Sometimes the best way to learn a new skill is to just throw yourself in at the deep end and figure it out along the way and that’s exactly what I did last Saturday at the Dirty Reiver.
At the start of the year I compiled my list of goals for the year ahead, one of which was getting to grips with gravel. In order to help me achieve my goals I like a challenge to work towards so, way back in January, entering the Reiver seemed like just the ticket.
If you’re wondering what I’m on about, The Dirty Reiver is a 200km gravel ride that takes place in and around Kielder Forest, Northumberland. The route traverses a mixture of surfaces, including a little bit of tarmac and hard-packed trail, but it’s mainly comprised of the gravel tracks and fire access roads that criss-cross the huge forested area that spans the English and Scottish border. There’s also a shorter event, The Dirty 130, but I don’t generally do things by halves – if I can ride 130km of the stuff then I can ride 200 – so I got myself entered for the big one. With four whole months to train for it what could possibly go wrong?
I figured I’d need a bit of moral support for this one as I knew I’d probably be a bit out of my depth skills-wise. And anyway, these kinds of challenges are always much more fun when shared so I convinced a few of my workmates, who are all way more accomplished at riding off-road than me, to enter it too. Teamwork can be a great motivator and I’d be able to share my endurance knowledge with them while they helped my out with my technique.
So the four-month plan was to get myself sorted with a gravel bike and for ‘Team ReCycle’ to get out into the Peak together for plenty of pre-event practise but thanks to the great British weather things didn’t quite turn out the way I’d hoped. Despite having a lovely new Kinesis Tripster AT to play out on, courtesy of the lads at Tony Butterworth’s Cycles, I didn’t get out for any of those team practice rides we’d planned and by the end of March I was feeling thoroughly undertrained and underskilled. I knew that my road endurance training would see me through the distance without any problem even though riding 200km on-road is certainly way easier than the same distance off.
I finally managed to fit in my one and only off-road practise ride during the first week in April at Cannock Chase in a bid to shake down the bike set-up, but it was a wet and muddy day and l lost a bit of confidence on the downhill sections. Instead of letting the bike do the work for me and rolling over the loose ground I kept putting my foot down and, on a few occasions, had to get off altogether and push. It knew it was all in my head and that I needed to force myself to be a bit braver, go a little faster and trust the bike more but it was easier said than done.
Fast forward to Saturday morning – over 600 riders massed at the start line for a 7.30am kick-off. To say I was nervous would be a huge understatement, I was flipping terrified of being completely rubbish, holding the lads up and having to push my bike all the way around the course. My three teammates, Ed, Dave and Sam, just couldn’t get their heads around my anxiety. To them I’m accomplished endurance rider who pedals 1000’s of kilometres a year. They were all worried about completing the 200 km distance but that was the least of my worries – just staying upright was my main goal of the day.
We’d decided that we were going to ride as a team and try not to take it too seriously. The name of the game was to get around together and have fun. Although we’d all planned to ride the full distance, if we didn’t meet the 130km cut-off we weren’t going to beat ourselves up about it too much. We were pretty much the last to leave the start line – we were even given a two-minute warning to get going – but we were soon catching up with riders on the first climb. I was trying to hold back because I knew that they’d all come flying past me again on the way back down.
I found those first couple of rocky descents to be the most technically challenging of the whole ride. I had to put my foot down once or twice but I made sure that I kept over to the left so that the faster riders had plenty of room to come through. Thankfully I wasn’t the only dodgy descender, someone behind me got off and pushed and seeing that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t so out of my depth after all.
Despite being a chilly morning first-thing – our tents had ice on them when we woke up – after a couple of climbs we were all overheating and had to stop and peel a few layers off. The forecast had predicted a warm, sunny day so it was hard to dress appropriately and we’d all packed way too many clothes into our frame bags, alongside tubes of suncream. We were prepared for all eventualities!
