6am, Monday 10th August , Inverness Castle and I chatted nervously to the local press, who had fallen out of bed early to witness the start of this madness. I had gone to bed at 8pm, needing every ounce of rest, then stared at the ceiling until 1am, terrified.
The North Coast 500 was launched in 2015 to attract tourism to mainland Britain’s most remote region. Following the undulating, erratic and spectacular coastline, the road goes either clockwise or anticlockwise and takes in the entire north coast of Scotland including Applecross, Ullapool, Durness, Thurso, John O’Groats and Wick.
Always one for a challenge, I set out to complete the route non-stop. However, despite having pedalled around the world, I had never attempted 500 miles non-stop. And within a mile, took a wrong turn. A quick U-turn and a not so promising start.
Alongside Lochcarron, the first of the sea lochs, a roadie sped towards me, swung around and fell alongside. Local endurance hard man Alex Glasgow holds the course record for the infamous Applecross Sportive (Bealach Mor) and was the first winner of the legendary Celtman triathlon. But I reminded him straight away that today was not for any KOMs, as I would still be riding the following evening. I could tell he was itching for a fast ride, but loyally kept it steady for the next five hours around Wester Ross.
The Beallach Na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, rising from sea level to 2,054 ft over 9.1km, making it the third highest road in Scotland, with a stunning Alpine style switch back section, accentuated by the single track and at one point 20% gradient. But it isn’t as fierce as its reputation, and taken steadily is a joy to ride.
The Applecross peninsula remains constantly undulating, often steep and twisting, and for a few hours we were spoilt with sunshine and views around to the sleepy village of Shieldaig. But as the magnificent, steep terraced sides the Torridon Hills came into view, bare sandstone crowned with white quartzite, the skies darkened and a light drizzle started.
‘Spare a thought for me’ remarked Alex with a smile, as we reached the Kinlochewe T junction in the now pouring rain ‘I have 40 miles back to my car!’
I turned left, alone again and climbed steadily up and over to Gairloch, sheets of rain falling from slate-grey sky.
What I hadn’t accounted for was the scale of public support – in every village, and in spite of the weather, locals and tourists alike lined the roadside, cheering me through. The power of social media, and word of mouth had turned this solo exploit into something brilliantly sociable. ‘GO MARK’ on homemade signs and families banging drums made out of bin lids kept me going. I stopped and chatted to the first few well wishes, but soon realised this level of sociability could seriously slow progress – but I appreciated every bit of enthusiasm.
A local postman and his teacher wife joined me for about 20 miles, cheerily storytelling about the area and explaining how a couple from the Midlands ended up falling in love with and moving to these remote parts.
Sutherland has 2.2 people per km2, making the Lake District look like a hive of activity with 18.4 and London looking unfathomably packed with over 1,500 people per km2. And its name is a tad confusing, meaning Southern Land, because this was the lowest reach of the Vikings. The mixture of Celtic and Viking heritage is evident in the mountains that I pedalled past with names like Ben Loyal, Ben Hope, Stac Pollaidh and Suilven.
This part of Britain was irreversibly changed after the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the ensuing Highland Clearances. Most from the previously populated north emigrated to the antipodes, the Americas and further south to make way for lots of sheep. The entire coastal route around Sutherland and Caithness is scattered with evidence of yesteryear, now mainly vast highland estates. Pockets of crofting, small-scale farming remain, like the Assynt peninsula around the spectacular Summer Isles.
Ullapool would be the biggest town on day one where a tractor created a five-vehicle rush hour queue as I stopped very briefly to stock up for the night shift.
As the light faded long before sunset under heavy skies, I set my next target on midnight, glancing into windows of roadside cottages, looking snug and warm. As the hours passed, these passing windows also went dark and I was left in the pool of my headlight.
North of Lochinver the road narrowed once again to a narrow track and I faced some extraordinary terrain, no doubt stunning by day, but at 4am in the pouring rain this was the toughest section yet. Reaching Durness, Scotland’s northwest corner, was an huge and long awaited relief. I guessed wrongly that I would finally turn east and gain some flatter roads. In fact, the route remains hilly until Thurso. However, by the village of Tongue, dawn had at least brought a break in the weather. After 13 hours of rain I started to dry out.
Mentally, I had kept my focus very short through the night, a few hours at a time. As is often the case, once past the tough stretch, back in the daylight and dry, rather than feeling great I soon lost focus, and had a few hours in the mental doldrums. Staring at the road under my front wheel, hurting deeply and unable to think about the 200 miles that still remained. It wasn’t until mid morning that I managed to shake the slump and pick my speed up again, focused on the next milestone, John O’Groats.
The spontaneous support riders and roadside cheerleaders who started appearing from mid morning onwards certainly helped me again. The rugged west gave way to the calmer east; sea cliffs drop off Dunnet’s Head, mainland Britain’s most northerly point, giving a stark border to the North Sea and a horizon only broken by the outlying islands of Orkney.
The NC500 has ever-changing scenery, and whilst the road down the east coast is bigger and relatively busier, it has its own beauty. Ruined castles amidst the rolling farmland, as waves crash ashore, oilfields scattering the seascape. The sea is rarely out of sight on this long quadrant south to Inverness.
I barely stopped, although the Berrydale climb and subsequent gorges reduced me to a walking pace, climbing out of the saddle. Seeing my heart rate souring to 160bpm after 34 hours in the saddle was certainly unwelcome. I was digging really deep, and riding into the unknown. Having completed a number of 24 hour rides, but never over such tough terrain, I was now well into day 2.
The final hours were brilliantly sociable, as local roadies took it upon themselves to give me an unbroken chain of support riding. I was deeply grateful, but aware that my conversation was scarce. I certainly wasn’t able to reflect very well yet as every thought was on the road ahead, counting down the miles to Inverness.
After 37 hours 58 minutes I climbed the final time to Inverness Castle with a police escort to a welcome by the Lord Provost and a good crowd. What a wonderful reception, not just at the finale, but also throughout. It was heartwarming stuff and made the daft mission all the more enjoyable.
I will admit it took a few sleeps to feel recovered and even longer before I could look at my bike again!
I would strongly advise planning your own cycle around Scotland’s beautiful north coast, but let me urge you in the strongest terms to take a week and enjoy the views and hospitality. And I am not just saying so to give my record a chance of surviving as I am sure it wont take long before someone has a crack!
– Mark Beaumont