Most people think that a motorcycle trip requires time, planning, and the right bike. Most people think it requires warm, summery weather, and regular stops for coffee, cake and photographs. For them, riding a motorcycle is simply a more interesting way to get to the next wine-tasting event or interesting, sightseeing opportunity. Few people find enjoyment and relaxation in spending all day, every day, riding their motorcycles simply for the sake of it. Perhaps you can relate?
The North Coast 500 has become a victim of its own success. The sublime roads threading through varied and stunning scenery have existed for a long time, but a bit of publicity and branding have turned this 500-mile loop around Scotland’s northern coastline into a busy tourist attraction. I was lucky enough to sample the area years ago, before the fame really took hold and, gratefully take further opportunities to explore the beautiful Scottish hills, coasts and countryside. But, after over a year of restrictions and with Europe’s land borders still largely restricted, it was clear that every frustrated motorcyclist in England would be headed north this past summer. The North Coast 500 would be like the M25 at rush hour.
And so, early in the summer, I went to the Scottish borders instead and it turns out that they are indeed an undiscovered jewel. But that family trip was certainly a slower affair; 160-mile days with just four hours’ riding per day, split neatly into short low-speed hops and bookended with plenty of coffee and cake. There’s enjoyment to be had in that sort of journey, certainly, but it left me somewhat unsatisfied. And so, as summer wound to a close and school forced families to return home, I saw my chance.
I know how far I can safely and comfortably ride in a day, and even on the mixed roads of the Scottish highlands I was confident that 250 miles per day would present me no problems. This meant that the North Coast 500 (or my slightly modified version thereof with more twisty, nadgery coastal roads) could be wrapped up in a weekend. Of course, getting there from my home in Northampton would mean a long motorway ride, but nothing I hadn’t managed in the past.
Travelling solo would mean that I would stop only when I wanted, and fuel stops could be quick and efficient. Finding space for a single person to stay at short notice might be challenging during a busy tourist season, but I figured that I’d have my pick of desperate and cheap B&Bs or hotels all over Scotland in September. I could pack my own lunches, drink water on the go, and focus on enjoying the empty, desolate mountains, forests, and valleys. I would have Scotland all to myself!
Of course, it turned out that September was, for me, a busy month, and before I knew it most of my weekends in October were filling up too. I picked one before it was too late and booked the Friday and Monday off work, safe in the knowledge that I could cancel the entire venture and simply stay home if the weather report turned sour. My intention was to book accommodation each afternoon when I had a clearer picture of exactly how much further I would be able to ride that day – a strategy that has worked well for high-speed tours across Europe in the past.
What surprised me was that there were apparently others who thought that this kind of trip sounded like fun. A friend, a brother and my Dad all declared themselves interested, though each had reservations as to whether their bike would be ready for the trip. Scottish roads are extremely hard on motorcycle tyres and there were concerns that their remaining rubber would be insufficient. Some worried that my intended pace might be too much, or that ongoing reliability issues with their machines might halt the party. With so many miles to cover in so few days I could not afford to be waiting at every junction for dawdlers to catch up, allowing any cars I’d overtaken to once again get in front and ruin another set of bends. This would be a fast trip and those that came along would be expected to ‘make progress’ along with me.
I opted to take my still-new Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX on this rapid-fire lap of Scotland. You don’t need a lot of horsepower to maintain a rapid pace, but it certainly makes overtaking easier. The waterproof, lockable luggage would minimise the time spent faffing at the start and end of each day, even if the lack of a centre stand would make chain maintenance a frustration. The upgraded seat had proven comfortable around Galloway, even if the handlebars had not – but the faster pace would solve that problem. All my bikes have heated grips and installing the connector for my heated jacket was a five-minute job. A 200-mile tank range is smaller than I would like but was still further than some of my fellow travellers’ bikes could manage. I checked the tyre pressures, packed far more snacks and water than I really needed, and headed out.
I’d arranged to meet everyone 200 miles north of home on the Thursday evening at a cheap Holiday Inn hotel. I finished work, ate a hurried dinner and was on the road by 6:30pm. With minimal traffic at that time of night I made good time, and made sure to refuel before checking in and going straight to bed. The next morning we were back on the bikes by 7am and had already covered another 100 miles before breakfast. That turned out to be one of the most welcome warm meals ever, as the temperatures had plummeted overnight. With -1C showing on the dashboard north of Newcastle, those not wearing multiple layers of merino wool and heated gear found themselves horribly underdressed. Still, the sunrise was spectacular, and after a good (but quick) meal we were back on the road, the steadily warming sun rendering the hastily-applied extra layers less critical as we continued north.
After a short, congested loop around Edinburgh’s motorways we found ourselves at a familiar cafe in the heart of the Cairngorms by lunchtime. A quick lunch and a browse of Booking.com’s options showed a reasonably-priced pair of twin rooms available at the Mansfield Castle Hotel in Tain, more or less where I’d estimated we’d end up at the end of our first proper day of riding. We looped around Loch Ness to briefly join the ‘official’ NC500 and were checked in to the hotel before the sun set. Getting dinner was a challenge – a continuing theme throughout the trip, as Scotland’s hospitality has been utterly devastated by a combination of Brexit and Covid. No staff means no tables for those who haven’t booked, but with patience we were able to enjoy a good meal before bed.
