Article produced for Spoke Magazine, distributed across Europe.
Baleach Na Be
Everyone has a very different opinion on why they enjoy riding, personally I often feel people get so immersed in competing they forget the easy opportunity cycling gives us.
Over the last few months it’s accrued to me that many many cyclists miss or take for granted a very important aspect of cycling. The ability to get out on your own accord, explore, get lost, and disappear in to the hills and valleys which sit around our towns and cities.
Everyone has a different perspective, interpretation or opinion. But fundamentally having the opportunity to move from A to B within your own power should not be over looked or taken for granted. In the last year and half what I’ve enjoyed the most whilst cycling is going to places where you’d struggle to appreciate the scenery if you were traveling by car. Whether this is a 20 minute ride or 6 hours on the saddle, it’s not always the riding which is the true bliss, it’s where you arrive and the landscapes you observe.
Without contradicting myself too much, the above statement is all good and well but once you begin to get into exploring or simply going further a field you tend to need some help along the way in the form of a car. The UK alone has some absolutely incredible landscapes which are there to be admired. Some of these landscape are so far away it would take far too long to cycle there thus needing the help of a car.
When Angus Sung & James wright from The 5th Floor got in touch asking if I wanted to take part in a collaborative project climbing a massive hill in the north of Scotland I simply couldn’t say no.
I love hills.
They’re what make me tick. They’re my biggest challenge.
I’ve spoken about my love and passion for hills in the past, it’s the same principles. Climb at your own pace but never put a foot down. Never give up.
This however was one of the toughest challenges I’ve attempted to date.
We arrived in Fort William after an 8 hour long drive. We already knew the weather was going to be unpredictable, however there’s unpredictable and then there’s just plain ridiculous.
That night some of the lads were throwing banter around in regards to the strava segment which is around 31 minutes from bottom to top. Looking back, none of us had any clue how close we would be to that time.
If I’m honest it made me nervous and anxious… I don’t really ride for anyone but myself, I don’t get a kick out of racing or competing. I get more of a thrill challenging my self then challenging myself to beat others. I suppose some times I step out of my comfort zone and test my self, but I never enjoy it as much. To some degree this just highlights my preferred style of riding.
A couple of weeks before the trip I was deliberating over which bike to take, my Tokyo Fixed S1 or the LOW//… Two stunning bikes both of which ride completely different. Keirin spirit Columbus steal tubing vs aluminium 7005, pursuit vs track geo… I couldn’t decide! Fundamentally the choice was always geared towards the S1, a climber at heart that can handle so many different styles of riding, stiff as hell, responsive and light. It had more advantages then the LOW// especially with geometry in mind.
The LOW// however is a looker, lighter then the S1 and constantly screams to be ridden in to the ground as hard and fast as physically possible – even a short city jaunt ends up turning into spinning out at full cadence. I often find my myself forgetting about relaxed rides and just continuing with the flow going the longer route in order to maintain the fast ride it begs for.
A 6 mile climb with all weather conditions – We’re not talking 70-80 miles on the saddle. A pal Tom Hill said “worst case scenario that’s only an hour of hard riding. Look good, die gloriously.”. The low doesn’t do climbing, with pursuit geometry the power just seems to disappear which makes sense given the pursuit style of frame. Nonetheless since I got the low I’ve been overprotective having had waited 10 months for it – this was the perfect time to see exactly what it could offer.
Saturday morning I awoke with apprehension and looked out of the window – drizzle and slightly overcast. To some degree it was a bit of relief as it could have been a lot worse! Still it left me nervous, there was a tough head wind and I knew the weather would get worse as we ventured north.
Bealach Na Bar, 2053ft, steep gradients, and hairpin bends.
As we arrived at the bottom of the climb, nerves really kicked in. At the bottom you couldn’t get any sense of how huge the mountain which just heightened my anxiety. As soon as we got out of the car the wind hit us hard, it suddenly dawned on me how challenging this climb would be.
My standard gearing is 48/17, i’ve ridden that for the last 2 years now and never changed once for any hill. It’s a gear I know, spins fast but just low enough to push throw any tough yorkshire climbs. The thought of sticking at this gear had crossed my mind… I almost felt as if I was cheating by dropping the gear but at the bottom of the hill I knew I’d never physically be able to push 75 gear inch’s all the way to the top.
