In the last few weeks I’ve finally gotten a Salsa Warbird of my own built up thanks to Bryan at Raleigh, so I can stop stealing Annie’s Warbird and making her cross.
It’s been a busy few weeks for the new arrival too, with a bobbly-gravelly-soggy backroad tour of the Outer Hebrides and the far north of Scotland a couple of weeks ago, followed by the best chance you’re going to get to ride a ‘proper’ US-style gravel event in the UK: the Dirty Reiver 200 event in Kielder forest. There was even a coningent from the Dirty Kanza in Kansas that had come along to sample some British gravel, including the race organiser and some past winners. Bryan invited me along to put the Warbird in its element, so it was that I rocked up to a silent, frosty carpark in a deep dark forest late on a Friday night…
It was a cold, clear morning, , and looking around the mixture of bikes and approaches to the challenge were interesting – mountain bikes, ‘cross bikes, gravel bikes and the full range of rigid, full-sus and every tyre option under the sun. There were rucksacks on some folks’ backs, and some had gone very light indeed, obviously relying on the feed stations dotted around the course. As I was planning to use this as practise for longer events like next week’s Cairngorms Loop and the Highland Trail 550 in May, I wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible so used Revelate toptube bags and a Defiant pack seatpack to cart my emergency kit and ten hours’ worth of homemade rice cakes. Two bottles on the bike to carry 1.5l of water, that left my back free.
The start was as hectic as any other ‘race’ (it’s not a race, it’s not a race…) with group riding at pace on the gravel surface proving to be pretty good at getting the heart rate up! Spotting another cherry red Warbird, I got chatting to Joe from Salsa headquarters in the USA, who had come over for the event. At one point a pump whizzed back past my ear after it became unattached from its owners’ bike, and loose stones were buzzing about like shrapnel. As we began our first descent through dark forest plantation I thought the track was lined with spectators, but soon realised it was the ranks of fallen who were busy with pumps and spare tubes. I was running tubeless Schwalbe G-Ones, but fell into the trap of thinking I was on a mountain bike, and soon my luck ran out at the same time as the air in my rear tyre…
What should have been a couple of minutes turned into a fiftenn minute faff-match with a tubeless plug that didn’t want to play the game, and even then I hadn’t, in my wisdom, thought to bring something to trim the tail of the plug, and I finally set off with the long tail whap-whapping on the seat and chain stays of the bike for the next 20km, until a chance encounter with some friendly guys called Andy and Jerome allowed me to borrow a knife and get it trimmed. All this time I had been beginning to think in terms of a race, berating myself for losing time and burning through energy at way too high a rate to try and compensate. There was always another group on the horizon to try and pick off, and as I left the first feed station in Stonehaugh at kilometre 60 I grew up a bit and realised that: a) at this rate I was going to blow up and be very sad very soon, and b) no-one at all cared about all this except me, so I grew up a bit, wound my neck in and got back to focusing on eating, drinking and enjoying the ride again.
Winding west past Grindon Green, I fell in with a guy from Preston who it turned out had ridden the Trans Continental Race a few years ago, eventually finishing sixth. Listening to his tales of adventures in the saddle and chasing down ferries passed some time and some miles, and my legs felt like they might have the distance in them with some rice cakes forced down.
The descent towards Bewcastle on open farm track was noteable, because it was the first time I had any idea where I was. The route had few landmarks, as rolling gravel roads wound in and out of the fringes of the enormous forest. Apart from never being flat, it felt as though there were few features to aim for and the feeling of disorientation made it tougher mentally, I think. The sign marking Newcastleton, and the Scottish border, came as a total surprise as I thought we’d been heading in the opposite direction! Passing so close to the start as we headed out on the forest drive was a kick in the balls, but there was still 70km to be done and the faces of the riders I saw looked more set to the task as minds, legs and hands began to protest louder.
I had been trying to minimise stopped time at the deed stations to make up some precious time, and it seemed to be working quite well in a brutal way. With a thirty second halt to refill bottles and grab a handful of haribo at the final checkpoint, I set out for the last 50km with a new group of people to chase. Pretty soon I fell in with Toby, a triathlete from London, and we picked up the pace a little as the end started to appear in our heads. Folks that had overcooked it a little and were tiring became good targets, so we worked together to speed up some more. The final 30km around the reservoir itself was brutal, with constant gradient changes inviting bursts of power that were unsustainable, but the sun was shining on the water and we were nearly home! I did notice that I’d been super comfortable all day – aside from the burn in my legs my hands and upper body had had a pretty comfortable ride, and I was glad that I’d double-taped the bars.
Popping out on to a brief road section, Toby must have started drooling over the straight tarmac and went into full TT mode, leaving me hanging on for dear life, and from there the finish felt oh so close as I used up the last few fumes of rice cake to keep the power on right up to the castle, and we finished a shade over 9 hours.
Aside from the riding, the 800 riders split between the 200 and 130 routes gave the place a great atmosphere. There were plenty of stories about goings on out there in the forest, and the organisers managed to sort out their feed stations and mechanical support over a long course through remote and tricky terrain, so kudos to them. Sitting in the sun and drinking one of the many free bottles of Fentimans I managed to get through, I figured I’d like to come back again next year. It’s hard to say what makes an event a good one, but you know it is when you’re thinking about the next edition on the finish line. Perhaps it was the simplicity of churning out some big miles with nothing but the road in front to worry about. Well done to everyone who turned some pedals, and see you next year!