Morning sun streams through the bathroom window, casting a naked alien like shadow against the wall. I’m stood in the bath tub and ready to shock my system with some cold exposure therapy i.e. an icy cold shower.
Five minutes earlier I had awoken, stock still and anxious to see how my body had recovered from yesterday’s exertions. A quick body scan later and the news was good, not great…just good. It doesn’t feel ma own. Aye, It’s stiff and aching, but it’s a good ache and it feels better, even a little bit stronger. Although that could still be the after effects of last nights Peroni’s right enough!CLICK HERE for INTRODUCTION to Tour Of The Highlands
I quickly open up the shower tap flooding an icy blast of cold water over my head, inducing involuntary gasps for breath. Acclimatising, I count down from twenty. Breathing and heart rate slowing down before I ramp up the temperature control up tae burny hot. What should give me relief from the cold, turns tae stinging on my arms, as the hot water hits my sunburnt forearms and legs. This Wim Hoff-Esque cold exposure therapy is repeated another twice in the hope of reviving me. It does the trick.
A fresh set of kit is flung on and back intae the Hotel room I go where Tank’s waiting. We head doon tae breakfast, kitted up in full cycling garb. A look that is completely inappropriate to self respecting patrons enjoying their sausage and two eggs breakfast. But we’re not alone. We arrive to an already thronging (with an R) lycra breakfast party. Waiters and waitresses must be pishing themselves laughing this morning.
We spot Sherpy and he’s already settled in and munching away like a consummate pro. Legs crossed and cycling cap adorned, carrying the air of an erudite rider, who’s been lazily nibbling breakfast for hours whilst perusing l’equipe from back to front . We sit down and place my ‘breakfast supplement bag’ at my side
‘How does the morning find you Papa Sherps’? I enquire
‘Aye well, am awrite but you’ll need to talk to Marky? Said he’s not doing this today, as he’s feeling crap after a shit night’s sleep’
‘You winding me up?’
I slowly sit down and start putting the jigsaw together. I pour my coffee and ponder.
he was suspiciously quiet at dinner, He even body swerved the one for the road!! A worry in itself may I add. It all starts to fall into place. He’s shitin it fae the climbing.
Those little ‘tougher than we thought’ tales we regaled from yesterday must have taken root and spread like Japanese Knotweed in his psyche? ( Stu, thats yin tae get you all excited)
Nerves or stage fright? Don’t know why. He’s nothing to fear. He’s a good strong rider and hills are hills. We get over them…..eventually! Plus, trust me, having a shit night sleep isn’t a good excuse to wash with this insomniac.
I grab my phone from the table, pause for a beat till I decide which motivational road I go down with this? The Jose Mourinho or Alex Ferguson approach? Arm around shoulder V’s The hairdryer? I press call on the phone, let the moment decide.
“Huhullo” …a meakish response from the other end.
“What the fucks up?” I implore (So I went doon the Ferguson approach)
‘It’s just ( pause) I had a shit nights’ sleep and I’m not goni be able to do this” he replies
‘So yir not goni do the wide? Yir not goni do the wide? Let me tell you this bwoy, we pay you 40p a week to wide hard wi the Bwaes City Wouleurs and yir NO GONI WIDE?? That’ll be shining bwight ma bwoy, that’ll be shining bwight’ (Awright maybe I took the Alex Ferguson impression a bit too literally). I leave a deliberate pause, to make It cwystal clear that there’s only disappointment at this end.
Bit of a gamble as he’s nae shrinking violet. I await his reply.
“aye awrite, Mr Ferguson I’ll wide. I’ll head doon and see how I feel after bweakfast” He say’s taking the piss but acquiescing.
Thank fuck for that. Sometimes in this world of ‘all goods’ a bit tough love is all we need. I know he would kick himself if he didn’t. Five minutes later he appears with bloodshot eyes drooping under colourless lids. He carries a look somewhere between embarrassed and angry. Distraction tactics.
“Get some scran and coffee doon yi. Scrambled egg and bacon looks good”
Stu arrives , completeing the set and we drip feed the order of porridges followed by bacon and scrambled eggs to the lanky eastern European waiter (ubiquitous in these parts). I produce an avocado from my ‘supplements’ bag much to the amusement of the lads.
