Today I rode the Dirty Reiver the UK’s first ever gravel “ride” and at 200km long on rough gravel it’s a pretty impressive challenge just to finish. As it sounds it was basically a race for 200km on gravel roads that varied from smooth as tarmac to rough as a MTB track. It passed through some beautiful parts of Northumberland. For the first ever running of this event it was amazingly well put together, superbly organised and great support from the sponsors involved. The always welcome free stuff included a well stocked and fun goody bag, T-Shirt, Fentimans and soup + beer at the end. Without fail the marshals on course were friendly and really got into the spirit of it, despite the weather. Talking of the weather it was classic April in the north: sunshine, clouds, hail, snow – all coming and going faster than you could work out what was happening. At the end of the route I totally got the concept of gravel racing, but I was maybe a bit unsure how this event exactly compares to US gravel grinders, as I’ll explain later.
The race started painfully early (a theme that would continue) and the huddled flock of VW vans in the car park demonstrated what the smart people were doing. I was sleeping in my estate car but a friend next door was struggling to stretch beyond the foetal position in a Yaris. When alarm clocks went at 6am it was mid-winter again – snowing and below freezing. Cold porridge never tastes good and this morning was no exception, but it was well needed.
Slowly a random and eclectic selection of bikes headed up the hill to the Kielder castle. Bikes ranged from steel bikepacking rigs with Salsa Woodchipper bars to full suspension mountain bikes. Tyres varied from road style skinny like mine to the wider mountain bike tyres, it was the kind of event that brings out the best in cycling with all its eccentricities that have maybe been lost with the more mainstream Road, XC or Enduro events.
After foolishly misunderstanding the start direction I began towards the back of the field, but with a neutral zone before the first timer dib in, it wasn’t the end of the world. Although everyone mid pack was taking it pretty easy to start with so it was a struggle to get past on the first descents. I started leapfrogging a guy on a full suspension bike who was going at some speed compared to the CX bikes. This gives an idea of how rough the course was in places!
I started to understand that Gravel racing is about good tactics like cheeky drafting on the flatter sections while blasting the descents on loose corners at speed and overtaking when you see the chance. However the roughness restricted this a bit sitting on a wheel resulted in a pot hole slam, but with plenty of fun climbs and fast descents it meant I got to the first 60km feed station quite quickly and was enjoying myself.
The next section, after a road spin, I got a bit fed up with – I hadn’t eaten enough and my lack of training on long road rides was proving very evident with my burning quads. I thought my countless MTB miles would have been good enough but they didn’t seem to be paying off on what was a roadie ‘sitting down and spinning’ style of riding. I should have taken more energy bars to easily eat rather than savoury stuff that was hard to digest quickly, it’s always a balance.
This middle section also highlighted where the course contrasted a bit to be true to gravel racing: it was rough enough that on long sections my XC race hardtail would’ve been substantially faster than on my Tripster ATR – a perfect gravel bike. It was essentially MTB’ing without the singletrack. With anything less than 40mm tyres it was brutal and far from fun. It was just impossible to maintain much speed and that means you lose the fast gravel racing buzz that the US events do so well. While the short rougher sections in short bursts added to the variety and interest the long slow rough slog at about 100km was soul destroying!
The climb after the second food stop was the low point for me with my vision blurring a bit due to low sugar and probably the constant vibrations! I made an effort to eat everything I could and at the 130km stage my enforced feeding was paying off and the final third felt much better. THe course was now really good fun too with just one wet rocky MTB section.
The smooth swooping gravel/dirt loop around the reservoir was fantastic fun as was crossing the dam and ensured I finished on a positive vibe, even if the final 10km was incredibly tough work after 190km of relentless riding.
The feed stations had a great selection of stuff and were well spaced so highly commended, the Alpkit fire pit and Teepee especially cool, although the Vanilla flavour energy drink is something I hope to never experience again….(I nearly did)
I finished in just over 9 hours and I think in 16th out of the 460 riders entered. I would be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed not to be closer to the top, but it was a learning curve and certainly I would approach it differently next year. I just wish there were enough of those fast smooth gravel sections to make a full race and then I would be hooked.
Well done to all the other finishers – it really was a tough day on the bike to get all the way around the full course.
Reflection on kit
My Kinesis Tripster ATR performed fine with no mechanical issues bar a dropped chain and unlike others I had no real aches in my arms despite the 31mm tyres on the front! The bike really does soak up the rough stuff well but there are limits to what a rigid bike can do and this was starting to push them. Part of me could be tempted to use my XC hardtail, as evidenced by many who finished above me using XC bikes with semi-slick tyres. However if I’m back next year then I would probably stick with the Tripster as that’s more in keeping with the ethos of the event but put on some 42/45mm tyres and run them tubeless at 45psi, not the fatigue inducing 75psi I used which destroyed any strenght in my legs. In hindsight something beefier like the WTB Nano would be great or even the widest Panaracer Gravel King SK.
Tyre choice was a bit forced on me due to most tyres on my blog list selling out in the popular online shops soon after publishing my article (I’d like to take responsibility but probably not a direct correlation). I also put my hands up and accept that many of my skinnier choices on the blog were far from ideal on the rougher than anticipated actual route.
I ran a 31mm Vittoria XN Pro 31 tyre. This was actually a great tyre, plenty grippy enough, light and very fast but simply too small for this event and led to a lot of fatigue. On the back I ran a 37mm travel contact which while wider was still too narrow and it’s a harsh tyre that really was the main reason for why I struggled (well except for the lack of fitness!). Next year I would go for a MTB style semi slick in as wide as the Tripster allowed.
The triple chainset was perfect for me and the luxury of a granny ring after so long on 1x set-ups was reassuring.
I used the Apidura Top tube bags and food sack which carried all I needed for the race meaning no back pack and that is always the best way for long events like this. Remember bottle cages are your friend rather than a hydration pack!
I wore 3/4 length shorts and gilet from Morvelo which were as comfy as ever and I always rely on them for long days on the bike.
Will I enter next year? I can’t decide so soon after, but the atmosphere and friendliness was great.