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Sportive review: Lost in the woods on Dirty Reiver

In-depth
16 Apr 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 84 of Cyclist magazine

Words Joseph Delves Photography David Wren

From the 13th to the 17th centuries, the Reivers roamed the lawless border lands between Scotland and England. Loyal to neither nation, they were a law unto themselves, raiding towns and villages and building a reputation as some of the most fearsome horsemen in Europe.

Sparsely armoured, self-reliant and mounted on stout steeds, the Reivers are a good model for the modern adventure cyclist.

Named after them, and rampaging across their former home turf, the 200km Dirty Reiver gravel grinder is appropriately one of the UK’s toughest events.

Although pillaging is discouraged, the modern Reiver is not to be taken lightly. It traverses logging roads, farm tracks and sections of forest trail through some of the UK’s most remote terrain.

Along with their regular kit, entrants are somewhat worryingly expected to carry an emergency whistle and survival blanket.

The first time the event was run, in April 2016, the course was beset by snow.

Having injured myself attempting the Dirty Reiver last year, the long drive to the border provides plenty of time to reflect on the wisdom of returning for a second go.

Cruel beginnings

The start is in the remote village of Kielder in Northumberland, and given its far-flung location entrants have to arrive the day before and camp near the start line.

Having collectively crawled from our tents to find uncharacteristically clear skies, all 1,000 bleary-eyed riders assemble ahead of the 7.30am roll out. It will be dark by the time many finish.

Sometimes it’s good to get preconceptions dispensed with early. Passing the electronic timing gate after a kilometre, the first descent is one of the day’s most ruthless.

Rocky and fast, it doesn’t lend itself to being undertaken in a bunch, with people nervously swapping lines and pulling brakes at odd moments.

Bottles and computers are ejected from rattling bikes as riders who’ve only tested their kit on sedate bridleways find it betraying them on the bruising terrain.

It takes the next half an hour for the pack to thin out as we roll up and over the first small hills.

With the going smoother now, I’m soon reminded how fast 50kmh can feel when you’re unsure of the surface beneath your wheels.

After a few squirrelly moments I take shelter behind a speeding group. I’m going off faster than I should, but can’t seem to stop myself. I’m blaming the nice weather.

In most sportives it’s easy to tell who’s going to be quick – you just look out for tanned, shaven legs and a posh bike. Ascertaining the same at the Reiver is a different business. In endurance races the most important thing is the ability to endure.

Contained as much in the head as the legs, it’s hard to guess whose might be the wheel to follow.  As we plough along a forest trail I find myself riding alongside a cheery man on a grotty steel bike who confidently describes the day ahead as a tough seven or eight hours.

Even sticking shamelessly to his wheel I think that might be a bit optimistic for me. Warily passing the point at which I crashed the previous year, we eventually burst out of the forest at around the 80km mark as the route darts across a rare section of farmland.

For 6km it descends over shelf-like slabs and loose stones. There’s nothing to do but hold on and let off the brakes as much as possible. It’s equal parts exhilaration and terror.

I see a couple of riders laid up with punctures, but I manage to make it down without incident.

Not wanting to push their point too hard, the course designers have added in a significant stretch of tarmac, and it feels good to whizz through farms and down corkscrew bends.

At one point a marshal yells that I’m well towards the front. I feel giddy and flattered, but also nauseous and tired.

Although I’d promised myself not to go too hard in the first half of the ride, somehow I’ve ridden the opening four hours with an average heart rate I’d normally struggle to maintain for a 10-mile time-trial.

One symptom of this, other than being way further up the rankings than I’d planned, is that I find myself totally unable to eat.

Grabbing my packed lunch at the halfway rest stop I decide I’ll try to munch it on the bike.

This proves even more difficult as immediately after the rest stop the trail heads up through greasy, tightly packed forest, before dropping briefly only to rise even higher.

It’s a taste of what’s to come for the remainder of the day.

Across the border

Just past the 100km mark I hop the border for the first time, nipping across into Scotland via an unobtrusive little bridge. From here the second 100km to the finish is blocked by four monstrous climbs, each comprising a first peak followed by a second sting.

It is, as the rider next to me suggests, ‘hateful’. Despite not being the steepest, the first climb is the worst of them all.

The loose surface makes it near impossible to keep my speed in double figures. Simultaneously the innocuous incline doesn’t seem to reward my effort with any discernable increase in altitude.

Alone on the hardest section, it starts to dawn on me that most of the day is still ahead. Looking down to see my carefully cultivated average speed dropping precipitously, I can’t help feeling a bit sad.

God, it goes on. And on. And on. Until I’m not sure how long I’ve been struggling upwards. There’s a little respite, then I’m back in the forest slogging uphill through the pines.

Finally over the top, on the descent my humour and average speed improve slightly. Although by this stage it’s getting hard to hold onto the bike.

Somewhere past East Kielder Farm the whole process repeats again. I find myself climbing the northern side of Ridge End Burn, an interminable if picturesque drag pockmarked by chunks of last year’s snow.

This afternoon will surely finish them off, just as surely as it will finish me.

The heat is a sweltering 24°C and more than six hours in I feel dazed, although not unpleasantly so. Perhaps this is the beginnings of a second wind. Or more likely heat stroke.

Having not seen anyone else for over an hour I decide now is a good time to inventory the bits of me that hurt. Shoulders, aching. Bum, sore. Hand, quietly swelling having been whacked by an errant rock.

