Thanks mostly to The Breakaway, when it comes to big-climb bragging among fellow cyclists I can usually hold my own. Ventoux? Not nearly as hard as I expected. Alpe D? It’s fun, like an uphill roller coaster. The Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo? Si, si, si.
However, one name kept cropping up that didn’t feature on my ‘palmares’, and its lacking left me a little ashamed. Sure, I’d ridden loads of the French and Italian climbs, but what about the big one in my own backyard?
Er, which one is that? The Bea-what now? I’d sheepishly admit to not having a clue.
Bealach na Ba, they repeated. Toughest in Scotland, they said, pleased to have caught me out, pleased at themselves for having completed that particular Caledonian challenge.
Turn it up to 11
I looked it up in Simon Warren’s 100 Greatest Climbs. He rated it too, and pretty highly, the only climb in Britain to which he’d awarded a Spinal Tap 11 out of 10.
The stats concurred. Not quite the length of the big Tour or Giro climbs, but not far off.
Bealach Na Ba’s Stats (Alpe D’Huez for comparison)
- Length: 9km (13.2km)
- Average Gradient: 6.8% (8.1%)
- Maximum Gradient: 21.9% (13%)
- Height climbed: 616m (1071m)
No wonder all those Bealach veterans I’d spoken to looked so smug, and more than a little distant, a kind of thousand-yard stare, as if haunted by mere memory.
And that’s why my mate Andrew and I had landed on the shores of Loch Carron on a cold, wet and very windy July afternoon. We’d driven up from Edinburgh that morning, deserting blue skies, sunshine and relative warmth (a Scottish-tropical 20 degrees), heading ever further north and west, ever further into the thick, grey cloud.
We’d come armed with our winter riding gear (packed away just a couple of months before) and a few nuggets of useful advice from the Bealach vets: don’t start too quickly; pace yourself; remember, the hardest part comes at the end. Halfway up the A9 we’d opened the window and bailed some less-useful advice: because the road is so high up and so exposed, don’t ride the Bealach in bad weather. We’d been obsessively checking the forecast for days and now it was set firm: very wet and windy with possible spells of a little less very wet and windy in between. The B&B was booked, our word was our bond; there was no turning back.
We put casquettes under helmets, pulled on overshoes and gloves, zipped up rain jackets, forced feeble laughs through chattering teeth: if we can’t have a good-weather ride then we might as well have an epic! Right? Forced smiles cracked, their remnants blasted free by the wind, to scatter miles back along the shore.
We’d been advised that the first stretch out of Lochcarron village was a ‘decent little climb in itself’. Thanks to the 30mph headwind it felt indecent to legs stiff from five hours in the car, definitely provided a warm up. I’d already unzipped my rain jacket a quarter of the way up (not far beyond the 12% gradient warning sign).
The rain began to fall as we crested the climb and pedaled our way down what in a windless world would have been a carefree and sweeping descent. (We’d be heading back this way, so at least there’d be a tailwind up the final climb, I naively assumed.) The road narrowed to single carriageway, lush, rain-bloated greenery rising high on either side. We were onto the flat, but not for long. By the Bealach Cafe at Tornapress loomed a big blue sign: this road rises to a height of 2053 feet, with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends, the sign-writer had tried their best to deter us and others, served only to coax ever upward.
Over the River Kishorn, we turned left and onto the pass proper. Andrew had fallen uncommonly quiet; he’d never ridden a climb as long as this, unsure quite what to expect from the road, his mind and body. In the great unknown lurked gossiping demons of fear and self doubt. I had turned a little giddy with excitement, had a pretty good idea of what was to come, a head full of, ‘at least it won’t be as hard as’ [insert big-name climb here] experiences to get me up and over.
We looked up, to face whatever was coming, expected to see the road laid out in some devilish pattern, viciously assaulting the mountainside, but the cloud cover was down to about 100 feet. Wherever we were headed was thoroughly obscured.
