It all started with a mad idea of going to try out Gravel Grinding. Within no time there was eight guys (Rod, Ross,Stevie, Andy, Kevin, Ryan, Joe and Marcus) from four clubs (Killinchy CC, Trail Demons, Carn Wheelers and Shimna Wheelers) signed up and heading to Northumberland, England for Focal Events, The Dirty Reiver 2017.
Rod had arranged the accommodation which was a great modern Bothy, in the middle of, well, nowhere really. Having said that, Keilder Forest Park (250sq mile) is huge and we were on the edge of it. Modern life takes a back seat here with limited phone signal and only WiFi at the Bothy. Though we didn’t let this worry us, we had come to ride 200k off road and we were reasonably prepped to do it. Lots of discussions on set up, tyres, pressures, clothing and type of bike had come and gone. Now was an earlyish night and a five o’clock start for a seven o’clock ride out.
No alarms needed, everyone was itching to get at it, the challenge was within touching distance. We got to Keilder Castle (event HQ) for 6.30 and left off our drop bags for feed station 2. After a few words by the organizers to get everyone jeered up and raring to go, bar the Irish that is, and applause in memory of Mike Hall (recently killed during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race), we were filing out in batches to the Timed Start just up the road. The start was aptly placed on the first climb, the first of many. The bike and kit test came on the first narrow two tramline descent through the trees, jumping from one side to the other, steep and bumpy and strewn with bidons, lights, caps and ass savers. Andy dropped a bidon and I managed to stop and collect a selection, which included his, and we left the rest sitting by the track. I couldn’t imagine riding on without both my bidons on such a long event. The three KCC guys were riding together and were ahead of the rest of us, having been released in the batch in front of us. The rest of us were going to try and stick together as much as possible. Though after the first long climb Andy had dropped off a bit and Joe was showing his strength at the front. The surfaces were changing at every turn and we were all riding head down and focused. We were still pretty much together when Kevin punctured just as Joe had gone up the trail a bit, the elastic broke. Ryan and myself waited with Kevin and Andy was soon on us too. Puncture fixed (bloody latex tubes) and we were off again. Not far now to the first feed station at 60kms. Oh a lovely cuppa and some cake, OK too much cake, and too much rest. Bidons refilled a bit too much chat and we were all back together. We told the KCC guys to keep on trucking. We probably stayed at the feed for too long but we were here to ‘enjoy’ the experience not to set any records.
Back on the trails, after an all to brief piece of tarmac, we were pacing ourselves nicely. Everyone’s ass was holding up OK and the double wrap bars were great. The hills just kept coming followed by some sketchy descents. Andy had dropped off again and Joe was on the move again, then cramps struck, and after a short walk Joe was with us again. Joe had to just spin on the climbs or he cramped again so we relaxed the pace for a few miles until we hit an old sheep trail on the boundary of the park. Ryan took off at break neck speed with Joe and Kevin in tow. I had to back off a bit as I was being shaken to pieces by the sheer roughness of the trail. I couldn’t focus on what was coming at me, shaken not stirred came to mind. I hung on for grime death as Ryan was flying ahead. How the hell is he managing to go so quick? Over the next wee crest and there was Kevin pulling up. Puncture. Thank God for that, rest from that battering. A chance to have a look around, nothing for miles, in fact no sign of civilization. Ryan made his way back to us and we cheered a few others chattering by while Kevin retubed. Ryan took the chance for a nature call and Andy had caught up and headed on, knowing we’d soon catch up so after a bit we headed off on down the rest of the sheep trail, even rougher at this stage. I was just glad to get to the bottom with James Bond themes rolling round my head. Ryan and Kevin had a gap now and Joe and myself were just tapping away until Joe cramped again. I would just crawl along waiting on Joe to get back on my wheel. Not far to the second feed at 100 kms, halfway. Joe wasn’t looking good, but maybe the drop bag would sort him out. By the time we get there the KCC guys have moved off after a brief chat with Kevin and Ryan. Pasta salad, pork pies, fresh butt butter and some tangtastics in my bag is a blessing. The feeds are very sweet orientated (will be addressed next year) and I’m definitely savoury toothed. Pasta salad was all our choice for the drop bag and there was silence as we sat in the sun enjoying it. Real food, so good. One pork pie now and save one for a pick me up. Most of us took the chance to reapply some bum cream as the terrain was certainly getting the better of my posterior and I wasn’t alone on that problem. Time to head uphill out of the feed station and Joe cramped again, I feared for his Reiver, we had to let him try and get over it himself. No point me watching him walk up hills he’d only get annoyed with me, I would tap it out and if he got going again he’d soon close in. However miles go by with no sign of anyone. Kevin and Ryan are ahead somewhere, Andy is behind me and I’ve no idea if Joe is on or off the bike. My head starts to play games