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Journal

THE NOT QUITE NORTH COAST 500 | PT. II

10,000km.cc

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There was no overnight miracle. 

Dragging ourselves out of our beds, down the stairs and into the hallway, Saul’s bike still rested forlornly against the wall, its front tyre flat and his chain wrapped precariously round parts of his frame.

We discussed plans over breakfast, but they were loose and un-robust. 

Should we botch a fix together to get him to the train station? Was there a bike shop nearby? Should he get the train to Ullapool, tonight’s stopover, in the hope of finding one there? 

No phone reception or WiFi meant the only thing that held the answers to any of these questions was a copy of the Yellow Pages sat next to the B&B’s landline. 

After half a morning of calls it transpired that there was nowhere we could rely on in Ullapool. The closest train station was 16 miles away. And the only train was at 16:30 that afternoon. 

The only reliable plan we were able to hit on at 09:30 on a Sunday was for Saul to walk him and his bike back to where we’d had dinner the night before and hitch a ride to the station. We’d see him in Inverness.

And so, reluctantly, four became three. 

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Back on the roads and into the mist and/or drizzle (mizzle), The Highlands reasserted their power over us almost immediately. An enormous gust of wind blew from one side of the valley and to the other and took us with it. Forced from one side of the road to the other, the blast did an about turn and came back the other way, carrying us back to where we started.

These roads did not belong to us and they’d do whatever they wanted whilst we were on them.

We were just glad not to be riding deep sections.

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The weather slowly started to improve as we made our way into the first half of the second day, which would be taking us to Ullapool. The sun started to break through the clouds and as we swung eastwards we were fortunate enough to grab a tailwind that helped the first 50km evaporate beneath our wheels.

The fantastic conditions and stark contrast of the terrain to the previous day were cause for a celebratory Irn Bru at our first and only stop of the day. 

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Placing our bikes against a bench, we pushed through the heavy, arched, church-like door and followed the signs in the hallway that invited ys further inside. Standing in an empty room, we looked on at the empty bar.

The lights were on and the shelves and fridges were stocked, but we weren’t sure if anyone was home. Then we read the A4 printout:

“Please ring the bell. FIRMLY. 

We will be with you shortly.

Thank you.”

We did as we were told.

We rang the bell.

Firmly.

Two or three minutes later, a chap with a broad Essex accent wandered into the room.

“‘Ello, gents. What can I getchoo?”

Placing an Irn Bru and a glass on the bar, he glided out of the room for another few minutes before returning with the second two-thirds of our order, a couple of black coffees. 

“We’ve got the fire on in the lounge if you wanna head through there”, he said, gesturing towards a conservatory containing a couple of thick-cushioned couches gathered round a coffee table.

We did as we were told. We drank our drinks in front of the fire. We broke out some ride snacks as we revelled in what had been a relatively easy start to the day. And then we got up, put our empty cups and glass on the bar and we left.

We didn’t see our host again after he’s ushered us into his lounge.

“What was that place?” One of us shouted over our shoulder to the others as we began peddling up a growing incline into what was becoming a prevailing headwind. 

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Neither let up for the next two hours and it’s relentless was slowly eroding Gorrod’s pain threshold. His knee had started to niggle the day before, with Bealach na Bà having worked its way in and not left since. Deja vu took hold as Hendo and I found ourselves sandwiching another rider between our front and back wheels in a bid to make their lives ever so slightly easier.

The elements did their best to give almost as much as they took, a rainbow over a reservoir providing what might have been a perfect metaphor for or circumstances had we had a better opportunity to analyse it. 

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But as we were spat out onto the final descent into Ullapool, we were soaked through and shivering. Having rolled through another beautifully bleak expanse of moorland, nothing brings warmth to the heart of an otherwise cold-limbed, red-faced cyclist than the sight of a fish and chip shop and the words “deep”, “fried” and “haggis”.

Thawing from the inside out, we made full use of a room in our hostel for the evening that we’d never encountered before: the drying room.

There are few other parts of the world that require such an amenity, we guessed, as we put down plates that had been holding pizza, and picked up our pints of ice cream.  

View the route.