So following discussion, the investigation of all possible loopholes, wormholes and arseholes, no end of reading and research, questioning British Cycling and the Police and anyone else who’d listen, there was no clarity and no certainty, but it looked like club runs, even in groups of 6 were verboten. Sigh.
It seemed clear cut to me that we’d be back to solo rides and that’s what I planned for, even as the debate continued. Finally “the Amorphous We” called off the club ride for the weekend, although G-Dawg did suggest that if everyone just so happened to be at the cafe at a certain time and we strictly enforced social distancing, we could at least benefit from such a serendipitous and guileless coincidence.
So then, I had a start point and I had an end point complete with a rendezvous time. It was just a case of filling in the middle. Before all that however, I had a bit of unfinished business, a side mission to reclaim a Strava K.O.M. that I’d lost while on holiday.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a hotly contested segment that hundreds of people are striving to capture, but a quiet stretch of road I use on my commute’s home. I’d set the record somewhat inadvertently coming back from work on my single-speed and, since it’s the only K.O.M. I’ve ever had, or I’m likely to ever have, I have a certain attachment to it.
My thinking was that if I tackled it at the start of my ride and on my good bike, and made a deliberate run at it, there was a reasonable chance I could snatch it back, even if it was just for a week or two. So, I took a circuitous route down the Heinous Hill, circled around my target, found the right gear and bashed my way upwards.
It felt fast, but I wouldn’t know if I’d been successful until I got home and downloaded the file to Strava.
I got back on course, crossing the river at Newburn and tackling the climb up Hospital Lane, before taking a left through Westerhope instead of my usual right. I found myself climbing Penny Hill from top to bottom for the first time. I was just over half way up when the unmistakable figure of G-Dawg in his multi-coloured Mapei jersey emerged from a side road ahead of me.
I accelerated to greet my clubmate and slowly began to close, until he looked back, saw he was being stalked by another cyclist, raised himself out of the saddle, stomped forcefully on the pedals … and rode away.
I’d already been climbing for about 5-minutes and had no response as G-Dawg disappeared around a corner in the distance ahead, probably not even realising who was trying to ride across to him just to say hello.
Then again, maybe he knew exactly who was chasing him …
I rounded the corner to find G-Dawg momentarily stopped by some temporary traffic lights and I arrived just as they turned green. I used my momentum to nip past, complaining loudly about the length of the hill I’d just been forced to climb and pushed on toward Stamfordham. I assume G-Dawg took a different route by dint of the fact that he didn’t catch and pass me somewhere along the way.
From Stamfordham I took the road to Whittle Dene reservoir, then followed the signs for Stagshaw. Climbing up through the plantations I had an awkward encounter with a black-eared hare that decided to belt straight down the road in front of me, instead of simply stepping to one side and disappearing into a hedge.
Every time my momentum saw me catch up with it I tapped my brakes and every time the hare heard the zissing of the pads it started to jink erratically, zig-zagging crazily across the tarmac in a manoeuvre obviously designed to make a predator miss.
This happened three or four times and I was getting embarrassed for the poor critter, until the light finally dawned in its little brain and it stepped off the road and into cover.
I pushed on through Matfen, turned for the Quarry and ran slap bang into a stiff headwind that was going to dog me pretty much the rest of the ride, as I routed through Belsay, Ogle and on to Kirkley and our low key club rendezvous.
The cafe was quiet today. I got served quickly and there was more than enough space for everyone to sit 3 or 4 metres apart.
Crazy Legs, G-Dawg, TripleD-Be and Triple D-El were already widely spaced around a table and it wasn’t long before Aether joined our impromptu collective, with a few others rolling up later.
Everyone seemed to be fully enjoying the Tour, little knowing at that point that the rather inevitable procession toward Paris was due a further surprise twist, one that would upend the Rog and Pog show to supplant it with the Pog and Rog show. Incredible.
Considering the Giro and Vuelta are generally more open and entertaining than the Tour – and we have both yet to come, it could be a vintage year for cycling’s Grand Tours, despite everything.
Even better, we have almost a full suite of Classics to look forward to, including, as Crazy Legs reminded us, an autumn Paris-Roubaix with a strong possibility of atrocious weather to spice things up even further.
Not everyone is a fan though, G-Dawg admitting he couldn’t see the novelty of riding on gravel, or cobbelstones, be it the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, or the sterrati of the Strade Bianche. His argument was that there were perfectly good roads leading to the same destination, so why would you use something inferior and from ages past. He does, I concede have a point, after all no one is competing in these races on ancient steel-framed clunkers. Secretly I suspect he’s just averse to the thought of all those nice shiny bikes getting trashed beyond even his cleaning and restorative prowess.
Crazy Legs informed us that he’d been well into his ride, when he determined his shorts were unbearably uncomfortable and it was a good while longer before he realised why – in a faux pas previously only committed by the Garrulous Kid, he found was still wearing his underpants. He then had to seek out a private and secluded stopping spot in order to more or less completely disrobe to remove the offending article.
Now, like an unrequited Tom Jones fan, he was carrying around his pre-worn knickers in his back pocket and offering them as an extra thermal layer to anyone who complained it was a bit chilly outside. As far as I’m aware there were no takers.
This got me wondering if there was an opposite to “going Commando” – perhaps “going Home Guard” or maybe “going Quisling?” Yeah, I know, it’ll never catch on.
Crazy Legs then asked everyone, “Would you grass your neighbours up for breaking quarantine rules?”
TripleD-Be looked mightily confused. “Grass?” he queried.
“Grass. Snitch. Nark. Fink?”
“Become a stool pigeon?” I suggested, thinking that Kid Creole and the Coconuts perhaps-maybe could have troubled the Eurocharts back in the day?
TripleD-Bee looked even more bewildered now.
“Stool pigeon?” He mulled the alien phrase over, “As in a stool you sit on and pigeon like the bird?”
“Err – yes.”
“Informer,” someone suggested and that seemed to do the trick, he at least knew what we were getting at.
“But, why stool pigeon, where does this term come from?” he returned to the topic of Kid Creole’s 15-minutes of fame.
I had to admit I had absolutely no idea, perhaps leaving him even more confounded by the absurdity of the English language.
(The most plausible explanation I can find after additional research is that the term derives from the French estale, a pigeon used to entice a hawk into a net.)
Talk then meandered its way to the club time-trial.
“When is it?” TripleD-El queried.
“Next August,” Crazy Legs informed her.
“Ah, good, I don’t have to start training yet,” –
“Yeah, you do,” Crazy Legs shot back.
TripleD-El was left speechless, while TripleD-Be collapsed in a fit of giggles.
We left soon afterwards, before Anglo-Dutch relations became more fractious, each going our separate ways.
I routed home through Ponteland, finding I now had Snow’s “Informer” as the soundtrack to my ride. Stopped at the traffic lights just past the airport car pulled up behind and blasted me with a snarky sounding horn. I was stopped at a red light, standing perfectly still and composed, what could I possibly have done to earn the ire of this particular motorist? I decided to ignore it and pushed on when the lights changed.
The car pulled up alongside, the passenger window slid down and I braced myself for a stream of invective, or worse.
“Halloo there!” I glanced across to see the BFG leering at me from behind the wheel of his mini.
He doffed an imaginary hat and sped away. Oh well, looked like I was going to avoid ugly confrontations with arse-hat motorists. This week at least.
Woah! Week#26 of this stuff already – half an entire year and still no end in sight.
Oh, if you’re at all concerned at the loss of week#24 and #25, they were taken up by a deserved holiday in North Yorkshire. I’ve never seen so much rain. This was then followed by an entire weekend decorating Sur La Jante Towers while trying to dry out.
In the time I’ve been away from club riding, the pandemic has tightened its grip on the UK, cases are rising again and tighter restrictions on social gatherings are about to be implemented – the so called Rule of Six, which sounds to me like Bo-Jo the Clown channeling the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Anyway, since it doesn’t look good to have up to 30 cyclists hanging round, talking bolleaux, guffawing loudly and generally cluttering up the pavement,we decided on collective, pre-emptive action.
Orchestrated through various social media channels, everyone was encouraged to wear masks at the meeting point, wait under the eaves of the multi-story car park instead of out on the pavement and, as soon as we we could form each group of 6, we determined they should head straight out and not wait for the usual 9:15 collective start time. It seemed like an obvious, eminently practical and sensible variation on how we usually do things and would allay any negative perceptions that we were flouting social-distancing procedures.
For reasons that I might get around to explaining one day, this was the first time I’d ever done a club ride with a knapsack on my back. Val-deri, val-dera, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha and all that. This was fine when I started out fresh and it was empty, but as the day wore and I filled it with more and more of my clubmate’s jersey’s, it seemed to get heavier and heavier, bulged more and became more of an aerodynamic drag, a literal and metaphorical anchor on my back. At least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. (It was only loaded with 1.9 kgs of stuff, but it felt like so much more!)
I’ve also just swapped out my venerable, chunky Garmin Edge for a sleek, Decathlon Van Rysel bike computer and this was its first outing (it does pretty much the same things as the Garmin, but for half the price).
Unfortunately, I was too lazy/impatient to set it up properly and format the displays, which was something I didn’t discover until 10-minutes into my ride, when I realised I could see my maximum achieved speed, but none of the various screens I flicked through showed me what time it was.
I guess I could have stopped and checked the time on my phone, but … well, where’s the fun in that? So, I pressed on, picking up the pace just to make sure I wouldn’t be late. I needn’t have worried, I made it in plenty of time and joined earliest arriving rider, Richard Rex in the car park. We masked up, before shooting the breeze about the Tour: young tyro-cyclists like Marc Hirschi and Tadej Pogačar, sly, old cyclists Like Alessandro Valverde and, for a change of pace, the unpredictable weather in the Lake District
Crazy Legs and G-Dawg arrived in tandem, but sadly not on a tandem. They quickly gathered four others and away they went. Smooth as you like, our first group were out on the road and we were up and running. Another group quickly formed up and followed, before our newly organised Newbie group got underway too.
Then OGL arrived, found half of us had left already and embarked on an epic, apoplectic rant about us leaving in small groups, not waiting until the allotted time and apparently running roughshod over all sorts of long-held club mores, traditions and values.
And the reason for all the vituperative ire? In the biggest self-own imaginable, apparently he wanted to get us all clustered closely together so he could address the gathered masses and tell us we needed to reconsider our social-distancing arrangements.
Aether took the brunt of the attack and simply tried to explain that it was down to individual choice and that we had all, collectively arrived at a practical, pragmatic and much needed decision, that had been widely discussed and agreed across a range of social media. This did not, he admitted when challenged, include the “official” channels of the club Facebook page or website, because a large number of legitimate and fully-paid up club members have been arbitrarily excluded from actually accessing them.
I’ve never been good arguing with incoherence and lack of logic, so stood politely, if rather awkwardly aside until the storm blew itself out to dark mutterings. I never did quite grasp what his suggestions actually were for improving our response to social-distancing guidelines, other than some scare-mongering about our chosen coffee stop and some random, non-cycling people being fined in, err … Salford was it?
The furore interrupted our efforts to set everyone off in groups, rather than have us mingling and potentially raising the ire of Priti Vacant Patel, but we finally hustled the last few groups out onto the road. I joined up with route architect Aether, root architect Ovis, Famous Sean’s and Sneaky Pete to form a quality quintet and, somewhat belatedly, we got underway too.
Aether confided he was confounded beyond belief that OGL hadn’t taken the opportunity to congratulate us on our pre-emptive initiative and well-thought out social distancing rules enacted for the benefit of all club members. Ha ha.
