The meanderings of an outdoorsy sort of person


The Bealach na Ba Challenge

A View from the Back

Bealach na Ba

It sounds like an excuse but I had had a lousy night’s sleep in the Ledgowan Bunkhouse at Achnasheen. Our room was hot, humid and sweaty as we were unable to open the window because then we would have been eaten alive by the midges. So I lay there and sweated all night, sleeping only fitfully. The building was noisy too; it’s amazing how much of a racket a few people can make in a wooden floored building. We had our porridge and got going early to arrive in Kinlochewe in good time for the start. The starter said “remember it’s not a race”. Who was he kidding? I was waiting in the last 100 group of 500 cyclists lined up for the Bealach na Ba Challenge and many of the 400 in front of me looked young, cool, fit, lean, mean and ready for a race. Many were travelling light, apparently planning to do the ride on a bottle or two of energy drink and a couple of ‘power bars’. So what was I doing there, a slightly overweight 61 years old whose racing days are more or less finished? I had trained hard for this day and had even fitted a couple of 100 mile rides into the preceding weeks, but had it been enough. The start area didn’t feel like an easy going, relaxed ‘reliability ride’ or Audax; competition was definitely in the air along with the smell of adrenaline (or was it testosterone). 

Bealach na Ba

The Lone Piper Plays us Away

A young lad arrived to pipe us on our way, playing really well. This gave the start an authentic Scottish feel (as if the midges weren’t enough); the horn sounded and we were off, in waves of 100 riders separated by a minute or so. The start is a gradual climb from Kinlochewe, just above sea level, up Glen Docherty to 800’ in 4 miles. From my position near the rear of the field, it was a spectacular sight to see all the riders spread out in front with a police car, blue lights flashing, leading the way. Winnie the Poo said that “an expedition is a long line of everybody” and we certainly had an expedition going up the glen that day. I tried desperately not to overcook it, watching my pulsemeter to keep down to a reasonable level (only 85% of maximum). I felt put in my place by three ladies who were having a nice ‘chat’ just behind me while I could hardly breath. It was good to see that the police had stopped the traffic coming down the glen on the narrow section of the road and we were all cheered loudly by the occupants of a tour bus and other vehicles waiting to descend. It looked as if some of the bus occupants might not have been much older than me! Have I seen my future?
The Start of the 'not a race'
Bealach na Ba
Bealach na Ba Bealach Na Ba
After the top, the descent to Achnasheen was fast with groups of about 20-30 riders forming. This is where I made a classic mistake, well known to anyone who has ridden road races. I decided that the group I was with wasn’t going quite fast enough and that I wanted to be in the next group, just 200 yards up the road. Big mistake! A gigantic effort resulted in me bridging half the gap. In the process I produced my highest pulse rate for several years but ended up stuck between the two groups. Try as I might I could not catch up to my desired group and my innate stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to drop back to the one I’d left behind. The situation stayed the same all the way down to Lochcarron. On route I picked up one or two individuals to ride with but the hoped for larger group that I could have sheltered behind stayed just out of reach. Achnasheen to Lochcarron was fantastic. The smooth road goes gradually downhill for miles and it’s years since I have gone so fast for such a long time. Despite the lack of a group to ride with, my average speed when I got to Lochcarron was over 17mph, which included the long climb up Glen Docherty. Near Lochcarron I rode for a short while behind a big guy who had a pair of sandals strapped beneath his saddle. It seemed to me a very odd thing to take along on a 90 mile ride and I puzzled over why he might be carrying them. Then I was passed by a young competitor, wearing trainers, ordinary shorts and a tee shirt, carrying a small rucksack and riding a really dodgy looking old bike. This tells me that it’s not my bike, but my body, that needs attention. I made a quick stop at the first feeding station at Lochcarron where excellent flapjack, bananas and water were provided; most welcome and typical of the high standard of organisation in this event. Passing through Lochcarron was inspiring; everyone was out clapping and cheering enthusiastically, it felt like we were in the Tour de France. The climb out of Lochcarron came as a bit of a shock; it’s not long but it is quite steep as it takes you from sea level to 500 feet in about a mile (just a wee aperitif before the main menu of the Bealach na Ba) The descent is narrow, winding and exciting and soon Loch Kishorn came into sight. The last time I had passed this way was 30 years ago when I climbed the Cioch Nose on Sgurr a’ Chorachain, a classic rock climb. The foot of the Bealach na Ba arrived with a sharp left turn and a short stop to ‘dib’ my transponder. The initial mile or so seemed quite easy and I stayed in the saddle and on the middle chainring as superb views of Loch Kishorn started to open up below. Then I lifted my eyes to see lines of riders hundreds of feet above me going uphill very steeply. At that point I realised that I couldn’t yet see the famous hairpins, so I knew that it was going to be a long haul. In no time at all I had to engage my secret weapon, a 22 tooth chain ring. This meant I was able to keep going, very slowly, uphill without having to walk. As