“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.
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.
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.
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.