Two thousand bobbing cycling helmets was all you could see on Pitlochry main street at 7am on Sunday morning, and I’m glad to say that one of them belonged to me.
The last five weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster. The training was going well, I had completed a 38 mile cycle over hills and everything was looking good. Then I caught the flu (not man flu, proper flu), and that was that until 2 weeks ago. I pretty much didn’t go near the bike for 3 weeks. So 14 days ago I found myself hardly capable of riding the 10 miles to work, never mind the 81 miles I needed to complete on Sunday. Thankfully the fitness I had built up was still lurking under the surface, and by last weekend I had managed 65 miles over flattish terrain in just over 4 hours. It was the best I could manage.
Sunday morning was really cold. My fingers were numb before we started, so I was a bit nervous about whether I was dressed warmly enough. The sky was clear and the sun was shining, so I couldn’t complain too much. Before I knew it, my group was waved to the start line and after a bit of a struggle we were ready to go. It really was something to look back down the street and see nothing but bikes, helmets and every colour of lycra you could imagine. The tension in the air was electric. There was no gun or flag; just a shout of 'GO' and away my group of 100 went. We rolled up the hill out of Pitlochry, took a sharp left after a mile or so and headed west. I shook my head and wondered what the hell I was doing, 80 miles to go.
It didn’t take me long to realise that my legs were anything but fresh. Oh dear. My left thigh felt particularly fatigued. The first 20 miles are quite hilly, but after that you get 30 miles of virtually flat riding. I knew I could do the first 20, regardless of how my legs felt, and with a long flat after that, I’d just wait and see how things shook out.
As the miles passed, I didn’t feel any worse. But while I rode I couldn’t help thinking about the main climb of the day, up Schiehallion, which started about mile 47. It seemed a long way away, and somewhat impossible. I tried to put it out of my mind, I had to get there first.
At mile 20 the small group I had got into rolled through Kinloch Rannoch. There was a fair number of people cheering us on at the roadside. I smiled and waved as we went by, but I couldn’t help but think that all the shouts of ‘well done’ were a little premature as we had only covered a quarter of the course. But the thought was appreciated. As we rode out of the village, the view over the Loch was stunning. There was hardly any breeze, so the water was like glass. We could see ten miles up the glen to the far end, with nothing but spectacularly rugged lush countryside to look at all the way. That was where we were going, up the north side of the Loch then back down the south shore, all along perfectly quiet, flat and windy roads. Wonderful.
I forget about the tiredness in my legs for a while. I slotted in behind number 933 and let him do most of the work (thanks 933, much appreciated!). We zoomed along the meandering road that hugged the waters edge, taking the corners without fear of the cars or coaches that would normally be found in these quiet little roads. Larger, fitter groups came up behind us, swallowing us for a second, before spitting us out the back of the pack again. In turn, we caught a few stragglers and our group grew a little. The miles rolled by easily.
Once we reached the end of Loch Rannoch we turns back and headed East again. In the distance grew the ominous shape of that big ‘hill’, Schiehallion. My stomach turned at the thought of the pain I was soon going to be climbing that. I passed the halfway mark (mile 41) without noticing, thinking only of how I was going to tackle the climb ahead. At mile 45 someone passed me, and just as the road tilted slightly upwards and disappeared round a bend, he shouted the immortal words ‘here we go!’ I knew exactly what he meant.
I eased off a little and let the group leave me behind. I needed some room. I picked a low gear and made my way up the gentle rise. My legs didn’t feel much worse than when I’d started, and I’d made sure to eat and drink over the preceding few miles, but I honestly didn’t know if I would have enough in the tank to climb the next 3 miles. I can actually climb OK if I take it slowly and steadily, but when things get too steep I can’t keep the momentum up and I grind to a halt. I find it next to impossible to get going again once I’ve stopped on a slope.
Anyway, I cruised round the bend and there it was, the first kick towards the heavens. I gritted my teeth, changed down to my easiest gear and started churning up the slope. It was hard, but I made it over the first crest. The road levelled out, not flat, but easier, and snaked through the trees. Another kick and another slow slog up. I was being passed by what felt like hundreds, but I didn’t care, I was just thinking about getting to the top. At the top of that kick I could see we were reaching the tree line. I needed to stop for a minute, but luckily nature was also calling (if you know what I mean) so using that as an excuse (to myself, no-one else cared) I pulled over before the next steep section and went for a walk in the trees.
