Ride Report: Dukes Weekender 2021

Posted By Gravel Union On 22 September 2021

Trying to juggle parenthood and bike riding can be quite a challenge, but Rachel Sokal proved its possible to do both when she took part in the recent Dukes’ Weekender gravel extravaganza.

Photo courtesy of Niven Photography

The Dukes Weekender was first held in Aberfoyle, near Loch Lomond, Scotland in 2018. With a hiatus last year, it was back for its third year this September. Also celebrating a third birthday that weekend was my son. What better way for him to celebrate than for his mum to go off and ride her bike (it’s ok, I did get him a cake).

The Dukes runs over two days. The competition starts with the kids’ race on Saturday morning before the entertainment of the gravel hill climb in the afternoon. Post-lockdown organisational challenges meant there wasn’t enough time to apply to close the Duke’s Pass road, so it wasn’t possible to race the stage on tarmac as previous years. This was no bad thing - a gravel hill climb gives something that you don’t get in other events.

Now, for those of you who know me, you’ll be aware of me being quite spectacularly poor at hill climbing. I also like to avoid doing anything about this by living and riding in one of the flattest parts of the UK (in my first ride of my trip up to Aberfoyle I did more climbing in one ride, than I had done in the whole of the previous month). I was therefore somewhat reluctant to turn up on the start line at my allotted time and was all ready to use my son’s birthday as a perfect excuse. It didn’t take me long to see the wide range of riders, bikes and the masses of supporters and consequently to realise that I was being a bit miserable, so I duly took my turn at the starting gate. Admittedly, the winner got up the hill in half the time it took me and I think I lost half a lung coughing with effort but – even I have to admit – it was great fun.

The main event was a 72km loop with about 1,200m of climbing on the Sunday morning. There were six stages along the figure-of-eight loop through the village, giving plenty of chance for rest and refuelling if required. I was feeling remarkably fresh after the hill climb, although I still couldn’t really talk much without my climbing-cough taking the wind out of me.

The first half of the course rolled around Achray Forest on the north of Aberfoyle, taking in wide gravel trails through newly planted and managed forest and the contrasting beauty of ancient woodland and loch-side singletrack. Each of the stages was really varied, which made it interesting and challenging in equal measures. The first stage was mainly a descent on a wide and fast track but was very loose, so keeping control of the bike and hold of your nerve was key. The second trail delighted the mountain biker in me - a wide singletrack running alongside the loch with flowing bends and tight corners giving you loads to think about. Despite the beauty of this stage, I very quickly learnt that I hadn’t really recovered from the hill-climb and my legs screamed as I attempted to push the pace on the undulating trails. With the lactic acid still burning, the short sharp grunt of stage three was a climb too far. As I scrambled up the slate-y trail, I couldn’t help thinking that it might have been easier to stay on my bike for a pedal turn or two more rather than thinking running would be quicker.

Photo courtesy of Niven Photography

After dropping back through the village, the final 40km loop took in Loch Ard forest on the south of the village. The landscape here had a much bigger feel than the northern side, with huge vistas and an incredible sense of scale as the tiny riders momentarily passed under the colossal aqueducts that have spanned the hills for over 150 years. At two to three kms, each of these three gravel-track stages kept you pushing for longer than you thought you could and each had its own share of punchy climbing, changing terrain and challenging corners. I made more than one mistake taking the wrong line on an unsighted corner and needing to scrub my speed so as not to succumb to the gravel. In some places the stages were fast – you were onto the next corner in a blink of the eye – and in some places the leg burning climbs felt like they would never end. As the route took you nearer the village the trails got busier with families, dog walkers and tourists – almost to a person each of them cheered the riders on back to the finish.

Photo courtesy of Niven Photography

The Duke’s event HQ sits just behind the village high street in part of the car park. This neatly incorporates a pub beer garden and café or two into race-central and makes for a pretty seamless connection between the race village and the real version. The ready access to several pubs, cafes and other essentials is well appreciated by the riders and their supporters’ alike, I was particularly happy to be consuming my post-race pint and fish and chips before I’d bothered to put down my bike and take off my helmet.

But it wasn’t just spatially that the event falls neatly into village life, there weren’t joins to see when it came to the people either. It wasn’t really obvious who came from further afield and just there for the racing, who was a local rider keen to put down a fast time on their local trails, and who just nipped over with the kids on the way back from the shops. Going by race number boards there were loads of kids who raced in the Saturday morning Enduro and may or may not have gone home for lunch / tea / sleep between the 10am race start and the pump track finally being dismantled on Sunday evening. As a bone fide out-of-towner I never felt out of place.

The fact the event slots neatly into the town rather like a cultural and spatial jigsaw piece is down to the fact that organisers Stu, Rob, Amber and Caroline live in the area. A lesser-known riding area than the famous Scottish destinations such as Glentress and Fort William, they decided to organise the event to show off their local riding and miles upon miles upon miles of gravel trails and stunning scenery. They also wanted to support the recent growth that the area has had, by promoting the riding in the area both to locals and those elsewhere. The village should be proud of them (and all their friends and families too).

Photo courtesy of Niven Photography

If you fancy riding in the area and don’t want to wait until next year’s event, the newly founded Gravelfoyle is establishing some way-marked routes in the area. You can find out more about the area here - https://www.gravelfoyle.com/

Let's Get United!
Join Gravel Union now 🤟

Cookie preferences

Functional. Necessary for the website to function.

Analytical. To keep track of the number of visitors.

Tracking. To give you the best possible experience, to improve the website, to show you relevant information and advertisements, and for social media. Enable