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Big Ride: Bealach Na Ba

Stu Bowers
26 Oct 2020

Is this the UK’s toughest climb? Cyclist rode the Bealach na Ba in Scotland to find out.

We’re a long way from the Alps. In fact, we’ve not even left the UK mainland, yet I find myself roughly halfway up the famous Bealach na Ba on the western coast of the Scottish Highlands having flashbacks to the ascent of the Col du Galibier.

It’s not my lungs, on the verge of collapse, or my screaming quads that have prompted the comparison. It’s the view before me that’s sending memories flooding back. 

Until this point, the contours of the mountain and the meandering nature of the road on the lower section of the climb have hidden from sight the dramatic upper realms that now confront me.

The Bealach na Ba, on the Applecross peninsula, is officially only Scotland’s third highest pass, but because it begins its journey to 2,053ft (626m) from sea level it can boast the greatest ascent of any road in the UK – something that has been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.

The fact that the road manages its record-breaking elevation in a distance of just under six miles gives a clue as to how steep it gets in parts. 

The name comes from the Scottish Gaelic, Bealach nam Bò, meaning ‘pass of the cattle’ as it was historically a narrow gravel drover’s road renowned for being frequently inaccessible due to bad weather. At that time it was the only way to access Applecross by land.

Even today, nearly two centuries after its apparent construction, large signs at the turning from Tornapress off the A896 warn drivers of travelling up in poor conditions. And, to our amusement, a sign warns off learner drivers too. Fortunately, there’s no such warning to discourage cyclists.

Taking the bait

In his book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, author (and occasional scribe for Cyclist) Simon Warren scores this climb as 11/10 for difficulty. It’s the only one to be bestowed such a grade. In Warren’s own words: ‘This is it: the Holy Grail.’ 

When someone suggests a climb is tougher than any other in the country, well that’s just like dangling a carrot in front of us lot at Cyclist. So it’s Warren’s fault that I’m here today, grinding out a rhythm on this arduous beast alongside Kate Hewett, a former rider for Les Filles RT racing team, and local filmmaker Simon Willis.

So here we are. The road is still only singletrack, but thankfully a decent coat of tarmac has long since sealed over the gravel, and today at least the weather is on our side too.

Unsurprisingly there are a few sportive events that use this historic pass. The shorter (43 mile; 69km) Bealach Beag takes place in May, while the longer (90 mile; 145km) Bealach Mor runs in August. But right now I’m enjoying the relative tranquillity of being here without hordes of other panting, sweaty cyclists. It feels like we’re getting the full idyllic experience of this iconic climb. 

I might have spoken too soon. As we turn a corner, a couple are having a minor domestic at the roadside, and a few angrily delivered expletives momentarily fracture the peace.

It looks like a classic case of the boyfriend (though maybe not for much longer) having ridden far too fast, leaving his partner a good way behind, much to her obvious annoyance. 

I notice that the guy is riding a top-end carbon road bike with all the trimmings, while his girlfriend seems to be suffering against gravity aboard a much cheaper machine and is riding in trainers. It’s not a recipe for a lasting relationship, and we try not to smile as our group sails by with a tentative nod of acknowledgement that does little to defrost the atmosphere. 

Returning to the reason for my flashback, the first time I rode up the Col du Galibier (from the Valloire direction) the lasting imprint on my mind was the way the landscape opens up impressively in its upper section, leaving nothing to the imagination about what lies ahead – a succession of gruellingly steep hairpin bends, saving the hardest part until last. 

Back on the Bealach, after a long right-hand bend, the road turns our view away from the loch below, and now firmly focuses on the steep-sided glaciated hanging valley that would be a geography teacher’s dream.

The two sides eventually converge to form the ridge at the summit and it’s this panorama that’s got me reminiscing. Admittedly here it’s on a much smaller scale than the Galibier but the way the road encounters the remainder of this climb feels remarkably similar. 

