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Restrap Does The North Coast 500
Posted by Jon Hicken on
Each year, we at Restrap do our best to get a big tour in each year. This year, we had originally planned a trip from Krakow to Croatia, but with the current worldwide pandemic, plans had changed. With shutdowns easing across Europe, we had waited until the last minute clinging on to the hope that we’d be riding the huge mountain passes in the sunshine, but it was looking like a tour closer to home would be on the cards.
With a week to go, we made the decision. We were doing Scotland. And the route would be the legendary North Coast 500, with an extra leg from Inverness to Glasgow. Within a matter of days we had a route, and we were away. On this trip was Nathan, Carl, Alex and me (Jon) who all work at Restrap, and our close friend Chris.
Having checked the rules on social distancing in Scotland, we made sure everything was good to go for our ride. With a low-level shutdown still in effect, we knew it was legal to travel to Scotland, but we were aware that the current level of restrictions wouldn’t ease up until Day 3 of our trip. Knowing we’d have to deal with issues resupplying on route, and the certainty that we would be doing a lot of wild camping, we piled our kit into a convoy of hire cars and embarked on the 6 hour drive to Inverness.
The first day gave us a taste of what was to come. The weather in Inverness was pretty mild, and after filling our pockets and bags with food, we headed West, not knowing where we would be sleeping that night, or where our next supply stop would be. After an excited start to the trip, we were in the hills before we knew it. By the time we hit Loch Luichart we were making good time, but turning towards the South West we had our first flavour of what was in store for us during the rest of the trip. The relentless headwind became the theme of the day, breaking up the group and slowing the pace significantly. Riding past cafe after cafe, and pub after pub, we’d realised that nowhere was open, and that we’d be eating a lot of flapjacks, chocolate bars and jelly sweets over the next few days to keep us going.
We got lucky - the one pub in Lochcarron had decided to open, offering outdoor table service only. We were set for the night. With a hot meal and beer on tap, we clinked pint glasses for the first time since March. After buttering up the landlords we pitched our tents in the pub garden out in the rain and slept there for the night.
The morning of Day 2 started with the first bit of real climbing on the trip. We’d managed to restock our supply of flapjacks and chocolate that morning in the shop we’d failed to reach the previous day, and we all knew the first climb was merely an appetiser for what was to follow - Bealach na Bà. The biggest road climb in the UK at 2,053ft at an average gradient of 7%.
On the approach to Bealach na Bà, we looked up at the hills and knew the weather wasn’t going to be in our favour. Knowing the famous view at the top was more of an exception than a rule at the best of times, we plodded on up the hill with rain jackets zipped up in anticipation. The first 2km of the climb was nice and steady, but after crossing the cloudline things got a little more… ‘Scottish’. The remaining 7km was a soul crushing mixture of driving rain, steep ramps and sudden headwinds. Shivering and wet, we crested the climb one by one, took a moment to admire the 10 feet of visibility on the viewing point, and plunged down to Applecross for something to eat.
Repeated ramps of 6-8% spelled out the rest of the days riding, and after what felt like the most undulating road on the face of the earth we ended the day in Torridon - another place with a closed shop. After quizzing a local man walking his dog, we were pointed towards the woods nearby where we set up camp and washed our kit in the nearby stream.
We left our tents on Day 3 to find our campsite swarmed by our next threat - the Highland Midge. It had rained the night before and was prime midgie conditions. We packed away our wet tents in a hurry and headed up the long and gradual climb to Kinlochewe where we stopped for a warm breakfast at a small cafe. After filling our bags full of food again we marched on along Loch Maree into another downpour to our next stop. 20 miles up the road in Gairloch.
We filled up along the few shops along the way expecting that to be all we could manage, but by sheer luck the pub in Dundonnell was open from 6-8pm, and serving food. Like Lochcarron, the landlord told us they were opening up in anticipation of the lockdown restrictions easing off the next day and she was kind enough to let us sleep in their pub garden and serve us warm food.
We started joking that we were being watched by a ‘Scottish God’ who was throwing everything he could at us to make our lives as difficult as possible. If it wasn’t windy, it was raining. If it wasn’t raining, the midges came out to eat us alive. For every hill, there was always another steeper one behind it. The first few days had been a constant mix of one of the other, but we kept laughing it off in good humour.
The next day we rode from Dundonnell to Ullapool, we took full advantage of the now lifted restrictions, and refueled with our first indoor meal of the trip. We restocked on food and headed deep into the most barren stretch of road on the tour. We chose to cut off a section of the traditional route and hug the coast on quieter roads, which included some stunning Lochs, Valleys and twisty single track roads over to a campsite in Clachtoll. The only traffic we had to contend with along these roads were the many sheep, who seem to love playing chicken with oncoming cyclists.
Chris had remarked earlier that the relentless up and downs were slowly wearing him down, and after reaching the campsite and freshening up in the showers, came outside to say “I think we’ve broken the back of this today lads”.
Words we would hold him to tomorrow…
Day 5 proved to be the hardest day of the lot. We knew that the road from Clachtoll to Durness only had one stop for us at most, so we left early feeling somewhat rested and fresh. Within 8 miles, more rollercoaster hills and unforgiving gradients of up to 25% had brought us right back to yesterday’s level of fatigue.
