The time had finally come. Months of preparation, training and fretting about tyre choice had all come to this, the 2017 Dirty Reiver, the premier long distance gravel event in the UK.
There was a lot of interest in doing the event amongst the road.cc team this year, even my report on last year’s debut event didn’t seem to dampen down the enthusiasm. So it was team road.cc are go and Dave Atkinson, Stu Kerton, Mike Stead and David Arthur (that’s me) were soon on their way to Kielder Forest.
Without further ado then, here’s how everyone got on riding the full 200km distance.
Well, it was a ride of two halves for me. I was feeling super for the first 130km and then it all kind of fell apart. I'm not sure exactly what it was that I ate that messed me up (maybe a combination of cheese savouries and Haribo) but I started to feel pretty low on the long, long, LONG climb on the forest drive to the third feed stop, and I didn't start feeling better until I was sick in a hedge about 15km from the finish. So that was the longest 55km I can ever remember. It stuck me over ten hours too, so I'm a bit cross about that. Although it does mean I have a score to settle...
The Reiver is relentless. I've done some much longer rides in terms of distance, but the combination of the fact that there's very little flat ground, and the fact that you need to concentrate all the time to stop yourself from ending up sprawled on the gravel, means that mentally and physically it's extremely challenging. It wears you down bit by bit, and I was genuinely broken by the end. The conditions were nigh-on perfect, too; if it had been pissing with rain or blowing a gale then I'm not sure I'd have made it round, to be honest. It's certainly one of the hardest rides I've ever done.
Fair play to my £999 Vitus Energie, which with a few minor mods cruised through the whole thing without breaking stride. I confidently predict that you'll see a lot more bikes with Thudbuster seat post next year, it was definitely the best upgrade I made. Gearing down to a 40T chainring and an 11-42T cassette gave me enough gears for the climbs even when I was running on empty, and double-wrapping the bar tape should basically be mandatory. The Vee Rail 40mm tyres I used were just about perfect, fast enough for the smooth stuff with enough of a shoulder to bite in the looser stuff. On the one rocky descent, I felt a bit under-tyred, but I'm 23rd out of 650-odd on Strava down there so it can't have been that bad.
All in all the Dirty Reiver is certainly an experience. There's very little else like it in the UK. Kielder feels like proper wilderness, and there are plenty of times when you doubt whether your emergency whistle would be much use. It's rugged and beautiful, and the riding is hard. The organisation on the day was flawless, and the feed stops were excellent. If you can go next year, you should.
My first Dirty Reiver experience wasn't as smooth as planned. I had a great bike in the Genesis Datum 10 fitted with Clément MSO 36mm tyres, set up tubeless, and had blagged a great frame bag from the very kind Stefan at Pannier.CC to fit all the required kit in. I'd made a point of getting out on as much bridleway and gravel as is possible in Hampshire, including a 100k loop on the South Downs to really bed things in. All was looking great, until a numpty-induced loss of air from the rear tyre at 10 pm the night before. Moral of the story: travel with a proper tubeless inflator tank like the nifty Airshot in case the worst happens.
The morning of the Reiver saw me frantically trying to find a pump capable of re-seating the tyre - even a proper tubeless pump couldn't do it as my fab workshop Beto Tank had - so the fallback plan of using an inner tube was deployed. I'd heard horror stories of endless punctures, so went hard on the inner tube, 45psi instead of my planned tubeless 35 (doesn't sound much, but in a large tyre the extra 10psi is a lot). Then for good (or bad) measure I panicked and topped up the front - in my haste to a frankly stupid 59psi. In my defence, the first riders had already departed, so this was a panicked 'good enough' guess.
Starting at the back of the pack I spent an hour passing people, witnessing many dozens of puncture repairs, lost bottles, mudguards and even bike bags - the Reiver is a boneshaker of epic proportions. I'd double-taped the bars and for that was very grateful. At the 66km mark I stopped to help a wiped-out rider, then witnessed another do exactly the same thing at speed on the inch-high centre gravel ridge a few moments later - ripped, bloodied, but bikes OK. This brings home just how remote the Reiver is - from then on I was often the only person in sight, and marshals were a long way off or back should the worse happen. This is no pootle in the South Downs with a warm pub or inviting taxi nearby.
The last 130km was hard. Possibly the hardest day on a bike I've had. Long spells staring at my stem, thinking up ever-more elaborate damnations on forestry roading contractors and quarry operators alike for their fiendish gravel selections. At the three food stops, I focused on flapjack and a handful of cheese savouries, washed down with water and Nuun electrolyte tabs - This is a trusted strategy and I didn't suffer a twinge of cramp during or afterwards, and thanks to my Ketonic diet prep never felt empty. Finishing strongly in 10 hrs on the run home around Kielder Water is a testament to a fat-fuelled strategy.
