Last Sunday, 8am in sunny Swanage, Dorset, round the back of the Red Lion pub to be precise, there was the widest collection of every type of go-anywhere bikes you’ll ever see. Pure ‘cross racers, blinged out gravel grinders, 29ers, trad. MTBs, beaters and even a few fat bikes, some built for speed, some built for survival – all here in anticipation of the now annual Dorset Gravel Dash.
Dreamt up by ‘Charlie the Bikemonger‘ (pictured above) the Dorset Gravel Dash stitches its way across the southern half of rolling Dorset from the coast to a succession of inland trig points and hill forts combining bridleways, singletrack, lost lanes, forests and farm roads over its 98 miles and 8,000 feet or so of climbing.
It’s the bank holiday weekend and the sign-up queue is busy with latecomers making the most of the promise of a day of sun and temperatures into the twenties. Just before the off Charlie gives the briefing, “it’s not a bloody race, don’t be a dick” and we’re off – 80 or so riders picking through the quiet backroads of this seaside town heading for the opening climb up Branscombe Hill.
Dorset is deceiving, its pastoral, and leisurely beauty belies the fact it’s packed with brutal, punchy climbs. Combine the landscape, its geology and the myriad of off-road routes and you’ve got some seriously challenging terrain.
Atop Branscombe Hill, rolling along the ridge, the riders were already strung out, the serious out front, dots in the distance, others still negotiating the chalk track of the first ascent. Within a few miles the majesty of the ruined Corfe Castle heaves into view, a fast descent and we’re picking our way through the lanes searching for the next section of off-road.
Tacking back to towards the coast warning signs mark the firing ranges and in the distance vast swathes of what look like tank tracks scour the landscape, this isn’t just a tourist trap there’s some serious military goings on in these parts giving a whole new meaning to “gerroff my land”!
As the temperatures rose, pretty villages slid by, bridleways gave way to forest tracks which in turn gave way to singletrack.
A few hours in and the field was totally strung out. I chatted with a few other riders as I passed them and they passed me, some clusters of riders stuck together, numerous others stopped with punctures, victims of the prevailing chalk and flint.
Without formal timing (remember, it’s wasn’t a race), I did find the whole thing quite liberating. I’d switched the Garmin into map mode without a visible clock, the hours invisibly ticking by as I followed the breadcrumb trail, occasionally referring to my back up OS paper maps where my digital routing was a little vague.
Reaching Puddletown Forest we were met by Charlie and his crew, flagging riders up the steep climb to take on the beer loop, a tricky bit of singletrack dropping back through the forest, not so gnarly for those on MTBs a little more challenging for us ‘crossers. A quick swig of ale and it was off past Thomas Hardy’s house (I’m still recovering from his ‘O’ level war poems) and the route took us north west to Antsy Cross where the local shop owner didn’t know what hit her when the shelves were cleared, locust like, by wave after wave of the dusty, hungry and thirsty.
Up and over the highest point near the first hill fort of Bulbarrow Hill we hit the only event pit stop, the Bikemonger crew in deck chairs sunning themselves with a table of bananas and snacks including truly awesome bacon cake (yes, you did read that right).
Mid afternoon drifted by with view after view after view, picture postcard England, punctuated by stitches of tarmac linking what was an ingenious route making the most of every concievable kind of off-road route.
Fast trails on former railways saw the average speed pick up, more miles covered and a solid two thirds down before we swung round for a tailwind assist back to towards the coast. Whilst the warm breeze was on our shoulders it made little difference at the successive hill forts of Hamilton Hill and Hod Hill, two lengthy bits of strenuous hike-a-bike in full sun.
Long sections of forestry land lead back to Wareham where the final sting in the tail were deep sandy trails and the gradual climb to Studland with its view out across the channel and its treacherous descent back into Swanage.
A shade over ten hours later I was back at the Red Lion, every returning rider was cheered to the chequered flag, and we all got a swag bag for our troubles – bum butter, Gravel Dash beer cup, ass saver and ‘Lost in Dorset’ stickers – after all, we do love stickers.
There was much fish, chips, beer and chat thereafter whilst the riders continued to roll in over the next few hours including those who selflessly stayed with a crashed rider who hit the deck close to home.
Once the last were home and the light had gone there was spot prize giving recognising those who’d earnt their stripes in the Dorset hills including Emyr Derfl for being dead last after spending two hours helping stretcher the injured rider off the hill, riding single speed, and struggling round with a rock hidden in his backpack by Charlie.
All in all one of the most fun events I’ve done in a long while – stunning scenery, challenging course and a relaxed atmosphere.
In case you were wondering George Budd didn’t ‘win’ the men’s category and Emma Osenton didn’t ‘win’ the women’s and, for the record, no one was a dick!