Our last day was also our longest – some kind of sick joke there on the part of the organisers. We had 157 miles to cover, with another very long post-lunch blast of 80 miles.
I’m not sure what we were expecting really. By this stage we’d all gone through various pain barriers, come out the other side and found new ones to deal with. We knew there would be the thought of that finish line sustaining us but would its attraction prove strong enough? There was only one way to find out…
The TRAT veterans had been ominously reticent about the challenges of our final day. We’d heard talk of some climbs and they’d warned us not to take things for granted just because we were nearing the end, but that was all we had to go on.
As ever, the weather was going to be a crucial factor so it was a relief to wake to relatively clear skies – there were some nasty looking grey bits but they seemed to be moving away from us as we left the Cairngorms Christian Centre and made our way along five miles of beautiful, deserted back road towards the A9.
I felt very good that morning – the cold was nowhere to be seen and my aches and pains were treating me well. Obviously my backside was hurting but my ludicrously expensive Assos shorts did an amazing job of containing the pain. Some things are just worth spending the money on.
We clipped along at a good pace all morning, helped along – as so often on this ride – by a generous wind at our backs. As the day progressed I felt stronger and stronger. There were never any serious doubts in my mind that I’d finish and I remember thinking to myself as the miles ticked over that it would take something truly cataclysmic to stop me now. Even if it meant walking with the bike I was going to cross that line unaided.
We stuck to the A9, avoiding towns all the way and passing the snow-capped Cairngorms as we headed ever northward towards Inverness. As we crossed the Moray Firth we paused on the bridge and watched an osprey diving for its prey. I’d been quietly hoping we might catch sight of a golden eagle but this was almost as spectacular.
The views were truly awe-inspiring as we crossed the Black Isle and made our way to Cromarty Firth. As we swooped down towards the bridge a jet fighter snarled into view low on our left, following the course of the water and crossing the bridge ahead of us before tearing off towards the North Sea.
The group spread out a bit along some wonderful long descents as we approached the lunch stop at Golspie. Suddenly I was overtaken by Howard and Mike, the two most experienced TRAT riders with four completed rides between them. They were going incredibly quickly and I decided to latch on to Mike’s back wheel to see what all the excitement was about. There I clung as we shot along a wonderfully bendy route for four or five miles, never dipping below 20mph and often exceeding 25mph. It was an exhausting but wonderfully exhilarating few minutes, made all the more exciting because I had no idea why we were doing it or where we were going.
We rocketed down the hill into Golspie, straight past the lunch stop turn-off and out of the other end of town, where we stopped, panting and grinning, as we tried to figure out where we’d gone wrong. Apparently I’d gate crashed a little tradition of theirs to take those last few pre-lunch miles at full pelt, but they were very gracious about my bad manners.
Back at the lunch stop we were treated to a table-bending selection of homemade puddings to accompany our sandwiches. I wolfed down two bowlfuls of one of the most delicious rice puddings I’ve ever had – the second one with chunks of tablet (delicious crumbly fudge) in it. As I sang its praises, shovelling more and more down my insatiable gullet, the delightful lady who made it looked like she was going to burst with pride, bless her.
As is often the case, our afternoon started with a climb. We wondered if this was the climb we’d been warned about so cryptically, but we soon realised it wasn’t when we turned a corner a few miles up the road and saw Helmsdale.
It didn’t look too bad from the bottom, just a long sweeping curve climbing at 7% or 8% I suppose, so I went at it with a bit of gusto, saving just a little in reserve in case there was more to come around the corner. Simon and the other Martin came with me and it was quickly apparent that this was no normal climb – this was a locking of horns.
On we went up the hill, which revealed a little more of itself each time we turned another corner. It was endless! Despite Simon’s best efforts to disturb my rhythm through the rather unsportsmanlike use of foul insults designed to shock me into energy-sapping giggles, I was still in front. To my delight – and utter surprise – when I kicked a bit harder I still felt well within my capabilities, so I went up another couple of gears and kicked again. Martin fell back this time but Simon was clinging on like a stubborn little Hobbit, so I kicked yet again, cranking it right up and rejoicing in my ability to do so after so much cycling. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as strong on a bike – it was a truly wonderful feeling. Simon fell back muttering darkly (if amusingly) under his breath but I pressed on, round corner after corner, keeping the pressure on and even upping the tempo once more on the final drag, just because I could.
I was totally euphoric when I reached the top, awash with endorphins, grinning from ear to ear and incredulous that I’d just done what I had and still didn’t feel exhausted. It’s a feeling I hope I don’t forget any time soon – maybe it’ll be enough to keep me training properly, who knows?
This is getting long now and there’s still more to say about this wonderful day so I’ll post this now and add another one soon.