Written by Ged Holmyard, Copywriter for the Edinburgh Bicycle Cooperative
“When a couple of old friends Andrew and Peter suggested that myself and pal Gerry might want to join them on 3 Pistes – a ride that is billed, ‘the UK’s highest sportive’ – we thought, why not?
Could we really manage 165 kilometres with 2,690 metres of climbing, taking in Scotland’s three highest ski roads – Glen Shee, The Lecht and Cairngorm – in one day? Probably.
When we told people what we were planning, some offered helpful encouragement such as ‘that’s only like climbing up Ben Nevis from sea level – twice in one day’.
Alternatively – ‘3 Pistes? Presumably you were pist when you signed up for it.’
Anyway, we set off from the Pitlochry start just before 8:00 on the Sunday morning. By 8:30 the cool morning mist had lifted and the sun came out, making the Highland scenery even more gorgeous than usual. Comfortably warm, it was one of those rare occasions in Scotland when – much of the day – you didn’t feel the need to cover your torso with more than a short sleeve top – even on the long downhills.
There were plenty steep uphills to challenge us but there were also plenty of fast downhill and flat sections so the kilometres flew past till we got to the first real biggie around the 50km mark – Glenshee. Now that was tough, but we made it to the ski station at the top of the climb where we were rewarded with as many bananas and flapjacks as we could consume.
Next it was onwards and upwards past Braemar. At the 83km mark we passed an encouraging sign – ‘you’re half way’ there – and it was still only 12:30.
Covering so many kilometres before lunchtime helped relieve the main concern we had when we signed up to the 3 Pistes. That is, what to do if we failed to reach Cairngorm in time for the last 18:30 bus back to base at Pitlochry?
“3 Pistes? Presumably you were pist when you signed up for it.”
We weren’t too complacent however, having been warned by veterans of previous 3 Pistes that The Lecht was an even stiffer challenge than Glen Shee.
At the foot of The Lecht, I passed two elderly German cycle tourists who had stopped for a rest before the 2,090 feet ascent. Passing them on my lightweight Roubaix I pitied them taking on this challenge on their chunky trekking bikes, fully laden with Ortlieb panniers front and rear.
On the steepest section of the climb, gasping for breath and the Cat Eye only registering 6KPH, I was amazed to be overtaken by the two Germans, comfortably spinning the cranks with little effort. As they were passing, I heard a familiar light whirr. Clocking the cycle computers on their handlebars, I recognised the Bosch logo from a recent blog I had written – the one about Haibikes. ‘Ah, electric!’ I exclaimed as they sailed past me. ‘Es ist gut’, they replied.
Despite being shown up on the climb, we reached the summit on leg power alone satisfied in the knowledge we’d passed the 100km mark and the only real biggie left to worry about was the final climb up Cairngorm Mountain – or so we thought.
Nethy Bridge Nemesis
Leaving the rest stop at Nethy Bridge, just 20km before the finish, it started raining. Thinking it would pass in a few minutes, I rode on. The rain got heavier. Within a minute, my usually trusty Gore Windstopper was soaked through. This wasn’t just rain. It was a full-on cloudburst punctuated with huge hailstones.
The road had become a river. Spray from passing cars soaked us more. The rain blasted a day’s salty sweat from my brow into my eyes so I could hardly see. I began to regret not taking shelter at the bus stop I’d passed just 10 minutes earlier at Nethy Bridge.
“The road had become a river. Spray from passing cars soaked us more. The rain blasted a day’s salty sweat from my brow into my eyes so I could hardly see.”
There was a transit van parked ahead. It was the 3 Piste backup mechanic’s vehicle. He had stopped so riders could shelter in his van. There must have been a dozen cyclists huddled in the back of the trannie, their posh bikes abandoned on the verge of the road. Three more guys were sheltering outside the van under a huge Castelli umbrella. I joined them as did every other rider that followed. Despite the conditions, the soaked cyclists maintained a sense of humour (even if it was as black as the now stormy sky). I asked the mechanic if the ride might be neutralised but he didn’t know. He couldn’t get a signal to phone Ride HQ.
