Ron’s travels north in 2016 – The Three Pistes

by Ron Smith. Sunday 29th May 2016

Pitlochry, in Perthshire, famous for its salmon ladder (yes – really – a ladder for fish) and its Festival Theatre, is on the southern edge of the Cairngorms National Park. It’s also the start/finish, at the beginning of May, of the Etape Caledonia sportive: 81 miles and 1200 m of climbing (I love it how imperial and metric units get mixed). But why bother with that one, when 3 weeks later I could ride the Three Pistes Cycle Sportive instead? It’s a whole new kettle (ladder?) of fish: 103 miles and close on 9000 feet of ascent (or 165km and 2960m if you prefer your units in “new” money). Also starting in Pitlochry, the Three Pistes route starts off by heading east across Moulin Moor before turning north into the Cairngorm mountains, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about this ride. But the organisers sum it up much better than I possibly could…

“UK’s Highest Cycle Sportive. The Three Pistes Cycle Sportive takes you past 3 ski centres, over the UK’s 2 highest roads, through some of the UK’s most remote countryside, ascending eight categorised climbs (4 of which have gradients of 20%) – and finishes by climbing the UK’s 4th highest road to Cairngorm Ski Centre in the heart of the UK’s only Arctic plateau.” Oh, and they also promise “Once you have cycled all 102 miles all riders will enjoy a party and big bowl of pasta in the sun…”

Anyway, it was in Scotland. A chance to spend some time with my parents, and to shout “Freedom!” to myself as I crossed the border at Gretna.

It could be argued that this little chapter perhaps ought to be documented as Part 5 of my 2015 Scottish holiday because had I not encountered and entered the Snowball Sportive last October I would never have discovered this ride. Logistically, this event is not as straightforward as any of the other ones I’ve done. In particular, the finish is more than 60 miles from the start and both are also a considerable distance from any friendly “home” base, in this case my parents’ home in Aberdeen. Conveniently, however, the organisers offered options of transport for riders and bikes either from Aviemore to Pitlochry on the morning of the event, or from Cairngorm back to Pitlochry afterwards. The latter option afforded the opportunity for a longer lie-in on the Sunday morning, so into the shopping cart it went. All I had to do was find a room for the Saturday night… Ah yes, this is taking place during a Bank Holiday weekend. Finding a B&B for one night proved impossible. Camping was the next option, but it’s 3 nights minimum during Bank Holiday weekends! Then came up trumps with a half price room – still expensive, but better than the last resort of leave Aberdeen at 4.30am to drive to the start. And in fairness the room and hotel were very nice.

Being in Pitlochry the day before meant I could register in advance, which would allow me to set off in the earlier batch of riders, from 7am onwards. It also gave me time to explore the local shops in the afternoon. Bars of Coconut Ice and a box of Edinburgh Castle Rock were purchased as part of the compensation package allowing me to escape from the family for a week.

Sunday morning. The weather forecast from the previous evening had indicated bright sunshine. The reality was overcast and grey (this is Scotland, remember…). Hearty breakfast consumed, I move my car to the public car park beside the Tourist Information centre (a fortuitous choice, as it happens); get my bike out of the boot; pump up the tyres; put on my cycling shoes and helmet (yes…); and join the steady stream of riders making their way up East Moulin Road to the start outside the High School. “Up” being the operative word here, the cacophony of clunks as people hastily searched for their low gears warning that your climbing legs were definitely going to be warmed up before you had to start worrying about the route of the sportive itself.

And that wee bit of climbing made a big difference to the weather – at the school we’re now in the low cloud, making it decidedly misty, and the chill in the air had me regretting not putting on my overshoes. Joining the ever-growing throng amassing in the starting “funnel” I set off in the 3rd group to depart, as Alan the event organiser gives – remembering that we’re in the middle of a residential area and it’s not yet breakfast time for most of the locals – what must have been the quietest ever 5-4-3-2-1-Go! in history. Visibility’s about 150m in front of us, although bizarrely the outline of the sun was visible above our heads, nine orders of magnitude and 150 million km away. Ahead of us, not that we could actually see it, was several miles of steady climbing over Moulin Moor. Still, at least it wasn’t raining. It stayed that way for about 3 miles.

