Five tips for cycling the NC500

There is a 519 mile road route, running in a circular loop from Inverness in the east, cross country to the west, up the coast, across the northern highlands and back down the east coast from John O’Groats.

This route has been recently branded the “North Coast 500” and has been a huge hit with Scots and tourists alike.

In August 2016 four of us tackled the NC500 as a rehearsal for our round the world cycle trip. This blog will hopefully give any potential cyclists an insight into what to bring and how to prepare!

In our group we are at a broadly similar level of cycling ability, I would describe us as good “weekend” cyclists. None of us ride competitively, or for a club, but we can all cover 100 miles in a day and tackle some tasty hills. We completed the 519 miles in 6 days on road bikes, with a support vehicle. Here are a few things we’d advise you to do if you’re doing a similar trip.

1. Consider having a support vehicle

We decided to, and it was probably the best decision we made on the trip. As there were four of us, and none wanted to be full time support driver, we split the driving each day meaning each of us got a rest from the bike. This did cut down the total mileage which may not appeal to the hard core, but was a welcome break for us as we were on the limit at the end of most days… As we were trying to keep costs down, we camped every night. Being able to store our camping kit/food/clothes in the car whilst we cycled was invaluable. The alternative would have been to ride touring bikes, carrying all our kit with us. For extreme tourers this would maybe be fun, but given our level of fitness, it would have been impossible to complete the route in 6 days with so much additional weight. Other benefits of the car include having support if there is an accident/mechanical issue, having someone free to do a food/drinks run whilst the rest are cycling, and have someone free to scout a good camp/lunch spot so reducing the pressure on the cyclists.

2. Get the right kit

My attitude whenever going outdoors in Scotland, is to pack for wind, rain and cold – any weather better than this is a bonus. We were treated to a week of stunning sunshine and so thankfully brought the sunscreen, but it still gets cold at night so ensure you pack warm clothes even when the forecast is good. Ensure your tents are waterproof (not a £10 Sports Direct job) and can handle wind. Goes without saying ensure your bike is properly serviced, and at least someone in your groups knows basic bike maintenance. One of the most invaluable bits of kit is midge protection… Midges can be unbearable if you are unprepared. Take some extra strong bug spray, and I’d recommend a midge head net for when things really get tough. This midge forecast tool I’ve just discovered is great.

3. Think about timing

The lowest rainfall months in Scotland are generally late spring/early summer according to the met office. The highest sunshine months are May – July, and from my own personal experience the lowest midge months are probably May and September. The prevailing wind on the west coast comes from the south west so doing the route clockwise is a sensible idea. In summary, probably the best time to do the route would be April – July ish. That said, we did it in August and had a week of glorious sunshine without a breath of wind, so the only hard and fast rule is that there are no hard and fast rules! Keep checking the forecasts and be prepared for four seasons in a day.

4. Actually do some Training

Our strategy was to break the back of the trip towards the start, thus giving us leeway in the latter stages. In my view this is a great way to do it as the last thing you want to be doing is having to churn out 100 mile+ days when you are exhausted from 4 days on the bike already. This resulted in the first three days being very long, in some extremely hilly terrain. On the first day we made it to Applecross which meant crossing Bealach-na-Ba (ranked as the UK’s hardest climb on a bike) after an already long day, and then spinning out a 117 mile day to Ullapool the next day which was among the hilliest, most technical cycling I’ve ever done. Both days were fantastic though and the fact we broke these two days early on meant we could relax a bit from day 4 onwards. Take home tip would be ensure you train for at least a couple of days of high mileage back to back cycling, and tackle some big hills before the tour, else you’ll be in for a shock on day one. Also practice drafting, as working together can considerably improve your efficiency on the bike. One tip for Ullapool – all the chip shops close at 9pm so make sure you get in early to avoid disappointment, this was particularly crushing after we found this out after an 117 miles day and couldn’t get the famous Ullapool fish supper! Full breakdown of route below.

5. Don’t be afraid to go Wild

We decided to camp each night which definitely adds an extra element of challenge, but also fun to the trip. If you can afford it, there are plenty guest houses on the route but ensure you book in advance. If you are camping, don’t be afraid to go wild. It is legal to wild camp pretty much anywhere in Scotland so make the most of it! By avoiding the formal campsites for a few nights you’ll be able to find some beautiful remote spots off the beaten track that you wouldn’t otherwise find. We’re very lucky in Scotland to have such liberal access laws so make the most of it. Just ensure you clean up after yourself and leave no trace.

A full breakdown of our route and camping spots can be found here.

Hopefully this has been of some use to you. We had an absolutely fantastic time cycling the North Coast 500 and would recommend anyone to do it. If you have any questions please get in touch.

This has been a dummy run ahead of our world cycle so if you would like to hear more you can sign up to our blog, and/or check out our website here.