May’s microadventure: The Dorset Gravel Dash

It’s hard to put into words the emotions I was experiencing as we crested the high point of Ballard Down on May’s bikepacking microadventure. Elation and relief certainly topped a long list – physically my legs were hurting and I wanted it to be over that very minute. Conversely, the moment was tinged with a profound sadness for we would soon be back in Swanage and at the end of what had been the most amazing adventure; one sure to live long in my memory.

The seed for May’s microadventure was planted with a rather nonchalant, five-worded text from a friend back in March. It simply read “Here’s one for you, Lee” with a link that took me to the website of Charlie the Bikemonger, the Dorset-based bike shop. It was the sign-up page for The Dorset Gravel Dash 50:50 bikepacking event; a two-day, 100-mile, self-supported ‘reliability trial’ around the Isle of Purbeck and Dorset Downs. Within minutes I and another friend Andy (with whom I’m completing my year of microadventures) had signed up. We were set, administratively if not physically and mentally, for what was to take place in a matter of weeks.

Fast-forward those few weeks and the enormity of our undertaking was only just beginning to dawn on us. Not only at the amount of kit we’d need to take with us but the simple amount of effort required to complete the challenge. The enthusiasm and sense of endeavour we displayed as we plugged the GPX file into mapping software was short lived as the full extent of the route and the total elevation across the two days became clear. We made things worse for ourselves by plotting the course on two 1:25,000 OS paper maps; it spanned them both and even went off the grid at its most northerly point. 100 miles is a long way, but laid out in this fashion, we might as well have been circumnavigating the UK for the way it left us feeling. Stoically we pressed on with our plans and a week last Friday, as we sat on Swanage beach eating fish and chips at ten o’clock at night, we’d done everything we could to prepare for what was about to come.

Packing up after a night in the dunes.
Packing up after a night in the dunes.

After a pleasant night bivvying in the sand dunes just down the coast, we drove back to Swanage where, after a top-up breakfast in the High Street Café, we headed for the Red Lion pub, our starting point. After registering and fixing our ‘race’ numbers to our bikes, we had just enough time to chat with fellow ‘Dashers’ who had come from far and wide and give our bikes and kit a final check over. I was running with an Alpkit 20l dry bag on the bars containing my sleeping system, my Alpkit stem cell bar bag holding a waterbottle and a tri bag on the top tube with easy-to-reach trail snacks. In the middle of the bike I was using my custom fitted Wildcat Gear framebag with spare clothing in a tapered Alpkit saddle bag on the rear. More food, water and kit was in my Camelbak. In an attempt to increase my water-holding capacity I’d also hose-clipped an extra water bottle cage under the down tube of my Stooge. Looking around at the various bikes and kit on display, I also made mental notes of what I might be able to reasonably get away with on my father’s day and birthday lists!

ONE

TWO

Day one was characterised by some big climbs in the first 25 miles or so, so the early pace through the roads of Swanage was a notch above sedentary at best. Our bikepacking adventures before this had been no more than ten miles in length and simply up and down one ridge so we were keen to not overcook ourselves early on, particularly carrying around 50 litres of kit and water. Soon enough we were turning off the road to Studland for our first ascent of the day – Godlingston Hill – and the first real test of my gearing. One of my pre-ride concerns had been whether a 1×10 set-up (with a 30-tooth chainring and a 11-36t cassette) was going to be sufficient. We made good progress up the hill, passing plenty of riders who were off and walking and whilst it did ramp up towards the end we kept a steady flow all the way up and were soon at the top of Nine Barrow Down. At the top I learnt two things; one was that my gearing should be okay, the second being it was going to be a very hot day in the saddle.

Cooling us off was the eventual descent down into Corfe Castle before the heat of the sun returned as our pace slowed and we climbed up towards Kingston. It was here Andy realised he wasn’t suffering a sudden downturn in form, rather his rear brake caliper had been jammed on for the last couple of miles. A quick tweak of the pads and the bite adjustment and we were on our way again, heading upwards to Swyre Head. Here we had spectacular views over to Kimmeridge and the ‘Jurassic Coast’ beyond.

IMG_0359

Enjoying the views from Swyre Head
Enjoying the views from Swyre Head

The enjoyment of the descent that followed was short lived as we were once again forced in to ‘granny’ rings for a pretty steep climb to the high point of Whiteways Hill, but again the payoff was a sweeping road descent down the hillside with views of the military ranges to our right and the sweet scent of flowering gorse wafting over us. Above Lulworth we refueled with some trail food we had onboard and probably just at the right time for me. The hills had come in quick succession over the first few miles and I was beginning to pay for our early start – we’d got up at 5am – and a relatively light breakfast. After a sugar boost we took chalky farm tracks to East Chaldon and, after one last stingingly steep road climb, we were heading for a few miles of relatively flat roads and forest tracks, the latter of which gave us a chance to escape the sun’s ever-strengthening rays.