At this point you’re probably expecting me to say that this is when the heavens opened (this is Scotland, remember…). But no. This is the point where our ascent took us above the clouds and into the sunshine. We could now see the landscape around us, and let me tell you it was absolutely stunning in the early morning light (this is Scotland, remember…). And the weather would stay this way – warm, sunny and (most importantly) practically windless – for the rest of my ride, making for a truly spectacular day in the saddle. Nevertheless approaching the highest point on the road across the moor I noticed us pass a roadside memorial to the victim of a snowstorm, testament to the harsh counterpoint of this wonderful scenery.

By now I’ve ridden away from the group I started with, and past a few slower riders from the first starters. A whippet-like man in a Huddersfield jersey passed me at a pace I knew I couldn’t sustain for another 100 miles – nope, I’m not chasing on to his wheel. Turns out he was the first person to cross the finish line (although not the fastest rider of the day). But before long I’ve tagged on to the back of a group of about a dozen riders going at what was a comfortable pace for me. The road undulates a bit and I find myself taking my turn on the front, replacing one of the two blokes who had been setting the pace. I didn’t catch the name of my companion, and we chatted idly for the next half an hour or so until we reach the point after 16 miles where we turn left onto the “main” A93 Perth to Braemar road (although I say “main”, traffic along this road was so light that we could almost have been riding a “closed roads” event). Ahead of us lies the first major climb of the day up to The Cairnwell and past the Glenshee ski centre. “Spittal of Glenshee 8” says the road sign. “8 miles to the top” says my companion. “No,” I reply, knowledgefully, “the Spittal of Glenshee is at the bottom – it’s another 3 miles or so until you reach the top!”

At this point a chap in full Tinkoff Saxo kit decides to hit the front. There’s a small Slovenian flag on the his back of his jersey above the pockets: hey – this could be Peter Sagan! OK, we all know it’s not Sagan – if it was he’d surely have been wearing his Rainbow stripes… But I’ll call him “Peter” anyway. Nobody joins “Peter” on the front, the road’s rising gradually but we’re rolling along steadily. Passing the Spittal of Glenshee the slope now starts to increase. OFFICIAL 100Climbs No 65 The Cairnwell: 1000 ft in 5 miles at an average of 4%. On the face of it not that difficult. Look ahead and you find the reality is rather different. All you can see is the road rising up in front of you, gently at first but with the gradient steadily increasing until the grey ribbon of asphalt disappears out of sight between the mountain peaks.

I ride past “Peter”. Oh, I’m riding away from everybody else too, but I’m gaining slowly on a lone rider in the distance. Not fancying the prospect of riding the next 75 miles on my own I drop my pace a bit as I reach him and we start chatting. My latest riding companion (I’m such a tart) – I find out later his name is Iain – is from Houston (“the original one, west of Glasgow”) and is going to stop for a bit later on at The Lecht, where his family will be waiting for him. He must have started out in the first group as he tells me he reckons there must only be 1 or 2 riders in front of us.

We pass the official photographer, then we pass a section of road known as “The Devil’s Elbow” – it’s also well-known for being associated on the radio in winter with the words: “The A93 Braemar to Perth road is closed due to snow at…” The road levels off and we reach Glenshee ski centre where the first feed station is located, but neither of us are stopping so we wave cheerily and shout “hello” to the volunteers there as we start the ~10 miles descent to Braemar. With my base layer on I had been starting to feel a bit warm in the early morning sunshine during the ascent. Now, on the way back down, with sustained speeds over 40mph I was glad of it to ward off the chill. Riding no hands to put on/take off a gilet would undoubtedly leave me face-planting, Jens Voigt-style. Besides, I had much better things to be doing with my hands – namely cramming food and drink down my throat.

Meanwhile my eyes were gorging on the visual feast surrounding us. Words (well mine anyway) cannot do justice to the geography of the region – to find out you’ll just have to visit yourself. I glance to my left as we approach Braemar and notice a remarkably well-presented field of grass, cut in chequer-board fashion. There’s a white pole in it. I suggest to Iain that some farmer’s probably using it for golf practice. At the same time a green with pin and a tee draw in to view – it IS a golf course (this is Scotland, remember…), a roadside hoarding proudly proclaiming that Braemar is the UK’s highest 18 hole golf course. On the other side of the road, a large rock bears the white silhouette of a sword-wielding kilted highlander along with the date 1715, marking the Jacobite rising. Not only are you getting a cracking bike ride, you also get a history lesson thrown in free.

