Into the Wind: North Coast 500
Turning 40 is a milestone in everyone’s life and sometimes people want to mark the occasion by doing something silly. For me I’ve always wanted to, and still want to, ride Lands End to John o Groats self supported. Allison gave the green light and the cogs started ticking to try and piece it all together. It didn’t take long to conclude that the logistics and reality of family life with kids meant that a shorter trip would be a better option.
Wind it on a few months and in Jan 2018 I went up to take part in the legendary Strathpuffer at Contin not too far from Dingwall. I paired with David Goddy of Team JMC with Keith Fawcett as spanner man and Jason Woodhouse going solo on his fat bike. It was a great event and during the trip away Jason had suggested joining him on the Italy Divide endurance event in May so we all looked in to it. In the end the same obstacles cropped up but plans were now formed to go and ride the North Coast 500 in 5 days.
Keith and I agreed to commit and during our dash round the Moors & Shores event we finalised plans. After many years of arranging accommodation round that part of Scotland during motorcycle trips I was glad when Keith said he’d sort that side of things. Absolutely no arguments from me there! His planning was meticulous and on no time had narrowed things down so that we’d be riding over 100 miles a day with a shorter 77 mile final leg as we knew tiredness would be setting in.
In terms of training it was fair to say Keith was in a better position than I. He had trained consistently over a long period and the Moors & Shores event showed he was in strong form. I on the other hand had come off the back of a 2 year period of almost constant illness. This culminated in April with having my tonsils removed and a week later doing that event with Keith. This gave me two weeks to get some miles in but by this time it didn’t matter, we were commited and it was going ahead.
Early May 2018. After a seemingly never ending winter the weather had decided to improve across Britain as we jumped in the love bus (van) and headed north. Only everyone forgot to tell northern Scotland which seemed to be gripped by the last fingernails of winter holding on for dear life. The trip took no time at all and soon we were in the infamous Dingwall (Jason!) and taking the final stretch of road down to the Victorian spa town of Strathpeffer.
It’s nice to see the place in something other than darkness. We went to the local cafe and then walked to the Eagle Stone before finally stopping by the magnificent old railway station on our way back to the hotel. Bikes were then taken out and kit packed and fitted then refitted until we were both happy with our setups. Keith had two main bags, one off the rear seatpost and one between his bars. I’d borrowed a frame bag from Phil Addyman and had a tool bag which could be expanded to fit in my evening clothing. No backpack like I was expecting to take.
The staff at the Mackays hotel were great and were sorting out an early group of bus travellers so we jumped in for a feed ourselves instead of waiting til 8am. In a cheeky move Keith got the manageress to take a photo but “could you get the nice hotel in the background”. I gave a chuckle as the lady looked shocked but fair play she took the picture anyway. Fueled up we got ourselves sorted and hit the road. It was lovely to ride past the ‘puffer entrance and renew promises of another attempt next year. We even had some top gear riding. Little did we know that the big cogs would then hardly ever be used again for the entire trip.
The A832 is the main road across to Ullapool and consequently it was a tad busy. Not being a road rider I was aware of traffic building up behind on twisty sections and frequently pulled over to let people pass. Soon enough however we had hit the turn to Strathcarron and things died down a bit. I remember this section well from riding my motorbike along it many times. Fast and open with some great views to the south. Three times cars came within inches of my elbow and one managed to clip its wing mirror off my elbow at high speed. My temper was only offset by the good views on offer.
Half way towards Lochcarron stop the road rose up and as we turned the edge of some trees the wind was so strong we were out of our seats pushing hard just to move forward. Little did we know that this strong headwind would be the order of riding for the entire trip. At this point Keith’s stronger legs sent him off in to the distance and I ploughed my own furrow into the gusting headwind. Fortuitously a group from Velo Scotland passed me so I latched on to the back of their 10 man train and positively zipped along with a nice covering from the worst of it. We soon descended through the single lane joy and hit the shops of Lochcarron.
Keith waved me in at the golf shop and had already sussed out the gluten free options for when I arrived. His gift of the gab was on show as he’s clearly a magnet for middle aged women impressed by his muscular physique and tight lycra. I’m pretty sure one lady remarked that it mus be cold outside. Soup and jacket potatoes restored the batteries a bit and so we grabbed some reserves from the local Spare and discussed a battle plan for Bealach Na Ba. Known by many as the biggest climb in the UK it stands at over 11km long with an average gradient of 20%. The lady in the cafe joked “don’t worry, they do oxygen half way up”. Joy.
