once again featured a quickening of the pace as we powered our way up Berwick Hill, but nothing quite so savage and unrelenting as last weeks madness. Still it wasn’t long before I was following G-Dawg through the mad mile, before casting off and striking out for home.
Great weather and a great ride, I wouldn’t object to a few more days like that before the winter takes hold.
YTD Totals: 5,898 km / 3,665 miles with 77,491 metres of climbing
So, it appears my little, pre-holiday tumble did more damage than I first thought. Three weeks on and my ribs are still sore, but more concerning is my right knee, which started hurting more and more across the four days I rode into work.
I don’t know if I damaged it in the fall, in a separate incident, or if I’d hurt it by unconsciously changing my position in some way to compensate for the rib injury. By Friday I was riding with the knee heavily strapped and that was the order of the day for Saturday’s club run too.
A chilly start meant long-fingered gloves and a windproof jacket for the ride across, which passed without incident with the knee niggling, but bearable.
Main topics of conversation at the start:
Jimmy Mac asked if I wouldn’t like to amend my recent tale of woe and tell everyone I’d had a crash, rather than a fall. He suggested crashes are much more macho-sounding, while falls are strictly for toddlers and the elderly. Ah well, if the cap fits … I told him it wasn’t dramatic enough to be called a crash and I was quite content being classed as one of those elderly people prone to “a fall.”
Someone queried if the Monkey Butler Boy would be joining us and we learned from the Red Max that he would be, but only after recovering from a hissy-fit, brought on because he couldn’t find his knee warmers anywhere.
The Red Max explained his progeny was particularly upset because his knee warmers weren’t exactly where he was looking for them, which, apparently was quite remote from where he’d actually put them.
OGL asked if G-Dawg had been watching the Vuelta and especially the brutal, double-digit climb of Los Machucos.
“I wonder what gears they were riding, maybe a 34-32,” he pondered.
“Bunch of pussies!” declared G-Dawg, a man who sees the inner ring as an unnecessary frippery, solely for effete, losers.
“Merckx would be spinning in his grave,” he growled, ” … err, well … if he was dead, that is.”
I wasn’t quick-witted enough to suggest that you’d never find Eddy Merckx spinning in his grave, or anywhere else for that matter. Gurning, honking and grinding a huge gear? Yes, undoubtedly, but surely never spinning.
The Monkey Butler Boy belatedly joined us, sans knee-warmers, but wearing a buff around his neck.
“Oh, could you only find the one knee-warmer then?” Jimmy Mac quipped. I guffawed, but the comment sailed over it’s intended marks head.
In other news, Sneaky Pete reported that Taffy Steve has been missing for the past few weeks because of a nasty torn rotator cuff, once and for all ending his aspirations to be an NFL-calibre starting quarterback. Hopefully he’s on the road to recovery and will be back amongst us soon.
Then we were off a massive turnout of three dozen, when even splitting into two groups didn’t seem enough.
I slotted into the front group behind Crazy Legs and Richard of Flanders and away we went.
I was chatting with the Red Max about how it was still chilly and I wished I’d kept my gloves on, but was becoming more and more distracted by a building pain in my right knee.
As we approached Dinnington, I decided I was doing my knee more harm than good and told Crazy Legs I was aborting and heading for home. The group took a left to follow the planned route, while I kept going, to swing in a wide loop around the airport and pick my way back. It was a shame because I was actually feeling in pretty decent nick.
I found my knee continued to hurt sitting down, but not when I climbed out of the saddle, while my ribs were okay sitting down, but hurt when climbing. It seemed a decent trade-off, so I took my frustrations out on a few climbs on the way back, burning away some excess energy as I attacked the slopes.
Back early, time to rest up and hopefully heal some before trying it all again.
YTD Totals: 5,567 km / 3,459 miles with 73,332 metres of climbing
An inauspicious start to the week, saw a capricious gust of wind and a wet and slimy speed bump, combined with a bit of cycling stupidity of Froomesque proportions, conspire to send me crashing to the tarmac on Wednesday’s commute home.
I took the brunt of the impact on my right hand side, a grazed shoulder, elbow, knee and ankle. I gouged deep scores in the lenses of my specs, which would have made them unwearable, even if the fall hadn’t snapped them clean in two.
I also managed to grate away the ends of the fingertips of my left hand and once, I got moving again, found blood running down my brake lever to drip a sporadic, splattery, breadcrumb trail all along my route home.
Worst of all though, I’d taken a blow to the ribs, which hurt a little when climbing and a little more when climbing out of the saddle. It was a discomfort I would carry across my next few commutes and into the Saturday club run.
If the road had been unkind, at least the weather hadn’t reciprocated and we were looking at a dry day with plenty of sunshine. A nice Saturday, for a refreshing change.
Despite the good weather, I didn’t spot many other cyclists as I made my way across to the meeting point, but there were lots of runners around, either drawn out by the good weather, or perhaps realising the Great North Run is only weeks away and they really need to start doing a little training.
I managed to hit one sweet spot, when the pedals seemed to spin effortlessly and I was cruising along at 19 mph without even trying. It was the best I’d feel all day and naturally it wouldn’t last.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Failing to learn from last year, the Monkey Butler Boy has a new pair of ultra white shoes to defile. I keep telling him that it’s not a colour conducive to the Northumberland climate, but it doesn’t appear to have registered. His last pair survived no more than a year before they became so discoloured they were consigned to the washing machine in a desperate rescue attempt. I don’t think this managed to return them to their former glory and worse, they actually shrank so much they no longer fit.
Having secured new, pristine white shoes meant he could now disparage the Red Max’s shoes, A sensible black and (naturally) red, which were apparently not stiff enough and certainly not expensive enough for the Monkey Butler Boy’s tastes.
“Two bits of wood with a cleat nailed on, that’s all you need,” a totally unfazed Red Max responded.
That’s pretty much how they used to be,” I reminisced, recalling the cycling shoes of my youth, when you did have to literally nail the cleats to the soles.
“Yeah, nailed directly onto the soles of your feet,” the Red Max confirmed, “That’s how hard we were.”
Benedict had set the route for the day and admitted it was exactly the same as the last one he’d posted. This, he said, was a punishment of sorts, as most of us had messed up by failing to take the designated turn just after the Mur de Mitford. Apparently he was intent on us doing this route again (and again and again, if necessary) until we got it right.
OGL issued dire warnings about the brief spell of good weather bringing all sorts of farm vehicles out on the roads as farmers rushed “to bring their crops in.” I wondered if this was a substitute, doomsday scenario because the weather conspired to deprive him of his favourite subjects for whipping up his “we’re all doomed” pronouncements, you know, glacial ice sheets, monsoon rains, or tornado like winds.
The fact is though that, just three days later, a 77-year cyclist was sadly killed in a collision with a combine harvester on one of our typical routes home. There’s probably a lesson in there for me not to be such a cynical smart-arse, but, well …
Anyway, away we went and I bumped down the kerb and tagged onto the back of the first group and after a little re- shuffling found myself riding alongside and chatting with the Cow Ranger.
Just after Bell’s Hill the Red Max cruised up to the front to tell us the second group had caught us. I didn’t think this was such a big issue now we were out of the ‘burbs, but I think Caracol and the Big Yin took it as a personal affront. The pace was ratcheted up to an uncomfortable level and we rattled through Tranwell and on toward Mitford at an unrelenting pace, that had us well strung out.
As we paused at a junction I asked for the pace to be dialled back and we managed a more orderly descent into the Wansbeck Valley. I found myself descending alongside Otto Rocket, “This,” she whooped, “is one of my favourite descents.”
