Several years ago I'd mock my friend George who'd ride his gravel bike on our mountain bike rides but here I am having just completed my first gravel event, the Dirty Reiver is the UK's and arguably one of Europe's biggest and toughest gravel events, taking place over 200 kilometres, it’s a hard introduction to this side of the sport. What better prep than changing old rough hub bearings 60 minutes before setting off for what should be a 5 hour 30 drive but turns into a 7 hour 30 drive meaning an arrival time of 10pm, going straight to bed, laying wide awake wired from the drive knowing your alarm is set for 5am race day breakfast...
It had been just one month since I'd last been at Kielder Castle for National Championships, despite the disaster that weekend it felt good to be back and the venue was buzzing even by 6.30am, just over an hour before the race began. The mosquitos were also buzzing with joy and I'd forgotten bug spray once again, lesson 1. Signed on, number board pinned to the bike, warm up routine done, on the start line... it was time to go full throttle!
I line up near the front eager not to get caught up in the inevitable carnage further back in the pack. There were some very serious looking competitors, some familiar faces and some seriously impressive gravel bike bling. Some bikes had almost bike packing size bags strapped to them carrying the minimum kit required by the organiser, not sure what else they were carrying, maybe a pizza in case they couldn't reach a feed zone or a cuddly toy in case the whole thing just got too much!? Others were running much more aero lightweight setups like me, a saddle bag to hold two Tubolito tubes and repair patches, two Lezyne co2 gas cans and inflator head, and a spare chain link. My back pockets were packed with a Kalas rain jacket, OTE gels and bars, and a Lezyne mini pump, tyre lever and multitool. On the bike I carried two 750ml water bottles with OTE Super Carbs, others opted for hydration packs, but I was confident 1.5 litres could take me far enough to reach the 3 feed zones.
Conditions were absolutely perfect, already 15 degrees centigrade at the start and rising to maybe 20 in the race. Ideal for arm warmers, short sleeve jersey, baselayer and bibshorts. The talk of kit, bikes and tyre pressure quickly finished as the start orders began to be shouted out by the race organiser. The adrenaline peaks, the what am I doing this thoughts peak, it’s too late to back out because the start gun fires and we're off chasing the car setting the pace in the neutralised start. When we eventually approach the summit of the first climb the car pulls off allowing the mass of lycra clad cyclists riding what are essentially road bikes fly into the forest for 200 kilometers of racing.
The legs are feeling sprightly so I set the pace on the opening climbs, the pace begins to create a lead group. 18 minutes in one of my water bottles fires out onto the floor on a rough descent, the speed is too high to stop with a group of people behind me. I have a second bottles, its fine... Another 4 minutes down the track and the next bottle fires itself out of the race exploding on impact. I stop to find this one but its long gone. Lesson 2, get decent bottle cages. I usually run Mount Zoom cages but this is the one bike without them. I catch up with the lead group which has sat up and been joined by the second group. There's 30 to 40 people in the group now and I didn't quite realise everyone from the lead group had been caught so I get back on the front and begin drilling it which I'm told made things a little uncomfortable for a while. There's another 90 minutes at least to the first feed zone where hopefully I can get a water bottle and some energy drink. I can last till then. After some big efforts to keep the pace high I find out that we are the leaders so all I've been doing is narrowing down the lead group which is now maybe 10 riders. All good fun!
I've done a fair amount of offroad riding at home on the gravel bike but not much off it is on loose gravel tracks like the forestry roads in Kielder Forest. Surface varies from smooth gravel, to very loose rocks (often on corners), to big rough arm pumping rocky descents. I was riding the new Schwalbe G One R tyres in 700 x 40c with Orange Seal sealant at 35 psi in the front and 37 psi in the back. The tyres handled like a dream! The rubber is soft giving lots of grip and the tread rolls fast and offers predictable traction. I had enough confidence to rail the corners which I didn't expect to be the case this kind of surface on this bike.
