Gravel is the new frontier. The roads are clogged with speeding cars and the forests are crowded with artificial mountain bike trails yet miles and miles of gravel lie ignored waiting to be explored. There is an abundance of routes that are too bumpy for road bikes yet too far for mountain bikes which contain staggering views, lung busting climbs and ripping descents. It is no wonder that the gravel scene is exploding right now.
Keilder Forest is one of these areas. Landrover tracks and forest roads wiggle all over this remote area giving keen pedalers hundreds of options for exploring. This makes it a perfect location to hold the Dirty Reiver, a 200km (and 130km) gravel grinding event.
Although this was my first time riding the event (which is now in its third year) I had a good idea what I was getting myself into. All the reports I had read made key note of big climbs (around 9000ft in total), rough puncture risking descents and a river crossing of unknown depth. At least the forecast was showing that there would be very few concerns regarding weather as it was to be glorious sunshine all day.
After a van camp at Hells Hole we drove over to the event village, loitered around eating porridge before changing and lining up at the start. There were a lot of people and a buzz in the air to get going. A quick speech and we were off. Well everyone else was, I had to quickly duck back into the carpark as I had not only forgotten to pack all my tools but also needed to free up some space on my GPS. We rejoined the mass of riders, then I spotted Duncan from Surly and took the opportunity for a little chat.
This resulted in me being quite far back and the next 50km or so to the first feed station consisted mostly of ripping through the ranks of riders to catch up with my riding buddies Stu and Matt. I arrived to see Stu tightening his front wheel which was ridiculously close to falling off. Matt shortly followed and we stuffed ourselves with banana and Soreen.
The section to the next feed station was fairly undulating with a leaning to elevation gain. The sun was starting to get hot and you really got a sense of the remoteness the area.
Soon we got an opportunity to cool down as it was time to ford the river. Most braved it and simply slammed through in a low gear or with the confidence of big forgiving tyres. Considering that I didn’t have that option, I opted for classic shoes and socks off method rather than risk a dooking.
Back to business, the gravel was dry and fast and we were treated to excellent views of the rolling border landscape. This is how I imagine riding all those North American gravel races are like that we get told about on the internet. Once we crested the next peak the track took a downward angle and Stu gave me the heads up that it was time for the “rough one”. A rocky farm track bounced riders and equipment and claimed its share of inner tubes and bottles (including mine which I had to stop to collect).
As wrists were reaching breaking point the tarmac began and this wiggled you between fields before a feet up cannonball descent straight to the next feed stop. Pork pies from my drop bag were eaten, chains lubed up and it was on to tackle the hardest segment of climbing in the course.
Long stretches of open gravel in the beating sun weighed heavy on riders and this section turned into a grind. The long climb meant for much stem watching with the brief glance looking at the next bend. The rough path alongside the river went on and on following the Scotland-England border. The only part to break up this toil was a severely steep section where all the leverage of my handlebars was used to get up. In the distance there was an odd sight, as I got closer I was able to distinguish a chicken and banana man. This was the split. To the left another 70km lay ahead and to the right was beer and snacks. I was feeling good and determined so it was an easy decision. A left turn plus a fixie skid request fulfilled and the chicken and banana man cheered me onwards.
I was now on the Queens Drive and the last of the big climbs which was far more of a mental effort than physical. Water was low and I made sure to ration myself. A very loose descent made for a squirly ride and made it hard to chat to the German man on a Bombtrack I was peddling with. Although I did clearly hear him say “This is getting very dangerous!”. He was right but this wasn’t going to stop us as we tore along the difficult and changing surfaces towards the last feed station side by side. Much water was drunk on arrival and we refuelled for the final leg.
The next section is a bit of a blur, everyone was very strung out by this point. I would see someone in the distance and as I started to catch them on the climbs they would tear away on the next downhill. Occasionally you would pass someone at the side, struggling with a mechanical or bonk demons. Everyone was riding their own race now. Soon the gradient rolled over and I could feel that the last big hill was now behind me. It was the home straight.
The Dirty Reiver is not done with you yet, however, as you still need to ride round Keilder Water. A double track rollercoaster that bobs and weaves, tempting you to try and stay off the brakes in the hope of luring tired riders into the ditch. A number of skid marks on corners were tell tale signs that some people had been caught out. Fish from Bombtrack caught me and helped set an excellent pace over the last short climbs and onto the finish. A few mouthfuls of beer before Stu came rolling in and we cheered Matt shortly after as he came up the hill to the finish. We made it, a successful weekend for all.
Strava link here.
And the bike…
Well sure, fixed was never going to be a practical choice and there was never going to be a section of course that it would excel at. However one gear and constant pedalling was never much of a hardship. 48×21 got me up all the hills and didn’t rip my legs off too much on the downhills. If you have ever ridden fixed you will know that it dictates your pace for the day and I am pleased with my moving average of 13.8 mph. Sure if I was able to coast on the downhills I would have made up a lot of time and likely conserved some energy for the climbs but riding the Dirty Reiver fixed wasn’t about getting the fastest time, it was about having the raddest time.
My Straight Cut Designs frame bag was a winner as I saw many lights, pumps, gels, bars and even a whole saddle pack that had been relieved from their owners by the bumps. The loser was my trendy cageless bottle that freed itself multiple times – at least my bike looked uncluttered when I walked back up the trail to collect it.
Other than the bottle escapes the bike worked great. It must be noted that had the weather not been arm scorchingly hot it would have been a very different outcome. #TUKT would have become clogged almost immediately and I expect that I wouldn’t have made the finish so quickly or cheerily.
MAKE FIXED GEAR GREAT AGAIN.