Bicycle Touring The North Coast 500 In 7 Days

July 16th, 2021

The NC500 is a 500 odd mile route around the north coast of Scotland. It has become increasingly popular in recent years with cyclists and for a very good reason, the place is absolutely stunning with enough hills to sate even the keenest of climbers’s appetites.

I first heard about this route from GCN, when Mark Beaumont and Si bikepacked it over three days back in 2019, and the beautiful scenery was enough to add it to my list. So while having a friend over for dinner a few months ago, I mentioned that I’d like to tour the NC500 one day, the idea stuck and my friend went about buying a bicycle, and we started planning the trip.

Well we just finished that trip a few days ago so here is what we got up to on each day.

Day 01 | Inverness to Applecross

We travelled on the Caledonian Sleeper train from Euston to Inverness the night before so we arrived relatively fresh. Upon arriving in Inverness we headed off to Lidl to stock up on food and then hit the castle to take photos and start the adventure! 

It was fairly easy riding for the first half of the day, and at around 66km, We stopped at the midge cafe for some lunch. Walking inside, I noticed a loaded mountain bike with a huge backpack beside it that peaked my interest. The owner was inside, also on his first day of the route and looked a little worse for wear. He told us he was heading to the train station to get to his next destination as he wasn’t quite prepared for the ride, but was prepared enough to bring two sleeping bags! 

After fuelling up, we pushed on for the highest climb of the entire route; Bealach Na Ba in Applecross. I was getting pretty nervous about this section as I am not a climber but was happy we were getting it out of the way early on. It’s about 626m in elevation and just relentless. The switch backs were tough and I found myself stopping to rest at each passing sign, about 50 metres apart. I also ran out of water about half way up but luckily filled up my bottle at a stream.

What goes up… the descent was just awesome and we soon found ourselves in Applecross Inn to get dinner in our bellies but the pub were not serving so we just grabbed a pint and ate whatever was left over in our panniers. 

Feeling pretty tired after the first day, we rode a few km down the road to camp by the beach. First day over.

Day 02 | Applecross to Gairloch

Slow start to the day, we took it easy getting up and made porridge and some coffee after yesterday’s gruelling climbing. The body was definitely feeling it.

Once we started to get going, the hills were just relentless, they were fairly short but damn sharp! I actually think the second day was worse than yesterday!

Our lunch stop for the day was the Wee Whistle Stop Cafe in Torridon, perfect view of the loch while I ate my bodyweight in bacon, eggs and chips. The staff couldn’t have been nicer and after the energy levels were a bit better, we hit the Torridon stores and cafe down the road to stock up before heading on; lovely place that has everything you would need, including a savvy saleslady who was recommending lot of products to my Vegan pal 🙂

A bit later on, Will nearly got hit by a car. We were riding on a single track gravel stretch with a 20mph limit, myself in front when two boy racers were speeding towards us. The first car, a beemer (of course), didn’t judge the road narrowing and put the brakes on too late and skidded on the loose gravel, the car behind him braked as he was tailgating and overtook the BMW on our side and skidded in to them, nearly hit Will, who luckily was a bit further back. No ‘are you ok’ from their side, just them looking at the damage of their cars… nobs.

Later on, nearly dead from the day’s mountains, a welcome respite came from chatting to cyclist Ben Hallam. It turns out he was on an ultra endurance charity ride, cycling non-stop around the NC500 for Reverse Rett, a charity that funds research to find a cure for Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological order. It kind of put things in perspective a bit about how hard I thought my day was going!

Upon arriving in Gairloch, our destination for the evening, we grabbed a few cheeky pints in The Myrtle Hotel and a Chinese in Hai Yang, both excellent choices after a long day in the saddle. Hai Yang only did takeaway but the owner let us eat inside, lovely family that ran the place there.

After that we made our way to a campsite where we were welcomed with a “campsite full sign”, but after a quick call, the owner quickly arrived and let us in as we just needed a a patch of grass with our tents. £13 a pitch for super clean facilities, a hot shower and a nice sleep, bargain.

