Banbury Star – Off Piste

Member Mike Kirby writes another great blog – this time about his North Coast 500 adventure with son Harry


The Sting in the tail – Inverness to Applecross

The Bealach na Ba is the steepest ascent of any road in the British Isles. The climb starts at sea level and tops out at near 626 meters. All in 6 miles. This, plus the 6 miles down the other side make up the last miles of 82, the trip to Applecross on the west coast of Scotland from Inverness on the East.  Day 1 of our North Coast 500 adventure.

It started as a bit of a Lads and Dads thing. Harry is almost 19 and will surely have his own life to crack on with. I hoped this would be a chance to make some memories and create a few stories together.

Actually, the plan was to have Harry pull me round the NC500, whilst I, glued to his wheel, sheltered from the worst of the Scottish weather. As cunning as this part of the plan was, I had not figured on H doing almost no training for what would 80 miles a day on average, the hardest days with over 2700 meters (9000 feet) of climbing. I hoped his fitness might develop over the days. There was precious little chance to play ourselves in.

Mark Beaumont, of around the world in 80 days fame, did the whole thing in three long days. The record has just been broken at a little under 30 hours. Our attempt was to be far less full-gas, taking 6 and a half days. Harry even circled some places to stop and admire the view! I rejected Harrys wish to ‘wild-camp’ preferring a warm towel rail and proper pillow to getting eaten alive by midges and sleeping in a ditch.

We had set off that morning, full of anticipation, from Inverness castle, the official start point for the NC500. We headed due west in bright sunshine and into 15 to 20 mile and hour head winds. After Garve, we encountered several triathletes doing the Celtman, an Ultra-Ironman event involving a 4km loch swim, a 200km bike and a full Marathon to finish up. We exchanged breathless hellos as we slowly caught one or two weary riders toiling into the headwind. All of a sudden our day didn’t seem so hard. Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.

The triathletes had a solid crew of supporters who cheered us on over the high plateaux on the way to Achnasheen, before we dropped down to sea level at Lochcarron, through a lush green valley lit-up with rhododendrons. We had two girls from London for company and we chatted about whether it was better to tackle the Bealach last thing, as we were doing, or first thing the next morning as they planned. We were to find out who was right in an hour or so.


Down to sea level again at Locharron and the start of Bealach na Bar.

Bealach has hairpins towards the top, Alpine style, but we could not see them as we toiled up in the heavy cloud and horizontal rain that had closed in, lightning fast. Our bikes felt incredibly cumbersome with full loads. The cloud hid whatever the view was from the top. We didn’t pause at the summit cairn for long, and we pressed on with the 6 miles descent. The run down to sea level again, froze us both to the core and we were relieved to see the Applecross Inn and, shaking uncontrollably from the cold, to get some warm food.

Day one: 132kms and 1295m of climbing.

The Wild West: Applecross to Poolewe

We had tricked our bikes out with the latest bags which hung from the saddle, the cross bar and the handlebars. We aimed to pack light but still added about 10 to 12 kgs each to our machines.

I had chosen my CX bike over my trusty Trek, mainly as it has a (very) small front chainring and some massive cogs on the cassette, to get me up the hills. Consequently, I was spinning out on the down hills. Something that bothered me, not at all, as the up hills were less of a grind.

The bike weighs almost nothing without the bags and there is also less on it to go wrong. Henry Sleight built the bike for the amazingly tough Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross race.  So, it is stiff, light and unique. I had added some new 32mm road tyres for comfort over speed. I hoped we might not suffer too many punctures.

Pitch Invasion on the road to Torridon

As we headed up the west coast with Skye visible to our left, early morning deer grazed peacefully by the side of the road and we met a family group of woolly Highland Cattle in the middle of the road. I saw only my second ever red Squirrel. Harry was under orders to find the pod of Orca’s that visit this side of Scotland, but sadly no whales in sight as we headed North.

The road meanders along the coast and yesterday’s wind helped a lot. We stopped on the quey at Shieldaig for coffee and cake at the Wee Kayak Shack. Both excellent, and served with a lovely smile. The village was full of very tired triathletes after yesterday’s Celtman, packing up and heading home.

Torridon is easily the prettiest and most dramatic part of the ride with glowering hills sweeping down to bottomless lochs. The Rough Guide described the road from Applecross to Torridon as ‘flat’. It isn’t! But we flew up to Kinlochewe with a fierce tail wind only for the wind and rain to come at us full force for the mainly draggy uphill towards Gairloch and then down through lush valleys, roads streaming with water, to Poolewe.

The quote about no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes came to mind. We went for rain jackets too late and presented a very bedraggled site, checking into Poolewe Hotel.

