Bealach na Ba Challenge 

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Bealach-na-Ba Challenge  -  2006

Length: 90 miles

Ascent: 2,950m

I can't remember where I first saw this ride advertised but it was around April time, while we were 'training' for the Fred Whitton Challenge.  Four of us were interested in riding it, but due to family commitments / holidays it was whittled down to me and Stu Thomson (well he claims to be part Scottish).  There'd be no hiding place on this one - Konrad couldn't make it, so no tandem this time, I'd be doing it on my road bike.

Over the weeks that followed, the Fred Whitton came and went and that certainly boosted the confidence.  Then we started to frighten ourselves looking at pictures of the Bealach climb.  I'd been in touch with a chap from Edinburgh, Richard Bernard, who regularly comes down to the Lake District cycling (and loves the hills - the harder the better).  He'd done the Bealach on more than one occasion and gave us some very good advice (and warnings!) which we were very grateful for.  He also reassured me that I'd have no problem getting over it - we'd see!

Achnasheen We'd signed up for the event, and booked the hotel before we really appreciated just how bloody far north this thing was! It was going to be something like a 700 mile round trip - and I don't drive, so that was all down to Stu, to whom I'm eternally grateful.  The journey up on the Friday was long, but uneventful, and we travelled up in glorious sunshine.  Once we got past Glasgow, the roads became much quieter, and by the time we'd passed Inverness, traffic was almost non-existent (it's all relative I suppose).

We stayed at the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel at Achnasheen, a grand old hunting lodge dating from around 1900, with more stags heads on the wall than you could shake a stick at.  The hotel car park was full of cars, with bikes either in them, on them, or by them.  The hotel owner said he could have sold out five times over, and was obviously enjoying this boost to his tourist income.

After booking in, we headed down to Kinlochewe to register (noting that we had a 4 mile climb to start the day tomorrow).  Registration was painless, we were given our route card, numbers for the bikes, dibber for timing, told about the food/water stops, signed the insurance forms, and that was about it.  Just one very minor complaint, the numbers for the bikes were enormous! but after a bit of judicious pruning, we got them down to a manageable size.

Back at the hotel, we had a good meal of pasta (what else) and a couple of drinks, then it was off for a relatively early night for a good nights sleep.

Up for breakfast at 7am and then back to the room to get changed and apply the Avon Skin-So-Soft (allegedly keeps the midges at bay - and it did seem to work).

The weather was overcast but warm.  At least it wasn't raining. As we approached Kinlochewe, marshals were pointing people in the direction of parking areas.  It was all very well organised I thought. We rode to the start outside the Community Hall, where we were given a last briefing.  The start was staggered in groups of 100 going off at 2 minute intervals.  There were just over 500 riders, and we were numbers 419 and 436, so off in the last group.  These groupings were based on times you'd estimated for the ride.  We had no idea how long it was going to take us to get round, didn't want to make complete plonkers of ourselves, so put down for the 7-8 hour block.  At the start we met Ralph a friend of mine from Kirkby and Dave the owner of Gill Cycles in Ulverston (my home town).  The Avon Skin-So-Soft was a big hit and proved popular!  (Might bring a few bottles up next time ;-)

We were in the last group off (400-500), and I liked the way the starter said something like 'ok - and finally those not on drugs' ;-) The hooter went and we were off, piped out of Kinlochewe by a young lad who I must say played the pipes very well.

As I mentioned, it was straight into a nicely graded 4 mile climb on new road they were just finishing, so it was a good surface apart from the odd small section.  At the start we'd been warned about poor road surfaces.  I didn't see any all day!  We soon reached the top of the climb in a large bunch and descended gradually down passing Loch a' Croisg on our right, to Achnasheen, where we turned right past the hotel and started down the A890 through Ledgowan Forest.  The speed was around 23mph for most of this stretch, and with the big bunch of riders it was effortless cycling.  One or two poor souls started to have punctures and I just prayed my tyres would hold out.  The punctures certainly couldn't be down to the road surface, which was excellent.  It was almost like riding on closed roads.  Traffic was minimal (actually almost non existent), and it was as we made our way down through Glen Carron  that I started to notice the locals standing outside their houses, clapping and waving.  It was a really nice gesture, that was to be repeated all day, all around the course, they'd obviously taken this bike challenge to their hearts.  Equally, the car drivers were waving, winding their windows down, shouting encouragement, clapping.  It was absolutely magic. I thought to myself, with this scenery, these roads and this sort of support, this event could become huge.  The banter among the riders was good too, and we had a good few laughs with a chap from Blackburn (until he left us!).  Into the first feed stop at Lochcarron.  Stu wanted a pee break, so we pulled in.  Helpers filled your bottles, handed you water, some Scottish wag asked where the sausage buns were -  he didn't want any of that vegetarian crap ;-)  Our average speed to the Lochcarron feed at around 30 miles was 19.2mph which was a lot better than we'd anticipated. We didn't stop long and we were soon off again, going through the lovely Lochcarron alongside the Loch before an unexpected sharp climb out of Lochcarron which came as a bit of a shock to the system after all that previous easy cycling.

