And so the time to start preparing the kit had arrived.
I’d been putting this off for weeks, as I knew it would only result in the obligatory unpacking and repacking of everything, only to find that it still weighed the same. Knowing that you are going to have to pedal every last gram around a 500-mile course along the north coast of Scotland made less weight essential.
It’s too late, when you’re on the hills, to wish you had done more active hill training. There’s no other option at that point but to tough it up and hopefully find the strength to keep the pedals turning.
Lightweight tent, stove and sleeping bag, limited spare clothes, warm clothes, wash kit and food all added to the already heavy bike with panniers and a rack on the rear as well as a bar bag on the handlebars. Then add water, and the not-so-lightweight body of a 46-year old male, and you could hear the welds creaking. It was a heavy ride. No escaping that.
Plus, I didn’t know how fit my teammates might turn out to be once I met up with them. What if the other guys had been training all winter? I was only good for commuting miles; Twice a day, 16 miles and 400 meters of climbing, 4 days a week. Could I really keep up with these unknown lightweight super athletes? What had I let myself into? Then I found out that one of the team was riding up to Inverness from Cumbria. How fit must this guy be?
I unpacked my panniers again, stripped back what I could and even cut the handle off my toothbrush. I had saved about 10 grams. Enough is enough. Lets just get started.
We left Kendal on Saturday afternoon. The car consisted of Phil, the driver and keen sheep dog trainer; and Ged, the rear seat passenger, who not only slept for most of the journey but started Phil off on a long and boring storey about the ups and downs of Blackpool Football Club. He then fell asleep and left Phil telling me all the interesting and exciting facts about BFC and the developing fan situation. Then there was myself, Steve. Front seat passenger and probably the person who hates football the most in the whole world.
The journey dragged on and on. The only entertainment was when Phil stated that he didn't need a map as he knew the roads like the back of his hand, especially the roads around Glasgow. We then got lost. And then got lost again only to get lost again before we eventually realised that we were still driving the wrong way. So Phil's knowledge of the Scottish roads wasn't as good as his football knowledge...
Inverness approached and we met with the other guys. I admitted straight away to having not ridden my bike for 2 years. Russ was the organiser and he’d had the idea of doing this route. Roy was a keen cyclist and was Chris' friend. I was friends with everyone but I didn’t yet know Chris. Add in Phil and Ged and there were 6 of us. But who was Chris? Only Roy knew Chris. He was the guy who was riding to Inverness from Cumbria - a cycling machine?
All 7 left the safety of Inverness Fire Station car park on our bikes at 1900 hrs. The staff at the Fire Station had kindly allowed the team to leave their 2 cars on the car park. They were unable to guarantee that they wouldn't cut the doors and roof off though “during a training session.” I think they expected us to be worried, but being ex fire personnel myself, we realised the humour and quickly left the scene before Ged started asking any more questions about their procedures.
Day 1 arrived early. The tent unzipped at 0600 hrs to find Russ and Phil dressed and waiting astride their bikes. They left as soon as Steve was ready only to stop at the campsite gates to await Roy who had the maps. We all rode out of camp by 0700 hrs into the quite streets of Inverness. A beautifully calm day had begun both in the town and in my mind. I was spinning the pedals and ready for the adventure. The bike rolled effortlessly as we navigated our way out of town. We were off.
2 hours into the day, the wind had got up and we suddenly realised that we would be riding into a westerly for most of the day. There were lots of cyclists out enjoying the quiet early morning Sunday roads. I asked a passing brother if he new of the location for the 1st brew stop of the day. He kindly told me that we were near by and to look out for a cafe on the left that looked like an old petrol station. They do “great bacon butties” was his parting comment. Good do. I spread the word to the other six and we rode on. We all pulled over at the cafe and ran, hungrily into the shop only to find that they didn't do bacon butties. It must be the right place as it fit the description, so we ate prepared sandwiches and drank instant repacked coffee. The whole experience was a major let down. I had built this up in my mind and I was deeply looking forward to my breakfast. I was disappointed but refuelled nonetheless.
Back on the bike and ready for the next 3 hrs into a head wind. Heads down and 30 minutes after our brew stop, we passed a beautiful looking roadside cycle-friendly cafe that was almost bulging with fresh bacon butties. We had pulled into the wrong cafe. Gutted. Having no room for any more food, we carried on.
