A year that’s already been grim and dark and difficult took an even blacker turn last weekend when my Dad died. Dad, Grandad, husband, brother, son, uncle, rugby player, ballroom dancer, draughtsman, engineering designer … all that and much more.
His death leaves an unfillable void, his life an indelible mark.
These sad circumstances kept me off the bike just when I could have done with the therapeutic, head-clearing relief of a long ride, so I was particularly determined to get out this weekend.
The weather was an issue with a rainy midweek only starting to clear as the weekend approached, but Saturday, the forecasts assured everyone, with a sly wink and a smile would be ok. Only an 11% chance of short, swiftly passing showers the BBC weather app proclaimed. Reasonable odds. I’ll take those.
Except Friday night was unexpectedly wet and there was plenty of surface water still around when I woke on Saturday morning. I decided I needed mudguards, but with Peugeot temporarily hors de combat, laid up with a seized rear-derailleur, I was left with a (Hobson’s) choice of my commuting single-speed, or a wet backside.
I’m not sure I’d enjoy a normal club ride on the mongrel single-speed, which is suitably tatty, odd-looking and mismatched enough that it can be left safely, chained up on campus in the full knowledge it will attract absolutely no interest whatsoever from even the most desperate of blind bicycle thieves.
Mechanically it’s sound and its simplicity makes it a joy to ride, but its designed to give me a fighting chance of making it up the big hills at either end of my commute. This means it’s got a 34 x 14 gear ratio, so my legs spin out at about 23 mph – which would be pretty hopeless for any mad dash to the café. As I’d be riding solo, however and maintaining strict social-distancing at all times, I decided I could get away with it, as long as I found a route with no particularly steep, sharp climbs.
As an afterthought, just before I set off I crammed a light jacket in my back pocket, just in case, against all odds, I did actually encounter some rain on my travels.
It was a stop-start sort of beginning, rolling down the Heinous Hill I found I couldn’t clip in and had to stop to dislodge a sliver of dried mud from under my cleat. I still can’t work out how it got there.
Then, once over the river, I glanced down at my Garmin and found I’d already covered over 70 kilometres! Oops, looked like some idiot forgot to reset their bike computer. I stopped to correct my lapse, then pushed on, climbing out of the valley to route through Denton Burn, Kingston Park and out into the countryside.
At that point a third stop was called for as a dank, cold, rain started sifting down until the air was sodden and everything, which most definitely included me, was quickly soaked through. And that’s how it stayed for the rest of the morning, wet and chilly, with my afterthought jacket providing some relief, until it too became water-logged.
Still, the climb up Berwick Hill was about the perfect steepness for me, taken at a brisk pace that soon had me warmed up. I routed through Kirkley, past the café and out toward the Gubeon. Just past the café I passed two cyclists going the other way and it wasn’t until I was level that I realised it was Taffy Steve and Sneaky Pete. Sneaky Pete would later apologise for not acknowledging me, being cold, wet and huddled within his own private bubble of misery. I told him he should just use my favourite excuse, that he’d been travelling at such speed he’d never had a chance to recognise who he passed.
A few miles further up the road, a group of about half a dozen riders, dragged themselves past, clustered together and obviously feeling no need for social distancing. I don’t agree, but it’s their call. An even bigger breach of etiquette in my books was the complete lack of mudguards on what seemed to be their very best, shiny plastic bikes and they kicked up rooster tails of dirty spray behind them as they ground by.
As the road started to develop a few testing bumps and lumps, I made an effort to catch and overtake them, just nudging ahead before having to take evasive action to avoid another cyclist who’d lurched into the road having seemingly emerged out of the hedgerow.
“Oh, hello,” said the erratic cyclist, as I scurried past. I immediately recognising the Prof under all his layers of protective wear.
“Bonjour Monsieur,” I greeted him.
“You’re not who I was expecting to see,” the Prof exclaimed, then, “Ah, there they are!” Apparently I’d just been overtaken, and then overtaken in turn, a gaggle of Backstreet Boys (and at least one Backstreet Gal.) They all reformed behind me, but luckily were going right at the next junction, while I was heading left.
I pressed on through Whalton, passing the Colossus who, somewhat disappointingly (but understandably) was not on on his Time-Trial bike today. Routing through Belsay, I took the lane to Ogle, passing a couple of tractors hacking back the hedges on either side of the road and yet again escaping without finding an errant thorn embedded in my tyre. This luck can’t last.
I pulled into the café at Kirkley chilled and soaked through, but generally in good spirits, wandering into the barn just as the Backstreet Boys exited, to find G-Dawg and the Colossus huddled around one of the tables they’d set up inside.
It wasn’t going to be the cosiest of café stops, but it was dry, out of the wind and, if G-Dawg was to be believed noticeably warmer than standing outside in the rain. I’m not wholly convinced, but it was shelter of a kind.
I complained bitterly that the forecast had predicted only the smallest chance of brief, passing showers and demanded to know where this prolonged, incessant downpour had sprung from. No one could help me.
One benefit of bad weather was the lack of a queue and I was quickly served and on my way back to the barn when a flatus-powered (by his own admission) Crazy Legs arrived to join us.
G-Dawg bemoaned the on-going Covid restrictions and the 3-tier system recently introduced by a Government seemingly flailing to find something that might just about work and more concerned with finding a catchy (i.e. banal) slogan in lieu of a way of reducing infections. As evidence I give you the nonsensical “Stay Alert” a wannabe-nursery rhyme “Hands, Face, Space” and the Arthur Conan Doyle “Rule of Six.”
The latest is a 3-tier, truncated DefCon scale, which saw Front Wheel Neil beating all the tabloid press to the punch, when he announced that he’d told us it would all end in tiers, almost as soon as the initiative was launched.
We quickly summarised the three tiers as:
Tier#1 – you’re up shit creek
Tier#2 – you’re still up shit creek, but now you’ve lost your paddle
Tier#3 – you’re up shit creek without a paddle, your boat is taking in water and there’s a tsunami brewing on the horizon.
G-Dawg was particularly perplexed that the guidelines for moving between tiers were unknown and totally depressed by the thought that there was no safe tier – Tier#0 for example, where life was normal. Surely, we surmised, there must be a small village in the Cotswolds, or a remote island off the coast of Scotland, that was safe enough to be free of any restrictions?
As we discussed such weighty matters, Buster emerged from the gloom outside, cold, wet and complaining about the weather forecast and how he’d been duped into believing the chance for rain was miniscule.
He’d been so taken in that he’d ventured out on his brand new “good bike” – a Cervelo he’d earmarked for only riding in perfect conditions. Maybe this also explains the Backstreet Boys lack of mudguards and perhaps they’re deserving the benefit of doubt?
When Busters food order hadn’t arrived tout de suite, Crazy Legs persuaded him to go check on it, suggesting the café had an unfortunate habit of misplacing orders, especially, rather bizarrely, when it wasn’t too busy.
“Don’t worry though,” he assured Buster as he got up, “If they have forgotten, they tend to slip a fried egg on top as compensation.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure I’d like a fried egg plonked on top of my Victoria sponge,” I offered.
We decided this probably would be an unwelcome gift on Victoria sponge, but perhaps a worthy addition to a fruit scone, as long as, Crazy Legs determined, it was an especially runny egg. Who knows, one day we might even try it.
The rest of the conversation was taken up with discussing the current state of professional cycling. The Giro, was seen as high entertainment, but with a bizarre list of contenders. “You know things aren’t normal when Pozzovivo is up there challenging for the lead, ” Crazy Legs asserted, although pleased as punch for one of his favourite riders.
The bizarreness of the Giro was in direct contrast to an absolutely enthralling Classics seasons, with Alaphillipe, van der Poel, van Aert and assorted others providing spills and thrills in equal measure and the faintest glimmer of normality.
By the time we were ready to leave the rain had passed, it was warming up and dangerously close to pleasant. I was almost dry by the time I made it to the bottom of the Heinous Hill, the bike had served me well and I won’t hesitate to use it again for longer rides, but I must admit there are times when an additional gear or two wouldn’t go amiss and this was one of them.
Internet oddity of the week was a report in multiple newspapers that Safari park baboons had been armed with knives, screwdrivers and a chainsaw, with keepers suspecting pranksters had tooled up the simians so they could damage visitors’ cars ‘for a laugh’
The best quote from Knowsley Safari Park claimed their park was “just as safe as a McDonalds drive-thru.” Hmm, not tremendously reassuring.
Well, the Met Office confirmed Friday was third hottest day on record in the UK as temperatures reached almost 38℃ “doon sooth” and they weren’t too shabby “oop north” either. Not the best when you’re too pre-occupied with work to step out, but a few of my luckier clubmates managed to enjoy long rides in the sun. Still, even as temperatures began to drop from their record highs, it seemed like things would be just fine for Saturday and so it proved.
In fact it was a very bright early start to the day that slowly started to cloud over, but still a perfectly warm and pleasant for a bit of free-range bikling -and we were even graced by the occasional burst of bright sunshine.
Jimmy Mac had prepared one of those cunning routes that took a tried and tested club run and reversed it, providing something novel that was a bewildering and disorientating surprise and yet at the same time oddly familiar – a sort of collective bike ride powered by déjà vu.
It was also a route that proved fast, flat and fun, lacking any signature big hills, to such an extent that I only just topped a 1,000 metres of climbing for the entire day.
I’d arrived at the meeting point early to find the a newly chunky, Monkey Butler Boy had emerged from a long period of aestevation, complete with a brand new pair of aero-socks, which he claimed would save him an additional 4 watts of energy, before adding the small print, sotto voce: if he could somehow manage to ride at 40kph for 45 minutes. Somehow, I didn’t think it would be enough of an advantage for him to survive the ride after neglecting the bike for so long.
As one young ‘un returned, another prepared to depart, this being the last ride of the Garrulous Kid before his return to university. Still, there was one final opportunity for G-Dawg to carry out an impromptu chain inspection. It was no great surprise to anyone when the Garrulous Kid failed the test and G-Dawg spent the rest of the ride with a pore-deep, grungy black smear indelibly tattooed into his thumb pad. It’ll probably still be there when the Kid returns at Christmas.
Captain Black arrived on a different bike, a new Trek to replace his old Trek, the somewhat bipolar, “Old Faithful” or “Twatty MacTwat Face” the name being very much dependent upon how its riders legs were feeling at any given moment. The new bike has in-built vibration dampening and fat 32mm tyres, promising a plush ride, even on the worst of Northumberland’s disintegrating roads.
Once again there were 25 or so riders at the start and we left in groups of six. This time I formed part of the rear-guard, the last group out alongside Captain Black, Big Dunc, Benedict, OGL and Carlton. Suffering from hay-fever, OGL stayed with us until Bolam Lake before bailing to head to the cafe at Belsay, while the rest of us started the route reversal portion of the planned ride.
Around 40km into the ride and approaching a downhill run of Middleton Bank, we caught a glimpse of the next group on the road and began closing. Benedict took a timeout to attend to a call of nature and the rest of us eased onto the climb up to Scots Gap, letting the group ahead pull out a bigger lead until they were safely out of sight again.
We regathered and pushed on, the wrong way through the swoop and dip past Hartburn and then flicking left and right at speed through the bends passing Dyke Neuk, the building on our right instead of the usual left, all the while gathering pace as we went.
By the time we were running through Mitford we’d caught and latched onto the group ahead. This was a problem as we were now travelling in a pack of more than six, but much more importantly, it put would put us at the back of the queue when we reached the cafe at Kirkley.
The overwhelming majority (well, all but one of us, truth be told) seem to have adopted Kirkley as our ordained coffee stop, primarily because it has such a massive outside seating area, with plenty of space for social distancing. On the downside, service is glacially slow and it gets very busy.
Captain Black had a quick consult with the rest of our group and gave me the nod, Carlton and Big Dunc seemed happy to hang back, but the rest of us had permission to push on.
I waited until we hit the climb out of Mitford, before running down the outside of the group and accelerating away, with Captain Black and Benedict in close attendance. By the top of the climb we had a workable lead and it was just a case of maintaining the gap as we closed on the cafe for a bit of sneaky, unadulterated queue jumping.
Safely at Kirkley, Jimmy Mac got lots of deserved kudos for the route, which although all on well traveled roads, had never been put together in that combination or direction before. G-Dawg in particular was well pleased with the speed the front group had managed, clocking a 30 km/hour average throughout, even allowing for his slow amble down to the meeting point that morning.
Crazy Legs revealed that he’d taken to wearing a mask like … well, like a duck to water, the one drawback being that it inevitably provoked him into making comedy wahk-wahk-wahk duck noises.
I suggested it was fun to wear a mask, but I felt it would be even better with a six-shooter holstered on my hip. Yippy-kay-ay. Crazy Legs agreed and said he’d felt like a particularly bad-ass hombre when pairing his mask with a leather stetson, while we touched on the irony of having to wear a mask before you went into a bank these days.
There was also a shout out for Egan Bernal’s comedy effort …
Crazy Legs then said he’d seen that someone had developed an athlete specific mask for wearing during exercise – the major drawback being it closely resembled a horses nosebag. I wondered if it would be useful for holding a handful of oats for mid-ride nutrition, while he suggested a watertight one students could fill with alcohol, needing only to tip their heads back to sup … and we were almost back where we left off last week with his suggestion that students wear a cone of shame …
Finally served and at a table (it was apparently a good scone week, this week, but I’d gone with a flapjack instead) we showed a near preternatural level of forward planning by discussing our options for cafe stops during winter club runs, when the small indoor area here would swiftly be overrun.
This turned into a discussion about how many would actually bother riding throughout the winter when there were “fun” alternatives (their words, not mine) available like Zwift.
Apparently we haven’t quite got the comms set up on the system we’re currently using for collective turbo rides and the only form of communication available is a simple thumbs-up. This seemed mighty limited vocabulary to me and, even if confined to basic hand gestures, I could think of one or two others that might come in useful.
I demonstrated for good effect, making a fist and boldly raising my middle-finger. “Yes,” Crazy Legs confirmed, “That would be useful.”
I then curled my fingers into a loose fist and shook it vigorously up and down in imitation of Gareth Hunt demeaning his craft in order to hock instant coffee, or, if that particular image offends (and I can see why it might) miming the universal sign for an onanistic self-abuser.
“Hah!” Crazy Legs interjected as my actions reminded him of something, “we passed a bloke today blowing up his tyre and he was holding his pump between his legs and furiously making that exact same motion. From a distance I didn’t know whether to offer to help or call the police.”
Crazy Legs then declared he’d just been to see a physio and had happily now regained full movement of his arm. To demonstrate, he lifted his left arm, bent it over the top of his head and touched his right ear. “I couldn’t do that a week ago, it hurt too much.”
“Why on earth would you ever need to do that though?” the Ticker wondered aloud.
“Well, you know, to wash your hair,” Crazy Legs challenged.
The Ticker doffed his casquette, lowered his head and presented Crazy Legs with his perfectly bald pate.