I had a catch up with Famous Sean’s who I hadn’t seen for a good while. In the middle of our chat I almost fell into the trap of talking about how borderline chilly it was, but then I looked over and noticed that, as usual, Famous Sean’s was almost completely mummified in layers of clothing – a long-sleeved jacket, buff, tights and overshoes. I reasoned he probably didn’t have the faintest inkling of what the weather was like outside his protective carapace, so I let it slide. “I was going to put my winter gloves on,” he later confided, “But thought people might laugh at me.”
Still, at least he wasn’t wearing his entire wardrobe all at once, like the time he made it onto one of our winter rides with a silhouette resembling a bomb-disposal expert in full blast armour.
Halfway up Berwick Hill we passed one of our earlier groups, wrestling with Captain Black’s tyre after an unfortunate puncture. We zipped past and pressed on, swapping turns on the front until we reached the bottom of the Mur de Mitford and Sneaky Pete sneaked away rather than face the steep drag up.
The second group having made the necessary repairs were right on our heels as we tackled the climb and Jake the Snake, the Dormanator, attacked from that group and whooshed past as we dug into the climb.
“Ah, the exuberance of youth,” Ovis remarked wistfully, although he was gliding up the steep slope without apparent effort.
I asked how he was doing. “Ouh, a’m not gowin’ too bad att’a moment,” he replied modestly, before confiding he’d recently ridden the entire Marmotte route on Zwift. Just because he could.
With only the four of us to swap places on the front and battling a surprisingly stiff breeze, we somehow stayed ahead of the group behind, but as we took the climb parallel to the Trench, the Dormanator was once again flitting past to attack the slope with gusto.
Aether was flagging a little as we made it over the top. “I still haven’t found my climbing legs,” he confided, pausing in contemplation before adding, “and it’s been fifteen years now.”
Up past Dyke Neuk, we dropped down the other side and were just making our way toward Meldon and more climbing, when Aether pulled over with a puncture. We got things sorted pretty niftily and were almost done when the group behind churned past, putting us firmly into last place on the road again. I hoped this might play to our advantage and let the cafe queue die down a little before we got there.
My wishes were semi-granted, the queue wasn’t too long and we were served without the usual interminable wait. Armed with coffee and yet another crumbling scone on a paper plate, I meandered across the grass looking for a bench to perch my posterior on.
Spotting me approaching the table where he was sitting with G-Dawg and the Colossus, Crazy Leg hooked his leg around the spare chair beside him and drew it in under the table and out of reach. The. Bastard.
I moved toward the next table to join a couple of furious wasps who were dive-bombing it’s surface in apparent agitation, but at least appeared more welcoming. Crazy Legs relented though and invited me to sit with the cool kids after all, although he did check that I wasn’t carrying jam or anything else that might attract flying pests’ having been caught out before when sitting next to Szell and his wasp-magnet confiture.
This remembrance did gift us a quick sing-a-long round of “K-K-K-Kenny and the wasps” but luckily it wasn’t enough to gift either of us an Elton John ear-worm.
I wondered how the Colossus had been faring in the sneakily gusting wind, riding his TT bike with the solid disc wheel and he admitted it certainly made life a little interesting.
As a counterpoint to this discussion, a capricious gust of wind then picked up my plate and hurled it away, jettisoning my scone, which grazed Crazy Legs’ temple as it spun past. He looked up in pained surprise, but luckily it didn’t have the concrete hardened crust of a stale pork pie, because if that had caught him in the eye, Crazy Legs would have bit the dust.
I retrieved my scone from several metres away where it had finally come to rest. They may be flat and they may be crumbly, but they are impressively aerodynamic for baked goods.
I then commended everyone for making an early start this morning and missing out on an epic OGL rant, as he complained about the further Covid-19 precautions we’d taken, because he wanted to discuss taking further Covid-19 precautions. Still, I needn’t have worried as he turned up out of nowhere for the singular purpose of delivering a full-throated reprise of his earlier rant, just so no one felt left out.
Never. A. Dull. Moment.
With everyone gathering their gear to leave I told Captain Black not to wait as I was thinking of heading straight home through Ponteland. Ovis though was hanging back to wait for me and I was coerced into joining up with him, Aether, Captain Black, Crazy Legs and G-Dawg on a more circuitous return up Saltwick Hill.
At one point everyone else dropped back to wait for Aether, but I was flagging, so I kept plugging along, tiring rapidly and with the rucksack starting to give me a sore back. It’s ok for 20km round commuting trips, but not so comfortable on extended club runs.
The group caught me once again just past the airport and I tagged onto the back for a while, but it wasn’t long before I was on my own again and this time for the rest of the ride. Crawling up past the golf course into a direct headwind wasn’t much fun, but it was largely downhill to the river from there and once across I had a tailwind to usher me to the foot of the Heinous Hill. A last clamber up and I was done for another week.
STOP PRESS: The entire North East is now subject to tighter lockdown restrictions. We (or, “the amorphous we” as OGL has disparagingly named us) have decided to suspend group rides for now, so it’s back to solo undertakings for the time being and until further notice.
Internet oddity of the week came from reading about a medical scare in late Victorian Britain that saw doctors warning women about the deleterious effect vigorous cycling would have on their health. Apparently, “over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel and the unconscious effort to maintain one’s balance” was thought to cause bicycle face “hard, clenched jaws and bulging eyes” accompanied by “a flushed complexion, with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes”.
Most agreed that bicycle face could strike anyone, but women were disproportionately affected. Some implied the effects could be permanent, while others maintained that, given enough time away from a bicycle, it would hopefully subside.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
I decided it was time to bite the bullet and rejoin civilisation, or at least that small portion of civilisation that is (very) loosely embodied in a local cycling club. The hardest part was getting out the door by a set time to get me to the meeting point on schedule. After weeks of a laissez faire, I’ll leave when I’m ready attitude, this was a bit of a shock to the system. Must do better.
Still, I managed somehow and rolled up to the meeting point to find G-Dawg talking to a complete stranger in full Aberdeen University kit, who turned out to be none other than the Garrulous Kid … but all growed-up.
Even more surprising, that elusive, seldom-spotted, Sasquatch-like, Strava-stalker, the BFG was there too and I haven’t seen him out and about on two wheels for over a year. Strange times.
G-Dawg was proudly wearing perhaps one of the gaudiest kits ever inflicted on the pro-peloton, a classic Mapei jersey with it’s jumble of primary coloured cubes, once aptly described by Simon Smythe in Cycling Weekly as “a design that looked like someone had detonated a car bomb beneath a Rubik’s cube.”
He even had Mapei socks and cap, but, “No matching shorts?” I queried.
“I thought they were a little over the top,” he deadpanned.
The BFG decided we all had the air of survivors from a nuclear war, emerging from the solitude of our bunkers to blink, blearily uncertain into the dim light of the future and wonder what remained of the world we’d once known. I don’t think he was too far off the mark.
By the time we had tamped down the blather and were ready to move, we had assembled a small congregation of 15 riders. G-Dawg had posted up a route he invited everyone to follow, the end point of which was an 11.30 re-gathering at the cafe at Kirkley. He then led the first small, select group of 6 out and away.
We gave them a bit of time and space, then, along with Goose, the Ticker and Fourth Down, we formed a rather unlikely quartet and pushed out to follow. None of us had paid much attention to the proposed route and we deviated almost from the off, being the only group to head out along Broadway, but we all seemed happy to accept our personal deviations from the norm.
We were travelling at a fair clip as we pushed through Ponteland, along Limestone Lane to Stamfordham and then out to the reservoir. From there we climbed up through the plantations to get to the Matfen road, then on to the Quarry and through to Belsay.
At this point we were about 2 hours into the ride and had the choice of stopping at Belsay, or pressing on and meeting everyone at Kirkley. No contest really, even if Goose has severe reservations about the Kirkley scones and their current currant content (or lack thereof.)
Just about everyone else had made it to the cafe in good order, along with those who’d ventured out solo, or in smaller groups from a different start point and it was good to catch up. Even better, Goose found an acceptable alternative to the disappointing scones.
I found a seat next to prognosticator-in-chief the Garrulous Kid, who was predicting the end of all things Chris Froome, in particular any further Grand Tour wins. This was expounded with almost as much conviction and fervour as his frequent proclamations that Germany were a nailed-on certainty to win the last World Cup. (We all know how that turned out, so feel free to put a fiver on Mr. Froome for this years Tour.)
We then learned too much about the wild, debauched drinking parties at university, one of which apparently featured a manly imbibing of … err, Prosecco? It was unclear whether these parties were so extreme, wild and debauched that participants even refused to raise their pinkie finger from the glass while downing their Spumante.
There was just time to catch up on the whereabouts of Taffy Steve via Sneaky Pete (still incapacitated with a severe rotator cuff injury) and the Monkey Butler Boy via the Red Max (apparently developing a severe case of bicycle face while not riding bicycles, per se). Then, with Jimmy Mac’s passionate defence of wearing orange socks still burning my ears, we started to slowly disperse.
Crazy Legs and Sneaky Pete were adding on a slightly longer loop home, up Saltwick Hill and I tagged along, realising as soon as I hit the climb that my legs were well and truly shot.
I dropped back using the ungodly racket of the much cossetted Ribble’s creaking bottom bracket and its assault on my ears as an excuse. Crazy Legs wasn’t kidding when he mentioned his bike was still complaining vigorously, despite all his mechanical ministrations.
Jimmy Mac and G-Dawg blew past us just before we entered the Mad Mile, depositing the Garrulous Kid and a gasping Cowin’ Bovril on our back wheels as they flew by.
Cowin’ Bovril suggested he’d been out for a pleasant, solo ride when they caught him and for some mad reason he determined to hang onto the back of the group for the run home. I think we represented a much more sensible and civilised option for the last few miles.
Minutes later and I was flying solo, picking my way through to the river and home. Luckily there were no wandering Victorian chirurgeon’s around as I began to climb up the Heinous Hill, so I managed to avoid being condemned and confined with what I can only assume by then was my own, very bad case of grimacing bicycle face.
Heavy overnight rain passed, but left a rearguard of sporadic, unpredictable, light showers that punctuated the early morning, occasionally sweeping past, before fading quietly away.
I pulled on a showerproof jacket as I left the house and it stayed on my back for most of the ride out. Dropping off the hill, I spotted a couple of cyclists ahead of me as I traversed the valley floor and gave chase. Always a good incentive to pick the pace up, and I caught and passed them as we cut through Blaydon.
Luckily, the stiff headwind that had blown down the Tyne Valley last night and that I had battered myself against on the commute home, seemed to have dissipated. It was just as well, as we were heading straight upriver, to just outside Corbridge for our annual club hill climb up Prospect Hill.
I crossed the river, turned my back on what little wind remained and pushed through to the meeting point arriving in good time.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
OGL turned up, checking we had enough volunteer officials for the event, before driving out to Prospect Hill to set up. Crazy Legs and G-Dawg had once more volunteered as official starters and time-keepers at the bottom of the hill, with Benedict set to provide timings at the top.
Mindful of typical Hill Climb weather (usually very cold and very wet) each had prepared appropriately, with Crazy Legs packing at least two jackets, while G-Dawg was wearing a heavily insulated, quilted winter jacket. Perhaps most sensibly, Benedict had a kit bag stuffed with warm clothing that he gave to OGL to transport to the hill for him.
Before leaving, OGL asked who was actually going to ride the event. Out of the twenty plus riders there, only Rainman stuck his hand up. The rest of us were all wimps, or had tried-and-died once too often on the slopes of Prospect Hill. (One day I might return for a final crack at our Hill Climb but not this year.)
