2012 The Bealach Mor Sportive diary of Ron Smith (aged almost 47)

Prologue – The Bealach na Ba in Wester Ross (NW highlands of Scotland) is the UK’s biggest road climb at 2053ft (626m) from sea level in just 6 miles (10km). Taking in this climb, the Bealach Mor sportive runs over 90 miles and features 9,600 ft of ascent. In an attempt to weedle out of competing in the DPCC Hill Climb championships, Simon McGowan and I signed up for this instead…

Here’s the route profile.

Episode 1 – Friday 31st August 2012.
I’m sitting in the TV lounge of a hotel on the shore of Loch Maree (watching la Vuelta on Eurosport) awaiting the arrival of Simon, who is travelling north separately. “Have you seen the e-mail?” he asks me when he gets there. “No.” So he hands me his smart phone, and I read…

“Various websites are forecasting winds up to 65mph with gusts up to 80 mph… …there are likely to be some significant wind speeds at the top of the Bealach… … there is a significant likelihood that we will need to change the route of this years event to avoid the Bealach”

They will be receiving a report from the top of the Bealach early on Saturday morning, so it’s watch this space. Hucking Fell! All that training (and almost 800 miles of driving – one way) for nothing!

Episode 2 – Saturday 1st September 2012.
Dawn pitch inspection confirms the worst, and the event will not go over the Bealach na Ba, instead diverting at Tornapress to head straight for Sheildaig. Starting out from the HQ in steady drizzle and a strong gusting wind, the first 4 miles take us out of Kinlochewe and up ~700 feet. But it’s not until 10 miles in at Achnasheen that the real fun starts. Turning south towards Lochcarron the next 20 miles are into the teeth of a howling gale. Fortunately we’re in a small group (hovering between 4 and 6 riders), and with everyone (eventually) taking turns at the front it made what would otherwise have been a thoroughly demoralising experience much less painful. The roads are remarkably good (except for one ~500 yard stretch, which was in the process of being resurfaced) thanks to EU funding, as proclaimed proudly on the many hoardings along the route.

After a 10 minute stop at the first food stop in Lochcarron, 4 of us head out again full of optimism. That lasted until the other end of the village when the sight of the sheer face that greeted us – 430 feet of climbing in 1.4 miles – saw Simon and me leave the others behind, not to be seen for more than 2 hours and over a bowl of hot soup (more of which later…).

A few miles later, we taste the salty sea air as we ride alongside Loch Kishorn. And then another couple of miles on the bitter taste of defeat as the marshals direct us away from the climb of the Bealach and round towards Sheildaig. But even then it’s not all plain sailing, as the next 16 miles still have 2 more climbs of over 400 feet, along with numerous other smaller “bumps”. Cruising through Sheildaig we politely decline the services of the second food stop, as we still had plenty nourishment on board. At some point between here and Torridon I “dropped” Simon on one of the short descents, but not before he’d had the opportunity to comment enthusiastically on the wondrous scenery (glacial, “U”-shaped valley if you’re interested).

And it was round about here that riders reaped their rewards for surviving the earlier Headwind from Hell, as a massive tailwind blew us north-east past the water station at Torridon and all the way back to Kinlochewe: 25+mph going uphill, and 35+mph on the final rolling descent back to the HQ.

Just under 63 miles in 3h 18′ by my (auto-start/stop) cycle computer (the official timing chip time was 3h 26′ 41″ – including the food stop). Less than a minute later, long-abandoned Simon rolls in. Sadly, he’d had a bit of verbal abuse from another rider for being English (impossible to know if this was intended to be good-natured) a few miles back, being challenged to “show us what you’ve got…”. So Simon responded by leaving the w*nker for dead (said w*nker subsequently rolls in a good five minutes later…).

Talking about rolls – after picking up our official time print-outs in the village hall we immediately joined the queue to be served a delicious, piping-hot bowl of minestrone soup with bread roll and a cup of tea or coffee.

Later in the afternoon, back at the hotel, the heavens open and it absolutely hammers down for a couple of hours. We both thank our lucky stars we weren’t out in THAT…

I posted the 95th fastest time out of 286 finishers, with Simon coming in 2 places further down.

Simon’s Garmin GPS Download stats are here

Episode 3 – Sunday 2nd September 2012.
Still wet outside, but the wind had dropped considerably (although not totally) so – having come all this way – after checking out of the hotel I make the 30 mile detour to the foot of the Bealach at Tornapress and get the bike out of the boot of the car (alas, Simon’s got a 10 hour drive back to Didcot today and is unable to spare the time to join me). I’m not alone. I’ve parked behind two blokes (from south Ayrshire I later find out) who have the same intentions as me, and are busily changing into their cycling kit and getting their bikes off the roof carriers. Two other lone cyclists ride past us and start out on the climb as we’re busying ourselves.

Tools and spare tubes – check! Jelly babies – check! Muesli bars – check! Energy drink – check! Mobile phone – check! (mobile phone signal – didn’t check…). Just after half past ten I set off. The first mile and a half is very gentle, a nice warm up. I meet one of the riders who had passed earlier and we chat. He’s from Glasgow, rode here from Lochcarron where he was staying (I had actually passed him in the car going up the “sheer face” mentioned earlier…). A mile and a half or so and it’s getting a bit steeper, and I find myself riding away from him. The wind is blustery – some times it’s with you, most of the time it seems to be against you. 3¼, 3¾, 4½ miles in and it’s starting to get very steep. The first of the sets of hairpins have been negotiated and I’ve only got one gear left. Finally I’m on my lowest, 30×25, and out of the saddle. It’s tough – but I’m definitely catching the two Ayrshire riders, who are now disappearing into the low cloud.

At 4.9 miles I have to stop for a couple of minutes to eat and drink, as it was just impossible to do this while riding! Also, my shoulders and chest were aching from the effort of pulling on the handlebars. Setting off again, I find that is’s actually slightly more comfortable riding in the saddle. I’ve soon taken back and passed the Ayrshire duo as we go round what turns out to be the final set of hairpins. It’s now not nearly so steep, I’m on the middle ring and I ride up to the first of the lone riders who had passed us at the foot of the mountain. “Tell me that’s the worst of it over,” I turn to him and say. It is. In fact it’s levelled off so much that we’re now practically sprinting along to the car parking at the viewpoint at the top of the pass.

Done it! 2000+ feet over 6.1 miles in just under 40 minutes riding time (not including my stop for refreshments). The hairpins were just awesome, especially when you turn from going into a headwind to having a tailwind! The slingshot effect you feel is fantastic.

Soon afterwards the other pair of riders reach the top, and it’s camera-phones out to record our achievements, before it’s time to descend back to the bottom. Wet roads, wet rims and wet brake blocks means it’s hands on the brakes for most of the way down! My fingers are still aching! Thankfully the precious few cars I do encounter on the road are on straight sections. Coming out of the clouds, the view was staggering, my car still a little dot a long way below!

Early on on the way down I had encountered the first bloke I’d talked to at the start of the climb, still making his way up steadily. Thereafter a steady stream of riders were – like I had done three quarters of an hour or so ago – puffing and panting their way up. And as I packed all my stuff away at the bottom, more cars and riders were arriving and setting off.

Apparently the eastern climb (from Tornapress) is the steepest and more difficult of the two routes up. I’ve just ridden it “fresh- legged”, albeit without any warm-up. How would I manage it after riding 37 miles out of Kinlochewe? I don’t know, but I suspect I’ll be hoping to find out next year…