This summer Jack Chavner and Ami Hallford were the source of envy amongst ELAM members for their nine-day adventure on Scotland’s most coveted bike tour: the North Coast 500. They describe the highs and lows in this feature piece.
It’s January, it’s cold, real cold, -27°c on the thermometer, and I’m on a ski lift in Finland thinking about my next bike tour…
I have an idea!
A few weeks later I’m planning mine and Ami’s tour up to Scotland and to ride the North Coast 500, selecting routes, using Google Street View and Tom-Tom to help. Now let’s fast forward a few months.
Scot: T-2 days and counting: My bike has its new taller windscreen, new panniers and has been serviced. Ami’s bike: powders done and screen adjusted. Tent out and checked bags and kit.
Scot: T-1 day and counting: Sleeping bags packed, luggage packed, all the prep work done, waterproof bags for the clothes to go in, tyre pump, kit mats, hydration systems. Everything just shy of the kitchen sink! I’m thinking to myself this is going be a good trip.
Scot1: Wake up on a lazy Friday morning with a few things to sort out first. Now 10am bikes are out of the garage and the panniers and roll bags are on. Now this was just a short day to Newark on Trent and 130 miles in 3 hours – not too bad. We jump on the M25 to the A10 following it up to Royston; the sun hot but the wind on us at speed keeping us cool despite the heatwave. We head north again. Towards Huntingdon – damn, traffic now slowing us down and in turn warming me up. We go west toward the B645 and the B660 through some stunning looking villages.
Fun’s over: A1(M) (yay, motorway), time to cool down for an hour’s slog on the motorway. We arrive at the Premier Inn in Newark-on-Trent, now parked up and quickly finding some shade, throwing our rucksacks to the floor and our helmets and jackets with them. In the room I see my shirt with a massive salt mark on it. Yum…shower! Off to see Oceans 8, dinner and bed.
Scot 2: It was a HOT night, shower, breakfast, sort bikes out, now time for a second shower – it’s that hot already. It’s 260 miles to Edinburgh, just over five hours of saddle time, with a quick petrol stop and it’s back to the A1 to rack them miles up. Next stop, Weatherby Services 90 miles north for a toilet break and snack. We leave and there are multiple crashes on the A1; filtering for hours in heat wasn’t fun. Lunch time at Scotch Corner Services; Gregg’s meal deal at this point is the one. As I’m eating there’s a family in front of me with a dog each. One family was French the other English. Now do the dogs speak the same language, just with different accents?
After I debate this in my head, I can hear the A1 calling, time to hit the road again. We pass Durham and Newcastle to our exit for the A697. Yay, some interesting roads. We then stop at a town called Powburn to fill up at a petrol station and have a cold drink and a snack. We notice there is a classic bike rally going on, we talk to one of the riders in it and to hear the oldest bike in it is 107 years old, shock on my face and I’m thinking that most modern stuff breaks after two years, laughing to myself at this point. We cross the border at Coldstream (I didn’t dip my feet in to see if it was). In the Scottish hills heading toward Edinburgh and our stop over for the night in Musselburgh.
Scot 3: We wake up to the sound of HGVs filling up at the petrol station next to us. We get ready and leave to go in to the city centre to find a cafe for breakfast. We go around Holyrood Park, through Old Town past the castle and on to Queen’s Street. After finding that all three options were a no-go for breakfast we settled for good old Mc’EDs. Bike and rider filled up. A dash over the new river Forth Road Bridge and up to Perth. We now head up towards Cairngorms National Park. Shortly after leaving the motorway we were feeling peckish; about twenty minutes later we saw a massive strawberry (now, I‘m talking big, almost the size of a shed). We pull over and it’s a shop in a layby selling all local berries, fruit and local honey. I opt to buy some raspberries and honeycomb. Ami has a whole pack of strawberries! Back on the bikes we go. Heading north and the hills getting steeper we head up to where Scotland has its ski slopes. After having lunch at Glenshee Ski Center, we then make our way north towards Inverness. With the wind picking up as we ride to higher places we were finding it a bit difficult to ride safely at speeds above 40mph with no other way to go but forward. Quick toilet break and headed down to the A9 and rest stop for the night.
Scot 4: Now we are at the start point of the North Coast 500 route and the reason why we are here. The weather is slightly overcast (keep an eye on the weather, boys and girls, you’ll see why), quick fill up at the cheapest petrol station so far. Heading west on the A832 to the coast and the single track roads that will take us around most of the route. Having lunch at the water side of Lochcarron; pointing the bikes west we are now on the famous Apple Cross Pass. From the bottom of it at sea level we go single track twisty roads with massive blind spots on the hill sides, to gravel-covered corners, with two banked hairpins on a cliff edge! Riding along the side looking down the valley to the bottom of it which is a good 2,000-odd feet below. Now at the top we stop to take in some of the views, looking at the road in front us of all the way to Apple Cross itself. Down a 1in4 hill throughout the village of Apple Cross and carrying on around the coast until it became the bottom of a valley. There was a lot of farm traffic and a car determined to keep up with us as we started to open the bikes up a bit. We made it to our stop over in Kinlochewe for the night, which was a bunk house to try and keep costs down. We make our beds on the bottom of the bunks, dinner in the hotel then bed.
