'Please tell me this is the top!'
Following the week's ... interesting ... weather, it was a relief to see black tarmac outside of the house first thing. Even yesterday's training ride had to have its route changed as we went along to keep off the smaller roads, following some tricky conditions along to Heugh. And a sheep.
The increase in temperature brought about an increase in numbers too - ten of us set out on our merry way, safe in the knowledge that, eventually, we'd end up at the Hollybush. I had taken the week's conditions into account and the first half of the ride was done on roads that I knew would be OK.
We set off in a relatively leisurely fashion up through Darras Hall and along to Stamfordham in what was probably the least exciting trip along there that I've had in a long time which suited the group Just Fine, thanks. As we turned left at Cheeseburn, I caught sight of another group coming across the bridge to our right and thought that this was probably the C3 Ride. It turned out that it wasn't the C3 Ride, because we got to within 100 yards of them at Fenwick where they beat us to the little cut that I'd originally planned to use. So, rather than arrive on the back of them and put apparent pressure on to get through, which would be (a) difficult, (b) slightly dangerous and (c) completely unnecessary, we carried straight on to Matfen and turned right for Ryal village from there instead.
Ryal came and went and I thought we were going to get away with some very decent roads. Nope. The section between the farm and the top of the Ryals themselves was muddy, wet and has some extremely unpleasant potholes to ride through. We all made it through unscathed, with the possible exception of the vocal cords of those towards the front, which got a good old fashioned workout. Thing was, now we knew there were hazards, but there were so many, of which a great number were underwater, that there was no actual way of avoiding them all.
The temperature dropped significantly as we came to the very bottom section of the Ryals: there was even a cold mist hanging in the air and a little bit of slush on one side of the road. Fortunately, none of it was really a hazard to us and we made it to the crossroads, where the group stopped for Jason to take a call and Roger to make a different kind of one, which caused him to see the last couple of riders on the C3 Ride disappearing into the distance along the small road that takes you across to the A68.
We carried straight on towards the Hallington road and, thence, Chollerford. A quick stop at the traffic lights on the bridge, a dodge of the 4x4 parked jauntily on the exit of the roundabout and then a longer stop at the traffic controlled roadworks. When the lights turned green we let the cars go first, even though we were at the front of the queue: it seemed the sensible thing to do and meant we weren't caught up in what looked like the beginning of an Incident further up the road when the first vehicle of the two was looking like they _really_ didn't want to be overtaken up the hill, despite the (eventually successful) attempt of the second one.
Saving us all from severe oxygen debt, we turned off left towards Fourstones, but only made it a mile, or so, along the road before having to stop to make the other kind of call to the one he'd received earlier. His penance for this was to go straight to the front of the group, which he did by simply failing to slow down as he rode past the stationary group. Half a mile later, once we'd caught back on, we made him do his proper turn.
The run down from Fourstones is quite nice and will be on the list to do again, although the jaunty angle of the railway lines at the level crossing did add a small frisson of danger to proceedings: riding them badly, or incorrectly, will see you head straight over the bars and, possibly, if you're having a particularly challenging day, into oncoming traffic. Timing is everything.
Timing was almost everything once we reached the A69 from Warden. We had to take our opportunities to get across the carriageway, which was fine in the end, although we did have to yell at Josh so that he didn't ride straight across the gap in the central reservation and into oncoming traffic. Disaster averted, I suddenly found that I'd gone from second wheel to the back of the group. This lasted for all of 100 yards until things came back together and, somehow, also been catapulted back to second wheel and, somewhat disconcertingly, at an increasing distance from first wheel as a breakaway of Miriam, Josh and Bob began to ride away into the distance. I decided to give them a test and waited to see how long it would be before someone noticed: about half a mile is the answer, but, eventually, the eerie sound of silence behind them told and they waited for us to catch back on.
We buzzed through Hexham, narrowly averting a split at one set of traffic lights, before turning right onto the final section before lunch. Miriam and Becci carried straight on as they both needed to get back, which left eight of us to ride up the hill out of Hexham. I'd decided not to tackle everyone favourite hill that keeps on giving, but the more straightforward one that just goes up a lot instead. By this time I was sitting on the front of the group and, despite a call that I'd see people at the top, it was clear that no-one wanted to take a punt and I sat doing steady pacemaking duty all the way to the top. This must have been harder than I'd originally anticipated as the conversation dried up quite quickly after that, at least until just prior to the top of the penultimate crest, where Bob queried whether it _was_ the top. Being the kind of guy I am, I wanted until just the point that he could see that it wasn't and ... carried on with the effort until the actual top, when I pulled across and waited for the remainder of the group to come together before dropping down and then pulling up the final ascent to the Hollybush.
