From disparate cyclists to something like a community: this is the Dirt Dash bikepacking weekend

Charlie Hobbs and Markus Stitz have created a set of events that put camaraderie and adventure first, as the Dorset Dash heads to Scotland

Clock09:00, Friday 19th January 2024

© Markus Stitz / @reizkultur

Riders prepare for the off at the Dunoon Dash

Charlie Hobbs made Britain’s first-ever gravel event. The Dorset Dash, a 160km gravel ride in the south of England, began because Hobbs wanted people to buy the gravel bikes he was importing from the USA to his shop in Swanage. The initial idea was a one-day, USA-style gravel race, but Hobbs thought, what’s the rush?

And so, in 2013, the Dorset Dash, a two-day gravel ride with a campfire, a barbeque, and a van full of beer, was born. “It started with 30 blokes in a pub garden,” Hobbs told GCN. This was not a gruelling suffer-fest. It was a celebration of camaraderie, community and the outdoors. Hobbs cooked up a chicken and garlic stew, served with Jack Daniels and chorizo dumplings, and looking back, he recalls the sense of camaraderie in camp, as complete strangers put the world to rights, their faces illuminated by the campfire.

“Where else do you get that?” Hobbs asks. “You can go to the pub, but then you’ve got to drink, and you can’t remember any of it the next day anyway. You can go to church, maybe? I don’t know.” He’s right; in our isolating post-modern society, events like his bring disparate cyclists together into a community.

Hobbs stopped selling bikes, but he kept the Dorset Dash going. In the past decade, it’s cemented itself as a must-do event for many gravel riders in the south of England.

More recently, Hobbs has teamed up with Markus Stitz, round-the-world cyclist and professional route designer, to recreate the event in Scotland. The Lezyne Dunoon Dash, a 100km weekender on the eastern coast of Argyll, takes the Dorset Dash formula and plonks it in the rain-sodden wilds of Scotland. Stitz and Hobbs had transplanted the Dorset Dash recipe for success, but would the camaraderie and community that makes the Dorset Dash so special survive the journey north? In late summer, 2023, we headed up to Scotland to find out.

What is the Dunoon Dash

The Lezyne Dunoon Dash is a two-day 100km ride on the Cowal Peninsula, Argyll. The route takes in the whole ‘spectrum’ of gravel terrain, from fast-rolling forest roads to lumpy hike-a-bike. The route is tough enough to be a challenge, but achievable for most cyclists.

Indeed, an event like this is a fantastic entry point for people wanting to dip their toes into bikepacking in a safe, supported way. If you get a mechanical or need help, there’s the riders around you, and there’s also Charlie and Markus, poised with their vans, ready to help you get back on the road, or give you a lift to the campsite.

Whilst the route has been drawn up by Stitz, the rest of the event bears the stamp of a Charlie Hobbs weekender: it begins and ends at a pub; there are great hunks of barbequed meat at the halfway camp; and the only competitive part of the weekend is the battle to see who can bring the best cheese for sharing.

Since bikepacking is a sport that appeals to quiet, outdoorsy types, the chatter was not entirely forthcoming on the Saturday morning, when the 80-strong field congregated around the Argyll Hotel in Dunoon. It took the loud voice and easy conversation of an American, the only one among us, to break through the school disco awkwardness. His confidence drifted through the crowd, and eventually, the rest of us were doing our best to emulate him, helped along by those crutches of small talk that we all lean on from time to time.

“Have you travelled far?”

“The weather seems to be behaving itself…”

We set off at 10am, and there was a friendly jostle for position as eighty or so riders navigated the narrow streets of the town. Like everyone else, I drifted back and forth through the field, allowing climbs, descents and photo stops to form and break up groups.

We took on broad logging roads and tiny singletrack paths. We went through great valleys and past tiny lochs. All the while, the terrain sent us back and forth between each other. It felt like we were gradually getting to know each other, accumulating familiar faces.

As a result, by the time we got to camp on Saturday night, everyone was more at ease. We’d all ridden the same route, so everyone had something in common, and plenty to talk about. The conversation was candid and unguarded, as it usually is when beer is being served. I learnt about life on an oil rig, deep sea cave diving and the struggles of parenthood. A local man told me about the hills and headlands on this stretch of coast, encouraging me to return and explore further.

Darkness fell as the food – about three deers’ worth of venison seared and served in floury baps – was dished out. Far above, the clouds collapsed, and rain poured into our little campsite. Every last one of us sheltered in the small, warmly lit barn as the rain hammered down. Thanks to the rain and the echoing voices, it was incredibly noisy, and people talked close to cut through the racket.

There is something sedative about the sound of heavy rain. By 9pm, you could tell that everyone had half a mind on the sleeping bag waiting for them in their tent. It wasn’t long after 10 that we had all darted from the shelter of the barn and zipped ourselves away for the night.

“I think we’ve had a slight maturing of the crowd this year”, Charlie said to me the next morning. “Last year we were all kicked out of the barn at 1am, riding around on mini-bikes.”

Riding home

It was a grey day, with heavy clouds weighing on the headlands. Torrential rain was forecast that afternoon, and the air was so thick with moisture that it dampened our clothes. People packed up quietly. There was something pleasing about seeing 80 people busily rolling their mats, putting away their sleeping bags and packing away their little tents. We were all working individually, but inadvertently doing so in unison.

After breakfast, people started disappearing from camp one by one. The array of brightly coloured tents disappeared, leaving just some gently flattened grass. Some rode away in groups, but many struck out on the course alone. It was nice to take a breather, and besides, even when alone, we were not riding in isolation. Sometimes you’d catch a glimpse of other riders on open sections of hillside. Occasionally, you’d switch positions with a rider who had paused for a break. Most of the time, though, there was no greater clue to the rest of the field’s existence than the freshly pressed tyre marks in the mud. The simple knowledge that there were riders ahead and behind you was enough to soften the edges of the rugged landscape and give the day a sense of safety and security.

There was something immensely satisfying about rolling into the finish to a warm welcome from familiar, mud-splattered faces. I joined the other riders on the pub garden benches and we shared our experiences out on the trail. As forecast, the rain began to hammer down at about 4pm. We moved into the roofed smoking area and cheered the rest of the field in, one by one. With nothing to do but listen to the downpour, the dozen or so people trapped in by the weather sank deeper into their seats and let the conversation flow. Once again, the rain was walling us in together, bringing out anecdotes from the past, of disastrous trips, blistering summer days and bike-bound adventures at home and abroad.

Amid the exhaustion, there was a resounding sense of a weekend well-fulfilled. By tackling the Scottish hills together, we’d converted a fresh batch of strangers into riding partners. In its own way, the spirit of the Dorset Dash had manifested itself north of the border, here on the Cowal Peninsula.

Talk turned to next year, and I realised that this was where the community of bikepackers was formed. People exchanged details and made plans. When they disappeared into their cars, it was ‘until then’, rather than goodbye. The Dirt Dash weekends are sociable and friendly, but to crystalise that into a community takes time and repetition. Thankfully, Stitz and Hobbs are at it every year, putting like-minded people together, and forging a community around an otherwise individualistic part of our sport.

To take part in next year's Dunoon Dash, or another Dirt Dash event, book a place on the Dirt Dash website.

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