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JOGLE – The Scenic Route: Day Three

In-depth
2 Dec 2020
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Day Three of our ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End takes Cyclist up the toughest climb in Britain

Words Marcus Leach Photography Gavin Kaps/Osprey Imagery

The sound of rain beating a solemn rhythm on the motorhome roof greets me as I wake. I’m reluctant to leave the warmth of my bed but I know I have little choice in the matter.

It’s only Day Three of my journey from one end of Britain to the other, but already my legs are aching from 363km of riding that have taken me from John O’Groats, across the top of Scotland and down the west coast to the small fishing village of Aultbea on the shore of Loch Ewe.

Despite it being July, the morning is chilly and rain has been my constant companion for two days. To compound my misery the road immediately begins snaking upwards, giving my legs no chance to warm up properly.

I scold myself for such an oversight in my planning but soon find some inner peace by watching a lone creel boat head to sea, the gentle thrum of its engine carried to me on the salty breeze.

Slowly my legs are coaxed out of their stupor by a road that abruptly rises and falls as it picks its way around a series of ink-black lochs.

A road sign appears through the incessant drizzle offering the simplest of warnings: Expect the Unexpected. It seems unnecessarily dramatic, but will become something of a mantra as the day develops.

I barely have time to digest the words before a pair of young bucks emerges from a hedge, forcing me to stop abruptly. They pause, eye me for a moment, then bound away.

Senses heightened by the encounter I press on, enjoying one of those rare moments where road and elements conspire to give the impression that I’m riding a magic carpet.

I slip along at speed, seemingly effortlessly, dwarfed by the landscape as I ride beside Loch Maree. On either side of me are great slabs of rock that rise precipitously towards an ashen grey sky that, for all its menace, does little to quell my euphoria.

As I swing right, away from the loch, I feel a bit like Alice dropping down the rabbit hole to emerge in a strange alternate universe.

Initially framed by verges of vibrant purple heather, the arrow-straight road soon passes through a narrow tunnel of trees, eventually spitting me out into the heart of a wide glen.

In the distance a series of exposed, rocky peaks looms ever larger, their emerald green flanks leading down to the banks of Loch Clair where a thicket of pine trees and tussocks of wild grass add to a scene reminiscent of an oil painting.

A sudden, violent downpour catches me unawares, leaving me sodden in an instant, but I carry on unperturbed, wondering what will unfold around the next corner.

Bonnie banks and braes

I remain in awe of my surroundings as I ride towards the picturesque village of Sheildaig. Nestled on the shores of the loch of the same name, and with the imperious double-peak of Beinn Alligin – Gaelic for ‘mountain of beauty’ – in the background, Sheildaig marks the start of the one of the most seductive stretches of road I have ever had the privilege to ride, not just on our own fair shores but anywhere in the world.

I thought the climb up Bealach na Ba would be the highlight of the day. I was wrong – instead it’s the prelude to the revered ramps of Scotland’s most iconic climb that provide the true jewel in an impressive crown abundant with gems.

The 40km of road that intricately weaves its way around the Applecross Peninsula sends me tumbling deeper still into the wonderland I’ve spent most of the day discovering. Only now I’m in a more genteel landscape.

Gone are the vertiginous mountains and in their place are rolling hills strewn with boulders leading down to rocky coves battered by the sea.

Hidden among the folds of the landscape are a series of short pitches that could only have been built by someone with a disdain for cyclists.

Each forces me out of the saddle and requires me to muscle my way up their inclines, hunched over the handlebars, legs and lungs straining, longing for just one more gear.

A handful of remote hamlets cling to the wild headland; quite how the inhabitants survive here is a mystery to me. I have no time to ponder my answer though as four Highland cattle appear before me, sauntering along the centre of the road, determined to make me wait before I can continue on my way. Not that I’m in a hurry – in fact I’m content to slow to their pace to afford my legs a welcome rest.

Once past the cows the road bends to the left at the most northerly tip of the peninsula, providing a teasing glimpse of something spectacular ahead, only for the view to be quickly obscured by a rocky ridge. Eager to see what lies beyond the ridge I quicken my pace, sprinting out of the saddle to crest the brow of a hill that’s the portal to an otherworldly vista.

Across the cobalt waters of Inner Sound – the strait that separates the peninsula from the Isle of Skye – lies a string of sawtooth mountains that reminds me of the serious climbing still to come.

For now I have the luxury of a tailwind providing a heavy hand on my back, pushing me towards Applecross. With the tide out the bay is a great sweep of golden sand, the beauty at the foot of the beast that is Bealach na Ba.

A true monster

There are few ascents in the UK that can be compared to their longer, more revered counterparts in Europe, but Bealach na Ba – meaning ‘pass of the cattle’ in reference to the fact that it began life as a dirt track for cattle drovers – is one such climb.

The classic ascent is from the east, the opposite direction to which I’m travelling, but either way the Bealach na Ba has stats fearsome enough that Simon Warren’s book 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs graded it as 11/10 – the toughest climb in Britain.

It gains around 600m of height over around 9km of riding, with an average gradient between 6% and 7%. But if those numbers don’t seem too daunting, it’s the 20% sections that will ensure this is a climb your legs will never forget.

