Dunoon has gone from zero to hero in just six months and it’s all down to the motivation of one man. We hopped on a ferry to meet the human JCB and sample his handiwork.
The best way to find the trails is on Strava (try Stewart’s Scottish Enduro Series track).
Either that or dip into the Cowal Mountain Bike Club Facebook page and see if anyone fancies a ride — nine times out of 10 you will get some local company to show you around.
The area is split into ‘micro trails’ of less than a kilometre, a result of their enduro stage origins.
In an official trail centre they would pretty much all be designated black but in descending order of technical demands:
- Tight as You Like (405m long)
- Burnside Upper (581m)
- The Badd (351m)
- Burnside Lower (647m)
- T3, T2 and T1 — the original trails (1,286m combined)
There are also multi-use forestry trails on the south side of the glen that are waymarked and fun for all abilities. There’s a map in the Corlarach Forestry car park.
Sleeping and eating
Being an old holiday destination, Dunoon is still well equipped to house the visitor. The local lads suggest either the Argyle Hotel or one of the smaller hotels strung along the front such as the Bay House Hotel or St Ives Hotel. They are all close to the centre, if you want to partake of an evening stroll to the pub.
Fixing your bike
There are no bike shops in Dunoon itself, but just over the water in Gourock is Phillips Cycles where basic parts and service are available. For more specific mtb parts you may have to revert to Glasgow, where Alpine Bikes or Dales Cycles among many others have good stock.
What to ride
Dunoon has its fair share of rocks, roots and steep trails, so your perfect weapon of choice would be a capable, mid-travel trail bike.
Best of the rest
We also rode up around Puck’s Glen, the trails centring round an amazing gorge with narrow trails, bridges, rocks and sheer walls enclosing an atmospheric river. As with the Bishop’s Glen trails, get yourself onto Strava to find the routes.
Dunoon trail centre guide
The mighty metallic ‘clonk’ of the ferry ramp hitting dry land announces our arrival at Hunter’s Quay in Dunoon. We roll our bikes up the checker plate as the rumble of the huge diesel engine is bolstered by disembarking cars, on what I can only assume is their daily commute to this peninsula town on the Firth of Clyde. I look around, remember my brief instructions from Colin, our contact for the day, and we head left along the seafront towards town.
“Dunoon, Dunoon, it’s a bonny wee toon,” fellow rider Andy McKenna sings with little regard for harmony, and even less concern for anyone unfortunate to be within earshot. It is a tune he has been refining for the entire 20-minute ferry journey, ensuring that it is unshakeably lodged in the brain of his travelling companions, namely Chris Ball and myself. Chris has had enough, and makes a break for it, wheelieing along the entire promenade. Because he can.
Victorian villas line the seafront, punctuated at intervals by, what must be, the hardiest species of palm tree in all of nature. It certainly resembles a bonny wee toon. But there is a hint of faded seaside glamour — an odd abandoned house here, an overgrown garden there — a few cracks in the largely pristine veneer.
Dunoon has gone the way of many seaside towns in the UK, slightly frayed at the edges with the odd patch of peeling paintwork a symptom of the downturn felt when the great British public discovered the Costa Del Sol. Dunoon had more reason than most to feel the pinch, however — 25 years ago a huge chunk of the community just upped and left overnight.
Only a few miles up the glen, the Holy Loch was home to a massive American Navy nuclear submarine base, housing many of the Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines that patrolled during the Cold War. For 31 years it contributed huge numbers to the area, with servicemen and women becoming a big part of the community. Shops, pubs, cafes and every other service thrived.
All that ended in 1992 as the Cold War thawed out and the last submarine, USS Simon Lake, steamed out of Holy Loch for the last time, closing the base and taking all US personnel with it.
One cafe clearly still in business is The Rock, complete with its enormous Fred Flintstone mural. Leaning bikes against Fred’s rotund belly, we head inside to join locals Stewart McNee, Colin Moulson and No Fuss Event’s Frazer Coupland — the man who brought the Scottish Enduro Series here in 2016.
Dunoon came from nowhere, exploding onto the scene six months ago as the place to ride. A mountain bike video, funded by local business consortium Dunoon Presents, hit the headlines with some cracking riding and glorious coastal views, then a stage of the Scottish Enduro Series here sealed the deal, cementing it in riders’ minds as a worthy destination for their next trip. And they are coming in ever increasing numbers.
“In the past, people have seen Dunoon as an awkward place to get to, at the end of some tortuous road, but it just isn’t,” Colin muses over his coffee. It is clearly a frustrating preconception they need to overcome, and we can testify it certainly isn’t a long journey: less than half an hour’s drive out of Glasgow centre and we were rolling our wheels onto the ferry, steaming right into Dunoon 20 minutes later — easy as pie.
In fact the ferry had already added some ruddy-faced adventure and a frisson of going-on-your-holidays excitement to the day.
Eventually, after a few coffees we get to the bottom of Dunoon’s popularity explosion and the driving force behind the trail network everyone is raving about. Unusually, it all seems to have started with one man: conception, design and hard graft.
Stewart nods in the direction of the window, to a rider chatting animatedly into his mobile on the other side.
“Here he is, the human JCB.”
A ripple of laughter goes round, but it is a nickname we are to hear more than once through the day, and one we soon learn is very appropriate.
