Sunday 3rd June. Bryan had headed home after the previous day’s sportive, but John, Sammy and myself had met my brother Dominic in Inverness for dinner, then stayed at a B&B in Contin to allow us to take on the UKs biggest road bike climbing challenge – the Bealach Na Ba.
This ‘road’ is around 630m over a mountain, starting from sea level and hitting 20% gradients with a series of straights and hair-pin bends. On a single track road with tourists a plenty to contend with over a near 90 mile route, the day after a fairly hard 98 miles. It was going to be an interesting day.
We started with a cooked breakfast, not ideal cycling fodder, but enjoyable just the same, then loaded the car and set off for Kinlochewe. We were soon there, having driven down the hill at the start of our route, not looking too bad, but we’d soon get the feel for that part of road on the bike once out of the car. We parked up, stocked up on eats and refilled our bottles and got on the same bit of road we’d just driven in the car.
Up the hill we went, John falling off the back, so Sammy, then myself reached the top, a brief wait for John at the summit and an adjustment of his handlebars before we got on our way again. The road was mostly flat, but the wind was against us making us work hard until Achnasheen where we turned south-westwards. The wind more or less behind us, we started to make more comfortable progress towards Kirkton and Lochcarron. I fell off the back a bit, dawdling on a part of the single track road resulting in me being separated from the others by a car overtaking. We regrouped in Lochcarron itself, a toilet break and bottle fill stop before pressing on up the short hill then down into Ardarroch. I again lost touch with the others on the descent (me no likey-fast downhills), but we regrouped before the main event of the day, the Bealach. Far from being the ‘quiet road with hardly any traffic’ that the ‘best cycle climbs’ book claimed, there seemed to be a steady flow of cars and motorbikes passing us as we took our obligatory photos by the sign at the bottom of the hill.
We set off, John and Sammy putting in an impressive pace upwards, mine more reserved, with a quick stop to adjust my left shoe (I’d loosened it off to relieve my achilles) as a group of motorbikers passed me. The hill rose steadily, being a ‘reasonable’ climb for the first mile or so, but contending with cars overtaking or coming towards you down the single-track road making it a greater challenge.
The toughest part of the climb, just before the hairpins began, I passed by a fellow cyclist, on foot, pushing his bike upwards. Determined not to meet his fate, I worked the pedals hard, ignoring my twinging achilles, focussing on John and Sammy on the ‘flat’ part of road ahead (not at all flat, but compared to the incline I was on, it looked to be blessed relief). This was not made any easier by motorhomes, really too wide to be taking this route, coming down the hill towards me, not stopping at all, putting me in fear of being forced off the narrow road. As I reached the hairpins (“if you’ve got this far, you’ve made it”), ushering following cars by me on the sweeping turns, things again got tricky, cars I’d just been passed by stopping for cars coming downward, offering me little choice but to re-overtake them to avoid stopping (stop and you’ve no chance of getting going again on this kind of hill). A few more hairpins and what felt like a level piece of road (its funny how the steeper parts effect your perception) before the final incline and I made it to the top, about 45 minutes of slog done.
A few photos to be taken, I grabbed a tourist sporting a nice digital SLR to take a photo of all three of us, only to find this chap had an eye infection and could barely see the screen on my tiny compact camera. He did well regardless, the photo of the 3 of us not suffering from his lack of vision.
The chill was setting in quickly, so we set off, the promise of fish and chips in Applecross ahead of us. The descent was as treacherous as the ascent, winding down the hill, oftentimes difficult to see any oncoming traffic, and still cars and motorbikes passing in both directions. We parked up at the Applecross inn, fish & chips ordered in the packed bar, as we slowly warmed up. The food arrived quickly, chatting about the various ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ of the drivers who helped or hindered us in our recent climb of the Bealach as we ate.
All too soon we were off on the road again, the next 45 miles or so starting with around 30-odd miles along the coast road. Sounding quite promising (coast, by the sea, its going to be flat…) but it soon turned into a hellish series of rises and descents with little-to no flat sections in between, the wind forever working against you. Sammy pressed on, seemingly unaffected by the Saturday or todays exertions, whilst myself and John were feeling the miles, John in particular. Our attempts to work as a duo were barely effective, the constant switch from ascent to descent making it hard to draft at all. Eventually John gave the team order “push on yourself, I’m done”, so I set off “to catch Sammy”. Right.
A few miles later I caught up with a lady cyclist just as she crested a hill, chatting briefly with her about how hard this section was “worse than the Bealach” she reckoned. At that moment, I was in agreement. Some of the short hills here were incredibly steep, making them feel not so short as you had to work hard to keep any sort of speed on them, resorting to the lowest gears frequently. There was barely any respite to be had from trying to speed down the slopes in an attempt to take as much momentum as possible up the inevitable next hill. I left her on the next slope, slowly making my way onward. I stopped at a junction, unsure of the way, and John was soon in sight, pointing me the right direction. We climbed a few hills, me making a bit more headway on the upward sections, John catching me on the descents. On one such descent, the poor road surface, speed and a BMW saw John barely avoiding a skid into the oncoming car, both braking hard to prevent the collision. We soon hit the main road, Sammy waiting on us. I barely stopped, the midgies were out in force, homing in on me if I dared to present a stationary target.
Only “a couple more hills” lay between us and the end, so I took the first with Sammy, John falling behind. We took a few turns about, before the descent into Torridon saw Sammy leaving me well behind. I plodded on, taking a brief stop to take some photos (and some cakey-treats of course), seeing John in the distance I turned the camera to capture him toiling along the slow rise of the last miles. The ‘its downhill for the last 6 miles’ turned out to be only the last 3 miles, making each of the preceeding “80s” miles that wasn’t downhill torment. Soon the downhill arrived, rain falling in the distance, so I pushed to get back quickly hoping to avoid any downpour. I arrived at the car, Sammy sat waiting on the tailgate just as the rain began. John was soon with us, and we started to load the bikes, hearty congratulations all round for the days efforts. The rain stopped, the midges out in force, so I sought refuge in the car, as a cloud of the beasts homed in on me, the less ‘tasty’ of the group completing the loading of the bikes, the already in car midges suffering my wrath as I swatted them as they landed to try and bite any exposed skin.
Miles done – 89.4, climbed 2,103m, midgey bites 14+. Itchy.
And for those who’ve travelled the A9 to Inverness and been told of the’soldiers head’ in the rock, but never been able to see it, here is is, in all its ‘not very impressive at all’ glory: