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Take your time cycling the North Coast 500

By John Davidson

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Since its launch in 2015, the North Coast 500 has become a worldwide attraction, bringing hordes of visitors keen to complete Scotland’s answer to Route 66.

A bit like Marmite, it seems that most people living along its route either love it or hate it. It has certainly transformed tourism in the Highlands, but with limited infrastructure in some areas the pressures have certainly been felt.

Enjoying quiet roads on the west coast.
Enjoying quiet roads on the west coast.

I cycled the original route in September 2016 and had a fabulous time with a great team. We did it in the September and the roads were relatively quiet, but now there are times at the height of the tourist season when the experience might be quite different.

The NC500 is also popular with car clubs, motorhome users, campervan drivers and many others – leaving less room particularly on the miles of single-track roads that make up much of the route in the north-west.

The roads in many places in Wester Ross and Sutherland used to be pretty quiet, and I spent the first few years after moving to the Highlands spreading the word about what wonderful places they were to cycle.

The truth is, they still are – but for anybody who doesn’t know the area and the pressures on these routes, a little inside knowledge can go a long way.

That’s where a new book, Cycling the North Coast 500 by Mike Wells, comes into its own. Describing itself as a “cyclist-friendly guide to Scotland’s NC500”, the Cicerone publication takes the fundamentals of the 500-plus mile circuit and steers it on a slightly new course.

Cycling the North Coast 500 by Mike Wells.
Cycling the North Coast 500 by Mike Wells.

Referring to the NC500 as a “motorist’s route” it tackles the circuit, starting and finishing in Inverness, from the saddle. In doing so, it makes no bones about veering from the official signed route, whether it’s to find a quieter option, avoid some serious climbs or just to visit more of the region.

Its approach advocates slow tourism, providing details about the towns and villages along the way in the detailed information, which provides turn-by-turn directions alongside clear mapping, elevation profiles, good photography, and plenty of snippets about places to visit.

The suggested North Coast 500 cycle route is outlined on an overview map on the inside cover. Some of the most significant deviations from the classic NC500 – taken in a clockwise direction from Inverness – are the omission of the Bealach na Ba to Applecross; avoiding the single-track road towards Achiltibuie that passes below Stac Pollaidh before turning right on a twisting road into Lochinver; skipping out the A99 and A9 between John O’Groats and Tain; and going by the Cromarty Ferry and the Black Isle as the first choice for the last leg.

Pages relating to Achmelvich in Cycling the North Coast 500 by Mike Wells.
Pages relating to Achmelvich in Cycling the North Coast 500 by Mike Wells.

Some of these might sound quite sensible, but for me the Bealach na Ba is part of the challenge of this spectacular route. I’ve cycled it a few times, including as part of our 2016 NC500 ride when it was shrouded in fog, which made for an interesting and cautious descent on the other side after a long day in the saddle.

The suggestion to skip the east coast is a bit of a mixed bag. There is wonderful scenery and so much to see here that is still too often overlooked on this route, but the recommended inland alternative is much more attractive for a pleasant cycle ride.

It takes cyclists back to Melvich before heading south to reach Altnaharra and Lairg and then Tain via a much quieter route – a fine ride in its own right.

The main road options are, however, still described with the same level of detail, leaving the reader to make the choice based on their own ability.

Overall, this guide offers visitors without the local knowledge of the roads in the north Highlands some sensible advice on how to plan a trip around the NC500, especially in the peak season when the roads, as we all know, can be particularly busy.

John (right) at John O'Groats during his North Coast 500 cycle tour.
John (right) at John O'Groats during his North Coast 500 cycle tour.

Despite the increase in traffic on the roads in the last decade, there are still some absolute gems to be found for cycling along the route. Whether you’re thinking about taking on the full route or exploring parts of the area in smaller segments, I can’t think of many better places to be riding your bike.

There is wonderful and varied scenery, challenging climbs and scintillating descents, amazing local food to be tasted and great places to stay. After years of exploring, I’m still discovering new places and experiences around what is now widely known as the North Coast 500 route.

The complete route is definitely a bucket-list ride, and one that is well worth doing. This new guide will give you solid advice and clear route guidance whatever your level of experience, with suggested itineraries from eight to 17 days.

It can be ridden faster – we did it in six days and the record stands at an incredible 27-and-a-half hours – but why wouldn’t you slow down and spend more time exploring the best the Highlands has to offer from the best seat going?

• Cycling the North Coast 500: A cyclist-friendly guide to Scotland’s NC500 by Mike Wells is published by Cicerone, priced £17.95.

Cycling through Sutherland in the north-west Highlands on long single-track roads.
Cycling through Sutherland in the north-west Highlands on long single-track roads.

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