The North Coast 500
In June 2021, Mourad Senouci cycled 500 miles around the beautiful north coast of Scotland, in order to raise money for Tiny Tickers in memory of his son, Zaki. Here, he tells all about his incredible, and at times harrowing, journey.
NC500 Day 1 – The Warm-Up
Finally, the day had arrived where I’d attempt to cycle around the north coast of Scotland! With the ride postponed from my initial date due to lockdown restrictions, I had been excitedly, but anxiously, counting down the days.
The train to Inverness was long and I had forgotten to pick up magazine to read. I tried not to look at my phone and use up precious battery life. I could have brought a charger to top up my battery on the train – I had the cable but no plug, as that would have taken up valuable space I did not want to fill with something I would only use once. As the train began to come into Inverness and I got really excited. My journey was about to begin. All those hours training, all those hours reading and planning, they all needed to come in to play now.
I cycled around the corner to the start of the NC500 route – Inverness Castle. It was quiet, not many people around at all. In the videos I had watched of people doing the route, it was always very busy. Perhaps it was because I was starting Day 1 at 14:00. Which reminded me I had to get going to make some decent time on the road. Getting out of Inverness wasn’t bad, I was expecting a lot of weekend traffic, but I was out and heading west after a couple of miles.
You immediately notice the town and village names sound far more more Scottish than the central belt – places like Balchraggan and Achnagairn for example. As I got into a rhythm, my mind started to drift a little, some places started to taunt me – Rheindown and Inchmore reminded me of the Scottish weather that would inevitably change from the forecast. I started thinking, ‘Just a mile more to go, just…’ I put those thoughts to the side, can’t be having those this early on!
Instead, I started to breakdown the days again in my head. I’m a planner, as much as I love to live on the edge and see how things pan out, I have an urge to have a plan in place. Ashley knows this and often tells me to put the phone down or the to put the mouse away and just let it be! Today, 66 miles and around 2100ft of climbing, an average day for a cycle, but not with all this kit. I had already covered around 20 miles so far and was flying along with a generous tailwind. I found it hard to not push along with it and increase my average speed. But I knew that doing so would only hinder my efforts tomorrow.
Landmarks that I had read about started to come in to play – the dodgy railway crossing at Garve that could catch your front wheel and had caused many a cyclist to fall off. The stretch of road after Achanalt which is very open to the elements – I had an awful headwind for miles here.
45 miles in and the rain came, heavy, heavy rain. I had seen rain forecast but it was supposed to be a light shower! I knew I was approaching a café, The Midge Bite Cafe! I was really looking forward to a nice hot tea and some chocolate. I pulled in but noticed that they had ‘closed’ signs up along the windows. Looking at the time, I saw it was 17:03. Heart sinking, I rushed inside and asked if I could have a tea; mercifully I got a nod.
I stayed for around 20 minutes as the staff tidied up, the rain passed and I filled up my water bottles, something I’ll need to keep an eye on as the days go by. Back on the bike, I realised I had just under 20 miles to go.
I began climbing past Ledgowan Forest as the hills in the background made for lovely pictures. Through the valley and a nice gradual decent past Loch Dughall. I made my way into Lochcarron, where I saw people outside cafes and the local hotel having their dinner. I saw a shop and pulled in for a can of coke to have with my camping meal.
As I turned the corner off the main street, I recognised the houses and road from the street view on Google. The camp spot I found was in view and looked like a good one. Fortunately, I had my tent set up and bags set aside before the second wave of rain came. I started to worry as it seemed like the perfect weather for midges, and I was right by the side of the loch. I fired up my stove, boiled some water and tucked into my dinner. Cous cous with nuts and mango – delicious!
I thought I’d better get some sleep as tomorrow was going to be a tough day. The Bealach Na Ba climb then another 90 miles after that.
NC500 Day 2 – The Climb
The day started early, I switched the light on and noticed it must have continued to rain through the night. All my kit was dry, but I could see the moisture on the outer layer of my tent, I also noticed that the wind had disappeared. As soon as I opened the tent, I saw the massive swarm of midges. It was horrible and even more so for the fact they seemed to be waiting there. Making me choose whether I really needed to go or not.
