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Journal

THE NOT QUITE NORTH COAST 500 | PT. III

10,000km.cc

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This series was always meant to be a two-parter. Three days, two posts and as many photos as possible to give a vague hint of just how beautifully and brilliantly brutal, how stunningly, sublimely savage The Highlands are to ride through.

But writing about our brief encounter with The Highlands has been almost as difficult as riding it. 

Having gone from four to three riders at the beginning of day two, we awoke to discover that day three would see that trend continue. Gorrod had been suffering with knee issues that had been getting progressively worse throughout the trip. Today was the day it could take no more. 

Saddle bag packed and kit dry, the remaining two -- Hendo and I -- set out onto the final leg of our ride, which would take us back to Inverness. 

It took 15 minutes for us to become reacquainted with the familiar feeling of water against our face from the air, the road and the occasional passing vehicle.

With just two of us left, we had nowhere to hide from the headwinds and weather, which worked relentlessly against us. We laughed. We groaned. We shook our heads. And then we laughed some more. What else could we do but continue pedalling and enjoy the process?

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80km into constant rain and we'd not seen anything that looked like it might serve a hot drink and something -- anything -- to eat. Our hopes were raised by an 'open' sign for a nearby hotel. To the sound of our wheels crunching over the gravel of its car park, our hearts and stomachs sank as we arrived to an unlit building and a locked door. 

We pedalled on, fingers tightly crossed. In the small village of Ardgay, we finally found what we'd been looking for. 

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Resting our bikes against a fence outside, we headed inside as quickly as we could. Our rain jackets came off. So did our caps, our arm warmers, our gloves and our jerseys. Every item of clothing dripped, dripped, dripped onto the floor as the lady behind the counter put the kettle on and got to work on our toasties. We were shivering, staring at our knees or into the middle distance as our teeth chattered and the pain in our fingers became more excruciating as our hands warmed up.

The pain subsided after the first cafetière and we began to survey our surroundings. Shelves lined with biscuits and chocolate were sandwiched between rows and columns of hard spirits, complemented by hardware essentials like Gorilla Tape and screwdriver sets. Pressing down on the plunger of our second coffee, we listened as the lady behind the counter showcased her newly arrived Christmas bauble sets to a regular. 

Once again, we weren't sure what this place was, but we were enormously grateful for its existence. 

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With a little under 50km between us and Inverness, we took to the road for the final time. To celebrate the final leg, Scotland put on a show. The overture began as we ascended Struy Hill, the final major climb of the day, and the rain turned to hail.

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At the top of the climb, the atmosphere continued to build with the introduction of a low, thick fog. Reaching for the buttons of our front and back lights, we continued towards what would be a biblical crescendo.

It was around two o'clock in the afternoon and we were just over an hour from a cold beer and a warm dinner. In what felt like an instant, the sky transformed from a nondescript grey to an ominous pink-orange glow and the light drained from the day. It was mid-afternoon, but it felt as though we were on the wrong side of dusk. It was only later that we found out that this wasn't the beginning of the end of the world, but the result of Tropical Storm Ophelia picking up sand from the Sahara and combining with debris from forest fires in Portugal and Spain. 

Apocolypse or not, we hunkered down for the final push. Tracing the bank of the Beauly Firth, we were brought to the impressive Kessock Bridge. This was the final challenge of our trip. Only 1km of pedalling from one side to the other, we were forced as low as we could possibly get ourselves over the handlebars. This reduced the chance of the crosswind hurling itself down the River Beauly and into our right-hand sides from leaving us on the tarmac.

Upright and unscathed, we rolled into Inverness to find Saul and Gorrod waiting for us. Whilst Gorrod's knee remained a little broken, Saul had managed to convert his bike to a single speed to get him to the station and, eventually, to the office when we'd made it back to London. 

Boarding the sleeper train back to the capital, we settled down for what was intended to be a good night's sleep (after all, we were all due into the office first thing the following morning).

Woken up by the train guard at two o'clock in the morning having not made it past Edinburgh Waverly, we found ourselves shuffling across the station with our saddle bags in-hand.

But that's a story for another time.

View the route.

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