“Whit the fuck Daz?” Says Mark stifling a laugh.
“Whit dyi mean? I fuckin love avocados.”
“Well Mr Moooray? Dyi ken there has been a spate of avocado related injuries over the last six months.” Sherpy informs us matter of factly, before his tongue turns visceral.
“Aye, wanky Waitrose pricks not knowing how to prepare them are slashing open their hands”
“Don’t worry” I assert with a single ‘stop there’ hand in the air
“my method is born from months of practice.”
“Let me demonstrate. I’ll apply commentary as i go”
“Resting Avocado on the plate. I secure it with thumb and forefinger in a pincer movement. A sharp knife is encouraged away from the hand and body, along the length of the avocado whilst slowly rotating, terminating in a 360o circumferential cut.
Knife is placed SAFELY at side of plate. Avocado is cupped in left hand and a sharp twist is applied by right hand, separating avocado in two! We are not in the clear yet my friend, oh no, and this is where It gets hairy… for the AMATEUR. “
Using a tea spoon, press a criss-cross pattern into each half of the avocado before scooping out the wonderful little chunks of vegetation onto your dish instantly turning into a dish fit for a champion.
I pause for applause. None given!
“MOST impressive INDEED Mr Moooorraaay” is Sherpy’s reply, in a mocking Boycie form Only Fools and Horses wanky tone.
With breakfast skelped, we now have the small task of getting tae the start line. A start line that’s about a mile away. A small logistical problem we failed tae foresee in planning. That’s one mile UPHILL and we have weekend bags of all shapes and sizes. It’s do-able but it would render our legs riddled with lactic before we even start the hilliest & hardest test of our cycling adventures tae date.
We assemble at the front of the hotel and discuss said issue. A taxi waiting in the road grabs our attention. I chap the windae. “You going up the start line by any chance?”.
“Yes” Is the reply from the friendly driver.
“Fancy taking these bags up for a couple of extra quid”
ya fucking dancer. We crash around to find spare change and off she goes with the bags. “ha-le-fuck-in-looo-jah” Feels like we have already conquered the first climb of the day. She’s oor Queen of the Mountain.
Unburdened of the bags we feel nimble and light as we wind our way up tae the start line. Arriving at the High school start line, we amble about, almost forgetting about our dropped bags, then spot them, minding their own business next tae a tree completely unattended. Shit, we get a shift on, grab them and check them in tae the luggage van.
We have been loitering about for about ten minutes now waiting for the Aviemore bus to arrive, but it apparently has got lost. Yes, lost from Aviemore. To the non locals. To find Pitlochry from Aviemore. Leave Aviemore join A9, point south and you’ll find Pitlochry.
On board, big Graeme. Another local fella we recently found out is taking part today. He was goni chum along wi us, but hanging aboot and nervous energy is making the natives restless. We reconcile that even when bus arrives, all the bikes need tae get unloaded and pedals refitted. Democracy wins and we set off just as the bus arrives, hollering at big Graeme that we’ll catch him at first feed stop. We won’t be blazing any trails on Day 2
We get to the start line. No mass rolling start today. ‘Go when yis are ready lads” is the instruction from the start line steward.
“Well, here we go then lads” I proffer in sentimental tones at the start line.
If this was a Hollywood movie, this is when it would go all slow mo. Glances of determination would be shared. Final swatches of family photos etc etc But naw, let’s not kiddy on here, this isnae Hollywood, It’s Scotland. Where men are men and sheep run scared. Nane of that shite here.
“Aye ahhhhhh suppose” Is the less than energetic laboured response.
See whit I mean. Scotland no Hollywood!
“is that it…. my youngest sons last fart had more energy than that?
“AYE…. A SUPPOSE, that better?” Laboured but louder.
“aye a suppose” I retort and off we roll.