Groups started to form up and drift away, while I stopped to have a quick chat with the late arriving Biden Fecht. I could have tagged onto the last group again, but felt I’d done enough for the day, so as everyone swung left, I tracked right, through Ponteland, heading directly for home.
At Blaydon, traffic was backed up on the roundabout waiting to turn left, either into the shopping centre or the McDonalds. I hope it was the former, but suspect the latter. I caught a rider in the colours of the Blaydon club trying to work his way through the cars on the inside and not getting very far, so I flicked across to the outside and was quickly clear.
As I turned and started up the Heinous Hill the Blaydon rider caught me and swished past, then swung left and then right, past Pedalling Squares. He didn’t, as I expected drop into the cafe, but looked to be taking the exact same route up the hill as me – and there was still around three-quarters of the climb to go.
Another Saturday, another cloudy, overcast and chilly day. At least it’s not raining, I keep telling myself and anyone who’ll listen, but after one weekend of record setting high temperatures, we’ve now had several extremely cold ones, culminating in record setting lows. So, once again I’m bundled up against the chill and diving down the hill en route to the meeting point.
At least it’s not raining … although I am periodically blasted by billowing cherry blossom, stripped off the trees by the wind and hurled at me like a storm of confetti unleashed by the worlds most over-enthusiastic wedding guest.
Timing is bad again and once more I get stopped at the level crossing, but this time the train is heading up the valley and quickly rumbles past and away.
Over the river and back-tracking, I’m periodically passed by vintage motorbikes and scooters burbling away in the opposite direction. I assume they’re holding some sort of rally, but can’t find anything online to suggest who, what, where or when. A secret vintage biker meet?
Then I’m at the meeting point in good order and in good time. Here we go again …
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
G-Dawg is visibly shaken by the condition of the Garrulous Kid’s chain, black and glistening with evil intent, a thick, grungy coating of sticky black oil and accumulated gunk.
“It’s a black chain,” the Garrulous Kid insists, unconvincingly. No one’s buying.
It’s probably not going to cleaned until his bike needs a major service (considering it’s just had one, that’s probably some time in the future) or, he accidentally wipes it off on his calf for an epic chainring tattoo.
A couple of FNG’s or, to be more precise, an FNG couple, roll up to join us. Double Dutch! They are adventurers from the Hollow Lands, perhaps drawn here by our sunny weather, gentle rolling hills and the general feeling of compassion and empathy for cyclists exhibited by the average British motorist. Welkom goede Nederlandse mensen.
The club is looking at ways to ease the passage of young riders from our thriving Go-Ride section into the senior ranks – as Big Dunc stated, if we can just bring half a dozen teens into the fold, we’ll be able to reduce the average age on club runs from 49 to, oh at least 48½.
To be able to do this though, British Cycling insist we have fully trained Ride Leaders (there’s a BC course for that) and said ride leaders have to have First Aid certification (and there’s no BC course for that).
“Don’t you have First Aid training already?” OGL enquires of Big Dunc,
“Technically, only in the event of oil rig evacuation, or an oil fire.”
“Well, that could prove useful,” G-Dawg muttered, once again looking askance at the Garrulous Kid’s oil clogged chain.
I complained to Big Dunc about the weather.
Ever phlegmatic, he shrugged, “At least we’re not in Yorkshire.”
He was, of course referring to the horrendous weather at the Tour de of Yorkshire, where extreme cold, high winds, hail and freezing rain have been battering the riders to such an extent that some of the women’s teams admitted to attacking just to stay warm.
We’re all watching, hoping for a glimpse of “old” boy and ex-clubmate beZ, riding for Ribble Pro Cycling and being paid to rub shoulders with the likes of Chris Froome and Greg van Anorak Avermaet. We can’t in any way claim to have been instrumental in guiding beZ from junior, to club-rider, to hardened pro-racer, but at least we didn’t irreparably break him along the way. Perhaps there’s hope for our Go-Ride youngsters after all?
Aether outlined the route for the day, including his signature Twizzel Twist, an odd phallic-shaped diversion, 5km down to the village and then 5km straight back out again on a parallel road. Captain Black speculated that Aether had been attempting some clever Strava art with his route planning, but had almost immediately lost interest when it proved too difficult.
A rendezvous point was agreed at Dyke Neuk and away we went.
I joined the first group, chatting with Andeven and Captain Black, before dropping in alongside a relative FNG who seemed keen to get more involved with the club. I learned I was in the company of another Dutch refugee, which if the pair from this morning stick around would mean that, along with Rainman, we would have four in the club. I’m not completely certain, but I’m sure that violates several UCI protocols.
We took the Twizzel Twist, dropping down at high speed with several of the group pushing away off the front. The FNG gave chase and nearly over-cooked it on a tight bend, braking furiously, unclipping and dabbing a foot down. G-Dawg swore he saw a trail of sparks where cleat kissed tarmac, then the FNG swung wide, off the road and through the grass verge, before correcting and powering on. Hey! Our very own Dutch Corner … and it almost gave me a Dutch Coronary.
Up toward the Gubeon, we called a halt for a pee, but the conditions were neither amenable, or luxurious enough for the Garrulous Kid, who crossed the road, squeezed through a fence and tried to pick his way into the woods for some privacy and a chance to commune with nature in splendid isolation.
We tracked his progress through the swaying of foliage, snapping of branches, a series of random grunts and the occasional startled exclamation.
“I’ve stepped on a fawn!” he announced at one point, but I very much doubt there were any deer within a thousand yards of his decidedly unstealthy bushcraft.
Captain Black wondered if the Garrulous Kid was recording his off-road adventures via his smartwatch.
“He’ll have a small Strava segment,” he declared, “And it will be small in this weather.” Ba-boom!
Finally, all fell silent amongst the trees.
“Ok, let’s go,” G-Dawg announced immediately.
“I’m here!” the Garrulous Kid announced, popping up suddenly beside the fence. Damn, that was quick. Missed opportunity.
Dropping down from Meldon, I swung wide and just let the bike run, new wheels picking up momentum quickly as I shot past everyone and onto the front. We swung left and started the climb up to Dyke Neuk and, as quickly as I’d hit the front, I drifted back, as everyone raced to be first to the top. We were stopping to regroup there anyway, so I was in no great hurry and followed at a more relaxed pace.
The Garrulous Kid had lots of queries about saddles with grooves and odd shaped protrusions. G-Dawg encouraged him to get a saddle with strategically placed cut-outs, suggesting he could then dangle his testicles through them and, whenever he was going too fast on the front, someone could grab one and give a little squeeze. Alternatively, if he was going too slow someone could “reach across and give him a little tickle” of encouragement.
Ahem. Yes, well … Hmm … maybe we’re not quite ready to include Go-Ride youngsters in our club runs just yet.
Luckily the second group arrived before the conversation had a chance to take an even more disturbing direction. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted an extended ride up the hated drag to Rothley crossroads and we all stuck to the original plan, but split into two groups.
I dropped back into the second group alongside G-Dawg and Captain Black and we set out for a run at the cafe via Middleton Bank. As we took the turn for the climb, we found ourselves being followed by a massive tractor hauling a large slurry tank. We were in full cry now though, speeding downhill toward the foot of the climb, so there was no way the tractor could get past here, or on the narrow ascent, so it would have to crawl up the hill behind us.
Zip Five took a flyer off the front, but I waited until the steepest part of the climb before slipping out from behind G-Dawg and giving chase, pulling Captain Black along with me as we passed everyone. We pushed over the top with a decent gap and then slowed to regroup.
As the road straightened to run past Bolam Lake, the tractor finally rumbled past, but to be honest it wasn’t travelling that much faster than we were, so we never lost sight of it.
On the front with Captain Black, we started to wind up the pace and were soon humming as we swept through Milestone Woods to the foot of the rollers, where … as foolish tradition dictates … I attacked. There wasn’t the usual out of the saddle flailing, I just stomped on the pedals a bit harder and managed to open a decent gap.
By the time we hit the second ramp, I’m usually a spent force weak legged, gasping and flapping like a fish out of water, but today the legs seemed pretty good, so I kept going.
I caught the tractor, just before the final bump and dropped in behind it as we started the descent to the final drag up to the cafe. It proved perfect for a sustained bout of illegal drafting and I tucked in tight behind the bouncing slurry tank, hoping the driver wouldn’t brake suddenly, or the tank start leaking its noxious contents over the road.
With the tractor travelling at a good clip, I was confident my mechanical assistance was going to make me hard to catch – and so it proved. I eased over the last section of road and let the tractor pull away, before swooping through the final junction, just behind the back-markers from the first group.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Space was at a premium in the cafe, where a shrieking coterie of middle-aged women had commandeered the big round table in the centre of the floor and were pressed in great number all around it. It looked like perhaps the most civilised (second? third?) hen party, ever. But maybe not.
A few of us squeezed onto a table alongside an octogenarian couple trying to enjoy a peaceful lunch. Sorry, citizens, we had no choice.
I caught up with Taffy Steve, who’d been riding with the Distaff Double Dutch and been teaching her new words to ease her assimilation into the clubs culture.
Having already covered off “knacker” and “minging” he was wondering what else she might need. I suggested “worky ticket” but (rather oddly) Taffy Steve didn’t think she’d have much need for such a pejorative term amongst our serried, serene and cultured ranks. “Paggered” the always erudite Biden Fecht suggested, a word I think he’s taken a bit of a shine to. So paggered it was.
Halfway through our stay, the octogenarian gent pointed over his wife’s shoulder and declared, “there’s a girly party going on over there.”
Andeven looked at me and mouthed “girly party?” and I only just managed not to burst out laughing. Luckily, he distracted me with descriptions of Spry’s new, all white Trek Madone. This, he suggested made his Colnago look astonishingly dated in a side by side comparison, but, he reasoned that, much like pet dogs, bikes have a tendency to grow to suit their owners. Or, perhaps owners grow to resemble their bikes …
Still. the ultimate, thousand dollar question remained – would the shiny, new Trek encourage a return of the white shorts?
We left the cafe and I found the Red Max, resplendent in a smart new winter top. He said he’d only just got it for his birthday and hadn’t thought he’d get a chance to wear it until at least October. It really was that cold. Later, Taffy Steve would echo the same sentiments when he asked if I ever thought I’d be wearing overshoes in May.
As we were about to leave, we found out Distaff Double Dutch had a flat. Most of the group pressed on for home, while half a dozen or so of us hung back to help.
Well, I say help, we actually huddled round the side of the cafe, out of the wind and called out criticism and helpful suggestions in equal measure from this surprisingly sheltered space.
Back out onto the roads, I had a chat with Distaff Double Dutch and learned she’s on a research contract at the University, so here for at least 3 years. Meanwhile, Dude Double Dutch was on the front, riding alongside the Red Max and the speed kept incrementally notching upwards.
“Is there a Dutch term for half-wheeling?” I wondered, hoping to contribute something to Taffy Steve’s cultural-exchange programme.
Sadly, there isn’t, but, when I described the phenomena, she instantly recognised exactly what I was talking about. She agreed that Dude Double Dutch was a fine proponent of the art, and yes, that’s exactly what he was doing at the moment, aided and abetted by that arch half-wheeler himself, the Red Max.
I sprinted forward and got them knock it off, well for a while at least.
We had a decently fast run back from there and I even had enough zip left in the legs to burst past everyone as we drove to the end of the Mad Mile. A quick slingshot round the roundabout and I was off and heading home, quite absurdly pleased with myself.
YTD Totals: 2,913 km / 1,810 miles with 38,425 metres of climbing
In the past few weeks we’ve been pitched into unending gloom, chilled to the bone, soaked to the skin, peppered with hail and half-broiled because of seriously over-dressing. Having survived all this and just for a change, today we would be ceaselessly battered by high winds. Never a dull moment, eh?
I didn’t realise just how strong these winds were, until I was being buffeted sideways and fighting to control the bike as I dropped down the hill. At the bottom I then had the pleasure of turning directly into a headwind, with gusts of 50-60mph, as I tried to pick my way up the valley.
At Blaydon, in a final insult, a mini-twister harried and harassed a pile of dry leaves, animating them to scuttle around and around, faster and faster, before whipping them up and driving them into a gyre that slapped noisily into my chest and face.
Spitting out a mouthful of dry, dusty leaf residue, I called time on trying to forge my way further up river and turned back to cross on a different bridge. The wind fell silent behind me and now, with a more gentle push, was actually impelling me toward my goal.
This was good … until, turning again, I rode onto the exposed span, high above the river and once again had to battle to steer in a straight line. Luckily the road was quiet and I had the opportunity to tack my way safely back and forth across the empty lanes.
The rest of the ride in was punctuated by cross -headwinds that drained speed and ramped up the effort, or sudden, gusting broadsides, that threatened to pitch me into either the kerb, or the cars. It could be fun riding in a group in these conditions.
Having cut short my route across to the meeting point, I arrived around ten minutes earlier than usual and settled in to wait.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
The Garrulous Kid was the first to arrive, well proud of the fact that he’d achieved a total colour co-ordination, every article of his clothing matching either the red, black, white or grey colour scheme of his winter Trek.
He said he was really looking forward to the Club’s Christmas “Dinner” and annual prize-giving, next Saturday night and was angling to win the “Most Improved Rider” award.
“It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment though,” I argued, “It just means you were crap the year before.”
“Yeah, but it’s still an award, innit?”
Well, yes, I guess so…
The Monkey Butler Boy arrived to deride the Garrulous Kid’s colour co-ordination. Apparently, simply matching your clothes to your bike scheme isn’t good enough now: helmet, specs, gloves and shoes all have to be the exact same colour too. We were all collectively condemned as a lost cause, clueless and completely lacking in style.
Crazy Legs rolled up with Chas ‘n’ Dave’s “Sideboard Song” as an infectious, immovable earwig. This was apparently lodged into his head due to the simple “I don’t care” refrain, which nicely summed up Crazy Legs’ attitude to the weather – although by no means ideal, at least it wasn’t raining or icy.
I joined him for a sublimely beautiful, heart-rending duet, playing Dave Peacock to his Chas Hodges: “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care if ‘e comes round ‘ere, I’ve got my beer on the sideboard ‘ere, let Muvva sor’ it art if he comes round ‘ere.”
At precisely 9:15 GMT (Garmin Muppet Time), Crazy Legs clambered up onto the wall to address everyone: “Hello, for those of you who don’t know me, my name is Richard … and this is the route for the day.”
He then concluded his briefing with the finest, Sergeant Phil Esterhaus impersonation I’ve heard in years: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”
We rolled out in one big pack and I let myself drift toward the back, figuring it would be a day for sheltering as much as possible from the wind.
The Colossus and the Garrulous Kid took the first thankless battering on the front, setting a scorching pace from the off, as if they could beat the weather into submission. Shouting at them to ease didn’t help, words were immediately snatched away in the strong gusts and head down and ploughing onward, they could barely hear a thing in the rush of air howling around their helmets.
