As the last of the washing was hung out to dry, the reality of what had taken place began to sink in. 500 miles around the north coast of the Scottish highlands with a group of people who had been so supportive from the moment our pedals moved out of Inverness, it was hard to believe it was all over.
The joy of the journey from the south started the moment the Virgin Trains greeting was made at Euston Station. They certainly know how to keep their customers happy. Travelling First Class was an absolute joy – so far away from their slightly antiquated bicycle booking and depressing storage system – it was hard to believe it is the same company. Truly top customer service, delicious food and a continuous flow of tea as we carved a line of memories through the landscape straight up to Glasgow.
Glancing out of the window it was possible to see roads and routes that looked perfect for cycling along as they outlined green pillows of fields under a rolling horizon. The views of canals and viaducts were snapshots of another way of life, houseboats and barges moving their way along the water.
Occasionally we were parallel with motorways which highlighted how taking the train (first class or not) is, to me, the very best way to travel around the country unless actually on a bicycle.
Reaching Glasgow in time for a late afternoon bike ride around the City brought me to the Glasgow School of Art situated at the top of a road so steep that it is not for traffic.
Seeing the hilltops on the horizon was a sign of things to come. I only knew the half of it.
Planning for this 10 day holiday had started weeks ago and whilst sleeping under canvass is a real holiday experience for some, it is not on my radar. Thanks to booking.com an accommodation itinerary had been created starting at Glasgow’s The Alexander Thomson which despite being clean was run more like a B&B than a hotel but it served its purpose.
The next day at Glasgow Queen Street station, Scotrail showed how to do bike storage on a train. One day an engineer will improve bike storage design, perhaps the same way that on sleeper trains, seats can switch from being something to sit on to an area for bike storage that doesn’t have bikes falling over or being bashed about by other bikes or mean that you have to sit outside the public convenience. Probably the same time that the bike booking system becomes an app.
Seeing the list of destinations to Inverness was the roll call for places cycled through in 2012. A flash of memories stirred in my head. For years and years, Perthshire had been a holiday destination, visiting family. From Easter egg hunts, Christmas gatherings and swimming in the Tay to memories of nephews and nieces tobogganing in fields, skiing in Glenshee and long walks in the wintery or summery landscape. They all appeared in my mind as though they were not decades away but yesterday.
In 2012 cycling passed the very house of these long forgotten times had stirred my mind. Now, seeing the names again, the memories were replaced by the achievement of cycling through them from Hyde Park Corner to John O’Groats in eight days. How the mind can capture images of moments from the past as though they are happening right in front of you.
Arriving in Inverness, the sky was blue and I pedaled my way around the town. Stumbling into The Penta Hotel with my bicycle was a bit of a culture shock. Reception is at the bar, a cocktail bar, under blue lighting that was to nightclub standard. I was decidedly out of place not least because I was still wearing my helmet. The staff however didn’t bat an eyelid and their welcome was warm and friendly.
Once unpacked, an explorative bike ride along the Estuary where once again I could see a road ridden along four years before. The temperature was cooler than expected but it was lovely to be by the water.
The next day a train ride to Aviemore for some belated – and as it later transpired – really insufficient hill practice as I cycled up to the Mountain Railway Station. But at least it put a few miles on the Garmin.
It had been an incredible week, the toughest thing I have ever, ever done on a bicycle.
I had wheezed and dragged myself around the North Coast 500 thanks to the most amazing group of people. We ended our journey where it had started.
After a celebratory cup of tea at Velocity Cafe we bid our farewells and headed off into different directions. My choice of The Heathmount Hotel had been a total delight – the standard of interior design was as outstanding as the cuisine which allowed me to order my first ever Cullen Skink.
The next day a train south to Glasgow passed places where the memories stirred again and as I looked back towards the village where so much time had been spent, I caught a glimpse of the house from all those years ago. My heart missed a beat. I never knew you could see it from the train and somehow it seemed to say a little hello from all those memories from long, long ago.
Winding our way from the highlands it wasn’t long before I was cycling through the streets of Glasgow, where remnants of the start of The Tour of Britain were scattered. Their starting party was clearly over but for the professional cyclists it was just beginning.
In no time at all I had checked in to The Grand Central Hotel which was clearly The Place to Stay. The standard of service, dining and accommodation were second to none.
