The trick today was to get the layers about right as the morning was decidedly chilly, but there were hopes temperatures might nudge into double figures by the afternoon. G-Dawg had decreed it was most assuredly an official ‘shorts-day’ though, so that was one decision taken care of. Now I just had to work out how to stay warm at the start and yet have the flexibility to shed bits and pieces as things warmed up.
So, arm warmers, short-sleeve base layer and jersey, cap, track mitts with light running gloves on top and a lightweight windproof jacket. I toyed with knee warmers, but thought I’d be straining the capacity of my jersey pockets if we somehow struck lucky and I had to abandon the gloves, cap, jacket, arm warmers and knee warmers.
It was then a first outing of the year for my legs, pale, flaccid and as unappetising as over-cooked noodles. Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.
I think I got the layering about right, unlike G-Dawg who stepped out, was immediately struck by the cold and ended up pulling on a Castelli winter jacket, which I’d sure he’d regret once we were well into the ride. At the other extreme, James III went with just shorts and short-sleeved jersey and admitted he was seriously under-dressed for the early conditions.
He did however take the opportunity to apologise to Crazy Legs for wearing his Ineos jersey again and assured him he’d ordered something “more acceptable” from Wiggle.
We speculated what “something more acceptable” might be, but even bandying around names like UAE Team Emirates, Bahrain-Victorious, or Astana Qazaqstan we couldn’t quite find anything with the same palpable aura of distaste as suggested by the Ineos Grenadiers kit.
(Given the very serious human rights violations of the regimes backing these alternative teams I realise this is a seriously shallow and quite absurd prejudice. One day I might even unpick the reasoning behind it, but not today.)
“Anyway, I don’t understand why it’s ok for football fans to wear replica team kit, but not for cyclists,” Brassneck argued.
“It’s not the replica team kit he objects to particularly,” I suggested, “but the fact it’s Ineos kit.”
Alternatively, I could have legitimately argued that it is decidedly not ok for grown men to wear replica football kit. If you’re going to a match it might be acceptable, but beyond that, it just seems a bit, well … weird. Or, as one Shelbourne FC fan on the Internet would have it, “To the match? Yes. To the shops? Only if you’re picking up jelly babies and some Pokemon cards.”
We welcomed the return of the Ticker and BFG back from cycling accidents and broken bones (collar bone and elbow respectively.) The Ticker had concussed himself and could remember nothing about his smash, or how he even got home, while the BFG swore me to secrecy about the cause of his entirely avoidable prang and hoped amnesia would eventually erase it from his own memory too.
To change the subject he spent some time admiring G-Dawg’s shiny bright gold chain, carefully coordinated gold cable ends and yellow (but not quite gold!) tyre valve dust caps. Always one who likes a bit of bling, the BFG admitted he’d once invested in some Swarovski crystal dust caps. Personally, I think that’s a step too far.
While the BFG was admiring G-Dawg’s bike, Taffy Steve and I were admiring his latest, steel-framed steed replete with ultra-deep Vittoria carbon wheels (with added graphene) which he assured me were an absolute bargain at only £1,500. Right.
G-Dawg was our route architect du jour and had planned a trip down into the Tyne Valley and then a loop above and around the Bywell Barn before descending there for coffee. That meant that post-cafe everyone else had the very dubious pleasure of dodging the traffic to cross the A69 and the climb out of the valley, while I would be sailing downhill to follow the river home.
G-Dawg sat on the wall explaining the route, replete with extravagant hand gestures to sketch out the left and right turns, ascents and descents, while Crazy Legs sat alongside and mimicked his every move. It looked like he was performing one of those “not-my-arms challenges” where you stand behind someone who has their hands behind their back and slip your arms through under theirs to take their place and get up to all sorts of mischief. I did chuckle.
I am that immature.
Once again we struggled to get enough sacrificial lambs into the first, fast group, until Richard of Flanders volunteered with one of those fateful, “I can always drop off and join the second group” observations. (This only tends to happen once you’re totally cooked so dropping back seldom leads to any respite.)
“Well, there’s brave and there’s foolish, and I know which way I’m leaning,” Taffy Steve noted as he watched Richard of Flanders join-up with the handful of racing snakes, but then Aether, TripleD-El and a few others bumped down the kerb to join him, so at least the front group had a good core of steadier riders too.
I dropped into the last group and away we went, slotted in beside the BFG who hadn’t forgotten our previous conversation and returned to the theme of amnesia. Seemingly worried about age-related memory loss, he’d recently pestered his doctors into administering him a simple cognitive test … and then, just as a precaution spent several days beforehand actually trying to revise for it.
He passed, so like other people who claim to have “aced” this memory test he can at least call himself “like, really, really smart and a very stable genius.” Strangely though, none of the general knowledge questions he’d been swotting up on had actually featured.
We lost the post-Covid and still recovering Crazy Legs somewhere around the end of Limestone Lane, as he took himself and Yet Another Paul off to the cafe at Matfen. Then a few miles further on, the BFG called it a day and cut short his ride too.
The 5 remaining members of the last group pressed on, dropping down into the Tyne valley via Wylam and following the river west, at one point riding through fields of vividly yellow rapeseed, the air heavy with its sickly sweet perfume.
“Eh lad, it’s just like the Tour de France, but with rapeseed replacing the sunflowers,” G-Dawg suggested, while I looked around for a horse to gallop alongside our group for that perfectly clichéd Grand Boucle photo op.
Narrowly avoiding a head-on smash into an approaching car, the kind of everyday occurrence that happens when you take a blind corner too fast and stray a little over the white line, we worked our way out to the Bywell bridge and then started to climb again as we looped around to approach the cafe from the north.
All the hard work was rewarded though as the track spat us out onto the main road and a short descent brought us to the cafe.
I think we had enough numbers to stress-test the service at the Bywell Coffee Barn and uncover its (rather serious) shortcomings. As the last group to arrive we had an interminable wait for our order, a lot of which came piecemeal.
A desperate Richard Rex started to hungrily eye up the sugar sachets on the table as an alternative fuel supply, while Taffy Steve compared us to starving labradors, fixated on the cafe door, stopping all conversation and sitting bolt upright every time it swung open, only to be hugely deflated when it revealed a waitress with one solitary order that was inevitably for another table.
We did finally get served, but half our group had already left for home by then.
Cake and coffee finally delivered and rapidly consumed, the remainder of us formed up just outside the cafe courtyard where we found a natural suntrap and sat on our bikes idly chatting in the warmth, seemingly reluctant to get moving again. When we finally did get underway, the group turned left and headed uphill, while I waved them off, took a right and dropped down.
It was still a little early to go straight home and things had warmed up enough that this was the best part of the day. On a whim I decided to cross the river at Bywell, then take a detour through Stocksfield to climb out of the Tyne and then drop down into the Derwent valley.
I took my usual route (another goaty track) up to Broomley through Shilford Woods, somewhat surprised to find the Forestry Commission has been hard at work and felled a huge swathe of trees near the crest, so the climb looked totally unfamiliar. I then had the delight of the drag up to Whittonstall into a stiff headwind, but it was worth it for the long fast descent down toward Ebchester. From there I climbed some more, looping through Burnopfield, Byermoor and Marley Hill, before turning south for a straight run home.
Despite the detour, I was back in time to watch the magnificent Elisa Longo Borghini’s decisive and well-worked move to take a hugely deserved win at Paris-Roubaix.
The world’s fastest adopted Irishman, Filipp O’Ganna was very heavily favoured (well, at least by the female members of the SLJ household) for the men’s race the next day, but it wasn’t to be, so congrats to Dylan van Baarle for a totally unexpected victory after so many attempts and failures by Skineos over the years.
(Jens on the Podium Cafe website had the most likely explanation for this and concluded that “moving Amstel in between Flanders and Roubaix was brilliant for Ineos as they got confused and mistakenly won a cobbled monument without thinking about it.”)
Hmm. Is that the faintest trace of a tan line on my legs?
Given (to my mind) the onerous task of devising a route for this week’s ride, at the coffee stop last week Crazy Legs had felt impelled to resurrect our Classic Club Café sprint for next Saturday, over the rollers and up the long drag to Belsay. He even suggested stopping at the café there for old time’s sake. I happened to mention, for some misguided reason, that I was feeling nostalgic for Middleton Bank, a climb I hadn’t suffered on for at least a year and, hey presto, he had the bones of a route. A quick double-check to ensure the café at Belsay would actually be open for business and Crazy Legs went away to fill in the rest of the ride and post it up for people to accept or ignore, depending on their inclination.
With the Holdsworth still undergoing remedial surgery and not wanting to waste another good day riding the heavy winter bike, I had a week to find and secure a replacement mount. Surprisingly, this proved considerably easier than I imagined, when Gumtree directed me to a nearly new, barely ridden velocipede in the care of a 77-year old cyclist whose knees had given out and prevented him from riding.
So, for a few hundred quid, I’m now the owner of what is (solely in my estimation, of course) Halford’s most aesthetically pleasing creation, an Intuition 13 Alpha, from a very brief time when the UK’s biggest and possibly most maligned motorist discount store was dabbling in (semi-)performance bikes. I do seem to have an penchant for picking up a manufacturers fin de cycle products (if you’ll excuse the pun.) The Intuition range is no longer manufactured, while the Holdsworth Stelvio was one of the last frames produced by that venerable company before they caved and were acquired by Planet-X. Even my winter bike, the Peugeot CR23 was part of a 2 bike range they pulled together for the briefest of ill-founded forays back into the UK market, via an exclusive deal with Evans that only seemed to have lasted 12 months.
Where the Holdsworth is the epitome of gaudy overstatement, a violent clash of glossy black, red and yellow, with the brand name unforgivably and inexplicably plastered a dozen times across its frame, the chalk-white 13 is at the opposite extreme, a model of simplistic minimalism, the most striking feature being an odd, inversed 13 “dossard” stuck on the back of the seat post. It adds nothing and I’m not sure I like it, but has survived. For now.
The bike was in mint condition, having been ridden only twice in anger and pretty much ready to roll. I switched out the stock 23mm Vittoria Zafiro’s for my favoured 25mm Rubino’s and will eventually get round to replacing the SPD’s for my usual Look Keo pedals and, maybe the wheels (although the current set seem light, roll well and are carefully colour coordinated). Still, minor details aside, there was nothing to prevent its debut and participation in the club run on Saturday.
The same can’t be said for G-Dawg, who, just a few days after this blerg noted how many middle-aged blokes seem to suffer serious injuries playing five-a-side, went out to play five-a-side and broke his leg. Apparently, according to his social media posts, that means he’ll now have to play in goal for his team next week and, possibly worse, he’ll be off the bike for an extended period of time. Yikes!
On Saturday morning, last minute tinkering with this, that and t’other, had me leaving the house half an hour behind schedule, so I had no choice but to engage in a bit of dual-carriageway surfing, cross the river at the nearest bridge and push hard all the way to the meeting point, arriving completely winded, already tired, but almost on time, with Jimmy Mac already leading out the first group of fast-men and racing snakes (the two are not mutually exclusive.)
I paused only long enough to catch OGL offering up a free, used torque wrench to anyone who had a need.
“Is this the same torque wrench you were trying to sell me for a tenner last week?” Goose enquired ruefully. Apparently it was, but that’s as much of the conversation as I caught as I formed up with Aether, who was leading out the second group and away we went. When I finally had time to look back and determine who I was riding with, alongside Aether, I found myself in the company of Spoons and 3 FNG’s.
Up past the Cheese Farm and out through Tranwell, I noticed the rape seed is starting to flower and it’s pervasive and slightly sickly aroma already hung heavy over the lanes.
We dropped down toward the River Wansbeck, by-passing the entrance to the Mur de Mitford to take the gentler climb westward out of the valley. Then it was through Dyke Neuk to the dip and rise through Hartburn.
We knew somewhere along this route we were supposed to take a secret turn onto a road that had been on our routes a few times, but no one I’ve been with has ever found. Aether had prepared for this test in advance, tracing our proposed route on Google maps, before switching to the satellite view to try and spot an obvious landmark that could guide us.
“I managed to spot a big, round thing,” he told me.
“I thought so too, so I zoomed in for a closer look.”
“It was a tree…”
“Oh. Right-o. So we’re looking for a tree then? Well, that certainly narrows things down.”
Still, somehow Aether managed to pick the right tree out of the hundreds of thousands that lined our route and we traversed the secret road before pushing on to Scot’s Gap. A left turn onto the still incredibly crappy road surface and we were heading straight for Middleton Bank. Off the back, heavy-legged and struggling upwards, I seriously started to question my own sanity and what it was about the climb that had inexplicably created a sense of longing to relive the experience.
Still, once over the climb, I managed to coax a little more speed out of the legs and we coalesced as a single group again and hauled ass for the café. Here at least there were patches and strips of new road surface, making a welcome change and encouraging a little more speed. I attacked over the rollers – you know, just because – and found Aether jumping at the same time. Hmm, maybe I’m becoming predictable. Then we re-grouped on the descent and started the long drag up to the café, more or less in formation and at a relatively sedate pace. On the front alongside one of the FNG’s I nudged my wheel slightly ahead of his and so, by default, won a sprint he didn’t even know we were contesting. Well, they all count in my book.
We found the Colossus already seated at the café.
“How’s your dad taking his injury?” I enquired, “Already stir crazy and unbearable?”
Unsurprisingly, the answer was yes.
“Even more to the point,” Aether wanted to know, “How’s your mum coping?”
The Colossus just shook his head in quiet resignation. Hmm, not good.
Talking about dangerous sports, one of the FNG’s told us the most violent sport he’d ever witnessed had been a game of football for the blind, played on an enclosed pitch with the players often running full tilt into each other and any inanimate objects, as they chased pell-mell after a ball with a bell inside.
“You should see the mayhem if a pet cat gets loose on the pitch, too!” Another FNG added.
Before leaving I had a chat with Crazy Legs. He’d had a superb great morning riding with OGL and ribbing him mightily every time his expensive Di2 system shipped his chain, which was apparently far too often. We arranged to meet early next week before the ride so I could finally deliver him his new jersey. This might stop his constant carping, but I seriously doubt it.
Then it was time to go and as our group left the table it seemed to signal a mass exodus and we all gathered in the car park as a small, white car pulled up. The passenger side door swung fully open and out came a shiny, metal crutch. Then another. And then a foot in a plaster cast and finally, G-Dawg slowly and awkwardly emerged. He can’t ride, but Mrs G-Dawg had agreed to drive him to the café in an attempt to stop his constant sulking.
Saluting G-Dawg had us all bunched together leading the café, so I injected a bit of pace on Berwick Hill to break us up. The fast group took the opportunity to zip past near the top and gave me a target to chase and I was able to go full pelt with absolutely no danger of ever closing the gap to them.
Yet another FNG (where are the all coming from) spelled me on the from Dinnington to just past the airport, then I was into the Mad Mile and swinging away for the solo trek home.
