The Bealach Beag Sportive
Skinny Tyres takes on the Hands On Events Sportive
Saturday 8th May 2010
“What a day for a bike ride! Not a breath of wind, not a cloud in the sky. Bring on the Bealach Beag”; so went my first Twitter message of the day.
Well I was mistaken about the wind. As the morning progressed, a stiff North-Westerly Atlantic breeze built up. However it was not going to put a dampener on what would be a vintage year for the event.
Held every May in the North West of Scotland, this little gem of an event has built up quite a reputation and following. It was first run in 2006 as a response to the overwhelming popularity of its big brother, the Bealach Mor, which takes place in the same area in September.
At first glance the total distance of 43 miles may seem rather benign compared to its older sibling. Don’t be fooled. Look a little closer and you will see that the teeth of the Bealach Beag are as sharp and its bite is as hard as the longer September event.
The big selling point of the Bealach sportive events is the ascent of the Bealach na Ba; the longest road ascent in the UK – 2053ft (626m) from sea level in just 6mls (10k). Although a real achievement, it is only the beginning of the challenge that lies ahead.
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After a fantastic breakfast of porridge and stewed fruit at “Nanny’s” gift shop in Shieldaig the temptation was to sit back on the shore of Loch Shieldaig and enjoy the views and the sunshine. It was not to be though. Riders gathered together for the start and there was a palpable air of excitement. For many riders, this was their first attempt at the ride and they sought out snippets of information from seasoned Bealach veterans on the hardest parts of the course. The veterans obviously took great glee in recounting tales of derring do and great battles that they had endured with the gradient and the elements.
I had packed my event bag with all kinds of gear in preparation for an assault by the weather; however the one thing I had not packed was sun cream. So to be standing waiting for the sound of bagpipes to signal the start of the event wearing short fingered gloves, sleeves and no leg warmers and already feeling too hot was a rather surreal moment.
The pipes played and the riders started riding through the start gate and registering their electronic timing cards. After only one mile, the road starts to climb through Glen Shieldaig. This two mile ascent is gradual (470ft), but enough to warm the legs up. There then follows a 4 mile descent to Tornapress and a right turn onto the start of the Bealach na Ba. The 6 mile ascent is timed and marshals are waiting at the bottom to swipe your timing card. This year the ascent and descent weren’t closed to traffic, but excellent signage warned motorists of the event and the vast majority were happy to get out and watch a line of 450 cyclists wind their way up into the corrie. I passed one rider who had flat pedals and what looked like steel toe capped work boots. Talk about making life difficult for yourself.
The climb is steady, but noticeably steepens in the third quarter as you get deeper into Corrie na Ba. This is often the straw that breaks the camels back for some riders and is often the point where you will see people getting off and pushing. It’s also at this point as you get deeper into the corrie, that the headwall rises abruptly in front of you and you can look up and see the 6 hairpin bends that lead on up and over the summit. For spectators, this point is stunning as it offers a view directly down to several lines of riders almost directly below you, such is the steepness of the headwall.
Following a brief stop at the summit water feed station to catch your breath and take in the views across to the Isle of Skye, there follows a six mile descent into Applecross Bay. Again the absence of road closures this year did not seem to have an effect and I didn’t see a single vehicle for the whole six miles.
At this point you will have covered 21miles of the course and it is tempting to relax and think you have conquered the beast of the Bealach. You would be mistaken. The battle is only just beginning. The next 23 miles will take in another 3298ft of ascent, the equivalent of another one and a half ascents of the Bealach na Ba. This rollercoaster ride is often made more difficult with the presence of coastal head and cross winds. This year was no exception and groups started to form, but the constant onslaught of climbs ensured that only the most cohesive and evenly matched groups stayed together for any length of time. One minute you would be hurtling down a descent loving every minute of being a cyclist, the next you would be grovelling up the next climb, nose to the handlebar, cursing the twisted mind that built such a road along this coast line.
The relentless run of hills is energy sapping and can be a killer for those who have put everything into the ascent of the Bealach na Ba. Those 23 miles may possibly be the longest of your life. The pain eventually ends, however and as you cross the Aird peninsula and get sight of Loch Shieldaig you know you have not far to go. The climbs are persistent to the end, but the views across to Shieldaig, reinvigorate the legs for one final push and before you know it you are finished and suddenly recounting tales of your own battles… and planning for a return trip.