What can I say, Rainman is either brave, or foolish. Or both. Then again he is Dutch, so maybe normal rules don’t apply.
The poor response caused a suitably disgusted OGL to wonder what kind of riders we actually were. Some would argue sensible and sane, but I know that’s a lie, so I’m not sure what the answer should be.
On other fronts, Crazy Legs was eagerly awaiting the publication of this years Tour de France route, primed for an excursion via camper van to the venerable Bourg d’Oisans campsite, to watch the pros take on some iconic Alpine climbs, such as the Alpe d’Huez, Col de la Croix de Fer and the Galibier.
The only hint we had about the route was a rumoured time-trial up the Planche de Belle Filles, or, perhaps if the gravelled section was used Super Planche de Belle Filles.
This, we quickly decided, was far too much of a mouthful for us ignorant and lazy Brits, so it quickly became PDF and Super-PDF – a diminutive that I feel is likely to stick.
I’m not sure whether his plans will need to change, given the subsequent unveiling of a rather unusual Tour route, that seems to deliberately avoid all the traditional, tried and tested big climbs.
With around 24 riders gathered, even if not everyone was riding the hill, we felt we’d be able to at least provide support for our Go-Ride kids, as they hurled themselves upward with mad abandon. I’d even tried downloading a cow bell app to my phone, but had to admit being unimpressed with its desultory, sotto voce, and unremarkably dull clunking. It wouldn’t get used.
With the need to get to the hill as quickly as possible, G-Dawg had us marshalled and ready to go bang on 9:15, although, as he rightly acknowledged, they (literally) “can’t start without us.”
We picked our way out of the city en masse and I’d pushed onto the front alongside G-Dawg as we made the turn toward the river. Just past the corner, Crazy Legs looked back.
“Bloody hell,” he wondered, “Where’s everybody gone.”
Our numbers had essentially halved. Support on the hill was going to be noticeably muted and quite sparse then.
On we went, threading our way through periodic sharp showers and bursts of bright sunlight, angling ever westwards, occasionally flanked with arcing rainbows that seemed to mark out our final destination.
Every time we were lashed with another sharp shower, Crazy Legs gleefully reminded us that the weather forecast promised “only a two percent chance of rain.” It seemed to be a line he was able to trot out on more than half a dozen occasions.
Down into the valley and along the river, G-Dawg found himself over-heating in his padded, quilted jacket and seemed to be looking forward to the odd, cooing rain shower, even as they became less and less frequent.
He checked everyone had the requisite documentation and inoculations, before bravely leading us across the bridge and into wild, savage lands, south of the river … welcome to Mordor, have a nice day.
We were on the final push now, pausing only to carefully skirt a devastating roadkill, an untidy pile of featureless, pink, blancmange like sludge, scraped into mouldering heap in the middle of the road. Try as we might, we were completely unable to discern any trace of features that would give us a clue and help us determine what type of poor creature had contributed its corporeal body to form this unsightly splatter.
Rainman roared off the front for an extended warm-up and by the time we’d reabsorbed him, we were at our destination – by G-Dawgs reckoning we covered around 40kms at a decent clip and in less than an hour and a half.
Perhaps shamed into riding, 7 or 8 of the seniors decided they would give it a go and joined the swarms of happy, excited Go-Ride kids, queuing up to sign on to ride the hill. Even our FNG decided to take part. Will he ever forgive us?
I helped pin on a few numbers, before making my own way up the hill to a junction about halfway up where I could provide some slight vocal encouragement and snap a few photos of the contestants for the group Facebook page.
It was great to see the kids hurling themselves uphill with reckless abandon, sometimes on their own, sometimes with parental outriders providing escort duties.
Cowin’ Bovril volunteered to escort one of the kids, acting in loco parentis and later admitted he’d had a good workout and he struggled to stay ahead of his young charge with the finish line approaching.
As the last riders came past I was joined by Rainman and Buster, both celebrating new best times on the hill. We made our way down to the start line again, where numbers were unpinned and all the shed weight (bottles, pumps, jackets et al) reclaimed.
We then just had to wait for Princess Fiona and Mini Miss to rejoin us. Neither had been seen since they’d finished their efforts up the hill, and had taken OGL’s advice on the best route back down to the start. They eventually appeared from completely the wrong direction, having been who knows where and complaining bitterly that they’d been sold a pup.
We then let Den Hague guide us through the tortuous labyrinth of Corbridge’s one-way traffic system, before we made our way to Valhalla, no, hold on, that’s not right, to Vallum, our cafe of choice for the day.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop
A quick check of phones revealed that Eliud Kipchoge had managed to break the two hour record for the marathon. You can’t help but be impressed by someone running a 100 metres in about 17 seconds and then doing it again and again and again, without pause, 421 more times in a row.
Spry, seemed slightly underwhelmed though, pointing out it wouldn’t be a recognised world record, as this wasn’t an open competition, Kipchoge was led by a pace car and accompanied by a phalanx of pace-setters, with bike riders on hand to hand over fluids as needed.
Kipchoge even had a laser directed at the road in front of him to keep him on pace, something I seem to recall was proposed for the Wiggins’ Hour Record, but the UCI rejected. (I’ve seen Cat#1 wildly chasing the red dot of a laser pointer and can confirm it is the most insidious form of mechanical doping known to man. Or feline.)
Anyway, we suggested that Spry take to Twitter to inform Kipchoge his record was worthless. Having already used this medium to allegedly enrage Elaine Paige fans as well as lambast Philip Deignan for having the temerity to marry Lizzy Armitstead, we reasoned adding one more mortal enemy on social media wouldn’t be too much of a burden.
By the way, can I please ask why long distance runners have taken to wearing arm warmers with a vest? At least Kashoge’s managed to match his to his top, unlike recent shocking efforts from Sir Mo, but nonetheless, it’s not a good look.
Meanwhile, Spry confirmed his single-handed, Go-Pro-armed, vigilante crusade to eradicate bad driving on the mean streets of the nation’s capital was going well – with 17 incidents reported to the police, of which 15 had resulted in cautions being issued. Not exactly crime-fighting worthy of a superhero, but you’ve got to admire his efforts.
As we were leaving, Crazy Legs vowed to hmm, maybe, perhaps, possibly, consider taking part in next years hill climb, before looking at me meaningfully, as if to remind me that as a friend I’d promised to never let him do it, ever again and I had a solemn duty to protect him from himself.
Leaving the cafe, we were soon skirting Whittle Dene Reservoir and, with the time already rapidly approaching when I’d usually be home, I swung off to head back down into the valley to make my way home.
The sky had cleared, it was a bright warm day and I had a good trip back, arriving just in time to catch the last 40kms of Il Lombardia. The Race of the Falling Leaves always signals the end of the pro-cycling season to me, despite whatever nonsense the UCI gets up to in the Far East. It’s a sign that winter is approaching and shiny plastic bikes are soon to be packed away until better weather returns.
Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter and there wont be too many interruptions to our rides. Still, I’m sure the Flat White Club is primed and ready if the conditions get too testing.
YTD Totals: 6,298 km / 3,914 miles with 83,003 metres of climbing
A misty start to the day, but there was a promise of much better weather, if only we could avoid the widely forecast thunderstorms.
I pushed away from the kerb and was quickly reaching for my brakes as a car shot past and then cut in front of me, either racing the changing traffic lights, or determined not to be held up by a cyclist descending the Heinous Hill. Once again I was struck with the idea that many drivers have no real understanding of just how fast a descending bike can go. I frequently get cars pulling out of junctions directly in-front of me on the long downhill I use on my commute. This either means a rapid application of brakes, or, if I have momentum and a clear road, a bit of over-taking that I’m sure the drivers think is completely reckless and dangerous.
Here, I just had to engage in a bit of tail-gating, stuck behind a car travelling much slower than I would have been, if I didn’t have to hang on the brakes all the way down. I would like to think the sight of a cyclist louring in their rear-view mirror had an intimidating effect, but I very much doubt my presence even registered.
Luckily the rest of my ride across town was incident free and the sky had even shaken of its milky, misty filter by the time I was climbing back out of the river valley.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point
I found club run irregular and Steven Kruisjwijk look-alike Eon waiting with G-Dawg at the meeting point. Eon suggested this was one of his rare penance rides, when he joins a club run just to ensure he exacts the full value out of his £10 annual membership fees.
“I was expecting more out today, though,” he added.
“Well, it’s early yet, let’s wait and see.”
We didn’t actually have all that long to wait, as numbers kept building until we had almost 40 riders and bikes packed like sardines on the pavement. It was going to be a big, big group.
Crazy Legs spotted a couple hanging slightly back from the fray, determined that they were first-timers and invited them into the fold. They had exotic accents, by which I guessed they weren’t from around these here parts…
“Your not Dutch are you?” I challenged, “Because I think we’ve already exceeded our quota on Dutch cyclists.”
“Yeah, it’s true,” Double Dutch Distaff added.
They seemed rather relieved to be able to claim American citizenship, while at the same time quickly disassociating themselves from the Dutch, while no doubt wondering what bunch of lunatics wouldn’t want more lovely people from the Hollow Lands to come out and ride with them.
“Where are you from anyway?” Crazy Legs wondered.
He was from Wisconsin, the girl from a state not a million miles from Wisconsin, but still a sizeable distance away from America’s Dairyland. (Which is my feeble way of saying I didn’t quite catch her reply.)
“Where’s Wisconsin then, is that in the North, on the border with Canada?”
“Hmm, not quite.”
“Is it in the East then?” Crazy Legs continued, undeterred.
“In the West? The Middle?”
“Kinda, North Central.”
“Oh!” I’m not sure we were any wiser really.
“Are you a Packers fan, though?” I wondered.
“Well, you’ve kind of have to be,” he answered, not especially enthusiastically, perhaps worried I’d think he was secretly Dutch if he claimed to be an ardent Cheesehead.
OGL arrived in time to condemn the unwashed state of the Monkey Butler Boy’s bike. It seemed only natural to progress from there to the state of the Garrulous Kid’s bike and in particular his filthy, grungy chain (well, it is about 3 months since his bike was last serviced, which was when it was last clean.)
“And black socks too!” OGL despaired, “That would have resulted in an instant disqualification in my day.”
“Well, they were actually white when he set out this morning,” G-Dawg quipped, “But with that chain, you know …”
Aether outlined the route for the day and the need to split such a big group into at least two. The first group pushed off and started to form up at the lights, but their numbers looked a little light and someone called for additional riders.
Ah, shit, is this what I really wanted to do after a week of indolence, sitting around a pool doing nothing but eating and drinking? I reluctantly bumped down the kerb and tagged onto the back of the group with a few others. I was going to regret this, I was sure.
I slotted in alongside Plumose Pappus, where we tried to determine if there was any pattern to Eon’s seemingly irregular appearances on a club run. We determined that he probably had a number of different groups he rotates through, smashing each one in turn before moving onto the next one and, sportingly, allowing them all 3 months to recover before he puts in another appearance to repeat the cycle.
We then had an involved, entertaining and engaging conversation about beach volleyball. Hold on, I know what your thinking, but this was actually a conversation about a beach volleyball rather than the sport (game?) of beach volleyball itself. Suffice to say, Plumose Pappus may soon be the proud owner of his very own, completely free, beach volleyball. Why? I hear you ask, but I’ll simply paraphrase his well-reasoned answer: Well, why not?
