Our final day. The end of a 470 mile odyssey across the Scottish Highlands. And the sun was shining.
We continued to retrace in reverse part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2002 and 2019. It was an easy downhill to the Falls of Shin, along an eerily quiet road. Yet when I paused at the falls I was amazed to see a crowd of people. Then I spotted the tourist coach… I didn’t linger long, not expecting to repeat my 2019 success in videoing salmon leaping up the falls. I was sad to see the lovely cafe and visitor centre was boarded up, a victim of the pandemic.
I followed Rose to Bonar Bridge, seen above. She set a cracking pace, and my average speed to lunch was far higher than on any other day on the trip. Not far beyond Ardgay, where we had lunch on LEJOG19, I said goodbye to the LEJOG route, glancing up towards the Struie hill viewpoint where I’d taken photos in 2002 and 2019.
Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.
The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.
This was the hardest day of the tour. Harder than the Bealach na Bà day. And all because of that cyclist’s curse: a headwind.
Yet it started well. The 1,000 feet of climbing over the first nine miles from Ullapool that sapped my morale yesterday proved easier when repeated today. And I was looking forward to seeing Assynt and cycling over the stunning Kylesku bridge.
We had a lovely stop by the shore of Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle in the distance. The sun was shining, it was warm and we had a stunningly scenic day ahead.
I was cursing my decision not to take a rest day in Ullapool. After nine miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I envied the wisdom of those taking a lazy, late breakfast, enjoying a good book or taking a boat trip. Then I glanced and saw the mountains, blue sky and brilliant clouds reflected in the still waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan. I gasped in wonder, and slowed the bike to a stop to drink in the vista and take the photo above.
It got better. I was soon following Peak Tours guide Simon down a heavenly lane, a tarmac thread along the lochs leading to the coast. After the slog up from Ullapool, we were now coasting along this gently undulating route. Before long we came to the morning’s brew stop overlooking the islands on Loch Lurgainn. I smiled as two recumbent trikes came past as I turned in for my morning coffee. It would be fun to lean back on the comfortable seat of a trike and drink in the view.
I had a lie-in today, thanks to cycling an extra 17 miles to Gairloch last night. But while those staying in Kinlochewe had an easy warm up along Loch Maree (the route I took last night), I was straight into the hills today with a stiff climb out of Gairloch setting the tone for the morning.
It was worth it: at the top of the hill was this wonderful view of a beach with the mountains including Beinn Eighe behind. I didn’t feel guilty about stopping so soon to to savour a view like this. Why tour the highlands if you’re not inclined to pause and reflect on the extraordinary landscapes and seascapes?
Later, I stopped to admire this view of Loch Maree, the lake that I cycled along for miles last night. Here I was passing the head of the loch.
This was the big one. If any day’s cycling merited nervous anticipation, it was this. Talk at breakfast was a little stilted as we all knew what was to come: Bealach na Bà (the pass of the cattle), the greatest climb in Britain. And many more hilly miles on top.
We set off from Lochcarron and were climbing almost immediately away from the loch. This was merely a warm up. I enjoyed the swoop down to Loch Kishorn, followed by an easy stretch along the river Kishorn. A quick left turn and there it was: the famous sticker-strew sign marking the start of Bealach na Bà. Another sign warned learner drivers not to attempt this iconic route, which opened 200 years ago in 1822.
The road over Bealach na Bà climbs 2,053 feet (626 metres) in around six miles (9 kilometres), but the initial section is not difficult: barely 2% for the first mile. But don’t be fooled – it gets far harder. Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, rated the Bealach at 11 out of 10 for difficulty. It is the closest Britain has to an alpine, hairpinned ascent.
This post recounts the first day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022.
Why do I always feel a few butterflies at the start of a cycling adventure? It seemed unmerited ahead of today’s fairly easy first day of Peak Tours’ Highland 500 tour. Best of all, the first 13 miles from Inverness followed the same route as my 2019 Land’s End to John O’Groats ride, which I remembered as a really easy section.
As soon as we got going, the butterflies fluttered away. It was a grey morning, with showers, and the normal western cycle route over the Kessock Bridge over the firth was closed, requiring a diversion past Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s ground. We briefly joined the main carriageway to the bridge but quickly backtracked to the eastern cycle path. Once over the bridge, we had to wait for a gap in the traffic to cross the A9. Fortunately it wasn’t busy on this Sunday morning.
