Sore bums and saddlebags: cycling the North Coast 500

Another monster blog post, so make yourselves a nice cup of tea and strap yourselves in.

It was four years since my last visit to Scotland, and I ended up returning in a most unexpected way. A few months ago I’d never even heard of the North Coast 500; now I’ve only gone and cycled it.

I made a point of going to Scotland every year to bag a few Munros, but recently Italy’s Apennines have replaced the Scottish Highlands as my favoured peak-bagging destination.

Apart from a bumble along the Camel Trail on a tandem, I'd not been cycling for years (Photo: Edita Nichols)
Apart from a bumble along the Camel Trail on a tandem, I’d not been cycling for years (Photo: Edita Nichols)

In the process of planning our Chimborazo sea to summit expedition, it occurred to me that we needed some cycling practice. Neither of us were cyclists, and apart from a short bumble along Cornwall’s Camel Trail on a tandem last year, I hadn’t ridden a bike for years. As training isn’t – and never has been – my cup of tea, a short cycling holiday in Scotland seemed like the answer.

I found a cycle hire shop in Inverness called Ticket to Ride who rent out bikes for long road trips, and will even come and pick you up at the end if you need it. Without any clear idea of how far we could ride in the time available, I had the idea of cycling west of Inverness and getting picked up somewhere north of Ullapool a couple of weeks later. With that in mind, I rented a couple of hybrids and booked a vehicle pickup from a location to be agreed at a later date.

Then, during the planning stage, I flew home from Italy to vote in Theresa May’s snap election, and bumped into my old mate Angus at a mountaineering lecture in London. As well as being a mountaineer and Scottish, Angus is a keen cyclist. He told me about the North Coast 500, a new 500-mile (800km) route around the coast in the far north-west of Scotland. He was convinced we’d have no problem doing the whole thing in two weeks, and we believed him.

We hired a couple of hybrid bikes from Ticket to Ride in Inverness. As you can see, Edita was happy that we managed to get all our gear into the saddlebags with just a tent over the top.
We hired a couple of hybrid bikes from Ticket to Ride in Inverness. As you can see, Edita was happy that we managed to get all our gear into the saddlebags with just a tent over the top.

The idea of doing a complete long-distance route appealed to us; it meant that we had something to aim for, it was more of a conversation piece, and it would put us into a select band of ‘completists’ if we managed to finish (Complete whatists exactly? Well, that’s for you to decide.)

In fact the North Coast 500 has only been in existence since 2015. It was invented by Prince Charles’s North Highland Initiative as a way of boosting tourism in that part of Scotland. Marketed as a 516-mile road trip that is Scotland’s equivalent of Route 66, it has been extremely successful, mainly among bikers and owners of motor homes. In August 2015 the extreme cyclist Mark Beaumont christened it as a bike trip by cycling all of it in the ludicrously fast time of 38 hours. The former professional cyclist James McCallum has since chopped an extra seven hours off the record, biking it in just 31 hours.

I would need a new pair of legs to do it in that time, as well as a bike with a jet engine. We erred on the side of caution, and gave ourselves fourteen days. Our original plan was to spend some of those days climbing the odd hill or two en route. This idea was soon abandoned when we realised cycling and hill walking don’t mix, and we’d need to save all of our energy for pedalling.

We decided to camp, as this would give us the flexibility to stop in the next campsite
We decided to camp, as this would give us the flexibility to stop in the next campsite

We were warned the route would be busy in August, and we’d need to book accommodation in advance. Since we had no idea how far we were capable of cycling in a day, we decided to camp, as this would give us the flexibility to stop at the next available campsite, or even wild camp by the side of the road if necessary.

We made a skeleton plan by researching the locations of all the campsites along the route. I tried to be clever by downloading the Google My Maps file for the route and overlaying all the campsites on it. I even bought a phone mount for my handlebars. But in the end, phone reception was so poor in the Highlands that a paper map and a simple list of the campsite locations proved more effective.

There is also an ‘official’ North Coast 500 website. Most of its content is horribly expensive and the site as a whole tries to squeeze money out of you on every page, but there was a PDF guidebook we downloaded for just a fiver that proved moderately useful.

