Another one for the Top 10 list – the North Coast 500 takes in the best of the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands with a 500 mile loop of the coast, starting and finishing at Inverness. The usual route works clockwise cutting across the mainland to Applecross, before working up the West coast to John O’Groats and back down the East coast… But there is no reason why wouldn’t do it the other way around. The weather is tough, the climbs are brutal (seeing 17% at least three times every day) and the scenery is as biblical as it is beautiful.
The Climbs: Too many to list due to the sheer volume; most of the coast is a scattering of 5/10 minute climbs around 15%, up and down all the way… So be prepared to travel slow, and feel the burn.
Best Bit: The climb to savour is Bealach na Ba on the way into Applecross. It’s only Scotland’s third highest pass, but because it begins its journey to ‘2,053ft (626m) from sea level it can boast the greatest ascent of any road in the UK (its even in the Guinnes Book of Records). We were lucky enough to reach the peak just as the sun set, and happened to have a wee dram of Lagavulin whisky on hand to celebrate.
Worst Bit: Putting up tents in the dark, and the rain in 2′ centigrade.
- Book your train at least 2 months in advance, and be sure to call the operator to reserve a spot for your bike. We found several people getting turned away (including one person who had actually booked, but a non-booker had already whipped the spot and disappeared to their seat) so have your confirmation ready and load your bike as soon as the train arrives.
- Get a descent GPS unit (I’ve been using and highly rate the Garmin 820, see our tech review post) and download a GPS guide (great example here) – its very easy to get lost in the highlands.
- Purchase some descent rechargeable lights, because it gets really really dark in the sticks.
- Join the NC500 Facebook Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/242593866208238/.
- Travel light – we thought we had until day two when the hills hit hard, and we started shedding unnecessary weight like it was going out of fashion. One spare pair of bibs, a few pairs of socks, technical t-shirts that dry quick, a packable waterproof jacket (I used the Berghaus Paclight 2.0 which was perfect) and some warmer layering options.
- Pack light water proof shoe covers, like https://www.velotoze.com.
- Don’t camp! Its just not worth the weight or the weather, so choose your daily distance and book accommodation in advance. Trust me… A hot bath and a bed will be a god-send after 9 hours on the bike every day.
- Eat a lot. Really… when you’re doing 120km with 2,000m of climbing in gale force winds and rain – it’s incredible how many calories you burn and how tired and de-motivated you can can feel. Eat regularly and always carry extra food and water, because there are some 70km sections where you won’t see a shop, garage, car or even a cow.