Thursday, 7 June 2018

NC500 For Bicycles

I'm so rusty at doing these updates, I couldn't even remember how to log in.
Anyhow, once I was through the 'forgotten password' stage, I thought I might  as well get down my thoughts on a recent 'holiday'...
Quick update; hard winter, no trail building, thankfully loads of photo work got me through. Skiing was great, cycling not so - apart from the revelation that is a cross bike with studded tyres (Cheers David at Bothy) Summer kicks in like HOT, back onto trail building, 3 Peaks cyclocross entry off (fingers crossed) back on bike regularly, weather still awesome, need more miles in the legs...
So hatched a last minute plan with fellow Aviemoron Brian Fishpool to use this unusually amazing spell of good weather do the North Coast 500 in the time available - 5 days.
Now I don't do lots of miles, I get bored easily and don't usually have a lot of time to spare, so 60ish is normally my limit, but I reckoned nice and steady, with plenty of stops would see us right. Shame we didn't do that!
We were travelling as light as we could for an unsupported trip using accommodation; a bar bag, frame bag and small saddle bag (thanks Andy Toop for 'bike packing' *cough* advice!) and using our 'posh' road racing bikes, maybe not the best choice, more on this later.

Due to lack of accommodation in Applecross we decided to start there after an early drive over from Aviemore, then 'overnights' at Ullapool, Durness and Wick, with the last night of Inverness being a quick lift home to Aviemore from the missus, leaving the last day to do the final Inverness - Bealach leg without the bags. Sorted.
The first leg from Applecross to Ullapool is 117 miles and 7500' of climbing, we set out with the 'steady and lots of stops' idea, but with a strong headwind, dropped into the old roadie thing of 'bit and bit' two up for most of the day (this would become the pattern for most of the ride) We rode maybe a wee bit too hard, took not enough stops, nearly ran out of fluids and battered our selves into the relentless headwind and 26ยบ temps. We arrived in Ullapool at 9pm, completely knackered and after inhaling a fish supper, a packet of peanuts, jelly babies, a pint of milk, several cups of tea and all the hospitality shortbread, collapsed into a brufen and paracetamol aided sleep. Not pretty.
Day two dawned with two very sore cyclists devouring a full Scottish breakfast, filling our pockets with the free bananas and setting out for Durness, 98 miles away and another 7500' of climbing. This was the leg we regretted 'race' gearing and narrow tyres. 36x28 isn't low enough for roads with double black arrows and carrying overnight kit! And 25c tyres on very eroded tar and chip roads is a punishing ride.

Another hot and windy day, but stops at Elphin (great cafe) Lochinver (Spar) and Kylescue (lovely restaurant) saw us arrive at Durness slightly less weary than day 1 at 8pm. The staff at the Smoo Hotel were excellent, modifying their menu to serve up a huge chicken pasta with side salad. Good bike storage too. Cheers.
Day three, Durness to Wick, 108 miles, 6200' climbing, this is where it started to get a bit boring if I'm honest. The first part to Tongue is pretty, there's a nice shop / cafe there and unless you really have to 'do' the 500 I'd bale out south here and head for Lairg - Bonar Bridge - Nigg - Cromarty - Inverness for a nicer finish, but no, we cracked on, largely my fault as I felt I had to do the whole thing before I could comment on it.
The roads get busier, actually all the route has lots of traffic, but here they started passing more quickly! The terrain becomes less spectacular and in our case we were head on into that strong easterly, still v' hot too. A great lunch stop at a pub on the roadside at Melvich and we pushed on to Thurso (Tesco) to do that long distance cycling thing of sitting on the pavement eating sandwiches, crisps, chocolate and milk. Becoming less interested with the whole thing by now we put our heads down and simply ticked off the miles to John O Groats, didn't linger and fuelled by Haribo we ground our way into a dreary Wick. Both had sore knees by now (high gears) and we were in a hotel on the third floor - thanks. Hysterical laughter at dinner as we realised the menu was more 'haute cuisine' than was required by two very hungry cyclists! Thanks to the waitress that kept returning with the bread basket. Even the puddings were wee! Cheeseboards all round.

Day four, Wick to Inverness - ghastly! Just don't do this! Busy roads, motorists and lorries all IN A HURRY with the added danger of harr reducing visibility to a 'I'm scared' level. 95 miles of purgatory, 4700' climbing but at least a slight tailwind. The dreaded A9 was always going to be the worst day, and it was, this section had nothing to recommend it to cyclists, apart from a nice cafe in Helmsdale (on the seafront) which offered to dry wet jackets from the harr. If the ferry is running, dive off at Nigg to go Cromarty - Black Isle - Inverness, or, as we had to, the back road out of Tain to Alness and then Evanton, this is a lovely wee road.
My wife had been pre-booked to pick us up from Inverness and we were hugely relieved to see her (and my cheering young lad who'd sneaked off school early) for the run home to Aviemore. Finished this day quite quickly so had a little bit more recovery time that evening - long bath, big feed, washed kit, cleaned and lubed bike, etc.  Bliss. Knee very sore now.


Last day was with no kit and at last the benefit of a tailwind from that pesky easterly. Nicely 'pain-killered' up for the knee we spun out to Loch Carron averaging 22mph, dismounting for the dreaded Garve rail crossing (just do it) and a lovely cake and tea stop at the Hotel at Achnasheen roundabout. A quick ice cream and then onto the Beallach, which we both know well having raced on it and we still had the help of that delightful tailwind. Unfortunately, the outrageously fast descent to Applecross was ruined by endless huge campers either crawling down on their brakes or crawling up burning their clutches.
Bish bosh, back to the parked car after 75 miles and 4200' climbing (which all really happens at the end).

So, thoughts.

  1. The west and a bit of the north coast are the only bits worth doing on a bike.
  2. Don't ride on the A9.
  3. The roads are awful, potholed and very rough, fit the biggest road tyres you can and consider tubeless.
  4. There are some really steep hills, even with minimal kit you'll need lower than 36x28.
  5. If you're doing it in 5 days, unsupported, it's hard. Pack, then unpack and repack half of it.
  6. Take longer on it if possible. 
  7. Accommodation books up fast. We used the Royal Hotel Ullapool which was nice, Smoo Cave Hotel Durness, again excellent, good bike storage and reasonable and finally The Mackay Wick, lovely room, nice staff, good bike storage but tiny meals (from a cyclists perspective!) and my house, very nice, great facilities, excellent meals, fully equipped workshop. Fully booked!
  8. Food stops are available, never go by one! 
  9. There is lots and lots of traffic everywhere, deserted Highland roads it is not. There is everything from sports car exotica to old classic cars, to enormous motorhomes (waaaay to big for these roads) and the ever present motorbikes, which were no bother as most are cruising and waving hello. 
  10. Get your mindset right, we were neither stripped down unsupported record seekers, or cruising and sightseeing, but rather we treated it like 5 long hard training rides. This hurt. Should'a been more chill and enjoy.
  11. The NC500 is a marketing exercise, do it if you really have to, but get the maps out and plan something with a nicer finish.
  12. Don't ride on the A9. Got that. 
The knee is slowly recovering, I put it down to grinding big gears in relentless headwinds and possibly worn cleats with little float, never had an issue before, so hopefully it'll fade away.
it was harder than a Majorca training camp and I've taken days to recover - tired and still eating everything I can find in the kitchen.
Oh and shout out to Dominic, a cyclist we met along the way and bumped into several times, he had the right attitude, just cruising and enjoying being out on his bike.
Nice one Dom!
That's the winter road miles done, back to a summer of trail building, photography and 3 Peaks cx training....  

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