The Caledonian Etape

Early Start

7:25am and I’m standing in a deserted car park at the Cameron Toll Shopping Centre. The weather forecast is good and I’ve organised to do the Caledonian Etape route from Pitlochry with Robin and Anna Mcbride. Originally, we intended to set off at 9am but this was changed to 7:30 so we can get an early start – it will take about an hour and half to get to Pitlochry. I’ve loaded up with my wet gear – just in case, and with a change of clothes and extra bars of food and gels for the day.

Caledonian Etape Route Map 2011
Caledonian Etape Route Map 2011

The Caledonian Etape
The route is an epic 80 mile ride, and the start of the MacMillan Cancer Support Caledonia Etape race, to give it its proper title, takes place in the centre of Pitlochry’s main street, Atholl Road.

We started there too, after parking the car up hill on the road to the Moulin Inn, and headed north along the B8079 towards the Pass of Killiecrankie, turning left over the Garry Bridge and onto the B8019 towards Tummel Bridge which offers spectacular views up Killiecrankie Pass. The road here is undulating with slight climbs and has a twisting route as you climb up to Queen’s View, which is a popular beauty spot named after Robert the Bruce’s Queen in 1300. Queen’s view gives spectacular views down Loch Tummel, but we didnt stop to enjoy these however as we pressed on straight past the milling tourists with their cameras.The road heads gradually downhill passing the Tummel Inn an old coaching Inn, and through the village of Tummel Bridge .

Queens view by Douglas Corrance and Still Digital
Queens view by Douglas Corrance and Still Digital

Kinloch Rannoch and Loch Rannoch.
The Etape cycle route then heads out along the B846 past Dunalastair holiday cottages to Kinloch Rannoch, a small village at the head of Loch Rannoch. This is an ideal viewing point for the peak of Scheihallion which towers above the village on the south Side of the valley. We stopped there for coffee and fruit scones – to get some carbs in after my somewhat skimpy and rather rushed breakfast. We met a group of three fellow cyclist who stopped there just as we were leaving and who kindly observed and commented on my all-steel frame bike as being a classic which had a nice simple elegance about it. One chap jokingly offered me his all carbon frame bike for mine but didn’t take me up on my enthusiastic acceptance of his offer – shame. I do have to say, however, that I very much like my trusty steed and was a bit worried with a small regular click from the crankshaft when pedalling for the 1st half hour out of Pitlochry – it settled down however and I really enjoyed the initial part of the ride as the scenery is fantastic and Robin had, as usual, been setting a good pace.

Loch Rannoch - with Scheihallion's peak in the distance
Loch Rannoch - with Scheihallion's peak in the distance

This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Anne Burgess and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

The cycle around Loch Rannoch is very scenic and straight forward and we swished past the Loch Rannoch (Time-share) Holiday Club, the MacDonald Highland Hotel and the Dunalastair Hotel, all of which were ideally situated to afford fantastic views over the loch and the surrounding hills. The road is a single lane road which typically follows the coastline of the loch but occasionally forays in-land and undulates up and down depending on the geology and layout of the valley. At the west end of the loch,for example, you climb up and down a little bit more as you navigate your way through the terminal moraines left behind by the melting glaciers so many millennia ago. It dawned on me that we hadn’t taken much in the way of photo’s so we stopped for some photos on the south side of the loch and the resulting hi-jinks between Robin and Anna were caught on camera.


My MCM (Mark Cavandish Moment)
Once we had cycled round Loch Rannoch and were cycling back into Kinloch Rannoch I pulled a cheeky Cavandish-like sprint on Robin to get into the village ahead of him. (well it was Cavandish-like in MY head anyway -observers looking on might have thought differently!) We stopped once again to forage for food at a local shop and I was delighted to get a large steaming hot cuppa of tea.

At Loch Rannoch doing the Caledonian Etape 6-8-2011
EZPC At Loch Rannoch

Climb around Schiehallion and the onset of rain.
I had been somewhat nervous about tackling the steep climb over the foothills of Schiehallion, and sitting looking at it from the valley made me more fidgety – it is an awe inspiring spike of a Munro, straight out of a film directors imagination of what a mountain peak should look like. It dwarfed it’s surroundings. I got even more anxious when rain started as we eased our way out of Kinloch Rannoch. Looking east up the valley I could see a wall of grey mist and rain that was visibly advancing down the valley and looked ominous. What made matters worse was that because of the good weather when we got to Pitlochry, and the good weather forecast for the day, I had left my waterproof jacket and trousers back in the car some 45 miles back, and only had a shower proof lightweight cagoule and my shoe covers. I knew from previous hill climbing and walking experience that leaving the vital equipment behind was a bit of a gamble as the weather in the hills of Scotland is notoriously variable, but lightening my load and shedding my backpack on a sunny day seemed a good decision at the time. This didn’t look so good now however and again I knew from experience how rough it could get if the weather turned nasty. I mentally steeled myself for a couple of hours of getting very cold and very wet whilst simultaneously climbing up the side of a mountain into leaden grey skies. I had got completely soaked doing my Firth of Forth circuit and wasn’t too ready to repeat the experience at a loftier height with piercing winds and much lower air temperatures. Hmmmm.

