Finally the weekend of the Etape was upon us. After many preparatory pedals, more for some than others, it was time to head north to our team HQ, the Broxburn roundabout Travelodge in Perth. Well done to Stevie P in getting us such a good deal on the accommodation. With some of the lads having already travelled up on the Friday, Chris and I set sail on the good ship Hunter on Saturday morning (we were still friends at this point) 🙂
Bikes duly safely tucked up in our room, which Chris and I were informed we would be sharing with Si by the Management, (Stu Brailsford) we all set off for Pitlochry to register for the event and pick up our race packs. It was great to see all the lads who had signed up for the event there, notably Stevie P after his recent car accident and a few others who would be first to admit that they could have benefitted from a little more preparation.
There was a fantastic atmosphere of anticipation and excitement in Pitlochry around the registration area. We collected our packs, I was given my yellow Marie Curie cycling jersey for raising over £350 for their charity and Si arrived. We had a wander around the stands and shops, had a nice lamb burger for lunch and then headed for Aberfeldy, where they were hosting a bike week. There wasn’t a great deal of interest going on but the ice cream stall and roll and haggis van did a brisk trade from the hungry Warriors not satiated by the lamb burgers.
We headed back to Perth for a quick couple of pints and watched the first half of the Cup Final before heading to the Italian Corner restaurant for a nice pre-event meal. It seemed very strange to hear the majority of the lads ordering soft drinks with their meals and even stranger to watch everyone heading to their hotel rooms just after 9pm. With my race numbers attached to my Warriors kit and cycling helmet it was off to bed for, hopefully, a decent kip before a 4.30am alarm.
It was a very early rise on the morning of the event and with a 5.20am departure from the hotel we made it to Pitlochry for about 6.05, about an hour before our start time. It was a quite chilly 6 degrees and second guessing the behaviour of the weather for the day and consequently what to wear became the immediate concern. Thankfully it was dry and wasn’t too windy but I stuck the rain jacket in my back pocket just in case.
Si, Chris and I made our way towards the start line on the main street and found ourselves quite a distance from where we should have been. There were literally thousands of cyclists waiting to get started and we had to pick our way through them to try to make our start wave which was T.
We managed to make it but we were towards the end, with our fellow Warriors quite a bit in front of us, although we didn’t know that for a fact. Off we went and after the first few miles the pace really started to heat up. The sprint section was around the 14 mile mark but none of us contested it, preferring to conserve energy for the uncharted end territory of the last 14 miles or so. If memory serves me, which is questionable given me telling everyone the same jokes repeatedly, the first hour was about 18mph average, so just after the hour mark we arrived at the first feed station. Having only seen a couple of the lads I was expecting a regrouping situation, but after falling over due to the schoolboy error of unclipping my left foot and falling to my right I only momentarily saw Stu, Davy, Stevie and Si. We were later to discover that some had decided on a hitherto undiscussed and unheard of “no stop” strategy.
We set off again and Davy, Stevie , Si and myself found a nice set of wheels to follow, rattling along the side of Loch Rannoch as the miles flew past. Just over an hour later we found ourselves at the feedstation at the bottom of the inevitable and looming Shiehallion. Having stopped momentarily before it for a slash, we had a quick look for any of the lads and then headed into the King of The Mountains section. We fractured at that point with Si heading skyward in front of myself and Davie and Stevie in behind. The climb was fairly tough but not as hard as I had expected but from then on I was on my tod with 35 or so miles to go. I was looking forward to the descent off the back of the hill but unfortunately the rain came on at that point, which made it a little more uncomfortable and potentially a little more dangerous. I was glad I’d taken my rain jacket and put it on before continuing. It also got a bit windy at this point and from around 45 to roughly 60 odd miles things were pretty miserable. Around the 68 mile mark I found a group of 4 guys who were going fairly well and I tucked in on their wheels and was grateful to take advantage of a bit of drafting. After about 15 mins or so I spotted a Warriors kit ahead. It was Stevie P. I shouted on him to tuck in as we approached and Stevie joined the train. Unlike Mr Branson’s Virgin these guys weren’t quite as welcoming of new passengers and they made a few unsuccessful attempts at shaking us off as Stevie and I hung in there. Stevie and Stu had recced some of the route on the Saturday afternoon and he gave me the heads up about the short sharp climb around the 78 mile mark. There was a great crowd of spectators at this point, possibly due to the fact that there was a pub on the corner and their encouragement was most welcome and helped to keep the wearying legs spinning. I had a few cramping threats in the last couple of miles, which had a few naughty wee climbs but thankfully it didn’t fully kick in. As we entered Pitlochry again the crowds were fantastic and I found it amazing the strength they gave me to push on. It was a great feeling when Stevie and I crossed the line having completed the route. We collected our medals and returned our timing chips before meeting up again with some of the lads. This was a brilliantly organised event, on very good roads, which was wonderfully supported by the locals and was an amazing spectacle to be a part of. Well done to all the lads who produced some fantastic individual performances on the day. Of the 5000 participants we all finished in the top 50% and it was great to complete the 81 mile course, which was 14 miles further than I had personally completed before.
We had a great night afterwards as we stuffed our faces in an Indian buffet, in an effort to replenish the 5000 calories burned, before hitting the pub. Surprisingly we made it until closing time, thanks Monster, and they actually almost threw us out. Overall this was a great weekend with the lads and I’m already looking forward to returning next year to repeat the adventure. Thanks to everyone who contributed to my sponsorship for what is unfortunately a service which too many people have to use. In memory of my late father, Tommy Gilligan, who died of cancer in October 2011.