Cycling the coast – Dundee to Oban – May/June 2021. Then Gretna to Oban September 2021.
“This is going to take some time to finish” said Mike
“No-one said it was a race” replied Fiona
And so began phase 3 of cycling the coast.
North Coast 500 and beyond
As a result of the superb marketing by Visit Scotland many people have heard of the NC 500. You may also have heard Mark Beaumont rode it in a shade over 38 hours – well it took us a bit longer.
We set off in mid-May from Dundee (yes I know technically not on the NC 500) in cold east coast weather but we did not let it dampen our spirits. The plan was to go up the east coast through places such as Stonehaven, Aberdeen and Peterhead (where Fiona’s grandparents came from) across the top of the Moray Firth to Inverness to pick up the true BC 500. Then carrying on up to John O’ Groats, across the top of Scotland, turn left at Cape Wrath (as the Vikings did) and head down the west coast as far as time allowed.
However, rather than let this be a travelogue of “we did this, ”went there”, “did 60 miles today” Mike has decided to pick out his highlights and learns.
Where to start?
When there’s a photo opportunity around every corner its hard to know, and to make progress! But here goes:
- Stunning beaches – east coast, north coast and west coast. Caribbean watch out.
- Even before we got to the actual 500 we had gobbled up many beautiful beaches at places too numerous to mention but included St Cyrus, Stonehaven, Newburgh, Cruden Bay, Fraserborough and the whole of the Moray Firth beaches! Further north and still on the East Coast was Brora before giving way to rockier profiles and many castles.
The north coast beaches are an idyllic golden/white sand which beckon you to walk on them barefoot – but not in the weather we had. It howled and rained like there was no tomorrow so it was batten down the hatches and hope the west coast would be up to it – and it didn’t disappoint. The road teased us with distant glimpses of gorgeous beaches on the horizon but with no roads to them they remained unspoilt.
- Sultry and startling mountains – particularly on the north west coast
- They may not be the highest, even in Scotland, but they rise vertically from the peat bogs. Even on a clear day, which we mostly had, they are both majestic and mysterious. My favourite is Suilven – I rode and drove with it in my vision in the middle of Assynt. My mind constantly straying to the Lord of the Rings land of Mordor and “Ramble On” by Led Zepplin (“In the darkest depths of Mordor…”). But there were others like the isolated and perfectly shaped Ben Stack which seemed to follow us around for ages. Finally the trio of Torridon peaks making up Beinn Eighe – a haven for walkers with it’s two Munros and great scree slopes.
- Scottish drivers – yes really.
As cyclists we value our life and limbs, but sometimes it seems not as much as some of the motorists we encounter. Scotland was different! Motorists, almost without exception, were courteous, respectful and safe. Why? When at the end of the ride were in Dundee we discovered why – Police Scotland were taking Operation close Pass seriously and had taken advertising space at the back of every bus – “3 feet or 3 points”. No new law but a rigorous and public communication of the Highway Code appeared to be working. Come on England, get on with it.
Meeting Andreas and Val
- Sometimes you think you are the only two crazy people doing this cycling the coast thing. Then you meet someone who is doing the same and you feel vindicated. Andreas was a lovely German national (though living in the UK for many years so we could claim him!) and his wife Val. We first met in Montrose on our first halftime stop and followed/led each other all the way round sometimes camping together and finally cycling together on the last day over Bealach Na Ba.
- Weather forecasts – they are for guidance only
- Sometimes they are annoyingly correct! Most times they are, as we say, for guidance. We check multiple forecasts and though they seem to focus in on where you are they are in reality using GPS to find you and then pair you with their nearest weather station, balloon or whatever.
- The distance you cycle is in direct proportion to a) the weather and b) the terrain
- There is nothing so annoying than planning an A to B route only to find lots of arrows on the road against you indicating steep gradients or the wind is against you which can be worse. So before you set off on a 50 mile route to be somewhere at a given time, check to terrain and wind direction. As an example we planned a 45 miles route around Assynt – the first 10 miles was full of 25% hills and the last 10 miles included many long 10% drags; all of which left us rushing to our dinner reservation.
- Separate from the weather, wind can be very annoying and spoil the best of views
- One final mention of wind reminds Mike of the last 10 miles into Applecross. The was scene was set fair – a sunny day, alongside the azure sea with constant views of the Cullins on Skye – but turning into the last ten miles caught the full force of the wind. It turned a potentially epic ride into a bit of a slog; but worthwhile.