The new bike served perfectly, I’m sure the ride wouldn’t have been as enjoyable on the Peugeot, but the chalk-white finish may be a little difficult to maintain, so assuming the Holdsworth is restored to full functionality, the 13 might get the cossetted, Ribble-esque treatment and get to avoid the rain like a hydrophobic cat.
Day of the Condor – Continuing a tenuous avian theme established by last weeks cameo from a stool pigeon. Ha cha cha cha.
For those of you who hate cliff hangers and are too lazy to look things up on Strava (yes, I’m looking at you, Monsieur Crazy Legs) then yes, I managed to snatch back my Strava KOM and everything is good with the world.
I actually quite enjoyed my little extra-curricular challenge last week and since I have no need to be at a particular meeting point at a given time for the foreseeable future, I might try further Strava segment smash and grabs.
It’s a bit like the cycling equivalent of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange – once you’ve smashed it open and snaffled one segment, you always want more.
There’s one in particular KOM that ends almost practically outside my front door, so I feel obliged to give that one a go next. The trouble is, its a very short, steep ramp with a brutal speed bump half-way, ideally placed to disrupt your rhythm just as things turn nasty. It’s also so short a segment that the record is just 16 seconds, so I suspect you have to be travelling at maximum speed before you hit the start and then slam on the brakes before you hit the end – a junction onto a busy main road. There’s absolutely no margin for error.
Three guys and one girl have done it in 16 seconds, while my best is a whole second slower, good enough for a top 5 place along with a whole slew of others. By my reckoning, if I can hit and hold 50 kph for that short, handful of seconds it takes to get to the top, I should be in with a shout.
Today’s first effort was woeful. The gear I chose was too big and I ran out of momentum before the top, finishing in a totally unconvincing 20 seconds. Still, maybe next week.
Today was a chilly but bright day, so I venured out wearing both a long sleeved baselayer and armwarmers, legwarmers, thermal socks, a cap and long-fingered gloves. For once I got it about right and never felt over-dressed.
Following my lung and leg shredding failed KOM effort, I dropped down into the valley, crossed the river and started climbing out the other side again.
I pretty much followed the route I’d taken last week up Hospital Lane, before taking a quick detour, following the signs for Chapel House on a whim. I expected a picturesque village built up around a small kirk, but found nothing but a long loop through a modern and rather uninspiring housing estate. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a place by its name for that matter.
Through Callerton and approaching Penny Hill, I was stalking another cyclist who seemed to be travelling at least as fast as I was on the flat, but slightly slower on the hills. As we started up the climb I closed on him – a tall, slender man, on a tall slender, steel-framed bike. Just before I caught up, a blocky-burly-beardy-bloke bustled past. I dropped onto his wheel and he pulled me past Slender Man, then I overtook Blocky Burly Beardy Bloke as the climb stiffened and his bustle degenerated to a slow grind.
The road levelled and I kept going toward Stamfordham. About 10km later, Slender Man slid past me, with a nod and a garbled message.
“I didn’t realise it was going to be quite so windy,” he’d apparently said, words instantly snatched away by that very wind, obviously looking to prove a point. It wasn’t until he repeated what he said that I got their gist and could agree with him.
I tagged along behind him for a while, not quite in his wheel, but within a socially restrained 3 or 4 metres that still gave me a little drafting benefit. Then, on the rise just before Stamfordham I eased past and onto the front again.
Passing Whittle Dene Reservoir and I slowed for a cyclist stopped by side of road, checking he was ok and Slender Man caught me and we rolled along on either side of the road, chatting for a while.
He asked if I too was heading toward Corbridge, his intended destination and I confessed I was just wandering aimlessly, then we discussed old bike brands, the sorry demise of Holdsworth and his trust of steel-frames not to catastrophically fail like carbon, while I admired his pristine Condor.
We climbed to the top of the road to Newton and then parted, as he swung left to dip into the Tyne Valley and I pushed on toward Stagshaw and then Matfen. Through Matfen, I was half-minded to drop down the Ryals, but the wind put me off, so I routed up past the Quarry again and then down to Belsay.
From there I headed toward Whalton, instantly regretting my choice as I found they were cutting back the hedges along this stretch of road. I say cutting back, but it’s more like they thrash them into submission, scattering a wide swathe of detritus across the road surface. This almost invariably contains a large serving of the infamous Northumbrian steel-tipped thorns – which add a super high likelihood of you picking up punctures.
I picked my way through the debris as best I could, breathed a huge sigh of relief when I exited the zone of destruction with both tyres intact, then instantly cursed myself for inviting disaster with such reckless self-congratulatory thinking. I was inviting disaster.
I found that, like a lot of the roads in this area, the stretch from Belsay to Whalton has also been given that heavy, rough and grippy, open-textured and horrible, fresh surface that seems to have become the new norm. I think I preferred the old one, even with all its potholes and fissures.
At the Gubeon, I turned for home, calling in for a quick stop at Kirkley to re-fuel and on the off chance of bumping into a familiar face or two. I found G-Dawg on one of the benches, pressed up against the wall to try and find some shelter from the biting wind. Other than one other auld feller riding on his own, the place was otherwise deserted, so plenty of space for social distancing and no issues getting served quickly. Even chill weather has to have some benefits.
By the time I got from the serving hatch to the bench, my coffee had gone cold and OGL had arrived, probably just stopping by to see who was mad enough to be out.
He rolled off after singing the virtues of his new Vittoria tyres (he was preaching to the choir) while I gulped down cold coffee and a large if uninspiring serving of carrot cake. After 20 minutes the chill was starting to bite and I was packing up to leave. G-Dawg was determined to brave the elements for a few more minutes to see if anyone else was out and also because if he fears if he gets home too early, he thinks he’ll be expected to get back at that exact same time every week.
I had the wind firmly behind me most of the way home and was feeling good, the pedals seeming to float around on their own. It was a decently fast run back and I found I was home an hour before my usual arrival. Luckily no one else was in the house.
Saturday was a grey and cool, but generally still day. Pleasant, but not quite shorts weather (although Jimmy Mac disagreed) and while I needed the extra layer of a windproof jacket for the trip across to the meeting point, it was quickly abandoned and tucked away in a back pocket before we got underway.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
The Hammer complemented someone on a carefully colour coordinated bike and kit, before declaring, “Never trust a cyclist who doesn’t colour coordinate.
Crazy Legs was about to endorse the view when, interrupted by an involuntary thought, he reached up to pat all around his helmet. This failed to satisfy his concerns, so he unbuckled his helmet, picked it off his head and brought it down to eye-level to squint at it and confirm he’d chosen the right one, it matched his jersey and he was suitably colour-coordinated
I had missed Taffy Steve’s triumphal return last week when I was hiding from the early morning rain, but he was back, propped up by Voltarol (other pain relief gels are available), which he’s buying by the case load. He’s determined it’s the only thing making his damaged rotator cuff sufficiently bearable to ride with. Other than that there’s no real treatment beyond physiotherapy which apparently doesn’t include painting and decorating. He knows this, because he tried.
Being unable to lift his arm above waist height, I couldn’t help imagining a series of rooms with beautifully decorated, pristine walls up to an impromptu, free-hand dado-rail height, above which the paint was a clashing, contrasting colour, aged, dirty and scabrous.
Sneaky Pete was also making a return, but his was from a pleasant sojourn on the Côte d’Azur and he asserted he could very easily see himself living there. He’d even managed to fit a sneaky ride into his holiday, having hired a bike for the day.
“The guy in the bike hire shop asked if I was a racer and declared I had racers legs,” he admitted somewhat reluctantly.
“I feel a change in blerg nickname is called for,” Taffy Steve mused, “How does Racer Legs sound?”
It dawned on Sneaky Pete that he’d said something injudicious within my earshot and that, of course, I have absolutely no discretion …
So, Sneaky Pete, or Steel Rigg, or White Stripes, or Racer Legs. Hmm, he’s collecting almost as many monikers as the Garrulous Kid, a.k.a. Zoolander, a.k.a. Helen, a.k.a. Fresh Trim, a.k.a. Jar-Jar Binks etc. etc. ad nasueum.
We were interrupted by a loud noise that sounded exactly like a bus suddenly releasing it’s air brakes, which itself sounds uncannily like a bicycle tyre enduring an unexpected, catastrophic failure. We looked around to see OGL rolling to a stop, as behind him a bus pulled away from he stand.
Long seconds ticked slowly past, tension building, while we wondered which way this audible coin was going to fall, before we heard, “Oh bugger, puncture.”
OGL set about stripping out his punctured front tube and replacing it, while we turned our attention to Mini Miss’ new bike, a sleek, smart looking Liv, aerobike in a dark, purplish-blue. The only awkward thing about it would appear to be the model name, the EnviLiv?
It might be brand new, it might look fantastic, but the EnviLiv did not come with the gears properly set up, so OGL had no sooner repaired his puncture than Mini Miss was leaning on him to fettle her new bike too. There’s no rest for the wicked.
While this was going on in the background, the Hammer outlined our route for the day, which included a climb up the Ryals, for potentially the last time this year. I can honestly say it won’t be missed.
About 20 strong, we decided not to split the group, pushed off, clipped in and rode out. At the traffic lights we checked to see if we were all together and found OGL missing, still stranded where we’d been gathered. He called across that he’d actually blown out the sidewall of his tyre, was heading home for a replacement and would make his own way to the cafe.
One down already, but I’m pretty sure we were all bravely determined not to let it spoil our ride…
I pushed onto the front alongside Jimmy Mac and we led the group out, occasionally calling back to Crazy Legs for directions as, naturally, neither of us had really been paying that much attention to the route outline.
As we took the road to Prestwick, Jimmy Mac started bunny hopping the (ridiculously over-large) speed bumps, encouraged by a chortling Crazy Legs shouting “Olé!” each time he went airborne, while I winced inwardly each time he came thumping down, half expecting his wheels to suddenly disintegrate and collapse under him.
Through the village of Ponteland, Crazy Legs called up, “Listen to all the happy chatter behind.”
“This is serious,” I growled back, “they’re not supposed to be enjoying it.”
“Silence!” Crazy Legs immediately bellowed, “the Ride Leader is disappointed to think you might be having fun.”
For the next minute or so there was an awkward, guilty silence, before the noise burbled up again. Are we that inured to being so thoroughly browbeaten?
Reaching the end of Limestone Lane and after a decent stint of perhaps 15km on the front, I peeled off, swung wide and drifted to the back.
There I found the Hammer, policing the group from the rear and we had a brief chat about possible destinations for another continental invasion next year, with the northern Dolomites being an early front-runner, depending on flights and accessibility.
We also touched on group size and dynamics as well, including how (more by luck than good management) we all somehow managed to bump along, despite being a generally disparate and diverse bunch, each, as the Hammer diplomatically put it, with our own peculiar foibles.
“Yep,” I agreed, ” We all definitely have foibles.”
“And there’s a very fine line between foibles and assholes,” the Hammer remarked sagely, “But somehow it seems to work.”
When we stopped for a comfort break, Crazy Legs declared an impromptu meeting of the Flat White Club, for all those who didn’t want to tackle the Ryals.
“Two coffee stops!” Otto Rocket exclaimed, somewhat scandalised.
“No,” Crazy Legs corrected her, “One coffee stop, one Flat White club meet.”
A little further along and the Flat White Club swung off, leaving the rest of us on the road to the delightfully named, but blink and you’ll miss it, Little Bavington and firmly en route to the Ryals.
Just before the descent to the village, a harsh rumble from my rear wheel heralded an untimely puncture and I pulled to a stop. I urged everyone to keep going, but obviously wasn’t persuasive enough, so they pulled over a little further up the road and Spoons dropped back to help.
As I wrestled manfully, but spectacularly unsuccessfully to prise my tyre off the rim to replace the tube, Spoons unzipped my tool tub to pull out one of my two spares and pump.
After much swearing and skinned knuckles, I finally managed to prise and peel the reluctant tyre from the rim, where it seemed almost to have adhered in place. I think I’ve been rolling on the same tyres for almost two years now and had their replacements ready and hanging in the shed for over a year without ever feeling the need to change them.
Surprisingly the tyre slipped back onto the rim without too much effort, I semi-inflated the tube and slotted the wheel back into the frame. As I did this, Spoons helpfully rolled up the punctured tube and slotted it into my tool tub.
Re-attaching my pump I started trying to inflate the tyre, but was getting nowhere. I unscrewed and reattached the hose. Nothing. I unscrewed the hose, tested the valve, tightened and loosened it and reattached the pump. Still nothing. I swapped my pump for Spoons’ pump. Still nothing. This was frustrating and in danger of turning into the longest tyre change in club history.
I told Spoons to rejoin the group and get everyone moving again, while I tried to channel some inner calm. Alone and feeling less pressured, I stood the bike against a nearby wall, securely attached the pump hose to the valve yet again and gave it a few blows. Success, the tyre started to inflate and slowly harden beneath my prodding thumb.
One slow, painful, puny upper-body cardio-vascular work out later, I felt drained and light-headed, but able to set off in pursuit of the rest of the group. I thought that even if I didn’t manage to rejoin, I might be able to at least see them ahead of me as they scaled the Ryals.
I took the climb through Hallington and rattled down the other side, swerving around potholes, gravel moraines, muddy puddles, a scattered windfall of broken branches and tussocks of wiry grass. Thankfully, I’ve been led to believe this particular track has now been removed from the Beaumont Trophy – and not before time. I couldn’t imagine actually travelling at break-neck speed down this road in a tightly packed, bunch of grizzled pros.
I was spat out at the bottom onto the road that drags its way up toward the Ryals, which rose like a wall in front of me. It was here that I expected to see at least the tail-end of the group battling with the slope, but the road ahead was completely empty. They must really have put the hammer down once they left me.
I dragged myself up the climb (as unpleasant and uninspiring as always) and tried to pick up the pace over the top.
Swinging left onto the road up to the Quarry, I spotted a lone cyclist in front of me. It wasn’t one of our group, but gave me a hare to chase and encouraged me to push the pace up a little more.
I caught him at the top of the slope, exchanging a quick greeting as I swung past and off to the right. Another cyclist coming down the road burned past us both. Perfect timing, now I had another target to chase down and I started to wind up the speed again.
I caught and passed him on the slow drag up to the crossroads, darted across the road with him on my wheel and then worked to open up a gap. I think he’d decided we were in a race too, so he kept the pressure on through the descent and all the way up to the final junction, which was where I think I finally managed to shake him loose.
All the way I was thinking I would at least see remnants of our group, but they were strangely absent and only OGL and a few later-starters were at the cafe when I arrived.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
I was served, found a table to deposit my tray on and went to wash my hands, filthy from wrestling with tyres. I thought our group might have gone left, rather than right at the top of the quarry and then perhaps been held up by a puncture or mechanical. I settled down to read my emails and was halfway through my coffee before the others started to drift in.