The day rolled on ok. The wind was testing and the roads climbed up and down, but nothing was too excessive. The group was tiring even after stopping for some lunch at 1300hrs. The wind was taking its toll. We pushed on in good weather until we reached the lovely loch village of Lochcarron. A quick refuel and the resupply of water before we set off to find the start of the hardest hill climb in the UK, Bealach na Ba. The road over to Applecross is rated as 11 out of 10 in the 100 greatest cycling climbs book by Simon Warren; The Holy Grail, the “toughest and wildest climb” in Britain. 9km long with a climb of 650m at 20% gradient. Unfortunately we did find the start of the route, and it was brutal. It floored 6 out of 7 riders who had to accept defeat and pushed up some of the climb. I was the only survivor of the assault, but I survived just. It was a horrific climb with the weight I was carrying. Gravity found me, and it did its best try to keep me at sea level. I only gave into it as I rolled over the top of the climb. Even the descent was dangerous due to the strong cross winds. The panniers make an awesome wind catcher from every angle.
We all eventually met up at the Applecross campsite and headed into the bay for a beer and food. This place was stunning and well worth the climb over.
135km and 1350m ascent
Day 2 started the same. Russ and Phil rolled out of camp as I rolled out of my tent at 0600 hours. Steve quickly followed leaving Ged, Chris, Roy and myself to steadily ride away together along the loch road. This was a killer start to the day with the road hugging the coast and crossing every contour line it could find. More than 20 steep short climbs took us to the small village of Shieldaig where we met with the other three. I found the cafe and jumped for joy when I stopped my bike next to the decking only to find that it was closed. How is this possible? It was 0950 hours. How can it not be open? It must be open. I need it to be open. I need coffee. I’d had no breakfast and was now in need of food.
The other 3 had arrived at 0915 and sat in the cold until we arrived. The cafe opened at 10 o'clock sharp and it served the best filter coffee I’ve ever had. Nanny’s was the best cafe stop on the whole trip. The route followed steadily through Torridon and up Loch Maree before we all finally stopped at Poolewe for a sneaky camp next to the swimming pool and grub in the pub, but not before a shower courtesy of the pool staff.
112km and 1520m ascent
Day 3 was now like Groundhog Day. Phil, Russ and Steve set off at 0530 and we didn't catch up with them. We left at 0700 hours as normal and began the 3rd day of the grind. This was day 7 for Chris. Chris had all the kit he needed to be self-sufficient. His tent was a fly sheet thrown over his upturned bike. Day 7 and he was still riding strong. But not as strong as the smell that was now coming off his kit.
Another breakfastless start as we searched for a cafe. We found one around by Little Loch Broom, only that was closed too. To be opened at 10 but we had arrived at 9. We pushed on and ate toast and coffee at the Dundonnel Hotel. A long steady climb now broke our group of 4 into individual suffering units. We regrouped at the summit for photos of the great An Teallach, one of Scotland’s finest mountains. Ullapool came and went and we then rode through what must have been the most scenic part of the trip, mesmerised by stunning views of some of the finest mountains in the UK: Stac Pollaidh, Suilvan and many more. We hadn't realised that we were back riding into the wind. Loch Assynt almost brought the team to its knees but Lochinver was calling, so we pushed on into the wind. Gels and jelly babies kept the legs turning, but only just.
A lovely lady in a B&B gave us the details of a bunkhouse in the village. We hadn't found our three amigos and presumed they would be camping on the beach near to the pub, and so expected to see them in the boozer later. The bunkhouse fed us and then found the four of us some beds. Delightful food and a pleasant evening found us without our three team members but in the company of some more firefighters who’d come to climb the "Old Man".
A comfy bed saw end of day 3.
142km and 2000m ascent.
Day 4 began hard. The climbs out of Lochinver appeared from nowhere and continued for most of the day. The road clung to the coast and then cut across land toward Durness. We found out en route that our three pals had carried on past Lochinver last night. They’d camped about 6 miles further on and had again set off early. The chances of catching up with them today looked remote. There was difficulty in obtaining a phone signal and so it was impossible to communicate with them. All we could hope for was that we would see them camping at the end of the day.