Soaked to the skin, most of us were shivering. What to do? Mercifully, the rain petered out as quickly as it had arrived. We all knew the best way to warm up was to get back on our bikes, which we did – all the way to the finish.
Just a couple of kilometres after our restart, the tarmac was completely dry. Obviously, the storm had been very localised. Someone wryly pointed out that we would have probably avoided the soaking if we had reached Nethy Bridge half an hour quicker. We restrained ourselves from punching him.
On approaching the end of the ride I was still chilled so I was actually looking forward to the finale – the climb up to Cairngorm Mountain ski centre – knowing it would help me warm up. I crossed the finish line at 5:30pm, which I was pretty happy with, given the challenging nature of the course and the unexpected ‘rain stops play’ delay.
I was amazed to see Gerry (who had fallen behind before the downpour) had reached the Cairngorm ski centre before me. His story was that he had been caught in the storm too, but before Nethy Bridge, not after. When his bunch reached that feed station, the marshalls stopped the ride, having made the judgement that the road was too dangerous.
“It is a tribute to the organisation of the ride that the marshalls spontaneously organised shelter for Gerry and co in the Nethy Bridge Hotel.”
It is a tribute to the organisation of the ride that the marshalls spontaneously organised shelter for Gerry and co in the Nethy Bridge Hotel where they were checked over by the first aid crew and given blankets. When the rain stopped, half the riders elected to get on their bikes. The other half, including Gerry, took the option of taking a lift to the finish.
Just before the bus left Cairngorm to take us back to Pitlochry, the ride’s super enthusiastic organiser Alan jumped on board and thanked us for taking part in the 3 Pistes. Given we had done so well this year, he suggested we might want to do the three-day 300 mile version of the ride next year.
You know what? We wouldn’t rule it out.
Kit that did me proud
Six years after buying it, I still love this bike. One, because it’s so comfortable. Two, because it helps me get up hills faster than I had previously thought possible.
7MESH MK1 Bib Short £119.99
Buy now >
I’ve owned many shorts over the years. They’ve all been fine but I’ve never worn a pair that I would describe as perfect until I tried out 7Mesh Mk 1 Bib Shorts.
You’ll have heard the expression, ‘second skin fit’. These 7Mesh shorts define it. Every millimetre of the short is exactly where it should be. The short’s genius ‘suspended’ stretch chamois is body hugging without ever feeling imposing, as can be the case with more palatially padded inserts. You’re barely aware you’re wearing these bibshorts – til you realise they still feel just right at the end of a nine-hour ride.
7Mesh Mk 1 Shorts are certainly not cheap (though you can spend twice as much on competing pro-quality bibs) so I wouldn’t wear them for everyday riding.
However, special rides deserve special shorts. Part of the pleasure of entering something stretching, such as the 3 Pistes, is that you know that it pays to dress in the best. By reserving my 7Mesh bibs for bigger events, I expect I’ll still be enjoying wearing them for many years to come, so I see them as more of an investment than an indulgence.
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I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to cycling tech. I believe a ride should be enjoyed in its own right. I like to think that you don’t have to monitor and review your performance on a computer or Strava to know if you’ve had a good bike ride.
However, given the stretching nature (for me) of the 3 Pistes I decide to fit a CatEye to the bike and I must say it really helped.
The route was mapped out by the 3 Pistes people in kilometres, so that’s how I setup the computer – even though I’m an old person who still mostly thinks in miles.
Switching to kilometres had a number of advantages.
- It’s good for morale to tick off every kilometre in almost half the time it takes to ride a mile.
- It was good for morale to perceive the ride as eight bite-sized 20km sections rather than a 160km marathon.
- Keeping an eye on the trip distance made it easier to mostly keep to my personal goal of covering 20 kilometres an hour.
- On the slowest climbs, it was good for morale to read 6 rather than 3 on the speedometer.
- On the fastest descents, it was a buzz to read 57.
- When you’re feeling frisky and the computer lets you know you’re riding at 28 KPH, it motivates you to take it up to 30.
- I think I’ll take a computer on every big ride from now on.