Dirty Reiver: My first gravel race

Dirty Reiver: Kielder Forest, April 2019

The Northumberland National Park is in one of the most remote corners of England and includes the Kielder Forest, home of the Dirty Reiver, the UK’s best known gravel event. 2019 was the fourth edition, the organisers Focal Events offered three options; 65, 135 and 200km. Of course, I tackled the full distance – 200 km with 3,000 metres of climbing.

Credit: Chris McClean

This was my first attempt at gravel racing or gravel riding really, for which I must thank Dom from Fairlight Cycles. They have built me up a Secan to race Italy Divide on the 25th of April and Dirty Reiver seemed a great shakedown.

I was expecting it to be a fun ride and was really looking forward to it. I was not disappointed! This is not intended to be a detailed ride report or a bike review. This is an account of what happened and I hope that some of you will get out on the gravel as well, I wholeheartedly recommend this event.

200 km is a long way, without even factoring in being off road and I knew that this event is always ridden hard. Setting up my bike, making choices about tyre selection and gearing, was a bit of an unknown though I have ridden on a little gravel in Transcontinental. With some caution, I had chosen Panaracer Gravel Kings. I posted my set up on Insta and a quick reply from Katherine Moore, the GCN gravel expert: “No, no, no! You have to try WTB Nanos.” So I did!

My expectations for myself were quite low. I didn’t really know how I would get on off road, though I knew my fitness was good. An eight hour effort off-road is demanding, and I was expecting it to beat my body up.

We were all at the start for 07:30, the temperature was -3C. The sky was completely clear and I kept my down jacket on for as long as possible. 600 of us were riding so I did the old cyclocross and criterium start: mill around until the last minute near the start and then slowly (but surely) back into the front row on the grid, and smile. It worked perfectly; I didn’t have to work my way through lots of people at the beginning. A bit bold, but perhaps I’m afforded that respect now. There were a couple of Dutch elite riders, Stan Godrie and Gosse van der Meer. Stan had finished fifth and Gosse seventh behind Mathieu Van Der Poel in the 2019 Dutch elite cyclocross championships. (Gosse would go on to finish first.) I got chatting to them, a couple of class riders. They were telling me about their recent touring-training trip.

The first climb was neutralised, then the flag dropped and we sped off downhill. It was pretty rapid from the beginning, for a ride that will be around 7 hours anyway. The pace was fine and I could tell I was on a reasonable day. It felt great to be riding in a great leading group. The pace never relented, around 80 to 85% of maximum. To keep up this pace all day, I would need to keep stuffing in food. Eating and drinking to the point when it’s pretty horrible, leave you feeling slightly sick. Not nauseous, just disgusted to have to keep forcing down more and more. If you want enough power to keep driving those legs, it’s what you have to do, burning near 1000 calories per hour, I ended up burning 6500 calories.

Credit: Chris McClean

We came to the top of this hill after around 50 km and I was second wheel,  just behind Stan. There was a steep descent in front of us. He was clearly a class bike rider and was on quite narrow tyres. He let it rip down the descent. Remember, this was my first experience of gravel riding and I found myself second wheel following at 70 km/hour. I said to myself: If he can do it, I can do it. Just hold on and it will be okay! I breathed a sigh of relief as we shot through the fenced cattle grid at the bottom. Banking hard left and then straight up another climb. I took a deep breath, that had been absolutely thrilling.

At the top of the hill was a long flat plateau, a pretty rough forest track with many rocks. As we sped along this flat terrain, my rear tyre responded with a gentle but steady deflation. I was riding on tubeless and you’re supposed to keep going in the hope that it will seal. So, I continued, but it didn’t. Soon I found myself riding on the rim. I threw up my hand, old racing habits die hard, so they knew I was stopping and could ride around me. That was the last I would see some riders from that strong lead group.

I decided to try and stick one of those worms in the hole to patch it up. Six or seven minutes later I accepted that this was absolutely useless. A complete waste of my time. So, I banged in an inner tube and started pumping. Yes, I can hear you! Why did I not have CO2 canisters with me? I thought I was prepared for a long distance off-road bike ride. The truth is, I wasn’t prepared for a time trial where a minute is so crucial. In the end, the repair took 10 to 15 minutes, which felt like an absolute disaster, it was a school boy error from someone who should know better.

From there on, I more or less rode solo. Here and there, I caught up with riders from that first group but just cracked on to the finish, mostly on my own. Unfortunately, my school boy days were not over. At 110 km the battery for my electronic gears died and I was left with only a couple of shifts on the back. I left it in the big ring and I was having to mash it up every time on the hills, that’s not easy.

I had charged fully before I left London, which should have been enough. I can only assume that somehow in the car, the lever hook got pushed against something and kept on trying to shift. I had even thought about charging the bike again before the event, but I told myself: No! It will be fine. A mistake.

I pulled in at the final feed station. There was a Shimano neutral service and the mechanic Rich was excellent, he plugged the bike in to charge for 15 minutes. I had a coffee, something to eat and then clicked back into the bike to push on to the finish, actually changing gears. Wow! I really needed them as I was riding fast, and it was not flat.

I was absolutely loving it. This event was so much fun. The first 95 km we climbed 2000m. For the final 100 km we added an extra 1000m, there really was no flat road. I eventually finished in 7 hours 30 mins, somewhere around seventh place (TBC). Gosse Van der Meer had finished first, 30 minutes ahead, what a strong rider. I was exhausted but not disappointed. First of all, my fitness is good, so when I start the Italy Divide on April 25th I will be in solid shape. Secondly, I found it a massive confidence boost to be able to confidently ride with such an incredible group of people. I had proved to myself that my technical ability off-road is at least okay, a good place to build skills from. Thirdly, I had a lot of fun, riding off road. It was a great day and I met lots of good people hanging out over the weekend.

Finally, a word about my bike. I have been riding a Fairlight Strael in the last three Transcontinental Races. A trusty bike. Last summer, they launched the Fairlight Secan, a gravel and adventure bike. This is not a review of the bike, but I have something to say. This was my first big event on the Secan.  After that incredible descent behind the Dutch cyclocross ace, I climbed the next hill thinking that I was riding a bike that had just been tested to the limit, and beyond. Comfortable, responsive, safe. It handled on rails. Giving me complete confidence. My skills from the start to end grew hugely. I know that I’m on the right bike for my next adventure and early-season priority, the 1200km Italy Divide.

Bring it on!

Credit: Chris McClean