Climbing Up Like a Spider – Alpine Echoes – Part 1.

Climbing Up Like a Spider – Alpine Echoes – Part 1.

Monster Ballads and the Stations of the Cross

Wednesday finds me piloting a car utterly packed to the gunwales through a downpour of truly Biblical proportions, as I transport Thing#1 and sooo much stuff back from University. Her First Year Is done, dusted and in the bag. Already. It seems like only yesterday we were taking her down and years are becoming too short a currency to measure time by. Like the old Soviet Union, I think I need to start thinking and planning in 5-year cycles.

The electronic ghost of Josh Ritter’s riding shotgun and providing the soundtrack, warbling about steamboats, gold leaf pyramids and wearing an iron albatross on his bonnet, as I find the outside lane of the motorway and accelerate. A pigeon spirals lazily down from an overhead gantry and lands directly into my path. There is a dull thump, the pigeon disappears and I suspect I’ve left a sodden corpse in a feathering pile somewhere in my hissing wake.

Arriving home I find the pigeon corpse is actually deeply embedded in the front grille of the car, it’s wings spread-eagled (spread-pigeoned?) outwards, like some grotesque and macabre hood ornament. My own personal albatross? I hope it’s not an omen, as this particular ancient mariner is packing to journey southwards…



Thursday Morning, 7 A.M.

Seven o’clock in the bleary morning, the very next day and, more by luck than good management, I join a line of skinny blokes, carting over-large bags through a relatively quiet Newcastle International Airport. Four of us, myself, Crazy Legs, the Hammer and Steadfast are returning to the scene of past crimes, hoping the good citizens of the Haute-Savoie have forgotten about us, or forgiven the trail of desecrated and devastated toilets we left across the region two years ago – a serious international incident at the time that had left the OPCW scrambling to respond.

Having been blooded in our Pyrenean Expeditionary Force last year, Kermit and Caracol have signed up too, along with rookies Buster, Biden Fecht, the Big Yin and Ovis, bolstering our numbers and replacing missing comrades, Goose and Captain Black.

Clearing check-in, baggage dump and security, nervous flyer, Buster heads for the nearest bar for a little Dutch courage, with the Big Yin in tow. The rest of us desport ourselves in the café to indulge in idle banter, hot beverages and breakfast bites.

Ten of us, in total then, are heading to the Cascades Campsite in Bourg d’Oisans, our base of operations for various sorties into the high Alps by velocipede.

Lord have mercy on our souls.

Maps and Legends

In the cafe, the Hammer unfolds a large map of our Area of Operations and points out lines of supply, strongpoints we need to conquer and various lines of retreat. Rides are discussed, but with it being a much bigger group, there’s plenty of scope for different options. Personally though, I’m planning something similar to two years ago, with only minor variations:

Day#1 – an ascent of Alpe d’Huez with additional bits tagged on to test the legs and the bikes.

Day#2 – the Circle of Death, a 9-hour monster loop taking in the Col du Glandon, Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Telegraphe, Col du Galibier and Col du Lauteret – 165km with over 4,000 metres of elevation gain, seemingly always destined to end with a race against the sinking sun. Caracol has determined finding travel insurance while suggesting you are going to be engaged in an activity known as “The Circle of Death” is somewhat problematic and has been seeking a more user-friendly name for this ride.

Day#3 – a leisurely amble back up the Alpe, for lunch at the top, ideal for shredded legs and a bit of sight-seeing and souvenir shopping, before retiring to the town for a congenial round of celebratory, ice-cold beverages.

Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?

Clothing restrictions for using the camp swimming pool are discussed, with the Hammer insisting that in France, for some unknown reason, only budgie smugglers will cut it. Swimming shorts and anything else that doesn’t make you look like a pallid version of Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast are strictly verboten. Or interdit, if you prefer.

Biden Fecht expresses disappointment that he wont be allowed to wear his traditional kilt to the pool.

“But, you’re not Scottish,” Crazy Legs insists.

Biden Fecht declares he’s of mixed-race and questioning his ethnicity is akin to extreme racial prejudice, venal bullying and personal harassment.

And so the banter begins…

Chatting about films, Ovis reveals he’s always getting Matt Damon confused with “that other actor.” His observation is somewhat spoiled as he can’t remember the actual name of “that other actor.”

“Is it Denzel Washington?” I ask, helpfully.

“Is it not Jackie Chan?” Crazy Legs wonders.

Caracol tells us he’s left behind a small leak in his kitchen, with nothing but a bucket to collect the intermittent dripping. We naturally spend a good ten minutes conjuring up a series of disaster scenario’s he’ll find when he returns to a devastated and destroyed home. He’s far too laid back to bite.

