Aldo suggested Loch Ness Etape as part of my preparation for my reverse EE stage. It was very good timing, a whole ten days before I start cycling in Madrid. The route would be free from traffic and we’d cycle through a beautiful part of Scotland. The course looked relatively flat with the exception of the monster of a hill halfway round. It was this hill that was our focus, it is more of a challenge than any other climb that I have attempted to date.
I wasn’t sure if tapas was the ideal fuel the night before an early rise and long cycle. But this was the best we were going to get on a busy Saturday night in Inverness. The food was quite good and just what we needed after walking round the town several times getting knock-backs from all the posh places. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that all the good food stops were fully booked on a Saturday night. If this place didn’t have an available table then it was a toss-up between a very popular fast food burger chain and an ‘all you can eat’ Chinese buffet chain.
I read somewhere that only one night’s broken sleep will not make a big difference in performance, so I was thankful for that as the mattress I tried to sleep on was so bad that counting all the broken bits together I might have got a couple of hours. I’d be better off sleeping on the floor – exactly what I reverted to the next night!
I used some precious bottled water and boiled the kettle. I emptied two complimentary sachets of nescafe in to a small cup and half-filled to get a fix before breakfast. I only got partly dressed for breakfast, socks, cycle shorts and base layer. Let’s face it who am I going to meet other than Aldo at 5.15 am. Nobody, though if we were an hour earlier we would have bumped into our drunken neighbour from the room above me and next door to Aldo. He bumped into a lot of things after he fell through the B&B front door, though he had the courtesy of finishing his rendition of the Beatles classic line of ‘I get by with a little help from my friend’ when he reached the front gate.
The start-line was only a short cycle down the hill to Bught Park on the banks of the River Ness. Despite Aldo’s prediction of chaos, the start was busy but extremely well organised and we breezed through at our on-time and ridiculously early start time of 6.32.
Stop number one was at the top of a small climb out of town about a mile into the event. We cycled this little climb the night before and felt every degree of the gradient. Today we seemed to glide up the hill with ease, in a peleton of hundreds of cyclists. Also stopped and peering backwards down the hill, obviously waiting for friends, were three fellow cyclists. ‘Have you given up as well?’ one of them asked. I’m not sure if we replied or just gave an approving laugh. A little bit of friendly banter that was typical throughout this friendly event. As we left the layby and carried on we passed a guy fixing his front wheel back onto his bike and blowing up his tyre. A puncture so soon – poor sod.
Soon after this Aldo stopped us for what reason I cannot remember but it was not a puncture as I first feared. We’d already passed several unfortunate people who were crouched over their bike at the side of the road obviously suffering a puncture in front or rear. On remounting our conversation turned to tyres and punctures. Without doing the maths I reasoned that although we saw a lot of casualties it was only a small and probably expected proportion out of the 3,000 cyclists on the road. Aldo had another explanation, not everyone has quality tyres, making them vulnerable to regular punctures. He went further than this suggesting the tyres he buys are ‘indestructible’. He may have a point, I thought – I hadn’t had a puncture since August last year, that’s 2,000 miles of winter cycling on these tyres and one of them was of the ‘Indestructible’ variety that Aldo has mentioned. Aldo hadn’t had one for even longer; he had got good at breaking spokes but had a good record for preserving his tubes. Of course both his tyres were of the ‘Indestructible’ variety.
Our route down the A82 was up and down along the west side of the Loch, though the climbs were mostly gentle and never lasted for long. There was calm over the Loch, with little or no wind, it was dry and the little sprinkle of rain that we had when we left the B&B had come to nothing. We cyclists had the road to ourselves, no noise of vehicles except for the occasional marshal’s motor bike slowly cruising by. The noise was of nature, of gear changing and near-by chitchat of other cyclists. It was an enchanting atmosphere with some great views across the water. I needed to stop, not for a puncture but for another reason – a call of nature. To be comfortable going up that hill I had to go. Shortly after we passed through Drumnadrochit I choose my layby carefully, basically the first one where there were free berths, where I would be at least partly hidden between trees. Facing the Loch I let go and enjoyed the view. Looking down the steep bank about 100 feet to the Loch I had a different view of cookers, freezers and fridges, a white goods graveyard. Someone else had chosen this layby and partly hidden berth as carefully as I had. Before remounting my bike I had to push passed yet another fellow cyclist with a puncture, he should get himself an ‘Indestructible’ tyre I thought.