After those first rocky descents the terrain became much more gravelly and easier for me to negotiate. The lads were all much faster at descending and I was worried about being left behind so I couldn’t stop to think about it too much. I just had to trust the bike and, sure enough, as I picked up speed my big tyres rolled over all the lumps and bumps. I started to realise that speed is my friend and let the bike go a bit more.
During the first 50km we were faffing about a bit, not really concentrating on the route much, soaking up the forest views while chatting away. So it wasn’t too surprising that we managed to get ourselves completely off-route for a kilometre or so. A marshal’s pick-up truck passed us travelling in the opposite direction and the driver asked us if we were happy with the way we were going. I replied with a cheery “yes, thanks!” and we carried on pedalling but a further 200 metres or so down the road I turned to Sam and said, “hang on a minute, that was a weird question to ask us if we’re going the right way. Do you think we might’ve gone wrong?”
My Garmin said that we were ‘off-course’ but we were still following the breadcrumb trail on the screen so I assumed it was just doing one of those temperamental things that Garmins do. I thought I’d better check again so I quickly u-turned, pedalled back to the pick-up and asked the marshal whether he’d asked us that because he thought we might be going the wrong way.
“Yes,” he replied, “There’s a loop on this part of the course and you’ve missed the turning!”.
I’m not sure why he didn’t just tell us we’d gone the wrong way in the first place, but we now had a bit of catching up to do in order to get back on the course, passing all the riders that we’d already passed at least once that morning.
Around 30 km I bumped into TCR buddy of mine, V, along the route. It was lovely to see her and we had a bit of a catch-up while pedalling along, both having a moan about how undertrained we were feeling. We were riding on wide, rolling fire roads and there weren’t many other riders around us so we could ride together side by side for while but the lads were already leaving me behind again so I had to press on. I was playing catch-up again, riding a little bit faster and growing ever more confident as I thought less about what I was doing in an effort to keep up and get back on their wheels.
It took us four hours to ride the first 50 km to the first feed station and I think we were all a bit surprised how long it had taken us, even with our little detour. We’d all pretty much decided that we were going to try to make the 130km cut-off in time to complete the full 200 which meant that we had to start pedalling a bit quicker so after a few snacks, a good old cup of tea and a refill of water bottles we were on our way again. The day was really hotting up so all the clothes were coming off and the suncream was going on. Out poor little frame bags were full to bursting.
Along the next section of the route we had to cross a ford. Dave rode through it first but fell off just before he got across to the other side. Sam and Ed didn’t really fare much better so I ended up bottling it completely and just paddling my way through. I figured it would be better to just have two wet feet rather than a whole wet body!
There were quite a few tarmacked sections during the next 50 km as the route left the forest and headed out over moorland bridleways and country lanes so we made really good time, arriving at the second feed station by 1.30pm. At this pace we knew we’d easily make it to the 130km marker before the cut-off time of 5.30pm so we could afford to spend a little more time here. I hung out in the shade inside the Alpkit teepee wringing out my soggy socks while stuffing my face with sandwiches and little pots of chilli and rice.
The section between between feed stops two and three took us back into the forest and was actually part of NCN Route 10, the Reivers Cycle Route. If I’d accidentally stumbled across this route on my road bike I certainly wouldn’t have thanked the NCN route planners much as it was really rough gravel and quite hard-going even with 40c tyres. We criss-crossed over the border into Scotland and back a couple of times and the tall trees provided us with a bit of much-needed shade from the hot afternoon sun.
My Fizik Luna X5 saddle is actually an MTB saddle and it really came into its own on this section of the course. I could feel it flexing underneath me as I bounced around on the uneven surface. I’m so used to grinding out long hours in the saddle on the road that I’d not really thought through how much more dynamic the upper body is when riding on rough surfaces. My whole body was feeling much more fatigued than it would usually feel at this distance.
By now the temperature had risen over 20 degrees and the heat was taking its toll on me. I was struggling a bit and could feel a headache coming on, a tell-tale sign of dehydration. It was a shortsighted move on my part to only bring one water bottle on the ride but usually at this time of year I’d be just fine on a long ride with one bottle with the chance to refill it every 50km. By 120km I had almost drunk the contents of my bottle and still had another 30 km to the final feed station. Thankfully Dave had some spare water that he shared with me to keep me going.
