Take Care, Ride Slowly: The First Annual Dirtbag Cycles Rambler

I was leading the pack towards the tail end of the first annual Dirtbag Cycles Rambler on Vancouver Island. We were riding through the last singletrack section of the 90-ish km ride, and only I knew what was coming. After a quick 90-degree turn off the main trail, the forest opened up into a powerline clearing with about a half-kilometer descent. I heard behind me someone say “Oh shit, here we go!” and then all 15 of my fellow riders started hooting and hollering. I let go of the brakes and took off, reassured that the experience I’d been planning for the better part of a year had ended up being exactly what I hoped for.

Let’s back up a bit. In late 2021, I was getting ready for some good fall riding. I love riding in the fall. The air gets a bit frostier, things smell good, that amazing golden light adds an instant sepia-toned, 1970s vibe to everything. Fall is just a good time to be on a bike. I wasn’t able to ride much that year because of housing issues, so I settled for looking at photos and videos coming out of Connecticut – the Nutmeg Nor’Easter – and wishing that the 5,000 or so kilometers between us would just magically disappear so I could join in.

That made me think: why should the easterners have all the fun? Why couldn’t I do something like that out here on Vancouver Island?

I didn’t want to completely rip off the Nor’Easter, that’s got its own special cachet and is pretty sacred. What I wanted to do was bring a rad group of people together for a ride that was different from anything else offered in my neck of the woods. Vancouver Island has a pretty good bike scene. It’s about the size of Belgium, there are thousands of kilometers of gravel roads, a lot of amazing mountain biking, a new bikepacking collective and even some races. But what about people who want to ride bikes purely for pleasure and community? What about the people who want to take care, ride slowly, explore swimming holes, eat good food, take pictures, pick berries and mosey around?

I put out the call on Instagram and to a few of my shop buddies on the Island and started planning an event that would cater to that crowd, and maybe raise a few bucks to give back to the community. Fast forward 10 months or so, and I was standing in front of 15 strangers giving them the rundown about what to expect for the day.

The Route

For the route, I wanted to really showcase what makes the area special. Over the 55mi/89 kms, we had 2,332ft/711m of elevation gain, covering paved roads, gravel, single track, double track, loose baby head gravel, hike-a-bike, urban stuff and a small amount of highway riding. I’m fairly new to route building, and my tactic is to just go out and ride around, get lost a bit and then find my way home again. I tend to uncover some hidden gems that way. After doing that all winter (we get a few weeks of snow up here, at most), I figured out a way to chain a bunch of these destinations together and called it a route. I originally planned for double the amount of climbing to make it over 100km, but changed my mind. It was more important that the ride be accessible to anyone who wanted to come.

The Ride

The start to the ride was a long washboarded section. However, things got better after we got into the forest and hit some of the best unknown singletrack the Comox Valley has to offer. After that we climbed a nice paved road for a few kms before turning off and getting into some really chundery gravel. This was one of the best secret spots of the ride: at the top of the hill we went to the first swimming hole and took a break to cliff jump into the icy glacial runoff.

After drying off, we turned back down the hill and got some decent speed. We turned off the main commuter road and went back into the bush along a forestry service road to the next area: Merville.

Merville is a small farming/retirement community just north of Courtenay. People here know each other, they have each other’s backs and tend to not come into town unless they need groceries. The riding out there is superb, and despite the occasional giant truck rolling coal, most drivers are pretty chill. There are also so many swimming holes, photo stops and meadows in which to frolic that I absolutely had to include it on the route.

At the furthest point from the start/finish, we had a trail angel give us a water drop. Someone who lived in the area messaged me on Instagram the day before; they wanted to come on the ride, but had a prior commitment. So instead, they parked their car on the route with a five gallon bottle of water, patch kit, spare tubes and some snacks.

We drank the whole thing.

This is also where we stopped for lunch. Some people even took a nap. If a few dudes snoozing together at the edge of a creek with dappled light coming through the trees doesn’t scream “chill vibes” I don’t know what does.

As we were packing up to leave, one of the group reminded us that the taco place we were planning to stop at closed at 8 p.m. It was about 4:30 at this point, and we’d been riding for about 5.5 hours. That included a bunch of stops and hanging out along the way, but still, we had about 40km to go and people were still napping. I decided to drop the hammer a bit, as much as a hammer can be dropped on a no-drop ride. Having no scheduled stops until the taco place helped, but we had some ground to make up. I really wanted a burrito.

This next bit was pretty flat, which I was stoked for after a few hundred meters of climbing in the first part. We had a good cruising speed going, we went through some more bucolic farmland, past some horses, and into another section of singletrack. This was my favorite part of the ride, the forest was echoing with stoked whoops and hollers from the crew, The gravel was buttery smooth, having been flattened all summer by cyclists, horses and hikers.

From there, we cruised through Courtenay, along some municipal multi-use paths, and then up a few big-ass hills to cap things off. Rolling into Cumberland, I almost lost the group at the RibFest that was going on in a local park. I rallied everyone and we crushed the last few blocks to Bibliotaco, our finish line.

The Vibe

I had two goals with this event: the first was to start building a community of like-minded people who just wanted to have fun on their bikes, while still pushing themselves and having a big day out. I wanted to make something for the people who don’t race, “shred” or want to spend much money, but really love the camaraderie that surrounds riding bikes. I think it worked out. The 15 strangers I brought together at the beginning of the day weren’t strangers anymore by the end of the ride. We had some people who had never gone on a ride this long before, some who regularly smash out high mileage rides, some who had only mountain biked, and one who did the whole thing in Birkenstocks. People rode everything from 90s mountain bikes with clapped out forks, full-custom frames, carbon race bikes and my dumpster rescue from the 1980s.

I heard from them that they were interested specifically because I emphasized community, fun and the part about enjoying ourselves.

The second goal was to give back to the community. To that end, we held a poker rally. The buy-in for a hand of poker was $5. We’d stop five times, pick a card at each stop and then the best hand at the end of the ride won a prize. We also had a prize for best women’s hand (if that hand beat the best men’s hand, that winner would take two prizes home), and a consolation prize for the worst hand. We ended up raising $115, which was donated to Wildfire Relief in B.C.

As a little coda to the ride, a few of us rode the last five kms to the beach, had a few drinks and watched the sunset.

I’ve already started planning the next one!

Thanks to Fort Street Cycle in Victoria and the Van Island Bikepack Collective for donating some prizes. See you next year!