Now for something a little different. At the end of June I embarked on my first ‘bike packing’ adventure and cycled the ‘North Coast 500’. You can find loads of information on the route here North Coast 500.
So why did I embark on this, right in the middle of the race season? Let me explain in this video I shot alongside the banks of Loch Ness. (Why the opening shot is me pulling that face i will never know!!)
Due to the unfortunate circumstances explained above I found my self in Scotland, on one of the most beautiful weather weeks of the year.
So on a ‘whim’ I decided to give it a go. I’d vaguely heard of the NC500, and watched something GCN did with Mark Beaumont about it – it looked amazing! I checked the weather, and the forecast was stunning, Inverness was only 120miles or so from Oban, so a plan formed! I decided I wanted to try and do it in two days, partly driven by time availability due to work, and partly as a mental and physical test for myself ahead of returning to defend my UK CTT National 24hr title. I wanted to remind my body what it was like to ride for long hours.
So on Wednesday evening, 26th June I drove into Inverness, parked up the van, downloaded to my garmin a map of the route and bedded down.
I have been travelling, training and racing relentlessly so far this season. The last weekend in June I was signed up for the long, arduous drive to South Wales to race the CTT National 50m Championships. Form was good and I would be hopeful of maybe a top 10 finish. Never the less, the opportunity to do something exciting, different and enjoyable could not be missed.
I also viewed it as a good chance to ‘remind’ my body, both physically & mentally what long hours in the saddle mean. I have some big, key races coming up shortly in the UK National 24hr and 12hr races. Mentally refreshing on what its ‘like’ could only be good … provided I can recover from the effort!
So what is the ‘North Coast 500?’
The North Coast 500 is an iconic route trans versing the entire north of Scotland, from Inverness, across to the west coast then right around the west, north and east coasts, Via John ‘O’ Groats, and back to Inverness. The route is just over 500 miles in length and is promoted as Scotland’s version of Route 66 – the iconic driving route in the USA.
The route climbs over 32k feet, with the majority of this in between miles 60 and 360 – but its no way ‘flat’ for the rest!
Road condition is generally pretty good, although there are a lot of single track roads where you need to watch for camper vans and bikers, but in general the route is quiet.
This is the route map:
There are variations on this route, but most follow the direction of the above, in many places there is literally just one road – so you cant get lost! there are two options to do it clockwise, or counter clockwise. I chose clockwise as I had an ambitious plan to complete in two days I wanted to get the majority of the climbing out of the way on day 1.
The intrepid round the world record holder Mark Beaumont set an initial elapsed time record of about 38hrs for riding the entire route, in 2016 this was bettered by ex Scottish Common Wealth Games cyclist James McCallum who targeted and completed it with an elapsed time of 31hrs and ride time of 28hrs, 57mins. (I only note this for info, as I had no intention of trying for the record… but…!)
GPX of days one ride is here GPX – Day 1 Inverness to Rhiconich
I had booked a BnB just over half way round at around 280miles, I HAD TO GET THERE tonight! My plan was to travel as light as possible, so all I carried was a spare set of kit, sunscreen, energy products for the day, spares and battery chargers. I had planned ahead and sent to the BnB all the energy product I would need for day 2 to enable me to travel lighter on day 1.
So the alarm went off at 4.30pm and I crawled out the van! This far north it hardly goes dark at all at this time of year, so I woke to a beautiful, fairly crisp morning. A quick breakfast and I was off. I always find on very long rides the mental part of the first few hours is hard. Dealing with the thought, after 10miles, that today I have another 28x that to go, or 20k ft of climbing to do is no easy feat. I used a strategy I use a lot in long races, and prescribe with clients I coach, I chunked the ride down into 4 sections, with planned stops at certain points to act as interim markers.
My first planned stop was at the bottom of Bealach na Bah, the longest road climb in Britain, which is commonly know as Applecross pass. This came at around 70miles.
That first 60miles or so was pretty easy, and fast, crossing Scotland, effectively coast to coast at one of its narrowest points you traverse from the industrial city of inverness, gradually climbing into the highlands where the views are magnificent and just ‘huge’! Its hard, in a picture, to appreciate the majesty of the surroundings. Below is Loch Acahanlat, around 40 miles from Inverness.
The early start meant I barely saw any traffic, at all until well past the Applecross pass!
