Updated: Jun 3
Six days, 15 riders, 1400 miles, one dead bike and lots of fun
The dust has just about settled on this year's Flying Scotsman tour. What did I learn? That the Scottish weather is as unpredictable and brilliant as ever. That the North Coast 500 isn't as clogged with campers as everyone makes out… and that you should never get your bike serviced the day before the tour. Plus of course that some of the best riding anywhere in Europe lurks at the very top of mainland Britain.
Things began well enough. As I got off the mighty Honda Crosstourer in the Moffat, the night before setting of with the group, a man in a bike-racing shirt approached me. Ego swelling, I grinned at him, until he said, "Excuse me... is that... Bruce's bike?" Deflated, I confimed: that GS belongs to Mr Smart, aka Teapot One, with whom I was running the tour.
We set off through the Borders in brilliant sunshine – a real contrast to last year's rain. The first day was glorious, getting the boat to bypass Glasgow and then rattling round the sublime roads through Inverary and Lochgilphead to Oban. Next day was a bit moodier in the morning, with brooding clouds as we headed through Glencoe – stopping off in Glen Etive to do our best Skyfall impressions. We stopped for lunch in somewhere new to me, The Glencoe Gathering: fabulous food but rude service. We won't be going back.
The plan of taking the Corran Ferry and heading out to Ardnamurchan Lighthouse was scuppered as, after several months, the car ferry was still out of action. Instead we did a simpler loop out to the Glenfinnan Monument, before heading north past the Commando Memorial and onto my favourite road in Scotland (which means, my favourite road in the UK) the A87 – the Road to the Isles. It's 50 miles of pure heaven, complete with a scenic castle picture opportunity at Eilean Donan. The sun came out and it was sublime.
The next day was the one I'd been worried about. Last year, we headed to Skye in a torrential downpour and had a bike dropped on one of the Applecross hairpins – though to be fair, we did also unleash an R18 cruiser to mug a Porsche, so it wasn't all bad.
This year it was perfect, with blue skies more or less all the way (bar one heavy shower). We stopped in the parking area at the top of the Quiraing and the attendant came over as I was hovering by the machine to pay for ticket. "Excuse me... is that... Bruce?" he asked, then explained we had 10mins free so didn't have to pay.
We carried on, finding almost every café I'd planned to visit shut, but at least finding alternatives. Applecross was epic (and drama-free) and the run around the coast then inland to the brilliant Altguish Inn was fantastic... though, no Porsches to overtake this year.
The next day's ride was a long one, through Ullapool and along the full length of the north coast. It was the usual intoxicating cocktail of corners and views, plus a visit to the cafe with amazing cakes in Lochinver – though for the first time we got a hint of the chaos that can be caused by the popularity of NC500 route, from the dickhead dragging a caravan down the clearly signed not-suitable-for-caravans single-track road to Drumbeg to an enormous cavalcade of cars on some kind of car-club jaunt. But we got round without incident – didn't we, Mark – pausing at John o'Groats to get a group shot of everyone and their bikes at the famous signpost.
It's all downhill from the North Coast, kinda. Steve, who'd missed the first day and a half of the trip when his mechanic hadn't finished servicing the bike in time, got a slow puncture and had to head into Inverness to get a new tyre. Dale went with him, armed with his pump, in case they needed to top up the tyre. The rest of us carried on south and stopped for coffee in a new place. As we were ordering, the boss lady came up. "Excuse me... is that... you, Bruce?" she asked. Turns out she actually knew him...
Steve got to Inverness to find that the rear wheel had been done up so tight even the truck fitters couldn't undo it... so he had a plug fitted and he and Dale caught us up in time for the epic ride through Glenshee. Next day we headed down through the city belt, stopping at the Kelpies… and Steve's tyre wore right down to the canvas. He had to be recovered from Hawick while the rest of us carried on through Kielder Forest and back to England.
We had one final night as a group in a great hotel, just outside Consett (Derwent Manor, if you're interested). Then we scattered to go our different ways. Some headed straight off. Bruce and Dale went to Hartlepool to try Motogymkhana. I headed home with Paul over Hartside Pass – a great way to finish the trip.
The guys had very kindly given Bruce and me some tipple, but really we should be thanking Dale, Danny, Darren, Dave and David, Jamie, Jeremy, Mark, Martin, Mick, Paul, Piers and Steve. Group tours like this aren't just about the riding – though that was good. The way the group gets on is all important and this was one of those trips where everyone left with a dozen proper new friends.