with me as the climbs just keep coming one after another and the descents are over all too quickly. I’m in the dark zone, on my own and not sure whether to push on or back off. I start calculating how long I’m going to be out here. If I can hold 10 mph average it’ll be half eight before I’m finished, near dark. Why did I ditch my front light? I’m never going to be out there that long, I had thought. Ah well only thing to do is try and truck it for a bit and make up some time. I catch up with two guys on mounties and one takes off on the descent down and along the river and I’m after him, focus on chasing him, the race is on, we’re hammering and his mate is out the back door in seconds. Through a really scrubby switchback and then it’s rolling along the river as hard as we can go. Loads of kinks in a row with only one line through at this speed, get wide and the dust will have you in the ditch, then it’s back uphill for a bit and a chance to chat. That doesn’t last long when he realises he’s dropped his mate and he backs off to let his mate catch up. I’m in my own wee zone now and start trucking again. Over the crest and down to the bridge and back along the far side of the river. On coming off the bridge I feel the bike slow up a bit. Is it a slow puncture? What the hell is wrong? Tyres look fine. Must just be dead ground, no response from the tyres, have to keep 10mph, just keep in a big gear and grind it out. Soul and leg sapping ground, I scour the far side of the river looking for Andy or Joe but only the two English guys on mounties. Got to keep going, I spy two riders up ahead and I’m closing fast. Two ladies struggling in this dead ground but they are moving as quick as they can, ‘coming through girls’ and I’m away. I pass that scrubby switchback and still no sign of the lads. They’ll end up doing the 130 I think and keep going, then round the next corner I see orange up ahead, it’s Ryan, and there is Kevin too. Class, I’m closing. As I get to them they are complaining about this bloody dead ground. This is worse than all the gravel we’ve ridden so far. I’m just glad to have caught up, though now I’m roasting and I’ve used some serious energy to close the gap. I take a gel to help with recovery from the effort. It’s warm now and I’m feeling a bit drained. I’ll be OK when the gel kicks in, keep drinking and have a few sweets. We cross back over the river and onto a steep mucky single track back up to the gravel. Off and push, which is just as hard as riding up the steep bank. Back on the gravel and I’m struggling to hold the wheel. The lads have their mojo back and I’m drained, hold on for a mile or two and you’ll be fine again. I manage it but there is no kick from the gel, in fact just as I loose the wheel that feeling of wind is building. My ass is numb by now and I decide to fart, or did I follow through, bloody gels, I’ll have to stop, my guts are everywhere. I have layered up and need to get them off quick, I head into the trees, pressure is building by the second. I really don’t need this. With everything off and my shorts clean, thank God, I squat and all that happens is an enormous fart. Ah well I take the chance to apply some fresh cream and start delayering and make my way back to the bike. ‘Yeo’ comes from the trail. It’s Joe. He’s going again. Brilliant. I get back on the bike and we decide to just keep going together. We exchange similar stories from the last 20 mile and we settle in for the remaining 50 mile or so. Joe is still having the odd cramp but not as bad and I just tap out the climbs in front of him so he can catch up by the top of each climb. We come up on the split junction <200k 130k> but I have my head down and just go left. Further along the trail Joe commends me on my decision to just head on without hesitation. I’m not sure what he means, then he explains the T-junction was the split point. I hadn’t even noticed, thankfully removing that mental dilemma, but we had come to do 200k and was bloody well going to do it. How many kms had we done now and when was feed 3. I needed a break and food and to get off this saddle for a bit. Not far away we reckon. Reckoning when tired is never great. There is a climb coming but it’s looks short. It is short for a change and we are on a service road and then we come out onto a road. The road the van is parked on. Brilliant. A chance to change gear. Dump all the extra clothes and pick up the front light. Joe fills his bidons from the water in the van and off loads some gear too. It’s a little pick me up. The tarmac doesn’t last long and we are back on the gravel on a steady climb. The van was at 80 mile and the last feed is at 150k, what’s that then? 90 mile? Yeah about 90 mile. Great only 10 mile to the feed. Joe still has to just spin on the climbs and I just tap them out. This climb is going on a bit. My Garmin has reset itself at the van when I connected it to the charger. You better not have wiped that last activity. Good thing is I have accurate readings on this climb. As we finally crest the brute, it’s six miles with 1,000ft of ascent. The trail stays flat for a bit then we start dropping and I’m in freefall. No holding back, no one about, time to pick your line and descend. Hopping from side to side to avoid the potholes and find smooth sections we are motoring, Joe sitting not far off my back wheel. Jumping the odd pothole and easing for the bends it won’t be long to feed 3. We round a corner and down below us is feed 3. We hammer down the hill and leave