After 60miles you hit the coast and the first test, a sharp 1 mile climb out of Loch Carron, then after a nice fast descent you arrive at the bottom of Bealach na Ba. I have climbed Bealach before, last year with a friend where we smashed a 40 odd mile loop out, so I knew what I was facing. To be honest, its not that hard a climb, for 2-3 miles you get gradual 2-4% gradients, big ring stuff. The last 1.5-2 miles it kicks up and goes to 10% in parts, but before you know it you are at the top and looking out on the view above.
Following this you have a section of never ending rollers, I was struggling with a nagging cross head wind here which made each one energy sapping, forever changing gear form 52-11 to 36 -28 as you drive over each one.
The next section heads inland on a stunning single track road from Torridon to kinlochewe. One of the noticeable things on this ride is how the wind changes, as you leave the coast you invariably get a tail wind, but maybe 10miles in land this would change to a head wind! On this section this was actually great, a tail wind 10miles in land, then a tail wind as you climb back to the coast at Garloch.
I was on about 19mph average speed here after 5hrs, although I was a bit above planned power numbers!
The next long section to Ullapool was energy sapping, every time you went away from the coast you hit massive rollers and long climbs, the climb from Dundonnell along side the mountain of Meall an t s’ithe was stunning, the descent to Ullapool, at 200miles even better!
I stopped in Ullapool, it was now around 4pm and I had about 80miles to go. Average speed was still good so I was on track for an 8-9pm arrival at the B and B. After a huge refuelling, that predominantly involved Scottish Tablet & Irn Bru (well when in Rome…!) I was off.
This next section was HARD. Another noticeable part of this trip is BEWARE when you go inland. The road just climbs and descends relentlessly, the next section to Lochinver certainly backed this up. Loch Assynt on the way to Lochinver
After Lochinivor was a small right turn with that sign we all dread ‘road impassable for caravans and coaches’ – this meant one thing STEEP gradients!
Here also a bit of a sea fret blew in so it started to chill down, as well as being now 7pm at night I was getting cold. After 261m I hit a 25% gradient sign , this was for about 500m. HELL!
Then another section like this, before a thankfully steady run into my BnB at Ardberg BnB at Rhiconich. There the hosts sorted me pizza and chips in lieu of breakfast. The best I’d ever tasted!
Day 1 stats in stats and how it looks on Training peaks
22k ft of climbing!
Analysing the above, as a coach, what is pleasing for me are:
- Good average and NP power over the entire duration of 243w.
- I started too hard 262w NP after 5 hrs, there was no way this was sustainable!
- I fueled well, Heart Rate responded well through out the day and I hit a groove
- Despite the never ending undulations I managed to maintain my cadence average where I always am – 82 ! This does though mean that I wasn’t necessarily what I call ‘reaching’, this is where you search for harder gears to find the power. I maintained ‘form’ and was able to ride well
After retrieving my box of goodies, resolving a few squeaky bits on the bike I hit the sack, for the next 4.30am alarm call.
My (tired!) summary of day 1
Day 2 – Back to Inverness
GPX of Day 2 – GPX – Back to Inverness
So I woke up before the alarm (!) . A good sign. I was surprised how good I felt in all honesty. I was up quickly and on the road by around 5am , with just a couple of energy bars and a gel to get me going.
The morning was truly stunning! It was around 15m to the North Coast at Durness, a long gradual climb onto the heathland where the views were amazing, low cloud clung over the Loch’s and sea far below, 2 stags were silhouetted on the moors. It was a quintessentially ‘Scottish scene’ that could have come off a box of Scottish Shortbread!
Once on the coast road the route continued its relentless up and down rolling nature, down into cloud and sea fret, up into some stunning views on the moorland.
One thing noticeable about this coast is how little in-habitation and how little opportunity to fuel. I was so glad of my strategy to send food ahead. Due to the early start I didn’t pass a shop that was open until more than 50 miles into the day, without this I’d have been in trouble. From Tounge, through Bettyhill (where I found a shop) , Armadale and right to Thursoe was a series of relentless climbs and descents alternating from by the sea to anything up to a mile in land. Again the main feature of the ride was clear, the more in land, the more you climbed and descended.
As I came into Thursoe the scenery changes, from the rugged coastline and moorlands, to more rolling farmland, and a noticeable increase in the wind. Along the north coast road, past Douneray Nuclear plant and it was into john O’Groats at around 11am. By now a sea fret had blown in and a strong south easterly was blowing making it hard going.
Stopping in John O’groats, with 120 miles or so to go I realised I was actually , on ride time, well within the existing record, and on elapsed time only a few hours outside, despite my luxurious 6.5 hrs sleep! I was on about an 18.5mph avg speed for the day, so doing ok!