We had agreed to meet at the feed station after the summit. It was our only scheduled stop. As we approached the bottom of the hill I reminded Aldo of our agreed meeting place. He didn’t need reminding but it was the green light for him to go at his own pace, which would be about a couple of miles faster than me for most of the incline that was to follow. He had been patient all the way down the west bank of the Loch, slowing for me when needed. I like to think that I was pacing him sensibly for the second part of the Ride.
The five mile hill was split into three distinct climbs, on the first climb the atmosphere changed again. It was still calm and there were still no motor vehicles on the road and no wind, of course there was the odd cyclist with puncture problems – poor sods. But now all the chitchat had stopped as most cyclists were too busy breathing to talk. It was hard work but I took it slowly and pushed a little harder only when I needed to avoid other cyclists on the very busy road. I was surprised to see so many people off their bikes and pushing them up the hill, more than a handful and this was the first climb! I kept telling myself it’s tougher to walk and push the bike than to cycle; my lungs and my legs were beginning to disagree.
After the first mile there was a short downhill this led to the start of the second climb, which I understood to be a lesser gradient. It wasn’t, that is I had misunderstood and I didn’t need to be on it to comprehend. As I came round the final downhill part, the second climb loomed in front of me, any momentum that I had from this section was completely nullified within the first few yards of the climb. Strangely though I was now beginning to enjoy this climbing thing except that the sun had come out and I was feeling very hot underneath my four layers. Near the top of this climb I saw another cyclist with his bike upside down in the layby. As I got closer I recognised the figure, it was Aldo…. Or was it? Aldo had ‘Indestructible’ tyres, so I had a second take – yep it was Aldo – poor sod. When I shouted over ‘Nae luck mate’ it was meant with sincerity, to have a puncture was bad luck but to get it on the climb was real tough. It was only afterwards when he showed me the video did I find it funny, no hilarious. After the second climb was complete I could see far enough beyond up the third climb to where I thought the summit was. I got chatting to some girl who had cycled this hill the previous week; she warned me about the sudden short steep incline at the start of the third and final climb of the hill. I’m not sure why you would do this hill one week before the event but I guess we’re all different. I was glad of the warning, the short sharp segment really hurt my legs but strangely I enjoyed it.
I expected Aldo to have the puncture fixed in no time and catch me before the feed station four miles down the road. Or at least arrive shortly afterwards. Dismounted and standing at the entrance to the feed station I waited. I waited for about 25 minutes and all sorts of thoughts and worries went through my head but the predominant thought was; ‘Where the feck is he? My body temperature was dropping and I was starting to feel the chill from the sweat in my base layer. When Aldo did arrive he told me the story of the big gaping hole that appeared in his ‘indestructible’ tyre. My reckoning why he took so long was that he’s forgotten how to change an inner tube and because he’d had these ‘Indestructible’ tyres since he was 12.
We set a good pace home from the feed station and raced at my 100% for the last sixteen miles. We passed so many other cyclists here that made me think that I set too slow a pace on the way out. Nevertheless Aldo’s pace making on the way home matched what I expected from him as he had set this precedent each of the last two weekends.
Apparently Aldo got silver and I got bronze.
On Sunday night we tried to eat in all the posh places that knocked us back the night before. Any of them would have been nice but Inverness was closed.
I didn’t take any photos but Aldo has shared his video clip. If he hasn’t disabled access to the link by the time you read this – turn up the volume.