Time to take on the highest pass in Britain, going to be a tough ride. Here’s he route showing the 2000 foot ascent – http://connect.garmin.com/course/3799903
05 June 2013
Post a late night trying not altogether successfully to catch up on my blog, I had a lie in until 08.30 – felt pretty decadent. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to have a rest day or not, but post a breakfast of two baguette batons, ham, cheese, tomatoes and a banana I felt raring to go, so I packed up my stuff and prepared to tackle to tackle Bealach-Na-Ba, which translates to ‘Pass of the Cattle’, or ‘Cow Pass’, over Beinn Bhan. I had a decaf coffee at the restaurant first, just to warm up, and spent a while chilling out in the sunshine which felt wonderful. It really smelt like summer had arrived, with the birds engaged in large amounts of vocal activity, and bees buzzing about. Unfortunately the pollen count was also on the up so I broke out the hay fever tablets for the first time.
I was about to leave when Ewan and Ian appeared (sorry if i’ve spelt your names wrong guys), who I’d met briefly the night before. About my age, probably younger, they’re both keen cyclists, and Ewan was looking to tackle the Pass today too. Ian unfortunately couldn’t due to having broken his hand mountain biking recently. We agreed that most injuries of a sporting nature usually happen when you’re doing something slightly stupid! He did offer to carry my panniers over for me however I declined, figuring that would be tantamount to cheating.
My fully laden Ridgeback was going to be a lot slower than Ewan’s much lighter Condor road bike, so I set off whilst he got ready, and agreed to meet up en-route or at the top, depending on how things went.
I’ll have to give Applecross a return visit at some point as it’s a lovely spot, and the campsite with its on-site restaurant is ideal. It has good facilities, friendly staff, and I could charge stuff which would be a key consideration until I could get a replacement cable for my Power Monkey solar panel. The village has some lovely walks signposted, and a garden you can visit, as well as an Inn down in the village itself.
Having built myself up for the climb I set off in a fairly low gear, intending to pace myself, and started easing my way up the hill. It’s another single track road, but with lots of passing places. I had to pull over a few times to let vehicles pass, but could generally just keep pedalling, and pedalling, and then some. There were quite a few posses of motorbikes tackling the pass, mostly German again by the looks of it, as well as a few classic cars – several Caterhams and one a Rolls Royce, and the odd camper van which was a bit naughty as there was a sign at the bottom of the hill saying the road wasn’t suitable for them. I also had a bit of a shock to encounter a couple of coaches, however apparently they’re local drivers who know what they’re doing, even of the road is pretty narrow and precarious in places.
The climb took me about an hour I think, but can’t be sure as I’d forgotten to check what time I set off which was a bit of an oversight on my part. I stopped a couple of times to take photos, which gave me time to get my breath back, but generally just kept pedalling, amazed at how well my legs were coping. Obviously the previous weeks of hill climbing around the country to date had paid off.
There are some pretty steep and long bits to the climb, with no real flat sections to speak of, just 2000 feet up to the top. There were a couple of those moments when you think you’ve reached the top, but you turn around the corner and there’s an even longer and steeper section to go, which can be a bit dispiriting. You just have to grit your teeth and push on. I found it easier if I broke it up into sections, setting myself goals of making it to that post, or the bush another 200m on, or focussing on counting pedal strokes. Not far from the top a few groups of cyclists passed me whizzing down the other way on their sleek and unladen machines, going at quite a pace – I’d have hit the brakes by now, however I had a far longer stopping distance to contend with. As they passed, over the course of a couple of minutes, I received shouts of encouragement, or promising comments about it not being far to the top now, which spurred me on somewhat. Mostly I didn’t want to be seen to be pushing my touring bike up a mountain in front of them, which gave me a boost.
I felt a great sense of achievement on reaching the top of the pass, having not had to get off and push at all. Scotland still hadn’t defeated me, unlike Yorkshire, however the gradients were steeper in Yorkshire and my legs weren’t as strong back then; I might be able to take the hill up from Boulby now. I’d made it up the highest pass in Britain, wahey!
I stopped for a rest at the top, and to admire the view which wasn’t all that bad. Even though the mountain goes up a bit further, to a communications mast, it felt like the top of the world after that climb.
I didn’t see any Golden Eagles soaring about which was a little disappointing – Dad had seen some here when he visited many years ago, and there were still eagles in the area apparently. Whilst waiting for Ewan I gave my parents a quick call to let them know I’d made it up, and that my bike and I were in one piece still; I needed to share the moment. To be honest if anything I was more worried about the descent anyway, and my brakes and wheels holding out all the way down.
Feeling a bit low on energy I ate a couple of bananas and some Haribos, whilst chatting to a couple of local cyclists from Lairg. They’d come up the other side which has some even steeper sections; ‘Oh good’, I thought, this was going to be interesting on a bike weighing over 100 pounds. They’d done the pass several times, it being her favourite route, and were in training for their forthcoming tour in the Pyrenees and France which sounded like it was going to be fantastic – 3 weeks in pretty much guaranteed good weather, and great landscape to cycle through. This got me thinking about other potential tours again, and how cool it would be to cycle around the Mediterranean. Admittedly some of the a North African coast could be challenging, but I’ll have to add it the list of possibilities – from the souks of Morocco all the way around to Spain and Portugal. It could take a while, especially if you go all the way around Italy. My list of possible adventures by bike is starting to grow now, with the New Zealand idea, as well as Cape Wrath to Sicily.
