What is it like to ride a closed road sportive in Scotland?
Swarming along both sides of the road like busy worker bees, large groups of cyclists buzz up noisily behind me, rush fluidly around me and then whoosh off ahead.
Occasionally, a peloton of 30 to 50 cyclists comes by travelling at just about the right speed and I tag along at the back. Then, for as long as I can, I pedal furiously to stay in their wake and benefit from the wind block that provides up to a 25 per cent hike in momentum.
Sometimes I manage 20 minutes of peloton riding and I feel giddy with the sensation of high speed riding and the blur of my immediate surroundings in Perthshire, including beautiful Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch, as they whizz by. At other times I am lost off the back of the group within a few minutes, muttering to myself: â€œGrrr, ouch, oooh, ouch, too fast.â€
I can imagine that some of the faster riders in the 5,000-strong field of the 81-mile Etape Caledonia on Sunday May 11, 2014, saw only the saddle and back wheel of the bike in front of them as they zipped along in large groups on closed roads.
Maybe a few evenÂ caught the tail of legendary cyclist Chris Boardman as he made his way around the sportive route.
For them, the joy of this sportive is finishing in a fast time among fellow club riders and making the most of roads without the dangers of motorised traffic.
But there are more to sportives than speed. Other people take part to experience new routes, enjoy the scenery and to ride with like-minded people.
My way of riding a sportive is to enjoy a bit of both; sometimes as part of a fast-moving group and most of the time riding solo, or alongside my cycling friend Graeme.
While the pedalling is harder and the speed is slower on your own, I was able to enjoy so much more of the fabulous landscape.
And without the buzzing pelotons around us, Graeme and I could chat and swap stories of journalism, life and cycling.
The growth of cycle sportives
In recent years, Scotland has seen a surge in sportives and entry numbers. Many events sell out in just hours and fields have grown year-on-year. This year there are several new sportives, including the Etape Loch Ness and the 3pistes sportive.
Increasingly attractive, too, are the closed roads sportives. Earlier this month I rode the inaugural Etape Loch Ness and discovered how delightful it is to cycle a traffic-free A82.
Many of the 1,200 participants of the Loch Ness event said that they had signed up simply to enjoy riding a road that is normally so busy with cars, tourist buses and lorries.
â€œItâ€™s fantastic not having to worry about the cars coming up behind and ahead of you,â€ said Mark Macdonald, of Inverness, during the race. â€œI am local and I would never normally attempt the A82 by bike so this sportive is such a treat.â€
Later this year, the Tour oâ€™ The Borders sportive will also take place on closed roads in the Scottish Borders.
More attractions of cycle sportives
Many riders also enter a sportive to try a new route in a location that they might not normally visit. My friend Graeme travelled from Doncaster for the Etape Caledonia.
He said: â€œI like riding in new places but I would never know where to choose in Scotland. Most years I now enter one or two sportives and I always enjoy the riding in Scotland.
â€œThe scenery is fantastic and I like that I donâ€™t have to think about where Iâ€™m going. There are signs to point you in the right direction so you can just enjoy the cycling and not worry about getting lost.â€
Sportives also offer convenient food stations and plenty of marshals and helpful mechanics along the way. Both the Loch Ness and Caledonia events were superbly organised.
Another attraction of a mass participation sportive is the chance to meet other like-minded riders and the exciting opportunity to whizz along in large groups.
Douglas Burns achieved a great time of three hours and 46 minutes in the Etape Caledonia although he admits that this would not have been possible without his riding friends from the Glasgow Nightingale Cycling Club.
â€œWe rode as a small group and tagged along with other larger groups where we could,â€ he said. â€œThe speed was fantastic and to ride 81 miles in much less than four hours feels brilliant.â€
Sportives for all
While entry lists are increasingly filled with keen club riders, mostly men aged 40 to 60, there are also more and more female riders and people who are new to cycling.
Leanne Carter, part of the organising team of the Etape Loch Ness, said: â€œWe are delighted to see more women taking part in sportives. Our event was actually 25 per cent female. We would like to see more women in the future.
â€œAnd because our event is 67 miles, which is shorter than many others, it does attract cyclists who are hoping to step up their riding distances but without going too mad.â€
Vicki Dunkel, of Uig on the Isle of Skye entered the Etape Loch Ness as a challenge. She said: â€œI havenâ€™t cycled 67 miles before but I do ride lots of hills near my home. I wanted a goal that would see me riding a longer distance and the sportive seemed perfect.â€
Many other riders take part in the sportives to raise cash for charity. The Etape Loch Ness was supported by Macmillan while the Etape Caledonia was partnered with Marie Curie Cancer Care.
The highs of two Etapes
There are sportives that boast of flat roads and others that are proud of all their hills. Both the Etape Loch Ness and Etape Caledonia offer a mix. Roads that hug the edge of a loch are usually undulating but not too fiercely hilly.
Yet these sportives are, of course, located in Scotland and big hills and mountains are what our country is famed for. Both events feature a King of the Mountain section and a total ascent figure that is not to be sniffed at.
The Etape Loch Ness hasÂ a total ascent of 900m including the 4.8-mile KoM climb from almost sea level to 393m. The Etape Caledonia has a total ascent of 1949m and a KoM climb within a five-mile stretch that climbs 178m.
These Etapes offer plenty of fast riding with some sections of steep and longer climbs. Overall, however, they are routes that are ideal for a wide range of riders, from speedsters looking for a super time over a set course to less experienced cyclists hoping to step up their distance.
On top of these favourable routes is the inspiring scenery. The Etape Loch Ness boasts almost non-stop views over the famous landmark waterway as riders cycle the full 360-degree round-loch route with an additionalÂ stunning backdrop of the mighty mountains of the northern Highlands.
As well as the two lochs of Tummell and Rannoch, the Etape Caledonia takes in the high, heather-covered moorlands of Schiehallion, atmospheric forestry, remote single track roads that wind past pretty villages including FortingallÂ with its thatched houses and a host ofÂ distant snow-capped mountains.
My only negative point to make is that if you want to be sure of a place on either sportive â€“ or indeed most other sportives in Scotland â€“ you need to be as speedy as the fastest riders with your entry.
The first 1,000 entries in the new Etape Loch Ness sold out in only a few hours. Another 250 later entries were filled in just 13 minutes. The 5,250 places of Etape Caledonia were taken in less than 72 hours.
Now I am off to sign up to the closed road Tour o’ the Borders sportive.
To see a list of sportives check out sportive.com