Our first concern was whether we’d be able to fit all our gear into the 56 litre saddlebags we’d hired from Ticket to Ride. We had tent, sleeping bags, mats, stove and pans, as well as spare clothes and all our hiking gear. The staff at the hire shop offered us a small trailer to tow behind our bikes, but that would have made us feel more like horses than cyclists. We were relieved when we managed to get everything in the panniers, with just the tent strapped over the top.

An easy start to the journey along Beauly Firth
An easy start to the journey along Beauly Firth

Our target for the first day was Achnasheen, 40 miles away on the journey across country to the west coast. We left Inverness on cycle paths and crossed the A9 road bridge out of town. We had an easy start to the journey along the north shore of the Beauly Firth, on a quiet, single lane road with very little traffic.

After joining the main road and covering the next six miles to Contin in just half an hour, we made our first tactical error. Being a cycling novice, my biggest fear was getting knocked off by a motorist. I’d read on a cycling forum that the next stretch from Contin to Garve was unpleasant, on a busy winding road with lorries hurtling past. So we followed a recommendation on the North Coast 500 website to turn off the main road and follow forest trails to Garve instead.

This was a mistake. The trails were rough as the proverbial badger’s arse, and my arse felt like it was being assaulted by something a lot more aggressive than a badger. It was mountain bike terrain, and no place for loaded touring bikes. These rough dirt tracks took us about two hours to navigate, and I worried about punctures. Several times we needed to get off and push, and there was even a stream to ford. We had hundreds of miles to cycle, and it felt a little early in the trip to be doing something that stupid.

The trails were as rough as a badger's arse, and there was even a stream to ford
The trails were as rough as a badger’s arse, and there was even a stream to ford

To complete our misery, heavy rain started pounding down and we stopped to put on ponchos. I don’t know whether ponchos are standard cycling gear, but it’s what we’d decided to bring for weather such as this. It was four o’clock when we rejoined the main road at Garve. We were feeling quite demoralised when we rode past a sign saying 16 miles to Achnasheen. We stopped for a snack in a layby and discussed our options. We didn’t have many. We had no more food and there was nowhere else to stop. We’d just have to keep pedalling.

Luckily this was our lowest ebb. After the snack we zoomed along a good straight road in a wide valley surrounded by rolling hills. There were lakes and a railway line to our left, and patches of pine forest. It was a typical Highland scene, and for Edita, who was here for the first time, it was all new.

We stopped regularly to nurse aches and pains in buttocks and shoulders. I kept getting pins and needles in my forearms, and had to shake them regularly as I cycled. We reached Achnasheen, a few houses near a roundabout, at 6.15. I felt a bit of a scruff bag as we cycled into the grounds of the posh Ledgowen Lodge Hotel, but the staff were friendly enough. The camping area was a little boggy, and there was no toilet block or showers, but at that stage we didn’t care. We were glad to get to the end of our first day’s cycling in one piece. The day had had its ups and downs, but we’d achieved our aim. We had a wet wipe wash and had a nice dinner of lamb shank in the hotel bar.

Caption competition. Clean answers only, please.
Caption competition. Clean answers only, please.

The midges had a feeding frenzy as we packed away our tent the following morning. We left at 9.15 and had an easy run down to Lochcarron. The scenery continued in the same vein as the previous afternoon: a wide moorland valley between bleak rolling hills, with lakes every few miles and very few trees.

I started off leading, but after a short distance Edita offered to ride in front and ‘break wind’ for me. This was a kinder offer than it sounds.

‘Are you offering to let me ride in your slipstream, or do I need a nose plug?’ I replied.

We reached Lochcarron at 11.30 and had an early lunch in a cafe next to a golf course. We sat outside on a patio, with the sea loch lapping the shore a few metres away, and two Munros rising to the north.

I was nervous, because I knew that afternoon we would be tackling the infamous Bealach na Ba, a 2,053 ft high pass that was supposed to be the hardest thing that the North Coast 500 has to offer.

We left at 1pm and pedalled leisurely through the village. It was a pleasant scene, with one long promenade against the loch. There was a huge hill out of the village that knocked the stuffing out of me, but it was followed by a much longer and more enjoyable downhill section through the amusingly named village of Kishorn, freewheeling for long distances with mountains up ahead.

Pedalling up to the infamous Bealach na Ba pass
Pedalling up to the infamous Bealach na Ba pass

Across another sea loch we could see the road rising up a hillside. It was 2pm, and time to tackle the infamous Bealach na Ba. Or as it was soon to be known, the Bealach na Bastard.