By the time we reached Scourie, about 20 miles in, we were all feeling pretty broken from the constant onslaught of hills, wind and rain. A quick stop and a few microwave burgers later, we thought we’d been through the worst of it - until Nathan noticed that his cassette was loose. We split up, with me Alex and Chris heading to Durness to sort out supplies and accommodation, and Nath and Carl heading 6 miles back to the nearest bike shop.
We all regrouped after a couple of hours in Durness. Fully restocked with musette bags full of beer, we had a bit of rest to let off some steam after such a brutal 50 mile stretch. Hotels and B&Bs in Durness proved expensive, so we made the choice to carry on to the nearest campsite in Tongue.
I had made the mistake of miscalculating the distance to Tongue, which I had figured to be 12 miles. Turns out it was 28 miles. 28 miles of ‘Scottish God’ turning it up to 11. A 30mph headwind for the first section of this ride, and long 10% hills and a 15% climb stood in our way.
We arrived in Tongue three and a half hours later after covering over 85 miles (96 for Nathan and Carl), and told Chris that yesterdays statement about “Breaking the back of it” was a load of old rubbish. Arriving at Tongue early had essentially made up a day’s mileage, and the campsite showers and lack of rain made the whole ordeal worth it in the end.
After the previous day’s punishment, we decided to have somewhat of a rest day. We covered the next 40 miles at a steady pace, and the sun had finally started shining. We took some time to reflect on the route so far by chilling at the beach in Melvich, and finished the day by camping on a logging trail along a remote stretch of road between Melvich and Helmsdale.
After a full week of being outdoors, and shattered by the elements, we figured it would be a good time to catch our weary expressions on camera. Sitting by the fire that night, we decided to book a hotel in Dornoch, which would be the first indoor accommodation we would use in a week.
Day 7 had promised to be an easy day on the bike. We would follow a gradual river climb up for a few miles, then gradually descending down another riverside road to Helmsdale, on the East Coast. Scottish God wouldn’t let us off that easily - The 15 mile climb was along an exposed open Glen, with a brutal headwind that split up the group.
The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. We hit a couple of downpours, with the rest of the day having us follow the A9 down the coast to Dornoch, where we would sleep indoors. In a bed of all things.
We filled up on more food and beer and looked forward to the next day, where we would return to Inverness.
Day 8 was a similarly uneventful day to the previous day, seeing us dodge and weave around main roads and side roads to get back to Inverness. With under 50 miles to cover and only 2000ft of climbing, riding was starting to feel remarkably easier than the previous days.
We opted to again book somewhere to sleep for the night, deciding on the best AirBnB we could find in Inverness that definitely had a washing machine for our kit. A ‘Munchie Box’ and a few beers later and we were out like a light.
After a bit of a rest and a recharge in Inverness, we were ready for the next leg of the trip, the ride from Inverness to Glasgow. We knew the roads in the Highlands were a little more forgiving, so we were looking forward to the riding easing up a little from the previous days.
We had ridden to Fort Augustus for a food stop at a pub, and immediately noticed how much busier it was compared to the remoteness of the north coast. After a quick pit stop, Alex and Carl opted to ride the Great Glen Way along the west side of Loch Lochy, where the rest of us took the main road to the east pushing into a big head wind.
After a quick visit to the Commando Monument, we headed to our next booked B&B, which turned out to be a huge manor house overlooking Ben Nevis. Being their first guests this year, the hosts kindly supplied us with two bottles of champagne, and lots of food to keep us fueled up for the next day’s ride.
We had all agreed that the luxurious stop had been a huge help, and woke up for our penultimate day feeling more rested than we had up until this point in the trip. Unusually, we made our way to Fort William in the sunshine, which kept on for the rest of the day. The aim of the game was to get to Inverary, deep into the Highlands.
We had been told that the traffic up Glen Coe could be busy given the current weather and recent lift of shutdown, but we cycled up Glen Coe in the blazing sunshine, with the traffic being in our favour. After another pub stop we made our way to Inverary towards the back end of the evening intending to wild camp, but the weather forecast promised rain so we decided to hotel it again. The decision proved wise - rain hit at 7pm and didn’t relent all night, so we filled up on food and spent another night indoors. We’d had our fill of sleeping outdoors by this point!
Scottish God had decided that our last day in the Highlands would be our rainiest yet. We woke up to the previous night’s rain still in full force. Having checked the forecast, we saw that we were riding through the worst patch of rain across Scotland at the time. We dragged ourselves out of bed and got on our bikes knowing it was going to be a wet day.
We headed up ‘Rest & Be Thankful’ in heavy rain, being soaked to the bone, and pushed on to Glasgow. As we reached civilisation, our run of zero punctures ended, and between Nath, Chris and I, we got 3 punctures. We eventually arrived in Glasgow still wet from the morning’s downpour. After a good few hours laid horizontal and taking in the 11 days of tough riding.
When it wants to be, Scotland can be a harsh place. ‘Scottish God’ won’t give up his secrets willingly, and you have to become a part of the scenery to really experience it. We all came to agreement that it was the hardest tour we’ve ever done and wondered: if you haven’t toiled through wind and rain, is it really the same? We clinked beer glasses in Glasgow with the feeling that we’d done it - we’d braved it and beaten the elements. We’d beaten Scotland.
Well… apart from Carl, who decided to ride the 200 miles back to Leeds the day after, anyway...