The Genesis Datum was flawless. The Tiagra 10-speed groupset never missed a beat - and with increasingly frequent kack-handed shifts of the operator's fault over very rough terrain, that's quite something. One or at most two-finger hydro-powered disc braking helped keep hands on hoods and under control on stupidly-rough descents, where the wheelbase helped keep things on track with only a few gravelly-washout corner overruns, again due to operator error.
The Dirty Reiver will punish you like no other UK one-day ride, mentally and physically. I enjoyed the Mighty Corinthian's gentrified 300km far more - but am glad I took the opportunity to test myself against the Dirty Reiver. Maybe you should too.
I probably went into the Dirty Reiver a little too confident, after all, I’d binned plenty of weight and put in over 1500 miles on my local gravel tracks and trails since Christmas. Add to that the fact that my test event, a 200km audax a couple of weeks before had passed by without the slightest issue and I arrived home with barely an aching muscle.
I was ready for the Reiver.
Riding from our digs over to Kielder Castle at 5:45 am was actually quite refreshing especially considering the -2°C temperature as David Arthur and I skirted the lake on part of the Reiver route but I felt good, the legs were spinning nicely.
Once I’d passed the timing sensor signalling the end of the neutralised zone the adrenaline kicked in and it was time to start carving through the other riders but pretty soon I was struggling to stay with the pace of the Dave’s. I had to make the decision on whether the effort of staying on was worth the slipstream.
It wasn’t, considering as I still had another 185km still to go. Basically, my legs were just not interested especially when it came to climbing so I just settled into a rhythm and tapped things out and I actually started to enjoy myself. Arriving at the first feed station my average speed was up on what I needed for my ten-hour target so I was happy.
The next section to the 100km feed stop was tougher with what felt like a lot more climbing and I was finding myself slamming the GT Grade straight into its lowest 36x32 gear to winch myself up the hills.
The terrain was starting to take its toll on my upper body too especially as I was riding tubes and had the pressure up to 55psi front and rear which really saw the lumpy farm track section give me a right kicking, I couldn’t have slowed down a bit maybe but it was fun chasing the squishy mountain bikes over the rocks and through the potholes. The tarmac section to the feed station was a welcome relief but I can safely say this is where my happy part of the race disappeared.
Leaving the 100km feed and straight into a climb did nothing for my broken body and my brain was soon following it into a dark place. The 130km turn off came into view on one of the steepest bastard corners of the entire route but even after all of the internal discussions with my brain over the last hour I found it easy to keep pushing on for the 200km, Strava kudos innit!
It didn’t last long, ten minutes later I was back grovelling just wishing a descent would appear. I was still picking riders off but my speed was slowly dropping as I inched towards the final feed stop. I don’t do sweet energy foods on the bike so the chance of some steaming hot new potatoes and a decent coffee was a real boost. I left the feed knowing that I just had one more climb before the lake and home so whacked the chain into the basement and started twiddling.
On and on and on, forever climbing, never flat, just up or down.
I was getting bored of riding my bike, my shoulders ached, my lungs were sore from every single breath I’d taken throughout the day and I still couldn’t see the lake, the flat finish that everyone had kept promising.
Finally the descending started though tiredness meant I was struggling to hold a decent line and mistakes were being made but I was so desperate for it to end I let it all hang out just about keeping hold of the bike as I was nudging 70kph on the gravel.
The lake appeared and with it a lovely smooth track but by now I was on my knees and every little rise nearly reduced me to unclipping and walking. Those mile markers for the dam were just doing my head in too as it really highlighted just how slow I was going.
In the final 2km I caught a glimpse of Dave Atkinson’s bright green Vitus so found enough left in the tank to chase after him. I hadn’t spoken to anyone for hours so it was a welcome relief to see someone I recognised. Line crossed in 10hrs 12mins so I wasn’t too far off of my target but boy was I broken, I still am in fact five days later. Not so much my muscles but my brain is still mush from the levels of concentration.
No fault can be laid at the kit though, the GT Grade was absolutely brilliant with very few changes from the stock bike I reviewed in December. I changed the saddle to one of my faves and whacked some Schwalbe CX Comp tyres in a 35mm width, the largest it’ll take. The rear end is so comfortable thanks to those thin seat stays.
Another big shout out goes to the Giro Empire VR90 shoes I was using. They only turned up a few days before and it was a bit risky going into an event with the untested kit but I’m glad I took the punt. Even with their super-stiff carbon soles, they were so comfortable to ride in straight from the off.
So overall, did I enjoy it?
Yes, I think so. I didn’t when it was happening, I could have quite easily gotten off of the bike and gone and lived in the forest at times but now when I look back I’m bloody glad I finished the full 200km.
As for 2018, yeah I’ll probably be there.
Never say never again. Never say right at the end of a tough event you’ll never do it again, because once the pain and fatigue have subsided, it’s pretty likely you’ll be drawing up a plan to do the event you said you’d never do again, again.