Day 03 | Gairloch to Ullapool

We were up and packed early enough and went to Crumbs Sandwich Shop to get some breakfast in before we started off. Shortly after, we were on our way and the hills welcomed us back…

We didn’t take too many food stops today and just wanted to get to our next destination; Ullapool as soon as possible. We booked a B&B and the promise of a hot shower and bed were driving me as I just felt horrible from the bugs eating me, non stop sweat and general feeling of dishevelment.

My knees were feeling it today and I took it slower as to actually finish this ride and not cause injury. Lots of rolling hills and one or two big ones that were bad but the most memorable moment was after climbing for ages, we hit the descent heading into Ullapool and… wow, what. a. trip. Bombing it down I had to take it easy and apply the brakes as I was getting a little too carried away. What a beaut of a descent. 

Pretty soon we rode to Harbour house to treat ourselves and what a check-in. Alan, who welcomed us, was absolutely fantastic. He welcomed us with sherry and shortbread, put our bikes in storage, had a dryer for our clothes after we washed them and just a gent, absolutely stellar service, cyclists take note, pick this place when you’re riding through! 

After plopping our bags in our room, we went to Tesco (sans bikes) to get food and came out with enough food for about 7 people. Back at the hotel, showered and clothes washed and in the dryer, we just chilled and charged up our devices ready for tomorrow to get going and do it all it again.

Day 04 | Ullapool to Durness

Full English fry-up to start the day, all packed up and off we went to get a start on the longest day of the tour, 142km. I’m really glad we arrived early the previous day to the B&B, feeling so much better.

Some of the climbs today were tortuous (spot the theme of this tour I know), like 25% at one stage! It was slow going as I had to rest after some sections, but of course plenty of downhills that put a stupid grin on my face. 

We scheduled our breaks in thirds. 50/50/42. We hit spar in Lairg for our first 50km break and chilled out for a bit, getting ready for the next 50km break which was Scourie stores to get out last few bits of food before our last leg to Durness. 

We arrived in to Durness with a well earned descent and very few cars on the roads, and started scanning for a place to camp and we lucked out with Kyle of Durness, right in front of the loch and a stunning sunset to boot. There were a few motorhomes there but we just went around to camp up at our own spot.

The west coast is done, now to conquer the north coast. 

Day 05 | Durness to Thurso

Up at 7, ready and left our campsite by 8.. no proper brekkie in the belly and the spar down the road is closed on Sundays, doh! 

It was a tough ol’ slog, I had no energy and i just couldn’t get myself into gear, oh and my water ran out early on. Luckily we came across a holiday letting place and found a hose to fill up the bottles.

After the inevitable hills and no fuel in the system, we came across Weavers cafe and ordered some food, I had the burger (amazing) and a scotch pie (also amazing), 2 cokes and a brownie. Filled up, I was ready…ish to carry on. 

The Store cafe in Betty hill was next on our list to hit before ending up in Thurso for the night. There was a bit of commotion from some locals beside us and then we seen some sheep making their way down the road and up around the side of the cafe, one of the girls rang her dad to tell him they were loose 😂 

The last 10km into Thurso was horrendous, a long straight road with gradual elevation and a damn headwind! Myself and Will were just done after this last bit. 

We stayed in The Manor House B&B and woah, what a beautiful place to rest up for the night. The owners are from Kerry and just lovely. We showered and headed back downstairs to order some food, chatting to some fellow travellers (by car) before the England vs Italy game started. The food was home cooked and absolutely delicious. We really lucked out with this place.

Day 06 | Thurso to Helmsdale

We left The Manor House and covered the distance to John O’ Groats super fast with the help of a tasty tailwind, it was a welcome pleasure after 5 days of hills kicking our asses at the start of each morning. 

We met Robert there who was inspecting our loaded bikes. He must have been at least 70 years of age, and rode from Lands end to John O’ Groats with a very minimal set-up, phenomenal stuff and just shows what you can do at any age.