A man who had just been up said it was “a bit rough” up top so we climbed out of Lochcarron with some reservations but also looking forward to the challenge. At the foot of the climb we discussed a plan to meet up again at the top. The winds were already building and you could see the cloud line was standing at around 300m on a hill that stands over 600m tall. Bottom gear selected and chug mode engaged.
Keith powered away but was always in sight until he disappeared into the clouds. Half way up the winds got stronger and I was blown about this way and that. The road dropped away massively on my left and I remembered that when it comes back and the road gets a barrier on it then it’s not too far to go. Known on Strava as “the steep section” things were made even harder by headwinds of around 50mph and gusts of what must have been 70mph. The only time I put a foot down was when I was blown clean off the road and had to mount up again. Keith told me he got blown off twice at the same section. Out of the seat and giving everything I had resulted in slow progess as the wind tried it’s best to force you backwards. Just at the point where the legs were going to give up the road switched left and I knew the switchbacks were near that signalled the top is just around the corner. A little chuckle at a campervan that got itself stuck before catching up with Keith on a mist filled summit with not even the slightest hint of a view to be had. We were busted but elated to have cleared it.
Which such a huge descent to Applecross you’d expect some fast speeds but the winds allowed a max speed of 17mph and even then it was pedaling hard to acheive it. I dearly wished for my trusty mountain bike with its large tyres and disc brakes for some reassurance. Instead I was on a lightweight titanium bike with canti brakes and super thin tyres. Exposed is probably a good work to describe it.
Arriving at the bottom we found a brand new cafe near the entrance to Applecross. Just like us it was hip and super trendy. Or maybe that’s just the cafe because by now we had that certain odour that long distance bike riders aquire all too quickly. The ride from Applecross to Fearnmore was a rare breeze free pootle and was dispatched in no time with views off to Skye to the west.
The ride from Fearnemore to Torridon, our destination for day 1, was nothing short of a complete bastard. Not so much rolling hills but more of a series of short, steep climbs that hit you like a baseball bat on the back of the head every time. I imagine the creator of this road was off his rocker on recreational drugs when we he made it. My aching legs were delighted to hit the road near Sheildag and with 7 miles to go the tanks of both of us were low but still going. We rocked in to Torridon and wisely stopped for food at the Torridon Inn before going to our digs as this was the only place open that evening.
The food was excellent and the staff were super friendly. When it came to getting back on our bikes we were refreshed and ready to rock. It was also superb news that there were no more hills and as we passed through Torridon and headed west to the Torridon Estate it was a feeling of a job well done to get through the 110ish miles for the day. A last second double booking meant we had been moved to the main house and it turns out the main house is actually a massive mansion and really rather stunning. The owners, a lovely German couple, have downsized from their castle in Germany to this quiant 24 bedroom house with estate and all surrounding properties. Nice.
After some evening drinks we got up for breakfast at 8am. A delightful young lady served the breakfast and told us all about her travels from her Canadaian home through Europe and how she’s changed from engineering to wanting to do something in the outdoors. I hope she wasn’t too disgusted by the sight of Keith and I stuffing in all the food we could get our hands on. Smoked salmon, scrambed eggs and pretty much everything else you can imagine all served up at this first class dining experience. On the plus side, Keith had the decency to wait til she left the room before buttering himself up to guard against chafing.
I’ve been round pretty much every road in Scotland over the years with the exception of two on this trip. The first of these new roads was north our of Torridon and it must be right up there as the most beautiful and most scenic in this land. Glencoe is often cited with this title but is that just because it’s so busy? This road has menacing mountains towering on both sides as the clouds clung to their tops and whisped through the scars and gaps. This gently rising road was just was the doctor ordered to get the legs back into gear after a hard day yesterday. The visual treat was probably the finest distraction technique around and soon we hit the shores of Loch Maree.