An ailing OGL was soon cast adrift at the back and Crazy Legs and the Red Max briefly conferred and agreed to drop off to ride with him at a less frenetic pace.
Citing a lack of cafe money as an excuse, perhaps combined with a lack of will for a hard ride, the Monkey Butler Boy was soon dropping off too, to be re-united with the Red Max, or more importantly, the Red Max’s wallet.
Further on and the Colossus also ailing and under the weather and having completed a manful, all or nothing stint on the front, set a course directly for the cafe, as our numbers continued to dwindle.
“We’re dropping like flies,” Aether determined, but we pressed on regardless.
Aether then punctured and my heart sank a little when I noticed he was running Continental Four Season’s tyres, remembering the recent failures we’d had trying to seat Big Dunc’s Conti Grand Prix tyre back on his rims (Trial of Tyres). Luckily, either Four Season’s are more forgiving, or Campagnolo rims are more compatible with the tyres than Shimano rims and we managed without too much effort.
Then, passing a massive, steaming pile of manure, dumped in a malodorous pile at the entrance to a field, the Garrulous Kid identified it as “a big pile of bullshit” and politely enquired if OGL had passed this way recently. That was dangerously close to being funny.
G-Dawg and the Garrulous Kid were back toiling away on the front (for at least the second time) as we started up the horrible, dragging route toward Dyke Neuk. Rab Dee took pity on them and muscled his forward and I pushed through to join him and “do my bit.”
“My bit” probably didn’t last more than a mile or so. Even that was enough to drain any energy I had left and I swiftly went from first in line, back to last. On we went and I was hanging on now, heavy legged and lethargic, either starting to bonk, worn down by my ride in that morning, over-tired from doing too much mid-week , or simply having another bad day and yet another jour sans. Or, maybe it was all of those lame and pitiful excuses rolled into one.
Aether dropped back to check on me, but it was just a case of plodding on and enduring, there was no help to be had.
I hung on through the dip and rise around Hartburn, but was distanced on the run in to Middleton Bank and grinding away horribly on the climb. When Rab Dee was the next to drop back to check on me and I told him not to wait and just press on.
“It’s all right, I’m just going to take it easy too,” he replied.
“This. Is not. Taking. It. Easy,” I assured him, grinding past as the slope started to bite.
Over the top and the group upfront had eased so I rejoin. I pushed hard, but it still took an age and Rab Dee had to close the final few metres for me.
I managed to stay on the wheels through Milestone Wood, up and over the rollers and right up to the final corner of the final climb, before the inevitable. Everyone went skipping away, leaving me to bumble my way to the cafe, very much sur la jante.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The cafe was relatively quiet and I joined the queue behind Goose as we cast our eyes over all the goodies on display and weighed the pros and cons of each. Then Goose spotted some seasonal stollen scones and declared they were just the business. “You know you’ve hit the jackpot,” he explained, “if you manage to find a nugget of marzipan buried in their depths.” I took his recommendation and ordered a stollen scone too. They were good.
Talk turned to how boring it would be to live in a moderate climate without extremes of weather and how dull it must make things! I politely demurred, I think I could go with an eternal summer, although it might make this blerg dull, boring, pointless and redundant … Ahem, apologies … I obviously meant even duller, more boring, more pointless and completely and utterly redundant.
Goose revealed he is being coerced by the family toward becoming a cat owner and was seeking to understand the life-changing implications. Along with the Cow Ranger, I assured him how pleasant it was to be pitied, looked down on and made to feel inferior by small, furry critters, with brains no bigger than a walnut and a permanent air of self-entitlement.
We listed the other advantages, such as becoming much more intimate with nature’s richness in the form of a steady string of mice, voles, frogs, rats, moles, sparrows, magpies, pigeons, starlings, thrushes, goldfish(?), tits and assorted warblers, forcibly introduced into your home.
If you were lucky, I explained, you’d only have to dispose of the corpses, rather than chase, corral and potentially euthanize your small, furry, psycho-killer’s trophy collection.
And, if you were really, really, really lucky, the Cow Ranger added, you’d only have to clean up a single, small, highly polished and expertly excised piece of offal that is typically the only trace of cat-kill left (the gall bladder, I believe). How a cat manages to extricate and isolate this particular organ with such surgical precision remains one of life’s great mysteries.
Looking to understand both the positives and negatives, Goose wondered if his own cat would add to the accumulation of cat crap in his garden. I assured him it was far more likely to use the neighbours’ gardens, ensuring friendly relations were maintained all the households in the area.
And, the Cow Ranger added it would naturally bury the crap, to lie there like an unexploded mine or buried punji stakes, until someone unsuspectingly ran a lawn mower or a strimmer over it.
The Cow Ranger then capped the entire discussion by assuring Goose he probably wouldn’t even have to be wholly responsible for feeding his own cat, as one or more of the neighbours would in all likelihood step in and supplement its diet for him.
I don’t know, but I think we might have sold him on the idea.
With families regrouping for Christmas, Thing#1 returns from University next week and Gooses’ kids are also bound for home from all points south. According to him his son is a serious runner and very fit, but will not be venturing out with our club this holiday, because he hates cycling.
We tried to understand how this sad state of affairs had arisen, having taken it as every father’s sacred duty to introduce their sons and daughters to the exalted joys of cycling. (Yes, yes, I’ve failed horribly too.)
In Goose’s case, he admitted to a bad start, dragging his then 9-year old son out on a mammoth, long ride far from home, which reduced an exhausted kid to tears, long before they made it back.
The second attempt involved and even longer ride conducted over two days, with an impromptu bit of over-night camping thrown in for good measure. I’ve no idea how these experiences could have fail to ignite a burning desire for more.
I left the cafe with the same group I’d arrived with, plus a few others who’d done the shorter ride. As we pulled out of the car park, approaching traffic separated me and the Big Yin from the rest of the pack. Out front a collective madness seemed to have descended and they’d decided it would be fun to surf a momentary tailwind as far and as fast as possible. The hammer went down immediately. There was to be no pause to regroup, or wait for others and no prisoners taken as they thrashed away.
Seeing what was happening, the Big Yin surged to try and cross the gap. I’ve no idea if he made it, I had neither the will, nor the legs to follow, so embarked on my first ever, completely solo ride from the cafe and all the way home – a wholly unequal mano a mano contest, just me against the wind.
Having finally crossed the river, I started to tackled the steep ramp that led up to the main road, passing a sprightly, silver-haired, booted and back-packed walker striding away down the hill.
“Morning!” he boomed in a hearty, hail-fellow-well-met sort of way.
“Good morning,” I replied, “Someone’s very happy today.”
“Well, life is good,” he assured me.
An hour ago, alone and struggling, I might have argued … but probably not. I waved him off, turned left at the junction and picked up a tailwind to guide me home.
YTD Totals: 7,075 km / 4,396 miles with 86,578 metres of climbing.
Total Distance: 100 km / 62 miles with 1,013 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 13 minutes
Average Speed: 23.6 km/h
Group size: 28 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Bright with brass monkeys
As the country braces itself for the imminent arrival of a disruptive winter weather front from Siberia, colourfully labelled the “Beast from the East” – we were served up another cracker for our club run. Almost identical to last week. It was a blend of bitterly cold, beautifully bright and (most importantly) crisp and bone-dry.
Double base layers, lobster mitts with liners and a buff pulled up to cover as much of my face as possible were deployed early on, as the wind had a distinctively chilly, razor-edge to it and any exposed skin rapidly became numb. Nevertheless, it already looked like being a great day as a coppery new sun lent the sky a putty-coloured, green tinge before brightening to form a burnished vault of clear, limitless blue.
I trailed a nervous learner driver down the Heinous Hill, at a speed so slow that it made even my cautious, controlled, half-an-eye-out-for-ice approach, seem positively reckless in comparison. Luckily, they turned right before the bottom, while I swung away left, finally able to release my rictus hold on the brakes and get my legs working to generate a bit of much needed warmth.
The river itself seemed to act as a heat sink, sucking a couple more degrees from already chilled air. Stopped at the lights, my breath plumed out visibly in the air, like a deranged and louche Soup Dragon on the Clangers moon, toking madly on an e-cigarette. It would definitely be chilly for the rowing crews who were starting to gather on the water for yet another busy day of competition.
Pushing on, for once I was glad to start climbing out of the valley and frigid air that seemed to have pooled in its bottom.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Making decent time, I arrived early enough to watch the Monkey Butler Boy engage in some cosmetic bike tinkering par excellence. First, he reached into a back pocket, extracted a multi-tool kit and carefully assembled a small torque wrench. He then applied this to his seat pin and then, painstakingly eased the seat post up 0.75mm, tightened everything up, disassembled the tool and packed it away.
He eye-balled his work briefly, then took the tool out again, re-assembled it, applied it to his bike and this time, carefully lowered the saddle by 0.5mm, while I looked on with Crazy Legs, both of us totally perplexed. Apparently, those micro-adjustments hit the sweet spot though and give the optimum riding position – although I’m not sure how you could tell without testing.
“Is that thing on?” the Garrulous Kid asked, bending down to grin and gurn madly into the lens of my sports-cam, “How can you tell if it’s on?” he demanded, prodding at the case with an extended digit. I was reminded of nothing so much as the monkey-selfie, with the Garrulous Kid taking the part of a Celebes crested macaque. They have the same hairstyle and the likeness was striking. Somehow, I doubt that if his grinning, gurning selfie ever sees the light of day, that he’ll have a crowd of people who really should know better, causing a ridiculous stink and defending his claim to receive royalties.
Well, the first hints of spring were definitely in the air, the hedgerows were alive with chattering birds, scattered tulips were poking tentative buds out of the frozen soil and, even at the outset of my ride, the sun was up and well established on its low trajectory across the sky.
Even more telling for any budding amateur climatologist, or observant weather watcher, was the first, elusive sightings of carbon, as conditions were finally deemed good enough to lure out a smattering of good, “summer bikes” – even if it was just for one week. G-Dawg, the Colossus and Jimmy Mac among others, had seized on the opportunity, while, a contrarian to the last, Crazy Legs had swapped last week’s spring/autumn Bianchi back to his winter fixie.
Taffy Steve stayed with the thrice-cursed winter bike, I kept faith with the Pug and the Goose persisted on his experiment with the steel behemoth. Everyone seemed happy enough with their individual choices, all except the Garrulous Kid, who pined for carbon, whinged about his winter bike and, after spending all day avoiding the front of the group, blamed his loss in the café sprint on his “heavy” aluminium Trek.
Leading the ride for the day, Crazy Legs did a swift head count and determined we should split into two. The route was revised slightly to take into account better than predicted conditions, a rendezvous point was agreed for a final coalescing before we split and got ready to roll.
There was just time for a quick double-take at the appearance of a Carlton doppelgänger (it was just a cunningly disguised Two Trousers, but for a moment he had both Crazy Legs and me utterly confused and convinced we were suffering double vision.)
Spirits were high, chatter was on full-bore and the only rude interruption to our contentment came from Taffy Steve’s brakes, which squealed like a badly stuck pig. He confessed he’d tried some WD-40 Motorcyle Dry Lube on his chain, anticipating it to be suitably protective and heavy duty, but discovering in truth that it was horribly thick, gunky, all together messy and capable of getting everywhere it shouldn’t.
He’d spent an age cleaning the gunk off his drive chain, frame and wheel rims, but had missed the brake blocks which whenever applied emitted a protesting, high-pitched warbling banshee scream that directly assaulted the eardrums. The Garrulous Kid in particular seemed directly affected by the “horrible” sound – perhaps the rest of us were insulated from its extreme harshness by our innate presbycusis?
We spent a good while trying to come up with a suitable analogy for the noise – an irate R2-D2 when plugging himself into a power outlet instead of the Death Star security-systems? A rabid, indignant and starving dolphin, demanding fish? The antique, unsettling warble of a computer program loading into a ZX Spectrum from audio-tape?
We finally settled on a juvenile seagull being caught up in the spokes of his front wheel. This segued into Taffy Steve describing his son’s invention of a Geordie seagull, lost on the Isle of Man, starving, unable to find the sanctuary of a Greggs and all the while wondering what all the skinny seagulls were doing, out on the water trying to catch fish. Comic genius and a perfect Viz character just waiting for visualisation.
As we were chatting, Slow Drinker cruised down the outside of the group, resplendent in his black and pink Rapha kit, which Taffy Steve suggested made him look like a Liquorice Allsort. We soon had a marketing campaign licked into shape, complete with epic voice-over, all ready to promote “Bertie Bassets Paris-Roubaix Collection™. (Also available in blue).”
Through Dinnington, we carefully wove our way through the most heavily pock-marked, pot-holed, bombed-out surface that the RAF haven’t tested JP233 runway denial munitions on. Or, maybe they have?
We were briefly heartened by assembled construction equipment, temporary traffic lights and road re-surfacing signs, but should have known better. Hopes for a smooth, new riding surface were immediately dashed when we encountered the solitary, lone workman, patching the road armed with just a single bucket of sticky, rapidly cooling tar.
We also seemed to have stumbled onto National Hedge Trimming Day and found ourselves continually picking our way past massive, yellow tractors, laying waste to the local hedgerows. There’s nothing subtle about the process, they don’t so much trim the hedge as thrash it into submission, liberally scattering a trail of pulverised leaves and twigs and thorns across the road. By some minor miracle, no one punctured.
As such, our ride progressed without incident until we reached the Gubeon and hauled ourselves into a lay-by to wait for the second group to put in an appearance. The over/under on the second groups arrival was 5 minutes, but they were well inside this, even though Crazy Legs insisted they’d stopped at a café en route for the now traditional and civilising, mid-ride, flat white.
Those seeking a shorter ride then took a left, while the rest of us swung to the right on a route that would pass through Dyke Neuk, then Hartburn and on to Middleton Bank. At Dyke Neuk we paused again to set a longer-harder-faster group on their way, at which point Sneaky Pete and Sneaky Taffy Steve, sneaked off for a bit of a head start on the final run in.
I was beginning to feel the pace and the legs were already heavy as we approached Middleton Bank and I had dropped right to the back of the group as we began to climb. I managed to catch and pass the Goose, manfully wrestling with the steel behemoth, then Cowin’ Bovril struggling with a lack of road miles, before hauling in and passing Mini Miss and Princess Fiona.
I was closing on Rick the Gigolo as we passed over the top of the climb, with the main group still a further 200 or 300 metres up the road. I set about closing the gap, only to discover that a vicious headwind seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere and I was working hard just to maintain the distance to the front group.
I plugged away resolutely, finally catching Rick the Gigolo, but up ahead the others had started to ride through and off, increased their pace and soon disappeared from sight.
I was now battering away, pulling a small group through a punishing headwind, thankfully with some help from Mini Miss. She led us through Milestone Woods and up the first of the rollers. Here Rick the Gigolo pulled out of line and into the wind, rolled up alongside me, grimaced, swore fluently, grasped his chest and slipped away again. Bloody hell, did he just have a heart attack?