And then the gate is called and we’re all shuffling off for the first stage of our journey…

Leaving On a Jet Plane

… which proves relatively uneventful, especially as this time Crazy Legs manages to avoid being trapped in his seat by an overlarge, ridiculously solid, prop forward looking to make a name for himself with a French rugby club.

We are disgorged from the plane, pass down a bland, corporately decorated corridor and are spat out into Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, in the Departure Hell (sic) opposite the giant Starbucks. We then trail Crazy Legs from one end of the airport to the other, sensing he has some unspoken mission that’s driving him ever onward.

He does.

He’s looking for the Starbucks…

We reach the end of the terminal, a series of desolate, empty and uninhabited gates and then start to backtrack. The Hammer wonders if I might like to visit one of the champagne and oyster bars, the perfect repast, he suggests, for someone who’s been as sick as a dog the first two times we’ve made similar trips. I (very) politely decline.

We backtrack, all the while Kermit complains about the amount of walking we are having to do, obviously concerned about saving his legs for travails ahead. Still, at least this year he isn’t trailing cabin baggage large enough to smuggle a small child in, so manages to skip along relatively unburdened – even if he does have to take two steps for every stride the Big Yin takes.

We finally find the Starbucks (again) and settle in to kill a little more time. Here we learn Steadfast has made it in safely from his home on the south coast and will join us, once he’s finished wallowing in the somewhat more rarefied atmosphere of the Executive Lounge. He proves understandably reluctant to smuggle any of us chancers in with him, or even liberate any of the free goodies on offer and bring them out to us, so we’ll not see him until we’re at the plane.

Band on the Run

We meander to the gate for our Geneva flight, where we queue with a group of extraordinary Italian gentlemen. Their leader appears to have modelled himself on a cross between Al Pacino, circa Dog Day Afternoon and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He has big floppy hair with enormous chads, Ray-Ban aviators, open-necked shirt with a collar wide enough to park a car on, over a tan leather jacket with lapels that somehow manage to dwarf the shirt collars. He’s also wearing an enormously wide pair of flares containing enough loose material to re-upholster a small sofa, should you ever want a purple paisley sofa.

His collection of mid-70’s styled colleagues, sport an arresting array of big hair-do’s, cravats, gold chains, wide-lapelled, leather jackets in lurid autumnal colours, flares worn with belt-buckles the size of dinner plates, platform shoes and everything else bad from fashion’s darkest, most tasteless era.

We surmise they are possibly wearing what is considered the very latest, cutting-edge, haute couture in Geneva – it seems a logical assumption, the place does seem to be 40 years behind the rest of Europe, but, it’s just as likely they could be a highly sophisticated Italian stag-party.

We’re scattered throughout the plane for another largely uneventful flight and I pass the time between reading and sleeping.

War Without Frontiers

At the other end, the glowering version of passport control from two years ago seems to have been replaced with one of studied indifference. I’m not sure this Mark 2 variant is an improvement. “Welcome to Geneva and have a nice day. If you must.”

By the time I’m through, into the Baggage Hell, the bike bags and boxes have miraculously appeared and all have been accounted for. I realise that, like cats, cyclists don’t take well to herding, but I thought we had a general consensus as, after extended dallying, we finally make for the exit and the car rental desks.

I was wrong. At the other end though we score a measly 6 out of 10 for togetherness, Buster, the Big Yin, Kermit and Biden Fecht have all disappeared.

Frantic texting reveals that Kermit has hired his car from the French side of the airport and, as I’m travelling in his party, I’m in the wrong place. I have to work my way back up and through the terminal, passing the Big Yin and Buster heading the other way. I then get to experience the humourless, unwelcoming security and passport control all over again. Joy. Luckily, I still have a boarding card for my inbound flight on my phone. If I’d had a paper one, I might well have discarded it once out of the airport and I don’t think I’d have been allowed through again.

Swordfish Trombones?

Later, Crazy Legs reveals the League of Extraordinary Italian Gentlemen are actually a band working a 70’s pastiche angle. Pastiche? I prefer shossage rowlsh, as a much funnier person than me once commented. At the car rental desk the assistant is warily eye-balling their instrument cases and, assuming Crazy Legs and Ovis are part of the band, trying to work out what sort of hellish, exotic and bizarre instruments, they might have packed into their over-sized, square boxes.

Having re-crossed the frontlines, I join up with Kermit and Biden Fecht on the French side of the airport and after trawling up and down several flights of stairs we finally locate our rental van. We load her up, I figure out how to work the Sat-Nav and we consign ourselves to the tender mercies of our French guide.