“Yeah,” I warned, “but what goes down ….”
… has to go up again – and in this case, the up was the short, but savage Mur de Mitford.
“Aw feck,” I heard Otto Rocket muttering, “I’d forgotten about this!”
Up we whirred, each at their own pace, before we regrouped and pushed on to find Benedict’s less than obvious turn. Safely negotiated, we climbed, then climbed some more, up the 4th Cat Hill to Low Hesleyhurst, before a long swooping descent dropped us back into the Font Valley.
Throughout, we seemed to encounter numerous horsey-looking, horsey people on numerous horses, (none of the horses looked remotely human however). For the most part, they were polite and gracious, greeting us warmly, waving, thanking us for slowing down, or pulling to the side of the road to let us past. Not an erstwhile Taras Bulba however, riding one huge beast barebacked (the rider, not the horse!) while leading another by the bridle and seeming to take up the full road to do it. I swear he kicked his horses into a gallop as he surged toward us and we scrabbled to get out of the way. Crazy.
I caught up with G-Dawg, who’d has the immense privilege of a midweek ride out with a group of international cyclists who were in Newcastle to participate in the World Transplant Games, everyone of whom had an inspirational story to tell. He’d ended up chatting with a young Dutch guy who’d won the Road Race, Time Trial and Team Time Trial on a borrowed liver and another guy who was competing on the back of a double lung transplant.
And then it was back to the work in hand as we started climbing up the Trench. Again. For whatever reason, it seems to have featured in my last three or four club runs. Den Haag set a brisk pace and I managed to hang tough with the front group. Near the top he glanced back, to find maybe half a dozen of clustered together, the rest were scattered, adrift all the way down the climb.
“Hmm, we seem to have opened up some gaps,” he mused.
“I should bloody well hope so,” I gasped, “I’d be horribly disappointed if we hadn’t after all that effort.”
We regrouped at the top and pushed on for Angerton, but as we started to climb up toward Bolam Lake, I was suddenly done. Empty and heavy-legged, I drifted off the back of the group on the final climb and no matter how hard I chased I couldn’t close the gap. Even a token effort over the rollers didn’t help and I slipped into the cafe sur la jante.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
In commemoration (or perhaps celebration?) of the Garrulous Kid’s last club ride before heading off to university, G-Dawg had arranged for the cafe to provide us with a celebratory cake. He emerged from the cafe with said cakey-treat (anointed with a single, solitary candle) and, rather bizarrely, a dozen knives, but no plates.
The candle was duly lit and the Garrulous Kid blew it out, as we all stood around and made (probably) the same wish. He then started to slice up the cake, handing out the first massive slice that took away about an eighth of its mass in one cavalier, over-generous moment.
We quickly pointed out his wasn’t going to work. Like chum in shark-infested waters, a seething pack of gimlet-eyed cyclists were already circling the table, building up into a cake-feeding-frenzy and they all needed to be appeased.
As the Garrulous Kid progressed, he started slicing and dicing the cake into smaller and smaller portions, until the last few slices were wafer-thin shavings of mostly barely stuck-together crumbs. Somehow, he just about managed to get away with it, although I dread to think what would have happened if he’d only been working with five loaves and two fishes – perhaps an unavoidable food riot?
Cake disposed off, the Garrulous Kid mused that at this time next week he’d be on the train heading to Aberdeen, while his parents would be driving up there without him.
This, he said, was so that he could take his bike up while leaving room in the car for other things. We naturally interpreted this as a pitiful excuse so the Garrulous Kids parents didn’t have to endure a 5-hour journey stuck in a car with him.
I even suggested they would probably dump all his gear in a heap on the pavement outside his halls of residence and be long gone by the time he rolled up with his bike.
G-Dawg told him not to worry though as, in an even bigger surprise than the cake, he’d arranged for OGL to travel up to Aberdeen on the train with the Garrulous Kid, to “see him off proper” (and make sure he didn’t sneak back.)
Even better, he hinted OGL had been persuaded to wear nothing but a club jersey and a slightly soiled, somewhat askew sporran – a sight that once formed in your imagination becomes almost impossible not to see …
Different groups of cyclists started to form up and start out for home, including Biden Fecht, also due to travel to Aberdeen University, to resume his teaching post.
They all wandered across to wish the Garrulous Kid goodbye and good luck.
“You will leave the front door key under the plant pot, won’t you?” the Garrulous Kid quipped, as Biden Fecht made to leave.
Oh how we laughed … well, all apart from Biden Fecht who sidled quickly away, wearing a slightly bilious expression.
Once it was our turn to leave we decided to route back through Walton again, just for a bit variety. I found myself riding alongside the Big Yin. He gestured toward the Garrulous Kid. “I bet he’s going to be a player amongst the girls at Uni,” he mused, “And that’s player with an A on the end…” He tried sounding it out, “You know, a ‘play-ah’.”
I could only stare at him in mute horror and incomprehension.
I was still tired and weak-legged as we chased down a group of our club mates who’d followed a different route to suddenly emerge on the road ahead of us. We managed to tag onto the back as this group accelerated past the Cheese Farm, but the chase had emptied my reserves and the pace was too high to sustain. I was done, sat back, eased up and disengaged.
I inhaled an emergency gel in the hope it would stave off, or counter any negative effects of bonking and settled in for my solo ride for home. That was hard.
I’m off for another family holiday and not back on a club ride until September.
YTD Totals: 5,435 km / 3,269 miles with 71,604 metres of climbing
It’s Saturday morning again, so, naturally it’s raining. Again. Heavily. This time however, I’m assured that it is going to stop and the rest of the day should be relatively rain free.
45-minutes later, I’m getting ready to leave and the rain is slowly petering out. Still I take precautions, pulling on a light waterproof jacket and, after a tormented inner dialogue of Hamlet-like intensity, a pair of black socks. These make me feel rather uncomfortable and dirty, but it seems preferable to ruining another pair of white socks with road spray.
Minutes later and I’m more at peace with my choice as my front wheel cuts a bow wave through all the surface water sheeting the Heinous Hill. Socks and shoes are already soaked, but looking none the worse for it.
I’m caught behind the barriers of a level-crossing as two trains trundle past in opposite directions and then passed by two cyclists who I track to the end of the bridge, where they split off left and I head right. They’re both braving the weather sans-rain jacket and I soon stop to follow suit. Things are good, the weather has perked up and I’m almost perfectly dry by the time I pull up at the meeting point.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point
“Are you the cycling group that leaves here at nine?” a breathless feller asked as he pulled up in front of us.
“9:15,” we corrected him. Obviously we were not the droids he was looking for and he scuttled away around the corner to search for who knows what group and who knows where. I’d been there from just before 9 o’clock and I could have re-assured him there been no other groups of cyclists lurking in the area.
The Garrulous Kid came bounding in, flushed with success having secured the grades necessary to get into Aberdeen University. Now he/we only have a couple of rides left before he leaves for an extended Fresher’s week over the border. It seems just moments since he was a gangling, callow, awkward and immature school kid, incapable of taking a left turn smoothly on a bike. Now look at him – a gangling, callow, awkward and immature, soon-to-be student, who is still incapable of taking a left turn smoothly on a bike.