So this Three piste challenge is reputed to be one of the hardest 100 miler sportives on the go today in the UK. Taking in three climbs on the OFFICIAL 100climbs list. Cairnwell (Glenshee), The Lecht and Cairngorm. A route along some of the highest roads and finest scenery this country has to offer. Topping out at 102 miles and 2690 metres of climbing
Right from the get go it doesn’t disappoint. No lulling yi into a false sense of security, then pummeling yi wi some nasty climbs, naw-naw. This sportive blooters yi right fae the start. A five kilometer climb off the bat, called ‘Monument Hill’ (on STRAVA). A monument’s is exactly how Tank, Stu and myself are made to feel, as the sprightly Sherpy and Mark peel away from us.
Only one day to the wise, but we three look to each other with that knowing parental face. “one day classicers eh, we’ll just let them go! let them have their fun”. Slowly the first couple of kilometers pass. Legs feel heavy from the lactic they are holding hostage from yesterday, although with each pedal revolution we slowly find our groove. Mark and Sherpy were once small specs on the winding climb ahead, now they are growing larger. Like magnets we are slowly being pulled to them or is the hill that is repelling them?
We get to the top stretched out but together. Tank’s dropped back though. We hold up. Sherpy’s keen to keep moving not wanting to lose the mojo and sense of expectation that the climb has created. He sets off solo, “you’ll catch me up anyway” he rattles out as he clips in and breezes down the road. Tank soon appears. Not burst, but measuring his opening salvo today. Lessons learned in aw that. Not suffering the same fate as yesterday.
We set off mob handed in pursuit of ‘IL Pirata’ Sherpy. It’s flat to downhill for the next ten to twenty Kilometer. K after K, we pick off lone or paired riders, but none of them Sherpy; ‘where is the wee fucker? The wee dynamo must be piercing the morning breeze like a bullet. Not many groups on the road for him to tag along tae. Yet still no sign of him.
The road and scenery unfolds before us. Green, gorgeous, rolling and quiet. We swoop down the descents like hungry birds of prey and cruise the rolling climbs in a line. This is perfect blissful Sunday morning ride material. Good roads, good friends and good weather.
Turning onto the main road that takes you from Blairgowrie to Glenshee now. We could do with some peloton action. I’ve driven this road many times on the way to the slopes and I know all too well it’s goni get lumpy and draggy. The perfect time to get hooked up, swept up and enjoy the stampede of a big group. We are constantly checking over our shoulders like surfers paddling in the big blue waiting for the next wave.
A few groups pass but nothing to get excited about and they slide past. Then in the distance it appears. A cycling tsunami is crashing towards us. Ya beauty, just what we’re looking for.
Quick words are had and we agree to jump on, If we can? Picture a surfer paddling hard as big wave approaches to get the momentum to ride it. That’s what we’ll have to do here or this peloton will engulf us and spit us oot like hot tatties. The peloton approaches, the adrenaline is kicking, we lift oor pace in the hope of sling shotting onto the back.
The first few riders pass, ‘Fuck their shifting’ We are forced into a full sprint or get spun to the kerb like a cartoon cans. I manage to match the pace about mid pack. I stake my claim for a place and then I frantically search the rest of the peloton tae see who else made it? Stu, Mark, Tank? I look behind, but too many riders. No sign of them. Bastards.
I’m in the barrel of this wave now so I better ride it until it deposits me on shallower shores. This is a serious group, packed with club riders. Groups yesterday, slowed and stretched out on the climb. Not this group, they attack. It’s almost predatory as though chasing imaginary prey. I hang on and learn to preempt the speed changes as we concertina off the rollers and blister down the descents. Class.
Out the saddle sprinting at every rise in the road to keep in touch. Out of breath, but growing into it. Miles are passing quickly. In the distance I spot Sherpy, noticeable for sporting his Garmin Sharp Team Gabba (ex pro owned) and he’s leisurely out the saddle tackling a kick up in the road with a few other riders.
“SHERPY” I shout to get his attention as we approach, “c’mon, get on!” but this waves moving too quickly and in synchronized harmony maneuvers around them spiting them out the back. All the same. ‘Some ride wee man’ that’s about twenty-thirty K on his own; and we couldn’t catch him. (He later confesses he got in on a group)
This pack is hardcore. Nae chat, just steely eyed robots oiled in testosterone. All waging some kind of personal, interclub and aspirational battles on every front. It was fun to start but now it’s becoming tedious, devoid of character and If I’m totally honest, I’m totally out my depth here.
