“It is the great adventure in life: circulating, finding each other, meeting by accident on the road.”
-Gael Garcia Bernal
“It is the great adventure in life: circulating, finding each other, meeting by accident on the road.”
-Gael Garcia Bernal
Position: 395/560 (29/54 females)
Running for the second time, the Etape Royale 100 mile sportive was an event I hesitated to enter for a few reasons, chiefly the hefty £70 entry fee (though considering the cost of having a closed road event, and seeing just how well organized the day was, it was clear to see where much of the money had gone), and the fact that it was mighty in both length and elevation, advertising a quad-searing 9829 feet of total ascent, and giving cyclists the opportunity to tackle the Queen’s View, the Suie, the Cabrach, the Lecht, and – finally – Gairnsheil with command of the entire road.
A third reason was the unpredictability of Scotland’s weather, so it was with great relief that I awoke at the AirBnB I had been staying at with Roz in Tarland at 04:00 on Sunday morning to step outside and witness a serene, shadowy view of farmland bathed in the pale glow of the harvest moon, the world caught in the eerie windless, stillness of an eclipse under the barely flickering stars. I was, for a brief moment, under the spell of the moonlight, immune to the morning chill.
‘Why the fuck are you making me do this?’ – Roz
‘It’ll be fun – casual cycle, sunshine.’ – Me
Penetrating glare – Roz
Wading through overgrown grass in the parking area as the sun threatened to peek over the horizon, Roz and I went through the familiar routine of preparing our bikes and ourselves for the day’s task before mustering at the portaloos (though not glamorous, a convenient meeting point) to wait for Sarah, Natalie, and Emma, as we planned to start off as a group and ride together until the third food stop at Rhynie.
With some trepidation, we pushed through the throngs of lycra clad shapes towards the starting gantry, beginning in Wave C, and quickly tucked in behind a small, quick group of men. The course was reasonably flat for the opening 12 or so miles, and we clung onto wheels in front of us until the first climb at the Queen’s View, a not-too-severe wake-up call for the legs, but a very early indication that once the course hit the bigger hills our plan of riding together might unravel.
Roz and Emma were both having bad days on the bike, while Sarah and Natalie were feeling great. We regrouped at the Rhynie feed station about 60km into the course having summited the ‘warm-up’ hills, and spirits were still reasonably high.
The next stage involved climbing the Cabrach, which again felt a bit underwhelming, before the descent into Dufftown and the next feed station. I knew that what was to follow was an 18 mile uphill slog to Tomintoul, having experienced it a few weeks prior during the Audax, so I had some homebakes and energy drink, preparing myself for a particularly draining stint in the saddle. It was here that Sarah and Natalie flew ahead (eventually finishing 12th and 13th female), and while my cruise control saw me cycling alone slightly ahead of Roz and Emma, I made it a point to wait for them at feed stations and summits, as Roz will confirm that it is entirely my fault that she “entered and turned up to the fucking disgusting thing.” I may be paraphrasing, slightly.
After what seemed like hours, I had reached Tomintoul, and once Roz and Emma had enjoyed a feed we set off for the daunting climb up the Lecht. It’s one of those climbs where you can look all the way to the top, and watch as those ahead weave on the road next to others who had dismounted and were pushing their bikes uphill. Apart from one particular steep section near the start, where the gradient exceeded 20%, the climb was manageable, and the thought of soup and a pie at the top proved worthy motivation. As did the knowledge that what goes up must come down.
By this point the wind had picked up, and the enjoyment of the descent was marred slightly by the unnervingly strong crosswinds, but I still managed a smile at the postcard panoramic view of the stunning Cairngorms – through gritted teeth and squinting eyes. At the bottom of the Lecht you pass Corgarff Castle and Cock Bridge, before facing the final climb of Gairnsheil.
As the road grew steeper I remember asking cyclists around me if we had started the final climb. The stock reply was, without fail, “I fuckin’ hope so!” After about 5 minutes of steady climbing, I decided that it must be, and roughly 7 seconds later I hit a false summit and saw the behemoth still to come. This is where my language turned blue, but what followed, despite warnings that the final climb was the worst, was little more than a steady chug.
