“I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to be more reckless with my choices, because practically speaking, you get less careful. Your choices become more instinctive, and you feel like if you make a mistake, it won’t destroy you.” -Willem Dafoe
A couple of months ago, my friend Eilidh – who shall herein be referred to as ‘the deserter’ – suggested we both tackle the North Coast 500 route on our bikes, and we loosely planned to do so during my October break, allowing us plenty of time to get round the North coast of Scotland. The more I read about it, the more enthused I became, and so when, more recently, she decided to pull out (citing ‘cold weather’, ‘tough climbs’, and ‘applying for jobs’ as excuses), the seed had already taken root, and I remained undeterred. I began making solo preparations – I was going on an adventure!
Day 1 – 65.1 miles, 1893ft elevation
I booked myself and my touring bike onto the earliest train to Inverness on Tuesday morning, and, as is tradition, I packed about 20 minutes before I had to leave the apartment. Error number one. Upon my return I realised my panniers, tent, and rucksack amounted to roughly 18kg of predominantly unnecessary weight (and that’s after ditching a tub of butter, a pack of dry pasta, and a bottle of shampoo at my final accommodation).
I awoke in Inverness with a crick in my neck and the sun shining. Not wanting to allow myself to get too complacent in the warm morning sun, I allowed myself the luxury of a quick coffee (which is a habit I have only recently acquired), before loading my panniers, setting up my Garmin, and clipping in.
I couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions: tufts of white cotton candy mist hung lazily above farmland, suspended in the morning lull, and as I turned to take in the view of the Firth of Beauly on my right I noticed my frozen breath puffing out like the clouds of a steam engine.
As the sun continued to sluggishly rise – we’re getting into the darker winter months where it struggles to reach the top, instead arcing across the sky throughout the day – I realised I was in the final gasp of summer. It was also here that I realised I had made a few more mistakes:
- I had no first aid kit (thankfully not an issue)
- I had left my rear light on my road bike back home
- I had accidentally booked my first night’s accommodation 20 miles short of where I had originally intended to stop, meaning the following day, which would take in the infamous Bealach na ba, would consist of 80+ miles
Motivated by fresh legs, unseasonably favourable weather conditions, and a sense of adventure, I initially decided to use this as an opportunity to ‘warm up’ for the journey. I soon found myself cruising through the villages of Beauly and Muird of Ord, noticing that the Gaelic spelling of place names had taken priority over English spellings on road signs – a sure sign that I was leaving the familiar comforts of supermarkets and reliable phone signal. I stopped briefly at the Contin store, panic buying a banana and some juice after reading their signs claiming ‘LAST SHOP UNTIL ULLAPOOL’, and enjoyed a rest on the bench in the sunshine, listening to birdsong and the occasional rumble of passing traffic. Out of the city, folk seem to meander, a trait which both charms and infuriates me depending on my mood.
I continued on to Achnasheen, where my lodgings were for the evening, but it was still early afternoon and the skies were still blue so – with invaluable text assistance from Roz, who was at work in the vicinity of a computer and internet connection, found a single room in Lochcarran which was just over 20 miles further along the road. As soon as the room was confirmed, and I’d had a sandwich for lunch, I set off, glad to be chipping away at tomorrow’s planned journey length.
To add to my delight the road to Lochcarran, bar a slight bump at the start, seemed to be entirely downhill, and before I knew it I was skirting the loch looking for a statue of a Buddha that would mark my home for the evening.
After unloading the bike I wolfed down dinner and a couple of beers at the Lochcarran Hotel before indulging in a ‘healing’ massage. My host happened to be a trained masseuse who worked until 10pm.
I didn’t struggle to get to sleep after 65 miles of cycle, and went to bed eager to face the next day’s challenges. If only I knew what was in store. Mistake number 5: not studying the route profile.
Day 2 – 64.5 miles, 5967ft elevation
After a restful sleep, I woke up before my alarm when the loch was calm and still glimmering in moonlight. Nature beckoned me to the toilet, which is when mistake number 6 occurred: leaving my key on the bed as I closed the self locking door behind me. Unhappy at the thought of having to wake my host, I was relieved to find her and her lodger already up, and the master key allowed me to get packed and ready. Spirits remained high.