I like the thrill of riding in a big peloton, but what excites me more, is meeting new characters and sharing experiences along the way. That’s what will inspire us to do more, see more, hear more and learn more. Not for the speed of accomplishment. Not like this holding my place in juiced up characterless peloton. There in, my immediate fate is sealed in my mind. Staring at the first climb Cairnwell (Glenshee) in the distance I sit up and slowly fall back in the group before dropping off the back. Something poetic in that. Climbs are best ridden solo. Regardless of how many you start with, you inevitably crest them in mental solitary confinement.
An alert goes off on my Garmin Edge bike computer. Being a virginal multi day endurance ‘ahem’ Athlete, I’m haunted all weekend by the tenet of endurance… ‘If you are hungry or thirsty, it’s too late’ your fucked. That crazy mad energy bonk will be winging it’s to you on an express delivery. Tae avoid this my fueling strategy is tae gub and swill every half hour regardless of whether I’m thirsty or hungry. I’m neither at this point, but it served me well yesterday.
The hill looms in the distance. I munch a banana and a gel in preparation, washed down with the obligatory slug of the bidon. The climb is now upon me, it’s a steady to start but the gradient steadily rises into the teens. 13% gradient to be exact on what feels like a constant corkscrew to the left, riding up a clock face, turning back time. Resilience tactics flood my right brain.
From nowhere a limerick, come mantra flies intae ma mind.
‘Tic toc, don’t you stop, pedal, pedal, till yi reach the top’
‘Tic toc, don’t you stop, pedal, pedal, or yir baws will drop’ (just checking your paying attention)
Mantra helps me find a good rhythm and the good news? I still have a couple of gears in ma pocket as well. A ‘West Lothian Clarion’ rider slowly pulls up alongside. A club local to my home town of Falkirk (Fawkirk). With commonality we share small talk over the next Kilometer of the climb, He’s another one day classicer. I bizarrely feel sympathetic. The hill kicks again and he drop’s me. Do your own ride I remind maself. ‘Tic toc, don’t you stop, pedal, pedal, or yir baws will drop’
Gusts of wind are now building and whipping round the hill. I faintly hear music pulsing as it’s carried with each fresh slap of the wind. A boom box by any chance? Like a mouse in a controlled clinical experiment I have now come to recognize the music speaker as the halfway house for any climb. However, the speaker is unleashing a dose of Frankie Valley and the four seasons ‘The night’.
What an infectious Northern Soul belter. Love that song.
So he paints a pretty picture
And he tells you that he needs you
And he covers you with flowers
And he always keeps you dreaming
If he always keeps you dreaming
You won’t have a lonely hour
If a day could last forever
You might like your ivory tower
Frankie Valli & The Four seasons
With the redemptive powers of music, I know have canned Heat in ma cleats noo! Without realising I’m back in touch with Mr. Clarion.
We crest the hill and I see can see the Glenshee ski station. I look for my favourite snowboard run ‘The Glass Maol’ but the clouds have covered her. Shame.
First feed station of the day. I pull in and it’s like a day party with tunes banging. Albeit devoid of Vegas style bottle service and Bikini clad hotties. Just a mass public display of lycra. I think about sneaking into the café for a cheeky beer; but naw, save it for later.
I scan the crowd, trying to pick out any well kent faces for a chat, but drawing a blank. So I hit the feed station instead. Yesterday I was like a kid in a sweet shop, with a fiver burning a hole in his pocket. Today, I’m not in as much of a hurry. An Aussie bite, a banana to take away and some pretzels will suffice. Starting to hit a sugar high alarm with the excessive consumption over the last two days.
I wait for the rest of the boys. They arrive in dribs and drabs; Stu, then Sherpy, then Mark and then big Graeme. ‘Fuck sake big fella. Some ride. Dyi have a Ferrari pit crew putting your pedals on or something? But No sign of Tank!