I was soon enjoying the familiar path along the Beauly Firth towards the intriguingly named Muir of Ord. An easy day was made rather harder by a brisk headwind, which became more noticeable as the day unfolded. As I always say, hills come to an end but headwinds don’t! We formed a modest peloton to take it in turns to ‘draft’ the other riders. I took my turn just before the morning ‘brew stop’ at Rogie Falls, where Peak Tours provided very welcome drinks and snacks to keep morale and energy high. I decided to up the pace a little, which was a mistake as the break was a mile later than expected and that extra mile was uphill! I was glad of the breather.
I’m in Inverness, on the eve of my latest cycling adventure. I’ll be pedalling 500 miles in seven days around the spectacular Highlands.
How poignant that my trip begins just days after the death of Dervla Murphy, who inspired me to explore the world on two wheels. Back in 1996 I picked up a copy of Full Tilt, her account of her ride from Dunkirk to Delhi, which began in the arctic winter of 1963 – the year I was born. I was enthralled by Dervla’s description of her journey, especially her travels through Afghanistan, a country she clearly loved. How heartbreaking to reflect on its ordeal in the past 40 years.
I met Dervla at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in, I think, 1996. She signed my copy of one of her books, and I told her what an inspiration she was to me. While I loved Full Tilt, her autobiography Wheels Within Wheels was arguably even better. She explained that she was only able to make her long dreamed about ride to India after her mother died. I was captivated by her family story, including her parents’ background in the Irish republican movement.
Not long after reading Full Tilt, I set off from my childhood home in Cardiff for Ireland, Dervla’s homeland. I was to cycle solo from Dublin over the Wicklow mountains, bound for Rosslare and the ferry back to Wales. The weather, in August 1996, was glorious and I declared Ireland a perfect cycle touring country. I have never made it to Lismore, Dervla’s hometown, but one day I might just pay a visit to the place that one of the greatest cycling travellers called home.
Another of her books, A Place Apart, gives a stark account of Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. Dervla found it hard to credit the attitudes and actions of her fellow inhabitants of the island of Ireland. Especially the hardened loyalist community and the followers of Ian Paisley. (It was impossible to imagine in 1976 that Paisley would one day join IRA man Martin McGuinness in government in Northern Ireland.) Dervla’s bafflement was shared with many people on both sides of the Irish Sea.
It’s hard to realise today how unusual Dervla was in the 1960s as a female solo traveller writing about her experiences. She practised firing a pistol in County Waterford in preparation for future ordeals, and used it to shoot wolves in Bulgaria, Later it helped fend off a threatening Kurd. She later said the whole trip cost just £64, 7s and 10d in old money. 1963 truly was a different world.
Millions of words have been written about Boris Johnson’s illegal lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street. A nation has expressed its outrage, which will not be assuaged until Johnson resigns as prime minister.
The stories about the May 2020 party, to which over 100 people were invited to bring booze and enjoy the lovely weather, have brought back vivid memories of that extraordinary lockdown spring.
Like almost everyone in Britain, but unlike Johnson and his team, we obeyed the rules. We knew how important this was to keep safe, minimise the spread of the virus and protect the NHS. On my daily exercise, I kept local and was more careful than normal when cycling down steep hills – the last thing I wanted was to put pressure on A&A by crashing.
It has become a tradition on New Year’s Eve for me to reflect on my year’s cycling, and look ahead to my cycling ambitions for the year ahead. This time, I’m feeling chuffed having cycled over 6,000 miles – 2,000 more than my previous record of 4.255 in 2019.
I have been amazingly consistent in 2021, cycling over 500 miles every month. That became a mission by the middle of the year – I couldn’t fall below 500 miles a month. The early winter months set the pattern of 500 plus mile months, thanks to my Wattbike Atom smart trainer. It was rare for me to record over 200 miles a month in winter before 2021, but the Atom made regular cycling far more enjoyable than cold, wet, icy rides outdoors. (I became far more familiar with the BBC iPlayer and Netflix as a result.)
The toughest months, ironically, were those in high summer: July and August. Summer holidays in Wales and Cornwall reduced the number of cycling days, and I confess that it was a slog to rack up the miles as the months ended. By contrast, November was the biggest month of all, with 586 miles recorded on Strava.