Scheihallion NW Ridge
Scheihallion NW Ridge

This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Calum Black and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Trepidation not required
As we tackled the steep climb up the foothills of Scheihallion up to join the B846 at white bridge, in the Braes of Foss, I was delighted to find that the steepest part of it was relatively short lived and there were shallower gradients between the steeper parts which helped ease my heavy breathing and thumping heart as I laboured up these ascents. I very much envied Robins third set of low gears ( he had a third small ring on his front derailleur gear set, just ideal for hill climbing ) and he often pulled away and waited ahead for Anna and myself to play catch up. Because I was working so hard on the ascents, my body temperature was high and face flushed, so the rain seemed to fade into the background as of lesser significance. My brain had told itself to ignore the wetness whilst I concentrated on pushing on when my legs patently wanted to ease off to stop the muscle pain. We were also lucky – the worst of the rain had passed behind us down the valley we were climbing out off and all we were dealing with for most of the rest if the day was a light rain. All told the ascent lasted for about 2 miles and then we were into a mixture of undulated peaks and troughs as you crossed the top of the foothills with the peak of Scheihallion lost from sight over the shoulders of the hills on the right. The sky by now was leaden grey and very overcast but the rain was light for now.


Once we had wound our way round to the B846 however, we really enjoyed a fabulous descent down the other side to Coshieville House, which must be about 3 – 4 miles of sweeping turning twisting country road- all downhill. I reached a peak of 42miles an hour on one of the straighter sections but the brakes were well used on the twisty turns, and I had a couple of scary moments fighting with my stance on the bike and my deathgrip hand hold on the brake levers as I was flung wider than I wanted on tightening corners on the way down. It seemed like we were down at the bottom in moments and I was slightly shaky with aching wrists when we stopped at a local Artists Studio to look at welded metal sculptures. It transpired Anna had visited before and wanted to get a sculpture of an owl in flight for the house garden. Acquisition made, it was agreed that it would be left in an outhouse, all wrapped up, for us to collect when we came back in the car after the Studio had closed.

Fortingall and Glen Lyon.
The cycle route then took us down a single track road with passing places to Fortingall, known for having Europe’s oldest piece of living vegetation- a yew tree known as the Fortingall Yew between 3,000 and 5,000 years old. The local church hall were exhibiting local artists work so we popped in to have a quick look and also let a heavy downpour of rain pass before venturing out again. After passing the entrance to Glen Lyon sometimes referred to as ‘The most beautiful glen in Scotland’ the route then turns left and followed a minor single lane country track which was conveniently covered by large trees and shrubbery for a good 4 miles back to join the B846 near Dull. I for one was glad to turn around and head out of the valley as the rain had become heavier and heavier the further up the valley we had cycled and I was grateful for the cover of the trees and lack of traffic as we pushed on up and down through the undulating valley floor back the way we had come. Once on the B846 we pulled in at a junction briefly to let a large monster truck wheeled tractor with a hydraulic forklift attachment get past on the two lane country road. It was clear from the gunning of the diesel engine behind us that the farmer wanted to move faster than our 18mph uphill and when I looked back over my shoulder to see Anna behind me I could see the forklift prongs looked like the fangs of some monster that was intent on running her to ground. They also wobbled about on the front of a telescopic arm that was just at Anna’s head height – so I definitely felt that some sensible discretion was the best option. The large wheeled monster was wide enough for a lane and a bit of width so couldn’t gave got round us on the road width available.
By now we had joined a busier two laned road which was relatively level but we had the wind in our face. Robin and I took it in turns to lead our mini- pelaton along this road for a good few miles.

The House of Menzie is a superb country venue for a bite to eat, so we pulled in for a quick cuppa with an estimated 10-12 miles still to go. The rain had reduced significantly after moving away from Fortingall valley and was now only a mild drizzle. After this,we passed Castle Menzies the home of the chiefs of Clan Menzies until 1918. It struck me as oddly positioned at the base of a hill in a flat section of the valley so it obviously did not have much in the way of a defensive capability.
The route wound on through Weem and onwards towards Strathtay and Pitlochry – the end is almost in sight.

General George Wade
I discovered afterwards that Weem Hotel is where General George Wade stayed in 1735. As the man charged with subduing the troublesome Scots, General Wade first built roads in the Highlands to more easily move troops and goods to help the government in Westminster pacify the troublesome highland Clans. This in turn assisted Scotlands economy and helped move us from clan based rural agricultural economy to a thriving trade and business based country.

Our cycle route now wound down the back road that runs from Weem to Strathtay, and follows the course of the mighty River Tay – the longest river in Scotland.

Strathtay back to Pitlochry.
We passed through Strathtay and onto Pitnacree before joining the A827 to Logierait. The whole of this part of the route is relatively flat but Robin warned me not to get too complacent. The last section of the Etape Caledonia route takes you off the main road and up a steep climb from Logierait and along the side of Strath Tummel to Pitlochry. It was incredably tough going after a long distance and my heart was in ears again. Thankfully, the really really steep bit but was mercifully short. The single lane back road eventually cuts around the back of Pitlochry but we elected to enter Pitlochry on the main road, which again is all uphill.

MCM #2
I tailed behind both Robin and Anna as we entered the long uphill gradient leading into Pitlochry, feeling very much like a spent force. Having to deal with signalling and checking the heavy town traffic after a day on empty roads seemed to be incredibly tiring, as you are constantly adjusting your speed to go with the flow of the traffic as best you can. I rallied when I saw the final junction that led up to where the car was parked and passed Anna on the main high street before we got to the junction. Turning right I saw Robin meandering his way uphill on low gear and with a final spurt of effort against legs screaming their protest pushed hard to cover the last two hundred meters to make it to the car just before Robin. To be fair to Robin, he was so far ahead of us that he was probably dawdling whilst waiting for the rest of us to catch up, so he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by my second MCM moment….call me childish but it was great! Robin ambushed in the final 50 metres -yeah! (grossly unfair of me, Robin, I know – but I’m a big kid at heart and just couldn’t resist!).

Caledonian Etape conquered – 85.93 miles on my computer (including my cycling to meet up in Edinburgh), 5hrs 25 minutes cycling time – 15.8 mph average speed.


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