The boys fuel up. Stu’s indulging in a major passive sniff as the waft of bacon roll floats from the café. He’s almost groping and French kissing the windae. The good wills out though and he manages to refrain (for the time being)
With lack of motion I’m cooling down muy rapido. Forecast was no wind and temperatures in the low 20s. Ma baws. Best assessment? Facing upwind, it’s a three clubber (excuse the golf analogy, I know it’s sacrilege in cycling circles, but it’s my default weather scale) and about 10oC. Everybody else is around me is in arm warmers, gilets, even (gulp) snoods. I’m instantly jealous! Never under estimate mother nature, especially in the Cairngorms. But I have. Nae arm warmers, waterproofs, nothing. What a dick.
Mark on the other hand is packed like a Columbian drugs mule. Producing items of clothing from each pocket like a kid’s party magician. He takes of his gilet and out comes Arm Warmers and gabba for the descent. Gilets is packed away. I look on with clothing envy coursing through me.
Looks like I may need tae take my thermal preparations to a bygone cycling era. Use the 1950’s Tour de France layering technique for the descent. A newspaper under the jersey! I head into the café and the best I can come up with is an A5 piste map. Fuckin lot of use that will do. Ma belly button will keep warm. Looks like more cold exposure therapy.
Shuffling tae the tunes tae keep warm, we finish our snacks and get ready for the descent. Still no sign of Tank though. We are not worried about him today though. He’ll be doing his own ride and paying heed tae the instruction on his stem cap.
‘Just keep fucking pedaling’!
The message on tanks stem cap
He’ll be making new friends along the way as he does. The boy would get a jam piece at anybody’s door. The Raconteur-ing Rouleur
Next order of the day, getting the flock out of out of here. On paper the descent from Glenshee towards Braemar should be good, but it doesn’t live up to hype. We are riding head on intae a three club wind that is slowing progress and more importantly, the fun considerably.
From the bottom of the descent the road is flat and winding following the Clunie water to Braemar. Mark, Stu and Graeme are big power units, built for terrain like this. Proper Rouleurs. Sherpy and I on the other hand…. Less so! We roll through the next few miles, heeds down (literally, not metaphorically) and rotating pulls on the front. Mark and Stu doing the lion share of the pulls. Braemar comes and goes and we are now tracking the River Dee towards Balmoral. I’m sat in behind Mark, I look back and Sherpy and Big Graeme have fallen back, but they are in with with another pack, so we continue.
Another few miles pass quickly, courtesy of Mark and Stu powering through the wind. Then we hear the low thrum and cackle of multiple cyclists from behind. It’s a hungry pack of club riders approaching us. We three look at each other.
‘hop on this?’ Mark fires to us.
‘Don’t see why not’ is the response fae Stu.
Unlike the run in to Glenshee, we all manage to pick up the back of this group as their pace is speedy yet sustainable. Immediately our laboring pace after miles in self imposed isolation accelerates, yet our efforts have decreased. The dichotomy of group riding. Go faster with less effort. The joys of slipstreams.
The cycling club is a tight unit controlling upfront, so we surf the back of this group allowing them to rotate their ‘Through and Offs’ without disruption. Or at least that’s what we thought we were doing until Mr Alpha of the group is, well, how could I put it politely…’no a happy cunt’ wi the gatecrashers at the back. They have a blonde chick in their group, maybe 10-20 years his junior. Although hard tae tell fae the back. (I once had a pal wolf whistle at a pony tailed, short wearing beauty at the Scottish Open at Carnoustie a number of years back, only for her to turn revealing that the She was a HE. Miguel Angel Jimenez to be exact. He almost coughed out the rest of his can of Tenants Lager with the grand reveal)
Anyway Mr Alpha is playing the cock of the north (at least he got the first bit right) to the blonde. Still remonstrating and throwing flailing arms in our general direction. It looks like he is insinuating that the back of the group is not pulling its weight. In fairness he is right. But in defence I’ve been in the position before with a club group, where they didn’t want amateur interlopers disrupting their pace and synchronicity (that’s our excuse and we are sticking to, nothing tae dae with enjoying a wee bit respite and free miles!!)
