I’ve Never Wished I Was Less Technical

I got an early-ish start with computers when I was about 6 or 7 years old.  My dad created an MS-DOS boot disk that got me to a DOS prompt on the one of the hard diskless IBM clones in his office.  Once I had booted to the command line, I’d put another floppy disk (these were 5.25 inch floppies, the ones that really flopped) in the B drive, type in the commands which I quickly memorised, and my six year old self would be ready for some hardcore word processing.  Using Multimate at first, but then moving on to PC Write, I penned a few short stories and would love to visit the office and use the computers.  My Dad’s staff even gave me access to the holy of holies – the one real IBM PC (not a clone) which had a 5 megabyte hard disk, and was protected by a password.  I was solemnly lectured to never disclose the password, not to anyone, and I never have, even to this day.

And so it was against this backdrop that I became interested in computers.  When I was nine my family bought our first computer from a back alley vendor in the Philippines.  It was an IBM compatible XT Turbo, which was technically an 8088, with a twenty megabyte hard disk and a monochrome CGA monitor.  It was outdated when we bought it, as the 386 had just been released, but I loved it.  I spent hours learning different software packages like Norton Commander, PC-Tools, and playing games like the Commander Keen trilogy.  We kept it until I was twelve, and then gave it to a Chinese friend when we replaced it with a 486 DX-33 we picked up in Hong Kong.  Built like a tank, it is probably still in operation somewhere.

Despite this early introduction to computers, I didn’t get started programming until I was sixteen.  It was harder then – we had just got the internet but the tutorials and blogs and wealth of easy information we have now didn’t exist.  It was also difficult to get the necessary software you needed – thanks to living in China I could buy a pirated copy of Borland C++ or Microsoft Visual C++ for about a dollar, but they were a bit overwhelming to setup.  I finally found someone who knew how to program and begged him into giving me a few sessions.  He had a book, helped me setup my compiler, and agreed to meet with me once a week to teach me.  I even managed to get these sessions accepted as school credit during my junior and senior year.  I still keep in touch with Erik now, and he was one of the groomsmen in my wedding.  Together we even managed to cobble together two “junk systems” from spare parts and after a few weeks of constant trial and error, we got Slackware running in 1998, still one of my proudest technical achievements.

Every American college bound student knows that their junior year of high school is crucial for getting accepted into their university of choice, and I began targeting computer science as my major.  I was heavily advised that I should focus on a business degree instead.  At the forefront of that group were several of my math teachers, who knew that I didn’t do well in that subject, but there were also many others who thought that I shouldn’t “waste” my people skills in a technical role.

But I was really enjoying programming!  My first real project was a string indexing program which could accept a block of text (much like this blog) and then create an alphabetical index of all the strings (words) and the number of times they appeared.  Written in C, I had to learn about memory management, debugging, data structures, file handling, functions, and a whole lot more.  It was way more mentally taxing than anything I’d ever done in school, and it required a ton of concentration.  I wasn’t bored like I often was in classes.  It was hard.  Erik would constantly challenge, berate, laugh at me, and most importantly, accurately assess me using an instructional style that I’d never been exposed to before – he only cared about the results, not the trying.

Although I was dead set on computer science, I really liked making money too.  My parents noticed this and for one semester during that crucial junior year they offered me financial rewards for grades achieved.  After I’d hosed my dad for over a hundred bucks due to my abnormally high grades that semester, he announced that “grades should be my own reward” and immediately discontinued the program.  There were plenty of people telling me that a degree in business would better suit these talents of mine, and if I was honest, at the time I knew they were probably right.  I was great in my non-science subjects, I could mail it in on papers and still get an A, and I knew that diligence, attention to detail, and math were weaknesses.  Getting a business degree would be stupidly easy.  Getting a computer science degree would be pretty hard, at least for me.

I was close to changing my mind when Erik mentioned, “You know, I’ve never wished I was less technical.”

This is advice that I really took to heart.  It rung true when I was seventeen.  It’s even more true today.

For me, the advantage that I incurred by getting a computer science degree meant that I could start my own consulting company and be one of the technical contributors while also being responsible for the business stuff.  It helped me obtain positions of leadership because I didn’t need technical middle men to explain things to me.  If things were going poorly, I could help manage the crisis effectively, and when things were going well I could explain why and point out the technical decisions that had carried us to success.

