Scotland's North Coast 500 route is gaining a bit of a reputation for itself. Often touted as the Scottish equivalent to the USA's Route 66, it's a 500 mile loop, that takes you around the coastline of the Scottish highlands, taking in some of the country's best scenery and a good dose of demanding gradients.
Andy Jackson, head coach at Peaks Sports Consultancy and 2018 UK CTT National 24hr Time Trial Champion, recently decided to do the whole 500 mile loop in just TWO days!
Below you'll find the full story of his experiences and his tips for anyone considering taking on this testing ride.
Looking for more general information on cycling in Scotland? This article contains our pick of the best regions for cycling in Scotland - and don't miss our in-depth guide to cycling Edinburgh.
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1. Tell us about the North Coast 500 cycle route - what and where is it?
The North Coast 500 is an iconic route circumnavigating the entire north of Scotland, from Inverness, across to the west coast and then right around the west, north and east coasts, via John O’Groats, and back to Inverness.
The North Coast cycle route is just over 500 miles in length and is promoted as Scotland’s version of Route 66 – the iconic driving route in the USA. It's been a great success for tourism in Scotland and is very popular with motorbikes and camper vans - (perhaps unfortunately!) this route is by no means just for foolhardy cyclists!
The route climbs over 32k feet, with the majority of this in between miles 60 and 360. But it's no way ‘flat’ on the rest!
The North Coast 500 cycle route map
There are variations on this route, but most North Coast 500 routes follow this general route. In many places there is literally just one road – so you cant get lost! You can do it clockwise, or counter clockwise. I chose clockwise as I had an ambitious plan to complete in two days and I wanted to get the majority of the climbing out of the way on day 1.
The intrepid round the world record holder, Mark Beaumont, set an initial elapsed time record of about 38hrs for riding the entire North Coast 500 cycle route. In 2016 this was bettered by ex Scottish Common Wealth Games cyclist James McCallum, who targeted and completed it with an elapsed time of 31hrs and ride time of 28hrs, 57mins. (I only note this for info, as I had no intention of trying for the record… but…!)
2. Why did you decide to tackle Scotland's NC500 cycle route?
It was a totally ‘on a whim’ decision. I had received some sad news of the death of one of my Mum's good friends to cancer, and the funeral was to be near Oban. I’d vaguely heard of the NC500, and watched something GCN did with Mark Beaumont – it looked amazing!
I checked the weather, and the forecast was stunning, Inverness was only 120 miles or so from Oban, so a plan formed! I decided I wanted to try and do it in two days, partly driven by time availability due to work, and partly as a mental and physical test for myself ahead of returning to defend my 2018 UK CTT National 24hr title. I wanted to remind my body what it was like to ride for long hours.
So on Wednesday evening, 26th June I drove into Inverness, parked up the van, downloaded a map of the route to my Garmin and bedded down.
3. Tell us about day 1
I had booked a BnB just over half way round at around 280miles, I HAD TO GET THERE tonight! My plan was to travel as light as possible, so all I carried was a spare set of kit, sunscreen, energy products for the day, spares and battery chargers. I had planned ahead and sent the BnB all the energy product I would need for day 2 to enable me to travel lighter on day 1.
Part 1: Inverness to Bealach na Bah (AKA Applecross Pass): 0-120 km (0-75 miles)
So the alarm went off at 4.30pm and I crawled out the van! This far north it hardly goes dark at all at this time of year, so I woke to a beautiful, fairly crisp morning. A quick breakfast and I was off. I always find on very long rides that the mental part of the first few hours is hard. Dealing with the thought, after 10miles, that today I have another 28x that to go, or 20k ft of climbing to do is no easy feat. I used a strategy I use a lot in long races, and prescribe with clients I coach: I chunked the ride down into four sections, with planned stops at certain points to act as interim markers.
My first planned stop was at the bottom of Bealach na Bah, the longest road climb in Britain, which is commonly know as Applecross pass. This came at around 70miles.
That first 60 miles or so was pretty easy, and fast, crossing Scotland, effectively coast to coast at one of its narrowest points. You traverse from the industrial city of Inverness, gradually climbing into the highlands where the views are magnificent and just ‘huge’! It's hard to convey the majesty of the surroundings.
The early start meant I barely saw any traffic, at all until well past the Applecross pass!
After 60 miles you hit the coast and the first test, a sharp 1mile climb out of Loch Carron, then after a nice fast descent you arrive at the bottom of Bealach na Ba. I have climbed Bealach before, last year with a friend where we smashed a 40 odd mile loop out, so I knew what I was facing. To be honest, it's not that hard a climb, for 2-3 miles you get gradual 2-4% gradients, so big ring stuff. The last 1.5-2miles it kicks up and goes to 10% in parts, but before you know it you are at the top and looking out on the unbelievable view from the top (see banner photo).
