Max's North Coast 500

Seven days before I and my good friend Joe Evans was meant to embark on a bike packing trip down to Dover and across the channel over to Belgium in an attempt to salvage something from the 2020 season with a bit of kermesse racing, our plans were thrown out the window due to an imminent Belgian lockdown. Joe rang me up and we both made the decision to stay “local” and think about doing something like the North Coast 500 in the Scottish Highlands. Simultaneously, we both asked each other “Why not the NC500?” And at that moment we had decided this would be our revised trip.

The next four days consisted of hashing together a rough route from Leeds to Inverness before embarking on the harsh Scottish roads that make up the famous NC500 route. Neither of us had done much outside the niche sphere of road racing so we were very aware this 11-day trip was going to be an eye-opener, and it did not disappoint.

We bought our bags based off the recommendations of riders who had themselves, not done any bike packing, and we soon realised these bags would not allow for the creature comforts we have become accustomed to at bike races. It seemed to me like I could not even pack the bare minimum of what I wanted to take. But hey, we move. I’d stuffed in all my favourite bits of kit, including the Dessus Nero Aero Jersey, into my bags along with a toothbrush, some shoes and a horrific off the bike outfit, and off we went! Everything was sacrificed in the name of comfort however, with this jersey, aero was not going to be lost.

Day one consisted of riding from Leeds to Peterlee in County Durham. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a nice manageable distance with very little elevation, nothing to trouble guys who have raced for years. You’d be wrong. We had completely forgotten to make any routes for our Garmins and pretty much had to sniff Peterlee out for 160km, taking on numerous off-road, shall we say ‘testing’ segments that would not be out of place in Strada Bianche. It was one of those rides where the end was always drifting further away from us but arrived in the illustrious Peterlee greeted by an old woman who took great pleasure in wishing us all the best on our holidays. We managed to get some dinner and put our feet up, satisfied with our first day riding but with a slight pit in my stomach that we might have bitten off more than we could chew.

The weather had given us all four seasons that day and we were hoping for some sunshine on our predominantly coastal second day of riding from Peterlee to Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders. This was not the case. Another showery day riding through the North East of England in wet kit made hauling our bikes over the border feel like a Herculean task. The 185km ride had just about done us both in by the end of it. We were greeted by a gorgeous house but this was overshadowed by the actual town of Eyemouth being another 3 mile ride away, a necessary evil in order to get some food. We got ourselves warm and dry and set off down their driveway which was an apparent short cut to get back to the main road. We quickly realised it was far too overgrown to walk through let alone carry our bikes through, we were both a couple of cooked units that we couldn’t allow ourselves to turn round so we clambered through the barbs and thorns to make it back to this main road. We trundled down into town and ordered a Chinese takeaway, it is our holidays after all! After a quick call in at Co-op to pick up some beers, we sat by the beach and watched the sunset and chatted about the days to come. This was my idea of a holiday. 

Day three came around fast and we were in for the worst that Scottish weather could throw at us, a full day of heavy rain. Both myself and Joe came out with completely unfounded comments such as “It is pretty much impossible for it to rain all day” and “I swear it never rains by the coast,” in an effort to reassure one another that the day would get better than what we had woke up to. We had to navigate through the port town of Leith and then Edinburgh managing to puncture in the process, something very unsurprising given the state of the roads. Morale was low to say the least, as we huddled under a bus shelter and waited for the sealant to do its job. The last 50kms seemed to take an eternity until we got to the Forth bridge where we were treated to a tailwind which took us nicely into the town of Kinross. My bags had become saturated and so had pretty much every item of clothing I had brought with me. Maybe today wasn’t the day to have skimped on the accommodation. Thankfully, our hosts could not have been more welcoming, they washed our kit and put it all out on a drying rack with a heater to get them dry for the next day. After over 400km of riding in three days, we did, however, pass on the offer of lentil soup for dinner and went in search of something heartier. We were recommended a fish and chip shop which offered something called a fish supper which to my amazement just meant two portions of fish and chips! I was made up and we both went to bed warm and well-fed with our faith restored that this trip was going to be fun.

In the morning, we met one of the our fellow lodgers who did not seem impressed at the mileage we were doing each day. By the sounds of it, he wouldn’t have been shocked if we’d have ridden from the moon! We held on to a few of his quotes in our heads which made us chuckle even now, “aye, so no millions of miles lads.” No mate, not literally millions of miles. He seemed to have followed us to the café in the morning for a full fry up, which was aptly named reminisce, as today I was really reminiscing of fresh legs and dry kit.

