Episode 5 – The Etape Strikes Back
Way back in March my sister brought it to my attention that there was a Cycle Sportive taking place up in NE Scotland, out Royal Deeside way: think a few miles east of Balmoral Castle, Crathie Kirk and other such Queenly destinations. Given that I was born, brought up and educated less than 40 miles away in Aberdeen naturally my interest was piqued… Further investigation revealed that the 100+ mile route would be on closed roads, and that it would go over the Lecht road between Tomintoul and Cock Bridge (stop sniggering at the back…). The Lecht is one of the major Scottish ski resorts (I’ve skied there many times in my spotty teenage years), so once more we’re talking “high”, “narrow” and “steep”. The organisers officially classed it as almost 10000 feet of high, narrow and steep…
Some of you would consider the £70 entry fee also “steep”, but it did include up to 3 nights camping and car parking – which was extremely fortunate given my woeful attempts at finding bricks and mortar accommodation locally. But compared with the cost of petrol for the 1000+ mile round trip to Ballater and back it looked quite good value! And I did get a bargain all-expenses-paid 10 day holiday at my parents’ house in Aberdeen out of it as well.
A week before the event I found out I had a 6.03am start time. With the roads around Ballater being closed from roughly 5am onwards, camping in town just a few hundred yards from the start was definitely a very sensible option. Registration took place on the day before the event, so on the Saturday I picked up my pack of rider instructions and sheet of stickers/timing chip which had to be plastered over various parts of your bike, helmet and jersey; toddled over to the camp site to pitch my tent; then headed back to Aberdeen where I’d spend the rest of the day carb-loading…
Returning later in the evening I found that in my absence a floodlight had been erected about 20 yards from my tent and was being powered by a portable diesel generator! How in the name of all that is holy am I going to get any sort of sleep with that racket going on? Fortunately they turned it off at about 10.30pm. Peace, you might have thought… Nope – that’s when the occupants of 2 adjacent tents started snoring!
So I set my alarm for 5am and settled down for a broken night’s sleep. Only to be awoken at 4.30am when the floodlights (and more significantly the diesel generator) were switched back on again. Presumably for the benefit of all the folk driving to the event on the day (when I went to fetch my bike out of my car I noted that the number of cars in the car parking field had at least doubled from the previous night). Still, at least I could see what I was doing as I ate my breakfast and got into my DPCC kit.
Lining up at the start the weather looked to be about as perfect as you are going to get in that part of the UK in late September. Clear skies and negligible wind meant it would be bright and sunny, but not too warm, once the sun made its way over the horizon.
The Lord Provost of Aberdeenshire gave a welcome address over the PA system to the assembling riders, informing us that Council workers had been out and swept the entire route. While behind me one rider had obviously had a bit of trouble clipping in and had overbalanced, resulting in a massed game of Bike Domino Toppling taking place. With sunrise not until after 7am, it was pitch dark at the start so bike lights were mandatory. As I set off in my “wave” of ~50 riders, I found it was an almost surreal experience being surrounded by so many sets of lights and not a motorised vehicle among them.
Barely 20 minutes later my serenity was brought crashing back down to Earth – or to be more accurate my rear light came crashing back down to Earth, as twice within the first 3 miles it fell off forcing me to trudge back against the oncoming flow of riders to retrieve it (thankfully it survived both incidents). So I was now on my own for a bit as I waited for the first riders from the next wave to set off to reach me, so that I could join in their group. Approaching 7.30am I decided it was light enough that I would put on my sunglasses to defend my eyes against the still decidedly cold air. Hamfistedly, in my attempt to retrieve them from where they were tucked inside my jersey I dropped them. More backward trudging… More lone riding until I found the next comfortable group to join.
The thing about this part of Scotland is that the roads generally run along the bottom of the Glens, surrounded by mountains on either side. After an hour, with the sun having officially “risen” (meteorologically), we’d ridden through Tarland and the sky was definitely light; by the second hour we were riding through Rhynie – where we passed the ranks of riders waiting to set out on the shorter 65 mile event which was starting there and following the rest of our 100 mile route to also finish back in Ballater. But we were still only getting occasional glimpses of the sun between the peaks to our right. Continuing on, we’re riding up The Cabrach and still the sun is mostly hidden from view. My left hand in particular was numb and shifting chainrings was pure guesswork!