A fed Gravel Dasher is a happy Gravel Dasher!
A fed Gravel Dasher is a happy Gravel Dasher!

At Moreton we took the opportunity to take on board some ‘real’ food as this was one of the few places for refreshment without significant deviation from the route. We each dispatched an awesome sausage and chutney sandwich and a hefty slice of Victoria sponge in double quick fashion and tried to make some mental notes of the route for the next few miles. We would be taking a series of forest tracks and paths which can always prove a test for human navigation skills and modern GPS systems alike! Sure enough we spent the next few miles relying on the accuracy of other riders’ GPS units until all three of them at one point showed a north heading in totally different directions! Relying on our senses, and finally deciding things with a good old fashioned compass, we made it out of the maze of fire roads and tracks and into Puddletown.

There's still a place for the humble map amid the throng of GPS units!
There’s still a place for the humble map amid the throng of GPS units!

From Puddletown we made swifter progress. We found ourselves once again on our own and took the opportunity to push on. We were back on wide chalky paths crossing huge fields of cereal crops (and the odd solar farm) and whilst it was anything but flat it was all pretty favourable stuff. Save for one field east of Piddlehinton which, with a combination of tiring legs, a fully rigid bike and plenty of gear, sapped all the life from me. It was a few hundred yards of hell – a sentiment shared by pretty much every Dasher around the evening’s camp fire.

After a short rest in the shade – the heat from the sun was still menacingly fierce on our fair ginger flesh! – and a bit of a refuel we enjoyed some rollercoaster ups and downs before what would end up being our last big effort of the day, ascending through Ansty and then on to Bulbarrow Hill. At 899ft it’s the third highest hill in Dorset and with more than 50 miles in my legs I was glad of hanging on to Andy’s rear wheel for much of the climb. At the top though we were afforded amazing views as far as Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon (so I’ve since learnt) and we could almost smell the village of Shillingstone which was to be our base for the evening. On any other day, the final descent through the woods into the village would have been extremely enjoyable, but truth be told it was all I could do to maintain concentration and simply avoid a high speed off.

At the bottom of the hill there was a very strong smell of cooked brake pads but from here we simply picked up an old railway line trackway, passing the village station preserved from an era when steam ruled the rails, and rolled towards Marsh Bere Farm, the location of our campsite. Overshooting the entrance to the field, we finally tracked down a handful of Dashers that had already made it and wasted no time in choosing a spot in the woods for our tarp.

EIGHT

NINE

17

With a tarp up, it was great to get out of rather sweaty cycling clothes and into something dry and a little more proficient at keeping the swarms of midges off our bare flesh! To complete our recoveries we wasted no time in getting some food on. I reprised my dinner option from April’s adventure (albeit doubled the amount!) and was soon tucking into a rather nice Red Thai Chicken Curry and rice. With Dashers trickling into the camp over the next couple of hours, we moved down to the campfire area and socialised with our fellow riders, exchanging tales of the day and sharing various food and drink that organiser Charlie and his team had brought with them. That earlier field from hell featured pretty heavily in our discussions! We retired to our bivvy bags about 11pm. I was very happy we’d survived day one, the harder of the two days, but still aware that Sunday was still to do.

Day one's route and profile.
Day one’s route and profile.

Day one by numbers

Distance: 57.9 miles
Moving time: 6:22:44
Elevation: 5,082ft
Ave Speed: 9.1 mph
Max Speed: 34.2 mph

Day two

Thankfully, we rose later on Sunday morning; probably as a result of there being a lot less raucous gulls. Some were leaving as I woke whilst others (including us) looked in less of a rush to head southwards. After some breakfast and tea we were back on the route about 9am. From the elevation profile we knew we were in for a couple of early punishing climbs and we could hardly avoid the sight of the first as we headed into Child Okeford; the imposing Hambledon Hill as good as casting a shadow over the entire village.

If only it was the hill we had to worry about. Sadly, even before the hill proper, we were off and pushing as we lost all momentum on a heavily cut up bridleway. Pushing to the top of the gullied bridleway, we emerged with our route over the hill fort ramparts in clear sight but there was little point in remounting as we were soon off again, pushing up the steep, chalky side of the hill. After a couple of hundred yards we were on a gradient we could just about pedal up and pushed on to the gate at the top. In contrast to Saturday, it was an overcast day and you felt the threat of rain was never far away. Despite this, the views from the top were almost as impressive to those we’d enjoyed at the end of the day before, but it wasn’t long before we were plunging down to a small road to begin our second slog up Hod Hill, another hill fort.

