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North Coast 500

Story by Sunday Echappée September 4th, 2016

It’s hard to remember exactly where I read or heard about the North Coast 500 but that quickly becomes insignificant. I do remember visiting the website for the first time and thinking that for something so newly marketed as a tourist destination has a very good and very user friendly website. The North Coast 500 follows the coastal road around the top of Scotland starting and finishing in Inverness. The cycling itinerary via the website breaks the journey down in to several days, something like 9 off the top of my head. In the knowledge that the route was 500 miles a quick and simple decision was made to break this down into 5 days. 100 miles in the worst conditions is still an achievable goal. 5 days, 500 miles.

For reasons unknown the popularity of the trip proved unpopular. Circulated amongst fellow Echappee and the extended Echappee family few hands were raised. However, unsurprisingly resident Echappee cycling holiday extraordinaire Tim was always going to jump at the chance and the lady hitter Sophie from 5th Floor was keen to join as she had heard good things from a previous friends trip to Scotland.

Our trip started with a 560-mile drive and despite Tim’s best efforts my Audi estate comfortably made it there with a quarter tank of fuel to spare. We planned to do this trip lightweight so I packed in my Apidura saddle bag an outfit for the evenings, down jacket, merino top etc. Phone charger, garmin charger. Soap. Tools, inner tubes. We planned to wear the same lycra for 5 days. Thinking I had packed the most sensible of evening outfits proved to be quite the opposite as the weather turned out to be unbelievably warm so my down jacket and long sleeve merino weren’t the wisest of choices. In my defence it was hard to predict the entire weather of the trip as we were covering such a large area and had it been awful weather I definitely would have been winning.


Day one. Iverness to Torridon. Strava ride. Keen to get started on our journey we were up and ready to leave fairly early. We had checked the weather and knew we were in for a nice day. What we didn’t realise was that we were about to experience 180km of cloud free skies and beautiful sunshine. Within 5 minutes of leaving Inverness we were cycling beside a loch, the sun was yet to rise above the hills so it was daylight but not direct so the light was amazing. This was the moment we turned and looked at each other and just started laughing at how great this trip was going to be. Shortly after we also all quickly agreed on how clean the air was. Its sad but true that we have become accustomed to breathing in diesel fumes and you only truly notice how bad this is once you’ve visited somewhere was pure as the Scottish countryside. The first 120km was fairly flat in comparison to what we would accumulate over the next few days. The first day was all about making it to, and over Bealach Na Ba. 9km averaging 7% and gaining 626m. Not the hardest climb on paper but even with our lightweight packing was a fair grind. As the strongest rider on our trip and arguably the most experienced hill climber of the group, Tim set a fairly decent time up there and Sophie wasn’t too far behind him however this climb gets steeper towards the top. I distinctly remember turning on one of the many corners and looking towards the final switchbacks and marvelling at how much this was about to kick up. I simply didn’t have strong enough legs and got to the point where I was going so slowly I would fall over so I unclipped and that was that. It was so steep I couldn’t clip back in for the next 100m so I unashamedly walked to where I could clip back in and finish the climb. Later on we found out that temperatures reached 34c whilst we were on that climb, not bad for Scotland but bad for me and my heavy(ish) bike. Like all great ascents come fantastic descents and although this descent was a little hairy the Applecross Inn at the bottom for a beer and an ice cream seemed like a fair reward for our and specifically my efforts. Post beer and ice cream we had 40km left to undulate to Torridon. This was spent largely stopping to take photos of Munros (Scottish Mountains over 900m) lochs and each other looking pro and going slow. A well earned beer (3) and fish and chips ensued. May I add Torridon is insanely beautiful. The B&B had views over the loch, framed with sheer mountains dropping straight into the water. Just another mention of the weather to really drive it home how lucky we were, I remember asking in a shop if the weather was always this nice and she said it hadn’t been sunny since April/May. 11 degrees for as long as she could remember. Our average temp day one was 22c.

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Day Two. Torridon to Ullapool. Strava Ride. Dead legs. Two minutes into the ride and I remember thinking to myself wow I’m in big trouble here. Even cycling through the bottom of the valley with its early morning light and purple and lilac haze didn’t seem to help much. Thankfully after 20 minutes and warmer muscles things did get easier. It was another day of wall-to-wall sunshine and incredible scents on the air like sweetness from the pine and a honey like smell from all the heather. We seemed to cycle for miles and miles without seeing anything, I mean we would see a fair amount of camper vans and motorcycles but more often that not just nothing but stunning scenery. It was a fairly lumpy day that fortunately finished with a huge descent into Ullapool for more beers and a stroll along the sea front. Tim and I smashed down some fish and chips for the second consecutive night. Considering day three was our big day I felt like we stayed in the pub a bit too long.