Day two started with us ignoring a ‘Road Closed’ sign at the start of a 20-mile twisty back road, and sure enough – no-one was doing roadworks on a Saturday. We sampled the first of the Scottish Highland’s new trend towards unmanned, single-pump, and fully-automated petrol stations, a sign of things to come perhaps as increasing electrification of the UK’s vehicle fleet renders more isolated stations unviable in any other guise. We passed plenty that had clearly not survived Covid and experienced one or two tense moments when this resulted in big gaps between fill-ups during the trip. Don’t come to Scotland with a small petrol tank…
One of our party managed to lose their Ventura luggage, the bolts working their way loose over the bumpy roads and dumping the entire rack into a ditch at the side of the road, unnoticed until quite a while later. Fortunately, my brother had recently fitted a Tile tracker to the bag and was able to catch up with the rest of the group just a few hours’ later as we continued along the coast. We had a passing encounter with a hostile local who was clearly unhappy with the tourists using the road through his village, but I decided against stopping to trade opinions with the clearly suicidal individual. Someone who thinks it’s a good idea to try and step out in front of a moving vehicle in order to force an argument is not someone I’m interested in conversing with.
The Lochlinver Larder remains possibly the best pie shop in the British Isles and we all picked up what we intended to be next day’s lunch, having settled for roadside snacks earlier. With a rain front threatening to move in, we opted to aim for the Gairloch Hotel as our stop for the evening, having already more than cleared the days’ estimated mileage. Our early stop proved to be a mistake, as the aforementioned hospitality issues meant that we were unable to secure a dinner reservation until more than two hours later. A walk to a pub in the next village killed the time.
Negotiating another 7:30am breakfast meant we were once again on the road by just after 8am, just as the sun was coming up. The road to Applecross pass was utterly abandoned, with the many stops for truly spectacular sunrise photos still failing to negatively impact the Sat Nav’s estimated time of arrival. Clearly, even our reduced pace was still quicker than the average dawdling car driver. The few vehicles we encountered descending the serpentine steps of the pass’ southern side moved obligingly out of the way; a fantastic attitude I wish the Scots would find a way to export to the rest of the UK.
We made such good time that we decided to push on and make our evening stop a good hour south of Glasgow, taking almost 100 miles off the following day’s monotonous motorway run home. Unfortunately, the drizzle that had descended late in the morning only got worse as we approached the city, with the final run through Duke’s Pass spoiled for those with rapidly thinning rear tyre tread. For my part, I can confirm that properly-serviced and modified suspension can turn even the most rutted of washboard roads into a smooth, confidence-inspiring experience. Michelin’s Road 5 tyres – the choice of three out of four riders on the trip – proved themselves extremely capable in the cold, wet conditions.
The motorways south of Glasgow were utterly drenched, with standing water and the resultant airborne spray reducing both visibility and safe travel speeds dramatically. Though the windshield on the Ninja kept the worst of the rain off my chest, I was thankful for the waterproof Kriega ‘wind blocker’ I’d decided to put on over my regular Buff earlier in the day. My Altberg boots proved as reliable as ever, though my many-years-old Richa gloves’ waterproofing has clearly, and finally, given up. They have served me well for many years and I may simply replace them with another identical pair.
Our ‘hotel’ for that evening was, in fact, a self-service cottage of sorts and, with no prospect of buying a meal in the tiny village of Wanlockhead, we were suddenly very glad indeed for the pies we had purchased the previous day. With the heating cranked up and drying motorcycle gear hanging from every doorknob we made use of the kitchen to warm up and thoroughly enjoy our well-preserved meal. An early night facilitated another early start with the group mostly going their separate ways to head home. My brother and I arrived at Lloyds Honda Motorcycles in Carlisle just as they were opening for an emergency rear-tyre swap and enjoyed a surprisingly good breakfast at McDonalds while we waited. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such prompt service from a motorcycle dealer anywhere in the world and we were back on the road in under an hour.
The final few hours were punctuated by regular stops for leg stretching and bathroom/drink breaks at motorway services, with rain dogging our heels most of the way south. But we couldn’t complain – we’d managed to get most of the way around one of the most changeable parts of the UK on clear, dry roads, and a motorway run in the rain is little different to one in the sunshine. In the end, my trip meter recorded just over 1,500 miles door-to-door, with those who’d travelled from South Wales logging even higher mileages. My Dad noted that our southbound crossing of the Scottish border happened almost exactly 72 hours after we’d passed it heading north.
It turns out that, not only is looping the most northerly part of the UK in a long weekend entirely achievable, it’s also not some sort of brutal, masochistic feat of endurance. We stopped far more often than I expected, and for longer, and still managed to easily beat our daily target mileage. A coffee and restroom stop does not need to take an hour and, the fact that I was riding the only motorcycle with more than 100 horsepower proved that you don’t need big speed to keep a snappy pace. My experimental North Coast Express was a resounding success and I will be back for another run at it as soon as the snow melts next spring.
And what of the Ninja? It acquitted itself well, though oiling the chain twice a day when riding in the wet is extremely inconvenient. Doing so solo would be impossible without a trick stand to raise the rear wheel off the ground, as Kawasaki’s exhaust system design has made fitting a centre stand an impossibility. I found myself constantly missing the belt drive from my T-Max, or envying the drive shafts of the occasional BMW we passed. The easy 200-mile tank range proved a consistent comfort and, at more reasonable speeds, it was an eminently comfortable place to spend four long days. The practically silent engine robs some of the drama and excitement but does make for guilt-free early-morning getaways from sleep hotels and hamlets.
The Ninja worked well around the North Coast 500, making overtaking a breeze compared to my V-Strom 650 and soaking up the rough roads far better than my erstwhile Street Triple. I suppose next time I’ll have to try the T-Max…
First published in Slipstream February 2022