Words: Tracy Norris & Photography: Ed Smith Photography
A sportive in Scotland at the end of September could go either way, weather-wise. In Scotland, we have weather … lots of it … and so it was a bold decision by the organisers to hold the inaugural Etape Royale so late in the season – but it was a gamble that paid off in spades.
As I kept a close eye on the forecast on my favourite weather website (the bizarrely Norwegian but highly reliable www.yr.no) it looked like the weekend was going to be an absolute corker – the sort of early autumn day that Scotland does better than anywhere else in the world – a crisp, cold, clear morning that gradually warmed into a gloriously balmy sunny day. Add to this beautiful wild Scottish scenery and you have a perfect bike ride in store.
With the choices of 65 or 100 miles on closed roads, I took the ‘wimp’s’ way out and opted for the shorter of the two. As I was still taking down my tent in a field in Rhynie (the start point for the 65 milers, 35 miles into the 100 mile route), I heard a roar of support for the first 100 miler racers coming through their 3rd checkpoint having started off in the dark at 6am in Ballater. It was 7.45, so I brushed the ice off my saddle (yes really) and focused on getting my act together and to the 8am rolling start as quickly as possible.
A belated check of my tyre pressure led me to a quick and slightly embarrassed visit to one of the bike mechanics: a huge, bearded, friendly bear of a man who would have been right at home in a ZZ Top tribute band was only too delighted to help. Buoyed up by some gentle banter and the reassurance of super-quick tyres, I hustled to the start line and was soon waved through to start my ride.
Pedalling alongside a buddy of mine, we chatted our way up the first gentle inclines of the day and immediately realised this was going to be an absolute pleasure of a ride. We put ourselves under no pressure to race for a time and instead soaked up the views, gradually warming up into the ride.
Our first feed station came around 20 miles later in Dufftown after an alarmingly steep but mercifully short, stiff climb. Our reward was the best home-baked brownies north of the Watford Gap and served by cheery local folk who were enthusiastically supporting the event. I befriended yet another ZZ Top lookalike mechanic and used his allen keys to adjust my saddle and ease my sore lower back. Once again I chastised myself for lack of bike preparation. Bumping into a few more friendly faces I knew, we headed out again for more steep climbs along pretty country lanes. Head down to get the job done, I looked behind to realise I’d lost my cycling buddy. Having both agreed we would just play the ride by ear and not necessarily ride the whole thing together, I decided to keep on going and soon locked onto the wheels of 2 friendly young women from West Lothian Clarion cycle club. We rode together, sometimes chatting, sometimes working hard taking turns at the front in the headwind to the next feed stop.
The ride was in a wild part of Scotland and the population is thinly spread – and yet almost every household had come out to cheer us on enthusiastically. I made a point of being equally vocal and enthusiastic in return – their support was invaluable, not just to my own morale, but also to the survival of events like these that depend on the cooperation of locals. Road closures can be as inconvenient to locals as they are beneficial to business owners and it’s a difficult balance for race organisers to find. But the support along the route proved that the Etape Royale was being embraced by locals and participants alike.
I’d have liked to have heard more riders showing their appreciation, not just for the local families cheering us on with their banners and cow bells, but also for the huge number of marshals and volunteers on the ride. I made a point of shouting a cheery ‘thank you’ to every one of them. I realise I was not racing hard – but the majority of us could afford the spare oxygen to show our thanks. I’ve been one of those marshals in the past, and I know how grateful I was for the recognition. Some of these marshals will have been up at 4am to get to their position on the route and were still smiling when I passed through hours later. Good for them!
At the Tomintoul feed stop I was told that the next stop was only 7 miles away on top of the Lecht ski station, which told me everything I needed to know about the climb ahead. So I stuffed more home-baking in my mouth, exchanged some fun banter with friendly guys from the local Torphins Tycoons and climbed back on the bike, having first peeled off leg warmers and arm warmers. The day was starting to really heat up. So with jersey pockets positively bulging with discarded warm layers, I headed off.
I found my two Clarion riders again but was soon dropped by them as the first big climb of the day began. Looking at the road winding up ahead, it didn’t seem to warrant the awed tones being used to describe it. This is hardly Mont Ventoux. And yet I passed more and more riders who’d abandoned their bikes to attend to their leg cramps or who were pushing their bikes. This was actually pretty steep. In fact, zigzagging became the only way to go as I threw all my weight on top of each pedal turn to keep the wheels rolling. The beauty of not having a Garmin is that I remained in blissful ignorance but I’m told we hit 20% at times. No wonder it hurt.
Not only am I lackadaisical at best when it comes to bike preparation before my rides, I’m also flippant about checking the route out in proper detail. If I had done so, I would have known that the Lecht is only the first of 2 solid, calf-bulging, lung bursting climbs. After a blast over the high ground fighting a dangerous side wind, we dropped hair-raisingly steeply down into the valley beyond the ski station (accompanied by much red-flag-waving by marshals to stop me careering off the course). Realisation slowly dawned that the silvery road glistening in the sunshine that climbed ahead like a stairway to heaven, was indeed part of the course. I quickly grabbed my secret weapon – a peanut butter wrap – and scoffed it in-between gasps for oxygen. Painfully slowly I crawled past the groaning and wincing bodies of more cramped up MAMILs scattering the roadside. It was carnage. But while I will never be in the running for the King of the Mountain jersey, I was pleased not to be among the bodies scattered behind me in varying states of agony.
This time, it really was going to be downhill to the finish. I found myself entirely on my own but with a determination to get this ride done in as respectable a time as possible. Grimacing into the headwind and pumping my legs hard I stormed towards the finish line in the lovely Highland town of Ballater. The crowds were out to cheer us all in with a positively festival atmosphere. I rolled, gasping, over the line in the knowledge that I had put in a good effort despite never remotely being in the running for a position on the podium.
The inaugural Etape Royale was a glorious day out on the bike enjoying the peace and tranquillity of closed roads for a morning. The weather and the scenery could not have been better, the organisation and local support were tremendous and I’m sure this will become an annual event in the cycling calendar. And the brownie … well, that brownie has legendary status for me and I’ll definitely be coming back for more.