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Pitlochry : Big Ride

Trevor Ward
12 Feb 2016

In Perthshire Cyclist finds moors, mountains, lochs, whisky and a Glaswegian comedian. The perfect Scottish combination.

The peace and tranquillity of the Perthshire countryside are suddenly shattered by the sound of my co-rider’s phone. It’s the police. They’d like him to come in for questioning as soon as possible. 

All I know about Alan Anderson up to this point is that he is a Glaswegian stand-up comedian who also organises sportives and triathlons. Oh, and that he once wore Frank Sidebottom’s big papier-mâché head. Other than these paltry details there is no hint he might harbour a dark past or be involved in nefarious activities. And yet here he is, wanted by the police. ‘Did he ever return Frank’s head?’ I find myself wondering.

We’ve been riding for a couple of hours and are, literally, in the middle of nowhere. It’s a 35-mile long road that is possibly the biggest cul-de-sac in Britain. It comes to an abrupt end at a railway station and hotel. There’s nothing else for miles around except bog and distant, snow-capped mountains. And I’m in the company of a potential head thief. Or worse. 

Pitlochry descent

We stop pedalling and Alan fixes me with the kind of intense stare that could cause a riot in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night. ‘That’s totally weird,’ he says as I brace myself for him attempting to hack me to pieces with his multi-tool. ‘I don’t normally get a mobile signal out here.’

Alan, of course, is most definitely not a stealer of 1980s cult music stars’ prosthetic craniums, or any other kind of criminal for that matter. The police merely want him to pop in for a routine safety briefing about an event he has organised for the coming weekend, the inaugural Arran Man triathlon, taking place on one of Scotland’s most popular and picturesque islands.

‘We’re going to have to bump someone off,’ he says, and once again I’m wondering whether I’ve accidentally stumbled into an episode of The McSopranos. ‘The event is sold out and all the ferries are completely booked up. The problem is, we need to find room for an extra ambulance the council have insisted we have.’

The biggest event on Alan’s calendar, however, starts just down the road from where we are now in the town of Pitlochry, and is described as ‘the highest sportive in the UK’. It includes nearly 3,000m of climbing and passes three ski stations, giving it its name, the Three Pistes Sportive. 

Pitlochry road

Today we’re following a more leisurely circuit, largely because the Three Pistes is a point-to-point route and neither of us ever got round to checking train times back from the finish town of Aviemore. So we have coasted out of Pitlochry and along empty, single-track roads on the ‘forgotten’ southern shore of two lochs – Faskally and Tummel.

With us is Alan’s friend and fellow member of Glasgow Triathlon Club, Craig Napier, an RAF policeman-turned-librarian who has his own brand of one-liners. During a chat about the reasons for shaving our legs, he observes, ‘You don’t have a barbecue without mowing the lawn.’ You can’t really argue with that.

The ‘forgotten’ shore of Loch Tummel is a stretch of undulating, narrow road that feels a million miles from civilisation and yet gives occasional, tantalising glimpses of the turrets and spires of former Victorian hunting lodges on the other side of the water. At one point, an ugly patch of rectangles intrudes upon the scene on the opposite shore – a caravan site. But for the rest of the 14 miles on this side of the loch, we remain unmolested by modernity.

At the end of the loch the white facade of Tummel hydroelectric station jolts us out of our pedal-powered reverie. Built in 1933, it was one of Scotland’s earliest hydro stations. A potential target for bombs during World War Two, it still boasts blackout blinds and an air raid shelter. 

Cycling for dafties

Pitlochry sign

After a stop for cake and coffee in the village of Kinloch Rannoch, the ride along the north shore of our third loch of the day, Loch Rannoch, traces the route of the Etape Caledonia, mention of which makes Alan’s lip curl: ‘For one day a year these roads get clogged up by 5,000 people who have paid £70 to ride on “closed roads”. There’s no need for it. How many cars have we seen today? There’s hardly any traffic on these roads at any time of year. You could ride them any time without 5,000 other cyclists getting in your way and spend your £70 on a bottle of local Edradour or Aberfeldy whisky instead.’ 

Alan knows as much about Scotland’s national drink as he does about organised cycling events. He’s performed his comedy show, ‘Whisky For Dafties’, at the Edinburgh and Adelaide Fringe festivals. And he’s been lucky enough to combine his two passions, performing the show in Belfast when it hosted the start of the Giro in 2014. 

It’s a fast, largely flat route to the end of the loch. Out in the water I spot what looks like a watchtower. A notice in a layby informs us it’s the remains of a 1,000 year-old crannog (‘man-made loch dwelling’) used as a safe retreat by the MacGregors during Scotland’s clan wars.

At the end of the loch we’d planned to return via the other side, but the lure of the snow-capped peaks glistening in the distance is irresistible, even if it will add an extra 20km on to our journey. A sign warns us that the road ends at Rannoch Station. We are approaching the end of the world. Or Perthshire, anyway.

Pitlochry lambs

On the way, Alan explains how he ended up organising one of the UK’s toughest sportives. As an architecture student in Manchester in the late 1990s, he’d regularly been the ‘obligatory drunken Scots heckler’ at pub comedy nights. Eventually, one pub threatened to bar him if he didn’t do a 10-minute turn of his own.

‘It went down quite well and things moved on from there,’ he recalls. ‘I soon realised I could earn more from promoting my own comedy shows or DJ-ing at clubs like the Hacienda than working 80 hours a week as a trainee architect.’

One of his shows featured Frank Sidebottom – ‘I asked if I could try on his head’ – while his ‘Whisky For Dafties’ idea evolved when he needed a theme for a show at the Adelaide Comedy Festival: ‘All I knew about was architecture, cycling and whisky. So I chose whisky.’

