watch The Shieldaig Lodge Hotel had been the perfect reward for the previous days very hard cycling. Being a few miles outside Gairloch introduced a bit of a warm up ride before reaching the others in the town centre (village centre) where their tents and camping paraphernalia were remaining a mystery to me. I still had no evidence they were actually camping.
Moving on northwards, the change in scenery continued as it became more and more uninhabited. It was less of a landscape and more of a moonscape. Rolling hills before swooping down to sandy beaches where my Garmin kept telling me how much below sea level we were – actual minus figures – before climbing up to another height.
Every turn and every corner created even bigger mouth-dropping views that put us all in awe of this incredible part of the globe. It was an absolute privilege to be here.
Out onto the beige road again, whooshing down and pushing up incredible hills. Every so often I would stop and look back from whence we had come. It was utterly gobsmacking to see the North Coast 500 carved into the side of the rocks.
Into Ullapool where apparently the biggest fish and chips can be found at the Seaforth Bar and Restaurant. You have to queue but it was well worth it.
Day 4 was apparently going to be the toughest but the views from the route across to Stornoway were utterly mind blowing. A kick to reality as warning signs only ever seen in the Highway Code book were actually in situ. Frogs. Sheep. Cows. Sweeping down and around a corner seeing the sidewind flag after the back of my bike had shifted a foot from one side to the other as I clung on to the handlebars for dear life had me saying out loud to the roadsign “you’re not kidding!”
Up another climb. A new sign. 17%. Followed by 25% causing every cell in my legs to practically self-explode!
Lunch at the Lochinver Larder was an absolute treat. Haggis panini or Cullen Skink – in a pie shop that is known for its pies.
A poignant moment for me whilst the completely fused link between pies and a Woodrup in my life was cemented by the generosity and humour of a fellow cyclist who is no longer of this world. I post this for you Vernon, with a very large thank you for all that you did for all who were lucky enough to know you. Pie rides still continue in your honour and my Woodrup pedals keep turning too. A bicycle that was clearly made for touring and the North Coast 500. I think you would have liked this website:
Refuelled and refreshed out we headed along the ever changing backdrop that is The Highlands. At Scourie the Scourie Guesthouse made me feel very at home before heading the Scourie Hotel for supper. More absolutely top notch food.
The next day, two of our number headed out towards Lairg as they were due at work in 24hrs – in London. Apparently the night sleeper from Inverness would put them at their desks ready for a 9am start. Wow!
After another large breakfast it was time to head off on my own before the others. It had become a bit of a ritual to do this – a sort of reverse peloton whereby, after who knew how many miles, the others would catch me up. It was an absolute joy to be able to do this – not always being the one at the back.
At Durness the road to The Cocoa Mountain Café and Chocolaterie shop was a lure to the others. One mile in the wrong direction and one mile back again. No thank you, I thought as I continued eastwards along the route – around the corner into the most incredible headwind. Ever.
Seven miles that was probably two into an incredible wall of air that just wouldn’t say no. I pushed and pushed into it like some sort of Laurel and Hardy sketch. Digging deep, thinking of tips from a friend who had also just completed the Trans Con and a bit of swearing eventually found me at the end of the loch. The side wind sign meant business but before I knew what was happening I was flying up the other side of the loch without pedalling.
The grey sky above was harbouring an even greyer mist that apparently was rain. Amazingly it stayed behind me, circling above the loch without even drenching the others.
Reaching Bettyhill was a milestone. The bikes were put away, a quick dip in the sea before supper for some and the opportunity to reflect on the trip so far for others.
The next day I left first, being caught up by the others in Thurso for elevenses. Milk and a pie in a sort of Greggs Bakery before heading for John O’Groats in time for lunch. We stayed in a group of four or five and I learned that apparently there was no way they were letting me catch a train home now. Not after this far. How I loved that.
Reaching John O’Groats is always iconic. So much energy and effort depleted by this point. Behind me in the queue a chap had just arrived, having left Lands End two weeks earlier and despite being hit by a car had continued anyway. The crack in his carbon frame may well be similar to those in his ribs.
As we gathered at the signpost a fellow tourist took our photo – one for the album.