Caracol reported a city-wide street party had spontaneously erupted in Edinburgh when they learned the Garrulous Kid was headed to university in Aberdeen rather than in their fair city. We also speculated on how Biden Fecht might take this news and whether he’d feel honour-bound to resign from his post at the University of Aberdeen
As our maître d’, unofficial meeter-and-greeter and chief pastoral carer, Crazy Legs was once again employed to bring a stray FNG into the fold. This proved to be a guy riding a bike that he claimed was transitioning from city bike, to gravel bike. The revolution had started at the front end with impressively wide-chunky tyres, before petering out with the super-skinny slicks still on the rear. We’re a broad church, with an open and inclusive outlook though, so both rider and transbike were immediately welcomed into our merry throng.
Den Hague had bravely volunteered to plan and lead the ride today and had us set for picking our way along some newish, somewhat pot-holed and distressed looking tracks en route to an assault on the Ryals. Crazy Legs assured the FNG that his bike was probably ideal for the task in hand … well, half of it was anyway.
We then only had time to ponder the unusual, unannounced absence of G-Dawg before we were pushing off, clipping in and riding out.
I dropped onto the back of the first group, where things started to go wrong almost immediately, as we were split by a red light. The light changed to green and Homeboyz and the Big Yin led the chase onto the main road, in pursuit of the front end of the first group.
They barrelled straight over the first round about. Uh-oh, I think we should have turned left at that point. We pressed on and then started to slow and prevaricate as it became apparent we really should have taken that left turn.
We decided to push on regardless, adding in a big dog-leg to our route in order to get back on track. A few miles further up the road, a group of cyclists appeared ahead of us and we were able to tag onto the back. The only thing was, it wasn’t our first group but the second and our numbers had just swelled it to a bloated twenty-plus.
The Big Yin queried if we should over-take and chase down the front group, but I suspected it would cause all kinds of mayhem and so we just sat at the back and enjoyed the ride.
Which we did, until we got to Matfen and a general re-grouping. Homeboyz explained how we ended up at the back of the second group and held his hand up to acknowledge his part in our misadventures.
“I have to admit,” he declared, “It was partly my fault,” he assured Crazy Legs.
“Partly?” I queried.
“Oh, okay, it was fully my fault,” he amended.
We split at this point, some off to the cafe via the Quarry, while the rest pushed on climbing up through Great Whittingham, flirting briefly with the A68 before taking the rough track through Bingfield toward the Ryals.
Then up the Ryals we went. I struggled to find the right gear and wasn’t pushing too hard, but somehow managed a new, fastest time, which was a little unexpected bonus.
A front group had raced away up the climb and they didn’t look back, but the rest of us regrouped in the village of Ryal, before tackling the Quarry. At the top we turned right and started to accelerate toward the cafe.
A small knot pulled away from the front, but I held fire figuring they would slow on the long drag up to Wallridge crossroads and I could try attacking and bridging across then, all the while Crazy Legs drove us on, intent on pulling our splintered group back into one cohesive unit.
I paused to let an approaching car past, then slipped to the outside and gave a kick. The delay for the passing car proved fortuitous as I caught the front group just as they approached the crossroads. I only had to slow momentarily before one of them called that the road was clear. Still carrying more momentum than the group I’d just caught, I eased past and pushed on with what I suspected was a small gap, but it was still a gap.
From behind Den Hague gave chase and pulled the Garrulous Kid along with him. Down the twisting descent, I made it through the junction, still with a slight advantage. Den Hague finally overhauled me on the climb up to the final junction.
Onto the road down to the Snake Bends, he seemed to pause momentarily and I tried to give chase, slowly clawing back some distance. Then the Garrulous Kid thundered away of my wheel and I eased, letting the pair up front fight it out, before once again our group slowly coalesced and we made our way to the cafe.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
We found a perky looking G-Dawg already ensconced at a table in the garden, having decided to wait out the early downpour before taking to the roads. I think he was suffering from the same malady I was last week – rainmalaise.
Crazy Legs suggested if we ever needed a grumpy old man to replace OGL to bitch and kvetch about the weather and massively exaggerate its impact, we’d found the ideal candidate.
Meanwhile, Buster turned up at our table with a Chocolate Rollo tray bake as dense as osmium.
“That looks super-calorific,” Crazy Legs acknowledged admiringly.
“You might even say it’s super-calorific- expialidocious ,” I ventured, but singularly failed to inflict an unwanted ear-worm on Crazy Legs.
I needn’t have worried, minutes later he as talking about the end of season three of Stranger Things and serenading us all with a heartfelt version of Neverending Story.
Talk turned to other TV-Series and we learned that both Buster and Princess Fiona still have two episodes of Killing Eve left to watch and they warned us against issuing any spoilers.
“I’m only just getting over the shock of her husband leaving,” Buster volunteered.
“What! Her husband leaves her?” Princess Fiona demanded.
Oops, there goes the no spoilers alert, looks like someone actually has more than 2 episodes to catch up on.
From TV, it was a short hop to film, with Crazy Legs off to see the new Tarantino movie and still marvelling at how Christoph Waltz made drinking a glass of milk look so threatening and unsettling in Inglourious Basterds.
We discussed a pivotal point early in the film, when a spy in a German bar revealed himself by ordering three drinks the British way, by holding up his his index, middle, and ring finger. Apparently, that’s not how it’s done on the Continent.
“Show us three, with your fingers,” Crazy Legs asked Double Dutch Distaff, who wasn’t really following the conversation. She immediately held up three digits … a thumb, index finger and middle-finger.
Crazy Legs responded with his British version – index, middle finger and ring finger proudly upraised.
She looked totally perplexed, as if he’d just performed some incredibly difficult and strange sleight of hand, before declaring it was just wrong, unnatural and awkward. I sensed we were just moments away from such a gesture being declared retarded.
G-Dawg wandered over to suggest we took a different route home via Whalton as the road for our regular run through Ogle was muddy and “covered in crap.”
Crazy Legs announced the change, but probably could have saved his breath, G-Dawg swung left instead of right out of the cafe and everyone else just seemed to naturally follow.
The Red Max was riding happily alongside Crazy Legs, when he suddenly reprised “Neverending Story.”
“Nah!” the Red Max declared, “I’m not having it, not that song.” He made a show of pulling off to one side and slipping to the back.
I shuffled up and had a chat with Crazy Legs, again touching on the lack of club jersey’s in a group that was still almost twenty-strong.
“We must look like a bunch of masterless Ronin, roaming the countryside, seemingly without purpose,” I mused.
“I’ve always seen us as more of a rowdy, rabble.” Crazy Legs determined. He liked the connotation of rowdy with rodeo’s, suggesting our Wednesday evening drop-rides akin to bronc riding, you just hug on as long as you could before you were inevitably thrown off the back.
A brief reshuffle and I found myself alongside the Red Max. I couldn’t resist and gave him a quick burst of Neverending Story – and it was a quick burst, as I only know that one line from the chorus. Nevertheless, it was more than enough, even before my ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah’s, were complete, the Red Max was swearing like a trooper and dropping out of line again:
“Na! Na! Na! I’m not having it. Na!”
Who’d have thought it. Like kryptonite to Superman, or garlic to vampire’s, we’d discovered that Limahl’s horrid warbling was the Red Max’s Achilles’ heel.
G-Dawg and the Garrulous Kid finished their stint on the front and I took over alongside Homeboyz, keeping the pace respectably high as we swung round the airport. As we entered the Mad Mile and most of the group swung away, G-Dawg appeared on my shoulder and we pressed on to the roundabout, where I could slingshot away and start my solo ride back.
