In 2016 we decided to keep on the British Isles, although further away than our normal routine. Scotland beckoned us with her mysterious mountains, high passes and stunning lochs. The decision was made to catch the sleeper train from London and travel in style while our support crew worked their way across the country in the van. Instead of the usual historical focus, this year we had decided on a more physical goal. That of climbing the highest peak in the British Isles, Bealach Nea Ba, 2500ft in 5 miles.
5 Day Itinerary
Travel formats differed in the group with half opting for the train, the other half for the air and the rest in the support van. Day one cycling involved 50 miles and 5,000ft climb from Inverness to Fort Augustus.
Getting together at the main station in Inverness, we met the van and downloaded our bikes. Ready to start the first 50 miles along the side of Loch Ness.
By far the hardest riding day in our experience with literally tonnes of climbs mixed in with the fact we were crossing an entire country and conquering the highest thing they had to offer.
Day 1 Inverness to Invergarry
Starting in the morning at the main station in Inverness we met up with both the van and the flyers. Those of us on the train were noticeably fresher although a little rough looking. We had enjoyed a filling porridge as we entered the highlands watching the landscape unfurl in the mist from the luxury of the dining car.
Having set up the bikes and donned our lycra we were ready for day one. A short distance to cover due to the late start but needless to say it went uphill quite quickly. Leaving Inverness to the North we headed along the road on the south of Loch Ness. Always with a glance to the right to see if the famous monster popped her head above the surface. The first 20 miles raced by as we approached lunch on the shores of the big Loch.
With lunch behind us we started to climb away from the shores of Loch Ness and up towards the forests that frame the Loch. The climb was a mere 2000feet with stunning scenery all around. The joy of this was that the overnight stay was at the same altitude as Loch Ness so a downward sprint was soon to come. Sure enough, we began what can only be described as a rollercoaster ride down towards Fort Augustus. A hive of tourist activity with a series of Lochs leading from the Loch. At this time of year, the place was buzzing with activity so what better spot to lounge in our lycra and have a spot of fish and chips.
Well rested and ready for a proper bed we took the towpath alongside the canal to our destination to be warmly welcomed by Angus and his lady. The accommodation didn't disappoint and they looked after us well. We ate at the fabulous pub across the road and bedded down for the night. To be warned the Road will decide in the morning.
Day 2 Invergarry to Applecross
Filled with a delicious dinner from the Invergarry Hote we retired for the night at the nearby and aptly named Saddle Mountain Hostel. A mixture of bunks, twins and doubles with enough space for 20+ guests the accommodation was ideal and included all the facilities to cook our own breakfast in the morning. Mixing a classic full English with the more local porridge we were ready for the day ahead.
A mile from the Hostel the fun begins with a steep climb to 1,100ft on the A87 to Auchteryre. As far as navigation goes this route is blessed because of the simplicity. You just keep heading west on the A87 until you reach the target of the day the pass at Bealach Nae Ba. Turn right there to Applecross.
After the initial climb you spend a wonderous 40 miles rolling downhill towards the spectacular Eilean Donan Castle, most famous to our age group as the home of the clan McCloud in Highlander. A perfect spot to lunch but not quite enough time to explore the fortress itself. With quotes from the film ringing in our ears, we then took on a series of smaller but still very vertical peaks before the biggy. The Scottish countryside does not disappoint and every part of todays ride included some of the most spectacular scenery on offer anywhere in the world. Take a quick look at the segment graph above to get an idea of the climbing involved and how large the big peak sits at the end of the day. I don't know how Jamie arranged it but the weather was clear for most of our journey, there were very few midges and the roads were pretty clear too. We rested briefly to re stock on fluids and food for the climb and set off on the challenge of the trip in high spirits if a little knackered already.
The beauty of this climb is it starts right at sea level, just around the corner from Faslane submarine base, so you know where you begin. Looming above you are two couloirs ribbed with solid rock stretching into the misty heavens. The start is fairly gentle and allows you to cover the first couple of miles at a pace above 4-5 miles an hour. It's only when you turn the corner and imagine you are at the top that the steep bit appears. Then, you find yourself being ground down by the view of the S-bends at the top. If you are slow like me then you watch in agony as the leaders round the bends to the top. It took me just over an hour to reach the top averaging just 3.6mph. The fastest times up there are 23.28 averaging 10.4mph. Not in our group it has to be said. The view at the top is so rewarding, I can't imagine the agony of cloudy skies though so hope for the best weather. You can see down on the couloirs of Skye with fingers of sun caressing Skye's peaks like gods fingers. The van gave us a quite stock take and then we headed down to our destination for the evening celebrations. A 3.5 mile descent takes you into the heart of Applecross and the Applecross Inn where you would be very remiss to avoid a pint of the dark stuff to celebrate your achievement.
Our accommodation for the night was similar to the previous night in that it caters to large groups The Hartfield House Hotel provided us with the perfect rest spot. Again a mix of bunks and singles, it was warm and clean as an added bonus you can eat from the buffet breakfast bar offering a similar mix to the morning before.
Dinner is really worth a mention here and is right up there with the finest cuisine we have ever experienced on tour. The Applecross Walled Garden and Restaurant was fantastic in terms of service and food. We ate a scrumptious Venison Casserole, straight off the highlands it would have appeared. Followed by many fine ales and gins to round off a massive day in the saddle. Being only a short walk from the accommodation, we were very happy to settle down for a rest before another long day tomorrow.
Day 3 Applecross to Inverness
Just when you think its all over and the hard part is behind you the rumours of day three begin to surface. Having climbed what we considered the big one it looked to be all downhill from here. However, as every good Scot knows it ain't over til its OOOver. Heading North along the coast from Applecross we knew we had a 90+ mile day ahead and if truth be told possibly 10 miles too many but a necessary evil to get back to Inverness in time for dinner and flights home the next day.
The coast road offers some spectacular views of Skye on your left but has a habit of throwing together a mix of gusty headwind (whichever way you face) with steep 200 to 400 ft climbs and drops. The first half of the day is beautiful and generally uphill. We had lunch in Kinlochewe at a fairly grubby car park that happened to be exactly halfway, between Torridon and lunch we even saw a huge stag within a hundred yards of the road which was excellent. With a final burst after lunch to 700ft the rest of the way is downhill into Inverness itself.
It has to be said the A and E facilities at Inverness Hospital are fabulous, from a personal point of view. Having fallen off at speed and dislocated my Collar bone I received great service, even ending with a CD of my Xrays in the post when I returned home.
Our accommodation for the night was the Premier Inn and the dinner put on for the end of tours on the dockside at....
We returned by plane on Sunday morning to Gatwick and the van made its own sluggish way South arriving in Dorset the following evening.