Now I was on familiar territory. A London to John O’Groats ride in 2012 saw 38 of us cycle here. The route to Wick had been wet and full of song. This time it was full of disbelief that I was back here. The daily diet of pedalling, swearing, fig rolls and handfuls of salted peanuts brought me into the town of Wick where the local bike shop, Spot, that had closed at 5.30, answered the phone at 5.31 and stayed open in time for me to fly in to use their track pump was simply awesome. I have never been so happy to be able to have the PSI put back up to its 110 in both tyres.
Leaving Wick the next day after everyone else meant that 51 miles to Golspie would be solo. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter. I was on the home run. Just keep upright, keep pedalling and keep going.
At Berriedale and Helmsdale, memories of LonJoG came to the fore. The headwind and % warning signs still meant business.
In a lovely cafe, The Thyme and Plaice in Helmsdale, a group of cyclists from Nottingham University were riding the four compass points of the country to raise money for Breast Cancer. 1400 miles in 15 days. Their next stop was Dunnet Head – the end of their journey. I hope they raised a lot of money – that will have been quite a ride.
Refreshed and impressed, cycling along the coast was simply stunning. Fields of sheep, whitewashed houses scattered across the hills and the blades of wind farms rotating behind them. Out to sea, oil rigs could be spotted on the horizon although not many as there were too many in the estuary out of commission.
Through Brora onto Golspie where wheelbarrows and Giant Bikes are available from the same shop.
Directions to my B&B were given by Ross Baddon who doesnt do wheelbarrows – he is a British Cycling Mountain Bike coach. The trails at Highland wildcat, Golspie are clearly where it’s at for mountain bikers. Rachel Atherton and Aiofe Glass I wonder if you’ve been there.
Further on and slightly inland an old railway track at Rogart, a train has been converted to accommodation Sleeperzz. The camping was over, apparently. No more tents! Over dinner at The Pittentrail Inn it was hard to believe that this was our last night.
Accommodation at Invicta House was a very pleasant B&B in which to stay even after slightly short but raucous welcome by an elderly labrador.
The next day the sun shone, the sidewind blew across the causeway at Dornoch and the NCN1 from Tain was an utter, utter joy. The difference between the road users’ behaviour on the busy east coast after the calm of the lets share attitude of the west coast was alarming. Dingbro clearly employ diabolical drivers regardless of where they are.
Cycling along country lanes, seeing sheep in pens a la Countryfile and chickens roaming around outside their enormous shed I wondered where their destination would be. Farms, tractors and agriculture were the surroundings right up to the oil drums by the sea.
Taking the ferry across to Cromarty was a joy. Lunch on the pavement, in the sunshine followed by a celebratory ice cream seemed de rigeur.
Weaving our way across the Black Isle and finally, into Inverness. The vistas didn’t reduce in standard one jot. The rain stayed local but not near us.
At the Velocity cafe, where it had all started, I could hardly believe I had done it. Visit Scotland’s The North Coast 500 what a splendid, splendid route you are. The Adventure Syndicate what an incredible thing you have created.
Whether I was the sort of person The Adventure Syndicate was expecting to see – no tent, not exactly a road race cyclist and a lot older (on the outside) than everyone else, I don’t know. Even after cycling with them for eight days I still don’t know because whether I was or was not – they never, ever, let on. They just encouraged, chatted, laughed and hauled me up the hard bits letting me fly down the whizzy bits all of which there were many, all day and every day. It was the most fantastic bike ride and leaves a debt that remains unpaid.
The least I can do is to support their Crowdfunder Project because it is only when people put themselves out for others that positive changes can be made. I think it’s called paying it forward.
Despite taking photos, there is an entire album of snapshots in my head that were not caught on camera. The majestic location of the police station overlooking the loch at Kinlochbervie, the views of and from the causeway at Tongue and looking across the sea to Stornoway. Equally, the smells of the salty sea air, the roaming animals, the agriculture and the heather stirred my senses in a way that can only be experienced by being there.
It has been my most proudest cycling achievement so far and I am one lucky cyclist. Visit Scotland if you can and do the North Coast 500. You’ll be amazed.