I began to pass numerous cyclists either ‘resting’ or walking in their socks while carrying their shoes I realised why the rider I had seen earlier had brought his sandals along. I passed him as he walked up the road wearing them; he had known what was coming. I realised that it might be possible for me to ride all the way without stopping and I would give it a good try anyway. On the climb the air was still and it felt very hot & humid, so I sweated gallons and swatted blood sucking flies and midges whenever I could take my hands off the bars. I crawled upwards and as the last the hairpins came into sight, muscled my way round to the loud encouragement of quite a few spectators. To them, it must have looked like a slow bike race and it certainly was a challenge for me. As in Glen Docherty, I used a combination of my pulsemeter and talking to myself to avoid going into the red; it was slow going but I made it. After the hairpins I thought I had finished as the road straightened, but a final climb appeared. I wasn’t going to be defeated now and reached the top taking 61mins 57secs for the complete climb. I was very pleased to have done it, but certainly claim no special athletic ability, just the aforementioned 22 tooth chain ring and a 28 tooth rear sprocket. This hill must rank as a ‘killer climb’ by any definition. There are probably steeper roads in Britain and I know there are higher ones (such as Great Dun Fell) but none have such a huge height gain from sea level. I think that despite all the warnings quite a few riders were overgeared, hence all the walking. A cool breeze at the top was refreshing as was the proffered water and I took a few minutes to rest and recover and consider the rest of the journey. The long descent to Applecross was a mouth-watering prospect but any enthusiasm for speed was tempered by the arrival of an ambulance with a casualty. I later heard the rider had crashed on the descent and had to be taken by helicopter to hospital. I hope she was ok.
Beasting the Bealach
Bealach na Ba Bealach na Ba
With a windproof top added to my clothing, I set off cautiously, passing the damaged bike not far down the hill; a fitting warning. The first section is very steep with big drop offs to the side but after a while the descent straightens out and some quite high speeds are possible. It was a thrilling plunge, requiring high levels of concentration, skill and care. I was very glad that the road was closed; a much appreciated, prudent move by the organisers which greatly enhanced the safety of the event. Applecross appeared in no time at all and it was relief at last for my aching, braking hands. On such a nice day the sea shore round by Applecross presented an attractive vista but, with 50 miles still to go, there was no time to stand and stare. ‘Well, that’s the worst of the climbing over with’ I thought, ‘just a nice ride round the coast to Sheildaig and the job’s done’. I was in for nasty shock, as was probably everyone else in this event. The first undulations immediately after Applecross were not too steep, but they were a foretaste of things to come and I lost count of the number of times we went up and down with the hills getting steeper as we worked our way north and then east round the peninsula. The wind, which had not been a significant factor up to that point, was coming from the east and made the going even harder. I used my extra low gear on many of these hills and as I gradually weakened it was touch and go whether I would be able ride up all of them. In the end I succeeded. I wasn’t the only one having a torrid time; quite a few folk were walking on the hills as well as on the Bealach itself. As I was grinding up yet another hill, I heard heavy breathing behind me and sensed that I was about to be overtaken. Next moment there was a crash and my overtaker was lying on the verge still connected to his bike. I asked if he was ok and he said yes he was fine, just combating cramp. I thought lying on the verge still fixed to your bike a strange way to do this. Even on this remote section of the route, the occasional car stopped in the passing places on the single track to let us through and then cheered wildly and banged on the car roof in encouragement. The peninsula road seemed to go on forever, but at last we came to a big ‘SLOW DOWN’ sign indicating that we were coming to a main road and that Sheildaig was not far away. I smiled ironically as I couldn’t possibly have gone any slower without stopping. The village of Sheildaig proved very attractive as did the refreshments provided. I’m sure the people relaxing in the beer garden of the pub opposite the feeding station found it all very entertaining. Again there was much cheering, clapping and encouragement from the locals. We had been diverted down through the village, so a steep little climb back onto the main road reminded me that the ride wasn’t over yet. The main road was well graded and I plodded on in the first rain of the day. it was almost welcome as the whole day had been warm and humid. The descent to Torridon was fast and then came the last, long climb into a head wind up Glen Torridon. I tried to spot the wood next to the road where I had camped many years ago and looked up to the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles on Liathach, once the scene of an epic day’s hillwalking in bad weather. Then it was back to concentrating on today’s epic. I was all done in and needed a lot of focus just to keep going. I had thought for a long time that I might finish in under 7 hours but that point passed somewhere in Glen Torridon; the severe topography of the Applecross Peninsula having slowed me down. Eventually the top of the glen came and a disappointingly