"There is a magic that lies in the remote mountains of northern Scotland" says film maker and bikepacking evangelist Markus Stitz. In this short film he follows a route of his own making based loosely on the popular North Coast 500, adapted for gravel bikes and including long off-road sections.
"I had seen many cyclists on the roads when I visited Garve last summer" he says.
"I cycled a lot on gravel trails around there, up Little Wyvis for example, and wondered if there was potential to combine the NC500 route with off-road sections, which for me provide a better cycling experience. The other consideration was that 500 miles is simply too long for most people to cycle, so the route I designed is around 200 miles, which is more realistic."
"The scenery is stunning, but I am also interested in the stories that are connected with this part of Scotland. While slow travel has become a buzzword, I have always embraced this as a way to experience the places I travel through. And there is nowhere better in Scotland to slow down."
"I arrived in Inverness by train from Edinburgh and picked up my bike at a local bike hire provider, which saved me bringing my own and having to shop around for a bike reservation (and supports a small local business). Then I took a train from Inverness to Strathcarron and followed the NC500 route up and down the iconic Bealach na Bà and along an equally scenic road to the small village of Shieldaig.
"On the third day I set off from Shieldaig, admired the fishy mural on the public toilet, and combined the NC500 route with gravel tracks along Upper Loch Torridon, then continuing through the picturesque Glen Torridon. From Kinlochewe I ventured off the NC500 route towards Achnasheen and on to Lochluichart. After a stiff climb I was rewarded with fast gravel tracks and amazing views from Lochluichart Wind Farm, and met A835 at Loch Glascarnoch, joined the North Coast 500 again at Corrieshalloch Gorge, continuing on the road and an alternative route on the opposite side of the River Broom to Ullapool."
"From Ullapool I continued on day four on a well-known coast-to-coast route to Oykel Bridge, having already ridden this section during my inaugural bikepacking trip in 2006 and also during the Highland Trail 550. I chose the road option to Culrain, but you can also take the Highland Trail to Croik and continue from there to Ardgay. On my last day I followed Sustrans Route 1 first, with some detours on paths, passed the Clootie Well near Munlochy and cycled back to Inverness."
"The first two days of the trip were wintry. I wouldn't say it was unexpected, but I was happy that I took proper boots and gloves, so I was prepared. The route I had planned involved another off-road section from Applecross, but with a strong northwesterly wind I decided to turn around on the Bealach na Ba and take the road instead, which was a good decision. On day two I planned to cross from Kinlochewe to Loch a' Bhraoin, but the weather conditions were not right for this. So I stopped at Kinlochewe, enjoyed a coffee and altered my route to take me to Lochluichart and over the wind farm instead. So the trip went really well in two aspects: The riding was fabulous, but I also think I made the right calls at the right time."
"I can still remember my journey from Ullapool to Oykel Bridge in 2006 like it was yesterday. It involved a lot of cursing at the beginning. I called it bikepacking, but the reality is that back then I cycled with a Deuter Transalpine backpack, which was hopelessly overloaded with stuff.
"I cycled with my good friend Martin, and both of us had to learn to deal with the Scottish cycling reality the hard way. We'd never eaten porridge before! What I remember from that particular section are the many fords. They haven't gone away, but I think my riding skills have definitely improved in the last few years, so I was able to ride most of them this time, and had waterproof boots for the rest. And then there is the big river crossing, which scared me back then. This time I had the confidence to push my bike and simultaneously fly my drone, so I was definitely not worried about falling in.
"My focus for living and working has shifted to the Central Belt, but it was that trip in 2006 that influenced my decision to settle in Scotland."