After watching a video of my sister climbing the last hairpin of the Bealach na ba on a fully laden bike in May and seeing the breathtaking view in the Spring sunshine I put it on the to-do list.
I searched out sportives in the area and came across the Bealach Mor - an epic 90 mile ride with some 9500ft of climbing that encompasses the Bealach and rugged coastline around the Applecross peninsula in the Northwest Highlands.
On a fair weather day this would be a monumental challenge and as September drew closer I wondered what on earth I had signed up for. So when I received the email from Hands On Events to say that the current weather forecast was for 80mph winds at the top of the Bealach, up to 30mph at sea level with considerably stronger gusts and cloud level down to 200m I could have wept.
Had I not planned to do the ride with a friend then I wouldn’t have even contemplated going - I mumbled all the way in the car about how much I didn’t want to take part but it fell on deaf ears. I secretly prayed that the warnings came true and the event would be cancelled.
No such luck.
Geared up in longs and waterproofs we made our way to the start line in Kinlochewe. It was grey, it was raining and it was a bit breezy but the temperature at least had the good grace to remain above 10 degrees.
I briefly mocked Ross’ new white overshoes that wouldn’t look out of place on a piper at the Military Tattoo until I realised I hadn’t packed mine. Boy, was I going to get wet feet.
We picked up our timing chips and were informed that the 25mile section over the Bealach and onto the peninsula had been taken out as it was too dangerous in the conditions, thereby knocking a considerable chunk off the total elevation. I was soon to find out that the course would be plenty difficult as it was.
We set off from Kinlochewe and straight into the first climb - all 760 feet of it with little to no warm up. It’s safe to say I was nearly burst in the first two miles. Rider after rider passed me, I struggled to get my breathing under control and I made it to the top at an abysmally slow pace. Thankfully there was a long, sweeping descent that followed on round the side of the loch and even in the rain the scenery was stunning. The marshal signalling for us to go right at Achnasheen had a pitiful expression on his face and as we turned off the roundabout I understood why - never in my life have a ridden into a headwind like it.
The 21 miles down to Lochcarron were relatively flat yet we were struggling to keep to a 12mph average speed. There were many groups of riders huddled together sharing the work and a few poor souls battling it out on their own. We picked up one girl who was doing such a thing and it transpired that she was participating in her first ever road sportive. She was reluctant to hop on the back at first as she was concerned she would slow us down but after a bit of reassurance she was happy to get some respite from the wind. We ended up sticking as a group of three for the rest of the ride and I thoroughly enjoyed her company - another sportive, another new riding buddy.
We stopped briefly at Lochcarron to take some fuel on board and met our first group of friendly volunteers at the feed station. Despite the weather they were all smiles, full of encouragement for weary cyclists and the homemade flapjack will be tough to beat!
We had now rid ourselves of the headwind but had a menacing gusty crosswind to contend with and as the rain continued to fall there was no let up in the difficult conditions. Lightweight carbon framesets are good for lots of things but riding in storms is not one of them. I was grateful for the climb out of Lochcarron and onto the base of the Bealach na ba road as, soaked to the skin, I had cooled down significantly in the few moments of stoppage time but I wasn’t long in heating up again!
Thankfully I managed this hill significantly better than the first one and when we bypassed the mountain rescue van sitting at the base of the Bealach it became very apparent that the correct decision had been made in omitting it from the route. We ploughed on to Shieldaig and as we turned the corner into the village I very nearly ended up in the side of a parked car such was the force of the wind coming off the water. We even witnessed a mini tornado waterspout effect skipping its way across the loch and I had to laugh at the insanity of what we were doing. We met another bunch of friendly locals dishing out water and flapjacks and even although they must have been frozen they were full of cheer - I did wonder if there was a cheeky wee malt keeping them warm and made a mental note to suggest this for the feedstops in future.
We cycled from Shieldaig through the glen to Torridon and the noise of the gale through the trees was quite awesome. It was by no means cold, the air was rich with the freshness of rainfall and the purple heather stood out resplendent against the bracken. From Torridon home to Kinlochewe the wind was finally on our tails and we reaped the rewards for our hard work managing to freewheel at an average of 24mph on the flat. We were greeted at Kinlochewe village hall with a cup of tea, homemade bean stew and more home baking than you could shake a stick at - a really nice touch and a confirmation of just how much the locals take pride in this event visiting their shores.
The hall did somewhat resemble a refugee centre for broken cyclists but of the several people that I spoke to not one of them wished they had hit snooze and stayed in bed that morning. It was definitely not a day for heroics and brought riders of all abilities together to triumph over the weather conditions. The organisation was first class and the support of the locals was quite overwhelming. This is definitely an event I will be returning to and safe in the knowledge that it can’t possibly be any wilder without being cancelled!