What is an ‘Etape’? Well, basically it is an organised mass participation cyclosportive event. The Italian term gran fondo is commonly used for these events. Many cyclists use sportives to challenge themselves in a personal battle against the distance and then ultimately, the clock. The majority of riders will simply be happy to complete the distance within the time allowance.
In the United Kingdom, sportives are not held as races in order to avoid strict rules governing cycle races on the Highway as per the Cycle Races on the Highways Regulations 1960. Most are held on ‘closed roads’ and so have a minimum average cycling speed you have to keep up of about 21km/h.
The first Etape Loch Ness was announced in the autumn of 2013. We signed up for email alerts about it - and thank goodness we did. Entries opened at 12 noon on 21st November; we entered about 5pm and the entry list was full by about 7pm that day! OK, we then had to train for this event. Cycling over 100km would be a challenge and then throw in about 1000m of climb, including ‘The Hill’ from Fort Augustus to Glendoe summit (which is about 8k and 350m of climb, some of it is steep).
Winter is not a good time for cycling up here. There is often ice on the roads, your bike gets covered with road salt (not good for all the mech) and your feet freeze very quickly. We managed out about once a month during November, December, January and February. A couple of ‘spin’ classes a week helped a lot though. In March the temperature is a little bit milder so we were out a bit more. On the last day of March we loaded up the bikes and drove over to Whitebridge. From there we cycled (mainly) down to Fort Augustus, had a break and then cycled (mainly) up THAT hill. Wow, I managed it without stopping and did not have to get out of the saddle. There was just the minor matter of it taking me nearly an hour. We did not cycle the west Loch Ness road (A82) as it is busy and not very pleasant to do. We had cycled from Dores to Foyers on the east side in November.
The holiday in Mallorca certainly helped the cycling fitness, including the ability to do the long hills, albeit slowly. However I was still worried about my speed as I tended to average about 20km/h. Due to the time I had submitted when I entered I was off in the last wave of cyclists at 6:54am. Paul, being quite a bit faster, was off at 6:44am. Each wave had nearly 100 cyclists in it and there was 2 minutes between waves.
On Saturday 3rd May we went to register at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, getting our stickies for helmet and bike, timing chip and rider number. The event information had also mentioned that Gore would be there with jackets we could use for the day to try. They had one left in my size, a red ‘Ladies Road Race’ goretex jacket. I decided that would be good to try as the forecast was for rain on Sunday.
It was a 4:15am alarm call on the Sunday morning, leaving the house at 5:15am. We got parked beside the Eden Court Theatre and then wandered around for a while and had several loo stops! The first wave (the fast folks!) went off at 6:30am and then the various waves every two minutes after that. It was all very civilised and went well.
I managed to get myself to the front of my wave as I was a bit concerned about congestion at the start. However it was OK and I cycled away with no problems. By the time we turned on to the main A82 by the canal we had caught up with the end of the previous wave! It was great cycling along the closed A82, being able to pick the best surface to cycle on and have the whole width of the road.
Needless to say I was often overtaken on the uphills but I could generally make up places on the downhills and flatter sections. Occasionally I was able to latch onto a small group and have a bit of a rest by drafting, but as soon as a hill happened I lost the group.
There were three ‘feed stations’ on the route. Paul had warned me about fuelling properly and I had equipped myself with Shotblocks, Nutrigrain bars, Haribos, Nakd bars and a banana before I left. My drink had Zero tabs in it as I do not like the taste of the carb stuff he has. The first fuel stop was at Invermoriston; I had already had some Shotblock before the hill towards Urquhart Castle but, with his warning ringing in my ears I pulled into the fuel stop. Yeah, they had flapjack, a wonder food of slow release oats and fast acting syrup! I also grabbed another load of Shotblocks.
Fort Augustus eventually came along with some light rain. I stopped just after leaving the A82 to remove my arm warmers; under the Gore jacket I had a short sleeve cycling shirt and the arm warmers; I know I would be too hot with them on while climbing the hills. I also had a Nutrigrain bar.
The hill - well it was OK for me compared to many people. I cycled it all without stopping, passed by many people walking including two who were walking in their socks as shoes with road cleats are not at all easy to walk in (I have mountain bike cleats / SPDs on my shoes so can walk reasonably well). I was not in much distress for most of the climb and was able to converse with many I passed by. Oh yes, the KOM (King of the Mountain) timed stage for this shows that I did it 5 minutes faster than at the end of March and I had also ridden over 50k before I started it!
Down the other side for a short distance and into the next fuel station. More Shotblocks and flapjack then out onto the road again, loving the feeling of speed on the downhill. Just a bit disappointed that I only made 58km/h and not 60km/h.
The road to Foyers was OK until the couple of little steep ‘ups’ then rolling along to Inverfaraig and the last fuel stop. The road to Dores seemed to be long and I felt myself flagging a bit but latched onto a couple of cyclists which helped a bit. After Dores there is a hill - well known to the Loch Ness Marathon people as a bit of a killer but not too bad for cyclists; the road undulates until the last little hill at Scaniport and then it is head down to Inverness. From Dores only the left hand lane was available to cycle on which meant a couple of passing problems if a cyclist was in the middle of the lane. After the Tesco roundabout I managed to get past and really enjoyed the speed, trying to ensure that my average speed for the sportive showed 21km/h and I just managed it! Not bad I think as this does include the very slow pace on the hill.
A great feeling when I finished in a time of 5:11:44 (this is the chip time, my Garmin showed 5:04:48 as it autopaused when I stopped), I was so pleased with this! Paul had had a reasonable cycle but had been low on energy on the hill and the east side road.
So, the stats:
Overall position: 968 / 1081; female 195 / 311
KOM: time of 48:59, 914 / 1081
We rewarded ourselves with lunch at the Eden Court Theatre, a relaxing afternoon after cleaning the bikes and a very early night!
Any downside? Yes, I had to return the Gore jacket, it was lovely to wear. Now can I afford to buy one?
Click the image for a larger version.