Which is how I guess I ended up being drawn into doing the Dirty Reiver again, having ridden the inaugural event last year. I got swept along in the enthusiasm and excitement that the other guys had for doing the event, and not wanting to miss out, I signed myself up. Damn my inability to say never again and actually mean it.
Anyway, entry duly sent in and I actually did some training and preparation for the event this year, unlike last year when I just winged it got round mostly on sheer determination because my fitness let me down. So that’s what I concentrated on this year, getting fit. Lots of big rides, all the hills I could muster the energy to ride, and I was feeling good in the days leading up to the event. The bike was good too, an Open UP with a Lauf Grit fork to provide a bit of added comfort, and 38mm Hutchinson tubeless tyres and a SRAM 1x11 groupset and hydraulic disc brakes.
On the day, well it went really well. The weather was an improvement on last year, and even though Stu’s Garmin was alarmingly indicating subzero temperatures on the short ride to the Kielder Castle, the day would warm up nicely and the sun would make a frequent occurrence. It was a good a day as can be expected for the time of year. Team road.cc rolled out together, a leisurely spin out of onto the road and onto the fast gravel road, and spirits were very high. Soon the hilly terrain - I had forgotten how relentless the climbs were in the first 50km - spread the pack out and though we had planned to ride together, we were all soon involved in our own personal battles with the distance and the terrain.
I hadn’t done anything so ambitious as set a target goal time, even Rory Hitchen’s best attempts at extracting a target time out of me didn’t succeed. No, I was just going to roll with it, try and enjoy it and not worry about the time. As it happened, I smashed my time from last year, taking well over an hour off my time last year. Some of that was certainly down to the improved weather conditions (it was freezing last year), but having ridden the event before the biggest lessons I learnt was how to pace myself and conserve energy where possible (not easy on such a demanding course) and the sheer importance of eating constantly. I think that’s the biggest lesson I took away from the first year, the need to keep eating on a regular basis, and my combination of homemade flapjacks for the first four hours followed by energy gels in the last couple of hours appeared to work well.
Though team road.cc had dissolved many miles ago, funnily enough, I bumped into several friends along the route and the shared battle against the course, the gravel and the climbs, certainly made the ride more enjoyable, and boy is it nice to suck a wheel at times! I definitely had a couple of low points heading towards the final feed stop, but I did my best to channel #bemoremike and that helped me stay positive when the endless climbs were taking their toll on my mental strength.
It was a relief when Kielder Water finally came into view. Along the waters edge, bosh along the dam and a final dash up the reservoir towards the finish at the Kielder Castle. It was nice to be back on a smooth dirt track though I nearly ended up in a couple of ditches from over zealous cornering, and a few cheeky climbs tested the remains of my energy levels. But I kept the pace up and finished strongly, keeping a couple of pursuers at bay.
I finished with a smile, I think, myabe it was more a grimace, it felt like a smile but it was a blur of emotion, feeling elated at having once again battled the exceedingly tough course and having done so far more quickly than last year. Granted it’s not a race, but it’s still a personal race for everyone involved, I was quick enough to finish in the Highwaymen class. Lessons learned had paid off for sure, as had the miles I had ridden in preparation.
I nailed my clothing choices, Gore’s excellent long sleeve Windstopper jersey with Sportful Giara bib shorts and knee warmers, and the same Giro Empire VR90 shoes as last year, kept me warm and comfortable all day long. The bike and equipment, on which so much time and energy had been fretted over in preparation for the event, was near faultless.
My tyre choice wasn’t the smartest. The Hutchinson Overide 38mm tyres were damn fast in a straight line though but oh my god lethal in the corners. I’d use a tyre with a more aggressive tread pattern if I did it again. Tubeless is a given for the event, the number of flat tyres I saw in the opening miles was astonishing, I’ve never seen so many people stood by the side of the course fixing punctures. I was smashing through the gravel with my 41/35psi tyres and really took some liberties on that rough farm track halfway through the course.
So that’s it, another Dirty Reiver ticked off. Will I be back next year? Honestly, I’m not sure. I said right after the finish never again, and the tiredness I’ve felt all week hasn’t helped change my mind. Maybe ask me next year…
Thanks to everyone at Focal Events for making the event happen, and all the amazing marshalls around the course. And Alpkit and Pannier (and thanks to Stefan at Pannier for some of the amazing photos in this article) for the well-stocked feed stops too. And the Kielder Castle cafe for keeping the coffee, cake and chips flowing after the finish long into the afternoon and early evening. Thanks to Jeep for the luxurious drive all the way to Kielder. Thanks to Rory and Bruce from Upgrade for entertaining and feeding us in the evenings, the ice cream was a winner. And thanks to Dave, Stu and Mike (and Steve) for a great couple of days. And thanks to everyone that took part and contributed to the fabulous atmosphere this event offers, you are what makes this event so great.
Like the sound of the Dirty Reiver? Next year's event takes place on 21st April 2018 and you can find out more at www.dirtyreiver.co.uk.
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. 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, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.