Scot 5: I love to lay in except on Tuesday when we get rudely awoken by a bunch of loud teenage cyclists. Its 5.30 am, I’m not happy, and tell them that other people are in here trying to sleep. They got the message, but not enough, can now tell it was going to be a long day. We got up, started packing and can hear rain, yay. Waterproofs on with 144 miles to go. Half an hour into the trip and I can start to feel some thing wrong, very wrong, and wet. “F***!” the water proof trousers had failed and was slowly pooling the water in my crutch. With them being the only set I had, the set of jeans were getting heavy under them. Thankfully the waterproof jacket and textile jacket was keeping me warm enough. Still heading around the coast with the rain showing no signs of getting lighter or stopping we have to get a wriggle on for less time out in the elements, we go through thick fog and low lying clouds. We get to Ullapool and stop at Tesco for hot food and maybe a new set of waterproofs trousers. Hot food and drinks are aplenty but not waterproofs. Heading north to a section that a few locals say I should see – well, if the damn cloud lets us. About now mine and Ami’s intercom starts to fail due to the rain and wind, which is not ideal. We join the B869 (the coastal road around Clachtoll and Clashnessie). Oh, look! Another rain cloud.
I turn a corner and slam the breaks on! Well, this is different. A herd of Highland cattle are blocking the road. I brave it and go through them. At this point, I feel like I’m dodging bullets here with their long pointed horns wavering about. Ami later tells me that she wasn’t brave enough to risk being rammed by the cattle and loved her Kawasaki too much so she stopped and waited for the cows to move. Roughly ten minutes later and she managed to get through only to find me riding within the herd and had become ‘at one’ with the cattle!
We move on and see a bike and side car with the two people on it flying an Isle of man flag on the back. They politely let us pass knowing how slow they were travelling! Back on the main road it was still wet. Passed the Kylesku Bridge and with a quick dash past some frog warning signs and we make our way to the campsite. Tent up and now to hang everything up in the washing area, my jeans in the tumble dryer, hot food and bed.
Scot 6: The day starts out normally as it would do in a tent after a storm had been there. Wet! The next part I wasn’t ready for. I received word that an old friend of mine had passed away from injuries he had sustained during a crash at Brands Hatch earlier that weekend. Knowing I had half my journey to do and get home, my riding was slower and this was very noticeable to Ami behind on her bike. Due to the tent being wet beyond reuse we book in to a B&B. Toilet stop in Durness and again with the rain staying with us that day we make our way past Loch Eriboll and Tongue Viewpoint and what was a raised road in a loch. In Betty Hill we found the most expensive fuel at £1.48 on our trip. After that it was following the coast east past a navy nuclear test base. Now east as we can go we arrive at John O’ Groats. Obligatory pictures done, lunch had, and we head south for thirty miles to the B&B for the night. Past Wick and some old WW2 airfields, we make it to a dry and warm room.
Scot 7: We have a better night’s sleep and a good breakfast. Weather report says cold and dry. We leave heading down to Inverness with some amazing views on both sides. Roads are good too but the traffic was not. Slow start to the day but now otter warning signs on the A99 and A9. The more south we go the sun tries to make a break in the clouds but cannot. We bypass Inverness through the hill and to Lochness. The size of the loch was unexpected. Forty minutes to ride from the road we join to the end of it where we have lunch and I unexpectedly befriend a chicken. Still heading south we see part of Ben Nevis; then we head east to the A9 and then a few hours of motorway and dual carriageways. After a pitstop for dinner at my uncle’s in Livingston, we get a hotel and bed.
Scot8: With the longest day now behind us we grab the A7 and head south towards the border, filling up in Hawick, the last town before we get to England. The roads are littered with parts of trees from logging and loose gravel. We make it home across the border and in to Northumberland National Park. As we get south we can again see signs for Hadrian’s Wall. Says something about modern building when a wall built by slaves and solders over 2,000 years ago is still there. We now join the A68 to head south for the boring part of the day and join the A1 south for the trip to Doncaster for our stay.
Scot 9: This is the last day and to get home it’s an eighty-minute-or-so ride on the back roads through Markham Moor, Retford, and to Newark. Stop off for a quick fuel stop here and then down to Grantham before we join the A1 home. We reach M11 only to find it grid-locked like everything around the M25 has been lately. Off at Junction 26 on the M25 and we are home.
The trip did take some planning – many hours at work to find the best roads. Buying the extra kit needed and getting wet and cold for some of the trip made it what was. Covering almost 2000 miles: single track roads, mountain passes, town riding and motorways. I would do it again and hope for less rain next time and a better tent. Maybe sacrifice a goat to the weather God.
Plus, never got bitten by a midge once!