I ended up riding 48/21 up and contemplated 48/15 on the decent, although luckily decided not to after climbing, the descent was just as difficult as the climb, especially given a few of us didn’t have a brake.
We assembled our bikes, changed gears and got our kit on in preparation for the long and tough climb ahead. I wasn’t exactly sure how we were going to ride it at the start, all I had in mind was the fear of stopping or being blown to the ground, which for once seemed very very possible.
Starting in a pack we began a steady climb around the first mountain section. If anything the most beautiful aspect of this climb is what’s hidden. The start is very much a steady gradient which curls around the hillside unveiling some absolutely incredible scenery. I remember coming round a corner and slowly being introduced to two huge mountains with the road in front winding between them .
Even now the thought is that of fear and sheer excitement.
The wind hit hard. It was absolutely relentless. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve seen videos of the pro riding crazy conditions where they’re literally riding at an angle but I never really thought I’d experience wind to this degree.
The 6 of us broke off pretty early in the climb with me and James pushing at a steady pace, even at a low gear with the given conditions it was more like pushing my standard gearing.
Keeping a steady pace alongside James we pushed on.
I could feel my knee’s begin to stretch, strain and pull. The caps in particular felt as if they were slowly protruding my knee with every rotation.
Purely observational at the time, I didn’t have the concentration to factor it into the climb itself as in if I should ease the pace or climb off the saddle. If anything it made me realise my arms weren’t particularly strained at this point – something which would benefit me later on in the climb, when the wind intensifies and when my legs would have very little push left.
About halfway through I really began to feel it, jacket off, the sweat dripping down my forehead – this was endless. With the rest of the pack a little further behind I got my head down and started pushing through the aches and pains that were beginning to creak through my limbs.
I don’t think I’ve ever had to concentrate so much on riding before, about a 3rd of the way up it began spitting on top of the 30-40mph winds already battering me. It got to the point where my legs couldn’t push through the wind and it was mainly my arms pulling me against the bike that was keeping me going let alone up right.
Usually at this point in the climb iId begin circling on the hill attempting to give my legs a bit of a break but with the weather so relentless there was no chance. I attempted to do so but I was going so slow that as soon as I turned the wheel the wind hit harder and came close to throwing me off balance.
Mentality is the key in my eyes and it’s what helped me to keep pushing.
By the time I was at the hairpin bends at the top my body was screaming no more, the weather was crazy. We had hail at one point, heavy rain and yet more powerful wind.
There was a sigh of relief from everyone when we reached the peak.
We regrouped and took in the achievement. The views from the top were simply incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life and to think we’d just climb the whole thing made even more of an achievement.
We flipped our gears and prepared for the decent.
At the time I didn’t really consider how difficult it would be going down, in fact I was pretty oblivious to be honest. Since it had been on and off rain through the climb the road had a light covering of water which made it practically impossible to slow down as we found out
at the start of the descent.
The first mile or so of descending was petrifying but exhilarating. It just felt as if there was no traction on the road at all. The majority of corners were all blind and the road was a single lane, so we were all pretty keen on taking it steady on the way down. Luckily we all managed to stop before any accidents happened. Even those who had brakes were finding it difficult. We all decided it would be a little safer to dismount and walk a small part of it until we came around the corner where we could see how the rest of the road panned out.
About half way down I began to enjoy it a little more, the climb had taken so much out of my legs and arms the locking up to brake was pretty painful, but it was now a great opportunity to soak up the view we missed climbing up, as now the valley stretched before us.
Once at the bottom there was a distinct feeling of success and relief.
I’d climbed the longest and toughest climb in the UK with one gear, a feat I had never thought I would have had the opportunity to experience let alone succeed at.
I’ve never experienced physical exertion like I had climbing Bealach Na Ba.
Why put myself through such physical strain? Why do it fixed gear?
Why without brakes?
For me it’s a personal challenge. It’s about pushing my boundaries both physically and mentally. The amount of times throughout that 44 minutes of climbing, I thought that’s it, no more, I’m going to collapse, I give in. As mentioned earlier it got to a point where I had no push left in my legs, they were nothing but jelly. I knew I’d only have one attempt though, if I failed and started again I wouldn’t have enough energy to push to the top without putting that foot down.
A huge thanks to James Wright (The 5th Floor) & Angus Sung for inviting me, and to everyone who took part and helped in the making of the film which can be seen via the link below.