Dunoon Dirt Dash - dirtdash.cc
I feel uncomfortable; I can feel the eyes staring as I stand in the queue for a brew. I’ve never felt like this before at such a low key event, but I guess I’m never normally dressed like this. I smile as people eyeball me. Sometimes they smile back, sometimes their eyes dart back to their mate sitting opposite, with a patronising nod of the head, as if to say 'check these guys out’. I just keep walking and smiling at people. These are my people, this is where I fit in, but today dressed like this, I feel like an imposter. I’m here in Dunoon to ride an event for one of my sponsors, Happy Bottom Bum Butter. Its a two-day gravel route with an overnight camp. It’s a simple concept: the most successful ones always are - ride your bike, carry what you need and enjoy the landscapes you pass through. In fact the two rules of this event are 1) It’s not a bloody race. 2) Don’t be a dick!
Jon and I have driven north to Dunoon, Scotland for the very first Dunoon Dirt Dash, and my sponsor has kindly let Jon tag along as my plus one. We are using this for a warm up for Jon, as he has never done any bike packing before, and we have a much bigger ride planned the following weekend. I’ve just finished my road race season, which allows me a week or two of down time, which is normally when most pro riders put their bikes down and head away to beaches to drink beer. I on the other hand, use this time for adventures I’ve been planning throughout the race season to keep me sane. We arrive late after catching the ferry across the Clyde and park up at the Pucks Rest Hotel. We catching up with old friends and new, and after a couple of beers, we get our heads down for the night before an early wake up.
With the bikes packed up and ready to roll, we pull on our Great British Cycling Team racing kit. Not my normal gravel riding attire, but we are making a short film for British Cycling, showing the world that as professional cyclists, it’s not just about racing bikes on the road and track. We just like riding our bikes. As we roll down to the start, I don’t think too much about what we are wearing until I get to the cafe. We park the bikes and head in for a quick brew before the rider briefing. This is when I get the feeling we are not welcome. Those first impressions we cast are by not necessarily good. But smiling goes a long way, and a couple of guys from last night are happy to shoot the breeze until the brief starts. After a short speech about not being a dick, and a couple of potential hazards on route we are sent to the wharf as the starting point, which is to be signalled by canon! Sixty-odd riders line up and with a chest thumping boom, they roll off the wharf and are on their way. Jon and I stay back to do some media before hitting the road.
After an hour or so, we hit the first hike-a-bike section. The road runs out and we find ourselves carrying our bike up a hillside. It’s tough sweaty work and Jon struggles due to his disability - drop foot. After half an hour we bridge the top where there are a dozen blokes waiting for friends to join them. I make some small chat about that being a fight and it falls on deaf ears. It’s seems they are still not happy that there seem to be racers amongst them. Surprised by this, Jon and I carry on, only to find we are going to have to carry our bikes down the other side of this damn hill. This is even worst for Jon, as his drop foot is also paired with a damaged knee, which is held together with only two ligaments after a very serious mountain bike accident that very nearly cost him his leg. Before long, Jon breaths a sight of relief as we hit the gravel paths Argyll is becoming famous for. We descend off the hillside on fantastic forestry roads forgetting about what we have just climbed over. As we ride through amazing wooded single track, passing folk as we go, we meet a lad who is happy to find out more about who we are and what we do. It turns out he knows who we are, as he was watching us on TV just a week earlier while we were racing the Yorkshire Worlds in Harrogate.
As we hit a road section with less than an hour to go, we realise we are at the front of the pack. I quickly tell Jon this is not good. Other riders have stopped for lunch or sight seeing, so we have passed them along the way somewhere. I tell Jon we can’t be first back or I will never live it down, from good friend and race organiser Charlie Hobbs. After a quick look at the map, I spy a pub not too far off route so we head off there to find some food and a beer. We are treated to a Clydeside view in the beer garden, and the pizza is to die for. The Italian owners treat us like kings with their service and we find ourselves sitting in the sunshine for longer than planned, enjoying the banter as much as the local ale. Before we know it, three hours have passed and we need to get a wriggle on, as we still have an hour and some to get to the campsite before darkness.
We roll past the castle and take a left up into the campsite. I have to say the setting is remarkable, the Clyde is like a mirror backdrop with a 16th century castle sitting proudly on its banks. The wind is breathless and not one of the famous Scottish midges is in sight. We ride up the drive to be welcome by Charlie and Markus (the other organiser) and a few baffled faces, greeted with the words ‘where the hell have you been?”.”At the pub of course” I reply, “it’s not a bloody race!” We are the second to last riders to roll in and this has changed the way the others view us. Throughout the evening, new friendships are formed and we joke and laugh, taking the micky out of ourselves. We hear people tell us over and over again, “you passed us ages ago, I couldn’t believe you weren’t here when we arrived.” As the night rolls into the early hours, people fade off to bed after a hard day’s riding. It’s amazing how first impressions can be so harsh, but given time to connect with those we judge, we realise we were wrong to do so. I go to bed feeling happy that I’m with my people, and now they understand us and what we are doing.
I wake with a sore head. It’s very rare these days that I feel like this, but it’s a good reminder why I choose not to drink much. I drag myself out of the tent and do an interview with the media. It’s the last thing I feel like doing, but I put on a brave face and give my best ‘life is wonderful’ interview. Most of the riders have already left, and I watch the remaining few ride out the gate, past that stunning castle and backdrop. We are last to leave again. Today is a bit different from the day before - we were super chilled yesterday, but today we need to get finished and jump on the ferry to hit the road. We have a six hour journey back home to get back to our wives and families. Jon is a man who never needs much encouragement to up the ante and push the pace. I find myself dripping in sweat feeling rough as Jon hits the first big climb of the day at full gas. I can’t believe how the tune has changed, yesterday we were blanked as we passed by rider groups, but today we are cheered on as Jon and I ride up the climb that most others push. It’s hard work and my head is pounding yet there is no easing up, today we are on a mission.
We must have passed half the group on that climb, which to me seemed endless. Jon’s cyclocross skill-set comes into its own, as he jumps on and off the bike, using little or no energy while I flounder around, struggling to make out the hidden tree roots and gutters than stop me in my tracks. I’m pleased to be back on a gravel track, as we hammer past more cheering crowds. The flowing roads carry us towards the ferry, and Jon continues to pick off the riders in front one by one. With sweat stinging my eyes, I cast my mind back to yesterday, and think there is no way we would have made friends riding like this. But after an evening together, sharing stories of past adventures, cracking jokes and having a laugh, today we get to demonstrate the level we ride at without being judged.
The last climb was a cracker: a forestry road cutting into the hillside. Perfect gravel snaking skyward into fluffy white cumulus clouds. I was thankful to arrive at the top, greeted by Jon and a breathtaking view over Dunoon. All down hill from here to the finish at Puck’s Rest, and I’m chasing Jon again for the last time today. With the van packed, we head for the ferry. Our new friends will be rolling in all afternoon, and as much as I want to be there to shake hands and congratulate them, we have a long drive ahead. I’ve reflected on this trip since, and it still amazes me how easily and quickly we all judge someone on their appearance. It’s reminded me that everyone is just a person and we are no better than each other. Thanks to Jon and all the other riders who took part in the first Dunoon Dirt Dash. Also Charlie and Markus at dirtdash.cc for putting on the event and to all of my sponsors, who help me live this life I’m grateful for on the bike.