Summer Solstice Sunrise Ride

“Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Are you sure about that JP? Because the way I see it, the diem ain’t gonna carpe itself. And I want to ride my bike to the top of a hill and watch the sunrise in a middle of a stone circle on the longest day of the year.  Here in NE Scotland, sunrise on the Summer Solstice is at 04:12, so three o’clock is actually just right for doing what I want to do.

Technically, 02:18 was the time I set out from my apartment in town along silent, dark streets – deserted but for the occasional drunk on their way home – but 03:00 was the designated time to set off from the traditional Velodees bus stop in Peterculter.  Slightly bewildered that anyone had actually decided to take me up on my offer to lead a solstice ride before work, I met Karen, Doris, Angela, Marsaili, and eventually Aneeka, as we set off towards Banchory, picking up Paula and Trish along the way in Drumoak.

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Before long, the sky morphed from black to misty shale, and we turned off the main road, climbing towards Nine Stanes Stone Circle in Mulloch Wood, or what is left of Mulloch Wood after recent felling. We reached the top by 04:02, with ten minutes to spare before sunrise.  Steeling ourselves for life-affirming views, the low morning fog that had threatened to spoil our vistas maintained its dominance, and we had to make do with admiring a slightly pinkish hue on one of the thick clouds skirting the horizon.

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Still, it was a rare treat to be out in the country at the crack of dawn, surrounded by like-minded people, and enjoying some hot drinks and cinnamon buns courtesy of Trish.  There are few other ways I’d have preferred to spend my Solstice morning.

Refuelled, and starting to feel the morning chill, we set off down the hill towards Strachan before circling back towards Banchory, then beginning our homeward journey along North Deeside Road. One by one, the groups peeled off, until I was back by myself for the final solitary miles.

By three o’clock in the afternoon, the time was perfect to have a nap.  And as the forecast rain hammered against my living room window, that is precisely what I wanted to do.

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Summer Solstice Sunrise…

Midsummer Beer Happening 2017 – Undo

Time: 4:29:10

Medal: No, just another Beer Happening glass!

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“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” – F Scott Fitzgerald

There is something restorative about a day spent outside in the sun, and there was certainly no shortage of light during the Midsummer ride this year.  In fact, in many ways it was reminiscent of the Katy Flatlands 100km I rode last summer – the heat emanating from the asphalt, the film of salt and sun cream on my skin, the summer motley crew of insects meeting their demise on my sunglasses…  Unlike the Katy 100, however, I began as a part of a group and broke off as a lone wolf in the final miles.  Also unlike the Katy 100: it was not flat.

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My friend Lauren’s budding romance proved beneficial as her delightful new bed-friend happens to be a cyclist.  With a car.  And space to carry me and my bike to Stonehaven.  And so at 06:30, I was making a stellar first impression on him en route before joining the amorphous throng of lycra waiting for registration to open.  Race pack in hand, Velodees and other familiar faces began trickling in, and soon we had a group of about 8 ready to tackle the Cairn O Mount together.

We managed to set off in the same wave (after some stealthy manoeuvring), and began the rather unkind uphill start.  Straight into the granny gears, we opted to try and conserve a little energy for the ‘proper’ hill, and found a comfortable pace for everyone.  About 10 miles in, just at the top of the Slug Road (and before the first blissful descent), we passed Natalie at the side of the road having suffered a critical bike malfunction, and beginning a long wait for pick up.  She seemed in reasonable spirits, so we kept on.

Before we knew it we were back into the granny gears to climb the Garrol, regrouping at the top by the stone circle, then descending into Strachan, and the first feed station.  It was here that the group fractured slightly, and Aneeka (the birthday girl) and I decided to get a head start on the Cairn, as the rest of the girls are part human/part mountain goat, and we didn’t want to keep them waiting at the top.

Though some of the group were struggling with the heat, my cold, dead soul welcomed the summer thaw, and I summited the Cairn just behind Pamela, feeling pretty good.  We hung about for everyone else, before I warned them that my brake pads were pretty worn, and it’d probably be a good idea for them to set off behind me on the steep drop to the Claterrin Brig (and feed stop number 2).  We hung out there for a while enjoying the sun (and salted pretzels) before Aneeka and Rocio set off together (they were both doing the 70 mile ride and wanted to get going).

Eventually we were on the road again, briefly, before Pamela lost concentration and came off her bike.  Luckily she only suffered a few scrapes and bruises (and the bike was unharmed), so we were soon moving forwards again.  This section of the course is largely gently undulating, and I found myself pulling away from the group, along with Lynne.  We rode together along the closing miles until I was in familiar territory.

The final 10 miles follow the Stonehaven half marathon route, and I knew the road well.  I could also feel my exposed arms, rarely out in the light of day, start to sting, and regretted my earlier decision to try and cultivate an ‘authentic cycling tan’ by only applying sun cream to my face.  Partly in an attempt to lower my skin cancer risk, and partly because I felt strong, this is where I pulled away again, lone wolfing the final drag past Rickarton, through Fetteresso Forrest, and back down the Slug Road to the finish.

The remainder of our group arrived in drips and drabs, and we enjoyed a couple of the beers on offer, resplendent in our salt-encrusted lycra.  Although the plan is always to stay and enjoy the rest of the festival, I always find the urge to go home, shower, and rest too strong, and after a couple of hours Aynsley and I cycled to the train station to catch a ride back the Aberdeen.