Elle à dit

Apparently, hiring a car from the French sector of the airport saves you paying a €40 vignette, or road tax to use Swiss motorways. Sadly, it also means you don’t get to use the Swiss motorways. And, while the car should come pre-equipped with a breathalyser kit, supposedly a legal requirement for any driving in France, as far as I can tell, isn’t actually enforced. The downside of missing Swiss motorways is a seemingly endless circumnavigation of the entire airport on minor roads, before you begin your journey proper.

We settle down for our two hour plus, elongated road trip, occasionally re-tuning the radio as the signals fade in and out and enjoying an eclectic mix of Euro-pop (only Mylène Farmer, The Dø and a French version of Snow’s, pseudo-reggae, “Informer” distinguish themselves) some golden oldies and, appropriately, if somewhat bizarrely, “Airport” by British one-hit wonders, The Motors.

Interspersed in-between the music are some truly execrable, unlovable radio ads, “Oui! Oui! Aussi!” – which serve only to advertise that the complete dearth of creative ad talent at home, is matched by an equal paucity in continental Europe.

We occasionally get sit-reps from the other groups who are encountering heavy traffic trying to leave Switzerland, but still seem well ahead of us and likely to arrive in Bourg d’Oisans long before we do.

Still, as if triggering a slow-motion Venus flytrap, the mountains start to rise up on either side, still resolutely snow-mantled and the sky retreats until it’s just a patch of bright blue directly overhead. We trace a fast-flowing, turbulent river upstream and into Bourg d’Oisans and I recognise “that Dutch bar” as we cut through the town centre. I direct Kermit to the campsite, past the counter which shows how many cyclists have climbed the Alpe d’Huez today.

We see Crazy Legs on our way in and learn everyone’s convening at “that Dutch bar.” Grand. We know where that is. We park up, quickly dump our bags in the cabin and head into town to join up with our compadres. The bikes can wait until the morning.

We’re all present and correct, a solid 10 out of 10 and it seems an auspicious start. What could possibly go wrong?


Advertisements

Blow Monkeys

Blow Monkeys

Club Run, Saturday 9th February, 2019

My Ride (according to Strava)

Total Distance:87 km / 54 miles with 1,515m climbing
Riding Time:3 hours 58 minutes
Average Speed:21.8 km/h
Group Size:10
Temperature: 10°C
Weather in a word or two:

Ride Profile

Here we go then, surfing on the ragged coattails of Storm Erik, with the promise of high winds, gusts of up to 60mph and frequent rain. Tally ho!

The conditions have already caused the Hammer and Aether to peek cautiously out from behind their bedroom curtains and declare it’s a “Too Wild to Ride” kind of day. Unfortunate, as the Hammer had planned the route and volunteered to lead.

Still, as I’m buffeted and bashed on the drop off the Heinous Hill, I’m certain that someone with at least half a clue and a workable plan will turn up – in fact I already have a fairly good idea of which of the Usual Suspects will be out and ready to laugh (quite literally) in the face of Storm Erik.

Having been snowbound last week, I feel I particularly need the ride, despite the less than ideal conditions and a streaming cold. I wasn’t feeling too bad, but one nostril was painfully plugged and felt tighter than the sphincter on a deep-diving platypus. Meanwhile, the other was the gift that kept giving and streamed like a cataract.

I took the closer river crossing over a prolonged battle with the elements and soon started to climb out of the valley. I was gently impelled upwards by the wind at my back and made decent time.

This wind must have been blowing in just the right direction and with just the right force to set all the lampposts along Silver Lonnen to a rhythmic, but raucous metallic clanging. I’ve never heard anything quite like it (well, outside the industrial percussion Tom Waits used on Swordfishtrombones) and wondered how the residents had managed to sleep through this startled, constant alarm call.

I had the wind at my back again for the final run-in, slightly downhill on a straight and fast road, where I could freewheel and still watch my speed slowly build: 26 … 27 … 28 … 29 mph.

As I turned on the final approach to the bus station sorry, Transport Interchange Centre, the wind gave me one final shove, like the brakeman on a bobsled team. I whipped around the corner, bumped over the kerb and had to brake sharply before hitting the wall. I’d arrived a whole 10 minutes early.


Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:

Buoyed by the invincibility of youth, the Garrulous Kid was out, having survived the previous week when everyone had switched to a mountainbike in the snow, but he’d stuck resolutely to his road bike. I didn’t know whether to commend his bravery or condemn his madness.

It wasn’t long before the Usual Suspects started to show, G-Dawg and the Colossus, Taffy Steve, Crazy Legs, Goose and Caracol.

