bikebritain News April 22, 2012

Greatest Cycling Climbs No.69 - 'Bealach Na Ba'

There was very little wind, and if I'd have looked up the view would have been fantastic. However, I was more interested in keeping some kind of cadence with my pedal stroke. I didn't have time to look at the Garmin and wonder what gradient the road was. My legs were burning. My lungs were doing the same. I was ascending Bealach Na Ba. This is how we got here. 

The original plan was quite straight forward. On Thursday we would get to our hotel situated on the shores of Loch Ness, put the bikes together and cycle round it's circumference, sneaking in the odd climb as a warm up to the main event an Friday. We would then drive to Lochcarron, leave the car there and head for Applecross. Having ascended/descended the Bealach we would loop up to Shieldaig and ride back to Lochcarron. We might even find time on Saturday morning to go for a quick round-the-block before we left for home. Needless to say it didn't quite work out that way.

First things first. The 'we' was Frank (aka Swazy) and myself. When we arrived Swazy showed me a new facial expression, one I hadn't previously seen before. We'll call it the "I've packed my bike but forgotten my pedals and wheel skewers face". It wasn't a good look. I knew it was serious, so (for once) I didn't even take the piss. He returned to Inverness looking for the parts of the bike that were sitting in his garage at home. I however, having packed everything that had come off my bike, plus a whole host of other bits and pieces, put my bike together and went for a bike ride.

Ride One. We'll call this our 'Round the Block' route.

As you would expect I had done some preparation concerning the non-Bealach routes. Thanks to @citizenfishy and @maisy98. (In his article called Bealach Na Ba: Britain's biggest climb) Rod MacFadyen (ReadingCyclingClub.com) had identified one option that began very close to the Clansman Hotel where we were staying. In fact it’s the road to Abriachan that ultimately loops round and joins the A82 close to Inverness. It was steep, a 200 meter climb in about 2km. Put another way, a perfect warm up. I headed off and found the start. Ahead, the road just disappeared, somewhere up. This immediately got my lungs working. I committed not to drop into the lowest gear to start with. That would be poor form. The gradient increased, clocking 17% at its steepest point. I rounded one corner to find a pretty little waterfall and took in the view of Loch Ness. However, there wasn't much to see since the cloud cover was pretty low. 

I continued up for another 10 minutes or so past the junction for Foxhole and cycled across the undulating hills on top of the ridge. I reached the wood at the end and stated to descend. Unfortunately, with the road being not much more than a Tarmac track I was not able to make full use of the downhill. I didn't want to hammer down and end up in the pine trees due to some over exuberance. Besides, I had my nice wheels with me. I joined the A82 and headed back to the hotel as Frank was now waiting for me with his new purchases fitted and ready to go. That ride had definitely blown the cobwebs away.

Ride Two. We'll call this the 'Hilly Loop'.

Picking Frank up we headed in the opposite direction, down the A82 towards Drumnadrochit. With the wind behind us we made speedy progress. The advice I had been given from @citizenfishy, @Maisy98, @CityInvernessCC and my Dad all said the same thing; the A82 was a dangerous road. They were all correct. The less time we spent on this road the better. A ride around Loch Ness using this road would not have been a good idea. (Besides, with Frank's unplanned need for pedals and skewers, we didn’t have sufficient time). We headed off in the direction of the A833 because it looked like you could loop round and return to Inverness approaching from the West. We were greeted with a 15% incline. This turned out to be another 200 meter climb over the course of about 3 km. From the top we undulated gently until we hit a glorious downhill stretch. One minor incline later we enjoyed another lengthy downhill. The Zipps loved that and so did I! We slightly overshot the turning for Foxhole and doubled back. It was here I noticed my right hand pedal wasn’t looking good. To be more precise it also wasn’t feeling good; there was significant pronation as it rotated. On closer inspection, I realised in my haste to start cycling I had not screwed the pedal home properly and it was now bent, half in and half out of the crank. Of course, I didn’t have a 15mm pedal spanner with me either. Plus we were close to being in the middle of nowhere. Good work Jonathan. This was definitely going to be a problem because it was close to being unrideable. There were two houses round the next bend; I decided to introduce myself to the locals.

The occupants of the first house provided me with an adjustable wrench which was along the right lines, but the jaws were too large. I thanked them for their time and they suggested I go next door to Gwyn's house. I found Gwyn, a chatty lady in her middle ages. She looked mildly bemused when I asked her for a pedal spanner but lead us to the back of an old Land Rover (short wheel-base), that 'had tools in it'. Bingo! A 15mm spanner. I managed to wind the pedal in a few revolutions more but it didn’t look great. Nevertheless, it would be enough to get me back and I could assess it from there. I was going up the Bealach, one way or another. 

The rest of the ride we took it steady, despite climbing another 130 meters or so. The pedal was better, but still not right. We coasted to the Abriachan junction with Foxhole and descended the road I had climbed a couple of hours ago. Turning a tight right, we joined the A82 for a couple of clicks and headed for 'home'. It was starting to rain, but I had to sort the pedal out one way or another. I took it completely out and then re-threaded it. It was out of shape, but I wound it in very tightly. It was not right, but it was a major improvement from before. It would do for tomorrow. Day One done, accruing about 500 meters of climbing, albeit not the day we had intended. 

Ride Three. We'll call this 'Bealach Na Ba'.

