Pedalling Perthshire - Etape Caledonia 2011

It was the silence which came as the biggest surprise.

Looking at that photo, of the starting lanes for the 2011 Etape Caledonia, you'd be forgiven for wondering what I'm talking about!

Please stay with me. These are my thoughts after my first Sportive event.

Spinning down towards the head of Loch Rannoch, I was mesmerised by the beauty of the river, tumbling over a series of waterfalls. 

Which I could hear. Perfectly.  Continues

For three hours on a Sunday morning, two glens in highland Perthshire were free of motor traffic. The rumble and roar of internal combustion engines, replaced by the swoosh of chains and the panting of the human engines attempting to power these much flimsier vehicles as fast as possible.

Just how flimsy would be made all too apparent soon.

This is the only closed-road event in the UK open to all comers, and what a difference a closed road makes.

In my first Sportive, I felt so much safer, knowing a 4x4 wasn't going to come careering around a bend.

This is the one and only time when cyclists (and we all drive cars too) don't have to ride defensively, curtailing the riding joy in case of cars.

My other surprise was how many people had turned out to clap and cheer us on. It gave us all a real boost.

But here I had a wee problem. Should I wave back and say "Thank you very much", in an attempt to show my appreciation? If I did that, would they think, that I think, they've all turned out for me? Brushing such thoughts aside I grinned like an idiot, waved and said "Thank you" as I shot past. It was great to see them.

Incidentally, if you wonder what five thousand riders looks like, here's a wide shot of that first photograph.

If you look carefully, you can just see the first riders, way, way at the top of the snap.

What you can't see are the hundreds more behind the camera. Most stay in the local area for several days, spending lots of money.

On balance, I think Pitlochry gains.

Obviously there are some people who don't like this event taking place.

Thanks to the organisers, marshalls and police who spotted a sabotage attempt and sorted it out. It looked like an attempted repeat of what happened in 2009. This time, instead of causing hundreds of punctures, not one event rider was delayed. The first I knew about it was while listening to the van radio on my way home. (Stories in The Scotsman, Daily Record, Press & Journal, and Herald.)

Carlton Reid has written a piece, on the Bike Biz website, about one of the guys opposing the event.

And then there's drafting.

All my training has been done alone, so although I'd read about how tucking into another rider's slipstream reduces the effort needed to turn the pedals, I'd rarely tried it.

Wow does it work! One moment I was struggling against a headwind, an enveloping cushion of air, that was trying to force me backwards. The next moment, I was being sucked along like a piece of dirt in a lycra-clad hoover.

It was exhilarating and, at the same time, scary as hell. The trick, I quickly discovered, was to hop onto a train that was going the correct speed. Too fast and you get dropped off the back; too slow and you're squeezing the breaks all the time.

And believe me, you do not want to break. Oh no. Bad idea.

The wheel you're sucking is just inches from your own and, if they touch, there'll be a lot of bent bike bits scattered over the road, and a lot of road embedded in your arms and legs.

Speed seemed to be best controlled by body position; sit up (into the wind) to slow down, tuck to speed up. The carriages would separate for descents, and then the train would reform, in a different configuration, to whizz on into the wind. I shot past stronger riders, who had already overtaken me. Yet I could not relax, not even for a moment.

Because the rider one in front, or two in front, or three, might not know he or she is being drafted. A couple of times I glanced over my shoulder to check whether anyone was overtaking me, only to find a posse of riders tucked in behind me. I felt like the head-end of one of those Chinese dragons.

There is one big climb, up across the flanks of Schiehallion, the mountain where the weight of the world was first calculated. On the long, swooping descent I clocked 37mph, just before slamming on the brakes.

Moments earlier there had been a nasty, nasty accident involving two riders, who lay in the road clearly in need of emergency care. I stopped to see if I could help. But someone was already calling the emergency services, while others slowed riders, and fearing an even bigger pile-up, I pressed on. I learnt on Facebook one sustained serious injuries and was stable in hospital while the other suffered minor injuries and was discharged. There's also a BBC News story.

Opponents of the event are trying to prevent the 2012 Etape from taking place. They object to the road being closed for half a day, people urinating by the side of the road, alleged unsafe riding practices and litter. I feel there's a sound response to each of these arguments, but people are entitled to their opinion.

I was delighted to finish in 4:49, position 2135, even though the winner did it in 3:37! I'd trained with a heart rate monitor, doing threshold speed sessions at 141-147. These helped, as my average heart rate throughout was 141.

That was my first Sportive and my first 'competitive event' since a sprint triathlon, exactly two years ago. I've another sportive in two weeks, the Skye Mor. Much hillier, much longer and much harder. Then it's the end of the cycling stuff for a while.


Christine said...

Excellent stuff! I love your description of drafting. :-) Enjoy your next sportive!

Simon said...

Thanks Christine - it was a very good day.

John McCormick said...

I remember you from your days reporting in the NE Simon. Wholeheartedly agree with your blog. What a fantastic day again. Also riding the Skye Morso see you there.

Simon said...

Hi John

Goodness that seems like a different life!

After this weekend I was considering doing the Northern Rock Cyclone, back on home turf.

See you at Skye.