braking to the very last seconds. Another checkpoint ticked off. Ryan and Kevin are already chilling at a table and it’s great to see them. I get offered a coffee. Oh I’d kill for one. The guy on Feed 3 comes over to check I’m OK after my late brake entrance, he’s an experienced 24hr Kielder racer and just wants to know I’m bang on to continue. He tells us of some of his exploits and he is happy we are all fine to continue as there is only two hills left to the finish. I get my espresso and it’s gone all too quickly. I lift some gels, in case of emergency, and a handful of gums. We are off again, and I can see Joe is unsettled. Ryan and Kevin are up ahead and Joe goes into cramp again. We have still 30 mile to go but only two climbs, this one and a wee one at the reservoir. The problem being, where the hell does this one end, over the next brow or the next or the next. The trail just keeps rising, I just keep tapping it out, and Joe rides and walks. Surely it has to end soon. Mile after mile of up. This is grueling and worse for Joe. My ass is sore again, so I stop to cream up and give Joe a chance to close the gap. I tell him to ride on and I’ll catch him up. Still climbing, endless rise after another. Onwards and upwards, surely it has to go downwards at some point and it must be some downhill. This thought keeps me going, I’m back on Joe’s wheel. He needs the loo and I tell him to stop there is still a while to go. I wait on the trail while he disappears into the trees. Please don’t cramp down there, you’ll never get out, is what I’m thinking. I take the chance to devour my pork pie and feed up on other bits and bobs. A few other guys go by that we have see sawed past over the day. Everyone looks wrecked but in good spirit. Joe makes it back out of the trees and once we are sorted we are off again. The climb finally levels off and we really go hell for leather on the descent. It’s pretty sketchy in places on the loose stuff but I just want to get round the reservoir and finish. That is if the reservoir ever comes into view. The descent finishes and there is no water in sight, the trail starts rolling not level but gentle ups and downs. Coarse gravel then dusty always testing your skills, no rest. Then water, yes water, it’s the reservoir. Straight ahead but we are turning right. What now? Further away from the water. We are tired now, just want to finish. Then finally we turn left and head down towards the reservoir trail along a short but rough single track. Yes the reservoir trail is a purpose build track and it’s smooth orange grit. A chance to fly along the trail and take in the views across the water. It’s nearing sunset and it’s stunning, good for the heart and soul. Then that climb we had been warned about, nothing fierce but after thus distance it stings and Joe cramps again. I climb on up and pace myself to allow Joe time to get back on. That’s it climbing over. The shackles are off and I’m belting along this trail until I slip off the side of it on a sharp bend. No damage done and I warn Joe who is back on me and we fly on round to the dam. We stop for a few photos. Joe has phone signal and takes the chance to call home. We have a bit of banter and shake the legs out, not far to go now. We cross the dam and back along the other side of the water. We pass a few late punctures and we come out onto the road with a French guy with us. He really looks tired. Time to make my triple chain set work. I crank her up in full tuck, tell him to get on my wheel and I nail it for home. Joe is sitting on third wheel enjoying the pull home. I’m going to empty the tank to the castle. It’s a lovely tarmac surface and just getting dark and I’m loving winding the crank as hard as I can at this late stage then suddenly an arrow pointing back into the forest. I make the turn without time to change down and Joe flies by up the rise into the trees. What now? I thought we were on the home straight. Over the rise and on into the forest past one of the bridges we crossed earlier. Joe is now nailing it to drop the French guy. After a mile or so the signs have gone and we cross another bridge. Did some smart ass turn the arrow on the tree? What had we missed? The French guy caught up to us and we all agreed to back track. Depressing. As we near the bridge a guy goes down a side path towards the bridge, we had missed the arrow. Ah well back on track and we hoof it for home with the lights on as it’s really quite dark now after our detour. Then there it is the entrance to the Castle, people are cheering and we hit the finish line. We get handed our badges and words of congratulations. We park up the bikes and hug each other. We had done it. We had endured highs and lows and absorbed most of what the Dirty Reiver can throw at you. We had been lucky with the weather and we headed for the cafe, where the rest of the guys were waiting. Andy, where was Andy? We thought he would succumb to the temptation of the Dirty 130 choice. However, not long after Andy appeared at the door of the café, he had made it. Eight of us had started and eight had finished. A great achievement by us all.
We had soup and a roll and chatted about the day. None of us were fit to eat, so we would head back to the bothy to shower and order Chinese. That is a whole other story but save to say we had a much needed breakfast in the local village on Sunday morning. All that needs said is, thanks to Focal Events and all their volunteers for an epic day out in Keilder and see you in 2018.