On the narrow lanes up toward the Cheese Farm, three approaching cars in quick succession pulled over to the side of the road and cheerfully waved us through. Perhaps it was just as well though, as we were churning along like a runaway express. Caracol and Rab Dee had kicked things off, the Garrulous Kid and the Dormanator, Jake the Snake (recently rechristened Jake the Knife by Crazy Legs) had added fuel to the fire and then Eon and Andeven increased an already brutal pace.
From 30kms into my ride to the 55km mark, across 32 different Strava segments, I netted 16 PR’s, culminating in a 20km/h burn up the Trench itself.
Prior to that, we had tackled the Mur de Mitford, pausing briefly at the top to regroup, where the Garrulous Kid was invited to lead us to the Trench.
“Take it to the Trench!” I extemporised, channelling just a teeny bit of James Brown.
The Garrulous Kid hates hills now, so refused, claiming he’d just get dropped on the climb.
“Well, just take us to the bottom of the Trench,” someone suggested. Even better, there was a bridge at Netherwitton, just before the Trench.
“Yeah! Take it to the bridge!” I was quite enjoying myself now. The Garrulous Kid just looked at me blankly with a WTF expression and steadfastly refused to lead us out.
Eon and Andeven then pushed onto the front and off we rolled.
Get up-a, git on upp-ah…
And upp-ah we went-ah … up the Trench, a tight knot of us clustered around Eon’s rear-wheel, while trailling a long, broken tail of discarded riders.
Once more, we stopped to regroup at the top, where the Monkey Butler Boy spotted a small knot of dithering sheep in the middle of the road. It looked like they’d escaped from a nearby field only to discover the grass really wasn’t any greener on the other side. The sudden appearance of wild, potentially dangerous animals gave the Monkey Butler Boy strange, flashbacks to a time when he claimed he’d passed a pack of wolves on this very road. Nobody had the faintest recollection of this, or any idea what incident he was actually referring to. Perhaps they’d been a pack of hounds, he concluded lamely … or vampire sheep, I helpfully suggested.
I took the lead alongside Biden Fecht, who had the great joy of calling out a warning of “Sheep!” as we passed the panicking, evidently non-vampiric, ovine escapees. Anyway, a simple pleasure and one that makes a refreshing change from constantly having to shout out Pots! Gravel! Car! or other, equally mundane cycling hazards.
Half way up Middleton Bank and I was done in by the relentless pace, bad gear choice and rampaging speed. Gapped over the top, I chased fruitlessly for a kilometre or two, before giving up, forming an impromptu, very small and select grupetto with the Monkey Butler Boy to cruise the rest of the way to the cafe. I did still manage a quick dig up and over the rollers – but it was just for forms sake.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
I wandered into the garden, sitting down in time to catch the end of an anecdote in which the usually mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky, Crazy Legs, admitted he’d recently snapped, losing it and going absolutely postal with a driver who’d shouted at him for not riding in a segregated bike lane.
On being told he was a stupid idiot, Crazy Legs had fully admitted the possibility, but suggested that at least he wasn’t going to keel over and die of a heart-attack anytime soon, unlike his fat, lazy, lard-arsed adversary.
Dinger listened with some sympathy, having himself fallen into the trap of hurling childish insults at a “speccy-four-eyes, bastid” driver in the heat of the moment, before admonishing himself with the simple question, “What am I, five again?”
Elsewhere, we learned that a disgruntled Big Yin had been complaining that Stage 18 of this years Tour de France saw Nairo “Stoneface” Quintana climbing up the Galibier in a time that was considerably faster than the Big Yin had managed going down.
Crazy Legs had caught an interview with Marcel Kittel in which he came across as knowledgeable, humorous, likeable and engaging person, suggesting a stint as a TV-pundit wouldn’t be a bad call if he couldn’t get his cycling career back on track.
I thought this would probably have to wait until the unforeseen time when his hair-modelling options inexplicably and improbably dried up. Crazy Legs then wondered what damage Kittel could do to the Alpecin brand, if he suddenly revealed his hair was falling out. I was all for him shaving his head bald and blaming a certain, caffeine-shampoo for the hair loss, but realised this was unlikely as it would severely curtail hair-modelling opportunities.
We found a fantastically ostentatious, bright red Ferrari in the car park as we made to leave. “That’s worth more than my home,” someone quipped.
“It’s worth more than my family,” I assured them.
G-Dawg looked at the car somewhat askance, before shaking his head in dismay. “You’d never fit a bike rack on that,” he concluded dismissively.
And away we went … Even with early departures, it was still a big, big group that set out for home. Things were fine until we took the lane up toward Berwick Hill, noticing the road was closed just past the junction. This didn’t affect us, but seemed to have forced a huge volume of traffic to share the lane with us, some caught behind with no room to pass, while we had to constantly single out, slow down and hug the hedges for the stream of cars approaching from the other end of the lane.
At one point we passed a group of cyclists heading in the opposite direction, being led by a woman who looked fully enraged. I’ve never seen such anger on a bike, although I suppose Crazy Legs may have approached such levels of incandescent fury during his altercations with his lard-arsed adversary.
I wondered aloud what her problem was, maybe the cars stacked up behind, or the the sea of cyclists filtering past? Surely it couldn’t be the weather, which had been beyond even my most optimistic expectations?
“RBF,” Caracol concluded.
“Resting Bitch Face,” he clarified.
Not a phrase I was overly familiar with, but apparently a recognised phenomena, with its own Wikipedia page! Resting Bitch Face is defined as a facial expression that unintentionally makes a person appear angry, annoyed, irritated, or contemptuous, particularly when the individual is relaxed, resting or not expressing any particular emotion.
Hmm, perhaps he had the right of it.
Up the hill to Dinnington and one of the youngsters was struggling to hold the wheels, so I dropped in alongside him and matched my pace to his. Up ahead I could seen Carlton looking back concernedly and rightly concluded this was probably another Carlton prodigy I was escorting and he would be ripping our legs off in a (short) few years.
While the main group disappeared up the road, a few of us dialled back the speed a little for the final mile. As they all turned off I started my solo run for home. The legs were tired and heavy, but it had been a good ride and the decent weather was a real bonus.
It almost felt like summer.
YTD Totals: 4,991 km / 3,101 miles with 66,160 metres of climbing
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.
I wake hale and hearty after a reasonable night’s sleep, much to everyone’s consternation as, based on past experience, they were expecting a shambling, pallid, hollowed out, shell of a man to emerge after a night of intense sickness.
I cram down a cereal bar and set to work re-assembling the bike. It seems to have survived its passage through three airports unscathed. The same can’t be said of the bike bag, which bears a large rip across the bottom. It’s more cosmetic than crucial, but annoying nonetheless.
It takes half an hour or so to build the bike up and then I’m good to go. (Lying to the British Airways baggage handler and assuring him my tyres were deflated helped. Contrary to popular myth, they didn’t explode in the hold and I’d read that keeping them inflated could help protect your rims, so that’s what I did. )
My cabin companions are not so lucky. Kermit finds his headset cap is missing, or more precisely, he suspects it isn’t missing, it just hasn’t travelled with him and is sitting proudly on display, in the middle of his kitchen table at home.
Even worse, he then discovers he’s forgotten to pack his pedals.
Meanwhile, Biden Fecht has assembled his bike, but his rear derailleur seems askew and is making his chain rattle like a rusty anchor dropping through a ships scupper.
An urgent trip is scheduled to the bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans, to be there as soon as they open. The van is loaded up with the bikes and away they go.
While we wait, after about seven years of riding with me, Crazy Legs finally notices how stupidly long my stem is. I explain it’s a consequence of having gibbon-like arms and I immediately become Mr. Tickle to Crazy Legs. Oh well, it keeps him tickled while we wait.
Then, Buster determines his derailleur is playing up. Shifting up the cassette is a decidedly hit-and-miss affair and then, after a bit of (supposedly) remedial fiddling, just a miss affair. Climbing the Alpe under the best of circumstances is a daunting prospect, doing it without leg-friendly, climbing gears sounds like utter madness, so Buster too departs for the local bike shops.
The rest of us are ready to go by the time Biden Fecht and Kermit return. Their trip has been a success, but they’ve still got a degree of fettling, preparation, essential male grooming and breakfasting to do. Crazy Legs suggest the rest of us make a start, while he hangs back to wait for Buster, Kermit and Biden Fecht and then they’ll follow in a second group.
It seems like a reasonable plan, so the rest of us saddle up, clip in and ride out.
At the entrance to the campsite we’re passed by a camper van trailing the unmistakable odour of burning clutch. Ah, the traditional smell I’ve learned to associate with l’Alpe d’Huez. I’m confused when we turn left onto the main road though, heading away from the climb and out into the town.
This diversion, it turns out is our warm up, a quick blast through town, an equally quick turnaround and then we’re heading for the Alpe. Ah OK, guess that makes sense, but I’m not sure it was all that effective as a warm up. We pass the entrance to the campsite and almost immediately begin to climb.
The first few ramps are by far the hardest and a shock to the system. It’s no surprise to hear a chorus of clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk-fuck! as everyone quickly finds they’ve run out of gears. The Hammer starts to open up a lead and I follow at a more relaxed pace, with Ovis and Steadfast in close attendance. The Big Yin and, more surprisingly, Caracol are hanging back.
Approaching the third hairpin and our way is blocked by a cyclist and what appears to be his support car. Neither of them are travelling all that fast, as the cyclist takes the longest sticky bottle hand-off I have ever seen. I’m talking minutes here. If the riders already struggling this much, I’m not sure how he’ll cope with the remaining hour plus he’ll need to climb the mountain.
We finally forge a way past the cyclist and support car and settle into a steady rhythm. It’s cool, the roads are wet and the air damp. I seemed to have found a pace that’s comfortable for Ovis and Steadfast and the three of us form a tight knot as we push upwards, occasionally swapping turns on the front.
At some point in the early stages of the climb Caracol glides past and slowly disappears up the road, en route to a sub-hour ascent.
I remember to occasionally rise out of the saddle, just so I don’t get locked in to one posture, and I count down the hairpins, once again squinting at the tiny signs to try read the TdF stage winners. I find a sign commemorating Joop Zoetemelk’s win, but its for his 1979 triumph on the mountain, not the ’76 version, where he had the temerity to beat Van Impe.
Armstrong’s still up there (#boohiss) but then again, so is Pantani (#boohisstoo). I quite easily spot those for the most recent winners (perhaps they’re a bit shinier?) – Turbo Peanut (as a website has fabulously nicknamed one of the two, great French hope’s for the Tour) and Geraint Thomas, the very first Brit (or Welshman if you prefer) to win a TdF stage on the Alpe. Still, I miss more of the signs and their associated names than I actually see.
It’s cold, overcast and a little rainy, but there’s never a point when I actually feel cool and the backwash of chilled air from the few streams that tumble down the hillside before ducking under the road, provides brief, welcome relief.
Names and messages of encouragement disappear under my wheels at regular intervals, scrawled across the road surface in spidery, mostly white lines. The majority seem to be aimed at everyday club riders, rather than the pro’s. None of them make much of an impression.
We’re too early in the morning for the first of the photographers, but the second one gets a few shots of our compact trio and I get complaints as I’m on the front and supposedly hogging the limelight. I don’t know … what do these people expect to happen when they choose to ride alongside someone so obviously charismatic and photogenic?
Meanwhile, back in reality, we’re onto the last, long and straight drag up to the village of Huez itself. We turn the corner and drive across the unofficial-official finish line, opposite the bars already busy with cyclists. Then of course we keep going, because, despite the finish line and the flags and bunting and the photo-podium, we know this isn’t actually the finish of the climb.