Chatting with Jimmy Mac, we finally worked out that they hadn’t taken the climb through Hallington, but looped around the reservoir. Despite my best chasing, I hadn’t seen anyone on the road, because they’d been behind me all along.
The main group were followed in some minutes later by the Flat White ride, looking suitably fortified and quite relaxed.I couldn’t help thinking they’d chosen the right option.
We learned Plumose Pappus had enjoyed his holiday in Thailand, despite the fact (or maybe because) he’d been frequently mistaken for David Beckham. He’d also only narrowly avoided being arrested for loitering, having spent far too long eyeing up the frozen peas in the chilly sanctuary of a 7-Eleven freezer aisle, the only reliable haven he’d been able to find from the persistent heat and humidity.
A phone embargo was placed on the table, as Jimmy Mac had recorded that mornings England’s vs. Argentina rugby game and was desperate to avoid the score. For my part, I’m not convinced the tournament has quite got going yet, despite one or two shock results and I had no expectation of anything but a handsome England win.
Still, with a rugby international to look forward to and late arrival at the cafe, in no small part due to my tyre-fumblings, we were keen to get back on the road and formed up as the first group to head home.
At this point I discovered my rear tyre was flat again and waved the group away while I once more set about replacing the tube. I unhooked the wheel and managed to strip out the tube without any of the early difficulties. Checking the inside of the tyre I found one of natures caltrops, a vicious thorn sticking through the tread. I assume I’d just picked this up and it wasn’t a holdover from my first puncture, but I guess I’ll never know.
I pushed and pinched the thorn out, and unzipped my tool case to get at my pump and spare inner tube … to be confronted by two indistinguishable tubes, the original, punctured one from earlier this morning that Spoons had carefully and helpfully packed away for me and a new, undamaged one.
They both looked identical, pristine and untouched, but which was which. I picked one at random opened the valve and forced some air into it. It seemed to be holding, so I fitted it and wrestled the tyre back onto the rim.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find I’d picked the wrong tube and no matter how hard I worked the pump it never got beyond slightly squishy. Cursing my own stupidity, I set about replacing the tube again … and that’s where the second group to leave the cafe found me, struggling to force the last section of tyre back onto the rim, only to discover all my upper-body strength seemed to have deserted me.
Crazy Legs lent a hand and we finally manged to seat the tyre. I added enough air to get me home (later revealed to be a rather paltry 20 psi) and I was glad to get back on the bike and give my arms a rest.
I had a quick chat with the FNG on the run back, but with time pressing on, left the group early to loop around the opposite side of the airport and shave a few miles off my route home.
I made it back without further incident, but had to leave almost immediately to wander down to the Brassworks at Pedalling Squares, where Patrick had been beavering away on the Peugeot to prepare it for the coming winter.
This gave me a second opportunity to ride up the Heinous Hill in short order, just to round my day off perfectly.
It’s the club hill climb next week. I’m not likely to compete, but I will go along to shout on the kids. Before that though, I’ll be wrestling with tyres once again, it’s way past time to slap those pristine, new Vittoria Rubino’s on Reg.
YTD Totals: 6,144 km / 3,817 miles with 81,078 metres of climbing
The weather continues to confound, swinging from a frigid -4°C on Wednesday’s early morning commute, to disturbingly mild, double-figures for the weekend.
With no ice to worry about and the morning’s starting to get lighter too, the big concern first thing Saturday was perfecting the balancing act and getting the layering just right – we were looking for the Goldilocks ideal – not too hot and not too cold.
So, a single base layer, Galibier jacket (in case the threatened rain or sleet materialised early than forecast), thin gloves with liners, no buff, no hat or headband. It was a reasonably, solid effort, a self-scoring 7, or an 8 out of 10 and I only feeling chilly the few times we were forced to stopped.
The roads were strangely quiet of fellow cyclists as I made my way across to the meeting place, but it seemed to be a day for solitary runners, who were out in force, in all sizes, shapes and styles.
There were so many, I wondered if there was an upcoming event they were all training for, or perhaps we now had a National Running Day to go along with National Hugging Day, National Pie Eating Day, National Rubik’s Cube Day, or whatever new nonsense they’ve come up with. (Apparently National Running Day does actually exist, but it’s in June.)
On the final approach to the meeting point I was caught behind a vaping driver, billowing plumes of sickly, sweet-smelling smoke out of his car window. It took me a while, but I finally recognised that he seemed to be indulging in a blackcurrant vape, possibly Ribena, or perhaps Vimto? A new one to add to Taffy Steve’s list of improbable and nauseating vape flavours.
Main Topics of Conversation at the Meeting Point:
G-Dawg pointed to the cheap, emergency, strap-on LED light on my handlebars and recounted how he’d attached one to his dog, after its purpose built LED collar failed. He said it worked as a great substitute, until the dog went plunging headlong into the river, at which point he mentally wrote it off.
He was then hugely surprised when the dog had emerged, with the light still blinking away furiously. At this point he decided that for a cheap light, he’d found something that was surprisingly sturdy, waterproof and wholly reliable … until he tried to turn it off to save the batteries for another day and found he couldn’t.
I imagined the disgruntled dog sitting at home, still blinking away like a stray satellite and unable to sleep for the disturbing bursts of light searing through its eyelids every time it tried.
Crazy Legs revealed he’d finished last weeks ride, taken off his gilet and hung it over the handlebars of his bike in the garage. It had still been there waiting for him this morning, but he’d only managed to half pull it on before its rank stink had dissuaded him and he’d been forced to consign it directly to the washing basket.
OGL commented on someone suggesting that he could wear a base layer ten times in a row between washes – or was it ten years in a row? Anyway, this is entirely possible because it was made with miraculous non-stink, Merino wool. I think it’s probably fine – but only if you can pedal fast enough to outpace your own odour …
Still, G-Dawg thought you could get at least 4 “good” wears out of a pair of Y-fronts, worn normally, back to front and then repeating the process but inside out. He was joking. (Right?) The disturbing level of detail he added, such as saving the right side out and the right way around “for best” did make me wonder …
OGL then mentioned some all-day British Cycling, regional meeting in February and wondered if anyone wanted to accompany him to represent the club, a sort of sharing of the pain. He didn’t seem to find any irony in the fact that nobody else has any kind of official status in the club (other than being a paid-up, or even non-paying member.)
In other news, he suggested that the city’s £11 million development plan for two sporting hubs could see a cycling track and possibly clubhouse, built at the Bullocksteads site near the rugby stadium. This, he offered, could be a better meeting point for club rides. This vision was enthusiastically embraced by G-Dawg who lives right on the doorstep of the proposed development. I’ve no doubt he could see his future-self rolling out of bed at 8:55 and still being the first one to arrive at the meeting point.
Taffy Steve nodded over to where Princess Fiona and Mini Miss had gathered and were chatting away.
“The red car and the blue car had a race…” he intoned, drawing attention to the fact that they were dressed almost identically, except one was wearing a red jacket and the other a blue one.
“Do you remember that Milky Way advert?” he asked, “I hated it.”
I wondered what it was provoked such hatred, could it have been the art style and direction? The patent absurdity of it’s storyboard? The jaunty, jangling soundtrack? The ear-worm effectiveness of its jingle? Perhaps it was the product itself, the rather effete, light-weight Milky Way that made him curl his lip in disdain?
“It’s the lyric’s he explained, starting to sing away, “The red car and the blue car had a race, but all Red wants to do is stuff his face, he eats everything he see’s, from trucks to prickly trees, but smart old Blue he took the Milky Way.” He paused, but not for long …
“So, what’s wrong with that? Prickly trees? Prickly trees! Pah! They obviously meant cactuses, but were too lazy to find anything that would rhyme with cactuses, cacti or whatever. Even as a kid I knew it was just a lazy cop-out. Grrr!”
It’s amazing what superficial ephemera we carry from our yoof and how much it can still trouble and annoy us …
Our route architect for the day, Crazy Legs asked if anyone was interested in the full details of his grand plan. Apparently not, so without further ado, he invited G-Dawg to lead out those who wanted a faster ride, adding that there’d be no waiting to regroup.
The first group started to coalesce around G-Dawg, with the majority of riders joining. I hung back to try and even out the numbers, but it was still a two-thirds to one-third split – apparently no one wants any kind of association with a “slow” group.
Crazy Legs did have a little rueful chuckle to himself, as the (always game) Goose bumped his steel behemoth down off the kerb and went to join the fast group.
We agreed he’d be fine, he likes a challenge and the route wasn’t too hilly.
The second group followed, but we hadn’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards before the Red Max’s front tyre gave out with a sound like a sputtering Catherine Wheel – fzzzzit-fzzzzit-fzzzzit-fzzzzit.
We all pulled to a stop and clustered around and I moved up in unison with Crazy Legs to see how we could help.
“Don’t worry,” he declared, “We’ll soon have it fixed, the Dream Team’s here!” as he referred to the time we’d fruitlessly spent half an hour struggling with Big Dunc’s unholy alliance of Continental Grand Prix tyres and Shimano rims (Trial of Tyre’s.)
We’d failed in that instance, only to later learn that Big Dunc had saved himself through the simple expedience of flipping the wheel around and inserting the inner tube into the other side. Why that made a difference, I really don’t know, but it obviously did and it might be worth trying if you’re ever stuck with seriously recalcitrant tyres.
Despite the close attention and best ministrations of the Dream Team, the tyre change went pretty smoothly and we were soon back on the road again.
I was on the front with the Ticker, (Ticker-less, now he’s on his winter bike) and we spent much of the time calling back, trying to determine what the route was – I really should have paid attention, or at least encouraged Crazy Legs to give us an actual and foolproof briefing.
Occasional incoherent shouting punctured our ride, apparently caused by a RIM in a Volvo taking exception to our right of way, but I was well insulated from any altercations as we plugged away on the front, up through High Callerton and toward Medburn.
Here, we were drawn to a halt when the Red Max’s tyre gave out again. While he cursed his shoddy and useless Continental summer tyres, that seemed shot after “a mere 5,000 miles” of extraordinary wear and tear, I double-checked the rim and carcass for offending objects – glass, thorns, shards of metal, flints, rough edges, caltrops, thumb tacks, whatever. There was nothing.
Meanwhile, the Red Max realised he’d used a Vittoria inner tube, so he had a little rant about “Italian crap” while he was on. Even as a proud Vittorian I wasn’t going to stand in front of that particular runaway express.
“Badd-bing-badda-fzzzzit,” Taffy Steve added helpfully.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs took the flaccid, holed tube off the Red Max, ostensibly to locate where the puncture was, but really just to hold it up to his nose and inhale deeply.
“Ah, I love the smell of rubber,” he declared, evidently quite content with the world. Apparently it smelled considerably better than his gilet.
There then followed a very deep, lengthy and philosophical discussion about how inner tubes can smell so good, when the air inside them is so rank.
“Like stale kippers,” I suggested and nobody disagreed.
We got going again and pressed on to the crossroads at Heugh, where a bronchitis-suffering OGL made a bee-line for the cafe. The Red Max decided to cut his ride short too, hoping to lessen the chances for further punctures and departed to provide escort duties.
Somewhere along the way I found myself directly behind Taffy Steve and Crazy Legs as they rode along, for some reason arguing about similarities between OGL and, somewhat randomly, football manager Neil Warnock.
Things turned a shade darker when Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein were somehow added to the equation Still, the only conclusion they could agree on was that, if Idi Amin was a club member, they were pretty sure he hadn’t paid his subs in a good long while. Bizarre.
Having been delayed by recurrent punctures, we took a slight short cut toward the Quarry and, as the road started to climb, I nudged onto the front alongside Crazy Legs.
As we pulled the group along I complained about how I seemed to have become a dirt magnet for the day, liberally spotted and besplattered with mud from head to toe. My boots had turned a deeply unpleasant shade of brown and I was peering out at the world through seriously spotted glasses.
It was bad enough to start me singing “Teenage Dirtbag” – a selection that was at least tolerated by Crazy Legs as a “not-too-bad” earworm.
“Left, or right?” Crazy Legs pondered as we dragged the group toward the top of the Quarry.
“Left,” I declared, “We haven’t been that way for a long time.” So long in fact that I’d forgotten bits of the road had actually been patched and was (in places) almost decent.
So, left we went, slowing to allow everyone to regroup after the climb. As we rolled on, Crazy Legs bent right over to point, his finger hovering scant inches from the road surface as he bellowed out a lung-shredding “POT!” – a warning that was probably heard in the Scottish Borders.
“Sometimes, I really think I need to become a little more mature,” Crazy Legs considered.
“No, don’t go changin’ – we love you just the way you are.” I assured him.
He rode on in silence for a good dozen or so pedal strokes while he digested this …
“You bastard! You utter, utter bastard!” he complained, “First you give me Wheatus and then snatch it away for … for bloody Billy Joel!”
“Oh, is that a Billy Joel song?” I enquired innocently.
He then swore me to silence as he had a huge confession to make, needed advice, but demanded the ultimate in discretion. (This blerg doesn’t count, as no one reads it.) He looked around cautiously to make sure no one could eavesdrop. The group was still reforming behind us after the climb and we had a brief exclusion zone.
“I’ve been thinking about my set-up for the mountains and … Well… I don’t think I can get what I want with Campag.”
I was deeply shocked, almost speechless, as he hurriedly and in hushed tones, talked about Shimano, or even SRAM groupset options. Oh and the sky is falling down and meanwhile, in deepest, darkest hell, the thermostat’s been nudged up just a little …
Further discrete discussions around this bombshell were abandoned as we started a slow burn for the cafe, gradually picking up the pace.
“Do you want to go for this sprint?” Crazy legs wondered.
“Nah, I’m happy to just roll through.”
We built up the speed until all the talking behind stopped and we were lined out, clipping along, bouncing and juddering across the rough road surface.
I nodded up ahead where the road rose, before starting to drop down toward the Snake Bends.
“Take it to the top and then unleash the hounds?” I suggested.
So we did, peeling off neatly to either side and ushering the rest through for the final charge.
Cowin’ Bovril was the first to try his hand, surging off the front as we drifted toward the back.
He briefly had a good gap, but was slowly reeled in. Then, just before the road started to level, Taffy Steve attacked from the back, an astute masterclass in timing.
The gap quickly yawned upon, Cowin’ Bovril was washed away and only Carlton seemed able to give chase. I nudged onto his wheel and followed, but the move proved decisive. Carlton closed, but couldn’t come to terms with a flying Taffy Steve.
Main Topics of Conversation at the Coffee Stop:
In the cafe, Carlton apologised for our slightly ramshackle and disorganised riding at the start of our grand adventure, but explained that, when you’re on the front with your nose in the wind, it’s really difficult to hear what’s being shouted up from behind.
We agreed we needed a better system and Crazy Legs’ idea of passing messages forward always seemed to stall half way up the line.
“Perhaps we need a dog whistle?” Crazy Legs pondered.