My panniers seemed to feel a bit heavier than they did yesterday, and the fact that my morning was to take in the UK’s highest mountain pass (and arguably the UK’s toughest climb) did nothing to quell my mounting trepidation. I even momentarily flirted with the idea of taking the coastal route – reserved for lorries and the like – but a Mia Farrow quote was stuck in my mind: “I’m going to take the high road because the low road is so crowded.” I decided to coin my own interpretation of this. “Ain’t no mountain gonna make me its bitch.” And so off I went, full of gusto, full of life, full of a sub-standard sausage roll.
Before the big climb begins, there is an initial bastard of a hill, and it was quickly off with the jacket, on with the sweat. Once that was summited, there was a woefully long descent before the mighty Bealach loomed into view. Holy. Fuckin’. Shit.
Thankfully, despite the weight of my bike and luggage, I had easier gears than on my road bike, so it was a case of spin-spin-spin on the initial slog, lulling me into a false sense of security. Although a few markedly steep sections, this didn’t seem all that bad. The kicker with this climb, however, is it saves the punishingly steep sections until the hairpin bends at the very top. Add to this the fact that you’re on a single track road, regularly having to tuck into passing places to allow traffic by, and the heartbeat rapidly rises.
My goal had been not to push the bike, but when I reached the hairpin bends I was again forced to peel into a passing place and dismount to allow cars past, and the gradient was so steep I couldn’t get enough momentum to clip in and stay upright on the bike. I tried – and failed – a few times before deciding this was not an ideal place to fall and break my leg. And so I pushed my tank up and around two of the hairpins, regularly pulling myself to the side of the road as a courtesy to caravans, before finally finding a plateau suitable for re-mounting, and chugging my way to the false summit.
Thankfully, there was only one more milder climb after that until I could see the cairn and a sign for a parking place up ahead. I had conquered the Bealach! On a touring bike! With 18kg of my worldly possessions! I felt immortal!
With the stunning weather came stunning views across to the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, which I took in along with a snack until the breeze chilled my sweat and I decided to begin the white-knuckle descent towards Applecross, for some of the best scallops smothered in garlic butter I could ever hope to have served to me on a bed of rice.
Well, I thought to myself, that’s the tough bit over with. Just 45 miles of nice, flat coastal road to go! And for the first 15 minutes out of Applecross, that cheerful notion remained unchallenged. With Skye on the left, and clusters of postcard houses on the shore, I was living a dream.
And then it all went to hell. It turns out ‘coastal road’ does not necessarily equate to ‘flat road’, a misconception that was to punish my legs and spirit for the remainder of the day. Although beautiful, my smile settled firmly into a grimace, my humming into grunts.
It was around this time a different quote was at the forefront of my mind, courtesy of Helena Bonham Carter: “There comes a point where you just go, ultimately, I don’t give a fuck anymore.” Word, sister. My jacket, which I was too tired to remove, was a few shades darker than it should have been due to being drenched in my sweat, and my face was a few shades redder than I’d liked it to have been. It seemed after every twist in the road I was facing another short, steep climb, and I was growing weary. To downplay another rising situation wildly, and to avoid over sharing graphic details, 100+ miles on an unfamiliar saddle on grueling terrain was wreaking havoc on parts of my anatomy.
I checked my map and realised that after about 20 miles of coastal, single track road I would re-join the ‘main’ road, a thought that gave me hope, and when I finally came across Shieldaig, the immediate ascent on the main road and the sign for a coffee shop in Shieldaig saw me steer abruptly left for some respite in the form of a seat, a cappuccino, and a scone.
By this point it was nearing 4pm, and aware of limited daylight, I forced myself not to stop for too long, despite the aggressive desire to lie down and die. I had 18 miles left until Kinlochewe, and my reservation in the bunkhouse. Imagining how good it would feel to be warm, freshly showered, and sinking a beer kept me going through the valley from Torridon to Kinlochewe, barren as my soul. The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, the temperature was dropping, and I could no longer feel my feet. It was at precisely my lowest moment, roughly a mile from Kinlochewe, when I encountered the single asshole driver of my trip, honking at me despite a passing place being less than 100 feet ahead, prompting me to instinctively exhale my entire vocabulary of derogatory terms at her passing open window, spit and venom shooting from my mouth. I was a broken woman. I wanted to throw my bike under a bus.
