Etape Loch Ness: The Ride Beyond The Wall

Closed road sportives are a big pull for the sportive nut these days. The feeling of riding on roads safe from motorised traffic and just enjoying the moments with others who share the love for the bike doesn't come around much. We sent our good friend Chris Detsicas to ride the Etape Loch Ness.

I had only visited Scotland once prior to this event for a road trip with the occasional mountain bike ride. I drove down the A82 from Inverness beside the Loch Ness and stayed in Drumnadrochit just down from Urquhart Castle. I barely saw the Loch for it was hidden in a thick fog over those two days! I remember thinking that the road looked perfect for some cycling and how a lap of the Loch wouldn’t seem ridiculous at roughly 60 miles. When I was offered the opportunity to ride this on closed roads for the Etape Loch Ness I had to jump at the chance!

While I may cycle a bit I lack sportive experience. Before the Etape Loch Ness I had only participated in one sportive… the Velothon Wales out of Cardiff into the Brecon Beacons with two challenging climbs - The Tumble and Caerphilly Mountain. This would be my only opportunity for comparison with the Etape. Fortunately both scored 100% in the motor vehicle traffic department as both run closed road courses. As a southerner, with a lack of long climb experience, I expected the land north of the border may provide some extended elevated challenges!

I took a brief look at the parcours of the event a few weeks before. I basically wrote it off as ‘mostly flat with a huge climb in the middle’. More on that later. The sportive consisted of 5200 riders riding one lap (66 miles) of the Loch Ness starting from the west side in Inverness down to Fort Augustus at the Southwest end of the Loch Ness.

Pre-Event Highland Cycling

I arrived in Inverness on the Friday afternoon and promptly set about assembling my bike before heading out on a short spin to checkeverything is in order. I rode a nice gradual climb up the Essich Road before descending towards Loch Ness and back along some of the route that would be used during the event. I finished the evening with a delicious salmon and broccoli pasta bake at a restaurant on the river.

I woke bright and early Saturday morning to wharf down a full cooked breakfast at the B&B before a few members of Moray Firth CC appeared outside the front door. They were to take me on a three hour tour of their local roads. A nice social ride ensued taking in some great sights including the Culloden Viaduct and we arrived back just before the Scottish weather (rain!) arrived. In the afternoon, I went to the Event Hub to collect my event pack and explore the stands. It was a very swift operation with short queues, handy mechanics checking bicycles, and the likes of Fuel 10K providing free samples. I nabbed a Fuel 10K Porridge ready for an event day breakfast. Later, I met with Coylton CC who had driven up from Prestwick, Ayrshire. A hearty ‘high tea’ was consumed alongside a pint. Yes - a pint with toast. Good fun meeting the club and I would see them again in the morning on the start line. Electronic timing chip attached to bike and clothing prepared, I set about bed at an ‘early’ 10PM. My body clock is programmed for ‘not before midnight’ so sleeping well would prove a tough challenge with a 5AM alarm clock set... It was.

Event Day

I must have seen every hour of the night, waking up multiple times, before giving up when I woke at 4:30AM. I slowly started to wake up and prepare for the ride. I nibbled through the B&B-provided packed breakfast and prepared a Fuel10K porridge. I have to say it tasted pretty raw - perhaps it could have been improved with milk instead of just hot water.

I arrived in my start pen (Wave B) with Chris and Dave of Coylton CC and we awaited the roll out. Waiting in the cold at the start is perhaps one of the toughest parts weather wise of any mass sportive. I have to admit while those wearing bin bags looked pretty ridiculous I bet they were warmer than me! Roll out began right on time and we started to warm up as legs span and thousands pedalled out of Inverness.

As to be expected heading south a headwind presented itself promptly. Our trio kept a good pace, sharing the wind with some other groups. At one point I found myself on the front for a few minutes with a line of 30+ riders behind maintaining a fair pace into the wind. Eventually a larger group formed as we flew into Drumnadrochit and up towards Urquhart Castle. I had suspected the climb up to the castle entrance to be fairly significant as I had previously walked up. Fortunately, it was relatively insignificant and provided a great view down to the castle with the Loch Ness in the background. After, we would begin a quick descent.

I was still part of the larger group and the benefit of the closed roads started to show with both lanes available for use and over forty riders negotiating a fast descent at 35mph. Some riders were surprisingly full aero tucking despite riders ahead of them and the necessity to maintain a safe gap. The group was bunching up as we progressed until… CRASH! I just hear this sound of carbon and aluminium hitting the ground. My first thoughts are “Is it behind? Is it ahead?”. It was ahead - about two bike lengths in front of me! I pulled the anchors on conscious of the potential for riders behind to hit me and shouted “SLOWING” as I swerved to the left and missed one of the riders on the ground by no more than a foot.

About 50 metres down the road I managed to pull over safely to a stop and look back for Chris and David. Chris appeared seconds later and he was okay. I had noticed David swerve off to the right confident that he avoided the crash himself. We looked up the road to see him on the phone to event emergency support along with other riders tending to those injured. Motorbike support riders soon appeared, one of whom came up the road against the flow. We gestured to riders descending past the crash to keep left as the motorcyclist made his way up. A number of riders had stopped right at the scene to assist and some up the road to slow down traffic - kudos to them for likely preventing another pile up. I can’t speculate regarding the cause of the crash as it was hidden from view however I will note that there will have been a wide range of ability and experience as the event is open to everyone. Allowing those with many miles of cycling experience to those who may have only recently stepped on a bike to have a crack at the challenge. As such, care needs to be taken to ride safely particularly in the early stages where large groups can form. I understand that one of the riders that hit the deck was seriously injured and I wish him and all others a speedy recovery.