It took us 2½ hours to reach the top. It was a picturesque road, climbing parallel to a sea loch to begin with, then turning inland and steepening towards the pass. We stopped often to rest and let traffic past on the single lane road. We made good progress to begin with, but it was never going to last. As the road became steep, I had to stop more frequently until I could only cycle ten metres at a stretch. At this point I succumbed to the inevitable, and got off to push. Edita tried to video me, but I was so tired that I could only think of two things to say. One of those things was ‘off’.

Towards the top, even pushing became hard work. Motorists passed by; when they saw our huge saddlebags, they beeped their horns in encouragement. As you can imagine, we appreciated this enormously.

We reached the pass at 4.30, where there was a small car park and stunning views across the strait to Skye. The summit cairn read 2,053 ft, the height of a mountain. We slumped across it and had a snack. The weather had remained fine. I was shagged out, but happy.

The Bealach na Ba is more commonly known as the Bealach na Bastard
The Bealach na Ba is more commonly known as the Bealach na Bastard

Other cyclists came over to talk to us, one was cycling the route while being supported by his wife in a vehicle, which Edita regarded as cheating. He told us that the Bealach na Ba was the hardest cycle ride in Britain.

‘One for the bucket list,’ he said.

The hardest ride in Britain? We had done it on our second ever day of cycle touring, although we did get off to push.

The ride to Applecross was rather more enjoyable. We left the pass at 5pm, thinking that we still had some way to go. Half an hour later we were riding into the campsite, having expended no energy at all. We were able to freewheel the entire way, looking across grassland to the sea below us, and a series of hairpins in front. It was marvellous fun, and dinner at the Applecross Inn down on the waterfront was a perfect end to the evening. Edita told me that she was enjoying Scotland.

The next day we cycled around the Applecross peninsula. It was fine to begin with as we looked across the strait to the island of Raasay. There was not much traffic, and the hills were gentle. In fact, I decided that some hills were better than no hills at all, because you could cycle up them, then rest your legs (and backside) as you freewheeled down the other side.

Some of the locals were surprised to see us
Some of the locals were surprised to see us

It was when the road turned east to cross the northern part of the peninsula that the trouble started. The hills became steeper and more frequent. Many were far too steep to get up on my loaded touring bike. It was a painful struggle, and often I had to get off and push. The scenery was spectacular, but I wasn’t appreciating it much. One particular downhill section clung to the side of a cliff, with crash barriers to stop vehicles tumbling into Loch Torridon.

There was a lot more traffic now, and on the single track road there was no alternative but to stop and let the cars by. For Edita it was also tiring to listen to my moaning, as profanity after profanity spewed out of my mouth.

‘If it’s like this all the way round then I don’t think I can do it,’ I said.

‘Perhaps you should turn back and abandon it,’ she replied.

‘Perhaps I should. Perhaps I should pull out of our Ecuador adventure too.’

‘In that case I will go on alone,’ Edita said.

I shut up and carried on.

One particular downhill section clung to the side of a cliff, with crash barriers to stop vehicles tumbling into Loch Torridon
One particular downhill section clung to the side of a cliff, with crash barriers to stop vehicles tumbling into Loch Torridon

We stopped for a late lunch in Shieldaig, another pleasant lochside village with a pub, a general store, and a number of B&Bs. The last six miles to Torridon were much more enjoyable. We were back on two lane roads, and the gradients were manageable as the Torridon hills rose up across the loch to our left. The summit of Liathach hung in cloud. We had planned to climb this most exalted of Scottish hills the following day if the weather was fair. But the forecast was for rain, and I realised that I simply didn’t have the energy for strenuous hill walking between cycle rides.

Torridon had only an unmanned campsite. There was no pub, and the general store was closed when we arrived. We had noodles over the stove that night, and I prayed for easier terrain the following day.

That third day was a low ebb, but we were getting into the routine of cycle touring. The next day it rained for most of the day, and I had my poncho on and off more times than a Mexican streaker. But we made good progress. We had to climb several peninsulas, each one involving a stiff climb, followed by a roll down the other side. This time, however, there was no getting off to push. We flew the first 10 miles to Kinlochewe in less than an hour.

