Étape Loch Ness 2018

Sunday’s ride was, for me anyway, the classic tale of two halves… and it came with the tagline “I really should have trained more for this.”

The day started at 04:30 when the alarm went off and I dragged myself quietly out of bed and got myself ready for the day ahead.  Terrified of being late, I set off for the start at 05:30… and arrived 20 minutes later, a full half-hour before the start for my wave.  It was a little chilly for standing about, but nervous energy and a pair of bright yellow arm-warmers kept the worst of the cold away as we all shuffled slowly towards the start line.  And then it was time…

Waiting for the off

The first few miles were a bit tentative (for everybody I think) as we got our legs warm, and generally got used to being in among so many other riders.   But once I was in the swing of things I was quite happy, and very surprised, to be averaging about 17 mph.  Sure, I’m not particularly well built for climbing and I slowed down a lot on the uphills, but for every up there’s a down and I’m certainly built for a bit of speed on them.

So I made it to the first feed station (27 miles) in about an hour and a half.  All the way I’d been taking in some fantastic views across Loch Ness whilst soaking up the sun on a rare day of nice weather in the Highlands.

It was going so well that I toyed with the idea of just carrying on to the second feed station, but decided at the last minute that it would be sensible to at least grab a banana.  I’m glad I did because I’d made a bit of a miscalculation.

I recently decided that I should get used to using these ‘kilometre’ things after a lifetime of miles.  I saw on the route that there’s a bit of a hill about 55km in, but with my lack of experience I ‘calculated’ (i.e. guesstimated) that to be about 45 miles, just after the second feed station.

In fact, the hill started just a few miles after the first feed station… and it went on, and up, and on some more – a total of 380m over 9km.

Did I mention that I’m not built for hills?  I think I managed about 2km of climbing before I had to stop for a little breather, and the whole 9km was tackled similarly, with spurts of riding between rests.

According to the official timings, the fastest rider (and ‘King of the Mountain’) made it up the hill in nineteen minutes.  It took me an hour and five minutes to get to the top… but I did get to the top, and I was pretty pleased with that.

The trouble was that getting up the hill had taken every bit of energy left in my legs.  Even with a half-hour of almost continual descent before the next climb, which was only 500m long, when I reached it there was virtually nothing left in the tank and it took nearly five full minutes.

I’ve never been so glad to see a feed station as I was to see the one at 42 miles, and the chocolate brownies they were dishing up were just what I needed.  I knew I couldn’t stop for long if I wanted to make it around the course before the roads opened again, so I gave my legs a quick stretch and got back on the bike.

As I pulled away I just had time to ask a marshall how far it was to the last feed station.  “Eleven miles” came the reply.  Excellent, I thought, I’ll just focus on doing that.  One section at a time.

What I hadn’t heard was the end of his reply.  He hadn’t said “eleven miles”, he’d said “eleven miles from the end”.  2.5 miles further away than I thought.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’d made a deal with my legs that if they carried me eleven miles then they could have another piece of chocolate brownie.  When they got me to eleven miles and there was no sign of a feed station they very nearly quit in disgust.  Instead we slipped into a sort of fugue, my legs and me, just keeping the pedals turning in quiet despair.

We made a new deal when we finally reached the last feed station.  Only eleven miles to go, so a minute’s rest for each mile and two (count them, two) chocolate brownies to see us through.  It really didn’t feel like enough of a rest when I set off on that last stretch.  It was like cycling through treacle.

I found myself with six miles still to go and doing about 9mph when I heard a vehicle coming up from behind.  There had been a few police motorcycles come by along the route, and I was expecting to see another when I looked back.  Instead it was the pace car, catching me up having done the whole route at a steady 13 mph.  A woman’s voice on a loudspeaker warned that the roads were about to reopen, and a big sign on the back of the car repeated the warning as it ‘sped’ past me and on up another hill.

It was exactly what I needed to find my next wind (I don’t know what number wind it was, but it definitely wasn’t only my second one).

Etape Loch Ness Pace Car
Overtaken by the pace car

If anybody cycling nearby heard me screaming profanities at my legs at this stage, I can only apologise… but it did the trick.

Over the next mile or two I managed to get my speed back up to about 18 mph and as I caught up with, and then overtook, the pace car it was a good thing that I didn’t have the energy to both cycle and gloat.

I will admit that the legs got a few more stern words of encouragement as I covered those last few miles.  But with volunteers cheering us on at every junction on the road through Inverness, and the promise of beer and a ‘dream ring’ (a local delicacy consisting of a doughnut-shaped iced bun with cream filling) waiting for me at the finish line, I made it across with dignity intact.

For all it’s only 66 miles, after finishing it I thought that this was the toughest étape I’ve done.  It’s been a few days now… and I still think it was the toughest étape I’ve done.  Maybe that’s because the memory of pain fades with time and I don’t really remember how hard others have been.  We’ll see in a few weeks when I’m back in the saddle for a second go at Étape Caledonia, 85 miles around Loch Rannoch and up Mt Schiehallion.





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