As is often the case with these things, I agreed to sign up for the Bealach Beag cycle sportive in the pub after a few drinks. The fact that I’d only acquired a road bike a couple of months earlier and hadn’t ventured much further than the cycle paths of Edinburgh did make me a little apprehensive about the prospect of taking part in a 43 mile event in the Scottish Highlands alongside a load of serious cyclists, but Dutch courage and reassurances that “it’s only a short one” eventually twisted my arm.
I do remember some mutterings about there being a steep climb but my other half assured me that it’d be no worse than anything I’d done on a mountain bike. Given that he took me round the black route at Glentress on my first ever mountain biking excursion though, I probably should have been highly suspicious.
The next day a sobering email appeared in my inbox confirming my entry. I had two months. Time to get training.
Initial preparation involved relentlessly hitting the streets, not so much clocking up the miles on the bike, but rather searching for the perfect pair of cycling shorts and all the other paraphernalia that I’d need to at least look the part.
I did of course get out on the bike too, although by the time the race came around the furthest I’d cycled was 35 miles, with hill training amounting to little more than a few laps of Arthur’s Seat.
At no time in weeks preceding the event did I think to check out just exactly what I’d signed up for, which was probably just as well, or I may well have pulled out! Had I Googled it, I’d have seen headlines such as “nightmare ride on Bealach na Bà too much to handle…” or images reminiscent of the type of road your car would struggle up en route to an alpine ski resort. At 43 miles Bealach Beag may be a relatively short cycle sportive but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in vertical climb. The route encompasses the infamous Bealach na Bà, which climbs 2053ft in 6 miles and is the toughest road climb in the UK.
Fortunately I was still oblivious to this fact before we set off although alarm bells did start to ring when, on chatting to a fellow road biking newbie, she confessed that a recce by car the previous evening to sus out the climb had reduced her to tears. Her admission nearly did the same to me, particularly as we’d spent the previous evening “carb loading” in the local pub.
The first ten miles of the course were pleasantly easy and in no time at all we were “dibbing in” to start the climb up Bealach na Bà, which was timed separately to the overall route. The first couple of miles of the climb also felt reassuringly, or as it turned out, misleadingly easy, and for a while I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. Needless to say, I soon found out. The gradient started to increase gradually and before long I was on my lowest gear, wishing that I had more than an 8 speed set up, particularly as I could now see what lay ahead. I tried to focus on the road in front of me but couldn’t help but notice the road ahead that snaked right up as far as I could see. And when I say snaked, I actually mean zig zagged, as these were proper alpine style switchbacks. If I looked right up to the highest point I could see the tiny silhouettes of the leaders on the horizon, so I looked down and tried to pretend I was nearly there.
I’m not one to shy away from physical exertions but I can honestly say that climb was the hardest I’ve ever pushed my body. I was off the saddle for most of it and had to push down with all my might on every single stroke of the pedal. My only comfort was the fact that I was by no means alone and there were many around me who were faring a lot worse. I managed to push past several blokes on fancy bikes, which was quite satisfying and probably even spurred me on. Towards the top a man in front’s legs appeared to buckle and he suddenly swerved all over the place, hitting the rim of my tyre in the process and knocking me off. Fortunately, other than a couple of scrapes, I was unscathed and got back on even more determined to get to the top than before. After what felt like an eternity, but was actually only around 45 minutes (only!), the gradient decreased and I was able to crank the gears back up and power on to the very welcome sight of the water station at the summit.
After a brief pause to catch our breath, take a team photo (amateurs) and reflect on what we’d just done, we set off down the other side. I don’t think I’ve ever gone from being so hot to so cold in such a short space of time, but it felt so good to be flying downhill that I didn’t care. As we came down into Applecross bay I was finally able to appreciate just how stunning the scenery was, particularly now that the sun had made an appearance.
We’d thought that now the mega-climb was out of the way, the rest of the route would be plain sailing, but we were wrong. Although there was nothing anywhere near as relentless as the Bealach na Bà climb, the undulating coastal road around the Applecross peninsula proved to be almost as challenging, with its seemingly endless series of climbs and all-too-brief descents gradually sucking the life out of our increasingly tired legs.
When the town of Sheildaig eventually came back into view I could not have been happier, and when we got to a signpost indicating that there was only one mile to go I actually shouted for joy.
It felt amazing to finish, even if I did feel pretty wobbly when I got off my bike. I’d managed to achieve my goal of keeping up with the boys all the way round and in doing so managed to get a pretty decent time for a noob. I now can’t wait to do another, although I probably won’t be joining the boys in the epic Bealach Mor sportive in September, which follows the same route but is twice as long. Unless, of course, I get talked into it at the pub!