This summer, fresh from cycling across Africa, record-breaking cyclist Mark Beaumont took on a new challenge; the North Coast 500 (NC500). Aiming to complete the route in an astonishing 48 hours, Mark pedalled through the elements to reach the finishing point at Inverness Castle in just under 38 hours! If there was anyone that is equipped to give advice on cycling the route… it is Mark!
Mark was asked some questions by cyclists who are looking to ride the route, here’s what he had to say.
A: The North Coast 500 is a spectacular route and is by far the furthest I have cycled non-stop! I have cycled across over 60 countries and the NC500 is hard to compare to anywhere. There were sections along the west coast that reminded me of the fjords of Norway and there were landscapes in Caithness that look like windswept plains of Iceland, but this northern reach of mainland Britain really has its own character and rugged beauty. As a cycling route it is pretty challenging, especially the climbs around the Applecross peninsula and north of Lochinver. Anything less than a 5 day cycle would be more a feat of endurance than the leisurely explore that this journey deserves!
Q2: The North Coast 500 features a variety of different road surfaces – would you say the road is suitable for cyclists of all abilities?
A: This is the kind of route that is within the ability of most cyclists, but a decent amount of training would help so that you can enjoy it! There are long sections of C road, which are unpainted and can have off camber corners and some gravel, especially up the west coast, so because of this and the amount of climbing, this route is not suitable for complete novice cyclists. However, because these roads are so quiet, they also make for perfect cycling if you like a challenge – you can pedal for hours without being passed by any cars. For slower cyclists, you could take a week or 10 days, making the most of B&Bs, hotels or campsites along the way. Why rush it?!
Q3: If you were going to ride the route at a leisurely pace, how long would you take?
A: My ideal way of pedalling the NC500 would be with a small group of friends and in 5 days – fast enough to be a challenge, but slow enough to get off the bike and explore. There are some amazing places to eat, stunning beaches, historic landmarks as well as craft shops and galleries along the route, which it was a shame to race past on my recent mission – but I look forwards to going back!
Q4: What were you top three view-points?
A: The Beallach Na Ba is my favourite climb in the UK, and the view from the top back down to the coastline and over to the Cuillin Ridge on Skye is breathtakingly on a clear day. Along the northcoast, by Laide you can see your road for the next hour stretching inland around Loch Eriboll, which is a long way to go around for not much progress forwards! But the peace and tranquillity of this Sutherland stretch is wonderful. Further east and you pedal past Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain, where the horizon is scattered with the Orkney Islands, including the sea stack of the Old Man of Hoy.
Q5: Which stretch of the route did you find most challenging?
A: The northwest corner of Scotland came in the middle of the night for me, and it was pretty wet, so I found the road from Loch Assynt to Laxford Bridge pretty tough. It was a relief to get back onto a bigger road and pick up some speed to Durness and turn east towards John O’Groats. This part of Sutherland has some pretty steep climbs, but they are not long, so you aren’t left to get into any gear and rhythm for very long. The road undulates around the coastline, which I am sure is spectacular during the daytime – so don’t follow my example and try this at night!
Q6: And finally, do you have any tips for cyclists looking to do the North Coast 500?
A: The route has a prevailing westerly most of the time and this is more likely to be strong along the exposed north coast than on the inland stretch from Inverness, and so my recommendation would be to tackle the NC500 clockwise. At the moment this is an underexplored part of the British Isles and so is perfect for a cycling adventure. You do need to be prepared for any weather and there aren’t a lot of bike shops, so make sure you have what you need. But with a bit of careful preparation and training, I guarantee you will be rewarded with one of the most memorable cycle rides of your life.
If you want to ride the North Coast 500 yourself, find cycle-friendly places to stay right here.