Surrounded by forests, lochs and beautiful Trossachs scenery, the villagers of Aberfoyle knew they had plenty to offer visitors – the trouble was encouraging them to come.
However, the community has now pulled together in an example of vision, unity and determination to put the village on the sporting and tourism map by tapping into one of the fastest growing cycle trends.
Next month, hundreds of gravel riders will descend on Aberfoyle to take part in the third Dukes Weekender, a weekend event involving a series of challenges spanning age groups and abilities that has been designed around the area’s off-road forest tracks, trails, paths and gravel roads.
Over two days on September 11 and 12, visitors will help fill the tills of local shops and businesses, confirming Aberfoyle’s growing reputation as a key destination for gravel riding.
The hope is it will elevate the village, once a popular holiday and day trip destination but which went into decline as visitor numbers plummeted, into a UK cycling hot spot.
Gravel riding has soared in popularity in recent years among cyclists who want to explore trails that are off the beaten track but don’t want the “white-knuckle” experience of mountain biking or the risks that come with cycling on busy roads.
In one of the few growth areas of cycling in the UK, riders seek out forest trails, gentle hill climbs, gravel roads and paths that guide them safely through beautiful scenery.
A crucial element, however, is finding locations that have a “remote” feel but are still relatively close to facilities so they can easily park, dine out and visit other attractions. Aberfoyle’s potential as a gravelriding destination was spotted by local residents Stu Thomson and Rob Friel.
Both cyclists, they realised the miles of safe, traffic-free forestry tracks and gravel roads on their doorstep made the village the perfect destination for the emerging gravel cycling trend.
The first Dukes Weekender in 2018 was one of the first gravel riding events in the UK and complemented a broader community effort to transform the village’s fortunes.
That has seen simple tasks such as litter picks and planting, along with the establishment of new, independent shops intended to meet demands from a new generation of visitors looking for bike outlets, artisan bakeries and outdoor sports specialists.
Mr Thomson said: “Aberfoyle found itself in a bit of a state a few years ago, there were so many empty commercial premises on the main street and it was looking sorry for itself.
“The community decided to do something about it, and the turnaround has been phenomenal. Right across the community people are doing different things to improve Aberfoyle and are taking pride in the area.
“The event was established with the aim of bringing people to the village and showcasing the gravel riding on offer in the area. It’s been incredible to see the resulting explosion of Aberfoyle as a cycling hub. Now people want to come and stay here – it’s become like a little resort.”
For generations Aberfoyle’s status as the “gateway to the Trossachs” was enough to encourage day trippers and holidaymakers to spend time in the village. However, as tastes changed, it fell from favour and became a shadow of the popular village it once was.
The cycling festival has already sparked plans by community group Bike Trossachs to launch Gravelfoyle, a planned series of interconnected waymarked routes taking in Loch Venachar, Loch Achray, Loch Katrine and as far as Loch Lomond. Agreement has been reached with Forestry and Land Scotland to develop trails within Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, giving cyclists access to spectacular Trossachs scenery using routes that start and finish in Aberfoyle and take in waterfalls, lochs and viaducts.
Phil Crowder, landlord of the Forth Inn in Aberfoyle, said: “Dukes Weekender, Gravelfoyle as it is known locally, utilises the great natural resource of the national park.
“It’s incredibly well received by local residents and businesses and has changed Aberfoyle’s future for the better, providing a significant boost to the local economy.”
Enda McLoughlin for Bike Trossachs, said: “With the growing success of Aberfoyle as a cycling destination and gravel riding in particular we want to harness the success and incredible offering this area offers cyclists and create a collective vision for the future of our home town.”