Photography by Markus Stitz
“If you sort of straighten one of your legs, push the bike upwards at the same time and immediately apply both brakes, you might be able to put your foot on that rock next to your left arm, using the bike as a support”. I was being offered advice by the person who was immediately behind (well, below) me while we were scrambling slowly upwards, he was presumably concerned about the increasing possibility of 100-plus kilograms of bike, Jason and bikepacking baggage slipping and landing on his head.
The Surly Dunoon Dirt Dash pre-event email claimed that there was one unrideable stretch of trail. It wasn’t however the first or the last unrideable, hike-a-bike section of trail we were going to be presented with during the two-day event. Having said that, this particular trail wasn’t really a trail in the generally accepted sense, so maybe it didn’t count. The email didn’t say “There are multiple unrideable and barely-walkable sections of slightly-flattened ferns and borderline sheer rock faces”, so fair’s fair I suppose.
A few dozen fallen tree obstacles and eight-foot-deep riverbed gorges later and we arrived back on an actual, firm, rideable trail. It’s been a while since I’d travelled 10 miles in over two hours by bicycle. At least while sober….
I have, as I imagine many others have, been feeling pretty walled-in for the past few months. Apart from the odd trip to see parents and relatives and a very small number of organised biking events, my world has seemed a lot smaller than it once did. Like, a 30-mile radius of my house-small.
The near-constant fizz of random conversations with like-minded strangers and friends you’d only ever see at cycling events or out on the trails in places you hardly ever visit and other fun get-togethers wasn’t possible when the fun things completely stopped, then a while later spluttered back to life, but then died off again.
After writing myself a few metaphorical stern letters to drag myself out of my rut and stretch my wings a bit, I took the Friday off work and rode the 90-ish miles north along the beautiful Ayrshire coast from my house to the tiny ferry terminal that would take me to Dunoon.
There was to be no mass start to the ride this time, but a few riders had gathered in the damp air of Saturday morning at Dunoon Pier to listen to organisers Markus and Charlie reiterate that there is one and only one hike-a-bike section and to remind us all not to be dicks.
Soon after setting off, the clothes that I’d spent yesterday evening drying on the radiator of my B&B were wet again but the weather wasn’t cold and the opening few climbs – steep and in places narrow and rocky – made sure that there were enough opportunities for keeping warm. I rode mostly alone for an hour or two, but eventually and with the help of some sort of invisible force of gravity, I was part of a group of six making our way along one of the narrow tarmac roads along the route.
Soon names had been announced and Hairdresser John and Irish John from Leeds, Jason from Galloway via Manchester, Mika from Oban-but-she’s-Swedish-really and Neil and Colin from Glasgow underlined the fact that the Dirt Dash isn’t a race and went completely off-route to stop at Sheila’s Diner on the A815.
One very large meal later (with chips) and we were on our way again, hoping the 30 miles of route that still needed to be ridden was rideable. It was, mainly (apart from the occasional opportunity to collect even more leg scratches), and as the trail meandered along the banks of Holy Loch my thoughts turned to what sort of a night I was going to have if it started (or rather, didn’t stop) raining. I’d forgot my tarp and don’t own one of those tiny tents, so I was going to be on the lookout for a barn, portaloo or ruined castle at this rate. Or I could pretend I’m dead hard and just tough it out in my bivvy bag.
A very-steep descent to the campsite which made me glad to be riding a mountain bike with a suspension fork saw Neil faceplant into the bushes but eventually we all arrived in one piece, Charlie ticked us off some sort of school register, tents were erected, tarps were stretched over bikes and Mika went for a presumably freezing-cold swim in the loch (it’s the sea really).
As well as the campsite, an evening meal and breakfast is included in the entry fee and perhaps because of the relatively low number of people taking part, we could all eat as much as we wanted. Which was nice because everyone I saw seemed to be able to eat rather a lot. It was mainly venison judging by the huge VENISON painted on the side of the catering firm’s van, but they brought a large vat of spicy bean chili with them too, so I didn’t starve. It was decent chili as well, I had to take my bobble hat off.
And then the bar opened!
Everyone’s plans of an early night immediately evaporated and while the bar staff grafted like the crack squad of beer-dispensing machines they are, the caterers also kept going long into the night.