Which was very busy - there were a myriad of bikes outside and I was worried that we'd have to fall back on Plan B, but, by the time I got inside tables had been commandeered and it was just a matter of putting things together to give us the eight seats that we needed. I do like the Hollybush, especially when they have the heater on: it was gloriously warm inside in a way that only Capheaton veterans will understand. Even better, and despite my Belgian tan, I'm known by face in there now (I'm so, so, sorry) and my order was easily placed with minimal fuss, which was handy as I was standing next to Josh, who confessed that he was shrugging off a cold, so I was trying not to breathe in. I was very impressed to see the ladies keeping the table's individual order tabs together, which meant we were served as a table, rather than in odds and sods (we weren't a single Vagabonds queue unit - some of the other tables' residents were mixed into the queue with us) so, if you'll forgive an Americanism ... nice job! The food itself was also a nice job, although I can't no mention the slight erratum with Josh's order, but this was quickly rectified and should serve as an example as to why you should stick to the simple pleasures of something like a BSE, rather than the complexities of a toasted sandwich.
Replete, it was time to head out on the highway and back to more urbane areas. Eventually. Our route took us out through Slaley and onto Lead Road, where Bob did a fine job demonstrating his Big Ring although, once this was pointed out, he managed sterling work with his small one too. The pace had dropped a little bit from the earlier part of the ride, in part because people were a bit more tired, but also because we were entering hillier terrain - even Roger said that the first part of the ride was 'very restrained'. Not for long, me old sausage and it was with a weakening smile that Chris absorbed knowledge of the route back. Such is the misfortune of knowing the roads, eh.
The Good News was that we weren't going up the National Hillclimb hill this time. No, instead we were to lose a bit more height and ride up past the Blue Bell pub between Stocksfield and High Mickley. It's been ages since I've ridden up there - and much too soon for some, judging from the way the group exploded from the very bottom. The problem for a group on this ascent is that it's steep enough that small differences in climbing speed are magnified quite markedly. We were helped along the way by the very nice man driving the 4x4 down the hill, who pulled across out of our way to let us continue our vigil in peace: he even had the grace not to laugh at us as we hauled our way past. You, sir, get a big Thumbs Up from us - or would have done if we'd been able to take our hands from the bars.
Josh and Chris set the pace for the most part with Sophie and I sitting in ... until the last bit, which is just a gentle grade really, where Josh put the burners on and demonstrated why he's a junior racer and we're not. Chris's three words, whilst not for general consumption, were very, very, funny.
We collected to the 'top'. When I say top, I mean the junction that's at the top of that section: there's still another quarter of the climb to go before you actually reach the top. 'Let's take it steady' I said to Sophie, before realising that 'steady' had just been redefined to mean 'threshold'. Oh, well. Another junction, another collection of the group, before the assault on Hedley.
My two efforts for the day done, I sat back and let the front group beat themselves up, whilst I did my bit helping some very tired legs up the steeper bits, before rolling straight along towards Greenside. Chris turned for Chopwell as this would take him straight home and the rest of us just kept a nice steady pace to keep the group together along the, relatively, flat ridge.
We passed through Greenside easily enough, until we turned onto the final drop down to he roundabout on the A695. I'd indicated to Jason which turning we would be taking, which was fine, but it seems he then missed the two signs underneath it for roadworks and traffic lights, which wasn't and took what can only be described as 'some speed' into the corner. Fortunately the driver coming the other way, who'd just come through the traffic lights, was awake and stopped the car in a big hurry as Jason sought to find a route to safety. Some apologetic waving to the driver who'd had to stop and some apoplectic waving towards Jason seemed to calm the situation and, by the time that the lights had gone green, everyone's blood pressure had returned to normal.
The lesson here, kids, is embodied in a phrase in the Police driving handbook, Roadcraft: never go so fact you cannot stop in the distance you can see to be clear on your own side of the road.
The group made it down to Wylam and up past Close House without any kind of excitement, or adventure, which suited us just fine, thanks. Until I shouted that we'd be turning left at the top of Close House. 'What?' Even the explanation that I didn't want to ride along the farm road back from Heddon, because the last time we did that there was (a) mud and (b) horses, neither of which I really fancied having to deal with at the end of quite a long day in the saddle. Josh, Sophie and Bob preferred to do that, which left Roger, Jason, Alex and myself to have a very leisurely dawdle back into Pont - so leisurely, in fact, that we acquired a hanger-oner as we drifted down through Darras Hall. That said, it couldn't have been that slow: by the time we reached Jan's, Bob was in there and had was just being served his coffee...
And, then, once again, it was all over for another weekend. The darkness began to fall and a veil was drawn, slowly, over the dying embers of our memories. And then, just before the light dimmed to extinction was that last point: hope. Hope that it would all happen again. Hope that a trip to Nelsons in the Park can rekindle the fire...
Come along on Sunday to find out.
My Strava data is here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1300629443
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