The day I survived – and enjoyed – the Bealach Mor Cycle Sportive!
Reaching the top of the infamously gruelling Bealach-na-Ba mountain pass I imagined that the worst of the Bealach Mor Cycle Sportive must surely be behind me. By this point we were about halfway round the 90-mile circuit on the Applecross peninsula in north-west Scotland but I felt as though we had covered twice the distance. The road ascent of 6 miles up the Bealach-na-Ba was long and very testing. It is so steep in places that my front wheel lifted off the ground as I pushed down hard on my pedals. I had long ago engaged my easiest gear but still my thighs and calves were screaming in pain. By now, dozens of the 500-or-so participants had got off to walk. This road is claimed to be the biggest ascent in the UK, for goodness sakes! Take a look at the profile:
So you can imagine my relief when I finally reached the summit! Now I could look forward to the glorious downhill, over another 5 miles and surrounded by breathtaking Torridon scenery. Awesome!
But my ecstasy was suddenly halted just one mile or so down the descent. Hearing a loud metallic type twang I thought something had fallen from my bike, or I’d ridden over something metal. Pulling hard on my brakes I thought “What on earth.” In fact I must have said this out loud as several other cyclists shouted, as they whizzed by, “You’ve punctured!” And sure enough, my front tyre was totally flat. I’d had a blow out and in retrospect I was lucky I’d managed to control the bike as I sped downwards at somewhere between 30 and 40mph.
There was no alternative but to pull over to the side of the road to fix the puncture. Total bummer. I had been really pleased with my progress to this point and I was thoroughly enjoying the whole experience. From the start at Kinlochewe I had headed, amid numerous other cyclists, up a long, but not too steep hill. I wanted to pace myself and so I took my time to settle into an even pedal rhythm, also enjoying the company of my cycling and journalist friend of 20 years, Husto. He’s an experienced and super-fast cyclist but on the day he had promised to Supernanny me around the course so that the G-Force could head off for his own race.
I got chatting to one of the few other women in the sportive (I think there were only about 20 women in total participating in the event). Esther, like me, had been a big fan of running but after an injury she started mountain biking and has now become addicted to road cycling. For someone so slim she could certainly hold her own with the big boys of cycling.
Then came the Bealach-na-Ba. At this point most people settled into their own pace. Some looked impressively strong (a woman in a orange shorts whizzed by as though she had an engine-fired bike!). While others seemed to suddenly fade. I just kept an even pace, reserving some leg power for what I knew was to come further up as the road gets steeper. Thank goodness I had cycled this route before otherwise I could have been lulled into a false sense of security over the first few miles. While the first section is relentlessly uphill, it’s higher up and just before the hairpins that the road really becomes steep. And boy is it steep!
The long climbs of the Pyrenees had also served to boost my leg strength and all those ascents of the Crow Road and Cults Brae near Glasgow (thanks to the G-Force for forcing me up these repeatedly!) were now paying off.
And so you can imagine my disappointment at puncturing on the descent. Thanks to the assistance of the Cycling Supernanny (C.S.), the puncture was repaired in 7 minutes. (If it hadn’t have been for him I’d have had to stop another cyclist to help me to undo the wheel as my hands just weren’t strong enough!) All would have been then been fine if it hadn’t been for the next puncture, just a minute later! I kid you not! The same tyre. Initially we thought it was a piece of undetected glass in the tyre but we had checked this. It turns out, after CS’s super sleuth investigation, that my tyre rims had worn so thin that the inner tube was bursting through because of the heat of the brake pads on the wheel rims as I descended. If you’re not a cyclist you might be lost by this point. Suffice to say I was out of the event for almost another 20 minutes. I felt thoroughly disheartened but I was determined to finish what we’d started.
This time the CS only partially inflated my inner tube (to prevent a build up of pressure) and I stopped using my front brake altogether.
With no spare inner tubes left between us (and only a couple of patches kindly donated by another cyclist who stopped his descent to see if we were ok), the CS and I cycled on, a little slower and a little more cautiously. At the next food station we were lucky enough to pick up another inner tube and I began to find my cycling confidence again.