We started most days with food on our minds and we quickly found a Co-op shop to stock up for the days ride, I had gone with pork pies, jelly babies and boost bars for today's nutrition strategy. The day started well and got better each and every mile that ticked away. One bit that sticks with me the most is jumping on the empty A9 road and we began to cane it riding along at 50+kmh fully bagged up 150km into that days riding. Riding that road splitting the valley in half like the spine of the Scottish Highlands was poetry in motion. Joe and I didn't need to say anything we both just knew what we were both thinking - Chop off to the death? Exactly. Thanks to the high wicking properties on offer from Dessus, I stayed dry even during hard efforts where you’d normally be dripping in sweat.

In all our excitement of racing through the Cairngorms, we had missed our turnoff and made the ride 10 miles longer than we needed to, but we didn't care. We’d had the time of our lives and we cruised on up the other side of the valley to our hotel for the night. The luxury was well-received as we sat down to a hot meal all sorted for us. In the midst of the beauty that surrounded us, we were reminded quickly of the global pandemic, as the hotel manager shared the harsh reality that if they have another six months of this, they would inevitably close. Every time you can help a small business at this time please consider being in their shoes before you save a few quid.

Day five was the first ‘easy’ day we had had so far. A cool 85km ride into Inverness before starting the official North Coast 500 route. The roads were sparse and we decided it best to just get on the main road and get there as fast as possible, giving ourselves more time to recover for the mammoth task still afoot. A quirky student halls was what was on offer this evening accompanied by three party girls living their best life which didn’t quite make for the rest day we wanted. I guess this shows our inexperience of bike packing shining through.

After the second-worst cup of coffee I had all trip and some overpriced eggs we set off on another steady 105km day, knowing full well we faced the apple cross pass tomorrow. We cruised along a mint road with the wind on our backs. We knew we were going to get to our lodgings far too early so we took a stop for a coffee and cake and took in some more of the views. We got chatting to a guy who’d ridden the same way as us who came out with some awful complaints of the wind and road which we really didn't seem to suffer from. The guy talked a million miles a minute so at least that's what I think he said! The rest of the ride was very uneventful and quiet, but the rain started about 5 miles from our accommodation and we were made to wait outside in the rain till the owner had finished his conversation with the local postman. Seems like people work at half speed once you get that high up the country.

After the tough days we've had on the bike we rewarded ourselves with some beers down at the local pub with the view of the loch. We had a long ride tomorrow so we needed a good night’s sleep, so there was some scientific reasoning behind the beers! We were spoilt pretty much everywhere we went with breakfast with a near enough all you can eat fry up, and today was no different and boy, did we need it. We were chatting to the woman who owned the bed and breakfast about where we were heading to which she replied “Ullapool? People don’t normally go that far.”

We had estimated the ride to be around 200km or 125 miles in old money, a long day in anyone's books let alone with the added weight due to riding fully self-supported. We took on the infamous Applecross pass early doors, a 7.5mile climb with over 2000ft of climbing, before descending into what was probably the most testing 50km of the trip. These awful steep climbs and descends drained every ounce of energy from my legs and I was ready to stop about 70km into this massive ride. We pulled in for a regroup and a coffee and cake, before setting off with a bit more enthusiasm for the rest of the ride. We’d been going maybe another 20km before seeing a sign saying “Ullapool - 76 miles.” My heart sank. This really was going to be a big day. In fact, it was going to be 20km longer than we originally thought. Weirdly enough, I began to feel better as the day went on, the only issue was stopping for anything more than five minutes would result in thirty minutes of cafe legs! We pulled into a hotel around 180km in, hoping to fill our bottles and maybe get something to get us to the end of the ride, but it was closed. We were both pretty shelled by this point and the lights really began to go out on the climb that followed. Not many words were spoken till we got into Ullapool where we congratulated one another on making it through a really tough day on the bike.

Joe had the genius idea that we’d get a few beers and a curry for dinner. Mint, right? Not if you order a curry so unbelievably spicy, you’re left pouring that weird pot of yoghurt you get given around your lips trying to cool it down. The curry house really did me no favours that night. Let's hope we get a good feed at brekky else I knew I would crumble like a biscuit the next day.

The next morning rolled around and surprisingly the curry, or lack of it, didn't cause too many issues today, I think I had enough residual nutrients from the ridiculous amount of food I was eating every day, to go a few days just burning my inner food stores. We knew that Laid was going to be pretty sparse, so we stopped in Durness to pick up some dinner, but we had lost track of days and found that all the shops were closed on a Sunday. All bar one anyway, a tiny campsite shop which offered either frozen pizzas or dry pasta. We opted for two pizzas each and prayed that our hosts would let us cook them upon arrival. It was a task to pack our bags with even more stuff but we balanced the pizzas under some bungee cords and took the next 10 miles nice and slowly. We rocked up to our bungalow after a good forty minutes riding up and down the lane where the houses weren’t numbered in order with no phone service. If it weren’t for the most amazing views that surrounded us this could've been a real low moment.

