The North Coast: 500 miles around the Scottish Coastline

Simon Richardson is joined by esteemed explorer Mark Beaumont, as the pair ride 500 miles of Scottish Coastline on a whistle-stop expedition.

Reading time: 5 min

Global Cycling Network’s Simon Richardson was recently invited to ride the rugged, effortlessly beautiful landscape of Scotland’s northern coastline with long-distance cyclist Mark Beaumont. A loop starting and ending at Inverness Castle, the North Coast 500 follows a route around the country’s breathtaking mountains and lochs, taking in the UK’s biggest elevation-gaining road climb along the way – Bealach na Bà. Watch the film of their three-day challenge, and read our interview with round-the-world record holder Mark about his love of adventure riding below.

Fresh off the bike from his three-day North Coast 500 ride and part-way through a month-long talk tour, Mark Beaumont is a man on the move. An adventurer and long-distance cyclist, he’s just completed his second round-the-world bike ride in a time of 78 days and 14 hours – smashing the previous record by 44 days – and is currently speaking to audiences across the UK about his achievement. As he prepared for the first night of his tour, Apidura spoke to Mark about why faster isn’t always better, and how his home roads stand out in a career that’s spanned the globe twice.

You’re a two-time round-the-world record holder. Once solo, and once fully supported. Can you talk us through the differences between the two experiences?

When I first started out I was very much on my own. Anyone who’s done any bikepacking – against the clock or just for the experience – will know that the real memories come from everything that happens off the bike. Sure, it’s amazing to ride across these incredible landscapes, but when you’re relying on picking up food and not knowing where you’re going to sleep each night, the memories and experiences come from the adventure.

When you’re fully supported, with a couple of RVs like a Tour de France racer, it’s no longer an adventure ride. It’s purely about performance – not the cultures you’re passing through.

Would you say you preferred bikepacking to supported riding?

I’ll never regret taking on the challenge to ride around the world in 80 days in 2017. I feel like it was an opportunity to put all my cards on the table and figure out what I was capable of. In itself, it’s not the most enjoyable way to cycle. In fact, it bloody hurts.

Over the last 13 years of expeditions I’ve done it all: from old-fashioned five bag touring, to ultra light frame bags, to a fully supported race team. It’s sort of a sliding scale for me, and I’m probably happiest in the middle – taking as little kit as possible, but still being out there on my own or with friends as opposed to the extremes of carrying way too much or the sheer suffering of trying to ride 400km a day. I feel lucky that I’ve experienced all of it, but I think that interaction between you, the bike, and the world around you is massively important – and is why I ride.

The North Coast 500 route takes in the UK’s steepest road climb – Bealach na Bà. In the film, you mention that Bealach na Bà was part of your training ride for the round the world attempt. What’s it like having that kind of terrain in your own backyard?

I grew up home-schooled until I was 12, in the foothills of the highlands, and all the training for my adventures has taken place on the roads you see in the film. My expeditions have taken me to more than 130 countries, but I’m pretty biased to what’s straight out of the back door.

At home in Scotland we’ve got the most astonishing scenery, and you don’t have to go that far for it to change. If you’re in North America and you want a change of scenery, you need to go to the next state, whereas in Scotland – just an hour’s drive can change everything. The highlands, the lowlands, the lakes, the mountains: it’s a pretty incredible playground.

Showing off your home roads to a bikepacking newcomer must have been incredibly satisfying.

It’s great fun when you see people’s reactions to the views – coming round the corner and going, ‘Wow!’ – but it’s even better when you get to show your favourite places to ride to a buddy. It’s just the most beautiful route.

I’ve known Simon for years. Whilst he’s an ex-pro he’s certainly not experienced riding back to back endurance days like that, and I think he was suffering afterwards. I’m used to pacing myself over these big distances, and it’s big mileage if you’re not used to it, but he did really well.

I first rode the North Coast 500 route non-stop in 37 hours back in 2015 when it launched, so I know it very well. To do it in three days is still really tough, and it’s not to be underestimated. I’d say it’s a far better route when ridden slower over a week, giving you time to really soak up the experience.

What advice would you give to someone planning their first bikepacking trip?

There’s a lot to be said for finding adventure closer to home and exploring the roads you might take for granted. Many people think there’s only one endurance route in the UK – Land’s End to John o’Groats – but there’s so many phenomenal rides. Even in Scotland, people forget how much there is to explore north of Inverness. The roads we showcased in the film are incredible, and if you get weather like we had, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be.

There’s no wrong way to approach bikepacking either. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in being trendy and cool, but the most important thing is to just get out there. Take what you want to take, ride how you want to ride.

What’s next for you?

Once I’ve finished the speaking tour I’m going to take some time off with the family in the summer, then I’ve got the Wales360 in July – a six-day mountain bike stage race. I’d love to be able to take part in the Race Across America next year, too – but whatever happens, I’ll just be enjoying riding my bike.

Simon Richardson shares 3T Exploro full bikepacking setup, for tackling the wild coastline of northern Scotland.