Part 2: Bealach na Ba to Kinlochewe: 120-196 km (75-122 miles)
Following this you have a section of never-ending rollers, I was struggling with a nagging cross head wind here which made each one energy sapping, forever changing gear form 52-11 to 36 -28 as you drive over each one.
The next section heads inland on a stunning single track road from Torridon to Kinlochewe. One of the noticeable things on this ride is how the wind changes, as you leave the coast you invariably get a tail wind, but maybe 10miles in land this would change to a head wind! On this section this was actually great, a tail wind 10miles in land, then a tail wind as you climb back to the coast at Garloch.
I was on about 19mph average speed here after 5hrs, although I was a bit above planned power numbers!
Part 3: Kinlochewe to Ullapool: 196-318 km (122-198 miles)
The next long section to Ullapool was energy sapping; every time you went away from the coast you hit massive rollers and long climbs. The climb from Dundonnell was one such section, cresting to the fabulous view we see below, looking towards Sgurr Mor. The climb and views were stunning, the descent to Ullapool, at 200 miles was even better!
Part 4: Ullapool to Rhiconich: 318-446 km (198-277 miles)
I stopped in Ullapool, it was now around 4pm and I had about 80 miles to go.
Average speed was still good so I was on track for an 8-9pm arrival at the B and B. After a huge refuelling, that predominantly involved Scottish Tablet and Iron Bru (well when in Rome…!), I was off.
This next section was HARD. Another noticeable part of this trip is BEWARE when you go inland. The road just climbs and descends relentlessly, the next section to Lochinver certainly backed this up.
After Lochinivor was a small right turn with that sign we all dread ‘road impassable for caravans and coaches’ – this meant one thing STEEP gradients!
Here a bit of a sea fret blew in so it started to get cooler. It was also 7pm at night, and I was getting cold. After 261m I hit a 25% gradient sign, this was for about 500m. HELL!
Then another section like this, before a thankfully steady run into my BnB: Ardberg BnB at Rhiconich. There the hosts sorted me pizza and chips in lieu of breakfast. The best I’d ever tasted!
After retrieving my box of goodies, resolving a few squeaky bits on the bike I hit the sack, for the next 4.30am alarm call
4. How was Day 2?
So I woke up before the alarm! A good sign. I was surprised how good I felt in all honesty. I was up quickly and on the road by around 5am, with just a couple of energy bars and a gel to get me going.
The morning was truly stunning!
Part 1: Rhiconich to Thurso: 0-141 km (0-88 miles)
It was around 15 miles to the north coast at Durness, a long gradual climb onto the heathland where the views were amazing, low cloud clung over the lochs and two stags were silhouetted on the moors. It was a quintessentially Scottish scene that could have come off a box of Scottish shortbread!
Once on the coast road, the route continued its relentless up and down rolling nature, down into cloud and sea fret, up into some stunning views on the moorland.
One thing noticeable about this coast is how little inhabitation and how little opportunity to fuel there is. I was so glad of my strategy to send food ahead. Due to the early start I didn’t pass a shop that was open until more than 50 miles into the day, without this I’d have been in trouble.
From Tounge, through Bettyhill (where I found a shop), Armadale and right to Thursoe was a series of relentless climbs and descents alternating from by the sea to anything up to a mile in land. Again the main feature of the ride was clear, the more inland, the more you climbed and descended.
Part 2: Thurso to John O'Groats: 141-174 km (88-108 miles)
As I came into Thursoe the scenery changed, from the rugged coastline and moorlands, to more rolling farmland, and a noticeable increase in the wind. Along the north coast road, past Douneray Nuclear plant and it was into John O’Groats at around 11am. By now a sea fret had blown in and a strong south easterly was blowing making it hard going.
Stopping in John O’Groats, with 120 miles or so to go I realised I was actually, on ride time, well within the existing record, and on elapsed time only a few hours outside, despite my luxurious 6.5 hrs sleep! I was on about an 18.5mph avg speed for the day, so doing ok!
After the obligatory pic at the sign post at John O’Groats, loaded up with tablet and Lucozade I decided to push on and see if I could hit Inverness by tea time.
Part 3: John O'Groats to Inverness: 174-372 km (108-231 miles)
The main A99 / A9 travels in a south / south westerly direction, so particularly the first 50miles I was slugging into a nagging cross head wind which made the going tough.
As you head south, the landscape again changes from the rolling farmland to more sheer cliffs and stunning beaches, it reminded me of the North Yorkshire Moors around Whitby, massive long steep climbs, and hair raisingly fast descents! Between Helmsdale and Tain the road never flattened once, constantly undulating and sapping energy. Still I pushed on well and was well over 20mph avg for all this section.
