If youâ€™d like to try a cycling challenge, Don Currie has just the event for you.
Faultless is not a word I would bandy about lightly â€“ but Iâ€™d use it of the Etape Loch Ness, a wonderful cycling event that has proved to be a joy to take part in, from start to finish.
This 66-mile sportive, or non-competitive ride, held on traffic-free roads, is superbly organised, friendly, challenging enough to attract some of the countryâ€™s top riders, such as Invernessâ€™s own Lee Craigie, and yet within the capabilities of weekend cyclists like myself, who can get up the stairs without panting but are certainly no athletes.
We all assemble, 3,300 of us, in Inverness, along the banks of the river beside Bught Park. To cope with the numbers, the start is to be in waves, two minutes apart, and everyone has been assigned a letter denoting their wave. Mine is wave L, so I make my way forward when told to do so, and off we go, bang on time at 6.42am.
Taking a right, then a left, we are over the canal bridge and out into the countryside in no time, so I begin to take stock of my fellow riders. Many look pretty used to this kind of thing, with sleek racing bikes and cycling shoes, whereas Iâ€™m using my newish all-purpose touring bike with bog-standard flat pedals, and am wearing trail running shoes. Nobody looks down their nose at me, though, and Iâ€™m encouraged to see that my fellow riders come in all shapes and sizes.
The initial stage of the ride, heading south-west alongside the loch for 27 miles to the first feeding station at Invermoriston, is purposeful, quick and quiet, with a few pleasantries exchanged but no real chatting and only occasional spectators â€“ understandable, given the ungodly hour. â€œNearly there, mate,â€ says one rider as he zips past me. I think he means well. As does the rider who overtakes me with ease despite wearing a top bearing the slogan â€œFat lad at the backâ€.
At the feeding station, lots of chat breaks out as riders fill their water bottles and accept bananas, flapjack and energy bars from an army of cheery volunteers. Mechanics from Alpine Bikes help sort out technical problems â€“ none for me, thankfully â€“ and we carry on to Fort Augustus at the far end of the loch.
Here we recross the canal, turn left on to the B862 and are soon tackling the routeâ€™s principal hill, up to the Glendoe summit. This is genuinely tough, not just for me but for everybody, with many riders having to walk for a stretch. In a particularly cruel touch, the route levels off and we even go downhill briefly before turning upwards once more.
At the top we emerge on to wild moorland, as the temperature dips and snow flurries fill the air. Even though the route has been closed to cars from the start, it still feels a nice change to be off the wide A82 and on to a narrow, remote road with plenty of bends and points of interest, such as lonely Loch Tarff, where a Macmillan Cancer Support volunteer gives us a cheer and some applause with her giant foam rubber hands. Some exhilarating descents take us to the second feeding station at Whitebridge, where thereâ€™s much chat about the perfect conditions â€“ cool and cloudy with zero wind â€“ and about other big rides weâ€™ve done (not many, in my case). Iâ€™m urged to try the Etape Caledonia in Perthshire one year, or the Etape Royale in Aberdeenshire. â€œLetâ€™s get this one over first,â€ I reply.
From here on the surroundings become a lot more wooded, and the houses more frequent as we pass through Foyers, rejoining the banks of Loch Ness for the approach to Dores and the outskirts of Inverness. As I cross the finish line outside the Eden Court Theatre and bend my head to receive my medal I think: â€œI might just do this again one dayâ€.
- Fastest male rider â€“ Jamie Henderson, of Limits Technology, 2 hours, 51 minutes, 35 seconds
- Fastest female rider â€“ Lee Craigie, Cannondale UK, 2 hours 57 minutes 33 seconds
- King of the mountain â€“ Jamie, who did the climb to Glendoe summit in 19 minutes 56 seconds
- Queen of the mountain â€“ Lee, who did it in 23 minutes 10 seconds
- Your correspondentâ€™s overall time â€“ 5 hours 46 minutes 11 seconds
Great things about the Etape
- The scenery is superb, with everything from sweeping views over Loch Ness to bleak uplands and pretty woodlands
- The atmosphere is friendly and the volunteers fantastic
- The event raises more than Â£100,000 for its charity partner, Macmillan Cancer Support
- Itâ€™s run like a well-oiled machine, with mechanics on motorbikes to help at the roadside and at five support stations
- Itâ€™s on closed roads, which is fairly unusual and is a huge plus point
- It gives you a really good appreciation of just how long Loch Ness is
Photographs: Tim Winterburn and Paul Campbell
You can already register an interest in joining in the 2016 event on www.etapelochness.com