“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…