Visions of One Man and His Dog sprang to mind. Cum ba Shep, cum ba. No, don’t think that’s going to work.
Changing tack, Carlton wondered what was going on with the weather. “It’s at least three degrees warmer today,” he remarked.
“Did you say three degrees?” I queried.
I looked at Crazy Legs, Crazy Legs looked at me and we both shook our heads. Luckily, neither of us could remember any Three Degrees songs. A narrow escape.
We reminisced about our old representative from the Hollow Lands, De Uitheems Bloem, who we have traded in for a younger, newer model in Rainman. (It’s my understanding that Dutch riders are held in in such high regard, that UCI rules limit them to one per club. As such I can’t recall if our two ever actually rode together, but I do know we weren’t allowed to keep both.)
Crazy Legs remembered planning a winter break to Amsterdam and asking De Uitheems Bloem for some recommendations. He later received a 5-page email, detailing a full itinerary of all the things to see and do on his trip. This was appended with a long range weather forecast for the weekend; sunrise and sunset times, temperature, wind speed and direction, chance of precipitation, air pressure, cloud cover and pollen count. It concluded that it looked like being a particularly mild weekend, “so don’t bother taking your skates.”
On returning, Crazy Legs had sought out De Uitheems Bloem, “Thanks for all the recommendations, that was brilliant. By the way, English people don’t own skates.”
We shared tales of riding in the Alps with Carlton, who seemed surprised that the Col de la Croix de Fer was Crazy Legs’ favourite climb. He couldn’t recall seeing the (admittedly modest) iron cross, perhaps because his overriding memory of the climb was being paced up it by a wild horse. This beast, rather worryingly, refused to leave the road and didn’t seem all that bothered by the gaggle of cyclists lined out behind it.
“It was obviously a draught horse,” I offered. I thought it was funny, Crazy Legs was simply dismayed. Secretly, I just think he was upset because the only wildlife we saw on the climb was a sun-blasted, completely flattened, giant toad-in-the-road. (The Circle of Death).
Talk of climbing mountains led Carlton to talk about Jimmy Mac’s 900 gram, special climbing wheelset. First, Crazy Legs thanked Carlton profusely for introducing the subject of wheels into the conversation, something he felt we hadn’t discussed for … oh, at least 3 or 4 weeks. Then things got serious as we fired off a range of questions to try and frame the fearful symmetry of Jimmy Mac’s climbing wheelset …
“What type of spokes, how many and how are they laced?” Crazy Legs demanded.
“When you say 900 grams, is that with, or without rim tape?” I pondered.
“Quick release skewers?” Crazy Legs added.
A rather overwhelmed Carlton could provide none of the answers and was now probably regretting mentioning wheels in the first place.
Now Crazy Legs wanted Jimmy Mac to ride out on his fabled wheels and then strip them down completely, so he could fully weigh them and see if their claimed mass could be independently verified.
Luckily, Carlton spotted Jimmy Mac entering the cafe at just that moment and was able to deflect Crazy Legs onto the actual wheel owner. Crazy Legs immediately got up to pursue the issue, before coming back and reporting it was a dead-end, as Jimmy Mac had trashed the wheels during his International Grand Fondo horror smash.
I thought this would deflate Crazy Legs somewhat, but it actually cheered him up. He now felt fully vindicated in his view that such wheels aren’t robust enough to stand up to the wear and tear of actually riding on them.
All good things come to an end and were soon lining up to head for home. Here I noticed the Monkey Butler Boy visibly shivering.
“Feeling the cold?” I asked him, proving yet again just how startlingly perceptive I am.
“Yes,” he replied tightly, “And it’s all his fault” he pointed at the Red Max.
“But that’s unfair, surely your dad didn’t tell you what to wear this morning?”
“No, but I inherited a stupid gene from him.”
As we set off I found myself chatting to the Red Max as we trailed the Monkey Butler Boy. He despaired at his progeny’s lack of common sense and choice of attire, short sleeve jersey and arm warmers, shorts and knee warmers, already despoiled white socks and once pristine (now poisonous ivory) shoes. Looking at Max bundled up in a winter jacket, gloves, boots, and hat, I determined that genetics isn’t always the answer.
I also noticed that of the four teens out today, at least three of them were riding bikes without mudguards, whereas just about all the older set had at least some semblance of protection for themselves, their bikes and most importantly, their fellow riders.
I wondered if that says something about generational differences – perhaps the youngsters are more concerned with style, or maybe they’re more willing to put up with discomfort? More daring? More stoical? Harder? Less cossetted?
Then again, perhaps I’m over-thinking it and they are what they seem to be when I’m at my grumpiest – at best thoughtless, or just plain inconsiderate.
The Red Max told me he’d taken the Monkey Butler Boy along to see a professional coach, who told all the youngsters that they were training too hard and in the wrong way. He’d described the ideal training programme as a pyramid, a base of solid, core, low intensity miles, capped with fewer, high intensity efforts only once this base had been established.
The concept resonated with the Red Max:
“That was interesting wasn’t it?” he’d asked.
“Yes, it was good.”
Something to think about?”
“Nah, it obviously doesn’t apply to me.”
A “3-2-1-Go” countdown signalled an impromptu sprint up the final few metres to the crest of Berwick Hill, fiercely contested by G-Dawg and the Garrulous Kid.
What can I say, the Garrulous Kid, in the full prime of youth and with all the advantages of modern technology, astride his ultra-light, uber-Teutonic, precision engineered, carbon Focus, was up against the grizzled veteran, three times his age and hauling an all steel fixie. It seemed a very unequal contest …
And so it proved. The Garrulous Kid was chewed up, worked over and unceremoniously spat out the back. Score one for the wrinklies.
I slotted in alongside Jimmy Mac as we started down the other side of Berwick Hill, where we were passed by a lone Derwent C.C. cyclist, all elbows and a busy style.
“He’s a bit far from home. I wonder what he’s doing on the boring roads over here, when he has the choice of all those good hilly routes south of the river?” Jimmy Mac mused.
This prompted a discussion about possible rides and the challenging terrain “over there” in the south of the Tyne badlands, (or Mordor, as my clubmates will refer to it.)
We hit the climb up to Dinnington and, in just a few metres, the gap between us and the Derwent C.C. rider almost entirely evaporated.
“Ah,” I suggested, “He doesn’t like hills.”
“Which is why he’s riding over here!” we both decided in unison.
As we entered the Mad Mile, I was completely and wholly unsurprised when a sudden headwind seemed to rise up out of nowhere. I’m getting used to this now.
I sheltered behind Caracol and G-Dawg for as long as I could, then I was on my own and plugging my way home. I got back suitably tired – I might not have been running with the “fast group” but I felt I’d had a good workout nonetheless.
YTD Totals: 648 km / 403 miles with 8,825 metres of climbing.
Total Distance: 113 km / 70 miles with 1,060 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 33 minute
Average Speed: 24.9 km/h
Group size: 26 riders, 1 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Happy winds-day
Well I had a Goldilocks-style week of commuting in to work to help me determine what to wear on Saturday and I’m not sure it helped. Wednesday, an unexpectedly, uncharacteristically and uncomfortably warm and mild, anomaly of a day (where did that come from?), I’d gone for a long base layer, windproof jacket, gilet and leg warmers … and cooked. Too hot.
Thursday I went for a summer weight jersey, short-sleeved base layer and arm warmers and shivered, when the cold snapped back. Fingers, toes and ears in particular were downright uncomfortable. Too cold.
Friday saw me trying a summer weight jersey, short-sleeved base layer, arm warmers, with a gilet and gloves for the ride in, before stowing them away for the ride home. Just perfect? Well, no, but better and bearable.
Saturday promised to be just as tricky and over a much more extended period of time and the usual efforts involved in riding at a sustained tempo, rather than just pootling along to work. The early, post-dawn start was likely to be cruelly chill – especially the first couple of miles dropping off the hill – and then hopefully the sun would come out, but it wouldn’t be so hot that I’d need to take off more layers than I had pockets for.
To combat the cold start, I pulled on a lightweight rain jacket for the trip across town. It flapped and fluttered like a supermarket bag caught on a barbed wire fence during a gale, as I sped down the hill, but cut out some of the wind.
Pushing on, the helpful digital sign on the factory unit told me it was a chilly 9°C, as I made my way toward the (finally) fully re-opened bridge and its newly re-instigated traffic lights, which made me wait before I was released onto the new, super smooth surface across the river …
… ruined by the fact that they’d seemingly forgotten to embed one particular cable or pipe and simply dragged it across the road and piled a mouldering heap of loose tarmac over the top. I thudded jarringly over this impromptu, already crumbling, speed bump, which I’m hoping is only a temporary measure.
A few delays for traffic lights and at some new road works, convinced me I was running late, so I injected a bit of pace to my climb out the other side of the valley and made it only a few minutes late and suitably warmed through.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Princess Fiona was out putting the finishing touches to her form with a last ride before jetting off for her Barcelona IronmanIronwoman Ironprincess event.
“Are you tapering?” someone enquired
“And exactly how long have you been tapering for?” I asked cheekily.
“I think I’ve been tapering my entire life,” the Red Max mumbled, somewhat ruefully.
He was consoled though, by thoughts of the Monkey Butler Boy, who’d ridden out today with the Back Street Boys, for a planned foray, south across the river and deep into Mordor.
“I hope he doesn’t get dropped,” the Red Max relayed, “He doesn’t know the roads across there and I’m not sure the phones work.”
“Phones?” I queried, “Of what do you speak?”
Even more delightful, the Red Max relayed how the Monkey Butler Boy is busy building him a new winter hack (if that isn’t an oxymoron) and had sprayed the frame silver after the Red Max reneged on his promise to ride a bright pink bike throughout the winter.
With enough silver spray left for a few little side projects, the Monkey Butler Boy decided to bling up an old pair of specs, too. Popping the lenses out and coating the frames in smooth layers of shiny silver.
Declaring himself well pleased with the results, the Monkey Butler Boy did the Wednesday night chain-gang kitted out in his spiffy new specs. “Of course, he didn’t lacquer them,” the Red Max explained, “So when he took his specs off, he still looked like he had them on!” Or, at least a semi-indelible silver impression around his eyes where the frames had been.
I told Max that I’d read his route when he’d posted it up on Facebook, but didn’t understand any of it. He patiently explained it in precise detail, while I nodded along in encouragement.
“Nah,” I finally concluded, “Haven’t got a clue.”
Away the route was set and would slowly unfold before my eyes. Garmin Muppet Time arrived and I tagged onto the front group for what was, for us, surprisingly a fairly even split of numbers. Almost as soon as we got underway a strong and gusting wind made its presence felt and it would dog us for the rest of the day.
It was hard work, two or three wheels back from the front and even harder for those brave souls who spearheaded the ride, with G-Dawg, the Colossus, Caracol, Richard of Flanders and the Rainman doing especially long and impressive stints at the head of affairs. Sterling efforts all around and much appreciated.
I didn’t spend as much time and effort assiduously avoiding the front like some of our number, but my stint up there was quite limited. It was just as well, for whatever reason my legs were sore and heavy, I was having a major jour sans and our average speed would have suffered horribly if I’d kept at it long.
I was in conversation with the Rainman as we approached one junction. “It’s left and then first right here,” he assured me smoothly.
“Left or right?” the call came from the front.
“Left, left,” I answered with confidence, only to be shouted down seconds later with cries of “Right! Right! Right!” from behind.
“Well, you had 50% chance of being right,” someone said as the confusion died down.
I naturally blamed the Rainman, who shrugged and declared he knew the right way all along, but the truth was simply lost in translation.
Caracol called for a comfort break, so we cast around a bit until we found a suitable gate, figuring that even if it wasn’t an officially approved pee-stop, at least we had the basic principles down pat.
Then, we pushed on briefly, until Goose picked up a puncture and we rolled to a stop. Odd how the cruel and capricious gods of cycling always seem to insist we pay for any voluntary stops with an equal length, or even longer, enforced one.
Goose wanted us to all push on without him, but naturally we all wanted to stay, just for the opportunity to watch and criticise his technique as he fumbled to change his tube.
We half expected the second group to catch us, but they were having fun and games of their own, so on we pressed, battered and buffeted by the wind, which, if we weren’t grinding headlong and directly into it, would rip and swirl through any gaps in the fields and trees and slap us sideways across the road.
Other than that it would have been a perfect day, bright, clear, dry and a reasonable temperature now the sun was fully up.
We started to splinter as we approached a turn-off point for longer and shorter rides, but quickly regrouped. A handful then set off to work their way through Hallington and scale the Ryals, seemingly convinced they would have a vicious tailwind to help drive them to new KOM’s on the climb.
My legs certainly didn’t have a clamber up the Ryals in them, wind-assisted or not, so I opted for the shorter route and we set off towards Capheaton.
As we approached the short, but savage Brandywell Bank climb, Two Trousers dropped back with a puncture, but urged the rest of us on. With the smell of cake and coffee already in our nostrils, we took very little urging to leave him behind, without so much as a backward glance.
I used the last of my energy reserves on the climb and then we were swinging onto the road that would take us all the way down to the Snake Bends.
I was just about hanging on, until Richard of Flanders attempted a speculative, forlorn hope, long-range attack. (He’s been riding with the Red Max far too much lately). I didn’t have legs to immediately follow and a bunch sped away while I plodded on at my own speed.
Richard of Flanders faltered and I slid past him, but the rest were long gone and I didn’t see anyone else until I caught up with the Colossus freewheeling through the Bends and recovering from his sprinting efforts.
We cheated, taking the high road, straight down the A696, while the rest took to more scenic, less busy lanes of the low road, allowing us to sneak into the café at the head of the queue.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
I took a seat opposite OGL and Taffy Steve, directly in the full glare of a very bright and low sun. When OGL left to head home early, I immediately jumped into his seat, blinking to try and restore vision to my sun blasted retinas.
“I don’t know what was more painful to watch,” Taffy Steve sniggered, “You trying to look attentive and interested when OGL was talking, or the way you were suffering in the light.”
I had to admit it was actually the light that had been the most oppressive.
Caracol said he had a relaxing afternoon planned, watching the World Championship road race and then the Ryder Cup.
Taffy Steve suggested there was half a decent idea in there, but there weren’t any other golf fans amongst us. Sneaky Pete said he endorsed John Peel’s comments, “I do regard the playing of golf as like entering the antechamber to death. When my mates tell me they’ve started playing golf, I mentally cross them off the Christmas card list.”
The Red Max moaned that he had a far less relaxing afternoon planned, as he’d been press-ganged into replacing a malfunctioning bedroom light-fitting. We found common ground cursing electricians who install fittings with the wires stretched taut and with not a millimetre of give in them.
Taffy Steve said that his multimeter was one of the best D-I-Y purchases he’d ever made and really useful for determining if there’s any current running through a wire.
“Oh, I’ve got one of them,” the Red Max declared, licking his thumb and forefinger and miming quickly pinching them together. “My dad taught me this trick.”
