It looked like a European tour was off the cards. I’ve got a half baked Black Forest – B500 – Ardennes tour planned but I couldn’t see the point in finishing it if the pandemic was going to ruin it. Itchy tyres, a need to tour so…. Scotland opened on the 17th of May, it felt like the perfect opportunity to head up to the Highlands but would it be worth it? Rain. Winds. Cold. However I looked at it, it felt like a poor alternative to previous tours; The Route Napoleon, The Pyrenees or Folembray.
Fuck it. Where else was I going to go this year? My back garden? Finchingfield? Not out of the UK that’s for sure so why not? Highlands here we come!
And having committed to going, I was committed to doing it properly and that means not doing the NC500! It’s a clever marketing trick, a brand that promises more than it delivers and not one I want. For sure parts of it are breathtakingly beautiful, with bends from race tracks and backdrops you’ll only see in photo competitions. But too much is flat, dull, monotonous, single track and ultimately, box-ticking – “I did the NC500”, so what? Yawn. I decided to pick the best bits that suited me because there are other, even better roads that the NC500 misses.
So, do you ride up to Glasgow in one day or two? Or Oban in two in which case what do you do on day 1? Lake District? But wait. There are bigger problems. Which hotels are open? Which restaurants are open? What time do they close? Outdoor dining only? Fuck that, in Scotland!? Can I get a beer? Planning this was so much more than stitching together good roads. It meant planning coffee stops, booking lunch stops, for the right time, so when it was cold and wet we could guarantee sitting inside with a decent bowl of soup and not standing in a bus shelter with a paper cup of tepid tea. Planning fuel stops, because north of Oban there aren’t that many petrol stations. Booking dinner because restaurants must close at 8pm so reservations needed to be for 6:30, so Hotel for 5? 5:30? How long’s the route then!? Still worth going?
Well, here’s how it went…
Day 1 – 231 miles
Motorway to Derby then cut across the southern end of the Peak District to Bakewell! I love a tart. And it’s market day, in the car park! No bother, lunch and parking was prebooked and the rain had stopped, the dreary ride up was behind us and things were looking up.
We carried on through the Peak District, past Ladybower Reservoir and along Snake Pass, the A57, where things started to deteriorate. Here comes the rain. Still, it’s a great road with no end of twists and turns and overtakes with great views even though it’s a 50mph speed limit all the way. I’m smiling but the rain is getting heavier and now it’s time for Holme Moss, high moorland in pissing rain, gusting wind and a touch of hail. I’m told the views are good but when you’re lying flat on the tank, water on the visor, low cloud obscuring your vision and you’re burying your head into the clocks to get as much of you as possible behind the screen, all I’m looking for is that broken white centre line and the button for the heated grips!
But it doesn’t last and soon enough we’ve travelled 231 miles and are checking into a charming country hotel for some beers and dinner!
Day 2 – 229 miles
What a day! Straight into the Yorkshire Dales, these roads are awesome. Four, five and six S-bends one after another and some with big gradient changes! You’re charging up that rise, 60mph, you know the road is straight on after the summit, 6?mph, the sat nav shows a straight road… bollocks, I don’t trust it. BRAKES! The signs are missing, no telephone poles, trees etc, and the land is rising to your right, not in front where you really need it to be. And then it’s on you, 25% down gradient for 30 meters, a sharp right hander, 90 degree left, over the humpbacked bridge, bike still leaning over, suspension do your best, and into a quick left-right leading up to another blind summit and who knows what thereafter! If you ride these roads at pace, stay sharp. But what FUN! 💩
Through Gretna Green and into Scotland! We’ve made excellent time so time for a treat, Wanlockhead Pass and back on the A702. 37 miles of new tarmac and hardly a straight bit of road, bends you can see through, greenery all around and a blue sky overhead to make it the best afternoon yet. A nice little workout for the tyres, happy days!
Day 3 – 203 miles
We spent the morning travelling through Galloway Forest Park heading up to Gourock for the ferry to Dunoon. Who wants to ride through Glasgow? There is something magical going on here. Locks, rivers and little roadside waterfalls set against a background of lush green crags and buffs with mountains in the distance but the rain is not here. It was. The road is almost dry so it had been raining. And this was the way it would be all week. I take full responsibility for planning routes in April that avoid rain in May.
Onto Inveraray and decision time. Which way to Oban? Yet again our pace has been cracking, we’re not riding fast, it’s just we’re not really slowing down for much. So as we’re ahead of the clock and as the song goes… ‘Take the long way round’.
And it wasn’t long enough. The perfect mix of bends, fast and slow, undulating countryside and a cracking pace – why does time pass so quickly when you’re having fun? – we were in Oban sooner than we would have liked. Turn around and do it again?
Day 4 – 264 miles
Best laid plans. Hmmph. I had an ace up my sleeve here -an alternative route in case of bad weather and we needed it. The road east was forecast for heavy rain so it was north to Fort William and then west to Mallaig and over the sea to Skye.
Another stonking ride this morning and into Mallaig, on time for pre-booked lunch. It’s hard not to look smug when you’ve got a table reserved and everyone else is being turned away. Smug doesn’t last long. Numbnuts here didn’t think booking the ferry was worthwhile and there’s no room for four bikes on the 2pm sailing! It’s 1:30 and the next ferry is at 6pm. Good job the roads are worth it, back past the Prince’s Cairn, Glenfinnan Viaduct, past Neptune’s Staircase and Ben Nevis to turn north to the A87, over the bridge to Skye. We got as far as The Storr before turning back to the hotel and a few beers. Better planning needed next time. And, I don’t know how, another dry day!