Down the dip and onto the final climb, I passed Mini Miss. She later said she’d tried to respond, but her legs refused in several different languages. Non, No, Nyet, Nein, Nay, Nope.
I then thought I was clear and away on the last drag, until Rick the Gigolo came whirring smoothly past – for the first time I’ve been fooled by someone faking a mild cardiac infarction.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
The Garrulous Kid kicked the madness off, leaning across the table and confronting Jimmy Mac.
“You’re German aren’t you?”
“Err … no,” a nonplussed Jimmy Mac replied.
“But you were born in Germany, right?” the Garrulous Kid persisted.
“No. No, I wasn’t.”
“Well, someone was born in Germany.” The Garrulous Kid boldly asserted.
“Quite a few people, I’d imagine,” I reasoned, “There’s that Adolph Hitl …oh, hold on, he was born in Austria.”
G-Dawg came to my rescue with the name of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was definitely born in Germany. This recognisable name seemed to satisfy the Garrulous Kid and we spent a few moments marvelling at Herr Schweinsteiger’s impressively Teutonic moniker.
G-Dawg and the Colossus managed to secure themselves a helping of ham and egg pie, this week without the unnecessary distraction of salad. I congratulated them on ticking off two of the cyclists 5 essential food groups in one meal – pastry and meat. (The others, of course are caffeine, cake and confectionery.)
We reflected on the less than surprising news from the Winter Olympics and the rather inevitable discovery that the Russians, though competing as non-Russian’s, were still doing deeply Russian things and heavily engaged in pharmaceutical skulduggery. It was mentioned that the cross-country skiing biathletes were regularly tested for alcohol, which we felt was a shame – what sport wouldn’t be improved as a spectacle by arming drunkards with guns?
Talk of alcohol, beta-blockers and the like led to discussions about “Big Bill” Webeniuk, the Canadian snooker player who averaged 30 pints of lager a day while competing. Whether it’s true or not, the man became a legend for claims he had a doctor’s prescription to serve as a sort of TUE for his excessive alcohol intake, which was supposedly necessary to control a hereditary nerve condition. Yeah, right. Still better, there were rumours that he even tried to claim tax relief on his “medicinal” lager consumption.
Sneaky Pete expressed huge displeasure with the current state of the scrum in rugby union, which he sees as largely de-fanged, sissified and dull, a travesty of its former glory and in danger of becoming as ridiculous a spectacle as that used by the rugby league lot.
“Why bother,” I agreed, “They should just hold hands.”
“Sing ring-o-rose’s and dance around in a circle,” G-Dawg suggested.
“Cover their eyes and count to 10?” Jimmy Mac, opined, “… No peeking!”
But, the Colossus had the best idea, suggesting they should put their foreheads onto an imaginary pole, quickly spin around it a dozen times until everyone was really, really dizzy, then hoof the ball into the air and see who could catch it and run in the right direction.
From this, the Colossus (quite rightly) concluded, that there wasn’t a sport we couldn’t improve upon and make an even bigger, better spectacle, if we were just given 5 minutes to sort it out.
The manner of Mark Cavendish’s, premature crashing out of the Tour of Abu Dhabi-Doo, within 5 kilometres of starting, astonished G-Dawg. His purely rhetorical question seemed to sum up our thoughts that some kind of organisational idiocy had taken place: “Hmm, I need a car for the commissioner to drive around in extreme close proximity to bunch of tightly packed, speeding cyclists. Ah, here’s one with an automatic braking system, that’ll do. After all, what could possibly go wrong?”
Aside from the nagging headwind, the right home was straightforward and pleasant. The sky remained an unblemished, distant blue, the sun shone brightly, if lacking any warmth and the roads were dry and clear. I even found myself stopping at one point to pull off and pack away the lobster mitts that were simply too effective.
It was perhaps a little too chill to be riding completely without gloves, but I was home before second thoughts and numb fingers changed my mind.
YTD Totals: 1,145 km / 711 miles with 13,007 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 99 km / 62 miles with 1,021 metres of climbing
Ride Time:4 hours 18 minutes
Average Speed:23.1 km/h
Group size:17 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two:Cold
Just before we start – a public service announcement: A few weeks ago, I bought a USB rechargeable rear light from VeloChampion – works great by the way – and along with my order they sent me a complimentary set of tyre levers. They looked the business and they’re always useful to have, I tucked them into my backpack and promptly forgot about them.
Then last week, in the dark and freezing cold of my commute home I punctured. I took the wheel off the bike, worked the tyre loose, all the way around the rim, popped one of the VeloChampion levers into the gap, leant a little weight onto it and … quite deftly and without whole heap of effort, snapped the tip off the lever.
I tried the second lever. Same result. I didn’t even bother with the third, reaching instead for an old pair of cheap, tyre levers from Halfords, or Poundland or some other less celebrated retailer. They worked as reliably as ever and I was soon underway again.
I offer this precautionary tale simply as a warning – if these had been the only tyre levers I’d been carrying I could have been stuck. If I’d been alone, out in the wilds of who knows where, it could have been even worse. I don’t know if I simply received a duff batch, but, if you’ve been gifted a set of VeloChampion tyre levers, or even worse, been tempted by their website proudly declaring: “Don’t be fooled by cheaper plastic levers! These are heavy duty Nylon levers” and paid good money for some, it might be best you check they don’t disintegrate before you head out onto the roads.
Laid low with a chest infection, I’d missed last Saturday’s ride, which was remarkable as G-Dawg reconnoitred the entire route by car the day before, just to ensure everywhere was as ice free and as safe as could be expected. That’s going well beyond the call of duty and smacks of a degree of professionalism that is a long way from our usual ramshackle organisation.
I was anxious not to miss another Saturday and spent most of the week keeping a wary eye on Storm Caroline as it developed out in the Atlantic and tracked steadily toward the British Isles. Come Friday, it looked like the North East was going to miss the worst of any snow, but temperatures were going to be as depressed as a Morrisey song cycle, threatening to drop below -4°C overnight. This would normally guarantee icy roads enough to give any right-minded cyclist pause, but although cold, the weather had been unusually dry and it looked like we would get away with it.
I doubled up on baselayers, gloves, socks, shorts and tights, pulled a gilet over my winter jacket, wrapped my face in a buff and hoped for the best.
At the bottom of the Heinous Hill I scattered a squabbling, squawking, squadron of seagulls, that had been swarming over some discarded takeaway and they swirled into the air like a raucous, feathered tornado. Did that mean the weather was especially bad out on the coast, or were they just opportunistic scavengers?
Down toward the river, my digital checkpoint read 8:19 and 0°C – hey, things were picking up already! Over the bridge, I turned east again, riding toward the sun that was just starting to lumber up over the horizon. A bright, burnished copper penny, it suffused the sky with a pleasant, warm apricot glow that was, quite simply a blatant lie. It was freezing and my toes and thumbs turned slowly numb before, even more slowly, feeling started to return.
At the meeting point I had difficulty recognising each new arrival, everyone was bundled into bulky clothing, with faces obscured by scarves and buffs and hats and we looked like the ragtag remnants of the 6th Army fleeing Stalingrad.
Main topics of conversation at the Meeting Point:
The Garrulous Kid finally completed his self-appointed mission of asking every single club member at least three times if they watched I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Every time he asked, he got the same response: – I don’t watch it and its rubbish – but still he persisted. I felt his head was going to explode with frustration, until he lucked onto a new gambit and started asking everyone if they were looking forward to the World Cup. At least with this new obsession he managed to find a handful willing to talk football with him and he’s got until at least until June next year to make sure he’s canvassed everyone’s opinion. At least half a dozen times.
Richard of Flanders arrived on his winter/commuter bike, complete with pannier rack that he explained wasn’t worth the effort of removing for the club run. I felt that ideally he should have slung a bag of sand over the back to help with rear wheel traction on the ice and snow. Maybe next time?
It was perhaps not the dumbest suggestion as he admitted dissatisfaction with the grip he was getting from his Continental Gatorskins – pretty much the same reason I gave up on them and switched to Schwalbe Durano’s a couple of years ago.
Seeking tyre advice from a dozen or so cyclists naturally led to more than a dozen different opinions – with Richard appearing to be leaning toward Schwalbe Marathon’s – super tough, with great protection, but if you do ever puncture, good luck seating that tyre back on the rim.
The Cow Ranger suggested the Schwalbe Marathon was the only tyre whose value appreciated the more miles you did on it. He felt you could even command a premium price for second-hand one after 4 or 5,000 miles of solid use, if there was just the tiniest, incremental bit of give in the wire bead.
Richard of Flanders had volunteered to lead the ride, but given the freezing conditions and unknown road surfaces, simply stuck with last week’s winning formula and the route that G-Dawg had devised and thoroughly reconnoitred. Everyone bought in and we were good to go.
There was still time though for a horrified G-Dawg to recoil from the sight of the Garrulous Kid’s filthy chain, that looked like it had recently been dredged up from deep within the Brea Tar Pits. The Garrulous Kid was adamant he cleaned his bike “regularly” and I guess once every 18 months does actually classify as regularly. His paltry and wholly unacceptable excuse this week … he’d run out of oil and now Steel’s, his LBS had closed, he didn’t have anywhere to buy more.
Meanwhile the Colossus expounded on the frighteningly corrosive qualities of citrus degreaser, which he likened to Alien blood, equally capable of quickly dissolving the nickel plating of your bike chain as eating its way through the deck of the space-freighter Nostromo.
With everyone keen not to hang around too long and start to chill in the freezing conditions, Richard of Flanders called us to order bang on 9.15 GMT (Garmin Muppet Time) and, a much bigger group than I expected, 14 hardy souls pushed off, clipped in and set out.
With impeccable timing, a flying Benedict tagged onto the back just as we swept onto the main road and a bit further on we picked up Two Trousers and Ironman, the Antipodean erstwhile FNG. Our numbers now swelled to a very respectable Heaven 17.
Dropping to the back alongside OGL, we had a chat about the dark enigma that is cycling club membership, the even darker, omerta-protected, murky-mystery of cycling club finances and the stunningly obtuse, impenetrable conundrum of cycling club governance. There was to be no Damescene revelation for me though and I’m still none the wiser.
Although bitterly cold, there seemed little ice to worry about and the only potential threat occurred when one young acolyte braked a little too sharply, overcome with religious fervour as we approached the Holiest of Holy shrines, the Gate … no sorry The Gate – the Blessed and Most Anointed Gate.
Successfully anointed in golden tribute, we shuffled the pack and trundled on once more.
I found myself riding beside Taffy Steve who complained the freewheel on his thrice-cursed winter bike seemed to be slipping and felt he’d have to take his wheels in for yet another visit to his LBS. His wheels have apparently spent more time in the workshop than actually on his bike.
As a group we hammered up the Quarry, swung right at the top and pressed on for the café. On the final stretch of road, we were all barrelling along together, waiting for moment when Taffy Steve rode up the outside, insulted someone’s manliness, and launched a hopeless attack off the front. It never happened though, everything was quiet and strangely civilized as we rolled down and through the Snake Bends without any overt outbreak of hostilities.
A bit of gravel surfing through the café car park even got me to the front of the queue and I’d been served and seated before word filtered through that Taffy Steve’s freehub had quit on him out on the road and no matter how furiously he pedalled he was going nowhere.
Aether and OGL had stopped to help out Taffy Steve, but with nothing to be done, finally it was left to Aether to push a freewheelin’ Taffy Steve to the café where he could phone home for pickup. I think that was the warmest and the most work Aether had done all day.
Main Topics of Conversation at the Coffee Stop:
I was telling the table the exact same thing had happened to me a few winters ago, when my freehub stopped engaging and it was probably in much the same spot. While staring futilely at the wheel, unreasonably willing it to start working again, a couple of old timers had ridden past and asked what the issue was. They helpfully suggested a sharp blow to the freehub could sometimes fix the problem, or failing that they suggested peeing on it!
“Did it work?” G-Dawg enquired.
“No, but it probably made him feel better,” The Colossus answered for me.
Benedict then conjured up an image of me thrashing my bike with a leafy branch, Basil Fawlty style and I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I felt like doing at the time and yes, it probably would have made me feel a whole lot better.
I checked up on the insulating properties of facial hair with the Colossus, who reported the main benefit of a beard wasn’t its protective qualities, but like nature’s Velcro, it was brilliant for holding his buff in place.
Meanwhile, Taffy Steve found the Missus was out, Christmas shopping in that Monument to Mammon, the Metro Centre, actually closer to my home than Taffy Steve’s idyllic coastal retreat. To make matters worse, she was in the small car and there was definitely no room for him and his ailing, thrice-cursed winter bike, even if she broke off from her shopping trip.
It was looking like an expensive taxi ride home, when Sneaky Pete volunteered to ride back to town, pick up his car and then return for Taffy Steve. What a what a hero, what a star, what a gent … Sneaky Pete Saves the Day!
Complimenting the Ironman on his smart, Trek winter bike, he revealed he’d bought it for a bargain price off fleaBay and from someone down south (i.e. somewhere in the wildlands beyond Washington). He told us how he’d negotiated the handover to take place in a supermarket car park, midway between his home and the sellers and he’d then gone to great lengths to describe the exact colour and type of car he’d be driving, what he looked like and what he’d be wearing on the day.
“And?…” he’d politely enquired of the seller, expecting her to reciprocate and provide him with a description he could use to easily spot her in a crowd.
“Oh,” she replied, “I’ll be the one holding a bike.”
“Dammit!” G-Dawg exclaimed, inadvertently catching the Garrulous Kid’s eye, “Don’t look, don’t look … No, too late, he’s coming over…”
Up sauntered the Garrulous Kid and we learned about the tragedy that has befallen his iPhone which he’d dropped and broken, forcing him to take his less portable, generally unwearable iPad with him to the gym. We naturally couldn’t resist wondering how that worked, whether he carried it in a safety harness around his chest like a parent with a baby carrier, or maybe in a backpack, or was it merely wrapped to the side of his head with long lengths of gaffer tape.
His rambles then degenerated into random stories about his schoolmates buying chickens, how cyclists (still) can’t possibly do chin-ups, osmosis, how various club members look like people they in no way, shape or form resemble and how finding oil for a bike chain was such a very, very difficult thing to do.
Halfway through this unbridled, verbal outpouring, Caracol, whose table the Garrulous Kid had originally come from, wandered past in search of a coffee refill.
“Did you encourage him to move seats?” G-Dawg demanded to know.
A smug, smiling, Caracol defended his actions, baldly stating that his table had done their twenty minutes and it was only fair someone else had a turn.
Gathering in the car park before setting off, Caracol then declared that all stones started out exactly the same size and shape, and it was only the process of erosion over millions and millions of years that led to the immense, almost infinite variety of forms we see today. Now, this sounded like sound scientific fact to me, but oddly we couldn’t persuade the Garrulous Kid it was true.
