On the Etape Caledonia, it’s a bike race
24th May 2011
This here blog concerns my recent participation in the Etape Caledonia, a breathtaking 81 mile bicycle race through the Highlands of Scotland.
Breathtaking, as in the removal of breath.
A few days before the event I took my bike in for a service.
“Could you give this the once over,” I said to the man. “I’m riding in the Etape Caledonia next week.”
The man paused.
“You’re doing the Caledonia,” he said, “on THAT?”
This wasn’t the kind of banter I was hoping to exchange.
“Yours is a hybrid,” he continued. “Most people do this race on a racing bike.”
“I know,” I said.
“Just so you know,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
This whole idea was the brainchild of Tim, my oldest friend from junior school. This is Tim.
(that’s not really Tim).
We caught a train from King’s Cross to the town of Pitlochry, a six and a half hour journey. Our party included Tim’s friends Lucinda and Rich. These are they.
This is Tim proper, who was so nervous about the race he hit the drink on the way up in an attempt to remain calm.
(note drink bottom left)
The journey passed pleasantly enough. Tim, despite his rising anxiety, brought along a guess-the-face montage he’d compiled for his nephews and nieces at Christmas.
The real problems, however, began upon our arrival.
I’m not really a practical person. It’s not fair to blame my parents for this, but I do, absolutely. When I was growing up we’d ask our next-door-neighbour to change the lightbulb. That’s not a joke. Having never disassembled a bike before I approached the problem from a standpoint of complete ignorance. It’s fair to say I over-collapsed mine before I set off and was somewhat bemused at all the nuts and bolts I’d acquired doing so.
We arrived at the B&B and unpacked our bikes. I’d really made a mess of mine. “You’ve really made a mess of yours,” said Rich, the most practical of the group, as we puzzled over the bits. He did what he could. With little time left I had to wheel my half-mended hybrid from our B&B to registration and the mechanics.
Apparently you shouldn’t unscrew the handlebars and let all the ball-bearings fall out. I did this. I did other things which I won’t go into here. Thankfully the crack team of bike engineers – some of whom work on the Tour de France – sorted it, though only through sheer luck did they happen upon a secret stash of ball bearings. Put simply, I was very fortuitous.
Mine was a fitful sleep, full of dreams about dropping clangers playing in goal for England. We gathered at 6am for porridge and bananas. Our staggered start time was 7am. Hesitantly made our way to the starting line.
I spotted two other hybrids – one of which was Tim’s. From 4,000 bikes, that’s not many. People were scoffing at our little chunters. “F*ck them,” I thought.
And then we were off
I’d been told a) to attach myself to the back of groups (or pelotons) as a way of reducing air resistance and b) that people like to chat. Neither was transpiring. I started to feel a bit bored and lonely so I pulled over and waited for someone I recognised to appear. The first to do so was another of our group, Laura, a tri-athlete with a superior bike to mine. We rode on.
There was a feeding station at 20 miles. We stopped and refueled on energy bars, syrup squares and other sugar-laden baddies to prevent us from hitting the wall, aka ‘bonking’ (a rapid fatigue caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, at a guess).
Here’s me riding next to the loch. This is a photo of a photo on a computer screen. I’m real cheap.
At the second feeding point I hopped off my bike and approached a mountainous table of bananas. Suddenly I felt a coldness in my left foot. I looked round – only to see a tall man with his water bottle open, looking one way while his floppy wrist poured the contents directly into my shoe.
We rode on. Next up was Schiehallion, a terrifically steep climb (uggggg) followed by an exhilarating downhill (weeeeeeeeeee). Here’s a video from last year (which gets more interesting the longer it runs). This year someone came off on the descent and was seriously injured.
Once the mountainous section was complete we had little to fear. Or so we thought. Near the end there was a dromedary of hills that left me panting like an elderly but by now the crowd, the bagpipes and the finish line dragged us along.
I finished in 5:08. I was fairly pleased with this, especially on a hybrid and without cleats (bike shoes that lock your feet onto the pedals). Then again, the winner made it round in 3:28…
I waited for Tim. He completed in 5:38. Pretty good, though he’d admitted on the way up he’d broken our gentleman’s agreement and bought cleats. The swine!
For some peculiar reason four of us went for a bike ride the following day. Two of us even retraced the first few miles of the route.
Nice view with me in the way
For the second time in three years saboteurs attempted to disrupt the race. Thousands of nails and tacks were discovered by police in the early hours strewn along a stretch of the route, but thankfully these were cleared.
In 2009 hundreds of riders suffered punctures at the hands of a local counsellor who had gone mad inside his head.
And that’s about it
I hit my sponsorship target and received two free shirts from the nice ladies at Macmillan.
After a highly enjoyable weekend I left Tim, Lucinda and Rich behind in Scotland and caught a train back home.
A lady got on at Stirling. She had cascades of blond hair and a sharp pinstriped jacket. We chatted. She really looked like Kirsty Young. “You really look like Kirsty Young,” I said. “That,” she said, “is because I’m her sister.” An interesting conversation ensued.
Next year I intend to ride in the Etape Caledonia once more, only using a better bike and cleats – eh Tim?