Ronde North Coast 500

A trip round the top of Scotland

June 2016

I’ve done a few sportives and had some great rides … and some wet, windy and freezing rides too; Carl and Sam and all those who did the Tour of the Borders a few years back can vouch for that. For a while I’ve been looking for a different challenge. The Highland tourist board had been promoting the “North Coast 500” and it sounded tempting - although you’d have to be mad to do it all in one go! 

I had started to look at logistics when the shop announced a “500 tour” with support vehicles, accommodation and meals included … excellent someone else would do the planning.

I had a couple of projects on at the end of that week and couldn’t do the whole thing but I signed up for four days. 

Almost immediately I started to worry. Was I fit enough, could I ride a hundred miles a day even two days in a row, how tough were the big hills, what would I eat and should I take a dinner jacket?

To be honest, due to a natural indolence, I didn’t address any of these issues, no extra training, no advanced nutritional programme, no tuxedo, but I did get the bike serviced, the cables replaced and gave it a polish.

Edinburgh to Inverness

Kayhan and I drove up together. We arrived last; heavy traffic, road works, bad weather, wild deer, earthquake warnings, Persian folk music, many many reasons … but obviously wrong turnings was not one of them! In hindsight the stop in Pitlochry may have been a contributory factor to our late arrival, but Hettie’s Tearoom played an essential role in our pre-event carbo-loading schedule.

There was a strong Ronde contingent on the trip, the two of us, Jimmy Grant and Dan Weatherley and lens man Jay Golian, with his Brownie 127. We met the rest of the group in the hotel and to a man they announced they’d not done nearly enough training, yeah, their fitness had been compromised by work, yeah, yeah and they had some unspecified injury, yeah yeah, yeah! 

“Er … that didn’t include you Iain, sorry you broke your wrist two weeks before it.”

Inverness to Applecross

The first seventy miles turned out to be the easiest of the trip. A few gentle inclines, but mostly flat. We stuck together as a group until Ledgowan Lodge, where we stopped for lunch and admired their eccentric trophies, stag’s heads on the wall, Babycham figures in the cabinet and a collection of bell shaped whisky bottles … produced by the Clangers? 

It got a bit fragmented after the break and I took it easy, happy to be la Lanterne Rouge. I was pretty sure I shouldn’t use too much energy early on, as the first major climb of the trip was in final few miles. Yes our first day included the biggest public road ascent in the British Isles; the third highest road as well! Here preconceptions met reality. I had in my head the Bealach Na Ba was a long climb but none of it all that steep; think alpine road people said. The advice was to drop into a low gear and spin up. I dropped into a low gear and started spinning. My spinning got more labored, I dropped down again … and again. One of our group stopped, probably to take photos so I attempted a smile and inched on. The road ramped up, there was no ring left to drop down to and I was struggling to turn the cranks. 

Ahead a second rider stepped off. This was far tougher than expected but I decided I had to get at least a hundred metres further on before I stopped; I still had a bit of pride! My muscles were screaming as I tried to maintain some forward momentum and then I was aware of an ominous shadow - someone was catching me! 

I peeked over my shoulder – Jimmy Grant! Powered by Duracell by the look of it! 

He didn’t give me a glance, rode straight past and never looked back. 

That was it - I couldn’t get off now, I had to keep going. The road went up and up and on and on in a straight line. Jimmy was pulling away but at least I was still moving. 

I reached the hairpins. My legs started to feel less under stress and I was spinning again. In the distance was the support motorhome, I caught a glimpse of Jay and went on the drops, “ready for my close-up Mr DeGolian”.

I was up and once I stopped I didn’t feel too bad. There was an amazing view. Jimmy was grinning. The sun was out. Delicious brownies were on offer. The air was still and warm. 

The others soon joined us and all was well with the world. 

And then the midges appeared … and then the clouds massed above us … and then the rain started to fall!

Time to go; at least it was downhill now. 

When we stopped I thought it would be a good idea to refuel ready for the next day, what would Jimmy “Mac” recommend, beetroot juice, quinoa, a handful of chickpeas? I bet he’d say “ave a pint at the Applecross Inn”, that’s what we did anyway.

Applecross to Ullapool

We woke up to blue sky, sunshine and … yum … a cooked breakfast.

The peninsular had been flagged up as mega tough and it was, what it must be like if you’ve already ridden up the Bealach I don’t know, at least we’d had a good night’s sleep in between the two so we were fresh.

Neil snapped a cable on this stretch reducing his choice of gears … to … well to just the one. He was in the middle of one of the most up and down parts of the world and it was not an easy gear either. I don’t think he reflected on the natural beauty as he toiled his way over the switchbacks, but it was unremittingly beautiful.

We lunched at Gairloch, sat in the sun and posed for Jay … prudishly he insisted we kept our clothes on. 

The roads here clung to the coastline and it was … hilly is a good description … windy describes it too. We were informed we would be passing the Corrieshalloch Gorge – ‘the deepest gorge in Britain!’ Oh lord, it won’t be easy cycling up that I thought.