We head through the underpass, made famous by all those TV broadcasts of the Tour and continue to climb upwards. I took a wrong turn the last time and ended up completing a circuit of an immense empty coach park, right next to where the last few ski chalets petered out. I then had to drop downhill until I met Crazy Legs climbing up the other way, turn around again and follow him to the official finish.
This time I’m glad to have Steadfast in tow, assured he knows the right route. I’m also forearmed with instructions from Crazy Legs to turn right at the big boulders … except the boulders appear to have been removed and even Steadfast seems unsure of the way.
We zig and we zag our way across the mountainside, until we find what we think is the right road. In our defence, all of them, including the “right” one, look remarkably bland, characterless, municipal and indistinguishable from each other. We spot Caracol and the Hammer waiting, know we’re on the right track, so I kick hard and jump away from my two companions to finish with a bit of a flourish.
I needn’t have bothered, for whatever reason, but most probably operator error, my Garmin covered an entire 1 second of my ride from the campsite to the summit, so Steadfast had to “tag” me onto his Strava file and I shared the same time as him.
The actual finish is marked by the smallest, most easily overlooked, tattiest and most unprepossessing of signs. Perhaps it’s no wonder most people stop in the village, it’s certainly not worth the extra effort to get up here and see.
Inadequate signage seems to be a recurring theme in France-land. They’re not big on signs and what signs they do have are not big. I mean, I’m not asking for some of the visual graffiti you find in other urban landscapes, but there’s a fine line between discrete and invisible. A case in point, it’s not until we actually start to head back down to the village that I see a few “Route de Tour” signs directing you to the official finish. They’re small and blend so seamlessly into their surroundings that no one else in our group even seems to notice them.
I complained last time about the signs naming the hairpins on the Alpe being paltry and utterly underwhelming – they’re really difficult to read when riding up (and obviously impossible to read when swooping down). I still feel the same way – and personally think these near mythic rides and riders deserve celebrating with a grand gesture, not an afterthought.
Once we ‘ve all arrived safely, we press gang an innocent bystander into taking the obligatory group photo …
And then we head back to Huez to join the other cyclists in the cafe for some well-earned refreshments and to wait for the rest of our crew to appear.
The first through is Kermit, looking mildly startled by the sudden burst of cheering and applause that erupts from the side of the rode as he scoots past, failing to spot us. He’s followed in close order by Biden Fecht, Buster and Crazy Legs, all crossing the “finish line” in a burst of wild cheering and applause, before disappearing through the underpass and away.
It isn’t too long before they’re back and we’re a united group again. We order lunch and another round of drinks, the sun breaks out and we can sit back and relax for a while, watching all the coming and going’s and admiring some of the glossy, sleek bikes lined up in the racks at the side of the road.
We learn that all the local bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans are good, helpful and friendly. They’d fixed all our bikes and happily sold Kermit a brand new pair of pedals, that perfectly match the over-looked pair from home that he finally rediscovers in his bag later that day.
Buster’s problems were caused by a badly frayed gear cable, which could have snapped at any time, including halfway up a mountain. The mechanic also insists on changing out his worn brake blocks, which seems sensible as, I think even Biden Fecht might blanch at descending l’Alpe D’Huez without brakes, despite his past experience with such things.
As we’re sitting there, some sprightly, older feller, with a strong Central European accent, asks if he can borrow the posh, shiny and expensive-looking Cannondale hanging on the rack in front of us, apparently so he can be photographed with it. It seems like a harmless, but strange request. We explain it’s not our bike and he wanders off, before returning again, with the same odd enquiry.
“I’m sponsored by Cannondale,” he explains, “but I’m riding my Pinerello today.”
What? Yeah, right. Get-away …
We reiterate that it’s not our bike. He takes it anyway. Too weird.
We start to discuss our options, with no one in favour of a direct return to the campsite. We could continue on to the Col de Sarenne, which we did last time, or, the Hammer suggests we could descend almost to the bottom of the Alpe, to the village of La Garde and then take the road that clings to the side of the mountain, the Balcon d’Auris.
A Road By Any Other Name
The quartet who did the Sarenne last time all feel it wasn’t that great a route, so we agree on the balcony ride. It became a route whose name seemed to change every time we talked about it, until it became a bit of a running joke and was referred to variously as the balcony ride, the ledge ride, the mantelpiece ride, the pelmet ride, the shelf ride, the terrace ride and even, at one point, the skirting board ride.
It would add another 25km, or so to our total, heading along the “Route de la Roche” as we climbed from just over 700 to almost 1,600 metres, with a maximum gradient of 13%.
This road clings precariously to the side of the mountain, with a low, stone parapet the only thing shielding you from a long, vertical drop and doing nothing to restrict brilliant views right across the valley floor. In places the road narrows to about a cars width, but thankfully, on the day we rode it, is mostly traffic free. I think we only encountered one car on our great traverse, although even this produced a modicum of uncomfortable tension as it squeezed past.
Things were going well until just before the village of Le Cert, where we ran into a roadblock and route barrée signs. For once these signs were quite prominent and unmissable. Here we paused for a rest and to assess our options.
Should we ignore the signs and press-on, hoping that whatever disruption there was we could get through, or walk around, or should we follow the suggested diversion that could take us well out of our way and potentially lead back up the mountain.
One option discussed was to send Kermit on ahead, to see if he could get through, “our canary in a mine” as Crazy Legs put it. In the end we just bit the bullet and followed the diversion. Looking at the map afterwards, it seemed to add a kilometre or so to our journey and just a touch more climbing, before we were back on track and on the long snaking descent down to Le Frency d’Oisans.
Here, we took a wrong turn, up toward Lac de Chambon, but quickly realised our mistake and we turned back again, eventually rolling down into the valley of La Romanche, from where it was a straightforward run, following the river to the camp.
Back to “that Dutch bar” that evening, we spread across a couple of tables, while the owner desperately tried to persuade us to sit inside, where he had a criminally underused table that would actually seat ten together. We explained that we were British, so never got a chance to sit out at home and wouldn’t give up the option now.
As we ate, other packs of feral-looking Englishmen with lean looks, hungry eyes and odd tan lines circulated, or shuffled into the seats around us. It wasn’t as busy as a couple of years ago, but there were still plenty of cyclists in town.
We spent a good few minutes counting the hairpins on the Alpe, handily depicted on the restaurant place mats, concluding there were more than 21, before conversation turned to plans for tomorrow.
Along with the Hammer and Steadfast, I was happy to accompany any of the others brave (or foolish enough) to attempt the Circle of Death, a monster loop which is basically the Marmotte route minus the final ascent of l’Alpe D’Huez, yet still ran over 100 miles and with 4,000 metres of climbing.
From past experience this was going to be 9 hours of riding, plus re-fuelling and rest stops and first time we’d done it had been a struggle to get home before daylight ran out. We determined to have a little more discipline in planning and executing the stops and I pushed for as early a start as possible. We agreed to meet and ride out at 7.30. Ulp!
Crazy Legs and Buster decided to go on a shorter ride, to the Croix de Fer and back, with a few additional bits tagged on. They only mentioned a dozen or so times that they were looking forward to a long lie-in and much more relaxed start. Bastards… did they think they were on holiday or something?
Heavy rain overnight had cleared, but left the road soaked and my tyres made a sibilant hiss and seemed to be shushing me all the way down the hill … shhh!
It was chillier than I’d expected, the digital sign on the factory unit flashing just 6°C, a grey, drab, dreary, dark start. Still, we were only one day removed from shortest day of the year and the rain wasn’t forecast to return. It would do.
And then, once across the river and turning back on myself, I was rewarded by a glorious sunrise. Well, not so much the sun rising, it was more as if the earth had cracked and was leaking molten light from its core, painting the underbelly of the clouds in a roseate glow and setting the horizon to flame. It was worth the price of admission alone.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
We had a good turnout for the ride and a varied assortment of Christmas jumpers, T-shirts, lights, tinsel and dangling baubles, but G-Dawg and the Colossus stole the show. G-Dawg in bright red ladies leggings (he assured me they were bought specially and not stolen from his wife’s wardrobe) topped with a very busy top, all Santa hats, Christmas trees and ribbon-wrapped gifts.
And then the Colossus… well, the Colossus wore a formal Christmas suit – blazer and trousers, heavily patterned in striped candy canes, stars and Christmas stockings, a garish, riotous, technicolour nightmare, that I found vaguely threatening. In fact, his outfit lacked only a jaunty bowler hat to resemble a psychedelic tolchoking malchick from a fever dream Clockwork Orange.
The Monkey Butler Boy had his entire bike frame swathed and swaddled in ropes of thick golden tinsel. Given his usual obsessions, the obvious question then was, is that actually aero? Would the individual strands of tinsel smooth turbulent airflow and make it more laminar? Were boffins from Team Sky watching, measuring and gauging, with an eye to next years Tour de France and more marginal gains?
G-Dawg was worried the tinsel could get caught in the Monkey Butler Boys cassette and suddenly lock his freewheel, while I thought it might unravel and trail behind him, like a meteor’s tail on an earth bound Haleys comet.
Just before 9.15 Garmin Muppet Time, G-Dawg stepped up to address the gathered throng, “Hello, for those of you who don’t know, this is Richard,” Richard of Flanders uncertainly raised an arm, “and this is the route for the day …”
We split into two, with a general coalescing agreed at Hallington, once we were out of the ‘burbs. I dropped onto the back of the first group and away we went, the Cow Ranger on the front and driving us at a brisk pace from the off.
I slotted in beside the Red Max, currently languishing in the dog house as he’d miscalculated his holidays at work and now has to be in on Christmas Eve. Even worse, being responsible for all the work planning, he’d previously decided there would be no early finish for those unfortunates pulling the last shift, not reckoning on actually being one of them himself.
Riding behind the Monkey Butler Boy, I had to continuously swipe loose bits tinsel out of my face, as he shed a golden trail in his wake. It prompted me to enquire after the health of Red Max’s Christmas tree and I learned that not only had the Monkey Butler Boy denuded it of all the tinsel, but one of their cats had perfected the fine art of hooking baubles off with a single claw and disdainfully flinging them across the room.
With the Cow Ranger driving us onward and with the occasional manoeuvre to avoid the blizzards of stray tinsel being shed ahead of me, we were soon at the rendezvous point and pulled over to wait for the second group.
The Monkey Butler Boy dropped his bike into a ditch and started taking pictures on his phone.
“I’m gonna ‘gram them,” he declared.
“Huh?” I asked brightly.
“Gram them,” he repeated.
I still had no idea what he was saying.
“Put them on Instagram,” he explained, rolling his eyes at the old dotard.
“Oh. Ah. Right. Instagram”
Richard of Flanders complimented the Peugeot on it’s subtle French branding, tricolour bar end plugs that match the even more subtle tricolour etched into the top tube. I’d bought these from the same place as the Lion of Flanders plugs for the Holdsworth, VeloHeaven a not too expensive bit of bike bling, that I thought added a nice touch. Of course I didn’t admit to Googling the French flag to confirm that I’d put them in the wrong way round at first.
The Monkey Butler Boy looked down at his once gleaming, white shoes in disdain. “No matter how many baby wipes you use, you just can’t keep them pristine and white,” he moaned. The shoes were indeed looking somewhat yellowed and poisonous now. I realised he wasn’t wearing overshoes and then that he was wearing mitts not gloves.
“Aren’t your hands cold?” I wondered.
