Thousands of cyclists have descended upon Inverness to mark the triumphant return of Etape Loch Ness.
Thrilled spectators lined up along the finish line outside Inverness Cathedral, ringing bells and cheering on cyclists as they conquered the 66-mile course.
Etape Loch Ness is the first large scale event to be held in the Highlands since Covid-19 restrictions eased; ending a two year hiatus to proceedings.
Organisers were forced to postpone it three times due to the pandemic.
Around 4,300 cyclists from all over the country and overseas signed up to take on the event with around 2,500 people turning out to complete the monster challenge.
More than £50,000 was raised in aid of charity partner Macmillan Cancer Support.
Riders set off from from Bught Park in Inverness shortly after 6am, heading out towards Loch Ness through Drumnadrochit and Fort Augustus, before finishing at Eden Court.
Andy Cunningham, from Leeds, broke the male course record with a time of 2:42:57.
His time knocked almost three minutes off the 2019 record set by Lewis Macfarlane of 2:45:56.
He was also crowned King of the Mountain for successfully reaching the top of Glendoe summit, a 4.8mile climb outside of Fort Augustus, in a time of 00:19:36.
Catriona Lockie, from East Kilbride, also broke the female course record of 2:55:13 previously set by Alison Leitch of Orkney Cycling Club.
Mrs Lockie completed the course in 2:54:59.
She also took the title of Queen of the Mountain conquering the steep climb in 00:24:39.
Both riders were presented with a special jersey honoring their times for the King of the Mountain stage of the course.
‘We have loved seeing people back on this beautiful course’
Event director Malcolm Sutherland spoke of his delight at seeing riders return to the course.
He said: “Congratulations to everyone who took part in the Etape Loch Ness 2021.
“We have loved seeing people back on this beautiful course around Loch Ness, doing something they love with fellow cycling enthusiasts.
“Not only has it brought people together for the first time in a long time, but it has raised important funds for charities, including over £50,000 so far for our official charity, Macmillan Cancer Support.
“Of course, Etape Loch Ness would not be possible without the support and dedication of our volunteers, partners and sponsors – thank you to each and every one of them.”
‘I thought I would just jump in’
Inverness dentist Rory Scott was among the thousands of participants to tackle the Etape course.
The event marked the completion of his first ever cycle race after taking up the sport last year.
The 35-year-old said he looks forward to signing up to take on the challenge again in the future.
He said: “It was good fun.
“I live here and I have done the route a few times but ever done a cycle race before so I thought I would just jump in.
“I took cycling up last year as all the running events being cancelled, and running got a bit boring so I just got a bike and got on the road.
“It’s a good physical activity, pushing to see how fast I could do it in. Now I can go and enjoy some beers.
“The biggest challenge for me was waking up and not throwing the alarm clock away and getting out the door. One your awake and out the door excitement takes over.
“Its brilliant to see everybody out cheering at a big event. Not see one in a while.
Spectators soak in all the action
Sophie Miller, a book keeper from Fortrose was among the spectators cheering on her husband Stephen alongside their young children Lyla, three, and Lewis, six.
The 29-year-old said: “Stephen and two of his friends are doing it.
“I’m really glad it could go ahead this year. It was supposed to run last year but it obviously didn’t go ahead so this year they have done it.
“They have been busy training for the last three months properly.
“We are very proud that he could do it. He has been road cycling for years but then he decided he wanted to do this crazy race. He wanted to push himself to see if he could do it so its probably onwards and upwards now.”
Cyclist Stewart Geddes, 54, was cheered on by his wife as he crossed the finish line as part of the Highland firefighters team.
‘Turnout boost for the economy’
She said she was delighted to see people turn out to support the event.
His proud wife said: “My husband is part of the Highland firefighters team. They have taken part since the start and he decided he would have a go again.
“The local economy is going to be boosted by these people turning out and its fantastic. The marathon will do the same thing when it comes back in six weeks time.
“I don’t know how Inverness has faired but its certainly good to see people around.”
Zoe MacDonald, challenge events programme Manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, congratulated participants on their efforts, both on the road and for their “fantastic” fundraising efforts.
“What a brilliant day and a fantastic return for the Etape Loch Ness,” she said.
“Well done to everyone who took part, especially those who fundraised for Macmillan Cancer Support – you have helped us to raise over £50,000 so far, with more to come in from the event weekend. Thank you.”
‘Don’t have long to wait until 2022’
Etape Loch Ness will return on April 24 next year.
Those wishing to enter can register their interest online.
Mr Sutherland added: “The good news about this year’s Etape Loch Ness taking place later in the year is that you don’t have long to wait until the 2022 event.
“The next edition of the event will be on its usual date in April 2022, and you can register your interest for priority entry on the website now. We hope to see you there.”