Wishing them well they zoomed off down the hill as Ewan arrived at the top, having taken around 53 minutes to make it up. He was slightly annoyed with himself for having to put a foot down due to a close encounter with a car, but wasn’t up for giving it another go today! He’ll come back and do it again with Ian, once his hand is mended, and no doubt succeed in a flawless ascent. Flawless for me was just not having to push, I didn’t mind that I’d stopped for a breather a couple of times. We chatted for a while before I put on another layer and set off down the other side of the pass, after arranging to meet up in Kishorn at a bar for a beer.
The descent was dramatic to say the least, with lots of hairpins to start off with, and a really steep section that left my brakes practically smoking. I could smell the pads getting hot, that slightly acrid smell of burning rubber, or whatever compound Aztec brake pads are made out of. In any case they held out thankfully, and didn’t fall off. A nice group of tourists took my photo for me just at the start of the descent.
I plummeted down the pass, in a mostly controlled fashion, brakes screeching and trying to force myself to relax. A one point I realised my teeth were clenched tightly shut which was beginning to hurt. Mind you quite a few things were tightly clenched as I hurtled down, really not wanting to lose control of the heavy bike, but also enjoying the rush of the speed, and the adrenalin pumping winding road.
Eventually I reached the bottom section, turning slightly north into a cold headwind which helped slow me down so much I actually had to start pedalling again. I was very glad I’d put on the extra layer at the top as it was suddenly pretty cold. There was a sign at the bottom suggesting the pass may be impassable in wintry conditions; I can well believe it and wouldn’t like to tackle it in snow, ice or high wind.
I made it around to Kishorn on somewhat tired legs, with the Seafood Bar appearing just in the nick of time. Ian turned up in the car, shortly followed by Ewan on his bike, and we ordered a couple of beers and some food to celebrate making it over Bealach-Na-Ba. Their seafood platter was slightly more impressive than my smoked salmon baguette, so I ordered a steakwich to follow up, still being hungry. We chatted for a bit, them telling me about their Lands End to John o’Groats ride which sounded like a lot of fun, covering over 1000 miles in 10 days, with some interesting antics along the way. Not something I have a great urge to do, although I’m effectively doing a Jogle at the moment, just the long way.
With 30 miles left to do I had to head off, bidding goodbye it Ewan and Ian. I expect I’ll bump into them again at some point. I pedalled off to Loch Carron, dealing with another big climb. For some reason I’d got it into my head that the rest of the day was going to be flat, I was wrong. I stopped in Loch Carron to buy some chocolate, feeling a bit low on energy. The first bit of the ride around the loch was fairly flat and enjoyable, getting some quick miles it to Achintee. I passed through a tunnel and then had to deal with a steep ascent before Attadale, where there are some nice gardens apparently.
There followed another flat section, before what felt like an endless climb up to Stromferry, on tired legs. I made it to the viewpoint at the top and stopped for a rest, chatting to a group of German tourers in their motor home, rather than a motorbikes this time. More Caterhams roared past, they seemed to be everywhere today but I still hadn’t seen ay rally signs, maybe they were just lost.
At Stromferry I turned off the A890 and took the minor road to Plocton. It’s a lovely road, especially in the sunshine, passing through woodland and rhododendrons, even the hills seemed mellower. I did nearly lose control at one point when rapidly descending one hill, where there were loose stones and gravel in the middle of the road which I wasn’t expected. A few tense moments as I bounced through, not daring to brake.
I made it to Plocton by about 18.00, and found it to be a picture postcard of a village, perfect for break. Packed with tourists I stopped to talk to French group who wanted to know how heavy my bike was and how far I’d cycled. I hadn’t come particularly far today, but they seemed impressed, and it was good to practice some French again – I’m very rusty.
I decided to stop for dinner in Plocton, at the Plocton Inn, and had grilled chicken with a pesto and chilli sauce, very nice. There isn’t a campsite in the village so had to press on pretty quickly, pedalling back out of the village and down the coast to Drumbuie, and on to Kyle of Lochalsh, a small town just before the bridge over to Skye. It felt weird with the countryside getting gradually more populated, and more villages and shops appearing. There was even a roundabout in the town – I hadn’t seen one for a while! I stopped to buy a few supplies in Kyle of Lochalsh, from the Co-op, before taking the Skye Bridge over to the Island, quite a steep bridge incidentally.
From the bridge I rode along the mostly flat coast road towards Broadford, stopping at a campsite next to Breakish – Ashaig Campsite, which is fairly basic (has a compost loo, as well as more modern facilities) but allows campfires, and had everything I needed. I found the warden Mel, who showed me around and suggested a pitch which would be mostly midge free. It’s only £5 a night and has a caravan you can retreat to for a sit down, and where you can recharge stuff, very handy for journal writing. I was tempted to stay another night, but the site only has that crappy Highland wifi and I needed to get to the bike shop in Portree anyway.
I finished the day with a beer and a few snacks, and had a quick chat to a motorbike tourer who was English rather than German! It had been a great day covering 49 miles, having met far more cyclists out on the road, including a few I’d met before. The bike had held out well too, with no more loose spokes I could find. Roll on the rest of Skye.