The road along the edge of the loch was wide, gently rolling and fast due to a lack of wind. Keith filled me in on his childhood trips and his reluctance to go to the toilet in the great outdoors. He’s not a believer in the poo-with-a-view way of things. Soon enough we had hit a left and reached the first big climb of the day, wind blasting in our face all the way. Up and up it went until the road narrowed and then swung in the direction of Gairloch. Keith was waiting for me there and said he couldn’t find anywhere decent so let’s just grab something at the shop. Now bare in mind he’s been here loads of times and totally forgot about the entire village just over the next rise with it’s range of cafes and lovely food. Nugget.
We had a small stop and decided to save ourselves for a pub he knew in Poolewe. By this time to scenery was changing and becoming more Jurassic with barren land surrounding all sides, the odd dark pool reflecting clouds on their surface. It’s basically one big climb out of Gairloch and one big descent into Poolewe so it wasn’t too long until our wind battered faces showed up at the aforementioned hotel and we stuffed our faces. During the trip across the hill three riders went past like cruise missiles, totally unaffected by the strong head winds. How did they do that?
The next bit was really rather nice despite all the climbs. Passing Gruinard Bay and looking at the historical info about Soviet convoys we then enjoyed some seriously good coastal views to the north. We pressed on and were eventually rewarded with super long descent into Dundonnell. Yes the wind slowed it down but it was still a pedal free opportunity to get some rest. I registered with some horror that Keith has pressed on past the only coffee shop in town so I had no choice but to keep going. I spotted some riders going the other way and wished them good luck with their next climb. They no doubt thought “you total mug” as they knew what was in stall for me. A massive climb out of Dundonnel seemed to go on endlessly and the higher I went the stronger the headwinds got. When I reached the top Keith was waiting, huddling behind a stone. That was a tough one.
With a left hook we hit a high plateu and a series of munros provided a spectacular vista. It was just a shame that this could not be enjoyed as the headwind turned to a sidewind so strong that you simply couldn’t get any rythm and had to ride in the middle of the road and accept that you’d be blown across to the edge from time to time. Eventually the road veered north east and we dipped down to connect up with the A835 to Ullapool. It’s a funny road this one, you see Ullapool in the distance and then the road sticks in the trees for ages and the next time you see Ullapool you’re right on top of it.
Keith had hit a bit of a low point so after a quick drink at the petrol station we found out the Tesco was open late so we headed across there and sat in a trolley collection point out of the rain. The food was joyous and our spirits were high. We had concerns about timing as it was now 6pm and we had 30 miles to go of our 118 of the day. With renewed fluids and food it was time to crack on.
My memory of the climb out of Ullapool was that it was steep but not that bad. I had completely forgotten about the one after that and the several after that also as the road climbs into the raised inner lands away from the coast. It was at this point I was starting to learn a bit more about my body. Keith is undoubtedly the stronger rider but my endurance meant that my levels were consistent across the whole day and by the time we were clocking over 100 miles my legs were still ticking over nicely. With the light fading and rain coming down hard we got a stroke of luck with a tiny section with the wind behind so we time trialed it to Inchnadampf and later found out we’d clocked the 19th fastest time of the year for that segment on strava.
Now let’s just say I don’t really like bunk houses. I hate sounds when trying to get to sleep. Ticking clocks have been known to be sabotaged and snoring comrades end up being mysteriously pushed off the bed and very possibly buried in the garden if they persist. This one at Inchnadampf was superb and the people inside could not be more welcoming if they tried. A family were having some kind of reunion with friends and they put together some food for two tired cyclists which we wolfed down. The GP from Tain in the group had done the puffer a few times so we had a good chat. When we eventually hit the sack Keith took about 5 seconds o be flat out and snoring so I made sure to smash a pillow in his face to roll him on his side.
The morning was a lovely breakfast with some good chat. We had spoken how our relatively late start times were starting to catch up with us. 8pm finish the first night, 9pm the second. Given the set times for breakfast at the accommodation we really had no way of off-setting this. Our bikes were packed up and off we went on day 3 of our adventure.
The third day started with a delightful road along the bank of Loch Assynt along toward Lochinver. The clouds hung low to give the the area real atmosphere. Unfortunately they also blocked the view of my favourite mountain, The Suilven. It was the easy start our legs needed to get going again and once again Keith was off into the distance. We’d checked the map the night before and I was mentally prepared for another hilly section on the northern side of this penninsula. It didn’t disappoint and the same constant steep ups and downs as the lead-in to Torridon greeted weary legs. There were some absolute hum-dinger steep climbs which had me right on the limit even out of the saddle. Once again I cleared them all and then eventually marvelled at the wonder that is Quinag: it looks like a steam train from one angle and an inpregnable fortress from another. Beautiful.