The worst thing was, I had left my midge head net in a bag, which was still attached to the bike. I had to go for it; I could instantly feel hundreds of midges on my skin. I made a dash for the head net and immediately felt the relief. As soon as I got back to my tent I decided to get out of there, I was definitely not going to have my breakfast here. The time was 03:30.
It took me a lot longer to get things packed away, mainly due to the fact that I couldn’t thread the straps for my bike bags with the dreaded head net. Luckily, I didn’t need to thread said straps whilst cycling, as wearing that net whilst leaving my camp spot was 100% necessary.
I had a look at my route for the day and I could see I would be climbing straight out of Lochcarron; that might mean some wind at the top. On my way up, I was greeted with the sun peeking through the clouds, and as I turned to look at it, I spotted a stag. So peaceful, just looking around – it was incredible. I found a nice spot where I stopped and had some porridge – midge free, whilst I spotted a few deer grazing.
I climbed up through the valley and was met with some breath-taking views, something I wasn’t expecting so early on during the route. The decent was fast, I had to ease off as the slight crosswind made me uneasy. This took me to the start of the Bealach Na Ba climb. After the obligatory picture at the famous blue and red sign, I started on the 2000ft ascent. With the sun shining through the clouds, there were times where the terrain looked intimidating. I started turning the pedals as I started to climb at 7%, thankful that I still had a couple of easier gears still available for when the time came. Most of the time I could only see a short section ahead of me, however there is one part where I could see a sharp turn and the gradient increasing significantly. I tried not to think about it and continued to spin my legs.
The gradient for the first half of the climb was more or less the same, between 7-9% for 3 miles. This was great for me, easily manageable even with the weight of my kit thanks to my training. However, there was a sharp kick which looks you straight in the face and challenges you with gradients of between 10-20% at times. It was at these sections I really had to dig deep. Thankfully, because I started the climb at around 07:00, I had only seen 3 cars at this point. I can imagine having to do this climb with cars and motorhomes to contend with would be a nightmare. My early start also let me really enjoy the views all the way up. There were a set of famous switchbacks at the top of the climb that I could now see but just before, the gradient went into the high teens – I needed to get off for a rest and stretch.
After this, I spun my legs to the first switchback – the view back was incredible and is often the image you see when you Google the climb. I reached the top with minimal fuss thanks to the picture stops to break up the climbing. I now had the overwhelming urge to complete the climb in one go – next time. The decent was again, fast but very windy. I could see way ahead of me so I decided to cut the corners where I could, the adrenaline was pumping.
The next milestone was Sheildag. I had read that this section was often underestimated due to the undulating terrain and sometimes unforgiving wind direction. 20 miles into the ride, I got to the west coast and was immediately blown away by, not only the wind, but the outstanding views. However, the terrain was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The climbs were very short and punchy. The descents were also very short which meant there was no time for recovery. I rode the next 20 miles into Sheildag feeling tired and in need of some food. The large pizza on the menu fitted the bill perfectly.
Cycling past Torridon was lovely. Lots of yellow flowers and green from trees, an odd purple flower every now and again. I made a game of spotting the purple ones mile upon mile. I had made it halfway through my 92 mile route for the day and was feeling good, considering the climbing I had done.
Passing through Kinlochewe, I noticed a strong wind pushing me along. It was the most surreal feeling; my Garmin computer was telling me that I was climbing but I was barely pushing on the pedals. If the 20 mile section after Bealach Na Ba was a slog, this section was a dream. A strong tailwind on and off for around 15 miles – amazing.
My next planned stop was Gairloch, a small harbour village with expensive magnum ice cream! I sat down and was greeted by someone pulling in on their bike. It turned out he and his brother were doing half of the NC500 route and then getting the train down from somewhere along the northern coast. I asked where his brother was, he sighed and said that his rear wheel disintegrated around 60 miles ago. He got on a train back home whilst this brother carried on.
This made me worry about issues that could easily happy to me – hopefully with the service I carried out on the bike recently that wouldn’t be the case. We said our goodbyes and I set off for my last 15 miles of the day.
