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Gold stars all round as Etape Loch Ness returns


By John Davidson

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Riders make their way towards Whitebridge from the Suidhe viewpoint as mist hangs in the air. Picture: Airborne Lens
Riders make their way towards Whitebridge from the Suidhe viewpoint as mist hangs in the air. Picture: Airborne Lens

The Olympic dream appears to be well and truly alive still in our house.

When telling my three-year-old as I tucked him in bed on Saturday night that daddy was doing the bike race early in the morning, so I wouldn’t see him until he came to meet me at the finish, his first reaction was to ask if he could do it on his bike.

“When you’re older,” I explained. “But I’ll let you share my medal.”

He gave me a thoughtful look. “Are you going to win it?”

Going for gold was never going to be my objective, but it’s nice that somebody believes those dreams might still happen!

In reality, the Etape Loch Ness – which is technically a sportive rather than a race – was going to be about getting around safely and seeing how my time compared with previous years.

Since the event began in 2014, I’ve taken part in all but one of them, and I was first attracted by the fact the roads around this stunning course would be closed to traffic, giving people the opportunity to appreciate the north side of the loch, in particular, along the A82, which is usually all but out of bounds to most of us leisure cyclists.

John Davidson heading towards the finish line in the 2021 Etape Loch Ness. Picture: James Mackenzie
John Davidson heading towards the finish line in the 2021 Etape Loch Ness. Picture: James Mackenzie

It’s still something to behold, when once a year the traffic cones go up and the road is available to make this superb circuit possible.

We’ve had a while to wait since the previous Etape in April 2019, but all being well we’ll be back out here in just eight months’ time – or 244 days as I write this, according to the official countdown on the website – as the 2022 edition returns to its usual springtime date on the calendar.

This summer incarnation may have finished in glorious sunshine, but it was a different story as we made our way to the start at 5.30 in the morning on Sunday. The mist was down and before sunrise there was little sign of it dispersing.

We rode the first few miles through the dampness until the cloud cleared, though with the road surface wet we had to take extra care on the downhills.

I’d borrowed a bike off a friend after discovering the weekend before that my usual steed – a heavy, steel-framed touring bike with full pannier set-up – was in need of some serious TLC. So here I was, on a carbon fibre road bike with narrow tires, enjoying the freedom of the closed A82 as we passed Lochend and caught our first sight of Loch Ness on a beautifully calm morning.

On the final part of the climb stage.
On the final part of the climb stage.

Chatting to a guy from Edinburgh further down the road, we remarked how the stretch of road from Inverness to Fort Augustus is a rare thing, where you can average 20mph over 30 miles of tarmac as it undulates alongside the water. What a pity we can’t have a safe route for cycling down the length of Loch Ness for every other day of the year.

With the lighter bike, I was feeling pretty good as we reached the halfway point in a personal best time, with the start of the King of the Mountain stage just ahead. The climb from Fort Augustus to the Suidhe viewpoint is timed for the Etape, and I figured I could get up there much quicker than previous efforts on this beast.

Knowing the climb well certainly helps, and even though I’d started in a faster block this year, I was still able to overtake plenty of riders on my way up here. I think knowing where the steepest bits of the climb are really is an advantage, and perhaps not being able to see too far ahead as we made our way back into the mist helped too!

Being involved in an event of this size again was a fantastic feeling after an absence of what seems even longer than it really is. There was a real buzz from arriving at the start line to hearing the skirl of the bagpipes at the top of the climb, as well as just chatting to fellow riders and sharing in their enthusiasm.

John Davidson on the Etape podium!
John Davidson on the Etape podium!

People had come from far and wide to take part in this now familiar event on the streets of Inverness and around Loch Ness. The support in each of the villages around the loch as well as from all the 450-plus volunteers and marshals was incredible.

It’s such a pleasure and a privilege to live just a short hop and a skip from the route of the Etape Loch Ness, and to be able to take part in such a world-class event right on my doorstep.

And with that lighter bike, I managed to knock nearly 25 minutes off my PB, as well as knocking out the climb in under half an hour.

It might not have been a winning time, but I hope the boy is happy enough with his dad’s efforts. Maybe one day he’ll be trying to win it himself.

The 2021 Etape Loch Ness medal.
The 2021 Etape Loch Ness medal.

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