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The North Coast 500 (and a little bit more)

This story really begins quite a few months ago, at the tail end of summer 2015. My friend David was turning 40 this year (2016) and the question was what to do in order to help ease the pain of leaving yet another decade behind.

David is a cyclist and a member of Deeside Thistle Cycling Club, so thoughts naturally turned to a cycling trip of some description, not on a grand scale either, oh no – this had to be of epic proportions in order to soothe the passage into his 40’s. A few ideas were talked over, mulled through and dismissed, these included (but were not limited to) a holiday in sunnier climes or a sportive somewhere new. In the end the idea of completing the North Coast 500, and staying on home soil, seemed to appeal best. This, as a challenge, is similar to doing the ‘End to End’ but never leaves the confines of the most northerly section of Scotland. So, with an idea in mind it was time to recruit…

I was asked, alongside another friend Craig and David’s brother Iain. This seemed like an ideal team along with a volunteer driver to support the cyclists with a car load of spares and food. Another friend of David’s volunteered to fill this role, so with Bob on-board David set about planning the route in more detail. The logistics of finding suitable stops and overnight accommodation, while keeping daily mileage as sensible as possible was to slowly come to fruition over the intervening months.

It was around Christmas that I realised that I would never manage this, I’ve hardly been on a bike for over a year and the thought of training in order to complete this wasn’t exactly appealing in such a short time scale. It was also around this time David decided that he didn’t wish to start and finish in Inverness when he was perfectly capable of starting and finishing at home… And so the NC500+ was born. A truly epic bike ride around the North Coast of Scotland that would start, and finish, in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. I believe this adds around 250 miles to the route so it was to be approx. 750 miles in 7 days - I was definitely glad I’d excused myself from joining them!

You might be asking why such a trip was planned for early April - with this being Scotland the weather was likely to be changeable at best or still full on winter at worst. Well, the answer is thus - it had to fit in with holidays, specifically school holidays as Iain is a teacher. If he was to have any chance of joining the group then the school holidays would dictate the timings. April is not a natural choice in this country if weather is a concern, but then June, July and August may fair just as badly!

As time wore on and the planning was finalised I figured it would be fun to follow them in the car - take the camera and try to document Day’s 1 & 2. I spoke with Anna and it was agreed that she would accompany me, with this all set accommodation was booked in Strathpeffer for the Saturday night.

David's blog about the adventure can be found here.

Day 1

Saturday dawned bright enough but chilly, it wasn’t looking like the best day to start such an adventure. It was dry though so that was a good enough bonus. With the car packed with bags (and bags) of camera gear, Anna and I set out for Banchory to meet the riders just after 8am. The plan was to meet outside Banchory Cycles, the owner Pete had kindly agreed to sponsor the ride with a few spares so a photo or two was called for at the official start point!

The adventurers prepare to set off with a quick photocall at one of their sponsors. (l-r) Bob, David, Craig, Pete and Iain

The adventurers prepare to set off with a quick photocall at one of their sponsors.
(l-r) Bob, David, Craig, Pete and Iain

As the riders rolled out of town around 0845 I had a few errands to run prior to heading west, time was with us as it would take around an hour for the riders to reach the Gairnshiel. Our first planned stop was breakfast in The Bothy café in Ballater. With breakfast over we set off to chase on over the Gairnshiel (the first major climb of the trip) and then the Lecht.

Lochnagar from just east of Ballater.

The weather wasn’t too bad or cold by now, some Spring heat from a reluctant sun was making its presence felt. I was actually surprised how little apparent wind there was, especially on the higher ground. We caught and passed the riders on the lower (but rather steep) ramps of the Gairnshiel and from then on it became a case of find a spot to park (or abandon) the car, photograph the riders, chase and pass them and repeat. This pattern was to continue (and become our routine) over the rest of the day and then again on Sunday.

Craig climbing the Gairnshiel.

Craig climbing the Gairnshiel.

David and Iain having a quick stop at the summit of the Gairnshiel.

David and Iain having a quick stop at the summit of the Gairnshiel.

The Gairnshiel now behind them it was a short recovery on the descent before facing the Lecht. Threading up the lower, steeper slopes before emerging from the treeline and out on to the exposed ridge that the road relentlessly follows until the ski centre is reached - It’s not particularly easy to put into words how a cyclist feels on such climbs, it’s usually a mix of silently cursing unhappy legs while trying to become mentally numbed to the pain that is (apparently) never ending from screaming muscles. The top of the Lecht included a welcome bonus, it was to be the first of the prearranged stops with the support car, a welcome opportunity to have some cake, a cup of tea if desired and, if required, time to make any changes to aid comfort or iron out niggles. It was here we learned that Craig had had a minor mechanical – a snapped chain (quickly mended on the road) wasn’t ideal so early in such a long ride. The stop allowed us to inspect the bike and carry out a bit of adjusting.