I found this ride much less grueling than I did last year (and the year before, when I did the 72 miles route), and I expect a lot of that is down to some of the tougher recent sportives I’ve tackled, as well as the fact that I’ve tried to make Cairn O Mount my bitch in the last couple of months by relentlessly adding it into any free weekend training ride.  I know exactly what to expect, exactly how hard to push at different sections, and exactly how much I hate it.  After the shitty winter I’ve had, this did indeed feel a little like life was beginning all over again; hitting a giant ‘RESET’ button.  Goodbye shadows, hello sunshine.

Now all I have to do is get on top of my sunblock game, and I’ll be on fire.

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3 Pistes Sportive 2017

“Find what you love and let it kill you.” – Charles Bukowski

Some men like fishing.  Some like to hear the cannonball roarin’.  Thin Lizzy likes sleeping, especially in his Molly’s chamber.  I like riding my bike (with or without blasting ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ from my Bluetooth speakers, though admittedly it helps with morale on tough climbs).  And so last August, before everything went temporarily down the drain, I signed up for the 3-day, 300 mile Tour of the Highlands, riding Sarah’s infectious enthusiasm.

Fast forward to this May, and as I didn’t feel I was fit enough to complete the full 3 days (and because my sabbatical plans are on pause, meaning I did not have the Monday off), I ‘downgraded’ to the 3 Pistes Sunday event – a 100 mile journey that, according to britishcycling.org.uk “takes you past 3 ski centres, over the UK’s 2 highest roads, through some of the UK’s most remote countryside, ascending eight categorised climbs (4 of which have gradients of 20%) – and finishes by climbing the UK’s 4th highest road to Cairngorm Ski Centre in the heart of the UK’s only Arctic plateau.” Casual Sunday ride, then.

Natalie had arranged accommodation, booking a family room for 5 of us in the luxurious Athol Palace Hotel, and we all had grand plans of arriving early, enjoying the spa, walking around Pitlochry, and having a relaxing Saturday.  The reality was an afternoon arrival, registration, and bed-hopping in the hotel room catching up before fuelling up on pasta and beer at a local Italian, bartering for a ride home from one of the waiters at the end in his tiny car because of the torrential rain that was hammering the area.

The 05:30 alarm was not music to our ears, and although we all joked that this was indeed a ‘casual Sunday group ride’, we were all very aware of the onslaught out quads would soon face.  There was a loosely agreed plan to stick together, but individually our strengths on hills varied so it would be a case of allowing smaller groups to form naturally.  Unless you’re Emma S., in which case just blast your way to the end, towing a bunch of dudes.

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Just after 07:00, we congregated at the start for our briefing before being released onto the initial uphill slog out of Pitlochry.  The memory of King of the Mountains was still fresh, so I kept quiet at the back of our group and administered restraint, keeping a close eye on my heart rate, and going straight for the granny gears.  These hills don’t fuck about.

Once over the initial slog, we formed a chain gang for much of the opening 20 miles, beginning to form into smaller groups as soon as the climb up the Cairnwell started.  A photo op at the summit next to the Glenshee Ski Centre was the last time we were all together, before Natalie and Emma P., later joined by Emily. pushed on ahead.  This left myself, Sarah (who had ridden 100 miles the day before as part of the tour), Katherine, Aynsley, and Charlotte to motivate each other at the back.

We progressed at a steady pace until the two lumps that comprise Garinshiel, before a quick descent where there was a water stop at a café.  I stopped off here to buy a tin of Dr. Pepper as I waited for the rest to catch up, and then began the climb to the second ‘Piste’ – up the mighty Lecht.  At this point the weather turned rather foul, and blustering headwinds combined with low visibility due to cloud cover was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as it saved us all from witnessing the behemoth we were to climb in its entirety.  Instead, we weaved up the first steep incline, and then battled simply to stay upright – head down, legs (slowly) turning, grunting into the unknown.  Without being able to see much, it was a pleasant surprise when the sign for the Lecht Ski Centre appeared in the mist on the left, and it was conquered.

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Once everyone had made it to the top and had a chance to eat/put on more layers, we enjoyed the blissful donwhill section of about 6 miles to Tomintoul.  After the Audax 200km last year, Sarah and I were both aware of the nasty little climb that was to follow, and with morale low we decided to stop for a coffee before tackling Bridge of Brown.

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Spirits lifted and warmed by coffee and soup, the lady train began the gentle climb preceding Bo’B, but at 70+ miles into the ride a few of us were beginning to suffer.  This is where, for the first time all day, I seemed to perk up, and I was happy to take most of the time on the front, blasting out tunes and singing along in an attempt to inject some enthusiasm into our group, with mixed results.

Coming into Aviemore, and just before the final climb up to the Cairngorm car park, the group split.  As I was feeling strong, I pressed on ahead, followed by Katherine, with Sarah staying with Aynsley for the final push.  My second wind lasted until approximately 2 miles from the end, when my body started to strain against the uphill battle, and the fear from hearing the low warning battery on my speaker was my raison d’être.  Finish before the music stops was the only thing I could think about, and – as a sign I had given everything of myself that I could have – Metallica’s rendition of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ cut out mid-chorus within sight of the finish line.  

Beyond words, I unclipped and ditched my bike before limping back to the finish to watch everyone else come in.  It was over.  And we all felt great.

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