It was a very early start. My alarm clock was set for 04:30; I’d spent the last couple of days getting up earlier and earlier to reduce the shock of needing to be on the bike before 6am. It was time for my first Sportive.

I’ve only ever driven along the A82 coastline of Loch Ness once, thirteen years ago, and I don’t remember having much of a view that time, so I jumped at the chance to cycle along it on a closed road for the Etape Loch Ness. It was a good excuse to spend the winter getting a substantial amount of mileage in on the bike too, which would do me no harm. I’d done a few long rides before, including touring through the Outer Hebrides, but this would be my longest, and my first ride over 100km.

My hopes that we’d have tropical conditions at the end of April in Inverness did not, sadly, come to pass, and it was a cold Sunday morning. The long-sleeved under armour was on, and full length bibs were required. Myself, Shona, and Andrew arrived at the start line in good time, and suffered through the nervous anticipation I always get before these big races (or, in the case of this event, non-races which feel a lot like races).

▲ Brief glimpses of the loch were to be had. No confirmed cryptozoological observations.

The route out of Inverness initially took us up a fairly gentle hill, and I spent a good part of the first 20km or so overtaking other riders, which was a nice confidence boost. We’d agreed to try and stick together as a group, but to regroup at each of the feed stations along the way if we got separated. We called in for a short time at the first station, grabbed some food and refilled bottles, and then we were underway pretty quickly again.

The A82 section of the ride passed uneventfully and quickly, all in a bit of a blur. For a lot of the distance the loch is obscured by trees, so the temptation (and reality) is that you push on as fast as possible, with the slowly-building dread of the big climb just past the half way point.

I rolled through Fort Augustus quite happily, and didn’t notice the start of the KOM segment, marking the start of the long climb. Then my Garmin flashed up the climbing strategy, and I realised I hadn’t really done my homework. The climb is split into three sections; the first part is brutally steep, but there are two flat(ish) sections between each climb to lull you into a false sense of security. During the climb I found myself wishing I’d started a little further ahead in the ride; there were a lot of people pushing bikes up both sides of the road, and the first part of the climb was especially hazardous, as I found myself wanting to take a pace which I’d find comfortable, which would involve overtaking a lot of people. There’s something rather pleasing about overtaking people on a climb, but navigating around slow-moving bunches is a challenge I’d not encountered before.

▲ The piper at the summit

Eventually I reached the top, rolled past the piper, and stopped briefly to eat something and get my breath back. I didn’t hang around long; it was cold and I was eager to get on with the descent and to somewhere slightly warmer. The descent was very fast and fun, and more than made up for the effort of the climb!

From the bottom of the descent back to Inverness I was unquestionably feeling the fatigue, and shortly after the final aid station I crossed into new territory, and was now clocking up kilometres beyond my previous 88-km longest ride.

The return into Inverness went by quickly, and I was, by this stage, keen to see the finish line. The GoPro didn’t quite capture the end, but it lacked the piper and the drama of the top of the hill anyway. I reckon I’d be keen to come back and try this one again some time in the future and see if I can do it just a little bit faster too.

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