Bealach na Bà, or “The Bealach” is a legend amongst cyclists. A pass rising to over 2000 feet from sea level on both sides. The name means the pass of the cattle – the road was originally used to take cattle to market from the village of Applecross. My friend, erstwhile colleague and cycling companion Kenny has long suggested that we should ride it together. He has even suggested, in that way that younger friends can get away with, that I should get a move on before I’m too old to ever manage it.
Kenny has a particular affinity because his mother’s family is from Applecross. Earlier in the year he finally persuaded me that the time was right and we agreed a date for a weekend when I would be in Edinburgh. I left Kenny in charge of the details – getting to the north west coast of Scotland from Edinburgh is not trivial.
This time last year I had recently done a large amount of cycling before and after surgery to help with my physical and mental health. This year, I had not been out on the bike very much, my total mileage for the previous month was probably about a hundred miles, so I knew I had to get some training in.
We came back to Edinburgh a few days earlier than our usual arrangements. Clare had an event to go to on the Saturday, and I started some training. Kenny and I took ourselves to the Tushielaw Inn – one of our regular haunts. The weather and scenery were beautiful and we enjoyed lunch in the beer garden. Some other cyclists we were chatting to thought they might recognise one of the faces on a nearby bench.
I was pretty tired towards the end of the ride, but pushed myself in the last few miles to the station. The total climbing we’d done for the day was similar to the Applecross circuit, and the mileage was greater. I took myself out for a short top-up ride on Tuesday. By Wednesday I was ready for something longer. This time Kenny and I took the train to Dunbar and came home via Crystal Rig and Garvald – the same climb and distance as Sunday.
I’d also been in touch with Ewan and Sally asking for some “gentle miles”. Sally feigned indignation at the presumption that a ride with them would be gentle. I said it wasn’t presumption – it was a request! We all took the train to Dunbar again on Friday, and as requested took a gentler route home than Wednesday. I stumbled upon a walled garden to the east of Haddington that none of us previously knew about – another great ride!
On Saturday I took the train to Inverness and Kenny met me at the station. We cycled the rest of the way to his Mum’s house in Dingwall together. Penny arrived at Dingwall on a later train as planned. Early on Sunday morning, Kenny’s school friend Nick came to collect us and our bikes for the drive to Shieldaig.
After a gentle eight mile warm-up, we reached the junction with the sign suggesting we reconsider.
The first mile or so seems like any other single track road in this part of the country. A false summit is common enough on such roads, but The Bealach has one of the most jaw-dropping. What looked like it might be the top of the road turns out to be just the start.
Tackling a climb like this is mostly about patience if you have low enough gears. I quickly found that though I was getting hot in the still air, I wasn’t having any difficulty maintaining a smooth rhythm. Nick and Penny soon vanished ahead, Nick because of his superior fitness, and Penny partly because her gears didn’t go low enough to allow her the luxury of the gentle pace I chose.
If I had tried to do this climb thirty years ago, it would have been a matter of pride to try to do it without stopping. Today, I was going to count it as a victory if I didn’t have to walk. Kenny could easily have left me behind on this climb too, but had opted to keep me company, and give me a commentary on interesting geological and historical features as we climbed.
It was all going well until we reached a traffic jam. Despite the signs advising against, there were dozens of enormous camper vans on the road. Some of the drivers were clearly unused to both their vehicles and single track roads. We found ourselves behind two such vans struggling to pass two others in a passing place intended for one smaller vehicle. Kenny and I managed to squeeze by and get another half mile up the hill before the first of the vehicles caught us again.
The map on the phone on my handlebars kept me informed on how much more of the five mile climb was left. I had also been told that the steepest section is just before the hairpin bends. I could see the road rising up in front of me and for the first time wished I had one more gear. I had to ask Kenny to stop talking to me for this bit – I couldn’t spare the effort of listening. I could see the passing place at the start of the hairpins and managed to reach it by going “in to the red”. I stopped and caught my breath before heading up the hairpins – which are indeed noticeably less steep.
Penny and Nick were waiting at the viewpoint, and we were blessed with a great view. Some fight their way up this mountain only to see the inside of a cloud when they get there.
It’s another easy half mile to the summit of the road. The views to Raasay and Skye were spectacular. It had taken me around 90 minutes to get to the top. I reckon that means I was managing canal boat speed – though only for a flat canal. Climbing 2000 feet in a canal boat would take a lot longer than that!
The descent is a similar length to the climb and returns to sea level. I set off first as I am used to being the fastest descender in a group. When I put the brakes on at the first sharp bend, I heard Nick say something about my brakes being better than his as he shot by. I was able to go a little faster now with Nick as my pilot. Two cars pulled in to passing places to let us go by. Eventually Nick pulled away from me and I finished the descent solo. I arrived at the pub at exactly midday, about 12 minutes after leaving the summit – a lot more than canal boat speed!
We had a very welcome meal in the pub. There were a few spots of rain as we set off for a short explore of Camusteel nearby where some of Kenny’s family still live. The sun came back out for the afternoon ride – completing the circuit back to the car. The total amount of climbing was similar to the amount in the morning, but it came in discrete lumps. The lumps became much less discreet as the afternoon progressed. Kenny again chummed me along but clearly my training earlier in the week had paid off. I didn’t have to tell him to stop talking during the afternoon.
Nick drove us back to Dingwall and co-ordinated a take away meal at his daughter’s house. After a second night at Kenny’s Mum’s house, Penny and I came back to Edinburgh by train the next morning.
Clare and I were back on the train the following day to rejoin the boat. My erstwhile colleague, Chris, offered me a folding bike that was looking for a good home. I have long considered such a machine might be useful aboard but never liked the price. I took the chance to find out at no cost. It was a little awkward on the train, but far easier than dealing with a full sized bike.
As soon as we got back to the boat, I tried it out to nip to the shop for some basics (other basics are available). I was surprised at what an enjoyable ride it was on the bumpy towpath. The journey time was much reduced too. Another new cycling experience for me.
Between bike rides last week I went for my thirteenth and final infusion of immunotherapy. The last year has been punctuated at four week intervals by these treatments. Despite the long and frightening list of possible side-effects (“pick an organ, you might lose that”) I have had nothing worse than a small bruise on the back of my hand.
Waiting for the surgery was a long agonising slog with a false start. The surgery itself was over in a blur, and the follow-up treatment was a steady journey with occasional sharp bits. It was all so much easier to do with support from friends – and the whole episode was book-ended by staying at Kenny’s Mum’s place.
I must also praise all of the staff at the many hospitals I have visited. I have been treated by dedicated experts with cheerful pragmatism. If anyone tells me how well I have done, I will always point out that unlike when cycling, I was only a passenger.