Day 5 – 183 miles
Best laid plans! Ha hah! I had an ace up my sleeve here. This one worked out. Again, the plan was to head east but the road east was drenched. It’s pissing down all over central Scotland but the West Coast remains… sunny! Yes. Just need to manage the 40mph winds as we head for Applecross Pass and it was so worth it! What a morning. If you get this far north Applecross is a must.
We followed the single track road for a bit to the north and after a lovely little morning coffee with cream scones (in which the ‘o’ must be pronounced like the ‘o’ in gone) we turned east, away from the NC500 and headed for the east coast. There are some roads running east-west that are absolutely splendid and quiet ‘cause everyone else is on the NC500 route! Let’s go!
And it’s more of the same, awesome roads, bends, scenery, castles and still, our bit of road is dry. Despite the shorter route, under 200 miles, it still took just as long because of all the pit stops!
Day 6 – 178 miles
No luggage and we’re heading for Kylesku Bridge. This is the furthest north we’ll go. We’re not interested in getting the pic by the John o’ Groats sign and there’s more riding to be had in the south of Scotland.
Leaving Evanton in the morning for Ullapool along the A835 was fabulous. The mountains here have a darker, moodier look to them. Gone are the lush green, manicured fields and farmsteads, this really is the Highlands. If you break down out here, pitch a tent, you’ll be waiting a long time for help. No overtaking this morning, it was as if it was our own private road.
We took a small 22 mile single track road to Drumbeg which was truly joyful. It was as much up and down as it twisted and turned. Craggy and rugged on both sides with some sheer drops and glimpses of rocky islands surrounded by a sea so blue you’d think you were riding in the Maldives.
Lunch at the Kylesku Hotel was divine and despite being a quality hotel they were delighted to entertain four nutty English bikers dressed for a downpour that would never come. The route home was just as good but the day was let down by an evening meal that was so heavy in cheese that I won’t bother having another pizza this year.
Day 7 – 241 miles
The start of the journey home. An earlier start as we needed to be in Edinburgh by 5pm for dinner at 6:30 which was brilliant, a top-notch curry at the Namaste Kathmandu, top marks from us all.
The Cairngorms are higher than I thought. It gets cold up there and even in late May there was snow on the top. For me I loved the descent, it’s not a steep gradient but it’s long and fast, you can see through the bends, straighten a lot of them and keep up a brisk pace. You never feel a need for the brakes, it’s like you’re on a charge and can’t be stopped, there’s no sign of the end, the little direction guide in the top corner of the sat nav just states next waypoint is 37 miles. For those of you not familiar with the Garmin Zumo L396 this means no turns, t-junctions or roundabouts for 37 miles! Pure riding.
Coffee at Braemar, I think this is Scotland’s version of Finchingfield. Bikes everywhere and not just the typical on tour GS crowd, plenty of sports bikes and some lost soul on a brand new Yamaha Tracer 900GT. It’s a lot of bike for not much £££ but it hasn’t impressed everyone. Anyone tried it?
There’s no simple route from here to Edinburgh but we know a man who knows these roads and offered his local knowledge. All hail the local man, a great ride around the villages from Perth to Edinburgh’s front door!
Day 8 – 197 miles
Another incredible day. A first-class morning coffee at Floors Castle, through the Kielder Forest Park, along Hadrian’s wall, past Sycamore Gap and through the North Pennines for a compulsory eye test at Barnard Castle to make sure we were fit to continue. As before, no rain.
It’s different riding in England than in Scotland. The Scottish roads are in fairly good condition and, in general, are the same. What I mean is, there’s no real difference from one place to the next, the standard, the material is fairly consistent. Ever crossed the border from North Yorkshire to Cumbria? Even without the ‘Welcome to Cumbria’ sign, you know you’re in a new world that hasn’t seen a penny spent on highway maintenance for decades. I miss the consistency of Scotland.
We end this day in Northallerton for two important reasons. It’s far enough away not to have chicken parmo for dinner (a dodgy sounding attempt to create a unique cuisine for Middlesbrough) but a short ride to the top of the North Yorkshire Moors.
Day 9 – 262 miles
My own bed tonight. Touring is great but I am so fed up having to pack everything every morning and spend ages trying to get comfy in a new bed each night. Tour fatigue is setting in but you won’t know it. My friends are still friends, with me and one another. No fallouts, hissy fits or otherwise. This might be a first for motorcycling, I’ll ring MCN and see if they wanna run an article on it!
The North Yorkshire Moors are well worth the extra time even if we were ambushed by two fords along the way, which we dealt with without a hiccup – Nigel would be proud! The road up is speckled with sheep and at this time of year, young lambs too. Picking your lines gets tricky but there’s very little traffic to complicate the ride and the views from the top stretch out into the North Sea. Again, no rain!
We pretty much headed due south along the best twisty roads I could find until we hit the A1. From here we split and travelled home at our own pace, no longer bound to keep up with the ride leader or keep an eye on the guy behind.
All in all, one of my best tours and by no means a poor alternative for Europe. We covered 2050 miles in nine days, ate creams scones at every opportunity and drank beer every night despite threats and promises to have at least one dry night.
The roads were first class, we took turns leading, so they couldn’t slag me off all the time and we stopped regularly for a leg stretch and a picture. Too many times we passed somewhere beautiful and stopped to immerse ourselves in the moment, faffed around getting ready to ride again only to turn the very next corner into a scene even more magical than the last. The approaching bend looks awesome but I want to stop for the views. Do the others feel the same? Should I keep going? I end up riding slowly to enjoy as much as I can before revving it up for that bend. I have reasons to return here again.
The actual mileage travelled, measured by my sat-nav, from home and back was 2050 miles. I spent £330 on accommodation and about £25 a day on fuel. I’m still adding up the food and drink bills!