There was something of a lead up to the Dirty Reiver. All my recent efforts had been, sort of, geared towards it. An anticipation of the new, the challenge and riding with friends in an area of the country I had never visited before.
At 06:45 on the 16th April 2016, myself and some 400 other riders stood shivering at the start line of the inaugural Dirty Reiver at Kielder Castle, Northumberland. Unique to these shores, the Dirty Reiver organiser, Paul Errington, introduced the UK to the popular US style Gravel Grinder events but with an open and accessible format similar to a cyclosportive – due to our rather quirky access laws and other restrictions this event was not a race, more is the pity. That said finishing times were graded: Highwaymen; Outlaws and following up the rear the Brigands, based on a percentage system after the first finisher, so a certain amount of competition was inevitable.
Kielder Forest, or to give it the full name Kielder Water & Forest Park is the largest man managed forest in England, home to the biggest man-made lake in Northern Europe and renowned for the clarity of its night sky. A relative wilderness, but nontheless heavily formed by human interaction with the environment. A perfect location for what we were all about to attempt.
My friend Simon, and I made our way up from the South Coast late on the Thursday afternoon. My current faffing with work meant that we couldn’t get away any earlier, and with stressful and looming deadlines it meant that I was going to have to buckle down in the B&B room with laptop, mobile phone and VPN and get more done on the Friday. It didn’t bode well for a relaxing few days being so far from home and still having to pitch in with the day job.
I had packed in a hurry too, check, double check and finally confident that I had all I needed for 4 days away and a big ride; bike, cycle clothing, cycling shoes, nutrition, jeans, underwear etc, etc. I had deliberately avoided looking at the weather forecast, but I had shoved enough layers into my bag I thought it would be alright… a mistake.
Our B&B was the Grapes Hotel in Newcastleton, a sleepy village just on the other side of the Scottish border and a stones throw from the Rock UK Outdoor Adventure Centre. It was a clean and friendly establishment and a good location to launch any adventure into the inviting roads and trails in this area of the Scottish/English border country. A return visit in the near future is a distinct possibility.
We had left the south in glorious sunshine and 15 degrees centigrade. Somewhere around the M42 it started to rain and by the time we had reached Carlisle the mercury had dropped by 12 degrees. You know you’re up north when… a late check of the weather forecast told us that we were likely to have snow and sleet in the next 24hrs. Snow! I’m not one for complaining about the weather too much, but this winter with its incessant rain and late drop in temperatures had felt long enough already.
On the Friday, between work, we put the bikes together and headed into the Rock UK centre for a bit of leg stretching and some larks. We met up with Rory and Bruce, who had taken up residence in the hotel next door, and for an hour or so work and other burdens were forgotten. Single track on a cyclocross bike is great fun and I recommend it. Courtesy of Jungle Products Ltd I had taken a Niner RLT 9 Steel (click through link for a Preview of the bike. Full review to follow soon) – and it handled the downhill single track with confidence.
I’m not the nervous type, but some things can weigh heavy on my psyche, usually the fear of oversleeping, and after a fitful night’s sleep 5am on Saturday morning arrived. I don’t know what the temperature was but there was a hard frost on car windscreens and ice on the street below our hotel window. The sky was clear but there didn’t seem to be much promise of it warming up on the short 20 minute drive from Newcastleton to Kielder Castle. We had signed on the evening before so we were hopeful of passing through the briefing quickly and out into the forest as soon as possible.
Inevitable with this kind of event the logistics of rider briefing and getting everyone set to go takes time. It was cold. And standing around waiting was cold. The kind of cold that freezes your flesh and sets deep into your bones. The only thing to do is set your cheekbones into the freezing breeze and wait patiently, share a joke with your fellow riders or huddle, or as in my case wander around the empty exhibition rooms of the Kielder Castle visitor centre.