Once I was back on the bike my legs felt better for the stretch and I attacked the next looming incline through the tree line with renewed gusto. That lasted for about 10 metres. I changed down to the easies gear again and resumed the agonising slog. Thankfully, I was just about over the worst of it. The road levelled out and although it continued to wind upwards as the landscape turned to boggy moorland and looming cliff faces, the incline was gentle enough for me to feel more comfortable. I took me 20 minutes to cover a little over 2 miles.
I caught my breath and took it easy for the next mile or so, glad that the worse was over. Strangely, I felt good. I was coming up on mile 50, the big climb was behind me and for the first time, I was sure I was going to finish. My legs no longer felt tired. It all seemed so effortless, weird.
The feed station was at mile 50. When planning how I was going to ride the Etape, I though I would stop there for a good 10 minutes to catch my breath and stretch my legs; but when it came to it, once I slowed to a stop and dismounted, all I wanted to do was get going again. I refilled my water bottles and went back to my bike. Just as I was getting ready to set off, there was a crash right in front of me as two riders came together, one trying to get to the feed station from far side of the road , the other zooming up the inside, intent on passing it by; a bit silly of both of them really. That held me back for a minute or two as they were untangled and dragged off the road. OK, I could have gone round the throng that had gathered to help, but it was too damned interesting not to watch.
So, off I went eventually, looking forward to my reward for making it to the top: the descent. A few miles of flat first, then the road tipped downwards. It was exhilarating and scary. A road bike is a finely balanced piece of kit, built for lightness and speed, but also having to support its rider. I’ve never been quite sure that mine was ever meant to hold a 230 lb rider. Well, we were about to find out. The only time I took my eyes off the road to look at my cycling computer it read '38 mph'. It was fun, and really something I would never attempt without closed roads. I got to use the whole road, with no fear of ploughing into a car or a tractor.
Soon enough the descent was over and I was back on the flat. Once I started having to work again, the good feeling in my legs quickly started to fade. By mile 60 I was feeling tired, but I managed to hook up with a guy who was happily spinning along at 20 mph. That was good enough for me. I tucked in behind and unashamedly let him pull me along in his draft. Actually, we got talking on and off, and while he did most of the front work, I took the odd turn. He was much stronger than I was.
At 70 miles the end seemed to be in sight (figuratively, anyway). 11 miles: the same distance from Stirling to Larbert, a distance I am well used to; and the road was flat enough that the hills were not a concern. I looked at my time; I was heading for 4h 40m. Before the start, I’d have taken 5h 30!
The miles just seemed to pass. At 74 miles I smiled for a photographer. I was tired, and I really should have had something to eat, I hadn’t had anything since the other side of Schiehallion, more than an hour and a half before. But it was only seven miles to the finish, easy.
Not easy at all, it turned out. There is a serious sting in the tale of this course. At Logierait, the flat road went straight on, but we were directed left, a sharp blind turn. I could see there was a rise, but I didn’t have time to sort my gears for what was round that corner. ‘The Cemetery hill’ a local later called it laughing as I told him what had happened to me. There may have actually been a cemetery there, but it was aptly named for how I felt about it. I ground to a halt and put a foot down 15 metres up its very steep rise. A spectator shouted that it wasn’t long, only over the crest and it flattened out again. That was good, because it was too steep for me to get going again. I was faced with walking back to the flat, getting going again in a better gear and having another go, or walking up it. Option two seemed stightly less humiliating, so I started walking.
Right enough, it was only about 100 metres to the crest. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but over the next 3 miles, there were another five similar hills. This was one of those quiet single-track roads that followed a straight line between two points, ignoring the contours of the landscape, forging a path regardles of terrain. I was either going up steeply or down steeply, and worryingly, I passed three guys who had punctured. I felt the frown forming across my forehead. I looked at my time and decided anything under 5 hours would do, so I would just work on getting to the finish carefully and in one piece. I was too tired for this terrain. I should definitely have had something to eat about 10 miles back, stupid really. Oh well, I’ll know better next year.
With 1 mile to go the road flattened into a nice long descent. I could see Pitlochry in front of me. I got to coast for a bit and catch my breath for the finish. The road into Pitlochry is up a hill, but as I approached it I didn’t care. It felt surreal, there were people shouting encouragement all along the road, and at the top, after cresting onto the finishing straight, I saw Mairi, Elena and Donald waving and cheering me in. What a feeling. I crossed the finish line and coasted into the finish area.
81 miles in 4 hour 54 minutes, and 6300 calories.
I looked at my watch, just after 12 pm. Time for lunch.