Day 2: 112kms and 1377m of climbing

The Wee Mad Road: Poolewe to Lochinver

Turning left about 10 miles out of Ullapool takes you onto what one local rider called the Wee Mad Road. The – incredibly useful – NC500 Facebook page is poetic about this route. It takes you away from the main roads and truly into the remote spaces. It is sinuous, never flat at any stage, and the scenery is breath-taking. Huge mountains tower out of the gloom, steepling above the road, rendering everything else immediately small. We were tiny insignificant dots in this intimidating landscape.

Most nights, I listen to the BBC World Service until 5-20 when Radio 4 comes back with the Shipping Forecast. The sea to our left was very firmly in Sea Area Hebrides. We could see Islands far away to our left. This week, I was hanging on every word, trying to predict what to wear, how wet on sun-burned – or both – we were likely to be. That morning it was going to be ‘South West 4 or 5, Fair’ and the visibility was described as ‘good, sometimes very poor’. A typical Scottish day then. The weather reports from coastal stations and the forecast for inshore waters provided even more detail. We were in that bit from Ardnamurchan Point to Cape Wrath. It even sounds dramatic and remote, and it is.

The day had started wonderfully well with a strong tail wind, but as we dropped down to sea level again the road climbed, first gradually and then to a full-on bottom gear grind. The wind and rain kicked in, catching our heavy bike packs side-on and trying to blow us off the road. Sixty minutes of climbing later we were looking down over Loch Broom towards Ullapool, the sun bouncing joyously off the loch below. The run down to the town was fast and sunny and the best tasting fish and chips waited for us just opposite the harbour.

Fuelled up, we headed out of town and climbed and climbed and climbed. Relentless up hill sections followed by down hills too short to allow the legs to recover enough. Cutting off along the Wee Mad Road, it felt good to leave the traffic on the main road behind. Turning towards our destination, we passed sheltered tidal inlets, lush with wind-bent trees. The picture postcard fishing village of Lochinver provided an overnight stop and Peets restaurant a wonderful steaming bowl of seafood chowder, followed by sticky toffee pudding for the second time in two days.

Day Three 132kms and 1855m of climbing

The Longest Day; Lochinver to Bettyhill

Harry’s 19th Birthday was the day we chose to make some real memories, the longest day, 103 miles from Lochinver to Bettyhill. The profile looks like an old-fashioned wood saw, or the jawbone of a great white shark. The climbing felt cease-less.

Why does every day start with a climb? The hill out of Lochinver was short and sharp for early morning legs. We left the main road behind and wound our way along the coast where every croft seemed to have a rusty old car or a broken-down digger, long stripped for parts, now immovable and left to slowly rust. Bored sheep ambled down the road.

Heavy loads, full bottles, food and drink for the remotest part of the whole ride and legs weary from 3 days of hard riding, the ever useful NC500 Facebook page had told us the first 25 miles were brutal. They took us two hours. The road dips down sharply after Drumbeg and rises even more sharply, over the over, some of it 20% plus before dropping almost to sea level again at Kylesku.

Drumbeg, just before the really hard bit!

After that, the hills towards the north coast at Durness didn’t seem so bad and we had the wind behind us again. We were now looking out over sea area Fair Isle (Southerly 6 to 7, Heavy rain showers, Good, sometimes very poor). The road to Durness is an A road, but very narrow with passing places. A low rumble in the distance heralded the most expensive traffic jam we had ever seen. Lamborghinis, McClaren’s, Ferraris, and Astons came grumbling towards us, engines straining at the leash, transmissions whining. There must have been 30 to 40 Supercars, in convoy. The hairs on the back of my neck stood-up and by the time they were all gone, I had the biggest daft grin on my face.

After the best filling station pasty I have ever tasted, we headed inland into the teeth of a gale and the rain came hard as we skirted Loch Eriboll. The climb away from the Loch was long and the high plateau between lochs, bleak and featureless. Before Tongue, the small matter of a 15% climb followed by a gradual 3km ascent to another windswept moor, covered in mist, the rain coming side ways on. But the almost fluorescent yellow gorse that lined the road either side, sometimes made it feel like the sun was out. Harry got our first and only puncture after about 95 miles. This was accompanied by a sense of humour bypass.

By now, I think perhaps we were starting to get the hang of cycling in Scotland. Generally, even at weekends, we are time dependent cyclists. Most of the time we have to be back for something. So, we rush into rides, force the pace, attack hills, put in efforts and sprint for town signs.

You can’t do that in Scotland, you just can’t force it, you can’t fill your legs too full of lactic, or go too deep, or even paddle about in the shallows. Otherwise, it will leave you hanging, exhausted, miles from anywhere with many hills still to climb. We had tried to force the first day and the Bealach bit back at us really hard. Tired legs, endless hills, the wind, the cold and the rain make this the hardest work on a bike that we had ever done.