We rode on, enjoying the nice weather and the awesome views, heading south at Loch Eriboll and diving head-on into another defiant head wind. At the head of the loch we turned north again and hill climbed with ease at 20mph. The wind was now in our favour and so we motored on. Everything was looking good, a nice late afternoon with the wind on our backs and the miles dropping by. We descended into Hope and admired the amazing scenery before our eyes caught the road out of the valley. This wasn't a road; more like a wall. Four started the climb, but one took a direct hit and ended up walking. The hill had delivered a sucker punch to Ged and he was now suffering with a knee issue. The climb from Hope lasted forever but the descent into Tongue was worth the effort. A beautiful sunset guided our group of four over the bridge and into what used to be the Youth Hostel at Tongue. Two beds free and room for camping for Chris and I. Hot showers, kitchen facilities, a lounge and dining room and wifi. Winner.
Ged got a lift off the landlady to the pub so he could phone home from his mobile. When she dropped him off after what was described to him as a short journey, he found he still had no signal. The short journey was a 45-minute walk back to the hostel by which time the rest were in bed.
146km and 2330m ascent
We were moving by 0700, but this time we had some breakfast at the hostel. More hills pained the legs first thing, before we finally started to see flatter ground and an increase in our speed. Today was a journey on to John O'Groats. This was a tough day in the saddle as we rolled up and down hills for over 100 miles today. The more gentle terrain was now taking its toll on our arses. Tender spots, fidgeting, adjusting position, tweaking angles even standing up for as long as you could tolerate, but nothing eased the 5-day discomfort.
Ged's knee was slowing him down on the climb and there was a concern that he may not get the whole route done by the end of tomorrow. We needed to be in Inverness by Friday night and by 1400hrs on Thursday we were still heading east instead of south. Ged got his head down and pushed on. Chris, myself and Roy time trailed into John O'Groats much to the education of Chris. 60 seconds on the front and 120 second tucked in recovering from the head wind. Chris waited until he got to the front and then farted every time. Then he would cut his time short if he saw a hill. Any hill, including speed bumps. He worked hard… At dodging the work, ha ha.
John O'Groats came and went. Starbucks! Really? Is this what we need at his famous landmark? Come on people.
Ged caught us up whilst we had a coffee in Starbucks. Then we passed him again and eventually bumped into him at Tesco in Wick. We agreed a campsite and split up again. We finally found the campsite at Dunbeath. It had a B&B with the site and it had 4 free beds. Whoohoo! We claimed our rightful sleeping spaces and stripped the bikes for our ride into town to find the pub. We overshot the pub and had to ride back up the hill as punishment. We’d been in the pub 20 minutes and in walked Ged. Unbelievable. A couple of pints and some great food later, we tried to ride back to the B&B in the dark. Not our greatest idea of the trip, but we survived.
164km and 1700m ascent
We had a leisurely cooked breakfast as we prepared ourselves for the easy ride back to Inverness. Or at least that’s what we’d been told; 80 miles and only 1 hill. It was actually 157 km and 1100m ascent. Flat my arse. It was just short of 100 miles on steep hills with wagons and cars all driving crazy-close and fast. The A9 is like a motorway in places and we’d hit rush hour on it. The outskirts of Inverness was like a scene from Mad Max. Fortunately the route took us into Dingwall and the Muir of Ord and we dropped the A9 like a hot potato. We made good progress and even had the energy to try to tuck in behind a fellow cyclist on her way into Inverness. A delightful experience after 6 days in the wilds. She eventually clocked our game and dropped us for dead. It was nice while it lasted, but the smiles lasted a lot longer...
157km and 1100m ascent.
The North Coast 500 route is a killer, but it’s well worth the effort even though your ass will never thank you for the views. I will do it again I’m sure. I just need to go lighter and prepare the backside with some longer training rides. I also need to learn the lyrics to "Yellow Submarine" and get used to the smell of my mates. Eating out with Chris whilst he wore his cycling shoes in the pub was an experience. Inverness on the Friday night was great, but I can't believe how quiet the pubs where when we arrived… Maybe it was the smell.