Right foot, previously painful now entirely numb. Brain, starting to melt slightly.

These maladies are exacerbated by currently rolling over sections of track torn up by logging trucks, the rough-cut trees they’ve dispatched piled up high on either side of the access road.

Thankfully on the backside of the day’s longest descent appears the final rest stop. Stocked with fresh coffee, hot potatoes, cheese and watermelon it’s a little oasis in the pine forest desert.

I stop only long enough to squish some food into my face and massage my foot back to life before pressing onwards.

Infinitely divisible

Obviously an average speed gained over a larger distance takes longer to erode. Yet mine now feels precarious. In my head I’ve spent the day dividing each section into minutes and seconds.

Over the next two climbs my brain fades totally. All I know is once I get to the lake at kilometre 163 the pain should ease a bit.

Run by the Forestry Commission, Kielder is stunning and remote, yet until the 1920s most of it was open moorland. Now the largest man-made woodland in England, it’s stuffed full of innumerable conifers making it eerily homogeneous.

Over the last two climbs, I’m not entirely sure where I am, lost somewhere among the infinitely repeating pines. When it finally appears, the sight of Kielder Reservoir is as refreshing as if I’d actually dived in.

From here the route stays largely flat and the gravel-strewn logging roads give way to smooth winding trails. Still, my wilted brain makes every curve a square, and at one point I veer into a ditch.

Across the dam and heading to the finish, with 20km to go I’m so fried I can’t work out whether I’ll make it home under my target time. In general I like to leave my potential untapped.

My pro career remains on hold as I pursue other interests, such as procrastinating, boozing or collecting unutilised race series subscriptions.

Yet for some reason I’d nominated the Reiver as my once-yearly attempt at trying. The idea had been worming away at me all year.

I’d even made a spreadsheet listing ways I could improve my previous effort. Not that I got as far as actually training. How do you prepare for a 200km off-road ride with 3,500m of climbing when you live in south-east England?

Instead, my preparation consisted mainly of setting myself an arbitrary target time, in full knowledge that I’d be despondent should I fail to achieve it. Applied to the Reiver this is a great way to ruin what is a very long day on the bike.

This decision has been generating a growing amount of angst. Only at 5km to go, when I realise I could run home in enough time to squeak in under my nine-hour target, do I perk up.

Spat onto the road for a final drag to the line I hang my wrists over the bars breakaway-style and push as hard as I can.

A final spiteful kick up to the line outside the castle doesn’t register, as the last bit of hurt is drowned out by finishers and spectators yelling encouragement.

I don’t remember ever being so happy to finish an hour and a half behind the quickest rider.

Unable to undo my own shoes, I stumble around the finish area with all the grace of someone leaving a nightclub at 6am on a Sunday.

As I crash out on the grass, I’m handed a beer and a printout of my time.

I then spend the next few hours cheering on the remaining riders (although with some taking more than 15 hours to complete the course it’s dark and I’m tucked up in my tent before the last of them finishes).

There’s no escaping how hard Dirty Reiver is. Take it easy and you’ll spend an entire day pedalling.

The only way to alleviate the hardship is to break it up with time off the bike, but there’s something to be said for just getting it done.

After comically warm conditions for April, that night the weather breaks, battering the canvas of my tent with rain and illuminating the hills with flashes of lightning.

It seems to be a sign that, really, we got off lightly. While having sworn at last year’s Reiver I’d never ride a bike in any form ever again, it only takes half the drive home before I’m planning how to do better next time.

And when I return to work the following week, my head keeps drifting back to the forest. Swooping through the pines, I think part of it might still be lost there.

The details

Down and dirty

What: Dirty Reiver
Where: Kielder, Northumberland
How far: 200km/130km/65km options
Next one: 12th-13th April 2019
Price: £60 (or £45 for the 65km option)
Contact: dirtyreiver.co.uk

The rider’s ride

Specialized S-Works Diverge, £8,500, specialized.com

Every niche in the cycling world soon spawns a bicycle, and for those looking to undertake their gravel-grinding at maximum speed, there’s the S-Works Diverge.

With more aggressive geometry than the average gravel bike the Diverge also rolls on comparatively narrow 38c tyres, yet to mitigate any potential harshness its Future Shock suspension system isolates the handlebars from the front of the bike.

Providing a little squish means the Diverge doesn’t wallow, but won’t smash you up either.

Although it’s not cheap, with spec including dropper post, carbon rims and custom electronic Dura-Ace/XTR groupset I could see where the money had been spent.

Do it yourself

Travel

Kielder is one of the most remote spots in the UK. While a few hardy riders schlepped the hilly 50km from Hexham station, for most the only option is to drive.

Accommodation

Camping is part of the experience and the site is right beside the start line. Pre-booking is essential and costs from £10 per night.

Book at kieldercampsite.co.uk. For a bit more luxury, the Dirty Reiver website (dirtyreiver.co.uk) has a comprehensive list of alternatives, from bunkhouses to B&Bs.

Bike

With an event village and gravel expo, you’ll be able to find some basic spares on-site.

Otherwise, the nearby Bike Place (thebikeplace.co.uk) in Kielder Village should be able to sort you out.

Thanks

Gratitude is due to gravel supremo Paul Errington at Focal Events for the invite.

Chris McClean and Ortlieb were also kind enough to share their van with our photographer, helping to make possible our coverage of the event.