I’ve been awaiting this moment for the best part of three days, and I quicken my pace and ignore the various warning signs as I hit the lower slopes of a climb that’s famed for having the most ascent of any road in the UK.

The gentler inclines at the start suit my build so I push hard, relishing the physical battle to maintain such a high tempo. It’s only when the full scale of the climb unfolds in front of me, disappearing into the distance high above, that I remind myself I’m not racing a Grand Tour and there’s an incredibly long way to go to Cornwall. Now is not the time to burn too many matches.

Settling into a more manageable pace I approach the steepest stretch and it feels like I have been transported to the Alps and the final throes of the mighty Galibier, such is the way the road snakes up ever higher.

A thick mist swathes the mountain, reducing visibility to just a few feet as I make a final push for the top, out of the saddle, heart thumping, face varnished with sweat.

In the time it takes me to put on my jacket for the descent the mist clears, revealing a majestic panorama back towards Skye. I cast my mind to the multitude of mountains I’ve stood atop and struggle to think of many with views as beautiful.

Gone with the wind

The descent to Loch Kishorn is fast, the road unfurling down the mountain after a series of tight switchbacks. I pass a trio of cyclists making their way up, faces contorted with pain, reluctant to return my jovial greetings but doing so anyway out of decorum.

It’s not long before I’m suffering on a climb again myself – such is the nature of the terrain – but this time I get to experience something that has been missing for the past three days: complete silence.

Finally, after nearly 500km, the wind has abated and the air in the forest I’m riding through is still. It’s so quiet I can hear my heart beating as I climb slowly but surely towards a hidden peak.

In that moment I become aware of the tiniest details: the plump little orbs of water hanging precariously from the tips of leaves; the intricate patterns of the moss that carpets the forest floor; the hum of my tyres on fresh asphalt.

A crack of thunder shatters the tranquillity, bringing with it a sustained downpour that provides the backdrop for the final 10km.

I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that I’m unlikely to see sunshine any time soon, instead finding a twisted joy from riding in the rain, which is just as well given the forecast for what’s to come over the next few days.

My joy turns to dismay on the final descent as the rain turns the road into a slick chute requiring total concentration just to stay upright.

Fittingly the day ends at the gates of one of the country’s most iconic castles, Eilean Donan. It’s the star of many a ‘Visit Scotland’ poster but today has a sinister air to it, set against a dark and gloomy sky, a lone Saltire flapping violently in the wind.

Here my mind fills with flashbacks from the ride and I find myself wondering if I could ever experience another day like this in Scotland. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.

• Fancy completing one of the greatest cycling challenges of the British Isles? Check out the Cyclist Tour Finder for bucket list guided tours including the classic LEJOGgravel riding in Scotland, or road cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

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Essential JOGLE kit


No3: Mercedes Marco Polo, from £53,180, mercedes-benz.co.uk

When it came to choosing our support vehicle, we had a number of requirements. First it needed to double as a home for our photographer, as stopping at hotels was not an option during the Covid-19 lockdown.

It had to be small and nimble enough to get around some pretty tight roads, powerful enough to get over the climbs and roomy enough to store loads of photography equipment and provide a comfortable work space.

In the Mercedes Marco Polo we had the perfect vehicle. At around five metres long it looks pretty compact from the outside and is certainly no road-hog, but once you open the back doors and step inside it is Tardis-like in its roominess.

There’s seating for four around a table, with seats that fold down into a double bed, and if you pop up the roof you have a second mezzanine bedroom. There’s also a fully fitted kitchen with cooker, sink, fridge and plenty of cupboard space. There are London flats that aren’t as spacious or well appointed as this.

To drive it is quiet and comfortable, feeling more like a luxury cruiser than a lumbering truck. It’s not the cheapest campervan you’ll find, but then it is a Mercedes so you know that extra cash is going into quality manufacturing that will keep you moving however wild and remote the journey gets.

Thanks

Riding from one end of Britain to the other is a major undertaking, and Cyclist had help from a number of sources.

Firstly, thanks to komoot for help with creating a route that takes in many of the best parts of the country for riding a bike.

As the ride took place during the period just after Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t use hotels or B&Bs, so many thanks to Bailey of Bristol (baileyofbristol.co.uk) for the loan of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome, which proved to be an excellent moving base for the trip.

Thanks also to Mercedes (mercedes-benz.co.uk) for the loan of a Marco Polo campervan, as used by our photographer for the duration of the ride.

Good kit choices are vital on a challenge such as this to avoid unneccesary stops, and I couldn’t have asked for better than the Factor O2 Disc bike (factorbikes.co.uk), Castelli clothing (saddleback.co.uk), Giro helmet and shoes (zyrofisher.co.uk), Sungod eyewear (sungod.co), Wahoo Roam bike computer (wahoofitness.com), Garmin Vector 3 Power Pedals (garmin.com) and Supernova lights (supernova-lights.com).

Nutrition was supplied by Named Sport (namedsport.com) and post-ride recovery came courtesy of Reboots (reboots.de). Thanks also to Hutchinson (windwave.co.uk) for the spare tyres and inner tubes in case of blowouts, and to Ribble for the loan of the e-bike, which allowed our photographer to keep up on the hills when the going got too tough for the campervan.

Finally, thanks to my wife and kids, who proved to be the perfect support crew.