Our push up was rewarded with a nice flowing descent to a classic Dorset chalk stream and the village of Stourpaine, where a check of my Garmin showed we’d just climbed 800ft in a little over four miles. It was certainly an early wake up call for legs I feared might have wanted to stay in the confines of my sleeping bag an hour or so before.

A classic Dorset chalk stream
A classic Dorset chalk stream

From here we picked up more of the old railway line turned trackway that we’d first encountered in Shillingstone and this moved us through and out of Blandford Forum at a reasonable lick. At Charlton Marshall we took a right, firstly onto a small country lane and when the tarmac ran out we were back onto chalky farmland tracks. Not as obvious a hill as the one we’d seen from our campsite but at two miles long the climb up over the fields on Charlton Down was a real drag and we were both glad when the route took us away from the relentlessness of it all. The descent was of equal gradient so we had plenty of time to recover before another short sharp climb on the road took us to the fringes of Wareham Forest where we caught up with a group of Dashers who’d set off early but had stopped for breakfast. As with our forest stretches yesterday, this was the one section of the day which might have slowed down our progress to Swanage, but in reality it passed without much incident. A combination of our map reading capabilities and the odd subtle bit of green and yellow electrical tape (a stealth route check from Charlie) saw us through the forest and into Wareham in good time and once again on our own.

In Wareham we stopped for a sandwich and a rest after the relatively flat route for the last few miles, and a sense we were nearing the end, had encouraged us to push on and rack up the miles. I think both of us were also thinking that a return home before our respective kids’ bed times might also stand us in good stead too!

Leaving Wareham we were back on roads and tracks that I’d ridden a few times before so once again we could dispense with map reading duties. Our route took us frustratingly close to the RSPB’s excellent nature reserve at Arne (one of my most favourite places in the UK!) before diving right over Middlebere Heath. At this point we encountered a pretty big road sportive, certainly judging by the amount of support cars, bikes and emergency vehicles accompanying the riders, and for a minute or two thin-tyred racing machines were starkly juxtaposed with their fat-bike tyred distant cousins. The genuine fat bikes in the group ahead were certainly getting some quizzical looks from our lycra-clad brethren.

Leaving the narrow winding road over Middlebere Heath we headed into woods again, but not before hearing the distinct, if sadly declining, call of a Cuckoo. We kept up a good pace across Rempstone Heath before emerging on Ferry Road, and heading for the village of Studland which would mark the beginnings of our last grind up of the ride. Studland village was busy; a combination of half term, its beautiful local beaches and its access for Old Harry Rocks meant we were slowing down for plenty of walkers (and completely unaware, zoned out teenagers plug into headphones!) on the main track to the aforementioned landmark.

TEN

Old Harry and slightly younger Gravel Dashers!
Old Harry and slightly younger Gravel Dashers!

Stopping for some photos against the impressive backdrop of the chalky, weather-beaten stacks, we were only delaying the inevitable – the long drag up and around the headland to the top of Ballard Down. With the wind now predictably full in our faces we spun up along the cliffs before turning as good as inland for our final ascent.

The reality of the climb was not as bad as I’d played out in my mind a few minutes earlier and we were soon pushing along the top towards the obelisk, though our route was to take us off down a steeper path to the left which was a much more direct route back to Swanage. We had a free run down the bridleway, and even timed it nicely for the one gate on the path to be held open for us. It was a cracking descent and a fitting end to what had been a brilliant weekend.

All smiles at the finish!
All smiles at the finish!

All that was left was for us to roll down into Swanage and back to the Red Lion and our finish line. Andy and I were even waved into the beer garden with a chequered flag!

Day two's route and profile.
Day two’s route and profile.

Day two by numbers

Distance: 41.2 miles
Moving time: 4:21:23
Elevation: 2,595ft
Ave Speed: 9.5 mph
Max Speed: 31.5 mph

If it’s not an oxymoron, May delivered a major microadventure, both in terms of the distance we covered and the level of organisation needed for us to succeed with our attempt. Whilst it was never a ‘box ticking exercise’ we did manage to complete a few things on our year of microadventure wish list – sleep on a beach, cycle 100 miles (it was once we’d reached the car!) and do a multiday event. We also learnt that despite our best efforts with the factor 30, we were both left with some rather random patches of sunburn!

It also provided both of us with an opportunity to dial back into map reading and reigniting skills we are probably in danger of losing in a tech-driven world. More on that in  future blog I’m sure.

Above all though, we met some great like-minded people. Groups of mates, couples, father and son teams, individuals. There was a real collective spirit underpinning the event and one I shall be very happy to experience again next year!

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