Last weekend was entertaining – and representative of how the year’s likely to go for a while, switching from running back to the dark side, and re-attempting the The Dirty Reiver 200km gravel bike event, after getting timed out onto the 130km course a couple of years ago.
My best adventure buddy Tim wanted to give it another shot, so we headed back up to the flat, smooth trails of Kielder forest (two parts of that are a lie).
nb. I strongly recommend doing more than 5 training rides before doing an event like this! The level of most of the people taking part in the event is somewhere between impressive and scary – our main aim was to complete, not to be competitive! Imagine an event with about 1000 honed people (across the 65km, 130km and 200km distances – with about 3500m ascent) with nicer gear than you looking worryingly fit? You get the idea. It would be interesting to do an event like this with the proper long term training – but also, training for the Reiver tends to be over the winter, which takes a level of bloody mindedness to achieve.
Kielder Forest took a beating in the recent storms (check out this article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-tyne-59509432) , so the route was a little different to the previous time that we did it – seeing 100-200+ metre sections of forest all over the place where all the trees (and their roots) were all on their side like match sticks was fairly sobering. The route basically runs up and down the hills on a range of different gravel types, from ‘my hands are about to break’ through to slightly more sensible surfaces – there’s not really any section of the route that is flat. Various time cutoffs had to be made to avoid being routed back onto the shorter course, with multiple food / mechanical support points.
Regarding mechanical issues – I’ve never seen so many people fixing their bikes as on this one – generally punctures, although I also saw a guy walking carrying one of his cranks…. There was over 80+ people I saw during the event having to fix or replace their tyres or inner tubes.
After the mass start, Timothy and I got slightly separated due to the traffic – given the various check points, we’d have opportunities to catch up. The first half of the race felt suspiciously ok – my back was sore but eased in, and having a reminder set to eat regularly made a big difference to performance – that and varying food. Given the length of the event, it feels like you never stop eating. I generally rely on gels fairly heavily (SIS for volume, Torq when needing something more interesting), mainly due to ease and habit from running where i have to be more cautious. For this one given it was going to be a long day, I had everything from sandwiches, potato salad, crisps, cake, you name it. Tim has historically been between horrified, amused and embarrassed about how much food I put in drop bags – but I ate most of it during this one!
We had to hit a time cutoff just after the second check point, about 5.5 hours (98km) in – I’d gotten ahead a reasonable amount so stocked up on food, grabbed my drop bag checked of and re-lubed the bike (ceramic chain lube helps avoid chafing, right?). There was already a range of people looking like zombies, which was pretty much the state I was in last time – this time around, I was in a much better state, worn but up for carrying on. Those doing the 130km either looked more relaxed and in party mode, or still fairly creased!
It was good to see Tim roll into the check point – it gave us a chance to make sure we were both ok, and then choose the 200km course. Shortly after this, a long slog up a hill was followed by about 1.5 hours of swearing riding up a hill into a headwind to make another time cutoff. After this, it was a case of gritting teeth and getting on with things (give or take stopping and staring in the middle distance with a sandwich a few kilometres after the last time cutoff that needed hitting) – I was generally going a bit faster than Tim (more of a chance to train!), but we saw each other at the final checkpoint.
A few minutes at the Red Bull party wagon, a general chat with other riders about how grim the wind had been, then it was onto the final 50km of the course – hills, energy being sapped, getting dark, chafing and aching muscles making themselves known – and generally waiting to get to the final 20km along the side of Kielder Water which we’ve raced on before.Incidentally – it’s maybe a comment on the state I was in (I’ve never ridden that far before!) – but in the last 20km, I hallucinated the course guides being spectators or other riders, rabbits bouncing along with me, at one point a giant beaver floating along like a balloon – things got a little weird.
Finally, Kielder Castle was in front of me, and I rolled in after 13 hours, cold but pleased to have finished (and welcoming the curry that was on offer!). I reckon I could probably have shaved about 45 minutes off it, but that wasn’t the point – the aim was to finish. Tim finished a little while after when I was starting to get a little concerned – with a valiant finish as last man standing!
Would I recommend the event? Yes, with caveats. Kielder is a beautiful place, and gravel biking combines many types of riding in one. Get your setup right, you’ll have fun – the atmosphere and organisation is great, and you end up talking to a lot of the other riders through the day – there’s strong similarities to ultra running on that front. 200km in a forest can get monotonous – and the hills never end. Part of the point of the event though is having the mindset to carry on going – and I know that I’m generally a little bit mentally beaten up after events like these, and keeping myself going
.Overall – Tim and I achieved what we’d intended, getting around the course – it’s great to be out with friends, and there’s a level of satisfaction in completing challenges like these – this is one of the hardest that I’ve done. Some was type 1 fun – some was definitely type 3.
Time now to eat, sleep, and recover (before trying a Backyard Ultra in 3 weeks time with the wrong conditioning…..).And – well done if you made it this far into the write up
It’s obligatory when doing the Reiver to obsess about wheels and tyres – my choices boiled down to what survived last time, so I switched from my 700c tubeless setup to my 650bs with MSI Xplor 42mm tyres, running at around 35 PSI at the front and 40 PSI at the back. It wasn’t quite as planted as I’d like but was ok, no punctures, and rolled relatively fast. Given the bike was stripped down and cleaned before the event, it was a mess after!