Before we start, there are two things that you must know about the Dunoon Dirt Dash:
• It’s not a bloody race
• Don’t be a dick
Oh, and one more thing. Never assume a route created by Markus Stitz will just be a simple easy-going gravel ride.
DOON THE WATTER
I had arrived in Dunoon the night before, leaving a rain-soaked Edinburgh which had cast the fear of wet and cold in me as I packed my bike up. Luckily the bad weather was left behind when I boarded the Gourock ferry and crossed over to Dunoon. Dunoon is a small Scottish seaside town on the Cowal peninsula once popular with Glaswegian’s who would take a boat trip “doon the watter” for their holidays.
Pucks Rest Guesthouse had taken on the task of Dirt Dash headquarters. A place to register, meet other riders and suitably prepare for the next day. Assuming the preparation was standing around a fire pit drinking beer and talking about bikes until 1am.
Saturday morning was broken by the rustle of bivy bags as bodies wriggled awake, shaking off the morning dew and the hangovers from the night before. Everything was packed up and we eagerly headed to the riders briefing and our second breakfast (all the best bike rides involves a second breakfast).
OF COURSE WE WANT A START CANNON
This is the inaugural edition of the Dunoon Dirt Dash, a chilled 80 mile self-supported ride split over two days with an overnight camp-out in the middle. The Dunoon Dirt Dash is inspired by the popular Dorest Gravel Dash, created by Charlie (the former Bikemonger) who has teamed up with Markus Stitz (around the world singlespeed fame) to create DirtDash.cc. A series of bikepacking and gravel events that cater to those who are more concerned about recovery than performance.
The route would pass over hills and through valleys while allowing plenty of time for enjoying views and making pub stops. A mixture of gravel, forest roads, singletrack and hike-a-bike had encouraged an eclectic mixture of bikes from gravel to fat and all those in between.
For me, the most important consideration was what bike would be the most fun no matter what the surface or conditions were. The Surly Karate Monkey fits the bill perfectly and is more than happy to clamber up any climb and shred all the descents.
Charlie and Markus excitedly briefed riders on all the important points of information for the weekend like route details, safety stuff, a vote for extra campsite beer and the format of the cheese competition. We headed to the pier to get lined up for the starting gun.
And we were off, a relaxed pace took us along the coastal road. The mood was lackadaisical in the best sense, to the point that our little group rode right past the turning where the gravel started and had to backtrack to pick the route back up.
As soon as our tyres crunched offroad we began the first climb. Heart rates quickly increased as we clunked down to our lowest gears to grind up. The climb gave way to a very loose descent down to a river at the bottom of the valley. Some bravely forded across the water, while others who had spotted the bridge a few meters downstream avoided wet feet.
We had been warned of a hike-a-bike, Markus had mentioned that there would be some carrying involved. The climb back out the valley lulled us into thinking that it was done.
We realised the climb was far from over once we saw a trickle of shouldered bikes making their way straight up the hillside through the ferns and over the tussocks. In the hike-a-bikes defence, we were treated to stunning views ever time we put the bike down for a rest.
Riders had gathered at the top to catch their breaths, eat snacks and bad mouth Markus. However, the carrying wasn’t over and we still needed to wrangle our bikes down a slippery grassy path to reach a gravel track below.
The rest of the descent was high-speed swoopy gravel. After the last hour of pushing everyone was relishing being able to open the brakes and let the bike pick up speed. As we met the road at the bottom we had forgotten why we were upset with Markus.
By now we all felt overdue a break and the Benmore Garden Cafe was conveniently just up the road. Well stocked with cakes and coffee for weary riders this was a worthwhile detour.
With minds and souls replenished, we started riding again. Well, until the route turned offroad again and even the most sure-footed rider was forced to dismount thanks to the steep loose path. This led to a rolling gravel section that suddenly turned down the hill into a shreddy descent that had a sequence of corners so good I pushed back up to ride it a second time.
