In October's blog, I described some Recommended Alternative Cycling routes to get out of Inverness on safer roads to Contin and then on to Garve where you turn off the A835 onto the A832 to Achnasheen. From there, down to Loch Carron, up the west Highland coast to Durness, there are few roads to choose from and only three alternatives to the published NC500 route. I have escribed a clockwise route as that is what most cyclists seem to do, bearing in mind the prevailing south westerly winds (but just to complicate things, spring often brings that northerly airstream!)
This month, I will describe the main features of these Recommended NC500 Cycling Alternatives as far as Kylesku, and give you my assessment of the pros and cons of each to help you make your route choices depending on weather and your needs as a cyclist. Please note that I cannot make daily mileage suggestions as there are too many factors at play. To guide your planning, I suggest that you use one of the websites which give elevation data, such as Bike Hike or Map My Ride. The suggested 9-day itinerary on the NC500 website would be quite challenging even though the daily mileage might not seem excessive to some; the whole route has about 32,000 feet of climbing over the 450 to 500 miles and does not allow for rest days or sightseeing time.
Also, look carefully at the scale of the elevation graphs included below – the differences greatly influence the impression of the amount of up and down that you get from a cursory glance!
I have loosely defined a ‘significant hill
’ as at least 200m long; one which makes me puff and gets me out of the saddle on my lightweight road bike just to get to the top, let alone make a good showing on Strava! However, what another cyclist calls significant on their fully loaded tourer may be quite different! The majority of the rest of the hills shown on the elevation graphs should probably be termed sub-significant rather than insignificant!
Decision point: Tornapress, north of Lochcarron.
This is quite an important decision point as, in bad weather, it would be best to consider the lower level alternative rather than following the standard NC500 and cycling over the Bealach na Ba; I have included a bit more detail about the Applecross route to help you make that decision in the event of marginal weather.
Choice 1. Tornapress to Sheildaig via the Bealalch na Ba and Applecross – Standard NC500 Route
The Bealach na Ba or Pass of the Cattle (known locally as ‘the Bealach’) is a very ‘significant hill’! It climbs from almost sea level at Tornapress to 2053 feet. It isn’t the highest pass in the UK but is does have a reputation based on the combination of the most ascent on a UK road pass and the prevailing wind and weather, which can be harsh at the top in contrast to usually more benign conditions down at Tornapress.
Check a regional mountain weather forecast from MWIS http://www.mwis.org.uk/scottish-forecast/NW/
or the Met Office http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/public/weather/mountain-forecasts/west-highlands#?tab=mountainWeather
the night before you plan to head over the pass as forecasts can change rapidly and quickly become out of date in this part of the UK. In more settled conditions, this climb can reward you with fantastic views, an exciting descent (but watch for traffic coming up from Applecross) and that satisfied feeling that you have done it!
Perhaps not a day for the Bealach!
Cycling on steep single track roads requires a low gear, familiarity with the conventions of using single track roads and a certain style of assertiveness to hold your position on the road if you encounter that rare motorist who is not sympathetic to your struggles up the inclines. Read the June 2016 blog for further information. Try to plan your trip so you are tackling the Bealach during the week, avoiding the busier weekend traffic, especially in the high tourist seasons.
Being slightly assertive with traffic approaching the third hairpin (although this particular driver was very encouraging!)
The most demanding cycling section of the Bealach is not the daunting-looking series of hairpin bends at the head wall of the corrie but the 300m long 18-20% straight ramp leading up to the first sharp left-hand bend immediately below the head wall; once you have reached that one, you’ve cracked it! The hairpins themselves may well be steeper for a few metres, but if you stick to the outside of the corners, the gradient is significantly shallower and can offer you a bit of a rest to gather yourself for the next ramp.
On the descent, beware of the sharp left-hand corner not far from the summit, followed by a very sharp and steep right-hand hairpin. You then have a long straight where a strong cross wind can cause buffeting and wind shimmy (wobbling) especially on a loaded bike; get low over the bars for stability, try to relax and ease off on the front brake to reduce the shimmy.
You may want to consider staying the night at Applecross as what many cyclists consider the most demanding section of the Applecross peninsula is still to come. The profile above doesn’t do justice to the roller-coaster nature of the 23 miles from Applecross to the A896 south of Sheildaig so I have included the one below which has a more appropriate scale. About 6 of the hills are ‘significant’. The coast is stunningly beautiful but the cycling can be quite tiring with the effort of the Bealach still in your legs.
Looking across to the Toridon hills from Applcross Applecross to Sheildaig junction elevation data.
Choice 2. Directly north form Tornapress to Sheildaig – Recommended Bad Weather Alternative
Autumn colours snapped from the back of the tandem by the pretty Loch Dughaill in Glen Sheildaig
There is only one hill (440 feet) with a gentler gradient up this more sheltered glen so this might be a more prudent choice of route in windy weather. It is also about 27 miles shorter!
Decision Point: About 10 miles north of Ullapool.
You are now entering the area of the North West Highlands Geopark as designated by UNESCO, a unique and varied landscape stretching all the way up the coast from the Summer Isles to Cape Wrath.