short downhill brought me to the finish. I dibbed my dibber and the extremely well-organized system gave me my times, certificate and goody bag all within a few minutes of finishing. With others still coming in behind me, I was pleased to realise that I wasn’t last (I hate the thought of being last). However, I hadn’t finished riding my bike for the day. I “collect” 100 mile rides and had only 96 miles on the computer (5 miles warm-up before the start) so I set off immediately to do an extra 4 miles to complete my 99th 100 mile ride. I hope to complete the 100th 100 very soon. So, all done and dusted, a quick change and we took the decision to go home (only 80 miles); I needed my own bed after the previous night. My wife very kindly drove while I sat in the passenger seat feeling ‘wrecked’ and slightly sorry for myself, but receiving no sympathy as my ‘injuries’ were considered to be self-inflicted. Kathryn had had an excellent day at Kinlochewe Gardens and I wonder if I might not be better off joining her next time.
I Am Finished!
Bealach na Ba
My time was 7hrs 34mins 20secs and my final position in the ’not a race’ was 401 out of 434 finishers. Sixty-six riders were therefore either non-starters or non-finishers. I was 10th out of 11 in the over 60s so there is plenty of room for improvement; clearly there are quite a few very fit over 60s out there. On the hillclimb I was 364th out of 434. Writing 10 days after the event I still do not feel fully recovered. During the event I got my drinking and eating about right, carrying a 2 litre Camelbak and drinking it all as well as the water bottle on my bike. My chicken sandwiches went down very nicely. I didn’t really ‘blow’ anywhere on the route, just got gradually weaker as the day wore on. I am more used to self sufficient rides and I carried too much of my own stuff instead of relying on the food & drink provided. The organisation was superb and can hardly be faulted. Riding close to the rear of the field I became very concerned by the litter left along the highland roads by the participants; a trail of bottles, gel sachets, banana skins and other detritus. I don’t believe all those bottles lying by the road side simply jumped out of riders bottle cages so I suspect they were dumped when empty (along with all the other rubbish). Could it be that some folk have been watching too much Tour de France on TV? The TDF riders dump their empty bottles, but the difference there is that that race has millions of spectators who pick them up as souvenirs. The TDF organisers also collect litter along the roadside after the race has passed. The north of Scotland is an unspoilt, virtually litter-free area. It is very sad that riders are prepared to drive many miles for the pleasure of cycling in such unspoilt, traffic free, countryside and then pollute the very land they have came to enjoy. Surely we all have an obligation to take care of the countryside and take our litter home. The organisers will have come up with ways of getting the riders to alter their conduct as all this rubbish reflects very badly on the both the event and the sport of cycling in general. After the even the organising team had a rubbish collecting trip around the route, I hope such a trip will not be needed next year. The generally good weather was a great help during the day; mostly dry, humid, slightly warm but not boiling hot, cloudy and a SE wind that only seemed to be a problem towards the end. In bad weather the ride would be a very much tougher undertaking and retirement rates would be much higher. I wouldn’t fancy coming over the top of the Bealach in a westerly gale and heavy rain! One thing strikes me as odd; if you call an event a ‘Sportive’ or a ‘Challenge’, charge £25 to enter, provide good support and a goody bag you get 500 entries. However, call the event an Audax, charge £5 for an entry, encourage some self-sufficiency (but still lay on some food and support) and you only get a handful of entries. So if you enjoy a sportive event and liked Scotland, then take a look at Audax Ecosse. I can especially recommend the Audax events in Sutherland and Newtonmore; they offer cracking routes. A hard ride? Undoubtedly! Harder than the Etape du Dales? Certainly! Something to do with 9650 feet of climbing packed into just over 90 miles. I guess many of the riders were surprised and even caught out by the severity of the climbs beyond Applecross. Would I do it again? Well, not this year, but I would think about it if I could go into the event fitter than I was this year, with the goal of improving my position in my age category and beating 7 hours to attain the silver standard. I might be retired soon which will give me a chance to do some serious training (and resting). As an alternative, I’m sure Kinlochewe Gardens are very pleasant.

©Peter Main

Cairngorm Cycling Club

August 2006

The Statistics

Pulse rate (first 4 hours only)

Pulse Graph
Section Time
Section Average
Total Dist
Cumulative Time
Cumulative Average
38 miles
16.7 mph
Bealach Top
6 miles
5.7 mph
44 miles
13.3 mph
Bealach Top
47 miles
11.0 mph
91 miles
12.0 mph
Days Total 101 miles in 8.12.0
Climbing 9650 feet
Maximum Speed 51mph
Temperature 18 - 20 centigrade
Drink 2 litres Maxim energy drink + 2 bottles water
Food Bananas, flapjack, chicken sandwiches, dried fruit.
A re-furbished ‘Graham Weigh’ with Campag bits. Not especially light but very comfortable. 23c pro-race tyres, 40 year old Brooks Professional leather saddle with hammered rivets (‘on the rivet’ all day).
Insects Midges and bloodsucking flies (but only when moving too slowly)
Litter Disgraceful
Traffic Almost non-existent
Support Fantastic – thanks Kathryn
Organisation Superb
The Next Day
The Day After