The sun was out and spirits were high as we rolled along the shore road. We spotted a pub with some other riders sat out already enjoying a pint. I don’t think anybody said anything, I don’t think anybody needed to say anything. We all just turned off the road and parked our bikes up. With our pints finished it was time to start moving as we had food, beers and a comfy field waiting for us at Carrick Farm.
The last 13 miles featured three more climbs, each rewarding us with panoramic views of Loch Long before a gravel downhill to the next. The last hump was the best, following a gravel track through a rugged landscape scattered with exposed rock and little beaches, it all felt a little British Columbia. We reached the top and picked up a singletrack path back to the shore. Those on slick tyres slithered around in the mud but the Karate Monkey was in its element. Digging its chunky Nobby Nic’s into the dirt as I carved turns. We rolled into Carrick Farm stoked on a fine day of riding.
IT’S NOT A RACE
Tents were erected and bivy bags laid out before we feasted on a fine meal of Venison, partridge, veggie chilli and chips cooked by Winston Churchill (that is his real name). The night’s festivities involved drinking beer, a cheese competition and Markus’ holiday pictures from his adventures on the Silk Road Mountain Race.
The ‘not a race’ rule was immediately forgotten when a tiny BMX appeared. A course was set and everyone from ex-bikemonger to Olympian was pitted against each other in some furious racing. As the beer ran out people started feeling suitably prepared for the next day of bike riding and called it a night.
I awoke from a fine night of sleep in a bag. The sound of tents and kit being packed away signalled it was time to get up. I waved off yesterdays riding friends with the promise I would catch them up the road at a cafe for more breakfast. In reality, I faffed more than expected so I arrived as they were ready to leave. Instead, I had a coffee with Steve Bate and Jon Gildea before we span along the road together. They subsequently smashed the first gravel climb of the day with Olympian ease.
As I am not a trained athlete I tackled it at a far more leisurely pace. The days hike-a-bike soon began and would follow the Cowal Way past the Curra Lochan. Progress was swift thanks to the established path.
When I reached the lochan and could see a group of riders setting off ahead. The weekend isn’t a race but as we ripped down the hill it started feeling like one as riders chased the wheels in front.
At the bottom we regrouped and the route followed a long gravel road along the side of Loch Eck. Lunch was on peoples minds and luckily this easy-going track took us straight by the Benmore Garden Cafe we had stopped at yesterday. The rider’s consensus was Macaroni Cheese with a side of haggis while I went for round two of venison burger.
With full bellies, nobody was enthusiastic about moving. Which was convenient as before we left the carpark someone developed a tubeless problem. It was fixed with some pumping until it wasn’t, this carried on for the next few miles. The tubeless issues came to a point on a magnificent stretch of gravel overlooking Loch Tarsen. A suddenly gushing hole required some plugging and a top-up of liquid but was made airtight soon enough.
I don’t know if it is a testament to the attitude of the event, or everyone was feeling particularly lazy, but no one had a problem waiting for mechanicals to be fixed or for people to catch up. The pace of the ride was not important and neither were the average speeds. We all knew that we would reach the end together and that was what was important.
The last climb was steady and pulled us up the hill behind Dunoon. Views of the coast assured us it was all downhill from here. The last descent was dispatched at warp speed, the last hooray before the finish.
RETURN TO PUCKS REST
On our return to Pucks Rest, we were welcomed by Charlie waving a big checkered flag. Coming into the finish everyone had big smiles on their faces. It was hard not to, after two days of excellent adventures in the hills following a route that balanced challenging terrain with dreamy rolling gravel. Unless everyone was just glad it finished at a pub.
If a super chill bikepacking event is your thing, the kind which feels more like a good time with friends than a bike ride? Then the 2020 Dunoon Dirt Dash should not be missed. Check out the dirtdash.cc website for the details of the Dunoon Dirt Dash 2020.