It was still early-ish, so a group of us decided on a longer route home and we followed as the Cow Ranger and Colossus set a high tempo over the hilly first part. I then pushed onto the front with G-Dawg, who was adamant the day was warming up and talked about stopping to unpeel a few layers, even as the sun appeared to have reached a particularly unimpressive zenith and was starting to slowly sink again.
Still, I made it home before dark and in decent shape. Let’s see what next week brings
YTD Totals: 7,118 km / 4,423 miles with 81,875 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 104 km / 65 miles with 1,114 metres of climbing
Ride Time:4 hours 19 minutes
Average Speed:24.1 km/h
Group size:20 riders
Weather in a word or two:Dry and windy
Early forecasts for this weekend promising wall-to-wall rain, encouraged a lively Facebook debate about mudguards, breaking winter bikes out of storage and making sure they’re fully prepped and ready for the club run and hard winter ahead. Someone even posted a very apposite illustration of fender zones, apparently the work of a Canadian designer and cyclists Jeff Werner:
Yet again though, the weather was to play tricks on us, a band of rain sweeping across the country overnight, but disappearing with the dawn. We were left with wet roads, lots of mud and gravel and puddles to negotiate but, most importantly, a day when no more rain was going to fall on our heads. As I headed out I even noticed big gaps in the broken cloud cover, limned in light with the edges suffused in a rose-gold glow from the rising sun. This was a direct contrast to last week’s unremitting and suffocating blanket of grey and it actually promised to be a pleasant day.
The weather was also relatively mild, so after an initial shock and once I started to pedal with some intent, the windproof jersey, long sleeve base layer, gloves, tights and winter boots became only marginally appropriate.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
I reached the meeting point to find the Garrulous Kid bounding between his brand-new (eh?) “winter-bike” and anyone who turned up, just so he could tell them he had a brand new winter bike.
In-between times he was fiddling around with the saddle, trying to get the position “just so” – or perhaps “just barely tolerable” – who knows?
“I’ve got a new bike,” he announced as Crazy Legs rolled up on his venerable winter fixie.
Crazy Legs looked across, semi-interested “It’s a Trek?”
With sharp censorious exhalation, Crazy Legs shook his head in dismay, “Not much precision German engineering there, mind …”
As if to prove the point, the Garrulous Kid continued to wrestle with the saddle he seemed to be giving him all sorts of fits and conniptions.
Our group had a moment of silence to mark the demise of local bike shop, M. Steels Cycles after 120 years of operation, with OGL reporting that current owner and local cycling legend, Joe Waugh, has now lost not only his livelihood and pension nest-egg, but possibly the family home too. Grim times for bike shops he concluded, drawing parallels with the not-so-recent-now spate of pub closures and concluding that the entire business seemed to be struggling. I guess the moral of the story is to enjoy your LBS while you still can, I think they’re fighting a losing battle and can’t see how they possibly hope to compete with the convenience, vast choice and squeezed margins of the Internet.
G-Dawg started describing the route for today in fine detail, “So, Brunton Lane, through Dinnington, up past the Cheese Farm…” I saw Zardoz sidling closer with barely concealed intent.
“Tranwell … well, Tranwell Village not the Woods, up the Mur de Mitford for those with the legs and inclination … there’s a turn-off beforehand if you want to avoid the climb … “
Zardoz now had a mischievous glint in his eye and his moustache was twitching in anticipation.
“Pigdon, that climb that’s up the turn before the Trench, on to Dyke Neuk, then we’ll run a bit of the Cyclone route in reverse, Meldon, Whalton …”
Zardoz was now standing directly in front of G-Dawg, almost bursting with excitement.
“A right turn to Belsay and then a slightly different, uphill finish, into the village and on to the café,” G-Dawg concluded, drawing in a big breath.
Zardoz took just a second to compose himself and acquire a mask of guileless sincerity. “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t listening, could you repeat all that again?” he enquired innocently.
Meanwhile, someone finally took pity on the Garrulous Kid and helped him fix his saddle.
Off we went then, 20 lads and lasses, pushing off, clipping in and riding out in one big group.
I started out chatting with Crazy Legs, who was revelling in the ultra-smooth and silent ride delivered by his fixie. He was planning nothing more than a gentle roll around today, prior to jetting off to Spain avec velo for some winter warmth. He admitted to feeling run down and strangely listless, in need of a break and he’ll hopefully return more enthused – after all someone has to keep us entertained with off-kilter and off-key singing.
The sudden appearance of the Plank on the front of the group suggested we would need to be stopping for a pee soon – well to be fair to him, we had been riding for at least 15 minutes already. It was actually the Garrulous Kid though who called it, with an impeccable Blockbusters/Bob Holness impersonation, “Can I have a P please, Bob?” – even though he’s probably much too young to get the reference.
We pulled over at the top of Bell’s Hill, where the Garrulous Kid (“I’m always hungry!”) was soon seen devouring a pack of sports jelly beans which he declared, “has got electrolyte!”
I fell in beside him as we pushed on and was rather astounded to find out that not only do we have a club run in Kenya, but the Garrulous Kid is almost unique among cyclists because only he can do pull ups. Honestly, I don’t know where this stuff comes from.
Trying to steer the conversation onto slightly less fantastical and outlandish grounds, I enquired about his new Trek.
“When did you get your bike?”
“What? Wait … so, you’ve had the bike for 3 days – say at least 84 hours and you didn’t think about making sure everything fits and is working, until 15 minutes before you’re due to use it on a club run.”
The range of lame excuses he then trotted out were astonishing … homework – (“You’re off school all of next week”) … a telephone call (“What, lasting 3 whole days?”) … I had to go to the gym (!!! speechless !!!) … “I needed an emergency pedicure.”
OK, he didn’t actually use that last one, but might as well have.
I told him he was a complete and utter pillock and I’d be laughing my socks off when his saddle collapsed half-way around the ride due to his hurried, gimcrack fixing and fiddling. The Garrulous Kid assured me it would never happen and besides, the Plank helped him secure the saddle the second time around – i.e. after the first time, when having finished and declared the job sorted, he merely brushed the top and it fell with the force and speed of a greased guillotine.
A bit further along and I caught up with Taffy Steve, who started telling me how the Garrulous Kid had got his new bike on Tuesday, but waited right up until Saturday morning to actually make sure it fitted and was road ready. When Taffy Steve called him out on it, the Garrulous Kid had then reportedly come up with all sorts of lame excuses as to why he didn’t have time to sort the bike out, leading Taffy Steve to conclude he was dealing with a complete and utter pillock.
Déjà vu all over again … or, groundhog day with bikes.
“I’ve just been having exactly the same conversation,” I told him.
Taffy Steve punched the air with delight, “Yeah! Grouches unite!”
“But still,” he warned, “I feel a great disturbance in the force …”
Crazy Legs and Brink slipped quietly away off the back as we pushed closer to the foot of the Mur de Mitford. Unlike G-Dawg, Crazy Legs had no intention of tackling this lump on his fixie today.
For some unknown reason I found myself pedalling along, whistling “Be kind to your web footed friends” – or if you want to be more formal (but much less fun) – The Stars and Stripes Forever.
“Have you taken over the mantle of unfailingly cheery, chirpy and chipper-chappie now Crazy Legs has left us?” Taffy Steve wondered.
We stopped again under the echoing, concrete viaduct that carried the thrumming, traffic laden, A1 Great North Road over our heads.
“Stopping!” G-Dawg called and I added a “Pping, ping, ing” for effect.
“Is everyone all right?”
“Right, ight ght…” I added.
“Ok, let’s go.”
“Go, go, oh!”
Sorry, childish I know, but I don’t get out much.
G-Dawg moved up to the front as we approached the Mur de Mitford, hoping to take the corner at speed and carry as much momentum onto the climb as possible. A lone cyclist had come down the hill and was stopped in the middle of the road at the bottom. He looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights as G-Dawg thundered toward him, wondering whether to stand his ground, push on, or just dive out of the way.
G-Dawg swooped inside the stationery cyclist and then jinked sharp left, as a descending car now appeared around the first bend. Robbed of speed he was now engaged in a battle royalé with his single massive gear, the gradient and gravity.
I spun up behind, following his slow-motion, measured flexing and making sure I left enough room in case he needed to zig and zag a little to keep the momentum going. He didn’t and with one final push he was over the summit of the hill and could relax. Well, as much as a fixie will allow you to relax.
As we pushed along the main road toward Netherwhitton a young buck came flailing past in the opposite direction.
“That’s one of the Monkey Butler Boy’s wrecking crew,” the Garrulous Kid informed me, “J.”
“What, first you want a P. and now you want a J? Do you think we’re playing hangman or something?”
“No, no. His name’s Jay – J-A-Y.”
I feigned incomprehension, which is probably at the point the Garrulous Kid decided he’d had enough of all the auld grouches for one day and declared he was taking his new bike off to test it on Middleton Bank.
Nobody thought to stop him and nobody thought to go with him, instead, the rest of us took the left before the Trench and started up the much more prosaically named, but we all agreed, seemingly tougher, Coldlaw Woods climb.
Working our way to Dyke Neuk we turned down the hill we usually scramble up, but any fun in the descent was lost when we had to slow for a horse and rider and allow another group of cyclists climbing upwards to ease past (the Tyneside Vagabonds club run, I think).
We then took a surprisingly sharp and leg-sapping climb up the “Meldon Massif” before Ovis (“oh, I’m going quite well at the moment, aren’t I?”) and Caracol ramped up the speed, encouraged by the faintest whiff of coffee and cake in the air. We arrived at the café via a road we seldom travel up, with no real sprint, just a general quickening of the pace that had everyone strung out and left us all overheated.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
G-Dawg wondered why it took so long for them to cut and serve a couple of slices of ham and egg pie and we decided they were probably using lasers, the like of which haven’t been seen since Goldfinger threatened to bisect James Bond with one. Like Goldfinger’s, we also assumed these lasers moved … i–n–c–r–e–d–b–l–y s–l–o–w–l–y … which is great in a film when you want to give the resourceful super-spy ample opportunity to escape, but not so good when you’re waiting for some ham and egg pie.
The Colossus was identified as the person with the most interest in odd, barely functional gadgets and most likely to have a laser pie cutter – an impression reinforced seconds later when he started to wax lyrical about pizza scissors – apparently a perfect, synergistic hybrid of cutter and server combined – and an absolute must for every middle-class home.
Reunited with us at the café, Crazy Legs complained it was actually too mild and wasn’t surprised we were all over-heating. It reminded him of the Christmas Jumper ride, where we’d suffered like fat Labradors left in a sun-blasted, parked car and we all learned that day that wool and synthetic yarns are no substitute for high-tech, high-performance sportswear.
Remembering last year’s elf costume, the Colossus promised something even better this year. Hopefully this isn’t going to be something that’s going to turn his saddle an unseemly shade of pink again. Even so, I’m a little bit worried that he’s already planning so far ahead.
Captain Black mentioned that Alfa Romeo had just released a new model called the Stelvio. My interest was momentarily piqued, until I learned that unlike the Holdsworth Stelvio, the car wasn’t available in an eye-wrenching combination of red, yellow and black. How disappointing.
And then the Garrulous Kid came in, having been picked up and escorted in by the early morning ride group. He shamelessly admitted he had, after all needed to stop, as his saddle had worked its way loose yet again.
So then, Auld Grouches 1, Garrulous Kid nil.
Talk of loose saddles reminded me of the I’d had to swerve around something lying supine in the middle of the road and been convinced I was going to hit some weird, hairless and defenceless mammal. This turned out to be the Prof’s saddle which he’d somehow managed to completely jettison while riding serenely along.
Someone asked casually if this was the same Prof who frequently build up his own bikes and whether such absent mindedness, or mechanical ineptness could ever be conducive to ride safety …
On the way back I noticed my chain started to grind and I found it was as dry as sticks. Looks like three days of commuting in the rain had washed out all the oil. Easily fixed, but it made for a truly unpleasant last few mile. The only sound from a bike I can imagine being worse is the grinding rasp of cruddy brake blocks eating through your wheel rims. Shudder.
I don’t know if it was the change to the heavier Peugeot, the pace and climbing of the ride, or accumulated fatigue from commuting, but I was utterly exhausted by the time I crawled up the Heinous Hill to home. Still, not bad for a first winter ride.
YTD Totals: 6,207 km / 3,857 miles with 70,748 metres of climbing
Club Run and Hill Climb, Saturday 14th October, 2017
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 112 km / 70 miles with 703 metres of climbing
Ride Time:4 hours 42 minutes
Average Speed:23.9 km/h
Group size:28 riders
Weather in a word or two:Dank, damp, dark and diluvial
Anyone with any sort of connection to a British cycling club will realise we are in the midst of hill climb season, a peculiarly national, highly traditional affectation, that encourages even those of advanced years and who really, really should know better, to bodily hurl themselves at short, steep hills to see how fast they can be ridden up.
The fact that this hurts like hell, puts immense strain on your heart and lungs and leaves you jelly-legged and coughing, spluttering and wheezing like a 40-a-day-smoker for a week afterwards is, apparently, all part of the appeal. In fact, British hill climbs are such a fixed, established tradition that they have their own National Championship and this has even inspired a book, the truly excellent A Corinthian Endeavour by Paul Jones.
Jones suggests it is the brutal simplicity of the hill climb that makes it so compelling. In his words you “ride uphill until your eyeballs explode and the fastest time wins – the paradox is that such a savage and unkempt experience can be so life-affirming.” Hmm, life-affirming? I’m not so sure.
Still, despite Mr. Jones’ claims, I would suggest any of our Continental, Trans-Atlantic or Antipodean cousins stumbling across a hill climb, would probably back away quickly, shaking their heads at the eccentric, nay, certifiably insane excesses of the British cyclist.
This was to be my 7th participation in the futile endeavour that was our club confined Hill Climb and I’ve said I’ll stop as soon as I can no longer improve on the time I set the previous year. Each time I think that day is coming closer – I’m not getting any younger and I can’t think of anything equipment-wise I could buy that would make me demonstrably quicker (well, aside from the obvious PED’s, or hidden motors.)
Still, I cling to the fact that I’m a year older, a year nearer to retirement, a year nearer being fully licenced to wear Farah trousers and dress exclusively in beige. Something has to give, surely. So I was semi-hopeful this year would be the last, results would finally show a deterioration and I’d be free of the curse.
As the day started to loom I had a lot weighing on the plus side and had started to marshal a veritable cornucopia of excuses lined up in anticipation of failure (or, do I actually mean success?)
Preparation hadn’t been ideal – a lengthy knee injury has hampered me recently, although sadly it seems to have cleared, so I can’t use that as an excuse not participate. I’ve also been plagued with random, seemingly migratory abdominal pains and been extensively poked and prodded and pricked and sampled and trialled and tested by my GP – all to no avail. I’m a medical conundrum.