So this was it. Friday 20th April. Bealach Na Ba. It was a 90 minute drive from the hotel and we were on the road by 09.00. As we approached  Lochcarron, the landscape was becoming more and more dramatic - the mountains were getting larger and larger. Most had snow at their summit. We were getting excited and nervous. Parking up, we found a remote spot so we could 'do a Westmoorland' (meaning change in 'public'). Bikes readied, we headed off.....straight into a 14% incline out of Lochcarron. No one had mentioned this! 120 meters vertical. We coasted down the other side and went through the 'blink and you'd miss it' hamlet of Kishorn. Riding besides Loch Kishorn we saw the Bealach opposite, waiting for us. After a few photos to herald the start we were off. 

We knew the first mile would be gentle. The road was narrow and the surface poor, but nothing too concerning. The road weaved around the base of the mountain and the gradient steadily increased. We were climbing at a steady 5%. It was cloudy but visibility was good with no sign of rain. A couple of cars over took us, but aside from the sheep we were alone. Frank and I shared a few words but we were both taking in the scenery. Another mile and the gradient increased again. It was a 10% average now. I wasn’t sure whether it was a good idea to keep checking the Garmin. About 3 miles up the gradient climbed past 10%. This was the first time the legs started to feel the hill. More was to come because the road just kept going up. I remembered how I dealt with the Puig Major in Mallorca - concentrate and just keep grinding it out. There was a right hand bend ahead and unbeknown to us, this was a real marker. This is where it really got tasty. The road now traversed the side of the mountain and it was getting perceptively steeper. I looked at the Garmin for the last time - 15%. Climbing this face of the mountain was hardest. The hairpins were (relatively) ok because of the relief between corners. But here, all you could do was slog it. I was losing speed, my legs were burning and I was chewing my tongue off. My breathing was hard - this was the challenge I had expected. I targeted a random rock every 50 meters or so to keep focussed, short term. I will climb this hill I said to myself. Stopping was not an option. Eventually, the hairpins came into sight. We crawled towards them. I was more bent out of shape than Frank. He seemed to be ok. Reaching the hairpins we knew the back of the climb had been broken. The climb between turn two and three was still pretty steep but you could taste the summit. It was ours for the taking. Spying the car park, we agreed that would rank as 'the top'. After taking a few photos we promptly headed on our way because it was cold. 10km to the summit in around 53 minutes. 636 meters (according to Google Earth). Not breaking any records there then. 

The descent into Applecross was fun, but it was a challenge for the brakes. With the road as narrow as it was, there was little room for error. That, plus its general condition, meant downhill heroics were out of the question. We eased our way down the mountain just in time for the weather to close in. By the time we reached the Applecross Inn, it was raining hard and we were cold. Freezing in fact. A very substantial lunch later we had warmed up but it was still raining outside. You'll recall the original plan had been to cycle up to Shieldaig then loop back to Lochcarron. However, we were mindful of the weather, and I had in the back of my mind that (this route) might be more challenging than attempting the back side of the Bealach. We elected to 'play safe' and ride back over the mountain. 'Play safe', of course, being a relative thing. 

Frank reckoned this side would be easier and I was happy believing him. For a time he was right. The climb was fairly benign. That did not last. Once the road began to climb, it did so with purpose and was as unrelenting as the other face. I've experienced the 'ramp' effect before, climbing Mow Cop. This is where you're climbing, but you can see the gradient increase again - a step change in steepness. This was also the situation here. Even a Range Rover that had passed us seemed to slow up on this part. That wasn’t good. A little gap had opened up between myself and Frank and he was looking good. I was ok, but there was not too much in the legs. Now Frank was about 50 meters ahead, swinging a quick look to check I was still climbing. I was - just more slowly. Eventually I got to the top and despite the pain in my legs it seemed a bit quicker that way. Frank reckoned we'd climbed it in about 47 minutes. 

We were right to be cautious about the road to Shieldaig. We got chatting to a chap with a Steel Dawes Tourer who has also climbed the Bealach. He was practicing for an event to be held over that loop in three weeks. He confirmed that the Bealach was not the challenge - it was the undulations thereafter. That said, we had still climbed East to West, West to East which meant we'd ascended the best part of 1500 meters from Lochcarron. On the descent we were rewarded with some sun at the vista point near the final hairpin. It was a terrific view. We took it easy on the way back, enjoying the moment. We caught a few spots of rain but nothing serious, although feet and hands were getting chilly. We hammered the descent into Lochcarron and another 'Westmoorland' later we were heading back to Loch Ness. The Bealach was in our pocket. Sort of. 

Ride Four. Again, we'll call this 'Round the Block'. 

This was the same as Ride One, but this time I had Frank with me. However, the weather conditions were quite different because for a good half of the ride it rained - hard. In fact, our legs were numb from the combination of the wind and the rain. When it did subside we had ridden the majority of the top road. Descending carefully onto the A82 we headed for home. Honestly, my motivation to return was focussed mainly on the (large) Scottish breakfast awaiting us. We had, at least this time, earned it!

So there you have it. We made the most of our time 'Up North' and both agreed we must return. It was a terrific couple of days and despite the mileage not accruing as I had expected, we were able to add 'Bealach Na Ba' to our 'Hills' CV. And there’s something to be said for that I think.

Sources: 'Greatest Cycling Climbs' by Simon Warren, Frances Lincoln edition, 2010 and 'Bealach Na Ba: Britain's biggest climb' by Rod MacFadyen,  ReadingCyclingClub.com 

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