By James Morris (Link to the crazy Strava ride)
Not just a road going club, some of our members enjoy getting extra dirty…
Billed as the UK’s foremost gravel race, the Dirty Reiver is designed to be along the same lines as a proper American gravel grinder. It wriggles through Kielder National Park and along the Scottish Border, taking in the delights of the Reiver Trail and Kielder Water. It promised beautiful scenery, 200km of gravel and forestry trail, nearly 4000m of climbing and a fun day out. I set out knowing that if I couldn’t hack it, there was an option to end the punishment at 130km, and punishment it certainly was. My bike for the event was a Mason Bokeh, running Hunt wheels (a popular choice) and 43mm tubeless Panaracer Gravelking SK (also popular). The suggestion was to run tubeless, and that proved to be sound advice.
I set out from Kielder Castle at 7:30am, after copious safety messages asking you to check you had your survival blanket and comprehensive first aid kit, and a reminder that this is “not a race”. It started with an untimed 1km stretch of road to take you to the entrance of the forest, and then it started; if you weren’t sure what you’d let yourself in for, you had a rude awakening. The first 20km consisted of relatively hard packed gravel and about 10-15 punchy climbs followed by descents. At this point you are surrounded by about 1000 other riders, so you can all share in the pain together. From that point, it was fairly smooth going for 30km, with a few longer 3km climbs, but not much else. A quick stop at the well stocked feed station at 50km was all that was needed.
The stop served to split up any groups, and suddenly you find yourself riding on your own, growing increasingly aware that you probably over-cooked it on the first section. The temperature rose, the terrain turned very rough and lumpy and the hills just kept on coming. About 80km in the road surface decided to turn to rocks and downhill. What felt like an eternity of terrifying descending later, I reached the bottom and passed through a cheekily placed banner from sponsor Lauf, who make suspension forks for gravel bikes. I was dying and deeply unhappy by this point, totally at the end of my energy and begging for it to all stop. I told myself that at the 100km feed stop, I could have a big long well deserved rest, and I didn’t need to worry about time because I could bail at 130km. I scraped myself there and collapsed for 45 minutes, eating everything from my drop bag that had been transported there.
I left the 2nd stop and it turned into the first really big climb, a descent where I was nearly vibrated off the bars and finally a 10km long drag over rubble and rocks where 3-5kph felt optimistic. Before long, I reached the 130km turning, and I’d already decided I just wasn’t having fun anymore, it was a ridiculous joke and it was time to stop. But it was only 1:30. And there was a man in a chicken costume ringing a bell. I listened to the chicken man and decided to continue. I regretted the decision almost immediately as a 15km unshaded climb in the midday heat suddenly appeared. As I was climbing I could see my tent in the distance, taunting me. I reached the final feed station at 150km, where the nice people were cooking cheesy potatoes on an open fire stove. That, combined with the obscene amount of flapjack and haribo on offer, lifted my spirits sufficiently.
I left the final stop and straight onto the final awful climb. People were walking, but I knew if I walked, I wouldn’t get back on. At the top, you are greeted with an amazing view of Kielder Water, with accompanying breeze and the most beautifully smooth fine point gravel. 25km to go and all you have to do is ride on this lovely surface round this lake. Lakes are flat, so the trail will also be flat. The trail was not flat. With 10km to go, my left leg stopped wanting to be a leg and cramped up so badly I had to lie down for a few minutes. Worried that it would prove terminal, I decided to nurse it home quite gently. 10km has never seemed very far in the past, but there was a glorious, albeit brief, section along a real piece of road, which definitely helped. A short sharp climb back to the castle and I was greeted with a “well done for taking part” medal and a beer, because what could be bad about rehydrating with beer.
All in all a truly horrific, brutal and punishing day of riding. My mood moved from despair on the climbs, to denial on the descents, to more despair on the bits that were meant to be flat. The surface went from passable to downright terrifying. The views were amazing (probably) and the weather was perfect (too hot).
Would I do it again?
Not a chance.
I could probably do it faster next time.
It can’t have been that bad?
If you are contemplating doing it next year, don’t. Only do.