As I neared my Plan A camp spot, I started to look forward to some sleep. I recognised the roads and then spotted the hut marked ‘fishing station’ on Google maps. However, when I rode up to it I noticed that alongside this small hut was a very fancy looking cottage with a self catering sign in the window, a car parked up behind and kayaks laid out. I sighed – there was no way I could camp here – Plan B it was then.
Plan B was a campsite I had called whilst on the train up to Inverness – just to make sure there were spaces. The thought of a warm shower started to fill me with joy but when I pulled up to the site, a sign read ‘No Vacancies’.
Luckily, I had a Plan C, but my heart sank with the realisation there would be no shower that evening. I had to cycle another 3 hilly miles to where I hoped I could camp. When I got there, the space was empty. ‘Result!’ I thought. When I took out a tent peg to test the ground, I sighed yet again. There was no way I could push these pegs in by hand, and with the wind picking up, I had visions of my lovely lightweight tent turning in to an expensive kite. I had to give it a go though, I had ran out back up plans. Fortunately with the help of a small rock I found I was able to pitch the tent with the use of a fancy technique I watched on YouTube – those late night YouTube sessions paid off.
So I set up to get an early night. After 97 miles and 9200 ft of climbing, some sleep was in order.
Cumulative mileage: 163 miles
Cumulative elevation gain: 11300 ft
NC500 Day 3 – The Friendly Strangers
Day three started very similarly to day tow – midges. I could see hundreds of them had come in underneath the outer layer of the tent and were gathering on the inner layer again. This time, when I got out of my tent it, was even worse than the previous morning. I packed up as fast as I could and left.
The route for day three was in two halves. The first had two notable climbs with a fairly flat section in between. The climbs were 2.5 and 9 miles long with 600ft and 1000ft of elevation respectively. Each came with equal amount of descent, something to look forward to. The second half was made up of short but steep bumps.
First, I had to have breakfast as I certainly couldn’t have it beside my tent. I cycled for a few miles but found no reasonable place to stop, then came to the first climb. As I hadn’t eaten yet, I had to make sure I took my time as it would be far too easy to overdo it and say goodbye to the day’s ride. At the top, there was a viewing point and it was worth my fasted effort up the hill. Hills upon hills in the background with lochs scattered in between. A picture or two were taken.
I continued on and found a waterfall where I refilled my water bottles, it was fast flowing so no need for a water filter here. I did however pop in a couple of electrolyte tablets to boost my levels.
At the bottom of the second climb, I was overtaken by two guys also cycling along the route. ‘No bags, we’ve got a mate with a motorhome taking our stuff!’. We chatted for a bit and I found myself pushing more than I intended to do, I waved the friendly pair on and got back to spinning as my heart rate started to reduce.
Around half way up, I was joined by another from the motorhome group. Chatting away at a comfortable cadence we climbed up the hill and met the two from earlier. The four of us described the hill using positive words – something you only really understand if you cycle. The two remaining guys pulled in as I was describing the next day we all would have instore – the often described ‘shark teeth profile’ section. Evidently no-one passed on the memo to the last two who were shocked!
Our peloton of six lost all the elevation we gained at around 30 mph. As the road flattened out, we pulled into a layby where the infamous motorhome was parked. The guys generously offered me a cup of tea as we sat and chatted a bit longer. I started to feel hungry knowing that my planned lunch stop was 5 miles away, so I said goodbye and joked that we would no doubt meet again.
As I rode into Ullapool, I decided I would stop for a longer than planned lunch break. I had made good time so far so a toastie, coke and a seat next to the harbour was me for the next 2 hours. During this time, I thought about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Often the reply when someone mentions a charity event is: ‘but you enjoy cycling’ or ‘I donate money and you go and skydive?’. While I understand the basis of these replies; it is charity. In my opinion, if you are fortunate enough to be able to, you should donate to charity whenever possible. Sometimes I feel that some people need some sort of receipt for a good deed they do. Anyway, back to cycling…
At the 50 mile mark, I turned left on to The Rock Road. What a section, rolling hills, fast windy stretches, and a peaceful loch with a little sandy beach. I pulled in to determine the best way to get down there. Once I spotted my route, I knew I would be going for a swim. The water was cold but so refreshing and helped my legs to some degree. I gave my riding clothes from the previous day a wash and attached them to the saddle bag to dry in the sun. Speaking of the sun, it was scorching at 30 degrees, I’m glad I chose to switch to my lightweight jersey and bib shorts.
