Want to climb one of the greatest cycling climbs in the UK? Head north, is usually the answer. Like, really north, all the way to Scottish Highlands, just north of the Isle of Skye. Bealach na Bá is unusual for a climb in Scotland in that it goes over the top of the pass rather than through the valley below like most climbs. Some claim it to be the toughest climb in the UK, which I doubt having climbed Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, but it is certainly the most dramatic in terms of length, scenery and remoteness.
Every cyclist should ride this climb. Hairpins, a 20 percent maximum gradient and 6 miles of climbing wonderment, or pain depending on your viewpoint! Bealach na Bá is Gaelic for ‘Pass of the cattle’, animals famous for having four stomachs*. Today, the road or is more like the Pass of the Lycra whippet, an animal who needs four lungs to haul themselves over the top.
*Myth alert. Cows don’t actually have four stomachs. It’s one stomach, comprising four separate compartments.
Day 4: Isle of Skye – Bealach na Bá – ShieldagBeast day. Deep into my cycle tour of Scotland, I awoke early, tired. No matter, I set off, belly full of fried goods and the magical energy bean aka coffee. So excited was I that I continually expected Bealach na Bá to be waiting around every next corner.
The ride there was up and down but dry. Rain was due said the men who watch the sky. Best be quick thought I. On beast approach I began unloading as much weight as possible like a low flying hot air balloonist desperately trying to fly over the approaching mountain. Bananas gobbled, drink drunk, any spare emptied. I’d have shaved my head if I could have just to have been a few grams lighter. Shame then, that I was humping a pannier over this mountain!
At Tornapress I turned to stare at the beast eye to eye. Here we go legs, another lump for you to conquer. If legs could sigh, mine surely would have.
Ahead three cyclists were riding away from their er, support car in what I assume was an organised cycle holiday. The climb began gently, a nice barely noticeable 3-4%. Legs spinning I chuckled at one point as I clicked down a couple of gears and picked up my pace. Easy tiger…
Slowly but surely the hill began to put the hurt on. I stayed seated and simply churned through the revolutions, not a thought in my head. This is bliss.
Ahead cycle tourist number one began holding up traffic on the single track road, ignoring the passing places. Cue the smell of burning clutches, as with all great UK climbs. I upped my pace to overtake the rider and avoid the traffic in his wake.
On I pushed, the road snaking slowly up at about 10%. Manageable, still seated. Before long I caught cycle tourist number two. She was spinning a good rhythm and we had a brief chat. I advised her to zig zag when the going got tough before wishing her good luck. More of cycle tourer number two later.
Cars continued stalking me as I crawled up, politely waiting until a passing space became available. One passed close, too impatient to wait for the passing place up ahead. Two thirds of the way up and the gradient ramped up to about 15% just as a large delivery truck chugged behind me. I let him past at the passing point, slowing as much as possible without putting my foot down. The truck passed slowly, too slowly and I was about to run out of road until he finally revved past me. Phew. All those track stands in London had finally paid off.
Ahead the final cyclist of the three tourers got caught by the truck and was forced to put a foot down and let the truck pass. I could see the fatigue in his gait. I caught him quickly and pulled alongside for a brief chat. His ego got the better of him and he upped his pace to stay with me. I remained seated and steady whilst wondering if it was my pannier that had spurred him on. His brave fight soon came to an end as he dropped back and we exchanged goodbyes.
The road ahead empty. All that was left to stare at was the gradient increasing and the tarmac going up into the heavens. Behind, a view sculpted for angels, ahead a road to hell. Up, up and up. Four fifths of the climb behind me, the gradient hit 20% and stayed there. I continued zigzagging, not out of desperation but to make my life easier, more in control than I could quite believe.
