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WHERE BIKES RULE THE ROAD; Looking for a fresh cycle challenge? Look no further than the newly launched Etape Loch Ness sportive. You'll find a friendly atmosphere, stunning scenery and, best of all, cars are banned from the route.

Byline: FIONA RUSSELL

Vicki Dunkel from Skye is riding the inaugural Etape Loch Ness cycle sportive "to try a challenging new route".

Local rider Mark Macdonald is taking part in the 67–mile, closedroad event because he has never had the opportunity to cycle the A82 without traffic.

Sarah Shaw, of Inverness, just fancied doing something different in early summer with her cycling club, Ross–shire Roads.

The riders, who have been departing Inverness on the circular sportive since 6.30am, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Some look like racing whippets and are dressed in a multitude of club colours.

I spot Glasgow Green Cycling Club, Inverness Cycle Club, Ythan CC, Moray Firth CC, as well as numerous Ross–shire Roads CC members.

Other cyclists are looking for a fun ride with friends or to achieve a new goal.

Some are also raising cash for its supporting charity, Macmillan Cancer.

The Etape Loch Ness, which took place last Sunday, is exactly what sportive riding should be about.

It's open to all types of riders, it's friendly and it's as competitive – or not – as you wish.

This sportive is also set amid spectacular Highlands scenery.

Starting and finishing in the city of Inverness, the signed route follows the A82 west to Fort Augustus and past Urquhart Castle.

At Fort Augustus, riders cross the historic Caledonian Canal then cycle back up the loch on B roads.

Rarely is the iconic loch out of sight and, although the weather is overcast, the views are stunning.

The new Etape Loch Ness is one of a growing number of cycle sportives in Scotland.

These types of events between 12 miles and more than 100 miles are hugely popular.

The first 1000 places of the Etape Loch Ness sold out in less than five hours. Another 250 places released later were grabbed by keen riders in just 13 minutes.

Every one of the participants I chat to as I ride the hilly route is thrilled by the lack of traffic. Katrina Moir, from Dingwall, said: "I'd never tackle this route down the west side of Loch Ness in normal circumstances.

"It's usually so busy and dangerous but it feels amazing to have no cars at all."

Helen Wallace, who lives at Whitebridge on the route itself, is equally delighted.

She usually sticks to the quieter roads on the loch's east side.

Also, if anyone knows what the sportive's longest and toughest hill climb will be like, it's Helen.

She said: "I regularly ride the big hill. It's right outside my house.

"There's more than 4.5 miles of it from Fort Augustus and it will definitely split the riders.

"The only way is to engage your easiest gear and keep pedalling."

Having already cycled 35 miles of undulating terrain and into a headwind by this point, few riders have the energy to ride hard up the hill.

The chat diminishes, replaced by heavy breathing and crunching gears. Some riders get off to walk.

But this section does offer the chance to win the accolade of King of the Mountain.

And some riders do take up the muscle–zapping challenge.

Remarkably, Alan Dean sprinted uphill for 1246ft (380m) over 4.8 miles (9km), including a gradient of up to 12 per cent, in 20 minutes and 47 seconds.

The 30–year–old Edinburgh Road Club cyclist also rode the fastest overall time of the Etape – two hours and 55 minutes.

The fastest Etape woman, Lynne Fraser, 34, of Deeside Thistle, crossed the line in three hours and 26 minutes.

And Inverness rider Natalie Munro, 27, was Queen of the Mountain in 25 minutes and 23 seconds.

If cyclists imagine that Inverness is all downhill from the hilltop at 1289ft (393m), they are mistaken.

There are still a few hills to ride and many riders have slowed due to tiring legs.

But there is a welcome tailwind and a close–up view of the picturesque loch to enjoy. A few riders pass me and offer words of encouragement.

And then a marshal shouts out that it's only seven miles to the end.

Suddenly, I feel a surge of energy and greet a shallow descent with renewed strength.

Many other riders are doing the same and I feel as though the pace is the fastest of the day.

Walter Sutherland, from Lossiemouth, is my companion for the final part of the sportive.

We say little but help each other along by alternately taking the lead to provide a "drafting" aid.

I find I am grinning widely as the spectators cheers us on through the streets of Inverness.

The 67 miles seem to have flown by and, although I had not planned to race, I finish in a respectable three hours and 49 minutes.

I was delighted to be 11th Queen of the Mountain.

After the finish line, Walter said: "Thanks for keeping me going on that last section.

"I really struggled on that long hill and I needed someone to motivate me to ride faster in the last stage.

"It was a fantastic sportive and I can see it becoming a really popular annual event."

See www.etapelochness.com to register for next year's event.

Entries for a sportive fill up quickly, so keep a close eye on when they open. See www.sportive.com for a list of events.

' It's a great sportive. I can see it becoming a really popular event

CAPTION(S):

WINNER Alan Dean with his medal

GETTING TO GRIPS The first wave of riders get under way at the starting line

CHALLENGING Riders struggle on the big climb out of Fort Augustus

PEDAL POWER Riders head down the closed A82 to Fort Augustus past Loch Ness scenery
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 11, 2014
Words:966
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