The Bealach Beag


The Bealach Beag

The drive up to Applecross had been an uneventful jaunt through that amazing Scottish scenery we aften take for granted. From Fort William onwards the rolling mountains and lochs had become a bit like the background in The Flintstones – a never ending carousel of scenery. We’d gotten so used to travelling through the mountainous terrain that I thought I’d be underwhelmed when we finally got to the Bealach, but it was an impressive sight.

During the drive up, the climb over the highest mountain pass in Britain had three distinct sections, to me. The first is a long, steady climb that eventually comes to a right hander. As you round this corner you see the next stage rising to the left in the distance. Both of these parts matched anything I had attempted in training. The final reveal comes after another sharp right hander. It’s there that the sheer scale of the Bealach Na Ba comes into focus – the road climbs off into the distance, snaking it’s way up the mountain side with the summit out of view. If it were an Indiana Jones movie there’d be a lost temple at the top – that’s how ridiculous the road up there seemed.

I gasped at sight of it, my heart sinking at the prospect of trying to ride up the same road the following morning. Alec in Helensburgh Cycles had told me that the Bealach was tough, but it was the saw tooth series of climbs later on in the route that would really take it out of me. As our well laiden car struggled round the final hairpin bends in 1st gear, I begged to differ. If I made it over this I’d be lucky to have anything left at all.

Even the descent down to Applecross was intimidating, and I have a long history of throwing myself down the sides of mountains on a bike, both off road and on, but nothing quite like this. The road was narrow, crumbling at the edges, and surrounded by boulders. A mistake would be costly. It wasn’t a case of an accident being likely to result in retirement from the event – it would likely result in a hospital stay or worse.

By the time we’d made it down to Applecross camp site, the thought had entered my mind that if I made it up and over the Bealach I’d happily retire at the bottom. It just seemed ridiculous for me to consider climbing over that mountain and even considering a further 25 miles over the kind of roads that made up the rest of the route.

I internalised this somewhat and made a few jokes about it, but already my mindset wasn’t great. It’s not often that I get psyched out by something like this. Usually I’ll sink into denial and tell myself it’ll be do-able. But this was different.

Jason, Elisha and Fliss put the tent up
Jason, Elisha and Fliss put the tent up

Once at the campsite we had the tent up pretty swiftly and I pumped up the air matresses before attempting to get some hot food for the family down on the main street. Unfortunately I’d missed the chef of the Applecross Inn by about ten minutes. I bought some crisps and nuts and had a quick pint of ale to help me sleep, before heading back and sharing a warm-ish thermos of pasta with Jason. Preparation isn’t my strong point!

I slept pretty well, considering I had dreams predicting my struggle up the mountain, but woke feeling a bit weak. I figured that I’d shake it off once we got over to Sheildaig, where the start was, and got some breakfast in me. Hopefully it was just nerves.

The drive back over the Bealach didn’t help my confidence any. In the cold light of morning it seemed even more intimidating. “It’ll be like the tour of the Moon.” I said as we drove through barren landscape of the plateau.

Shieldaig was a hive of activity, with professional looking cyclists warming up or tweaking bikes and equipment. I had done my tweaking before we left the camp site in the form of removing the reflectors from my wheels. I figured that every gram saved would be a benefit!

Leavingt the car on a verge as instructed by a marshal, we headed along to the village hall so I could register for the event. The event staff were very upbeat and friendly and the whole thing seemed very well organised.

After I had my number and “dibber”  (the electronic tag for timing me), we popped into a small pub for some food. I’d wanted something substantial for carbs, with some eggs for the protein, but bacon rolls were all they were making that day. The staff were vague, disorganised, and the prices were very steep, but I suppose a remote village pub can support itself well by scalping out of town’ers when it gets the chance. Still, the bacon rolls were good and were filling enough.

Since you could start from 10:30 to 11:00 I wasn’t in any rush, and figured I’d start later so as not to be in the way of the big guns. The event started as we were leaving the bar and the first packs of riders streamed past at quite some pace. Even the sound of all their wheels spinning in concert was intimidating enough that I was glad I’d opted to wait.

Taking my bike off the car I put my number on and got it ready with an increasing sense of urgency as the stream of riders started to thin out. I didn’t want to start so far behind the pack that I’d never have anyone to ride with, but unfortunately that proved to be the case. Once we’d traipsed back to the start line and I’d said goodbye to the family, I set off to plough a lone furrow. It was like Pedal for Scotland all over again but without the rain!

