It’s hard for me to convey just how underprepared I was for the Dirty Reiver without raising some questions about my capacity as a cycling journalist. And yet I still made it round. We all know the old adage ‘to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail’… well, when it comes to gravel riding, it seems it doesn’t always work out like that…
Months ago, well before Christmas, my husband entered us into the Dirty Reiver. He’d done the inaugural event in 2016, and was full of praise for the organisation and camaraderie. Plus, with a clearer picture of what to expect, he was hoping to knock half an hour off last year’s time. I thought it would be a good way of giving me a focus for winter training.
Skip forward five or six months and I found myself on the start line of the Dirty Reiver. I know that people often do what I understand is called sandbagging – underplaying their readiness, overplaying their concerns, making out that they’re probably going to be rubbish at something. But let’s be clear: I had not trained for this event.
Yes, I’ve ridden my bike to work most days for the past couple of years. That’s 10km each way, on a pretty flat route. But it is most days, not every day. And for January and February I was on an e-bike. The furthest I had ever ridden in my life was 100 miles, and that was all on the road, and nearly two years ago. Winter training had not happened – life got in the way, mojo was low, and I was all too happy to let the windows of opportunity for long rides go to my husband.
In complete contrast to me, he was prepared. He rides at least 150miles a week in commutes, and had been steadily adding in extra hills and miles, plus turbo sessions. He’d taken days off work and been out on a few road rides that were well over the mileage and elevation of the Reiver, and one morning he’d nipped out and whipped round the Mary Towneley Loop. At this point I hope you’re hating him and his spaniel-like enthusiasm for exercise as much as I was, as he bounded in from yet another turbo session suggesting that it was my turn and hadn’t I better do some training for the Reiver.
During the second half of March I did make a bit of an effort – the NS RAG+ test bike that I would be riding for the Dirty Reiver arrived, encouraging me to get out a bit more. I rode to work, without electric assist, every day for a couple of weeks. I did a couple of rides about 30km long, and then a couple of mixed surface rides of nearly 50km. All this extra effort meant that ten days before the Dirty Reiver, I found myself with a hacking cough, and a distinctly uncomfortable blemish on my bottom. After almost four weeks of making an effort it was time to taper. Or just stop, and let my bum grow new skin.
At some point during these months of failing to prepare, I decided that I needed an incentive. That if I made it round the 200km I would deserve a reward: I decided it should be a new bike. Probably something titanium and gravelly. Mmm…
Back to the start line. Two minutes before the rider briefing, I was digging through my pack for my ‘Butt Shield’ to wipe on my heel as my left shoe was rubbing. Not that it had ever rubbed before. Visions of oozing bloody heels by mile ten went through my mind as I peeled off my two pairs of socks in the sub zero morning temperatures and applied the anti-chafing balm.
You may observe that in the absence of physical preparation, I had at least done a half decent job of preparing my kit. My husband was certainly not packing extra socks and chamois lube about his race-fit lightweight person. Deciding that there was little to be gained by me shaving off the weight of my luggage, I packed for comfort, carrying plenty of food and ‘that might come in handy’ tools.
And so, off we rolled into the freezing morning. By the third hill I realised that everyone else was sitting and spinning, and my tendency to stand and heave as I powered past them was probably not the best plan for the longevity and future well-being of my quads. I tried to ease off a little, worried I had gone out too fast.
Others had real and immediate problems to contend with – the first few descents saw water bottles flying in all directions, and a veritable honour guard of trailside puncture-fixers. It wasn’t just those that hadn’t gone tubeless that were cursing under their breath. A tyre burp, followed by several frantic and ultimately futile attempts to re-seat the tyre, followed by a broken valve, then a sticky insertion of a tube, meant my husband scrapped all plans for quicker time and decided to accompany me round (once he’d finished inserting a tube – he’d catch me up).
I took some persuading that this was a good idea. I feared that watching him soft-pedal his way round as I entered a world of pain would challenge my love for him. I feared his words of encouragement would fall on ears that heard patronising tones of “Hurry up, love.” I feared that his disappointment in having done all that training for nothing would translate into an ill temper that would be ill-equipped to deal with my own blood sugar-induced rantings. In short, I feared for our marriage.