We were pretty much last on the grid, but by the time riders did start pushing off time passed by fairly rapidly as it soon became our turn to depart. A thank you and a nod to the starting marshals and we were off, shivering and doing what we could to settle at the back of the pack at a neutralised speed. A few twists and turns on the road and we were greeted at a first time check point at about 5km, after that we were out onto the forest trails.
That first 60km was done at a swift pace, partly in an attempt to warm up and partly to get beyond the slower riders. Despite layering up with as many layers as I had packed my fingers were numb with cold and there was never a point where things became more tolerable and my body temperature could be regulated. The double track gravel roads were easily traversed, the hills sweeping gracefully, nothing too technical or challenging until that rutted and puddled slog up through the trees and a bottleneck of riders; a connection between one forest fire road to another about 4 or 5km ascending and then descending again.
The first checkpoint, feed stop and next time check was reached fairly quickly. A hot coffee and a face full of scones and the colour had slightly returned to my cheeks. The stop was a hive of activity, mingling and chatting with friendly helpers and event volunteers, well catered and efficiently run with plenty for everyone.
Back out into the cold then. Refill a water bottle, offer thank yous and on. It must have warmed up a bit, but I was back to shivering and my warm breathe was still visible in the air as I pressed on. More double track forest road, more hills – nothingdifficult but rolling and relentless enough to start draining your energy. The bike was comfortable and the tyres fitted as part of the build (Schwalbe Sammy Slicks) offered fast rolling and enough grip to make cornering at speed, on gravel, reasonably assured – not too much drift but just enough to be fun.
After half an hour or so we came across a ford river crossing – I must admit that I had forgotten about this, though it was very clearly highlighted in the rider briefing. A gaggle of riders had stopped, weighing up the best possible strategy for crossing, and a marshal offering the best advice he could under the circumstances – I heard a few tales of some people ending up sitting in the river having attempted the all out attack, unseen below the surface were rocks and other things not accounted for that tipped them off. I watched a few cross, the water was hub deep, some successful, some not so successful. Noticing a bunch of rocks just off the road to the right, weighing up the probability of falling in against how uncomfortable it would be, I made the decision to hop across the river using the rocks as stepping stones, just wetting my feet in the process. Another strategy would have been to remove shoes, socks, roll up leg warmers and wade across, but that seemed like too much of an annoying faff.
As I mention above this river crossing had been highlighted clearly in the rider briefing, fair warning and this is what you sign up for – I didn’t sign up for the cold, of course, but I can’t blame anyone for that. Still cold, and now with cold wet feet I pressed on, the field of riders now strung out so it could be a while before you saw or spoke to anyone, always chasing down dots of riders in the distance as a focus to keep going.
Only another 20km or so to the next time check, my brain subconsciously starting to chunk the ride down into 20-30km sections. Since the last time check I had yoyo’d with a couple of riders from VC Moulin and friendly chatter and other discussion led to passing the time… I never did get the guy’s name, he was fairly local (Scottish) and was training for the 3 peaks race later in the year, and I know his riding partner was struggling with the cold and having a pretty bad day out.
The route was extremely well sign posted, black arrows on yellow board for the most part, with Salsa Cycles (one of the event sponsors) tape guiding riders after junctions for the added security of knowing you were on the right route. There were marshals at important parts of the route to give encouragement and to guide riders onto the next section of course. There was never any particular need to check navigation, which was great, but then at the same time felt disorientating, I never did get to grips with what direction we were travelling other than a face full of wind meant we were heading north.
At this section on the route we were at the further point west and overlooking the area around Gretna and the Solway Coast – distant snow capped hills and the bit of sea between the UK mainland and the Isle of Man. I know this because my VC Moulin friend told me so. Stop to take in the view and then take the long, long descent into Scotland. This descent, what a laugh… with this descent, dear organiser, you really spoiled us. Bone shaking, wrist cracking, brick and rock strewn hell. We could have been good friends, Paul, but you started to toy with my emotions from this point on.