We get to feed zone one, no water bottles and no energy drink. Oh bother! Luckily one kind volunteer has a new bottle in his van. I fill it with electrolytes and I'm on my way. One bottle, another 2 hours till the next feed zone. This is suboptimal! As a coach I plan out people’s nutrition strategies for races on a regular basis. Today would be a long way from the strategy but at least I have bars and gels in my back pockets. Those two bottles I lost though had 240 grams of carbohydrate from the 560 gram total I'd planned on consuming. They also had the bulk of the electrolytes. Lower carb intake means lower power output so I'd have to race sensibly. I've gotten myself into serious trouble in years past when I've neglected electrolyte intake in a race so I was glad there was at least electrolytes available to fill the one bottle I had now. In a normal situation I'd be aiming for 80 grams of carbs per hour.
We race towards feed zone 2, there's a few people sharing the work on the front but around seven just sitting on enjoying the ride. I try to encourage people to take turns, one minute on the front before heading to the back. This doesn't get a positive response for long.
We get to feed zone 2, half way there, only water available, no energy drink or electrolytes. Bother! Lesson 3, use the bag drop to take your own energy products to the feed zones. 3.5 hours to go on just water. This is serious now. I realise I cannot race full gas for the fastest time, I have to measure my effort or I'm heading for an early exit from the event and going to make myself ill. After the feed zone we head round the Kielder Water, on a clear sunny day like today this place is spectacular and you could nearly forget you have another 100 kilometers to the finish.
75 kilometers to go and things get lively, two of the group make some big attacks but both are neutralised. I'm keen for the group to stay together, there's no way I can exert the power for a two-up effort to the line without electrolytes and limited carb intake. A few kilometers later one rider gets a gap. With the group being pretty disorganised that rider slips out of sight but surely with that much distance to go we'll see him again?
We enter a tricky little section with a river crossing and lots of puddles to negotiate. I'm leading the group and suddenly I have a gap, I don't ease up but also don't attack. It's fun when the legs feel good and others have to work hard to chase. You know the trainings worked when the legs are on a good day. If you want to train for this event then focus on improving your fatigue resistance and stamina. A raised fatigue resistance will mean improved power output or energy availability at the end of a long ride or race. To train this try completing some intervals at the end of a ride instead of doing all your intervals at the start. A raised stamina will mean improved ability to sustain lots of sub threshold work. To train this try adding more time at sweet spot or tempo intensity to your rides.
The group is smaller but is back together with one person still out front leading. I'm not going to chase. We reach feed 3, more water. Final couple of hours to go. Is it me or are the gravel roads getting rougher? I'm definitely beginning to feel the effects of limited nutrition. Suffer suffer suffer, grovel grovel grovel. This hurts but oh wow this event is so cool! We keep ticking off the kilometers, the wheels keep turning, Rotor hydraulic 1x13 gears keep smoothly shifting. The terrain is breaking people now, each climb sees someone drop from the group until there's just Giles Drake and me. Giles is strong, we aren't pushing the pace too hard but are keeping a good tempo. I'm not sure if we could have gone much quicker but I'm content to ride to the line. Plus, as we enter 20km, 15km, 10km, the route gets busier and busier with other trail users. It would be silly to have a big accident here. Some races it’s worth the risk, other events it’s really not. I've learnt over recent years that you can't win every race, you can't stress over every event, sometimes you just have to enjoy the event. This isn't a national, continental or world championships. I'll be back another year with two water bottles to go for fastest time but this year it’s nice rolling to the line for the joint second fastest time without any of the normal race pressure.
First gravel event done, some introduction!! 200 kilometers and 9850 feet of climbing! There are some clear crossovers between both road, marathon mountain bike and gravel racing. If you can handle the bike on the gravel then the training for the other disciplines is going to take you a long way. The biggest difference though between the disciplines is the relaxed atmosphere at Dirty Reiver, if this is gravel racing then I'm a fan and they'll be more gravel races on my schedule soon.