The Etape Caledonia, (the 2013 edition of which takes place on the 12th of May), was the UK’s first closed road cycling sportive. The event, part of the Highland-Perthshire Cycling Festival, has proved a roaring success and introduced the region to cyclists from across the UK. 

My personal Perthshire discovery came by way of seeking a ride to interrupt the car journey from Edinburgh, up the A9 and into the Highlands. What I discovered, and what thousands of others can already attest to, is some of the best cycling you’ll find anywhere in the world.

My ride mimicked – but reversed – much of the Etape’s middle section, looping out and around Loch Rannoch. However, instead of Pitlochry, my mini-adventure started and finished in the small market town of Aberfeldy.

I parked up on Taybridge Drive, by the banks of the River Tay and beneath the shadow of an imposing

Black Watch Memorial

memorial to the historic Black Watch regiment. (The parking there is free and the adjacent putting green’s public toilet is open March to October.)

All wrapped up against the elements (the dashboard thermometer read 1-degree C) I headed over General Wade’s bridge, built in 1733 and still going strong. The hump-back hurled me down and onto the B846, which swept left through the village of Weem and on passed the 16thcentury Castle Menzies. There are coffee, cakes and sarnies on sale at the adjacent House of Menzies but it was a little too early in my ride for a pit stop.

For first five miles, the road was mostly flat, an opportunity to spin the pedals and get some blood flowing to my icy-numb extremities. If there had been any doubt as to the route’s arduous prospect then a look up ahead proved conclusive. The mountains reared imperious, the road pointed ominously toward them.

Far From Dull
I rolled passed the village of Dull (twinned with Boring, in Oregon) and through the poetically named Coshieville– the point on this ride where, if you don’t like climbs, semi-deserted roads and jaw-dropping views, you should turn around and head for home.

The climb commenced with twists and turns through dense woodland. I heard the splashing water of nearby falls and was minded of past Pyrenean forays. Although a decent test, I was only in fifth gear on a compact chainset, spinning nicely, holding energy in reserve for the 50-odd miles to come.

When the road rose above the tree line, the mountains were back in view, and seemingly bigger than ever. I shifted to reminiscing about Italian Dolomites: the tarmac tilted steeply skyward like a mini Marmolada, in my face and taunting.

Those initial ascents were eased by the knowledge that my chosen route would, eventually, come back down the same way, an extremely fast descent as the gain from all that pain.

The left turn along Schiehallion Road signaled the end of the climb and came as a blessing to tired and

Schiehallion Road

tightening legs.

That single-track-saviour is so-named because it skirts the base of the mountain, Schiehallion. A Munro at 3,547 feet, it’s extremely popular with walkers. It’s also the site of Charles Mason’s pioneering 1774 experiment that attempted to estimate the mass of the Earth. The result: heavy, man.

Whilst there were mountains on my left-hand side, on my right there was open space, soon to be filled with water–little Loch Kinardochy as prelude to the larger Dunalastair Reservoir and then mighty Loch Rannoch itself.

Car-Free Roads
From there the road’s profile formed a gentle, undulating wave. The hardest part was stopping myself from constantly stopping to gawp at the view, and to be aware of oncoming traffic–a too close encounter with a road-hogging refuse lorry nearly turned me to trash.

By Inverhadden, at about the 17-mile mark, I crossed the burn and kept left. (A right-turn there leads to Kinloch Rannoch, ideal for a pit stop or for reducing the route to a 40-miler – don’t, you’ll miss the best of the scenery.)

The unmarked road further narrowed, Loch Rannoch opened up on the right and I was back to being distracted. The huge swathe of water sparkled azure, exotic against the mountains’ brown, green and autumn-russet backdrop.

In the big ring, I cruised by houses with big glass frontages that allowed their residents to greedily grab the view. I dreamily imagined waking up to that scenery and turned evergreen with envy.

By Finnart, I was nearing the westerly end of the Loch and my ride’s mid-point, the hydro power station directly across the water, its massive pipes running down the mountain to harness nature’s power. My own energy had ebbed, so I made sure to eat and drink, filling up for the return leg round the other side of the water.

Arty View
That turn came just after Bridge of Gaur with a right to rejoin the B846. The left-hand fork leads to Rannoch Station where, as the sign warned, the road ends (as does the rail line connecting to Fort William, Glasgow and beyond). From that point on there’s nothing but vast uninterrupted swathes of truly unspoiled wilderness.

Back on the road and it was more of the softly undulating stuff I’d enjoyed on the opposite shore. Again the views were amazing, perhaps even better. I could now clearly see the mountains, and Schiehallion in

Schiehallion in the Distance

particular. Sometimes referred to as the centre of Scotland, I had a definite sense that my ride was revolving around its giant, conical peak.

The peace was also a joy to behold, especially for a city type like me, my ride sound-tracked by little more than the wind on water, the hum of tyres on tarmac, bird calls and the bucolic clucking of hens.

Kinloch Rannoch
After 40 miles I’d reached Kinloch Rannoch. The village offered a couple of options for food and caffeine refuelling but I was keen to follow the signpost, keep on the B846 and head for Aberfeldy. I could smell snow on the air, see the skies darkening and feel that the temperature had further dropped.

The road was still undulating but each consecutive rise seemed to be longer and steeper than the one before. I clicked down through the gears, back to munching energy bars as the road climbed some more before rolling down and into Tummel Bridge.

I remained on the B846 (navigationally, this route is a doddle) rolled over the old bridge (another of General Wade’s crossings), too weary for sightseeing. By then the snow I’d smelled had started to fall, no more than flurries but sufficient to keep thoughts on the flask of coffee in the car at Aberfeldy.

Whereas that initial climb out of Coshieville was probably the second hardest part of this route, the first was now definitely upon me, and no mere undulations.

The next rise hurt but I got over it okay. Then came another. It hurt more and I fared less well, the accumulated fatigue taking additional toll. The road surface – one of those heavy, Scottish energy-sapping sorts – didn’t help matters. By the next rise I was out the saddle and almost at a standstill.

My eyes, dragged from the view, were now locked to the odometer’s digital display, dizzy brain wondering why all my effort failed to add digits to the tally.

Eventually, the last rise was crested. I swigged from the dregs in my bidon and flew downhill, passed that 
Steep Equals Fast Equals Good
turn to Schiehallion Road, for a descent truly earned and thoroughly enjoyed.

I swept round the bends, out through Coshieville and landed back on the road to Aberfeldy. A few miles in which to warm down, a last heave over the hump in Wade’s old bridge, and I was back at the car with my coffee.