Bealach and Back
On the morning of 18th September 2005, a friend and I set out to complete a goal that I had been planning ever since I'd come across it on the Edinburgh Bicycle website; To ride over Bealach na Ba, the highest road pass in Britain. We were starting from a friend's house in Ardarroch, about 3 miles from the base of the climb so we'd have a chance to warm up a little before it all began. Then we would meet the friend in the Applecross Inn for lunch. We pottered along the road, which takes you along the side of the loch giving a full view of the start of the climb and stopped to take a photo of the warning sign at the start.
And so it begins...
From the main road, the entrance to the climb is along what is basically a causeway. This defines the low point with a start height of around 1m. According to the sign, we would be climbing over 600m from that point. So onto the climb. The first problem was my cap. We turned into a headwind that threatened to blow my cap off, and while attempting to turn it around so the peak was at the back I discovered that I couldn't put it on one-handed. Cue the first stop, barely 50m into the climb.
Into the wind...
The first part of the climb is along the side of the hill, gently ascending, although the headwind made it feel a little less gentle. The road is single track with passing places and we managed to get the hang of adjusting our speed to allow cars to pass us when the road widened without having to stop. After the first long slog, the road begins to wind a little and thus turned in and out of the wind. Up ahead we'd see a car that had recently passed us, a small distance as the crow flies, but a fair way to travel in between. In the far distance was a corner which seemed to mark the beginning of the pass. We plodded on.
The wind should drop now...
We turned that corner and out of the wind it felt OK. I was still in the middle ring and surviving nicely. This was not an insurmountable climb. We pottered on further. The road was getting steeper, but we were still within our limits. Above us we could see the cloud layer and it was clear that the top of the pass was going to be within the cloud. We stopped to let some cars past and to take some photos. At this point we realised that although we had escaped one headwind, another one was ripping down the hill at ninety degrees to the first. We realised this because we were both bent double over the handlebars with both feet unclipped just to stay upright. We could see it tearing cloud apart and dragging it down the hill. A most impressive sight, although not really what you want to see halfway up the biggest hill you've ever climbed! We waited until it had dropped before pressing on.
Did I say halfway?
At this point my friend and I had a conversation about gearing. I had convinced myself that the worst was now over and that I would make it up in the middle ring. The danger being that if I was wrong, I might not have enough revs to drop to the small ring. After a little discussion I was convinced that it would be a good idea to spin up a little and drop now, rather than risk being caught out. I duly did so and was eternally grateful; around the next bend the road got steeper again. At this point I was glad that a) my base level of fitness was OK, and b) that I had a granny ring. I would not have made it up with just a double. I also realised that we were not halfway.
I can remember specific incidents from here onwards. I remember our friends passing us. I remember the chap from the optimisticly titled Scottish Photo Tours, egging us on as they stopped for their last photo before the cloud. I remember the start of the true hairpins, and how there always seemed to be another one ahead. And I remember reaching the point at which... for the first time since before the causeway, the road went down. We stopped again to take a photo, and rode on down... and up, to the car park where we were met by our somewhat amazed friends who weren't expecting us for a while longer. Not counting the stops (Auto start on the computer) we had spent around 45 minutes climbing and had (by my estimation) made it up in under an hour.
And down... and down...
After another photo opportunity we began the descent. And what a descent. The bends made it impossible to get up to any serious speed, but the acceleration from just letting go of the brakes was phenominal. I was alternating front and rear to give my hands a break and to avoid overheating the rims. At one slightly longer straight, I let go and clocked 35mph in seconds before I had to start braking again. The only near misses on route were an oncoming car who seemed unsure as to whether he would stop (We certainly couldn't!). And a sheep which decided to run away from me by crossing the road in front of me. I went past it with one foot unclipped, scanning for a soft place to fall. Neither toppled us and, with much shaking of hands to restore the blood flow, we eventually reached the car park outside the inn. Time for lunch.
The hearty food at the Inn did wonders for us, and having relaxed for an hour (And hung our slightly sweaty jackets up to dry), we wandered outside to discuss our plans. We could load the bikes into the car and be driven back, or ride around the north of the peninsula to complete the normal 60mile route. Or we could go back over the Bealach. It wasn't that bad after all. And off we went.
Needless to say the return was slower. The cloud layer had lifted a little higher and in keeping with the previous climb we riding into a headwind. The triple was essential and we stopped more frequently this time. Despite everything, including the vast lunch, we topped the climb for the second time, and began the descent. One stop near the base of the cloud for some photos (Where a lovely couple stopped to ask us if we were OK ("We saw you coming up and wondered how you were doing?"), and then we discovered that the descent on the East side is even more hairy than that on the West. But we made it back. Grinning like idiots, and very grateful for the baths that had been run.
- 43 km (27 miles) ridden,
- 1.25 km (0.78 miles) climbed,
- 2 hours 35 of riding,
- 17 km/h (10 miles/hour) average speed.
I had met many people who had ridden the route, but I'd not met any who'd done the climb both ways in a day. I'm sure there are others out there, but for the minute, I'll bask in the glow of my own personal insanity.