Before setting off again, I checked the profile of the remaining 15 miles. Nothing too bad, but would need to slow down a bit as the thought of tomorrow’s ride entered my mind again. As I began riding, I then started to think of finding the perfect pitch at Achmelvich Bay. The night’s camp spot was slightly off the NC500 route by a couple of miles, but when I arrived it was clearly worth it. White sandy beach with cliffs either side covered in green grass and grey rock. The water was crystal clear and although freezing cold, a welcome cool down after a long day – 74 miles with 5600 ft of climbing.
Cumulative mileage: 237 miles,
Cumulative elevation gain: 16900 ft
NC500 Day 4 – The Ups and Downs
I woke at 06:00 to the lovely view of in the bay, I couldn’t brave a morning swim even with the air temperature being 13deg C. This day was one that I was most weary of; the elevation profile looked as if a toddler took a crayon and went to town.
When looking into the NC500 route, many have had to retire from their attempt at this point. I was determined to reach my camp spot for the night in good time. As I was leaving, I noticed that the group of guys I met the day before were actually staying at the campsite opposite the beach. I wondered if I would meet them on the road again.
The climb immediately out of the bay was sharp. There were people paddle boarding down on the small lochs distributed amongst the hills as I made my way up and past the next popular beach – Clachtoll. The next landmark I had my mind set on was getting to Drumbeg view point. A popular viewing point around 14 miles from where I set off. To get there, I had a few relentless hills to tick off the list for the day. The views were well worth stopping for a photo and a welcome rest for my legs.
I climbed up through an amazing valley where the views helped take my mind away from looking at the climbing screen on my Garmin. The winds at the top of each of these ascents were strong, I had to pay attention to the direction I was travelling, making sure to watch out for the easterly wind that could easily push me over a meter off my course at times.
The five miles after Nedd were unlike anything I’ve cycled before – climbing at 12-15% from sea level to 500 ft, just to back to sea level. Then the same all over again! I think I must have pushed up the last 100ft on the second climb as it was just too much with all my kit.
I stopped for a stretch and a water top up at a café just outside of Unapool, where none other than the guys from yesterday turned up! This time we used negative words for the section of climbs we had just completed. They told me that they saw me pushing up ‘that climb’ but they reassured me with, ‘So did we’. I must be doing well, I thought to myself. They ordered sandwiches and we chatted for a bit, but I told them I had intended to push on and get some more miles under my belt before lunch.
The Kylesku bridge was pretty cool, it curved round to make fairly sharp turn with parking either side of it. The cars and campers were all empty as everyone was out taking photos. The climb immediately after the bridge was long and gradual and I started to feel hungry. Fortunately, there was a viewing point at the top with picnic benches. I fired up my stove to boil water for my noodles. As I was looking down the hill, I noticed my friends coming up – I cheered them on ‘Allez Allez Allez!’.
The next 20 miles were brutal but enjoyable at the same time. I was feeling strong and confident in my fitness to push the power on a lot of these climbs. It was during these miles two riders came past me with one shouting, ‘You’re absolutely smashing these, we’ve been chasing you for a while’. The fact they had no bike bags increased my confidence even more so. This pair were actually bike-packing, but for this section they had organised a taxi for the things to be sent on to their next B&B.
I then had a choice to make. Plan A: head towards my original planned camp spot, around 6 miles off the route to Oldshoremore beach. This looked to be as beautiful as Achmelvich but I wanted to progress further and my Plan B camp spot was in Durness anyway.
I rode through Rhiconich and the 4 mile, 550 ft climb began. Again, the views were fantastic with lochs and smaller bodies of water in the foreground and massive hills behind. The decent down into Durness was incredible, only let down by the odd driver not using the passing places efficiently enough for my liking. Perhaps I was selfish and did not want my 45 mph descent to be burdened by having to pull on my brake levers.
