These days if you haven’t tackled the Dirty Reiver can you even call yourself a UK gravel rider? The Dirty Reiver has become a gravel season opener here and a tough benchmark to measure how favourable the winter months have been to fitness. If you have been hiding inside from the grimness of winter the Dirty Reiver is going to quickly remind you of all those missed training rides. Even the diligent winter riders will find the 130km cut off to be very tempting, an opportunity to end the suffering by cutting the route short to find sanctuary and beer at the event village early. The full 200km demands some serious grit and determination from riders.
A NEW DIRTY REIVER ROUTE
Last year I tackled the 200km option on my fixed gear Surly Steamroller, the route was a deadly combo of long climbs, varying terrain and a river crossing. This year I planned to do the same and was excited to see what the organisers had in store with their new route. Gone was the river crossing, the short visit into Scotland and the very popular rocky farm track descent to feed station 2. This year the route was a little shorter, shallower gradient and smaller hills. On paper it looked as though we were to be spared from the levels of hardships that had been experienced before. Had the king of UK gravel events gone soft on us?
THE ROLL OUT
There are a lot of varying factors when it comes to the Dirty Reiver, the one thing that can be guaranteed is that it will be freezing cold in the morning. We had setup camp in a forest carpark named Hells Hole which is just on the right side of the Scottish/English border. We had an eclectic range of riders and much to chat about over pre race beers. Three of us were riding single speeds, three were riding fixed and three were riding custom frames (two of which had been finished that same day).
A thick layer of morning frost covered everything outside, water bottles were frozen and it was not eagerness to ride our bikes that encouraged us to quickly pack up. We hit the road with the van heaters set to full blast for the short drive to Keilder Forest.
I wouldn’t describe the atmosphere around the event carpark as one of excitement. Instead apprehensive and nervous would be a more accurate description as people busy themselves with final checks of bikes, crammed extra food into bags and contemplated if wearing two pairs of leg warmers would be a good idea. All too soon we were rolling out from the front of Keilder Castle amongst hundreds of riders. The route starts with a short neutralised zone which is mostly used for high fiving banana man, urinating in bushes and generally settling the field of riders but soon the timing begins and the Dirty Reiver really starts.
STAGE 1 – BUSY ROADS
Unless you are in the leading group of riders the segment to the first feed station is spent jostling for space as people get into their rhythm. This can be fun but also frustrating as I had to excuse my way past many riders on climbs only to later be passed on the descents just to repeat the process again.
The morning frost disappeared alongside some riding layers as the sun warmed the forest around us. The temperature would never be described as warm but was certainly comfortable for riding. Most importantly though it looked like the weather report was right and it would stay dry for the days activities.
STAGE 2 – UNDER THE BELL AND INTO THE WOODS
Stage 2 was a spared no prisoners. Straight into a climb that hoisted us up to 1500ft and the highest point in the course only to descend straight down the other side. On paper it would be fair to expect this climb to be the hardest of the day but we dispatched the incline with relative ease thanks to a single gear friendly gradient.
However 13 miles down the road there was a nasty surprise, a short climb barely a mile long but so steep that we struggled to keep moving. Each pedal stroke felt like the last as thoughts of dismounting and pushing ran through my head. It was a relief when we reached a large Bombtrack bell being rung by Banana Man and a chicken which served as a confirmation we were at the top.
With the horrible climb behind us we dropped to the lake shore for a short head down time trial along the road. As I pedalled along the road you could see that some riders were starting to suffer, holding on for the respite of the next feed station. The course left the road and now followed a twisty shore path that ducked and weaved through the trees. The twisty corners were a lot of fun but as riders bunched up on the narrow path it was difficult to overtake and progress was hampered by tired riders ahead.
STAGE 3 – THE WIND
It’s hard to quantify but Stage 3 seems to be the hardest, similar to stage 3 of old we pedalled off into a desolate and unforgiving wilderness. Bikes and their riders begin failing after the previous 100km of rough riding and can be found at the side of the track dealing with demons of the mind and inner tube. This year the route took us South of Keilder Water and into an exposed landscape. Wind whipped across the land forcing riders to fight to keep moving forwards, hunched low over their handle bars with no where to hide. Having one gear is not good in the wind and forces you to grind hard to maintain speed and something resembling a comfortable cadence.
I was now alone and spent my time sheltering on riders wheels before making a break to the next person up ahead, piggybacking between little drafting shelters to save energy where possible.
Matt had dropped behind but over the last 18 miles had closed the gap and caught back up. He brought the startling news that Stu had scratched. Disheartened by the meaninglessness of freewheeling he had made the decision to end it all.
We were relieved from the headwinds as the course began it’s return journey North and towards the Pannier.cc feed station. The promise of boiled potatoes and coffee likely energising many tired riders who were now regretting not taking the 130km split 50km ago.
STAGE 4 AND THE LAUF SPECIAL STAGE
This year there was another update to the Dirty Reiver in the form of a special timed stage sponsored by Lauf. A cruel 8km segment that featured some of the roughest terrain of the whole course. No doubt some riders smashed this segment, spurred on by the prize of a trip to Iceland, but for most it was less about racing and more about surviving. Tired legs turned reluctant cranks as the loose gravel surface tried to break traction and rhythm.
Once this was cleared all that stood between us and the finish was an easy 10km alongside Kielder Water and on to the castle. I was with Matt and Dave with the rest of our group lost behind us. Energy levels ebbed and flowed as we churned out the remaining miles. A classic pointless sprint finish between friends up the last hill and we were across the line, elated and exhausted.
Another successful Dirty Reiver and what a ride. The new route certainly didn’t disappoint, packing in all the best gravel Keilder has to offer and almost certainly rougher and tougher than the previous year. My body had taken a beating but I was stoked with setting a healthy time of 10 hours 14 minutes, mighty respectable for fixed.
Well done to all the riders who took part and a big thank you to the organisers and volunteers that make The Dirty Reiver so good. See you next year!
DIRTY REIVER FIXED GEAR BIKE CHECK
I was back on my trusty Surly Steamroller but this time it featured a couple of key upgrades over last years setup. A carbon fork and front disk brake lightened the ride and offered plenty of braking power when required. I ran 40c WTB Nano’s this year. These worked well with no issues in regards to grip or rolling resistance. I did find the ride harsher than last year although this might be down to other factors. If I was to choose I would probably opt for Panaracer Gravel King SK’s in a 35c/40c size.
Gravel bikes were unsurprisingly the tool of choice for most riders with less of a mountain bike representation compared to last year. Rather cynically I am unconvinced that a gravel bike would give much of an advantage over a light weight carbon 29er mountain bike on a rough course like the Dirty Reiver. Both types of bikes will see you round the course so personal preference may may be the over ruling factor. There seemed to be a much less riders tackling the course on single speeds this year and I counted only 7 riders riding with one gear and 3 riding fixed (all from our group).
MAKE FIXED GEAR GREAT AGAIN