Finally, after 3 hours, we reached Dufftown – the most northerly point of the route – and headed southwest. For the first time we were now bathed in sunshine. Glorious, warm, sunshine! Finally I had feeling in all my extremities. According to Strava, the nasty little climb here that left most of our group behind is called Pittyvaich Push. What it meant, though, was that for the next 20 miles it was just me and a chap in Dulwich Paragon CC kit (also originally from Aberdeen) doing a 2-Up along Glen Rinnes to Tomintoul, which actually was a lot of fun!
Tomintoul is at the north end of the section of the A939 which takes you to The Lecht ski centre, and this is where we were now heading. At this time of year the snow gates are still open, so there was no copping out – in front of us now was 6.5 miles of climbing. But first I availed myself of the toilet facilities (tactics here – reducing unnecessary weight) and consumed a banana and a couple of energy gels from the feeding station (some wacky Team Sky-branded passion fruit and coconut milk flavour). My buddy had a stronger bladder than me and had carried straight on – from here I was riding on my own again. The first 4.5 miles are relatively gentle, just a few percent, until you reach the sharp right hand bend at The Well of the Lecht and see the road head off upwards in front of you in a series of ramps. It’s now about 2 miles averaging almost 8% to the top. This was where the timed King/Queen of the Mountain section was located. Fortunately for my 80+ mile-weary legs this is the “easy” side of the hill – there’s only the one 20% section on the way up! And it was nearing the top that I had a bizarre conversation with a spectator – observing my triple chainset as I passed yet another struggler on a compact he exclaimed in obvious delight “You’re riding a Dawes” and telling me “I ride a Hewitt!” when I acknowledged his comment.
Reaching the ski station, it’s now (metaphorically) downhill all the way – except it isn’t! The summit here is a sort of double dip, where you descend a few tens of metres or so and then climb the same number again – but you carry enough speed that the second rise is fairly easy. NOW it’s downhill. And fast. Very fast. And if there was any part of the route where you’d want closed roads this was it. Knowing that there would be nothing coming in the opposite direction allowed you to take the optimal route through the corners, knowing that if you did over-cook it a bit you were free to swing out wide on the exit safe in the knowledge there would be no oncoming traffic.
Having now descended past Cock Bridge and through Corgarff (where the presence of an interesting-looking restaurant had me hatching a cunning plan a couple of days later) the finish was barely 15 miles away. But still between me and the end was the sting in the tail of the route – another climb: almost 2 miles of 6%. This was conquered very slowly, counting each pedal stroke until the next snow pole was passed, to avoid cramping up, and wondering why the Hell there was a speed camera warning sign in the UPHILL direction!
Barring a few minor rises, now it definitely WAS downhill all the way to the finish, and for the final few miles I was able tuck down with my elbows resting on the handlebars and go into time trial mode. Arriving back in Ballater I was even able to muster the energy to get out of the saddle and sprint the last 50 yards or so across the finish line.
I was vaguely aware of the PA system announcing my time as 5 hours 30-something minutes as I collected my commemorative medal and drinks bottle. I was more aware of the fact that I was totally shattered, so after grabbing a quick drink and bite to eat I headed back to my tent for a bit more food and drink before falling asleep, being woken some time later by the sound of the PA system announcing some riders finishing with times well over 7 hours…
The official results published a few days later show I posted the 19th fastest time: 5h 37m 42s, and my King of the Mountain time of 10m 04s was 13th fastest (mind you, several of the quickest KotM riders had taken almost 7 hours to complete the course, so had almost certainly dollied round the first 80-odd miles then blasted up the hill to try and win the prize).
But I can’t end this without a couple of acknowledgements…
The organisation of the event was absolutely superb. Every mile was signed. Every turn or junction was marshaled (OK there weren’t a huge number of turns to make as there are not that many roads in that part of the country…). The first few junctions, which we passed in darkness, were also floodlit. Every narrow bridge, every sharp bend, every steep descent was signed, marshaled, and protected with straw bales as required. Every side road and house entrance was coned off to ensure the route remained clear of motor vehicles (support motorbikes excepted, naturally). There were 5 feeding stations located roughly every 15-20 miles along the route – far more than I’ve experienced in other events.
And none of this could have taken place without the cooperation of the local population. And they were wonderful. You couldn’t ride far without passing somebody at the roadside cheering you on, many taking photos, others with banners. There was not the slightest hint of any of the unpleasant incidents that have blighted similar closed roads events in other parts of the UK.
They’re already inviting riders to register their interest to enter a repeat event next year – well worth considering, I’d say (although I am biased).
For a somewhat less verbose writeup by a participant in the shorter 65 mile event see: http://www.sportifmagazine.com/reviews-home/etape-royale-takes-the-highlands-by-storm
Next Up (coming soon): Episode 6 – Return of the Segment