I think it was at the top of that climb that someone pointed out the bulk of the Bealach in front of us.  Stu said something unrepeatable and I tried not to take too much notice of it, hoping it would somehow look smaller in a minute or two.  We were soon travelling along the shoreline, with Loch Kishorn on our left, and as we looked across, we could make out small dots (cyclists) moving on the road opposite, starting the long climb.  We stopped to take a photo, the scenery was just so good, it would have been criminal to miss this.  We soon rounded the end of the Loch at Tornapress, where it was a sharp left and we stopped to dib in at the first of the compulsory dib points.  The climb was to be timed for all riders.  For the stats buffs, the road climbs from sea-level at Loch Kishorn to the summit at 626 metres in 6 miles.  Now I'm certainly never going to set the hill climbing world alight, so I was happy to plod along.  Thankfully Stu agreed to plod along with me.  As we started the slow gradual ascent by the shore of the Loch, we couldn't resist a last picture or two and thought it might be a good idea if we were in these.

Stu at the foot of Bealach-na-Ba

So, we stopped before the gradient kicked in as we realised we wouldn't be wanting to stop again once it got a bit more serious.

Allan at the foot of Bealach-na-Ba

The climb starts very easily and steadily, gradually rising from the shore of the Loch.  There's a short steeper section that veers off to the right and you can now see the full extent of the climb before you as it hugs the mountain side.  It was here I noticed an ambulance parked at the side of the road.  Hmm.  Not exactly the sort of vehicle you want to see there (or maybe it is!)  I have to say the climb was nowhere near as bad as I expected, but I was prepared for it, I had a triple.  I'd rather use a triple than walk and coming from the Lakes with the likes of Hardknott and Wrynose, I need a triple to get up those, so it's a no-brainer for me to use one. Besides, I'm in my 50's and I'd like my knees to last a tad longer yet ;-) I just took it very steadily.  Stu and I climbed together for a large part of it, but when the long steeper ramp started, I popped it on to the 28 cog and Stu slowly pulled away still on his 26. Head down, plugging away I reached the first hairpin. Richard from Edinburgh told me that once you reach the hairpins you've cracked it, and he's right. A bit of banter with some motorcyclists standing at one of the hairpins, and then up over the top to dib in.  It ended up I'd done the climb in 56 mins and Stu in 52 mins (no records being broken there then ;-)  I must admit we'd  had ideal weather for it though.  If anything there was a slight tailwind at the top of the climb which while perhaps not helping much, certainly kept you a bit cooler.  That climb would be a different ball game in bad weather / headwind (as the chap from Cycling Weekly found out when he did it in June - and never made it, having been blown over the edge!)

Stu at summit of Bealach-na-Ba

There was a noticeable breeze on the top, where we filled up the water bottles, took a couple of quick photo's with the wonderful backdrop of the Isle of Skye, and then began the descent to Applecross.

Allan at summit of Bealach-na-Ba

Once over the top, I was immediately dropped again.  I'm not the bravest of descenders (I think you get slower as you get older!)  I find myself thinking about loose stones on the road, rims overheating, tyres rolling off, pensions to collect etc etc.  Road closed or not, I'm still expecting a car to come around the corner.  So, in no time at all, Stu was basically out of sight!  Despite being pretty cautious, I almost lost it on a hairpin bend about half a mile down, where luckily I 'just' didn't run out of road.  A little further on someone hadn't been so lucky and was sat in the gravel clutching their knee.  Some bits of the descent are very fast indeed and I could just make Stu out far below me from time to time.  The wind on some sections was quite blustery on that descent.  Turned out I managed a top speed of 46mph and Stu 50mph.