Now in Royal Deeside we’re riding alongside the River Dee, which means for the next few miles the road will still be heading down. Thankfully the water levels are also down considerably on those experienced during the recent devastating winter floods. Repairs to the Invercauld bridge are completed (not that a couple of bikes would have challenged earlier weight restrictions) and the section of road which was washed away has been rebuilt. Balmoral Castle is somewhere to our right – it can’t be spotted from the road due to the trees, although Iain and I have spotted another rider who has been gradually catching us since just outside Braemar.

Just before Crathie (site of the wee kirk frequented by the royal family during their stays in the area) the route turns north off the Deeside road in the direction of Gairnshiel Lodge (another favourite haunt of royals past), and heads upwards once again. The new rider comes past us, but my comfortable pace soon has me dumping Iain and latching on to Duncan, who will be my new riding companion for the next 12 miles or so (told you I was a tart). I gaze lustfully at his titanium Kinesis bike (total tart…), although my desires are tempered by the knowledge that I’m now only a couple of weeks away from taking delivery of mine!

This section of the route is sneaky. Nestled between the first two highlight climbs of the day are two equally nasty ascents to get over as we cross from Strathdee to Strathdon. Although not as tall, the gradients approaching 20% are just as severe and have your legs burning and lungs craving oxygen. Needless to say the views are equally breathtaking. A silver BMW overtook us near the first summit. “Must be following a rider,” suggested Duncan, “that’s the third or fourth time I’ve seen that car.” As we approached the summit there was the photographer I’d seen earlier snapping away. I managed to raise an arm in triumph as I surged ahead briefly to claim the imaginary mountains classification points. And immediately behind the photographer was… …her silver BMW. Not following A rider; following ALL the riders!

Duncan and I are now on the A939, another of those Scottish routes famous for being associated with the words “closed” and “snow” in winter. We’re now retracing the route of last autumn’s Etape Royale, albeit in the opposite direction. Just before Corgarff you pass Goodbrand and Ross, a restaurant whose views are probably surpassed only by Douglas Adams’ “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, and the location of a water stop before The Lecht climb. They also had one of the most eye-watering selection of cakes I’ve ever seen when I visited there last October. Duncan pulls over. I pull over too, but not to take on cakes. Or water. Quite the opposite in fact… So after offloading unnecessary, erm, “ballast” and replenishing my energy levels with a gel I’m ready to hit the road again. A quick chat with the chap handing out the water bottles suggests there’s only one rider ahead of us.

Pulling back out onto the road who do I meet but Iain, so apologising for leaving him behind earlier we ride off towards Corgarff Castle, its splendid white walls visible a mile or so up the road, and thereafter what is undoubtedly the major climb of the day: OFFICIAL 100Climbs No 66 The Lecht. 802 feet in 2.6 miles at 5.7% average really doesn’t tell the whole story. Unlike Glenshee, from the bottom of the climb you can’t see the top as the road disappears into the trees. This climb also features 5 of those little chevron marks on an OS map which signify sections of road having gradients between 14% and 20%. Crossing Cock Bridge the first 3 of these come in the space of barely half a mile as the road corkscrews up more than 150 metres. The gradient then relents and you go downhill for a couple of hundred yards, before it’s straight uphill again as you encounter the remaining 2 steep sections in the next lung-bursting ¾ of a mile, climbing another 130 metres in the process. Although it’s still another ~½ mile to the ski centre the climbing’s actually effectively over by now as there’s another short downhill section before a final equally short rise to the ski centre and the official end of the climb, where the next feeding station was located.

I’m still OK for food, gels and drink, so no need to stop here. I’m also on my own again having left Iain behind at the foot of the climb, and Duncan back at the cafe. Another cheery wave to the volunteers and the next 6½ miles are a fast rollercoaster descent, in some places very fast, to Tomintoul: the route notes caution riders to ensure they do not break the national speed limit of 60mph! I only managed a measley 46mph… Through Tomintoul there was a bit of a novelty: the only right turn on the route according to the event notes (actually there was a first right turn at the very start, back in Pitlochry, but I’m not one to let the truth get in the way of an otherwise witty anecdote).