YTD Totals: 5,261 km / 3,269 miles with 69,553 metres of climbing
Time for one last hurrah, one more brief spin out, before breaking down and packing up the bike for the return home. Steadfast and the Hammer have disappeared for solo ride’s, off up the valley, the Big Yin is, I believe treating himself to a ride up the Col d’Ornon, while Caracol is riding Oulles and the Col d’Ornon as a warm up for another assault on the l’Alpe d’Huez.
That leaves six of us for a slow-paced amble back up the Alpe, complete with multiple stops and a vague plan to arrive at the top in time for a relaxed lunch. From there, thoughts go no further than a quick zip back down the mountain to the campsite.
Not a very taxing day, but for me it’s going to be enough. I remember doing the exact same thing last time around when, the day after the Circle of Death, I felt someone had poured concrete into my legs. Things weren’t as bad today, but I was still mightily tired and anything beyond a slow-paced amble was completely beyond me.
All traces of the bad weather from yesterday had blown over and it looked like being a good ‘un, the sky a backdrop of deep blue, scratched with a few gauzy, high altitude contrails and dotted with bright, primary coloured highlights from a handful of drifting paraglider wings.
So, up we went, slowly spinning the legs back up to speed, as chains rolled up cassettes, again and again and again. And again. We initially rode en bloc, at a comfortable pace, enjoying the sunshine and chatting away quietly.
We stopped every three or four corners to enjoy the views and watch the sparse, but steady flow of riders heading up, or zipping down. Crazy Legs felt our presence kept those descending honest, as no one wanted to misjudge a corner and mess up in front of a critical jury of smart-arse cyclists.
We greeted and encouraged those clambering upwards, they were almost unfailingly cheerful, despite the rigours of the task they’d assigned themselves. What is it about bikes and mountains that makes us want to ride up them and makes us happy to do it, too?
After exchanging pleasantries with one fellow-Brit, he then looked behind and shouted down words of encouragement to his companion, toiling upwards in his wake,”Come on, Paul.”
We immediately took up the chorus, encouraging Paul to greater efforts,
“Come on, Paul!”
“You can do it, Paul!”
As he drew level, no doubt wondering who this bunch of piss-taking, miscreants were, Kermit gave it one last shot.
“Come on, Paul,” he paused for dramatic effect, “We’ve heard so much about you!”
As we dissolved into giggles, Paul hauled himself past and around the corner, shaking his head and no doubt cursing the lolling, goggling, gaggle of lazy, smart-arse cyclists, who didn’t even have the ability to ride up on their own without stopping at every corner.
Undeterred, at some point we resumed our super-relaxed ascent and I found myself riding alongside Ovis as the others stretched away out in front.
We were just discussing whether riding up a mountain was actually a good choice for a recovery ride, when Ovis jinked into my path. This forced me toward the low wooden barrier, that was all that stood between the road and a precipitous drop over the other side. I had visions of him body-checking me over the edge as he quipped, “Oh yeah, try recovering from that, then!”
Apparently though, this was just my paranoid delusions and we pressed on without any further overt attempts on my life.
At the next stop a German couple seemed hugely amused by our antics and banter, I suppose for them it was almost as entertaining as spotting a troupe of wild Barbary apes cavorting across the Rock of Gibraltar. They must have eventually decided that we were mostly harmless and possibly even trustworthy, so they co-opted Ovis into taking a few photos for them.
On we went again, all the way up to the village of Huez, where a little leafy shade perfectly framed what we determined would be our final stop before the summit.
Running Up That Hill
After another suitably elongated rest, replete with idle chatter, off we went again, slowly catching and passing a runner pounding her way resolutely upwards. Crazy Legs had a brief chat, learned she was a visiting American and she gave him the answer to his most burning question: what would she do once she got to the top? She said she was just going to turn herself around and run straight back down again!
I can’t help thinking running down a mountain would be as punishingly hard, if not actually harder, than running up one. And I thought cyclists were crazy …
Once more our group became naturally stratified by the slope and I found myself riding at the back with Ovis as we rounded the photographers. Yet again I got undeserved grief for hogging the limelight.
We had a bit of a chat about the possibility of extending our trips over a few more days, but given I was so deeply tired already, I wondered how enjoyable that would actually be. Perhaps we would need to plan a rest day in the middle, or, Ovis suggested, maybe we’d just need to avoid mega-long, multiple mountain marathon’s, like yesterday’s “Circle of Death.”
Then we were on the long straight up through the first ski chalet’s, following the road as it dog-legged left around one last corner and riding across the official-unofficial finish line with its barriers and bunting and podium.
Done. That was it for the day, there was never any intention of pushing through the town and up to the actual finish this time around. We clambered off and joined the rest of our group who’d already staked out a table in our favourite bar.
Here we would enjoy a few cold drinks, have a bite to eat and generally watch the world go by on two wheels.
One rider wandered past clad in a specially made, one-off, bright pink jersey, featuring a bigger than life, sublimated image of Donald Trump’s snarling face, all sneering mouth, tiny, piggy eyes and ridiculous, Shredded Wheat hairstyle. The rider was at pains to tell anyone who’d listen that he wasn’t a fan of the 45th President of the US of A, but then, we wondered why he’d gone to all that trouble and expense of making and wearing the jersey?
Crazy Legs told him an orangutan-orange jersey would have been much more appropriate, which seemed to be the only sensible response to this particular horror.
A few of our mob wandered off to do some souvenir shopping, while I sat with Crazy Legs, watching a large group of strapping, young men, all of a similar age and build, ride past. They all wore identical, understated kit, all-black, save for one red, white and blue, tricolour sleeve. I suspect they were from the armed forces, maybe French Marines or similar, speculation that was reinforced when one of them strode past later, with shiny metal prosthetic’s where an arm and a leg were missing.
We then idly wondered if perhaps we’d just been presented with the ideal way of coming up with a tasteful club jersey that could still pay homage to our established, traditional and sadly lurid, club colours of tangerine and green.
Crazy Legs reminisced about the last time we were here, when he’d had to break the news to a disbelieving Englishman that, although he’d crossed the unofficial-official finish line, with its barriers and bunting and podium, he hadn’t actually completed the climb.
We’d watched him quickly run through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance and resignation, before wandering away disconsolately. I’m not sure he liked us after that. He certainly didn’t seem inclined to hang around and chat.
It’s all downhill from here
Well fed and watered and with souvenir jersey’s and t-shirts safely tucked away, we rolled out and started our final, glorious, sweep down – a last twenty minutes of unabashed fun.
Around the first few curves and we passed Caracol pounding up the other way, cheering him on. He never did manage to better his time from the first day, but then again, after yesterday and his testing idea of a warm-up, it wasn’t a great surprise.
Back at the campsite, the bike broke down and packed away without any problems. I wandered into the chalet next door to find Crazy Legs and Steadfast watching the Tour de Suisse on their TV. I have to admit, despite wandering past it for 3 days, it hadn’t actually registered with me that we had a TV.
He wins it by a chin
It wasn’t a particularly interesting stage, but it did allow Crazy Legs to indulge in his rather unconventional dislike for the ultimate winner on the day, Luis León Sánchez Gil. Apparently, it’s all about the chin, as he bears no particular malice for the riders results, team, nationality, history or other physical traits and positively admires LL’s “older twin brother” (ahem), Samuel “Samu” Sánchez González…
Crazy Legs was only appeased by a brief cameo from one of his all-time favourite riders, Domenico Pozzovivo, who he much admired for his openness and honesty in clearly demonstrating he doesn’t give a rat’s arse, whenever he can’t give a rat’s arse.