Thomasz Chlipola enters the cafe, fresh from what could have been some tense negotiations with his wife and three-week-old daughter. He is ribbed by the others that he won’t be able to spend as much time on the hill with his new commitments. By the sounds of it, he certainly couldn’t spend any more.
Moving to Scotland from his native Poland 11 years ago, he picked up mountain biking relatively recently, but it was a visit to Glentress with Stewart, just four years ago, that started his mind working. He wanted similar trails on his own doorstep.
Apparently Thomasz isn’t a man to just dream or complain, because shortly after that trip to ‘tress he picked up his tools and started digging on the hill above Dunoon. He hand-dug trail after trail, alone, until others started to notice, and with Stewart and others pitching in, they built more.
“Thomasz is definitely by far the biggest builder though,” Stewart points out modestly. “In fact I think he likes building more than riding sometimes. He really is a human JCB.”
The results speak for themselves.
“It used to be just me and Thomasz up there,” Stewart continues, “but the weekend the video went live, there were 50 or 60 guys riding.”
Far from fearing this influx, the guys seem to relish it, delighted to share their spoils with anyone prepared to make the trip.
We mount up and head for Puck’s Glen, an area of natural, shared-use trails north of town. Although this isn’t their handiwork, the boys are clearly keen to show off the potential of the area.
A stiff climb up through mature forest gains us height frighteningly quickly, but my mind is diverted from the pain of burning lungs by the sight of huge trees sprouting from the ground all around, which give an increasingly light and airy, ‘Land that Time Forgot’ scale to the area. Little do I realise this is just the start.
Beginning a descent on a tight switchback, we drop steeply into what quickly becomes a steep-sided moss factory, complete with a tinkling stream to add to the fairytale charm. Chris leads the way, skilful enough to stop on each corner, hopping round before dropping into the next and repeating. Stabbing my wheel into a corner and wedging it hard, I curse — one day I must learn to do that…
It is almost dark at the bottom, so sheer are the sides, but somehow the Victorians managed to carve an incredible singletrack trail through the best of the glen. It was built in the 1870s by James Duncan — a sugar merchant, and in many ways a Victorian Thomasz — who wanted somewhere magical to show visitors to his estate. Unlikely he did much of the shovel graft himself, however.
We cross tiny wooden bridges, chatter down greasy steps and contour along benches of trail carved out of the rock. It is nothing short of incredible, every step of the way. After each corner there is a sharp intake of breath as the glen slowly reveals the full extent of its charms. On occasion it actually opens up enough to bring some speed and flow, but it never lasts long as a new facet to the view opens up, or the path tucks tightly around a jutting rock.
Time for Ts
When we regroup at the bottom, Stewart and Thomasz are grinning from ear to ear — we must have made all the right noises of appreciation. We can either stop in the cafe at the Benmore Gardens, or make for the main trails at Bishop’s Glen above the town — Thomasz’s trails. We quickly agree to make the most of the winter daylight and head for the trails. Coffee can wait. Well, for a while…
Inevitably there is a big climb out of town, but mercifully it is on easy graded fire road for much of it, winding through picturesque woodland at the bottom before bursting out into clear-felled hillside higher up. As the altitude ticks by to grunts and pooling lactic acid, we begin to notice trails leaving the side of the track. Thomasz begins to rhyme off names, the first being the original ‘Thomasz Trail’ or T1. As we continue the climb, the track passes T2, T3 and then on up to the higher trails of Burnside Upper and beyond.
My mental mapping begins to make sense of the layout as we go. The forest track is essentially a spine running across the middle of the trails, cutting across the contours of the hillside — some dropping in from above, some dropping away below — but always using this central track to recirculate back up for more.
“You can do them in any order you like,” Stewart breathes over his shoulder, “you don’t need to go to the bottom every time — we often ride four of the top tracks before descending off into the lower set.”
We climb up to a small rock cairn then regroup to take in the views over the Firth of Clyde. Ferries criss-cross the water, chugging between Dunoon and the mainland, threading between huge cargo ships heading up the Clyde. Off to the side, almost unnoticed, Thomasz points out the trail cutting out across the hillside — it is one of the original T series, T3.
I take off down it while the others continue their chat, and immediately find myself consumed by the combination of technical rocks and roots that, while they demand attention, allow a flow that just pushes the bike on to build speed. It may have been inspired by Glentress, but this ain’t no red route. None of it is.
“This man is a genius,” I think, charging over another crest of carefully choreographed root and rock combinations. It is hard to believe Thomasz came to this cold, with no trail building experience. A genius.
The rest of the lads catch me up as we pop back out onto the spinal track. We opt to climb again, this time heading for The Badd.
Apparently this trail isn’t named for its attitude, but for the hill it drops off — The Badd. With a name like that, what else could you call it? As it turns out, it is pretty Badd — with a capital B and a double D. A tricky muddy rut down the side of a steep glen, only negotiable by letting the bike slide and find its own way to the bottom. Hopefully with you still attached.
The rest of the day is spent climbing, descending, and enjoying more of the boys’ handiwork, finally dropping back to the seafront for a last call in The Rock. Dunoon might have been through some tough times, but with men like Thomasz, Stewart and Colin prepared to roll their sleeves up and take a shovel to the fight, things can only go one way for this bonny wee toon. And that’s up.