Cycling the longest mountain pass!
As part of Karen Newman’s series on cycling the NC500 – Karen has provided some information on cycling the longest mountain pass in the UK!
Tackling the Bealach na Ba – the longest mountain pass in the UK.
Try to plan your trip so you are tackling the Bealach during the week, avoiding the busier weekend traffic, especially in the high tourist seasons.
The Bealach na Ba, or Pass of the Cattle (known locally as ‘the Bealach’), climbs from almost sea level at Tornapress to 2053 feet. It isn’t the highest pass in the UK but it does have a reputation based on the combination of the most ascent on a UK road pass and the prevailing wind and weather, which can be harsh at the top in contrast to usually more benign conditions down at Tornapress.
Check a regional mountain weather forecast the night before you plan to head over the pass.
• MWIS http://www.mwis.org.uk/scottish-forecast/NW/
• Met Office http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/public/weather/mountain-forecasts/west-highlands#?tab=mountainWeather
Forecasts can change rapidly and quickly become out of date in this part of the UK – take the alternative route if the weather is too bad.
Cycling on steep single track roads requires a low gear, familiarity with the conventions of using single track roads and a certain style of assertiveness to hold your position on the road if you encounter that rare motorist who is not sympathetic to your struggles up the inclines.
The most demanding cycling section of the ascent from Tornapress is not the daunting-looking series of hairpin bends at the head wall of the corrie but the 300m long 18-20% straight ramp leading up to the first sharp left-hand bend immediately below the head wall; once you have reached that bend, you’ve cracked it! On the hairpins, stick to the outside of the corners, the gradient is significantly shallower and can offer you a bit of a rest to gather yourself for the next ramp.
On the descent, beware of the blind left-hand corner not far from the summit, followed by a very sharp and steep right-hand hairpin. There is then a long straight where a strong cross wind can cause buffeting and wind shimmy (wobbling) especially on a loaded bike; get low over the bars for stability, try to relax and ease off on the front brake to reduce any shimmy.
Doing the Bealach in reverse is a slightly easier ascent.
Bealach Closed-road Events
If you plan to be in the NW Highlands in the spring or late summer, you could enter one of the two sportive events when the Bealach is closed to all other traffic for a few hours which means it is safer and so much more enjoyable.
There is a shorter event of 43 miles, the Bealach Beag, does the circuit of the Applecross peninsula, starting and finishing at Sheildaig, which is usually in May when the weather can be at its best. The longer one, the Bealach Mor, is a punishing 90 miles and 9,600’ (about 2,900m) of ascent from Kinlochewe and back. It is usually held in early September.
They are both organised by local events team, Hands on Events (http://www.handsonevents.co.uk). Having done the Bealach Beag four times now, I can safely say that it is a very friendly event. It is entered by cyclists of all persuasions and levels of fitness from road racers to people on mountain bikes, old touring bikes and tandems, so don’t be intimidated if you haven’t done a sportive before!