Local economy is the winner of Britain’s biggest bicycle race

Original article originally published at thesundaytimes.co.uk in March 2011

Preparation for my forth Etape Caledonia starts this week. It is just under three months until I join more than 3,600 other riders to try and speed around highland Perthshire at something approaching a competitive speed. Alas, my annual immersion in nearly competitive cycling has not made a Tour contender of me, but it has been a fascinating lesson in how effective such an event can in promoting cycling in general and an area in particular.

My first attempt, was the event’s second edition. The majority of participants then seemed to have come from within a couple of hour’s drive of Pitlochry, the start town, and there was not much attendant brouhaha. By last year, my perception was that most participants had travelled several hundred miles to be there, and it was not possible to find a vacant bed and breakfast within 20 miles of the start.

My impressions are borne out by the independent economic impact assessment commissioned by Perth and Kinross council, which sponsors the event. It found that 92% of last year’s participants intended to come back this year, that 82% said that the event had attracted them to an area that they had not previously considered visiting and that 69% thought that they would come back to the area for a holiday. In all, the research found that the event alone had brought £1.16 to the area – up from £926,000 the year before.

Unmeasured, of course, is those who consider taking part, can’t make the date and are inspired to visit the area at some other time.

The Etape Caledonia’s appeal is obvious. The lochs and mountains that are its setting are among the most beautiful in the country, and the event’s uniquely closed roads make riding them a delight pretty much without equal. And for all that one might worry about weather in the Scottish highlands, it has not rained on the event yet.

The lack of enthusiasm among some locals for ‘closed roads cycling’ has also provided a surprising boost for the event. Many complained bitterly about the road closures in the early days. In a rural area, where some houses are quite remote, keeping cars off the roads does trap some residents on their own land – unless they are willing to venture out on a bicycle or on foot.

Their displeasure was laid very bare two years ago when the event was sabotaged by someone who deposited a large quantity of tacks on the route. The crime, for which no one has been prosecuted, was an object lesson in how not to do protest, however. It made headlines around the world, and following year’s event sold out faster than ever. This year’s race – on May 15 – also sold out in record speed.

And although it was obvious that the vast majority of those who had opposed the event did so by lawful means, and deplored the antics of the tin-tack saboteur as much as us cyclists, the scattering of the nails somehow made campaigning against the event seem rather less respectable. All of which is good news for those who look to Perthshire for inspiration. The British sportif scene is booming at the moment. According to the annual guide to such events in Cycling Weekly, we have a choice of such events pretty much every weekend of the year from now until the autumn – albeit nearly all are smaller that the Etape Caledonia.

Surely this example could be a blueprint for events elsewhere in the UK (an Etape Hibernia is in its second edition this year). Some may become events that are still being run decades from now. But if they only last through five editions, they will have opened the eyes of many of us to parts of the country that might otherwise remain unexplored names on the map. They will also have forced a great many of us to take our training considerably more seriously than is usually the case – on which point I must sign off. I need to get in a few miles.

TD March 11

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