Whiling away a day in Salford Quays

I found it hard to wind down after our event at The Lowry in Salford and it took me ages to get to sleep. I woke at least twice in the middle of the night and then felt exhausted when my alarm went off just before eight.

I switched on the television and the first thing I saw was that Scotland was closed for business because of the snow. All trains to Edinburgh were cancelled until at least midday and, as François said, that would be pushed back and back as the day wore on.

‘I know this from covering Alpine skiing,’ he said. ‘They say the race will be at 10 o’clock, then they say 11.30, then they say 12.45, then they call it off.’

True enough, all trains to Scotland from Manchester were cancelled and any thoughts we’d previously had of hiring a car and driving were dismissed when we saw footage on the television news of cars that had been parked on the M80 all night.

François again. ‘I love The Cycling Podcast but I don’t want to spend 13 hours stuck in a freezing cold car with you guys.’

As Richard said, ‘The travel advice is unambiguous.’ And so, after speaking to our hosts at The Signet Library in Edinburgh, we reluctantly took the decision to postpone Thursday night’s show.

We agreed with our book publishers, and the organisers of our tour, Penguin Live, to stay in Salford for an extra night in the hope that things would improve enough for us to make it to Glasgow for Friday night’s show.

That meant we had a day to idle away in the Salford Quays Marriott. With its little library-style work space on the first floor and a gym in the basement there are many worse places to spend a day, although I’d decided not to bring any sports kit because I thought the itinerary was too full to allow even half an hour in the gym. Richard went off, rather smugly I felt, to run on the treadmill and afterwards declared himself revitalised and refreshed for it.

I felt the same way I feel on some Tour de France rest days. Sluggish. The adrenaline of the previous night needed to be replaced one way or other, preferably with more adrenaline and the prospect of another nerve-wracking night in front of an audience, but instead I felt increasingly drained as the day wore on.

We reconvened for lunch in the hotel’s restaurant and Richard, Orla, François, The Cycling Podcast’s agent-slash-directeur sportif David, and I spent a very pleasant hour or so talking and laughing. Richard and I had both ordered the spaghetti with meatballs and when our meals arrived Richard spotted that my dish had more parmesan cheese on it than his and made a playful grab for my plate, which I fended off with a jab of the fork worthy of an Olympic fencer.

It reminded me of a late night near Lyon a few Tours de France ago when we’d struggled to get off one of the Alpine mountains and thought we were staring a McDrive meal in the face when we spotted a pizzeria next to a roundabout. We did a cartoonish double lap of the roundabout to check the place was still open.

We went in, were shown to a table and ordered a couple of beers, which the waiter put down in the middle of the table, rather than one definitively in front of Richard and one in front of me. One glass – the one marginally closer to me – was full to the brim. The other, marginally closer to Richard, was a distinctly short measure, topped with at least an inch of foam. Richard was on the phone but as I reached out my hand for the full beer – my beer, as I saw it – he reached across and beat me to it, taking a satisfying gulp as I shook my head in disbelief.

Well, revenge is a dish best served piping hot.

Midway through our lunch, Richard peered across at my plate.

‘How many meatballs did you get?’

I counted them. ‘Six.’

‘I only got four.’


Orla had noticed that I had saved the meatballs until last and I explained that having started two meatballs up on GC I was keen to make the most of my advantage. When you’re stuck in a hotel in the middle of the worst start to spring for several generations you have to take the small pleasures where you can find them.

In the evening we headed into Manchester for dinner at El Gato Nero, the black cat, a tapas restaurant which did a very fine selection of dishes. It was François’ choice, having consulted the Michelin guide online. As he always does, François picked a very good wine – a Rioja – that nestled smack bang in the middle of the sweetspot between quality and value, and we put the disappointment of not making it to Edinburgh behind us.

We were a bit giddy in the taxi on the way home, by which I mean our hotel. Having learned only recently that Orla had been all-Ireland triple jump champion I was keen to know if anyone still felt they had any possibility of sporting glory still ahead of them. I revealed that Simon had bought me a set of crown green bowls for my 40th birthday but that I was yet to try them out.

I can see myself getting really into it. Give it a couple of years and I’ll be saying, ‘Sorry, Richard, I can’t do the opening week of the Giro because it clashes with the mixed doubles quarter-final and we’ve got to get our match played before Beryl has her hip replacement.’

‘What would be your sporting nickname?’ asked François. He didn’t leave me time to answer before he came up with a suggestion. ‘The hedgehog. Lionel ‘The Hedgehog’ Birnie.’

Everyone laughed a bit too much for my liking but I had to concede it was a good one.

‘Perfect,’ I said. ‘Prickly on the outside and rolls up into a ball when attacked.’

By the time everyone had stopped laughing (with me rather than at me, I’m almost certain) we were in the hotel foyer. ‘It is a good one, François, because I do like a slice of bread soaked in milk.’