We were joined by Archie Miades, one of the Monkey Butler Boy’s mini-me’s, who seems to quite enjoy riding with the auld codgers and probably lowered our average age by at least 5 years.

OGL drove up while we were chatting about possible routes, apparently on his way to the gym, having also determined it was Too Wild to Ride. “There are trees down everywhere,” he declared ominously.

Taffy Steve, having already ridden an hour in from the coast, immediately suggested these dire warnings were pure hyperbole and could be safely filed away with other assorted and periodic scare-mongering, such as “glaciers are starting to form in Rothbury” and the Broadway is a car vs. cyclist war zone and utterly deadly.

Still, at least OGL’s arrival entertained Crazy Legs who was delighted by the baggy, bright red, track suit bottoms he was wearing. If the branding is to be believed, these were official team issue to Canadian canoeists for the 2012 Olympic Games.

They were in fact, so red, that I’m not sure that even the admirably eccentric Prof would have allowed them into his wardrobe, despite his penchant for sporting his famous “Nantucket Red” trews on the occasions when he wants to look “preppy” and/or edgy.

Unsightly as they were, at least OGL’s pants gave Crazy Legs one of the trickier trivia questions of the day,

“Name a famous Canadian Olympian …”

“Well, that’s easy …”

Other than Ben Johnston?

“Oh … err … hmm.”

(We couldn’t – well, other than Ben Johnston, although perhaps boxer Lennox Lewis may have won me the point as I had an inkling he’d competed for Canada before being adopted as a “true-Brit”).

We all turned to watch the halting approach of infrequent, irregular, Double Dec, perhaps the tallest rider in the club and ideal for sheltering behind on a windy day.

“We should ask him to carry a door,” G-Dawg suggested, not unreasonably, I thought.

“Then we could all ride behind him in a V-shaped formation, like geese,” the Colossus reasoned, envisaging a spearhead, with Double Dec and his door on the front of a gradually broadening formation, culminating in 8 riders abreast at the back.

We failed to suppress a small, involuntarily cheer as Double Dec drew to a halt in front of us.

“I know what you’re all thinking,” he declared flatly, “Put the big feller on the front and hide behind him all day.”

We all immediately denied we would ever, ever consider such an unfair imposition. I mean, as if …


Off we went, ten brave souls led out by G-Dawg and the Garrulous Kid. Things weren’t too bad as long as there was a bit of shelter – houses, hedges, or trees, but when we hit the wide-open stretch of road past the Sage HQ we found out just how strong the wind was.

Looking for a slightly easier route, Crazy Legs detached and tried the cycle path. His manoeuvre left me slightly adrift from the group and it took a hell of an effort just to close the gap, head-down and toiling away into the wind.

Meanwhile, on the front, G-Dawg was grinding his massive fixed gear with ponderous slowness, forced out of the saddle and contorting his entire body to keep the wheels turning. I was convinced today was going to be the day when we finally broke him.

Double Dec had already been distanced. If he was a good windbreak to ride behind, it was also true that he represented a massive surface area for the wind to buffet and probably generated more drag than the rest of us combined. He would struggle for the rest of the day.

A still lung-shot Crazy Legs had dropped off the back and was also determined to ride at his own pace, but every time we stopped to wait for Double Dec, Crazy Legs would invariably appear first.

At one such stop, I managed to tell him that I’d been working through our postgraduate course database when a colleague noticed a course with no name.

“What’s that, you say?” I had asked, “A course with no name?”

I left the conversation dangling as we pressed on, but was fairly confident the trap had been masterfully baited and was about to be sprung …



The ride continued in this stop-start way, Crazy Legs would drift off the back content in his own company and travelling at his own pace. Then we’d hit a climb, Double Dec would be jettisoned and, when we pulled over to wait for him, Crazy Legs would invariably appear before our errant windbreak.

At one point G-Dawg and the Colossus dropped back to provide escort duties for Double Dec, as we hit a particularly wild, windy and horribly exposed bit of road and progress slowed to a crawl.

At the crossroads below Meldon, Taffy Steve indicated he was turning left and heading straight on to the cafe, while the rest were heading up through Dyke Neuk, then on to the wind-blasted moorland around Angerton.

I indicated I was going with Taffy Steve, while Caracol hemmed and hawed, between the longer and shorter routes. In his mind he was already at home
curled up on the sofa and ready for an all-day wallow in the rugby.

“Wearing a onesie and wrapped in a slanket,” the Colossus imagined.

“Both feet in a Big Slipper,” I added.

“Sipping a Cup-A-Soup,” the Colossus concluded.

