The party was over, the crowds were heading home and the streets of Glasgow were a massive array of clearer-uppers putting the city back to its normal working state. 100 miles down the road, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish were battling it out as the Tour of Britain moved south along the countryside. Their ride was only beginning whilst mine – the most incredible cycling experience of my life – had just been completed.
10 days earlier, 12 women from around Britain had met in Velocity a bike repair/coffee shop at the top of a steep hill in Inverness to cycle the Visit Scotland North Coast 500 Route. A 500 mile bike ride around the coast of the Scottish Highlands, from Inverness to Inverness.
Despite several emails, no one could advise on what the rolling average speed would be, a piece of information that I usually always establish before finding myself on the wrong ride. Fear can be a very powerful and empowering emotion. So much so that a week before I had cancelled all my accommodation bar the train ticket which was non refundable and decided not to go. Advice, nay a rollocking from home – “get those hotels rebooked and go!” now found me sitting around the café table. I knew very little about the route and I knew no-one on the ride.
Over cups of tea we made polite conversation, all of us looking at each other with a slight I wonder how fast you cycle look about them. All I knew was that they were all going to cycle much faster than me. The only notification I had sent was an email to them all a few days earlier saying that I would give it my very best shot to keep up with them.
As we moved out of the town, joined by Emily Chappell with legs of steel no less than five days after her epic Trans Continental Race all I could hear in my head were the words from home “you can always stop if you don’t like it”. But I did like it. I liked it a lot.
Under grey skies and along rolling roads, an array of conversations could be heard by the hedgerows as we all began to cycle and chat to our fellow cyclists. Sometimes in a peloton, sometimes not we all moved westwards. This was all very reassuring and familiar to being with The Fridays.
Just at the moment when I was lost at a roundabout and somewhat depleted of energy, Emily swooped by saying we are all just having a break by a railway station.
Snacks shared and drinks consumed, on we headed, chatting, cycling and pushing those pedals until we roared into Lochcharron where bookings.com made its one and only error. If there are no recommendations from other visitors, don’t stay there. If it doesn’t call itself a B&B or an hotel definitely don’t stay there. The cleanliness levels were those of a 17 year old from The Young Ones. It was rank. Although my bike was allowed in the kitchen.
Dinner overlooking the loch was full of haggis and Cullen Skink the latter of which took me six days to consider ordering. The name does not capture the deliciousness of the dish. Haggis sandwiches were soon a sought after option, totally delicious as long as you don’t ask too many questions about how they are made.
Like an Agatha Christie Novel we were still looking at each other wondering who we all really were. Yet despite the mystery it was clear very early on that everyone was kind. Really kind. Roadside snacks were shared without hesitation, encouragement didn’t stop and there had already been quite a lot of laughter.
The next day we met outside the hotel (where I should have stayed) and my sorry state of affairs breakfast from Holland and Barrett failed big time. Over priced (by about 500%) and it didn’t do what it said it would do. Mccanns you have no worries there.
Along the loch, onwards and upwards – and upwards. This was it. This was the hardest day. 7089 feet of climbing including La La Ba Ba aka Bealach na Ba.
The only time I had seen this was via Mark Beaumont and You Tube. Who did I think I was? Pedal, pedal, pedal. Stop for cars. Stop for breath. Stop because the Ride Leader has given you some much needed food. Stop because you can’t move another inch. Then pedal pedal pedal.
Deserted rocky roads, dips of lochs and blue skies, up I went. The lady who stopped her car at a passing point told me that her husband cycled this beast a lot and that this is the hardest side. Questions will be asked I thought although my focus was on keeping my feet moving and staying upright.
As I neared the top, I wondered if the others would be 50 miles ahead of me as they had rocketed passed as though it was a Sunday spin. Amazingly, Lee started cycling towards me – nearly there, she said, nearly there then promptly took the most amazing photo of me on the mountain. I tried not to focus on the fact she still had four lower gears to use.
At the top there was the most amazing sound. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was cheering and a ginormous round of applause. I nearly burst into tears (although a physical impossibility for my lungs to consider).
If the climb hadn’t taken my breath away – the view would have done. It was the beginning of a constant series of views that defied both gravity and my understanding of geology – not to mention isolated yet enveloping communities huddling together from the weather. Grey boulders, pink heather, moss and blue seas with a constant beige stripe through the middle of all of it. The only road. The North Coast 500.
Descending a mountain is a fine reward indeed. According to my Garmin top speed 61.25km/hour being approximately 38 miles an hour. The occasional side wind would rattle the back of my bike but the descent was enthralling.
Several miles later, lunch in The Walled Garden a delight. From rocks to herbaceous borders in a short space of time. Seeing everyone’s bikes lying on their sides was a little disconcerting until I worked out it was ok to do it. The refuel with milk mantra learned from a fellow Fridays on a night ride to the coast was becoming a habit. Carbs and protein combined.
By the time I reached Nanny’s in Shieldaig, however, I was spent. Smoked Salmon with cream cheese panini, a glass of full fat milk and a pot of tea made me feel a bit more human but the mountain was taking its toll. Pootling around London on a Brompton, even with a bike ride to the mountain railway at Aviemore the day before the start, isn’t really sufficient training for this kind of ride. I began to start looking for a cab company.
The ride leader however had different ideas. This was a group ride and I was not going to be left behind. With three others, we became a group of five full of gentle chat and somewhere to hide behind the wind. Into Torridon where we took over a petrol station (of all places) and I was accompanied to my hotel The Scourie Hotel just outside Gairloch. I had made it. 87 miles including Bealach na Ba, thanks to such marvelously kind people.
I was now staying at probably the most fabulous hotel I have ever stayed in. What a treat. Tatties and Neeps cordon bleu style, followed by scallops, a cheese platter and strawberry cheesecake. I ate and ate, then slept like a log in a bed that felt like home.
When I woke up my washing was ironed, my breakfast was four courses and my bike was still in the log shed!
Day 2 was over, day 3 was flatter and shorter. It was full of chat and disbelief that we’d all reached the top the La La Baa and we headed along the coast to Ullapool. The spectacular scenery didn’t diminish for a second. The beige road swooped across the landscape, pulling and pushing us up and down the way, vista after vista.
Sheep would stare, cows would ignore and those drivers from Dingbro were the only fly in the ointment. If they don’t learn how to drive passed cyclists properly very soon there is going to be a dreadful, dreadful incident. Perhaps they should join forces with Scottish Water who definitely know how to share the road? Ironically, Scottish Mail were a mixed bag of driving standards. Pretty much everyone else showed the kind of courtesy and standard that meant it was ok to relax and enjoy the ride. The motorcyclists gave us a very wide berth and always, always a wave.
The more I pedaled the more I couldn’t believe I was here in this most incredibly unspoiled part of the world. Even though some parts seemed totally inhabitable there were continual signs that people lived there. One single road that allowed us all to be part of quite the most incredible landscape.
We were on our way to Ullapool.
The journey continues here