Along with seemingly most of the medical community, I’m still in the dark as to the cause and awaiting further scans. An ECG did however come back clean, robbing me of another potential excuse for not riding, but not to worry, I’ve plenty of others…
My fair-weather commuter bike of choice, my shingle-shpeed Trek (I’ve no idea why I need to pronounce it in my head like Schteve McClaren impersonating a Dutchman speaking English – perhaps I’ll just call it the Shrek from now on) has been out of action with a seized rear wheel, while my winter bike, the Pug (Peugeot) has also been laid up in the LBS with the rear mech and hanger inextricably fused together. This still worked after a fashion, but made removing and replacing the rear wheel a tricky, almost Herculean task, so needed fixing before the inevitable puncture on a cold and wet winter ride in the middle of nowhere.
All this meant I’d done far less commuting in the past fortnight than I would have liked, (or, to be more precise, exactly none) but as of last weekend both bikes have been restored to full working order.
I’ve been suffering with a heavy cold all week, but remembered the patented Crazy Legs cure, as he swears by trying to ride through them, so I’d managed to commute on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with this in mind. Halfway through and I was already imagining the ensuing conversation in my head:
Me: “I had a cold last week and remembered how you always try to ride through them, so thought I’d give it a go.”
Crazy Legs: “How did that work out for you, then?”
Me: “Just made me feel worse.”
Crazy Legs: “Yeah, it’s always the same for me…”
Oddly though, it does seem to have helped, or maybe the cold has just run its natural course regardless of what I was doing. Anyway, by the Saturday I was starting to feel on the mend, although still plagued by a head full of intractable, irradiated, green snot. On a positive note, it did stir up some nostalgia, reminding me of the thick, viscous Gloy gum we used to have at school.
I had planned to take it easy on the Friday, but encountered what may have been the vanguard to Hurricane Ophelia and couldn’t resist the strong, strangely warm tailwind that whipped me into a drag race, daring me to see just how fast I could actually ride in to work. The “easy” return in reverse, then became a solid grind into blustery, strong headwinds. (Not that gurning my way up the Heinous Hill on the shingle-shpeed Shrek can ever be considered especially easy.)
Still, the weather looked like being just about perfect for Saturday, warm and dry, so a lack of grip and traction wasn’t going to assist me to underachieve, the wind would be a non-factor and it wasn’t going to be cold enough stop my legs, muscles and lungs performing at their usual modest levels. With the forecast looking so benign and amenable, I planned to ride, instead of drive across to the meeting point and even allowed myself an extra quarter of an hour so I could arrive relatively fresh.
Saturday morning revealed the weather forecast had been nothing but a malicious fantasy, the sky was bleakly and uniformly grey beneath a low cloud base that leeched an intermittent, sifting, and drifting mist of cold rain. All the while the temperature just barely struggled into double figures.
On went a pair of arm warmers, on went the long fingered gloves and then I pulled on a rain jacket and, leaving it as late as possible, reluctantly left the warmth of the house.
The weather had cleared a little by the time I got to the meeting point about an hour later, but it still wasn’t warm enough to persuade me to shuck and stow the jacket.
Main topics of conversation at the start:
G-Dawg was waiting at the meeting point on his fixie, a deliberate choice to ensure that, no matter how tempted, he wouldn’t be able to participate in the hill climb for fear of blowing out his knees. Instead G-Dawg had volunteered to help out as holder and had co-opted Crazy Legs to help as official starter and timekeeper. With OGL handling timings at the finish at the top of the hill, we were all set.
The Monkey Butler Boy was obviously taking the whole thing very seriously and rolled up in his club skinsuit and brandishing magnetic number holders. I joked that they looked heavier than safety pins, but apparently not, as they are infinitesimally lighter and that’s before you even consider their more advanced aerodynamic properties. Allegedly.
The Red Max wandered behind the Monkey Butler Boys bike and returned smiling contentedly. The Monkey Butler Boy looked all around, fear and real concern in his eyes.
“What’s he done? What did he just do to my bike?” he demanded to know. Luckily his paranoia was quickly diverted when, to his everlasting shame and horror, he discovered a perfectly formed, chain-ring tattoo branded on his calf. Amateur.
He was then taken to task for seriously over-lubing his chain. In demonstration, like the pickiest ever contestant on 4-in-a-Bed, G-Dawg ran a finger along his own, gleaming, shining silver links and showed us the faintest trace of clean oil forming a slight snail-trail across the pad of his finger. Repeating the process with the Monkey Butler Boy’s chain his finger came back stained with a thick, grungy, greasy smear that he ostentatiously wiped off on the grass. And then returned to wipe some more, as the filthy black grunge proved surprisingly sticky and indelible.
The meeting place has sprouted a new bin that seems to have grown up organically, straight through the pavement. Being deeply conservative and suspicious of anything new, we kept a good distance and eyed it warily as we waited to leave – delaying until the last possible minute to ensure we captured a full contingent of hill climb victims participants.
I rode out with Biden Fecht, chatting about this and that, everything and nothing, as we picked our way up through Dinnington, before swinging left to head down into the Tyne Valley. This was to be the plucky fellers first hill climb and the usual gallows humour had already started to infect him. He confessed to thinking about staging an accident to avoid the hill climb, if only he could find a suitable grassy knoll. I made him promise to make sure he brought me down if he found the right opportunity.
We dropped down through Wylam and started skirting the river, all bundling into a parking area at the bottom of the climb to regroup and for everyone to pull on jackets as the intensity of the rain increased and started to bounce back off the tarmac.
We picked our way along the north bank of the river, while I had a chat with the Hammer about creeping paranoia and the fear of being a dissident. Or, at least I think that’s what we were discussing, he’ll probably deny it under oath.
We paused at Stocksfield to regroup again and I took the opportunity to ride out onto the bridge to look over the parapet at the river, flowing fast and high beneath us. We crossed into more rain and took to the wide, but fast and busy road up through Riding Mill toward Corbridge and our chosen scene of torture, Prospect Hill.
The group splintered on a couple of rises and I found myself chasing across the gap onto the Red Max’s wheel, sitting just off centre of his rear wheel and trying to find some shelter from the wind, while avoiding the arc of cold water his tyre was kicking up into my face.
A sharp left and we were there, joining a throng of happily babbling kids, our Go-Ride section, who all looked delighted to be riding up a steep hill in the cold and pouring rain.
“Have we started yet?” G-Dawg enquired, before remembering he was the actual starter and no one was going without his say-so.
I signed on and press-ganged Captain Black into slapping my number on my back, “any-which-way.” He was surprisingly adept at any-which-way and I was soon ready to start. Unfortunately, I think I was number 22 or so, with all the young kids setting off first so we could get them out of the cold and the rain as quickly as possible – although they seemed to be coping with the grim weather conditions much better than all us grumbling, auld gits – they were excited and happy and hyper and it was brilliant.
It could have been a lot worse, I think last year we probably had over 40 starters, but the weather had obviously put a damper on things and deterred a lot of participants. Still it meant I had 20 minutes or so to hang around and get progressively colder and damper.
We stood chatting aimlessly for a while, talking the usual nonsense. The Natty Gnat outlined his strategy, which included waiting until “he could see the line” before changing up and charging at it. I suggested if he could see the line, he was probably doing it all wrong and he amended his strategy to” sensing the line” through the red-haze of hypoxia and tunnel-vision of hurt.
I checked that Jimmy Mac our Consultant Vascular and Endovascular Surgeon was ahead of me in the start list and would be at the top and able to help the old feller in crisis who would come staggering up behind him. I then realised his services might be in high demand and in any triage situation I was unlikely to be a priority. I could feel his eyes already coldly appraising me, with a look that seemed to suggest, “this one’s too old, far too troublesome and not worth saving.”
Meanwhile firm-favourite to win, broad shouldered, Steven Kruijswijk look-alike, Eon discovered his Di2 had given up the ghost and he’d be essentially reduced to riding the hill in just a single gear. What to me would have been the perfect excuse to scrub the ride was just seen as an additional challenge to Eon, who considered and discarded the idea of borrowing someone else’s bike and decided he just needed to choose his one gear very, very carefully.
With ten minutes to go I went for a short spin to try and warm up a little. Then the bike and pockets were stripped of any extraneous weight and finally and very, very reluctantly I slipped out of my rain jacket and took my place in line behind a visibly shivering Colossus.
With just a long, last, blood-chilling glower at Crazy Legs, our official timekeeper for the day (as if this was all his fault!) the Colossus roared away and I was next up. I nudged up to the line and was clamped in place by G-Dawg on one side and another big bloke I didn’t recognise on the other. I was now locked in, rock-solid, unwavering and utterly motionless.
“Thirty seconds,” Crazy Legs informed me brightly.
I clipped in and paused.
“Hold on! I’ve changed my mind, I want to get off.”
I could feel the unknown bloke wavering, his grip loosened just a little. G-Dawg though was unmoveable, implacable and his hold unrelenting, there was no escape, I wasn’t going anywhere…
Crazy Legs then began a very fine impersonation of Ted Rodgers doing the 3-2-1 countdown, or maybe it was that Phones-4-U thing. Either way I’m not sure the UCI would have approved and his struggles would later find him practicing his manual dexterity in the café. In his defence, I have to say that both the double-digit and single-finger salute he greeted my gentle ribbing with were delivered with suitable aplomb and professionalism.
“5-4-3-2-1 – go, go, go!”
Shit! Shit! Shit! I was released, managed not to fall over and headed for the bottom of the first ramp, legs quickly whirring up to speed
I was determined not to bury myself too deeply on the first corner, despite the encouragement of a group of “cycling moms” who’d stayed behind to add their support to the senior riders with much shouting and the shaking of home-made rattles. Great stuff, thanks ladies.
I exited the first corner in good order, distractedly noting that at some point I’d actually managed to stop shivering. Unfortunately, I think I’d also been a little too relaxed and I wasn’t carrying enough momentum with me. The speed began to drop and I did what I usually do, leapt out of the saddle and tried to add a little oomph.
Nope, not happening, not today…
The rear wheel slipped and slid with no traction, the ground was much too wet and too greasy for a sudden application of power. Three times the wheel spun ineffectively as I teetered on the edge of disaster, before it finally bit and I was back in control and climbing upwards again.
Now I started to notice how bad the road actually was, the surface was rough, cracked and pitted with potholes, while the corners were strewn with dead leaves and gravel and, just outside a new construction site, liberally daubed with slippery mud.
I was now concentrating on trying to pick a clean line, while running my chain up the cassette, trying to find the right gear that would let me accelerate while staying rooted firmly to the saddle. I already knew this wasn’t going to be a good time but pressed on, legs burning, lungs strangely okay and breathing not quite as distressed as usual.
As the road dug eastwards, I glanced over the dry stone wall to my left and saw the murky, misty clouds in the valley slowly burning off, lifting and blowing away as the sun lanced through in bright columns. I think I might have appreciated the sight for at least a nano-second, before it was back to the task in hand and I was threading my way around a gravel moraine, skirting the edge of an elongated crevasse and pushing my way around one more corner.
I rose out of the saddle a few times, but far more circumspectly now, trying to gradually add power without losing grip, working constantly upward. The tyres were still slipping a little, but it was far more controlled and through it I was able to slowly pile on a little more speed.
I rounded the final bend, squinting toward where a hazy collection of people outlined in bright sunlight marked the finish. I crashed back down the cassette, willed my legs to maintain the same cadence and closed quickly, throwing the bike over the line.
I hung over the frame for a minute or two trying to control my ragged breathing, before turning and looking back down the road. Shattered riders and discarded bikes were scattered on the grass verges like a column of refugees after a strafing attack by dive bombers.
I slowly made my way back to the finish line, congratulating Biden Fecht on a good ride and in time to cheer on Buster, the Monkey Butler Boy and, last man up, the Garrulous Kid, all of whom did great rides.
Me? I came home in 6:24, that’s 23 seconds down on the previous year. I am officially no longer getting any faster.
Jimmy Cornfeed helped me unpin my number and I picked my way back down the hill now there were no more contestants racing up it. At the bottom I met up with G-Dawg, Crazy Legs and others, as we set out to find a café – hopefully in Corbridge, but definitely anywhere other than Brockbushes, where we have been made to feel especially unwelcome in the past few years.
We failed to locate a café rolling through Corbridge and set out in a wide loop around the town, before heading to a place the Red Max had pinpointed as a potential stop. As we pressed on into the wilderness and seemingly angling North toward the border, Biden Fecht cheered me up by suggesting that if all else failed he knew of a good café in Jedburgh. Then as we pressed on further with no relief in sight, he concluded there was always our usual stop at Belsay.
This slight detour turned into a bit of a grind, as the rain started falling again. Crazy Legs and G-Dawg had set off at a pace designed to restore some circulation and warmth to their much beleaguered bodies. They must have had it even worse than the participants, having stood around from start to finish of the event, without the benefit of even the most ineffectual warm up, or the opportunity to actually ride the hill.
So, while they pressed on, full of energy and desperate to warm up, I found my legs drained of any strength and on a long, dragging climb drifted slowly off the back of the group. On we pushed, seemingly with a final destination in mind, but finally regrouped so I could find a bit of shelter in the wheels and hang on grimly.
“A right turn, somewhere along here …” G-Dawg informed us.
We turned in, Biden Fecht read the sign as Valium Farm, but that was only wishful thinking on his part – the great horde of unwashed cyclists had finally descended on the otherwise peaceful and sedentary Vallum Farm Tea Rooms.
Main conversations at the coffee shop:
The Garrulous Kid was found wandering around asking people the quickest way home as he had an appointment with his lah-di-dah hairdressers for another fresh trim. Earlier, G-Dawg had patiently explained how he could retrace his steps back, crossing the river at Stocksfield.
“You know where that is, don’t you?”
The Garrulous Kid just looked blank.
“Wylam? You know Wylam and how to get back from there?”
The Kid still looked blank.
He’d asked me the quickest way to get home and I unhelpfully suggested he cadge a lift back with someone who’d brought a car. In retrospect, perhaps it was the most sensible suggestion he’d got all day.
Now, the Red Max, who seemed to be the only one who actually knew where we were, told him to turn left out the farm, then first right and then right again and he’d be on the road to Stamfordham.
The Kid still looked blank, but left regardless. We still have no idea if he’s actually made it home yet, let alone in time for his salon appointment.
I got my time for the hill climb – significantly slower than last year. I said I would stop once my time started to regress, so “never again!” I vowed to anyone who cared to listen.
The possibility of transporting a set of rollers up to the start of the hill climb for a more considered warm up was discussed. Caracol was surprised the Red Max hadn’t pulled a set out of his “bag of tricks” while G-Dawg wanted to see someone riding with a set of rollers strapped to their back. In his absence, we all volunteered the Garrulous Kid to transport them to the bottom of the hill climb for us next year.
Crazy Legs pondered whether you couldn’t make some exceedingly narrow, portable rollers and wondered how narrow they could be made before they became unusable.