The standard NC500 follows the main road to Lochinver and then takes the partly single track coast road through Clashnessie to re-join the main road about 5 miles south of Kylesku. It avoids the very sparsely populated Inverpollaidh area (pronounced Inverpoli, the dh being silent) south of Lochinver for good reason – the road is probably the most twisty and the narrowest in the area! However, it is a beautiful cycling route with less climbing and kinder gradients than its north Lochinver counterpart and so is included as one of the Recommended NC500 Cycling Alternatives.
If you only have the legs for one of these coastal roller-coasters, you may find the information about the main road alternatives useful to help to inform your decisions. As the four routes are inter-connected, I have included them all in this one Decision Point section.
Choice 1. Inverpollaidh, South of Lochinver - Recommended NC500 Cycling Alternative.
About 10 miles north of Ullapool, take the left turn onto the single track road to Achiltibuie and Lochinver. The 21 mile route includes three ‘significant hills’ plus another fairly demanding one where the road takes the right-hand turn away from the Achiltibuie road just past the two long lochs.
Stac Pollaidh on the north side of the lochs is an extraordinary miniature Torridonian sandstone mountain which has been eroded over the millennia to this very recognisable shape.
Stac Pollaidh Which way?
After this open sandstone landscape, the road twist and turns through the birch-wooded knock-and-lochan landscape of ancient Lewisian gneiss rock which has been scoured by glaciation to form rocky hills and hollows which now form the small lochs or lochans typical of the area. Where the road meets the coast, there are a number of beautiful rocky bays; the gneiss does not form the sandy beaches that you will find in the more open sandstone landscapes further south and north. It is also less suitable for agriculture so you will find fewer crofting communities … and so fewer sheep on the road!
Narrow roads around the bays in this lovely area.
If you are looking to break records, this is probably not your first choice as cycling (and driving) on this road needs care and attention on its many blind bends and ups and downs. However, I can keep up a reasonable safe pace and its attractions never fail to inspire me.
There are no services, shops etc between Ullapool and Lochinver this way so be sure to stock up before you leave Ullapool.
Choice 2. Main road via Elphin and Inchnadamph – standard NC500 route
The main road is more straight forward and so faster. It has one big hill over the top to Elphin; it could be considered ‘significant’ due to its length but it is not particularly steep.
At Knockan Rocks National Nature Reserve, there are spectacular views into Inverpollaidh, especially in the evening light. The interpretation displays at the Rocks are worth a visit; they explain the fascinating geology of this ancient landscape. There are also well maintained toilets! There two hotels, one about 2 miles off the route at Ledmore Junction, the other at Inchnadamph, and there is a tea room at Elphin.
Choice 3. North Lochinver coastal road – standard NC500 route.
If you have rested and re-fuelled at Lochinver, your legs may have it in them to get you to Kylesku via another spectacular and varied coastal route with its sandy beaches, crofting communities and birch woods. Be warned though, it has more ascent and steeper gradients than the Inverpollaidh road, taking you up 7 ‘significant hills’ (one with a particularly steep ramp) plus a couple more which are shorter but still significantly steep. The roads are generally a little wider than the Inverpollaidh roads but they do take more traffic due to there being more settlements.
Refreshment opportunities are scarce; there is the beach cabin shop and café near Clachtoll and the lovely village shop and Secret Tea Garden café at Drumbeg (the latter has midge-killing machines – I have had completely midge-free coffee and cake there at the height of the midge season! Fantastic!)
The beautiful Clashnessie Bay.
Gathering herself before the steep descent to the start of “that hill” which has probably the steepest section on the whole NC500. Thanks to Anna Beith for the photo
Choice 4 – Main road from Lochinver to Kylesku – Recommended NC500 Alternative…for Avoiding too much Climbing!
It may seem strange to recommend the main road for cycling instead of the minor roads but this one involves about 800 feet less ascent than the standard NC500 route north of Lochinver, and the roads are all double track with the usual surface typical of Highland main roads (pretty good but with slightly roughed up tarmac). If you are feeling tired after so many hills further south, or you have had enough of single track roads for a while, you may find this way a bit more relaxing with only one long ‘significant’ hill, and even that’s not significantly steep all the way up, unlike the Bealach na Ba!
The route takes you via the lovely ruined castle on the wild and open Loch Assynt and over the spectacular pass north, under Quinag which rears high to the west. The descent towards Kylesku is also worth doing – lovely, long and fast on good open roads.
Loch Assynt and its castle on a prefect autumn day
As with any high pass, watch the weather forecasts, and take note of the wind in particular. However, in my experience, it is not as serious an undertaking in more adverse conditions as the single track Bealach na Ba.
Approaching Loch Assynt from the north – Quinag broods in the background
Onwards from Kylesku.
From Kylesku and its spectacular bridge northwards, there are no alternative routes until you need to make decisions about how to avoid the busy A9 trunk road down the east coast back to Inverness. The first decision point in this next section is between Loch Eribol and Tongue on the north coast - look out for the next blog for that.
Kylesku Bridge looking east into the fijord-like Loch Glenduh (the loch of the black glen)… and west out to sea.