Over the sea from Skye – the Bealach Mor challenge
First, a little Gaelic for non-natives – Bealach means col and Mor means big. The Bealach in question is the Bealach na Ba (pass of the cattle or maybe col du coos ), and it is right in the middle of a lovely 90 mile sportive in Wester Ross. And it is big – you start beside the sea and 6 miles later you top out at 2053 feet (before promptly going all the way back down to the seaside). It is a mythical road in Scotland – the Highlands used to be full of steep bendy single track roads which were a challenge to car drivers, let alone cyclists (although British Leyland were partly to blame for that) but few remain. Those that go anywhere important (i.e. link to remote NATO bases) have, like ageing movie stars, been smoothed and flattened until their character has gone. But not the Bealach na Ba, which remains resolutely single track, occasionally poorly surfaced, and not short of bends and verticality. It’s the longest, highest road climb in the UK. And one other thing – it is unfeasibly scenic. Anyone who has never ventured to the far north west of Scotland cannot imagine the UK harbours such a mix of sea, sky, mountains, lochs and cliffs.
So in 2006, when sportives were just starting, two circular routes were created centred on the Bealach na Ba. The Bealach Mor, the big one, starts and finishes in Kinlochewe, is just over 90 miles, and totals over 3000m of ascent. The Bealach Beag (the little one) starts and finishes in Shieldaig, must be a candidate for the most glorious and quiet circular road trip to be had in Britain, but at around 50 miles is perhaps a little unsatisfying if you are making a pilgrimage from England. The maximum field for the Mor is 600 and it sells out quickly every year – entries open in December and it takes place in September. It is worth noting that 600 is a similar ball park figure to the total population living in every part of the 90 mile route. And, very importantly, the 12 miles or so over the Bealach is closed to traffic during the race. This is actually vital because the road is very narrow in places, too narrow to allow a bike to easily pass a car going the other way.
Kinlochewe is a very small village at a road junction. Oddly, there is no Loch Ewe, but the beautiful Loch Maree is just a couple of miles along the road. The start is from the village hall, on the single track Glen Torridon road and the village is overwhelmed by the number of cyclists. Not surprisingly, they get a bit fed up of people peeing in their front gardens and anyone caught doing so is rightly removed from the race. As most of the route is entirely out of sight of human habitation, it is quite unnecessary to use one of the few inhabited spots as a toilet. And while we’re on etiquette, discarding litter, especially empty fancy food tubes, doesn’t get you excluded but it should. You can register the night before or on the morning, and get supplied with your number, your dibber, and a card with the route profile and a few helpful and appropriate Gaelic phrases – “I have a puncture”, “my arse hurts”.
Immediately after starting the route turns right onto the A832, starts to climb, and keeps climbing up Glen Docherty for about 5km. The road is now wide and beautifully surfaced, it’s one of the former windy single track jobs, but the famous glorious view down to Loch Maree and Slioch remains untouched. You won’t see that unless you are unlucky enough to have an early puncture, because it’s behind you. (I’m assuming you have entered a sportive because you have some inkling of competitive spirit and a vague interest in how long it’s going to take, and that although you will enjoy the views on the way round, you won’t stop just to look at them. Later on you might pretend that is what you’re doing, but everyone will know that it’s really because you’re knackered). This climb is pretty straight, you can see it rising ahead, maybe at about 7 or 8%. Like every part of the Bealach, the wind is crucial. If you get to the top thinking you have remarkably good form despite a few pints of heavy and a wee malt last night to help you sleep, it’s a stiff westerly today.
Non-natives will already be struck by how few cars are on the roads, and this is even more obvious over the top of hill as you sweep down past Loch a’Chroisg on a road every bit as wide as, say, the A1 between Morpeth and Alnwick. There are moors and hills everywhere, but almost no signs of human occupation. The roundabout and big green A road signs at Achnasheen seem quite out of place, and the village sign is almost as long as the village itself. If you arrive here in a group (and finding a good group and sharing the work is the key to both having fun and getting a good time in sportives) you can even do that Tour de France thing of splitting round both sides of the roundabout, unless your arrival coincides with a rare car, of course. Now it’s flat or occasionally uphill across desolate moorland fringed with lumpy, stony peaks. The direction has turned through 270 degrees at the roundabout, so for the first time you get some feel for what is fitness and what is the wind. All in all, you probably want to suffer a bit here because that means the last 20 miles will be more or less downwind.