Things changed in 2014 after he broke his ankle while speed skiing at 145kmh: ‘I decided I’d use my time to organise some events, but realised that because of the World Cup and Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, no one would be going out to watch gigs. So I decided to organise a sports event instead, and that was the first Three Pistes sportive.’

Our conversation is interrupted by the police inviting Alan in for questioning. Soon afterwards we arrive at Rannoch Station where the road ends and the UK’s largest expanse of wild moorland – Rannoch Moor – begins. Peeping over the horizon are the dark crags of Glen Coe, their peaks coated in snow despite it being June. Even in the sunshine this is a bleak, featureless place. ‘The railway is actually “floating” on the bog – there is no solid foundation,’ says Alan, as if this amazing feat of engineering might offer some consolation for the emptiness of our surroundings.

That familiar feeling

Pitlochry signage

We turn around and retrace our route back to Loch Rannoch. After the barrenness of the moor it’s almost comforting to see hills and forests ahead of us. We switch to the south side of the loch and put the hammer down for its 16km length. Craig is taking the longest shifts at the front, but as he recently placed highly in the Scottish National Triathlon Championships, neither Alan nor I feel too guilty. 

Craig only began cycling seriously after returning home to Scotland after a period working in the US. ‘I was out of shape, smoking 60 cigarettes a day,’ he says. ‘I worked in a steelworks in Baltimore. We’d finish our shift at 7am, go home and shower and then head straight out to a strip club. That all changed when I picked up a copy of triathlon magazine and decided that’s who I wanted to be. I joined Glasgow Tri Club and haven’t looked back.’

Craig delivers us to the foot of the day’s only categorised climb, Schiehallion. While lacking the length or steepness of its continental counterparts, it’s a beautiful ascent on a narrow road that threads through wooded glades, past lakes and along a ridge that gives stunning views of the neighbouring mountains. The 5km climb winds around the distinctive, pyramid-shaped peak of Schiehallion, which is Gaelic for ‘Hill of the Fairies’. But the only other traffic we encounter is of the woolly variety, with ‘Lambs on road!’ painted on regular homemade signs. 

Pitlochry forest

The mountain has a claim to fame beyond its popularity with walkers and cyclists – in 1774 it was chosen to host an experiment that would ‘weigh the world’. Because of its regular shape, it was estimated to be a million millionth of the size of the whole world. Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne believed that by calculating the weight of the mountain, they could therefore determine how heavy Planet Earth was, a subject that obviously preoccupied the chattering classes as much as the steel vs carbon frames debate would two centuries later. 

His experiment, involving plumb lines, the principles of gravity and the alignment of the stars, saw 230 scientists camped on the mountain for eight weeks, at which point they concluded that Schiehallion weighed a billion tonnes. By multiplying that by a million million, Maskelyne almost lost count of his zeros but eventually arrived at the weight of the world. He was within 20% of the figure agreed on by today’s boffins. (Even better, during the mapping of the mountain, surveyor Charles Hutton invented the cyclists’ best friend, contour lines.)

At the summit we turn left on to a road where there is a more regular stream of motorised traffic. Alan, a former rugby player and all-round daredevil, climbs out the saddle, winds up a big gear and starts the descent in full Tony Martin-mode. Craig follows at a more sedate pace and I bring up the rear. 

Pitlochry fields

Alan has warned it’s a fast descent, but neglects to mention the 90° left-hander that appears halfway down at exactly the same time as a bus emerges from the opposite direction. Not expecting the bend, I have failed to scrub off enough speed on the descent, and now feel my rear brake locking. I spot a farm track on the opposite side of the road just before the apex of the bend and calculate it will be more judicious to head for that rather than keep applying pressure to a brake that clearly wants to send me sprawling in front of a busload of farmers’ wives. 

I release the lever and career across the path of the bus, bounce down the rutted track and come to a thankfully upright halt just before a closed gate. I manage to give a wave of acknowledgement to the bus driver, but suspect he and his passengers are already creased up with laughter at the antics of the soft southern sassenach and his fancy carbon bicycle. 

Alan and Craig are waiting for me at the bottom. There’s just a flat stretch along the north shore of Loch Tummel to take us back to Pitlochry. ‘Did I mention that bend?’ asks Alan. It’s an almost embarrassed, half-apologetic mumble. In fact, for a split second, I could swear it sounds like someone trying to suppress their laughter inside a giant papier-mâché head.

Do it yourself

Accommodation

We stayed at Derrybeg Guest House (derrybeg.co.uk) in Pitlochry, just a short walk from the town’s restaurants, cafes and bike shop. Breakfast comes in cyclist-friendly portions, and there’s secure storage for bikes. Doubles start at £85 a night B&B. We had dinner at The Old Mill Inn (theoldmillpitlochry.co.uk), a gastro pub in the town centre with an outdoor terrace and an extensive menu including burgers, pasta and seafood. 

Don’t miss

Perthshire is home to Scotland’s second-smallest whisky distillery, the independently owned Edradour, a brand my ride partner Alan Anderson refers to as ‘the Tommy Voeckler of whisky – a breakaway specialist whose results punch well above its weight’. Edradour inspired Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore, and a New York mafia godfather was once the major shareholder. 

Thanks

Thanks to Alan Anderson for logistical support on the ride. The next Three Pistes Sportive is on Sunday 29th May 2016, with the 164km route including five of the UK’s highest roads. More details at 3pistescycle.co.uk. Thanks also to John MacPhee at visitperthshire.co.uk for helping with accommodation and meals, Steve Smith at Angus Bike Chain, Arbroath, for providing the bike, and Kieran at Escape Route bike shop in Pitlochry.

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