I arrived in Durness and went into the shop to pick up dinner supplies, Mac ‘n’ Cheese in a packet x2! I got talking to a guy in the shop who was eyeing up my bike. I bravely asked about wild camping spots, assuming I wouldn’t get any info from him. To my excitement, he let me know of a place I’d have all to myself if I followed his directions correctly. He swore me to secrecy as it was one of the few places around the village not swarming with tourists.
I followed the kind man’s directions and was blown away by where they brought me. Not as pretty as Achmelvich, but there was something about this location that trumped my previous night’s spot. It had the cliffs, the white sand and crystal clear water and I had it all to myself. After the day’s ride, it was perfect – 56 miles and 5550ft of climbing.
Cumulative mileage: 293 miles
Cumulative elevation gain: 17450 ft
NC500 Day 5 – The Test
I woke up feeling slightly tired from my efforts the previous day and its extra mileage. Today I had a plan, a plan that would mean I’d finish a day earlier than intended. It would require me to ride for over 100 miles and with a stiff headwind forecast for when I headed south halfway through; it would certainly be tough. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I wanted to test myself. I feel it’s important to test yourself one way or another from time to time. You will almost certainly surprise yourself.
I cycled out of Durness and headed east along Scotland’s north coast. A place I wanted to make sure I saw was Smoo Cave. It was less than a mile down the road so my legs were still tight as I took the many steps down from the car park. An eeriness surprised me, perhaps it was because it was empty, again most videos and images I’d seen were busy with people. I climbed the steps back up to my bike when the rain started.
The route profile for the next 20 miles was uneventful but the views were breath-taking, cycling right around Loch Eriboll. The west side is flat but as you move to it’s east side, the terrain changes to a gradual climb with a rewarding viewpoint looking back at road I had just ridden.
The village of Hope was where I was aiming for next. It was the start of the biggest climb of the day. I had already done similar in the previous days but it was the start of this climb that worried me. 15% gradient with a couple of tight switchbacks could easily burn me out if I wasn’t careful. I took my time and spun my legs in my easiest gear.
Moving along the coast, I approached the 45 mile mark and Bettyhill. This is where I had actually planned to make camp for the night but it was only midday. My extra mileage yesterday and early start meant I was half a day ahead of plan. I could have called it a day and go to my camp spot, but instead I found a café and had lunch with the intention of pressing on. I found the store café, which was very much a cyclist orientated stop. There were a couple of bikes sitting outside with panniers attached. I got chatting to the couple who were also doing the route over a week. We exchanged route plans and experiences so far. I finished off my tea and cake, changed the route on my Garmin and set off.
My target was around 70 miles away, but not as the crow flies. Instead, I would continue east to Melvich, then south to Kinbrace. I’d then make my way around Loch Naver and finish at the Crask Inn half way down the A836. I’d still be camping but I was hoping for a dinner that hadn’t come out of a packet.
I reached Melvich came off the official NC500 route to avoid the A9 – this is often done by people cycling the route. My route took in to account this alternative but also had some of the Lands End to John o’Groats (LEJOG). As I was up here, I wanted to check out the LEJOG route for the chance of doing that in the future…
As I left the coast, the 25 miles or so from Melvich to Kinbrace were tough. Instead of beaches and cliffs, I came across moorland – miles and miles of it. The headwind was relentless and around 16mph. I encountered less and less traffic as the day went on and there wasn’t much to report back on.
As I pedalled my way around Loch Naver, I came across a large tent with four fishermen inside. I pulled over for a chat and shelter from the wind. They invited me to stay and camp up beside them, but the thought of a nicely cooked meal an hour away was too good to forget about. It was, however, one of the hardest hours of cycling I’ve done during my time on a bike. I had covered 100 miles and the wind was still trying it’s best to slow me down. There were many times over those two hours that I wanted to stop and camp up, literally at the side of the road. My mind started to wander, had I pushed myself too much? Should I turn back to see those fishermen – the wind would push me along the way so quickly.
But no; I was determined to make it; I had come too far to come up short. I began to think of my girls, the lessons Ashley and I would try and teach them about challenges in their future. Hopefully, they would think back to this time and remember what can be achieved with determination.
The Crask Inn sat on its own at the side of the road, nothing around for miles. Even though I was running on fumes at this point I got out of my saddle and pushed hard for the last 500 ft to the front door.