After a long stop for breakfast, we cycled up the side of Loch Maree in thick mist. I had been hoping to see Slioch, the first Munro I ever climbed more than quarter of a century ago, but it was nowhere to be seen. There was a long hill up to Gairloch, and a headwind stopped me in my tracks, but we refuelled at a rambling old pub in Charlestown.

On the road to Torridon
On the road to Torridon

 

Loch Ewe famously contains an island with the comically twee name of Isle of Ewe, a favourite boating destination for courting couples. I can safely say that the road alongside the loch didn’t love us half us much as the island, as we cycled up a long hill in driving rain, my buttocks as sore as a hammered thumbnail as I struggled my way up it.

We had another publess evening ahead of us at the campsite in Laide. There was a post office 100m short of the entrance, so Edita suggested we stop by and get some wine for the evening.

‘Where in the world did you go into a post office where they serve wine?’ I said.

I opened the door to find myself facing a wall full of booze. Bottles of beer, wine and spirits of every description filled my view. I believe they even sold stamps. We found a bottle of Abruzzo Montepulciano to remind ourselves of Italy as we rested in our tent that evening.

The answer to my question, by the way, is Scotland.

On a high plateau above Dundonnell, with the Fannichs up ahead
On a high plateau above Dundonnell, with the Fannichs up ahead

The next day was the day I started to enjoy cycle touring. It was beautiful weather as we cycled around Gruinard Bay, looking north across the water to the Summer Isles. There was another long hill to cross a peninsula, but then an enjoyable whiz down the other side along Little Loch Broom. We had lunch in a teashop near Dundonnell which was ruined by an English pub bore spouting non-stop verbal diarrhoea at us for half an hour until we had to get up and leave.

The 26 miles to Ullapool that afternoon were among the most enjoyable. There was a long climb up to a high plateau, then a zoom down the other side. Many Munros were visible on this section, including the jagged ridge of An Teallach (Edita crowned the trip two weeks later by climbing this fantastic mountain and making it her first Munro).

The last 10 miles to Ullapool were another test for the buttocks as we rode along the shores of Loch Broom. Mine were getting really quite sore, and we had to stop for regular ‘butt rests’. The campsite in Ullapool was the first in a series of four amazing beach camps in successive days. The picturesque fishing village of Ullapool is one of Scotland’s more cosmopolitan places. It has a relaxing atmosphere and a pleasant location on a sea loch surrounded by mountains. It seems to be one of those places people visit on holiday and like so much they decide to move there (we didn’t go so far, but we did return there for six nights after the bike ride).

An Teallach, one of Scotland's best-loved mountains, with some ugly bastard standing in front
An Teallach, one of Scotland’s best-loved mountains, with some ugly bastard standing in front

The next day’s cycle ride was the part I’d been looking forward to most of all. It lived up to expectations. Assynt is an area of wide open spaces and isolated mountains rising up across lakes. I’d been there 20 years earlier and climbed two of the better known mountains, Stac Pollaidh and Suilven. Both are small but dramatic. It was another sunny day, and we took the single-track Inverpolly road to Lochinver. This road passes underneath the foot of stegosaurus-like Stac Pollaidh as it clings to the side of Loch Lurgainn. It was gently rolling, which meant we had plenty of opportunity to rest our legs on the downhill sections.

There aren’t any angles of Stac Pollaidh where it doesn’t look dramatic, rising like a shark’s fin with a knife-edge ridge. We cycled right round it and found the road north to Lochinver exceptionally quiet. This section was nicely varied. It was gently wooded in places, with a few open moorland sections alongside lakes. Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh crowned the horizon until we dropped down to cycle along Enard Bay, with its sea views and islands.

We continued past Lochinver to spend the night among the sand dunes of Clachtoll Beach Campsite. It was a lovely spot, and they even had wi-fi.

Stac Pollaidh seen across Loch Lurgainn
Stac Pollaidh seen across Loch Lurgainn

‘The wi-fi’s shit, but it’s free,’ said the man in reception as we checked in.

I hadn’t been looking forward to this northern part of the Assynt peninsula. On my Ordnance Survey map the road contained many chevrons, indicating steep hills. It lived up to expectations the next day, on what was probably the hardest section to date. The Bealach na Ba had been tough, but it was just one long hill. This section was relentless, with hill after hill, some of them so steep that it was a struggle to push our bikes up. We crossed one windswept moorland section where the rain lashed us like a whip.

