Etape Caledonia

Wanting to do longer rides in 2019, I signed up in August last year. The plan was to go with Hugh initially, cannot recall why that did not work out but having signed up for Liege too I thought this was a nice follow up. However at the time of sign up I barely got to 90k and I needed to figure out a way build distance, endurance and strength. Cycling to work every day helps to keep the legs moving (and the weight off) but really it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until about December time I started to get pretty worried I might not see the finish line for Caledonia – not on a bike anyway – let alone for Liege. Drastic measures were needed. So come 2nd January diet changed and meat was off the menu. Peanut M&M’s too!! To begin with for a month, but since it started to feel quite good I kept it up till the end of March. Lost a stone in the process which was an added benefit. I vaguely remembered I purchased a brand new turbo trainer when I got my new bike, at the end of 2017. It had been out the box twice, but I didn’t really like it. The only reason being that I had not set it up properly. As it was mid winter and training needed to be stepped up I eventually put it together the way it should and signed up for Trainerroad. The workouts are intuitive and are adaptable to individual requirements. Throughout January I focused on cadence, distance & watts in February & inclines in March. Combined with the better weather in February when I took every chance to go out for a ride. Even if it was only for 20 minutes. Anyway going to Pitlochry is always something to look forward to. With the race being on Sunday and registration available only on Friday or Saturday it ‘forced’ some studying on logistics. Eventually we decided to go up as family and hired a lodge on River Tilt Holiday Park, which was just superb and only a short drive away.

Getting there was so easy and after a close encounter with a low bridge (I transported the bike on the car roof) slightly damaging the steering wheel, we got settled quickly. I was assigned to wave B based upon my anticipated finish time of 5 hours. Kev’s inspirational words ringing in my ear “waste of time if you don’t finish sub 4 hours”. Four hours? 85 miles?

Did not seem likely. 6:40am and we are on our way out of Pitlochry. Roads wet from the heavy rain the day before, but a pleasant morning to set off. Folk flying past me on either side. It is a closed road event which clearly excites some riders. A group quickly forms of about 15, however I seem to find myself at the front of this group, which was not the plan. First climb is early doors in the ride, up to Queens View over Loch Tummel. Not particularly long at 1.5k or challenging at 5.6% ave. Nice leg warmer. All the nutters flying past me at the start are bypassed on the climb. The group thins out and there are only 2 of us left at the top of the climb. On the descent another group forms and we are going at a steady pace towards the second climb of the day, average pacing is 30k+ which surprises me, but feels ok so I stick with it. Second climb is much longer at 4k but ave is 5.2% so not particularly hard. It seems to be the case that no groups remain going up and it all becomes everyone on their own. With nearly 3500 riders that is remarkable. Feeling comfortable on this climb as well I decide to have something to drink and accelerate a bit. I try to catch the wheel of some featherweight rider, realising he must be about half my weight therefore the watts he produces gets him up that hill quicker. I manage a few hundred meters before exploding. Not smart. The descent is long and fast, but roads are still wet from the day before so need to remember to keep in a straight line. Speeds of 60k an hour are reached. Suddenly I see a red flag in the distance. As I come closer very quickly I see an ambulance round the bend and a broken bike. A warning. Hoping the rider is ok I settle in a more controlled speed. On the flat a group forms of about 30 and this group stays together for the 35k flat loop around Loch Rannoch. Sitting somewhere in the middle of this group I realise how much easier it is riding together. Speeds rarely drop below 33k/hr. Looking around I notice how beautiful this part of Scotland is and how comfortable the roads are. No endless potholes like on the Winchburgh loop which have me swearing regularly. The group does the whole loop in just over an hour. Kev’s words make me start to wonder if it possible doing this in under 4 hours. As we’re now about half way in I look at the GPS – just over 2 hours. But the Schiehallion climb and pass to come it is going to be a challenge to keep that up. The climb up Schiehallion is the toughest on the route. 2.4k with ave 7.2% and a steep bit of 14%. Gary Hand (ex pro) flies past me. Looking at him disappearing into the distance I feel like I’m standing still. But there are a few folk walking as well, so it’s not that bad in the end. Lots of people really struggling, but I’m feeling ok and keep going past them. Old Schiehallion pass is another fantastic road to cycle on. If you haven’t done it, you absolutely should. A few dark clouds appear in the distance and yes, the rain starts. Inevitably. Awkward drizzle, combined with a lot of mud on the road from reconstruction works make it quite tricky all of a sudden. I decide to stop at the feed station 85k in, after ignoring the first 2 stops. Couple of army cadets barking instructions where to rack the bike, after I blatantly ignored them. All I heard was noise. Now more composed I mentally high five myself for not retaliating and instead apologise for riding straight up to the flapjacks. After peace has been established again and the legs have had a 5 minute break I set off on what I know is a very long descent. If you’ve done Aberfeldy middle distance you’ll know the one I mean. Coming off the descent the route takes a bit of a weird little loop through Fortinghall and then turning back towards a little place aptly called ‘Dull’. I’m in a group again and with the average pace 32.5k the 4 hour mark could still be on if I increase the pace a bit. The group consists of about a dozen riders and we agree on a chain gang. Quite a strong headwind blowing but we manage to keep this going all the way to Grandtully, which is about 14k from the finish. However the speed didn’t really increase and the 4 hour mark now only appears a realistic 2020 prospect. This feeling is reinforced when the last 7k towards Pitlochry consists of short but very very steep climbs. I’m blowing up each time I tackle one and can’t really keep any wheel anymore. This is the toughest I felt in the whole ride. But soon I enter Pitlochry where the streets are lined with 100’s of people cheering everyone on. In all the villages we came through it was busy with people doing the same which made the whole atmosphere brilliant on the day.

As I keep peddling towards the finish line there’s a ‘vintage aged’ looking fella cycling in front of me which spurs me on to push out a little sprint towards the line. I clock my time at 4:15:32, 45 minutes faster than my anticipated finish time but still 15 minutes ‘slower’ than the 4 hours which appeared such an interesting objective throughout. Fran and the boys are at the finish line, but they miss me completely which is utterly remarkable as I was riding in a bright pink outfit. However the family is quickly re-united and after a few mandatory photos and a cappuccino we head back to the lodge. After I review the final finishing times, I notice there are not many riders completing this course in under 4 hours and the vast majority are 5 hours or more. Suddenly I also feel the need to remind myself, it is not race. Though it might be in 2020.