“He’s quite sane and sensible, you know. Well, apart from his collection of ancient, broken and useless vacuum cleaners,” he continued
I suggested that the Red Max’s ziggurat of old and worn out bottom brackets could very easily be likened to a collection of old and worn out vacuum cleaners, but he wasn’t having it, insisting sooner or later someone will invent the tools and components he needs to repurpose all the old bottom brackets and put them back to use.
Zardoz wandered in, first to return from the longer group that had ventured up the Ryals. “He looks happy,” Taffy Steve observed, “He must have mugged someone off!”
We determined that Zardoz’s skittishness was probably caused by the outside conditions and we compared notes on our pets’ behaviour to the wind, something that always seems to send them ever so slightly loopy. One of our cats in particular goes into hyper-drive, seeing everything that moves as something to attack and belting around the garden in a state of increasing agitation and excitement.
We later learned that the Rainman had punctured at the bottom of the Ryals and Zardoz had ridden on with one of those patented, classic Sneaky Pete declarations, “I’ll just press on, I’m sure you’ll soon catch me.”
The Red Max reported that the second group had had a couple of punctures too, including one for OGL, who had somehow and uncharacteristically fumbled his repair.
The punctures had also delayed everyone, so we were running late and some were already packing to go home. We decided that a third cup of coffee was in order though and determined Sneaky Pete looked the most innocent amongst us and had the best chance of flying under the radar to successfully secure 2nd refills all round.
Talk of punctures inevitably led to a discussion about tyre choice and I naturally defended my Vittoria Rubino’s (with added graphene!) that have now ably served me through two summers of cycling, probably over 4,000 miles and trips through both the Alps and Pyrenees. I should have known better.
Then Ovis turned up, seemingly with his entire family in tow, and he declared it was late and we should already have left the café by now. The place was full to bursting and seating was scarce, so we got the bum’s rush from Ovis. “Hi, how you doing? Good to see you, isn’t it time you were going? Here’s your helmet. Bye!”
He skilfully manoeuvred his family into our warm seats, even as he smoothly ushered us out the door, where we briefly stood blinking and bewildered and once more being battered by the wind. Nicely done!
There were only five or six of us laggards left. I took to the front with Taffy Steve and away we went, battling our way once more into the wind, until Taffy Steve noticed my squishy back tyre and I stopped to repair the inevitable puncture, even as the cruel and capricious gods of cycling chuckled smugly to themselves.
With time running late, I urged everyone to just press on, insisting I’d be ok on my own. They were having none of it though and wanted to hang around, just so they could constantly remind me of my boasting about my faith in Vittoria Rubino’s (with added graphene!)
Job done, we set off again. As we dragged ourselves up the climb to Dinnington, the Red Max confessed his legs were “well tired” as he was slowly distanced.
Just before the Mad Mile, I dropped back to check he was okay, before setting off for my solo ride home. The first part of this was determinedly uphill and straight into the teeth of the wind. I’d felt tired and heavy-legged before, this was just adding insult to injury.
I finally crested the lip of the valley and started to drop down to the river, finding I still had to pedal to maintain momentum. Across the river and along the valley floor and I was finally at the foot of the Heinous Hill, with just one more battle with the wind and gradient before I could finish what had been an unexpectedly hard ride.
YTD Totals: 5,633 km / 3,500 miles with 69,467 metres of upness
Total Distance: 111 km / 69 miles with 1,159 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 10 minute
Average Speed: 26.6 km/h
Group size: 31 riders, 0 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Perfect
Saturday morning proved a good bit warmer than Thursday and Friday, when my commutes had been distinctly chilly affairs. Perhaps this was due to the insulating effect of fairly solid cloud cover that gave the early morning light a dimly suffused and milky quality and turned the river a notable flat and evil-looking slate grey. Still it was dry and, apart from a niggling, occasional bit of wind, looked like being a perfect for a ride.
I was pleased to find the bridge across the river still closed to cars, but it’s surely only a matter of time before they finally finish the longstanding repairs and I no longer get sole and unhindered use of its nice, shiny new surface. I’ve no idea what’s causing the delay, it’s been closed since May, but for once I’m happy to celebrate the inefficiency of the great British workforce.
I was first to arrive at the meeting point, just a little ahead of G-Dawg and the Colossus who I spotted approaching on my own run in.
Main topics of conversation at the meeting point:
Seeing one of our number wearing the new Holdsworth racing team jersey, OGL was unsurprised to learn it had been on special offer, revealing that he understood the team was going to fold before it had even got really started. If true, then they would join the likes of Aqua Blue and One Pro Cycling as emblems of the parlous state of British professional bike racing.
The complete and utter malfunction in marketing of Aqua Blue was also discussed as a quick, straw-poll of all those gathered revealed that only one of us realised Aqua Blue was actually a website selling cycling gear, similar to Wiggle or Chain Reaction . We variously thought it was a brand of designer water, a type of deodorant … or a make of prophylactic.
The lone person amongst us who recognised that Aqua Blue was, ahem, “the No.1 marketplace for all things pedal powered” was the Colossus and he only knew this because Aqua Blue ads constantly kept appearing on all his social media sites. In fact he said they were so intrusive, so frequent and so annoying, that he vowed never to visit the website out of principle.
Wasps were to become a recurring theme throughout the day and the little beggars provided Crazy Legs with an opportunity to expound on his interesting factoid of the week – apparently figs have to be pollinated by a wasp crawling through a hole, so small and tight that its wings are ripped off in the process. (Think of something akin to a normal sized human trying to squeeze into a medium sized Castelli jersey). The wasp becomes trapped and is then digested by enzymes in its fruit cell – one explanation for the crunchy bits in figs.
Crazy Legs said when someone first told him this, he immediately called bullshit, but a bit of research proved it was true and he challenged us to do our own research if we didn’t believe him. He also reassured us the crunchy bits in figs were just the seeds and not partially digested wasp parts.
I was surprised by the return of cycling heavyweight, Plumose Pappus and wondered when he’d be heading back to university, only to be even more surprised when he told me he’d finished his course, graduated with flying honours and was now looking to do a masters at Newcastle University. Has it really been 3 years? Have I been writing this drivel for that long? The horror…
Our leader for the week Aether outlined the route, including a late amendment which would have us using Broadway West as a route out of the city, ostensibly a measure to avoid the heavily potholed route through the Dinnington Badlands. Any other reasons for these last minute route change went unremarked and were, we felt, covered by plausible deniability.
With our numbers again bolstered by a large contingent of Grogs, we split into two groups and, seeing the balance of numbers lay with the second group, I tagged on to the back of the first one, as we pushed off, clipped in and rode out.
Yet again, we made it through Broadway West without incident. Benedict drifted to the back to ride alongside me and we passed the time chatting about commuting, cycling holidays, club runs and the like.
Today seemed to be National Cyclist Abuse Day, we had a number of drivers celebrating our very presence on their roads by serenading us sweetly with their horns – including one passing in the opposite direction at high speed, who barely had time to register his disapproval, let alone be in any way discomfited by our group.
Even the bikers wanted in on the act today though, with a particularly friendly specimen using sign language to query if we perhaps belonged to the lost tribe of Onan?
After the Monkey Butler Boy swept away to meet up with his hormonally charged Wrecking Crew, we shuffled around a bit and, once again, I dropped to the back where I was soon joined by the King of the Grogs, who’d bridged across from the second group and reported that they weren’t all that far behind.
Amongst other things, we had a brief chat about the clubs (complete lack of) succession planning for when OGL hangs up his wheels and retires, or, simply cannot summon the will to ride above the Augustus Windsock speeds that frustrate everyone else.
As we hit Whalton, he dropped back to wait for the second group, while I pushed on with the original members of the first group until we reached Dyke Neuk.
Here we paused to regroup, before choosing various shorter/longer, faster/slower options. Having been told the second group had been snapping at our heels only a few miles back, we didn’t expect a long wait, but minutes dragged past with no sign of them.
Finally the bulk of group 2 emerged, clambering up the hill to join us and we learned the King of the Grogs had hit a pothole and punctured at the bottom of the climb. We settled in for a longer than expected wait while repairs were made.
The delay gave the Red Max an opportunity to carefully inspect his rear tyre, revealing it was on its last legs and had previously been condemned to the turbo. It had been pressed back into service at short notice when the Monkey Butler Boy had decided to “borrow” Max’s Continental Grand Prix tyres to save his own, high-end, super-supple, Vittoria Corsa race tyres from unnecessary wear and tear.
Max then pointed to his front wheel, where the Monkey Butler Boy had also inexplicably swapped out the inner tube for one with a 60mm valve, 95% of which poked out, rudely and ridiculously from the skinny rims.
I couldn’t help thinking this was a case of biter-bit, recalling all the times throughout the winter when the Red Max had manically cackled about replacing one failing component after another with bits “borrowed “ from Mr’s Max’s bike.
“The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I suggested.
Combined, the Red Max and Monkey Butler Boy could probably strip a bike down to the frame, while removing all useful components, faster than Blofeld’s piranha pit could reduce a super-secret agent, or bumbling henchman to a loose collection of bare bones.
Apparently they could be just as lethal as well, with the Red Max stating he’d actually started one ride before he realised the Monkey Butler Boy had decided to ride alloy instead of carbon wheels that day and “borrowed” Max’s brake blocks when he made the switch.
With the puncture finally repaired, there was a brief coalescing before everyone split and I tagged onto the group heading up the hated climb to Rothley Crossroads and points beyond. We became strung out and splintered on the grinding climb and not a little disorganised. At the crossroads, I followed Caracol and Ovis straight across the junction. while behind some decided to wait, some went left and some, who had initially followed us, turned back again.
Caracol hesitated and looked at us quizzically. Ovis gestured we should just press on and I nodded in assent, so the three of us did just that, happy to ride as a small group. We would later learn that others had followed, but we didn’t see them and they never caught up.
Caracol led from the front, forging his way up Middleton Bank and then accelerating hard toward the café. Ovis and I contributed a couple of short turns, but I suspect we were only slowing things down and, after thrashing ourselves breathless we’d just drift back to hang off Caracol’s back wheel again, trying to recover.
Then we hit the rollers and I accelerated up and over the ramps, dragged our group up to the last corner and last climb, before I sat up. Caracol zipped past, Ovis followed a little bit later and a little more laboriously and I trailed the pair into the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
It was just about pleasant enough to sit outside in the garden, where we found ourselves constantly assailed by wasps, especially when Ovis broke the edict and had jam with his toasted teacake.
This was in direct contravention of Standing Order#414 and much to the chagrin of Carlton, who was sitting alongside him, suffering from the same over-attentive wasp activity, while looking ruefully between his own dry teacake and the one laden with gooey, sticky and sweet jam that Ovis was blithely chomping his way through.
Buster downed his cappuccino and declared it was good, much better in fact than the muddy, often tasteless big mugs of coffee we usually indulge in. This, we decided, was a classic case of quantity over quality. Not only was the cappuccino too small, effete and more costly, but crucially it didn’t come with the “free” refill. I could only quote that quantity has a quality all of its own, an aphorism I always associate with Napoleon, but has been variously attributed to Stalin, von Clauswitz and others.
After the wasp-fig bombshell from earlier this morning, Buster took up the cudgels on behalf of our vespidae friends (fiends?) He suggested that they were an essential part of the ecosystem, contributing massively toward insect pest control and that without them there’d be a massive increase in the use of pesticides.
He explained he knew so much about them because he participated in a study where members of the public were tasked with building wasp traps, collecting the contents, freezing all the little wasp corpses and them posting them off to the Royal Entomological Society for counting and identification.
This sounded like a Blue Peter appeal from some nightmarish alternate reality, with kids encouraged to make traps (out of beer bottles and baited with beer no less) and then collect dead animals. Still, probably easier and more worthwhile than collecting milk bottle tops.
We wondered why the wasps had to be frozen before posting, reasoning that they would thaw out in transit – unless, Caracol suggested, they were transported in one of those organ donor ice boxes. I could also see issues with people mistaking their collected wasp corpses for frozen mince and cooking a chilli with far more kick than intended.
Meanwhile, on an adjacent table, I could hear Crazy Legs, no doubt having already wowed his audience with facts about wasps and figs, describing how one of his neighbours had tackled a wasp nest with a Dyson…
We finally decided to retreat and leave the wasps in temporary charge of the garden, swiftly packing up to head home.
Conducting a quick headcount, G-Dawg wondered where everyone had gone. Someone pointed out the Grogs were predictably missing, having slipped away to do their own thing, while I could account for a few more who’d left early, setting out in one and two’s as they needed to get back home by a certain time.
“Oh,” I added, And Plumose Pappus was abducted by wasps. They picked him up and just flew away.” Somewhat surprisingly, everyone seemed to accept my explanation as at least plausible, if not 100% accurate.
I’m not so sure they believed my next assertion, that the wasps were going to make him their God-Emperor and the Chief Overseer of the wasp factory, responsible for making all the new wasps to replace the ones we’d killed today.
On the return I dropped in alongside Crazy Legs and we decided the Vuelta had become the Tour of Redemption for both the French, through Bouhanni and Gallopin and for previously hapless and winless, under-performing teams like EF Education First–Drapac, AG2R La Mondiale and Dimension Data.
While reminiscing about now dissolved retailer Toys R Us, Crazy Legs recalled a girlfriend who was convinced there name was actually pronounced Toysaurus. I guess either version is still better than Aqua Blue.
We’d made it almost to the top of Berwick Hill, when I declared, “Hey, no cars this week! Naturally, scant seconds later a car barrelled around the corner and we dived to the side of the lane so it could squeeze past. Me and my big mouth.
There was only time for G-Dawg to hope that if anyone did happen to have an accident on Broadway West, they would have the decency to drag their broken body and bike into a side street before calling for help, then I was swinging away and starting to pick my way back home.
A very brief shower peppered me as I crested the top of the Heinous Hill and disappeared as quickly as it came. Then I was back, done and dusted, home and hosed, or however else you want to describe it.
YTD Totals: 5,182 km / 3,219 miles with 63,722 metres of climbing
Col d’Aspin (west side) Col du Tourmalet via La Mongie
My Ride (according to Strava)
Total Distance: 125 km / 78 miles with 2,707 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 6 hours 4 minutes
Average Speed: 20.6 km/h
Weather in a word or two: Baking
Early morning, feeling better for a good night’s rest – or at least a sustained period of unconsciousness – I still can’t face a proper breakfast, but cram down a cereal bar and as much water as I think I can hold.
Today is going to be our “Big One” – although not quite on a par to last year’s Circle of Death, it is going to be a long day in the saddle and promises to be red hot too. Hopefully I’ll fare batter. Kermit is up and fuelling on multiple bowls of cereal and the Breakfast Club are just returning from their sumptuous petit dejeuner.
