Graham publicly announced our participation in the inaugural Scottish Bike Show Sportive during an episode of the Pod at the tail end of last year. In the same breath, he also outed my participation in the Etape Caledonia, towards which this would apparently be a training ride. Cheers for that. That said, we’d both be doing the 65 mile “Challenge” route and, anyway, it was months away.
Roll forward a few months and I’m up at 5.15am on a bloody cold Sunday with that horrible sense of foreboding that always accompanies an event like this. I still consider myself as new to this road lark, despite having had my road bike for the best part of 2 years and having done precious little mountain biking this last while. As a result, I still assume everyone’s better, faster and fitter than me and that I’ll be the first on my hands and knees when the going gets tough. And looking at the course map, the going was going to get tough more than once in the hours ahead.
Rolling into the Lomond Shores designer outlet car park, we hooked up with Graham’s West Lothian Triathlon clubmates. Some were doing the 100 mile “Sportive” route that would take them out past Aberfoyle and as far north as Crianlarich before returning south along the western shores of Loch Lomond and back via Garelochhead. Bugger that.
Our route would follow the biggie through Aberfolye, over the Duke’s Pass and as far as Loch Achray before heading west towards Loch Katrine. Shivering as the early morning sun made no impact on the low temperature, that watery milestone seemed an awfully long and lumpy way away.
Leaving Balloch Castle, the first 7 or 8 miles were fairly sedate. My presence in the WLT peloton of Graham, Drew, Craig and Mike was, as ever, welcomed and the banter started pretty much immediately. At this point, there remained a pretty big bunch on the roads of West Dunbartonshire and the “no more than 2-abreast” hadn’t quite been sorted out.
The first real climb of the day was into Drymen but with fresh legs, the 4 miles weren’t too taxing, although both Mike and I were suffering from (in my case obligatory) minor drivetrain issues. The climb did, however, serve its purpose of thinning the field out as the route began to take in narrower roads. Our early efforts were rewarded by a descent through High Wood, actually crossing the West Highland Way. We couldn’t recall the descent being that long, something that would come back to haunt us on the return…
With our group pretty much together, we hit the cycle path into Aberfoyle for the first of the food stops which allowed rear mech woes to be resolved.
Filed under “Iconic Climbs of Scottish Cycling”, I had never ridden the Duke’s Pass before and we were approaching from the south. This is generally regarded as the hard way. The ascent clocks in at just under 3 miles and starts the moment you leave Aberfoyle to the north, initially via a series of switchback climbs. Thereafter find an easy gear on the cassette and a happy place in your head and work that sucker as the gradient is alleged to be as much as 20% here (thankfully I only read that AFTER I’d ridden it!). To add to the fun, the rider is treated to a couple of false summits on the way up, which is always a good test of one’s mental state! The views to be had are stunning but I have to confess I was busy watching tarmac and back wheels.
Cresting the summit, and with our group blown to buggery (Drew and I were following the misery loves company adage), I felt a wee surge of pride as I started the descent, skirting Loch Achray and into the second feed stop at southern end of Loch Katrine where Graham, Mike and Craig awaited. Refuelling preceded remounting and thanks to the cheerful volunteers who plied us with water and gels at this point.
Spinning out of the visitor centre car park, we spoke of how this sector was “more rolling than climbing”. It was also at this point that we had the first of many “are you triathlon guys going for a swim next?” comments. Hell, I wasn’t even wearing WLT kit and it was getting on my nerves after about – well, immediately actually. Anyway, “rolling” or not, there were 2 or 3 spiky climbs as we skirted Loch Katrine before we eventually turned south. With legs beginning to tire, I channelled my inner demons towards raging at riders who dispose of their gel wrappers on the road. I spent the next – oh – at least quarter of a mile getting all Cycling Weekly about it. It’s not big and it’s not clever, people, and it’s another reason for the public to hate cyclists.
