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Ice cream and gravel in Scotland: The Gralloch

Updated: May 22



On Friday, we embarked on a journey hundreds of miles north to the picturesque town of Gatehouse of Fleet in Scotland. This tiny, sleepy town is nestled among castles, rolling green hills, stony beaches, and the Irish Sea. However, the tranquility was about to be replaced with a burst of energy as the UCI Gravel World Series took over. To our delight, blue sunny skies and warm temperatures greeted us, leaving everyone scrambling for sun cream and ice cream!


The UK isn't typically known for hosting large offroad cycling events, which often forces us to travel overseas. However, this year we were incredibly fortunate to have two rounds of the UCI Gravel Series on our shores. I missed Gralloch in 2023, so I was particularly excited to head up to Scotland with a group of coaching clients for this year's race. From social media buzz to the event arena and the high calibre of entries on the start sheet, it was immediately clear that this event was going to be exceptionally well organized.



As we arrived in Gatehouse of Fleet, the anticipation was high. The transformation from a serene town to a bustling hub was remarkable. The event promised to be a highlight in the UK cycling calendar, and I was thrilled to be part of it.

 

As we travelled up on Friday, we didn't have time to ride any of the race track, so we relied on the event's social media for a course preview. After picking up our race numbers, we checked into our accommodation and continued to focus on carb-loading for the following day. The goal was to consume 8 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight, I filled up on porridge oats, pasta, flapjacks, sweets, and bananas to top off my glycogen stores in preparation for the big race.


 

One thing I had learnt from seeing last year’s race on social media was the number of punctures, so I switch my Schwalbe tyres from the usual G One R or RS to the G One Overland. This is the tyre I used in training through autumn, winter and spring. It offers fantastic puncture protection whilst still rolling as quick as a G One R. Whilst the Overland doesn't have as much traction in the corners and under braking because the rubber isn't as soft it is a worthwhile compromise for the puncture protection. I'll be using this tyre this weekend, at Stone Circle end of June and at the Rift in July.

 

With the sheer size of the event it was pretty tricky to find the entry to the elite start box on race morning! This was the first sell out UCI gravel event of the year. I lined up alongside some seriously quick riders including Paul Voss who won last year’s Traka 200 and finished third at the 2023 European Champs, other riders included Fretty Ovett, Petr Vakoc and Cam Mason.



The start climb was going to break the race apart so a decent warm up and strong start was crucial. Everyone knew this and tension was high as the dance music pumped out of the loud speakers and the start gun fired. The race was neutralized until we exited the town, instead of the lead car accelerating away it decided to stop in the middle of the road which sent riders jumping left and right onto the pavement. With the adrenaline sky high we skidding left onto the gravel and onto the climb. The pace was hot but not as ridiculous as it could have been. The gravel here is chunky anywhere out of the two tyre tracks created by tractors, 4x4's or logging trucks driving the gravel roads, so overtaking risks crashing or punctures, that was the case even on the first climb so the lead two into the first climb basically set the pace to the top. The last ten minutes of the climb I rode at 419 watts normalized, last 5 minutes at 440 watts normalized, so it was fast but not flat out. Any extra power might have been trickier because of the temperature rather than the pace, we started at 9.45 am and it was already over 21 centigrade and felt much hotter in the sunshine. 

 

I made the lead group over the top of the first climb, a short 2 minute descent was followed by another 5 minute climb and then a longer descent. The pace on the descent was pretty rapid, the group was still large and the strong guys were keen to reduce the number of people there. Dust was flying, rocks were catapulting left right and centre, bottles were firing from cages, chains were dropping and punctures were everywhere. I was very happy for the comfort and confidence the Lauf Seigla offers as we sped down the hill. Onto the next climb and the pace didn't settle down, 402 watts normalized for 9 minutes. The next descent was just like the first. Climb fast, descend fast, repeat. All the time the group was whittling down with people dropping off either because they could no longer manage the pace or a puncture took them out of contention. 



Eventually the pace did settle, at this point I made sure I tried to keep a good position a few wheels back from the front when we weren't rotating. Most of the time though the group did work well together, taking it in turns to set the pace and keep our lead. By now there were around 15 people. As people recovered the risk grew that there'd be a breakaway from our group as riders began attacking. Giles Drake opened the most convincing gap but at that point in the course where there was a long tarmac section we were able to gradually pull him back in as a group without burning any matches. Riders like Voss and Vakoc were most active. I felt great and tried chipping off the front following a few moves, only once did I feel like I was completing on the limit which was a shame as if I'd not let the gap open a few lengths over the top of this climb I might have been away with three really strong riders.

 

Between frantic racing there was a little time to look around at the beautiful scenery, this part of Scotland is really quite amazing, I'd love to visit again with time to enjoy exploring the area on and off the bike. 



Onto the last few offroad climbs a group of 10 was still together, nothing crazy happened on the first roller, then on the next hill there were at least six moments where I'd be over 900 watts to match the pace of the group or more accelerations from people trying to break away. There were more fireworks again on the next climb. Eventually we reached the top of the last big offroad climb, at some point here Matt Holmes took a flyer off the front, he gradually opened up a gap and would never be caught. After 2 hours 50 we entered the last offroad descent, a fast open wide gravel road where you could take the brakes off and fly. Nearing the bottom of the hill it happened, I punctured the rear wheel, the air was gone almost instantly. All that work, then on one of the easiest descents I punctured from the group racing for 2nd.


It didn't occur to me at the time, but perhaps my best bet would have been to keep racing on the tire insert. I probably couldn't have maintained the groups pace for the final 15 km with no air in the tire, but it might have been worth a shot. Instead, I opted to reinflate the tire with a gas canister, chasing for about 4 or 5 minutes at just below 400 watts normalized. By this point, I had already expended 2900 kilojoules of energy and drinks bottles were completely empty.



Seeing the tire go flat again, I debated whether I should have plugged the hole. I gambled that, with the final part of the race on tarmac, I could ride on the tire insert, especially since I had another rider with me facing the same issue. Together, we laid down the power, riding fast on the straight stretches of tarmac but slowing considerably through any rough sections or corners—I didn't fancy destroying my fancy carbon wheels.

 

After what seemed like an age, and with constant glances over our shoulders expecting to be caught by another group, we finally reached the town of Gralloch and entered the finishing barriers. With my tyre completely flat sprinting was out of the question, so I cruised home to a 10th place finish in front of a huge crowd. There are very few events I’ve attended that match this one in terms of both race participation and spectator turnout. It was incredible to be part of Gralloch 2024, and I would highly recommend it to all.



If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be finishing in the top 10 at a UCI event of this calibre, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s funny how our expectations evolve over time. While a 10th place finish is an incredible achievement, I crossed the line knowing that even more was possible today. The disappointment of this result follows closely on the heels of missing the Traka two weeks ago due to injury.

 

But these moments of frustration are balanced by the euphoria of my performance at Santa Vall and the sheer fun of playing on our bikes at Dirty Reiver. Sport is a constant rollercoaster of highs and lows, and I know today’s disappointment will soon fade, only fuelling my determination for the upcoming races.


I’m proud of my performance at Gralloch, especially after the injury a few weeks ago messing up my race plans and training. I'm equally proud of all our coaching clients who competed, to each of you, I say congratulations and thank you for making it a brilliant weekend.


I now have a few weeks to recoup, remind myself how to ride a mountain bike and get stuck into some big training before a busy July racing with the Pippingford MTB Marathon here in the UK and The Rift gravel race in Iceland.



 

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