Tag Archives: Cycling

Cycling the North Coast 500 when the wind is blowing a hoolie 

The North Coast 500 is a circular route showcasing some of Scotland’s finest scenery. Starting in Inverness the route heads west to the Applecross peninsula and hugs the coast taking in the top slice of Scotland. 

I had a week off work and this was to be my March challenge, riding solo and unsupported. I didn’t give it much thought until it was Friday night and time to pack. Yikes! 

Day 1: Inverness to Kishorn (111km 684m) 

I drove up from Edinburgh slightly apprehensive; there was snow at the side of the road, it was 1 degree celcius and the forecast was grim for the next few days. This was a challenge and no one said it was going to be easy.  

I abandoned my car in a residential street near the canal and set off hoping I’d be back by the following Sunday! 

I followed a suggested route through Beauly and Muir of Ord to reduce the time on busy roads until the inevitable at Contin. I’d also suggest the quiet short cut via Kirkhill on route to Beauly. 

It was a fairly gentle ride and apart from a few showers, the weather was pretty kind. From Garve the scenery started getting more interesting with rolling snow topped hills hugged by low cloud. I kept stopping to take photos of all the stags at the roadside looking on curiously.

As I dropped into Achnasheen I was hoping for a cafe stop but it was still closed and there wasn’t any sign of life at the hotel either. I pushed on to the Sanachan bunkhouse in Kishorn. Watch out for the steep climb out of Loch Carron just before you get to Kishorn. I was exhausted by this point but thought if I can’t get up this wee hill, what hope do I have for the Bealach? This was the longest I’d ever cycled and I was a bit bedraggled by the time I had arrived at the bunkhouse. Wrists, neck and lower back were feeling it and this was only day 1! 
I’d spotted a seafood bar on the map (would surely have a veggie option?) but it was closed too. Note the pattern…….who comes this way in March? Emergency adventure meal no. 1 to the rescue. I had a good chat with the owner about adventures in the hills and their plans to build a log cabin later in the year. Perfect spot for cyclists. 

Day 2: Kishorn to Kinlochewe (92km 1481m)

I knew this was going to be a toughie, with the Bealach na Bá just around the corner. It means ‘Pass of the Cattle’ and resembles alpine passes with steep gradients and switchbacks, climbing to 626m. 

The forecast shifted from heavy rain to cloud so I set off just in my shorts ready for a sweaty climb and fine views. I caught my first glimpse of what I guessed must be the route and it seemed the weather had different plans. 

A few minutes later the wind had picked up and it was lashing down. Full on waterproofs and nowhere to hide! 

The climb to the start of the switchbacks is long and relentless and probably the worst bit. At times I couldn’t pedal because of the headwind. 

The plus point of doing it this time of year is the dearth of traffic. Eventually I made it to the top and there was a wee lift in the cloud. 

There’s a viewpoint a bit further up with views over to Skye, Rum, the Outer Hebrides and Wester Ross but I was cold and wet and didn’t hang around too long.  

From here, the descent to Applecross is awesome with sweeping corners and the type of speed that makes me glance down to check my front wheel is on properly. I had to stop and put more layers on, it was flipping freezing! 

I headed straight for the Applecross Inn for coffee, hot chocolate and radiator hugging. I’d gone through 3 pairs of gloves with the rain and was pretty soaked. Clothing is always tricky to predict but I was grateful I’d packed spare waterproof gloves and a jacket.

The next section to Shieldaig follows the coast around the Applecross Penninsula and was actually harder going than the Bealach. It’s a series of short sharp leg zapping climbs that seem to go on forever! 

I decided to keep going to the Torridon Inn and got some fine views of Ben Alligin and Liathach.


After a fuel stop I charged on to Kinlochewe as the rain wasn’t far behind. It’s fairly flat up Glen Torridon so a good way finish off a big day. I didn’t quite manage to beat the rain and my heart sank when I arrived at the bunkhouse/hotel and everything was closed up. A quick phone call to the bunkhouse number and fear not, the door is always open! 

It wasn’t the most inviting of places and emergency meal no.2 would be on the cards but it was 5pm, 20 miles to Gairloch and without internet I had no idea if I’d manage to get any accommodation further up the road. I knew the forecast for the next day was horrendous and would have liked to get some more miles in but it was too much of a gamble. I stayed put, dried my clothes off and enjoyed my rehydrated meal. 