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Day Three. Ullapool to Betty Hill. Strava Ride. We were warned many times about the midges in Scotland. I was beginning to think that it was just more of a scare tactic than anything however today was the day that we would experience midgeageddon. Wisely, sunburnt Yorkshire lad Tim had put suncream on his face before we left. About 30km into our journey Tim’s face was almost black where all the midges had stuck to the suncream. They’re so small and they don’t really bite but there’s just thousands of the fuckers and I assume they’re solely on the planet to piss everyone off. As we were loch side at this point it didn’t take long until we were climbing up and out of reach of midgeville. We passed a tearful solo bike-packer a few minutes later who had spent the night in midgeville and was almost broken from the experience. Sophie lent her some repellent and we were on our way. This was our biggest day with 210km of constant undulating Scottish countryside with well over 3000m in accumulated elevation. Ignoring just how hard this day was I can easily say that day 3 was my favourite ever day on a bicycle. Cycling for miles and miles through Jurassic Park like scenery, huge climb after huge climb. I made the guys laugh trying to draft (almost successfully) a camper van up a 12% climb. Funny because I spent most of this trip complaining about how hard it was so why I decided to smash myself to pieces was beyond them but just felt right at the time. Got to have a go at least once right?! It’s hard to talk about every moment in this trip especially when you do such a big day but I feel like I should mention riding from Durness around Loch Eriboll. Not only was this some relief from all the climbing but the sun was shining and it was simply stunning. Plus the Loch is massive so it took at least an hour to ride around. We arrived to probably our favourite B&B of the trip, the Farr Bay Inn. Run unexpectedly by a couple from London it was everything we needed after our huge day. Rough round the edges but home cooked food and a bar with cold beer. I’ve mentioned drinking beer a lot but we were on holiday and all good rides should be rewarded with beer.

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Day Four. Betty Hill to Helmsdale. Strava Ride. It was a slow start to the day as the climbs started immediately. It felt like the next 160km was going to take a while and after about 20km the terrain flattened out and a 32kph headwind ensued. It took 4 hours to cycle 90km which was utterly soul destroying. It was coming in from the side so I couldn’t even hide behind Tim or Sophie… To make matters worse it was a fairly grey day and the scenery of the first 3 days seemed a long time ago. The North East coast was awful in comparison to the West and Northwest coast. Grinding away for hours we took a small detour to the most northerly point of the UK, which, as it turns out, isn’t John O’Groats but Dunnet Head. The only good thing about cycling to Dunnet Head was a break from the headwind, which is perhaps, not entirely true, but its nice to say that you’ve been somewhere like that. Had it not been so windy and grey we probably would have felt different. Arriving eventually in Helmsdale we stayed at the weirdest B&B in the world. If Josef Fritzl ran a B&B this would be it. The Austrian owner absolutely hated the fact that we were there which is weird when you run a B&B. Needless to say we left early because we were close to the end and we knew we could reward ourselves handsomely in Inverness.

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Day Five. Helmsdale to Inverness. Strava Ride. There were some moments of beauty and it was better than day 4 but another fairly nondescript day. To put this into context this was by no means the bad part of the trip but in comparison to the first 3 days it was hard for everything else to not be as good. If you do the NC500 you’ll know exactly what I mean. Maybe that’s why they say to tackle the NC500 anti clockwise and not clockwise. I only found this out when we arrived to Scotland at which point it was too late. Perhaps its better to hit some big miles for the first few days to get the East and North East coast out of the way before the incredible North West and West coast. We hadn’t touched a single drop of whiskey so we stopped in at a distillery in the hope that it might have a café for some lunch. It didn’t and none of us wanted to do a tour in lycra so it wasn’t to be. Tim silently insisted we smash it back all the way to Inverness, which we did regardless of how much we were aching. We got to Inverness in good time to shower and put on some normal clothes that we’d left in the car. A few weeks previously a craft ale and pizza place had opened in Inverness. Result! Beer, pizza and sunshine on the roof terrace. We then started buying 6 drinks per round and, needless to say, we got pretty toasty and ended up having a second dinner in the curry house opposite. I really enjoyed my time with Tim and Sophie. We had a nice vibe to the trip the whole time. If you are like me and you love the outdoors then this is something really special and something you should add to your bucket list. I’m not a religious person but there is something very spiritual about the mountains and losing yourself in remote places with nothing but constant changing colours of the land, the vegetation, lochs, skies and scents. I believe the outdoors, whether you walk, climb, swim or cycle provides spiritual moments and produces a complete experience. Nature is great. Scotland is awesome.

If the North Coast is something you’re now considering then there’s a few things worth noting.

• It probably makes sense to do the route anti clockwise so you finish the trip on a high.

• We were very lucky with the weather but I can imagine it would be pretty brutal in the wind and rain so prepare for all weather scenarios.

• Plan your stops. We often cycled for 100km without passing anywhere to eat.

• Always book B&Bs in advance – summer time is extremely popular.

• Chamois cream!

Footnote: Photos by Jack Driver and Sophie Edmondson
Scotland, United Kingdom