We congregate at the entrance to the campsite and wend our way through a sleepy Argelès Gazost, crossing the bridge over the permanently tumultuous, Gave d’Azun. Its spray gives a pleasant, brief interlude of comfort cooling, then we’re through the town and out onto open roads under a hot sun.
The Hammer seems to be on a mission, or perhaps chasing a personal Strava segment, either way he’s winding up the pace on the front. It’s too much too soon, so in tacit, unspoken agreement with Crazy Leg’s, we give up the chase and back off to let a gap grow. Finally, the Hammer realises he’s ploughing a lone furrow and we slowly coalesce into a single group again, a cycling embolism … a slow moving clot.
Heading east, we pick our way through the anonymous commercial outskirts of a quite unremarkable Lourdes, well, at least the portion of it we traverse, well away from any of the religious razzamatazz and what we’ve been led to believe is a vast array of astonishingly nasty and tacky religious tat.
Then we swing south along a valley, following the course of the river L’Adour which Google tells me actually rises from our ultimate destination, on the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet.
We’re about 35km into the ride and the road is already starting to rise as we hit the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre and get caught behind traffic filtering into the town centre.
Ribble Rousers Meet Again
While queuing behind the cars, a group of cyclists’ weave through the traffic and pass us. It’s the two Ribble Rousers and the cheery Dutchman on his town-bike we’d met on the Col d’Aubisque yesterday.
We find a café by the side of the road and settle in for perfectly polite elevenses. Here we have a brief chat with the Ribble Rousers, one of whom couldn’t have been half bad as he was a fellow Vittorian.
They were on their last day, just winding down and pottering around before leaving for a 14-hour, 1,500km drive home (eek!) to the Midlands. This had to include a detour via a local bike hire shop, after one of them somehow managed to destroy his gear hanger on a descent, luckily quite close to where they were staying. Naturally, whatever gear hangers the local bikes stocked, none of them had anything that would fit a Ribble
Hold on there, Bald Eagle…
We settled down for a relaxed coffee or two, each one served with a slice of the local delicacy, nougat.
“Ah, nugget!” the Hammer proclaimed, adopting the full Geordie-kid pronunciation of “noo-garr.” Brilliant. In a small corner of my heart, it will forever be nugget. Toblerone? That’s nugget, mate. Snickers? That’s nugget too. And who could forget the short-lived Texan bar in the eighties, it sure was a mighty chew.
Goose was found once again rhapsodising over cycling caps, for him the revelation of last year’s trip. They are now an essential part of his kit, worn under his helmet to protect his bare noggin from the sun.
Crazy Legs queried if Goose would turn back the clock, given the choice and return to having a full head of hair.
“I’ll have to mullet over,” Goose quipped. Ba-boom. (A front-runner in the Bad Dad Joke of the Day competition, but not the winner.)
He then revealed he never did have a mullet (“business at the front, party at the back”) – but had been known to sport an outrageously enormous flat-top. Now there’s a photo I’d like to see – if only because I can’t imagine it.
By way of the Hammer complimenting Captain Black on his baby-smooth skin and obviously first class moisturising regimen, talk turned to Steadfast’s Arse-Butter™ – which he revealed came in two varieties – Standard or European. The difference, apparently was the European version gave you a bit of tingle …
“Ooph! Have you tired that Tea Tree Oil shower gel,” Goose exclaimed. “I can’t use it, it’s too nice!”
Did he really just say that out loud?
With enough nonsense talked to keep us going for a while longer, we paid our dues and got back to the serious business of the day. We were already climbing on grades of around 5% as we reached the small village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, where the group decided to split.
Still suffering horribly from his chest-infection and problems breathing, Crazy Legs decided to skip the Col d’Aspin and just ride the Tourmalet. The Hammer decided this was a good plan and having himself already conquered the Aspin, decided he’d tag along too.
As a vital prelude, they decided a stop in the bar on the corner of the village square for further ravitaillement was in order, before attempting the climb. Meanwhile, the remaining six Aspin virgins set off for the lesser of the two peaks.
Six Virgins of the Aspin and the Kenny Clone
As the road climbed out of the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, we passed an old bloke in a bright orange jersey, riding a touring bike, his reflection glowering at us in his mirrors as he ground his way uphill. The road dropped down and while we saved energy and free-wheeled he pedalled furiously past, only to get caught and left behind as the road ramped up yet again.
He repeated this performance a few times, until the climb stiffened and there were no more downhill interludes for him to attack. We dubbed him “Kenny” in honour of our own Szell back home, whose particularly fond of charging to the front on downhills, before fading horribly on the subsequent climb and just getting in the way. I had a feeling we’d see “Kenny” again, before the day was out.
Up we went, with nothing too testing to start with and it was a very pleasant climb, even chugging along well off the back of the group.
The ascent from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan is about 13km long and adds another 650 or so metres to the height we’d already gained, at an average gradient of 5%. The Aspin tops out at 1,489 meters, the climbing stiffens at the top with the final 5km averaging about 7.5%.
It really is a pleasant climb to begin with, up through a lush, coniferous forest that provides lots of welcome shade. In many ways it reminded me of the Col du Telegraph, although minus the thoroughly annoying Harley bikers we’d encountered on that climb last year.
Passing through the ski station at Payolle, with about 6km to go, you are out of the trees into open pastureland, with the ubiquitous Alpine cattle clanging away on all sides. At the ski station the road briefly levels out to a false flat, before kicking up appreciably and then it starts to wind all about the mountain looking for the path of least resistance.
Despite these desperate manoeuvres, it still averages over 10% in places and a kilometre or so from the top there’s a final ramp approaching 20% just to test already tired legs.
Cow Lickin’ Good
There’s nothing really at the top, besides fantastic views down both sides of the mountain. Oh, and the cows, lining up to lick any, apparently delicious, salty-sweaty cyclist who gets too close.
We dropped into the grass at the side of the road, resting up and taking our fill of the scenery. It was at this point that someone voiced what we’d all been thinking, “Did Crazy Legs and the Hammer know something we didn’t and should we be concerned that the only veterans of these mountains had decided to skip their chance to climb the undeniably pretty Col d’Aspin?”
We finally pulled ourselves away from the views, donned jackets for the descent and started to retrace our way back down the mountain to Sainte-Marie-de-Campan and the route up the Col du Tourmalet.
As we tipped over the crest and started to gather speed, up huffed “Kenny” – he’d made it. Chapeau to that man.
At the village, we followed the example of Crazy Legs and the Hammer, stopping for a few drinks and a quick baguette in the bar just off the village square, before filling our bottles at the water fountain, where all the local cyclists were congregating.
With a Mighty High-Ho, Silver!
Then, with a mighty, High-Ho, Silver, or maybe just a tiny whimper, depending on what you want to believe, we started our ascent of the Col du Tourmalet.
If the Aspin reminded me of the Telegraph, then the Tourmalet was the crazed, bastard half-brother of the ferocious Galibier. Likewise, it was still marred by banks of dirty snow lurking in the hollows on its upper slopes, as sure a sign of thuggishness as the wispy moustache on the over-sized, over-developed, pre-teen classroom bully.
“The Col du Tourmalet is a legendary place for cycling, steeped in history and steep in slope” read one of the many descriptions of this beast that I found. It was the first climb above 2,000 metres ever used in a race and is the most used col of the Tour de France. By the time the peloton crests its summit this year, they’ll have been up it on 86 separate occasions.
You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.
Apparently, the name “Col du Tourmalet” is often wrongly translated into English as “Bad Trip” – it might be factually incorrect, but nevertheless seems entirely fitting. At an elevation of 2,115m it is often referred to as the highest paved mountain pass in the French Pyrenees.
Starting from Sainte-Marie-de-Campan, the eastern climb is 17.2 km gaining 1,268 m at an average of 7.4%, while my Strava recorded a maximum of more than 18% on one of its many, variable slopes.
So, upwards we went and downwards we started counting the kilometre markers to the summit, again my speed seemed to vary wildly depending on the slope, or the thankfully light, but still noticeable wind.
We were soon split up and scattered over the road, and even though there was generally only a couple of hundred metres between everyone, this represented massive gaps in terms of time.
I remember passing the sign for 10km to the summit, glancing down and noticing I was riding at about 5mph and running through some quick and very rough calculations … 5 miles an hour … that’s about 8 kilometres an hour … that means it’s only going to take … another hour and a quarter.
Only going to take another hour and a quarter? Only? An hour and a quarter? Climbing all the way?
We must be mad.
At 7km from the summit, there is, apparently a memorial to Eugene Christophe at the spot where his forks broke in 1913. Nope, I can’t say I noticed.
At 6km to go, I passed through the first avalanche shelter. I didn’t trust myself to reach down and grab a drink, while keeping the bike moving in a relatively straight line, so I pulled over to the side of the road for a drink and a rest.
At this point Steadfast rode past me and I was last man, tail-end Charlie again. I remounted and rode on.
Riding with the Ghost of Gerard Manley Hopkins
At 5km to go I was passing through the ski town of La Mongie, on what I thought was one of the hardest parts of the climb. The streets were wide and open and steep and, try as I might, I couldn’t go fast enough to put the spectacularly ugly ski apartments behind me and out of sight.
Like a random collection of brown Lego bricks, dropped from a great height, this monstrous collection of jutting angles was an affront to the eyes and horribly marred the otherwise spectacular scenery. “When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” as I like to think a suitably apoplectic Gerard Manley Hopkins might have commented as he rode past.
At 4km to go I notice an Italian tricolori off by the side of the road. A bit closer and it resolved itself into an abandoned pizza box and badly gnawed pizza. Even in my oxygen deprived, single-minded focus on keeping the pedals turning, this distracted me and raised some serious questions: Who would want a pizza out here? How did the Deliveroo rider react when told he had to make a delivery three quarters of the way up the Tourmalet? And who the hell is moronic enough to litter this astonishing landscape with fast food cartons. Arse hat.
Hot Foot to the Top
At 3kms to go, my right foot became almost unbearably hot and I developed a shooting, stabbing pain through the big toe. I stopped and let the pain slowly ebb away.
At 2kms to go, I can look up and see the summit and it’s lined with the dark shapes of a troupe of llamas, like an army of rapacious Zulus looking down on Rourke’s Drift. My wildly floating thoughts had become detached from their moorings, perhaps in a futile attempt to ignore the pain signals my body has been incessantly firing at it. I remember hoping they weren’t an, as yet unheard of breed of feral, carnivorous llamas, then wondering if a dalai of llamas was a suitable collective noun. I know, I know. Sorry.
With less than 1 km to go, I pass a young ingénue with pigtails, looking suitably cool in a long-sleeved white jersey and pushing (?) her bike down (?) the mountain. I theatrically puff out my cheeks and slowly draw a finger across my throat. I’m cooked.
“Well done, keep going, you’re almost there,” she calls out in perfect, but slightly accented English.
She’s not lying just to encourage me, either. Round one last corner and I’ve suddenly reached the summit and the unprepossessing silver-grey sculpture of the Géant au Col du Tourmalet. It’s done.
I find the rest of the crew relaxing on the terrace the picturesque café at the top and wander inside to confront the horribly unfriendly staff and buy some food and drink. Even as a fully-paying customer, they refuse to fill my bidon for me, though they will sell me a bottle of water so I can do it myself. Pah!
I learn that Caracol had suffered on the climb even more than I had. Bordering on serious heat stroke, he’d been forced to take refuge in the shade of one of the avalanche shelters to try and recover. He still looked pale and raw-boned, but seemed over the worst of it.
Captain Black reported encountering the pizza-eating poltroon at a point that coincided with him unleashing a majestic and nostril-burning guff, a gaseous discharge of such epic proportions and expanding so rapidly from ground zero, that he then struggled to outpace it up the slope.
We decided the pizza-poltroon had caught a whiff of this unpleasant miasma, determined his pizza was suddenly on the turn and abandoned it in its half-eaten state. The Captain was immensely pleased to know that I though I could still detect a lingering, unpleasant smell as I passed the same spot, some minutes behind him.
As the slowest descender, Kermit begged the indulgence of being first off on the descent, reasoning we would catch him before the bottom anyway, so it would reduce our waiting time. Captain Black followed, then Goose and Caracol.
Still soaked from my efforts on the climb, I pulled on my light, windproof jacket, zipped up, counted to ten and set off in pursuit.
Down Side of Me
Well ,this bit was certainly fun, with the wind snapping at the sleeves of my jacket so they fluttered with a noise like ripping silk, I was quickly up to speed and leaning sharply round the corners.
Ahead of me and still a couple of bends away, Goose and Captain Black were slowed by catching Kermit and, braking late, I rapidly closed the gap and followed them around him. I dropped into their wheels until I had a chance to slide past further down the mountain, just before the characteristics of the road started to change. Gone were the tight hairpins in favour of sweeping bends and long straights, where you could just let the bike run and quickly build up speed.
I tucked in tight and as low as I could get and started pulling back the flying Caracol, hitting 74.9km/h at one point and slowly closing the gap, churning away on the big ring whenever the pace threatened to drop. I was on terms before the descent ran out and then we were both braking hard as we swept into a built up area, before stopping to allow everyone to regroup.
Luckily, there was very little climbing left to do and the run back to the campsite was mainly flat or slightly downhill. We made good time and were very soon home and hosed.
After showering, we congregated on a porch for pre-prandial drinks and nibbles, learning that Crazy Legs had been bonding with his new chalet neighbours, a contingent of exuberantly raucous, French motor bikers, of the mid-life crisis variety. Eeh, the devils.
Around, 30 or 40 strong, the bad news was we’d be sharing the bar and our evening meal with them. The good news? The campsite was finally going to fire up the truly enormous paella pan that had proved so intriguing to Goose.
We learned he was the proud owner of his own, oversized outdoor cooking apparatus. This he claimed was called a wok-i-wok, a cast iron behemoth complete with metre wide wok or paella pan, incorporating a giant pizza stone and barbecue grill, with the whole assembly easily convertible to a patio heater, potters wheel, garden waste incinerator or portable forge for some crude iron working.
All, shipped direct from China for a mere £150, although Goose reported that sadly, they no longer seem available. (I guess it would have been churlish of me to suggest I wasn’t surprised, as I could actually only think of one, single person who might be interested in buying such a monstrosity.)
But the revelations were by no means complete, as we then had a masterclass in the cooking the perfect giant paella in a wok-i-wok, giant paella pan. The secret apparently is all down to layering – all ingredients have to be prepared in advance and then layered into a extra large Lakeland, Tupperware pail (I think this was a grandiose way of saying a bucket) – but, and here’s the trick, they have to be added in the reverse order to which they’ll be used.
Talk turned to the local cattle, complete with their clanging bells, which Goose presumed were only put on the Alpha Males of the herd. It was time to strike for Bad Dad Joke of the Day and with no shame I accepted the challenge – “I don’t know why they need bells, they’ve all got horns.” (I don’t think I’ll be invited back next year.)
