Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Are the big-name routes really the only way to go?
I remember standing in the garage in Aviemore. We'd just filled up the bikes, it was mid-afternoon and we were heading for Jedburgh – me, Mufga, Si Hargreaves, Si's mate Paul and the legend that is Chippy Wood. It was 2007 and we were on a test for Bike. Probably still the best road test of all time. Blue skies and near Mediterranean temperatures, spectacular scenery, miles of fantastic empty roads and astonishing riding, tearing round the west coast of Scotland on a pack of big half-faired street bikes.
I was just a bum on a seat on this test; Si H was running the show. As a nicely democratic test-leader (so, unlike me: my test, my route!) he gave us a vote on how to proceed. The sensible thing, as we stood there on the afternoon of day three, was to toddle down the A9 to the hotel... and as the designated sensible bloke on the trip, the James May to Si H's Clarkson, I think the others expected me to vote in favour of that.
But the alternative was taking the time to go through the Cairngorms on the majestic A939 and A93 – one of my favourite rides in the UK. And no way was I sitting on the A9 (even back then, before its average-speed cameras). "Let's take the long way," I said – to sighs of relief. We had a great ride... But that wasn't the end of it. When we got to Jedburgh at about 7pm, we kept riding. Nobody wanted to stop. We just kept going, all the way back to Lincolnshire, getting home around midnight. It was epic.
But nowadays, that trip would be summed up and written off with one sentence: we did the North Coast 500.
Now, I like the North Coast 500. Of course I do. I like the fact that it's made those amazing roads seem somehow more accessible, like heading up there for the first time is less of a leap into the unknown. And of course the way it's supported by an excellent website only helps. Encouraging people to stretch themselves and discover the amazing riding and landscape up there has to be a good thing.
But at the same time, I don't like the way that – since it was launched in 2015 – the NC500 seems to have become the only route in the west of Scotland. As if you're doing it wrong if you go another way. I don't like the way it's drawn so many people in cars and camper vans to single-track roads, where they don't pause in the passing places to let you overtake, so it's too easy to get stuck behind them as they crawl witlessly along at 34mph. And I really don't like the way the increase in tourist traffic is pissing off the locals, who you can spot now because they're the ones driving too fast straight at you and not using the passing places (rather than the holidaymakers who are driving too slow straight at you and not using the passing places).
And while all of this extra attention has been good for the cafes and B&Bs along the route, it's been savagely hard for places that aren't on it. They've been struggling and plenty have had to close, as the visitors that were spread evenly across Scotland before 2015 have since been scraped into heaps along the course of the NC500... where getting accommodation now is harder than ever because it's busier every year.
Overall, of course, the NC500 has been a great success for the local economy. Which is why everyone's got in on the act. There's the North East 250, heading out in a loop from Glenshee to Aberdeen; there's the Northumbria 250, the Snowdonia 300... hell, even I've done it. Picking up a joke Si H made, I produced a South Coast 500 for Bikers' Britain: The Tours and a Midland 300 too – and earlier this year I put together an East 500 for the daytrips page of my site (I was going to call the E500 – but didn't want anyone to think it went to Yorkshire. And EE500 sounds like a phone tarrif).
On one level, I have to hope all these other number-based routes succeed. I hope they help the businesses in those areas because it's better touring when there are successful cafes that like seeing bikers, rather than going to places with crap cafes or none at all. And we all have to hope they succeed in tempting tourists away from the big daddy of the number routes, from the NC500, so that isn't bursting at the seams.
But on another level, I wish we could go back to just exploring – without being tied to these reductive routes, as if they're the only way to go... and that just isn't the case.
When we did that epic Bike road test, we didn't really do the North Coast 500 – and not just because it hadn't been created then. We took the A87 from Invergarry, picking up the NC500 route at Lochcarron (rather than starting from Inverness). We didn't bother with Applecross and, after overnighting in the Tongue Hotel, we lopped off the frankly rather dull John o'Groats corner, riding due south through Altnaharra instead.
All of which is a bit heretical nowadays... not follow the NC500 route to the letter? What madness is this? But it was the best way for us to pack the best bits of riding into a short space of time – and that's what touring should be about. Being flexible and making the most of our time on the bike, not just rolling along in the wheel-tracks of all the other tourists on the fixed, famous routes... because that is the numbers game.
• If you do want my versions of the famous numerical routes, please see the Daytrips page for downloads. If you want something a bit different... there are options there too. Or contact me about a bespoke tour designed around your needs.