‘This is amazing. It’s so beautiful here,’ Edita said as I stopped to rest.

My thoughts at that precise moment were that I was cold, wet and knackered – which just goes to show that everybody’s different.

The one consolation was Quinag, a three-pronged mountain that kept us company for most of the morning as we cycled round it. It’s Y-shaped summit contains three (yes, three) Ronnies (or as other people call them, Corbetts). We liked the mountain so much that we returned to climb it afterwards.

Kylesku will always be memorable for the langoustines Edita had for lunch
Kylesku will always be memorable for the langoustines Edita had for lunch

We stopped for lunch in Kylesku, in a delightful location on a remote sea loch that was an amazing natural harbour. This lunch will forever be memorable for the langoustines Edita ordered, that came to the table served on a portable gallows. If you don’t know what a langoustine is then don’t worry – neither does anyone else. Nor, it seems, do many people know how to eat them. Along with a knife and fork, Edita was given a pair of nutcrackers and a knitting needle. The former was to crack open the shells, and the latter to tease out the meat inside, but how? As I wolfed down my burger she called the waiter over for a demonstration. I roared with laughter when he put on a pair of rubber gloves, but I understand this was for reasons of hygiene, rather than because eating a langoustine is something a vet might feel familiar with. It wasn’t just Edita who watched this demonstration, but everyone in our section of the pub, and there was a great deal of merriment.

There was another long hill after lunch, but otherwise the afternoon section to Scourie was relatively easy. We spent the evening in another pleasant campsite in a rocky cove.

The following day was a short one, and the last day on a bike that I really enjoyed. I was now further north than I had ever been in my life, and that afternoon we were to touch the north coast in Durness. We zoomed along on wide two-lane roads for the first part of the morning. The landscape was feeling increasingly remote as we crossed boggy moorland with rocky outcrops.

There was a roof-of-the-world feel to the section approaching Durness
There was a roof-of-the-world feel to the section approaching Durness

North of Kinlochbervie the road left the coast to cross a high plateau and bypass Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath. This section is single-track road, and it was busy with traffic as we looked across bogland to the mountains of Foinaven and Cranstackie rising up into cloud. But it was easy cycling and good for the morale. The road was flat, and there was a roof-of-the-world feeling as we saw the land drop away in front of us to Britain’s far north coast.

The road dropped gently for many miles, and we reached Durness for lunch. This village is something of a tourist haven, and it felt like a metropolis. Pristine white beaches nestled among dramatic sea cliffs, and there were even people sun bathing. We had time to do some sightseeing that afternoon. We walked along the cliffs and visited Smoo Cave, a series of natural chambers carved out by the sea. One had an underground waterfall crashing into it.

Had our bike ride ended in Durness, I would have finished it with fond memories. We had completed the most picturesque section up the west coast, and I’d done it without any major traumas.

But I was looking forward to exploring the north coast of Scotland. I was born and raised in Britain, but I had never visited the far north. When I woke up the following morning, I didn’t know that the day was going to be sheer hell.

Ben Hope up ahead. At this point I was still enjoying the day.
Ben Hope up ahead. At this point I was still enjoying the day.

The first few hours were fine. We cycled in leisurely fashion around Loch Eriboll, with Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro, rising up across the water. There was a rainstorm, but we’d had a few of those, and we just put on ponchos and kept paddling pedalling.

It was while crossing the bleak grasslands of A Mhoine that I started to realise how much I hated cycling. It was a hill that never seemed to end; every time we reached a brow there was more of it. I started swearing at the road, telling it to ‘get a fucking move on’ and bring us to the top of the hill. Edita dropped back and started laughing at me, but she realised this wouldn’t be a good moment to pull alongside.

The one consolation about cycling up long hills is that, when you reach top of them, you don’t have to pedal down the other side. But this hill broke that rule. It was so gentle, and there was a fierce head wind. I had to keep pedalling through boring grassland that went on for longer than one of Chairman Mao’s speeches. I was hating it, and to make matters worse two o’clock was approaching fast, and we were in danger of reaching the pub too late for lunch.

