5 days, 500 miles, the far North of Scotland, why not?! We looked a few weeks ahead at the predicted weather and picked the last week of September to go on “holiday” and cycle the North Coast 500. It was a bit of a gamble given the typical weather conditions at this time of year but the forecast didn't look too bad. By and large (Day 2 apart), we got away with it and saw some blue sky and sunshine.
A week on our bikes in the rugged wilderness of the far North of Scotland gave us a great excuse to get some new kit to be ready for anything the weather could throw at us. Luckily, The Ark Cycles has just become a Castelli stockist.
Alex, Sean and I all rode our Specialized Diverge Comp Carbon gravel bikes. As our route was all on the road, we set up the bikes accordingly. We changed the tyres to run better on the road and added mudguards. I used Specialized Roubaix Pro 30/32 tubeless tyres. Sean used Specialized Sawtooths 38 tubeless tyres and Alex used Vittoria Terreno zero gravel 35 tubeless tyres. All the bikes were equipped with SKS Bluemel mudguards.
As we were staying in B&Bs we didn’t need to carry a tent, so Sean and I opted to leave our handlebar bag at home making our setup lighter. As Alex had just purchased his new Ortlieb bike bags, he was excited to try them all out and took the full set. An Ortlieb seat pack 11L, Ortlieb handlebar pack 9L, and Ortlieb frame pack 4L.
We fitted each of our bikes with three bottle cages to enable us to carry as much water as possible, using the Specialized Zee Side loading cage. The side entry cages worked really well with the frame bags making it easy to get our bottles in and out.
We all purchased some new Castelli kit, a great decision and worth every penny! The main priority for us was to have a fully waterproof jacket, for the potential of riding hours in the pouring rain. The Castelli Idro 2 jacket, with its shake dry, Gore-tex material meant the water beaded on the jacket and kept us dry underneath. Eight hours of solid rain on Day 2 proved its value, and we stayed dry and warm!
Underneath the Idro, we had the Castelli Gabba RoS with Castelli Nano flex arm warmers. This was a perfect combination as when the sun was out, and it did get slightly warmer, we had the option to remove the arm warmers. We chose to wear bib longs on most days, Sean and Alex wearing Castelli LW 2 bib-tight and I chose to wear a slightly thicker pair of bib longs, the Castelli Sorpasso RoS women's bib-tight.
Glove wise, because it wasn’t crazily cold, we went for a happy medium with the Castelli Perfetto RoS glove. These were windproof and shower proof, with Gore-tex material.
DAY 1 - Inverness to Applecross
The official NC500 route starts and ends at Inverness Castle. The castle was only a few miles from our hotel so we rolled largely downhill to the start point. Day 1 in theory, was to be a walk in the park with “only” 5,000ft of climbing and less than 90 miles. The block headwind as we headed west was much stronger than the forecast suggested. This was the biggest challenge of the day, but on pure gel power, we stuck Sean on the front and he proved to be a fantastic windbreaker (in more ways than one ha!)
Luckily, being the first day, I had baked two flapjacks so we were well stocked for food. We found our first coffee stop at the 25 mile point (just after warming up and getting into a rhythm). Usually this wouldn’t have been far enough for a stop but as we didn’t know when we’d next see coffee, we didn't want to take any risks! Three Americanos later, we set off again in hope of finding somewhere for lunch later on the route. As you can tell food was always on our minds!
After watching Mark Beaumont’s GCN NC 500 video, we saw him stop at a cafe shortly before the Beleach Na Ba climb which kept our spirits high. Typically, when we arrived, we discovered it was shut on Mondays! Our moods sank slightly, but we knew there was another village, Locharron, a couple of miles down the road. Luckily, we came across a great pub serving hot food! Jacket potatoes and sandwiches with crisps went down an absolute treat and fuelled us ready to tackle the beast known as The Applecross Pass, or the Beleach Na Ba, one of the longest climbs in the UK.
