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Learning to ride gravel at the inaugural Gravel Rocks weekend in Kielder Forest with Mike Hall and co.

Dirty Riever organisers host a weekend of gravel riding with Mike Hall and Emily Chappell in Kielder Forest

Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past couple of years, you’ll know that gravel riding, the latest import from the US, has become increasingly popular with more new bikes and events being launched all the time. This year saw the first ever Dirty Reiver 200km gravel ride event take place in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, bringing long distance gravel riding to the UK for the first time. 

But just what is gravel riding, how do you prepare for it and what is the best bike setup and tyre choice? These were just some of the questions on the lips of the 50 or so people that made the journey to Kielder Forest last weekend for the first ever running of the Gravel Rocks weekend. 

- What bike for gravel and adventure riding? 13 bikes from the Gravel Rocks weekend in Kielder Forest

Put together by the organisers of the Dirty Reiver, the idea for Gravel Rocks was simply to offer people the chance ride some of gravel roads that will be used in the 2017 edition of the event, and get familiar with the unique challenge of riding gravel, in an informal and friendly environment with evening talks from highly experienced adventure and endurance athletes Mike Hall, Lee Craigie, Rich Rothwell and Emily Chappell. 

You can’t ignore the fact that gravel and adventure riding has become popular in recent years, helped in part by events like the Transcontinental Race and Dirty Reiver, not to mention a large number of new events that appear to be popping up all over the UK and Europe all the time. And even closer to home, people are swapping tarmac roads for gravel tracks, bridleways and dirt paths to get away from congested roads. 

- Cyclocross bikes v gravel/adventure bikes: what's the difference?

Why is gravel riding so popular? Paul Errington, the instigator of the first Dirty Reiver and organiser of the Gravel Rocks weekend, says it's the uniqueness of the format that appeals to him. “Personally I loved the distance and the landscapes the big US gravel grinders offered. The adversity of the distance but combined with the camaraderie of the riders really sold me on the format," he says.

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“It’s genuinely a style of event where the lines between mountain biking, cyclocross and road biking blur so it attracts a very diverse field of riders and I think people looking for a challenge just outside their usual events find it in gravel grinding.”

Gravel Rocks brought together like-minded people in a relaxed and informative environment with several training rides around the stunning  Kielder Forest - a simply wonderful place if you've never been before - and topped off with evening talks from some of the most experienced cyclists in this field of cycling. It's a format that went down really well with everyone. “We are really happy and have received some great feedback,” said organiser Paul Errington as the weekend drew to a close. “We often receive emails querying some many differing aspects of preparation for an event like the Dirty Reiver so it was great to be able to put this informative weekend on. Also selfishly we really wanted a weekend where we could interact a lot more with the riders and have some fun too. Focal Events are solely focussed on rider experience and we are happy with that we delivered.”

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The Gravel Rocks weekend offered two rides, a longer one on Saturday split into three groups based on experience and fitness, and a more sociable group ride on Sunday. The first day involved riding a route that traced parts of the Dirty Reiver course, and while clearly not a recce as such, it offered everyone a glimpse of the sort of terrain they would have to cope with in the actual event. It was clear most people taking part in the weekend were there because they wanted to prepare for the 2017 Dirty Reiver, but plenty of people I spoke to were also planning other events, whether organised like the Dirty Reiver or bikepacking adventures.  

- Buyer’s guide to gravel and adventure bikes plus 16 of the best

There are few places England that really offer the chance to ride miles of gravel roads through vast woodland, and Kielder Forest is pretty unique in this respect. It's a stunning area to ride, away from the hassle of busy roads and angry motorists, and modern gravel bikes and particularly tyres really make riding on such terrain a blast. As such, it was the ideal location for the Gravel Rocks weekend. One pair even travelled all the way from Guernsey simply because they have no gravel roads to train on, making my 5.5-hour drive seem modest in comparison. 

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During the ride, experts from the world of endurance and adventure cycling were on hand to dish out advice, with many taking the opportunity to pick the brains of Mike Hall, Emily Chappell and co. on some of the unique challenges of riding on gravel and enduring long distances, such as dealing with saddle sores, common injuries, gear ratios, luggage solutions, tyre choice and tyre pressure. Then, in the evening, a number of talks covered a wide range of topics, including bike and equipment setup, nutrition, stretching and injury prevention, bike fit, training and much more, and it was all soaked up in the comfortable Calvert Trust nestling on the edge of Kielder Water.

It was all very informative and covered all the key subjects you need to take into consideration when riding long distances on inhospitable terrain. Mike Hall and Lee Craigie's incredible stories about tackling long distance races were hugely inspirational, and we certainly felt privileged to be in their company and for them to be so open and honest about the challenges they faced, and how they overcame those challenges. 

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All told, it was a brilliant weekend and a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative time was had by all. I certainly took a lot away from it and hope to apply what I learnt for the 2017 edition of Dirty Reiver. 

Dirty Reiver 2017 takes place on 22nd April 2017 and you can enter at www.dirtyreiver.co.uk.

Photos and video © Olly Townsend - www.orangetrike.com

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

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