petemain.co.uk| -- The meanderings of an outdoorsy sort of person
2009 - A (not quite so) SPORTIVE YEAR
January to April
Tricky Cycling in January
The Highlands of Scotland do not offer good cycling conditions in winter
I finished 2008 with a reasonable level of fitness and, during the first three months of 2009, maintained this with a mixture of walks (low level & mountain), jogging, gym, skiing, swimming and even the occasional bike ride, although, for me, living in the north of Scotland means that any long distance training must wait until the better weather arrives. Blue skies eventually turned up in April and, realising that the Étape Caledonia was approaching fast, I managed to squeeze in a couple of 60-70 mile rides, but struggled a bit with the distance.
This was my third Étape Caledonia. I had enjoyed the previous two and was hoping to improve on my 2008 time, but, as we waited for the off in the wet and cold at the horribly early time of 7am, this seemed unlikely. A slight tail wind along Lochs Rannoch and Tummel, and some good groups, made the going very fast and the well sheltered, return ride along Loch Rannoch meant that at the foot of Schiehallion, after about 45 miles, my average speed was nearly 20mph and I felt that I stood a good chance of achieving my target.
The first I knew of any problem was just before the feed station at the bottom of the hill, when a motorcycle marshal drove towards us shouting, “tacks on the road”, although what we were expected to do about it wasn’t clear. From then on all the way up the hill there were HUNDREDS of riders with punctures. I thought (and hoped) that I might avoid one but I was out of luck; about a mile from the top my front tyre deflated. I stopped, changed the tube and was about to set off when I found my back tyre was also flat. I used my second (and last) spare tube to change that too and tried again. Within 50 yards my front tyre was down again and my back tyre had gone soft. I was at a loss to see how I was going to reach Pitlochry, over 30 miles away. The organisers stopped the event at the top of Schiehallion; about 2000 cyclists gathered together in one place was a spectacular sight. While we waited, the rider next to me, who had avoided a puncture, offered me one of his two spare tubes. This act of great kindness was much appreciated, so thanks Ross; I hope you read this and that you didn't’t regret your generosity somewhere down the road. I had already met up with my club-mate Sam who had had only one puncture and still had a spare tube. My bike now had a good front tyre and a slow puncture on the rear which seemed to be holding up for about 20 minutes at a time. 1200 feet above sea level was a cold place to stop, but the organisers had no choice. There could easily have been many cases of hypothermia if it had been raining, but luckily the rain had stopped by then, and the sun even came out for a while. It was difficult to stand and wait for over an hour after riding so hard for nearly 2½ hours and, no doubt in common with many others, I had uncontrollable shivers and very sore legs when we set off again. We were told to keep to the middle of the road where there were allegedly fewer tacks, but there were still huge numbers of riders puncturing, and the cycle maintenance folk at the top of the hill had long ago run out of anything to help us with. We made it down to warmer climes and, while I stopped to pump up my rear tyre outside the church at Weem, we were offered a cup of tea and a ‘jammy piece’ by the folks there. We were delighted to accept, after all there was no rush; the event was over for us. They expressed their disgust about what had taken place and explained how they enjoyed watching the event, supported its charitable aims, and had moved the time of their church service to fit around the road closures. We got underway again, clapped and cheered on by many locals but, after another pump-up, realised that my rear tube wasn’t going to make it, so we played our last card and I used Sam’s final tube in the hope that we were now out of the a-tack zone. We set off again and made it to the finish about two hours later than originally anticipated.
Without the various acts of kindness along the way I have no idea how I would have made it to the end, so thanks to Ross, the church people of Weem and to Sam for helping me home. I heard that the rider who had nine (yes, nine!) punctures also got home, but I’d love to know how. When we got back into Pitlochry, the buzz was amazing, but there was only one topic of conversation which was a shame. My big mistake of the day…….. eating a hot dog & onions just after I finished; it played havoc with my digestive system on the drive home!