At the suggestion of a friend I had photographed all my luggage spread out on the bedroom floor – one pile of what I had actually used and the items that, as it turned out, had come along for the ride! The unexpected extras used every day were a very small bottle of Jo Malone perfume and a thermos flask, the latter has taken so many leaps from the wrong bottle holder it is practically square!
Whilst the Holland & Barrett oats were totally overpriced, a waste of time and disgusting, their Pip Nut peanut butter squeeze packs had been essential. Several times, depleted of strength these snacks had created enough energy for me to carry on with the day. Worth checking whether fellow cyclists have nut allergies prior to opening them though.
Adidas wrap around eyewear was also an essential. To keep the sun, wind, bugs and the rain out of your eyes whilst maintaining the ability to see potholes and Garmin read outs is paramount. Regardless of whether you have a prescription requirement or not, these glasses more than lived up to their expectations. A great recommendation from opticians Mallon and Taub
With hindsight, packing definitely needs practice. Most of my fellow companions had aerodynamic ice-cream cone shaped luggage that avoided wind resistance. My panniers, never my mind my age and fitness levels definitely made it harder. To think I had packed and unpacked about nine times before I left, to see if I could reduce the contents. Two Castelli tops, a Castelli jacket, a gilet, three pairs of cycling tights (two Castelli, the other Assos), Gore overtrousers and my Queen of the Mountains top had been perfect. Wolford footless tights and sleeveless dress (for hotel restaurants) and Icebreaker merino tops completed the wardrobe.
A transparent washable containing mini samples of cleansers, soaps and shampoos, a packet of plasters, suncream and moisturisers were essential.
The biggest reality was that by a stroke of luck rather than judgement I had taken the right bike. Whilst a fully carbon road bike had been first choice for speed, after a week’s cycling the Woodrup proved that it was absolutely made for touring. A total delight, so comfortable day after day, climb after climb.
From the hotel, I pushed my bike out of the main entrance and found myself in the middle of the railway concourse. Perfect. The Scotrail Abellio bike hire system is definitely breaking boundaries and something for consideration.
Another delightful Virgin Trains first class journey allowed time to reflect on what an incredible trip it had all been.
A few hours later the train pulled into Euston where two of my fellow cyclists greeted me for a celebratory glass of cheer.
As I cycled home it began to dawn on me that I had actually done it. As the weeks have gone by it has sunk in. The biggest thing I learnt is that the most empowering thing you have is you. Tell yourself you can’t do something and you won’t be able to. Give yourself a chance and a challenge, put it outside your comfort zone. Surround yourself with people who encourage and champion your achievements. Avoid those who restrict you or give you their own, limiting boundaries. Push yourself and you will only be amazed at what you can do. I am truly humbled by the beauty, team support and my actual ability to complete the North Coast 500.
Challenges for 2017
London Edinburgh London (LEL) website
Transcontinental Race (Transcon) website (not one for me but something to know about)
My fellow cyclists:
Laura website and on Twitter @lauralikeswater
Emily website and on Twitter @emilychappell
Lee website and on Twitter @leecraigie_
Kate website and on Twitter @CarbonCycleKate
Anna on Twitter @kubikinspace and on Instagram kubik
Renata on Twitter @renatazofia and on Instagram renatazofia
And Anna, Annabel, Fran, Lindsay, Lindsay and Sarah
The Adventure Syndicate website and onTwitter @adventuresyn
The North Coast 500 website and on Twitter @northcoast500
Visit Scotland website and on Twitter @visitscotland
Visit Sutherland website and on Twitter @visitsutherland
Bike Woodrup website
Local Bike Shop Fitzrovia Cycles website
Perfume Jo Malone website
eyewear Adidas website
Opticians Mallon and Taub website
Thermos Flask website
Icebreaker merino website
Queen of the Mountains website
Train and Bike Hire Companies
Virgin Trains website
Scotrail Abellio Bike Hire System website
Booking.com for canvass-free accommodation (as long as the hotel has reviews and calls itself a hotel or B&B otherwise avoid it like the plague)
http://www.sleeperzzz.com Alternative Accommodation in Golspie
Mountain Biking in Golspie website
Cycling Café in Inverness – Velocity website
Glasgow School of Art website
The Lighthouse (Museum in Glasgow) website
Glasgow Architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh website
Pies by Post website
Recipe for Cullen Skink website