Our hot, bouncy, water-rationed afternoon was given a much-needed morale booster courtesy of the awesome Bananaman. His cheering, cowbell-ringing, high-fiving, all-round encouragement really lifted our spirits and pushed us on to feed stop number three and my favourite of the day. Alongside the usual crisps, sweets and flapjacks, Pannier.cc were providing cheesy potatoes and freshly aeropressed coffee. I wanted to stay there forever and helped myself to two rounds of potatoes and three cups of strong coffee.
By the time we were back on the trail we were all sufficiently wired on coffee to push on for the final 55km. Mentally, I found the 20kms after the final feed station the hardest of the whole ride. This section was really undulating with climbs that just kept on coming. We were right in the heart of the dense forest so there was nothing to look at but gravel and tall conifers as we climbed and descended to find more yet gravel and more trees around every bend.
In hindsight I think I had way too much air in my tyres but I was too worried about puncturing to stop and deflate them a little. The gravelly surface had become quite corrugated in places and my forearms were throbbing as I tried to pull on the brakes while descending, so just stopped braking, which actually made everything feel better. By 150km I was descending much faster and feeling much more confident. Most of the descents on the fire roads had wide, long run-outs so I had enough time to slow down before making a turn and It felt like I was finally getting to grips with this gravel stuff.
Just as I was reaching maximum gravel / conifer saturation point, the view opened up and Kielder Water appeared in front of us. The sun was starting to go down and the light over the reservoir was just breathtaking. It was all that we needed to give us that lift in spirits for final push to the finish. There were so many beautiful photo opportunities as we wound our way around the water’s edge but I had to resist the urge to keep stopping.
We descended onto the waterside trail which was full of ups and downs, twists and turns, that kept us on our toes and our speed in check. We’d keep seeing the odd tyre tracks skidding out into the trees on the bends where riders before us had been travelling too fast and lost it. We emerged from the trees and crossed the dam wall, pausing for a moment to capture the evening light across the water before heading back into the trees again and around the other side of the reservoir.
A few kilometres from the finish we found ourselves back on that stretch of road that we’d already ridden once, so much earlier in the day, before the marshall had turned us around. A little stretch of tarmac was a welcome relief to my poor, throbbing forearms but before long we were back on the gravel again, this time heading in the right direction, and back into the forest for the final time.
We emerged from the trees, rounded a bend and suddenly realised we were pedalling back up the short climb to Kielder castle, trying hard to sprint up on heavy, tired legs but not really succeeding as there was nothing left in them. We were greeted by cheers, cowbells and a very welcome bottle of beer, crossing the line just after 8.30pm with an official time of 12 hours and 52 minutes. I was just glad we’d make it back before dark!
I was super-happy with myself for keeping up with the lads, overcoming my fear of descending, staying upright for 200km and actually riding all of the course rather than pushing my bike around it as I initially feared I might have to.
Would I have done anything differently? Well, yes – I should’ve taken two water bottles as you can’t just nip to a shop to fill one up when you’re in the middle of a forest. I should’ve run my tyres at lower pressures to save my throbbing arms and I shouldn’t have taken the distance for granted because 200 km on gravel takes its toll on your whole body way more than the same distance on tarmac.
Having three teammates to keep up with and chase after really gave me a focus and prevented me from over-thinking the descents. I just had to trust in my bike and let it roll – just letting it go made all the difference and my confidence grew with every kilometre. I couldn’t have asked for a better day, a better bike or better company. It is such a well-organised and friendly event and worth every penny of the entry fee.
So If you’re thinking of having a go at a gravel event, or something similar that’s out of your comfort zone, then entering a crazy, long event is certainly one way to do it. You might not have a clue what you’re doing at the start but after 200km, if you’re still standing at the end, then you’ve probably nailed it.