Edita was in better shape than I was, and when we reached the long causeway across the Kyle of Tongue, I pleaded with her to go on ahead and get to the pub before it shut. She disappeared up the long road ahead, and I crawled along behind. We reached the Ben Lawers Hotel in time for lunch, but worse was to follow. When I got on the bike after lunch I realised my back tyre was as flat as Bob Dylan’s voice. Heaven knows how long I’d been cycling without noticing. We took it to the garage in Tongue, where they’d never changed a bike tyre before, but they agreed to help us.

That's me staring at Ben Hope, Scotland's most northerly Munro, wishing I could climb the damn thing, not cycle past it
That’s me staring at Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro, wishing I could climb the damn thing, not cycle past it

By the time we left it was after four o’clock, and we still had many miles to cycle to the campsite in Bettyhill. Hill after hill followed. Worse were the side winds, that buffeted us from side to side as we zoomed down the hills. On one of these I felt a car on my shoulder as I hurtled down it, trying to keep control of the bike. Never have I felt that frightened. Had I fallen off then I’m sure I would have been squashed under the wheels.

The last hill was the worst. I have no recollection of cycling up it, only of steaming down, the bike out of control again and the side winds trying their utmost to knock me off. I felt like I was trying to break a horse. I was beyond exhaustion by then, and I realised the cycle ride was become decidedly dangerous. At the bottom of the hill I brought the bike to a halt, threw it down on the verge and fell down on my back.

It was a few moments before I realised Edita was standing over me with a camera in her hand. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep.

‘Do you have any last words?’ she said.

‘I don’t know about last words. I’m not dead yet, you know.’

The sleep had done me some good. I was able to get back on the bike and pedal the last two miles into Bettyhill in a subdued state. But I’d had enough of our cycle ride. The hills had brought me to my knees, and it was becoming an ordeal.

The last of the mountain sections beyond Bettyhill
The last of the mountain sections beyond Bettyhill

Bettyhill was another village in a pleasant setting above a bay, but the campsite there was the worst one on the route. It was little more than a farmer’s field, and the toilet block felt like it hadn’t been cleaned since 1959. An aggressive message on the door warned campers not to use the showers unless they paid for them. I could understand if not all residents were willing.

I woke up the next morning in a spirit of resignation. I’d had enough of our cycle ride, and I just wanted to get it over with. Just four more days to go.

My mood was going up and down with the hills. The following day wasn’t too bad, and we made it all the way to John O’Groats in one long 50-mile day. There were a few hills in the morning, and we had our first views of the Orkney Islands across the North Sea. We passed Dounreay nuclear power station on roads through featureless farmland. We reached Thurso for lunch, where we had sandwiches in a little cafe down on the waterfront.

We had originally intended to stop that evening in Dunnet Bay, but the roads beyond Thurso were flat, and we were able to race along the next 20 miles to John O’Groats. Britain’s most northerly pilgrimage site is an inauspicious place, with a campsite, a couple of cafes, a big hotel and a ferry terminal. We were surprised to find the campsite almost empty, and we pitched our tent in a quiet corner, with the Orkneys a stone’s throw away across the water.

The obligatory John O'Groats photo beneath the sign
The obligatory John O’Groats photo beneath the sign

After taking the obligatory photo beneath the sign that said 874 miles to Land’s End, we found John O’Groats’ only restaurant tucked away among empty tourist accommodation. It was a lively place, with good food and good beer. I was happy again, and feeling pleased with myself. We had made good progress that day – 50 miles – and we even talked about cycling 60 the following day to Brora.

What fools we were. Or I was, anyway. The next day was hideous, on hideous roads, through hideous scenery, and some of the most hideous villages Britain has to offer. It was topped off with the most hideous weather, the tail end of Hurricane Pisspot, drowning us like a giant dog cocking its leg over northern Scotland.

The scenery was so dull I have tried to expunge it from memory. End-to-Enders leaving John O’Groats bound for Land’s End a thousand miles away in Cornwall, would be discouraged by the start of their cycle ride. There was a gentle hill out of John O’Groats that continued for several miles. The land was completely featureless: not a single tree, just bleak moorland that soon became farmland.

Of course, my experience may have been coloured by the fact that my engine was running out of fuel. I kidded myself that we were making good time. Reality struck when we stopped for our first snack the other side of Wick. I believe this town is so named because everywhere around it gets on your wick. We had pedalled 20 miles and a sign said 46 to Brora.

