When The Proclaimers fashioned Scotland’s alternative anthem, I’m Gonna Be (500 miles), I somehow doubt they had a bike ride in mind. But the North Coast 500 is one of the most challenging routes in the British Isles for anyone on two wheels. So what better way to mark the end of my second year at the historic University of St Andrews than by signing up for a week of tartan torture, traversing the many ups and occasional downs of beautiful but rugged coastline.

Ben Champion in Inverness about to begin his challenge

I was out with a couple of friends one winter’s night when we decided to take the plunge The aim was to confront a personal challenge whilst also raising money for the spinal injuries charity, Aspire. My father, the TV sports commentator Jon Champion, regularly hosts a table at Aspire’s annual Sports Quiz Dinner in London and had often spoken of his admiration for the organisation’s work.

Out came the maps and the planning started in earnest. Unsupported by any road crew, carrying all supplies and braving battalions of midges whilst camping in a tent each night, this trip would demand strength, willpower and perseverance.

Fast forward several months and we were sitting on our bikes in bright sunshine outside Inverness Castle about to enter the unknown. None of us are particularly experienced cyclists and it’s just as well that the prospect of 200,000 turns of the pedal and 35,000ft of climbing didn’t occur to us at that moment!

It didn’t take long for the North Coast 500 to remind us of its perils. 50 miles in, I hit a pothole whilst careering downhill at upwards of 40mph. An hour later, I was in an ambulance being transported to Broadford hospital on the Isle of Skye. The remains of my bike lay next to me – my two friends had to cycle in the wake of the ambulance. After x-rays and stitches, I was declared reasonably sound of body (if not of mind) and was released with a pocket full of painkillers. Anyone who’s been in that situation will know the value of a kindly face and we were extremely fortunate to encounter Andy of South Skye Cycles, an intrepid cyclist himself, who supplied sympathy, accommodation and advice whilst also mending my bike.

Ben with a deep cut on his forearm

That proved to be the seminal moment of the adventure. Day one had so nearly become the final day as well, but after a night of rest and a hearty breakfast, we were on our way once more.

It is hard to do justice in words to the natural beauty of Scotland’s west and north coasts, suffice it to say that the pain of the fall and of all the ascents that followed was nullified by the glory of our surroundings. There were times when the terrain threatened to win the constant battle of wills. However, the further around the map we got, the fewer mental doubts we had.

The highlight was Bealach Na Ba, the greatest climb offered by any road in the UK. With gradients exceeding 20% and a stunning Alpine-style section at the top, the experience of tackling it was every bit as brutal as its fierce reputation. Nearing the summit, the gradient increased sharply but so did the support from motorists who passed by as they saw our huge saddlebags. Horns beeped with encouragement whilst two individuals ran alongside me as I reached the summit. It felt like we had reached the top of the world. Minutes later we were reaping the benefits of our labours hurtling down the other side at Lewis Hamilton pace. 

Ben cycling along a country road

Reaching Durness marked Scotland’s northwest corner and, turning to the east, we aimed for John o’ Groats, with the horizon of the North Sea only broken by the outlying islands of Orkney. Hurting legs didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. Then heading south the road became bigger but the ruined castles amidst the rolling farmland and sea had their own beauty.

The Berrydale climb and subsequent gorges reduced us to a walking pace but the final day saw us power through and count down the miles to Inverness. Crossing over the Moray Firth into the city was a moment of elation as we passed the 500 mile mark. The combined climbs on the route would have taken us to the top of Mount Everest whilst the vagaries of the Scottish summer had brought both heat and gale force winds.

Ben

Journey’s end was one of the best moments of my life. 500 miles in seven days and around £2,000 raised for Aspire thanks to the generosity of family and friends. The feeling of achievement is one that will stay with me… and it may even persuade me to take on another challenge in the future.


If reading Ben's thrilling account of his challenge has left you feeling inspired have a look at the exciting events you can take on with Aspire.