Truly, we could not have asked for better weather on Saturday (Sept 4). It was sunny (even perhaps a bit hot!) and the clear skies offered breath-taking views of the coast and the stunning islands of Skye and Rasaay.
It was this vista (and several energy bars) that helped to keep us pedalling over the next 20 miles or so of thigh-zapping terrain. Without the views to feast on I think many people might simply have stopped and cried at the side of the road. Instead the sparkling sea, dramatic islands and magnificent mountainscape kept our spirits high enough to keep on cycling over hill after hill after hill. For this section was a relentless up and down, and yet more up and down, and then even more up and down. While none of the hills were huge, they came frequently and testingly.
The first 10 miles from Applecross felt like 15 miles, and the following 10 miles felt more like 30 miles. I occasionally asked the CS to check his Garmin read-out but in the end I stopped doing so because we seemed to be going so depressingly slowly.
And then, as if my magic, we turned a corner. (Perhaps I’d sunken into a fog of never-ending-hills-delirium and so reaching a new turning point and another section of the event simply seemed so upliftingly refreshing!) A sign here said 18 miles left to Kinlochewe and the finish. Superb. My elation didn’t last too long, though. After a beautifully flat section along the bay at Sheildaig (and the third food station where we filled up again on home-made flapjack and yet more water) we were faced with more freaking hills. By this point I knew I’d finish the event but I had no idea what state I’d be in.
The CS kept reminding me to eat and drink. Jelly babies proved to be the only thing I could stomach by this point. I was feeling truly nauseous and over-cooked. I swear I couldn’t manage another hill – but somehow I just kept plodding on.
It was then that we spotted the 10 miles to go sign. And the relief was immense. I thought of 10 miles simply as a trip from Bearsden to Glasgow and back. I knew I was going to make it. From here on the CS and I kept searching for cyclists ahead whom we could draft. There is a big advantage to drafting someone in front (up to 25% easier on the muscles). But every time we reached a cyclist or a pair of cyclists we found they had faded to a slow leg turn. So the CS and I kept on going it alone. Sometimes I drafted the CS but he’s tiny and doesn’t offer much protection from the wind and in any case I felt as thought we were heading downhill. I couldn’t really feel any pain at this point, just a huge rush of adrenaline as the final miles zipped by.
Five miles to go. Then the CS told me we were just 2 miles from the finish line. For so many years I had wanted to cycle this sportive. I had heard all my triathlon pals talking about it. I even helped to marshall the event last year. And now I had actually put in enough training to feel like I could make a bit of a push for the finish line of the famously tough Bealach Mor Sportive.
I had the biggest grin on my face as we crossed the line. The CS told me that his Garmin read 5hrs 36 mins. I had imagined it would take me at least 6hrs 30mins. I was – and still am – utterly over the moon! Even with my punctures included in the finish time I managed a respectable 6hrs. Now I want a new and faster bike – and I want to try a few more cycling events.
The fastest man on the day was Dave Moran, Of Edinburgh RC, in a hugely impressive and course record-breaking 4:22.27, while the fastest woman was Lee Creagie in 4:52. These are seriously fit and super-fast cyclists and I am still in awe of their achievements.
I couldn’t have done the event on the day without the companionship and encouragement of the CS . And I owe a great deal to the G-Force who has patiently encouraged and trained me on a bike over the last few months. (Gosh, I’m going to start crying and thanking my mummy for giving birth to me in a minute!..)
And what happened to the G-Force himself? Sadly his last month of training had been hit by a virus. But he still managed to pull off a respectable 5hrs 32 mins. He lost 6 mins to an over-the-handlebars crash on the Bealach descent (he is now a helmet wearing convert after seeing the huge dent in his helmet following the event) and had to continue to cycle with a very painful hip. He loved it the sportive, too, and he has asked me to join him in a “paired” time trial event on the Isle of Bute in a couple of weeks. I must have impressed him if he’d choose me over his super cycling pals!
Now what will I choose as my next fitness goal? Any cycle event suggestions?