I’d hoped that after a couple of miles I’d warm to the task and stop feeling as if I had no energy, but it was tough going. Every time I tried to spin a high gear I just had nothing to give and I started to doubt whether I had any hope of making it over the Bealach Na Ba, never mind finishing the event. Two guys flew past me just three miles from Shieldaig and continued off into the distance. I did think for a second about trying to get on their back wheels, but held myself back as I didn’t want to burn any more energy than necessary before hitting the big climbs.

Still, I kept at it, and eventually caught site of two lads who had passed me. One of them had a puncture and they were both working frantically to fix it. I nodded sympathetically as I passed and wondered how far I’d get before they passed me again. The answer would be about 3km, but when they were just 100 metres beyond me the same lad got another puncture.

I slowed down to see if I could help and the one without the puncture asked if he could borrow a spare inner tube. I reluctantly handed one over, knowing it would leave me with just the one, but that I had a spare in the tent at Applecross if I made it that far.

“You best press on, mate – you don’t want to miss the cut-off.” The lad without the puncture said. I nodded and clipped back in.

“Cut-off?” I wondered. What cut-off? As far as I knew the road over the Bealach Na Ba was closed until 1pm and it wasn’t even 11:30 yet. With the thought that they maybe knew more than I did, I  tucked down over the bars and pressed on into the head wind as hard as I could with a new sense of urgency.

I made great time on that stretch, I think, but when I reached the t-junction that marked the foot of the climb to come I still wasn’t feeling confident. Swiping my dibber with the marshals at a small bridge beyond the junction I was going through all the fallout there’d be if I didn’t actually make it. The fact I’d asked everybody at work to sponsor me and that this was the first of my challenges for the summer had me feeling that I was doomed if I didn’t complete the event.

First thing’s first, though, and that was climbing the Bealach’. I set off up the first of the three sections I’d divided the hill into the night before, committing to not using the 28 tooth cog at the back unless it was absolutely necessary. I wanted to save that for when it was stupidly steep and I knew there was a lot worse to come. I actually made better progress up this first section than I thought I would – the steepness of the hill actually gave some shelter from the head wind, which was welcome.

It wasn’t until near the top of the second section that I was caught by the two lads with the puncture issues. They thanked me as they went by and I told them they were welcome. I didn’t attempt to get on their rear wheels – I was already in the 28 much earlier than I thought I’d be and knew I was in hard time to come.

My new Endura over-shoes had been rubbing on the back of my ankle since the start, so with the wind behind me for a bit I stopped to loosen the right one before it got steep again. I wish I’d taken them off that that point, because it wasn’t really cold enough to warrant having them on.

Continuing up the mountain I started catching people who’d set off earlier than me. These were mostly folk older than myself or people who looked ridiculously unprepared for the event. One guy was doing it on a hybrid bike, wearing trainers and he was off and walking when I passed him – I don’t think he finished!

That third section involved a lot of stretches where I simply got off and walked. Realising that I couldn’t just quit, I figured I should give myself every chance of having the energy to finish the event. As Alec had warned me about the climbs in the final 15 miles, I figured I should just climb off the bike and push it for the sections that were real killers. There were a lot of those on the way over the Bealach’!

At one point I was passed by a funeral procession, with an officer in a police car at the head asking me to stand to one side and not break up the convoy of cars. I had paused for a breather anyway and stood solemnly by as the hearse and other cars rolled by.

Rob at the top of Bealach Na Ba

Getting near the top I wanted to see if I could climb the zig-zag of hairpins that the car had struggled round the day before, and they weren’t too bad. I was at least riding my bike when the official event photographer snapped me on the way up that bit, so that was good. A short bit after passing him I stopped to take a picture of a man that was trying to do it himself with a Blackberry phone, and in exchange he took my picture. This wasn’t quite the top, but it was probably the best photo-opportunity.

With the photo taking done we rode together for a bit, before I pressed on up the final climb to the summit. Stopping briefly at the food & water stop to have my dibber swiped, I took a jelly sweet from the man there and continued – eager to make up some time on the descent.

Sadly, this wasn’t the way it worked out – a guy about 40 metres in front of me suddenly veered to the right of the road, almost ending up in the gutter. I barely had time to wonder why he’d done it when I too was hit by the same side-wind that came from the open plateau atop the Bealach Na Ba. The skinny road bike tyres strafed across the wet asphalt as the bike acted like a metal sail.

The only way to counter this was to steer and lean to the left as hard as I dared. It was pretty scary and I was worried that the bike would go out from underneath me at any time. There was about a kilometre of that before there was some shelter from the wind, but marshals stood at every corner signalling us to slow down, so I spent more time on the brakes than I did pedalling for a good while.

When the steepness levelled out a bit the weather turned really nasty, with driving hail hitting me in the face for the remainder of the ride down to Applecross. I couldn’t believe how bad it was, nor how many times I almost lost the bike from under me due to the sudden gusts of wind and the wet road. I pushed on in the hope that when I got to the bottom I could stop and have lunch with the family in the Applecross Inn.

