Other countries have managed to spin a certain amount of romance around riding a skinny-tyred, drop-barred bike across inappropriate terrain with the legends of the pavé of Paris-Roubaix and the glamour of Italy's Strada Bianca, In the UK, on the other hand, we have gravel. Probably from Homebase.
Gravel Racing has become A Thing in the USA where they have vast amounts of endless horizons and vast miles of unmade road to reach them by, and they’ve invented Gravel Bikes to ride them on.
I say invented, I mean marketed a new bike for something you could have done on all sorts of bicycles that have existed for the last 100 years or so. Think of a cyclocross/29er mountain/touring frankenbike and you’ve pretty much got a Gravel Bike, just add carbon and an arty Vimeo. It’s most like a ‘cross bike but with fatter tyres and lazier all-day geometry and maybe the capability to bolt epic adventure all-day stuff to. It’s all about the Epic.
We don’t have the space or the topography or the infinite emptiness or even much in the way of gravel roads to host something like a gravel race in England, unless you can find a lot of suburban driveways in long succession, maybe in Surrey. So the 100 miles of the Dorset Gravel Dash is something that captures the essential spirit of such a thing without following it to the pedantic letter, and that gravel has to be substituted with dirt, rock, lane, silt, loam, mud, turf, stone, path, concrete, chalk, clart, grass, trail and tarmac.
I think there was one of those fashionable new Gravel Bikes at the Dorset Gravel Dash. Just the one; the rest of the collected bikes covered the breadth of about everything two-wheeled you could imagine. Luckily there’s no perfect bike for this, each one would triumph at some point during the day. You could ride anything really, although your carbon road bike might be challenging, even with fat 25mm tyres.
People are just riding what they have, what they brung; there are cyclo-cross bikes, probably the best Victorinox tool for the motley job, normal geared ones, singlespeed ones, fixed ones, monster cross ones, stripped down fast ones and ones with all the luggage strapped to them. Then there are mountainbikes: 26-inch-wheeled ones; 29ers; geared and without; rigid and suspended; old; retro; new — all sorts. And fat bikes.
I’m running my standard cyclocross bike, the one I use for racing and riding and stuff.The only things I’ve changed are the addition of an extra water-bottle cage, a larger saddle-bag and the tyres. A Surly Knard 700x41 is up front for all-day comfort while a Kenda Happy Medium 700x35 spins out back quite speedily with the only tyre related issue being that puncture in the front just before lunch. Which is where the excess-baggage-charge seat-pack came in handy, crammed with inner-tubes.
Gravel Dash organiser Charlie the Bikemonger has pitched the feel of the event somewhere between the HONC — the Hell of the North Cotswolds road/off-road reliability trial that has had a massive surge of popularity in the last few years of its 30 year history — and a big old ride that your mate traced out on the map[, that might be the optimistic side of doable and that you agreed to do when you might have been a bit drunk down the pub that time.
The sign-on at the start in the Red Lion pub garden in Swanage is a cheery affair, helped by the bright early morning sunshine in the wake of the previous day’s fat showers, and the free coffee and bacon sandwiches. The start briefing is probably the best I’ve ever been to: an enigmatic outline of the route, the prizes on offer at the end, the mention of the Broom Wagon of Eternal Shame all summed up with the perfect catch-all phrase that should be Rule #1 at all cycle events: Don’t Be A Dick.
On that note we roll out of the still asleep town and head west on the first of what is to be not quite 100 miles. Riders are sent off with the minimum of spoon feeding and the maximum of self-sufficiency; the Gravel Dash does have the back up of a man in a pick-up truck on the other end phone-number if you get in trouble and need saving and a refreshments tent at about halfway but that’s it.
The route is available for both GPS and map users and once in a while there’s a little bit of electrical tape wrapped round a post or on a gate as a gentle reassurance that you’re on the right path. Luckily, this being England you’re never far from a pub, Londis or BP garage to make self-sufficiency quite the faux-rugged thing, and there’s always the option of taking short-cuts or just nipping the quick way back to the finish if you get tired or bored. No being stuck 80 miles down a gravel road in the middle of the Great Plains miles from anywhere with the prospect of being eaten by coyotes here. We’ve been told to put lights on, though, as this could be a long day for some.
It doesn’t take long for the small peloton of fifty or so to string out as chatty groups stick together whilst others disappear off the front with the intention of being first in this Not A Race. We soon turn left off the tarmac at Langton Matravers on to premium quality gravel on the out-and-back to the Lookout Station at St Alban’s Head, I suspect just to admire the view. It is a view worth admiring to be fair.
As we’re heading out the leaders are heading back already, and they’re not hanging about.The first man back was Salsa rider George Budd in some stupidly fast time that no-one really bothers to remember, but he didn’t stop for a pub lunch or to look at the view. Where’s the fun in that? He doesn’t help himself that he’d won a six-hour solo mountain bike race the previous day either. Way too keen.
Back to the normal people. With riders spread out over lanes and byways and those uninterested in the full fat 100 taking short cuts or some simply distracted by tea-rooms, it was easy to spend much of the day on your own, in the quiet, with the English countryside doing what the English countryside does best, with the added benefit of an off road bicycle being able to take you to elusive, beautiful corners most people don’t know exist.
Heading out of Swanage the course did a clockwise loop around most all of Dorset, along the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast, up through Puddletown to Shillingstone before heading back south through Blandford Forum and Wareham to loop out to Studland for a final gasp along the cliffs back home.
Mileage ended up a little short of the 100 miles, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining about that and there was about 8,000 feet of climbing if you were counting.
After the first real test of the day, the road climb up Ridgeway Hill out of Steeple, the spine of the Purbeck Hills sees us bound across the hills above Lulworth giving Instagram views to the left before we swoop right back down and head inland to the heart of the county.
