May 13

Etape Caledonia Training Rides

Scotland on Sunday join Skinny Tyres on an Etape Caledonia Training Ride in April 2010

On Saturday 20th April 2010, Scotland on Sunday reporter Tom Hunter, joined Skinny Tyres for a ride around Highland Perthshire. This is the article that was published.

There are many things that go through a cyclists mind during an 81-mile ride, and not all of it is relevant to the proceedings.

“Did I switch off the oven before I left?” for instance. “Is that me or the bike making that crunching sound?” or even “Does that old dear in that Honda Jazz we just overtook realise that she’s left her handbag on the roof?”

Right now, however as the road shoots skywards, my chief thought is: “Why didn’t I take up tiddlywinks instead?”

I’m slogging up and over the shoulder of snow capped Schiehallion, the biggest mountain for miles around and the “sting in the middle” of the spectacular Etape Caledonia route. With 45 miles of the course covered and 36 still to go, the road suddenly rises by about 700ft over the next 6 miles. The first 500ft of climbing are dispensed with in the first two miles. Ouch.

Alas, my pitiful lack of training and a physique that speaks of a fondness for fish suppers rather than fitness classes have teamed up to put the brakes on my progress. Everything hurts and my pace has slowed to a crawl. A bumblebee overtakes me, followed moments later by the old dear in the Honda Jazz. I’m sure the view is spectacular, but the sweat streaming down my forehead into my eyes is blinding.

Fortunately, I have a guardian angel by my side. He’s there to match my every pedal stroke, to reassure me that the top is almost in sight, to promise me that “the pain will be worth it for the descent” and to make sure I don’t hurl my bike over a wall and hitch a lift home.

I don’t know his name yet, because I haven’t asked. Because I can’t afford the breath. So let’s call him Wingman, one of a dozen guides dispatched to watch over the bunch by Skinny Tyres cycle tours, organisers of todays ride.

It’s barely even April and, a fortnight earlier, this road had been buried under a snowdrift. Now wingman’s handlebar computer is telling him the temperature is 22C. With the sun splitting the sky and no cooling breeze to speak of, it feels like we’re pedalling through a bonfire, very slowly indeed. I want my mummy.

How different things were three hours earlier, when a merry bunch of high-spirited cyclists rolled out of Pitlochry at the start of the Etape Caledonia Training Ride, one of many breathtaking Highland biking adventures organised by Skinny Tyres.

As its name suggests, this ride is geared towards cyclists who are either preparing for May’s Etape Caledonia or who, like me, missed the boat when it came to registering for the event and merely want to enjoy the course in the company of other cyclists.

Skinny Tyres boss Scot Tares ensures we are all looked after, handing out complementary canvas “musettes” stuffed with energy supplements before we set off from ride HQ, Escape Route Cycles in Pitlochry. Support cars, weighed down with enough bananas and water to feed an army, wait to follow us round the course, as does the squadron of support riders, easy to spot in their turquoise Skinny Tyres attire.

For those of us who have perhaps left it a little late to join the ranks of the professional cycling peleton, this ride is all about sacrificing all-out speed for the chance to soak up some of the best scenery in, well, anywhere. After a gentle start, the first highlight comes after six miles, although we have to work to earn our reward. A lung-bursting climb brings us to Queens View, where Queen Victoria like to gaze along Loch Tummel to the mountains of Glencoe.

Next comes Loch Rannoch, where the mirror-like water shimmers off into the distance. The road along its Northern shore is flat and we’re bowling along at a steady 20mph, raising a cheer from anglers on the shore. This is heaven.

But the jaw-dropping beauty of this part of Perthshire is the last thing on my mind by the time I’ve slogged my way to the top of the Schiehallion painfest. The good news, however, is that Wingmanwas right – it is worth it for the three-mile plunge down the other side. Spirits are restored for the last leg of the loop, along the banks of the Tay via the fantastically- named Appin of Dull, back to the finish in Pitlochry.

My performance might not have the Tour de France selectors beating a path to my door, and I’d be too exhausted to answer it even if they did, but I’m happy with my showing. And I’ve even got a touch of sunburn on the tip of my nose. Result.

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