Simon Usborne: 'The real joy of the Caledonia is to see the faces of people who had never taken on a challenge like it'

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The Independent Online

You might remember "Tackman", the misguided soul who brought chaos to Britain's biggest cycling event last year. In an idiotic act of sabotage, he scattered thousands of carpet tacks over sections of the Etape Caledonia, which had to be suspended when hundreds of riders picked up punctures.

All eyes were on the town of Pitlochry in Highland Perthshire again last month for the fourth running of the ride, which raises thousands of pounds for Macmillan Cancer Support but has incited a small group of locals to protest against brief road closures. Would Tackman return?

More than 3,600 riders rolled out of town on a sunny Sunday morning. They included rower-turned-cyclist James Cracknell, his adventurer sidekick Ben Fogle, and track cycling legend Graeme "Flying Scotsman" Obree. The route (see my GPS record at winds for 81 miles, skirting the sparkling waters of Strathtummel and Loch Rannoch – a 45-mile warm-up for Schiehallion, the only significant climb.

Snow clung to north-facing gulleys up top but disappeared behind us for the descent, a thrilling, 1,000ft drop. It's hard to describe the thrill of cycling on closed roads – imagine approaching speeds of 50mph as you take the racing line down five miles of twists and straights through stunning countryside.

The first finishers arrived after just three-and-a-half hours. I managed 3hr 57min. On no other ride could I ride for four hours, at an average speed of over 20mph, without unclipping a shoe. But the real joy of the Caledonia is to see the faces of people who, like me only two years ago, had never taken on a challenge like it. Some spent eight hours in the saddle but only 30 riders, including Ben Fogle, who broke a finger in a crash, did not finish. Best of all, a festival spirit hung over the lochs and hills of Perthshire, as crowds cheered in every village. Locals seemed delighted to see us, helping the Etape Caledonia to reclaim its status as Britain's greatest sportive.

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