And then the sun comes out on the perfect crescent of sand, turning the sea inky blue and the hills vivid green and you wouldn’t want to be riding your bike anywhere else in the world.

At the end of a long day, I think we both had a fleeting glimpse of that elusive spirit called contentment. A good birthday steak, more chips and a hat-trick of sticky toffee puddings helped too!

Day 4: 166 kms and over 2700m of climbing.

Over the Top: Bettyhill to John O’Groats

We had been warned about the road along the top of mainland Britain. It lacks beauty and charm even to the most ardent Scots Scenery lover. Between Bettyhill and Thurso, the only highlight is the Dounreay nuclear power plant.

But in Thurso, we caught up with a pair of cyclists who had passed us that morning and another pair who we had been leap-frogging for a couple of days. Over Beans on Toast, coffee and cake we swapped tall tales and NC500 stories of big hills, lashing rain, glorious sunshine and dodgy B and B’s. The camaraderie of the road warming our insides.

And so, to John O’Groats. I was not sure what to expect. JOG is neither the most northerly nor the most westerly point of the British Isles and I concluded that it was all a very clever marketing ploy to get people to visit this otherwise remote corner. And visit they do. Huge numbers of bikers, camper vans and even the odd cyclist. All needing to be catered for and there is a rag tag collection of café’s, shops and a pub scattered randomly over the gentle slopes.

What all the fuss is about.

We took the obligatory pictures and sat in the sun and watched the world go by above the pretty harbour. Two cyclists turned up and the end of a LEJoG. They looked shattered. We saw them next morning, heading down to Wick and the long trip home by train. I felt a bit of a light – weight by comparison, ‘only’ 500 miles for us.

Day 5 (only) 81 wind assisted kms and 818m of climbing.

Heading South John O’Groats to Dornoch

Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger: Southerly 4 to 5. Fair. Good!

The trip south was into a headwind and not exactly the highlight of the journey. Distant oil rigs and a vast array of wind turbines out at sea to our left and far-off mountains to our right provided the only interest.

Mark Beaumont cuts down the middle of Scotland to avoid this bit on his version of the NC500, missing out on John O’Groats. I can understand why. As we headed south the volume of traffic increased. The nature of the road meant two cyclists often held up the traffic so it was stop start for a stretch.

Just south of Golspie, we were able to turn off the main drag as we skirted Loch Fleet. The sudden peace was wonderful after what was becoming an increasingly nerve jangling ride. We passed seals on the sand banks and the sun came out and the wind, in our faces all day, seemed to fall away. A blissful last few miles was followed by hot showers, a few beers and the 4th consecutive sticky toffee pudding of the week.

Day 6: 126kms 1145m of climbing

The Last Leg: Dornoch to Inverness Castle via Black Isle

Black Isle is neither an Island, nor is it black. It is in fact, delightful, with gentle rolling hills, sloping down to the Cromarty Firth to the North.

Fuelled by a full Scottish breakfast, Harry set off down the road like Filippo Ganna as we swept by Tain into a gentle head wind. The first 20k took a little under 40 minutes with me glued to his wheel the whole way. I called time-out as we headed away from the main road and down towards the Nigg and the ferry, on peaceful back roads. The traffic was so sparse that we half doubted the existence of the ferry across the Cromarty Firth.

We passed the Nigg oil terminal and some huge buildings where wind turbines were being assembled ready to go offshore. Old energy hard by the new. The ferry did indeed exist and was indeed working and we were the only passengers.

As far as the eye can see, the Cromarty Firth is home to obsolete oil rigs rusting in the sun and rain. I counted at least 15 of these huge structures moored in line down the water.

After the ferry, we skirted the edge of the Firth along quiet roads. Harry paid the price for his earlier Ganna like behaviour, by running out of gas completely and so it was left to his poor old dad to pull for the next 30kms to Beauly, where the application of Millionaires Shortbread solved all Harry’s problems in minutes. He was clearly starting to hallucinate about food, as a road sign for Hidden Dip left him hoping it might be Houmous.

We flew along Beauly Firth towards Inverness which seemed impossibly cosmopolitan and busy compared to everywhere else we had spent the week. We threaded through lunch time traffic and climbed the last hill of the week up to Inverness Castle for pictures and a wee sit in the sun, even allowing a moment to be jolly pleased with ourselves.

Day 7 90kms 424m of climbing.

Total: 836kms/520 miles/9614m/31,540ft of climbing.

   Inverness Castle. Allowing ourselves to be jolly pleased.