A suitable point to retire for dinner…
In the bar the giant paella pan had been fired up for the Mid-Life Motorcycle Mob, piquing the interest of Goose, who naturally had to get involved and share tips and secrets with the taciturn cook. He was especially intrigued by one ingredient a huge quantity of a bright red elixir, which he guessed was some super-exotic, local speciality, that would give the paella a unique flavour and character.
“Non,” he was told,”Ee’s just food colouring.”
Oh well …
The paella was just for the Gallic Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob, not for the British Mid-Life Crisis Cyclists, we had to choose from the standard menu, but had some consolation in prime seats to follow the Germany vs. Sweden World Cup game.
Crazy Legs seemed to have found a new hero in Polish footballer, Łukasz Piszczek, whose name he thought was brilliant. I felt it was a name that was likely to give Chris “Puff Daddy” Froome sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs fell into conversation with a Dutch couple, who kindly queried after my health, having seen me looking like a zombie extra from the Walking Dead at dinner last night.
Match ended and paella despatched, the Mid-Life Motorcyle Mob broke out a guitar for an impromptu sing-along. Perhaps expecting some French culture, things got off to a bad start with a raucous rendition of Volare and then the Gypsy Kings Bamboléo.
“Well, it’s not Jacques Tatti,” Crazy Legs observed dryly (or Jackie the Spud as he’s known on Tyneside.)
Sing-along degenerated into massed chanting. A couple of “oggie, oggie, oggies” which then gave way to something that sounded disconcertingly like “Sieg Hiel.”
As the guitar was picked up again and the mob launched into an off-key, off kilter version of La Bamba, we suddenly remembered we had to be up early tomorrow to ride up a mountain and quietly slipped away.
Total Distance: 112 km / 70 miles with 879 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 14 minutes
Average Speed: 26.3 km/h
Group size: 24 riders, 2 FNG’s
Weather in a word or two: Showery
I awoke from a disturbed night of chasing multiple wet cats and their multiple mice “house guests” through multiple rooms, feeling generally unrested and mildly nauseous and with thundering headache pounding dully in the back of my skull.
Unusually, I also hadn’t prepared anything the night before, so wasted a whole heap of time dithering about what to wear and trying to second-guess the weather.
Heavy rain showers had rolled over during the night, but now seemed to be clearing. The roads though were still awash and there was every chance we’d be hit by further rain throughout the day. So jersey, shorts and arm warmers were the starting point, but overshoes or not? Knee or leg warmers? Jacket or gilet? I even (very) briefly considered breaking the Peugeot out of mothballs for the added protection of mudguards.
Unpreparedness translated into dithering and then dithering into delay. As a consequence, it was 15 minutes later than usual when I finally saddled up and pushed off from the kerb. The showers seemed to have cleared for the time being, but the roads were still wet and I dropped down the hill taking extra care to avoid the slickly shining manhole covers and white lines.
In the valley a mental inventory of my back pockets revealed I’d left my spare inner tube as an ugly, useless and impromptu centrepiece in the middle of the dining room table. Having bragged about how pleased I was with my tyres last week, I couldn’t help feel this was tempting fate and the spare was something I might be needing later. Too late now, I just hoped the other two tubes I carried on the bike would be enough if the cycling gods wanted to punish me for my Vittorian-inspired hubris.
Still feeling generally washed-out and a bit “meh” (funnily enough, a word whose precise meaning I’d recently been debating with the Prof) – I took the dual-carriageway-surfing, short-cut across the river and out of the valley.
Somehow, someway I managed to make up lost time and found myself arriving at the meeting point a good ten minutes earlier than usual, my only company a huge, scavenging Herring Gull that seemed intent on giving me the evil eye.
Main topics of conversation at the start:
Today the Prof had volunteered to lead us and had posted up a suitably eccentric route that included precisely 666 metres of climbing and a fun trip, straight down the A69. Trying to share the road with a hurtling mass of death-dealing traffic wasn’t in anyone’s best interests, so various suggestions and amendments had been made, until the proposed route had been knocked into a shape that everyone seemed happy with.
(I quite liked the initial, satanically-inspired 666 metres of climbing, but suspect it didn’t survive the final cut. Maybe that’s just as well though as we have had one rider in the past who refused to wear a club jersey simply because it was made by (the totally respectable) Imp Sport and (allegedly) actively encouraged devil worship. Luckily this rider never learned about my unhealthy Van Impe obsession, or I might have been declared unclean, excommunicated and cast out.)
I was chatting with Taffy Steve and De Uitheems Bloem, when the Prof rolled to a stop behind us.
“Hmm, where is your helmet?” De Uitheems Bloem asked, glancing over at the Prof.
In a moment of surprised befuddlement, the Prof raised both of his hands to comically pat all around his naked head, as if indeed trying to discern exactly where his helmet might have gone. When this failed to reveal the errant headgear hiding somewhere in the fairly limited space between his ears, he finally had to concede he’d simply forgotten to pick it up on the way out of the door.
With the clock ticking down toward official Garmin Muppet Time, a compromise solution was reached and the Prof disappeared around a nearby corner to borrow a helmet from De Uitheems Bloem’s family stock.
By this time G-Dawg had arrived on his winter fixie, apparently in an attempt to preserve the true blue tyres of his best bike in their still pristine condition. Realising that the impending weather was simply too much for “Cloudchaser” to cope with, Crazy Legs had also swapped the cossetted Ribble for his Bianchi, while OGL pulled up and declared, “W.R.W.B.”
I looked at him quizzically, “Huh?”
“Wet roads, winter bike.” He explained.
Son of G-Dawg had no such qualms about subjecting his all-carbon, aero-stealth bike to a little variable weather and looking it over I noticed his short, stubby stem had no cap on. I wondered if it whistled in the wind and would fill up with water if it rained. Jimmy Mac suggested sticking a straw in it for a handy mid-ride drink, while I finally decided it most resembled an ink well and needed a quill pen to complete the look.
The Red Max was more concerned with the aerodynamic effects and turbulence the hole might cause. Son of G-Dawg indicated his own size compared to the small void in his stem and suggested it really wasn’t going to make that much difference.
The Red Max insisted though that now the issue had been raised it would prey on Son of G-Dawg’s mind. Son of G-Dawg finally conceded the truth of this and promised by next week he’d have carefully fashioned a diaphragm from cling film to smooth out any troublesome airflow.
The Prof returned having not only scored a borrowed helmet, but some specs as well and we were good to go.
With only 24 riders out a single-group with a pre-planned split was agreed and we pushed off, clipped in and rode out.
I spent the first part of the ride chatting with the Prof about the intricacies of the Dutch education system and the benefits of a meritocracy. I then had some time with Laurelan discussing festivals and holidays and, more bizarrely, silent jazz disco’s.
From here I rotated through Richard of Flanders, Ovis and the Plank, before ending up back with Laurelan.
“It’s a bit like a barn dance, with ever changing partners,” she suggested as I slotted in beside her again.
“Yep, do-si-do,” I agreed.
“The next thing you know, we’ll all be chucking keys into a bowl,” she added.
“Hmm, that’s not going to work for cyclists,” I countered, “What about multi-tools instead?”
Before we could finalise the correct etiquette to follow for cycling-partner swaps, we were calling a pee stop and I found Crazy Legs ferreting around in his back pocket. Half-expecting him to whip out a multi-tool to throw into a bowl, I was more than a little relieved when he simply brandished a cereal bar in my face, declaring with seemingly great enthusiasm that these were the best, because they were so dry they instantly sucked all the moisture out of your body
“Try some,” he urged.
I cautiously nibbled off a corner which instantly sucked in my cheeks, made my teeth so dry they stuck to my lips, and caused my tongue to curl up and shrivel like a slug basted in salt.
Bloody hell, I can only assume these bars were forged in the heat of the Gobi Desert from a mix of oven-baked sawdust, desiccated coconut, wood ash and silica gel. How on earth do you swallow that? Five minutes later I was still speechless, coughing out dust like a broken vacuum cleaner and I’d gone through half a bottle trying to wash the dustbowl out of my chalky, mummified mouth.
As we dropped into the Tyne Valley, I slipped to the back of the group and watched the sky turn ominously dark as a light shower transformed itself into lashing rain. Caracol sensibly called a halt and we ducked into a convenient parking space at the side of the road to pull on jackets.
The shower continued to increase in intensity and soon the rain was stotting off the road and cold tendrils of water started sliding their way slowly and unpleasantly into my shoes and shorts.
Cold, wet and feeling decidedly queasy, I was concentrating on ignoring the unpleasant water-ingress while trying to avoid doing a “Mollema” as we pressed on.
I think it’s fair to say that no one was surprised to find the Prof and De Uitheems Bloem riding off the front and away from everyone else in another attempt at Dutch independence, or a Hexit. We chased them down, catching up sometime later as they stopped at a junction, dithering about which way to go next.
“Your planned and published route had us turning off this road long before now.” G-Dawg informed the Prof. Oh dear.
We were now faced with either back-tracking or finding another way to climb out of the valley, using a route that G-Dawg stood at least a fighting chance of managing on his fixie. I recalled Zardoz telling me of one ride with the Wednesday Wrecking Crew of Venerable Gentlemen Cyclists™ when he’d seen G-Dawg and fixie defeated by one particularly steep hill and he’d simply clambered off, shouldered his bike cyclo-cross style and ran up the hill faster than anyone could ride up it.
Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that today.
A few options were discussed, before we settled on a likely route up to the A69, across and then onto the 4th category climb up through Newton. It would be bloody hard going on a fixie, but should be doable for G-Dawg if he got a clear run at it.
Yet more games of Frogger with the A69 gave us a new High Score and Bonus and we managed to escape with all lives intact to start the climb upwards.
I sat and spun away behind G-Dawg, trying to give him as much room as possible and marvelling at the raw power, as he ground the hill slowly down into submission. As we approached the village of Newton a car turned down into the narrow lane, and the riders all slowed and bunched. For an instant it looked like G-Dawg was going to lose all momentum and be forced to stop, but the driver saw us, pulled over to the side and we were able to squeeze past to complete the climb.
More climbing followed and the group started to splinter apart, while I slipped to the back to find Szell struggling on the inclines.
Apparently, up ahead open-season had been declared and all informed that now it was “everyone for themselves” – or as Ovis commented to Crazy Legs, “Ah, a Margaret Thatcher ride!”
I joined a small group that slowly coalesced at the back with G-Dawg, Son of G-Dawg, Taffy Steve, Red Max, Crazy Legs and Laurelan and we eased to allow Szell to re-join, before picking up speed to follow the rest.
Passing through Matfen, we decided on the fly to miss out the Quarry Climb and route through Stamfordham instead, where we kept the group together and at a civilised pace right up to the road down to the Snake Bends.
At the last, Son of G-Dawg, Taffy Steve and the Red Max popped out to play, skipping off the front to contest a rather subdued sprint, while I was content to sit in amongst the wheels. We regrouped to dart down the lane parallel to the main road and rolled our way to the café.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
In the café queue, Crazy Legs likened OGL to South Park’s Cartman, patrolling the roads on his “Big Wheel” and demanding everyone: “respect my authoritah!”
“Did you ever watch South Park?” he asked Laurelan.
“Only when I was allowed to,” she replied innocently.
Meanwhile, on Taffy Steve’s advice, Szell passed up on his usual scone and went for an exotic Mars-Snickers-Malteser-Twix sort of chocolate combination tray bake, only to take a bite and recoil in horror because it was chilled.
We then learned that Szell was the only one around the table who has never had cold chocolate and it was a revelation to him that we all thought it perfectly natural to keep our Dairy Milk and Galaxy in the refrigerator
He was quite astounded that this seemed such a common trait and he eyed up everyone around the table and demanded, “So what else does everyone do that I don’t?”
“Err… ride our bikes from September to April?” Taffy Steve dead-panned.
Ouch. And. Burn.
Dissecting today’s ride, everyone decided that it had gone exactly as they had expected and if they’d prepared a check list in advance the Prof would have managed to tick every box:
Riding away from everyone off the front. Check.
Missing the right route and going off piste. Check.
Leading us onto a dangerous road. Check.
Instigating a hell for leather, chaotic free for all finale. Check.
Taffy Steve was the only one who demurred, insisting at least one thing had been different … because the Prof had borrowed a different pair of specs from his usual pitch-black, Ray-Ban welders goggles, he hadn’t felt the need to tilt his head back and peer myopically out from underneath them when addressing us. Vive le difference.
I then asked if it had been a good ride and if we’d trust the Prof to lead us again and received a resounding yes to both questions. Cyclists, eh?
Thoughts turned to succession planning within the club and we tried to establish if OGL’s son had ever had any interest in cycling. Crazy Legs suspected he’d probably have feigned interest in anything but cycling, even synchronised swimming, in order to avoid riding with his dad.
Despite this lack of cycling interest, we still suspected he might turn up at the meeting point one morning in a carefully staged, super-smooth succession coup, that would make the power transfer of Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un look as complex as a Kudzu plot.
With a bit of food inside, I began to feel better and abandoning my cap, which had served its primary purpose and kept rain and spray out of my eyes, let some air through my helmet vents to my noggin which seemed to help ease the headache.
A heavy hail shower had come and gone as we sat sheltered in the café and now the day slowly started to brighten as we set off. I rode back for the most part alongside Biden Fecht, chatting about books and authors, both cycling and in general, until it was time to split for home.
An uneventful trip back followed and sometime later, sitting in front of my computer, a message popped up from Taffy Steve declaring Strava was “on glue” because he’d been comparing our estimated power outputs on one of the climbs and determined that in order for him to match me he’d need to put out a frankly impossible 750 watts for several minutes.
I have to admit I never pay a great deal of attention to cycling’s more esoteric stats such as power outputs, VAM, heart rates and all the rest. I’d even given up on measuring my heart rate because I kept forgetting to wear the monitor and never looked at the data anyway.
Still, I was mildly intrigued by Taffy Steve’s assertion. I thought I might find some answers by checking my personal details on Strava, reasoning that I’d set the account up a couple of years ago and had shed a few pounds since then and this might be throwing things off.
I was however completely unprepared for what I found – apparently in the box for Weight: I’d entered 170 kgs or 375 pounds – I’d tricked Strava into believing I resembled a starting calibre, NFL defensive lineman who could climb like a gazelle!
I had to shamefacedly admit to Taffy Steve that Strava wasn’t on glue, but I obviously had been when setting up my account. I’ve still no idea where the 170 figure came from and what it refers to – perhaps I’d simply tried to enter my weight in “old money” – troys, cloves or maybe scruples?
I’ve corrected it now, so my Strava stats will no longer look stratospheric and might start to more accurately reflect the travails of a mediocre to startlingly average, strictly amateur, middle-aged cyclist, rather than a freak of nature.