At one point I actually looked back at the bike for the pannier. Sure, I could have stood up but I found myself enjoying the seated grind. Already I knew the hill was conquered. Heart rate rising, the struggle began, my stubbornness keeping me in the saddle, my mind wavering as my heart rate reached for the skies. Thankfully the long ramp of 20% came to an end, the wicked hairpins all that remained. I looked behind at the view, all of Scotland before me. I am William Wallace, conqueror of this land, I am… Well you get the picture, I’m excited yeah?
Pride fills my heart, a smile fills my face. Bang, I attack the hairpins like a national hill climb champion, only seated. Cresting the summit I punch the air. Done. Easier than I expected but no less beautiful for it. Did I mention I was seated all the way? Oh. And I had a pannier? Oh, right. How about my lowest gear of 39*25? I know, hero right?
Bealach na Bá may be no Hardknott Pass or Rossdale Chimney. It’s a unique climb for the UK, with only perhaps Great Dun Fell anything like it, the highest climb in England on a much smaller scale. Bealach is a mixture of an Alpine climb combined with the sharp nasty stuff UK hills are famous for. It is certainly a bucket list ride although not as difficult as the 11/10 score in Simon Warren’s 100 climbs book. An eight maybe, plus a point for the breathtaking scenery and probably plus 2 to 10 more points in bad weather.
No matter. A hill climb is a little like life. Pointless, you can make it as difficult or as easy as you wish. Either way, you may as well enjoy the ride and challenge yourself.
The descent into Applecross was a pleasure. At the top of the climb I watched the road, waiting for descending traffic to get well clear. This allowed me to fly down, fingers on the brakes just in case. I imagine this descent is pretty darned scary in the wet despite the grippy, smooth road.
Cold, I stopped at Applecross for a coffee where I later overheard talk of an accident on the descent. A female cyclist, which could only have been cycle tourist number two I had passed on the ascent, who had crashed into the back of a car at speed. I don’t know the detail but there was talk of a head smashing through the car’s rear windshield and a badly cut leg. An ambulance was a while away so remote is the location. A sobering tale and hopefully a quick recovery.
Not done yet
The beast was behind me but there was still a lot of climbing ahead on the amazing coastal road around the peninsula to Shieldag. The day before I thought cycling the northern peninsula of Skye was the most stunning ride I’d enjoyed. Not any more. This is the road to ride. Be warned, there’s plenty of the steep lumpy stuff but the views of pristine beaches, crashing surf, green moorland and an ever changing landscape will distract you from your pains.
A brilliant day out. Dry too. Three out of four days in Scotland without rain (well substantial rain!)? Lucky indeed. Tomorrow there looked to be torrents of the stuff to make up for the arid spell. Oh and a headwind. Super.
The Stats: 70 miles and a mighty 2,000 metres climbing. No rain. A beast conquered.
Route and GPX on Strava
Day 5: Shieldag – Inverness
This enchanted land was not done with dropping my jaw. A wind assisted ride weaving through the cloud covered Torridon mountains was amazing.
For once I’m glad the weather was bad, for these mountains look better shrouded in mist, the low hanging clouds adding to the drama.
What a finish to a great ride. The forecast rain never did arrive but for a brief shower early on and so I enjoyed the 67 mile cruise back to Inverness. What a difference it makes with a tailwind. The ride was so easy it felt like a recovery ride when only days earlier it had been a slog along much of the same roads.
At one point Mark Beaumont, he of cycling around the world in the fastest ever time fame, cycled past me. I felt in good company. Albeit a little slower! My ride may not make any record books but it shall live long as a memory. Thank you Scotland.
The stats: A final 67 miles, two tired legs, one big smile.
Route and GPX on Strava
More from my cycle tour of Scotland
- Scotland cycle tour part 1: Coast to Coast, Inverness to Plockton
- Scotland cycle tour part 2: Isle of Skye circumnavigation including the Trotternish peninsula and Quiraing
Watch this – Bealach na Bá video
This video of the climb says more than I ever could. And I say a lot!
Image: Lead = Stefan Krause. Applecross looking over Skye via @Glasgow_Kat – thank you!