It had been a few years since I’d pedalled up the old one-in-seven hill to Culnakirk but I remembered it wasn’t easy. Forty-five miles into this lengthy road ride I was reminded just how tough a proposition it is.
The climb – now signed in metric as a 15 per cent gradient – starts a mile outside Drumnadrochit and lasts for an energy-sapping three-quarters of a mile. After each turn the road just seems to get steeper and the relentless rise is a test of mental strength as much as physical stamina. I don’t know how those riders in Le Tour get up the Alpe d’Huez!
The thing that kept me going in the end was the thought of my colleagues asking if I made it to the top. There was no way I was going to have to answer no to that question!
This classic Inverness ride follows A roads throughout – apart from a short loop at the halfway point – and takes you to the edge of Glen Affric.
As I headed out of town and beyond Clachnaharry on the A862, the water of the Beauly Firth was shimmering in the morning sunlight; I could see across to a clear Ben Wyvis and near the shore a bevy of swans was serenely swimming.
Some sections of the Inverness to Beauly road are quite narrow with fast-moving traffic, so I was happy that drivers were giving me plenty of time and space as they waited to overtake me. There is a cycle path of sorts from Inchmore which I quite often use but its condition is getting worse and I decided to stick to the road to reach the Lovat Bridge, where cyclists have priority.
Stay ahead where the road bends right towards Beauly, following the signs to Glen Affric on the A831. Once past the ugly substation that marks the start of the giant Beauly to Denny power line upgrade, the route takes you through the glorious Kilmorack and Strathglass.
A number of properties down the road were displaying banners against a proposed nearby wind farm which seems to me out of place in this gateway to Glen Affric, a national nature reserve of some significance.
Through Kilmorack I passed the artwork lizard on the outside of the gallery, an incredible piece that always grabs my attention on the way past and looks especially impressive in the sunlight against the yellow wall. There are a few little climbs as you pass through Aigas, following the line of the River Beauly down to Struy Bridge.
This is a large part of the Highland Cross cycle section in reverse, so I knew it was 10 miles or so to Cannich from here on a fairly flat road. A heavy shower made me stop to put on my waterproof jacket before following the single-track road to the village, which is your best bet for a refreshment stop with a café at the campsite and public toilets also available in the village hall.
I decided to do a short figure-of-eight to take in the minor roads south-west of Cannich, turning left after the bridge then right towards Tomich and Plodda Falls after the River Glass bridge. After a couple of kilometres, follow the road right to cross back over the river on a fine stone bridge and stay right where the Glen Affric road cuts off left.
Back in Cannich I turned right just before the traffic lights, passing the campsite and village hall again before beginning the big ascent of Kerrow brae. It’s not the steepness but the length of this climb that gets you; from the bridge it’s two miles before the going eases but there is relief with a decent stretch of downhill to follow.
As I made my way through Glen Urquhart past Loch Meiklie and through Balnain, my mind started to turn towards the Culnakirk climb. I couldn’t recall every twist and turn but I remembered the way it gets steeper towards the top.
Then suddenly I saw the sign: “Beauly, A833”, with the old A9 whited out. This was it: three-quarters of a mile where I had to be focused and determined.
Straight away I dropped down the gears, to the extent that within a corner or two of the bottom I had nowhere to go – except the granny gears, and there was no way I could use them! I wanted to do this properly. Once I’d made my way up what must surely have been the toughest bit, I’d convince myself there could only be a turn or two left, only to discover there were plenty more and they just got steeper.
Eventually – after some self-motivational yelling – I saw the new house on the right and remembered that the real climb was over, though a gradual rise continues. I had done it, and I pumped my fist in the air. Culnakirk is so steep I think a few of the motor homes and caravans that come this way were celebrating in a similar style!
The undulating ride through Glen Convinth was a joy now, the odd short climb soon forgotten with a lengthy straight downhill that had me hit my top speed of the day despite being on the brakes most of the way down.
As I passed Belladrum the festival furore was getting in full swing and the sun was shining again. With well over 50 miles on the clock, I reached the junction with the A862, where I turned right for the last nine miles back to Inverness.
Looking over the firth to Ben Wyvis again, it struck me that not everyone in the country has such great cycling as this on their doorstep, and I was glad to have made the most of a fine day to be in the saddle.