Tom Balmer

Trepidation, anxiety, excitement, tiredness… regret? All the feelings I got when waking up at 5am on Saturday, ready for our long drive to the rolling hills of bonny Scotland.

We loaded up the van with our bikes, enough food and water to keep a small army going for several weeks and a mind full of car games… we would need them all after 10hours on the road. Cambridge, Peterborough, Doncaster, Newcastle, Edinburgh… Pitlochry. The accents got thicker, the air clearer and I was starting to feel a spot of vertigo being so far north.

We arrived in the tiny, picturesque village of Pitlochry around 4pm and headed to the ball of people that was sign in. I had hoped to catch up with my pal Chris before we faced off at the line tomorrow so I could share a word of encouragement with him. Ha!

Anyway, I picked up my race pack and got a hero’s welcome from the Marie Curie team for donning the yellow and blue for their cause. We caught up with the others and decided (not me) that a warm up ride would be a GREAT idea. I kitted up, saddled up, filled my water bottle with the beautiful water from the river Tummel and headed off. We set off up towards the distilleries just outside town, no idea where we were going. After a day in the car, no food in hours and a hill which seemed to go on forever, we turned around and headed back after about 30 minutes (which was long enough). At this point I felt very nervous indeed, as we had only cycled for 30 minutes and I was knackered. Little did I know we had taken on a CAT 2 climb, risen 600M and done almost half the climbing we would do all day tomorrow… so I felt a little better. We hit the pub for a swift pint and plenty of carbs and took in the atmosphere – a lovely summers evening by the river.

THE RACE – we made it, just, in time for our wave after parking up and throwing on our kit. The weather was drizzly and overcast but not cold, which was a bonus. The first 20km or so were okay and not too hilly. Josh stayed with me most of the way until his chain broke! He of course fixed it, got back on and caught me up in about 10 minutes, really filling me with confidence…! For me it wasn’t a race, I was just looking to finish.

After a while we reached the side of the Loch, which was flat and a lovely place to ride, right along by the water for 20 to 30km. It was really stunning and the sun even took his hat off for some of it. Then came the real test; King of the Mountains. I hit it hard and kept in a higher gear than usual to really push myself. A foolish plan which saw me stop half way with mind bending cramp. The shouts of “You alright fella?” and “Stretch it out and get up there son” really summed up the fantastic atmosphere that surrounded the Etape Caledonia. I made it up and as I was descending, I passed one of my well-wishers who herself was suffering from cramp – we swapped a laugh about it and an electrolyte tablet before cracking on.

I lost most of our group right at the start so got accustomed to making friends as I went, which was easy! This is cycling, everyone is really friendly and encouraging and most importantly, in it together, wearing lycra. One chap road up next to me at my darkest point, just crowning a hill in the misty rain, and asked “Do you want a gel mate”, to which I replied “No, I’m ok thanks. I’m more of a solids man”. He was adamant to help, “How about nutella on brown bread” he persisted. I thought he was winding me up but apparently not! It was “all part of the service” and he handed me a sandwich as he road-off shouting “Good luck, mate!”

I have never been more grateful to get a slightly squashed sandwich from a strangers bag… it was heaven. This sense of community was phenomenal. The constant cramp, dead legs, sore arse and lack of clothing were tough but the people I met were just brilliant. One chap rolled up next to me and said “I’ve really hit the wall; I don’t know what to do”. I told him that pain is temporary and he has to just smash through it. 10 minutes later he came flying past me shouting “I BLOODY SMASHED THROUGH, FELLA”. Terrific.

I remember so clearly coming around the final turn and I got fierce cramp in my right leg, I could hear the cheering crowd audibly sigh and one person say “oh no” as they saw my struggles. Then the lad next to me went “Push hard, one last effort and it will go away” so sat up on my bars and pushed through the pain to make it over the line, I could hear him cheering as I did so. Really great stuff.

And then it was done. All the driving, all the training (hmmm!) and all the prep was worth it. I had finished, met some fantastic people along the way and really had a lovely day in the Scottish hills. I finished around 2,500th but it was a victory for me. It was about finishing and I’d done it – more importantly I’d done it for a reason and had raised over £600 for a fantastic cause. For anyone that loves cycling, or doesn’t (as WAS my case), I can definitely recommend the Marie Curie Etape Caledonia. A truly great event filled with fantastic people. Now for the 10 hr drive home..!