I’m exploring one small corner of it by bike. In just a couple of hours we’ve torn through thick woodland, panted our way up and raced down hills, passed lochs, and stopped to bathe our feet in the river – and we’ve still barely scratched the surface.
It’s so wonderful someone really should organise a major cycling event here.
Oh wait. That’s why I’m here. Raiders Gravel Galloway is a brand new three-day cycling festival set to take place in early autumn.
On October 7, 500 riders from all over Britain and – covid rules permitting – abroad will wait for the starting gun for a three-stage, 150 mile race through some of the UK’s finest forest trails.
Britain’s biggest forest
Entries for the event are open now and riders must participate in teams of two for safety reasons. It is a competitive event and there will be timed stages and podium finishes. However the organisers want to attract bikers of all capabilities to take part, so there are age categories, a mixed event and even an E-bike event.
It’s run by event planning experts Golazo Cycling. Golazo’s director, a boundlessly enthusiastic English cycling fanatic called Malcolm Smith, has brought a dozen or so cycling journalists – and yours truly – to showcase what the area has to offer.
Our base is Gatehouse of Fleet, a picture postcard village nestled between the forest and the coast.
We’ll here overnight, with an afternoon ride out from our hotel followed by a morning exploring Galloway Forest Park.
Our hardware is supplied by British company Canyon, who make some of the best bikes in the world. We’re riding what are called ‘gravel bikes’. These occupy a middle ground between mountain bikes and road bikes. They’re just as at home on a rugged forest trail as they are on a smooth stretch of tarmac.
On your bike
I’m given one of their E-bikes, which comes with a battery and electric motor to help propel me along.
On the first day the route takes us along off road tracks until we meet a minor road that hugs the coastline. It’s a beautiful afternoon, the sand is golden, the water is shimmering, and before I know what’s happening I’m sitting at Cream o’ Galloway with an ice cream in my hand. Marvellous.
The sun also joins us the next morning as we hop on a coach for a 30 minute journey into Galloway Forest Park itself. We hop off at Stroan Loch at the eastern end of Raiders Road – the long forest trail the upcoming cycling festival gets its name from.
One of the Canyon techies looks into replacing my cherished E-bike with one that’s purely pedal powered (“just so you can try something different.”). Fortunately they don’t have the right frame size for me and I get to keep my beloved battery-assisted ride.
It’s not long before I’m glad of it. The day’s becoming hot and there is a lot of climbing to be done. Even with a bit of extra help I’m still sweating.
Our guides are husband and wife team Warren and Esther, who run Galloway Cycling Holidays and know the area like the backs of their hands. The couple spent four years cycling around the world before settling in Castle Douglas, where they set up their bike tour company to showcase the area’s seemingly endless network of trails.
“After spending all those years travelling around the world do you know what we learned,” says Esther, an affable German lady. “We found out that the best gravel trails in the world are right here in Dumfries and Galloway.”
Exploring the trails
Who am I to argue, I think to myself as we crest a hill and I gaze down upon a sea of treetops, a loch glistening in the middle distance.
Then it’s downhill and time to let rip. Everyone else on the trip is a professional cycling journalist of some sort and they quickly roar away from me. I go as fast as I dare, peering through the cloud of stoor they’ve raised, enjoying the sunshine and scenery, while gritting my teeth and hoping I don’t take a tumble.
Our route brings us out along the River Dee, where a few of us stop for a paddle, then along to the wonderfully named Clatteringshaws Loch for coffee and cake at the visitor centre there.
Three days of this would be more than just a little bit pleasant. I might well be back here in October for the festival itself.
For more information visit raidersgravel.com