One of the plans I had for this year was to do more cycling and enter some events to that effect. The more cycling was definitely happening as I have now surpassed 5000km for 2016 which is around 2000km more than I had done in 2015. This is to a degree at the expense of my running mileage which is down by around a quarter.
2 events I had earmarked were the Tour of the Borders Sportive which is on closed roads and the Tour de Ben Nevis which is a MTB event that circumnavigates the Ben Nevis massif.
In the days leading up to both events the met office issued weather warnings, for the Tour of the Borders it was for unseasonably high winds and for the Tour de Ben Nevis it was for both high winds and heavy rain. The weather in the end had a lesser effect on the Tour of the Borders than it did on the Tour de Ben Nevis.
For a long time I had been sceptical about entering a closed road sportive as I feared it would have too many cyclists riding in pelotons not knowing what they were doing and thus being a danger to themselves and others making the experience less than pleasurable. A number of closed road sportives seem to have very large number of entrants such as the Etape Caledonia. The Tour of the Borders was looking at around 2000 entrants and up until the day I remained curious if I would enjoy it or not. There is also the chance of the backlash from locals who dislike being inconvenienced which has marred the Etape Caledonia in the past.
The Tour of the Borders starts and finishes in Peebles from where it first heads South West through Stobo to Tweedsmuir. From here it turns East to go over the Tala Climb, past Megget Reservoir and St Mary’s to then turn south again at the Gordon Arms. This is followed by the Berry Bush climb after which the route drops into the Ettrick valley turning North onto the Wichy Knowe Climb to return to the Gordon Arms for the final climb over to the Traquair Estate and back to Peebles. The overall distance of the route is 120km and it has roughly 1400m of climbing in it. There is a shorter route over approx. 80km too which turns north at the Gordon arms instead of South.
One thing I have always felt is that the Borders region and their council truly embrace outdoor sports and have little to no issue in closing roads for their events. Granted they are blessed with some very quiet A roads at times but nonetheless Peebles town centre seems to be closed regularly for bike events and it is a main thoroughfare.
I headed down very early on that Sunday morning in early August with my friend Walter from the mountaineering club. It was as windy as forecast but we were hoping for the best. Bar the wind it was a beautiful sunny morning even if a bit chilly. We got there in good time had no need to register as that had already been done with race numbers sent out to us so just rolled down from where we had parked to the start/finish area.
The organisers had set out starting pens as everybody would be set off in waves of around 170 riders to keep congestion down and let faster riders go off first. We both were in pen 3 and thus the 3rd wave off. It didn’t look like there were 170 people in our pen. It looked as if a number of people were put off by the wind warnings. Apparently it was touch and go if the event would go ahead. There had been a bad crash the year before – not due to the weather – which stopped the event. For this year the section where that had happened – a descent – had been neutralised.
A few minutes before our allotted start time we got to walk to the start and then we were off. The first 20-25km were going be mostly into a head wind and it was strong as forecast on the day. Despite my reservations for riding in a group I was hoping that there would be a good group to ride with until we turned east and had the wind behind. This materialised at times as those at the front just had to admit defeat in the wind. Surprisingly though, after less than 20km we were so split up that pelotons were hard to find and just solo riders or very small groups were out there fighting the wind. There was a water and food station just before we turned off to head east. I chose not to stop there and just carry on. Having the wind on our back was a welcome change with the first serious climb of the day looming – Talla.
I kind of dreaded this climb as I had been using my lowest gear a number of times already on climbs with much lesser gradients. This one was 1:5 and this the steepest of the day. I needn’t have worried as I powered up it part out of the saddle part in passing numerous competitors in the process. The wind was in our favour too.
Over the top and the real fun began, there was a short section that was untimed – or neutralised – due to last year’s crash. A number of riders took the opportunity for a breather or a call of nature at this point. Even though I wouldn’t be timed I didn’t see much point in hanging around so started my descent, a bit confused, as it seemed neither very technical nor very steep or fast but hey ho before long I passed someone who had nonetheless overestimated this.
The route flattened along the loch side and the wind pushed me from behind and the next 15km to the Gordon Arms were pure high speed joy. The junction onto the A708 at Cappercleuch gave me a real sense of why a closed road sportive is more fun than an open road one.
Having just flown down the descent from Meggets reservoir and firmly pedalling along in top gear the junction on a normal day would have meant coming to a standstill to check for traffic and seeing round the corner to the right. On the day though I could cut over to the right hand side of the road, pick the perfect line through the apex and then take the widest line out of the junction (i.e. the right hand side of the road again) to lose as little speed as possible. Not often can I claim to feel like a professional cyclist but at that point I definitely did.
Kudos to the organisers on not just closing the roads but in making a very good effort on barricading them off securely. Junctions like the one mentioned had a closed line of big cones all the way across it. I particularly like the attention to detail that was given to every drive that spilled out onto the route with each one having a cone in it too and where there was a car parked the cone would be in front of the car – just to make sure.