I’m now riding along roads which I haven’t been along for close on 30 years. I may have driven on them once, but a “fly past” on Google Street View a few days previously means that there is a familiar look to some sections. As I’m on my own, there’s only 1 pair of eyes to watch out for the route direction signs. In this part of the Highlands there are not a lot of roads, so the first one signposted Nethy Bridge is going to be the correct one. Miss the turn, however, and there aren’t going to be many options to get back on course, other than retracing the route. You’ve got to bear in mind here that I’m still a paper maps person who hasn’t yet succumbed to the lure of the Church of Garmin, so don’t have a flock of celestial satellites to keep me on the righteous path.

Anyway, the next turn ought to be easy enough to spot as the course notes indicate that it’s immediately after snow gates. Roads may be few and far between in these parts. Snow gates are not. But I still have to pass through Bridge of Brown, where the road crosses the River Avon (helpfully this one’s pronounced A’an, to distinguish it from the many other rivers of the same name found throughout Britain). This brought back memories of the recent Welsh training weekend at the beginning of April, where Tim D. commented that if you can see a bridge then you know that the road’s going to drop down towards it, cross a river, and then head uphill again on the other side. Except that in this instance the steepness and twistiness of the road down means you don’t actually see the bridge until you’re about to cross it. And in contrast to Wales, where regardless of whether you were going downhill or uphill all you could see was rain, once I’d climbed out of the glen and was on (much) higher ground, I could now see SNOW (this is Scotland, remember…). For there to the south were the snow-capped peaks of the Cairngorm mountains, my destination, an imposing sight as they rose towards the sky. Majestic in the sunshine they looked (a) very far away, and (b) very high!

Approaching Nethy Bridge the landscape changes dramatically as you leave the heather moors and enter Abernethy Forest, the trees providing shade from the sun as well as shielding your eyes from the impending final climb. Now in Strathspey and heading south along the edge of the forest, Boat of Garten (no boats) is on my right and Loch Garten (probably boats) is to my left. This is where in 1954 the first ospreys to return to the British Isles since they were persecuted to extinction by the Victorians in the early 1900s built their nest, and where a sizeable population now exists. Now I know what red kites look like, and I also know what buzzards look like (I had spotted quite a few along the route so far – waiting to pick off the weaker-looking riders on the climbs, no doubt?). Up til now, though, I’ve only seen ospreys from through the lenses of telescopes and binoculars at the RSPB hide on the shores of the loch, way back when I was a spotty teenager in the 1970s and 80s. But I’m pretty sure that the medium-sized raptor I saw being mobbed by crows barely 50ft above me in the narrow corridor cut through the trees by the road was the closest view I’m ever likely to get of an osprey. To celebrate I squeezed my last gel into my mouth in preparation for the final stretch of the ride.

Coylumbridge marks the final “turn” in the route sheet, as I take the road signposted An Gleann Mòr 4, An Cārn Gorm 8 (or Glenmore and Cairngorm as the English translation below reads). So only 8 miles to go, but still 1300 feet of ascent. The extra miles I’ve been putting in before and after Sunday rides over the past few months has obviously paid off as I’m feeling quite good. My legs are a bit tired, as might be expected, and even though I’ve done the last 35 miles solo, there’s probably been very few of those where being in a group would have been a significant benefit. With only the lightest of northerly (I think) breezes, the weather conditions really have been as perfect as one could have wished for.

Still in the trees, the road’s rising gradually and I reach Loch Morlich where people are sunbathing along the lochside. On a proper beach. With proper sand (and this is almost 40 miles from the coast)! Sadly I can’t join them as I press on past the loch and then the reindeer centre to where the final drinks station was followed immediately by an orange line painted across the road along with the letters “K.O.M.”, a bank of RF transponders, and a bloke with an iPad asking me for my rider number. “Six four two” I was able to tell him. Nobody had told us that the final part of the ride was going to be timed! Or to give it it’s proper name: OFFICIAL 100Climbs No 67 Cairn Gorm.

Since the turn at Coylumbridge I’ve ridden another 4 miles, climbing about 300 feet in the process. Which, if you’ve done your sums right, will tell you that there are still 1000 feet of ascent in the final 3.4 miles. For the first mile the road just gets steeper and steeper until you’re riding up gradients of 20% as you pass the Sugarbowl car park. Aptly named, as it turns out, because rounding the bend is a nice sweetener as the road levels off for a few hundred yards. There’s some more orange paint on the road: “3km”. The road begins to kick up. More orange paint: “2km”. A road sign indicates a right turn for the Cairngorm Mountain Railway. I don’t want that, do I…? Busy trying to convert kilometres into miles as I glance at the imperial units on my cycle computer I’m momentarily confused and am almost about to go straight on into the Coire na Ciste car park. Until a big curvy arrow in familiar orange paint on the road keeps me right, and I bear right. Above the tree line now I can see the gradient increasing again ahead of me, but the worst of the climb is behind me. “1km” and I can now see the Coire Cas car park for the ski centre, and with the end in sight I’m now clicking down the gears as I sprint into the car park. Although with my chain still on the granny ring, my definition of “sprint” may differ from that of the marshals cheering me on towards the finish gantry with the timing clock. Tantalisingly still another 250 yards away at the far end of the car park!