Only when I downloaded to Strava did I realise that I had got a KOM along the north shore – by an hour! I must have been going ok!!
Links to the 2 Strava files here
After the obligatory pic at the sign post at John O’Groats, loaded up with tablet and Lucozade I decided to push on and see if I could hit Inverness by tea time.
The main A99 / A9 travels in a south / south westerly direction, so particularly the first 50miles I was slugging into a nagging cross head wind which made the going tough. As you head south, the landscape again changes from the rolling farmland to more sheer cliffs and stunning beaches, it reminded me of the North Yorkshire Moors around Whitby, massive long steep climbs, and hair raisingly fast descents! Between Helmsdale and Tain the road never flattened once, constantly undulating and sapping energy. Still I pushed on well and was well over 20mph avg for all this section.
The final run down the Moray Firth had me pass Glenmorangie distillery, damn it was tempting to stop but I hit on! Just after Glenmorangie, the A9 turns due west and you pick up a monster tail wind – this was a fast 20 miles!
Come 5:45pm it was all over – back at Inverness castle
So Day 2 in Stats:
Day 2 for me, athletically was really pleasing. I felt good on waking up and was knocking on over 260w for the first 3 hrs, the relentless rollers meant you had to work. Within the above what I pick out are:
- Good power numbers right up to around 10hrs, here a misture of fatigue and the tail wind meant it was difficult to maintain (*Though I didnt need to speed wise) the numbers I had been delivering.
- The HR and cadence tracked well like day 1, avg HR – 122bpm, only 6 lower than Day 1, cadence 81 V 82 on day 1.
Moving time 27 hrs 36mins (80 mins quicker than the current record)
Elapsed time 37hrs exactly
33k ft climbed
18.5mph avg speed
238w normalised power (average 230w)
126bpm avg HR
You can make this as easy or as complex as you want, many plan this to the infinite detail, mapping every stop, possible rest point and undulation. Or you can do what I did, download a map to your Garmin, pick a point to stop over night(s), book some accommodation and press ‘start’!
You can either choose to BnB, hostel or camp. I chose BnB to minimise what I had to carry and give me a clear point I ‘must’ reach. Mentally I find this helps. It would have been too easy, otherwise, to just ‘stop’
I used my standard Sram red eTap equipped Evo2Max Hyperson road bike, with 52/36 and 11-28 gearing. and added just a frame pack with key essentials. Key packing list for me
- 2 x 500ml frame mounted bottles, 1 500ml bottle in my back pocket
- Garmin 1030
- External power pack with leads for phone and garmin
- Socket chargers x2 to charge everything over night.
- 1 spare set of cycling kit
- Arm warmers
- Bike lube
- Insulation tape (solves almost anything)
- Sunscreen and lypsyl (*which I lost early on and am paying the price for now with seriously cracked lips!)
- Pair of boxer shorts to sleep in
- Tooth brush and toothpaste
What I wish I’d taken – Gloves for the morning – it was COLD, about 4 degrees early on. I actually got round this on day 2 by taping yesterday’s cycling kit round my hands as impromptu gloves, it worked a treat and TBH I’d probably do again rather than carry more items.
I carried (and sent on for day 2)
- 14 OTE gels
- 4 OTE bars
- 1 tube OTE electrolyte tabs
I stopped almost whenever I saw a shop to ensure my bottles were full, as not knowing where I may fuel again this was vital, especially up until John O’Groats.
I also ate my won body weight in Scottish tablet! A couple of sandwiches from the shops en-route, sweets , nuts and seeds.
- Weather – this route is ALL about it. I only went as the forecast was great, but a typical Scottish coastal day of rain and wind this ride would be grim, wet & cold and nothing to see.
- I’d strongly recommend the time I did it, high summer, for the long days and chance of the weather
- Watch out for the wind, it moves all the time due to the nature of the coasts and mountains
- BEWARE – every time you go in land you will be climbing a lot!
- Watch out for the campers on the narrow roads!
- ENJOY YOURSELF!
Finally, for me it did everything I wanted to:
- Gave me that bit of ‘me time’, away from phones, media, anything to enjoy the simplicity of what I love to do, and to reconnect with why I love it so much!
- Enabled me to tick off a ‘bucket list’ ride!
- Reminded my mind and body of the stresses and strains we had coming up in up and coming races!
I hope this has been an interesting read!