There’s something about the Dirty Reiver that always seems to attract the extremes of weather. Those who have made it to the first three editions have endured everything from blizzards on the first running through to a heatwave and thunderstorm in 2018. It shouldn’t have been a surprise then, when I pulled into the Kielder campsite on a mid-December day to be confronted with sheet ice.
The long journey north
The combination of an early start from Leeds and a calendar rapidly tipping towards the shortest day of the year meant that I had spent the preceding few hours twisting along Northumbrian B-roads in darkness. The rolling hills that I was passing through just shadows against a sky that was slowly brightening in my rear view mirrors. Even in daylight, this part of the country always feels very empty.
Views stretch a long way from the (all too frequent) hilltops, revealing little more than farmland, moor and forest. The empty landscape is matched by relatively few visitors, particularly when compared to the somewhat spikier hills on the west side of northern England.
While the crowds might flock to the Lake District, the Dirty Reiver has definitely raised the profile of Kielder Forest as a destination for gravel riding in the UK. I can’t think of anywhere else in England, and only a couple of places in the rest of the UK that has the expansive network of gravel roads that Kielder lays claim to. The Reiver was one of the first dedicated gravel events to be run on our shores, taking inspiration from the likes of the Dirty Kansa in the States.
At its heart is a 200km route, although there is a 130km option if over 100m in a day feels a little too stretching. Focal Events, the event organisers, also have a 65km option available for next year as well, giving a flavour of the area without testing the legs quite so much. The event village at Kielder Castle seems to have more each year, with an expo of sponsors products and the feed stops are the best in the business thanks to pannier.cc and Alpkit.
Always room for improvement
After three years though, Andy and Bryan of Focal are still pushing to grow the event further. 2019 will see some of the biggest changes since the inaugural event. As well as adding the new shorter distance, there’s an e-bike category and the 200/130km courses have been completely revised, taking in totally new parts of the forest. We are sure that many veterans will be glad to hear that the momentum-sapping climb into Scotland after the old second feedzone is no longer. Those hoping for a flatter ride will be disappointed, though. There’s still a sporty 3500m or so of climbing in the full 200km. Focal also has another little surprise for the competitive souls amongst us (the Reiver is very much not a race), but more on that later.
All the layers
Unsurprisingly, the campsite was a little quieter than event weekend when I pulled in. Gone was the hustle and bustle of people prepping bikes, putting up tents and chatting about the day to come. Instead, our small group gathered – Andy and Bryan; Nils and Scot from event sponsor Bombtrack’s UK distributor, Lyon Outdoor; Ian from Endura (another sponsor) and Andy the photographer. It was a day for another coffee while the Focal boys took us through the proposed new route and we optimistically hoped the sun would burn through the clouds that were as grey as the slush underfoot.
We had two options: find patches of dry trail and ape for the camera for a few hours, or head out on a variation on our planned ride, and see how we got on. Seeing as Endura had brought half the factory of their warm clothes to wear, we were low on excuses (and high on caffeine), so headed out along the south side of Kielder water, reversing the last kilometres of the old 200km route. It felt a world away from April, where I pushed on home, with a salt-encrusted jersey and empty bottle and twinges of cramp beginning to creep into my legs. We picked our way along the broad, flowing trail, seeking out the edges where the ice hadn’t quite crept, playing in margins no wider than our tyres. Watery sun broke through patches of cloud, so close and solid looking that they looked like cotton wool hovering above the ground.
Patches of blue sky began to dominate as we rode through Santa’s village (the drive felt like a long one, but I hadn’t realised I’d made it that far north), crossed the dam at the end of the reservoir and headed on to new-to-me gravel tracks on the other side, which will make up the last 20km or so of 2019’s route. The new stuff started with the kind of climb that feels much worse than it looks like it should.
Cake-fuelled legs and the desire not to be the first in the group to ease up the pace meant we kept our speed up at the start, soon followed by a synchronised downshift as we tipped over the first crest to see the climb continue far beyond. Even though direct sun had started to soften and melt the ice on exposed tracks, those that were in shade still had a glass-like surface.
Lauf Special Stage
The rubbly gravel poked through, providing just enough grip if you stayed seated and pedalled smoothly. The multiple layers that felt so comforting when we set off now risking spontaneous combustion in the effort. This climb marks the start of a new Special Stage on the Dirty Reiver. The event that is not a race will have a racing element – sponsored by Lauf – as after approximately 180km in, riders will be timed over the section with the fastest man and woman winning the prize of a free entry to The Rift in Iceland and a pair of Lauf forks. I’m not sure whether my legs will be up to anything resembling a quick effort by that point in the event, but that’s a hell of a motivation to at least try.
It’s always been one of the things that I love about the Dirty Reiver, and gravel riding in general to an extent; events seem to pull together the full spectrum of riders, from race heads through to those who seem to carry enough to survive several days on course (I think it would take me that long to carry that much kit around too). At the sharp end of the Reiver, times seem to get quicker and quicker (Bryan thinks 2019 is likely to be the fastest yet, thanks to some smooth-rolling additions), and it’s nice to see a way of recognising those who can’t help but want to compete, without changing the overall feel of the day.
From a personal perspective, it’s nice to try and push yourself and maybe beat last year’s time, but I’m never going to pass up a feedstop that includes watermelon and hot potatoes with melted cheese, nor am I going to keep my head down while riding through stunning empty landscapes. I’d much rather enjoy them with new friends made on the day as we share turns in the wind or grumbles about yet another climb.
Long days and bothy nights
I’ve never ridden past a bothy without calling in, regardless of any need to stay or shelter. Wainhope bothy sits slightly out of the forested parts of Kielder, the old farm house giving a glimpse back to as time before the commercial forests that were planned here in the 1950s. We had to pause and pop in. Human’s relationship with this part of the world has evolved over the centuries, from subsistence farming to today’s mix of managed woodlands and tourism.
Our impact on the land isn’t always visible in what feels like such a remote spot, but the vast majority of the gravel tracks we ride are a direct by-product of the forestation. They make for a quick and efficient carriageway, even when covered in ice. The sun was already beginning to dip low in the sky when we re-saddled and headed for home. We made good progress over the modest miles back to Kielder village, aware that come April, legs will be feeling more weary by this stage. The air temperature was noticeably dropping as we arrived back at vans. Softened ice refroze as we quickly changed into warm and dry clothes.
Year round good riding
One of the great things about the area is that the forest tracks that the Dirty Reiver uses are open year round (its worth checking the Visit Kielder site for any seasonal closures), so it’s possible to come and pre-ride the course as much as you like, explore and create your own mini-loop as we did or even do a little bit of the T-word. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but 12-13 April isn’t too far off now. We’re wondering if we can sneak in another ride or two up here before the big day. We’ll be the ones doing reps on a certain hill…
If you are keen to enter, then get your skates on. The 200km route has already sold out, but there are places on the 130km, 65km and e-bike options still available. You can enter via the Dirty Reiver website.
We were joined by Endura (who kept us warm and cosy on an otherwise cold winter’s day) and Bombtrack/Lyon Outdoor (who provided the bikes). We also used Panaracer tyres and Look pedals, both of whom are sponsoring the event. All photos were taken by Andy Heading.