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Tue 15th Oct 2019
Riding the Highlands with Boardman
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Wednesday 11th May 2016

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Tri247 rides the tenth anniversary Etape Caledonia

The Marie Curie Etape Caledonia Sportive ( celebrated its 10th anniversary this past weekend. From the organisers of the London and Blenheim Palace Triathlon events, we were offered the chance to experience this closed-road sportive alongside legendary British cyclist, Chris Boardman. With the weather forecast looking remarkably positive, we had to accept the challenge based around Pitlochry, Perthshire.

To report back, we sent Matthew Magee to take on the 81-mile route, meet the man Mr Boardman himself... and find out that this was a rare outing on a road bike for him.

The Etape Caledonia wakes you up with a robust slap rather than a gentle shake: half six in the morning is not meant to feel like this. The last time I rode it a portly participant was bent double at the top of the early Queen's View climb, splattering the verge as I passed.

Everyone kept their breakfast down this time but that climb is still a pretty rude wake-up just three miles into the ride.

This ten year anniversary run of what organisers say was the UK's first closed-road sportive was led out by amiable veteran Chris Boardman. Early versions were marred by the sprinkling of tacks by locals angry at the inconvenience of the closed roads but Pitlochry now fully embraces its transformation into Bike Town for a weekend every May, and the atmosphere before and after the event is half the appeal for many riders.

Etape Caledonia

So it was amongst cheers, klaxons and shouts from road-lining locals that we headed out towards Queen's View. As an introduction to the route the sharp, hilly start is misleading. The Etape Caledonia is in fact a very flat, very fast ride. There is only one real climb and it rises just 600 feet. Though you climb 4,000ft in the 81 miles this is mostly in short ups and downs that you can roll fairly easily over.

The heart of the ride, the part that you will remember long after you regain feeling in your shaky legs, is the 40 mile stretch following the Queen's View descent. You tumble and twist along the shores of Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch on a single track road whose corners you can take as recklessly as you like, given the closed roads.

Etape Caledonia

If you can get yourself into a medium sized group that is really motoring then there are few stretches of road as exhilarating and attractive. The scenery is stunning but you only notice that once you've been dropped. While in a train you have to keep your focus completely on the wheel in front and the bends beyond otherwise you could easily end up spreadeagled on the verge, front wheel at an awkward angle, as I did after a short lapse in concentration on my first ride of the Etape.

When you rise a couple of hundred feet above the lochs you find yourself looking down on the gathering mists of the early morning, the sun weakly breaking through the clouds, winter snow still capping the peaks in the distance. You roll through forests and farmland, by hamlets with cheering doorstep locals and past scrubby, rocky beaches. In the few snatched glimpses it is breathtaking, especially for those not used to Highland scenery. It would almost make you want to slow down and drink it in. Almost.

Etape Caledonia

The downside of taking this stretch at pace is that by the time the ride's main climb comes at 45 miles your legs are beginning to complain. There have been no descents to rest your legs on and the climb up Schiehallion has sharp little digs of up to 26%, so you need to take it slow and easy, remembering that there is still almost half the ride to go.

The remaining run-in has nothing on the route's first half. There is a detour along the floor of a desolate valley that has always given me the creeps, and a thirteen mile slog down a main road before you turn sharp left up a punishing and unexpected short climb before rolling on a single track road along the border of a forest, back into Pitlochry. This is a lovely stretch but it is undulating and by now only the hardiest legs feel up to the dips and digs.

The Etape Caledonia is one of Scotland's easier sportives, which is perhaps why thousands of riders do it each year. It is a great route for a first sportive and a good chance for stronger riders to push themselves for a high average speed. It won't be the most challenging route you'll ride this year but, for its first half at least, it might be one of the most fun.

Etape Caledonia

For more information on the event, visit


Chris Boardman is becoming something of an informal patron of the Etape Caledonia, leading out the riders and promoting the event. cornered the former Olympic champion, world record holder and yellow jersey-wearer to ask: what kind of riding does an ex-pro do once the racing days are over?

Surprisingly, he revealed that he doesn't even like road riding any more and, despite founding a highly successful bike company that traded on his road pedigree, he doesn't even own a road bike.

"I don’t keep a road bike at home any more," Boardman revealed. "I only use a road bike when I'm going out with people, for events like this. A couple of weeks ago I went out on the road bike and after an hour and a half I thought 'I don't really like this, I'm not doing it again'."

After years of elite performance, and training on the same roads around his home for 40 years, Boardman has embraced trail riding on a cyclocross bike.

"On the whole I use a cyclocross bike. I take in tracks and paths just to refresh things. I just enjoy being out on the bike now, I listen to an audio book, I go out three or four times a week for two hours, no more than two hours," he said. "I like the constant change and difference. Riding on the road when I'm on my own I'm watching the clock. I just find it monotonous, it's not for me really."

Boardman has bought a house just a few miles north of last weekend's Etape Caledonia route, and one of the big attractions of the area is the right to roam on land that walkers and riders enjoy in Scotland.

"In Scotland you can just look at an OS map and if you can see a track you can go there," he said. "The right to roam is, understandably, taken for granted. Last weekend we were in Yorkshire and if you see a track you can't touch it, it belongs to somebody, it's behind a fence and it's private. There's a whole culture in Scotland you don't even think about 'oh, here's a 60 mile track to Aviemore' you can go and do it."

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