Day 3: Kinlochewe to Ullapool (124km 1477m) 

I woke early with the wind and rain battering the window and was dreading the day ahead. This was a big day starting off with 20 miles to Gairloch into a forecasted 40mph headwind. Part of me wanted to hitch a lift and not tell anyone, but I remembered my brother doing an etape in horrendous conditions and decided just to crack on with it. 

The ride to Gairloch was brutal in terms of the wind; I was barely moving in my granny ring. I was battered by rain, snow and hail but there were also moments of sunshine. I let out a whoop when I caught my first glimpse of the cafe down by the pier. I was pretty broken by this point and there was still 59 miles between me and Ullapool. It was the first day of opening for the cafe (Coast Coffee Company) and thank goodness! It’s been taken over since I was last there and has a delicious menu that I would happily have worked through. Unfortunately it was only 10.30am so coffee, smoothie and a date slice filled the gap.


I’ve done the Tollaidh loop on my mountain bike before and knew there was a big climb out of Gairloch but thankfully the wind was behind me at this point and it wasn’t too bad. My dodgy knee had taken a hit battling through the wind to Gairloch which was a bit of a worry. Anyway, I kept going with the wind sometimes being a hindrance and sometimes my new best friend. More snow and hail showers and I actually got blown off my bike when I stopped at a viewpoint, not long after this……..

On some descents I had to pedal hard to move because of the headwind. Stunning views though over to Assynt, An Teallach and Sgurr Mor. 

I made it to Ullapool, pretty broken from the wind. I’d booked into the bunkhouse at the Ceilidh Place and took advantage of the log fire, a pot of tea and iced my knee. By now weight bearing was tricky and I was worried it was game over. Guess this highlighted the importance of conditioning. I ride my mountain bike all the time with no issues but this was a different bike and a different type of riding. I was super excited to get some proper food at the Ceilidh Place and not have an emergency meal! Big high five to the veggie options. 

Day 4: knee recovery day in Ullapool

It was blowing a hoolie and the sensible thing was to have a rest day to try and let my knee settle. I spent the day eating, icing my knee and taking it easy (actually harder in some ways than riding!)

Day 5: Ullapool to Durness (119km 1489m)

I was nervous starting the climb out of Ullapool. I knew the road and knew my knee would get tested. I road tentatively and enjoyed the views across Ardmair Bay to Coigach, Stac Polly and Suilven.

Approaching Loch Assynt I had a decision to make – the direct route to Kylesku or the longer route via Lochinver and the stunning beaches around the penninsula. From spending a week up here before  I knew the latter was a beautiful but challenging route with short sharp hills and twisty singletrack. My heart said that way but my head said to protect my knee and go direct. I went with my head and while I didn’t capture turquoise coves, I enjoyed riding past the snow topped peaks of one of my favourite hills Quinag. 

I stopped at the Kylesku Hotel for soup and coffee and had a peek at the bridge.

After the climb out of Kylesku it wasn’t long before I was passing through Scourie and getting fine views of Ben Stack, Arkle and Fionaven (another one of my favs).

 I took shelter from the wind behind an old fishing building on Loch Laxford and refuelled in the sun. 

After Rhiconich the road gradually climbed again and my knee started playing up. It was a case of head down and pedal the last 20km to Durness. 

I stayed at the Lazy Crofter bunkhouse which was perfect – comfortable and cozy. The hotel was closed so another adventure meal! 

Day 6: Durness to Thurso ( 119km 1489m) 

The beaches were gorgeous but when you’ve got a lot of miles to put in, there wasn’t really any time for exploring. One of these days I’ll get to Smoo Caves! 

This was the first day of light wind and coupled with a big flat section from Durness tracing the shore of Loch Eriboll I was suddenly experiencing a completely different NC500.

I stopped for a roadside view of Ard Neackie after seeing @loosemooose‘s photo a couple of weeks beforehand. 

After a fast descent to cross the River Hope, there was a big climb up to Á Mhòine and this section is a strong contender for most breathtaking part of the trip. Perfectly still, just me, snow by the road, frozen lochans and stunning views of a snowy Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. I was in a moment for sure and could have spent the whole day up here. 

