This project was called XPDTN3 as it was all about 3 day adventures, but we are lately also getting the taste for shorter trips (like Reykjavik or San Francisco) and also using the racing performance of the Exploro bike to attend some of the coolest gravel rides in the world, like the Grinduro last year, or this time, the DIRTY REIVER!
Words and photography by Marc Gasch
200km of Gravel perfection
It was indeed at Grinduro California where I met Paul Errington, ultra distance cyclist, bikepacker and Apidura ambassador, who told me about the gravel event he was organising back at his home in UK, along with his partners at Focal Events. After a couple of beers listening to the music of The Mattson 2 while the sun was setting down in Quincy, we agree on trying to get us to the English/Scottish border in 2017 for 200km of perfect gravel and hopefully not too much rain...
So a few months later, we find ourselves in the north of the UK. Kim Van Dijk, guest XPDTN3 Explorer Jon Hornbeck from Road Bike Action magazine, and myself, trying to get warm at the start line of the 200km Dirty Reiver "ride" (#ItsNotaRace) at Kielder Castle. Frozen grass, frozen fingers, cold toes, but at least not raining...Exploro bikes are ready, with a mix of 700c and 650b wheels (Exploro offering all options for the indecisive) and we are almost ready to go.
And I say "almost" as that's what happens when you don't drink real coffee in the morning. After just a Nestle quick coffee, Jon forgot his racing shoes at the cabin, so we have to speed it up back to the room (10 minutes) to get them and get back in time for the start! Last night I asked Jon, without knowing he was a ex-pro roadie: "are you riding with us or just riding"? "What?", "racing of course"...I guess once a pro, always a pro right? So luckily Kim’s WRC driving skills got Jon back just in time for the start of the first wave of the strongest riders and could get him in a good position.
What happened later in the first group was something like this, as explained by Jon: "our gravel adventure began just a kilometer after our initial roll out and soon enough we were in the forest climbing with the sun just peeking through the branches. The pace quickly lifted as within a few kilometers there was already a set front group. Unfortunately the rider who was feeling extra trigger happy this morning decided to take us off course and down a private dead end road. Once we realized we we’re off course we turned around to rejoin the course to now see we were in the deep hundreds of the Dirty Reiver participants. The next hours were loads of fun though as we all were racing hard to get back to the front of the group riding full gas through these narrow Forest jeep trails jumping from one side to another while still trying to find the smooth line through all of the riders. Not your average jumping from group to group on the road scenario."
At the same time, way back in the peloton, Kim and I were the last riders to start the race (DFL), after trying to catch up being late parking the car after getting Jon's shoes (he paid for the beers later, so all good...). Anyway, the Dirty Reiver is not a race, at least for the 90% of the 800 riders that come here to enjoy the scenery, the perfect gravel roads and the good vibe from gravel lovers that just want to have a personal challenge and finish the 200 gruelling kilometres.
If you check the videos from Dirty Reiver last year, you will quickly realize it was far more brutal. Colder temps and periodic snow storms, even the odd hail shower at times, made for a very tough ride that year. We were prepared (and scared) for the worst this time, carrying extra gear in our Apidura packs, cause better to be prepared and have some extra clothing than having to abandon in the middle of the forest with numb feet and hands... A river crossing that in 2016 was up to the knee around kilometre 70 was a worry. This year the water was not so deep, so we only had our feet a bit wet. Being a Spaniard from the country of eternal sunshine, I brought my GoreTex Mavic shoes, and man, those are clunky and heavy, but I was so happy I decided to bring them on this trip.
With a couple of small cameras and a few extra batteries, Kim and i took our time to enjoy the ride, stopping frequently for pictures (or sometimes not stopping and me shooting from the bike and almost "dying" a coupe of times...) Food stations were also a mandatory stop for us, meeting Paul at one of them and checking that Focal events got this figured it out, with perfect organisation and good vibes all around. Weather was perfect, cloudy and cold, but dry, so we were enjoying and flying on our Exploros! I do think 700c with something like the WTB Nano 40c is a perfect tire for this terrain, fast and not too technical, the kind of gravel that lets you fly, but still needs your attention for some rocky sections prone to flat tyres if not careful.
Truth is that the first 60-80km went by quite fast. We were at a good pace, overtaking people and enjoying the views, but Kim was not feeling very well, with a bad cold the previous week that left her in bed and very weak. By kilometre 90 she started struggling to keep the same pace, having sinus problems and she decided to play it safe and take the deviation for the 130km version of the Dirty Reiver. That is a shorter route that gets you back to the finish line at around km 110, so its quite tempting if you are cooked...
Before getting to the crossroad turn we still got to enjoy together one of the most scenic parts of the route, getting out of the forest to a minor paved road (about only 5% of the Dirty Reiver is paved) that zigzagged on farms and beautiful views of the whole valley below. We were loving it! Being the tourists that we are, we stopped for a few pictures, with the classical countryside farm build on rocks, with an "Ascot green" Land Rover Defender 90 on the entrance. Talk about stereotypes!
After saying goodbye to Kim, I rushed to speed up my pace and to get in a group or at least a good wheel that could help me back to the finish line, especially for the last 50-60km that are usually the harder ones to digest if you are riding alone. After the amazing last feed stop, with a Teeppe, fireplace and boiled and salted potatoes prepared by camp fire, I managed to get on to the wheel of a cool guy on a Slate that seemed to have a similar pace to mine. So talking about bikes, life and debating wheel sizes, we squeezed the last part of the race, with a last surprise in the form of a perfect trail that went around the whole lake, and made for rollercoaster-like fun on two wheels. The perfect manicured trail kept going up and down near the water, allowing for some cool pics and controlled (or not) skids and our bikes flying to the finish line despite the 195km on our legs.
Paul and the Focal Events crew met everyone of the finishers at the finish line, handing the tickets with the finishing time for each rider and with an A-Bloc cold beer in hand ready to be engulfed. Attention to detail. I can see why the Dirty Reiver ride has grown just in one year to the point of hosting 800 people this time: perfect scenery, amazing gravel roads and a friendly crew that takes care of everything for you. They even managed to fulfil my request of not riding in the rain...
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