“Freezing. But they were fine when I set off from Wallsend this morning.” Ah right, that’ll be the famous Wallsend microclimate then, warmed by the benign currents of the Jet Stream and North Atlantic Drift, a balmy, semi-tropical enclave in the heart of frigid Tyneside.
We seemed to wait an age for the other group to join us (they’d had a puncture) and talk turned to Christmas preparations. The Garrulous Kid was complaining about the expense of presents for his girlfriend and then, admitted he didn’t like Christmas Day at all, chiefly because his uncle always brought his bulldog around (let’s just call the dog Onan for now) and it always had vigorous sexual congress with the Garrulous Kid’s pillow.
“Let me guess,” the Red Max piped up, ” And you don’t realise until you wake up with the pillowcase stuck to your face?”
“Hmm, that explains your strange doggy odour,” I volunteered, “I thought it was just your Pedigree Chum body spray.”
The Red Max then wondered if blaming the dog for random, seminal emissions in a teenagers bedroom wasn’t a bit unfair on our canine friends and he imagined an on-going conversation between the Garrulous Kid and his mother …
“Ugh! What’s this?”
“Oh Mum! Onan’s been at it again.”
“But your uncle hasn’t been round with the dog for three months now…”
With the Monkey Butler Boy continuing to shed tinsel, I remarked that at least German Fighter Command wouldn’t know our numbers, or the destination of our raid.
“Huh?” the Monkey Butler Boy asked brightly.
“Window.” I told him.
He still had no idea what I was saying.
“Window,” I repeated,”Düppel, radar countermeasures” rolling my eyes at the ignorance of youth.
“He’ll always be chaff in the wind to me,” the Red Max added as a postscript.
Luckily, we were saved from further discourse when the second group finally rolled past, we tagged on the back and were off again.
At one point above us a small kestrel appeared, fluttering wings and split-second pauses keeping it fixed in place, hanging directly over the road. “Drone!” the Big Yin announced wryly. Well, I chuckled, but then I hadn’t been delayed at Gatwick for 16 hours.
We picked our way through to Mitford, descending into the Wansbeck Valley to the accompaniment of a droning, honking wail from a set of vigorously asphyxiated bag-pipes. We then passed the lone piper, obviously banished out into the chill, dank garden to practice his dark arts, well out of the earshot of the rest of his family.
The discordant wailing brought a small tear to Aether’s eye and he emitted a little, subdued “Och aye the noo!” Everyone else seemed to quicken their pace to put a bit of distance between us and the unnatural noise as quickly as possible.
We did a loop around Mitford and then, as a novel, new twist, found ourselves cautiously descending the Mur de Mitford for the first time. All went well and then we were back to climbing. I managed to reserve a stint on the front until after the hated drag up to Dyke Neuk this time.
The various assaults on our senses continued as we passed the Dyke Neuk inn, this time it was to be smell not hearing that suffered, the air heavy with the rather unpleasant odour of over-cooked Brussell sprouts.
On the front alongside me, Richard of Flanders slowed the pace down and we kept the group together down through the dip and rise around Hartburn and the turn for Angerton, where we called a pee stop.
The group became attenuated on the climb up to Bolam Lake, as Spry rode off the front. A few hundred metres later and Ovis and Andeven followed. I waited to see if anyone was going to take up the chase and when they didn’t, I swung wide and accelerated away.
I thought a few others might follow my lead and we could work together to bridge across to the front. I had no takers though and I ended up hanging off the front on a bit of a chasse patates. Still, whatever gap I’d opened up most have been fairly sizeable as I hung out there through the Milestone Woods, up and over the rollers and round the corner of the last bend on the final climb, before I was caught and dropped.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
I took perhaps a last chance for another seasonal stollen scone, working on the assumption they’ll not be around much longer and I should enjoy them while I can. I ordered, while pondering why the Garrulous Kid’s helmet appeared to have Special Liz written on one side.
At our table, Buster had decided wool jumpers, no matter how jaunty they looked, were no substitute for technical sportswear, complaining he’d been overheating during the ride, but chilled at the same time as his Santa jumper wasn’t even remotely windproof. Usually this would have been the cue for OGL to tell us all about the good old day, riding in thick, wool jerseys and shorts with a real chamois insert, but he was absent and missed a golden opportunity for more lore building.
Buster said he’s considering joining Crazy Legs’ annual expedition to the mountains of France next year, finances permitting. He took the opportunity to question Captain Black and me about the trip. He was particularly keen to understand the niceties of our typical itinerary, which was usually a Thursday depart, travelling on BA to France via a Heathrow transfer, 3 days riding and a return trip on the Monday by the same route.
He then did that quick phone-tapping thing that youngsters do. “Hmm, Queasy Jet fly direct to Geneva, but only twice a week, Sunday’s and Friday’s.” He paused to consider.
“That means we could fly out on a Sunday, have 4 days riding and fly back on a Friday. That would still be cheaper and easier than the BA flights, especially if we hired bikes across there and didn’t have to pay baggage fees. Then of course, hiring the cars would be a lot cheaper and simpler too.”
“Woah, woah, woah, hold on youngster, ” I complained, “You can’t just come in and tip the current order upside down based on logic, common sense and a bucketful of sound economic and logistical benefits!”
We all admired the Red Max’s new gloves, bright red of course and newly purchased from Planet X. They even had a fold away cover so you could convert them to mitts for a bit of added protection.
He admitted he’d actually bought them as a Christmas present for the Monkey Butler Boy, but took a liking to them when they arrived, so had decided to keep them. Once again Taffy Steve was left in awe and deeply humbled by the Red Max’s innate parenting skills – a sort of a modern day Spartan agoge based on the principles that if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.
It was time then for us to all line up for the semi-traditional, group photo outside, with Carlton stepping up to the plate as our resident Ansel Adams.
“Will you post it up somewhere?” Princess Fiona enquired.
There then followed one of those awkward and tentative, new-tech conversations us older folk have when discussing something that’s (rudely) second nature to the youngsters, with lots of uncertain talk about airdrops, cloud postings, instant messaging and the like.
I was tempted to step in and suggest that Carlton simply ‘gram the pictures, but didn’t rate my chances of explaining how to do it if someone called my bluff.
Photo opportunities fulfilled for another year, we were then off, splitting into two groups, the Red Max leading a handful off on a slightly longer, alternative route home. I stuck to the traditional return run, facing strict instruction to be back on time to greet scheduled holiday visitors.
I spent the ride back chatting with Buster about the parlous state of the guitar industry and the value for money vs. quality conundrum of Planet X. Once again I found myself recommending their mighty lobster mitts for the most extreme conditions.
Before long I was following the Colossus and G-Dawg through the Mad Mile, chuckling at all the people pointing out the strange man in the strange suit. Then I was off on my own, riding unusually quiet roads, even those around the local shopping centre. It might have been a quiet Christmas for the nation’s High Street businesses, but I’m not complaining
YTD Totals: 7,261 km / 4,512 miles with 88,830 metres of climbing.
Club Individual Time-Trial, Thursday 9th August, 2018
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 19 km / 12 miles with 146 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 35 minutes 12 seconds
Average Speed: 31.8 km/h
Group size: Well, 1 (duh!)
Weather in a word or two: That gentle summer breeze? That was actually a hurricane.
I think I should be commended for surviving over 50 years as a sentient human, without feeling the compulsion to inflict wholly unnecessary and prolonged pain and suffering on my weak and frail body.
… Or at least that’s the line I always trotted out when some kind soul or other invited me to undertake cycling’s race of truth – an individual time-trial.
There were always other excuses too, anything other than a short blast would feel too big a step up and, when we did occasionally and intermittently hold a club competition, we tended to just piggy-back on another clubs event, holding an unofficial race-within-a-race, so to speak.
As well as this feeling unconscionably rude, as a pure novice, mixing it up with overly-serious, po-faced and glowering strangers and potentially getting in the way of their PB’s always seemed a bit intimidating.
I also never felt I had the right build to make even a passable attempt at a time-trial. I don’t have the concentrated mass and power to continuously turn over a massive gear -in body-type terms, I have more of a weedy Romain Bardet style physique, rather than that of a strapping, powerful TT specimen like Tom Dumoulin or Tony Martin. I also suspect I would be even more ineffectual in a time-trial as Bardet has proven amongst his peers.
Then, Crazy Legs took it upon himself to organise an official, club-based, standalone and (most importantly) short individual time-trial and put the call out for self-flagellating, masochists everywhere to sign up.
When canvassed beforehand, I did foolishly tentatively agree to participate, even while lobbying unsuccessfully for a much shorter event – maybe 10km instead of 10 miles, or perhaps even just 5km?
Oh, and preferably downhill, too…
But, 10-mile it was to be, a course was duly selected and a date was picked. There was no turning back and I felt it was important to support Crazy Legs’ enterprise, dedication and hard work in organising the whole damn thing.
A 10-mile ITT is a set and recognised, British tradition – a rite of passage for many a club cyclist – and suitable courses have already been set up and verified all over the country, hidden behind innocuous codenames and only discussed in hushed tones during shadowy meetings by those deemed to be “in the know.”
Our selected crucible of pain was imaginatively and poetically titled the M105 TT course and, for its outward leg, it traversed backroads made familiar from just about every club run we do, albeit we would be travelling north toward further pain, rather than south from the comfort of coffee and cake.
The return leg would be straight down the A696, a main arterial route from Scotland and shunned on our club runs as being too busy and too dangerous for group rides. It did however promise a fast run in to the finish, with the prospect of (hopefully) only minimal traffic on an early, weekday evening.
Once committed, it was just a case of making the best of a bad job. I came up with a simple strategy, figuring I should be able to ride at an average of 20mph across the whole course and, from this I set myself a target time of 30 minutes.
If I could somehow dip under this mythical barrier, it would be (in my mind at least) akin to Roger Bannister doing a 4-minute mile … and I’d probably celebrate it as if I’d achieved something of equal significance.
I tested how easy it was to reach and maintain 20mph, trundling along the bottom of the Tyne valley, both before and after our weekly club runs. I also tested myself a couple of times riding to and from work, although my single-speed commuter bike is geared to get me up the Heinous Hill every day, so sadly my legs spin-out at anything approaching 22mph.
Although not sustained over a long enough time, or distance to be conclusive, these tests all seemed to indicate my goal was at least achievable.
To give myself every advantage, I picked up some tri-bars from Amazon for less than £20. I realised I would be forgoing my classification in the standard, unmodified road bike category of the competition, but I was more interested in achieving the best personal time, than where I placed in any club hierarchy.
Despite the bargain price, the tri-bars proved to be solid, well made and more than adequate for the task at hand. I clapped them on Reg and actually started to feel sorry for him. My bike now looked unbalanced and with all the horns, pads and brake levers jutting out from the front, he resembled nothing so much as a primary coloured, rather anorexic-looking stag beetle.
I had a brief trial around the mean streets of Whickham. Control wasn’t especially precise, I didn’t feel overly confident, but the position certainly seemed to help aerodynamically, or at least psychologically – which was as good as.
I hemmed and hawed about using the tri-bars, right up until the last minute, before finally deciding to go with them – in for a penny in for a pound, I might as well be hanged for a lamb as a sheep, or any other cliché you feel is appropriate to insert at this juncture.
The day arrived and I packed up early, put everything into the car and drove out to where I thought the start line was. I had an hour or so in which to recce the course, something I’d planned to do, much, much earlier, but of course never got around to.
Getting a better feel for the tri-bars, I began to work out where I should be using them and where to back off and go for the greater control I could get riding on the hoods. I started to notice all the little lumps along the route, things you would just roll over in the normal course of events, but when you were pushing hard, really bite into your legs and drag down your speed.
