Monday, 26 September 2016
Wednesday, 21 September 2016
The Etape Royale is the only 100 mile Closed Road Cycle Sportive in Scotland. This year’s event took place in glorious sunshine on 18 September. There are also 65 mile and 45 mile routes but I was in for the 100 miler starting and finishing at the beautiful town of Ballater, one of Royal Deeside’s wee gems that is now thankfully recovered from the tremendous floods of last winter.
As Ballater is only an hour from home I decided that I would drive to the start on the Sunday morning and benefit from a good night’s sleep in my own bed (I slept terribly and was awake at 0330!) despite the early 0600 start of the Etape. The weekend started on Saturday when I had to drive to Ballater to Register and collect my race number and timing chip, but a trip to Ballater is always a joy and it was a good excuse to pop into the Boat Inn at Aboyne on the way home for lunch. On Saturday night I was in bed by 2130 but sleep was fitful and although the alarm was set for 0415 in order to get me to Ballater before any road closures, I was out of bed by 0330 so just grabbed my prepared oats and yogurt breakfast and 500ml pre-race drink (the 1st time I had bothered with either – the oats were a good idea to get carbs into my system but the drink was too much and I ended up having to stop for the loo at the 1st two feed stations at Tarland and Tullynessle). I arrived in Ballater, having had 2 close encounters with deer, by 0430 and sat in the car in the dark listening to a Michael Palin Audiobook until I decided to eat my breakfast and wander up to the start point in the middle of the town.
By 0550 several hundred riders were silently awaiting the start, voices hushed as a reaction to the pre-dawn darkness when the race starter cracked the silence with his 1st Tannoy announcement of the day. Round the World (among other things) cyclist Mark Beaumont – who had previously ridden the route on a Penny Farthing - and former Scotland Rugby Captain Rob Wainwright (both of whom would later pass me on the Cabrach) offered some words of encouragement and started the 1st wave of riders on the dot of 0600. I was in the 3rd wave of riders off at 0606 heading north towards the Pass of Ballater where we would see the 1st mile marker – somewhat discouraging on a ride advertised as 102 miles!
The route from Ballater was initially along Royal Deeside where in the lightening dawn the blinking tail lights of the bikes in front made route-finding simple tough there were marshals at every turn and plenty of signage. At this early hour there was still mist in the low lying hollows and with now wind it was a glorious September dawn. After a quick pit-stop in Tarland, mentioned earlier the route passed on towards Alford via the “Queen’s View” where I remembered to look behind me for a cracking view of Deeside, Lochnagar and the Cairngorms. Onwards towards Tullynessle and pit stop number 2 before approaching the Suie hill from the south after Bridge of Alford. This southern approach is the easier way up the Suie and it was a pleasant climb in bright sunshine to the summit before a very steep ut short descent on the other side and via Clatt to Rhynie, the start point for the 65 mile course. I was now on familiar territory as I often ride the Cabrach, a lovely pass between Rhynie and Dufftown, where I once this year saw an otter cross the road in front of me. Having taken a gel a couple of mile out of Rhynie I was surprised how easy I found the ride to the Cabrach summit on this occasion; a year ago this would have been a tough climb so I must be getting fitter.
Up the Cabrach
At the feed station in Dufftown I grabbed a buttery whilst a kind volunteer re-filled my water bottle. Dufftown is in the heart of Whisky Country , it is said that whilst Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown was built on seven stills.
The road along Glen Rinnes and Glenlivet to Tomintoul was, I found, a bit of a slog but at least there was another food stop at the end to fortify me for the climb to the top of the Lecht – where yet another food station provided sausage rolls and soup that given the at times 20% gradient you feel you have earned. The Lecht climb isn’t really that long but it is steep and a number of riders were zig-zagging on the steeper sections. The 1st time I climbed the Lecht – on a recce ride the week before the Etape, I was horrified to crest the hill to see another dip and crest almost as high about a mile away, today though the stop at the feed station made this much easier than last week.
Descending the Lecht one has to be careful. At over 2000ft today crosswinds were a problem so the brakes were in quite constant use in order to make the bike controllable near the bottom of the descent at Corgarff Castle the brakes even started to squeal as they were, by now, hot. I had hoped that the route into Ballater would be downhill all the way from the Lecht but a rude shock was the discovery of the old military road over the Gairnshiel was between me and Ballater, with nearly 90 miles in the legs it was a tough grind to the top though the ride down the other side was fast and the scenery spectacular. Seven and a half hours after setting off I was entering the pass of Ballater for the 2nd time before turning back towards Ballater and the finish point and foolishly challenging the rider in front to a sprint finish. What a great ride.
For me this is the best organised sportive I have ever been involved with. There was ample car parking in Ballater – provided as part of the entry fee. Feed stations were plentiful – every 20 miles or even less – at Tarland; Tullynessle; Rhynie; Dufftown; Tomintoul and the Lecht. The volunteers manning the feed stations were friendly and very helpful and I am told the mechanical assistance for those who needed it was second to none. On finishing the race although roads were still closed, diversions were very effective in getting cars away. My only complaint was that in the glorious 21C heat that there was a long queue for the ice cream van at the finish line. This route is a classic and deserves to grow as an annual event. I shall definitely be back next year – though I shall take some photos next time.