Guess what?  I got to do all the business stuff too!  Having a technical background has never limited my business acumen or hampered me in any way.  I haven’t coded for money since 2007, but I use my knowledge and experience every day, and I stay up to date with technology as much as possible.  I love it when our technical lead shows me the code behind the latest feature.  If anything, having an appreciation for complexity, code, and systems design has only helped me design and implement better budgets, business models, and pricing schemes.  I’ve never met any “business person” who is better than me at Excel, the language of business, and much of that stems from just knowing how to program.  This has made me the goto guy in almost every planning or budget meeting I’ve ever been in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way.  People who aren’t technical will always struggle in any technically related environment.  I’ve met so many people who have struggled and struggled to make their great idea a reality chiefly because they weren’t technical, couldn’t contribute, couldn’t cut through the bullshit, and therefore couldn’t effectively manage their way to success.  Sometimes, they’ll try to fake it and just lose the respect of the programmers.  As many times as I’ve thought to myself how glad I am that I have a technical background, I’ve had others voice to me the frustration that they just wish they knew more about technology.

If you’re reading this, and you’re trying to figure out which way to go in life, make sure you get technical first.  If you didn’t choose that path, there’s still plenty of time – get out there and learn to code.  There are so many resources.

This is what the “everyone should learn to code” movement is really saying – not that everyone should be a coder, but that everyone could benefit from understanding the environment, pressures, and disciplines that drive a huge part of our economy.  It’s not just business either – artists can benefit from more creative displays and better performing websites, not-for-profits could benefit from volunteers who know how to help out in technical areas, and it’s just nice sometimes to be the guy who can get the projector working in a foreign country!

So get technical.  You’ll never regret it.  And if you’re a programmer and you ever see a kid who wants to learn, help them out, you may just find a friend for life.

Awesome Cycling Nutrition from Suki Bakes, Now Available in Edinburgh

Nutrition while out cycling is important.  Really important.  Ignoring nutrition is probably one of the most common mistakes to make when you’re first tackling longer rides, and I don’t fondly remember the few times I didn’t eat enough and ran out of energy.  Cyclists call this “bonking”, and to combat it we take food along with us.  Gels, bananas, granola bars, and energy drinks (not to be confused with electrolyte drinks) are all ways that cyclists use to keep energised on longer rides.

torq cycling gelAnd that works pretty well, except that the most common format (gels) get really old really fast.  By your third or fourth gel, you tend to start craving “real” food.  I’ve used Cliff bars and other granola bars, but even they can taste a bit stale, and bizarrely, most of the energy bar companies seem to make their wrappers indestructible and difficult to open while riding.  This means that even if you’re being conscious of keeping your trash (you are keeping your trash while riding, right?) sometimes you can lose little corners of plastic packaging while you’re tearing things open on the bike.

So, I was really excited when Suki Bakes got an order to supply some flapjacks (what we call granola bars here) from our awesome local bike shop Ronde, who also serve one of the best coffees in Edinburgh.  I’m a very slow member of the Ronde cycling club that rides every Saturday morning, and while I’m biased in favour of anything Suki Bakes makes, these flapjacks are great for cycling for a couple of reasons:

  • They’re real food that’s really fresh and they taste great.  There aren’t any preservatives in them, and they’ll have been made just a few days before you get them, most likely.  They also don’t have that kind of soggy-yet-dry feel that Cliff bars have.
  • They’re made in a mostly vertical shape which easily fits into your jersey pocket.
  • They’re packaged in a fully biodegradable, extremely easy to open paper wrapper that won’t destroy the environment.  Make sure you still keep your trash though!

sukibakes_flapjack_cycling

If you’re curious, take a quick trip down to Ronde, grab a coffee and a flapjack, and if you’re like me you’ll probably end up perusing and buying something else at the shop along the way.  Enjoy!

Focus on Systems, Not Goals

DilbertI had the pleasure of reading a recent article by Scot Adams (creator of Dilbert) on the secret to success.  One of the points he made really resonated with me as it’s something we’ve been stressing (with increasing success) for the last few months at Administrate:  Don’t focus on goals, focus on systems.

In short, rather than focus everyone on your Key Performance Indicators (although these are important to know and track), focus instead on systems and processes that breed success.  For example, like most organisations with a customer services team, we have a lot of data about tickets, resolution times, how long issues sit in different status states, and a whole lot more.  It’s really easy to get caught up on “how many tickets we have open!” when zero bugs or zero open issues isn’t really the point.  Instead, we’ve been focused on perfecting the systems and processes we use to tackle these metrics.  Instead of feeling successful when we reach an arbitrary (and impossible) goal of zero outstanding issues or problems, we’re focusing on improving the systems we have in place to tackle these issues.  Now we feel successful when we can know that issues will be triaged, attacked, and solved in a correct and repeatable manner.  See the difference?

Get the system right, and your KPIs and other indicators will fall in line.  Get the system wrong, and you’ll be chasing an increasingly dismal looking set of metrics that never seem to improve.

As we continue to grow and scale, focus on systems and our values becomes more and more important.  I’m really proud of how far we’ve come as a team, and am very excited at what’s still to come!