Swinging left at Kirkley Hall, not only brought you onto the bumpiest, hilliest section of the course, with the roughest road surface, but pitched you straight into a headwind. As my pace dwindled horribly again I realised this long, outbound leg, was going to be the most difficult section, I would struggle to keep up to my target speed and I’d need to make time up elsewhere.
Hard left at the end and then left again spat you out onto the A696 and then it was just a case of pinning your ears back and driving for the finish. Or, that was the theory at least.
In practice my test run was thwarted by a car, trying to recreate a complex Spyrograph pattern and embarking on a convoluted, thirteen-point turn in the narrow entrance to the junction, something I could only hope didn’t happen during my timed run.
Once I’d swung south, the road surface was better, wide, smooth and fast and even with a few rolling hummocks to contend with, it seemed far less taxing. Plus, we would have the benefit of putting the wind behind us for the run-in.
I picked up a few visual markers I could tie-in to the distance left to run and rolled past the end of Limestone Lane, looking for anything that would give a clue to where the actual finish was. I could see nothing, but someone told me it was just past the junction, so that’s what I would work to.
I then rolled through to the start line, expecting to find Crazy Legs, but no one was around. I rode up and down the lane a few times, futilely looking for clues, until I bumped into Caracol … and then we both rode up and down the lane a few times, futilely looking for clues.
Richard of Flanders powered past on a warm up and we asked him where we were supposed to sign on.
“Down the road, first right” he shouted as he rode away.
We tried down the road and first right … and then second right … and then third right and kept coming up blank. Back onto the lane and in desperation, Caracol stopped to phone Crazy Legs for further instruction, while I spotted the Red Max and the Big Yin, numbers on their back and rolling toward us.
Max volunteered to help and led us to the shopping centre car park, where Crazy Legs had set up Race HQ, was taking entry money, dolling out numbers and teasing everyone with tantalising glimpses of Haribo and Energy Drinks for the finishers.
Oh, for those keeping count, it was actually the third right we had tried, we just hadn’t gone far enough.
So it was that, despite being one of the first ones to arrive, I was the last to sign on. That suited me well enough, at least I wasn’t going to be demoralised when someone roared effortlessly past.
With time running out, we rode down to the start, where I enlisted Buster’s help to pin on my number. I would be the last rider off, number 19 – so almost twice as many entrants as Crazy Legs had hoped would turn out.
The we stood round talking the usual blether as the early runners got underway.
The Monkey Butler Boy had gone for the full aero set-up, skinsuit, aero-helmet and visor, aero-socks (under aero-overshoes!) and aero-gloves. He was set to ride Crazy Legs’ aeroTT-bike (the one that always gives its owner a bad back) which looked like a matt-black, angular stiletto and as far from comfortable as I could possibly imagine. In fact just looking at it, I felt my spine twinge in sympathy.
The Monkey Butler Boy had even gone as far us using little-brass coloured magnets to hold his number on instead of safety pins for some truly infinitesimal weight or drag saving. They also seemed very fiddly and largely ineffective at their primary task.
“I reckon they’re actually fridge magnets,” I said.
“Well, that one does say, I ♥ Marbella,” Caracol pointed out.
Meanwhile, someone asked if there was any Salbutamol going free. The Red Max simply scoffed, declaring that anything you could get on prescription just wasn’t going to cut it and wouldn’t be strong enough to help tonight’s efforts.
He claimed his own strategy for the ride involved starting with a full bladder and working his way steadily through a new bottle, hoping the desperate imperative of needing to pee would spur him on to the finish.
When we’d chuntered on for long enough, our numbers slowly dwindling as we were called to the start-line, one-by-one, I rolled off for a quick post-warm up, warm-up. Returning in time to see a Tour de France green jersey with a number 17 on the back disappearing up the road.
“A sprinter,” Caracol observed. “Do you think he’s one of those ones like Michael Matthews or Sagan that are really handy at prologues and short time-trials?” he mused. Then he was rolling up to the start line and I was shuffling into his spot.
Off he sped and I took my place, alongside our starter-gate for the evening, Big Dunc and the official starter and timekeeper, G-Dawg.
“30 seconds,” G-Dawg intoned.
“I want my Mummy,” I whimpered, but no one cared and I surrendered myself to Big Dunc’s iron grip. Held rock steady, I clipped in and waited.
“If I’m not back by the time it gets dark, will you send someone out to look for me?” I wondered.
“10 seconds!” G-Dawg replied.
I raised myself off the saddle a little.
“5-4-3-2-1 – Go.”
A good clean start. The pedals whirred around building momentum. I dropped back into the saddle, took the first, long curving turn and settled onto the tri-bars, forearms well cushioned on their foam pads.
I glanced down. Bloody hell, I was doing 26mph already.
The first of many small rises came and I watched my speed trickle down, down, down, but it still held above the magic 20mph mark. Had I gone off too fast?
I tried to settle in to the task at hand, keeping the speed up and picking the straightest lines through the curves.
Around 2 miles in, and in the lane ahead I thought I caught a glimpse of green jersey disappearing around a bend. Then I was easing, hands on the hoods and freewheeling to sweep through the first junction at Kirkley Hall, briefly noticing a crouching OGL, serving as official club photographer for the day.
Back into position, my legs were starting to burn with the effort and my breathing was a rasping, staccato panting, much too loud, too harsh and seemingly too close to my own ears, as if my lungs had escaped my chest and were making their way up to squeeze out of my gaping mouth.
The first serious ramps appeared on the road up to the village of Ogle and, at the bottom of the first of these, I caught and passed the green jersey. I probably sounded like a deranged, asthmatic and over-excited sex pest as I lumbered past. Still, despite a lack of grace, I was somewhat comforted by the fact that, unless things went disastrously wrong, I probably wouldn’t be the slowest competitor.
As the slope bit and my cadence dropped, the pedalling became less fluid and the speed dipped below 18mph. Then I was over the hump, picking up the pace and back on track.
Four miles in and I was waved through Ogle by our marshal, Dabman. The route swung due west at this point and into a headwind, a barely noticeable, pleasant, summer-evening breeze … well, as long as you’re not trying to turn yourself inside out with some wanton and furious pedalling.
Even worse the road started to buck up and down and the surface was rough, cracked and heavy, liberally strewn with gravel and other debris to avoid.
I now had a strange stitch to contend with too, a dull, throbbing pain that seemed to encompass my entire right-side, running from my collar-bone, down to my hip. Even worse, the effort had turned snot and saliva to a sticky, viscous and strangely elastic substance that seemed compelled to cling to me, no matter what.
I had trouble expelling it forcefully enough to ride clear and it kept pivoting around to slap me across the side of the face like a cold, wet haddock, or failing that spatter horribly across my shoulder.
I was certain I had strings of spit hanging, dangling from my gaping, gasping mouth – like a dishevelled, dribbling, drooling lunatic on a bike, it wasn’t pretty.
Still, constant speed checks were for the most part on the positive side of 20mph and I was starting to eat into the miles.
Through a sharp 90° bend, ably marshalled by Captain Black, I tired shouting that there was one more rider behind me, but I’m not sure if he heard, or could even decipher my garbled and incoherent rantings.
I didn’t recognise the last marshal, there was just a flash of blonde hair as she ushered me through the last 90° bend. I took it at a fast freewheel, yawing horribly wide, before pulling the bike straight and powering up the legs for one, last effort, a straight run of maybe 4 miles, down the A696 to the finish.
The first lump in the road was negotiated without losing too much speed and I changed gear for the first time, the chain clunking noisily down a couple of cogs. I stretched out and settled in to push hard. My breathing was fully under control now, there was no more breathless panting and the pain in my side had cleared completely.
The bike felt solid under me and I was astonishingly comfortable on the tri bars, my fingers curled right around the very ends, locked in place, head up and surprisingly static apart from the churning legs.
I briefly topped 30mph and while the rolling terrain made this high-end speed impossible to maintain, I don’t recall any point along this last leg where it fell below my 20mph target.
I now seemed to have stumbled into a zone, or maybe in sporting mythology the zone. Everything was flowing, it was comfortable and it felt strangely good. Beyond my wildest expectations, I was actually enjoying myself.
I didn’t really notice the traffic either. I was aware of a couple of cars considerately shifting right over to the far lane to overtake and there were no close passes. A massive HGV, thundering in the other direction, did kick up a storm of dust and turbulence in its wake, but I was quickly through this and pushing on.
The route markers I’d picked out flowed past, the pub with the speed camera, the long sweeping bend, the interesting looking fish restaurant, the large, dead bird, brutally eviscerated at the side of the road …
Hang on, back up! I don’t remember that particularly bloody, avian corpse from my first run through?
I saw a small knot of cyclists on the other side of the road and just behind them, but on my side, a small cluster of figures. The end was in sight. I glanced down and checked my speed for one last time and it was solidly in the twenties.
I didn’t sprint, try to bury myself, or “empty the tank” – I just tried to maintain the same smooth, rhythm and cadence as the road rose up and took me through the line.
Then I was done and pulling off the road, first left, to stop and try to restore breathing back to normal again. I looped back to where the other riders were waiting.
“Well, how did you do?” the Red Max asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.” I looked down at my Garmin. I hadn’t thought to stop it at the line, it was still running and now read 29:13.
“I guess I hit my target.”
Caracol had not only set a blisteringly fast time, he’d seemingly done so with a rapidly deflating front tyre and he set to work to replace the tube, while I explained there was still a rider out there.
“Who is it?” the Red Max wondered.
“The guy in the green jersey?” He looked blank.
“Reg? Is he called Reg?” I pondered, uncertainly.
The Red Max still looked blank.
“Sorry,” I admitted, “I only know him as Two Trousers.”
Slowly the Red Max folded over, emitting strange, distressed wheezing, squealing and gargling sounds.
He finally recovered and straightened up again.
“Don’t make me laugh, it hurts too much.”
There was only time for the Big Yin to imagine OGL turning up to berate us for riding too fast and declaring, “If you want to ride like that, you should put a number … oh …oh, hello.”
Then we cheered our last man home, hung around long enough for Caracol to re-inflate his tyre and rolled back to the Race HQ/Shopping Centre car park.
There I received my official time of 27:45, or two minutes and 15 seconds inside my target – an achievement that means absolutely nothing to anyone else, but I was massively pleased with.
(Crazy Legs said he could tell I must have put a good effort in, as my face was almost as grey as it is when I finish the hill climb.)
I then slung the bike in the car and joined the rest in the nearby pub for a celebratory and much deserved pint of Guinness – purely for medicinal and recovery purposes, you understand. (Note: Other celebratory drinks are available.)
So, in the footsteps of many an embarrassing, verbose and much too lachrymose Oscar winner …
Many thanks to Crazy Legs for initiating, preparing, organising and running a fantastic event.
Many thanks to my rock solid starting gate, Big Dunc and official starter G-Dawg.
Thanks to the marshals, Dabman, Captain Black and the Mysterious Blonde, who gave up their free time to hang around country lanes trying not to look too suspicious.
And thanks to the various ladies of the Timing Association – even though I couldn’t manage to work in a full-blown nod to Jan and Dean and the Anaheim, Azusa, & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review, & Timing Association.
Or, could I …
And finally, thanks to all my fellow competitors, there would obviously have been no event without them.
That was a blast, I really look forward to the next one.
YTD Totals: 4,739 km / 2,899 miles with 58,645 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 117 km / 72 miles with 1,216 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 20 minute
Average Speed: 26.9 km/h
Group size: 28 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Not bad.