We weren’t riding entirely blind. Thanks to our friends’ Bealach experiences, and the profile from climbybike.com we were aware that the first couple of kilometers were relatively benign, the gradient never quite reaching 4%. Perhaps gales are normal for the Bealach but benign this stretch was not. The road eventually curved to the right, I hoped to switch back on itself and deliver wind assistance. No such luck. Back again it twisted, as if bent into shape by the breeze, forcing us on into the howling westerly. This was the section on which, if heeding the advice, we were supposed to be conserving energy.
Bealach na Ba means Pass of the Cattle in Gaelic. We were downtrodden beasts being driven upward by, what, exactly? Egoistic desires? Masochism? Childish, sporting fantasy? We heaved damp air into our snot-wet snouts, steam rising from arched backs. The rain blinded us to what the cloud had failed to obscure; and so we looked down for our landmarks. The road was narrow, barely wide enough for a single car, roughly surfaced, peppered with patches of mud and sheep shit. There was no conversation. Insufficient air in our lungs, little point trying to be heard above the roaring air. The gradient ratcheted a couple of percentage points. I dropped down a gear, spinning a bit, making sure not to edge ahead of Andrew, no need for me to be psyching him out when wind and road were doing enough already.
Fear of solitude at altitude
“Just shoot off at your own pace if you want a decent time,” Andrew said.
“No, we’re in it together,” I selflessly declined his offer, not at all selfishly thinking about the awful and worsening weather, and safety in numbers.
I hadn’t ridden a climb of this length since the Col de Joux Plane on a trip to Savoie Mont Blanc the previous summer. I’d encountered heavy rain then too, but without the accompanying wind and biting cold. There’s something about riding Tour de France mountains. Don’t get me wrong, they still hurt but there’s a sense of the fantastic, as if it’s all part of a game, ‘playing at the Tour de France’. This Scottish mountain pass didn’t feel so playful, as another gust blasted a stinging wall of spray into our faces.
There was a slight (essentially unnoticed) easing of the gradient before we hit the 5km, mark. Now we were halfway, into the serious stuff, not that there’d been any laughing until then. If the profile was right, we’d have a couple of kilometers with an average of around 9%.
We felt no need to question its authority. All we could see was the road beneath our wheels, the suffocating cloud in every other direction. There was no distraction beyond blinking rainwater from our eyes, no grand view, no visual sense of how far remained to climb, no looks back down to revel in all we’d achieved. It was disorientating, claustrophobic, like being trapped in some Lynchian dream (or nightmare, depending on whether your climbing bidon is half full or half empty). You can ride up here if you want, screamed the mountain above gale, but I’ll no’ make it easy.
“Is this as hard as any of the Tour climbs?” Andrew gasped, keen to hear evidence that he wasn’t pushing himself into the red (and over) for the sake of any mere Scottish trifle.
“With this wind it feels a bit harder than some of them.”
That next, winding section reminded me of the Pyrenean Col d’Aubisque, the stormy day I rode up from Laruns, in particular its upper slopes, where the road narrows, weather-beaten and crumbled. Into the next bank of cloud, onto a long, vicious straight and I was on the Gavia, another I’d tackled in manky weather, a sinuous, tortuous road, daring you to creep and crawl ever upward. I’d loved those climbs, and already I loved this one too. Not that the feelings were reciprocated.
Down but not out
My love was soon tested to its limits. It was hard to tell but we must have turned onto an even more exposed stretch, the wind battering directly down the mountain, the gradient easily that forewarned 9%. I was down in the drops, in first gear (a 34 x 27) barely managing to produce any forward motion or the momentum to hold me upright. The wind was throwing punches, violence that felt personal, intent on inflicting pain but keen to keep us on our toes, toying with inferior sparring partners. Its direct jabs were intermingled with hooks. We were on the ropes. And then on the canvas.
When cycling up mountains, being lightweight (63kg for me, another 8 or so for the bike) is usually an advantage. Not so that day on the Bealach na Ba. Another left hook, bike and I were lifted from the road, knocked left and dropped to land unceremoniously in a heap of scree a couple of feet from the verge. I unclipped, untangled and scrambled my way back up to find Andrew sorting himself out having been felled by the same tempestuous tempest’s blow.