Once the Tour de Suisse, boo-hiss pantomime was complete, we wandered into town for a Last Supper at the Dutch bar, once again deflecting the owners offer of a table for ten inside and even managing to persuade him we were trustworthy enough to fit ten chairs around a table for eight.
We had an extended discussion about where we could cycle next year with, naturally, no real conclusions reached.
We then tested Caracol’s knowledge of dead minor-celebrities, during which we (rather alarmingly) learned that much-beloved-by-grandparents, comedy double-act, Cannon and Ball were behind the book, “Christianity for Beginners.”
Someone wondered if Cannon and Ball were still working as a double-act and it was my sad duty to inform everyone that this was no longer the case, as I was pretty sure I’d heard that “Cannon fired Ball.”
That seems a suitably low enough point to draw a veil over this particular evening. We finished up and wandered back, only to be distracted by the moon rising over the mountain peaks. A suitably picturesque grand finale.
We were up early the next day to clean out the cabin, wash everything down and brush and mop the floors. This time around the nit-picking, cabin inspection Nazi’s were apparently on a day off, so we all passed muster quite comfortably, loaded up the vans and away we went.
Eye of the Spider
Our return trip was spent in much the same way as the inbound one, keeping an eye on the directions for our stalwart, designated driver, Kermit, while tuning to various radio stations to try and keep us entertained.
The highlight was undoubtedly Survivor, belting out one of their ultra-cheesey, Rocky theme-songs. (No, not that one). Google informs me (sorry, I’ve never felt the remotest desire to actually watch a Rocky film), that the song in question was Burning Heart, from the motion-picture, Rocky IV.
We listened in hushed awe as the complex, poetic imagery of this magnificent opus unfolded, until Biden Fecht turned to me, perplexed.
“Did he just sing ‘climbing up like a spider?'” he asked, somewhat bewildered.
“Ah, I think the actual lyrics were ‘rising up like a spire,'” I sadly had to inform him. Much more mundane. But then again, I was sure I could find a use for the phrase “climbing up like a spider.”
Wholly inadequate French signage had one more mean trick to pull, before I could escape its malign influence. We completely missed the turn-off for the French side of Geneva airport and ended up passing through customs at the border and trying to return the car to the Swiss side.
Luckily the car rental rep put us right, tapping the correct destination into my phone’s Sat-Nav with such efficiency and aplomb, that I couldn’t help conclude we were not the first to make this mistake and he’d probably had to do something similar for hundreds, if not thousands of confused travellers before us.
We back-tracked through customs again and immediately slowed to a crawl. We knew the junction we needed was here somewhere, but it was remarkably well hidden.
“Across there,” I was finally able to declare, pointing across the two lanes of traffic queuing to enter the customs checkpoint.
Kermit somehow forced us a way through to where an anonymous, unimpressive and almost apologetic, small, Secteur Français sign pointed the way.
We turned onto a characterless, unremarkable B-road that resembled nothing so much as the delivery entrance to a shopping centre, but we were at least re-assured by the appearance of the first car rental signs. What a bizarre route into a major international airport.
It wasn’t much longer before we could abandon the van and make our way into the airport to check our bike bags and boxes onto our return flights.
Things went smoothly enough from that point and it wasn’t long before we were airborne on the first leg of our trip home. The Big Yin send a couple of photo’s to our group chat, but they were too clever for me and I had to ask for a direct interpretation.
They showed, he explained, the passenger cabin altimeter and corresponding view out of the window as we reached 2,400 metres above sea-level – or, in other words, the height we attained at the top of the Galibier.
Steadfast left us at Heathrow, while the rest of us transferred onto the Newcastle flight via the Terminal 5 Wetherspoons pub. And then we were home and all our bike bags and boxes belatedly appeared, as the airport ground crew had to manually carry them up all the stairs from the tarmac. They didn’t seem all that pleased about it.
Still, all the bags were there and everything seemed intact, which was a major advance on last year.
So, another enjoyable trip and, even with the same rides, a different experience from two years ago.
By the numbers …
My flights, from what I can recall cost me £160, the three bedroom chalet/cabin was £115 each, van hire, fuel and road tolls around £100 each, so the trip cost about £375 plus food and drink.
Across the 3-days we managed 249 kilometres, or 155 miles, with 6,831 metres of spectacular climbing and descending. Yet again, another brilliant trip, conceived, planned and successfully executed by our very own Tour Director, Crazy Legs.
7:40 Saturday morning and five of us are lined up at the gates to the campsite ready to embark on our mini-epic: The Circle of Death. Not bad for us, as we’re only running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but it would have been much more impressive if all eight of us managed to be there.
We suspect that Steadfast and Ovis have pushed on ahead, but have no confirmation. When queried, Crazy Legs reports they’ve definitely left the chalet, but they’re not at the gate, and we can’t find then en route to the gate, so our suspicions seem reasonable.
We’re still missing the Big Yin, even though he’s hard to miss, but then he appears riding up from the direction of the town, having been who knows where. The six of us form up and set off after our early break-away companions.
Huh, Club Run Pace?
Once through the town, the Hammer seems keen to wind up the pace, but I’m conscious of the fact we have a long day ahead of us and don’t want to start out at break-neck speed. I deliberately let Caracol’s wheel go and watch the gap to the front pair widen, working on the assumption they’ll eventually look back and hopefully adjust their speed to suit.
None of the others push past me to take up the chase, so I assume they’re happy with a more relaxed start too. The roads are relatively quiet, the cycle lane’s are wide, well-surfaced and good, so I’m happy to bool along, taking in the sights, fields of lavender and wild poppies, a gleaming river off to our right and a backdrop of snow-mottled mountains, wrapped in tattered ribbons of cloud.
At the next, small hamlet, the front pair finally look behind and the speed at the front gets knocked back. We reform into a single group and are together for the dramatic zig-zagging climb up the face of the dam at Allemont.
The road then has us skirting the Lac de Vernay, before we start to climb, up through densely wooded hills and the first distance markers for the distant summit of the Col du Glandon appear.
Its remarkably peaceful on the road, with only the whirring of chains, an occasional bit of chatter and rhythmic breathing of my companions to provide the backdrop to the fluting, piping calls of unseen birds in the woods around us.
As the gradient varies, the Big Yin starts to yo-yo off the back, until Kermit drops back to ride with him and we continue to work our way through the trees, the road always climbing. It’s hot and humid under the canopy of the leaves, the sun is starting to burn through the cloud cover and is promising better weather than yesterday.
Then we burst out into the open, with spectacular views of the peaks off to the right, as we enter Le Rivier d’Allemont, our first port of call for a welcome jolt of wake up coffee.
You Say Tomay-toe
We catch up with Ovis and Steadfast, already royally ensconced in the cafe and enjoying the early morning sunshine. The Hammer plans to break his fast here and politely asks for a savoury crêpe, but instead, gets a lesson in French cuisine.
“Non, pas une crêpe, c’est une galette!”
Ah, OK, pleased we cleared that up.
Before we finish our coffee, Ovis and Steadfast are up and away again, obviously hoping to maintain their advantage over the peloton. We slowly move to follow, finish up and settle the bill, while the Hammer wanders in to find out how his crêpe galette is doing.
They haven’t even started thinking about it, let alone cooking it. Well, you know you can never rush an artist and his work. The Hammer cancels his order and in a show of Anglo defiance buys a Mars bar instead. Haute cuisine? My arse.
Ring of Fire
This is the first time the Hammer has brought his own bike rather than hire one and he admits the bike is brilliant, but the copyright for the saddle seems to belong to Torquemada and it’s causing him exquisite pain. “Ring of Fire” becomes the unofficial theme song, not just for the day, but for the rest of the trip.
