The Bealach na Ba, in the North West of Scotland, boasts the greatest ascent of any road in the UK. It begins at sea level and rises to a height of 626m. It takes six miles to get from sea-level to the top.
The name means ‘pass of the cattle.’ It was originally a gravel track used by crofters to move cattle between two parts of the Applecross peninsula. It’s now mostly used by tourists. The route is part of the famous North Coast 500 which has been named one of the top coastal road trips in the world.
It is 2012 and I am at the start line of my first ever bike sportive. I look at the other riders.
They are all using road bikes. I am on a mountain bike. I am the only one on a mountain bike. Why are they not on Mountain bikes? We are going to ride up a mountain. Surely a mountain bike is the most effective way to do that?
They are all wearing skin tight lycra. I have wearing a thick winter jacket and a pair of baggy shorts.
They are all clipped into their bike using proper bike shoes. I am wearing trainers.
They all have a bottle on their bike. I do not have a bottle on my bike. I have a backpack containing a sandwich, a two-litre bottle of water, and a map in case I get lost.
It is fair to say I do not know what I am doing.
Andrew is here but he is not on the start line. He has the flu. He has offered to drive a van around the course in case I need him. I spot my friend Malcolm who is also doing the race. I say to him “Good luck.” He says “You’ll need it more than me” and he then rides off. All the other bikes whizz past me.
I now realise why they are on road bikes. Honestly, up until this point, I thought there was no difference between a road bike and a mountain bike. I had assumed road bikes did not go up hills.
I honestly do not know what I am doing.
After two hours of cycling I have cycled further than I ever have. I realise it is two hours back to where I started so I will need to the do the same again to get home.
I stop and eat a sandwich. I wonder how the other cyclists are getting on. They must be starving. They don’t have any sandwiches.
I try phoning Andrew but I don’t get a signal. The race is too remote for mobiles to work correctly.
After another hour I reach the climb. The sign at the bottom says
Road to Applecross
(Bealach Na BA)
This rod rises to a height of 2053 ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends.
NOT ADVISED FOR LEARNER DRIVERS, VERY LARGE VEHICLES OR CARAVANS AFTER FIRST MILE
It does not mention bikes. That means I’ll have to do it.
I start the climb. Within 100m I have started to heat up. I start to sweat. I decide to take off my jacket. I put it in my backpack. I restart the climb. It doesn’t feel too tough yet.
The road gets steeper. I try to switch to a lower gear. I am already in my lowest gear. No wonder the start was easy.
The road climbs higher. I struggle to turn my pedals. I haven’t even done one mile of the climb. I’m still at the part safe for learner drivers, very large vehicles and caravans.
Maybe a bit of food will help. I stop and eat the rest of my sandwich.
I restart the climb. I feel heavy. The sandwich has not helped. I struggle onwards. I stand up on the pedals to make them turn. I stop and admire the view. I consider quitting. I don’t have to think twice. I decided to quit.
I wish I could say I have the stomach to battle it out when things get hard but I don’t. I try phoning Andrew again. He can come and rescue me. There is still no reception. Feck. I’ll have to keep going. Mainly because I assume I’ll get a phone reception at the top of the hill.
I push my bike all the way to the top of the hill. A film crew is waiting for me. Probably not me specifically but anyone doing the race. They are filming for BBC Two Scotland’s The Adventure Show. The reporter approaches me:
– I can’t believe you’re using a mountain bike!
– It’s my only bike
I take out my water bottle to have a swig.
– You carried that all the way up the mountain?
– Yes. I thought I’d get thirsty.
– You do know the organisers supply water and food at regular stops?
I thought I had to supply everything myself! DOH!! I try my mobile. It has a signal. I try Andrew but there is no answer. I send him a text saying. “I quit! Come and get me at the bottom of the hill in Applecross”
The descent of the other side is great fun. Six miles of fast downhill with treacherous corners. At one corner an ambulance is tending to a rider. I think to myself how glad I am that it is not me.
At the bottom of the hill I reach Andrew. There’s 40 miles to go but I’m not doing any more.
I’ve achieved my race by cycling further and higher than ever before.
We head to the finish to wait for Malcolm…and we wait…and we wait…and we….
As it gets dark there’s no sign of Malcolm. I approach the race organisers and ask if they have seen him. They go to check their list of riders. When they come back they have bad news – Malcolm was the man I passed on the mountain who was getting tended to by the ambulance.
The news got worse. He was taken to hospital. Great. He must be in Inverness as that was the closest one to us. We need to go that way to get home. We’ll pick him up on the way but the news got even worse. The hospital was not Inverness, which is close by and on our way home. He was sent to Broadfoot on the Isle of Skye which is miles away and nowhere near our route home.
We head to Skye to collect him. He is sitting on a chair with his arm in a sling. His brakes failed whilst taking a corner on the descent. The bad news was that he had broken his collarbone and will be off work for six weeks. The good news was that it coincided with the Edinburgh fringe. He spends the next six weeks partying.