Cycling the North Coast 500: What to know before you go

Often referred to as Scotland’s Route 66, the North Coast 500 is an incredible, unbroken loop of tarmac that starts and finishes in Inverness. It does what it says on the tin, in that the 500-mile trip hugs the coastline of the most northerly chunk of Scotland taking in beautiful and unspoiled views. And while it’s a popular trip for motorcyclists, caravan fans and B&B tourists, tackling the route on a bike offers an unparalleled experience as the huge landscape unfolds around you.

To help in planning, here are a few tips based on our nine-day ride in May 2018.

Use the tourist map with caution 

Ahead of the trip we ordered the North Coast 500 map in order to plan our itinerary. One thing to point out is that the map is in fact free to pick up from lots of locations on the route and there are plenty of resources online – so think about what information you need before making a purchase.

When it comes to the map itself, it is by no means topographically correct. Fitting all of the North Coast onto an A3 map means the scale is quite small, so the contours aren’t exactly reflective of the actual climbing in store. You’ve probably guessed it already, but there is a LOT of climbing. More on that later.

Some of the more forgiving up

Go off piste

While the map is definitely helpful and it’s very rewarding to chart your progress around the coast, there is way more to see than what lines the defined tourist route. On shorter days or through starting out early, try to make time for a trip off the beaten track.

By doing this we discovered the stunning Achnahaird Beach north of Ullapool – plus Dunnet’s Head which is the actual most northerly point of the UK (rather than John O’ Groats). I mean, you can’t go all that way and just get a photo at the second most northerly point!

Achnahaird Beach – A bit of a stunner!
The actual most northerly point

Don’t underestimate the climbing

Cycle touring is a brilliant way to move slowly through the area and see things you might miss in a car, but I should point out that most of the North Coast is pretty slow going. The majority of days feature well over 1,000 metres of climbing, with a total for the route of over 9,500.

Clearly the lumpy landscape makes for incredible views, but be prepared to continually have to gain, lose, gain, lose and gain height again. If you’re riding with panniers, you will feel them!

Me in full suffer mode on something >20%

Ride early to avoid headwinds

We were incredibly lucky with the weather during our trip, with wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures in the twenties. But while we had blue skies, we also found ourselves  racing daily against increasing wind strength – which was always a headwind.

After a calm start the wind would build into the afternoon, where we found that getting mileage in early on was a good plan. A couple days ended in a two-up TT, mostly riding due east with our heads down and dreaming of dinner.

Tucking in during a typical afternoon battle against the breeze

Stay with locals

The great thing about the North Coast 500 is that you do it at whatever pace you like and stay wherever you want. We made good use of AirBnB to stay in some interesting places and friendly B&Bs, with a wonderful reception everywhere we went. The owners always had brilliant recommendations, whether for food, local walks or little-known gems.

Other road users are like boomerangs

There is some funny leap-frogging involved in riding the North Coast 500; you will find yourself seeing the same faces and vehicles for days on end. We had lots of friendly waves from fellow holiday-makers, plus were approached twice while we ate dinner by couples asking if we were the cyclists they had overtaken a few times during the day.

Keep eating!

We had lots of long, glorious days on the bike. But long days in the saddle need fuelling. Make sure you carry enough food and eat often, plus it’s a good idea to note where you will be able to buy food along the route as there can be some long stretches without shops or cafes.

When thinking about your set-up, check you will be able to carry enough water, too. We were a little short on one of the hottest, toughest sections of the ride which made for an uncomfortable few miles.

Draggy roads

Similar to the cumulative effect of the climbing and headwinds is the draggy nature of the roads. Beyond the first and last days, we found a lot of the tarmac to be pretty rough which just takes that extra bit of energy to push over. The silky smooth A9 was a bit of a gift to end on, but admittedly not half as beautiful.

Be a tourist: Take a lock and have a day off

We were uncertain whether to take a lock (as all of our accommodation kindly said they could securely store our bikes), but were glad we did. While the route does take some serious riding (and therefore hours in the saddle), there are also some stunning sites and scenes on the way that shouldn’t be missed.

Chamois tourism at Inverlochewe Gardens

Look around

I write this with my fingers crossed that your trip has good weather and therefore good views, simply because there is just so much to look at. Whether it’s massive Munros, rugged coastline or wonderful wild life: you won’t be disappointed.

2 thoughts on “Cycling the North Coast 500: What to know before you go

  1. You didnt say if you went clockwise or anticlockwise? This should give a different wind experience?
    Does it include the Great Glen which I have riden before?

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      We rode the route clockwise, front-loading the beautiful remote roads (and most of the climbing) meaning that the last day and a half were faster A-roads. The prevailing winds in Scotland are westerlies/south-westerlies so we thought we’d have the wind at our backs, but obviously these things are a little unpredictable – plus we did have wall-to-wall sunshine which was very unexpected (but very welcome)!

      Not 100% sure on the exact position of the Great Glen, but mostly I would say the route is north of the valley as it’s pretty much all north of Inverness.

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