May 12 was the Caledonian Etape, an 81 mile sportive race which is billed as the largest cycling event in Scotland. Roughly 5,000 riders arrive in the town of Pitlochry every year to ride the very scenic route which winds around two lochs and climbs over part of Schiehallion, a famous mountain in Scotland. The Etape series has partnered with the Marie Curie charity and raises money via each rider which is processed for free through Virgin Money’s excellent donations engine. I’d really like to thank everyone that supported me and the charity – it was a very motivating experience and your contribution will make a difference.
Contrary to my original plans of taking the train, I ended up driving up with my teammate Craig on Saturday afternoon, which put us into the town around two in the afternoon. There were cyclists, cycle racks, and expensive bikes everywhere! Pitlochry is a popular tourist destination for those wanting to see the scenery of the highlands, and was a favoured spot of Queen Victoria’s, which increased the town’s popularity during her reign. It’s picturesque, with many buildings dating from the 1800s, yet still very small, like most towns in the highlands, with a population of roughly 2,500. The Etape starts and finishes on the main street (Atholl Road) which follows the River Tummel, and when we arrived Etape HQ was already set up and rocking. There were registration tents, booths setup by sponsors selling various cycling gear, and a mobile bike shop with mechanics giving cyclists free checkups. Techno music was blasting, and we were pumped as we met up with our other team members, Brian and Eugene.
Training, Preparations, and The Team
Here’s a quick rundown of the team members:
- Craig – Australian, extremely fit, completed a marathon the previous year, spent time as a Mount Everest mountain guide, fairly seasoned cyclist.
- Eugene – Irish, very fit, preparing for several sprint triathlons, toying with the idea of doing an iron man, new to cycling.
- Brian – Irish, very fit, works out regularly (over the last several months with a personal trainer), does quite a bit of climbing, new to cycling.
- Myself – American, overweight, never exercises, not fit at all, new to cycling.
I think it’s safe to say that none of the above is an exaggeration or in any way inaccurate, but if you walked up to our group and asked us if we were in shape the other three members would all spend quite a bit of time telling you how weak they were, how they’ve lapsed on their fitness, etc. This led to myself almost getting killed on the first couple of rides as I was cold-starting my body from years of devoted neglect. The first few training rides saw the group “drop me” (in cycling this apparently means “leave me behind) so badly that I couldn’t even see them. Eventually Craig would get concerned, turn around, cycle back towards me for quite some time, upon finding me he would crawl alongside me at my pathetic pace. It was humiliating. I was determined to catch up.
We cycled 460 miles across 18 different rides to prepare for this race, but that doesn’t include at least 1-2 gym trips every week and probably a half dozen spin classes. It’s difficult to ride on weekdays in Scotland during the winter, as the daylight hours are so short you’d be riding in the dark, so a lot of the training we logged was in the gym.
All this to say that there was great concern in January on my part over whether I could finish either the Etape or our previous event the Tour o’the Borders. We didn’t have much time to train, and further review of the Borders race indicated that it could be significantly tougher than the Etape. Having survived the Borders race a month earlier in what many seasoned participants proclaimed was the worst weather they’d ever ridden in, I felt like I had a huge psychological edge on this event. Still, this race was 10 miles longer with a thousand more feet of elevation, albeit essentially all packed into one massive climb.
Registration and Recon
Upon arrival we registered and proceeded to look for somewhere to eat. All of us were already carb loading, and I’d eaten two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, but it was important to keep stuffing down the carbs. Carb loading helps build up stores of glycogen in your muscles and can be the energy difference you need in an endurance event, particularly at the end. Every restaurant in Pitlochry had pasta on their menu as a special, no matter what they normally served, and after a plate of lasagna and chips, it was time to head out and preview the route.
Driving along the route for me was a demoralising experience. It took us an hour and a half to drive 60 miles of the 81 mile route. We were hoping to cycle the complete route in roughly six hours, and from the car the distance was looking a bit intimidating. There was also quite a bit more elevation in some areas than I’d anticipated, particularly at the start, and I was reminded of the gruelling long initial climb from the Tour O’the Borders.
Still, it’s always an incredible experience being in the country in Scotland. The Scottish scenery is absolutely stunning and the scenery we get to experience on each ride is one of my favourite aspects of the sport. We cruised along, stopping every now and then to take some pictures, and marvelled at the mountains, glens, and lochs that we’d be heading through in just a few hours.
