I’ve done a few stupid things over the years. Thinking I was ready to try a Scottish Hill Running Championship race on a snowy Clachnaben a few years ago was memorably painful. But when I saw the announced route for Ride The North 2015 was going to finish in Stonehaven, the town I’d recently moved back to, I made possibly my most stupid decision for a long time.
Thankfully I managed to rope in an equally stupid friend and we were able to cajole each other through our (sporadic) training until we dropped our bikes off at Pittodrie (where they were being transferred from) on a cool Thursday before taking our seats on the bus to Inverness for the event start. What followed was one of the hardest but most rewarding two days I’ve had for years.
The event, in it’s fifth year, wound it’s way from Inverness to Elgin on day 1 (via the very scenic route) before leaving Elgin on day 2 and taking a more direct route towards the finish line at Stonehaven. A total distance of some 175 miles. Our last big training ride was just 65 miles, mostly in the pissing rain. For the two weeks after that ride I was gripped by fear that the whole event would be a soggy hell, which eight hundred miserable cyclists would endure solely because they’d forked out over £100 for the privilege and they didn’t want to see it go to waste.
Despite some grey clouds lingering with intent on the first day, there was little sign of rain for the duration and in fact the worst thing we had to deal with was a bit of blustery wind on some of the more exposed sections of the route. Hardly worth complaining about really. With the weather doing it’s bit it was up to those of us clipped into the pedals to get on with things, so we set off from Inverness raring to go only to immediately get off our bikes 100 yards from the start to walk over a pedestrian bridge. But then we were off! At least until we hit some temporary traffic lights on the road out to Dores. And then another set of lights. And another.
Such is life. Eventually we left the main road and it’s roadworks and hit the first climb of the day. The large group of cyclists which had formed at the succession of traffic lights soon spread out as we climbed high above Loch Ness and spent the morning pedalling towards Slochd. Climbing was a constant feature of the first morning and although it was slow and painful going we were rewarded with some absolutely stunning views from the mostly unclassified roads and tracks which we were following.
After lunch we had a steady climb from Carrbridge before an afternoon of ecstatic downhill as we hurtled towards Forres and Elgin. By the time we were picking our way through the streets of Forres I was starting to feel very uncomfortable on the bike, having surpassed my one day mileage record set in the rain a few weeks earlier. My hands were throwing flashes of pins and needles up my arms and every time I went over a bump my feet exploded in pain where the cleats were pushing against the balls of my feet. The relief a short while later when we swung into the Glen Moray distillery in Elgin was immense. Shortly followed by worry as the pain in my feet grew worse, then despair as we found there was no whisky left! Thankfully both problems eased after ten minutes.
A bus ride to Lossiemouth and a night’s fitful rest saw everyone gather the next morning back at the distillery to breathe in the wonderful fumes and hope it might have a medicinal effect on our weary bums and my aching feet. Sadly it seems fermenting yeast fumes aren’t analgesic. The first twenty miles were uncomfortable for many. I found it impossible to get a relaxed position on the bike and spent most of the first hour dancing around my seat instead of sitting on it, while my hands and feet continued their protests from the night before.
Pulling into the first break stop of the day I decided to do something about my situation rather than complain all day, so paid my first visit to the mechanic station. A five minute check of my bike followed by a relaxed seat on the grass while I moved the cleats in my shoes saw me pull smoothly away from the feed station with pain free feet, newly inflated tired and silent gears. Brilliant. I was ready to face the climbs over the Cabrach.
Day two had promised more miles, more hills and more pain than day one. It duly delivered. At times the hills seemed relentlesss and unforgiving. Every time I thought I’d escaped their clutches we turned a corner to find yet another incline facing us with the sounds of chains clunking down the gears and swearing riders following quickly on. Despite this everyone was proceeding in relatively high spirits. Tired, uncomfortable but enjoying the challenge.
Unlike the first day we knew that the afternoon wasn’t going to reward us with an easy freewheel through Deeside and instead, as we continued to hit hill after hill (including a truly despicable 17% incline immediately after the best bit of downhill all day), we took heart from each little sign of our progress. I cheered the big blue Welcome to Aberdeenshire sign, screamed as I spotted Durris mast in the distance and grinned like a mad fool before setting a new personal best for a Strava segment after cresting Cheyne Hill and seeing Stonehaven laid before me.
Before that I almost crumbled, broken at the final (advertised) feed station in Torphins when the two days of riding finally caught up with me and I hit the wall hard. Feeling light headed, as a brass band played 500 Miles (hah!), I was forced to sit down and gulp energy gels and water until I felt I could carry on. Later my friends told me I was speaking gibberish as I told them I wanted to press on while I still felt able and would see them at the finish.
Shortly after that I felt a lot better as the sugar from the gel and the energy drink I was downing on the bike started to take effect. A final surprise cake stop at the top of the hill over Knockburn Loch gave me enough energy for the final blast over Durris before we were greeted by what seemed like thousands of people lining the beach promenade at Stonehaven to welcome the cyclists home.
I quickly found my wife, baby and my mum who’d came down to support me before joining my small group of friends who I’d spent the two days cycling with as we supported each other, spurred each other up the hills and gleefully raced down the other sides. It was painful, mad at times, seemingly impossible some other times and it was now over. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself and the rest of us for finishing. It was brilliant.
All through the two days we were spurred on by people at the side of the street, outside their houses, in their cars and most of all at the feed stations and lunch stops along the route. Huge thanks to those who organised and helped with what is without a doubt one of the best organised mass events I’ve ever taken part in. Without those people I doubt half of us would have had the will to keep going to the finish.
Also special mention to all the other riders. The sense of camaraderie and shared achievement was palpable throughout the ride, with everyone sharing encouragement and being respectful to the rest of the riders. Was great to see all the red Stonehaven CC jerseys too. Will need to try and get a hold of one of them!
Some people are already talking about next year. I don’t think I can see myself at the start again so soon. For me 2016 will probably be a return to running and the goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon but Ride The North has definitely given me the cycling bug. I’ll be looking for some good one day sportives or similar to try dragging my trusty steed around. Though I can’t imagine anything will come close to the feeling I got at the finish line in Stonehaven last weekend.
At the time of writing I’ve raised £355 for Home Start UK for doing Ride The North, which is superb. My sincere thanks to everyone who’s sponsored me!