As fortune would have it, there was no sign of them outside of the Inn when I got there. I cycled about looking, before asking the marshal at the junction if she’d seen them. She said she had not, but if I stopped for long I’d be in danger of falling behind the sweeper van and I’d have no support if anything went wrong.

It was decision time. I didn’t think I had enough left in the tank to complete the event, but now that I was over the Bealach’ and the bad weather had subsided I didn’t have much of an excuse for just giving up. So I figured I’d press on and see how far I could get – if I paced myself and took each mile as it came then at least I’d be giving it a decent effort.

I headed off round the bay and stopped at the next water & food station to top-up my Camelbak and pocket an under-ripe banana. I got talking to the other riders there and it was unanimous that the descent of the Bealach had been treacherous. “I felt like I was being sand blasted by the hail.” said one man, and the rest of us agreed.

For some strange reason, the knowledge that I wasn’t the only one who had thought it was dangerous seemed to boost my confidence. I figured that to have gotten this far I was at least as good as the riders I stood with, so I quickly pressed on again, setting a good pace along the undulating coastal road. I knew my legs were unlikely to handle the bigger climbs at the end, but if I was going to have to walk some of them then I was going to at least try to get to them more quickly!

Due to me stopping at Applecross and for a while at the food station I’d been passed by the man whose picture I’d taken near the top of the Bealach. Catching him and his friend again, we got talking and the pair said that they had no intention of going for a good time, they were just going to pedal along at their own pace and see where it got them. I stayed with them for a while before deciding that as sensible as that sounded, I still had make the journey back home after the event was over so the earlier I finished the better!

I left them behind and after a while by myself I was caught by a professional looking couple who had fancy bikes and all the gear. He was clearly sand-bagging for her and both of them were faster than me on the climbs. I was braver than both of them on any descents, so we ended up in a bit of a yo-yo battle until they stopped to pick up something they saw on the road. This was probably just as well, as I realised that the cat & mouse game had made me push a bit harder than I intended.

Next up was an older guy from Tiree, who’d last attempted the Bealach Beag ten years previously. He was on a hybrid bike with skinny tyres. He was pretty good on the climbs, as I found out when I tried to leave him behind a couple of times. I lost him on a steady descent, but shortly after I stopped to sort myself out with an energy bar and he caught me again.

At this point we caught a group of guys who were all a bit older than me, but younger than the man from Tiree, and stayed with them for a few miles until a steep & steady climb. I was a bit faster than them in the 28 and left them behind, although I was starting to feel some twinges in my quads. I had worried earlier in the day that my decision to raise my saddle by about 1cm the week before might be stretching my quads out too far. Having watched the pedal stroke of the couple I’d been riding with earlier, it did seem that they weren’t extending their legs as much as I was mine.

A few climbs later, round about the 9 miles to go mark, and bang, both of my quads cramped solid as I got out of the saddle to stretch my back out on a climb. The pain was excruciating, causing me to grind to a halt and fall to the side of the road, unclipping my left foot in just enough time to save myself.

One of the older guys passed me and asked if I was okay. “It’s just cramp.” I replied, trying to sound like it was no big deal, but the fact I couldn’t stand up or walk meant that I knew it could be a bit of a problem.

A support Land Rover passed me at this point and the female passenger asked if I had a mechanical. “No – physical!” I said. They pulled over and got out to help me. The two marshals inside it had been in the bar in the morning when we’d been eating our bacon rolls and I joked with them then that I’d “Probably see them later.” Funny how prophetic that turned out to be!

I had some deep heat gel on me in case my left knee had seized up, so I suggested to the marshals that I would put that on my quads to make the cramp go away. A medic had also stopped by this point and the female marshal asked him if it’d be a good idea, which he confirmed, not that I had any other option to hand. I liberally applied the deep heat, trying my best to massage it into my quads. It was bloody painful and I knew that if I got going again I was gong to have to take it easy on the climbs.

When the cramp wore off enough that I could stand properly, I got an Allen key out and dropped my saddle back down to the height it had been for most of my training. I felt like kicking myself for raising it up so close to the event, as I’d felt some cramp on my last training ride but didn’t make the connection between the higher saddle stretching out my quads too much. It was a lesson learned – just a shame I had to learn it in a tough event and not a training ride.

As soon as I could walk I pushed my bike up the hill for a bit before attempting to get back on. It hurt, but I figured if I nursed my quads up the hills I’d be able to make it back to Shieldaig – even if I had to walk a lot of it, I was so close to finishing now that I knew I could tough it out.