I have no sympathy for the people who spread the tacks, it was a criminal act and I hope they are punished. It’s possible they had no idea of the consequences of their actions (or maybe they did). This was no teenage prank with a few kids sprinkling tacks along a few yards of road; they were spread over many miles of the course. It was a major, and unfortunately, successful attempt, to sabotage a huge event that brings thousands of pounds of business into Highland Perthshire and raises similar amounts for cancer research. It messed up for everyone and sullied the reputation of the many local people who support the event. As I write, there is a court case pending and the outcome will be of great interest to everyone involved.
I would encourage everyone who fancies a go to enter and fervently hope that this sabotage is a one-off. As it turned out, no one even got hurt, but the potential was there for a catastrophic crash or mass hypothermia on Schiehallion. I hope the organisers find a way of addressing the complaints of those 'locals' who are unhappy. I could think of several ways the event could be run differently in order to do this. However I'm not sure the organisers are willing to listen or to make changes. Over the last two years they've not listened either to rider feedback or to the complaints that led to this 'tack-attack'. Their response has been to go ahead and run the event again, with the same format and on the same route. It seems to me regrettable that they appear to be neither able nor willing to listen, negotiate or make changes.
Will I be riding this again? Definitely not; three times is enough. It's an expensive entry fee, an 80 mile round-trip just to register the day before and the start time is ridiculously early. Anyway, I don't want another set of tyres full of carpet tacks.
Friday June 12th was a beautiful day; blue skies, warm sun, and no wind; I could happily have gone out and cycled 100 miles with a nice café stop somewhere en-route. Imagine my feelings at 7am on Saturday 13th when I woke up and looked out at the torrential rain. And it was so cold! Ah well, another wet sportive. Why do I do these events?
Cairngorm Ski Area car park is a great place to start an event; lots of facilities including the café/bar with roaring log fire. As I was early, I sat in front of the log fire and enjoyed a leisurely cappuccino. I was pleased to see that the organisers had listened to feedback from last year and had improved the starting system (the single scanner has gone thank goodness) and moved the start to a much better position just outside the café. I stayed by the fire to keep warm until five minutes to go.
The three mile descent at the start was cool but not as agonisingly cold as the previous year and the rain seemed to be easing, so, as I dodged puddles at high speed, I averaged 24mph for the first 10 miles (all downhill). Then I got in with a nice steady group and we made good progress towards Nethy Bridge and the start of the climbing. Groups broke and re-formed over the steep Bridge of Brown (Brig o’Broon) and I was passed by a large group of faster riders. A missing sign, coupled with a herd instinct taking over, resulted in this group carrying straight on to Tomintoul instead of turning left down Glen Livet; knowing the route, I turned left. I was passed again by that same group as they came screaming down Glen Livet at up to 30mph. The awesome sensation I felt as I clung onto the back of them answered my earlier question of “why?”. It was like being sucked along by a wind machine. Knowing that I couldn't’t keep up with them for much longer, I stopped at the second feed station (many didn’t). We then crossed the Spey and cycled along the delightful road from Ballindalloch to Grantown. Passing an outdoor activities group preparing to go canoeing on the Spey, I thought of my former job as an outdoor instructor, but to be honest, although I enjoyed it at the time, I’m glad all that is now in the past. The next feed at Grantown was welcome. Then, as I started the long climb up and over Dava Moor, I found that I was on my own for a few miles. The route turned towards home and the light wind was now in our faces as I went through a slower patch (not that bad, just slower). Carrbridge definitely felt like the home straight and yet another feed at Boat of Garten helped restore my energy. After Boat I hitched lifts with a few small groups and watched my hopes of finishing in under 6hrs gradually fade away. I wasn’t feeling too bad until we turned left onto the ski road; any power now seemed to be lacking and I was glad of my triple chainset. It took all my remaining strength to ride all the way up that hill to the finish. I almost blacked out after crossing the line such was the effort on the final hill.
My official time was 6.19.58. My Garmin GPS said I was riding for 6.03.00, stopped for 16.58, climbed 5810 feet and used 6555 calories, my pulse averaged 143, 84% of maximum. I was 144/227 overall and 3/6 in the 60+ age group. The fastest time was 4.43.53. I had a good day although was a little disappointed by the fatigue I felt on the final climb. With a lot of summer left; I had planned to hold back a bit in the early months in the hope of keeping my best form for later. It was good to see that the organiser (HandsOnEvents) had listened to and acted on feedback from the previous year.
