Imagine the Scottish Highlands. Imagine being surrounded by spectacular scenery. Imagine cycling along a country road by the side of Scotland's most iconic loch, Loch Ness. Bliss. Now imagine cycling along side that loch with the heavy, fast-moving traffic that can blight the A82 that runs along the loch. Not quite the idyllic cycling nirvana it could be. If only someone could organise a closed roads sportive...
Along with over 1000 other cyclists I descended on Inverness on Saturday 3rd May to register for the first Etape Loch Ness on Sunday the 4th, the first closed roads cycling event to be held in the area. Understandably there was a lot of interest in the event due to the iconic location and the closed roads, with tickets selling incredibly fast. The question was would it live up to the hype?
It was a very early rise on the Sunday morning for all the riders, with riders leaving in waves of 96 cyclists between 6:30 and 6:54. I was due to set off with wave D at 6:36 a.m., so no late night partying in Inverness! I did however manage to meet up with a couple of other riders the night before and inevitably, considering the location and the time of year, the conversation focused on the weather.
Hmm, looks like it might be wet...I wonder if we can get away with shorts...arm warmers or long sleeves...?
Part of the problem, or depending on how you look at it, part of the excitement of cycling in the Scottish Highlands is the unpredictability of the weather. After some debate we all agreed that we could get away with shorts and layers up top, with the ability to vary them during the ride. Morning arrived, and after daring to peek outside of the B&B window, I was surprised to see it was dry but with cloud. Perhaps the weather gods would be on our side after all.
6:15 a.m. and I arrived at the event village, which fortunately was just around the corner from my accommodation. Inverness is a fairly well trodden tourist destination so there is plenty of good accommodation available to choose from. The start itself was situated on the banks of the River Ness, providing a nice backdrop for the start. Already many hundreds of cyclists were milling around the waiting area and starting to group into our 'waves'. I was quite impressed with the organisation with wave after wave setting off without any noticeable issues. This was no mean feat considering that there was less than half an hour to get over 1000 cyclists off and cycling. Soon it was my turn for the off.
I had only travelled about 200m down the course when I realised that I hadn't switched my mobile sports tracker on, so a quick stop to start the application on my phone meant I ended up joining wave E instead (you can see the final track here). With the earlier waves consisting of the faster cyclists, this was probably no bad thing. We soon settled down into a reasonable pace cruising along the relatively flat A82 at about 20mph. It didn't take too long to get out of Inverness itself, although it took a few more miles before we reached the banks of the loch. Once you do reach the loch the road undulates along quite close to it. The loch itself is occasionally hidden by trees and bushes, but you do get a good view of the dark waters for a significant part of the sportive. Whilst on this particular day the loch didn't look its resplendent best, under the grey and occasionally slightly damp skies, it was still an impressive feeling to be cycling alongside it, surrounded by thousands of other cyclists, with not a car to be seen.
The early A82 section was particularly enjoyable due to the significant pelotons that you could quite easily join. I managed to latch on to a group that were going a nice steady pace and, surprisingly for me, I even occasionally took the lead. The road was in excellent condition and, being closed to all traffic, there was a great sense of freedom cycling along it. Most riders did tend to keep to the left, but occasionally it was nice to slide between the cat's eyes in the road and cycle down the right hand lane. How often can you do that safely?
I often find that the first 5-10 miles of a sportive are the quietest, with everyone getting into their own rhythm. This sportive followed the same pattern with only those who already knew each other having a chat. However, it didn't take long before everyone was chatting about sportives in general, the hill ahead, and yes, the weather. The weather turned out to be much better than predicted. Mild, mostly dry with only the odd spot of rain and not much wind. Only glorious sunshine was missing.
My own particular highlight of this section was when a red squirrel decided that now was a good time to dash out from the grass verge and within millimetres of my front wheel. Much to the astonishment of the cyclists around me, it managed not to become embedded in my front fork and lived to tell the tale to its squirrel friends. Unfortunately for me, the helmet camera I was using to film my ride that day was switched off at the time. Such a shame, as that squirrel and the reaction it induced in me and my surrounding cyclists could have gone viral.
The miles remained enjoyable all the way down to Fort Augustus where the ride was to start looping back to the north. However, as we approached the town the talk among the peloton turned more and more to the hill that would come straight after it.
"When I came up yesterday I decided to do a wee bit of reccy of the route in the car. That hill out of Fort Augustus was hard work in the car, never mind on a bike..."
Comments like this from my fellow cyclists didn't fill me with confidence. The talk was of the hill being a bit of a killer with a long steep section at the start. Unfortunately my only reccy of the hill was a quick glance at the route profile the day before. It didn't look too bad. I was growing more and more concerned as I approached, especially considering my lack of training before the sportive. Would my 12 mile each way commute to work prepare me for 4.8 miles of steep hill climbing?
