Final preparations had been made, bag was packed and all that was left to do was sleep….something I struggle with at the best of times but on the plus side there was no way I would be sleeping in. Etape Royale day had dawned! So last Sunday morning a friend and I set off at 5.45am from Aviemore over the hills to Rhynie. It was dark and way too early but as we got closer the sunrise was just stunning and I was glad we had left in plenty of time. We arrived in the car park in Rhynie to lots of people setting up their bikes, sticking on numbers, eating breakfast and drinking coffee. There was a friendly atmosphere and that put me at ease. I had something to eat and we made our way down to the start. My friend had very kindly offered to drive me over so it was good to have the company. As we approached the start some of the 100 mile competitors came flying through Rhynie to big cheers from the crowd gathered to start the 65 mile route. They were the pros and had made it in less than 2 hours from Ballater and were making it look easy.
We had a rolling start and I got away just after 8am. In my head the earlier I started the less chance of me being too slow and the earlier in the day I finished. For me once you have a certain level of fitness this long distance cycle carryon is all about your mentality and staying positive. I had hoped it would be easy to start closer to 8am than 8.30am and it was. There was no real queue and the start flowed well. The route quickly started to climb which was good as it was a really cold morning so I didn’t feel cold for long. Some people had jackets, buffs, hats under their helmets, the works on but I think they must have fairly felt the heat as the day quickly warmed up. I felt really good climbing up towards Clashindarroch forest and up to the Cabrach and it was a stunning day. It was a little cold descending from the Cabrach but this and the top of the Lecht after stopping for soup were the only times I felt cold all day. I passed a few people climbing but on the downhills the men, I guess, are just heavier and so much faster so they were flying past me! Everyone spread out so there was no worrying feeling of the road being too busy with bikes.
We got to Dufftown about 20 miles in where there was a water station but I carried on and didn’t stop here. I was managing to eat energy bars so I kept in the left lane and cycled on. There were lots of marshalls at every junction and water station and they kept you clear about which way to go. There were also mile markers around the whole route and although these were marked for those doing the 100 mile event a bit of calculation and it was really helpful to tick these off. I did get a little confused at this…..on the website it said it was 102.38 miles in total so when a mile marker said we were 50 miles in I calculated that to be 52 miles to go. When we got near the end and had to take the pass of Ballater and then turn right into the town onto the Aboyne road, and passing the petrol station was the 100 mile marker, and I thought where are they going to send us now for the extra 2 miles? But we rounded the corner to the finish! As it is a mental game I had been adding 2 miles to every sign and I hadn’t really needed to. I guess I need a better bike computer……I had a cheap one I picked up in the supermarket and the speedometer actually broke/slipped on the Cabrach so it stopped working which was frustrating. My strava was on my phone but not easy to look at.
I found the road between Dufftown and Tomintoul the hardest. It climbs very gradually and there was a tiny bit of a headwind (we were spoilt with the weather so it was noticeable here) and after trying to keep eating and seeing one too many road kill I was feeling a bit sick! My kids have had a cough the last week or so and I knew it was only a matter of time before it hit me and unfortunately I did wake that morning feeling it. I normally only suffer from a sore bum on long rides but on Sunday I was feeling achy through the legs and in my shoulders and I put it down to the lurgy. I finally got to Tomintoul and this time stopped at the water station. I had a cup of energy juice and a date slice and then carried on. The marshalls here were really friendly and I think secretly thankful they were not taking part as they gleefully said its only 6 miles to the Lecht! I knew what was coming as I had cycled the Lecht twice in the last few weeks and just wanted to get it over with. I was really slow getting there compared to doing it the past week with fresher legs. But I got there, and got up the dreaded hill without getting off (there were a few walkers) or having to avoid sheep. The sheep had decided it wasn’t a day for lying all over the road thankfully, which for some reason they like to do here. At the top there was another very welcome water station with soup, rolls and pies. I had some soup which was just the thing as too many energy bars just don’t make me feel good but I know it’s important to keep eating and drinking. I think everyone was thrilled to have got this far and a man in a recumbent bicycle (I think that is what it was) appeared. Now that must have been hard work on a 20% climb.
I set off again and held on tight down to Corgarff and Cock Bridge. The road here is really steep and it is hard work pulling on the breaks and watching for others around you. I am definitely a bit of a wimp when the descent is that steep but luckily Wildfox Events had taken no chances and lined the route here with straw bales. There were lots of marshalls too shouting and whistling and waving flags to make sure you slowed down. I didn’t see any casualties around the route but there were a few mechanical breakdowns. This was something I was dreading but I was lucky enough not to puncture or worse. The time it would take me to fix a puncture under pressure, well……… there were bike mechanics busy at the water stations and it was reassuring to know they were there.
We now turned right for Ballater to head up over the Gairnshiel. I was feeling pretty tired and really achy by now so it was a very slow climb but I was determined to make it. Every pedal turn was quite an effort towards the top but once I got there what a great feeling knowing the hardest part of the day was over and all I had to do was push on. I had wanted to complete the event in under 5 hours so although I knew looking at the time and the mileage left that this was unlikely it did help me to keep pushing. The last part of the route is mainly downhill or flat and it was great fun cycling over the Gairnshiel humpback bridge where a small group of supporters gave everyone a huge cheer. Another great group of supporters were sat on the bridge before the Goodbrand and Ross cafe where one group of cyclists who passed me did a Tour de France style race over the bridge with one of them claiming victory, hands in the air, to huge shouts of support! There were some great banners around the route too and it was good to see the local people enjoying the event sitting in their gardens, lapping up the sun and cheering us on.
I finally got to Ballater and it was approaching the 5 hour mark but we still had a couple of miles to go round the pass of Ballater which felt really quick as it was a sheltered fast piece of road and then onto the home straight to a right turn in to the centre of a very busy Ballater and the finish line. I was thrilled to see the finish line and I managed to sneak past a man who hadn’t noticed me and beat him to the finish! There was a great atmosphere here and the weather was blue skies and sunshine perfect for those who had turned out to watch. My final time was 5hours 10 and although it was over my target I was just delighted to complete the very first Etape Royale. I came in 18th out of 38 women so for a first timer in an event like this I was chuffed to bits if not a little broken in the process.
The Etape Royale was brilliantly organised by Wildfox Events, the people taking part were so friendly, the supporters were great banter and the weather was pretty much perfect. I hope on the success of everything that this will be the first of many Etape Royale’s and it will become a permanent fixture on the cycling events calendar.
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What a weight off my shoulders…..the sun is out and instead of sweating though my lunch break round the Feshiebridge to Kincraig and back to Aviemore loop I can sit in the sunshine and relax! Bike….what bike?
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