Another fast descent takes you to the Kyle of Tongue slipway. @belhavenbikes had sent me a message on twitter to visit Weavers cafe just after Tongue and promised it would be open, and so I did. A great refuelling stop and it has a track pump outside which is handy.

The beach at Bettyhill looked inviting but I needed to push on. Pretty much as soon as you cross into Caithness the road flattens. I managed to hit home time as I passed Dounreay and the road suddenly became very busy. 

With the calm conditions I would have liked to get to John O’Groats but by the time I got to Thurso my bum was so sore I couldn’t sit on the saddle any longer and called it a day.

Day 7: Thurso to Helmsdale (121km 1056m) 

It was an easy 30km to John O’Groats with a flat road and light wind. Before long, Orkney was visible and I was pulling in for the obligatory photo.

I stopped for a coffee and to let my back have a rest – by now I was really struggling. Last year I had a pretty bad back injury and was anxious from day 1 that it was going to spasm again. 

If you are doing the pure NC500 there is no choice but to head down the east coast from JOG and join the A9 after Latheron. 

I was back to having a decent enough headwind to make riding tough, and the first section from JOG was fast car territory. I was glad of the high vis vest I donned for this section. 

This part of the route is far less interesting than the West / North West corner and you don’t have the spectacular scenery to distract you when things are hard going. I stopped in Wick for lunch and the rest of the ride to Helmsdale was a sufferfest. My lower back was struggling and I was getting off the bike every 20-30 mins to do release exercises on the ground. 

Watch out for the Berriedale Braes – a steep descent and brutal climb, especially with a headwind! 

I’d booked a B&B in Helmsdale and after doing all my back stretches fell into a deep coma. 

Day 8: Helmsdale to Inverness (127km 704m)

I was expecting to need 2 shorter days for the final stretch because of my back but made good progress to Dornoch. There’s a really nice coastal road that takes you from Golspie to Dornoch and lets you escape the lorries on the A9 

After coffee and cake (definitely back in civilisation now!) at Gordon House in Dornoch I headed back along the A9 to Tain. 

There’s a nice route along quiet roads to Dingwall 

My back was holding out with some off the bike releases and I was then on the home straight retracing my route from Muir of Ord to Beauly and the final stretch along the Beauly Firth. 

I made it! 

For me this was an epic challenge. I set off knowing I’d have a tough 4 days with the weather and I sure did! 

People talk about the mental and physical side of things. I ended up talking to inanimate objects at the side of the road and the odd bit of road kill. There were times when I felt like curling up in my bivvy bag under a rock and giving up because of the relentless wind, but I didn’t. Mentally I (just) managed to hold it together. 

Physically my legs were fine and got me up the many many hills but it’s the things that come with conditioning (and possibly a professional bike fit) that would have made the biggest difference. A ride like this exposes the niggles that normally dont bother you. The 20-40mph headwind for the first few days took its toll on my knee. A chronic injury that has never bothered me on the bike, became a big problem. Sitting on a saddle for 7-7.5h on consecutive days, my bum and lower back were crying out.  I ride my mountain bike about 3 times a week for maybe 3 hours at a time and a lot of that is standing up or off the saddle chatting. If I’d done some proper road training would it have helped? Who knows but I do know this is a serious undertaking and a completely different kettle of fish to being mountain bike fit. 

March threw up its own challenge……food. The fickle Scottish weather can catch you out anytime of year but until Easter pretty much everything is closed. This includes the hotels! Apart from Ullapool I had a dehydrated adventure meal every night for tea (can restock in the outdoor shop in Ullapool).

March does have its benefits though. The only traffic you encounter is Highland cows, locals and Tesco delivery vans. You have the bunkhouses to yourself so it’s easy to dry off clothes and there are no midges! 

Good luck to anyone doing it and I hope the wind is your friend. Scotland is a spectacular country and what better way to explore?! 

Cycle touring Budapest to Krakow along the Amber Trail

You can see a video of our trip here https://vimeo.com/134128853

This summer has been a bit of a windy wash out and we decided to trade the usual trip ‘up north’ for some sunshine and warmth. On a bit of a whim we booked flights to Budapest and home from Krakow, cycle touring in between. Planning is not our forte and while you can kind of get away with it on home territory this trip required a lesson in bike mechanics, route planning and cardboard box sourcing. Oh and a nice shiny new bike for me as a special treat on the cycle to work scheme.

