T’was the night before the Reiver, and all through the house, every rider was fettling, even Thoma(u)s.
We all have our own pre-long-ride rituals. Most of mine are nerve-calmers… double checking bolts, triple checking that I stowed a spare tube and tubeless plugs, pondering how many Haribos (aka Morale-ibo) to bring. This year, I spent a little longer checking over my bike – the first Salsa Warroad to make it across to these shores – as I had only picked it up from the Lyon Cycle (new UK distributor) stand earlier that day. They in turn had only received it from the States earlier that week. Fresher than a fresh thing. I applied my usual scientific process to tweaking contact points. Saddle height – about right. Bar height – that’ll do.
My lodge-mates for the weekend had a little more building to do, having flown in from the Netherlands earlier on the Friday, but spannering was completed with a beer in hand and pasta waiting on the side.
Those of us who had ridden the Dirty Reiver before explained what to expect. It is probably the gravel event in the UK that is truest to the “gravel” billing. The route makes the most of the huge network of fireroads in Kielder Forest. There’s no singletrack, nothing more technical than loose aggregate and a minimal amount of tarmac. There are few big hills, and not many that are steep either, but there’s plenty of energy sapping drags. The full monty 200km route includes 2700m of climbing. For those that don’t fancy A Big Day Out, there’s a smaller 130km, and new for this year a 65km route.
To end, you must first begin
Drawing the curtains at 6am, golden morning light spilled into the room. A quick glance at the heavily frosted grass and vehicle windows left me feeling glad that I wasn’t camping as I added an extra layer to my framebag. 1200 riders stood under toothpaste-blue skies outside Kielder Castle, waiting for the 8am departure. There was some warmth to the sun, but a bitter north-easterly whipped away body heat quicker than it could be generated.
My riding-partner for the first half of the route, Kell and I set off towards the back of the field. The Reiver isn’t a race, but you’d be hard pressed to tell at the front end. We could just about make out the dust the riders were kicking up. Another few hundred riders down, and we were almost trackstanding on the first climb. There was the usual cacophony of clumsy gear crunches and chatter as we passed the unfortunate sufferer of the event’s first mechanical – a couple of hundred metres from the start and before our wheels had touched gravel.
I love the opportunity to chat with fellow riders on these type of events. Our community is still a small one, and a “hello” more often than not leads to a “oh, do you know so and so”. These conversations help the kilometres tick over a little quicker and easier, Kell’s renditions of Disney classics – not so much (sorry Kell).
Time does funny things in general over the day. It stretches and compresses, ten minute periods lasting eons; hours disappearing without notice. If a long ride purely on gravel sounds a little, well, samey, Kielder dispels that myth. The surface varies from compact sand that feels faster than tarmac to fist sized loose lumps of aggregate that send tyres skittering and need concentration to hold a line. Sometimes the rough sections reward a stiff gear, churning through with a slow cadence, other times spinning a light gear saves the legs. The Warroad occasionally whispers to me, encouraging me to make the most of its light weight and stiff rear and I sprint over those rolling hills where the crest is visible.
If there isn’t enough variety in the terrain, the views make up for endless double track. Above the trees, the remoteness of the area is highlighted. There are no villages visible in the valleys, no signs of human habitation at all. Patches of sunlight and shadow create tie-die patterns on the moorside. As the day goes on, the flow of riders to pass or be passed by dies down. Gaps open and there is time for solitude.
Middle for diddle
The last kilometres pass quickly, courtesy of one of the few sections with a proper tailwind… and thanks to a decision to take the middle option and turn off for the “Dirty One Thirty”. My bikes is dust-encrusted as I cross the finish line, shortly before the first 200km rider returns.
The Gravel Expo is relatively quiet still, but soon begins to fill with riders in varying stages of exhaustion and elation. (Non-alcoholic) beer stings wind an sunburnt lips, and I wipe the dust and grime away from my face with one hand, while eating a chicken wrap with the other.
One more time?
Back at the lodge, showered and content, we sink into sofas, something a little stronger than Erdinger Alkoholfrei in our hands. It doesn’t take long for thoughts to turn to another year. More training, faster, longer, or maybe more stops, more photos, more giggles, more gravel.
If you’d like to repeat the route on a quieter weekend, you can find them all on Komoot.