OGL left, returned to tell us he’d been harangued by an old harridan who objected to cyclists clogging up the country lanes (for once he didn’t seem keen to acknowledge any form of leadership over our ranks). He left again, then returned realising he hadn’t paid (important in case we wish to return to this venue next year, hopefully without circumnavigating the whole of the Tyne Valley to get there) and then, he finally left for good.
As we packed up and made to follow, Crazy Legs congratulated the Red Max on finding an even more expensive café than our usual haunt. The Colossus tried to wipe down his chair and I followed suit, finding a cold, damp and gritty film had permeated the seat.
“Yeuk!” I observed.
“Yep,” the Colossus agreed, I don’t like sitting in that, I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to.”
Hmm, perhaps we won’t be welcome back here next year after all, even if we all remembered to pay our bills.
We followed the Red Max out into the dank and dark day, as he followed the directions he’d given the Garrulous Kid, turning left, then right, then right again. True to his word (I know, I checked the map – but only after the event) we were now running just south of Stamfordham, but the road we were on was slick with mud and grit and who knows what else.
“Don’t ever let my Dad choose the route again,” the Monkey Butler Boy protested as he bounced and rattled along the smashed up surface and his bike, shoes and new skinsuit developed a thick coating of filth. I felt even worse for the Natty Gnat on his all-white bike and predominantly white University of Newcastle cycling kit. I must admit I don’t recall ever getting the bike this filthy and it took 3 full buckets of car shampoo to get it clean again.
A little further on and we slowed for three horses and riders, at the same time as a car approached from the opposite direction. One of the horses baulked, crabbing sideways, before turning a full 180° and trotting back past us, the rider wearing a rueful grin and trying to pretend that he was still the one in charge. As we rode past we were somewhat surprised to find the riders all dressed in tweeds and ties and formal shirts, despite the foul weather. Skinsuits be damned, we vowed we’d have to organise our own Gentleman’s club run in woollen plus fours, knitted ties, brogues and flat caps.
Aware that time was pressing on and I was already late getting back, I saw a sign for Stocksfield at the next junction, knew it was south of the river, so split with the group for (hopefully) a more direct route home. I soon found myself passing the familiar roads around Whittledene Reservoir and having to track west to find a place to cross the A69, before heading east again.
The usually buzzing A69 dual carriageway was eerily quiet and I rode quickly across without having to pause. It wasn’t long before I was dropping down into the Tyne Valley again, crossing the river and heading home.
That was a long day, over 70 miles and with lots of hills, despite the usual rain foreshortened climbing metres on my Garmin. This somehow recorded a total less than the previous year, when I’d driven across to the meeting point and hadn’t climbed in and out of the Tyne Valley five times, or tacked the Heinous Hill onto the end of my ride.
So another year and another hill climb ticked off. Now I’ve had time to reflect and recover, will I do it again? I’m not ruling it completely out, but won’t feel as compelled to keep the streak going. So if the weather isn’t filthy, rotten, dirty, cold and wet and I’m relatively fit I might line up. If not, I’ll hopefully be able to shrug, give the thing a miss and not feel any remorse.
YTD Totals: 6,053 km / 3,761 miles with 68.935 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 103 km / 64 miles with 986 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 12 minutes
Average Speed: 24.5 km/h
Group size: 28 riders, 2 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Pleasantly cool with late showers
An extended period of warmer, dry weather saw a shuffling of the hierarchy in the Sur La Jante stable … or to be more accurate and less prosaic … the dingy, old bike shed. As a result, the ratbag mountain bike was relegated to the very darkest recesses, where it will sit and moulder until I can work up some enthusiasm for spending time and money on its sorry old carcase, or until the return of winter weather sees it dragged once more, limping and disabled into reluctant use.
To be honest it needs some real TLC as its slowly disintegrating round me. It’s already lost 70% of its functionality now, with only 8 of the original 27 gears in working order. The headset rattles like a bag of drop-forged spanners, while the 1½ functioning brakes have been possessed by a shrill and malevolent banshee. This evil spirit emits occasional and erratic blood-curdling screeches, like a rabid, feral cat being slowly dipped in boiling water.
Tucked in beside the MTB, the Pug got a good clean, wax and oil, before being prescribed bed-rest and set on reserve for emergency purposes only. Hopefully I won’t have to think about it again until at least October, when I have plans to upgrade most of the groupset from an awkward blend of Tiagra and Sora, to a more refined Shimano 105.
Out from its hiding place, the single-speed Trek has been shod with a new set of (Vittoria, naturally) tyres and last week it once again became the commuting bike of choice. And … from the other side of the shed … from its specially reserved space of splendid isolation, rising like lions after slumber, the Holdsworth has once again been unchained and unleashed.
The decision has been made and will not be retracted, best bikes are being broken out up and down the country and there is to be no turning back. Even the threat of rain showers later on Saturday wasn’t going to change anything.
Friday night saw me then, prepping my old friend Reg for Saturday’s ride, his first outing of the year. I’ve some new tyres (with added graphene!) to slap on at some point, but to be honest last years Corsa’s still looked to have plenty of life left in them, so that particular change can wait a while.
Saturday morning saw me dropping down the Heinous Hill faster and more assured than I had at any other time this year, revelling in pure speed, how the bike felt solidly planted and the turbo-charged tick-tick-ticking of the freewheel. I’d forgotten just how much fun this cycling lark could be.
Everything just seemed tighter and more refined, the brakes bit immediately and effectively, while gear changes were crisp and flowed smoothly. The transition was relatively smooth too, as I only once found myself reaching for a non-existent thumb-shifter.
Pushing out onto along the valley floor, the verges were scattered with the bright orange,yellow, purple and white studs of budding young tulips. It certainly feels like spring is just around the corner and it was beginning to look that way too.
A brief halt at the traffic lights on the bridge gave me the chance to watch the rowing club warming up with a serious of half-hearted shuttle-runs. There were at least 40 of them, several crews were already out on the water and there’s yet another club on the far bank. When did rowing get so popular?
Back underway, I found myself once again negotiating a serious of roadworks and temporary traffic lights, but seeming to catch my urgent need to maintain forward motion, this time I seemed to hit every one at just the right time and blew through them without delay, arriving at our meeting point in good time and in good order.
Main topics of conversation at the start:
As I pulled up in a bright blaze of vile red, poisonous black and bilious yellow, G-Dawg solemnly informed us that OGL had already issued a doom-laden proclamation. Apparently we would be engulfed by rain of biblical proportions should we dare to spurn the will of the weather gods and try riding anything but winter bikes today.
We all naturally assumed the worst and that Horner’s Theorem™ would apply anyway. This rule irrefutably proves a direct relationship between the number of shiny, posh and clean carbon bikes out on a spring or autumn morning and the number of crap-covered farm tracks, pothole and gravel strewn roads, gates and cattle grids OGL will “accidently” try to include in our route.
Jimmy Mac looked to be the only one still out on his winter bike – apparently, his good wheels had been mysteriously detained in OGL’s workshop where they’d only gone for a quick service and tune up. I suspected this was just a ruse to ensure OGL wasn’t the only one out on his winter bike. Of course he announced they were now ready to pick up, but … oops … not in time for today’s ride.
We had an FNG in the shape of a new arrival to the North East, recently transplanted from his native Devon and looking for a good club to join. I’m not sure how he wound up with us…
An ex-racer, he would later find a kindred spirit in beZ and the pair would eventually leave us tootling, old guys and gals, to go try and rip each other’s legs off. In the meantime, he took the time to introduce himself to everyone, complete with a firm, manly handshake. A good first impression, though I’ll be hugely impressed if he can attach more than a handful of names to an array of too similar, anonymous looking, helmet encased, sunglasses wearing bike jockey’s.
Grover wheeled up for his first ride of the year, much like the budding tulips, a truly profound indication that spring is just around the corner. Recovering from our mild surprise and rubbing our eyes to make sure it wasn’t just a miradjee, someone wondered if Szell might be next up, although it was quickly agreed we’d have to wait another month or two before the emergence of this particularly exotic butterfly from its winter chrysalis.
There was a long and involved discussion about Jess Varnish and the state of our national cycling federation, apparently beleaguered amidst a sea of troubles. An expectedly myopic OGL wouldn’t have a word said against British Cycling, while Taffy Steve reasoned that if you employed a straight-talking, foul-mouthed, Australian bully for a coach, you should know exactly what you’re going to get. Meanwhile, Tom-Tom suggested bullying and sexism had no place within any professional institution, least of all the highly public, elite end of sport.
I didn’t have anything sensible to add to the discussion, but felt compelled to mention Jess Varnish was an obvious talent and she had a real good finish on her.
“Yes, satin semi-gloss.” Taffy Steve agreed, while the Prof just looked on befuddled and wondered what the hell we could possibly be talking about.
Our 9:15 Garmin Time start was somewhat delayed by OGL collecting club membership fees, which prompted the Prof to ponder what actually happened to the princely payments our president procured.
“You might as well take a big stick and go and stir up a hornets nest.” G-Dawg suggested in the shocked silence that followed the question.
A bumper pack of 28 lads and lasses were soon pushing off, clipping in and riding out in two long snaking lines.
I spent time sitting toward the back of the pack with Sneaky Pete as we rolled out, Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs shouldering the burden of the work on the front as we clambered out into the countryside via Berwick Hill.
Rotations off the front and a brief stop for a mechanical and then for the Prof to pee, saw the order change and I spent some time chatting with Grover (who was definitely not enjoying his first ride since November) and then the BFG.
At some point OGL led us out briefly out onto the A696, two lanes of screaming death metal, notorious for speeding and dodgy over-taking manouvres. We all got stacked up at a junction waiting to cross against the fast moving, high volume traffic heading north on what is, after all a major route up to Scotland. We stood there far too long, all crowded together and feeling vulnerable to anything travelling south with too much pace or not enough attention, before managing to effect an exit.
“Great,” Taffy Steve quipped, “Looks like Punishment Ride Number 8.”
That’s what you get for riding your best bike without permission, but the weather had been so fine for the past week that we failed to find any dodgy, dirty roads. Still, you can’t say we/he didn’t try.
At one point, I caught up with Keel, who is enduring life in a call-centre while he waits for his chosen industry to pick itself out of a slump to get his career back on track. He’s still plumbing the depths to try and find the lowest base level of human benevolence, empathy, compassion and understanding. This week’s candidate for Caller of the Year had excused their ignorance and rudeness by suggesting, “I can’t help it that I’m upper class and you’re working class.”
Next up was Cowin’ Bovril who revealed he’s planning a trip to the Alps with Carlton in June. Funny he should say that …
The road finally spat us out at the bottom of Middleton Bank, with Crazy Legs turning left, away from the climb for a slightly longer run to the café, simply because it’s a direction he’d never taken before. Just as he swung away, Sneaky Pete sneaked off after him, while I hesitated, before deciding not to follow.
Hitting the steepest ramps of the climb, I then found myself at the back and boxed in as the BFG drove a small group off the front. In giving chase, Tom-Tom opened up a small gap which I nipped through and I dropped onto his wheel as he passed a struggling Taffy Steve, caught in an unequal fight with both the slope and a rubbing tyre.
As the road straightened, I swung past Tom-Tom and dragged him across the gap to the front runners. Over the top, there was to be no regrouping after the climb this week, both the BFG and Keel working hard to push the pace up on the front as we closed on the café. I drifted to the back of the group and followed the wheels as we swooped down through Milestone Woods and up the first and steepest of the rollers.
Here the BFG popped, swung over and was swept away. Half-way up the final climb, Keel also blew, G-Dawg, Jimmy Mac and Biden Fecht romped away to contest the sprint, while I tusselled wheel to wheel with the Prof for the minor places.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
G-Dawg and Crazy Legs have organised an off-road , mountain bike excursion around Kielder next Saturday. Sounds like fun, but I suspect any kind of route more challenging than a riverside path is likely to shake my mountain bike to destruction. Besides this, it’s much too soon after re-discovering the joy of riding the Holdsworth again, so I had to pass.
Completely independent of Carlton and Cowin’ Bovril, Crazy Legs has also arranged a trip to France, where he’ll re-enact Hannibal’s epic journey across the Alps. Captain Black, Goose and me have all volunteered for the role of the elephants, reasoning we probably climb like enormous, lumpen pachyderms anyway.
We fly to Geneva on the weekend of the Cyclone, with the idea of driving to France and setting up a base camp within striking distance of Alpe d’Huez, the Galibier, Col de la Bonette, Col d’Izoard and all those other legendary climbs that cyclists can usually only dream of. That should keep us well occupied for 3 or 4 days.
We represent then … drum roll please … “The 4 Riders of the Alps Bucket-List” – although my carefully pre-prepared blerg title, has been somewhat ruined as Crazy Legs’ brother-in-law, or aunties, uncles, nephew’s son, or some such distant relative will also join us.
The BFG too, might venture out, if the timings coincide with his human phases of the moon and even the elusive, semi-legendary recluse, Hammer has threatened to join us, although I understand he’ll be flying out by private jet and will probably take up residence on his super-yacht in Monaco for the duration.
While there’s no contest in a choice between the Alps and the Cyclone, the trip does mean I’ll miss the annual slug fest around Northumberland for the first time since 2010. This not only breaks a 6 year tradition, but means there’s a sportive-sized hole in my annual schedule, which the talk at Saturday suggested could be filled by a return to the Wooler Wheel. There seems to be a lot of club interest in the ride, which I haven’t done for a couple of years, so it’s definitely-maybe a possibility.
Captain Black also helpfully reminded me of the post-ride grub the organisers provide, which is, I have to admit a real incentive and could yet sway my decision.
Crazy Legs wandered up in his role of Hannibal to discuss trip arrangements, picked up Princess Fiona’s Oakley’s by mistake and made to wander away. Called to account, he did have the excuse that her prize, expensive Oakley’s were identical in absolutely every way to his knock-off, uber-cheap Fauxley’s. He placed both pairs side by side to prove his point, but luckily didn’t shuffle them around and ask us to pick out the genuine article.
The Prof exulted in his original Ray Ban X-Rays, which he felt were old enough to be seen as not only a true classic, but apparently wholly original and positively vintage.
“And you’ve only ever had to replace the lenses 13 times and the frames 6 times.” Captain Black quipped.
With OGL dithering over another coffee, most of us were done and dusted and so we split the group and left.
On the way back I was chatting to Taffy Steve about local sports “heroes” – inevitably ours are cerebrally-challenged ex-footballers of dubious abilities, who manage to get continuous media work despite relying on the most mundane prognostications, unedifying insight and some truly banal cliché’s.
I told him how one famous son of Tyneside had rang the University demanding a place for his daughter and, on being told her qualifications simply weren’t good enough, had actually resorted to the cheesy old, “Do you not know who I am?”
(Of course, I always enjoyed the (probably) apocryphal story of the outraged airline passenger who used the same, “Do you have any idea who I am?” line, only for the ticket agent to fire up the public address and loudly announce, “We have a passenger here who can’t remember who he is. If anyone can help him, please come to gate 17.”)
