“There are no big climbs in the UK”, I clung onto to this fact, repeating it again and again in my mind as gravity clawed back at me with every pedal stroke. My breath hung heavy in the close dawn air, the noise of my hard breathing lost into the empty void around me. The road pitched up harder and again I looked back at the drive train, dammit, the 36/28 was already engaged, there was nowhere else to go. “There are no big climbs in the UK”, I hauled myself out of the saddle and prepared to push again against the building mountain.
We were riding the Applecross Peninsula, an iconic ride through Wester Ross in the highlands of Scotland, 96 km of fierce undulations that would show us the most dramatic views of the highlands – before breaking our bodies and almost our resolve. A fearsome route that would also see us battle with the UK’s longest climb, Bealach na Bà, gaining 623 m in just shy of 9 km – a Holy Grail and pilgrimage for road cyclists, tourists and mid-life-crisis victims on powerful Harley Davidsons. Bealach-Na-Ba is a wild place, a forgotten buttress of Torridonian sandstone far from the tourist highway. We were climbing from Tornapress and aside from the occasional foreign car gingerly negotiating the tight turns, the road was silent and desolate, our theatre for a very personal show.
As we slowly progressed up the mountainside it gave me time to reflect on the journey that had brought me here. My love affair with the Scottish highlands is best described as a torrid affair, a deep bond and passion for the beauty and almost sorrowful quietness of the landscape, contrasting with a loathing of the packs of midges that hunt in the small hours. Some memories burn bright, my first sip of ferocious cask strength whisky, clinging to a windy arette on the Aonach Eagach, but many of the finest have been experienced behind bars. Bealach na Bà has stood as a flame to my inner moth, a journey that I knew I would take one day.
Today was that day. We had started at dawn, a ferocious hour on a warm August day, and the sun lay heavy in the sky. The wind was light, barely enough to blow small ripples over the loch. I almost cursed the light winds, jealous that we were not getting the full experience, in this region the wind and rain can be simply violent, channeling down fiercely between the bulks of Lewisian gneiss of Meall Gorm and Sgurr a’ Chaorachain. The single lane road had slowly risen from the shore of Loch Kishorn, gentle at first with each turn providing a new view but also a hardening of the gradient. Now we were deep into the heart of the climb, a long 20% haul that pulled back at us with each dip of the pedal stroke.
Another tourist camper pulled into a passing bay ahead of us, bewildered at our motivation but united in our reason for experiencing Bealach-Na-Ba. Two small children squeezed their faces against the glass as we slowly churned by, standing on the pedals in a show of strength lactic acid soon forced us back into our saddles. As we closed on the summit the final four switchbacks revealed themselves, sweeping ribbons of tarmac that would rival anything in the French Alps. With a final burn to the legs, calves screaming at the sustained gradient we rounded on the summit, breaking the horizon we were over. Rewarded with sweeping views of the Isle of Skye, Rona and Raasay we took a second to soak up the atmosphere before careening down the opposite flank towards Applecross, from the mountain back to the sea – and beyond.
We had battled with the mountain and been both humbled and victorious, and forever more if I hear the words “There are no big climbs in the UK” I will smile and nod, but inside I will always have my day on Bealach na Bà.
Finding Bealach na Bà
Bealach na Bà is best experienced as a loop around the Applecross Penisula, a brutal 60 mile loop that will test both your hill climbing skills and resolve. Starting and finishing at the Torridon Youth Hostel the route initially follows the A896, then ride west to Shieldaig. Nine miles south of Shieldaig turn right at the Tornapress Junction on to the Bealach na Bà where the real climbing begins. After the climb and descent into Applecross follow the coastal road clockwise around the peninsula back to Sheildaig. EDITORS NOTE: for a stunning mid ride break, be sure to stop in at Applecross House team rooms, where the walled garden cafe is simply stunning, with great coffee, cakes and food!
Bealach na Bà Essentials
Height gain 623m
Fastest climb time 37 mins
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Words & Photos: Trev Worsey