The final run down the Moray Firth had me pass Glenmorangie distillery, damn it was tempting to stop but I hit on! Just after Glenmorangie, the A9 turns due west and you pick up a monster tail wind – this was a fast 20 miles!
Come 5:45pm it was all over!
So Day 2 in cycling computer stats:
5. What were your numbers for your NC500?
Moving time 27 hrs 36 mins (80 mins quicker than the current record)
Elapsed time 37hrs exactly
33,000 ft climbed
18.5mph avg speed
238w normalised power (average 230w)
126bpm avg HR
6. If you had to pick your three favourite sections of the route, what would they be and why?
1. The Bealach Na Ba climb - it's a picturesque road, climbing parallel to a sea loch to start and then turning inland and climbing towards the pass. The view from the top is just unbelievable. One of the best I've ever seen.
2. Dundonnell to Ullapool descent - really fast, on great tarmac with stunning inland views to the highlands and lochs, before sweeping down through the forest into Ullapool itself.
3. Durness to Thursoe on the north coast - because I left so early in the morning, it felt like I was the only one on the planet and the scenery, with the sea mist, was spectacular.
7. What were your North Coast 500 highlights (and lowlights)?
The scenery was just jaw-dropping for much of the ride - lochs, moors and mountains. I was also lucky to be riding in fantastic weather, which is certainly not a given for this part of the world. While there were busy stretches of road, I also thought that overall the roads were pretty quiet, which made the whole experience much nicer.
The worst thing about it for me was the relentless climbing! It felt like the whole route didn't have any flat sections in it! You should also plan ahead for the north coast, since there really aren't many facilities there. I'd also suggest not hitting the A9 run back into Inverness on a Friday afternoon (when I was there) - though I suspect, it's not very pleasant at any time of day/week...
8. Tell us about your kit choices
I used my standard SRAM red eTap equipped Evo2Max Hyperson road bike, with 52/36 and 11-28 gearing. I just added just a frame pack with key essentials.
My packing list looked like this:
1. 2x500ml frame mounted bottles, 1x500ml bottle in my back pocket
2. Garmin 1030
3. External power pack with leads for phone and garmin
4. Socket chargers x2 to charge everything overnight
5. Spare set of cycling kit
7. Arm warmers
8. Bike lube
9. Insulation tape (solves almost anything)
10. Sunscreen and lypsyl (*which I lost early on and am paying the price for now with seriously cracked lips!)
11. Pair of boxer shorts to sleep in
12. Toothbrush and toothpaste
I wish I'd also taken gloves for the morning – it was COLD, about 4 degrees early on. I got round this on day 2 by taping yesterday’s cycling kit around my hands as impromptu gloves, it worked a treat and, to be honest, I’d probably do again rather than carry more items!
9. What did you eat and drink while cycling the NC500?
I carried (and sent on for day 2)
1. 14 OTE gels
2. 4 OTE bars
3. Tube OTE electrolyte tabs
I stopped pretty much whenever I saw a shop to ensure my bottles were full. This was vital as I didn't know when I might be able to refuel again, especially up until I got to John O’Groats.
I also ate a couple of sandwiches from the shops en-route, sweets, nuts and seeds - and my own body weight in Scottish tablet!
10. What tips would you give to someone wanting to take on the Scottish 500 cycle route?
1. Route planning - you can make your NC500 route planning as easy or as complex as you want. Many people make a detailed North Coast 500 itinerary and plan this in huge detail, mapping every stop, possible rest point and undulation. Or you can do what I did: download a map to my Garmin, pick a point to stop over night(s), book some accommodation and press ‘start’!
2. Accommodation - you can either choose to BnB, hostel or camp. I chose BnB to minimise what I had to carry and give me a clear point I ‘must’ reach. Mentally I find this helps. I would have found it too easy to just stop otherwise.
3. Road conditions - I found the road conditions generally pretty good. There are a lot of single track roads where you need to watch for camper vans and bikers, but in general the route is quiet.
4. Best time of year to ride - definitely consider the time of year you tackle this route and the weather. I’d strongly recommend the time I did it, high summer, for the long days and chance of the weather being good. This route is ALL about the weather. I only went as the forecast was great, but a typical Scottish coastal day of rain and wind this ride would be grim, wet and cold and nothing to see.
5. Fitness - you need to be fit to do this route; every time you go inland you will be climbing a lot!
Big thanks to Andy from Peaks Sports Consulting for sharing his experience of cycling the North Coast 500. What a route!
Got questions for Andy?
Write them in the comments below, and we'll do our best to get answers for you!
You can find out more about Andy and get in touch with him direct at Peaks Sport Consultancy, which offers a total holistic coaching performance package to plan, manage and integrate every aspect of your triathlon or cycling performance.
Want something to help you remember your NC500 ride?
These cycling map prints are just the ticket.
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You might find our in-depth article on Land's End to John O'Groats inspiring!
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