Cycling the North Coast 500
I looked over my right shoulder and saw the narrow mountain road snake away below me. A car was coming up behind me, but stopping on any hill with fully loaded panniers and SPD (clip) pedals is uncomfortable but on the Bealach Na Ba also known as the Applecross Pass, in the rain, it is not recommended. They were getting closer and the next passing place was a good 200M away and so I stopped. The car past with a wave of thanks and I stopped for a moment to take in the view and curse quietly under my breath. This was day 1 on the North Coast 500, an impressive 500 mile journey around the Scottish coastland and my first cycle touring adventure since childhood.
Growing up my family holidays often consisted of cycling from hostel to hostel and I still have vivid memories of my parents saying that they would wait for me at the top and now it all came rushing back to me.
I had never toured with clipped pedals before and my road bike only had 2 large gear rings. Why didn't I get a third?! Pondering these things I decided I better get going again, or else live here forever on the side of the road. I prepared myself, got my balance, gritted my teeth, clipped my first foot and with a large, determined push I set off on the steep ascent once more. In the rain my shoes were slippy and I was crawling along unable to clip my second foot. Getting more frantic I tried again, without luck. I attempted to stop again, except my brain wasn't coordinating my movements as fast as my bike was falling and I tumbled to the ground, my bike landing unceremoniously on my leg as I crashed down. I wanted to throw my bike off the mountain, “this is why I hike!” I shouted to nobody in particular, as my partner cycled happily up behind me. I couldn’t get started again here and so I started pushing. At that moment a car came cruising down the hill towards me and slowed down. With the window down an older lady shoved her phone towards me, filming. “Shouldn’t you be riding that?!” They laughed. Still fuming from my fall I tried to bite my tongue and replied “I just fell off and can’t start again with this bloody bike… Did you get that on film?!”. They chuckled, empathized a little, exchanged a few pleasantries and set off again, and I continued my quiet cursing.
Eventually, after a few stern words with Nelly (my bike) I managed to get her under control and we cycled to the top of the pass without further incident. The view spread out gloriously below us. I have spent a good deal of time in the mountains of Scotland, in fact only the week before we walked the Skye Trail, but it was here I realised why we had chosen to cycle the NC500, it is an incredible way to see the country, offering a different perspective to my usual adventures. Rugged mountains dropped into the clear sea and lush green meadows rolled out to meet them. Deer were grazing on the coast and the sun even decided to come out. We cruised down the other side to Applecross, leant our bikes against a wall and ate an entire Swiss roll while we enjoyed the view. For the rest of the Peninsula we were treated to a delightful tailwind, sunshine and views along the undulating Scottish coast. At this point even a flat tyre didn't dampen my spirits and after plenty of faffing to change it we found a quiet spot further along to wild camp by our own private Lochan. We took a leisurely 7 days to cycle the NC500 in May avoiding the worst of the midges and enjoying roads that were still relatively quiet.
We wild camped for all but one night, when we took a diversion to the Summer Isles, which promised sandy beaches, which it had, and summer which it didn’t. This was the only day with persistent rain and we cycled for 130KM in it, deciding to continue past Ullapool and then giving up looking for a spot to camp, cycling a sodden extra 15km off our route for the promise of a warm shower and somewhere to dry off. I prefer rain to wind though and we battled with some pretty brutal headwinds along the journey, which seemed to attack us no matter which direction we were cycling in. But this is all part of cycling in Scotland and under these stormy skies the beaches glowed in glorious isolation and the mountains quietly bore witness to my struggles, offering gleeful, sweeping descents as my reward.