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The North Coast 500
Posted by Megan Owen on
Last year The Adventure Syndicate cycled the North Coast 500 in one 36 hour time trial. These incredible women do what they do to inspire and encourage, and seeing their superhuman attempt certainly planted a seed in mine and Meg's minds.
Fast forward a year and we decided we needed a challenge, something which would be tougher than our usual holidays, and of course, the North Coast 500 sprang to mind. We knew from the videos and blog posts that it would be incredible scenery, fantastic roads, and, of course, 500 miles in a week. By January we were planned and ready to go.
After much map perusal and online research, we decided that instead of the “official” route, we would cut inland from Melvich and ride down the middle of the Highlands back to Inverness, cutting out the bigger and not so lovely A9 road.
We had booked a mixture of airbnbs, bunkhouses and a horse box(!), for accommodation, and soon it was May and we were off.
We flew to Inverness from Manchester in the world's smallest and most turbulent plane, assembled the bikes and set off, and it was sunny! We headed over to Inverness, before following the Beauly Firth inland, and then riding north to get to Contin. The weather was glorious, we had a mega tail wind, and we could see the mountains in the distance. A brilliant start.
The first official day's riding. The sun was still shining, and we sped south with a tail wind, winding around mountains and lochs, the road descending and climbing. Nearly every corner we turned halted conversation as we both exclaimed over the beautiful landscape before us. Every view was breathtaking.
We stopped for tea and cake at Lochcarron, and then started to climb. The road turned to single track as we climbed upwards, and wound between mountains and over moorland before a quick descent along a valley to Tornapress. Here we took a left turn and began the real climb, Belach na Ba – the biggest ascent in the UK.
We followed the valley, slowly climbing upwards, before the climb wound up the hill, and hugged the side of a second valley, following the Allt a Chumhaing far below, on and on we climbed, the road getting steeper till it reached the hardest section of 20%. After this the climb became more alpine, and we wound around 4 large hairpins before reaching the top of the pass. From here we could see Skye, the Islands of Rum and the Outer Hebrides, and the road squiggling down below us.
The descent to Applecross was fast and swoopy, and we had lunch here before pressing on. We followed the rolling coast road north, enjoying the flowing descents and ascents. After turning east along the coast the road got tougher, each descent and ascent getting steeper and longer as we twisted along the coast line. Getting to Shieldag was a relief.
We set off in the shadow of the Torridon hills, and followed Upper Loch Torridon inland. A lovely gently rolling road, which then headed east along a valley, which was unfortunately slightly ruined by a killer headwind. But despite that we were loving life, the sun was out, the views were intensely beautiful, and we were cracking along.
At Kinlochewe we turned west, out of the wind, and followed a bigger road along Loch Maree. This was followed by a beautiful, tough climb over the moors before dropping down to Gairloch. Then it was back up and over, any road which cut inland was a tough, rewarding climb, and we descended down to Poolewe for lunch.
After lunch was a lot more coastal roads, before heading south and inland. This road climbed up and up and up onto the moors, into the wind, and was a slog. We were happy to finally turn north onto the main road and follow a deep gorge down to Ullapool.
The longest and hardest day. From Ullapool we headed north, climbing inland. Because we are free and easy adventurers we decided to go off course and this decision paid off. We followed the most gorgeous, brightest blue loch before climbing up onto the moors and winding down and through these incredible secret valleys on lovely fresh tarmacad single track. It felt so remote and untouched.
Finally we arrived at Lochinver, and had a well earned cake and tea stop. From here we followed the coast (again!) on a road which has been dubbed “the hilliest road in the UK” on the internet, and it definitely lived up to this! We whizzed up and down a rollercoaster of a road, and came across the most amazing little cove, with a white sand beach and the most turquoise sea. With the sun and heat it felt like we could be in the Caribbean.
After a quick paddle the roads got tougher, and we had some scary-steep descents which turned into steep, grinding climbs. But finally we reached Unapool. After this the landscape changed, and everything seemed to get bigger. We headed north into the wild, seeing very few cars, people or houses, and the hills we climbed and descended were huge. Finally we climbed up the final pass and started descending towards Durness, and hit the strongest head wind. We pedalled downhill, going so slowly, and the final ten miles felt like they went on forever, but we finally made it.
This day was a short one, but certainly wasn’t easy. We headed east along the coast, and after the wiggling in land and out again with the first few lochs, was just long climb up onto moorland, followed by a descent inland through a hamlet, over and over. The wind was relentless and we were cycling directly into it.
Even the beautiful scenery didn’t really help, but finally we reached Melvich and turned out of the wind, following a tiny road south. We were staying in a bunkhouse in the middle of nowhere, and had been carrying pasta and porridge with us since Tongue. As hard as the wind was, we were getting so lucky with the hot and sunny weather we couldn’t really complain!
Heading south we followed a tiny road inland, in the most remote region of our trip, we saw maybe 5 cars in about 50 miles, and there wasn’t any cafes or shops. But it was incredible, the loveliest, although slightly bumpy, road wound along rivers and lochs, and climbed up and over hills and moorland, with mountains towering over us. At one point a herd of deer leaped over the road ahead of us, and then stopped and looked as we cycled past, and Meg spotted a Pine Marten in the bush.
As the day went on, the roads got bigger and busier – we were back in civilisation, and it sucked. Finally we turned off the main road and climbed up to our nights accommodation, a horse box in a wood. Dinner (and breakfast!) was cooked on a wood burner, and we hunkered down for the night to the howls of a pack of huskies living at the farm down the lane.
The last full day's riding. We headed south, and rejoined our route from the first days riding as we headed into Inverness. The sun was still shining, and the views were still beautiful, though didn’t seem as epic now we had seen the rest of the Highlands. While riding along a lovely green country lane, a woman sped past us with a cheery “Morning!”, but by the time we realised it was Emily Chappell (eek!) she was gone. Amazing to see one of the inspirations for our trip out riding!
This trip was truly incredible. I had no idea how good the Highlands would be, and would recommend the North Coast 500 road to anyone. I think it may be one of the best week's of my life. It was really great to stretch myself a bit more than usual with the big, hilly miles, and I was blown away by the epic landscape.
We got so so lucky with the weather, and couldn’t have asked for a better week. And going on a trip inspired by some kick-ass women, and seeing more women out riding then men (first time for that!), I feel energised to do more awesome things.