We met up at the main road A894 where Keith said that section had been tough but he still looked fresh as a daisy. We cycled to Kylesku where we popped in to the Kylesku hotel for a lovely soup with gluten free bread. We had soup as it’s probably the only thing we could afford on the menu! The view was stunning and the waters in the harbour were crystal clear. Soon we pressed on and agreed to rendezvous at Scourie some 20+ miles down the road. I found a steady rhythm but we both still constantly battled the wind which was making everything twice as hard.
Arriving in Scourie it instantly brought good memories as Allison and I had spent a superb sun-kissed week here in our early years together. I remember when our dog took a real dislike to a young French lad and scared the life out of him. The pub on the campsite was our chosen spot for coffee recharge and our wind battered heads needed a rest. I reckon the staff would have been impressed by our bright red faces. Once done we resupplied at the Spar shop and by this time it was time to bring out the big guns – Haribo.
We agreed to meet at Durness and both set off at a fair pace. It was not too far out of Durness that my body hit a huge low. The lack of sleep may well have been catching up but rather than press on I took 5 minutes to sit by the side of the road and eat some food. This really did the trick as I resumed the slow cycle that went up and down but always forward. By the time I passed through Rhiconich my body had come back to life and positively charged up the big ascent before topping out and seeing Durness and the northern coast in the distance. The bright blue hue of the sea always amazes me.
The descent that followed was easily the best of the whole trip. It was simply massive. The huge bulk of Cranstakie sits over on the other side of the valley but all I could concentrate on was the huge drop down which went on for at least 3 miles. It was absolute joy and even when hitting the valley it was top gear time and with some wind assistance (eventually) in no time at all arrived in Durness to hook up with Keith.
We stopped for a resupply of sugary goodness at Durness shop and found out that food would still be being served at the local hotel so we headed there. Walking in the locals were clearly off their trolleys with drink and took one glance at Keith’s pink n black top before saying “what the f@ck, he’s wearing pink”. Well spotted. When eating we registered that these guys came from the same place as Beavis n Butthead but had polished off a real skinfull before we got there. It was a relief to get out but we were clearly aware that time was pressing as it had way passed 6pm and the wind had massively slowed us down.
Setting off from Durness it was all about pressing on to our destination in Tongue. In my head I remembered the inlet of Loch Eriboll taking a long time on a motorbike so on a cycle it should be quite tough. It turned out in fact to be a complete nightmare. Nature had decided it would dish out a whole can of whoop ass and really strong winds in our faces meant it took nearly 2 hours to do the 7 miles to reach the end of the loch. Every turn of the peddles was a struggle just to move forward inch by inch. My legs were aching and as I turned the end of the loch to head north I did shout out “f you wind, I won this one” at the wind.
Free of that horrible section there was no time to waste as the clock was ticking and the darkness just starting to come in. It also started to rain hard as if in response to my cheeky outburst. What tail wind was available was put to good use as the road snaked its way up, up and then over and down to Hope. My memory had served me well at this point as I knew there was one more huge hill to be dealing with and so it dragged out whilst being battered from the front and side by persistent winds. As the light was fading the abandoned bothy with Ben Hope in the background reared in to view and I knew the day was almost done. A huge and fast descent followed with not another vehicle having been seen for hours. Swooping over the big bridge and up the hill to Tongue I eventually caught up to Keith which had been talking to the police about where our digs were.
No time to waste. My legs were still up for more and we powered up and out of Tongue and soon arrived at a lovely B&B called The Poor House some time between 9 and 10pm. The lady was delightful and the place was an absolute dream. I dropped on the seats in front of the wood burner and couldn’t move. Keith played Mam and made some food before I dragged myself up to do some washing and hit the shower before sliding in to a lovely bed. This was in fact the first bed that fitted my long body so by the time the morning came I was actually remarkably comfy and didn’t really want to shift.