The rain had intensified by now so I abandoned my earlier plan of showing everyone how tough I am, in spite of downing four pints earlier on. Luckily, I found shelter under Charlie’s Surly Bikes gazebo but didn’t I sleep much anyway….
We’d already decided that the six of us would ride together on day 2 and we’d all packed up and eaten breakfast relatively early so Charlie marked the register again and off we went. It was a lovely ride along the undulating lochside road with a tailwind but soon we were climbing off-road and before long, we were once again marching up an unrideable slope. The views were, however, stunning and as the early morning mist lifted the views across Loch Goil and beyond made every pedal stroke and breathless step upwards worth the effort. I couldn’t help but think I’d possibly eaten a bit too much breakfast though….
…and then we were into full-on scramble up borderline rock faces and slightly-flattened bushes mode again. And there was a barbed wire fence. And then there was the mile or so of extremely-muddy and “one step to the left and you’re in the loch with your bike” walking path that in parts needed all of us to work together to form a human chain to pass the bikes along. Our average speed, yet again, dropped to single digits.
Soon we were back on the trail and rolling fast alongside the 6 mile-long Loch Eck after which we were tempted to go to Sheila’s Diner again, however Neil’s GPS claimed there was only 3 more climbs left to do, possibly (but not definitely) more hiking and an outside chance of getting back to Dunoon before the forecasted bad weather rolled in – so we ignored our various lasagne and grated cheese sandwich cravings and got cracking.
Eventually, and without any more hamstring-warping hiking, we reached the summit of the final climb, and we gazed down at the sprawling metropolis of Dunoon in the near distance on the bank of the glorious, sundrenched (yep, the sun came out for the final 15 minutes) Firth of Clyde.
We rode like heroes down the long, twisting gravel track back to town. Someone’s puppy threw itself at Colin’s front wheel and it apparently gave chase. A last-minute, exciting close call, followed by a finish line chequered flag and Neil’s rear tyre finally giving up the will to live and instantly deflating.
Like ‘that table’ at the far end of the room at a wedding reception, where all the flotsam and jetsam of the guest list are put – the folk that arrive on their own and have to make do with the company of strangers but somehow have THE BEST TIME anyone has ever had at a wedding ever – our band of six strangers found themselves slowly and surely getting to know each other in a way you can never really do in a ‘race’. Mile after mile of tarmac and dirt becomes background detail when all that really matters are the long chats about trees, vans, Henrik Larsson, the sports massage practitioners of Northallerton and the endless laughs and cooperation.
I wasn’t expecting much from the Surly Dunoon Dirt Dash beyond some people riding bikes on endless gravel roads and if I’m being honest, I was worried that I’d have little to write about. Thankfully the experience was much more than that.
The route that Charlie and Markus put together would be very easy to underestimate if you only looked at the numbers involved – 43 miles one day, 38 the other. But it’s much, much harder than the mileage suggests and it’s about as varied as a ‘gravel’ event as I’ve ever ridden. But for me the best part by far was that the weekend was a reminder of why I started turning up at these things in the first place many years ago – meeting cool people, going to places I wouldn’t otherwise have been to and stepping outside that 30 mile radius. I needed it, badly.
And Charlie gave me a hipflask.
“Before the Surly Dunoon Dirt Dash there was part of me saying that events are hard work, especially in times of a pandemic. But seeing the happy faces on the route and at the campsite reassured me that grassroots events like the Surly Dirt Dashes are hugely important.” – Markus Stitz, round-the-world-on-a-singlespeed legend and Surly Dirt Dash organiser
“The hike-a-bike section was amazing, a genuine adventure, and yeah… it is most unusual to find an unrideable section in a bike event. However, it really captures the challenges and drama of exploring by bike. The gang who rode the event were awesome, everyone kept an eye out for each other, and great friendships were made. Sincerely, I feel honoured to know these happy saddle tramps. Everyone had a great adventure and the smell of glory will linger on these heroic riders for quite some time… as will the sense of achievement and awesome memories. Can’t wait ’til next year” – Charlie Hobbs, the other Surly Dirt Dash organiser and purveyor of waterproof Surly gazebos.
Entries for the 2022 Surly Dunoon Dirt Dash open soon at www.dirtdash.cc