Missing the Point on Electric Cars

2013 Tesla Model S

I feel like a lot of people miss the point on electric cars.  I see all kinds of debates about whether they actually get 100mpg or if this is some kind of synthetic and propped up metric designed to delude eco hipsters into thinking they’re more green then they really are.

Who cares?

The point of an electric car isn’t that it’s greener (although it may be, and is nice if it is) and it isn’t about range (most people don’t drive far enough regularly enough to really need to worry about range), it’s about the fact that the fuel can be generated through a variety of different mechanisms.

Do you like nuclear power? Or wind? Or solar? Or wave energy? Then electric is the car for you.  If you believe we need to invest in a range of different energy generation schemes in order to burn less oil, then electric is the car for you.

To me, the flexibility on fuel source is the entire point.

FrontEndConf 2013 Recap

We knew we were heading for Switzerland before we even got to Zurich, as already FrontEndConf 2013 was organised better than pretty much every event I’ve ever been to.  Just in case we forgot, within moments of landing we were met by a conference representative and whisked to the ticket kiosk, then directed to the correct train.

“Cool, how long until the train comes?” I asked.  Glancing up at the iconic Swiss railway clock (sporting an analog face) our guide answered, “In exactly 7 minutes.”  And so it was.

zurich_switzerland

FrontEndConf 2013 for me was a great experience, both as a speaker and being able to attend and listen to some of the talks.  I really enjoyed meeting with several of the other speakers as well during the fantastic speaker’s dinner at breakfast at the hotel, and at the conference party.  In addition to some great talks about usability, there were demos of new UX products like the Occulus VR headset and Google Glass.

Although it was the first time giving my talk “How to build the perfect product your users want, but can’t describe”, I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

You can watch it online here (includes slides).

And here are the slides:

Recap of the 2013 Turing Festival

The signet library venue for the Turing FestivalThis weekend was the third annual Turing Festival here in Edinburgh.  I was delighted to have been asked by TechCube MD and Turing Festival founder Jamie Coleman to speak Friday morning.  Due to the fantastic lineup of speakers covering a variety of items, the fact that this event was local, and the tight connection with the TechCube, we ended up taking three Administratives along as well.  All of us enjoyed the experience, the sessions, and a day away from the office to learn, talk, reflect, and listen.

If you’re located in Scotland, I think the Turing Festival needs to be firmly placed within your “Don’t Miss” category of events.  It’s time intensive and expensive to bring visiting speakers like the last three keynotes –  Neal Stephenson, Steve Wozniak, and Richard M. Stallman, but these are individuals that our local community should hear from and be inspired by.  Here are some thoughts from some of the sessions I attended during the festival.

Bill Aulet from MIT
Bill Aulet spent his time addressing the question of whether Entrepreneurship can be taught.  He had just finished a book on the subject which outlines a roadmap for entrepreneurs to follow, and he’d partnered with local startup Stipso to put forth a living info graphic that deals with some of the questions his book addresses.  I thought his points on how education has difficulty engaging with the subject of entrepreneurship due to a lack of datasets was interesting, and he mentioned how easy it is to provide fake or misleading guidance on this subject.  I thought it was an interesting start, if a bit long.  Check out his book here.

Jim McKelvey from Square
Two of the best soundbites from the festival were from Square’s Jim McKelvey, who mentioned that the industry they were trying to disrupt (payments) is “fundamentally corrupt.”  Transparency, according to Jim, is a fundamental ingredient to their success.  He also talked about how much of what Square has achieved came because they were in the right place at the right time, both of which are necessary to achieve huge success.  In addition to being a cofounder of Square, he’s an accomplished glassblower, and board member of the financially focused startup accelerator SixThirty.co, located in St. Louis.  Who knew that St. Louis is the second largest financial centre in the USA?  Jim seemed like the kind of guy I’d really enjoy bantering back and forth with – he was opinionated and generated controversy, which is needed at events like this.  He was great to chat with over drinks one night too!

Mike Hearn of Bitcoin/Google
One of the talks I enjoyed the most was from Mike Hearn, of Bitcoin, who clumsily shouted that “HE WAS NOT REPRESENTING GOOGLE” in response to a question from the audience.  Still, he spent most of his time talking about a future 50 years from now that involves digital cash without middle men, and a trade net that’s leveraged by autonomous, self-owning agents who respond to bids for materials and services on both the internet, and the “matternet.”  The latter just seemed to be an attempt to make quadcopters sound cool.  Humans, he contended, will be around for their ingenuity and creativity, which we’ll always have in abundance compared to computers.  The irony of announcing the ultimate invincibility of the Turing Test while speaking at the Turing Festival seemed to be lost.  This talk was enjoyable as it firmly fixated on the future, painting broad yet tangible themes that were all theoretically possible today.