Having never flown with bikes before we did some research into A to B trips and the best option appeared to be a clear plastic bag. This was a bit hard to get our heads around but it seems the baggage handlers treat your bike nice and carefully if they can tell it’s a bike. Only problem was Wizz Air only accept cardboard boxes or nylon bags and I couldn’t get anyone to confirm if plastic would be accepted. Playing it safe we opted for cardboard boxes. We spent about 3 hours dismantling our trusty steeds so they would fit in cardboards boxes picked up from the LBS.

Relief when our bikes arrived in Budapest unscathed. We stayed at the Corvin Point Hostel which was perfect for building our bikes in the shaded courtyard. Three Scots arriving to 38 degrees was a shock to the system.

We had the next day to do some sightseeing and Budapest had one of it’s hottest days on record at 42 degrees so it was a pretty sweaty affair. It was pointed out that we were obviously not locals; the trainers and dress combo gave it away apparently. 


Day 1: Budapest to Esztergom (79km)

Navigating through a city on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was going to be tricky but thankfully we’d got our bearings the day before and got on the cycle path that traces the Danube pretty quickly. We swung by the disappointing Margaret Island and then followed the cycle path until the sign sent us left to Sestendre. Big mistake! A lot of weaving through residential streets and a convoluted route before we spotted a family to follow. Think we should have ignored the sign and kept going along path. We ended up on a section of EuroVelo Route 6 which goes from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.

The ride into the picturesque Sestendre was lovely and Cafe Dorothea came up trumps with refreshing ginger lemonade.


The next section to Esztergom was easy going with big stretches of cycle path. As we approached the town, the spectacular domed Basilica (Hungary’s largest church) towered above us.


We camped at Gran Camping which was well set up and popular with cycle tourers.



  The route we should have taken 

Day 2 Esztergom to Vipnek (64km)

We crossed over the Maria Valeria Bridge into Slovakia and took the quieter road that runs north between the 76 and 564. We spent a beautiful day weaving round endless fields of sunflowers interrupted only by sleepy villages. Not much in the way of shops so make sure you have food supplies with you.  

We arrived at the campsite near Vapnik (Margita-Ilona) to our first experience of Slovakian holiday makers. With no coastline, water parks are very popular. The place was packed with a mix of young families, groups of party goers and those taking life at a slightly slower pace. We headed to the restaurant a few minutes up the road and I had my first in a long list of culinary delights – ravioli stuffed with cottage cheese. Sounded promising on the menu only for it to come topped with chocolate sauce and squirty cream




Day 3: Vapnik to Pocuvadianske Jazero (43km) 

Started the day off picking fresh plums from trees on the campsite and checking out the route while Tracy fixed a puncture 

This was our first big hill day with a climb that was pretty much on for 40km. We were aiming for the campsite just south of Banska Stiavnika and decided to take the busier road north from Bátovce as it looked like might have ended up with a section of no road otherwise. There wasn’t much traffic as the road twisted up the hillside, passing through dense forest.


We took the turning for the campsite which lay almost on the shore of Počúvadlianske Jazero (lake). This is the largest of the tajchs, artificial lakes built in the 18th century as a source of water power for pumping water from the mines and treating ore. The campsite seemed like a bargain at €2 but like most things you get what you pay for and we got a portaloo. We did get a spectacular display from fire flies though. 


Day 4: rest day…..hills around Banska Stiavnika (57km)

After the joy of our €2 camp we booked ourselves into a hotel in Stiavnika Banska, dumped our gear and headed out to explore the area on our bikes. 

As a veggie I was struggling for proper food and was super excited to find avocado, mango and beetroot juice in the supermarket. 

We did a circular route which started heading east of Banska Stiavnica before turning south into a clockwise loop. It was an absolute scorcher with lots of butterflies tracing our route and little opportunity for shade.

We ended up back at the lake we’d been at the previous night and had a dip to cool down. The place was a hub for recreation with SUPs, canoes and some odd looking pedalo type things. Julie tried to impress the locals with her chain grease leg and my cottage cheese.  

Banská Štiavnica is a UNESCO world heritage site and when we got back, we went to check out the Calvary of Banská Štiavnica perched on the top of what was once a volcano. A cluster of chapels and churches line the path up to the top. It was built in the 18th century using individual donations and money collected by local residents. It featured in the watch list of 100 most endangered sites in the world in 2007 and is currently being restored thanks to voluntary initiatives. It really is an enchanting place and the view from the top  is quite incredible. 