Not long after this I hit the wall. I kept stopping for regular butt rests and snacks, and my speed dropped dramatically. Mentally I was suffering too. My heart was no longer in it. I had struggled with the cycling all along, but it didn’t matter while we were passing through stunning scenery.

Rarely have I enjoyed myself so much in my life
Rarely have I enjoyed myself so much in my life

But this scenery was like being stunned by a taser. The land was featureless, though not so featureless that we didn’t have to pedal up hills. The villages were dreary, and there were no facilities whatsoever. No shops, no cafes, no pubs, no services at all, and no sense of community.

This feeling reached its nadir when we turned off the road into the village of Lybster after seeing a sign that advertised ‘tourist services’. What kind of deluded mind erected that sign I don’t know, but a more depressing place for our tired bodies would be hard to imagine. Three pubs, a cafe and two B&Bs were boarded up. Apart from a small grocery store the only tourist service, as far as I could tell, was a public toilet where we filled our water bottles. If anyone from Lybster is reading this, then I’m sorry. It wasn’t a good day.

All the while the sky had been darkening, and a short distance out of Lybster, Hurricane Pisspot started emptying its content over our heads. Before we had a chance to put on our ponchos we were soaked to the skin. We continued onwards with stair rods of rain bouncing off the road like tennis balls. Only a few minutes after it started we were cycling through puddles, and within ten minutes the entire road was a sheet of water. Substantial quantities of that sheet were getting slarted over us with every car that passed.

Soon we would be needing canoes, but suddenly, out of the darkness, we passed a driveway to a stately home. A sign outside read ‘Forse of Nature, craft shop and cafe’ and another one on the gate read ‘open today, 10am to 6pm’.

It hardly seemed possible. The driveway looked two miles long, but what did we have to lose?

The roadside near Brora is a great place for a nap
The roadside near Brora is a great place for a nap

In fact, the driveway was only ¾ mile long. Several times Edita told me I was being a fool, that there was nothing at the end of it, but I ignored her and kept pedalling. We reached a stately home with a courtyard. What it was doing in this land of shabby villages I will never know, but I cycled round the back and there it was – a craft shop with a cafe, shimmering like an oasis in the desert. To get there we had passed through more water than the entire sands of the Sahara, but I’m sticking with the analogy.

The main thing was that it was open. There was even a bike rack outside. And as I parked up a lady ran out with a towel.

I don’t know if what happened that afternoon was anything more than a strange dream, but I recorded it in my diary, so I believe it really happened. We sat in a craft shop attached to a large stately home, drinking coffee and eating toasted sandwiches, as the rain pounded on the driveway outside. We sat there for an hour and wondered if it would ever end.

It didn’t, but eventually it slackened off a little, and we felt brave enough to get back on our bikes. In our absence the driveway had turned into a lake, but we aquaplaned down it and continued up the main road. It was cold and windy, but there was another campsite in Dunbeath, just five miles away. It couldn’t come soon enough, but come it did.

There was a great sense of relief leaving the busy A9 to join a peaceful back road beside Loch Fleet
There was a great sense of relief leaving the busy A9 to join a peaceful back road beside Loch Fleet

It was another strange campsite, just the garden of somebody’s house. The owner invited me into his kitchen to pay for the pitch. We were relieved to get the day over with, and we did have a bottle of wine in one of the panniers, so we were comfortable enough once we’d got the tent erect and climbed inside. Edita was feeling energetic enough to do our laundry, so we even had dry clothes to put on the following morning.

The next day couldn’t be any worse, could it?

No, but it was still bad. There was a huge hill out of Dunbeath, and another one on the way into Helmsdale. At least the scenery was improving again as we touched the mountains, and the villages were becoming less grim.

But once again I was beyond exhaustion as we approached Brora. There were some dicey overtaking manoeuvres taking place around me, and I was struggling to control the bike once again. There was nowhere to stop but a ditch by the side of the road, so I threw the bike into it and dived in behind. My head was only inches from the road as traffic hurtled past, but I didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.

Dornoch was a pleasant village with a hotel disguised as a castle, or was it the other way round?
Dornoch was a pleasant village with a hotel disguised as a castle, or was it the other way round?

When I woke up, Edita was angry with me. She was sitting on the bank of the ditch and exhorting me to get up.

‘This is embarrassing,’ she said. ‘People will think you are dying and stop their cars.’

