I’m at the bottom of a long, winding tarmac climb with half a dozen other nervous riders, about to cycle up it as fast as I can, hopefully without vomiting. The competitors are being set off by Lee Craigie, the cross country champion turned inspirational adventurer, who’s just got back from hanging out with nomads in Kyrgyzstan. I inch forward in the gate and a man in cycling gear comes forward to hold me upright. I glance backwards and realise that as well as the official starter today, he’s also a Scottish cycling legend. I’m about to be set off in a hill climb by Graeme bloody Obree.
I start to keel over to the side and whimper “I can’t do this”. “Just clip your left foot in” he commands. I get a countdown and I’m off. Later that evening, Graeme will be speaking on stage in the local pub. I glance backwards and leaning on the bar is none other than Danny Macaskill.
The first Dukes Weekender, it would seem, wasn’t your average gravel race. Take a couple of organisers with a stuffed contact book, a very lovely setting in the heart of the Trossachs, a format borrowed from MTB events, and a real mixed bag of riders and bikes, and you’ve got a promising recipe for fun. The fact that it took place in a relatively accessible corner of Scotland, albeit one that serious outdoorsy types seem to skip as they head up to the Highlands, also added to the appeal for me.
The main event of the weekend was Sunday’s 60km Gravel Enduro. However there was also the aforementioned hill climb and film night the day before, plus a kids enduro on the Sunday morning. The idea seems to have been to come and make a weekend of it, which again is a refreshing change from the sort of event where you drive to the middle of nowhere, ride your bike, and drive home again.
Saturday afternoon’s hill climb was the proper deal: a closed road (decorated with chalk by the local schoolkids), a layby packed with cowbell-jangling hecklers, legendary photographer Geoff Waugh bashing his drum kit, and a stacked field. It’s amazing how unpleasant riding up a mile or so of relatively gentle wooded tarmac can be, particularly if, like me, you managed to blow yourself up in the first 200 yards. The misery was quickly forgotten though, after cruising back down to join the hecklers at the alfresco bar.
For the second part of the evening, everyone piled into the back room of the Forth Inn, which was more like a mini banqueting hall, to watch a few choice films and then enjoy a Q&A with their stars. Legendary mountain bike guide Andy McKenna gave a moving and hilarious talk about his battle with multiple sclerosis, while Graeme Obree did what he does best – simultaneously enthuse and baffle the audience with his unique take on cycling, including details of his latest passion, which involves riding to the countryside, carrying a tiny, lightweight custom-made “hiking” bike with a 12-inch front wheel over a hill, then riding back home again.
The next day we all pitched up at our chosen start times (I wish more events let you decide when you set off) and after a quick briefing we were unleashed into the forest. Aberfoyle is surrounded by spruce woodlands. So far, so Scottish, but here it seems the prettiness had been turned up a notch or two. The leaves seemed greener, the moss seemed plusher, and there were great mountain views from every switchback. A 40-mile route with a total of five timed stages awaited us, with the course looping back into the town centre in lieu of a feed station. Again this was a smart move in my book. What would you rather have, a sad handful of jelly babies and half green banana from a windswept EZ-Up, or a proper break in a café?
As well as a big old gravel loop, the organisers also threw in some steep hand-cut singletrack sections that seemed tailor-made to test the limits of skinny ‘cross tyre traction, but which must have had anyone riding a mountain bike feeling very smug indeed. The timed stages were all held on closed forest tracks and footpaths, with lengths of between 500 meters and 2 km. Long enough for fitness to tell, but they also seemed to end just as the lactic was getting unbearable.
The lumpy switchbacks on stage 4 made me feel like I was pedalling squares, but if you had the energy to look up, you’d see the spectacular aqueduct that carries water from Loch Katrine to Glasgow, 40 miles away. Stage 5, on an undulating footpath around a peninsular of Loch Ard, was a particular highlight, featuring some thread-the-needle rock gardens and an evil climb that I was convinced I was going to clean, until I hit a nest of roots a couple of yards from the top. Still, with a perfectly-timed cake stall just afterwards, it wasn’t too hard to summon up the energy for the spin back to town. I’m putting it down to the Irn Bru icing on the fairy cakes.
As with editor Tom’s fave event, Grinduro, the enduro format means that outside of timed stages you’re free to faff with your kit or chat to your fellow competitors as much as you like. Together with the modest overall distance, it made for a wonderfully sociable day out, even at the sharp end of the race. The likes of Graeme, Danny Mac and Lee were cruising round, but there was also plenty of friendly competition, with top tier XC and enduro racers like Kerry Macphee and Crawford Carrick-Anderson setting some inhumanly fast times.
By the end of the day I was feeling pretty envious of organisers Stu and Rob and the lovely corner of the world they call home. They’re already dropping hints that the Weekender will be back for 2019, so if you like your gravel events to come with all the trimmings, head to https://www.dukesweekender.com/ and find out more.