At long last, a guidebook to cycling Scotland’s North Coast 500

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you will know that I hate cycling. Yet – prize-winning fool that I am – three times I’ve embarked upon multi-day cycling adventures across mountainous terrain.

In 2017, Edita had the brilliant idea of quitting our jobs and cycling from sea level to the summit of Chimborazo, the furthest point from the centre of the earth (we didn’t actually cycle all the way – we got off our bikes to climb the last bit). I turned the adventure into a book, Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, which is undoubtedly the funniest book ever written about two people cycling from sea level to the summit of Chimborazo and getting off their bikes to climb the last bit.

One of the biggest logistical challenges that we faced was that I had barely straddled a bike since mullets were in fashion and Bon Jovi were riding high in the charts. I therefore had the equally brilliant idea of hiring a pair of pushbikes and cycling the North Coast 500 (or NC500) as a warm up, a touring route up and down (then up and down again several more times) the back roads of north-west Scotland. This particular journey of discovery formed a substantial central section of my book.

The Cicerone guide to Cycling the North Coast 500
The Cicerone guide to Cycling the North Coast 500

We didn’t do much planning for the trip, short of hiring a couple of bikes with panniers from Ticket to Ride in Inverness, a shopping trip to our local Decathlon store to buy matching sets of lycra clothing (I’ve since discovered that it’s actually perfectly legal to ride a bike in normal clothes), and trousering a copy of the 1:250,000 OS road map of northern Scotland. We had no idea how far we could cycle each day, so we took a tent with us and I put together a loose itinerary based on rocking up at a campsite every evening.

Back in the distant past of 2017, there wasn’t much information available on the NC500, and almost all of it was aimed at people with a vehicle (I was surprised to learn that many locals despise the NC500 because of the number of camper vans it brings to their neighbourhood each summer). The only guidebook I could find was an e-book downloadable from the so-called official NC500 website™. The guidebook’s willingness to describe bumpier sections of the route as ‘almost flat’ led to a violent incident involving my Kindle and a bicycle pump. Websites that did mention cycling the NC500 focused on Mark Beaumont’s famous 38-hour circuit, which was as useful to me as Graeme Obree’s instruction manual for assembling a bike out of a washing machine.

Imagine my delight then, when I was contacted by Cicerone’s marketing team earlier this year, asking me if I’d like them to send me a copy of their new guidebook all about, yes, cycling the North Coast 500. Of course, as someone who enjoys cycling as much as a flat tyre, the chances of me pedalling the route again are about as high as Taylor Swift endorsing Trump for president. But I was certainly interested in reading a guidebook about it.

I could see immediately that this book, by writer Mike Wells, would have been incredibly useful to us in 2017. One of the first questions confronting us back then was the choice of route. The main problem was that we didn’t realise we had a choice. The route was the route, and apart from the opening stretch across country to reach the west coast from Inverness, we assumed we just had to hug the coast as closely as possible, following every minor road around every rippled headland.

The Cicerone guidebook offers several alternative routes, the most monumental being the section across the north-east corner. On the map, there is a single thick green line following the coast all the way from John o’Groats to Golspie. It starts relatively quietly, as the A99, morphs into the busy A9 and passes through some of the most soul-destroying places this side of Mars. To cap things off nicely, it was raining when we did it, which I imagine it does most of the time there. From memory, this section could be summed up in a single, desperate syllable: grim.

But Mike Wells has managed to think the unthinkable in a way that banishes this section to Room 101. His innovation is that the North Coast 500 doesn’t actually have to follow the coast. By taking a 131-mile loop back inland from John o’Groats, across the wild expanse of peat bog in central Caithness and Sutherland, it’s possible to bypass this section entirely. The obvious A99/A9 section that we believed to be unavoidable is described only as an ‘alternative’. Cicerone’s new route follows National Cycle Route 1 (NCN1) through the remote community of Altnaharra and the inland metropolis of Lairg. We drove part of this route in 2022 when we climbed Ben Klibreck, the second most northerly Munro. There can be few places in Britain with so many miles of empty road, and IMO, it’s worth cycling an extra 131 miles to avoid the village of Lybster.

Me on the A99 beyond Lybster. Rarely have I enjoyed myself so much in my life.
Me on the A99 beyond Lybster. Rarely have I enjoyed myself so much in my life.