Craig on the lower slopes of the Lecht.

Cake eaten and fluids topped up it was now a downhill race and chase on through Tomintoul and out toward Grantown-on-Spey. By the time we had left the ski centre in the car the riders were far ahead and we didn’t catch them again until we were through Tomintoul and approaching Bridge of Brown.

Now, at this point, I must state that I wasn’t just out to photograph three lycra clad blokes on fancy carbon road bikes, I wanted to try and capture some of the surrounding countryside that they would be cycling through. This way I hoped to put the ride into some context. I also planned to be carrying out a bit of a recce for future camping/landscape trips/locations etc.

Taken from the roadside between Tomintoul and Grantown-on-Spey - looking into the Cairngorm National Park.

Grantown now despatched the route headed north on the old military road to Nairn. After several miles the planned route then dived left, off the main road and headed around Lochindorb. This small loch is located high on the moors east of Inverness and has small island that holds the remains of what appear to be ancient military barracks. With the sun now out Anna and I had a welcome break from the car, spending a bit of time on the shores of the loch taking a few photos and generally enjoying the nice weather.

Lochindorb.

The next stop on the agenda was to be a café just outside Croy, at Cantraybridge around 20 miles away. This was to be the main lunch stop for the guys, a proper refuel before departing on the last leg to their overnight stop in Muir of Ord.

We were first to arrive at Cantray Park College Café, just after 1500 and slightly dismayed to find lunch service had finished at 1430 with the café closing at 1600 - not a good sign with 3 hungry cyclist bearing down on the place. Anna and I had hoped to have lunch here but, upon discovering this we settled for a cup of tea and a slice of cake each. Bob joined us shortly after this and we were eventually joined by the riders with them now having approx. 90 odd miles in the legs. When the riders arrived it was not dissimilar to a few locusts passing through - whatever food was available (and not nailed down) was inhaled…

Feeding time...

Feeding time...

Up to this point we’d had Bob’s company on and off (he didn’t always stop with us when we were taking photos), being mainly concerned with providing the necessary support he would press on to pre-arranged points. When we departed Cantraybridge/Croy we continued west to Inverness on a few back roads while Bob picked up the main road and headed direct to Muir of Ord. We were to see the riders one more time before they reached their destination for the day. We had decided to divert via the Beauly Firth so we detoured through Inverness and south along the Firths shoreline - where we stopped to take a few more photos - before pressing on through Beauly and Dingwall on our way to Strathpeffer and dinner.

Looking to the Kessock Bridge from the shores of the Beauly Firth.

Anna (and bump) enjoying the sun and admiring the view.

The end of Day 1 saw around 120 miles cycled and something similar driven. A relaxing evening was on the cards and I was glad to be out of the car for the day! Day 2 now beckoned and with it the climb of the famous Bealach na Ba on the Applecross peninsula.

Day 2

After the good weather of the previous day Sunday dawned damp and a little wet from overnight rain. The skies were a driech grey colour and you had the feeling that rain was never far away.

Loch a'Chuilinn on the road to Achnasheen.

Loch a'Chuilinn on the road to Achnasheen.

I’d enquired the previous evening - while at dinner in the excellent Red Poppy Restaurant in Strathpeffer (dinner for 6 had been booked well in advance!) – as to when the cyclists were expecting to depart the comforts of their B&B. I was informed 0800, a quick mental calculation followed as we figured out where that would put them on the road if Anna and I departed the hotel around 0845. We reckoned somewhere between Garve and Achnasheen – as it turned out 0800 really meant around 0830 so we passed them before they had reached Garve on the Ullapool road. First photos from the day were captured here under a nice light drizzle that was to set the tone for the day.

As we turned left at Garve and headed west toward Achnasheen we passed Loch Luichart and numerous smaller lochs that had but the faintest ripple on their surfaces. These were photo opportunities that I couldn’t resist so between catching our cyclists we stopped here and there to take some landscapes under leaden skies and light showers. It didn’t go unnoticed that there was also a fair amount of snow still covering the peaks of the higher mountains.

Loch Dùghaill, Lochcarron.

As we travelled ever further west and on through Lochcarron we were heading for the first agreed stop for the support car, atop the hill just outside Lochcarron village. Bob had planned to drive straight to this point and then unload his own bike and ride back to meet the others. With the weather as it was no one would have blamed him for staying warm and dry in the car! We passed all four of them on the road just outside Lochcarron village, so despite the rain Bob had braved the elements.