Next comes a fast descent to Ashnashellach (easily confused with Achnasheen, it’s another tiny hamlet with a big name and a railway station, or at least stop). Near here you cross a level crossing which is dangerous in the wet – you need to turn a bit to the centre of the road to cross the tracks at right angles (good advice for oblique angled level crossings everywhere). If you are really unlucky you might arrive at the same time as one of the very few trains, in which case, enjoy the scenery. It’s no distance now to Lochcarron village, a long street along the edge of the loch, where quite a few locals are out to cheer you on. The first feeding station is here and it’s a tricky decision as to whether to load up here or blast past. The last miles have been downhill or flat so you probably feel fine, but the fun is just starting.
At the far end of the village, the road suddenly rears up for the first really steep hill of the day, and the happy banter and steady progress of the riders is changed into very heavy breathing and bikes zig-zagging all over the road. It’s a couple of miles to the top then a fast and narrow descent to Loch Kishorn and the start of the Bealach itself. If the tops are clear, you get a few tantalising glimpses of the summit you have to cross and its telecom aerials – it doesn’t look very feasible at all. There is a dibbing station at the start of the climb, and then you’re off – man, mind and machine against mountain.
It’s OK to start – a steady diagonal across the hillside, amazing rocky buttresses to the right and ever widening views of the sea and Skye to the left. Eventually you turn the corner into the start of a long steep sided corrie with an apparently near vertical headwall in the distance. The road can be seen cutting a long straight diagonal up the right side of this corrie, with cyclists strung out as far as you can see. The gradient remains tolerable, probably about 10 to 15%, although you are increasingly at the mercy of a westerly wind. But then, a little hidden turn to the right and the road ramps up to around 20%. Cyclists are dismounting everywhere, and if you haven’t got granny gears on (surely not) you’ll be standing up to turn the pedals and just trying to keep going. The hillside steepens alarmingly ahead but fortunately the road relents and decides to climb the headwall by a series of hairpins. If you haven’t completely blown by here, you’ve cracked it, and can take in the view to the loch now far below, and maybe manage a smile for the photographer. There’s a flattish mile to the summit and another dib then a glorious swooping descent across boggy moorland to Applecross village and another food station. Only the real racers won’t want to pause here and stock up on flapjack, bananas and water.
Cycling looks pretty much like a sport of brute force and fitness, with not much psychology, but this point of the Bealach Mor is a big brain tester. You’re over halfway, the big climb is over, it’s a cruise from here surely? Well no, actually. For starters, it maybe only took ten minutes from the top, but all your hard work has been entirely undone – you are back at sea level. And, you are on the shore and at the mercy of the winds. The route from here twists and turns incessantly, and it is likely that some of the route will be into the wind. Only a pure westerly offers relief. Finally, the road is never flat. Innumerable small climbs and a couple of longer ones gradually sap your physical and mental reserves. On the plus side, there is the scenery (across the sea to Raasay, and on a good day, further north west to Lewis and Harris) and the solitude. You’re back on open roads (single track) but there are very few cars indeed, no villages, and a smattering of inhabited crofts outnumbered by ruins.
The field will have been shattered by the Bealach, and it is now much harder to get a group going. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort, both for physical relief and a bit of company on the long haul round the coast to Shieldaig and the final feeding station. Not many pass up the chance of a quick refuel here, a beautiful little string of whitewashed houses on the lochside.. There are only twenty miles to go, but it’s a steep little pull out of the village, and then more of the lumpy roads that characterise the second half of this route. The last and biggest little climb crests above Loch Torridon on the left, with Beinn Alliginn beyond. Straight ahead looms the upturned keel of Liathach, Scotland’s most magnificent mountain in the opinion of many. A more than welcome fast descent past the Torridon hotel leads to the lochside, and soon after, the road turns right up Glen Torridon. There is a 10 mile sign here, but what you need to cling to is that there are only five miles of gentle uphill, then it’s all downhill to the finish. Straight from the left edge of the road Liathach rises steeply in terraces of ancient sandstone interspersed with ledges of heather – the whole mountain is purple at this time of year. This bit of the road is single track to the finish, which can be a bit of a problem if you have formed a group to the end. The crest of the road is where Liathach ends and Beinn Eighe begins, a very obvious gap between the mountains. Morale rises at the 5 mile sign, which hopefully is the moment to start cranking up the speed for the final descent towards Kinlochewe and the finish line and the last dib. The organisation is super, and in no time at all you have a print-out of your times, and your ticket for as much tea, coffee, cake and stew as you could ever want. The verges around the village hall are littered with hundreds of beautiful bikes and a lot of rather more worn owners, their body language ranging from blissful to shell-shocked. Oddly, just a couple of hundred yards away , the welcoming bar of the Kinlochewe hotel is virtually empty. If ever a beer (in good weather) or a whisky (in bad) was well-earned, this must be the moment. It’s only a bit of fun, you know.
John Main – January 2011