‘Let’s sign up for the Etape’, I said, back in the summer of 2016. I had loads of time to train… Fast forward to March 2017: a house move, job relocation and time moving faster than the speed of light meant that the odd spinning class and last minute weekend ride would have to suffice.
The Etape Loch Ness is a 106km Sportive in which cyclists of all ages and abilities can participate along with 5,000 others on closed roads with stunning backdrops. This year was the 4th edition and most popular yet.
On Saturday 22nd April, the day before the race, we registered at Eden Court and the atmosphere was already buzzing with a real festival feeling about the place. We got some free protein shakes and a MacMillan sponsored cycling top to wear the next day – our chosen charity for the event.
Famed for being a well organised and enjoyable event, you race your way to a PB or take as much time as you need to soak in the views and munch on flapjacks. I was happy to take my time, but had no illusions about the notorious hill known as ‘King of the mountain’ around the half way mark. A 9km ascent, reaching 380m in height and at times a 12% gradient, was going to be no mean feat. This was my main mission of the day – to get up it without coming off the bike. Mission accepted!
After an evening of carbing up on pasta, the alarm set for 4.30am, kit laid out and bikes tagged, we were ready.
Being jolted awake at 4.30am on a Sunday morning is as bad as it sounds but excitement crept in and time soon lost all meaning. Our wave started at 06.35. It was a surreal experience seeing so many bikes out at this time and there was a real feeling of community seeing my Lycra-clad fellow race mates all lined up ready to go.
The start can only be described as slick, with 200 cyclists released every 2 minutes by none other than THE John Anderson – ‘Gladiators…. READY!’.
Once out off Inverness, we had a mild headwind to contend with. It was easy to forget that we had the whole road and so making the most of the righthand lane took some getting used to.
Supporters clearly trapped in their home towns for the morning were out in force giving us plenty of support and cheers as we cycled past. For a moment, you could pretend you were in the Tour de France (almost).
Our first stop at Invermoriston, 45km in, could not have come at a better time. There were options to fill up on Harry Gow flapjacks, Cliff blocks and water. A quick toilet stop, banana and some juice had me feeling back to normal again, ready for the next leg.
Leg two included my Everest. The King of the Mountain loomed ahead with people taking photos and ‘gelling up’ at the bottom.
Having been used to gentle undulating roads so far, many succumbed to fatigue and dropped off their saddles to start walking up. Around half way, you think you are over the worst when the climb starts all over again.
It was tough. It was long and seemed relentless, all in all taking me 40 mins exactly to reach the top where I could see a piper playing, signalling the end of the torture!
Some were taking selfies and getting photos of the best view of the whole event but I wasn’t hanging around: I needed a downhill to get some much needed oxygen and give my legs a break. And what a downhill it was! Probably the highlight of the day for me was flying down that hill at the other end with the wind behind me and the sweat dripping off my face. The endorphin rush was brilliant – so THIS is why people cycle.
Entering Inverness at Holm roundabout gave me a real boost. Supporters were out shouting ‘keep going, you’re almost there’ and I could finally start to believe them.
Pedalling along Ness Islands and turning on to Ness Bridge, the end was in sight. I crossed the finish line and its crowds of people with a feeling of accomplishment. My teammates came in a while before me and were there to greet me at the end. I finished in 5 hours and 5 minutes. A time which I was expecting and was not disappointed with.
We posed for a photo with our medals round our necks. 66 miles complete and over £500 raised for MacMillan. Not bad for a Sunday morning in April.
The event is one I would heartily recommend. Having the roads closed means that cyclists have free reign of the route and you are generally very safe. It’s a tough challenge but there are supportive volunteers all the way, well stocked re-fuelling stations en route and a healthy dose of camaraderie between the cyclists who are willing to help each other out.
I’ll be back next year and keeping my fingers crossed for another tailwind on the road back to Inverness after conquering the King of the Mountain – this time with a time to beat.
Etape is well organised, enjoyable and something a bit different. Give it a bash – just be aware that the next day it snowed. That’s the Highlands for you.
If you are interested in taking part in next year’s event visit: www.etapelochness.com.