Ironically, I have the pandemic to thank for narrowing down my travel options such that in October 2020, I ended up riding my bike in Scotland for the first time.
I'd heard about the North Coast 500 route a few years earlier and had added it to my ever growing 'must ride' list, but even then, the unique challenges of riding in the Highlands would probably have kept me away indefinitely, if it wasn't for Covid!
SirGuyLitespeed Collection with Ewan McLachlan, near Lochinver
I've ridden my bike all over England and Wales, across all of the European mountain ranges - the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees - and even further afield in exotic locations such as the Middle East, Australia and Hawaii.
In a normal year, I clock up c.12,000 miles of riding, much of it on the best roads and climbs in the world. So while I expected the cycling in Scotland to be good, I didn't expect it to blow me away - and yet it did.
In short, the road cycling in the Highlands of Scotland is world class.
Read on to find out why, for details of where to ride and for tips and advice to get the most out of your trip.
SirGuyLitespeed Collection with Ewan McLachlan
So why was I so impressed? Well firstly, just getting to the 'start line' in Scotland requires planning and effort, which in turn makes the experience all the sweeter.
You'll need to juggle the availability of accommodation alongside seasonal weather windows, not to mention the midge season!
Arguably, there are just four prime months for riding bikes, namely May, June, September and October. Yes, you can cycle year round (particularly if covering shorter distances), but the sweet-spot is undoubtedly these four months (more likelihood of settled weather, generally less competition for accommodation and fewer/no midges).
SirGuyLitespeed Collection, Accommodation
The other obvious challenge is that the far north of Scotland is a long way away for most people: from my base in the south-east of England, I can reach Provence as easily as I can reach the Highlands!
The good news is that there are a myriad of ways to get there: by road, rail and air. Inverness, arguably the gateway to the far north, is particularly well served by all three options and numerous companies exist hiring every derivative of car, 4x4 and camper van.
Alternatively, Scotland's rail network can transport you to extraordinarily beautiful places from which to begin a bike ride!
Above all else, Scotland has all the ingredients for great cycling: a combination of incredible scenery at every turn, generally quiet roads, largely very courteous drivers and a warm welcome everywhere you stop. It's a winning combination.
SirGuyLitespeed Collection with Ewan McLachlan
So, back to October 2020 and the NC500 ride. I hired a camper van from London at very short notice, filled it with supplies, found a friend to drive it and together, we headed to Inverness.
The NC500 is a circular ride, heading west from Inverness to Wester Ross and then up the coastline, all the way to Durness in the far north. From there (and with crucial variations to the traditional 'designed for vehicles' NC500), the route heads east along the coast, before turning south at Melvich and returning you to Inverness via quiet roads.
It's 500 miles long and offers a wonderful sense of purpose, in that cyclists achieve a recognisable 'thing' which is often a key attraction in the same vein as, say, Land's End to John O'Groats.
However, there's no doubt that the 350 mile section between Achnasheen in the west and Helmsdale in the east, offers the best riding and as I drove back south last October, I was already working on a return trip to the very best bits of the NC500. This would comprise the areas of Wester Ross, Sutherland and Caithness, or in simpler terms, the north-west tip of mainland Scotland.
SirGuyLitespeed Collection, Kylesku Causeway
And that's the trip that I've just returned from, with even more respect and appreciation for the riding there.
I had time for five rides, each one comprising a c.100 mile loop, exploring the very best roads in a particular area. As previously, I used a motor-home as my base, moving each evening to be in the right place for the start of the following day's ride.
This part of Scotland has very few roads, which makes route planning simple and in most instances, there are obvious ways to shorten each ride, if the weather's unkind, or your legs are unwilling!
In the comparable and more popular Snowdonia (Wales) and Lake District (England), the main A roads are rather busy and not ideal for cycling, but in the far north of Scotland, they're generally very quiet and bike friendly.
The only road to avoid is the A9, running down the east coast, which is why the cycling equivalent of the NC500 varies from the original (thereby avoiding most of the A9).