On the lower part of the climb, the winding path of the road helps to keep the gradient to a manageable 5-6%, but that’s gone now. In the second half of the ascent, the road stretches out into much longer and straighter segments. The road hugs the right-hand side of the valley and up in the distance, I can see it topping out with a final flurry of hairpins, just like the French monster. We’ll need to keep something in reserve for those. 

Simon, the only one of our trio to have ridden the climb before, has already forewarned us of just how steep it gets near the top. He has proven to be a fountain of local knowledge and trivia, and until now he has been in full flow, but the gradient has finally stilled his tongue. He’s finding the going tough, as are we all.

The slope is hovering around 8% with occasional spikes of up to 12% just to put the boot in, with nothing to break up the persistence of the climb. 

I’m lost in my own thoughts, my legs turning metronomic circles, when I eventually glance up and realise the end is in sight. I can see Huw, our support vehicle driver, has pulled his van over in the lay-by at the top of climb. It doesn’t look very far above us, but our route to the summit is far from direct and gradients of up to 20% lurk in these final twists and turns. 

Somewhat disappointingly, there’s no response from my rear derailleur as I press the electronic shift button on my Record EPS lever, searching for one more gear to ease the burden on my legs. Even with the benefit of compact gearing, the chain is already nestled on the largest cassette sprocket.

Spectacular spectacle

Summiting the Bealach na Ba is a rewarding experience. I’d imagine it would be a pretty bleak place up here when the weather closes in, so I’m thankful we are blessed with only partly cloudy skies and even though we all choose to stick on a jacket to protect us from the noticeably more chilly air up here, no one is in any particular hurry to start the descent. 

We can see for miles. Behind us, facing east, is a stunning vista with Loch Kishorn far below, framed by a perfect glacial creation and providing instant gratification of how far we’ve just ridden, and how high. The westerly view is no less spectacular, with the Isle of Skye and its Cuillin ridge and, as Simon tells us through gasps for air, in the far distance is the Isle of Rum. 

On the way down it soon becomes clear the gradients are much shallower on this side of the mountain pass, which makes for superb descending. We encounter only a single hairpin bend, quite early on, before the road takes a course of long traverses across the open moorland. Glancing down momentarily on a long straight section, through slightly watery eyes, I see my Garmin is reading 79kmh and I’m not even pedalling.

I’m tempted to put in a few revolutions to try and get into the 80s, but decide not to push my luck. This is plenty exhilarating enough. It feels like just reward for the efforts of the climb up, and once we have all regrouped on the final part of the descent approaching the village of Applecross, we're all buzzing from the adrenaline rush and agree that it was the best direction to have ridden over the Bealach na Ba.

It’s now several hours since we set out from The Old Manse B&B in Lochcarron, where we fuelled up on a hearty Scottish breakfast, but having already tackled the sizeable climb between Lochcarron and Kishorn before the Bealach itself, I’m peckish again and I know I’m not the only one thinking about a cafe stop. 

Much of Applecross’s attraction lies in its remoteness, so we know there won’t be many opportunities to refuel for a while beyond this picture-perfect coastal village with its symmetrical row of white cottages. Simon’s local knowledge again comes up trumps. The Flower Tunnel cafe is a gem, and before long we’re sipping hot cappuccinos and I’m tucking into a calorific portion of French toast, layered with bacon and covered in maple syrup. 

The road leaving Applecross is almost as delightful as the food we’ve just consumed. We hug the coastline with the ocean lapping to our left, but being at sea level in the Scottish Highlands can mean only one thing – and sure enough, it’s not long before we’re climbing again. 

This stretch of road along the western edge of the peninsula is like a roller coaster. It’s relatively new, only fully completed in the 1970s as a means to provide alternative access (other than by sea) to Applecross when the mountain is impassible.

It’s more up and down than a decade at the stock market, and I realise I’ve made a mistake in assuming that the Bealach na Ba would be the end of our struggles for the day. It’s certainly a beautiful stretch of road (Kate later recalls this as her favourite part of the ride), but we’re exposed to the wind and the going is tough at times.

