North Coast 500 Wacky Races

When big Lardy suggested a few months back that the North Coast 500 would make a good adventure, I was intrigued and sceptical in roughly equal measures. All I knew was that it starts and finishes in Inverness, heads out west then loops over the top of Scotland. What I hadn’t appreciated until I did my homework a couple of weeks a go is that it takes in the much feared Bealach Na Ba pass from Kishorn to Applecross.

This is all relevant because Jane was away in North Uist on family business last week and she suggested we got away for a few days camping, weather permitting, of course.

On being presented with this ‘opportunity’, I enquired whether it might be possible to build Applecross into the itinerary. “Why Applecross” she asked “The Bealach” was my reply. “I’m planning on taking the gold bike on holiday and I’d love to do the Pass on R2C2 duty.”

There’s a note here for Theonie over in Adelaide: I last rode the Bealach in 1997: do the maths.

I had no intention of doing a coast to coast ride like the last time: I’m simply not in the condition to do that at the moment. But Achnasheen presented itself as a suitable rollout point, especially as the Caley Thistle Highland Marchers enjoyed a very special overnighter there a few years back, so with 20 miles to warm up the legs before the first serious climb out of Lochcarron, followed ten minutes later by the beast itself, it seemed like a perfect start point.

The stretch of the A832 from Achnasheen to Lochcarron, then on to Kishorn and Applecross, is all on the North Coast 500 route. Jane had pre-warned me that this would be no fun to drive or cycle: and as per usual with my missus, she was right.

The first hint of what was to come occurred half an hour out of Achnasheen. A Dutch tour bus, with strangely enough, a bike on the back, gave me the kind of room you usually associate with a BMW on the backroad from Irvine to Stewarton. The draught from a 50mph bus pass is enough to make you curse, and I did not miss the target: the air was as blue as the sky above.

The second hint was just plain crazy, and it demonstrates how the planners of the whole NC500 gig got it wrong. We’re talking single track roads with passing places. Passing places are relatively frequent, more frequent in fact than the traffic that’s supposed to use them: except that in many cases, they don’t. Impatience is king. I’m pretty clued up on speed, distances and engine noises, and I’m more than happy to go up and down the gears to let whatever else is on the road go by – in either direction – while I creep along the road at snail’s pace in a passing place. And so it was that a car, a motorhome and a bunch more cars overtook me before they – by now out of my sight – met a motorhome road train coming the other way. I say a road train: we’re talking something like a dozen motorhomes nose to tail: no set of passing places on this earth is going to accommodate that lot in anything like orderly fashion. People were out of their precious motors “I’m not putting my wheels off the road onto that!”

Having surveyed the scene for a few seconds, I got off and wheeled the wheels down the inside of the queue, on the very same stretch of dirt that the darlings didn’t fancy. Once at the front, I remounted and left them to it. It was a good five minutes before I saw them all again.

But that escapade was only the preamble for the main event.

Let me tell you this, in case you drive a motor and have never ridden a bike up a steep hill. The number one objective when riding uphill is not to stop: or if you do choose to stop, then to do it on your terms at a place of your choosing. Why? Because if you stop, you risk not getting started again: low gear, spinning wheel, can’t engage the pedals quickly enough: doom.

The Bealach is a five mile climb, and I’m an old man. Previous experience has taught me well on that hill, and I know for a fact that if you treat the lower slopes with contempt, that back end, from the moment you come round that corner and can see the zig zags away in the distance, that’ll devour you.

So I took it easy down the bottom: I didn’t want to take the lowest gear too early, because I knew I’d be needing that later on as a kind of ‘Get Out Of The Bealach Free’ card. But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, there wasn’t a breath of wind (the big hills either side saw to that) and the thermometer on the Karoo quickly rose from a pleasant 77F at the foot to 82F a mile up the hill.

Then the flies took an interest. There’s really feck all you can do when you’re travelling uphill at 4mph and the black flies are trying to take a meal off you. Whether it was the beasts on the beast, or the midges on the days that followed, I’ve returned home with at least a dozen red, itchy lumps on my arms and legs.

Anyway, I digress: back to the storyline…

Drivers who don’t know how to approach to Bealach with care and empathy.I was on a straight bit, where the passing places were about a minute apart (at my pace). There was a motor away up the hill, coming down, just exiting the zig zags, about four passing places away. I thought “I’ll make the next one before he or she gets there and we’ll be fine”. No: this clown decided that 40mph down the hill was fine and that passing places were unnecessary. The fucker nearly ran me off the road without slowing down. I did have to stop, out of pure fright with a hundred foot drop to my left, and barely got going again because of the gradient. A twat of the highest order, driving a black Audi. Recognise the type?

But I chose to save the best for last…

Not two minutes after Audiman shat my trousers, I was once again between two passing passing places when all I could hear in the distance behind me was a tooting horn. Too slow to chance losing momentum by turning round, I kept turning a low gear, indeed the lowest gear by this time. I had nowhere else (mechanically) to go….

The tooting got louder until it was eventually right behind me. Presented with that kind of attitude, I though “fuck you” and instead of hogging the six inch strip of tarmac next to the drop, I assumed the middle of the road. It was about 50m to the next passing place, and sunshine was going to have to wait his (or her) turn. When we got there, the window was down, and he (surprise, surprise, it was a bloke) was flinging expletives in my direction.

And he was towing a fucking boat!

I kid you not, between the motor and the boat, the contraption was basically too long to fit a passing place anyway. I’ll say no more.

The climb took me 70 minutes: I’d budgeted for an hour but stopped to take pictures back down the hill whenever the terrain looked kind enough to let me get going again. But see the best bit of that climb – and Stephen Richards, if you’re reading this, take note – whenever folk were queued up waiting to take their turn to pass the R2C2 bike, they got the message: RIDE2CURE NEUROBLASTOMA : I’ve had people stopping to ask what the jersey is for, and I even had a Dutch guy ask me, as he flew by on his tour of Loch Ness on Wednesday, if I’d enjoyed my tour down under…

#R2C2 is a marketing opportunity and I’m happy to be a cycling advert for a cure.

The descent was easy – of course – but because the top of the hill is littered with sharp bends, there was no way I was able to unleash gravity until much further down the slope when I could see that there was nothing coming for half a mile. I’d have loved 40+ but 34mph was the safest fastest I could muster. Shit happens, as they say, but at least I lived to fight another day: it just won’t be on that hill, not in summertime anyway.

19 days have taken their toll, or maybe it was just the hills that I wasn’t ready for. Today I was like a zombie before I even left HQ: and that was after I’d racked up the Walk2Cure asking rate so as not to fall behind the clock.

The first 19 days of LCFN six years ago showed 554 miles: second time around, I’m claiming 687, and that gap is only going to increase over the coming weeks. It took 88 weeks to clock up the third 250 mile week of LifeCycleForNeuroblastoma. Ride2Cure2 is going to do it in three.

Therein lies the passion of doing this the second time around.

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