Remarkably, a year has passed since the 2017 Loch Ness Etape and last month it was time to do it all again. A 66-mile cycling sportive along the banks of Loch Ness and back to our home town via the infamous Fort Augustus monster hill. (Possibly a slightly extreme name but absolutely accurate when in the midst of climbing this thing).
Being a little competitive, I had a time to beat from last year and so I found myself investing heavily in all of the gear available. Incremental improvements to help me beat my coveted PB.
And so, clad with new pedals, cleats, overshoes, tyres, a new chain and some delightful padded pants – I was fully prepared.
Training had proved quite difficult due to the cold winter weather we’ve been having since 1992. So I had been hitting spin-classes twice a week for the last few months. These classes may be a sweat-fest but they are excellent for keeping up fitness levels and pushing yourself past your comfort zone, plus the music helps.
Fitting in a few longer cycles on the road in April helped mentally prepare for the endurance side of things and to get used to these clip-in pedals which seemed like tiny little death traps when I first decided to get them.
Sat 28 April whipped round in no time and we were back again, registering, fitting the race numbers to handle bars and laying out kit ready for the 0445 start the next morning.
Tentatively checking out the window at that hideous time in the morning, a wave of relief hit: it wasn’t raining or snowing, and didn’t look particularly windy – what a result. Choking down some cereal, pounding a coffee and stuffing pockets full of jelly babies and oat-based bars were all necessary tasks to survive the next few hours.
We joined our 5,000 fellow cycling pals at Bught Park and edged our way to the starting line. And then, we were off. Last year I cycled in silence with no entertainment but this year I had my podcasts lined up.
(For those interested, I blasted through Adam Buxton interviewing both Louis Theroux and Steve Coogan, and the latest Wittertainment with Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode). Hours of middle-aged men harping on… no wonder I wanted to finish…
It turned out to be a stunningly beautiful morning: the sun came out and there was barely a breeze in the air. Optimum cycling conditions for such a event. A real highlight was hearing people visiting the area commenting on how amazing it all was. I enthusiastically agreed every time.
30 miles in marked the first stop at Invermoriston: time for a quick snack, a glug of water and then off again. There was no time for hanging around – the goal was in sight.
The bottom of ‘the hill’ at Fort Augustus was nearing but made slightly easier knowing what to expect: a lower gear this time was crucial and I was clipped in to my pedals so any stopping would mean a highly embarrassing slow motion collapse to the ground still attached to the bike – this was not an option.
‘’Aye – this was the hill that I got to the top of last year and vomited’’ was my favourite quote from a fellow rider – and another reason to start upping the pace…
It was as tough and lasted a lot longer than I remembered but eventually I heard the sound of the bagpipes at the top, wailing in sync with my quadriceps. It was conquered, time to fly back down the other side – what a feeling.
The hardest part was over and now it was the much less aggressive, undulating roads to tackle all the way back to Inverness via Foyers and Dores.
Around the 50-mile mark, fatigue was definitely starting to set in and the main focus was keeping pace for the final few miles. Some sights I witnessed along the way included a couple on a tandem, a tightly packed group of club cyclists with little fluffy Nessies stuck to the top of their helmets and one bold hero with a full backpack and panniers attached to his bike (I wondered if he was a tourist that got caught up in it all by accident…).
Without a doubt, the best part of the whole thing was reaching the ‘Welcome to Inverness’ sign and gliding along Island Bank Road, taking in the support of people telling you you’re nearly there. “I really am!!” I yelled back (in my head) to them all.
Going over Ness Bridge and swinging round to the finish line was fantastic. I unclipped and gently hauled myself off the saddle – even a gel seat and padded pants can’t save you from the backside aches.
I tottered over into the crowds of sweaty Lycra and received the text with my finish time – 20 mins faster than last year – well thank goodness for that!
Finally, a quick podium picture to prove we had finished and then we had the very, very slow ride home to deal with.
The event was fantastic – well organised, safe, enjoyable and friendly from beginning to end. It’s a real challenge but a great thing to be a part of.
And so it was over for another year. I can honestly say it was more enjoyable the second time round. Would I do it again next year? Maybe. But for now I would like to do some leisurely cycles when it’s a nice sunny day, stop for coffee half way round and not consider how long it all took.
If you are interested in taking part in next year’s event visit: www.etapelochness.com.