So much for a rest day! 

Day 5: Banská Štiavnica to Banská Bystrica (Tajov) (62km)

Banská Štiavnica really started to spoil me when I found a breakfast drink with chia seeds on a menu. We did a bit of sightseeing round the medieval town taking in the Old Castle and Námedtie Svätej Trojice (holy trinity square). The Holy Trinity Column has slipped 4.5m down the slope over the years but they seems to have sorted things out now.


After a steep climb out of town we had 20km of sweet downhill to take a breather. We stopped at Hronsek to have a look at the wooden church, another UNESCO site. It has a distinct Scandinavian architectural style and as a Protestant church within a Catholic country, had to be built within strict criteria such as the entrance could not be directly from the street. We couldn’t go inside the church but it was a nice lunch spot. 

We’d marked a campsite at Tajov which was a few kilometres west of Banská Bystrica but Julie’s map showed one near the sports ground which was pretty central. Turns out is doesn’t exist so we headed to Tajov. The campsite was nice and peaceful with no water park in site! 



Day 6: Tajov to Liptovsky Trnovec (86km) 
This was going to be our biggest hill day with two pretty big climbs. Out came the Chemical Brothers to get me up the first one which was fairly brutal. Although part of it was dual carriage way and there were a few trucks around, the road was pretty good and there was often enough space to ride on the verge. Thankfully it was overcast this day or would definitely have had heat stroke. I managed to get into a rhythm and keep plodding along until reaching the ski resort of Donovaly. This was a great spot for lunch but without doing any research into Slovakia, I had no idea we’d be pedalling through ski resorts. It had an alpine feel to it.

We missed the turning at Liptovská Osada which would had taken us over the second mountain pass and only realised when it was too late to turn back. I was a bit disappointed after getting myself psyched up but it was probably for the best as we had a fairly flat route to our campsite at Liptovsky Trnovec on the shore of Liptovská Mara. The campsite was well set up and in a beautiful setting, nestled amongst the mountains. 



Day 7: Liptovsky Trnovec to Oravice (42km) 

We had a wee bit of flat passing by poppies before a big windy climb. Couple of roadies passed on their light carbon bikes while I was chugging away on my loaded up steel frame.

 It started to rain just as I got over the pass and had to dig out my waterproof on the fast descent. Stopped for a snack at another alpine style restaurant and while the others  tucked into some tasty looking bean soup I had to opt for the veggie option of garlic soup. Another culinary highlight on the trip 

We had a wee climb to get to Oravice and after getting the tents pitched headed straight to the thermal pools for some relaxation and muscle treatment. The place was packed and at €5 reckon that was the tourist rate. A really picturesque spot amongst the mountains. 

This was the veggie options in the only restaurant in town, thankfully they rustled up scrambled eggs and retro crinkly chips 


Day 8: Oravice to Zakopane (51km) 

Is was a weird feeling setting off on our last day riding. My cycle legs had kicked in and I just wanted to keep going.  

We had a lovely stretch along the side of a river (first cycle path in a while) as we set off for the Polish border. 

The countryside was really nice – rolling farmland with the Tatra mountains as the backdrop. 

As we approached Zakopane, the road was lined with Alpine chalets geared up for the ski season. 

I’d heard from a Polish colleague that Zakopane was very touristy and while it was, it was also full of people returning from a day hiking or cycling in the mountains. 

We rolled into the campsite 8 miles short of 300 miles for the trip so me being me, ditched the gear and set off for a wee loop to make it to the 300 mile. 

After trying to find a route from Zakopane to Kraków we settled on the train to avoid any disasters on a busy dual carriageway with trucks. 



First job for Kraków was picking up cardboard boxes for the flight home. Luckily a chum had been here a few days before and sorted out with a bike shop so it saved a day of trekking round in the heat 

We had a day taking in some of the sites and soaking up the sun before heading back to Scotland 







This was an amazing trip. The freedom that comes with cycle touring and the time to take everything in makes it such a special way to travel. We really went into this trip blind and everything was a nice surprise. 

I definitely have the bug and would love to undertake a bigger trip. Do I just dream about these things or take the jump?