SirGuyLitespeed Collection, Quiet Road
The areas to particularly explore are Assynt, Sutherland and western Caithness. My recent routes can be found here - they're superb, but also easily shortened:
This route covers most of the area known as Assynt and might just be the single best 100 mile ride in the UK. Because the route is a figure of eight, there's significant scope to shorten it, or ride it over a couple of days as two separate loops.
Make sure to take in the roads around Altandhu and also to pay Kylesku Bridge a visit.
SirGuyLitespeed Collection with Ewan McLachlan, Kylesku Bridge
This route explores the north coast between Hope and Melvich, the stark beauty of the Flow Country as you head south to Kinbrace and then west to Altnaharra - roads which would almost certainly win the 'most remote tarmac in the mainland UK' award.
This could very easily be ridden over two days, as two separate loops.
This route combines so much in one ride: the Flow Country, the incredible Loch Eriboll, the beaches around Durness, the extraordinary vastness of Strath Dionard and then the long divide between Laxford Bridge and Lairg.
If time allows, it's also well worth heading down some of the 'dead end' roads that abound in this area - these are likely to be particularly quiet and will almost invariably offer up incredible scenery and experiences.
Amongst others, seek out and explore the roads around Altandhu and Raffin on Assynt and the roads to and beyond Kinlochbervie and Tarbet in Sutherland.
While this piece is all about road cycling, there's no doubt that the area also offers up great potential for both mountain biking and gravel riding. I already have two further trips planned for 2021, to explore each of these options! Stand by for updates...
SirGuyLitespeed Collection, Wild Beauty
Key tips for riding in Sutherland & Caithness:
- the riding is often remote and constantly up and down, but you're rarely more than a few hundred meters above sea level, so the hills are less daunting than you might expect
- spring and summer months offer particularly long daylight hours, which can be very helpful if you're planning long rides, or simply take a little longer than you planned to cover the distance (average speeds in Scotland can be very different to those in flatter places)!
- even with a good forecast, Scotland's weather can be a little more intense than other places you might have ridden. Always be prepared for wet, cold and windy weather and if it does arrive, embrace it - it makes you feel particularly alive!
- if you're riding a loop, be prepared to switch your planned direction at the start, to lessen the impact of any headwind
- always keep an eye on the road, but look around you too: there's wildlife everywhere. Stop often and take plenty of photos!
- be self-sufficient: you're a very long way from a bike shop and in many places, you won't have a phone signal and passing cars may be infrequent: take plenty of spares and know how to fix minor mechanicals such as punctures, or a broken chain
- leave no trace: be very careful not to drop any litter at all (which is easily done when you reach into your pocket for your camera or phone and accidentally drop a gel wrapper)
- signal to cars behind which passing place you intend to use and be very careful before pulling back onto the road that ALL vehicles have passed. A passing motor-home can easily hide a following car or two. I make a point of thanking all vehicles that slow down for me, or give way. What comes around goes around when it comes to road courtesy
- even if you only have time for a quick 'out and back' ride, the scenery will probably be stunning and different in both directions, so these excursions will be more rewarding than you might think
SirGuyLitespeed Collection, Beach
What's in my pockets/on my bike?
- two bottles: it can be a long way between water refills, particularly in the wilds of Sutherland
- lights: I use good daylight blinker lights, front and rear, at all times and find other vehicles are more courteous to me as a result
- wider tyres than usual! The roads are generally in good repair, but the 'frost free' surfaces are intentionally rough and I ride 30mm tyres in Scotland for added comfort
- three spare tubes and extra patches, just in case
- tyre boot
- tyre levers
- chain tool and spare links
- a pump, as well as CO2
- a good, visible waterproof jacket
- a cycling cap and full finger gloves
- gels and bars to get me between one café/shop and the next: the gaps can be large in this part of the world!
- my phone and I also wear an ID bracelet
- a small camera
- and of course, I always wear a helmet and cycling glasses too
So, start planning to Venture North with your bike - a small piece of heaven on earth awaits you.
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Learn more about the North Coast 500 in Caithness and Sutherland on our information page