It was hot. Stiflingly hot in the direct sun with nary a whisper from the wind. I was missing the coolness of the high meadows from where we’d just descended. I longed for the crisp sea breeze that had ushered us from Swanage that morning. As I took a sip of my cold pilsner it happened. Without even processing I thought: “These extended stops really aren’t helping our overall pace.” It was at that moment I knew I was in trouble.
Only three days prior I’d met Lionel on a sidewalk in Manchester. Come to think of it, I hadn’t been looking for him. Not looking for anyone really. But it was nice to see him in a lovely city so far from home. We didn’t chat long. I was off to share beers with Rich and Shona from Keep Pedaling and Chipps from Singletrack Mag.
Prior to Keep Pedaling we’d traveled to visit Ghyllside Cycles in Ambleside. From Manchester we worked our way to the south coast. We made a few stops visiting dealers like Brixton Cycles in London, Neil’s Wheels in Kingston, and Bike U Like in Southsea. Sadly, we had very little time to stop and smell the roses. Or ride bikes. One diversion did work out. In Lyndhurst we saddled up for a spin among the wild ponies in the New Forest.
It was a good leg stretcher that reminded us we had many more hilly miles to come over the weekend. Guided by Tom from The Woods Cyclery we explored the enchanted forest.
Further contributing to the mystical portent of our journey to the Gravel Dash was a ferry crossing just outside of Bournemouth. I’ve long suspected an Audi might lead the way to the gates of Hades. But I digress …
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You deserve a little of the backstory.
Two years ago, I took part in the Dorset Gravel Dash hosted by Charlie the Bikemonger. I wrote about that experience last year in a blog entitled “Things to Do In Dorset When You’re Dead.” Yeah, that blog was one year late. And sorry to inform you but I didn’t die. Which is fortunate because that meant I got to do it again this year.
Before I get all philosophical, I’ll state without reservation that this is one of those events that is not to be missed. Should the stars align, you should go. No questions asked. Do it.
Accompanying me on this trip was Trevor. You know, from Wherever. Many years ago, we wrought havoc in Hokkaido on behalf of Surly. It had been too long since I’d had the opportunity to travel abroad with him. Good company never hurts when you’re far from home. Plus, Trevor is resourceful. The type of person who can turn lemons into whiskey sours should things go sideways. I ran into him completely by chance many years ago at the Narita airport in Tokyo. Turns out we were on the same flight back to Surlyville. That’s a long, non-stop flight. It was on that journey that we discovered it is possible to drink a galley dry on a Boeing 747. Suffice it to say that I felt assured we were up for anything.
Our arrival in Swanage was met with modest fanfare. Immediately upon pulling into the parking lot (or ‘car park’ for my UK readers) we were greeted by many familiar faces. These included two fellow Colonists, Chewey and Pat. The Bikemonger decided that quarantining the Americans in one group was better for all involved.
We caroused and supped and packed gear into the wee hours. Thunderstorms overnight gave way to a cloudy start but dry weather nonetheless. Our group saddled up to embrace the day.
I didn’t notice when I took this photo that Chewey was on a singlespeed. It wasn’t until I was walking the first long climb beside him that I spied his drivetrain. “Holy hell, man!” I exclaimed, “You brought a singlespeed?” Chewey flatly replied, “I don’t own a geared bike.” I guess that’s true. Chewey has always served to remind me that a singlespeed is never the wrong choice. Bravo for him.
I was not on a singlespeed. Two years ago, I rode the Dash on a Straggler 650b. It was not a bad choice by any means. I wanted to change things up to a flat bar configuration that offered a little more rubber contacting the road. I brought along a new Bridge Club which I was eager to put through the paces in Dorset. The 2.8” tires I installed were overkill I guess, but I had learned on my previous trip that part of the challenge of this course is mitigating the effects of constantly changing surface conditions. We encountered pavement, mud, gravel, standing water, singletrack, cobbles, sand, rocks, and roots.
The ultimate measure of any bike I’m riding is whether or not I have to think about it. The right bike becomes an extension of my body freeing up my headspace to enjoy the experience. Bridge Club provided exactly that. It’s a great choice for a course like the Gravel Dash where you can’t predict the conditions.
We descended from a ridgeline with magnificent views into Corfe Castle. Leading up to the event Charlie the Bikemonger had availed participants of countless tips and a couple of rules. The first and most important rule – “It’s not a bloody race! Don’t be a dick.” One of his tips was to eat and drink something every 20 minutes. Keeping true to that advice the entire Gravel Dash mob had descended upon a tiny bakery outside the castle.
These three rashers in a bap cost me £2. It was quite possibly the smartest two quid I spent on the trip.
In fact, I finished the second half of that bap while stopped for gin and tonic that our guide Jon had cleverly planned and packed. An ocean view, a cool breeze, and a G&T. Life was good. After a ripping descent and some more rolling miles it wasn’t long before we pulled into the Sailor’s Return. Otherwise known as official pub stop Number One on the Dash route.
