Whoosh 2023 Day 5: Grantown to Pitlochry: 76.4 miles, 3,022 feet of climbing

It was yet another morning when I contrived to be one of the last to leave for the day’s Whoosh riding. I left breakfast late then was slow getting everything together, meaning that I was once again chasing after the other riders. Then, when I found our designated route was turning onto an old railway line, I had a look at the rough surface and decided that, even though I’d by now found another group of riders, I’d take the parallel minor road.

But I didn’t, this time, feel lost or disorientated. I rode my own way by positive choice and, for the long parts of the demanding day when I was riding alone, I enjoyed the freedom. I found myself wondering why, when I have found other days on my own depressing and lonely, this one felt so different.

It was partly, I think, because the decision immediately paid off. While other riders were bumping along the old railway line, I sped in the cold of an early May Highland morning along a nearly-empty, gently undulating road. I made my way so fast that, by the time our two routes merged, I wondered if I’d got ahead of everyone. When another rider turned up, however, I pressed on with him. I found some other cyclists – including some whose pace I knew I tended to match – in a coffee shop in Aviemore. I rode on with them to Newtonmore, from where some riders were catching trains home.

I had felt comforted, I recognised, by the knowledge that, if the worst came to the worst, there were other people around prepared to help me. I was also not, when riding alone, riding by myself. Others had prepared the route for me; helpful people were driving a van carrying most of my luggage. I had the benefit of technology developed to show me the way. I was able to act as an individual precisely because of the strength of the groups surrounding me.

That, it strikes me, illuminates something about the work of the charitable groups that Whoosh has supported over the past 20 years. Many of them act as groups to ensure individuals are empowered to make the best, most positive choices. It is certainly true of the work of FareShare UK, the charity that Whoosh is supporting this year. It distributes food that would otherwise go to waste to people in need of support in the cost-of-living crisis. That frees up their resources to spend on other necessities.

I certainly felt no trepidation when, after lunching with some of those catching the earlier London train, I pressed on alone towards the Drumochter Pass, the 457-metre high mountain pass that lies between Newtonmore and Pitlochry, my final destination. I rode slowly and deliberately, in the face of a stiff wind, over 15 miles of nearly continuous climbing. The surrounding mountains felt austerely beautiful. It was quiet enough, despite the nearby A9 trunk road, to hear the songs of the area’s birds. Patches of still unmelted snow scattered the highest ravines.

I particularly welcomed being alone when a call from the office intimated I had urgently to deal with issues around a story that my employer was just about to publish. I sat down, back against a wire fence, and got out my laptop, unencumbered by worries about delaying others. A horse in the neighbouring field gave every impression of trying to critique the piece by reading over my shoulder.

Afterwards, I navigated a mixture of well-surfaced paths and rubble-strewn sections of old road. The stream beside me was now flowing in the direction I was riding – the beginnings of the Tay. When I was climbing, the River Spey was sparkling in the other direction.

The ride was not all downhill, however. A couple of nasty climbs around Killiekrankie tested my resolve never to be intimidated by the length of a cycle ride. I wheeled at rather less than my usual pace down Pitlochry’s main street looking for my fellow riders.

But I quickly saw another member of our group, who rode me towards the base for the evening. The collective had supported me when I needed it most as it has through all my 313 miles of riding over five days. I was already fretting about a work-related message, the start of my re-immersion in the work life awaiting me in London on Wednesday. The irritation gave me a pang that I would be taking the sleeper train home on Tuesday evening, rather than participating in a final, “epilogue” day of riding, from Pitlochry to Dunblane.

I prepare to head home, however, grateful. It has been gratifying to know that the ride is raising money for FareShare. I look forward to seeing still more donations coming in. But that has not been the only satisfaction. There have also been profound joys in the sense that together we were testing our bodies and endurance, climbing the same hills together and feeling the same tiredness, pain and elation. We are privileged to have the free time and resources to undertake our charitable fund-raising via such activities. But I will not, I imagine, be the only person leaving with a renewed sense of what humans can achieve together.

FareShare UK

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