The guide is also peppered with shorter route variants that are useful for cyclists to know. We did divert to a campsite among sand dunes in the pleasant town of Dornoch; and we crossed the Cromarty Firth on the Nigg Ferry and cycled across the Black Isle, but our route took busier roads than Cicerone’s. The guidebook is discerning about its choice of route variants. It doesn’t mention a more ridiculous one we took to avoid the main road between Contin and Garve after a blog post on the NC500 website suggested the road was dangerous here. Our variant wobbled up and over rough dirt tracks designed to puncture the sturdiest of tyres. It probably took about two hours longer than the normal route, and you could get a similar experience by straddling a washing machine during its final spin cycle.

More unforgivably, Cicerone’s guidebook also describes the section around the Applecross peninsula as an ‘alternative’. This happens to be the section up and over the 626m Bealach na Ba (or as we called it, the Bealach na Bastard), the highest pass on the NC500 by quite a wide margin. The Bealach na Ba is not pleasant, you have to get off and push your bike up most of it, but you can’t cycle the NC500 and not do it. Skipping the Bealach na Ba would be like photoshopping a part of your child’s hand out of a Mother’s Day photo. If you try to cheat your way out of it then people will suspect the worst. In recognition of this fact, Cicerone’s guidebook even features a photo of the Bealach’s hair-raising loops on its cover.

In keeping with all Cicerone’s guidebooks, each section of the route includes an information panel describing highlights of the section, distances, waymarking and total ascent and descent per stage. This latter statistic is a good indicator of how challenging the stage is, although it doesn’t tell you how steep the climbs are, which makes a big difference. Another useful feature are the so-called ‘relief diagrams’ though in fairness, staring at their sawtooth patterns won’t provide much relief to a cyclist who doesn’t like hills. The book’s most frequently used adjective is ‘undulating’, which in this case is shorthand for leaping and falling like a salmon with hiccups.

Throughout the text, the guide mentions what facilities are available in villages along the route. This includes accommodation, meals, camping, stores and cycle shops. There is even a useful table in the appendices at the back, summarising the facilities on each stage. Another table lists the 27 Munros that are climbable from the NC500, though I can mention from bitter experience that pedalling a bike and hill walking mix together like a jam and peanut butter sandwich.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the information panel doesn’t always give you a feel for the stage by emphasising its most memorable feature. For example, the Dundonnell stage could make more of the giant climb over the Dundonnell plateau with views of An Teallach and the Fannichs, and the marvellous stretch of freewheeling down to the A835 into Ullapool. A similar windswept plateau beneath Foinaven dominates the approach to Britain’s northern coastline at Durness, with a real roof-of-the-world feel to it. Again, this is brushed over in the information panel.

Sometimes the text in highlight boxes is eclectically chosen. For example, a large panel describing Gruinard Island (a.k.a. ‘Anthrax Island’), the scene of biological weapons tests in the Second World War, takes up nearly an entire page. Meanwhile the spectacular (but hidden) Corrieshalloch Gorge, with its giant waterfall plunging between cliffs, is dismissed in a single sentence. I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that the second of these attractions is going to be a bit more appealing to visitors.

These are minor criticisms though. It’s about time someone produced a guidebook about cycling the NC500. This one lives up to Cicerone’s usual high standards. I’m not going to try and talk you into cycling the NC500, because I believe that long-distance cycling is for crazy people: much better to walk. But if you’re a keen cyclist then you’ve probably been shaking your head from the very first sentence of this post and obviously disagree with me. It is to you people this guidebook is aimed and if you like cycling up and down steep hills then I heartily recommend the NC500.

You can click the big green button to find out more about the guidebook.

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2 thoughts on “At long last, a guidebook to cycling Scotland’s North Coast 500

  • March 20, 2024 at 6:31 pm

    Peak Horrel. Actually LOL’d and had to explain to my wife what I was reading. Crying with laughter.
    For the record, I am a cyclist, I enjoy cycling. The thought of cycling the NC500? Just no. You’d have to pay me.

  • March 20, 2024 at 7:13 pm

    Thanks, Alan. I’ll spare my pennies. Please apologise to Mrs Pike on my behalf.

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