We had our temperatures checked upon arrival, presumably to check for Covid, I panicked since we’d both been riding for a good five or six hours in the sun all day but we were eventually allowed entry. The best way I could describe this place was being at your grandparents - best behaviour at all times! Similarly to staying with your grandparents, we were so well looked after and had our pizzas cooked and even our washing done for us yet again. It had been a mentally tough day on the bike but we both stuck together and solved any issues that faced us that day.

We got off nice and early the next morning. Clearly our morning routine had become ritual by now, with all the little faffs ironed out. We rolled around this loch for around 20km and I thought to myself “Don’t take a picture, it will never do it justice. Just take a minute to really immerse yourself in the surroundings and never forget this moment.” Racing bikes has taken me to a lot of places in the world and this tops them all, hands down the best 20km of riding, maybe even the single best thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

In this trip I found myself trying to switch off from the normal thoughts I have on the bike, such as having to stick to a strict schedule or being on the bike by this time and back by this time. No stops or whatever. All of these troubles drifted away and it really reminded me of the reasons I ride my bike. The rest of the ride was not much to be desired but it didn’t detract from that first hour in Nirvana.

With ten or fifteen kilometres to go before we reached John o' Groats, I joked to Joe saying “I’m gonna blow here!” As I quickly stuffed all the food I had left into me, it wasn’t fast enough. I blew my doors in a big way and almost in unison, Joe did too. I gave him my last few jelly babies and we were both just about turning the pedals. It was slow going but we were moving. We made it maybe 50 metres from the hotel and I had blown yet again. I pulled in at a T-junction and felt like I was going to pass out. The dreaded double blow, the lights were well and truly out. Joe kept telling me the hotel was literally right in front of us, but it took a good few times for it to sink in and I dragged myself across the road and onto a well-placed bench. Joe brought me the hotel keys and a Pepsi, I sat and sorted myself out, regaining full consciousness before making it back over the road to our room.

Up until now, we had been blessed by sunshine in Scotland, however this morning it was pretty foggy. I was looking out of the window as I saw a van pull up and a few bike rider types exited and I said to Joe “I swear there's a guy here who looks just like Angus Morton!” A videographer whose brother is Lachlan Morton of the world tour cycling team, EF Education. Joe agreed it must be him, and that he must be here filming for the GBDuro, a completely self-supported Lands End to John o’ Groats gravel race. We’d both have loved to have a full conversation with Angus, someone who was part of the reason why we had the idea for a trip like this, but he was working and it wasn’t the time. He said hello to both of us and that was enough to give us a boost to keep going today.

Due to my magnificent bonk on the day of arriving in John o’ Groats, we delayed getting a picture with the famous sign until today. We dove into what Joe kept calling a grockle shop to see if we could buy some tin mugs to strap to our bikes (to look cool and like proper bike packers). We left with two of the tackiest fridge magnets you've ever seen and got on our way back towards Inverness. We'd made the decision to split the ride into two short days, something we were both extremely thankful for.

It was a pretty uneventful ride down the east coast of the Scottish Highlands, but after all the excitement of the trip so far we were happy with a nice simple day of riding. Arriving at our lovely accommodation at a nice early time, managing to have a brew and a long shower before heading out in search of some more food. I am a massive fan of fish and chips and this being the fourth time I’d had it this trip, yet even I was getting sick of it by now. We got back to our room and lay on our beds with a nice pack of cold beers and devoured our fish and chips. We had been lucky that every night up until now, we were allowed to bring the bikes indoors or at least inside a locked garage, however not tonight. There was a thin tarp put over them, which would’ve been alright if it wasn’t for the thunder and lightning we had that night. My bikes big ring had worn out by now and it really was on its last legs now, the last thing it needed was a night out in the rain. Poor thing!

We had both become quite the connoisseur of fry ups by now, having had one every morning for the past two weeks and this one didn’t quite cut the mustard. It was as if every item had been cooked then dipped in a vat of grease. Not sure our bodies were going to thank us for this one but with only 85 km back to Inverness, all we needed to do was make it, by hook or by crook we were going to finish our last day of riding. Sunshine was the order of the day, we arrived at the Inverness castle in 25 degrees, absolutely cooked, thanking ourselves for ending the trip here and not attempting to ride back to Leeds. We got ourselves a pizza at an Italian on the hill as we relaxed and soaked in the sun and enjoyed a few well-deserved beers.

We haven’t done anything that's not been done before. We didn’t do crazy mileage. We didn’t camp. We rode our bikes the way we wanted to and loved every minute of it because that's what we set out to do. All too much we can forget why we do the things we do, every now and then it's good to remind yourself what your why is. I'll leave you with the words of Ferris Bueller, “The world moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”.


Max McMurdo

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