Sunday’s 150km Cycletta Scotland event did not start well for me. Thankfully it finished with a big grin.
After only five hours of sleep in Fern the Campervan, parked in a layby a mile or so from Scone Palace and the start of Cycletta Scotland 2015, I awoke with a start. The rain was hammering the outside of Fern and I realised with a lack of humour that I would be setting out to ride 150km on roads around Perthshire and Angus with too little sleep and in the pouring rain.
To make matters worse, when I went in search of the gas canister to light my camping stove for a much-needed jug of coffee, I realised that someone (my darling partner, I believe) had removed the canister on a previous occasion and not returned it.
I faffed around dismally for another 30 minutes, located a warm can of Coke, ate yoghurt and granola and tried to work out what kind of kit I would need to cycle for at least six hours in the wet and cold of a Scottish summer’s day.
Yet things quickly improved. Arriving at the starting area of the annual women-only event, which includes a 20k, 50k and 100k route, as well as the new 150km course, the atmosphere seemed resolutely up-beat. Mostly, the women were doing a great job of putting on a brave face and muttering good-humouredly about it being a typical summer’s day.
The organisers were also very cheerful and a kind woman on a food stall charged me half price for a quick cup of caffeine-injected coffee.
8.30am, wet, cold and 150km ahead
As the 25 or so 150km entrants lined up for the off in the midst of beautiful Scone Palace grounds, we grinned wryly to each other and compared layers of clothing and waterproof accessories. At later intervals, some 450 other women would start the 100km course, then the 50km and the 20km.
It became quickly apparent that the 25 riders would split into:
- The fasties
- The pacers
- The steadies.
I was interested to see that this split is the same among women-only events as it is amongst the mixed gender events.
To be honest, anyone who planned to ride for the day in these conditions was a heroine. (I can be sure there were many women who had entered but decided to stay in their cosy beds when they saw the weather.)
Thankful that a friend Emma had joined the 150km course, we set off together and caught up on our gossip. We seemed to be fairly evenly paced and the chat kept us at the perfect pace. If you can chat while cycling at the start of a long ride you will be fairly sure you are riding at the right pace.
Sadly, just 25km or so into the day, Emma suddenly punctured and after a bit of a discussion she insisted that I ride on. “There is no point in us both becoming cold and even wetter while I fix the puncture,” she told me. I swithered a little longer but took her at her word and cycled off for what turned out to be a generally lonely total bike ride.
The ups and downs of riding a cycle sportive
If you are lucky, you’ll find cyclists in a sportive that ride at a similar pace to you or just a little faster so you can tag on behind them and draft. If you are unlucky you will ride most of the course on your own.
I caught up with a small group of riders on a hill some 10km after Emma’s puncture. One rider, Jill, was cycling at a similar pace and I enjoyed our chat. It turned out she is also a journalist and that we had worked in similar places and knew some of the same people.
I enjoyed her company and her tales of work, life and, latterly, becoming an addicted cyclist.
At a long hill I rode on. I am light and have some easy gears so the hills do not seem to take as much out of me as other people. Most riders are better than me on the flat sections but when steady hill climbs come along I find I head off to the front. (I am not being boastful, just factual.)
After one long hill I turned back and couldn’t see any other riders so I pushed on. I found I was enjoying the challenge of riding through difficult conditions and seeing just what my body could cope with over 150km/90 miles.
Of course, I could easily have gone out on any day to ride the route of the Cycletta but a sportive has many advantages over a solo ride, including:
- Brilliant planning to follow a route on 90 per cent quiet roads.
- Numerous route waymarkers so you do not need to think about navigating or stop to worry about finding the route.
- Food stations packed with delicious homemade cakes, jelly sweets, energy gels and fresh water.
- Bike mechanics, especially the kilted bike mechanic at feed station two who noticed my tyres were quite flat. He pumped them up properly and told me I would ride like a rocket afterwards. I felt like I did!
- Helpful and cheerful marshalls.
- Emergency back up.
- The challenge of staying ahead of some riders and trying to overtake others.
