Whoosh 2023, Day 1: Perth to Braemar, 54 miles of riding, 2,444 feet of climbing.

It was perhaps a mile before the summit of the Cairnwell Pass, around 2,000 feet up in the Cairngorms, that I pulled past Mark. A friendly, sociable regular rider over Whoosh’s 20 years, I would nearly always expect him to make an observation of shout a greeting if I passed him. But on this occasion it was clear that, after miles of climbing, Mark was aware of nothing but the basics – the grey strip of upward-sloping tarmac and the need to keep his legs turning. He kept staring resolutely ahead.

That climb had, I know, occupied the thoughts of many of the 28 people participating in this year’s annual Whoosh charity fundraising ride in the weeks running up to Friday’s first full day of riding. The pass’s summit is 2,200 feet – 670m – above sea level. That makes the A93 road over it the UK’s highest main road. The last section of the miles of climbing to reach the top has a gradient of 12 per cent. Although it is late April, there had at points recently been snow forecast for the road for Friday.

The ride’s demanding nature made for an unusually heightened sense of anticipation as riders formed up before departure in Perth on Friday morning to ride towards the pass. Riders put on new equipment – overshoes here, extra-thick gloves there – to combat the cold that we expected to be the main obstacle to completing the ride.

I certainly felt, despite having sought to play down the ride’s rigours, an undoubted sense of achievement as I crested the summit and started coasting down towards a brief stop at Glenshee ski resort at the summit. One normally restrained member of the group went further, putting her hand in the air and shouting “Whoop, whoop!” as she rolled towards the ski lodge. There was a definite sense that our effort had garnered some kind of reward.

However, as I laboured up the hill, I started to think about the reasons why so many people feel so inclined to take on such daunting – but voluntary – tasks. The answer is partly, I realised, that it presents a controllable challenge. All of us making the ride today were out of our comfort zones making such an ascent – but not too far. We were able to train, invest in new equipment and nourish ourselves appropriately to push the chances in our own favour. In an often confusing world, it feels enormously satisfying to encounter a challenge one can tame.

I realised as I slid from the summit – at a steady 30mph – that it was an enormous privilege to be able to undertake such challenges. We are blessed to have the leisure time and spare money necessary to support undertaking such optional, if hugely satisfying, adventures.

But there are also, it occurred to me, reasons why people find it so frustrated when their efforts produce no, or an inadequate reward because their situations are less controllable. It is precisely because it stems from matters so far beyond an individual’s control that the cost of living crisis creates such anguish for those worst affected. A single parent carefully saving to manage his or her energy bills alongside food shopping and rent can easily feel overwhelmed when, despite their prudence, energy and food bills suddenly rise far faster than pay. FareShare UK takes food that would otherwise go to waste and distributes it to people needing help in the new, transformed conditions. We hope people will continue to donate, after a promising start.

For those of us riding, meanwhile, the day will leave indelible impressions. We felt the grandeur of the mountains, still topped in places by snow, the sudden glimpses of the mossy hollows created by burns by the road, the call of Capercaillies by the road. All our senses were full as we rushed the last few miles to Braemar, wind in our faces, water gurgling in the river next to us and rain lashing down. Having grappled with the pain of climbing, we were treated to something like elation at the sense of a daunting challenge overcome.

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