After some waiting to see if I could press on with Chris and David I set off solo conscious of the fact I still had to check out of my accommodation and prepare for my flight home. Unfortunately this meant I would struggle to find a group of similar pace as they would be many minutes up the road. I rode on hoping for a pacy group to pull out of the first feed station. It turned out that I’d never find such a group for the remainder of the ride so it became a good solo challenge for the final 46 miles.

I skipped the first feed station and arrived at Fort Augustus feeling a little less fresh than I’d hope for a five mile climb so I lowered the pace thinking it was a little outside the town... Nope! The monster climb greeted me soon after crossing the historic swing bridge though the local authority had been mega kind and resurfaced the first hill of three. A sign read “Keep calm and conquer the monster”. The climb to Glendoe summit formed the KOM segment of the sportive consisting of 380m elevation gain and sections reaching up to 12%. Average gradient of 5% would suggest it’s relatively easy but there’s a fair descent after the first stage that may have skewed the average gradient a tad! I was aware from the advice given by Dean of MFCC the day before that it consisted of three stages and a downhill so as we started to descend I looked up over the next stage and saved the legs. There were a few moments of brake dabbing when riders ahead didn’t check right before seemingly randomly swinging over but all apologised and generally rider etiquette as we climbed was very good. I crested the top to the sound of a bagpiper echoing typical Scottish sounds upon some beautiful scenery.

Feed time… or so I thought. I had incorrectly assumed based on the route map the feed stop was at the top of the climb. It transpired that the feed stop was 3 miles away but fortunately all downhill! A good fun descent ensued for the next six and a half minutes before arriving at a very swiftly run feed stop. I pulled in, perched my bike against the hotel and stuffed my pockets with a variety of Clif shot bloks, a banana and a Clif Mocha Energy gel - something that I was curious enough to try. I chucked a full granola in my mouth and hopped on the bike to plod on. I was stopped less than 45 seconds at the feed stop - super swift. Just down from the feed stop a lucky spectator has a photo of me with half a granola sticking out my gob!

With the climb way back in the distance I pedalled along the east side of the loch with around twenty five miles to go. Based on my brief glance at the route profile in the lead up to the event I had regarded this last part as flat and fast. It turned out it was more undulating than flat. I approached every short rise with the thought “Do I power up over the rise or lower the pace and take it easy?”. Still holding onto a sliver of hope hovering to find a group doing a suitable pace I eventually found a line of 20+ riders. I identified their pace was a little slower so my tactical plan was to slowly cruise by and sit on the front then slowly accelerate away with the hope some riders would come with me. None of them bit but it was worth a try! I mentioned “Nice bike!” to a rider upon the same steed I ride. He made me chuckle when he exclaimed “How come your one is faster than mine?!”.

I plodded on with around 10 miles still to go. I had been gobbling Clif shot bloks as I went along. Tasty things! Less can be said for the Clif Mocha energy gel. I have a tendency for eating on the move when I cycle. It turned out the Clif Mocha energy gel was a paste akin to chocolate spread that was very difficult to consume while attempting to breathe!

Happy that none of the lumps on the return leg had been too long I approached the last test of the course that I became acutely aware of during my test ride on Friday evening - the “Hill at Dores” as it's named on Strava. I’m confident in the South it would have been named the “mountain at Dores”. It’s nothing drastic with an average gradient of 2% and a peak of 11% but it did provide one final test of the legs before the run into the finish and I’m sure it would have caught some out!

6 miles to go until the end I ramped up the pace confident I had the power left to complete the course and feeling like I might as well empty the tank. As I approached Inverness you can see a mighty wall of a climb looking at you heading up to the castle… fortunately the course took a left just before the road ramps up and headed towards the Ness bridge for the run into the finish. I got my lean on through the very tight turn onto Ness Walk, just about avoiding the hay bales, and the finish barriers were in sight. No other riders to negotiate ahead of me so I took the opportunity to fully empty the legs getting out of the saddle and sprinting across the line to the sound of hundreds of spectators lining the boards clapping and cheering. I span round the end and collected my nessie themed finishing medal, a goody bag and a delicious dream ring doughnut. Over!

Overall, I highly recommend the event. I really enjoyed the whole weekend cycling in the highlands. The event staff ran a very swift operation and provided an amazing closed road route with spectacular views. Roadside spectator were aplenty cheering on riders as they spin by. As I watched other riders come in at the end I overheard a spectator mention to her partner “They all seem to be the same kind of age” while a group of 40-50 year old middle aged men span by. I had to pipe up and mention “Some of us are younger. We probably finished a bit earlier!”. The crash did come as a shock and certainly showed the need for care to be taken by all but again kudos goes to all the cyclists that helped out and the event staff support.

The climb at halfway provided a good test but also an amazing view and I was happy with my KOM placing of 68th. I’m confident I could have improved that time but I wanted to keep some resources in reserve in case the gradient went out of control. For the whole course my chip timing SMS read 3:26:30 with a moving time of 3:08:16. I was content with that considering some time stopped at the crash scene. I would certainly be interested to ride the event again especially combined with more cycling after the event. I would likely have opted to join wave A and hang on to a front group to give myself a real test.

Thanks to the Etape Loch Ness and notinthepeloton for the opportunity. Also due thanks are the spectators at the side of the road plus the club cyclists I met from both Coylton CC and Moray Firth CC.

Chris Detsicas