Bealach Beag Sportive, by Niall Wallace (May 2014)

Saturday 24th May 2014

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” (or na Bo depending on Dialect).

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 trecherous 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 thought 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). Ii 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 off
“hard”, a handfull of riders were
both passed and were passed, 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 “near vertical”, 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 someones stereo, of Pantani and
Virenque on Eurosport and going over “An Clisham” on Harris were
helpful, sort of. When a hill is “near vertical” 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 a “what am I doing here”, 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 and
restarted behind me went 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!

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, 55kmh was not what I was
expecting to see, the other rider flying past wasn’t unexpected…

Switching from grins of joy to 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, steep 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 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

23,32kmh average

62.04kmh top speed

The chilli con carne 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???