The sheer variety of terrain is impressive with a lot of “this is a bit like…” going on, and you do get to see a hell of a lot of countryside in a hundred odd miles. The constant rolling mix of landscape is a whole lot nicer than a century of gravel, that’s for sure.
None of the hills were brain-grindingly long, or knee-crunchingly steep, but the route was persistently up and down, for Dorset is a lumpy place that’s as tough on the legs as it is easy on the eye.
The weekend before, the course had been dry and dusty and fast but thanks to a week of traditional summer downpours, all nicely topped up the day before with some character building wetness, significant parts are rather wet and boggy, and if not that, then quite puddly.
The pre-ride information had warned of 24 unavoidable puddles, but there were definitely more, and there were some bits of waterlogged churned up trail of the get-off-and-push type, but that made it all the more interesting. I say interesting, I mean British.
All day we’ve been heading the other direction to a sportive that’s going on, turns out it’s the Tour of Wessex, a three day event with 335 overall miles to cover should you wish, and we’ve been getting odd looks all the time suggesting we must be going the wrong way. On the contrary, there’s nothing like riding against the endless stream of a sportive to make you realize you’re going very much the right way.
In a similar vein, or should that be rein, we’re sharing some of the trails with a horse enduro event, and there are comparable looks of confusion that we’re doing something wrong, no matter how many gates we hold open for them.
After a little bit of getting lost in the woods, trudging through some ankle deep mud, bumping along the edges of more than enough fields, getting a thorn puncture to be immediately followed by the replacement tube exploding 100 metres further on in a crow-scaring, tube-shredding bang, we reckon it’s time to stop at the Fox pub in Ansty for a pint of the local Badger beer and a light lunch, and at about at the halfway point it makes absolute sense.
There’s been a steady steam of muddy lycra trudging into the pub so regulars are aware that there’s some Cycling Thing going on and they’re chatty and don’t mind us parking our damp and dirty bottoms on their chairs. A few miles further on there’s the actual organized Gravel Dash refreshment point of Trev’s Picnic on top of Bulbarow Hill, it’s been a long and draggy tarmac climb all the way from the pub so we feel we’ve earned the cake on offer, we can pretend it’s pudding.
From the stop it’s a steady downhill of road and Wessex Ridgeway all the way to Shillingstone and the psychological turning point home south along the disused railway bike path to hoof it down the valley into Blanford Forum.
A GPS glitch has us getting lost up a side lane but referring to good old fashioned maps and turning things off and on again has us back on the right track.
The well graded bike path is a good way to make progress on the day, despite the fiddly bit through Blandford where for a brief period we have to deal with the sudden horrors of civilization and traffic. This doesn’t last long though and we turn back onto the quiet back lanes and secluded rights-of-way once we’ve breached the by-pass.
The Gravel Dash continues with its mix of dirt, road, mud, field and then in a rather unsportsmanlike fashion at this late stage of the game throws in the Unavoidable Puddles. Less puddles and more brown lakes they straddle the double-track lane in long, hub-deep, bearing-destroying trepidation, but at least they’re warm and wash some of the accumulated layers of mud off and lube the chain.
The following maze of tracks in Wareham Forest confuses both GPS and map reading and sees us frustratingly scrabbling for the route through pools of a special black gritty watery mud and it is with relief that we make it to Wareham and out the other side.
The road east out of the town is probably one of the nicest bits of tarmac I’ve ever had to pedal along, and I’ve ridden a bike over some nice bits in my time. This may be helped by the sympathetic and flattering light, and the giddy feeling that we’re nearly home, and possibly low blood-sugar, and definitely the need for an ice-cream.
It doesn’t matter that the chain is squeaky dry again and the rear derailleur is clogged with Dorset’s finest detritus making freewheeling a sticky affair, a bit like piloting a Lancaster home limping on one engine, it’s a very very pretty road that makes you realize there’s nothing quite as perfect as England on a summer’s evening. We turn right and up onto Middlebere Heath to turn off road again into the sandy woods of Rempstone Heath which are seemingly designed to rinse any residual energy in the legs to take us to Studland.
The route takes us right to the pointy end of The Foreland; the day has been improving all along and is now cloudless, windless, blue, green and white. There is the view over to the delights of Bournemouth and over there the white cliffs of the Isle of Wight, with sea crashing somewhere down there over the edge of vertigo on to Old Harry.
All the previous miles that have led to this are instantly forgotten and there is a tactical sit-down to absorb all the Pretty before the final push for home. Turning into the sun there’s just the grassy ascent of Ballard Down to tick off before the fun, fast, rocky descent back into Swanage’s one-way system and the pub — oh sweet sweet reward, the pub.
Riding the last few metres up through the pub garden every single rider receives a massive cheer form the already settled down with beer and food riders to then promptly settle down themselves with beer and food. The three pints I have offer no intoxicating effect at all as every rehydration and nutritional benefit is instantly extracted from it, the same goes for the liver and bacon and mash which was a distant memory the moment it was finished.
Prizes for the podium finishers had been done hours before, but all the important prizes were done later in the evening, past the arbitrary 8pm cut-off point for finishers: best beard, best getting a puncture, first lady, first singlespeeder, first fixed riders — all the prizes to reward those that had tried the hardest and had the most fun rather than merely focus on those that finished first, as it should be for Not A Race.
No-one had died, a few bikes had, a bit, but no-one needed to call the Broom Wagon of Eternal Shame. Absolutely everyone had had a fantastic time whether they did the whole route or just a bit of it. Not one person grumbled that it wasn’t all gravel.
Thanks Charlie the Bikemonger
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.