The route is superb and not too hard compared with the likes of the Étape du Dales or the Cumberland Challenge. The atmosphere amongst the riders was brilliant and all in all I would strongly recommend this event, even if you can’t sleep in your own bed the preceding night as I was able to.
All Night Ride
When I left home at 4pm it was 25C with a big high pressure area sitting over Scotland. My route was; Newtonmore-Pitlochry-Tyndrum-Fort William-Newtonmore, a total of 188miles. I was home by 11am next day, tired and elated. It must have been one of the warmest nights of the year, almost oppressive. The highlight of the ride was a spectacular sunrise near Glencoe Village at 4.30am. Breakfast at Spean Bridge Little Chef was pretty good as well. Darkness seemed to last only a couple of hours and the night traffic on the A82 was almost non-existent. Wait for some good weather in between June & September; a full moon is helpful as is knowledge of the location and opening hours of any all-night petrol stations and cafés that might be on your route and then go for it.
My training had gone well and, up to the preceding Thursday, I felt good, on Friday I didn't feel so great and by Saturday I was wondering whether I would even be able to start. My diagnosis was that I had an ‘unknown lurgy’. I was a bit better by Saturday evening and decided to have a go despite the poor weather forecast.
I’m glad I don’t live at Wanlockhead; it must be a dreich place in winter, and it wasn’t all that inspiring at 7.45am on this damp July morning. The pre-race formalities went smoothly and I was off at 09.05 in the middle of my group. The fast start down the Mennock Pass needed great care, with sheep & roadside campers all over the place. The scenic section alongside the river Nith passed quickly but was a bit tricky as the road had a lot of gravel outwash on it from the heavy overnight rain and many of the potholes were filled with water. The Nith section was followed by the Dalveen Pass, which is brilliant to climb and always feels much more akin to something in the Alps, with the road curving round the hillside. Over the top of Dalveen the miles flew by; I felt pretty good and managed to get in with a few groups and hang on to them for a while. A head wind towards Moffat slowed things down and that section illustrated perfectly the lack of understanding that many sportive riders have of working together. A long line of riders, separated by small gaps, struggled into the wind; together, we would all have been stronger. The feed stop near Moffat was much needed and then it was over the top of the Devil’s Beeftub, another long, easily graded climb. After an awesome descent to Tweedsmuir came a right turn to Talla Reservoir and the ‘Wall of Talla’. This is a short(ish) but very steep climb; my GPS told me it was 20% (1 in 5) and also that my heart rate was ‘too high’ coming within four beats of my maximum. A tricky narrow descent followed and then came the tough bit as we turned right towards Moffat, via St Mary’s Loch and past the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall. The wind had strengthened by now and, together with the ‘thick drizzle’, made the long climb and relentless undulations feel as if they would go on forever. As I pedalled along I slowly ‘died’. I didn’t crack up in any spectacular way; just got slower and weaker as Moffat approached. I struggled up the bottom bit of the ‘Beeftub’ (not ridden earlier) to the feed station and stopped to take on supplies, thinking ‘at least now we’ll have the wind behind us as we head north parallel with the M74’. Sometimes fate is cruel; the wind shifted and we ended up with another headwind. The drag over Beattock seemed never-ending. This got me to Elvanfoot, then Leadhills and eventually Wanlockhead; more or less all uphill. I felt terribly weak and was passed by loads of riders; everyone seemed to be going faster than me, which was very demoralising and made me think that I must be the last person on the road. I decided that, on this day, I just wasn’t capable of riding up Lowther Hill, so I retired at Wanlockhead after ‘beeping’ the timing mat at the foot.