Having fun with a tailwind is more exhausting than you would think. There was a lot of flat between the top of Talla and the Gordon Arms and even though I was being pushed along, I was trying to go faster than the push. By the time I turned south at the Gordon Arms I needed a breather, lowered my gear and dug into some food.
The Berry Bush climb which followed isn’t steep, it’s got a bit of length to it but on the day it had a fierce headwind which made it into one of the less enjoyable sections. Thankfully over the top of that and we were back into tailwind territory although the legs were still reeling from the earlier hard efforts. To my dismay my climb up Whichyknowe was slower than I had done a year earlier on a training ride and that one wasn’t even wind assisted.
The most brutal part of the ride was after the descent off Whichyknowe where all the earlier tailwind fun came back to bite us. It was a headwind grind back to the Gordon Arms with pockets of individual riders unsuccessfully trying to get into a more meaningful group. Thankfully this lasted less long than I had feared although there were enough moments of ‘the Gordon Arms must surely be round the next corner’.
Once there it was time to climb over to Traquair – our final ascent and descent. We rejoined the route the short course riders were doing so passed some of those that had just come along from St Marys. The wind again was in our favour here and after chatting about what the descent may be like with another rider we made the most of a fast descent. The turnoff at Traquair was the other part where a bit of that pro cycling feeling returned as we could make use of the whole road and go into a bend blind.
The final stretch to Peebles was a bit of a grind and seemed to take much longer than anticipated. It is a bit lumpy, was a bit windy at times and my legs were doing their best to cramp up, so I was more than glad when I was rolling into the outskirts of Peebles having let a few riders pass. I crossed the finish line with hands in the air. Not something I get to do very often either as I virtually never finish a race on a bike, there is usually some other sport involved.
Walter finished around 20 min behind me, having sensibly made use of the free food along the way. I had waited for free food at the finish – unfortunately I had to pay for that. I was pleased with my finish time of 4:30 hrs for 120k as this has been the first time in a long time that I had ‘raced’ on a road bike.
The route was enjoyable, the closed roads great fun and worth paying money for, the wind was mostly a bonus and not a hindrance and we were bathed in sunshine for most of the ride.
Contrast this with the Tour de Ben Nevis approximately 6 weeks later. As described above a mountain bike event round the Ben Nevis massif. As with the Tour of the Borders there was a weather warning for heavy rain and wind a few days prior to the event and no matter how much we wished it away it wouldn’t move.
With this being a mountain biking event the wind as forecast probably wouldn’t have been an issue but the concern was the rain; with expectations of up to 80 mm in a 36 hour period the rivers could turn out to be very full. On the route we were due to ride there were numerous river crossings but one of them in particular raised our concern and we started to wonder how this would pan out.
We set off from Edinburgh on the Friday afternoon arriving in Fort William around 6pm, got registered and then put the tent up in the rain – after enquiring if the campsite had anything with a hard roof for hire that we didn’t have to put up ourselves. The rain was on and off overnight with the wind getting progressively stronger. Peak wind was due early morning. I was thankful not to have entered the ultra marathon that was planned on the same route but started 3 hours before the MTB event did. This did allow for a nice evening in the pub prior to the event. We were off at 10 am.
I had entered this event with 4 other friends from the mountaineering club – Mike, Alan, Stuart and Sally. A friend of Alan’s – Grant – was due to ride it too but in the end Stuart and Grant weren’t able to start due to problems with their bikes.
After a morning faff, breakfast, driving to the finish and more faff we cycled down to the start. We got there for 9:20 and found out what we roughly expected – we wouldn’t be doing the planned route as the key river crossing was dangerous. The new route would basically be an out and back – Fort William to Kinlochleven along the West Highland Way then up past Mamore Lodge and to the far side of Loch Eilde Mor. At this point we’d turn around but on the way back along the West Highland Way we’d follow this all the way to the Braveheart car park instead of using the tarmac road from Lundavra to Fort William which we’d used after the start.
Alan and I spent a few minutes of the pre race standing about in a local bakery sipping espresso. The weather even though wet and windy was strangely warm – around 16 degrees. This did make the decision on clothing easier. We’d spent most of the drive up discussing options and mostly went round in circles.
Bang on 10 am – or actually a couple of min before – we were riding out behind a vintage car at an extremely slow pace down Fort William high street. We are also being led out by a guy playing the bagpipes. Remarkably, wet mountain bike brakes sound very much like bagpipes so it turned into a rather formidable concert, bit like an orchestra and a soloist.
Anyway, bagpiper and old timer pulled off and we were off up the hill towards Lundavra. Alan was just ahead of me but I started to lose sight of him and once we’d crested the top he was gone. The tarmac road to Lundavra is rather energy sapping as it goes up and down a lot so even though you are only at 150m above sea level when you get to Lundavra you’ve actually climbed near enough 300.