Sadly, as we climbed, we could see a thick layer of cloud and fog covering the upper slopes which inevitably would spoil the views. Having no idea where the top was, we kept tapping it out. Eventually after many switch backs and with very limited visibility, we found ourselves at the top, in some near gale force winds. After a slightly hairy (due to the wind) and very cold decent we arrived in Applecross. Eating options were limited and the local pub was fully booked. After eventually finding our B&B (going to the wrong one first!), the kind owner offered to pick us up some takeaway dinner. We were eternally grateful and enjoyed our beef chilli with a view over the water to the Isle of Skye.
DAY 2 - Applecross to Ullapool
Alex, Mr weatherman, had warned us that day two would be the wettest and windiest day of the week. He was right! We woke up, in a nice warm B&B, to the sound of rain and wind. Typical, as this was our longest day in the saddle! We ate Breakfast at 7am and set off at 8am. Sean and Alex had prepared for the wet and bought Velotoze shoe covers, whereas I had just bought my toe covers (that was a mistake!)
One of the positives was that the wind was a strong southwesterly, which meant we would mainly have a tail wind on the leg up to Ullapool. However, because of the wiggly nature of the coastal route, we were sometimes exposed to ridiculously strong cross winds and sometimes even the odd headwind as the road looped back in a southerly direction. At times we literally came to a stand still and were blown into grassy verges. Luckily there wasn’t too much traffic around - just a few Highland Cows!
A couple of hours in and we'd only reached the 25 mile mark. A mixture of hills, wind and rain meant we weren’t making much progress. We found a little harbour at Shieldaig with a lovely coffee shop, but because of Covid we weren’t allowed to sit inside. All our strength was used to stop our coffees and cakes from blowing away. Safe to say we didn’t warm up! After this though, we felt the effects of the strong tail wind, and finally started to make some better progress. Powered on by fizzy Haribos and flapjack we found a pub at the 65 mile mark, in time for lunch. Here, Sean decided to split his ride into two and changed into a completely fresh, dry kit. I sat by the radiator, trying to dry and warm up.
Luckily for us the rain eased off as we set off after lunch in search of Ullapool. It didn’t take long to warm up because of the hilly terrain. With just one huge climb in between us and Ullapool, Sean began singing to me and Alex, and this made the time fly by. At the top of the climb the weather took a turn for the worse and the rain got heavier but we just had to descend down into Ullapool to our bunkhouse where we were staying. We had dinner in the Ceilidh Place pub to which the bunkhouse was connected.
DAY 3 - Ullapool to Durness
We woke up to sunshine and went in search of breakfast. We found a cafe serving a full Scottish breakfast with lots of meat, eggs and toast, which fuelled us nicely ready to take on what was to be the hilliest day yet. Having to find breakfast meant we had a delayed start.
We went uphill immediately as the road rose up out of Ullapool and towards Ardmair point. This was Alex’s favourite day because we visited beaches and campsites where he used to stay every year as a child (over 40 years ago!) It was lovely for me to see where my dad grew up and had many happy family memories. The scenery on day 3 was probably the best of the whole trip with the rugged coastline, and spectacular mountains on fabulous display beneath the blue sky and sunshine.
The delayed start put us behind schedule and by the time we stopped for coffee in Lochinver it was really lunchtime. Alex and I were convinced we’d find food at Achmelvich beach a little further along the route. We took a little detour to this beach as this was one with a campsite that my dad used to stay at in his youth on his family holidays. Sean wasn’t so sure we'd find lunch there, and guess what, he was right, so lunch was missed! A not very happy Sean went very quiet for the next part of the afternoon!