Back on our bikes, we climb out of the village, then there’s a brief and joyful swoop down and over the river, before the road starts to relentlessly climb again. I drop back to pace the Big Yin and the rest slowly pull away from us.
Up we go, climbing above the dam, which they spectacularly routed the Tour up a couple of years ago and onto the balcony road high above the Lac de Grand Maison.
As we climb I notice the first snow banks, dirty and crusted by the side of the road, but still surviving well into June. It makes me wonder what we might find on the Galibier.
I hate the next bit, a too long descent where all you can think about his how much altitude you’re losing and how much work you’ll need to do to win those precious metres back. As the road inevitably starts to climb again, a photographer is waiting to ambush us and capture our distress and stupid gurning faces, just in case living through that horrid transition once, from descending to steeply uphill, wasn’t quite enough.
The Big Yin spots and points out what I take to be a marmot, scurrying through the meadow in a flash of russet and yellow and then we’re past the scenic pastures, as I escort the Big Yin up to the summit of the Glandon, barely giving him time to catch his breath and take in his surroundings, before I hustle him into turning around and we drop down to start the clamber up to the Croix de Fer.
We find the others there and waiting. The Big Yin puffs out his cheeks and declares that if Buster was expecting an easy day, just making it to the Croix de Fer would disabuse him of that notion.
Someone snaps a pic of me. Weirdly, I almost look happy …
We then reiterate that this is the point of no return for anyone who wants to turn back, once you’re on the descent, you’re committed. No one does, they’re all committed. Or, at least they should be.
We’ve got maybe a 25km downhill run, once we tip over the other side. Caracol leads us off and is quickly several hairpins below me, as I watch him gaining rapidly on a white camper van. Luckily the driver realises that cyclists are descending considerably faster than he can manage and he doesn’t try to get into a drag race, moves aside and lets Caracol slide swiftly past.
A handful of seconds later and I’m whistling past as well, just letting the bike run and riding in the Hammer’s wake. We literally rattle through a couple of sleepy, one street towns, the road surface as rough and chewed up as anything at home in rural Northumberland, and start skirting the noisy tumult of the fast-flowing L’Arvan river.
We stop briefly to regroup, right next to where someone has ingeniously formed a map of our twisting descent on top of the wall, using nothing more than the decapitated corpse of a snake. Are we heading toward that pool of dried blood where the head used to be?
There’s an unwelcome and rude bit of climbing on a 4th Category hill, we dart through a tunnel or two and then it’s a long, straight descent from Pierrepin to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. I max out at 71km/h down here, without even trying, but still some way behind the likes of Michal Kwiatkowski, Lilian Calmejane and Tiesj Benoot, who averaged 84km/h down the same stretch.
Reforming at the bottom, we decide to push on to Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne before stopping for lunch, at which point we’ll only be a handful of metres away from the foot of the Col du Télégraphe.
This is one of the worst bits of the ride, along the valley floor on a dual-carriageway. Even though the bike lane is good and the traffic relatively light, it’s an uncomfortable, somewhat exposed ride. To add to our woes, its hot, the sun is beating down hard and we’ve lost the cooling breeze of descending.
Perhaps trying to get this bit over with, or maybe sensing that a food stop is imminent, the speed at the front ramps up. I wonder if they’re considering a cafe sprint, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort to keep up and, as I’m on the back and there’s no one relying on me to hang on, I ease back and let a gap grow.
I rejoin the group in the same cafe we stopped at last time, although it was much more pleasant this time around, without the presence of raucous,beer swilling, fat bikers and with the street free from scores of filthy, fume-belching, Harley Davidson riders, having an inane competition to see who could rev their engine the hardest and loudest.
There wasn’t a great deal of choice on the menu and most of us go with a burger of some description. They’re good, but massively heavy and probably not ideal for what’s to come next. We wondered what Team Ineos “coaching guru” Tim Kerrison would have made of our selection and where burgers might sit in the pantheon of marginal gains.
The Big Yin suggests we’re at the halfway point and technically, in terms of mileage, yes we are. I don’t bother to tell him that the worst is yet to come.
The burger’s lying like a lead weight in my stomach, but at least we’ve had plenty to drink and all the water bottles are topped up. We’re just about to start rolling, when Biden Fecht finds he has a puncture.
Steadfast and Ovis decide to press on and the Hammer follows, as I hold up Biden Fecht’s bike and let him slide out his rear wheel to change the tube. After a bit of prevarication, the Big Yin determines he too needs a head start on the climb and sets off too.
I hang around long enough to help roll the tyre back onto its rim, then assured everything is in good order, leave Biden Fecht, Caracol and Kermit to force some air into the new tube, while I start my own ascent of theTélégraphe.
The climb is both longer and harder than I remember. There’s also fewer trees and much less shade than I recall too. It’s perhaps the hottest part of the day and it’s baking. I try to ride as close as possible to the rock walls at the side of the road to maximise the shade, but it doesn’t help all that much.
Electra-Glide in High Viz#2
On the first slopes I’m passed by a woman who powers past churning a massive gear, limbs gleaming with sweat and working hard. In contrast, I’m then passed by another who coasts effortlessly by on an e-bike, barely working at all and so relaxed and unflustered by the heat, that she’s wearing a high-viz jacket zipped up to the neck.
I think e-bikes are the future, I can see myself riding one when (surely it won’t be long now) I’m too weak and decrepit to keep up on a club run without mechanical assistance. I also have this glorious vision of a government that gives everyone an e-bike, makes public transport free and then bans cars. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
I can’t quite see the challenge of travelling all the way to France to zip up and down mountains on one though – especially when you’re young, healthy and look fit enough to climb up under your own steam. But then, what do I know?
I’m starting to close on a trio of hard-working Englishmen, when Caracol storms past. He bridges across to the three ahead, slides by and they immediately give chase, while I chuckle to myself ruefully, thinking that’s not a wheel they should be trying to follow.
One of them, in a Bianchi jersey, is almost immediately blown out the back and abandoned by his companions, who disappear around the bend, out of the saddle and flailing along in high pursuit.
On the straighter bits of road I keep catching glimpses of the Big Yin, Ovis and Steadfast climbing ahead of me, as I reel them slowly in. A kilometre or so later and I’ve caught the Big Yin, he’s completely cooked in the sun and starting to suffer like a dog. He mutters that he’s really struggling as I push past and continue upwards.
Three or four kilometres from the top and I keep catching glimpses of Ovis and Steadfast, tantalisingly close, but I’m unable to bridge the gap. I’m starting to develop an irrational hatred of their blue and yellow and orange jersey’s – always hanging there, tantalisingly close, but out of reach.
Cutting across the steepest, shortest inside of one corner, I manage to close to within maybe 20 metres, when they spot Bianchi man ahead and accelerate to try and catch him. I’m not able to get any closer and as we finally approach the summit, the gap begins to go out again.
You’re Awesome, Man
Still, not much further. The summit is aswarm with Americans who’ve ridden up to where their local guide is waiting with a van laden with anything and everything they could possibly need, food, drinks, towels, blankets, spare clothing and, who knows, maybe a soigneur or two and fistfuls of performance enhancing drugs.
The riders are loud and overly-familiar in that endearing, over-whelming and almost childlike, way that Americans seem to have, something that makes us Brits inwardly wince a little.
“You’re awesome man! You can do this! Believe in yourself! Go! Go! Go! This is unreal!”