After taking the obligatory JOG signpost photo, we were on our way towards Helmsdale. We carried on getting good miles in, well until we hit the ‘double bubble’ at Berriedale Braes. This was tortuous as the climb is long and gradual. I was sweating like crazy, with midges all over me but I knew there would be a lush decent coming afterwards and we rode that sweet road in to Helmsdale. At one point I got 72km/hr! Absolutely lush 🚀 

We rode into Helmsdale and immediately hit Spar to load up on fluids (and junk) and then just sat replenishing in the shade. Afterwards, we went to get something a bit more substantial, a chipper called La Mirage was our dinner – excellent chips but no to the burger 👎🏻 

We sat on the bench outside eating our dinner, contemplating setting up our tents near a beautiful stream but the midges were rampant and frankly neither of us were really keen on the idea… so  decided to get a B&B instead in front of where we sat called The Bridge.

The owner, Hans welcomed us in and even had a room for our bikes too. We waited and chatted with Hans while our room was getting ready, Will popped out and grabbed some beers and I took a bubble bath, as you do like. 

Day 07 | Helmsdale to Inverness

The least hilliest day but it definitely had it’s own challenges, mainly the A9. The road is just littered with cars buzzing by but in fairness most of them gave us a wide berth passing by, just the odd dickhead who close passed me.

We did diverge from the main road, taking the coast road for a bit on the way to Dornoch and even seen some seals sunbathing. We stopped at Tesco in Tain to get our lunch sorted and then just wanted to get to Inverness as quickly as possible.

Nearing the end of this last ride here, I was caught off guard in Culbokie with the onslaught of some more hills, because why not? The sun made them more fun…

We finally made it back into Inverness without getting killed by the A9 crossing for Kessock Bridge, the castle pics were taken and off we set for our final B&B which was near the city centre.

After checking in with the lovely owner, Gloria who apparently has never met a vegan before (long story 🤣), we showered and hit the centre to grab some food and celebratory drinks. Spoons was out as they were packed, so we hit Black Isle Brewing Company for pizza and craft beers, ace pizzas and beers.

What a great trip, it had everything – beautiful views, tough climbs, lovely people, home-cooked food, Tesco meal deals, rain, sunshine, variety, monotony, did I mention the views? It just made me appreciate how good life is.. yeah cycling tends to do that to me, do a few days on the saddle and realise life is a bit like riding a bike, there will be hard climbs, but down the road there will always be a descent.

The main gear I used should you be interested.

Below is the bike, set up and gear I brought.

Bike and frame bags

  • Specialized AWOL – The Steed
  • 2 x Ortlieb Back Roller Plus QL2.1 Pannier Bags – Large panniers.
  • Apidura toptube bag – To store my powerbank.
  • BTWIN toptube bag – GoPro, facemask, cables, tissues.
  • Deuter frame bag – Used mainly to store food.

Sleeping system

  • Vango Banshee 200 – Tent that is rock solid, but quite claustrophobic.
  • Eurohike Adventurer 200 Sleeping Bag – Cheap sleeping bag.
  • Cheap camping pillow – Amazon blow up pillow.
  • Exped SynMat 7 air mattress – Solid air mattress.

Lights and Tech

  • iPhone 12 – Navigation, audiobooks, music, payments yadda.
  • Apple watch – Strava recording.
  • Gopro Hero 8 – Used to take snippets of the views and some cheeky descents.
  • Lezyne strip drive pro 300L rear light – Powerful rear light.
  • Ebuyfire front light – Cheap and cheerful front light with long lasting battery.
  • 5 x power banks – A bit overkill in hindsight.

Clothing

  • 2 x bib shorts – Sundried training shorts which perished 👎🏻, and Lecol bib shorts which didn’t 👍🏻
  • 4 x moisture wicking t-shirts – Normal exercise t-shirts for cycling.
  • 4 x normal t-shirts – After the miles have been put in.
  • 2 x shorts – After the miles have been put in.
  • Fleecy jumper – Too bulky, shouldn’t have brought.
  • Jogger bottoms – Again, shouldn’t have brought.
  • Flip flops – Essential for campsites.

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