I was lured to Torridon, on the North West Coast of Scotland, under the premise of a bit of biking and hiking – sounded innocent enough, and with it being one of my favourite Scottish places I jumped at the chance of a few days there. Little did I know I was about to embark on the longest, hardest road bike journey I’ve ever done!
Torridon is remote, rugged, and exceptionally beautiful – it changes with the seasons, and is one of those areas of Scotland that seeps with foreboding mystery and folklore. There’s no mobile cell reception, the weather changes in a second, the climbs are steep and dark, and there’s a handful of places to grab a bite to eat – it’s just amazing.
Last time I was in Torridon, was deep into a Scottish winter, and I was there for climbing, it was a real treat to drive into Torridon Glen with glorious sunshine and views as far as the eye could see.
On arrival, the Celtman Extreme Triathlon was just coming to a close with the last of the competitors running to the finish line – the route is said to be one of the toughest triathlons on the planet, and as amazing as it is to see these rare specimens of mortals who can really push their bodies to the absolute limits, I couldn’t help thinking they must be also a little crazy! I mean, open water Loch swimming in the Highlands, a mountain marathon that covers two Munros and a 202km bike ride, isn’t really for the faint hearted!
I was there to meet a pal, along with some of her pals – who had already spent a week further north in Ullapool. I had no idea they were a super-fit bunch of roadies and assumed we would just be pushing out for a long pedal the next day. Instead the route we opted for was the Bealach na Ba – the Road to Applecross – which comes in at no less than the hardest road bike climb in the UK, rising from sea-level to 2054ft. Unlike most of the mountain passes in Scotland, the Bealach na Ba rises aggressively, like an Alpine pass – narrow, single-track road with tight hairpins and steep gradients.
We started at Torridon, which probably added a good 20km to our total route – the climbing starts almost immediately with rolling roads and I was shocked to learn we were nowhere near the actual start of the Bealach na Ba itself! The road narrows and become more remote passing through the hills, before nearing the coast and the start of the route proper.
If I’m honest, the road wasn’t anywhere near as physically taxing as I expected and for the most part I enjoyed the whole experience – as mentioned earlier, I had planned for a long pedal and had equipped myself accordingly – running shoes instead of my SPD clips, race backpack with supplies, and I was riding my cyclocross – which is an amazing bike, but was definitely not designed for long, hard ascents and descents.
The views were absolutely spectacular and I could see deer in the cliffs towering above my head – it was impossible not to stop and take photos, however, stopping also meant restarting on steep terrain – it was tricky at times. Being a single-track road, there were also lots of cars to contend with, and although that made things a little more difficult the drivers were great sports – cheering us all on and celebrating with us as we arrived at the summit of the pass!
The descent should have been the easy part, and it was, except for the fact that riding a cyclocross comes with the issue of overheating disc-brakes – mine became red-hot to the touch, and I was forced to wait on them cooling off a number of times. It was a bit scary, but I knew to expect it, from experience.
Rolling into Applecross felt great, and I allowed myself to believe the worst was over – in fact, we had another few hours of rolling roads to contend with, and some of those rolls were steep! Riding along the Applecross and Torridon coast, looking out to Skye and the Small Isles definitely eased the pain and made the hours fly by.
On arrival back in Torridon we had clocked almost 100km of distance and 2213m of ascent – not bad going! We definitely deserved our supper after it though.
The next day we planned to traverse the Liathach Ridge – a steep, exposed mountain ridge of rocky pinnacles – 3461ft above sea level and about 10km of distance including the walk in.
The weather, however, had other ideas and low cloud sat over the hills until late morning – we decided to abandon the plan – I didn’t mind too much, as I’d experienced the ridge in winter, so had a fair idea what it was like.
Instead we opted for a mountain trail run along Coire Dubh, which circles the back of Liathach – sometimes called the hidden side, as it’s not visible from Torridon or the road. The path ascends continuously until reaching it’s highest point at about 480m above sea level, here becoming much more rocky, boggy and technical – the views are amazing, with lots of mountain lochs and wildlife. It’s pretty spectacular running through a mountain pass with great imposing ridges on either side!
As the path begins to dip towards the other side, views of Loch Torridon emerge and the trail winds its way alongside the river with little gorges and waterfalls before entering Torridon Forest onto easier terrain underfoot, emerging in the Torridon Estate.
Torridon always seems to push my expectations of what I am capable of, and what Scotland has to offer – it’s an amazing mythical place that will never offer the same thing from one day to the next, and whatever I expect from a trip to Torridon always seems to be completely different to what actually happens! This trip was no exception, and as ever, it was sad to be leaving the mountains behind to return to ‘real life’.
Next stop – summer in the Alps…!