Normally road cycling in Scotland doesn't really come under the banner of Mountain sports, we don't have that many epic mountain passes, the Lecht, Cairnwell and Cairn o' mounth being the obvious 3 to us Easties, but up on the west coast there is the "Pass of the Cattle" or to give it its Gaelic name, "Na Bealach nam Ba".
On a scale of 1 to 10, the road going from Tornapress to Applecross is graded by the "100 greatest British climbs" guide book as 11, going the other way is a rather timid 10...
A pass so treacherous that a friend of a friend once threw up in fear as it was crossed in a car...
Anyhow; having sent Simon Li over the pass one scorching summer day from Ling hut I though it might be a good idea that I cross it, along with 400 others in the Bealach Beag sportive, a 72km "not a" race held to give riders either not up for the 140km Bealach Mor version or just training for it a chance to take on the pass.
The route for this starts at Shieldaig and runs straight to the Tornapress junction, before crossing the pass to Applecross and returning to Shieldaig by the "New" road via Kenmore.
Due to failing to check the comfort rating on my sleeping bag and lack of darkness I spent a rather uncomfortable night at the Shieldaig campsite (strong pegs necessary, lots of stones), I set off near the front of the ride and dropped on and off of a couple of fast groups and riders and made it to Tornapress with the head car still in sight, the climb starts of "hard" and a handful of riders were both passed and overtaken, usually with some word of encouragement sometimes with discussion of the route, and a reminder that the coast road is not flat...
As the hill went from "hard" to "bastard" I passed someone I was sure had passed me, this was surprisingly common on the way up. When a hill is "hard" it's important not to think of it, memories of other hills, at 'puffer with Kraftwerk on someone's stereo, of Pantani and Virenque on Eurosport and going over "An Clisham" on Harris were helpful, sort of. When a hill is "Bastard" anything other than hills will do, I switched my Garmin to heart rate and decided that I would go back to seeing how slow I was going.
At one point a corner was pointed out to me as being the last one before the hairpins, this is where it turns to "oh just fuck off", at this point you're just thinking of turning the pedals, so having someone spin past with ease really wasn't welcome, nor was the kid who having stopped before I passed him restarted behind me, flying past only to stop again and say "sod this", thankfully the sound of his cleats clicking on tar got further away so I knew I was going faster in the granny gear then the alternative.
At the hairpins people had gathered, the climb actually returned to "hard" here and the cheering and encouragement was welcome but the false summits most certainly were not!
Finally at the summit the dibbing station arrived along with the offer of liquid and advice on the descent "take care".
I'm not a great cornerer and this descent has plenty corners to wuss away brake blocks on, I did make the mistake of checking to see how fast I was going into one, having been on the brakes for at least 2 seconds prior, 55kmh was not what I was expecting to see, the other rider flying past wasn't unexpected...
Switching between grins of joy and of terror regularly I made my way down until nearer the bottom someone passed without too big a speed difference and I followed his lines until the corner before the campsite, returning to open roads and a feed station with a plentiful supply of flapjack.
As I climbed the first "undulation" the headwind hit hard, 42km of these unshielded, undulating shores, 42km of jelly legged climbing, the profile only showed 2 of interest, more spectators dotted the route cheering, the driver of a Triumph TR6 gave a thumbs up, was that for riding or for smiling at the classic motor? He got one back regardless.
The collective of Lotus Talbot Sunbeams I encountered during the Grizedale Grizzly sprung to mind. I wondered also if I could beat 3 hours, a tough target, but...
The undulations continued, steeps ups destroying what was left in my legs, the downs providing a welcome burst of speed only to be sapped by the next up.
Shieldaig appeared in view across the bay, 10km to go, another gel packet up the shorts leg, another sip of diminishing water, another rider passed and another passing, as the junction came into view a rider passed me, he clearly had the same idea. Empty the tank, he was at least 10 seconds ahead as he hit the junction, and I hammered it from there, bike squirming over the village cattle grid as I put down what power I had left, I went into the dibbing station a bit quick, foot out the clips as I came to a halt and let out a sigh of relief as I slumped onto the bars.
1545m of cumulative ascent
3hrs 4min 9 seconds for loop
43min 50sec for the main climb
62.04kmh top speed
the 3 Bean Risotto and flapjack provided by the hotel in the village was devoured by the waterside, now what eejit parked his tent at the top of a hill???