That was precisely where my critical thought set in. Yes, these stops weren’t helping us make time. That’s exactly why I knew I was in trouble. The point was not to make time at all. It was a beautiful day even if it was bloody hot. We could very well have been riding in the thunderstorms that had woken us that morning. I did my best to put the thoughts aside.
One thing may be said for the Gravel Dash. All of those ups and downs aren’t for naught. Here’s Trevor soaking in the glory of a clear day in the countryside.
At a river crossing, our group stopped to chat with the support crew and eat cookies they were handing out. Jon, our merry guide, facing the camera on the left is standing with Gil and Jason on the right. What Jon lacked in distance estimation he made up in wit and a bountiful knowledge of local history. Oh, and he was smart enough to pack whiskey.
Do you ever ponder what group dynamics can mean on a long, challenging ride? They can sink the experience post-haste. Or they can bind the group together in an all-or-none sense of unity. I’ve seen both scenarios play out in groups of people who have ridden together for years.
The first time I rode the Dash I pedaled with folks whom I’d never met. This time many in our group were acquaintances but we hadn’t ridden together at all. Both times I’ve marveled at how supportive everyone was. Despite flat tires, mechanicals, and lingering long at rest stops, the group stayed together. Not once did anyone even hint at splitting the group.
Is it the event that fosters this? Or is it the people attracted to come ride the event? I believe it’s both. One thing is for sure, it’s nothing short of magical.
Still, the miles wore on. We were approaching the shadows of evening by the time we made it to the final pub stop, The Fox Inn. The horizon was darkened with storm clouds. We made the call to take a shuttle the final seven miles to camp.
We weren’t quite the last to roll into the field. A huge teepee was staked out next to the cooking and bar tents. Shelters of all kinds were scattered everywhere. I had opted to pack a tarp for the trip.
Perhaps my memory of two years’ prior was simply blocked out. After all, this was a farm field devoid of trees. I had to get a little creative in my pitch. With the help of a fencepost, some logs from the wood pile, and my handlebars all was secured. I knew that rain was almost certainly coming so I didn’t mind the low height to ensure dryness.
However, I hadn’t accounted for robust nettles and stumpy little thorn bushes. A few cardboard beer cartons from the bar tent improvised a protective floor for my shelter. After some live music, the cheese judging, and a few more pints I was done. I wandered back to my camp, performed some final tensioning on guy lines, then crawled under for a sound sleep.
I awoke around 6:30 to the noise of wind and sound of thunder. The morning was cool. The wind through my open shelter made it just cozy enough to pull my bag around my shoulders for warmth. The clouds opened, and it dumped rain. I dozed in an out lulled by the patter of drops on my tarp. I was happy not to be among those seeking an early departure.
Eventually the rain stopped. Our group emerged from various parts of the field where they’d slept. We conjured a plan to piece together our own route for day two. One that included a few more pubs.
After a short stop at the World’s End near Blandford we rolled into Wareham. Chewey and I made a beer run while the rest of the group ordered lunch from a chip shop.
Here we lingered a good long while. Again, not really making any time. Rather, we were thoroughly enjoying the time we had. Jon informed us that the next town over, Purbeck, had a cracking pub called the King’s Arms. It just so happened that the cider festival was in full swing. With Swanage not farther than another 10 miles down the road we settled in to sample some local delicacies.
The Gravel Dash begins and ends at The Red Lion, a most respectable pub. The back lot is like an extended patio populated with Dash riders and patrons. Oh, and pirates. You see, the annual Swanage Pirate Festival was also in full swing. Charlie the Bikemonger, here aided by Jerome the Cheesemonger, distributed loot to the Dash riders.
Yards of grog were drunk. (And spilled.) Here was our UK rep, Duncan, tackling the towering tankard. Our guide, Jon, downed one in 24 seconds flat. Only a minute faster than your humble author. Oh, the pirate life.
Monday morning’s alarm clock was set by the pigeons congregating on the ledge of our hotel room window. The day brought blinding sun over the bay. However, it was a bank holiday in the UK so the beach was hopping.
No time for a dip, however. We were staring down our final hours in Swanage. Difficult decisions needed to be made. Like which cider to have with lunch?
And what for lunch? The Red Lion serves up a mean tuna jacket. Try ordering that at your local Perkins.
We settled our tab and paid for our room. Thus began the process of saying our goodbyes. There was also a tremendous amount of gratitude heaped on these folks for pulling off another successful Gravel Dash. I simply have to say there’s no other cycling event like it. Not that I’ve attended anyway. Try as I might I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe that’s what keeps people coming back. I’ll keep pondering this. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be fortunate enough to make it back again soon.
The je ne sais quoi of the Gravel Dash may elude me. But one debate has been settled. Those pub stops did help after all.