Brian Doll from Github
I really enjoyed the talk about how Github markets and has grown over the years as part of the Growth Hacking session.  Github saw most of its success from focusing on its voice.  Marketing according to Github is the culture transference, and this is how they continue to engage their customers.  In first year of their existence, while building their product, three engineers managed to push out 280 blog posts that were true to their culture.  Their famous “drinkup” strategy is an outgrowth of attending meetups and finding that the chat in the pub afterwards was more valuable then then presentations, thus they sponsor more than 200 drinkups around the world every year, including the after-party drinks at the TechCube as part of the conference!  Focus on your culture, focus on tribes, tell stories, and develop a voice was the mantra of this session and I thought it was great.

Old College venue at the Turing Festival
“Living Infographics” from Stipso
Stephen Drost launched into his discussion of the evolution of infographics with a short history lesson.  The origins of the fundamental charting methods used in infographics today come from the Scottish inventor of statistical graphs (bar chart, line graph, pie chart, and circle graph), William Playfair.  Florence Nightingale, in addition to being the founder of modern nursing was also a highly accomplished statistician whose early info graphics (which look like something you’d see today) were instrumental in proving that soldiers died more from disease than from battle.  Essentially, info graphics have been unchanged for hundreds of year, until now with Stipso.  They’re a combination content and listening tool (notably, Brian Doll from Github mentioned that there were plenty of great content tools out there, but zero great listening tools).  I’m a huge fan of how Stipso is positioning their product, how it can be used to both project and listen, and think it could be a fantastic tool for those looking to make their infographics a continuously fresh asset, rather than something that’s created and dies after a week or two.  As part of their talk they demonstrated one of their living infographics in conjunction with Bill Aulet’s book, which you can check out here.

My Session on Starting Up in American and Scotland
If you wanted to distill my talk down it would be: “The grass is always greener. Make sure you’re shipping something.

One thing I’ve noticed is that entrepreneurs across Europe tend to fixate on comparing their local market to Silicon Valley, while ignoring their own advantages.  I firmly believe that Scotland is an amazing place to build an incredible company.  While some changes in approach may be necessary (forget building a B2C business here, unless you can demonstrate significant traction), there are plenty of advantages.

A point that I forgot to mention is last year while I was in the audience at the Turing Festival, a panelist based from Edinburgh emphatically said, “Make sure you focus on a small market that doesn’t matter, otherwise, the Americans will find your company, come into your market, and destroy you.”  I’m not sure I’ll ever forget that moment, and it goes into the category of statements that I wholeheartedly disagree with.  With the talent, cost structure, tax advantages, and access to capital we have here in Scotland, we should be able to take on and compete with any company anywhere.

The Venue and Surrounding Events
The Turing Festival was held in three gorgeous venues in the heart of the Old Town of Edinburgh.  Truly some of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever been in.  Some liked the multiple venue approach, some wished for less walking, but I thought it was a nice approach to get people out and integrated into the city.  Lunch was provided in addition to free drinks (thanks Github!) at the great After Party and like many quality conferences, the people who you got to meet and talk with were really great.  I would have liked a bit more attention paid to following the schedule and a few more breaks between talks, but overall it was a great couple of days.

Don’t Miss the Turing Festival

turing

One of the highlights of last year was the Turing Festival, held in Edinburgh during August.  It’s a fantastic event with really great speakers, and it takes place against a backdrop provided by the incredible festivals that all converge on the city.

This year’s program is incredible, featuring speakers from around the world, and the Turing Festival boasts a larger focus on startups, in part due to its close affiliation with the Edinburgh TechCube.  I’m really excited to have been asked to participate on a panel discussing Startups and Entrepreneurship.  Tickets are still available and this is the only tech conference I’m aware of held in the midst of festivals devoted to comedy, books, arts, music, and theater.

Speaking at Frontend Conf 2013 in Zurich

zurichI’m really excited to be speaking at Frontend Conf in Zurich next month.  Run over two days (Aug 29-30), the lineup of speakers and topics looks really great, and I’m sure it’ll be a very educational experience.

In a change of topics from what I’ve been talking about the last few years, I’m speaking on how to build a great product that your end-users want, but can’t actually describe.  This is an important skill that few develop, and it’s really not that hard to acquire.  If you’re in the area I hope to see you there, and I believe tickets are still available.

The Caledonian Etape 2013 Recap

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.

Arrival

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.

Etape Caledonian Route
Route and route profile of the Caledonian Etape

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

Pitlochry Race CentralUpon 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).

Carb Loading
Great meal, lots of carbs.

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.

Caledonian Start
The start of the Caledonian Etape – the actual starting line is out of sight ahead of us.

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.

The Race

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.

Brian and Eugene at a rest stop

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.

Eugene and myself at the first rest stop.

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.

Group Picture of the Team
Eugene, Brian, myself, Craig. Craig finished over an hour earlier, so he’s already changed.

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!