Fair do’s, he’s every right to be annoyed but there’s right and wrong ways of handling it and now I’m taking umbrage that he is peacocking all this, only tae the blonde and not to us or the rest of his team. Makes me think
On the turn of a peddle our position in this group is now very tenuous and immediately uncomfortable, unless we pitch in that is. Mark and Stu were doing massive pulls at the front for about ten miles before we joined this group, so by order of succession, it’s basically my turn. In a weird way I’m kinda sadistically happy about that. Let’s see what this fud’s got?
I move up to the back of their lines. The fud is at the back of the slow outside line ready to filter into the fast line when I nick his place. He angles his Goldfish ’About time gawp’ in my direction for a few seconds longer than is polite, earning him in ma books, unprecedented entry into the ‘Grand Hall of Fuddery’ in record breaking time. My legs now fuelled with the latest Performance Enhancing Drug in defiance of his gawping face. A face I’m sure even his ain mither widnae tire of slapping …and slapping.
Lance and his cronies called their PED of choice Edgar Allen Poe (EPO). So in copy cat style I will call mine ArFA. Or as it’s known tae the Scottish Anti-Doping association (no such thing) as A.F.A short for ‘Anti Fud A’drenaline’ ( The ‘ between the A and D tae give it a French sounding air of authenticity)
Two riders to the front of me now. The Fud has filtered in behind me and I’m ready to roll the dice. I get to the front and ease into my pull. I turn bat like using my ears as my eyes. I’m hearing his hubs intermittently whirring. He is comfortable, only needing tae peddle in spurts tae stay in my slipstream. I glance down and my Garmin reads 23mph.
Feeling good I nudge it up another gear, easing up to 25mph now. No whirring from his hubs, just pedalling. Good. He’s stretched now tae hold my wheel. My plan is to hold here for a decent pull then move out and back. Message sent, Job done. But something very strange happens as we tear through the sweeping tree lined road towards Balmoral.
The sun streaming through the trees is creating a metronomic flashing strobe like effect through the branches, inducing me into some sort of trance. I have little recollection of the next few miles or minutes. My whole existence appears to have transcended into some sort of performance black hole. I feel like a band blissed out, playing its most obscure, yet favourite song. Pedals tapping out the kick drum, my hubs in harmony with the road, scoring a sweeping orchestral arrangement. The rhythm of the flashing sunlight through the trees echoing a syncopated 1/16th note rhythm to which my brain has become entrained and enslaved. There’s no other sound, or awareness or thought. The band is tight and the music amazing. This must be the zone, state of flow, whatever you want tae call it.
I’m lost in it, that is until my legs start softly speaking to me in some sort of self-preservation subconscious whisper. They are aching. I look down and my Garmin reads 27mph. There is only an eerie silence behind me on the road. I keek round and it is empty, nothing but a tree lined road.
‘ya fucking dick’ I think to myself. Wanted to make a point tae the fud but not tae burst the group. Not the game plan. Still what the fud doesn’t know hopefully has put a little bit of hurt in him. I soft pedal and then look back again and here they come hurtling round the tree lined bend. The Fud leading the chase. I then get the inspiration tae turn this intae a Hollywood worthy bluff. Fight Fuddery with Grander Fuddery after all!
I now ride on hard, as though the group are still in my wheel; I flick the elbow, signalling its someone else’s turn tae hit the front. I count ten pedal strokes then aggressively flick it again, feinting further encouragement for the fud to overtake (although you and I know he is 200 yards behind now, but gaining). I then snap a quick look back that suggests ‘why is no-one coming forward’. Then throw a huffy ‘pissed aff cyclist’ arm in the air, as though only realising for the ‘for the first time’ (wink wink) that no-one is there.
I sit up, soft pedal and the group closes in. I speed up again as they approach. I throw out the final act in this bluffing scene
“ahh sorry guys I thought you were on ma wheel” holding the fuds desperate stare for a few second longer than is polite. A dish best served cold in awe that.
I settle in behind Mark and Stu at the back of the group. We sit up and let the club go. A chuckle is shared between us and not a further fuck is given about THE FUD.
We take a sharp left just before Balmoral onto the road to Corgaf. The big challenges of the day loom ahead. The Lecht and Cairngorm.
Part 4 PUBLISHED NEXT WEEK
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