At the summit I was soon joined by Emma, and then Roz, whose face told us she just wanted to get to the end, immediately, and then slaughter me by the side of the road on the way back to Aberdeen. Emma and I clipped in, and started the predominantly fast, downhill stretch to the finish, picking off riders along the way.
One day I hope Roz decides to speak to me again. Our friendship was a thing of seemingly-unbreakable beauty.
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
Result: 2016 Female World Gravy Wrestling Champion
Medal: Well, not exactly…
Much like the time I ran Loch Ness marathon pulling a husky-laden sled, this was one of those ideas that seems like a good, nay – GREAT idea when filling out entry forms a couple of months before, but which seems like the dumbest idea on the planet the actual day before. Having just cycled 200km, my legs were feeling remarkably fresh (though not entirely un-weary), and my last minute volunteer to drive me down to Lancashire and back was at my door, shaking his head and laughing as I frantically stuffed items of clothing and costume into a bag and kicked them out of the door towards our chariot.
Although I had originally made plans to go down with a friend, yet again I was unceremoniously abandoned, but as I’m not one to eschew commitment, I found myself talking bikes and cycle holidays with my companion on the road all the way to our AirBnB a few miles from the event. We had food on the road, so we went for a couple of good luck pints in the evening before hitting the sack.
With a rather leisurely start time of 1pm, we had time to drive around the town and grab breakfast and a coffee before heading to the venue: The Rose n Bowl pub in Stacksteads. They had opened early for the spectators, and instantly I scouted some of the other contenders – not difficult when fancy dress is mandatory. To settle my nerves (and enjoy the unseasonably warm sunshine), I grabbed a beer once I was in my get-up.
Soon, all competitors were being ushered into a marquee by the wrestling area for a briefing. Essentially we were told to entertain, and there was definitely an element of pre-planning moves with who we were facing. We would be in for 2 minute bouts, with the winner advancing to the next round.
My first opponent was a pirate. We huddled in the marquee watching all those who were up before us, until eventually, we were introduced to the crowd. I felt absolutely ridiculous, but equally I was having the most fun. I believe the commentator called us the two smiliest competitors, and though comedy was part of it, there was some serious manhandling as well:
After the judges had voted me through, we both headed for the firemen to get the gravy hosed off. We were assured the water would be warm, but it didn’t take long to realise this was a slight untruth. Despite the sunshine and warmth, I couldn’t appreciate it in my damp attire, and spent much of the afternoon shivering in the marquee awaiting my next fight. Eventually the time came for me to face my second pirate, again with a bit of playing about, and a bit of actual wrestling.
Before I knew it, I was in the final – my rival being a previous Gravy Wrestling World Champion! It was at this point the competitive part of me took hold, and despite my smiles, I was pretty serious when I was throwing her down in the gravy. The two minutes flew by, and then to a cheering crowd I was chosen as the victor!
Though not necessarily the outcome I was expecting, it also didn’t come as a complete surprise. My repertoire of wrestling is rather sparse, but my enthusiasm is never lacking.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
There had been clumsy chatter over the course of the past couple of months amongst the group of female cyclists I cavort with about entering our first Audax event, sparked by one of the ladies: Sarah. I didn’t go to the trouble of doing any research in order to find out what I’d potentially be letting myself in for, instead allowing myself to be gently coaxed into entering on the coattails of Sarah’s enthusiasm. With no established idea of how I was going to get there, or what the sleeping arrangements were, or exactly what the ride entailed, or what the forecast would be like, I blindly made an agreement with myself that I would do it. These are often how great experiences start.
And often, I find it’s best to go in blind.