By the time he caught up with me, I’d had long enough to enjoy flying down a few long descents, and I was beginning to think that I was sufficiently quicker than him at the downs that I might not have to spend the entire day looking at his (admittedly very toned and shapely from all the training) behind for the entire day. Passing yet more puncture-fixers, I also began to worry that he might have had another flat, have run out of tubes, and be facing a very long and cold walk to rescue. Just at the point that I was getting worried enough that the worry was turning to guilt, he finally caught up with me. Relieved to have him at my side, I felt perhaps our marriage might survive the ride, but to be sure he kept to the side or behind me unless there was a headwind, sparing me the sight of his easy pootling while I struggled to keep up. Credit where it’s due: had I done the amount of preparation he’d done, only to be thwarted by a rock in the first 10km, I’d have struggled to be so magnanimous.
The day warmed up as the miles ticked by, and I found myself actually having fun. In the great open expanses and remote setting, often without seeing other riders for miles on end, I also found myself glad to have my husband at my side (or behind me on the descents). I could fly along the narrow strip of firmer gravel – providing it was either flat or descending – and the hills were just a matter of grinning and bearing it while looking forward to the next descent. Not everyone was enjoying the descents, though – each one brought another clutch of puncture-fixers. I’m sure line choice helped, but on the whole I think I was riding a wave of luck as the sun shone and my tyres resisted the stoney attacks.
It wasn’t just my tyres where my luck was holding out. I met someone whose hub gears had functioned perfectly all winter, only to fail on this one critical day. Another was gingerly riding along having lost a spoke to a rock strike. Yet another somersaulted spectacularly, having clipped a hole or a pile of gravel, and folded their front wheel in two – unlucky. He stood up and proceeded to worry about the state of his wheel rather than his body – very lucky. My bike was holding together, and so was my body. Somehow it didn’t seem right – I deserved to be suffering.
It’s not like the whole thing was effortless. On a few occasions, my thighs threatened to cramp and I had to gobble down a gel and some water to stave it off. A long-standing foot injury caused me enough distracting pain that I had to ease off on a few descents while I tried to wriggle and jiggle it back to a position of comfort. At one stage I – and my poor excuse of a ‘support’ rider – ran out of water, but at least I knew with only 10km to the feed station I didn’t have far to worry about. Others who had lost all their bottles to the bumps on the trail had another 50km without means of carrying water to contend with.
And so it went on. I ate, I drank, I pedalled, I chatted to the occasional person along the route about their bikes, their Pinion gearbox, their singlespeed, their other bikes, and so on. My behind went fairly numb, but it didn’t hurt. My hands didn’t blister, my back ached no more than after many a day sat at a desk in the office. It didn’t rain, it wasn’t cold, I was pedalling, not grinding. All in all, I wasn’t suffering. I’d expected to be having a bit of a cry, blistered and bleeding in a least one spot, and entering the edges of delirium. I was getting tired, but I wasn’t really suffering in the talk-to-yourself-and-think-about-having-a-lie-down-in-a-ditch kind of a way.
Crossing the finish line, I was delighted, don’t get me wrong. I was properly happy, and more than a little bit amazed. The people cheering on the finish line brought me closer to tears than I had been all day. I had actually done it. I’d ridden further than I’d ever ridden in my life, I hadn’t trained properly, and I’d done it. My husband’s first words to me after I finished were, “I can’t believe you actually did it, after no training.”
Now, I know that this could sound a bit like “Look how great I am, I just knocked out 200km.” But I don’t feel great about it, I feel like I’ve cheated. I’ve cheated the weather, the pain, the suffering and the hurt. Not just on the day, but in the months of winter training. It doesn’t seem right that people who have been out there putting in the miles and the effort have been thwarted by a single – or series of – sharp stones, or a momentary lapse of concentration.
Riders with so much greater fitness and talent than me had to cut short their rides, or took much longer than they’d hoped. And yes, I guess that’s part of gravel riding – luck definitely does play a part. It doesn’t really seem fair, and if you were to dwell on the hours of thwarted training after a minor mishap then you’d probably end up fairly bitter and twisted.
But without mishap, with cheating the punctures and the weather gods, I’m left feeling slightly dissatisfied. Without adversity and peril to overcome, I’m not sure I can truly bask in glory – like those who endured the epic weather of last year certainly can. And that new bike I promised myself – have I really earned it? I’m not sure. I’ve surprised myself, and I’m pleased with what I’ve achieved, but I’m not convinced I should reward my laziness and blind luck. The treats and rewards belong to those who prepared, but didn’t necessarily achieve.
There’s always next year…
The Dirty Reiver is a 200km gravel challenge in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, UK. There’s also a shorter Dirty 130 option. If you’re interested in taking part next year, hop on over to their website. If you’re looking for a similar challenge for this year, the same organisers are behind Grinduro UK and The Distance.