At last year’s Dirty Reiver I vowed never again, but as ever, with type 2 fun here I was heading south for another go at riding 200 kilometers on rough gravel tracks through wild forests and moorland!
As many endurance riders will know it’s a struggle to pinpoint why events like the Dirty Reiver are so addictive despite the pain involved. There are few events on the calendar in any discipline that offer such a brutal genuine challenge just to finish let alone ‘race’ it.
On the Friday I rolled into the stunning forested hills of Kielder in Northumberland and remembered this area is so remote that there’s zero phone reception, so meeting up with others would be a challenge! The sign for high speed broadband was surely ironic from BT. I was staying with the Upgrade bikes team at the Calvert trust outdoor centre and chalets in Kielder, a charity who do a lot to help disabled kids and adults get themselves into the great outdoors on water, dirt or up rock.
After a warm up ride on Friday afternoon, I helped Andy from Focal Events with the food drop bags at registration. It was an interesting insight into what people think they need after 100km of gravel riding. The food varied from personal preference on branded energy gels to brave souls packing onion bajhis and even a tub of yoghurt for one competitor. One guy looked like he was smuggling drugs over the border with his 2 kilos of neatly wrapped bars in tinfoil. After checking out the shiny kit on display from Lezyne (I love my new pumps from them – watch for a review soon), Salsa, Bombtrack bikes and loads more, it was time to get some food and sleep for the big day.
Saturday morning broke clear and calm but chilly with reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the beautiful Kielder Reservoir. It was also perfect conditions to question just how much clothing was needed.
At the start line everyone looked super pumped and keen with a smattering of nerves. Rory Hitchens from Upgrade Bikes gave a short but inspirational tribute to Mike Hall. Someone who must have been on so many riders minds when the going got tough during the day.
The start was not manic like some events as we rolled towards the opening check point in the forest. The pace quickly stepped up and things got rapid, the leading group sped off at a good speed now on relatively rough gravel, but heads down they missed a turning as we entered the forest. Like lemmings we all just followed. The sign had twisted slightly but the tape was there and the rest of the field behind had seen it!
Last year I went out too cautious and slow, so with that in mind I kept a fast pace. I was pretty much on my own the whole way to the first feed stop at 55km in. I still felt OK at this distance and quickly grabbed food and drink, I also realised I was down to just one water bottle. I had to be careful not to lose this one too! Ironically I had swapped a plastic Lezyne bottle cage to a more trusted wire cage for the race and the wire cage was the one that lost the bottle!
From the feed stop you head back on yourself through a village before re-entering the forest after a short road section. Here you get an idea of the rest of the field’s positions as they come towards you, I saw a couple of big groups were close behind. The next climb was where I felt my early exertions might have been a bit excessive…… I slowed a little and was soon caught by a fast group on an odd selection of bikes; A gravel bike with tri bars, a full suspension bike, a couple of hardtails and one with a lefty fork. I think this is where part of the beauty lies for the Dirty Reiver, there’s no one best approach to the bike nor kit.
The next 30km to the second food stop at 95km in, I tried to hang on to the group but lost them down a long rocky rough farm track through fields of sheep, a welcome contrast to the mostly forest tracks along the route. I was now firmly in recovery mode and busy refueling and stretching out cramp. I drank my bottle of water and ate well. I knew the climb after the feed stop was tough so a caffeine gel was needed. The campfire in the Tippee here was not as tempting as last year when there was snow in the air!
After the never ending rough climb to the Scottish border at about 110kms I kept eating and spinning and took it steady. Last year this is where I blew up, but impressively I had already blown up 20kms earlier in 2017! I think everyone blows up somewhere on the Dirty Reiver it is just a question of how you respond.
I just about kept on the back of another group for the next section, literally finger nails hanging on, thinking don’t lose sight of them or I’ll lose all motivation! Then with 40km to go I was finally feeling fresh again, the Pannier.cc and Lyon outdoors sponsored food stop was at 160km and was the best of the day. The well chosen and seasoned cheese and potatoes were popular discussion points at the finish, the top notch coffee also going down well for those with time and the stomach to enjoy it!
I genuinely enjoyed the final 40km, the last big climb seemed to be hell for most but my cramping in the middle section was long gone. I was charging the downhills and then drifting the smooth scenic lakeside trail like I was on the MTB.
Finally after completing a loop of the reservoir, the last road section into a headwind was over and the blast back into the forest and onto the finish at Kielder castle. A great reception at the finish. I don’t carry any electronics so I had ridden totally blind, no idea of time or pace. Paul Errington passed my print out and I had made it in 8hrs 16mins exactly, smashing last year’s time and well below my 8hrs30min target. I was stoked to also be 12th back out of about 800 riders. Paul then pointed out that if this was next month’s Jeraboam race in Italy I’d have another 100km to go….I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it!
The weather was perfect; calm, dry and the sun had been out all day. A Fentimans ginger beer and a free bowl of soup went down like a dream. Time to relax and chat about the race. Tim Wiggins from Wiggle who was staying with us had smashed out an awesome 7.51 time, but the first back was a Danish rider few knew much about, but looking at him no one doubted he was fast. Lying in the sun drinking another Fentimans and hearing voices from Belgians, Americans and others, all sharing a love of challenging riding on bikes. If you didn’t ride this year get your name down for 2018 there’s nothing quite like it.
I had made up 50mins from last year and I put some of that down to absolutely nailing my setup for this year’s event.
The Tripster ATR V2 was perfect, once you ride Titanium on a route like this you won’t go back to anything else. With the clever frame design, especially around the rear stays all adding to the comfort and spot on geometry, I had ridden a rigid bike but impressively I honestly had no upper body fatigue. Double bar tape for the win too, never fails to impress me, simple and cheap solution to damping the vibrations.
Wheels were the Kinesis CX light HD the HD meaning brass nipples and heavy duty – spot on for the Reiver and no issues here.
Tyres, Tyres, Tyres; there were big discussion points beforehand and lots of people had read my blog on tyres. The winning tyre size seemed to be 700x40mm with Panaracer Gravel Kings and the Vee Tire Rails proving a big hit, no one running them punctured at all and everyone I spoke to agreed we hadn’t held anything back! I saw a Tripster running Maxxis Ramblers and would love to hear how they coped in the race?
Everyone with tubes seemed to have punctured, even a few running lighter tubeless set-ups had ripped sidewalls, the Schwalbe G-Ones in particular had been proving a little under rubbered for the race. One particular rough section 30km from the end caught quite a lot out.
The Praxxis Alba and 1×11 Sram Force with 40 front and 10-42 rear cassette was spot on for gearing while the upgrade to hydraulic disc brakes certainly gained me some time over last year.
The Dirty Reiver is becoming a classic, the feedback was universally positive, everyone said they’re coming back next year remarkably quickly after finishing. The atmosphere, the free beers, the quirky bikes and endless eye candy of shiny but unusual kit keeps people talking and creating a buzz. I was just quick enough to earn a custom Ortleib Dirty Reiver bag too which completed my day perfectly.
Roll on 2018 and here’s to seeing who will win the coveted prize of best food stop sponsor after Alpkit in 2016 and Pannier.cc 2017, who’s next? Here’s a tip for a sure-fire winner; pancakes and waffles with bacon in 2018.
Don’t you just hate it when someone else turns up with the same matching, bespoke orange and brown camo Ortleib man bag….