Before I was to ride the Etape du Tour, I had two other cyclosportives to go. The first of these in late June was the inaugural Etape Caledonia.
Here’s what I wrote not long after getting back from it (please note the distinct absence of an angry minority of locals ruining the event in this account):
When I originally entered this event I had in my mind the idea of riding under the hot June sun, and having to worry about sunburn and dehydration. Considering the ride was in Scotland, this was perhaps a silly assumption.
The weather forecast was very bleak, with heavy rain predicted for the entire weekend. While packing the day before travelling, I thought that there was something deeply wrong about packing waterproofs, overshoes and long sleeved cycle jerseys and trousers on midsummer day.
I travelled up in the rain, meeting my sister and her new bike at Stirling station and travelling from there by taxi to her home (wheelchair accessible taxis are a great thing, you can get two bikes inside them relatively easily).
We travelled up to Pitlochry on the Saturday to register and get our timing transponders and did so through depressingly heavy rain which boded ill for the next day. After registering we headed back, shelving our plans for a quick ride. On returning to Stirling we did do a quick 10k or so.
Worth mentioning that my sister was riding a brand new bike, the frame on her previous one inexplicably breaking. Riding a new bike is always an uncertain thing and it takes some time to get the fit right and be comfortable with the handling in turns and the braking qualities. Gear changes are rarely perfect on a newly bought bike either, bike shops generally offer you a free first service for a few weeks after purchase to help iron out this settling in problems.
I don’t think she enjoyed her first ride much, I just went along to spin my legs and make sure I was ok for the next day.
Setting off early the next day (6.30), the weather was ok, then poor, then ok again in different locations as we drove towards Pitlochry. On arriving there the weather was still a bit overcast but was dry enough. This was a morale boost as it was nice not to start in the pouring rain – making a snap decision not to wear wet weather gear I set off for the start as I had an earlier start time than my sister (they set us off in groups of 100). I was late and missed the start time for the 200 numbered riders and instead set off with a mixed bag of latecomers, just before the 400 numbered riders set off.
Although the roads were all closed to traffic, riders stuck to the left hand side at first. Not really filling the road until later on. The road climbed a bit here and there after the start, getting moderately steep in places with a few quick descents – a sharp turn on one of these caused a few crashes, I noticed a rider pulling twigs off himself and getting back up (and overtaking me a bit later but I passed him some time after that).
The initial pace was pretty fast, everyone getting a bit keen, I and a few others broke away from our group to catch the tail end of another one, getting a rest in their slipstream before powering on. A surprisingly long descent followed leading to the fast flat section on the north side of Loch Rannoch. In retrospect I could probably have gone faster here but I was trying to not blow up by doing too much too early.
Some of the locals were out here and there clapping as we went past which was encouraging; there was one touchingly large hand drawn sign saying “Go, Mummy go!” at the end of one drive. Passing the head of the loch, the road climbed and dipped a bit and I overtook riders here and there, reeling them in one by one. Occasionally a group of fast riders would blow past and I would latch onto them for as long as I could. With a bit more training and weight loss I could probably keep up, as it was I had already kept up with an initially quite fast group, broken away to a faster one and then ridden clear of those when it broke up, so I’m happy with how I was riding overall.
The rode was flat again for a section on the southern side of the loch before it diverted south-eastwards and started the climb up Schiehallon, the featured climb of the day. I didn’t find it all that bad, probably because my training has been focussed on the climbs – I managed to stay with a fast group that had caught me at the bottom of the climb and overtook a few that I didn’t see again after that.
The feed station was just past the top of the climb but I didn’t need to stop – was feeling fairly fresh as I had been eating flapjack on the go and had drunk very little water. It wasn’t that hot obviously and had rained here and there which helps to an extent but I drank a surprisingly small amount of water considering my pace.
After the feed station the descent really began and this is where the closed roads came into their own – knowing that cars weren’t about to come round the corner, I was able to brake a lot less than I otherwise would and to take the racing line. According to my bike computer I broke 100kph which was definitely an error (I have a wireless one and other ones sometimes interfere with it, as does vehicle detection kit in the road).
The descent was such great fun, it’s difficult to describe the difference between riding it on car free roads and normal riding – you focus on the riders ahead and the bends of the road that you can see, trying to catch the riders in front and anticipating the bends as they came up. Brake fade wasn’t an issue as I wasn’t using them much, or at least it felt like that.
Sadly the descent had to end and the course turned off on a loop towards Loch Tay before turning back onto a fast flat road, and I encountered flooded roads here and there – you just had to wheel through and hope there weren’t any potholes. The road surface throughout the course was generally good (and was excellent in places) so it didn’t feel to much of a step into the unknown.
On rejoining the faster road I was overtaken by another rider who then appeared to blow a little so I overtook him again – I was shortly after passed by a fast group that I latched onto the back of and hang on to them for some miles. With less than five miles to go, the route turned off the main road onto a sharp left turn which was quite steep for a short stretch with a bit more climbing after that – the group broke after that, the faster riders getting away from me although I kept clear of a few of them.
The last few miles were about keeping up the power on the last climb and reeling in stragglers. I fixated on any rider I saw in the distance and gradually made up the ground between us. Passing the eighty mile marker (one mile to go!) I decided to push for the line, passing another rider in sight quite quickly. The last mile was a bit longer than a mile (about 1.3 miles according to my computer) and I started to flag – seeing I was clear of other riders, I eased up a little for the last bit towards Pitlochry. However, coming round the corner I could see another rider in sight.
Having a final rabbit to chase motivated me for a push to the line – the cheers and clapping of spectators really encouraged me to sprint for the finish, with about 20 metres to go I sped past and over the final timing point, having to brake hard for the sharp right into the finishing enclosure – it gets a bit hazy for the next minute or so, you sort of stumble off your bike and hands pull at you and people help you take off your timing chip and give you water and your medal.
Two medics were working on the slumped form of a woman in the fast group that took me at the foot of the big climb, hope she was ok.
After that I met up with my brother in law and my sister’s youngest son Isaac. I felt reasonably fresh which was encouraging although I made the mistake of hanging around the finish for my sister to come in – I should have gone back to the car and got changed as I got quite cold waiting, which was just stupid.
My sister came in well inside the six hour mark she was aiming for, actually finishing just over the five and a half hour mark, a fairly impressive achievement on a new bike from the back of the field (they messed up her number so rather than starting in the 800s she was in the 1200s). It was a great time for a first sportive, faster than my showing in Peterborough earlier this year, more than two hours before the last finisher and more than 4 kph faster than the required average time for the Etape proper. I hope she feels justly proud.
Being further up the field at the start is an advantage – you’re riding with fast people from the off and even faster riders pass you now and again and you can latch onto these for a time.
My final time was 4:18:24 which I was very pleased with, putting me in the top quarter of finishers and just over half an hour behind the leader (and more than three hours before the final finisher).
The next day, I walked my sister’s dog, a border collie called Molly, who taught me the collie version of Fetch, which is known as “It’s My Stick Now. If You Wanted It Why Did You Throw It Away?”