The hills here were long, but not frighteningly steep and we didn’t have to climb out of the gorge; I was further cheered by the news there was an amazing downhill run into Ullapool. I should have paid a bit more attention because then I’d have known, as everyone else did, the town was still ten miles away. I charged off the front way too early and was reduced to hanging on at the back over the final seven miles!

Ullapool to Durness

The weather report in the morning suggested dry but … “la, la, la” … strong winds … “la, la, la, I can’t hear you!” 

We opted to take a detour from the official route, left the main road and turned off at Drumrunie towards Stac Pollaidh. As a result we may never know what Ardvreck Castle looks like, but instead we had an exhilarating ride west and for about the only time on the whole trip the wind was behind us! The road was quiet, the views were breathtaking … and I discovered that both my companions had “fond” memories of the beach at Loch Lurgainn. It was over all too soon, the road turned north into the wind and we headed for Lochinver and pies.

We temporarily lost Kayhan here, he succumbed to food poisoning, we think from the venison burger the night before, and retreated to the motorhome to try and sleep it off.

Curious as ever I wandered off to explore and missed the post lunch ‘grand depart’, but I was starting to feel good and enjoyed the chase back to the others. Some of us made an unofficial stop at Drumbeg and I balanced my energy gels intake with an Almond Magnum, luxury! The others asked for tea from an impressively grouchy barman, perhaps it would have cheered him up if they’d ordered some fresh local produce too. 

We had now reached the section of the ride I had been least looking forward to. Somewhere in the next few miles was a killer thirty percent hill. I’d built it up in my mind to be an almost impossible wall and was already mentally preparing to walk.

We hit ramp after ramp, we’d battle up one and then find the next one was even steeper, each time I steeled myself but each time we somehow got over. 

‘I think that’s the last one of the big ones,’ Iain said cheerfully, as we crested yet another monster climb.

“Whew!”

The two riders in front were pushing on but we relaxed, taking it easy as the worst was over. 

‘Something must have gone wrong they’ve got off!’ I pointed ahead.

Nothing had gone wrong; we’d reached ‘The Hill’

‘My mistake,’ Iain admitted, ‘one more.’

He started and I followed. It was incredibly tough and technically tricky, sit back and the front wheel lifted, lean forward and you lost traction We weren’t beating any records but we kept going. 

I had anticipated an impossible climb, but as it was merely extraordinarily difficult I was quite relieved and began to gain confidence. We edged up, the top came in sight and we increased our speed … almost perceptively. 

Elated I posed for photos at the top – “YES!!!!”

The last stop before the finish was above the bridge at Kylesku – Iain’s cousin built it … it was a big bridge so perhaps he just helped. Now we were in Mackay country.

My energy levels and fitness had ramped up, it was thirty-six miles to Durness and our beds for the night but I set off on my own. The wind was full in my face the whole way but I’d hit one of those golden moments and felt fully charged, the landscape opened up in front, I spun up the hills and the miles just flashed by. 

The sun was shining as I rolled into Durness – what a day!

Durness to Thurso

My last day and the wet weather kit came out. 

The countryside is huge here and I loved it. Jimmy was not so keen, not enough cover apparently, so I kept a wary eye out for snipers. We rode round Loch Eribol, had a big climb out of Hope, and battled against the wind and rain through a wide, empty valley until we reached Tongue. We stopped in the Kyle of Tongue Guest House where the welcome was warm and friendly, the tea delicious and the coal fire a treat.

We ticked the villages off as we rode along the top of Scotland, Coldbackie, Bettyhill, Swordly, Brawl – oh the romantic names of the north coast; what a shame none of David Beckham’s kids were conceived up here. 

Lunch at the Halladay Inn at Melvitch, the landlord was a cheery Cockney, I was Hank Marvin so I had the chicken and chips for me Michael Winner. 

For the last twenty or so miles Jimmy chummed me to make sure I caught the last train. The support crew kindly brought me my day kit and that was it. I was on my own in Thurso train station and regretting I couldn’t complete the whole thing.

John O’Groats to Inverness

From the weary, garbled reports of the last day I understand it was cold, wet, long and hilly. It didn’t sound much fun on the main road back to Inverness, huge lorries were pounding along both sides of the road and if they caught a glimpse of the countryside through the rain it didn’t have quite the same scenic beauty as the West Coast.

Conclusion

It’s a fantastic route and while I looked forward to reaching the final stop each day, I really didn’t want the journey to end. There was total sense of freedom with nothing to worry about except riding. Thank you to the others in the group, their encouragement, support and camaraderie got me through the tough sections, up the endless hills and took my mind off the distance; we’d start chatting and before I knew it another twenty miles had been chalked off. 

As a coda there was some discussion about leg and arm warmers, but I stand by my decision, for the briefest moment on the Bealach I was concerned I was overdressed, but once the rain started to fall I felt vindicated!

 

Words, pictures and cycling - Alasdair Anderson