After a whirlwind second week back at work, I haphazardly threw some cycling kit and essentials into a duffel bag after work before Sarah and her partner Iain were at my doorstep, loading my bike onto their rack and jolting me into the present. We were off to a chalet about 12 miles from the start in Newtonmore to annihilate carbs and rest our legs for the following day, keeping company with Ginny and Emma, and planning to meet a fifth female companion, Anne, in the morning. Sarah is a strong rider, and Emma is built like an Olympic road cyclist, and once I’d heard how Ginny had ridden 389 miles in a 24 hour time trial, doubts about my ability to keep up with the group started circling my thoughts like a buzzard. Sarah dismissed these, insisting it was a social event, not a death wish, but there they remained until all thoughts drifted off and sleep took hold.
We were all up with the sunrise, and dressed optimistically in shorts. As it unfolded, the weather was ideal for hours in the saddle, meandering between overcast and patches of sunshine throughout the day with the very real advantage of little wind and no rain. It was even, once we got going, somewhat warm at times. Even the fact that we set off from the cafe in Newtonmore with less than 40 starters in a group maintaining a pace upwards of 20mph didn’t ring any alarm bells. At least not any loud, enduring ones. The pace felt comfortable, everyone was friendly and chatty, and the first (relatively flat) 50km were over in a few blinks. Trepidation evaporated, layers were removed, coffee was consumed.
The second 50k also felt relaxed, though there were a handful of climbs which would serve as a warm-up for what was to come. Over a bowl of lentil soup and bread heavy with butter, spirits remained high – though it was at this point we were at our lowest elevation over the course of the ride. Which meant only one thing: we had to go up.
The third 50k section was an uphill slog towards Tomintoul. With respectable miles already in the legs, this is the section where I started to feel weary. Anne and I eased off, and the other three went ahead, telling us we’d regroup at the next feed stop. Approaching my longest ever ride, I was acutely aware of how much distance we still had to cover and didn’t want to blow up needlessly. And even though I didn’t have a look at the course map before setting off, having been in the area countless times meant that I knew it would be a good idea to save something for the monster of a climb we were going to have to face later in the day, though I kept reminding myself it was a short, sharp sting.
Tomintoul arrived, and the rest of our group were just sitting down to a snack. Anne and I joined the queue and continued to boost the local economy with our calorie requirements, before joining some of the other riders to share stories of cancer, surgery, cycling, and overcoming life’s challenges. It was a unique moment during which there were no boundaries as to what was spoken about, and the warm sunlight allowed us to bathe in warmth as we rested up for our final miles. When it was time to return to the saddle, there was a calm resignation about what this final stretch had to offer, and we set off.
The Bridge of Brown was no less of a challenge on weary legs than I was expecting, and the five of us grunted up it at our own pace, regrouping at the top for the largely downhill and flat return to Newtonmore.
It was just before the climb that I registered our total distance, and realised I was now into the unknown, relying on my legs to keep on truckin’ all the way to the end. Just after our white-knuckle descent I found my second wind and clung to Ginny’s wheel, with Sarah beside me and Anne and Emma started to fall back. We kept out group together, however, and spat out blue language as we were forced to cycle past the entrance to our campsite, 12 miles from the finish.
Though relatively flat, those final miles seemed everlasting, and if there was beautiful scenery to take in, I missed it all. My gaze was firmly fixed on the rear wheel inches in front of me, and only wavered once, at which point I tumbled over some bad potholes at the side of the road and let out a primal howl to allow the others to appreciate the pain that had just been bestowed to my undercarriage after 9 hours in the saddle. I was gifted with sympathetic grunts, and then silence, bar the crescendo of gasps every time we faced a short ascent.
Finally, the cafe appeared as a welcome speck on the horizon, and we all softened as we coasted towards our approaching rest. We were the first women back, and we validated our cards before treating ourselves to a quick drink, loading up the bikes, and heading back to the chalet. After a quick shower (and an even quicker bottle of beer), Anne and I – before the day virtual strangers – began our journey back to Aberdeen with enough energy to fill the homeward journey with stories and laughter. Her offer of a lift home that night was much appreciated, as it gave me the chance to sleep in my own bed before the next adventure was upon me…