I rolled down the road into Pitlochry from the campsite to be confronted by people lining the pavements and about 5000 cyclists crammed onto the main street. It was 6.20am. I made my way down the pavement looking for somewhere to wait until wave M was called to the line for our 6.54 start time. I was amazed by the sight of so many cyclists, both men and women, full of excitement and trepidation so early in the morning. Or maybe everyone was off their faces on caffeine and energy gels.
At the allotted time I beeped over the start mat and headed out of town in our 200 rider strong peloton back up towards the campsite. Families of various campsite based riders waved and cheered in their pajamas from the roadside. Lucky sods then probably went back to bed or to cook breakfast. The sky was grey but cracks in the clouds promised possible sunshine. We crossed over the River Garry to the sound of a huge cowbell and noisy crowd.
The narrow road started to climb through the Tay Forest Park with riders bunched together. I picked my line carefully weaving through slower riders to maintain a comfortable cadence, glancing over my shoulder for anyone faster coming behind. Over a bagpipe soundtracked summit we descended a steep hill to the edges of the Loch Tummel. The next few miles gently undulated along the valley floor. Climbing through the trees again, a crack in the clouds lit the bracken covered forest floor a golden brown. A fast descent into Kinloch Rannoch followed, where I stopped to grab some food from the feed station.
I filtered back into the flow of riders pushing a little harder on the pedals into the gentle headwind. Loch Rannoch appeared in front of me, reaching as far as the horizon, small waves rippling towards me, mountains rising on all sides. After a couple of miles I sensed someone on my back wheel. I thought about flicking my elbow but they came past offering to take the front for a while. For the next 20 miles we rode together, taking turns on the front, keeping the pace relatively high. At one point a large group of riders caught us and amassed around us. I started to feel a little tentative as I realised that this was a ramshackle group with mixed group riding skills. My fears were confirmed about a mile of so later as there was a touch of wheels ahead; a foot went down, brakes squealed. I swerved, almost crashing into someone, then the sound of clashing metal behind me. A swift look back and I could see a couple of people lying on the grass verge with other riders stopped around them. Myself and my riding companion (I still don’t know his name!) regrouped with a couple of others joining us.
Turning around the end of the loch onto a narrowing section of road we found ourselves in a large clump of riders again. Quickly, but carefully, passing them we re-organised our small group on an empty stretch of road with a nice tailwind. Hugging the edge of the loch our pace increased again until we came up behind a few more riders cranking along at speed. We tagged onto the back of them but then bam! The front rider seemed to lose his front wheel and hit the tarmac hard, the guy behind him rode straight over his bike before also smashing onto the tarmac and skidding down the road. About four riders back I managed to hit the anchors and avoid the carnage with my heart pounding in my chest.
Again we regrouped and continued along the south bank of Loch Rannock, the road winding through the forest and large hills rising to our right. A few miles further along and as we turned a corner we came across an ambulance blocking the road. Time to hit the brakes again and find the narrow gap beside the grass verge. Not sure what had happened as no signs of a crash, and no other riders hanging around.
I skipped the second feed station just before the main climb of the day, up past Schiehallion. The climbing started up a short straight incline through dense woodland, before twisting and turning up through more open country, occasionally levelling slightly before ramping up again. I found a line on the right hand side of the road that allowed me to continually pass riders, sometimes having to let someone else past. Each time someone passed I jumped onto their wheel, dragging myself as hard as I could to the summit above the tree line, the triangular, snow flecked peak of Schiehallion rising on our right. I even managed a little sprint for the timing mat at the KOM finish…or I think I did.
A pass over a high moor, or bealach in Gaelic I found out later, stretched out in front, the road dropping slightly before a long slow incline over barren moorland towards what looked like maybe a ski station. I passed a couple stood by a campervan banging spoons on tin mugs, with the sound of cheering and clanking bells in the distance. As I reached the final summit, the highest point of the ride, a noisy crowd lined the edges of the road as I pulled into the feed station prior to the long descent.
It started to rain gently as I started my descent making the road slippery, so I found a gap to ride in and took the corners carefully. At the base of the hill the route turned back into the headwind for a flat section through farmland before turning into a narrow tree lined road along another river valley. A few miles on there was a chicane across a bridge onto a larger road along the open Tay River valley. The next ten miles or so were flat and not as scenic as the previous 60 odd miles so was a prime opportunity to get my head down and increase the pace. It had started to rain harder but a brisk tailwind meant I could crack on.
I started to think that what this ride needed was another big climb to make this last section since Schiehallion a little more interesting. As I thought this I could see a crowd of people ahead and a big arrow pointing to the left with the words ‘steep climb’ below it. After turning sharply left I hit a steep but short climb on a narrow lane lined with a supportive crowd. I dropped down onto the small chainring, got out of the saddle, climbing swiftly but got caught up behind a group of riders due to the narrowness of the lane. After this first climb the lane continued to rise and fall, but constantly upwards through fields and pine forest. I was starting to feel the mileage in my legs and decided that my idea of an extra big hill might have been a bit premature. I passed the 80 mile marker as the road started to drop down towards Pitlochry. Back in town the streets were lined with hundreds of people, 2 or 3 deep for the final few hundred yards up to the finish line for the final beep as I crossed the finishing mat.
Strava link (first 50 miles): http://app.strava.com/activities/53773425
Strava link (last 30 miles): http://app.strava.com/activities/53772805
Miles ridden: 82
Feet climbed: 4100
Average speed: 18 mph (this is what happens when you don’t stop every few miles to take a photograph!)
Camera used: Samsung Galaxy Ace + Instagram
Local ales consumed: 1 x Black Isle Yellowhammer, 1 x Black Isle Red Kite Ale
A few thank yous
Justin and Meabh in York who let me crash at theirs on the way north.
The unnamed rider who rode miles 20 to 45 with me sharing the work into the headwind.
Ross, Emma, Bethan and Anya at Tayport Links Caravan Park for their unbounded hospitality for the few days after the Etape, and for providing some post-ride Scottish ale, helping to maintain the tradition.