The Dirty Reiver 200 is a new event and a homage to American gravel races such as the Dirty Kansa 200 and the Trans Iowa 300 (both numbers are imperial distances in miles). While we don’t have the same smooth dirt roads that they do in the US there is obviously still an appetite for such an event as almost 500 people had entered the UK’s first ever gravel event.
Held in Keilder Forest in the Northern reaches of England, it is a forest that Mountain Bikers will know from the former Keilder 100 MTB race. With all new events there are questions banded around about bike choice, tyre choice, kit, etc. The event became the talk of forums and social media in the run up and among the A Cycling team as both riders were taking part.
George picked his new Pivot Vault, with 33mm CX tyres and a nice mix of XTR di2 and Shimano 785 hydraulic brake/shifters and 1×11 drivetrain. It was pretty close to a pure CX racer.
I picked something quite different, riding my own Koga Beachracer, which is essentially a CX bike with huge tyre clearances. Finished with Ultegra di2, XTR 11-40 cassette, Rotor oval 36t single chainset, No Tubes Valor wheels and Schwalbe Furious Fred 2.0” front and Thunder Burt 2.1” rear. Pressures were set at 35 front and 40 psi rear. I was a little worried about the Furious Fred on the front as its the lightest, most fragile tyre they do, but it is fast.
Since my main aim of the first half of this year is Celtman Extreme Triathlon, I chose to stick a mountain run in a few days before, to the top of Scarfell Pike. Upping my run distance and technicality and using the DR200 as training will hopefully make a few good days of training for Celtman.
On the morning of the event I wasn’t exactly eager to get going. Waiting near the start with the temperature hovering around 1 degree I was dithering with what to wear. I went with the most cautious approach, taking an extra layer than I’d originally planned.
Gore windstopper base layer, La Passione waterproof jersey (which is superb!), Sportful no rain leg and arm warmers, my A Cycling long sleeve wind jersey and a Gore-tex cycling cap. I also decided to make the unusual choice of an Inov-8 Ultra hydration pack, designed for running but I love it for cycling too as it sits higher on the back and allows easy access to pockets as well as decent storage. It has the option to carry a 2 litre camelbak but I decided due to the cold weather that 2 x 750ml bottles would be sufficient.
Lined up on the front start line as late as possible, George on my left and the legend that is Tom Seipp (minipips) on my right. We rolled out and on towards the timing start around 1 kilometre in. I had expected groups to form and ride together, but it split up immediately. I found myself loosing time on the climbs to the gravel and CX bikes but gaining loads of time on any of the rough descents. After about 10km after a bit of too and fro with other riders things had strung out and I was in about 7th with one guy in sight ahead and no one in sight behind. After an hour I was baking hot, the extra layer and waterproof cap were causing me to sweat too much, so pulled over and took them off, then spent the next 20 minutes being cold as the sweat chilled and slowly evaporated.
The first 55km to checkpoint 1 flew by in no time and the views were absolutely incredible with snow capped mountains in the distance. I rode briefly with another rider on a cx/gravel bike, but he was a little gun-ho on the downhills with fairly narrow tyres, so unsurprisingly he punctured and I was back on my own. 2016 Strathpuffer winner Keith Forsyth was just ahead, but riding well and after 80km I had a low moment and he pulled away and out of sight.
The main feedstation came after 95km, I spent quite a bit of time gathering food from my drop bag and got myself ready for the second half, still no one in sight in front or behind. The following 15km was incredibly tough, with a long, challenging climb into Newcastleton Forest, then 10km of the slowest, roughest false flat track along the England/Scotland border. I hope I never, ever have to ride that track again – it was that bad.
Back on my own again, the track to Keilder and the 130km checkpoint mark was quite nice and fast in places but as we closed in towards Keilder and the 130km checkpoint I had another low moment, energy levels starting to really drop as I realised it was now the longest ride I’d done in about a year and by the end it would be the longest ride since the 24hrs in 2014, over 18 months ago! Ed Wolstenholme came by at a rate of knots and disappeared into the distance just after the 130km checkpoint and from there until the next feedstation at 145km I didn’t see another rider. The weather was changing constantly with hail and snow and although I managed to stay fairly positive, although I did say to myself that a mechanical, especially a puncture now would have resulted in a serious sense of humour failure. Luckily that didn’t happen and I made it to the feed station at 145km, which was a nice sight.
By this point I wasn’t able to muster much of a conversation with the volunteers, it was just a case of stuffing a few chocolate brownies down and try and pull myself out of the slump. Out of the feed we had another monster climb and my dry chain was annoying me, so I pulled in to lube it, which took forever as I needed 2 barely functioning hands to squeeze the frozen bottle. While I was doing that a rider passed me, which not only spurred me on but proved there were others still on the course. I gradually pulled him in over the next 10km, only to get passed on a very rough section as he was on a hardtail MTB.
After the rough section and onto faster trails again I was straight by and seemed to get my second wind after 160Km and 7hrs of riding! The 25km to go sign came at 165km, which meant that it was either 10km too soon, or the route was a little shorter. Although I wanted to believe the latter, I made myself think it was the former, just incase I overcooked it. Reaching the Kielder Reservoir trail was a highlight as although the lakeside trail was twisty and not super fast, it was smooth and easy going. The final 15km was hard work at times, but with the end ever closer I was spurred on to keep pushing. The 10km to go sign was a welcome sight at 182km, where I finally let myself believe the route was a little short.
Rolling towards the finish and up to the Castle I was pleased to see that I was going to be well under 9 hours, finishing with an official time of 8hrs 42min. Good for 7th fastest time and classed as “Highwayman” which is within 10% of the fastest rider, which was George!
George had bombed it around on his Pivot and despite one puncture finished in an incredible 7hrs 58min. Seriously impressive.
Aged 11, minipips finished the whole 200km route. Bravo to you sir!
The majority of riders took the 130km option, as the checkpoint was cruelly (& cleverly) placed right by the finish line.
My bike setup was super, with no mechanicals at all. If I were to change anything it would be to lower the tyre pressures a bit and if I were able to fit something like the new Lauf gravel fork to the front, that would be ace on the rough, lumpy fireroads. How George managed on 33mm tyres I do not know, although he did admit that he would want something bigger should he do it again. Riding kit ended up being spot on after the slight overheating, with the La Passione jersey really impressing for cold, damp rides.
Incredibly for the almost 9 hours of riding I only drank 2 bottles, a total of 1.5 litres. I never drink all that much, especially in colder weather. I did eat quite a bit, with a mix of gels, nakd bars, mint cake and a few chocolate bars picked up at the 95km feed.
The mix of bikes, from full suspension MTBs to road bikes with fat tyres, all within the top 10 finishers bikes I guess shows bike choice is perhaps not absolutely crucial and given the variety of the tracks, no one style of bike ruled the roost. A big well done to organiser Paul who pulled off a great first event and one that I am sure all competitors will agree was seriously challenging.