The descent eventually found some smooth tarmac, dropping down out of the forest onto roads that formed a borders cycle network, crossing a river and eventually leading to the next time check and feed stop at the 100km point. There was a festival vibe here, music, plenty of food and a teepee tent with a fire burning. I lingered around this fire, probably too long, to dry off my feet and warm up a bit. Simon had made the decision to press on whilst I prevaricated by the fire and munched blandly on the corner of a jam sandwich. Physically I felt ok, but for the cold, and I felt on terms with completing the challenge. By now it was pushing at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and with another 100km to cover I felt it was time to crack on, so summoning up the sinews I got back on the bike and continued on up the next ascent.
This ascent went on, and on and on, back up into the forest, rocky and uncompromising there was no smooth line to take and the top seemed to take for ever to arrive. OK, this was ok, I could deal with this, just grind it out – I had begun an inner monologue to see me over the 5km and the next and the next. Once back up into the forest there was a descent down into a river valley, skirt to the west a little following the river and then along the other side of the river bank.
This is the section where my humour began to drain from me. It felt like 10km of purgatory. I was completely alone at this point, I don’t know how long it was both in distance and time, I don’t even care now but it was a continued slog alongside the river, never really rising much above it on a trail that had obvious signs of recent flooding and sections of which were currently in various stages of repair – it was like riding up hill but without the satisfaction of gaining any height… dear Paul, if you were here at this point I may well have physically struck you, though it would have been a laughable and feeble swing at you since my arms and wrists were starting to feel fatigued.
It was with much relief, then, that the route took a sudden turn across the river, over a footbridge, and began to climb an incredibly steep bit of gravel track out of the valley. The weather was starting to close in now and grey, dark, brooding clouds were beginning to cast themselves across the forest, the bitter cold wind had picked up and it wasn’t long before the first flecks of sleet, hail and snow begun to fall. I could see Simon in the distance and he became a target as I pushed on.
I eventually caught up with Simon at the bottom of a very fast descent – actually, I caught him at the top of the hill, could almost reach out an touch him, but totally unaware that I was on his wheel he hit the descent like a dropping stone and I didn’t see him again for another 5 minutes.
My mind now was torn between a conscious belligerence to continue and a resigned indifference to the whole thing. I’ve done the cold, I’ve ridden all winter in this kind of weather and I was fed up with it. Some particularly energetic marshals gave a brief boost to the energy levels and mood, but the snow/sleet/hail continued to try and break my spirit. We had reached a point in the route that I recognised, the main road through the forest to Kielder Castle, a clever little psychological game to play on riders, wavering in their resolve at the 125KM mark – do you just take the quick route, about a mile or so, back to the castle or do you continue and complete the ride on the last 70km loop? In the end it took one look from Simon and we both took the short way back to the event HQ. That’s that then. DNF.
Given the lead up to this event and the work I had put in, the long distance to travel, being away from home and family I felt disappointed. Nonetheless this was the right decision for me. I was lamenting to a friend who, without a beat, reminded me “you of all people should know the arbitrary nature of the finish line”, and of course she was right – she then went on to tell me about a man, who was the feature of a recent documentary she had watched, who undertook a journey from the top end of the United States to the Mexican border on horseback – in the end the man stopped 1 mile short of the his final destination and explained “some things are best left unfinished”.
Some reading this may well be thinking, so what is the point of even starting if you don’t finish? And my (deliberately abstruse) answer is that we are all just 65% water, eventually evaporating into the atmosphere.
Paul and the Dirty Reiver team, many thanks for the experience. I may well have stopped short and had a miserable experience, but I am happy that I came up and I am impressed with your organisation, the event, the challenge, the forest – it was well worth it for those beautiful vistas. A month on nearly and I can lay it to rest, but there’s a certain chewy unfinished business about it all so I may well be back next year.
To all who finished – bravo you brave and fool hardy people, I hear the last 20km around the lake were breathtakingly beautiful.
Further photographs can be found via social media using the #dirtyreiver hashtag – well worth a look if you are thinking about it next year.
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