About a kilometre later and I saw the old guy from Tiree doubled over by the side of the road. I stopped to see if he was okay and he said “It’s cramp – don’t stop for me, son – you press on before you cramp up again yourself!”

I took my Camelbak off and pulled out the deep heat gel.

“Here, take this – rub it into your quads!” I said. He thanked me and did so. I was going to leave it with him, but he insisted on giving me back what was left of the tube in case I needed it again. It turned out that his name was also Robert, and I told him I’d see him at the finish line before I left him in the care of the same medic who had stopped to help me.

Feeling like I’d done a good deed, I set off with my mind focussed on getting to the end of it. Each time a climb was steep to the point of hurting my quads I just stepped off the bike and walked it. At the summits I’d put the power down to try and make up time on the descents. Within a couple of miles I could see the other folk that I’d passed before my cramp set in and set myself the goal of catching them, as they were only a climb ahead of me.

Unfortunately in my enthusiasm I managed to choose a gear combination that put my rear dérailleur into the spokes of the rear wheel, jamming up the back end of the bike on a descent that caused everything to lock up. It was a heck of a fight to bring that under control to a safe stop – I credit the time I’ve spent on the mountain bike for getting me out of that one. I didn’t even want to contemplate the damage – it felt and sounded bad.

Standing on my left leg, I lifted the frame off the ground with my right hand and cycled the pedals backwards to pull the dérailleur out from the spokes. It unjammed itself within half a turn of the wheel, but when I went to cycle forwards again it was clear it was bent at too much of an angle and would just end up back in the spokes again. I stepped off the bike, laid it down, grabbed the dérailleur and just bent it away from the wheel.

I knew it was broken and I knew it would need replaced, so I figured I couldn’t do any more damage to it and all I wanted to do was get to the finish line. To my left over the water in the distance was Shieldaig. I estimated that I was about 5 miles from the end and I hopped back on the bike to see if it worked.

Changing gear at the back was risky – it jumped in and out of the cogs and there was no way I could risk going back up to the 28 again without it jamming the rear wheel up. So all I had was the gears in the middle of the rear cassette and the cogs at the front. The dérailleur made a racket as it skipped about, but at least I could continue. Unfortunately I couldn’t climb any of the short sharp ascents any longer and I had to get off and walk pretty much everything from there on back to Shieldaig.

It was frustrating, but it was pretty much the first mechanical failure I’ve ever had on a bike so I decided it was just another part of the experience I was going to have to endure. Those last few miles were hard going, I can tell you. I’d lost all hope of catching up the guys in front of me, but by then that didn’t matter – simply making it to the finish line was the focus.

Coming back past where we’d parked the car in the morning and into Shieldaig I tried to put the power down so I’d look good at the finish line. The bike made a hell of a noise when I did that, though, so I ended up just coasting there, where the family were waiting for me.

My finishing time slip
My finishing time slip

I had finished the event in 4:42:16 – I’d estimated my time would be about four and a half hours, so given the cramp and the mechanical issues it was hard to be disappointed with that. Especially given my mindset in the morning, although I’m glad I had to determination to overcome the initial anxiety about finishing.

As we stood and chatted with the marshals at the finish line, Robert from Tiree came storming along the road. It was good to see he’d overcome his cramp and got to the end, too. He thanked me profusely for helping him and I told him he was very welcome.

After putting my bike on the bike rack on the car, we made our way into the nearby hotel where I traded my meal voucher for some hot chilli and rice with a token fajita. I wolfed it, washing it down with what was left of the electrolyte drink in my Camelbak, although I wanted some proper dinner once we were back at Applecross.

Leaving the hotel I said goodbye to Robert from Tiree – his younger friends were with him and I’d overheard him telling them how I’d stopped to help out a stranger. The double whammy of finishing myself and helping someone else to do so made me feel quite proud.

I relived the climb over the Bealach Na Ba as we drove back over to Applecross camp site. Strangely I could remember a lot of in detail – the bits where I cycled, the bits where I walked, and the bits where I passed folk. Going back down the other side in better conditions left me feeling like I’d been robbed of a rewarding descent earlier in the day. It is the kind of downhill that you could make some serious time up on in the knowledgethat the road is closed to traffic. Ah well, probably saved myself from mischief anyway!

The view from Applecross
The view from Applecross

We quickly got the tent emptied and down, before heading down to the Applecross Inn for dinner. They had two of my favourite ales on and I enjoyed the best fish & chips I’ve had in years.

We left as soon as we’d settled the bill, making use of Britain’s first unmanned fuel station as dusk began to fall, before the final drive back over the Bealach Na Ba. It had been a long day already and it was a long road back home, but I was content that I’d come all this way and managed to get the job done.