YTD Totals: 3,054 km / 1,898 miles with 33,505 metres of climbing
Total Distance: 112 km / 70 miles with 991 metres of climbing
Ride Time: 4 hours 22 minutes
Average Speed: 25.6 km/h
Group size: 20 riders
Weather in a word or two: Cold and breezy
A grey cool and cloudy morning, the roads were bone dry and empty of traffic as I ripped down the hill, able to use the full width of the lane and just let the bike run with gravity.
I’m pretty content with my setup at the moment and the new tyres in particular have massively exceeded expectations. I don’t make a habit of recommending things, as I’m aware everyone has their own preferences and needs, and how they use something will probably be different from how I would, but I will say that when it comes to replacing my tyres I can’t see me looking much beyond these Vittoria Pro G+ Rubino’s. Then again, I am a committed Vittorian, so there’s probably a huge amount of confirmation bias in my assessment.
I’ve been running the Rubino’s since early April, so probably around 1,000 km and despite the horrible state of the roads around here, there’s not a mark on them – usually after a few runs I would expect at least a few nicks and cuts in the tread, but there’s nothing, nada, zip, zilch.
I’ve no idea if the graphene component actually makes any difference whatsoever and I suspect it’s all just marketing hyperbole, but the tyres undoubtedly roll well and grip seems very good. I was also expecting some loss of performance switching down from the more expensive, lighter and more supple, Corsa Evo’s, but if it’s happened it’s not remotely discernible to a plodder like me.
They also seem more comfortable and able to iron out at least some of the imperfections in the road, but I’m largely putting this down to switching from 23mm to 25mm width and the extra bit of cushioning that provides. Anyway, it all helps and I need all the help I can get – I’ve dropped around 4-5 pounds since Christmas and find it increasingly difficult to keep a high pace on broken and rough road surfaces.
There was no exotic birdlife to distract me on this week’s journey to our start point, although the Canada Geese had over spilled from Shibdon Pond and were lining the side of the road honking at the traffic like some avian picket line. The flying pickets? Hmm, maybe not.
For the first section, I had a brisk wind at my back, but that would change as soon as I crossed the river. Cloud cover overhead was fairly dark and uniform and the flags at a car dealership snapped away in the wind, lanyards clanging furiously on their poles – it was warm, but some distance from being a calm and settled day and rain looked a distinct possibility.
As I passed the power station on the run up to the bridge, the overhead lines hummed and buzzed relentlessly, suggesting the air was already full of moisture and lending credence to some of the forecasts that determined there was even a chance of a few isolated thunderstorms.
Over the river and yet more temporary lights delayed progress where it looked like they were busy extending the cobblestone runway. Oh well, more bits of road to avoid. This new obstacle finally negotiated, I slogged my way out of the valley, up and on to the meeting point.
Main topics of conversation at the start:
G-Dawg was already waiting, eager to show off his new blue Michelin tyres, carefully colour coordinated to match his frame and very, very blue. Did I mention they were blue? When questioned he made the valid point that he didn’t know how good the tyres were performance-wise– but that wasn’t the point was it? They were blue!
He did however suggest blue tyres probably weren’t that big a seller and the dealer reportedly had hundreds in stock, so he too looks well set for tyre choice from now on.
Crazy Legs complained that the gold chain was beginning to look just a little out of place. Whether or not G-Dawg can source a more aesthetically pleasing, matching blue one remains to be seen.
Szell rolled up, leapt off his “fat lad’s bike” and immediately started fiddling with his seatpost clamp. We immediately asked if he’d seen OGL’s new bike, wondered how it would fit Szell for size and if he actually liked the custom colour scheme he’d soon be inheriting.
He admitted he’d thought of taking his bike to OGL to have the seatclamp fettled, but was worried the whole thing would be condemned outright and he’d be told nothing was salvageable, except maybe the bottle cages. Then it would be revealed, that it just so happened there was one of OGL’s old bikes he could have that would be a perfect fit…
Zardoz sidled up and began playing possum, feigning weakness, decrepitude and general infirmity before we’d even started out … but managing to fool no one.
“Hey, you were limping on the other leg just before.” Taffy Steve, noted dryly.
Zardoz finally admitted that even among the infamous Wednesday Wrecking Crew of Venerable Gentlemen Cyclists™ (WWCVGC) it had been his turn to dish out the pain this week and try to rip everyone’s legs off. It’s duly noted, he’s flying.
Considering we have a bevy of people in Majorca, some off doing the Wooler Wheel and even one or two apparently tracing one of the Prof’s eccentric routes up and down the north east coast to Seahouses for, err… fun, the turnout wasn’t too bad for the ride that had been pre-planned and publicised by Crazy Legs. It was worth noting however that shorn of “chick-magnet” Benedict, none of the girls were present.
With a reasonable group size of just twenty riders and no need to split at the start, a turn-off for a shorter route up past the Quarry was planned, while the rest would head down the Ryals before looping back round to the café.
Off we set and I dropped in alongside Richard of Flanders for the first section. The Plank, newly returned from a posting overseas and a bad racing crash, proved that the competition for the clubs smallest, leakiest bladder was still very much alive, highlighted by his constant forays off the front to ensure maximum exposure for his micturition ministrations.
The Prof is due to set a route and lead us out next week, so we’ll probably have more pee stops than a Saga coach trip around British micro-breweries – and an opportunity to assess pee performance head-to-head. This should go some way to identifying which of the two is in the running as a role model for TENA.
I found myself riding alongside Keel for the next section and discovered we both share a mutual fascination with the odious, venal, perfidious, paranoid, incompetent, infantile, thin-skinned and (what I find most surprising and disturbing) dumb as a stump Trump. There’s reportedly an old Chinese saying – “may you live in interesting times” and America’s presidential selection (as Crazy Legs rightly predicted) has delivered in droves.
We then called timeout for an official pee-stop, much to the Plank’s relief and I observed several of my fellow cyclists huddled among bushes – not I hasten to add actually “in the bushes” – just so that’s clear.
We passed through the village of Ryal and pinned back our ears to hurtle down its attendant slopes, hitting almost 70 kph, before by-passing our usual route and the sharp climbs through Hallington, for a wider sweep to the west before back-tracking toward the café.
This new, longer, but less severe route met with Taffy Steve’s approval, but I couldn’t help missing the stiffer climbing test through Hallington, if only as a means of injecting a little pain, and tiredness into the legs of the rouleurs among us before the final run in.
Now we only had the ascent of what Strava identifies as “Humiliation Hill” to soften up the big boys and it wasn’t going to be enough. I found myself climbing next to Szell, who was going full bore and interspersed deep and heavy panting with an unseemly series of grunts, groans and moans, like the soundtrack to a bad 80’s porn film.
At the climax, so to speak and as we crested the top, Zardoz breezed past, puffed out his cheeks and issued an explosive per-te-cusht. Bloody hell, I didn’t know I was riding with Ivor the Engine!
A scooter gang in a long, spluttering and farting line then buzzed past in the opposite direction. They seemed disappointingly dowdy and unkempt bunch, with to none of the vintage, well-maintained Vespa’s, bright shining chrome and mirrors, or the sharp clothes I would associate with a proper scooter club.
In their wake, they trailed the smell of 2-stroke exhaust fumes, something I always find strangely redolent of ice-cream vans parked by a beach in summer – an odd juxtaposition with a grey, gloomy and chill day in the wilds of Northumberland.
Now on a long, straight, rolling stretch of road and still miles short of the café, Crazy Legs decided to shake things up and attacked off the front and soon a small knot of four or five had opened up a sizeable gap. I started to work my way forward to try and jump across, flitting from wheel to wheel as riders were spat out the back.
I jumped from Taffy Steve’s wheel to the Big Yin’s and from there into the no-mans-land between the two groups, slowly starting to close before progress stalled and I hung chasse patate for a while. Luckily, I’d either dragged G-Dawg with me, or he’d bridged onto my back wheel, as he then came pounding past and I dropped in behind and we started to home in on the front group again.
With the gap down to about 20 metres, it was G-Dawg’s turn to stall and hang in space, but I was finally able to pull us across and we latched onto the back of the train, just as it barrelled down and around a series of long sweeping curves.
We then hit the last, short, sharp rise to the junction of the road leading down to the Snake Bends. Boxed in between Crazy Legs and G-Dawg I attacked the slope too hard and in danger of running into the wheels in front and with nowhere to go either side, I eased, touched the brakes and bang – a gap instantly opened up.
I gave chase, but the group was in full cry and there was no getting back this time, as I bounced and battered away down the heavily pitted and cratered surface. Trying to find a slightly smoother ride away from the road buzz, I swung out across the lane, surfing along the white lines, which helped, but just a little.
Crazy Legs was the next to lose contact, eased out of the back of the hurtling front group and I slowly started to claw my way across to him. A rattling, banging and clunking behind announced another rider had tracked me down and, as the road dipped and straightened, the Big Yin whirred past. I knew he was coming and tried to follow but had nothing left and couldn’t hold his wheel. Meanwhile up ahead he passed Crazy Legs, who was able to latch on and they pulled away from me.
Through the Snake Bends, across the main road and onto the parallel lane, I resumed the chase and finally caught up with everyone at the last junction, just in time to see a black and yellow blur flash past as Taffy Steve barrelled down the main drag and past us all. “Never mind first in the sprint, it’s first in the café queue that really counts,” he later proclaimed.
As ever that was fast, fun and furious, although I’m beginning to develop a bit of an aversion for that particular run in and its horrible road surface. Still, even if glass smooth I don’t think I’ll be up contesting the final sprint anytime soon.
Main topics of conversation at the coffee stop:
G-Dawg sat down with his usual ham and egg pie, then had a bacon buttie delivered to the table and when a waitress turned up with a toastie, we all thought that was his as well. Taffy Steve concluded that it didn’t matter if G-Dawg was alone, or with Son of G-Dawg, he always bought and consumed exactly the same amount of food.
With another successful, pre-determined, pre-publicised, non-OGL dictated ride under our belts, we were all looking forward to next week, when the Prof has volunteered to boldly lead us onward.
This could prove interesting, or challenging – or maybe both. The Prof does not enjoy a reputation for having an infallible, unerring sense of direction and has been known to lead us merrily down one hill, only to realise his mistake, turn us sharply around at the bottom and make us climb straight back up again. He also has a curious affinity for long, long rides along unknown roads with unknown destinations.
Eon seem somewhat wistful that he would be away next week and would miss our adventures on the Prof’s route, declaring that he was off visiting family and would be riding around Blackpool.
“Don’t worry,” I told him, “We’ll probably see you there.”
With rain starting to batter the café windows, Richard of Flanders wondered if it was “cape weather” on the way back and I wondered if he thought he was Batman.
This led to us re-visiting the concept of actual cycling capes and whether the World Champion wasn’t deserving of a rainbow, striped cape. Everyone imagined that Peter Sagan, the ultimate showman, would be well up for this, although Taffy Steve thought he’d probably demand his cape have an ermine collar and be lined in leopard skin.
Well-educated through multiple screenings of The Incredibles, Richard of Flanders was concerned that any cape was likely to be a liability that could catch in the back wheel. We explained that as a World Champion, the wearer was expected to be able to pedal fast enough to keep the cape always streaming out behind them, except in the neutralised zones of course, where their domestiques would be required to form a procession either side of the champion and hold up his train.
In a sudden flash of insight, Taffy Steve declared that Peter Sagan was the Chris Eubank of the cycling world. Things took a turn for the truly bizarre when he next mentioned his idea of a great reality programme involved getting Peter Sagan, Chris Eubank and Jean-Claude Van Damme all off on a bike ride together. Shudder.
Talk of Rab Dee’s super-dense brownies, so dense in fact that that they’ve been credited with having their own gravitational pull, led to the suggestion that he was deserving of an award for being the most gentlemanly of our riders.
Trying to think of someone who could challenge Rab in this category, Richard of Flanders suggested Grover and was somewhat shocked to learn of his (probably) undeserved reputation as OGL’s enforcer in absentia. That’s the secret police for you – insidious and innocuous, until they’re kicking in doors and taking down the names of anyone who hasn’t paid their subs, or dares to ride without mudguards.
Taffy Steve and I then had a brief chuckle when he cast OGL in the role of Raffles, the Gentleman Thug from Viz.
With no Garrulous Kid to provide a suitable injection of fresh ridiculousness, we were heartened by recalling the time he asked G-Dawg if he knew Son of G-Dawg. This it was suggested was the most asinine question since Donna Air asked The Corrs how they first met, although personally I didn’t think it was as funny as when Shouty finally realised the pair were father and son and all the food G-Dawg bought Son of G-Dawg at the café wasn’t some sinister form of grooming.
Meanwhile, Crazy Legs recalled his days spent working government contracts and pondering such deep, philosophical questions as the difference between a midget and a dwarf and the apparently popular conundrum (amongst the IT Crowd) – if you had the chance to sleep with all of the Corrs, but only if you did actually sleep with all of the Corrs, in what order would you do it? I wonder if Jim Corr would be happy that he’s the cause of so much inefficiency within the public sector?
We set out for the trip back in a fairly depressing, quite heavy and chill shower and I immediately kicked off onto the front with Richard of Flanders to try an warm up. As we passed Kirkley Hall and turned along the narrow lane up to Berwick Hill I pondered how many lunatics we’d likely meet, driving too fast in the opposite direction. Richard suggested three and asked for the over-under – I was feeling strangely optimistic, so went with under.
As we hit the bottom of the climb, Richard of Flanders slipped back and was replaced on the front by Crazy Legs and as we started to climb side by side, I pressed on the pedals just a little bit harder to try and keep us at an even pace.
We passed under an electric pylon with the cables audibly buzzing and spitting in the damp air – as sure a sign as any, according to Crazy Legs that there was a lot of rain about and that Cloudchaser had failed in his primary task.
As we approached the crest of the hill, I remarked that, “It’s very quiet back there.” Turning around we found we’d managed to drop everyone but G-Dawg and were climbing in splendid isolation. Oops. We slowed to regroup and we pushed along through Dinnington, before ceding the front to G-Dawg and Eon.
I dropped in alongside Taffy Steve, who looked at the dark band of clouds boiling up over Mordor and suggested it was going to be a long, wet ride back into the wind. Still feeling optimistic, I told him I was sure the rain was going to stop and I’d at least get the chance to dry off before I got home. He laughed at me and suggested I might as well wish that Theresa May wouldn’t win the General Election in a landslide.
I told him if you were going to dream, you might as well dream big, something I’d seen on a poster a long time ago, so knew it must be profoundly true. Then the rest of the group were turning off and I followed Eon and G-Dawg through the Mad Mile before spinning away, directly into the headwind to pick my way home.
The wind made absolutely sure that there’d be no chance of any Strava PR’s on the trip back, but just as I started the climb of Heinous Hill, I swear the sun poked a hole in the clouds and briefly threw my shadow up alongside me for company. It wasn’t quite enough to dry me out, but at least provided a more pleasant finale to another good ride.
YTD Totals: 2,887 km / 1,794 miles with 31,684 metres of climbing