Progress was slow going with the narrow, single track roads either going up, or going down! According to Sean’s Garmin we tackled 20 categorised climbs. There were definitely more climbs than that which should have been categorised. Just before the final “big, long climb” as described by the local shop lady, we loaded up with more fizzy Haribos and some Pringles (in desperate need of something savoury). Knowing that in Durness there was a hotel with a restaurant adjacent to our B&B, we tapped out the climb with dinner on our minds. Dinner did not disappoint. I'm a celiac and the hotel provided a whole gluten free menu, my dream! After a filling starter, main course and pudding, we settled into our very comfortable B&B (right next door) for the night.
Day 4 - Durness to Brora
We woke up to another dry, sunny day, and the views out over the sea were beautiful. However, it was a very cold morning with ice on the door handles of the B&B door. We were about to leave after another full Scottish breakfast when Sean discovered he’d left his shoes in the garage. As a result, for the first 25 miles as we made are away along the beautiful coastline adjacent to Loch Eriboll, Sean was in a bad place with absolutely freezing feet. Eventually I felt sorry enough for him and gave him my toe covers. The lady who owned the B&B told us that we should find coffee and food at Tongue, about 30 miles into today's route. Thankfully she was right and the lovely little cafe was open. We were allowed to sit inside this one, so we warmed up with our coffee and cake.
Once the feeling in our feet came back we headed off again and when we reached Melvich we turned off the main road and headed south east in the general direction of Brora. At this point we had a tail wind and lots of downhill and flat to enjoy! The miles were quickly ticking over and before we knew it there was just one big hill in front of us and Brora. Alex and Sean flew off up this quite gravelly climb, more like a mountain track than a road. I was suffering slightly at this point although the views made up for it. Finally, I crested the top and Sean fed me some Squashies, which got me down the gravelly descent to Brora. We knew there were no restaurants for dinner but luckily the local curry house was open for takeaway. We ordered pretty much the whole menu and took this back to our cosy little shepherd's hut where we were staying for the night. Happy cyclists! This meal also included the biggest bar of Cadburys we’d ever seen. Sean sneakily put it into my basket whilst in the Co-Op next to the curry house!
DAY 5 - Brora to Inverness
The route for our final day was to be 109 miles, which included the full route extension round Cromarty, prior to arriving back in Inverness. Sean and I were not amused and just wanted to take the quickest way to Inverness. However, Alex was having none of it and insisted we include the Cromarty peninsula loop. While the mileage was long, there was much less climbing than on previous days - and the day was dry with some sunshine throughout.
A large part of our final day took us through some very remote locations, meaning there was a strong chance of finding no food stops. We started the day feeling a few niggles, my knee, Sean’s knee and actually Alex was ok, until we kept moaning about our knees resulting in his starting to hurt!
After around 30 miles and a gentle climb that seemed to go on forever, we came to Lairg, a small town next to Loch Shin. We thought there might be a cafe there but our hopes were surpassed when we came across a cyclist's dream of a cafe - (The Pier Cafe) - where we had coffee, cake and lunch! After lunch we turned south and picked up a strong tailwind and we quickly started to rack up the miles. One small railway bridge with a metal path alongside slowed us down and enabled us to practice our cyclocross skills carrying our bikes up and down a couple of flights of stairs. After another large climb followed by a speedy descent we saw a sign for Inverness - “36 miles” away. This was without the extension of course! A slight route mishap had us mistakenly joining the A9. However, we carried on and took the bridge over to the Cromarty peninsula. This shortened the route slightly but kept the overall milage over the 500 mark and over 100 for the day.
It turned out the loop around Cromarty was enjoyable and even included a cheeky bonus coffee stop! Sean somehow found some renewed energy from this and decided we would do a solid threshold time trial effort all the way along the coast back towards Inverness. A three-up time trial saw us reach the outskirts of Inverness in no time. After one last climb we could see the Inverness bridge and the castle just beyond it. The sense of satisfaction and knowing we'd just about completed our route was on all of our minds and we finished the round trip back through the centre of Inverness and back to the castle where we had started 5 days earlier. We were all pretty exhausted but what a great week it had been and what a great way to see the far northern coastline of Scotland.