The Bealach glimpsed through the mist.

As the riders refuelled it was pointed out that the foreboding north east buttress of the Bealach could be glimpsed through the cloud and mist. With this cheerful sight now etched in various minds food was quickly consumed and bikes re-mounted for the next stage – the assault on the Bealach. The climb would total nearly an hour of relatively steady climbing which turns to a horrible grind when the gradient ramps toward the hairpins, relief from the ascent only coming when the car park at the summit is reached.

The three riders picking their way up into the clouds.

I planned to set up the cameras on the second hairpin bend, one on a tripod looking down and out over the corrie below with the road threading its way through, the other I slung on my shoulder so that I could remain fairly mobile. As I was finalising the tripod set up I spied two small specks rounding the final corner for the run in toward the hairpins – this was David leading the charge with Iain not far behind. For now there was no sign of Craig whom we had passed a wee while earlier on the lower slopes of the hill.

David and Iain working their way up the road of the Bealach.

Craig almost at the base of the long run toward the hairpins.

As David made his charge for the summit - leaving Iain in his wake - I found myself a bit stuck, I had hoped to be able to maybe move up the hairpins but they were moving through too quickly despite the nature of the ascent. In the end I had to settle for staying where I was and making the best of the location – I have to admit I was also rather frustrated with the cars that were insisting on descending and ruining my view of each rider as they passed me… We waited where we were until Craig had worked his way up the road below and then made his way through the hairpins on his way to the summit and a well-deserved (if rather wet and cold) stop for a quick bite of food.

Anna and I left the summit first, with the low cloud offering minimal visibility I had a request to switch on my rear fog lights so that the car could be seen on the road ahead. I’m not sure how effective this was as we quickly left them behind – a slow and cautious descent was called for as the road was wet and slick and the lack of visibility adding to the hazards. As we dropped out of the cloud the view below us opened up, Skye could be seen out to the west between the mist and rain showers. We decided to stop for lunch at the Applecross Inn and let the riders push on to their next scheduled support stop in Shieldaig.

Craig on the lower sections of the Bealach climb.

After an excellent pub lunch it was time to head off and see where we would catch the trio, by now the day had warmed a little more and there were faint signs of the weather clearing to the west. As we drove the coast road we were treated to views across to Raasay and Skye with the Cuillins just visible. Further along the road as we turned north and headed into Torridon we caught a glimpse of Suilven in far off Assynt, it sat alone to the west with both peaks wreathed in cloud – further east the serried summits of the Torridon hills mixed with those of Coigach. Despite the inclement weather, visibility at sea level was actually rather good!

Group photo before smiles turned to grimaces.

Group photo before smiles turned to grimaces.

The road around the Applecross peninsula is interesting to say the least, it has a tendency to either be going up, or going down – flat it is not. I remember all too well the torturous nature of this road from my one and only participation in the Bealach Mhor Sportive around 5 years ago. I recall fondly (it is possible you know!) the climb up the Bealach, but when I recall the road between Applecross and Shieldaig it is the pain and suffering that comes to the fore – I don’t recall enjoying that section one little bit!

Danger... There be steep hills ahead...

In the car however, it is a much nicer proposition - unfortunately we now had a timetable of sorts to keep so stops to take in the views and capture them on camera weren’t an option (the road is, by nature, also rather short of stopping places at the spots where you’d ideally want to set up a camera – it seems road side parking isn’t dictated by the view afforded!!). We had not long received an invite for dinner in Elgin (near enough 100miles away) and time was pressing on. As we neared the village of Shieldaig we caught our intrepid trio about half a mile from the road junction where we turn left for Shieldaig and ultimately Kinlochewe. 

The Bealach under a threatening sky.

A quick stop with them saw a few changes of clothing as rain soaked socks and jerseys were swapped out for something drier. As more food was hoovered up we said our good byes – our paths were to part now as Anna and I made a non-stop run for Kinlochewe. As we climbed out of Shieldaig and into Glen Torridon we were met with yet more heavy rain.

As we approached Kinlochewe I wanted to make one more stop, this was to involve a quick run out to Loch Maree where we would mark our turning point, it may not be the most westerly point of our two days but it did mark the point where we would no longer go west following the cyclists as they ultimately headed further north.

Slioch across Loch Maree

We departed the shores of Loch Maree around 1630 with the satnav claiming an arrival in Elgin around 1845. Hmm, we’ll see about that…

Below I've added the links to each days route for those that are interested.

 

Day 1 - Day 2 - Day 3 - Day 4 - Day 5 - Day 6 - Day 7