“Err, OK. Thanks old chap… I think.”
I spot the rest of our crew sitting outside the cafe and make to hang my bike on one of the nearby racks and go and join them.
“Non, monsieur, privé, privé.” The guide from the American party is warning me away from the bike racks? Because they’re reserved for his clients? WTF? Is my bike going to contaminate theirs? Are they suddenly going to break out twenty more bikes and fill up the entire rack? I shrug, roll the bike away a couple of metres and lean it against a wall. It all seems a bit over the top.
Death on the Mountain
I grab a cold drink inside and join the others. As with last year, Caracol is struggling with the heat and looks flushed and glassy-eyed. Even worse, the Big Yin finally hauls himself to the top of the climb looking grey-faced and declaring himself as sick as a dog. The heat and the climb have clearly got to him, he’s not sure he can go on and needs an escape route. He slumps to the ground and lies there like a fresh cadaver, trying to recover, while we discuss options.
After a while he slowly rises, like a monster from the slab, and wanders down to the guide from the American party. They look like they have room in the van for one more and plenty of space for another bike too. I suspect though that I know the outcome of their chat, even before it begins and so it proves. Privé, privé. And no succour for the sick and needy.
Wile we watch an AG2R squad, accompanied by their team car, briefly stop at the summit of the climb. I hadn’t realised just how vibrant the blue on their kit was, it always looks quite dull on the TV and is much better in real-life. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the brown shorts, which remain a crime against humanity.
We determine that the best plan of action would be for the Big Yin to wait at the cafe until he’s recovered a little, roll down the valley to the town of Valloire and see if he can get a taxi from there, either back to the campsite, or over the Galibier where he can meet us at the cafe on the Col du Lautaret. I’d just been to a cash-point the night before and had €100 or so stuffed in my back pocket which I handed over to fund his rescue mission.
Then our reduced bunch is off descending to Valloire, which is mercifully free of fat, hairy bikers this time around. We pick our way through the town and are soon climbing again and heading for the pinnacle of our route, the monstrous Col du Galibier.
Overhead, the sky darkens and quickly fills in with grey cloud, the temperature plummets and we start to get peppered with chilling rain. Even worse, a cold wind is blowing straight down the valley and into our faces.
Caracol winds up the pace and slowly rides away from the rest of us, as Steadfast and Ovis take manly turns at the front until, as the road noticeably kicks up, Kermit takes over and drags us along behind him. The pace is slow enough that there’s probably no benefit in draughting and there’s not a great deal of shelter from the wind. Nevertheless, it’s easier to follow and just concentrate on holding onto the wheel in front.
We drag our way up to Plan Lachat, cross the river and the real climbing begins. We forge on, into a gathering darkness and occasional lashing rain showers.
Are Friends Electric?
Through some tight-hairpins and the e-bike rider is back, whizzing past us as we strain upwards, like a high-viz mosquito.
“That’s cheating! It doesn’t count,” the Hammer calls after her fast retreating figure. I assume it’s a joke, the e-bike rider though has seriously misheard and is lurking at the next corner.
“What did you call me?” she demands. Oh, dear, someone seems overly sensitive.
“I said that’s cheating and it doesn’t count,” the Hammer replies, truthfully.
There’s a bit more verbal to and fro, when she claims she’s not trying to prove anything and then concludes that the Hammer is just “a horrible man.” Ah well, if she’d asked I could have told her that for nothing.
Once more, she whizzes away, while Biden Fecht calls for a bit of peace and calm. We keep working our way upwards.
The snow is starting to build up at the side of the road, occasionally hiding the kilometre markers. I don’t know whether this is good or bad, it worries me when the time between sightings attenuates, suggesting we’re going slower and slower, but it can also deliver a pleasant bonus, such as when I miss the 6 km to the summit marker and suddenly “leap” (I use the term loosely) from 7 km to just 5 km to go.
Ha-ha, just 5km to go.
We’re becoming more spread out on the road, Kermit spearheading our push for the summit, with Biden Fecht just ahead of me and Steadfast a few metres back, as I ride alongside the Hammer in companionable silence. I’m struggling to keep the wheel pointed straight up the road and seem to be weaving a slightly undulating, wavering path, twitching constantly as the wheel rocks a little from side to side. I’m tired.
At some point the Hammer drops back and somehow finds the energy to snap a photo as we enter the snowfields. My once pristine white socks are already grey, soaked through with rain and road spray, I’m probably wet to the skin, but keeping warm with the effort.
As I remember it, the final few kilometres look really daunting, with the road rising to a sharp crescendo, twisting up and away over your head. Still, it means that the end is in sight. Steadfast eases away past us, obviously spurred on by sight of the summit, while I keep plugging away with the Hammer, as the road cuts through the snow banks, which rise on either side of us until they tower overhead, easily twice my height.
A couple of Englishmen descend from the summit to take a few photos of each other climbing against the backdrop of the wall of snow. A nice memento, that I haven’t the energy, or will to reenact. Just as we pass them, there’s a dull crack and a flat rumble that slowly fades as it echoes around the mountains. Thunder?
“Have you got a sprint finish in you?” I challenge the Hammer. He suggests it would be more appropriate riding over the summit side-by-side à la Hinault and LeMond. Thank goodness for that, I think a sprint might have finished me off.
Riders on the Storm
Kermit and Biden Fecht are at the top, taking in the sights and pulling on jackets for the descent. Kermit pushes away and starts down, but Biden Fecht is distracted by a bright, actinic flash away in the distance.
“Is that lightning?” he asks, just as another rumble of thunder answers for him.
I also notice our e-biker, being wrapped in blankets and towels from her support vehicle as she’s force fed a hot beverage. She’s obviously gone well beyond her limits … or something.
The sky is turning black and ominous, while over to my right, the distant peaks are rapidly dissolving into a grey blanket of rain. I hurriedly pull on my light rain jacket, arm warmers and thankfully, some long fingered neoprene gloves that I’d only shoved in my pocket as an afterthought.
The Hammer and Biden Fecht seem intent on watching the storm come in. I’m just intent on getting out of there.
We would later learn that this is the same storm that capsized and damaged boats on Lake Geneva, where a tourist drowned after her yacht was swamped. 70 mile an hour winds and torrential rain had lashed the city for hours, causing enough floods and incidents to almost overwhelm the emergency services.
It was the same storm that brought a tree down on a German camper in the Haute-Savoie region, killing him outright.
It was the same storm that inundated the finishing straight of that days Criterium de Dauphine stage, so winner Wout Poels literally left Emu Buchmann and Jakob Fuglsang in his wake as he sprinted to the line. It was so bad that the organisers considered enacting UCI extreme weather protocols midway through the stage.
It was the same storm we were now caught in 2,645 metres above sea level, with nowhere to shelter and a fast, exposed and twisting descent with sheer drops off to the side to contend with.
On the Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness
As I pushed off, the freezing rain came lashing in and I was instantly soaked and shivering. It was grey and gloomy, so I turned on my lights, reasoning that, at worst, their intermittent flashing might help locate my broken body if I went over the edge. Ahead of me a camper van was running with full lights on and really struggling with the hairpins. I braked hard, cut inside and undertook it on a bend, this wasn’t the time for niceties.
I told myself I was probably safe from lightning strikes, insulated from the road by two ridiculously thin rubber tyres. Nonsense of course, but I semi-convinced myself and couldn’t really see an alternative.
Then, it was just a case of trying to get down the mountain as quickly and as safely as possible, letting the bike run on the straights, but braking hard and trying to be cautious on the corners, where sheets of water were washing across the road surface.
