Many of us work off cycling ‘to do’ lists don’t we? For me, along with the Ventoux at some point, the Bealach na Ba has been on my cycling ‘must do’ list for quite some time. For about 12 years in fact, which was the last time I ventured into this part of the Highlands of Scotland en route to Applecross, then Torridon. At that time, when travelling by car, there was no one attempting it by bike, nor was there the previous time I’d been over it. ‘Next time I’m up this way I must bring my bike’ I thought. In those 12 years a lot has changed, I’m older for a start! Mitigating against this bikes are generally lighter and have lower gears available fortunately for me. What I didn’t expect to see was a lot of cyclists toiling up it in mid October, but there again cycling has boomed, the 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs rates it ‘the Holy Grail, the toughest and wildest climb in Britain’. So is it?
First things first…
The Bealach na Ba is, by UK standards, remote. I’d forgotten quite how remote and when I knew I was holidaying for a week on the beautiful Isle of Skye I reasoned I could just nip over the Skye Bridge to the Kyle of Lochalsh and then make my way over to the climb in about an hour. I normally have quite a good visual memory but on this occasion it had been edited by someone without my permission and my recollection of a draggy climb just after the Kyle of Lochalsh then on to a flat loch side road taking me all the way to Locharron, then shortly after to the climb, was somewhat short on detail. I seemed to have forgotten about four other testing little climbs and about 20 or so miles. On the positive side the ride out is simply stunning with grand expansive landscapes, a magnificent loch and at the start the ride over the Skye bridge was something I’ll never forget. Eventually after about 35 miles and two hours of riding I arrived at the sign that marks the start of the climb.
The road starts at sea level and rises gently, very gently in fact, and for the first half of its 9k it probably never gets much above about 7% as it winds its way round the base of the mountain. Eventually the road starts to head up hugging the right of the steep sided valley and you start to click down through the gears eventually settling for whatever is your lowest, in my case 34×28. It probably sustains 9 to 10% for a couple of kilometres before kicking up to around 15% for a longish section before you get to the famous hairpins. While on this section a descending cyclist shouted out that I was on the hardest bit. He was right, once you go left towards the first hairpin the gradient eases a little and the job is effectively done. Once out of the hairpins the road straightens and the climb summits at a roughly surfaced car parking area.
So that’s the technical description, despite people saying it reaches 20% I don’t think that the climb really gets any steeper than around 15% and in still conditions, which I more or less had, it is, dare I say, not that bad. Easier than Great Dun Fell, Wrynose (the hard way), Hardknott, Blakey, Caper Hill and many others. I went up steadily in around 40 minutes and was surprised that most other cyclists attempting it seemed to be getting off, beaten by the section just before the hairpins. But… I was fortunate, it was pretty still at the start but on the top the wind was strong, the surrounding mountains are bare, the sea is near and I think even a moderate wind would make this climb a different beast. The descent needs a bit of care, the road surface isn’t too bad but the road is narrow with passing places so you need to be a bit lucky with traffic to maintain your speed.
Is it the wildest climb in Britain? Yes without doubt. It is simply without parallel, the top has a similar feel to something like the Tourmalet (if you were to remove the cafe). Not only is it the wildest I would say it is the best, a ‘must do’.
Paul Christon – October 2016
See also John Main’s account of his ride in the Bealach Mor sportive which he did some years ago.