I had done 103 miles in 06.38.27 (excluding stops), average speed 15.5mph, maximum speed 42mph, climbed 5758’, average HR 142, max HR 171, and used 7072 calories. It was a tough day and, retiring was the correct decision considering how I had felt over the preceding two days. At the age of 64, I must be satisfied with my ride although it would have been nice to have finished properly at the top of the hill. An hour later I was surprised to see quite a few riders still battling towards the finish; maybe I had been faster than I thought. At home I checked the previous year’s results and was surprised and pleased to find that in 2008, on a fast dry day, I had been five minutes slower at the same point. Getting changed afterwards, one rider expressed the opinion that he didn’t see the point in adding in Lowther Hill at the end as the route was hard enough without it. The only answers I could think of was, 'for the challenge', as well as a chance to ride somewhere not normally allowed.
The event organisation was spot-on, well signed and marshalled and plenty of food, but I felt it had lost a little of its zip compared with the previous year, a kind of ‘oh well, here we go again’ feeling. This was confirmed when there were no event photos and no reports or feedback on the event website afterwards; a big contrast to the previous year. It’s a very difficult and often thankless task organising any cycling event (I have done it) and I am very grateful to all organisers. So, many thanks to Pete and his team. Maybe the feeling just came from a damp day at Wanlockhead. The three events completed so far this year had all been wet; it would be grand to do just one on a dry sunny day. I lived in hope!
I was ill towards the end of July (or maybe it was the same virus I had just before the Radar ride!), and after taking things easy for a couple of weeks I returned to training too soon and became 'post-viral'. Every time I went out on the bike I got some really weird readings from my HRM; low effort, very high heart rate. Fortunately I had the sense to back off. It was early September before I felt completely well and able to ride and train properly again.
The Shenanigan is what I call a 'roadman's MTB race'. No gnarly single track or nasty, rocky downhills, just 38 miles of fast forest roads interlaced with some short tarmac sections; the fastest riders have come very close to beating two hours and one of my clubmates had a very successful ride on his cyclo-cross bike. The event raises money for Highland Hospice so, for this reason alone, it has my full support and I try to ride it every year. In 2009 I used it as a test to gauge if I could manage the Ullapool Mor Sportive;
I had a strong ride on a pleasant dry day finishing in well under 3 hours, a similar time to 2007. I decided the Ullapool Mor was on!
Ullapool, 7am, Saturday September 26th, and I was so glad to be there. The previous two months had seen ups and downs in my health which had made participation doubtful. It was still dark, but with such a long event so late in the year the early start is necessary. Fortunately the forecast was warm, dry and cloudy with only the strong SW wind to worry about.
The road from Ullapool to Ledmore doesn't mess about; within a mile it’s heading up on the first of many ascents followed by awesomely fast descents. I hit 40+mph on several occasions. There were only a few riders starting so early and, needing to keep some energy back for later, I resisted the temptation to match the faster riders’ pace as they caught and passed me. Near Ledmore I was passed by a tight-knit group from the Granite City Wheelers who shouted at me to, “get out the way”. The wide road was deserted and there was plenty of room for all; their actions were completely unnecessary. When I stopped for a few minutes to fuel up at the Ledmore feed, a mile or so further on, the marshals described them as “aggressive”. It’s time they learned better manners. Ledmore to Laxford Bridge is equally scenic and hilly but I made good progress, with the wind pushing me along. Encouraged by friendly riders passing me, I really enjoyed this section. As the sun rose into the clear sky to the east it underlit the cloud sheet and the mountains with beams of red light; an inspiring sight. Another feed at the village of Scourie kept me going and, after Laxford Bridge, the course turned south-east towards Lairg. Fortunately there was enough west in the wind to give a, mostly, tail wind all the way to Lairg. Along this section I was passed by teammate Hamish who had started 45mins after me, we had a wee chat before he sped off in search of a group to ride with but, like me, he ended up riding the whole event on his own. There is a very remote feel about the road alongside Loch Shin which seems to go on forever. The loch is huge and must be one of the largest bodies of water in Scotland. At last Lairg arrived and another feed. I had completed about 85 miles at that point and I was not looking forward to the next 55, all hilly and all straight into the unrelenting, strong wind.
