Stunningly clear blue skies were a blessing on the riders all day as we tackled the "Three Glens Explorer" from Linlithgow just outside Edinburgh. I caught an early train from Edinburgh to Linlithgow for £5, saving me a 30km ride to the start. Lazy I know! The hall in Linlithgow that had been chosen to host the event thronged with riders laughing and chatting ahead of the start. There was a large group of West Lothian Clarion cyclists, some of whom seemed to be on their fist audax event. At 160km I wasn't surprised to hear that a few of the participants were planning to ride quite fast and treat this as an extended club run.
Straight out into the crisp morning air and a large group formed; moving at a fast pace. The group was large enough to justify the name peloton and I was in high spirits so decided to try and stay with them. Of course we inevitably seemed to form a rolling road-block because of the size, but this early on a Sunday it was actually fairly quiet and soon we were in isolated country lanes.
Our route was heading north towards Queensferry and the Forth Road Bridge with the excellent views of the Forth Bridge, the iconic bridge used by railways. To our left, west of us the new Forth Road Crossing was being built but at the pace we flew it was difficult to see the work. The cyclepath we used (next to the A90) was a shared use facility meaning we had to take care for a lot of runners doing charity laps of the bridge.
Still in a large group we swept easily through Inverkeithing and out into the countryside once more. As the ground started to become slightly more undulating I eased off, not wanting to blow up or race the entire ride. We'd covered the first 25km at 30+kph but the rising gradient soon knocked that back and I watched my average pace start to tumble. Our joyful headlong push away from the start had eased off and riders were settling into a comfortable rhythm to complete the route. For me this meant watching younger, fitter, slimmer riders pass me on the climbs; and then nailing them to the tarmac as gravity took hold and pulled me back on the descents. I'm going to have to try and lose weight over winter, not least so these lycra tops fit a bit better.
The clear blue skies and bright sunshine kept me lovely and warm, even as September was dying in Scotland. After the climb of Crossgates we levelled out for a short while past Loch Leven, which was clearly not the same Leven of Yarm and Teesside. Castle Lochleven was out there somewhere but I missed it as I prepared to navigate Kinross and Milnathort. In Milnathort there was our first control; from the back of a car home-baked rocky-road and chocolate treats were available, as well as plenty of bottled water to top up the iso-tonic drinks. I had my card stamped and said thank you for the delicious piece of rocky-road. With a short sub-five minute stop I was out again for the climb from town along Tulloch Road which was steep for a couple of kilometers but then evened out again for another great view, this time of Glenfarg Reservoir. Some of the riders I was with knew that the steepest section was just ahead. A set of super steep switches in the road. A rider next to me shouted that this was utterly ridiculous and refused to ride any further, to the point of getting off. She was a much better cyclist than me though, and when she realised that there was nothing for it but to continue she got back on the bike and shot past up uphill. Sometimes other riders can make me feel so small.
By now I was feeling the effects of the fast start and wondered how long I could fight off the cramp. We dropped all the way downhill on a dangerous and gravel strewn road to Dunning. Having navigated the gravel and sharp corners without incident I nearly came to a sticky end as a yellow and black thing flew into my face, became stuck behind my glasses and caused me a lot of flailing around. My panic was unfounded though, it wasn't a wasp and I wasn't stung. I swapped to sunglasses immediately afterwards though.
In Dunning we turned south again, almost 180 degrees from our descent and started the longest and largest climb of the day, 6km and rising 270m, the slope wasn't difficult at first and I chose a cadance to stick with, but the climb went on and on, so I clicked down through the gears as my pace dropped, and then my cadance dropped. Finally I thought I must be crawling up the side of the hill. The views were continuing to reward me for my efforts though.
It wasn't just a delight to find the control 1km earlier than expected, but to then find that the next 10km were all downhill. I refuelled with more rocky-road and treated myself to a full fat fizzy cola drink. I admit to resting here longer than normal as I enjoyed the company of all the cyclists who ridden up ahead and behind me.
With a 10km descent I was able to enjoyed a nice turn of speed without too much effort right the way down to the A823 just north of Muckhart, where the route turned north one more time for one more climb. However, I could sense that this was going to be a long and very gentle climb, a climb I'd be able to use my diesel engine of a heart to pull up at a reasonable pace. I also think we had a slight tailwind as we passed Castlehill Reservoir.
The crest of this last climb came a lot sooner than expected too - which was helping to build my confidence. Inevitably I missed my right hand turn and had to retrace steps, but then retraced them again after a chat with other riders and we realised that the main road went to Auchterarder.
In Auchterarder we had to negotiate the walkers, motorists and general hubbub surrounding the Ryder cup which was due to tee-off the following week. We had a good view of the greens and the stands, which although empty now would be filled soon for all the television cameras and celebrity.
In the town itself I found a small supermarket to grab a Scotch Pie. I had expected something delicious like the one I'd enjoyed cycling over the Lammermuir Hills, but I was slightly disappointed by this one, possibly because it was cold. I also had a brain-fade moment. I locked the bicycle up securely, but when I came to unlock it found that I had securely locked it to nothing. Dolt that I am.
Leaving Auchterarder and heading due west I fell in with two gentlemen and we enjoyed keeping an easy ride so we could talk and admire the views. They lost me though; I found this cute little bridge and wanted to take a photo. We were just by the last information control and I was now starting to suspect the hills in the distance needed to be climbed to get home.
I need not have worried though as the route just kept gently flowing along parallel with the A9 to Dunblane and the Bridge of Allan, skirting the hills completely. The Bridge of Allan has a good view of the Wallace Monument and the ride took us past the sporting University of Stirling.
After this we had a long pan-flat ride to Grangemouth. I was extremely grateful that there was no wind and kept looking over my shoulder for following riders. I could see no one ahead of me and no one behind me, and it was inescapable that I was going to push on fairly hard during this section to avoid being caught.
Grangemouth had the industrial beauty of Teesside and the maze of pipework laid out. With almost no distance remaining to reach back to Linlithgow and the start, I was mistaken to think that it would be a flat run back. Mistake. There was a sting in the tail and it really did sting.
Back at the final control the food was totally outstanding! There was hot and cold food, hearty soup and delicious cakes. The orgnaiser and his team had put together a very good route and excellent hospitality. This is a ride I would recommend. Travel to Edinburgh was very easy, the little train to Linlithgow was £5. Entering and riding couldn't have been made any more simple. Thank you to the team!