The road from here varied from “does someone important in the local council live round here?” smooth to having to consciously pick a line between lumps and bumps. Graham and I had ridden the road section between Lock Arklet and Loch Chon a couple of years back but all we could really recall was drafting a Land Rover as weary mountain bike legs trudged back to the car. Anyway, from here, things were largely uneventful as we headed back towards Aberfoyle. I was, however, caught first by a chatty older bloke and then by that conundrum of whether I be nice and sociable or do I just try and drop him? Such was my indecision that the other 3 slipped away up the road and actually stopped a few miles on, fearing I’d suffered a mechanical! On hindsight, I’m sure he was just half-wheeling me ‘cos he subsequently sat on Graham’s back wheel before disappearing up the road on a short, sharp climb. Much to Graham’s annoyance.
Aberfoyle, and feed stop 3, was in some respects a bit of a false summit. At this final stop, we were necking Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers and sharing avuncular bonhomie, safe in the knowledge that we were almost home. Remember that bit about the descent we thought hadn’t been all that long…?
So, out of Aberfoyle we span. After fretting inwardly about my first assault on the Duke’s Pass (you can choose your own innuendo there), I had rather overlooked the phrase in the event pack that said “don’t underestimate the nature of some of the climbs”. The fun began almost immediately after leaving a wee village called Cobleland with a steep pitch up to Gartmore which had the 5 of us strung out from the off, Graham and Craig leading the assault. I, on the other hand, was fell victim to the battery…
The subsequent all-too-brief descent (on which Mike’s steed shed a bottle cage bolt and then the bottle itself) may have had the unwary thinking “that wasn’t so bad”. Worse, of course, was to follow at the road once again reared up. Straight up. With 50-odd miles already in my legs, I was immediately into the realms of coping strategies. Stay seated until that house. Keep in the higher gear until the next telegraph pole. Oh, there were a lot of telegraph poles! Occasionally, the road would threaten to level out – invariably on a wee bend – only to reveal more of the same. A little over 3 miles later, the summit was reached and the 4-mile descent through Drymen and back to the main road began. The route profile suggests that the descent was the same gradient as the preceding climb, but I certainly don’t recall the outward part being that arduous a climb but I wasn’t complaining as I revelled in the joy that is Not Having to Pedal.
These final 8 miles or so should have been triumphant. In my mind, a team car would be due alongside any minute, my DS passing me a bottle reminding me to zip up my jersey and enjoy the moment. All I got, however, were people carriers and 4×4 drivers who hadn’t learned how to overtake cyclists. The final climb of the day (notwithstanding the one into the park) was unwelcome in the extreme but the final miles eventually ticked down. I had steadfastly refused to check the mileage on my computer for fear that the number might be soul-destroyingly low!
So, at last (AT LAST!!), into the Balloch Castle estate and over the speed bumps (ouch!). A couple of riders ahead of me did that annoying let’s-finish-together thing nearly pitching me into the barriers as I attempted to empty the tank at the last but I was happy just to be finished. As such, I decided not to speak to the commissaries who probably would have argued that the barriers narrowed in the last 50m. Craig had led home the WLT massive with Graham reasonably warm on his heels and me somehow losing only 4 mins to my co-host. Drew and Mike were in safely by the time I’d figured out how to open the carton of milk I’d been handed.
So what to make of the Scottish Bike Show’s inaugural sportive? For starters, shorter route or not, this certainly wasn’t Pedal for Scotland. The field was made up of predominantly “proper” cyclists although there were probably a handful of folks for whom you’d genuinely have concern, either fitness-, bike-, or personal equipment-wise. The route certainly lived up to it’s “Challenge” billing and the general consensus in our group was that it was a cracker. I see it’s already planned for next year.
Footnote: As we were packing up, Graham remarked that he hadn’t seen anyone wearing one of the Scottish Bike Show Jerseys that were apparently available to buy. No sooner had we started the drive home, when he hit the brakes. “There’s one! Go and take a picture of him.” So, just to prove that TSBS jerseys have made it out in the wild, here’s a picture of the hapless – and very sporting – rider 494 who really was as bemused as he looks.
Better still, I beat him…
Tags: Road, Scottish Bike Show, Sportive, West Lothian Triathlon