Laura Laker tackles her first ever sportive, and chooses Britain’s biggest in the Scottish mountains as her baptism into the world of organised long-distance riding
81 miles or 72 if you ended up behind the broom wagon before mile 55
5,200 Number of participants
4,233 Number of finishers
One Major climb
It’s hard to pick the Etape Caledonia’s best feature. There were the usual jokes from my fellow riders that it was the descents, but a combination of the awe-inspiring scenery, the closed roads and the people won the hearts of the Etape’s 5,200 attendees, many of whom return year after year.
The UK’s biggest sportive started and finished in Pitlochry, with 81 miles of stunning — and at times punishing — Highland and loch-side scenery in between.
The town’s 2,500-odd population trebled for the day, and it seemed everyone was out enjoying the spectacle, sitting on lawns or standing at the roadside cheering on riders with clappers, cowbells and cries of “allez”, and “well done”.
Far from the situation in 2009 and 2011, when tacks were thrown on the roads of the event, the Etape has clearly won the hearts and minds of the locals, too.
The weather report predicted variations on heavy and light rain but, by some fluke, only a short, faint drizzle and a timid breeze materialised.
On the main road out of Pitlochry I heard one rider saying: “I keep looking over my shoulder for cars.”
Loch and roll
Without the worry of traffic nonetheless, the first wooded hillsides with their jagged elevation took it out of some riders. One man at around 10 miles said to me: “I expected to feel fresher at this point!” I knew how he felt and doubted my own legs, too. A couple of people were off the bikes and pushing already.
Following Loch Tummel and the rocky River Tummel (great for white water rafting, apparently), there was a sprint stage, some wee climbs and a great hairpin bend. We passed a hydroelectric power plant that wouldn’t look out of place in J.R.R.
Tolkein’s Mordor, before a fairy tale forest, each branch hanging delicate lacelike clumps of lichen and the floor a carpet of moss. The real blinder, however, was Loch Rannoch; its water reflected the blue and purple-brown Highland hills and snow-dappled peaks, changing from tiger stripe to matt blue, to as smooth as glass as we rode by.
The road undulated beside the loch for 20 miles with the conical side of Schiehallion, aptly translated as ‘fairy hill of the Caledonians’, visible from its shores. I was just thinking about how flat it all was, when the mountain appeared again in front of me. The route’s main climb and also King of the Mountain stage, was a sudden and sharp grade towards the snowy peak, with a hairpin bend thrown in, too.
“Loch Rannoch; its water reflected the highland hills and snowy peaks”
It was worth the tough pedal to Schiehallion’s shoulders though for the otherworldly scene at the top; the colours of purple heather and gold limestone walls strangely saturated in the muted moorland light. The ribbon of road stretched out ahead, an eerie lake half covered in yellow reeds opposite the dark mountainside, a band of pure white snow along its ridge.
Go like the clappers
It was then, around mile 50, that my legs warmed up. Perhaps it was the scenery that inspired me, maybe it was the sweaty ascent in the smallest gear, but when I saw a dip to a bridge up ahead turning into a short, sharp climb, I attacked. I may have been in the last five per cent of riders (or possibly worse) but at that moment it didn’t matter.
My legs pumped as I swooped around the corner and overtook two others struggling up the hill. My legs were burning, but I told them: ‘push, push, push’. Full of adrenaline, I whizzed past the next fuel station as a light drizzle set in.
I was the only rider in sight when I passed about 10 spectators, cheering and rattling their clappers for me so loud they were ringing in my ears for the whole of the next descent back into green pastureland.
Taking the biscuit
They cut off a nine-mile loop for us slowcoaches so I was glad to see, chat with and slipstream my fellow riders again on what I wrongly assumed was a wide, gentle descent towards the finish line.
As this was my first sportive the one thing I couldn’t get used to was the amount of gel and bar wrappers scattered along the route. I, like every other rider, had pockets and I used them. So with a Belvita biscuit poking out of my mouth while I replaced the rest in a back pocket (I wouldn’t recommend them for cycling, they were very dry), I then managed to miss the ‘low gear’ sign.
All I saw was the road ahead suddenly blocked by a crowd and a fence, riders turning dramatically left and uphill behind high hedges. The biscuit flew into my left hand as, too late to change down, I stood up in the pedals and started pushing. And boy, was it steep. Everyone had slowed to walking pace, including me, but I had to keep pushing or face defeat in front of a crowd. I later discovered the crowd is there each year as many unsuspecting riders come off at this point. I lifted my hand at the summit, and somehow the biscuit was still intact.
The last couple of miles into Pitlochry featured more short, sharp ascents, sapping the last power from hundreds of tired legs. All around me groans and fruity language peppered the air. One man I passed looked at one last hill, said “no”, and got off and pushed.
At the finish line I bumped into three guys I’d met at the first fuel stop. We agreed to meet up for some folk music, a weekly Sunday feature at one of Pitlochry’s pubs, McKays. After a bath and a massage (the latter I’d booked the previous day), I headed there.
I spent the evening with my three new friends, refuelling. Shortly after dinner about 12 musicians gathered around a large table in the centre of the pub, with accordions, guitars, violin and a flute. We all joined in with Wild Mountain Thyme and Worried Man Blues and drank a wee dram as the pull of bed grew stronger.
I can understand why so many people come back year on year, and I certainly have aspirations of returning. Just call me Laura Locher.
Sportive sound bites
Ben Shearer, Alan Roberts, Lee Groves From: London, Newcastle
“It was challenging but very rewarding, very doable for the above novice riders like us. We do 3-4 rides per week, 20-30 miles each. Fantastic scenery, you could do the 81 miles anywhere but doing it here was an added extra. The public support was tremendous and it was well-run. What I didn’t like was people throwing rubbish everywhere. The last section was like the novelty golf of cycling, like ‘let’s just throw a random hill in’; I swore at everything in nature.”
Roz Galloway From: Aberdeen
“I’m feeling OK now but I was feeling miserable about 10 miles ago. I have asthma so I had to stop at every ambulance for a puff of inhaler because I forgot mine. The families cheering you on was really nice, it made me want to cry! It was contentious about five years ago, people used to come around with tacks, but now the community seems so supportive. I think the UK’s whole attitude has changed to cycling, I think part of that is Chris Hoy and Wiggins, but we still have a long way to go to be a cycle-friendly nation.”
The Cricks (Before the event) From: Swansea, London, Cambridge Northamptonshire
John: “I started cycling about four years ago when a mate loaned me a bike, and now we all go out together.”
Peter: “We signed up [for the Etape] and then thought ‘we’d better get more serious about it’. We were really nervous the first year we did it, now we’re probably too relaxed about it!”
Martin: “We’ve been watching the Tour de France since birth. This is the nicest event, we come back every year. We have endless debates about what to wear. I think I’ve done a count and I think 50 per cent of riders are wearing shorts. I think I’ll change again!”