Reconnaissance finished, we drove back to the accommodations we’d booked, which were a few miles out from Pitlochry in the town of Blair Atholl. Wikipedia says that the town is “small”, and I couldn’t find an official population figure, but one newspaper article I came across mentioned it contains roughly 260 households. Like almost every little Scottish town, Blair Atholl has its historical curiosities. The town was a refuelling stop (water) for steam locomotives and since 1911, the railway companies were on the hook to provide the town’s water supply. This unusual legal arrangement ceased only recently in 2006 when the railway paid millions to connect the town to Scottish Water, one of the main water companies in the area.
Carb Loading and Carb Overloading
We were staying in a prefabricated lodge (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, living room, kitchen, deck) located on the grounds of Blair Castle, which is the ancestral home to clan Murray and the last castle to fall under siege in the British Isles. It’s also the home of Europe’s only remaining legal private army, the Atholl highlanders. Every year the Duke of Atholl, who currently resides in South Africa, returns to view his private army of roughly one hundred men (membership is only available upon invitation by the Duke and the member has passed the necessary standard of foot and arms drill).
We arrived back to find a huge (and carb heavy) dinner waiting: a kilo of pasta and a huge portion of pork stuffed with plumbs. Prepared for us by Brian’s Brazilian wife and Eugene’s Italian/English girlfriend, each focused on their specialty: pasta from Italy and meat from Brazil. It was a fantastic meal. I ate two massive plates of spaghetti and a large portion of pork, but Eugene proceeded to methodically put away the most pasta I’ve ever seen someone consume.
After dinner we headed for bed, but due to nerves and the prefab walls being paper thin, it wasn’t until after midnight that I got to sleep. With our 5AM wakeup, this meant we would spend less time sleeping than we’d be out on the bike, which definitely hadn’t been part of the plan.
Upon waking, I was still massively full from dinner the night before, but I attempted to choke down some oatmeal and ate about half a bowel. Eugene ate three servings of oatmeal. We’re unsure of Brian’s food intake. As we pulled out into the driveway, we noticed our neighbours cycling to the start of the race, eight miles away.
Pitlochry was in full frenzy when we arrived. Eugene managed to find a great parking spot and we quickly headed up to the high street on our bikes to find our starting wave. There were thousands of cyclists crammed into the starting area, and we quickly realised there was no chance we’d be able to manoeuvre into our proper wave. Slowly we inched closer to the start, but it was at this point that Eugene’s dinner and breakfast began to…make its presence known. He needed a bathroom. Quickly.
While funny for the first five minutes it became apparent that if Eugene didn’t find a bathroom soon, it could be a messy and unpleasant first stage. Brian and I weren’t too thrilled about the idea of riding next to Eugene if something happened. He dashed into nearby ice cream shop, but the owner was ready for him, and rebuffed his pleas for a bathroom. Back in the group, he began to despair, quite verbally, and I noticed that we were now good entertainment for other cyclists around us. One gave us his best tips for holding it. Another suggested some bushes over by a church bordering the road. Everyone was in high spirits except for Eugene. Finally as we got closer to the start, he shouted that he couldn’t take it anymore and that he was “going to solve this” and ran away and off the street, leaving Brian and I holding his bike. Five minutes passed. Then a few more. Finally a much more relaxed Eugene returned to cheers and congratulations from our neighbouring cyclists. And then we were at the start and ready to ride.
We gained elevation along a wooded road that was heading west towards the first loch. There was some decent climbing but nothing too remarkable, and it was great being on closed roads riding with other cyclists in decent weather. Brian, Eugene and I were together most of the way, but I fell behind a bit on some of the hills as I was keen to make sure I paced myself. This race would include just as much elevation as The Borders, but was also 10 miles longer and I really wanted to avoid running out of gas at the end.
I felt great coming into the first of four feed stations. We were twenty miles in, but I wasn’t at all tired, and it was a far cry from the previous sportive where the first thirty miles had been pure hell. Plus, the weather was looking like it would hold. Bananas consumed and water bottles refilled, we needed to wait for another bathroom stop. Carbs that go down must come out.