Arriving, half-dead, in Kinlochewe, I quickly found the Hotel and checked in, having a shower and spending 20 minutes lying alone on my bunk, completely still, wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea. And then I did either the smartest or dumbest thing I could possibly do at that point: for the first time ever, I decided to study the elevation for my upcoming ride. And that’s when I knew I was done.
I was so tired I couldn’t even finish my dinner, despite the lack of food I’d taken in during the day, and even the thought of a cold pint turned my stomach. Instead of looking for things to do in Ullapool, I tried to find out if there was a train station in Kinlochewe (there wasn’t) and examined various routes back to Inverness. I cancelled all of my hotel bookings for the remainder of the week, and went to bed overcome with a sense of immense relief. It was over. Well, nearly…
Day 3 – 26.5 miles, 1220ft elevation
Again, having gone to bed hours earlier than I normally would, I was up before my alarm, but instead of leaping out of bed I just lay there in the darkness, contemplating what decisions in life brought me to this place. I don’t consider myself someone who quits, but I fully concede that on this occasion I had bitten off more than I could chew. Though I wanted nothing more than to be in my own bed, I had no choice but to get back on the bike if I ever wanted to get there, so I packed up and got dressed.
Unfortunately, the hotel doesn’t do breakfast, the shop doesn’t open until 9, and I had no food. It was just under 10 miles to get back to Achnasheen where I knew there was nothing but a hotel, and I just sucked it up and decided to try for breakfast there. I. Was. Pumped.
Before I set off I knew I had a few options. The first was to cycle the 50 miles back to Inverness; the second was to wait a couple of hours at the ghost-town station at Achnasheen; and the third was to continue on to Garve (25 miles away), and hope there was a little more life there to help while away the hours before catching a train to Inverness from their station.
The road to Achnasheen wasted no time before taking me uphill, climbing over 200m in less than 4 miles. In fact, it was very similar to the first section of the Bealach, gradient-wise. Thankfully, from the summit it was basically all downhill to Garve, which did little to lift my spirits with the bitching headwind making downhill cycling a real chore. Eventually, however, I reached Achnasheen, and the kind man on reception rustled me up a bacon roll and some coffee as I sat, the sole customer, in the drawing room with several stuffed stag heads as my only company. A bit warmer, and with some food in my belly, I decided to press on to Garve and see how I felt.
After 15 more miles of unrelenting headwinds, and with frozen toes, I reached Garve with my decision made. I’d wait for the train. However, with two hours to kill in a hotel that doesn’t serve food, I had little option but to get comfy and warm up with another coffee. Thankfully I was alone – again – so took liberties that I maybe wouldn’t have in polite company. There is, however, nothing quite like warm, dry socks on cold feet.
When the time came for the train to arrive, I wrapped up and wheeled my bike to the station. I was soon joined by two more cyclists who had come from Ullapool that morning. And then another two cyclists materialised on the platform. Considering it was a small station, things were starting to look bad for at least some of us, as there are limited places for bikes on the train. We were all exhausted, and began vying for a prime position to launch ourselves at the open doors, but the two men I had been chatting two delivered a killer blow: not only did they have train tickets (I was told I had to just buy them on the train), they had bike reservations as well. My heart sank.
When the train arrived, the conductress’s exasperated face and shaking head at the sight of us and our bikes was a bad sign. The doors hissed open, and she immediately said, “There’s no room for five bikes.” The two guys with reservations hopped on smugly, waving their tickets, and she asked if any of the rest of us had a reservation. We all shook our heads, and she said that she was sorry, but there was simply no more space. Desperate and feral, the details of the next few minutes are hazy, but 5 minutes later I was sitting on a train to Inverness with my bike precariously strapped in near me, and the remaining two cyclists were left on the platform to wait for the next train. I was genuinely too exhausted to feel sorry for them.
Back in Inverness, I booked a ticket (and bike reservation) for a train back to Aberdeen, and spent the majority of the journey asleep. By the time I woke up, we were just passing Inverurie and it was dark outside. I became very aware of how much I smelled, but didn’t care. Roz picked me up from the train station, drove me home, and handed me a bag with some juice, a pastry, some bananas, and an oven pizza. It was over.
I’m definitely not done with the NC500, but next attempt will be on a road bike. In the summer. With hotels booked along the way. And a single pannier. I might start from Kinlochewe as well…
To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do.” -Nick Cave