I also had a laugh at Chris Waddle who it seems has singularly failed to master the word “penalty.”
“That’s a stone-wall pelanty!” he’ll shout excitedly down the radio, while I shake my head and sigh. No Chris, it’s not.
“That is good though,” Taffy Steve mused, “He can’t pronounce penalties and he can’t take them either.” Ooph!
As we made our way down Berwick Hill, the driver of a large white panel van we’d obviously delayed on his massively important journey for the briefest of nano-seconds, decided we didn’t have any right to be on the road. To make his point he decided it would be a good idea to overtake, pull sharply in front of us and then execute an exemplary emergency stop, in the hope that we would all pile into the back of his van and die in a horrible, mangled heap.
Sadly for him, our brakes and reflexes were more than adequate to cope with this utterly ridiculous and dangerous stunt and we all stopped admirably and without incident, albeit there was a fair bit of shouting.
Taffy Steve pulled up alongside the open window of the still rocking van to calmly inform the moronic driver that he’d been a very naughty man indeed and suggested we had 20 witnesses to a very clear case of dangerous driving, before riding nonchalantly away. These pronouncements seemed to leave the loon gibbering, spluttering and chittering incoherently in outraged apoplexy, while we all filed past and continued our ride. Complete and utter arse hat.
Exiting the Mad Mile, I latched onto the BFG’s wheel as his new lair lies a little way along my route home and so I enjoyed a bit of company for the first quarter of a mile or so. Then I was off, riding solo and still thoroughly enjoying myself.
Crossing the river, I was approaching a supermarket entrance, and noticed a car with Probationary driver plates waiting to pull out onto the road, piloted by a young, female. Feeling sure she’d noticed the vulnerable cyclist, or at least the line of cars stacked closely on my rear wheel, I gave it no further thought, until she pulled out directly in front of me.
I had no choice but to swerve into the opposite lane, which was thankfully empty, while wildly gesticulating with a universal “WTF” waving of my arms, which she studiously ignored. I passed down the left-hand side of the car as she slowed to turn immediately right, banging on the side-panel to try and get her attention and at least have her acknowledge I existed. Eyes fixed very firmly straight-ahead, there wasn’t even a flicker that she’d done something irrefutably stupid and wrong, before she turned the wheel and drove blithely away.
Y’gads, they’re everywhere! But, despite it all, malicious, ignorant or simply inattentive, asinine drivers failed to puncture my good mood. I can’t wait for next weekend and the chance to do it all again.
YTD Totals: 1,228 km / 763 miles with 13,060 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 101 km / 63 miles with 1,015 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 21 minutes
Average Speed: 23.2 km/h
Group size: 18 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Wet and dry
The weather forecast on Friday night was predicting heavy rain throughout Saturday, which was due to last at least until late in the afternoon. Someone must have given the weather systems the bums rush though, as I awoke to find all the rain had seemingly swept right over us during the night.
Consequently, things were looking much, much better than expected, first thing Saturday morning. The problem was though that the rain due to fall in the eight or so hours of daylight had been compressed into a tiny window of a just a few pre-dawn hours. While the sky remained flat, grey and dull and we would escape all but the briefest of showers, the concentrated rainfall seemed to have swollen every watercourse, universally overwhelmed drainage and left the ground thoroughly sodden and saturated.
Our day then was to be punctuated by several notable, unpredictably placed encounters with huge lakes and lagoons of standing water that barred our course from verge to verge and left us no choice but to ford our way carefully through them, slowly, in single-file while hoping their murky, watery depths hid no potholes.
My ride across to the meeting place had proven unremarkable, except for a cluster of un-manned roadworks and temporary traffic lights that seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere. There were enough of these to delay me by a good five minutes, while every red light gave me yet another opportunity to wonder just where the accompanying workmen were.
Main topics of conversation at the start:
Queries about my debilitating malady last week led to discussions about the best way to slack off work, with the main conundrum being how you could periodically simulate some kind of activity and tap a computer key to stop a screen-saver kicking in and the network connection timing out. Someone suggested perhaps one of those dippy, drinking bird novelties, poised carefully over your keyboard might work …
A group from the club have signed up for the Tour of Ayrshire Gran Fondo in April, a qualifying event for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships. Sadly, their hopes of competing as a team have been dashed by the realisation that while they have managed one entrant in each of the age categories, they actually only have one entrant in each of the age categories – so, about as useful as a Venn diagram where none of the quadrants overlap then.
Jimmy Mac suggested the Prof was old enough to be his dad and wondered just how tired he got filling in insurance forms online. In fact, he wondered if, by the time the Prof had managed to scroll all the way down to his birth year, whether he would be suffering from some form of devastating repetitive strain injury to his aged, mouse-working fingers and would perhaps have even forgotten what he was scrolling down to find in the first place.
Spiralling out from this conversation, we learned that G-Dawg had just managed to squeeze his creation date into the 1950’s – something I was amazed to discover as I was unaware cybernetic engineering had been quite so advanced, even late into that decade. “You’re the same age as Sputnik.” Taffy Steve gleefully informed him.
beZ arrived on a newly acquired old Trek that he’d adopted as his winter bike and took some grief from OGL who suggested the stack height above the stem was a potential hazard to his testicles. “Story number#6, please.” I muttered sotto voce to G-Dawg, expecting OGL to dial up the hoary old tale of how he ripped his scrotum open on a stem bolt when he crashed at a track meet. Surprisingly though, memory synapses failed to fire correctly and we were spared the full horror of hearing this particularly gruesome tale. Again.
Meanwhile, Taffy Steve tried to decide if beZ’s Trek was the same model as Szell had been riding, before he upgraded to his “fat lad’s bike.” He tried turning his back on beZ and occasionally glancing briefly over his shoulder, reasoning that this was how he most often saw Szell’s bike, something he said he hadn’t really had a chance to study before, because you got such a pain in the neck from constantly looking back at it!
“Is it time yet?” Crazy Legs enquired enthusiastically
“It’s only 9:14, official Garmin Time.” I assured him.
“But, you could at least start making a move toward your bike.” Taffy Steve encouraged.
“Gentlemen, start your motors.” G-Dawg intoned and as we prepped for the off, we tried to work out the purpose of that mad scramble to the cars at the start of Le Mans, as it obviously had no bearing on the outcome of the race.
We decided its sole purpose was to create the maximum amount of danger, mayhem and confusion possible and perhaps it’s something that Formula 1 should adopt to spice things up a bit. Along with Son of G-Dawg, I wanted to take this further and have all the pit lane berths unassigned, so cars had to turn into the first space available and the crews had to leg it down the pit lane carrying all their kit and spares. Perhaps we could actually make Formula 1 interesting and exciting again.
With the late addition of a rapidly vectoring in Ovis, 18 of us pushed off, clipped in and rode out for our advanced lessons in water dowsing.
All was progressing smoothly, until we turned off for the Cheese Farm, rounded a corner and were confronted by a mighty puddle, a road spanning lake, an inland lagoon. This mere of muddy brown waters, of indeterminate length and depth – stretched up around the next corner and out of sight.
We picked our way slowly and carefully through this unforeseen obstacle, slowly and in single file, watching as the water began to lap up over bottom brackets and wheel hubs, hoping it would rise no further and we’d avoid any unforeseen potholes or hidden debris luring in the murky depths.
Behind there was loud chorus of disgusted groans as cold water quickly washed through overshoes, shoes and socks, while those of us up ahead, smug and still dry in our winter boots enjoyed just a little bit of schadenfreude. Taffy Steve decided that while he might be riding a thrice-cursed winter bike he could at least enjoy his thrice-praised GoreTex boots and their stout protection from cold wet feet.
At the same time, we also decided that in tribute to many of our rides traversing the outer reaches of Northumberland, we should re-name this blog a blerg, in favour of a local idiom, particularly hoard around Eshington (aka Ashington):
Alert of ferk there know a beut a bared derg that jumped up at a deft kerb, making him furl into a hurl where he boast his fierce. (Rough translation: “A great number of people are aware of a story regarding a misbehaving pet canine that jumped up at a silly young boy scout, causing him to stumble into a cavity and injure his countenance.”)
Clear of the flooding, we were painfully, slowly and very, very cautiously overtaken by large silver 4 x 4, even as we singled-out and waved it through with the road ahead completely clear and empty. As it passed, someone mentioned how unusual it was to find cars on this stretch of road and wondered where they might be heading.
We caught up with the car perched in the middle of the road and halfway across the next junction, where its occupants, two woolly haired, perplexed looking grannies, took time off from myopically turning their map book this way and that to favour us with a sheepish grin. We didn’t know where they were going and I guess they didn’t either.
If anything, the roads appeared to be even more scarred, pot-holed and woe-begotten than we were used to, eliciting a strange, Tourette’s style conversation between OGL and his riding companion: “I use Ultegra wheels … Pots! … during winter, they’ve got … Pots! … cup and cone bearings in … Pots! … the hubs, so you can … Pots! … service them easily.”
A clamber up a hill and then sudden slowing suggested the front of our group had encountered yet another obstacle on the road ahead. This time it wasn’t a flood, but an enormous swan, that slowly unfurled itself, shook out its majestic wings to their full extent and clambered slowly upwards into the air. For several seconds it hung impressively above us, white and bright and magnificent against the grey sky, before tipping over to wheel away from the road.
We pressed on, sometimes slaloming around puddles and occasionally, when there was no way to avoid them, slowing to pick our way carefully through the middle. Several of the unbooted riders started unclipping, lifting their feet off the pedals and out of the water while they freewheeled across, saving their feet from another dousing. Luckily, everyone made it through safely and carrying enough momentum to reach dry road at the other side.
As we started the climb up to Dyke Neuk, the Big Yin punctured and with nowhere for us to stop safely nearby, he dropped off the back while we pushed on over the crest of the hill before pulling to the side of the road to wait. From this vantage point, we had a grandstand view of the next road-spanning puddle and could watch the way various drivers tackled it. A hot hatch blatted past at ridiculously high speed and we jeered as brake lights flared and he slowed to a mincing crawl to pick his way carefully through the water.
Then a large Transit van serving as a taxi ripped through at high speed, flinging a massive bow wave over the hedgerows and for a brief instant leaving a thin isthmus of dry road through the middle of the puddle, before the water came surging back in again.
Crazy Legs felt that if you got the timing right, you could have followed the taxi through the puddle, “like Mose’s parting the Red Sea” and kept yourself perfectly dry. Luckily, he didn’t try to attempt this, but was intrigued enough to ride down to have a closer look at this latest flood while we waited.
OGL decided he was getting too cold hanging around and set off for the café with a few amblers. The Big Yin finally re-joined and Crazy Legs skipped ahead to line up some action shots of the remaining stalwarts fording the latest flood.
We then took a route through Hartburn and toward Angerton, reasoning this would be the most likely flood- free run in we could find. As we pushed past Bolam, Taffy Steve made up for the Red Max’s absence with an attack of the front. Jimmy Mac responded and all hell broke loose. I hung on as long as I could, wheezing like a pair of punctured bellows, before dropping down to a more sustainable pace and grinding up the last climb to the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
Taffy Steve resumed his campaign to get Marmite on the café menu, something he feels is indispensable to his enjoyment of toasted teacake. I think he’s ploughing a lone furrow, but you have to give him kudos for persistence.
Removing his helmet and cap the Prof revealed a precisely drawn line circumscribing his forehead, the gleaming pale skin above the line contrasting sharply with the grey and begrimed features below it. I suggested it looked like he’d had a lobotomy, but he was able to assure me this wasn’t the case, otherwise he’d be a much nicer person!
He recalled an ex-military acquaintance with terrible depression and anger issues, who’d pressed the muzzle of his service revolver to his head and blown a hole right through his skull. Waking up afterwards (with what I rather cavalierly suggested must have been “the mother of all hangovers”) the guy had not only survived, but had undergone a complete personality makeover and became kind, generous, patient and considerate overnight. If only we could guarantee the results, I’d willingly buy the bullets and load the gun.
This in turn led to a brief discussion about trepanning, replete with gory tales of people drilling holes in their own heads, both intentionally and accidentally. I can’t help but think the whine of a Black and Decker biting into my skull, replete with the smell of burning bone would probably be enough to dissuade me from such practices. Still, you can’t say we don’t have wide ranging and, well … different conversations when we’re out on these rides.
I don’t know what set if off, but Crazy Legs then embarked on a rant against all things Charlie Brown and Peanuts and he conducted a quick straw poll around the table to find that no one actually liked this turgid, sentimental tosh (IMHO). Crazy Legs then revealed a disturbing, overwhelming desire to rip Linus’s security blanket out of his pathetic, puny hands and set fire to it. Taffy Steve reasoned that if Charlie Brown was a Geordie (Chaz Broon, if you like) he’d probably smash Lucy’s teeth down her throat the first time she pulled that stupid trick with the football and he most certainly wouldn’t fall for it twice.
This led to recollections of another horror inflicted on British kids by our American cousins: Sherry Lewis and Lambchop. Utterly, totally, dreadful and unforgivable – especially at a time when you only had the choice of two TV channels.
Taffy Steve then revealed the deep emotional scarring he suffered when the family switched from a black and white TV to a colour one and he discovered for the first time that Bagpuss was actually pink!
In a discussion about American vs. British humour Crazy Legs revealed how much he’s enjoying “Parks and Recreation,” while I had to admit I was perhaps the only person who failed to see the comic genius of Ricky Gervais and “The Office.”
This reminds me of my reaction to “The Rider” the book by Tim Krabbe, which as a cyclist I think I’m supposed to like, but found hugely disappointing, disjointed, superficial and all a bit, well … meh. Maybe it’s because the book couldn’t possibly live up to the expectation generated by all the glowing and fulsome praise heaped on it. Then again, maybe the Emperor isn’t actually wearing any clothes…
At the café we were reunited with Princess Fiona, Mini-Miss, Brink, Kipper and a few others who had set out late to doubly-ensure they missed any lingering rain. They had apparently tried the road up to the Cheese Farm too, but being eminently more sensible had turned back at the first flooded section and found an alternative, drier route. They would now bolster our numbers for the return journey.
This return leg passed without incident and we found the roads largely dry and free from flooding, even in the one or two trouble spots where we were expecting the worst. It looked like the excess water was finally starting to drain away and Sunday looked like being a perfect riding day.
As I turned off for the solo part of my ride home, I even noticed the sky had brightened enough to throw a shadow down alongside me for some unexpected company.
The river, which had been high, full and racing as I crossed in the morning had now withdrawn to the middle of its course and acquired two wide shorelines of gleaming black mud, like giant basking seals. The traffic on the other side was relatively light and I was soon hauling ass up the Heinous Hill, suitably leg weary, but altogether content. That was fun, floods and all, but perhaps my enthusiasm is directly proportional to just how waterproof my winter boots are proving to be.
YTD Totals: 1,086 km / 674 miles with 11,447 metres of climbing