Crossing the line I feel remarkably human as I press the Stop button on my computer and gratefully take a bottle of water from one of the volunteers before sitting down in the shade of a van to drink it. My computer indicates 103 miles in 6h 05min. Whipping my phone out of my pocket my Strava activity is auto-paused at 102.7 miles in 6 hours 10 minutes moving time (which includes traipsing across the Goodbrand and Ross car park). Very carefully I hit the “Save” button.

There appears to be only one other rider finished – the whippet in the Huddersfield jersey – but it doesn’t take long before more riders are crossing the finish line, individually at first and then in small groups. Among them I spot Iain (whose family have rejoined him) and Duncan, and go across to catch up with the pair of them. While it’s still relatively quiet at the finish I also take the opportunity to have a quick word with Alan, the event Director, whom I recognise from the Snowball Sportive, to thank him for putting on such a superb event.

It took a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, but I’ve finally managed to locate the promised end-of-ride pasta. There’s plenty of it, and it’s very good. Washing it down with a pint of milk retrieved from my rucksack (helpfully transported from Pitlochry by the organisers) I spend a few minutes texting family and friends to let them know I’ve completed the ride safely. As I mingle with the other finishers I manage to confuse the Hell out of a trio of riders who think I am “Charlie”. None of them are aware that “Charlie” has an identical twin brother (me, in case it wasn’t obvious). I resist the temptation to curse and swear at them. As well as being somewhat rude, it also might not be conducive to Charlie’s future employment prospects. There’s a bloke collapsed face down over one of the picnic tables. As I sit down beside him he musters the strength to raise his head, and asks me “Why does nobody else look as bad as I feel?”

By now the afternoon’s starting to wear on and it’ll soon be time for the first bus back to Pitlochry to depart. The event notes had warned that pedals had to be removed from bikes prior to loading them in the van. I’d read this and had made sure mine were not seized in place before leaving Didcot a few days before. Others hadn’t and were now struggling with pedal spanners and multitools as it started to rain. By the time the coach departed it was hammering it down, pretty much exactly as forecast – and one of the reasons I was so keen to get as early a start as possible. As we headed down the mountain there was a steady stream of very wet riders making their way up to the finish. In fact the rain was so heavy later in the afternoon that it forced ~25 riders to abandon at the Nethy Bridge feeding stop. An hour later and 40 miles or so down the A9 the rain has stopped and the sun’s shining brightly once more. Arriving back in Pitlochry the coach doesn’t head for the High School, and instead pulls in to the public car park beside the tourist information centre, fewer than 50 yards from where I’d left my car that morning, so I didn’t even need to bother about reattaching the pedals to my bike.

Reflecting on my ride, just over 6 hours for over 100 very hilly miles is a fairly respectable time: I finished 38th out of 547 finishers and 8th in my age category. I’ve no doubt I would have broken 6 hours if I’d zoomed past Iain riding up Glenshee, or passed up the opportunity of Duncan’s company from Crathie to the foot of The Lecht. But I’m also pretty sure that if I’d done that I wouldn’t be able to look back now and think that I had enjoyed the ride as much as I did (I’d probably be that bloke slumped face down on the table). Because it was the both the company and the scenery along the route which made this such a memorable day. Oh, and the typical Scottish weather also had a huge hand in it. Every now and then a passing car would give a cheery hoot or thumbs up to encourage us, I guess they spotted our rider numbers and recognised what we were doing.

I know I’m biased, but this is a ride you really ought to consider doing – it really has everything. Challenging ascents as well as descents. Stunning scenery. A great party atmosphere at the finish (if that’s your thing). The organisation was spot-on, especially with the consideration given to getting riders and bikes between the start and finish locations. Most importantly, perhaps, (Simon McG…?) it features 3 of Simon Warren’s Official 100 climbs.