We had left Loch Awe on the west coast of Scotland in June as the midges were coming out to play knowing we would return when the blighters departed in September.
This time we started in Gretna and headed up back to Loch Awe to finish Scotland.
Fiona has been asked “What is a typical day?” She answers, ‘it’s s much about the people as the cycling”…she contines..
“It’s a routine of sorts…get up (it’s never quick – we take numerous cups of tea back to bed with maps and papers) eventually put away bed, eat breakfast… then set off after quite a bit of faffing.
One of us rides first after agreeing a meet up point 25-30 miles away, the biker choses their route (ideally Sustrans cycle paths and as near the coast as possible) , the other drives the van, collecting water and supplies (obviously wine – and food) on route and seeing anything of interest – overtaking the biking bod to arrive at the meet point to have lunch. Then swap.
So we both get to ride, both have our own wee adventure at our own pace and both share driving the van. My rides take longer – I’m a little slower than Mike because I stop more and talk to people. This journey is as much about the people as the coastline and I’m always humbled how much strangers will share and the quality of random conversation. She met a guy at the end of a walk along the sea front the picture postcard village of Crovie who spoke of his love of the place, then his previous abusive childhood and coming to terms with that.
Evenings are eating, route planning, playing cards, catching up with friends and social media if we have signal. And drinking wine. Possibly deserved? Mostly.”
So what were the highlights and learns?
- Fiona’s toothache (but see also Learns!) – almost of the blue it flared up leading to over consumption of paracetamols and the pain of cycling taking the place of toothache: “No, I’ll carry on” she said! Until she could carry on no more and we sought out an emergency dentist. Back we went to Dumfries to the dental hospital and for the princely sum of £5 it was sorted – she would have paid anything to get rid of the pain!
- Mull of Kintyre – parking down the bottom of the Kintyre peninsular at Southend we cycled the measly, but outrageously hilly, 7 miles to the lighthouse. Cycling through eerie mists and echoing forests into the bright sunshine of the mull. And what a gorgeous view it was down the precipitous cliffs to a distant view of Ireland.
- Off road cycling – did we say that Fiona had a new (gravel) bike and an OS map app? The OS maps unveil the National Cycle Network and Fiona loves them – the more off road the better for her. Mike is more of a “roadie” so mainly sticks to them unless cajoled into the off-road stuff.
- Mobile bike mechanics – who knew they existed? Well they do in Stranraer. Mike needed some gear and brake issues fixing so the mechanic came the following morning to our Park4Night stop just outside Stranraer and half an hour and £30 later, job done.
- People – Met Andreas and Val again on Arran and caught up on our various travels; Stuart and friends around the camp fire at Arbigland; the dentist in Dumfries without whom the trip would have been completed; the guy on the waltzers in Campbeltown who said and proved he was “brutal” in spinning the car!
- In truth there are too many highlights to do justice to them all and what we have picked out here are some of our favourites. We have left out places like: Mull of Galloway (a lesser known cousin of Kintyre but no less spectacular); Arran ( not fully explored, but good to leave something for another time); the road from Claonaig to Campbeltown (probably the hardest ride I have done in a long time). And many more…
- Allow time – we could not have done the emergency trip to the Dumfries dentist without the flexibility (inadvertently) built into the schedule
- Be flexible – if its fine, cycle; if it rains, there are always other things to do. Its not a race.
- Cycle together – as much as the solo cycling allows us to cover the miles, its nice to have the odd day enjoying the same route together
- Off roading can be fun – OK, Fiona has a point. But it’s the variety that matters. And not every NCN route is cyclable as Mike found out on the Old Military Road near Newton Stewart – more rambling than riding!
So that’s it – finished to coast of Scotland. Of course we have not cycled or “vanned” every nook and cranny, every island or sea loch, but we have done enough to be able to say, hand on heart, “we did it”. So only England and Wales to do – about 2500 miles!
So…what do we say about Scotland?
Looking back what was the highlight, what sticks in the mind, what do we wake up screaming about? For Mike – the cycle into Applecross in the sunshine looking at the Cullins on Skye; followed closely by the ride up Balach Na Ba which, as you gained height it revealed the Isle of Skye; the nightmare of the road to Campbeltown; and finally the ride uphill to the Mull of Kintyre. For Fiona – beaches of the East Coast and colourful fishing boats; people, random people who tell you their life story; NCN off road routes. And waking up screaming? – well obviously Midgies!
Thank you Scotland.