The second leg I rode quite a bit of a the way with Brian, while Eugene blitzed on ahead. I caught up again at the second feed station which was located prior to the main climb over Schiehallion. There was more carb offloading to be done from Brian. Just before the feed station, we passed the 40 mile marker and I remarked to an older rider close by me that we were over halfway! He turned to me, spat once, and said, “Och! That was the easy part!” then put his eyes back on the road. Nothing beats the motivational cheeriness of the Scots!
Then we were upon the summit, and as I rolled through the marker that signalled the beginning of the timed “King of the Mountains” segment, I heard the loud beep that confirmed my time was being recorded. Starting with a gradual incline, the climb only gets truly brutal for a couple hundred meters, but plenty of riders had dismounted or needed to stop. Unlike the previous sportive I’d ridden, I didn’t need to stop once on the way up the hill and before I knew it, I was hearing the beep that signalled the end of the climb. Except that there was still another third of the climb to go. Sigh. I dug in and gutted it out.
Because it’s such a large event and the roads are closed, one of the great things about the Caledonian Etape is that there are tons of supporters out on the course cheering you on. In contrast to The Borders where I rode more than 50 miles without seeing a single person, on almost every bend there were spectators cheering us on, waving signs, clapping, shouting encouragement, and ringing cow bells. Children would run alongside us, there were words of encouragement spray painted on the road, and every time we’d see a group of supporters I’d feel a rush of encouragement and wave back, giving them the thumbs up. It was great.
Once I reached the legitimate top of the summit, it began to lightly rain. I stopped to grab a banana from the third feed station was alarmed to see the sweeper car pull in just a few minutes behind me. Behind the sweeper, the roads were open and if the car caught up to you, you were required to stop, turn your chip in, and would be classified as a DNF. Because we’d missed our start time, we were an hour behind where we should have been (they put the slower riders in the front), and now it was going to be a race against time and the car! I decided I’d surrender my timing chip over my dead body, and proceeded to descend as quickly as I could, which was fairly difficult now that it was raining.
At the bottom of the mountain the route veers West around one last loch, and this was where the wind became a problem. It was blowing directly against us, albeit not too badly, but it was enough to make things more much more difficult than normal. I managed to tuck in behind another rider and we made pretty good time, averaging roughly 25kph until we finally turned and headed back on the other side of the loch with the wind at our backs.
This was truly the home stretch now – only 15 miles to go, but I was starting to feel tired and wanted to get to the finish. The last miles felt like they went on forever as we rode up and down an undulating stretch of road that included one more feed station. I decided to ride through it to avoid the sweeper car, and as we got closer to the finish, I was concentrating on the last major challenge ahead: The Sting in the Tail.
This is the last major climb of the route, but the sting that’s being referenced is a section where the road feels like it goes straight up. Strava reports this as a 12 percent gradient, which doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise you’re climbing 70 feet in a tenth of a mile. The hill is right after a descent and is a very narrow road as well (about the width of a single car lane). As we approached the turn onto the Sting they had wardens out waving flags shouting “Shift into your highest gear NOW”. Those who didn’t promptly fell off their bikes as it was impossible to shift quickly enough while keeping forward momentum up the incline, and a clipped in rider needs time to unclip from the pedals. Halfway up, as I was standing in my highest gear, I felt my legs begin to cramp up halfway. Nearby it felt really chaotic. Two cyclists had fallen over on the left, a warden on a motorcycle was on my right, more cyclists were behind me, there were dismounted cyclists ahead, and I began to fear that all of this would combine to be some kind of epic disaster. In just a few more minutes it was over without anything more than a few close calls, and I felt incredible elation and relief to be beyond the worst parts.
We began a quick descent down the last hill and then it was around the bend onto the high street of Pitlochry. There were hundreds of spectators lining the sides of the road, music playing, and I wasn’t the last rider coming in! I crossed the finish line and then met up with Brian and Eugene who had finished about fifteen minutes earlier. Craig blew us all away with a sub five hour time!
Upon review of our times and our Strava data, we concluded that our time of just over six hours could have been cut by at least forty minutes if we’d spent less time at the rest areas. However, all of the team would agree that the alternatives weren’t really palatable.
All in all the Caledonian Etape was a fantastic experience. The course was tough but doable, and it was a great weekend spent battling against the course and raising money for the Marie Curie charity. Thanks to the support of friends, family, acquaintances, and some anonymous contributors, together we raised over four hundred pounds! It really meant a lot to me and we’ll certainly be back next year!