The next section from Lairg, through Glen Oykel and back to Ledmore was charming. The countryside is a little softer than the harsh mountains further west; there are even some trees and cattle grazing in the fields. Concentration was still needed, especially when the road started climbing over the watershed to Ledmore. There was one particular section of about two miles which was very tough, completely open, gradually uphill and straight into the teeth of the wind. Although feeling generally OK, I started to run out of energy, but a gel with added caffeine did the trick. Attractive as the scenery was, I was desperate to get to Ledmore as I felt that once there I would be on the last lap and a finish was guaranteed. Pulling over the watershed, the view of Suilven was stunning, looking more like the alps than a Scottish mountain, it stands out so clearly, it's no wonder the Vikings used it as a navigation beacon for their longships. I wished I had time to stop and look, instead I was looking for that bl---y Ledmore Junction.
The people at the feed were friendly & helpful but I just couldn’t face any more bananas or cakes so I just topped up with water. Now it was tough, slow work; I found the long hill after Elphin particularly hard and was glad of my low bottom gear to help me. The wind continued unabated and the low and high moments of the day both came just before the finish. The low was that last long hill, 10% grade and, with 128 miles in my legs, a struggle. Then I came over the top of that hill and there was Ullapool spread out below with nothing but downhill to the finish, a wonderful feeling.My recorded time for 130miles was 09.42.24 and I finished 65th out of 77 starters. My on-bike time was 09.08.24. Considering how I had been feeling for the previous two months, I was just pleased to be able to complete the course. I came third in the 60+ category or you could say I was last, as only three of us completed the route. The tea, soup, sandwich and massage on offer in the village hall were all very welcome.
HandsOnEvents, as usual, did a superb job with the organisation. The course was very well signed and marshalled; the feeds were in the right places, although something more savoury would have gone down well towards the end; there is a limit to the number of ‘tray bakes’ and bananas a cyclist can eat. The rescue cover by the Coast Guard appeared to be very thorough. Fortunately they didn’t have to launch the lifeboats for any of us.
It’s no wonder they call Ross-shire and Sutherland the ‘empty counties’; so much space and so few people. The wide, well surfaced 'A' roads were deserted. It looked as if their short tourist season was more or less over.
Ullapool is a great place to start and finish, loads of accommodation of all standards. We stayed in an excellent wee B&B called Assynt House; highly recommended. The town also has loads of good eating places and we ate plentiful, well presented food at the Ceilidh Place and the Frigate Bistro and Café (not on the same night!). The community must gain a lot of income and publicity from the event. Ullapool has lots to offer the non-cyclist so there is plenty for supporters to do while you are away fighting the hills and headwinds. I would recommend the Ullapool Mor as an excellent, well organised event over a tough, scenic route. Don't enter unless you are fit enough to complete 130 very hard miles. The late autumn date also means the weather has a lot of potential to be wet, cold, windy and possibly all these at the same time. The climate in north-west Scotland in late September can be less than clement.
I’ll be back next year, though I think it’s maybe time to drop down to the shorter event, The Ullapool Beag, which needs a bit less endurance and a bit more speed. The civilised start time is an added attraction too. Maybe I’ll see you there.
October to December
I took me a long time to recover from the Ullapool Mor and on reflection I probably wasn't really fit enough for the longer event and should have gone for the shorter option. Having said that, I'm still very pleased to have done it. Once the end of October passes, road cycling in the north of Scotland becomes much less pleasant so it's back to walking in the mountains plus a mixture of other activities. I have been fortunate this November to have my road bike with me in southern Spain for three weeks and have been able to enjoy some excellent, if very mountainous, cycling in warm sunny weather, on superbly engineered and surfaced roads, where drivers treat you with respect and workmen cheer as you pass through their villages. The Spanish seem to understand cycling and cyclists in a way that the British appear to be incapable of.
Will 2010 be another Sportive Year? I hope so. In 2009 I felt that nearly every event was a tough, wet, exercise in survival. It was also unfortunate that I went down with some kind of virus mid-season. Cold, wet events seemed hard to avoid in Scotland, so in 2010 I'll do the shorter events, give them 'full gas' and enjoy the more civilised start times.
Next year I will celebrate my 65th birthday with a 100 mile ride, but I'll choose a nice, sunny day with a couple of pleasant café stops.