With more cyclists than ever succumbing to the mythical pull of the Tour de France’s big climbs it can be too easy to overlook those closer to home. Deciding this wasn't on, at 33Fuel we went on a search for Britain's toughest climb and blimey did we bloody well find it.
Called Bealach na Ba it climbs 626 metres (2053 feet) from sea level in just under six miles and hits a 20% gradient doing so. It is the UK's toughest climb not just because of those testing stats but also because it’s in the middle of bloody nowhere. Marooned on the Applecross peninsula (population 238) in the Western Highlands of Scotland, the climb is remote to say the least. Inverness, the nearest major city, is 80 miles away.
Add to this classic Highland weather meaning you’re as likely to be soaked and frozen in July as you are in January and the chance of meeting anyone you know riding Bealach na Ba are slim to none. This all makes for a peach of a cycling challenge with excellent bragging rights attached.
- The sleeper train from London to Inverness is the finest way to begin your cycle of Bealach na Ba. 33Fuel's Warren and CC London's Aaron get ready to rumble
Being based in central London step one was booking ourselves onto the Caledonian sleeper train to Inverness. This makes arrival in the Scottish Highlands from the the heart of the congested capital a relaxing pleasure. No need to break down and pack a bike, no tedious checking in or tiring airport transfers and absolutely no 10-hour drives each way. Letting the train take the strain makes this the perfect accessible 48-hour adventure for anyone south of Edinburgh.
Next I needed a riding partner and a call to friendly London cycling club, CC London, supplied no shortage of willing volunteers with Aaron Piper, a club regular and racer bagging the winning ride. He easily had the legs for this while his easygoing nature perfectly suited the ‘cosy’ nature of the trip – we’d be living in each other’s pockets for two days and two nights.
While I'd plumped for a full carbon race rig, Aaron had opted for a touring set up. Steel frame, mudguards, pannier, the lot. Hard core.
“I thought it would be fun to prove you can do a ride like this on anything so I brought this instead of my race bike,” he said before adding, “it’s got a bell too”.
Bikes safely locked in the guards van after boarding, we headed for our 'room'. While overnight sleeper trains conjure rose-tinted images of gentlemanly travel from a bygone age, this one does away with that in a heartbeat. The rooms are smaller than a wardrobe and the ambience is more ‘detention centre’ than anything else.
But refreshed after a great night’s sleep we could forgive the sleeper everything, especially when the guard woke us with tea and shortbread as the Highlands buzzed past our window. Our 80 mile cycle to Bealach na Ba lay ahead.
- Hop off the train and head for the hills
Out of Inverness and we were straight into beautiful roads. Perfect for spinning along and chewing the fat as the weather played ball.
“If Scotland was always like this no one would bother riding abroad”, mused Aaron as we rolled by the tranquil waters of Loch Luichart with no more than the wide open sky above and some sheep on a nearby hillside for company.
We paused to mix up a few Chia Energy Gels and were attacked by midges in minutes. “I see why we’ve got the place to ourselves now,” yelled Aaron as we made our escape.
- Stocking up on Chia Energy Gels en route (midges just out of shot)
With the weather, the banter and the views, not to mention the well surfaced and near empty roads, we passed the halfway mark in no time and were running alongside a deep valley as a roar from behind grew louder, fast. Looking back we saw an RAF fighter jet, vapour curling from its wingtips, arcing across the landscape at low level.
Having now gently gained more elevation than we’d lost since leaving Inverness we were rewarded with a few downhill miles to the village of Lochcarron, for a spot of al fresco lunch by the water’s edge.
“Are you riding the hill lads?” asked the café proprietor as we quickly learned this was what everyone around here calls the pass (I suppose ‘the hill’ is less of a mouthful than Bealach na Ba) and when we admitted we were, he cheerfully told us, “no one’s died on it yet, but one lad came close. Misjudged a corner on the way down and hit a wall”.
That cheery news digested along with our lunches, we left Lochcarron with just 17 miles to go. Problem was, most were uphill.
You cannot miss the start of the pass. As if the massive towering rock rearing up into the sky ahead isn’t enough, large signs adorn the roadside - 'road impassable in wintry conditions' is one, 'not suitable for learner drivers' another.
- Serious signs herald serious climb
The early stages though are fairly benign. But then halfway up you round a corner and... boom, there it is. Suddenly you’re staring up the business end of a major mountain ascent as the road stretches to the sky via a series of painfully steep zig-zag hairpins. Think Italy’s fabled Stelvio Pass in Scotland and you're getting the idea.
- Welcome to Britain's toughest climb, she is a beauty
On the long haul up to those hairpins the granite valley towers either side, although if you’re anything like me you’ll be ignoring them and will be hunkered down in first gear with a thousand yard stare boring through the tarmac inches ahead of your front wheel instead.
- Who'd have thought it, Scotland has its very own Stelvio Pass
Finally, those seemingly unreachable hairpins were within striking distance and, pausing to take in the view, looking back produced the same effect as any big climb, the awestruck bemusement that you could possibly have climbed so high on something as simple as a bicycle.
- A view worth pedaling for. Better still, it's all downhill to dinner and a cold beer
Digging in for the final stretch we struck out for the summit where a small plaque presented by the AA (presumably the Queen was busy that day) informed us we'd made it. To one side the mountain rose higher, it’s exposed shale-coated summit complete with weather station lending the place a more than passing resemblance to Mount Ventoux, while to the other lay the jagged peaks of the Isle of Skye.
All we needed to complete this utterly British challenge was a cup of tea, and as if on cue, a very kind retired couple in a motorhome offered us just that. Bliss.
Restored, journey’s end for the day lay on the coast down below in Applecross where a small camping cabin awaited and, more importantly, so did a massive dinner in the Applecross Inn.
Downhill all the way, the road turned out not to be as treacherous as our friend in the cafe had suggested although care was needed as, being a single track road, you need to imagine the worst around every blind bend and ride accordingly. While this prevents Cancellara-esque descending, it did at least mean we arrived in Applecross in one piece after an outstanding day’s riding.
- And after all that climbing, it's downhill all the way to the pub - what more could you want?
Cycle Bealach na Ba yourself
Getting there: you’ll need to get to Inverness station, the pass is an 80-mile ride from here. We took the Caledonian sleeper train from London, which needs booking well in advance for best deals and bike spaces. Paying extra for a bed is worth it – the cheaper chair option makes for a terrible night’s sleep
Bikes and kit: as Aaron very ably demonstrated, you don’t need a racing weapon. But you will need a road bike in good mechanical nick, as well as puncture spares and basic tools – the nearest bike shop is in Inverness remember
Accommodation: unless you’re into serious punishment, breaking the journey at Applecross before the ride home is recommended. Here you can choose from the Applecross campsite with its huts (which save you carrying a tent) or a room at the Applecross Inn
Food & nutrition: Lochcarron holds the last cafes and shops before the pass for stocking up, while the Inn at Applecross itself does great beer and food, although getting in early is recommended as in summer the place can be packed. Oh, and don't forget your 33Fuel Chia Energy Gels and Pre and Post Workout Shakes.
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