Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut. -Ernest Hemingway
If only. -Me
Much in the same way I actively avoided anything to do with running when, back in September 2014, I picked up what I thought was a niggle, but was actually the death knell on my long distance running adventures, in the dark days of being housebound earlier this year I was creating draft eBay listings for my bikes, listening (and wailing along) to Nick Cave, and languidly sinking back liquor in a glass that was most definitely less than half full. I hid every notification from cycling related groups, and aggressively declined facebook event invitations to social rides. Any evidence that I had ever been on a bike was buried in the dusky corners of my hallway closet, shut out of sight, out of mind. So when Roz took me on my tentative first ride back in February, I cautiously started considering the possibilities.
Naturally, this progressed to typing in my bank card details on an online entry for a punishing 110 mile sportive to the beat of Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’ in a dreamy beer fog.
Except this time I wasn’t going to be on my own when it came to undertaking this disgusting ride. In fact, it wasn’t even my idea in the first place. Roz had signed up for it (and booked a hotel room with beds aplenty) under the (false) assumption that a few others would sign up with her. Instead, they did the sensible thing and booked a girls weekend in Aviemore with some social cycling and wine, and Roz, as a matter of principal, refused to abandon the event. Not one to miss out on grievous genital harm, I decided to join her.
Following my entry in February, I completely forgot that the event existed until it loomed dangerously close. In an attempt to ‘train’ for it, I went on a few rides out to the notorious Cairn o’Mount to prepare for some of the steep ascents I knew we would be tackling, as much of the route is similar to the Etape Royale that I rode last September, and which was not in the distant enough past for me to ignore memories of burning quads while climbing the mighty Lecht.
On the Saturday before, Roz picked me up and we drove out to Tarland where we checked in to our hotel (which was essentially a room above a bar), had dinner, and then settled in for a Eurovision Pyjama Party. Disregarding the brief 01:00 drunken argument outside our window, we both got a reasonable rest, and were up at 06:00 to shovel food into our mouths and kit up. The forecast had varied between sunshine and light showers to torrential rain, so a fresh mist and patches of clear sky was an acceptable sight to behold when we lumbered outside and into the car for the short drive to Aboyne.
Roz: So. This is occurring.
Me: Yep. Death or glory.
Wanting to get this shit-show on the road as soon as possible, we managed to squeeze into the first wave setting off at 08:00, tucking into the peloton of lycra clad dudes… until the first incline, when they pulled away and into the distance. It was an early indication of what was to come, just in case the name – King of the fuckin’ Mountains – did not suggest strongly enough the kind of terrain we’d be facing.
It might be telling that of the 225 finishers of the 110 mile route, there were only 11 females. Roz and I had decided that in order to get through the day we would adopt a ‘casual’ pace and try to conserve as much energy as possible for the later, steeper, shittier hills. In hindsight, considering the state of my legs in the final, dragging miles, this was a wise decision.
We cruised over Queen’s View and the Suie hill, also passing the turn-off for the shorter, 100km route with some reluctance. After stocking up on water at the first aid station, we conquered the Cabrach, and descended into Dufftown. I strongly suggested a pit stop here, and we had something to eat and drink from a local shop (and stocked up on painkillers for Roz), enjoying being swathed in the glorious sunshine that had wrestled through the thick morning cloud as we waved to fellow riders as they passed. We were 50 miles in. We felt OK. 3 hills down, 3 to go.
From Dufftown came the 18 mile stretch to Tomintoul, which I have only ever aggressively loathed. This was no exception. We battled against a vicious headwind on the net incline, very much looking forward to the next aid station (and the change in direction). Sadly, upon arrival at the Tomintoul aid station, we were quickly informed that they had run out of water. I had about a healthy gulp left in my bottle, but a couple of the riders who had decided to withdraw offered up what they had left, and one of the marshals procured a can of Coke for us. Just as we were setting off again, the sweeper van came to collect the riders who wanted out, and it was sorely tempting to throw our bikes in and call it a day, but, you know, death or glory. And we were still breathing.
We took it slow and easy for the few miles that lead to the bottom of the Lecht, and about half a mile before the climb began I switched on my bluetooth speaker and got my cycling playlist on in time for the ski centre to loom into view up in the distance.
Once conquered, it was the death-grip descent in fierce crosswinds that made you really fear death momentarily before Gairnshiel sprung up in front of you. Despite being less elevation, Gairnshiel actually felt tougher than the Lecht, but the thought of the third and final aid station at the top was motivation to just get to the top. Thankfully, this time we were met by plentiful supplies, and after a quick rest, Roz and I were ready to plunge into our final 23 miles. Piece of piss.
For the second time on the course, we were cruelly forced to pass a turn-off for the shorter route in order to take on one final climb – Strone. Despite what the filthy, lying marshals had claimed, Strone did not, in fact, feel like a steady, gentle climb, fuck you very much. The summit, however, did provide welcome relief, in part due to the knowledge that the course was – largely – all downhill from here.
We flew down the road, tailwind mercifully pushing us along towards Ballatar, where we both stopped for a comfort break. There is only so much an undercarriage can take, after all. Gingerly getting onto our bikes for the final time, we began the death march home – 10 miles of grunting, swearing, and accepting delirium.
After a few moments of doing nothing but standing still in silence after finishing, we wordlessly made our way back to Roz’s car to load up and get home. Kudos to her for managing to drive us back, because I was drooling in the passenger seat by this point.
24 hours later, still breathing, no longer aching from everywhere, and the glory is starting to soak in. We are Kings. Kings of Mountains.