We pass one or two houses, but this whole area is very sparsely inhabited and the landscape is as remote as you’ll find in Britain. As we round the northern corner of the peninsula, now on the shores of Loch Torridon rather than the Atlantic, I’m enjoying something of a second wind.

Maybe lunch is finally kicking in as we press on through a series of short climbs and fun little descents on our way back inland. 

Great and the good

Towards the village of Shieldaig it becomes more inhabited and greener. As we ride along the shoreline, Simon points across the water. ‘Apparently, Jay Kay from Jamiroquai owns a house on the other side of the loch there,’ he says. Obviously, a man who likes his privacy.

With one final swooping left-hander, we again meet the A896 which heads southward around the eastern flank of the mountain. It’s considered a main road in these parts, the artery that joins Shieldaig to Kishorn, but it’s still not much more than a single-track road, and there’s no traffic in sight.

So far I think we’ve encountered more animals on the roads than vehicles. Shieldaig itself is just a mile or so down the road, albeit in the wrong direction for home, but is apparently very pretty, so we turn left. 

Just as the pretty row of coloured houses comes into view we turn off down what almost feels like a slipway into the loch, such is the village’s proximity to the water’s edge. We spy a quaint little hut called Nanny’s Cafe, and no one needs persuading to stop for coffee and homemade cake, to be consumed while sitting in the sunshine and taking in the views of the loch.

Setting off on the homeward leg of the ride, we’re faced with a long gradual drag all the way back up the A896, through Glen Shieldaig. It’s perhaps the least interesting part of the ride but we are recharged after the cafe stop and have been joined by another rider passing by, so the four of us put in a bit of sustained effort (which later turns out to be good enough to take KOM in the Strava segment there).

Before we know it we’re back in Tornapress and on the edge of Loch Kishorn, once again passing those large warning signs at the junction with the Bealach na Ba. Now back in familiar territory, and as our new addition to the group swings off with a nod and a wave of appreciation for the company (and a wheel to sit on) there’s a feeling of satisfaction that we’ve now broken the back of this epic. 

Our route, which on the map looks like a slightly deflated balloon on a string, is almost complete, although the ‘bit of string’ does have a sizeable hump in the middle of it which we had all moaned about having to ride up with stone-cold legs first thing this morning. 

It seems a much easier climb this time though. Maybe it’s because we know this is the final effort of the day, or perhaps our thoughts have already moved on to the well-earned beer and a home-cooked meal of Highland venison casserole that awaits us back at the B&B.

But whatever, I know that once I have a drink in my hand, I’ll raise a small toast to Mr Warren, whose desire to seek out the ‘Holy Grail’ of British climbs brought us here in the first place.

How we got there

Getting there 

Lochcarron is about an 85-mile drive north-west of Fort William, which is around a two-hour drive from either Glasgow or Inverness airports. Perhaps the most enjoyable way to get there from the far south is by sleeper train. The Caledonian Sleeper (scotrail.co.uk) goes overnight from London Euston to Fort William. Prices start at around £100 one way. If you’re not driving, you’re best off renting a car for the final part of the journey to access the rugged western peninsula. 

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at The Old Manse Guesthouse in Lochcarron, a restored vicarage where hosts Stuart and Susan provided a warm welcome, comfortable rooms, somewhere to store the bikes and plenty of hearty Scottish cuisine, not to mention the added bonus of fantastic loch-side views. Evening meals were optional (and come highly recommended) at a very reasonable cost. Rooms from £30 per person incl. breakfast. (theoldmanselochcarron.com)

Thanks

To Ben and Dougie at Nevis Cycles in Fort William (neviscycles.com) for the use of their workshop and a heap of invaluable local knowledge. Also to Simon Willis of Sunart Media (sunartmedia.com) for help with planning and logistics. Finally to Huw, our heroic support vehicle driver.

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