Riding to Bettyhill on day 4 was rather pleasant. Shifting up and down it was the usual undulating day with some nice views of the sea off to the north. From Bettyhill across to John o Groats can only be described as something designed by Freddy Kruger. We’d suffered 3 days on constant head winds and today was going to be no different. The road stayed up high with nowhere to hide and the wind just battered our speed all day. It was a challenge just to keep moving and the lowest gears were employed to press on. Turn by turn we made slow progress along this high road. Melvich took an age to arrive so we dived into a new cafe and had some super tasty food. By our calculations our progress could best be described as sedate.
I’d set 5pm as the target to hit John o Groats now that the wind was firmly kicking my backside. That’ll be 9 hours to do the 60 miles from Tongue and it was described by Keith as “the hardest 60 miles of cycling I’ve ever done”. I’ll second that. The Starbucks at JOG was closing but not before I got a coffee and sat outside watching people get their pictures taken at the signpost. I couldn’t believe how much the place had changed since I was last year. Dad and I walked down to the harbour and none of the current buildings were there. The new changes are all for the better.
Heading south out of John o Groats the legs were clearly tired and I was starting to get all sorts of pain from my left knee and both Achilles tendons. We pushed on and on to eventually got to Wick where we raided the supermarket and ate in the car park with the first bit of sun for the entire trip. The next section was an absolute pleasure with big gears emplyed all the way to Latheron. I’d been pushing hard and couldn’t understand how I couldn’t be catching Keith. It turned out he was behind me. Once we’d hooked up again we arrived at the B&B in Dunbeath at 10pm with battered legs.
On this night there were no problems whatever getting to sleep. We were both out like someone had pressed a switch and slept soundly all night. The proprietor was telling us all about the local history which just went in one ear and out the other as I can’t remember a single bit of it. After 4 days of 110+ miles Keith had cleverly devised the final day to be 77 miles which was just a matter of counting down the miles. A big breakfast and then we were off. To be honest my Achilles were in massive pain from the off and this subsided after an hour or so but I still needed painkillers to keep going.
The A99 was a nice coastal road with fantastic views. I knew there was a steep hill out of Helmsdale but I just wasn’t prepared at all for the massive climb that followed. Keith had a saying along the lines of “when you see snow gates you need to be worried”. That was the last big climb of the day and the corresponding drop on the other side was greatly appreciated. First target of the day was Brora where we had some food and a coffee whilst I rubbed my extremely painful tendons. A lovely couple were touring Scotland in their E-Type jag and were adamant the next section was as flat as a pancake. There was no choice but to keep going as we had to get home to Strathpeffer.
The further south we went the more the traffic built up. On reflection we would have loved to end the ride at Brora but we pushed on to Tain and had a well earned coffee at a plush hotel who’s name I completely forget. The flat and fast roads between Tain and Dingwall were an opportunity to move fast(er) so we upped the pace and counted down the miles. My tendons were aching but none of this was a concern as the now constant stream of traffic was passing at high speed. We ducked in to every lay by but then patiently waited to get back out as the traffic was so busy. The last 5 mile to the Dingwall turn-off were just jammed with cars and trucks and it was a huge relief to turn off to Dingwall and tap out those last 3 miles.
Oh Dingwall, how I was delighted to see you. All those distraction techniques I was using to get by the final 20 miles were all thrown out of the mental window as I met up with Keith once more and spirits rose. We sat outside the local fish and chip shop and I stuffed in some chips and a coffee while he had fish cakes. We set off along the final 5 mile stretch back to the van and it passed in no time. Hand shaken and job done. Keith is actually a dedicated hugger but he knows it’s a line not to be crossed with me ha ha. A quick shower for Keith and we were back on the road heading south for Newcastle.
On reflection it’s hard to know what to think about the north coast 500. The company was first class and Keith was the perfect foil for getting round the trip. He’s a strong rider so I never had to worry about how he was getting on. From previous trips I knew the route was beautiful and it lived up to that as a visual spectacle. The riding should have been well within our capabilities and we did manage to get round as planned. However, the weather made it less of a pleasure and more of an endurance acheivement. With good conditions this would be an simply amazing route. The reality for our trip is that our legs got busted due to constant heavy load in head winds and a week later my Achilles tendons are still hurting. I’d recommend it to anyone but I sincerely the weather Gods are kinder to you than they were to us.