Had a 200km event consisting predominantly of gravel Forrest tracks been suggested a few years back many people would have laughed. I mean who would want to ride around gravel tracks on a mountain bike for 200km? The answer: not many!
Yet here were are lined up at 7am at the start line of the Dirty Reiver a 200km gravel race or ‘non-competitive challenge’ in the eyes of the law and relevant insurance companies due to the Uk’s restricting land access policies. Not only are more than 200 people lining up for this non-competitive challenge race, the vast majority of them are lined up on wholly inappropriate bikes!
How the cycling world has changed in the past few years. Gravel riding is now very much on trend and a whole new genre of bike has developed specifically to tackle such terrain. Who even needs Mtb tyres and suspension when you can ride a specially designed fully rigid gravel bike? I mean they even design special gravel tyres that roll fast and don’t grip so well on the corners for that adrenaline inducing mid corner drift!
My cynicism towards gravel bikes is in actual fact just jealousy. My much anticipated Mason ‘Adventure Sport’ Bike is yet to arrive and so I find my self-lined up on my trusty Mason Definition Road bike once more. I’ve managed to squeeze some 35mm Schwalbe G-One tyre on to my AeroLight disc wheels and have fitted a compact chainset to help with the hills.
The temperature was struggling to make it about zero as we began the event. My meticulous clothing selection was abandoned after a night sleeping in my van in -2 degrees with snow falling. Tight fitting Windproof Gore clothing was supplemented with the very thickest of winter training jackets in an attempt to keep warm as I stumbled around at 5:30am eating cereal out of the box due to a forgetting to pack a suitable bowl.
Much to everyone’s relief the sun was at least shining when we started and as we non competitively sprinted up the first climb of the day feeling began to return to numb extremities. After the first few miles I found myself riding alone just dangling off the back of the 2 lead riders. I wasn’t climbing as fast as them and was reluctant to dig too deep too early so settled into my own rhythm. After around an hour of riding I was caught by Rich Rothwell. I’ve ridden with Rich for years so was happy to enjoy a bit of company and share turns riding in the wind.
At the first check point we spotted George and Joe, the early pace setters, up ahead on the expansive Northumberland landscape. Although we could see them dangling tantalisingly close ahead we could not close the gap and our attention was soon diverted by an extremely rough downhill section. Although this would have been nothing on a Mountain Bike the skinny tyres and lack of suspension made this section quite tricky. When riding a gravel bike, particularly on inappropriate terrain, one of the key skills is to keep the bike in one piece whilst trying to conserve energy. I imagine this skill set might also be quite useful when riding a bucking bronco and as we rattled to the bottom of the hill and back onto tarmac we both breathed a sigh of relief and compared notes on the state of our bikes and aches in our hands. I must say the Mason coped admiralty with the rough terrain and my super light Aerolight disc wheels remained round and true, result!
Rich and I entered the 100km checkpoint together happy to top up on food and water. I had been feeling a little flat for the past half hour so was in need of an energy top up. Unfortunately it was at this point that I realised that most of my Torq Energy gels had rattled out of my jersey pocket on the super rough descent. Luckily the check point was extremely well stocked with food so I took the opportunity to slip a couple of chocolate Brioches into my pocket and stuff my face with as many Jaffa cakes as I could.
As a local rider Rich knew the area well and took great pleasure in informing me when there was a particularly nasty climb approaching. The climb out of the halfway check point was the focus of much of Rich’s local knowledge. He took a great deal of pleasure in informing me that the climb dragged all the way to the top of the valley we had entered and that we couldn’t see the top yet. Fantastic news especially given the relentless gradient, particularly rough surface and of course the inappropriate bikes. Even better was the fact that my chain had begun to jump off of the small chain ring when in the top half of my cassette meaning that I had no choice but to push a hard gear to keep forward momentum. All conversation stopped apart from the odd comment on how particularly grim the climb was.
Upon finally reaching the top and after dropping my chain another few times I decided to stop and see what the problem was. The issue it seems can be wholly blamed on the extremely rough rocky descent previously mentioned. It appeared that I had lost a chain ring bolt which was causing a kink in my chain ring so I cursed that rocky descent for undermining my inadequate mechanic skills. After checking all the other chain ring bolts were tight I set about trying to catch Rich who had continued riding onwards.
By this time the face full of Jaffa Cakes at the checkpoint had been converted into energy and my legs were feeling pretty fresh given the distance covered. Now as this event is ‘not a race’ it would have been particularly unfair to catch up with Rich and then try and drop him. However given the circumstances and my inability to use my easiest gears I was forced to pedal extremely hard up the following hills as we approached the start of the final 50km of the course. Due to my forced hard uphill pedalling I managed to create a gap to Rich and as we entered a fast road section. I decided it would be best to be a gentleman and sit up and wait so we could ride together. I then changed my mind a split second later and put my head down and pedalled as hard as I could!
The gap back to Rich dangled around 30 seconds for what seemed like an eternity and eventually the elastic snapped. I pushed hard over the last long climb of the day and whilst preoccupied with Rich chasing behind I stumbled across Joe fixing a rear wheel puncture in the middle of the track. I pondered the irony of Joe puncturing his Mtb in a Gravel event and then smiled to myself as realised that had this actually been a race and we had actually been racing I would now be in second position.
My second position lasted for a few miles before a particularly nasty section of track. The wet slippery and rough sandstone climb was particularly uncomfortable and not helped by a lack of easy gears. Keeping any sort of momentum was particularly hard and I could only watch as Joe breezed past me easily on his Mtb.
Cresting the final long climb we entered the final part of the course, a long fast descent off the hill followed by a lap of Kielder water. By this time the sun had disappeared and been replaced by a passing hail storm. I kept glimpsing Joe in the distance so pushed hard on the pedals trying to close the gap. The final few miles flew by and despite a brief ride through a full on blizzard and a few more dropped chains the finish line came into view. I wasn’t able to close the gap to Joe despite my best efforts and finished just under 2 minutes behind, frustratingly close after the over 8 hours in the saddle. The fastest time was set by a flying George Budd, just over 10minutes ahead and Rich finished just over 5 minutes behind.
Overall the event was fantastic. Who knew racing, erm I mean riding, inappropriate bikes around the gravel tracks of Northumberland could be so much fun. The event team run by Paul Errington did a fantastic job, the course marking was excellent, the check points well stocked with food and the numerous marshals happy and enthusiastic. The weekend was thoroughly enjoyable however I think that my road bike now hates me!