As the gradient eased, he'd slowed and waited for me and we passed through Applecross and began what for me was to turn out to be the hardest part of the ride, the Applecross peninsula.  The first few miles were fine.  Fantastic views out to Skye, sandy beaches appearing now and again.  The odd lone house stood near the shore, but I couldn't for the life of me see how you were supposed to get to them.  At the top of one of the many undulations, we stopped for a pee again (must be drinking enough I thought) and were pretty horrified to find we were covered in midges in about ten seconds flat.  Obviously picked a good spot!  So we soon set off again.  The further we got to the north of the peninsula, the more 'undulating' (another word for hilly) it became.  At one point I was pretty horrified to see that I was in the same gear I'd used to climb the hardest part of the Bealach!  This didn't bode well I thought.  The wind was also a factor here too.  Not too strong, but strong enough to make a difference.  We were caught by a group of about ten riders just as we headed back inland round the top of the peninsula and that helped to motivate me a bit, so we stayed with them for quite a while, but that group was fragmenting all the time too.

Shieldaig It was a relief to arrive at last at Shieldaig.  That section around the north of the peninsula had really taken its toll on both of us I think.  The food stop at Shieldaig was a life saver.  Once again the locals were super friendly and helpful.  The flap-jack I can honestly say, was as good as my Mum's!  Made by the local hotel apparently.  After several pieces we were about to set off when a chap asked to borrow a 7mm Allen key - his seat clamp had come loose.  I thought he was behind us when we finally set off, but apparently he had trouble with his bottom bracket unscrewing.  Sorry - we didn't ride off on purpose - honest.  Up the hill out of Shieldaig, I felt OK for about 10 minutes (the flap-jack).  We tagged on to a rider up ahead who said he'd broken two spokes in his front wheel (it was certainly making a funny sound).  We rode together on and off toward Torridon.  He said there was one climb left before Torridon, and I must admit I was glad to get over it.  I was yo-yoing off the back of Stu and him at this stage.  There was a water stop at Torridon, but we rode straight through, and it was here that it started to rain - not enough to bother about rain jackets though and besides, we were near the end now.  The headwind was pretty much full on now, and the long gradual ascent kept our speed down to 12-13mph all the way to the top.  We did start to pick up a couple of riders as we rode up to the top.  The mileage seemed to be ticking off exceedingly slowly now, but someone assured us the summit was near.  About 200 yards from it, I really started to suffer and Stu and another chap rode away at what seemed to me an alarming rate!  I don't think it was them going fast, just me slowing dramatically.  But, once over the top, I soon caught up and we rode fairly quickly down into Kinlochewe and the finish where we dibbed in for a time of 6hrs 22mins for the 90 miles.  Much better than the 7-8 hours we'd estimated.

Once again, the organisation at the finish was excellent.  We received our certificates and goody bag in no time at all, and our ticket for the complimentary bean stew.  The lady who runs the local Kinlochewe Hotel came out to chat to us, and was noticeably interested in how we'd got on, what we'd thought of it all etc etc.  She stopped to chat for about 10 minutes.  It was really nice to be among such a friendly bunch of people.

It was about this time that I noticed my legs were covered in dead midges.  I think I know how that Avon Skin-So-Soft works.  They get stuck in the oily mess and die ;-)

Thoughts on the day...

  • Bloody magic! A wonderful day that I'll never forget - I'll be back next year if at all possible.  Maybe try it on the tandem!
  • I couldn't find any fault with the organisation.  Everything seemed to work as planned, no nasty surprises, and lets face it, they bent over backwards to accommodate everyone.
  • The support for the event from the locals was great to see.  They'd obviously taken this thing to their hearts, so that augers well for it being continued.
  • The roads - what can I say.  I thought some of our small Lake District roads were quiet, but these are unbelievable.  The road surfaces are way better than what I'm used to too, and as for the car drivers, I've never met such a courteous bunch.  Actually stopping in passing places to let cyclists past and then clapping you by as well!  Brilliant.
  • The scenery was superb.  It was my first time this far north and I have to say I was gobsmacked (and I don't exactly come from a bad looking part of the world!)  A sunny day would have been nice from the point of view of blue skies and better photo's, but perhaps we were lucky it wasn't hot.

So, as you can see, we quite enjoyed it ;-)

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