Last weekend thirteen women and thirteen bikes gathered at Inverness's Velocity Bike Cafe, ready to ride the North Coast 500 - this time not as a 36-hour team time trial, but as a far more civilised eight-day tour. This was the brain child of Laura Moss, Syndicate director, round-the-world cyclist and all-round good influence. Laura thought our NC500 plan sounded like an excellent idea - until she found out we were planning to covering the distance in a single weekend.
So instead she invited anyone who wanted to to join her for a whole week of cycling, camping (or B&B for some), headwinds, midges, 25% climbs, tea and scones, fish and chips, spectacular Scottish scenery, and the camaraderie of a bunch of like-minded women. Loads of people signed up, and some of us who'd been on the original North Coast 500 ride started to feel jealous (especially when we remembered all the nice-looking cafes and campsites we'd sped past on our own non-stop effort). So Lee Craigie and I joined them on the start line, accompanied by fellow Syndicate athlete Kate Rawles, who insist she's still trying to get in shape for next year's Life Cycle tour, but is still capable of setting quite a pace, in spite of the extra kilos of toiletries and spare clothes we found her to be carrying in each well-stuff pannier.
We set off at a rather more civilised 10am this time, and rolled along the Beauly Firth, making friends as we went. I was curious as to what kind of person might have signed up for a week's cycling holiday with a bunch of strangers, and surprised by what I found. Everyone here had a slightly different story, I found, as we pedalled along roads I half-remembered, past Loch Luichart and Loch a'Chuillin, and passed around our liquorice allsorts and cashew nuts outside the station at Achnasheen.
Some of these women were such experienced cyclists that I was surprised to find them on a trip like this. But for any number of reasons, they'd decided they wanted their first taste of touring to be among a group of women. Some were nervous about camping for the first time. Some were worried about their ability to manage the distance and gradients, and felt more confident with people around them. Some wanted to get a bit of practice in for other tours they were planning. Some weren't worried about anything, and simply preferred to share the road, rather than cycling alone. Some had signed up because they saw this wonderful thing happening, and wanted to be part of it. (Much like me and Lee and Kate.)
We pitched our companionable village of tents on the top tier of Lochcarron's microscopic campsite, then ambled over to the Lochcarron Hotel, to eat mountains of food and contemplate what lay ahead - the fearsome Bealach na Ba, which boasts the greatest ascent of any road climb in the UK, and a set of twisting switchbacks reminiscent of the Alps. As well as being concerned about my own ability to make it up the climb (I'd made two previous ascents; one went well, the other terribly), I was worried about how some of the group would get on. I had no doubt that they could all make it up, but did they believe it themselves? And then how would they cope with the undulating coastline that followed? There's more climbing in the section between the Bealach and Sheildaig than there is on the pass itself, a fact met with dismay by those who assume that the worst is over once they've descended into Applecross.
We were blessed with picture perfect weather for the big day, and Lee, Kate and I felt particularly lucky that we'd chosen to join the group for this particular stretch - the views from the Applecross peninsula, out over the islands of Skye, Raasay and Rona, would be astounding. But first came the climb. The group spread out as the road began to tilt upwards towards the massive crags that flank the pass, each rider falling into her own rhythm. Those of us who had lingered at the campsite drinking tea caught up the back of the peloton just as the road left the shoreline and began to climb steeply up the side of the overlooking mountain. Some riders were in high spirits, happy to be out on the road on such a glorious day. Others barely nodded at us, their energies entirely absorbed in the task at hand.
I stopped to chat to one cyclist, who was catching her breath by the side of the road, just at the point where it rounds a buttress of rock, and then steepens to a 20% gradient before hitting the relatively benign switchbacks that lead to the summit. She was peering anxiously at the rock ahead of her, unable to see what lay round the corner and, she admitted to me, terrified of what might be to come.
"Oh, I know what you mean! I'm often terrified on climbs like this" I commiserated.
She turned her gaze on me, in utter disbelief.
"Really? No! Really? No! Are you serious? Honestly?"
This continued for almost a minute - my disbelief almost as strong as hers. Why would she think I wasn't afraid? Of course I'm terrified of passes like the Bealach na Ba. And headwinds. And rainy days. And races. And rides so long I might not complete them. And countless other things, often scarcely articulated, floating about my head like animated rain clouds as I ride along. I wouldn't say fear is a constant companion, but it's certainly a familiar face, and one I long ago realised I'd never entirely get rid of.
When she finally realised I wasn't having her on, the cyclist seemed bizarrely comforted by this - by the fact that someone she saw as so much more advanced than her was in fact prey to all the same qualms and foibles.
"That actually makes me feel a bit better" she said. And I saw something change in her face: a tightening of resolve; a strengthening of belief.
"You can definitely do it" I assured her, as we clicked our feet back into our pedals, twiddled our shifters optimistically, in case our bikes had magically grown a couple of extra gears while we stopped to rest, and carried on towards the summit.
And she did, joining the blaze of glory and triumph that the faster climbers had already ignited at the top of the pass. For a good long time we stood up there together, exchanging jelly babies, and marvelling at how the fear and heavy reluctance we had felt at the bottom of the climb had metamorphosed into this heady sensation of happiness, and power, and success. We were on top of the world, and no one wanted to come down. And the rider I'd spoken to halfway up the climb was the happiest of all, laughing, exclaiming, swearing, and almost crying with the realization that she'd become a different person from what she thought she was, or, more likely, been that person all along.
We whooshed down the descent to Applecross, and rather than the five-minute break we'd allowed ourselves on our first North Coast 500 ride, spent a lengthy 45 minutes in the picturesque Walled Garden Tearooms, wolfing down tea and scones, and enjoying seeing our own glow of triumph mirrored in the faces of our riding buddies. And then we set out along the coastline, up and down, and up, and down, spirits still soaring as we looked out across the deep blue sea towards the islands that floated alongside us like an escort.
It was with great regret that Kate, Lee and I extricated ourselves from the pack and drove back to Inverness, and with unashamed envy that we watched the social media updates over the next few days, and Laura and her intrepid pack, still smiling, found their way up the West Coast, across the northern hairline of the UK, paused for an obligatory photo in John O'Groats, and then turned back towards Inverness, finishing off their journey with coffee and cakes in Velocity Bike Cafe. I may never know what personal journeys each rider underwent, alongside the physical one - what demons they battled, what soaring highs and crashing lows they endured, what bonds they formed with those around them, and how different they were from the people who'd set off from Inverness eight days before.