My left glute and hip were sore and bruised, my knee banged, my head ringing from the impact, the adrenaline and the wind’s ongoing assault. The trick now wasn’t to keep moving, it was to get moving.
We ducked below another flurry of blows, a wall of angry air and water that added insult to injury, somehow got clipped in and, barely, moving. I was cursing, grumbling about the ignominy of my graceless tumble, trying to convince myself that this was just what the wind did and that it wasn’t some vendetta. Andrew was blowing harder than he had been up until then, harder than the wind was trying to force us back down the mountain. He felt dizzy, lacking of oxygen, his cheeks puffed, bright red. We unclipped and half fell into the shelter of a small corrie in the cliff edge, waiting for a couple of cars to finish their game of race to the passing place. Andrew, hunched over his bike, fiddled with his brakes, came up as close to smiling as he could muster. His rear caliper had been knocked by the fall and he’d been riding with his brakes half on – so that’ll be why you see pro’s giving their wheels a quick test spin after a crash.
Pro tip lodged in the memory banks, the cars gone, inner chimps back under control, we were off and, comparatively, running.
We passed an older gent walking his steel-framed touring bike up the road. He was terribly well-spoken, by which I mean too posh to enunciate, his indecipherable words wind-strewn garble to which we could only offer smiles, grimaces and hunched shoulder shrugs.
“Must almost be on to the switchbacks,” Andrew puff-hollered, his bidon tipping back to half full. We knew the Bealach’s denouement took the form of a series of switchback bends, we’d been told so, had seen photos online. Some said this was the hardest part, others that, as on most climbs, the outside of the turns offered a slight ease in gradient and a spot of respite. We didn’t see them until they were there, curving sharply beneath our tyres. I ran a wide line round the first, zipped ahead of Andrew, grabbed my phone from my pocket and turned back to, well, to curse at my phone for being drunk on Highland rainwater and unwilling to respond to my gentle requests for a photographic memento. The next bend and I did the same, phone still inebriated. I stuffed it back into my pocket to sleep off its excesses, determined to enjoy the last stretch of the climb.
We cruised up the last ramp, rounded the corner and, is this the summit? Andrew appeared out of the mist and cloud, hand outstretched to pat my back.
“Well done mate, we’ve done it. I think.”
On top of the mountain, no shelter whatsoever, the rain was blasting at us vertically, like sheets of shattered glass. We pedaled on.
“There’s a trig point at the top,” Andrew hollered into the hoolie, “we can stop there for a photo.”
My phone burped and laughed from somewhere inside my pocket.
A passing parting in the cloud revealed the summit, a parked car, young couple inside huddled together in a romantic clinch. We interrupted, chattering and excited, like the pestering kids that would one day interrupt and finally end all their romantic clinches.
The engraved metal panel atop the cairn suggested various landmarks to look out for in the far distance: the isles of Eigg, Rhum and Skye, nowhere to be seen. All across mainland Europe there are countless opportunities to reach such mountainous extremes by road bike. I’m not aware of any others in Scotland, such heights usually only achieved on foot. I climbed off my bike, clinging tight to the handlebars and top tube, the wind lifting it up and holding it aloft, threatening to make machine and the lightweight man attached fully airborne.
If the climb had been a test of nerve then the descent was no kind of relief. I would rather have ridden back up twice more than take on that descent in that wind. It was blasting directly from the side and I had to ride down with one leg stuck out as counterweight to keep me upright. Swirls and super-charged howls whipped me to the edge, threatened to lift me free of the tarmac once again. I clung on to the flailing handlebars, braking gently to keep my speed low, fearing increased velocity would send me soaring like a plane at the runway’s end. I was shivering slightly, glad of my winter gear, the jacket, hat and gloves, what I had feared might be overkill for a July bike ride. Not for July in mountainous Scotland. I sung to myself to keep my spirits up, words whipped away on the wind, roared over by close-passing German motorbikes, their impatient pilots equally keen to end the descent.