Halfway down and my shoulders were already aching with the constant effort of pulling hard on the brakes that had lost their immediacy in the wet. I shot past a truly miserable looking Kermit, who was taking a more cautious approach, but with the drawback of greater exposure to the cold and the wind and the rain.
Ahead of me, Ovis had been halfway down when he said his front wheel started shaking so much he was convinced his headset had suddenly disintegrated. He’d slowed a little to try and asses the damage, before he realised his bike was fine, he was just shivering so violently he was having trouble steering.
Later, Caracol reported that after clocking a temperature in the mid-20’s on the Télégraphe , it had been no more than 3℃ on the descent of the Galibier, even before taking into account the windchill.
I finally spotted the cluster of isolated buildings formed on the summit of the Col du Lautaret, swooped across the car park of the Hotel des Glaciers and found a space to abandon the bike amongst the dozens of others lined up there. I climbed off stiffly and made my way into the Irish bar. (Although none of us realised it was supposed to be an Irish bar, until the owner told us!)
I stood dripping on the threshold frozen, wet, shivering uncontrollably and momentarily dull-witted and confused, as I scanned the tables for familiar faces, before realising our group were sitting right in front of me. Perhaps I was shaking so hard my eyes couldn’t focus, or my companions were shaking so hard there faces all blurred together – I don’t know how else to explain my temporary befuddlement.
I stripped of gloves, helmet and rain jacket, sat down, then almost immediately stood up again to pace about and try to control the uncontrollable shuddering. I wandered into the toilets and plunged my hands into a sink full of hot water. It helped. But not much.
At the table, we ordered hot drinks and I get a mug of cocoa, that I couldn’t actually lift without spilling everywhere. I left it on the table to drop my head and occasionally sip from it, like a dipping bird.
Thankfully the remainder of our crew, the Hammer, Biden Fecht and Kermit all made it down safely behind me, but all of us were equally blue and shaking and we sit huddled miserably around the table, trying to warm up and devouring hot drinks and food while the rain continued to lash down outside.
At the next table, a large group of Italian cyclists were chatting and laughing and having a whale of a time, despite being caught in the same downpour we were. Either they’re more hardened to these extremes, or they were dressed considerably better for the conditions.
I couldn’t help thinking we must look like Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, trapped inside meagre shelter by a savage storm and just waiting the inevitable end.
We check our phones to try and determine how the Big Yin was doing. He’s left a message saying he’s feeling a lot better and didn’t come all this way to ride around in a taxi, so he’s set off to ride the Galibier.
In this weather?
But also, ever so slightly bonkers.
We contact Crazy Legs, safely back at the campsite and he agrees to drive out to us, in case we need a rescue mission to bring the Big Yin down off the mountain.
An elderly Englishman and his son dash inside and out of the rain, in as bad a state as we were, or probably worse as neither has a jacket to their name. The bar owner hands the old fellow a big, fluffy, towelling dressing gown, as we look jealously on.
The Italian’s pack up to leave. Apparently they’re happy because the day’s riding is done for them and they don’t have to go back out and ride in the rain. Much to the bar owners disgust, they wheel their bikes into his lobby, before starting to break them down to pack into their van.
In other news, Vailloire is twinned with Newcastle upon Tyne
We’re starting to get a little anxious about the Big Yin, when the big galoot suddenly materialises out of the rain in the car park. He hustles in to join us and we demand to know what on earth possessed him to continue to ride.
“Oh, once the rain started and the temperature dropped, it just felt like being home in Newcastle, so I kept going.”
His madness would continue, as he’s determined to finish the ride now.
Kermit and Biden Fecht though have had enough and have decided to wait for Crazy Legs and the voiture-balai. That leaves at least one spare berth in the car, but, strange, masochistic bunch as we undoubtedly are, no one wants it.
Stack Up, Baby, Stack Up (with apologies to A Certain Ratio)
We’ve sheltered so long from the storm, that we’re well-behind schedule now, with around 40 km still to ride, albeit most of it on a fast, downhill run. The Hammer decides that when we leave, we need to do it as quickly as possible, with no faffing about. So, we all get ready and stack up at the door, like a well-oiled SWAT Team about to breach and clear a room.
We get a “Go!” and we’re dashing through the still falling rain for the bikes and setting off. It’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
This would be a brilliant road to ride, in the warm and dry, when you’re not on the limits of your endurance. Even with these limitations, it’s still kind of fun, almost all downhill with long sweeping curves and wide, open roads.
We all actually need to pedal though and as hard as possible, to try and generate some warmth and we’re all travelling at different speeds and well strung out. I’m also hoping that the lower we get, the warmer it will be.
I’ve got a feeling Caracol is away out front and out of sight, while I’m trailing Ovis and the Hammer, with Steadfast and the Big Yin behind me.
Coming to one of the tunnels I slow, while I fiddle to get my lights on and, by the time I’m out of the other side, the road ahead of me is empty. I look back. There’s no one in sight behind me either. I keep going regardless, it’s too cold to stop and wait and it’s meant to be a fairly straightforward run back, so hopefully I wont get lost.
There are a few more tunnels to contend with and I’m in two minds about them. It’s good to get a break from the rain for a while, but the air in the tunnels seems much chillier. I’m still occasionally shivering, but at least its no longer the full-on, uncontrollable shaking following the Galibier descent.
I think I recognise the detour we’d taken last time, set up when one of the road tunnels had collapsed and they’d routed us around the lake. It had been a pleasant diversion and Steadfast had talked about possibly using the same route today. It was closed though, so even if we’d wanted a more scenic amble it wouldn’t have been possible.
The actual tunnel has been repaired, or maybe completely rebuilt and it was plush, long, well-lit and with a super-smooth road surface. I blasted through onto a long, straight road, as completely empty ahead of me as it was behind.
I hit a town, at speed, neck on a swivel, desperately looking for a sign or some directions. Finally I spot one, another classic of French minimalism, attached high up on a building and almost completely blending into its surroundings.
It points the way to Bourg d’Oisans and I take up its mute invitation. I keep hoping the sun might break through and warm me up a little, but even as the skies clear a little, the sun is starting to sink and never generates much warmth.
A bit further up the road and a car with steamed up windows pulls up alongside me and Biden Fecht’s head pops out the back.
“D’you want a lift?”
I’m good, I tell him and wave them on, re-assured that I’m definitely on the right road.
Crazy Legs would later tell me when he’d picked Kermit and Biden Fecht up, they’d both been shivering so badly they couldn’t lift their bikes into the back of the car. He’d put Kermit in the front, in charge of the heater, which he’d cranked up to the maximum 29℃, where it had stayed for the duration of their journey, while Crazy Legs had sweated and chugged bottles of water to try and avoid extreme dehydration.
I finally recognise the route we took back from the “pelmet ride” yesterday and then I’m onto the final stretch, past the town and turning, at last, into the campsite.
Kermit and Biden Fecht are back in the chalet and look to have recovered from their ordeal. I learn that, sterling and stalwart fellows that they are, Crazy Legs and Buster have cooked us dinner and we wont have to drag our sore, sorry and abused bodies into town to forage for food.
Before that though, I have a pressing appointment in the camp shower-block, where I spent 40 minutes and gallons of hot water trying to feel human again.
Soaking wet kit is hung out to dry, before I make my way to the chalet next door, find a chair and slump down.
Buster hands me a piping hot plate of pasta and sauce … I don’ think it’s seemly to cry, so I just ask him if he’ll marry me on the spot.