Dirty Reiver 2016
200KM OF AMERICAN-STYLE GRAVEL, BEAUTY AND SUFFERING IN THE UNITED KINGDOM.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY GREG MAY
A Welcome Entry
At some stage in the middle of the deepest, darkest Calderdale winter a new event popped up on my radar – the Dirty Reiver, a 200km US-style adventure ride fashioned after the eponymous Dirty Kanza 200 – effectively, the gravel race benchmark in the USA. At the time I was looking for a few more events to stack up my training load for the Tour Divide this coming summer, and the Dirty Reiver ticked all the boxes.
Distance – 200km. Climbing – 3,800m or so of undulating hills. Terrain – long stretches of access roads and mixed gravel roads. For many, a single day on the Tour Divide compressed into half the time. If, seven weeks out, I couldn’t get around this and feel like I could easily go again the day after, well, I should probably cancel my flights.
The Suffering Starts Early
Months of Divide training, gear fettling and preparation rolled by, and it was all looking fine as I was riding home the Thursday before the Dirty Reiver along my normal gravel/canal commute. That was until I had my front wheel kicked out from under me, my face punched and kicked in, and was left bleeding and disoriented on the canal towpath. Thankfully, my brand new Salsa Cutthroat wasn’t even scratched. Go figure. My jaw, nose and teeth, not so much.
That evening myself and Jeff (all hail the beloved editor) were sitting in my house, nursing several beers, and wondering what to do. I’d committed to driving him and another rider to the race – I wasn’t going to not do it. I wanted to at least go and experience the event. Plans to figure out if I could exist on gels and fluids alone were hatched as we packed the van in preparation for the four-hour drive to Kielder Forest. Just after I go to the police station to give a statement about the assault and, of course, the inevitable concussion-inhibited packing of a van.
Bird’s Eye View
It’s 11pm the night before the event, and at this point a slightly confused collection of us are frantically packing and repacking kit under the watchful eyes of stuffed birds in the ‘endangered birds’ room of Kielder Castle. Beate looks right at home as she falls asleep under the watchful eyes of Mr Peregrine (trying to look less like a vole, and more like a deer).
Then 6am screeches upon us. As we glance outside, or squint in my case as one of my eyes is swollen and non-functional, we spy snow falling blissfully on the treetops. Looks like we’re getting the full Kielder experience I think – memories of Kielder 100 and 24 Solo races of past flooding back. I pack more spare brake pads.
More than 450 people have registered for this, the inaugural running of the Dirty Reiver, and as I look at the many familiar faces from the UK endurance racing scene, I see many potentially fast riders: Mike Hall, Matt Page, Phil Simcock, Josh Ibbet, Dave Powell. I’m gutted I can’t at least have a go at riding fast with them. No food in over 36 hours has put an end to any aspirations I have of going fast. I walk back to my bag and pack the DSLR along with the second body and lens. If I’m going slow, I’m taking some photos and enjoying myself. Should I bring some beer?
It’s a Go!
A muted wave start – it’s not a race, but a timed event – sees me rolling out with the tail of the group swapping stories with Shona and Rich on their new tandem, chatting with James and his endless supply of novelty foods, and swapping remarks with Jeff who’s riding a wonderful Cotic Escapade that happens to be mine – but happens to not really be working, as in shifting. Jeff rides a dinglespeed for the day with the front derailleur being his gear options. Fun times. Sorry dude, but at least you can chew.
The first few hours fly by as we ride fast and furious along some wonderful compact gravel back roads with the odd section of semi-technical singletrack. It’s about two hours before I realise I’m going to have to try to drink and eat. Pull over, open bottle as I realise I can’t use a bite valve, then pour the contents in. Gels go in with the help of more water. Two at a time. Got to get something in or this ride is going to end pretty soon.
The first 60km goes by and I roll into the first checkpoint with many other riders. Suddenly it’s overly busy and the introvert, whose attraction to the Tour Divide is the solitude, balks, blips his timer and bumps the checkpoint without eating anything. It was never going to happen anyway, as I justify that I’ve probably brought enough gels to feed a small professional team, let alone myself. I think by this stage I’d had six or so. Mmm, tasty. No repercussions yet.
The ride out from CP1 is into what has felt like a never-ending headwind, which is surprising as the route is a loop, I wonder how Paul managed that one? Climbing up, up, up, I start to realise that I’m on a meaty climb so I back off. As I crest the top I spy a load of riders coming behind, so I take the opportunity to get some more photos – crouched in the middle of the trail, hoping they will ride on either side.
The reward is a full speed hollering descent that made me happy to have chosen 2.2-inch tyres on big, fat, 30mm rims. Brains off, brakes off and I hit it fast passing most of the riders I’d just taken photos of. At this stage I’d noticed the numbness in my jaw was wearing off – time to dose up trailside on Vit-I and Paracetamol. Oh, and some gels.
And so it continued for the day. Ride up a climb, smash down a descent, take some photos, swallow some pills, eat some gels. The day went through every sort of imaginable weather from frost to sunshine, snow to blistering heat. It had it all and was combined with some of the most fun and fast gravel roads I’ve ridden outside of the far north of Scotland.
Getting More Positive
Checkpoint two, crewed by the folks from Alpkit, led me to discover that the provided sponsor OTE gels were easier to eat than my own – which was great, but resulted in me carrying more weight. Good training I suppose. Unfortunately for many, the draw of a 1km exit at the 130km mark back to the start was too much, and with dwindling reserves of energy many pulled out. Quicker access to the beer may also have been an alluring draw.
Being smart, I’d forgotten about this and rode past in a slight downer as I’d forgotten that I’d not put the battery in my other camera. “Good thinking, Greg. Nothing quite like extra expensive weight to carry around.” But then it happened, the thing that normally I only get in the early morning hours of a 24-hour race. I perked up – not a little – but a lot. At about 140km I felt like someone had injected me with a dose of awesome, and I started to ride hard and fast through the snow that was starting to flutter out of the sky. Climbs were no challenge, descents flew past, maybe even a bit too fast as I totally overcooked a corner and nearly ended up in a ditch.
And so it went through the final checkpoint where I grabbed eight gels – smashed four into me and bounced right out. I felt great, and was probably overly chirpy to those around me. Sorry about that, but it came back to bite me about 25km from the end when I realised I was starting to get really hungry, the kind of hunger that only solids can fix. An attempt to chew even a Shot Blok resulted in too much pain and a dose of tears. More gels it is.
Rolling along the shores of Kielder Water, I stopped for a while to look at the view and really appreciate what it is to be allowed to come to these places, ride bikes, and generally dick around. On Thursday night I thought that my life was pretty close to being over, but here I was looking at something beautiful that I’d got myself around with many others who were facing their own personal demons.
As I sat, I thought of the reasons I love the solitude these places afford me. No one to bother me. No external sounds, but those I make myself. No one I don’t want to interact with. I get to spend the time I want with those memories I chose, or in some cases chose not to deal with day to day.
Riding 200km on a bike around a forest is therapy. From life. From people. From reality. For me, the Dirty Reiver was that and more. I can only suggest that you try it. You don’t need to ride it fast. Just go. Explore it. Experience you and what you can be. I’d suggest eating something more substantial than 23 gels though.
This article was published in grit.cx issue 8.