It looked like being a disappointing day, with plenty of cloud cover, little wind and the temperature struggling to top out around 17°C first thing. What am I saying … at any other time I would suggest this was perfect cycling weather … if we not been utterly spoiled by weeks and weeks of clear blue skies and ever-present sun.
Nonetheless, I was feeling pretty good, so decided to thrash my way westwards, cross the river and then thrash my way east again. It probably looked really ugly, but the pace was decent and it was fun, until I had to climb out of the valley and found out just how tired my legs now were. Still, I managed to just about recover and made the meeting point in good time.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
The Monkey Butler Boy was joining us for the start of the run, before meeting up with his delinquent Wrecking Crew for some rough, adolescent bonding and mutually appreciative denigration. His latest wage packet had been spent on some (surely too-tall to be stylish) glaringly white and super-expensive aerosocks.
He complained they were ridiculously tight and uncomfortable and I wondered if their main benefit was in cutting off blood supply to the feet, so toes turn gangrenous and drop off – a marginal, if somewhat extreme, weight saving.
But no, apparently the socks were engineered to manage air flow and, ahem, “reduce the low pressure behind the leg that sucks you backwards.” (Manufacturers hyperbole, but my emphasis.)
“Each sock can save me up to 3 watts!” the Kool-Aid imbibing Monkey Butler Boy declared.
“I’ve tried to persuade him that if he wears 5 pairs he can save 30 watts,” the Red Max concluded dryly.
At this point, the Monkey Butler Boy discovered he’d been sitting in a freshly-laid patch of finest seagull guano, that he’d then smeared all over his hands and shorts.
“Just wipe it off on your socks,” someone suggested.
“Or your shoes,” I added. (They’re still obscenely white.)
The Monkey Butler Boy decided it was best to wipe the guano off with grass, so, as the Red Max looked on it dismay, he proceeded to pull out tiny little tufts of grass and rub them ineffectively over his fingers.
Kids today, eh? They don’t even know how to wipe off shit.
I blame the parents.
As our numbers grew, I looked up and spotted what at first I thought must be a miradjee. But no, when I rubbed my eyes and looked again, the mysterious figure was still there. It was, in all reality, the unfailingly cheerful Dabman, returned to us after an absence of at least a year. In fact, the last time I recalled seeing him, he was sat on a wet road, being unfailingly cheerful while carefully holding onto his snapped collarbone.
I could tell he hadn’t been out on the bike for a long, long time as he was wearing long bibtights and obviously hadn’t received the memo stating that, temporarily at least, global warming had become an established fact in the North East of England.
Or, maybe he needed the bibtights to hold in place all the armour he’s taken to wearing, just in case he suffers another unfortunate “chute.”
Crazy Legs put in a promotional broadcast for self-flagellating masochists to take part in the club 10-mile TT that he’s kindly arranged for us next week, then G-Dawg outlined the days route in microscopic detail. We split into two packs with a re-formation planned at Dyke Neuk to decide options and away we went.
I joined the, this time smaller, front group. It was still a bit chillier than I would have liked, but the temperature was starting to creep slowly upwards and I’d reluctantly persuaded myself to part with my arm warmers.
As we took the road toward the Cheese Farm, those at the back announced the second group was closing rapidly and was in danger of catching us. I could only surmise the Red Max was on the front of the second group, his seeker-head was pinging with active targets to chase down and he was in full-pursuit mode. I didn’t dare think about the number of complaints his pace was likely to be generating from those hanging on his wheel behind.
We decided we would be safe if we could reach the sanctuary of Bell’s Hill, reasoning we could then open up a bigger gap on the climb, and so it proved.
A sharp left-hand turn at Dobbie’s Debacle, reminded Crazy Legs that he’s intent on naming and mapping all the places where we’ve donated skin, blood, expensive lycra and sprinklings of aluminium and carbon-fibre to enhance the road surface.
Dobbie’s Debacle is the place where I’d slid out at low speed, taking down Taffy Steve on his brand, spanking-new Titanium love-child and putting a terminal hairline fracture into the top-tube of my Focus Cayo. Well, terminal for me anyway – the Prof had taken away the frame, self-repaired it and so birthed the Frankenbike.
There’s a whole host of other landmarks that deserve commemoration too, such as Horner’s Corner, which sadly isn’t a corner (why let the facts get in the way of a good name) but the straight stretch of road where the Plank and Red Max touched wheels during a café sprint, with disastrous, but quite predictable consequences.
Crazy Legs remembered our Icecapades, beautifully choreographed, all-fall-off-in-sequence efforts to rival any Dancing on Ice number. We have both common and a posh varieties of these (based on average house prices in the locale of the accident).
Then, of course, how could we forget the time OGL inexplicably and for no apparent reason, simply fell over while riding in a straight line …
My own notable occasions might include the roundabout, where a Polish girl (who for some reason no longer rides with us) hurled herself to the ground, in what seemed to be a desperate attempt to escape from Cowin’ Bovril.
Or, maybe the numerous places where the Dabman has perfected the fine art of, in his own words, “hitting the ground like a sack of spuds”.
But, without doubt the most memorable was on one freezing, poorly attended winter ride, when half a dozen of us turned down a lane we didn’t know was a single, smooth sheet of ice … or, at least we didn’t know until G-Dawg went sailing past everyone … on his arse … followed two seconds later by his supine bike. Somehow, Aether managed to stay upright, steer into the grass verge and stop, while the rest of us all came clattering down, one by one, like dominoes in a row. Good times!
As planned, we reached Dyke Neuk and paused there to allow the second group to join us. I then followed a smaller, break-away section for a route that would see us descending down the Trench and then dragging our way out again via, Ritton Bank, the Rothley Lakes climb and Middleton Bank.
As we worked our way along the valley floor as prelude to this series of climbs, Crazy Legs and Biden Fecht started dancing with much exaggerated, synchronised finger waggling and then Biden Fecht took to bobbing up and down in the saddle.
“Is that your Dan Martin, on the attack, or a pecking chicken impersonation?” I asked, before realising I’d just described two almost identical things. My ignorance was met with great disdain from Biden Fecht, as apparently I’d witnessed, but failed to recognize his sexy, Beyonce-style dance routine.
We stayed in compact group until the top of Ritton Bank, when everyone swung left before the summit, apart from Crazy Legs who pushed on for some added miles. At the next junction, we swept downhill, before starting the long slog up to Rothley Crossroads. Caracol, Andeven and Rab Dee had pinged off the front and we became split-up and strung out as we started about 4 kilometres of climbing, with one or two spicy sections of over 16%.
Ahead of me, Caracaol and Andeven pressed on at pace, while Rab Dee dropped back to check on the backmarkers. A creaking Rainman (he claimed it was his cleats, but I suspect it was his protesting knees) caught and passed me on the drag up and we started a strange little ritual, where I would claw my way slowly up to him and then he’d dig a little deeper and pull away again. Nonetheless, I was able to keep him just about within striking distance, until the road finally relented and started to tip down again.
Rainman pulled over just past the Rothley Crossroads, seemingly intent on regrouping with the rest, but I was on a charge and swept straight by. He finally abandoned all pretence of gallantry and gave chase, latching on to my wheel and recovering from his efforts, before we started to work together.
I say work together, but this was implicit, rather than a well-formulated and agreed plan. I think we were both simply going as hard as we could, for as long as we could, just to see where we would end up, or if we could actually kill each other.
I thought we were all alone on the road, well apart from the vole that darted under our wheels at one point. Just behind though, Biden Fecht was chasing furiously and behind him, Rab Dee was also trying to close us down, having first checked the backmarkers were being shepherded safely home by G-Dawg and the Colossus.
A leg-burning ascent of Middleton Bank put us on the path for the café and we started to share turns a bit more fluently, even if my stints on the front were necessarily shorter. They were enough anyway to keep the pursuers at bay. I buried myself over the rollers and took us down to the final, cruel drag up to the café, rounded the corner and I was done, cooked and flailing as Rainman pulled away at the last.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
We learned Princess Fiona had booked the wrong return flight for an upcoming trip to Geneva. Apparently, the return was booked for not just the wrong time, the wrong day and the wrong date, but the wrong month.
We tried to rationalise how easy the mistake could be. Was it the right day, but the wrong month and she’d just clicked too far on the calendar?
Was it one of those scrolling menus, where you might inadvertently cause the date to roll over if you accidentally brushed the screen in the wrong way?
Had the flights been changed at short notice by the operator, causing confusion and a bit of last-minute panic?
“Well,” I had to conclude, “Looks like you just fucked up.”
Others confessed to their own flight fuck-ups, probably just to make her feel better. Biden Fecht won this particular contest by bizarrely suggesting he turned up at Heathrow Airport, very, very early one morning, to catch a flight from Aberdeen to London.
Post-Toady France, pre-Premiership, Richard of Flanders bemoaned the lack of sporting distraction available once he got home this afternoon. I tried to sell everyone on the Clásica San Sebastián, which looked to have a strong field, including some potential winners I highlighted, such as Egan Bernal, Mikel Landa and Pierre Latour.
I don’t know what sort of strange-voodoo hex I put on these unfortunates with my casual name-dropping, but all three of them crashed out the race with serious injuries that’ll keep them off the bike for weeks.
I’m just pleased I didn’t mention deserved winner, Julian Alaphillipe, who took the honours with a searing uphill acceleration to bridge across to Bauke Mollema, who was then easily dispatched in a final sprint. I’m struggling to understand how the classy Alaphillipe can climb with such grace, power and speed, but never seems to trouble the GC, even in week long stage races (with the exception of his 2016 Tour of California win).
The sun began to break through the cloud cover as we gathered to head home, leaving one table including G-Dawg, the Colossus and the late arriving Crazy Legs, behind to enjoy some extended blathering.
As we started up Berwick Hill, the Red Max surged to the front, blinked in surprise and looked around somewhat bewildered.
“Agh! What am I doing up here?” he plaintively asked.
“You’ll get a nose-bleed, if you’re not careful,” I advised.
“I’ll just get me coat,” he replied and slipped back again.
According to Princess Fiona, Caracol then called out an admonition of “Steady!” before he surged away off the front while everyone else hesitated. I worked to slowly close the gap, pulling the rest along behind me, although not without causing a few fissures in the group.
We pushed over the top and regrouped as we sped down the other side and up through Dinnington. Caracol then threw me another curveball, swinging left with the rest of the group, leaving me on the front as we entered the Mad Mile, although at a more sedate pace than usual in the absence of G-Dawg and the Colossus.
I split away from the rest and made my way steadily upwards and then down again to the river. Crossing the bridge and climbing up to the traffic lights, a group of riders flashed through the junction ahead, so naturally I felt compelled to give chase.
The group split at the next roundabout, but I tracked a couple through Blaydon and caught and passed them just before Shibdon pond, only to be stopped short by some temporary traffic lights. As we waited, another, larger group of cyclists joined us and I found myself uncomfortably at the head of a large peloton. No pressure then.
The light changed and I led everyone off, through the roadworks, across the last roundabout and up to the traffic lights at the bottom of the Heinous Hill. I waited for a break in the traffic and then started the climb.
One of the riders surged past, but I didn’t respond, which was just as well as he turned off for the Pedalling Squares café, while I still had the rest of the hill to scale. I assumed the rest also followed him, drawn away by the promise of good cake and coffee, so once again I found myself alone, tacking steadily upwards and home.
YTD Totals: 4,665 km / 2,899 miles with 57,923 metres of climbing