The Cycletta Scotland 150km route
I have cycled in Perthshire and Angus many times before but always on different routes. The 150km Cycletta Scotland route was fantastic. We rarely cycled busy roads and there were plenty of challenges, including long hills and short, sharp climbs, as well as great descents and fabulous scenery.
For an hour or more of the ride the sun actually came out and the views over the green and rolling countryside offered a fantastic diversion when my legs became tired.
The 150km route also joined up with the 100km, 50km and 20km at a later stage, which meant there were a lot more opportunities to catch up with other women and enjoy a bit of banter during the final two hours of my ride.
Food stations two to three
Somewhere between food stations two and three I ended up riding almost completely on my own. I decided to simply focus on the riding and to break the event into feed station stages.
At FS2 at 75kms I quickly ate more cake, had another toilet break and let the brilliant kilted bike mechanic speed me on my way with more inflated tyres. From here I chased down FS3 at 110kms. Having properly pumped up tyres made a huge difference to my speed on the tarmac.
Lots of shorter hills, quick descents, sharp turns on wet and gritty roads and yet more climbs made this section more of a challenge on tiring legs.
But the temperature warmed a bit as the rain subsided (for a while) and I enjoyed riding a route I had not travelled before and without many other thoughts than, “Keep on spinning the pedals.”
Knowing that I had ridden more than half of the course gave me a big morale boost and I knew that I didn’t need to doubt my ability to make it to the end. I have not cycled many long distance routes for a couple of years so I wasn’t sure how I would fare.
There are a few things that kept me going:
- Knowing that food station three (FS3) was halfway between the finish line and me.
- My much more comfy female-fit Giant Avail Advanced Pro bike.
- A caffeine infused gel picked up at FS2.
- Great scenery.
- Chatting briefly with women as I rode alongside and past them.
- The push to try to keep up with a young woman doing the 100km route who was a very good hill climber.
- A sudden desire to complete the route in less than six hours (I have no idea why I didn’t think about this earlier!).
The final ride to the finish line
There was something about counting down the last 50km that I really loved. I tried to stop myself from looking at my Garmin in case the kms went by too slowly.
There was also a very testing hill to climb and this seemed really cruel after so many hours on the bike.
But for some reason I felt fine. My legs were tired but not badly so. My shoulders hurt a bit after so many hours on the bike and my butt was beginning to ache, yet I could still power through the miles.
A lovely long stretch of descent really helped and then there were all the other women doing the shorter routes who added camaraderie to what had essentially been a lonely ride. (I think that the weather put off some women who had planned to do the 150km route and I imagine that next year there will be a far bigger 150km field.)
The final stretch saw the rain coming on again but I was too close to home to care. With thoughts of a large cup of tea and a shoulder massage I raced onwards and even managed a sprint to the finish line.
Summing up Cycletta Scotland
In conclusion, the ride had been amazing. Despite less than clement weather I had thoroughly enjoyed the route, the challenge, the hills and descents, meeting new people, the atmosphere and the chance to do something new and different.
Just because it was a women-only event did not make the route any easier. I would say it was more challenging as the Etape Caledonia although without the Schiehallion climb. The route is longer and has more ascent (when I recorded both).
The atmosphere was more up-beat and “let’s get on with it” than other sportive in the rain that I have cycled.
Emma told me afterwards: “Everyone who I passed, cycled with, marshals, mechanics, the lot were all super friendly and upbeat. The food stations also had a real sense of camaraderie. This was nice and in contrast to some other events that are more of a grab and go affair.
“The route was great, on mostly quiet roads, and the signposting was excellent. The only negative was the lack of women riding the longer route but I imagine this will grow next year as more women take up cycling and ride longer routes.”
…And I was pleased with my time
When I look at the results I see I have been put in the 35 to 39 age group. As flattering as that might be I should confess to being 47.
Ten women in the 150km group did not start. Only one did not finish. Several chose to complete the shorter route of 100km on the day. I was sixth in a chip time of 5hrs 50mins. I was off my bike for at least 15 minutes, which means I averaged more than 15 mph over 90 miles with 1500m of ascent. I am pleased with this given the weather and road conditions.
I would highly recommend the Cycletta Scotland event. Check it out for 2016.