Oddly Caracol didn’t argue, other than to suggest he’d probably still be in his cycling kit, so the onesie was a bit of an exaggeration.

Naturally Crazy Legs arrived before Double Dec.

“I’m please you’re here,” he said to me, “Otherwise I would have asked someone to pass a message forward.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You’re a complete and utter bastard!” he announced.

From this I understood I had successfully inflicted an irritating earworm on Crazy Legs and he’d been assailed by the America’s (the group, not the country) finest musical opus, as he’d toiled along – alone and behind, where there ain’t no one for to give you no pain. La-la-la – lalalala – la-la-la – la-la …

While the rest pushed on for Dyke Neuk, I went with Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs , collecting Double Dec and climbing the always surprisingly sharp, hill to Meldon on a more direct heading to the cafe.

Even slight rises were enough to cast out Double Dec now and I spent much of the time looking back and judging how big a gap he needed to make up as we slowed to wait.

As we reached the bottom of the drop down to Bolam Lake, I looked back again and found the road completely empty. I hung back while Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs pushed on and was just about to start climbing back up the hill, when Double Dec finally reappeared.

I checked how he was doing and made sure he didn’t have any mechanical issues. All was fine, but he was struggling in the wind and had decided to head straight home, foregoing the pleasure of coffee and cake for the opportunity to travel at his own pace.

I left him and caught up with Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs. We pressed on with a token increase in pace as we closed on the cafe. Crazy Legs accelerated into the rollers and I tracked him across the first three crests, before poking my nose into the wind and leading our splinter group up to the cafe.


Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:

We hadn’t been sat there long, when the rest of our group were blown in. The Garrulous Kid was heard loudly declaring he weighed more than 80 kilos now, as a result of all of his work in the gym. The Colossus queried if this was remotely possible.

“You have to take into account his giant head, which is filled with material that’s much denser than normal,” I argued.

“Perhaps that explains why he keeps falling over?” Crazy Legs pondered. “I wonder where his centre of balance is?”

Crazy Legs then spent a few moments trying to identify his own centre of balance, before boldly declaring that Henley-in-Arden is the centre of balance for the whole of the British Isles:

“If you put a giant pin through Henley-in-Arden and give the country a quick spin, it will more freely rotate around this point than any other,” he asserted with such conviction that I didn’t dare doubt him.

We discussed some well worn cycling tropes, such as the relationship between drivers and cyclists and the tensions created by awful, often dangerous cycle lanes we, fairly unanimously spurn, to the ire of our motorised brethren.

Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs then compared notes on gesticulating angrily to motorists while wearing lobster-claw mitts. They concluded that the gloves were impressively warm, but their major drawback was they severely restricted the range of your digital eloquence and emasculated the vehemence of your gestures.

In fact, their rather cute, comical design made you look like an agitated rock-hopper penguin having a temper tantrum, while waving them at motorists was akin to threatening someone with a cheery glove puppet.

Talk turned to cult sporting heroes, especially those who had a brilliant career, prematurely cut short by injury. But perhaps it’s better to burn out, than to fade away, as a smart Canadian feller once proclaimed. My, my, hey, hey. (He wasn’t, to the best of my knowledge an Olympian).

As we were thinking about heading home, the Garrulous Kid sidled up to accidentally let slip he’d beaten the Colossus in the cafe sprint. We weren’t there and with no corroborating witnesses, we naturally treated such claims as utterly spurious, fake news.

Then the Garrulous Kid queried where Double Dec was.

“Probably around about Ogle, by now” G-Dawg suggested dryly, glancing at his watch and name-checking the next village a couple of hundred yards down the road.

I explained that Double Dec had been struggling, so hadn’t stopped at the cafe and ridden straight for home. The Garrulous Kid was disappointed, as talking to him was “really interesting.” According to the Garrulous Kid, our missing comrade has at least two claims to fame, having once placed last in a Very Tall Man competition and (allegedly) possessing an uncountable harem of wives. 


I hung at the back, well out of the wind all the way home, before letting Caracol, G-Dawg and the Colossus slip away on the last section of the Mad Mile.

I was then on my own, up the long drag past the golf course, with a cross headwind, strong enough to both impede forward progress and occasionally slap me sideways, so I lurched across the road.

Head down, I didn’t see much of anything as I toiled away, occasionally looking up just to get my bearings and avoid ploughing into any parked cars. I must admit I was always pleasantly surprised by the progress I was making each time I raise my eyes from the road ahead.

In this way I made it to the foot of the Heinous Hill and then, with one last effort, home.


YTD Totals: 840 km / 522 miles with 11,720 metres of climbing.