This was definitely the toughest day yet, but I was glad I tested myself. It would be a day I’d look back at many times in the future – 113 miles and 7319 ft of climbing.
Cumulative mileage: 406 miles
Cumulative elevation gain: 29856 ft
NC500 Day 6 – The Faith
So, day six began with my best sleep so far. Although, when I struggled to open my eyes, I noticed my face felt very different. I hadn’t looked in a mirror this whole time so when I turned my phone’s front camera on; I got a shock. My lips were cracked badly and the combination of puffy cheeks and bags under my eyes was the reason I had difficulty opening them.
I got out of my tent and stretched my legs, they felt ok – tired but ok. I made my morning prayer in the stillness beside my bike and prayed that I’d be looked after on this last day. When I went inside for breakfast, I found some people in cycling clothing eagerly waiting to be brought their orders. A couple with an older man all doing LEJOG. When I told them I was heading in the opposite direction to John O’Groats they asked if the wind was causing me issues. My reply was filled with sarcasm to cover up the concerns I truly had.
Back outside I packed up my things for what I hoped would be the last time on this adventure – over 90 miles is what stood in my way. And an adventure it certainly was, I had come across different people doing different things for different reasons – and I wonder, are these variations of myself?
The first section for me today would be an easy 15 miles, all downhill to Lairg where I topped up on jellybeans. These were invaluable over the past few days and I probably would have paid whatever the asking price to ensure I was stocked up!
Still travelling south just after Invershin, I had realised I had taken the wrong turn and was on the wrong side of the Kyle of Sutherland river. After a quick check I realised I could meet up with the correct route a couple of miles ahead. Not bad I thought, it was my first navigational mistake in over 400 miles but I really couldn’t let it happen again.
The next 15 miles were pretty, skimming along the river’s edge with the sun shining bright and glistening on the water. Today was the first day I was getting frustrated with my choice of clothing. At times it was too warm for my long sleeve jersey but with the sun hidden behind the clouds, the wind brought a cold chill. I battled with this frustration on and off for a while.
I approached Tain and joined the busy A9 for only 2 miles. This was enough to tell me I had made the correct choice in going with the NC500 alternative route. Although most drivers were considerate, as a cyclist who would have just ridden at least 300-400 miles, you are not at your best. A mistake brought on by tiredness would be costly.
I stopped at Alness to top up my bottles and to make lunch. The looks I received in the Co-op car park as I boiled water whilst wearing just my bib shorts won’t leave my memory. I apologised to an elderly woman who looked unsure of my intentions.
I was just over halfway when I crossed the Cromarty Bridge. I decided to use the pavement due to the horrific cross wind. After just over a mile on the bridge I turned left and began my second climb of the day, it was slow and steady with the wind not causing too many issues this time. The view back over my left shoulder did however cause drivers coming down the hill to slow down to a stop.
I cycled along the banks of the Cromarty Firth with a dozen scattered oil rigs. I had read about these ‘oil rig graveyards,’ due to current events, and saw no movement around any of them. The cycle up to Cromarty itself was flat and fast; I enjoyed this section. I could spend some time out of the saddle to stretch and relieve tension in my shoulders.
At this point I got a call from Ashley, we had been keeping in touch more often than usual today as she was driving the girls up to Inverness to meet me at the castle. I let her know I was around 20 miles away and was feeling confident. Crossing Kessock Bridge, I found myself getting excited at the thought of beating my target. I felt tired, but to have my efforts during this cycle potentially show others that you can exceed your expectations, gives me something to be proud of.
Getting closer to Inverness Castle I thought back to each of the days on my journey. Seeing the landscape change slowly over hundreds of miles for the first time. Having to change my strategy, my mentality to work with the surroundings and obstacles I came across.
That is why today is called ‘The Faith’. Have faith in whatever it is you want to have faith in. It can be a belief, family or friends, whatever it is to you, it can be powerful. It is what our family has relied on since the day we found out our baby boy had heart problems. Faith is the most important thing; it helps us through the hardships that we encounter.
As I cycled up to the castle and saw my girls, I made a small prayer of gratitude for all that we have and for all that comes with it.
Total mileage: 505 miles
Total elevation gain: 33486 ft