You were left in no doubt about where the hill started, due to the timing pad laid across the road at the foot of it. That marked the start of a very abrupt kick up in the gradient. There was nothing else for it... time to drop some gears. Just a few hundred metres into the climb and it was obvious that the information I heard about the first section being pretty steep was true. Very quickly I found myself clicking further and further down the gears, and to my dismay I soon realised that I had no more gears to go. Thank goodness I'd bought a new cassette with a lower gear the week before! It also only took a few hundred metres of the climb before I cycled past my first cramp victim. There was certainly no gentle introduction to this climb! The climb itself never actually went past about 12%, however, for the first section at least the gradient remained close to that figure.
It hurt. Luckily I was surrounded by other people who looked like they were also suffering. I tend to find the fact that my hurt is not a lonely hurt quite comforting. It's one of the benefits of trying a new hill out for the first time on a sportive. You start to think about getting off the bike for a rest, but knowing that everyone around is also considering getting off their bikes, but aren't, is a good way to encourage you to just keep on riding the bike. Some people passed me, and I passed some people, but very few looked like they were finding it easy. After about a mile the climb flattens out and drops back down for a distance, giving tired legs a well earned rest. Of course there was more to come, and come it did. Yes, it wasn't as steep as that first lactate-inducing section, but with the legs already burning it didn't feel any easier.
The climb went on. As I continued I could see the damage that the hill was doing, as there were a couple of people obviously struggling, and the occasional walker. Morale in general though was very good. I'd hear words of encouragement quite often, with riders who knew the hill telling me and others, not far to go now, or that's the hardest part over. I love this feeling of camaraderie that you get on sportives, and it was present here aplenty. Thank you all for your words of encouragement, they are almost as good as one more sprocket.
The weather helped to keep things interesting as well. As we gained on the top the mist rolled in making the landscape look quite eerie. Despite the misty conditions it was surprisingly mild. I was quite happy with this, only having a minimum of layers on, but the warmth was taking its toll on some. There were a number of riders complaining of being too hot - not what you'd normally expect when approaching the top of a large hill in the Scottish Highlands in early May!
As I approached the top, the eeriness was compounded by a strange figure up ahead. It was standing by the side of the road with a strange wailing sound emanating from it. I thought the Loch Ness Monster was supposed to remain in the loch! There was nothing to fear of course, as it was in fact a bagpipe player belting out a Scottish ditty taking my mind off the burning sensation in my legs. A nice atmospheric touch, especially given the fact that shortly after we passed the piper, the mist began to clear to reveal a gorgeous loch filled valley below. Perfect timing!
I recorded the whole hill climb, you can view it here - warning: contains heavy breathing...
The timing chip I had attached to my bike made the King of the Mountain recorder beep in approval. I had reached the top, though I suspect I probably hadn't recorded the ultimate King of the Mountain time! A lovely view opened up ahead not only revealing distant hills and mountains, but a welcome feed stop just a mile or so from the summit. I stopped, admired the view and briefly accepted the hospitality of those manning the feed stop (there was plenty of water, bananas, oatcake and gels) before setting off again on the relatively flat remainder of the sportive.
It certainly wasn't entirely flat, there were a couple of wee stings in the tail, but nothing to rival the hill that I had just conquered. In fact I seemed to get my second wind in the last five or six miles and put in a good sprint to the finish, leading in a small group of two or three riders into Inverness. Some extra care was needed on the roads on the approach to Inverness, as this section only had the left lane closed to traffic. I didn't find any problem with only having half of the road, however I suspect that a larger peloton could have issues, as the road was divided up using road cones. Care would need to be taken to avoid hitting them. This could be an issue if numbers taking part increase significantly next year, which is something I'm sure the organisers will consider.
Just before the finish there were a couple of sharp left turns (which I almost overcooked!) and a short straight sprint to the finish. The crowd behind the barriers, whilst not exactly three people deep, were very appreciative of everyone coming in, which made my sitting up, arms outstretched pose as I approached the finish seem almost appropriate. Almost.
I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed doing the Etape Loch Ness. I had done the Etape Caledonia before, which, being longer, I thought would be more challenging. However, the hill at the Loch Ness event was significantly more challenging and more than made up for the shorter distance. It's not a cheap event of course, but then it can't be cheap closing the roads, and the closed roads really do make a significant difference to the feel of the event. There were also marshals at every junction, three feed stops and outrider mechanics. All in all, I'd say it was worth a bit of an outlay for what was a very enjoyable day in the saddle.
Who knows, perhaps if I can negotiate with my wife and kids, I might see you in Inverness for Etape Loch Ness 2015.