I calmly explained that I was dangerously tired and could easily have fallen into traffic.

‘Better to be embarrassed than dead,’ I said.

I pedalled slowly into Brora where we stopped for a two-hour lunch in a pub called the Sutherland Inn. Some kind of super-barman was working behind the bar. As well as pouring everyone’s drinks, he served all the food, and kept his eye on our bikes parked outside, all the while keeping his many customers happy.

I left in a much better state of mind. I didn’t realise how much the busy traffic on the A9 was playing on my nerves until we turned off it to cycle along a quite single-track road into Dornoch. We pedalled along the shores of Loch Fleet, revelling in the peace and quiet. I was thrilled to look across the water and see seals basking on a sand bank.

The Nigg to Cromarty ferry had just enough space for me and a camper van
The Nigg to Cromarty ferry had just enough space for me and a camper van

Dornoch was a pleasant little village with stone houses and many pubs and restaurants. We camped in another campsite among sand dunes, and had dinner in the restaurant of a castle masquerading as a posh hotel. There was even an entertaining interlude when everyone left the restaurant to watch a band of bagpipers march past outside. You can’t have a holiday in Scotland without seeing bagpipers.

We were nearly there, just one short day to go. We rejoined the A9 to cross the Dornoch Firth, but managed to get off it again fairly early on. We’d heard that the Nigg Ferry was open across the Cromarty Firth. To get there we had to cycle down quiet roads into the back end of nowhere. Nigg seemed to be one big industrial estate on the banks of the firth. It was a Sunday; there was no one around and it hardly seemed credible there would be a ferry running.

But there was. It wasn’t the biggest of ferries. It was the sort of thing Gulliver might have travelled on as he was passing through Lilliput. A Dutchman turned up in a VW camper van as we were waiting to board. The van was almost as big as the ferry, but somehow we all managed to squeeze on.

We had a big breakfast in an upmarket cafe among the narrow streets of Cromarty village, then set off on the final stretch across the Black Isle. A couple of hours later Inverness bridge appeared across the Beauly Firth, and I punch the air in joy. Or was it relief? There were still another 10 miles to pedal. We took a back road up a steep hill through forest. It was the sort of hill that would have demoralised me earlier in the trip, but we were so close now, and I almost enjoyed it.

Hurray! Arriving back in Inverness after cycling 516 miles.
Hurray! Arriving back in Inverness after cycling 516 miles.

It took us a while to get across the busy dual carriageway of the A9 north of Inverness. We emerged onto the slip road, with no means of getting to the other side. Traffic was roaring past at 70mph, and it would have been unspeakably dangerous to cycle onto it, not to mention perverse when there was a cycle path on the other side. We could see no other option but to run across and take refuge in the central reservation, lift our loaded bikes with their bulging saddlebags over the crash barrier, then run across the second lane as soon as we spied a gap.

We reached the safety of the cycle lane in considerable relief. There were no more hazards. A few minutes later we were crossing the bridge again, 13 days after we first started out. I was exhausted, exhilarated, and filled with a sense of achievement. We had pedalled 516 miles around dramatic scenery, up and down steep hills, and I’d never done anything like that before. Twice I’d been so tired that I had to lie down by the side of the road and take a nap.

Above all, I was so pleased that I didn’t have to get on a bike again.

Except that I did. This had been our warm up for Ecuador. Pretty soon I’d have to cycle up 4,000m to a very high altitude. How the hell was I going to manage that?

You can see all photos from our bike ride in my North Coast 500 Flickr album.

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4 thoughts on “Sore bums and saddlebags: cycling the North Coast 500

  • November 8, 2017 at 6:45 pm
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    Unputdownable Mark. Incredible to think of your and Edita’s stamina and perseverance. I recognise the names of a lot of the places you passed through from many years ago when we did a similar journey in reverse for a holiday in Scourie with two children a five-man frame tent, table and 4 chairs, gas stove.etc. in a Mini. We did do a short-cut though along the shore of Loch Shin from Dornoch instead of going up to the north coast. Piece of cake.

  • November 13, 2017 at 5:01 pm
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    I admire your bravery, Mark. Cycling this landscape and scenery must have been very challenging yet unforgettable. I would love to go hiking An Teallach! Are there any good hiking trails?

  • Pingback: North Coast 500 bike ride: the videos – Mark Horrell

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