The strong wind posed less of a problem than expected and that was also the case once we got off the tarmac. The ground on the other hand was extremely wet with rivers either flowing across the path or along it and in part softening up the ground a lot. Forward progress was much harder than in dry conditions but we soldiered on. I was amazed to find how many West Highland Way walkers were out and felt very sorry for them both in the conditions and with a horde of over 200 mountain bikers hurtling towards them.
I held my own pretty well on the climb up to the highest point to Kinlochleven but the following descent was a different matter. I lost a fair number of places here as the bike I was on just threw me about too much. I should add at this point that I wasn’t riding my own bike but had borrowed Mike’s old bike as mine didn’t make it out of service on time. Mike’s bike was supposed to give me some advantage on the hike a bike section. Unfortunately that was part of the course that was removed due to the weather. What I hadn’t realised – in my own ignorance – is that the suspension on a bike can be adjusted to match a rider’s weight. Mike weighs in at around 80kg and I weigh just under 60kg. I did wonder during my test ride why the suspension wouldn’t push through more but only understood after the event as to why that was. Thus my descending wasn’t up to scratch. It isn’t world class on a MTB anyway but was even more below par on the day.
As we approached the key Kinlochleven descent the rain actually stopped for a bit. We were being held at this point to allow riders to start this descent with short gaps in between them. I was probably stationary for around 15 min but we dibbed in and out at this point so the stationary time wouldn’t count. I fared badly on the descent with people with real MTB skills flying past me making for a bit of a miserable experience on my part.
I was glad when I bottomed out and could start my next ascent. The format of this event is in an Enduro style which means there are timed segments within the route along with an overall time. I only figured afterwards that a points system would determine your overall position. The original route was to have 4 timed segments but this was cut to 2 due to the course changes although we were initially told that others would be added. The 2nd timed segment was part of the climb past Mamore Lodge up to Loch Eilde More. I fared notably better in that. The top riders were coming back towards us here as were some of the runners. The top runners had already passed us on the return leg before we even started the Kinlochleven descent.
Heading along the lochside to the far end of Loch Eilde Mor I set a good pace and appeared to be pace making a few others. Having thought that we were nuts being out in this weather we found others that were maybe even more nuts – fishermen standing waist deep in the loch.
To their credit they were rewarded for their efforts. One of the fishermen was at the turnaround point and had just caught 2 trout. The mountain rescue guys there were in good spirits and handed some of us some of their coffee which was very welcome and helped lift the spirits ahead of the return leg into headwind and driving. I was glad when I got off the lochside.
Alan and I passed each other as I was still heading out and then I passed Mike as he was starting his outward leg along the loch, soon after I saw Sally too. All were in good spirits. The organisers had put on a BBQ at Mamore lodge but the weather really didn’t tempt me to stop. Alan had done as I found out later, which in part lead me to close the gap together with his gear cable snapping. He made the BBQ sound delicious which made me feel guilty for not stopping. Oh well, 2 events and in both cases I missed out on some great food.
Overall I performed much better on the return leg – me and the bike – even though lacking in suspension – seemed to get on better. I was powering up the climbs when we hit the final part of the West Highland Way, where others were pushing their bikes up, and did OK on the descents, that was until the part where I had to carry my bike down some steps and fell off the last one. Luckily I didn’t damage myself too badly. Moments later one of the other competitors came flying past me down another flight of steps in impressive style only for me to leave her behind in the next climb. I couldn’t, though, understand where she had been all day with that kind of descending skill. She never caught me on the final descent to the Braveheart car park either.
I finished in a total ride time of 4:50 hrs, 5 min behind Alan and around 50 min ahead of Mike. Sally didn’t complete the route but got as far as Lundavra on the return leg so only missed out the final 8km or so. Alan and I had both made it inside the top 100.
The funniest moment was probably when I took my gloves off to reveal totally red hands. For a moment I couldn’t work out where all that blood came from as nothing hurt, then I realised that it was the dye from the gloves. Phew.
This was Mike’s first ‘competitive’ event at the age of 59. 2 months prior he had asked me for a plan to help him with his training in the buildup to the Tour de Ben Nevis. Although a hamstring issue hampered things a bit in the last few weeks he got a very pleasing result finishing 164th out of 240 starters. He completed the 58km route in under 6 hours.
It was later that evening that the rain finally stopped properly by which time we had enough time to trade war stories over dinner followed by some celebratory whisky – and grappa, which Stuart and Sally had brought from a recent trip to Italy.
It was unfortunate that the event had to be changed but the organisers did a good job of still making an event of it. This does though mean that I want to come back and do the full route either just as a trip away or race it again in 2017. Stuart and Grant are likely to get deferred entries due to their technical non starts.
So 2 tours in 2 months with 2 weather warnings. I did actually do a weather warning free event in between too: The Pentlands Push Mountain Bike Orienteering event. Maybe I’ll get round to writing a blog post on that too, or I’ll combine that with the next orienteering event.