Applecross lies in a little bay midway along the western coast of its eponymous peninsula, the lump of land that juts from the Wester Ross mainland into the deep-blue waters of the Inner Sound. It’s home to just a couple of hundred people and accessed by only two roads (the Bealach pass which, until the 1970s was the only road there, and the one we’d be taking north and then east to circle back to Lochcarron). We’d been recommended the village pub but were keen to keep riding, to try and generate some heat after cooling to a tooth-chatter on the descent.
Apparently, the Gaelic name for the surrounding area is ‘a Chomraich’, which translates to English as ‘The Sanctuary’, and that’s pretty much how it felt. Two cars of tourists (including a Swiss couple gathering souvenir drizzle by driving their Mercedes with the soft top down), and another Geschwader of Deutsche motorbikers, and we’d have the road to ourselves for much of the next 30 miles.
Big ring, little ring
If the theme of the climb had been up, up and (almost) away, then the next stretch was up, down, up, down or, as Andrew put it, big ring, little ring, big ring, little ring. I had assumed the ride from Applecross would be a bit dull, the main event over and done with, the remaining 40 or so miles of our loop just a flat slog into the wind. How wrong I was. The road skirted the coastline, hugging the clifftops and occasionally moving a little more safely inland, its profile an irregular saw-tooth. One minute we were in the little ring, punching our way up short, sharp rises, then into the big ring and blasting (either wind assisted or sheltered) down the other side. We passed golden beaches in hidden little coves, their azure waters surely piped in bulk from the Amalfi coast. We whizzed passed tiny hamlets and single houses, Cannondale-green in envy of the people who made their lives there. If, as Sartre said, hell is other people, then solitude in such surrounds must be pure heaven.
The weather had improved and gaps in the cloud expanded to swathes of cobalt-crystal clear. The Isle of Skye loomed large, the Cuillins’ rough, ragged peaks looking near enough to reach out and touch. The light on the Scottish west coast has a magical, almost spiritual quality to it; I’ve lived my whole life on the east and the contrast is unmistakable. We duly floated along in a kind of dream state. The drive up from Edinburgh didn’t feel like part of the same day, the same world. That climb up the mountain, had it really happened? Such a hell state in comparison.
The search for the missing tailwind
Round the headland, along the western shores of Lochs Torridon and Sheildaig, we joined the A896 for the homeward stretch to Lochcarron. By then we were both feeling the ride in our legs, the 45 or so miles covered doing a decent impression of double that amount. The headwind from the way out would now be turned to tail, allegiance switched from foe to friend. Nae chance. Back down into the drops, the long drag dragged and dragged. Halfway along we caught up with a local chap, a retiree on a hybrid bike, out for his Saturday spin. He was clearly keen on having company, regaled us with tales of his usual routes, all of which were a permutation of visiting a nearby cafe for tea and cake and then calling his wife to come in the car and collect him. We professed a liking for his style, fought jealous imaginings of the many sugary treats he’d consumed, grumbled about the wind having changed.
“That’s just how it is up here,” he shrugged, resigned to it, like a weather-worn Flanders hard man and not an unassuming Sussex retiree who owed his cycling prowess to his wife.
At the crest of the rise we bid him adieu (he was turning to catch the tailwind home, before it changed, his wife otherwise occupied), and pushed on.
Bealach na bagged
The valley opened out, the moorland plain covered by a vast rainbow dome. The pot at the end was the Pathend B&B, tea, shortbread and a hot shower. We passed Tornapress and the turn to the start of the Bealach, joked about trying again, still struggling to conceive that the uphill battle through the clouded vortex was an event from the same afternoon.
We had one last climb to complete, reversing that headwind descent off the day’s 12% ‘warm up’. The wind, as was its local custom, had assuredly turned. My bidon was, literally, empty; I was hallucinating salt and vinegar crisps, cramp zap-zapping, first my hamstrings, then my quads, hamstrings then quads. Andrew had fallen quiet again, fatigue the cause rather than fear, kept losing the wheel.
No worries. Now he too had that one big climb sitting in pride of place atop his ‘palmares’ the one that will get him over every other climb to come (until the day he finds one bigger): this might be tough, he’ll think, but it’s not as tough as Bealach na Ba, the biggest in Britain, in the wind, and the rain.