Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Dirty Reiver

The Dirty Reiver is an event that's been on my radar since its first edition a couple of years ago. A big gravelly day out around Kielder Forest, it's had the kind of reviews that kind of appealed, in a slightly masochistic way, to my sense of humour. That said, I wasn't sure of whether I'd be capable of the 200km it entails - finishing was uncertain, and the weather turned out to be rubbish that year. I held off the first year, and vowed to enter the second.

Cotic X: Ready to roll
2017 came up and in went my entry to the newly announced 'Dirty 130', a two-thirds(ish) version of the Reiver, for those like myself who didn't want to commit to the 200. All well and good, with the late '16/early '17 riding going well until the Kielder Cross, my shakedown and fitness check event: that itself went well enough, but the weeks after were plagued with hip and lower back problems that despite stretching, physio, exercises etc, stopped me getting in any decent training rides from February through until April. With no chance of being able to get the fitness back in time, I emailed in to cancel my entry. No refund available because of the late notice, but the offer of a deferral to 2018 and, yeah, why the hell not. The rest of 2017 got a bit better, and I got a lot of the niggles squared out and dealt with, so as soon as entry for the 2018 Dirty Reiver opened, I emailed in and took up that deferred spot. The 130 seemed like the best option, a long day but maybe more within reach than 200km when it's still fairly early in the season. Winter was rubbish for training, but I've had some better rides and results in the Open5 Series, some good longer rides, especially over Easter, road riding with friends in the Lakes. I was still thinking of the 130km as a challenge (ie. Something where finishing isn't a certainty), as 130km would still be, I think, the longest single off-road ride I've ever done. But, my fitness was about right, my mindset was about right, and I reckoned it would be a good day out on the bike one way or another.

Registration mugshot. Pic: Endura
I took the Friday off work to get everything finalised, though I'd been gradually sorting gear out for a fortnight or more. Mandatory kit was simple but maybe bulky: small first aid kit, waterproof, lights, phone, water and food. A partial frame bag went on the bike that took the essentials and some extra mechanical spares. The weather turned from it's winter coat to beaming sunshine a few days before the event so the 3/4 Roubaix bibs got canned off my kit list and lighter shorts got added on. Feed bag full of sweeties on the top tube, small rucksack with a hydration bladder and a few other bits, saddle bag with tubes and multitool. I packed the camping kit and headed up to Kielder, stopping at Hexham for a cuppa and a sarnie on the way, in glorious sunshine and deep contemplation. I rolled up to Kielder Castle and registered, enjoying the day, the atmosphere and the fact that events like this are a small, strange, interlinked little world. With little else to do except pitch my camp and mooch around the Gravel Expo I got chatting with Andy and Bryan from organisers Focal Events (old acquaintances from the Porage events) and Stephen from 4Play Cycles in Cockermouth (who's worked on Rivers Ride), and then bumped into event photographer Andy H, who's also a Porageer. Word gets around, it seems. The Expo made for a nice little gazeboed village outside the castle, with a few offers and incentives to visit the sponsors and the Nomad Bar teepee to keep us refreshed while we were doing it - local First & Last Brewery supplying the ales. A bit of pottering, tent set up, kit checked and faffed with for the Nth time, a beer or two and it was time for an early bed.

I am not a number...
The alarm went off at 6am and I was already awake, others on the campsite being obviously earlier risers than me. It was a chilly, dewy start to the day, the campsite being pretty well shaded by trees first thing. Kettle on, porridge pot made up, coffee pot brewed and on with the biking gear; bibs and baselayer, knee and arm warmers, jersey, gilet and windproof, picking up helmet, Buff, gloves and glasses from the car as I headed to the Castle to line up. I'd thrown a bit of change in my gilet pocket to try and get another hot drink before the off, but never got the time as I was queuing for the toilets for too long!

With the best part of 1,000 riders to get across a two or three rider width gateway, there was a decent queue starting, even at 7am on the dot for a 7:30 start. Knowing I was in for a steady, conservative day I lined up near the back, chatted to a couple of riders around me and tried to shake some life into cold fingers under thin summer gloves. I hadn't realised yet that this wouldn't be the only time I cursed my gloves that day, but all I wanted here was slightly thicker ones. I started my Garmin as the start was sounded, but it took a good five minutes to make our way to the gate, hence the discrepancy between the Garmin time and my chip time for the day. We rolled out, down the hill from the castle, along the road for a short while before turning into the forest and onto the first gravel climb of the day.

The first 24km loop of the ride put a couple of things into nice positive focus for me. I was spinning away steadily, plodding along as I do, there were no really steep climbs, just long grinds on fairly decent gravel surfaces, and I was making time up on loads of people! Two reasons mainly: 1) so many people were puncturing, on both climbs and descents, and 2) so many groups of riders faff like crazy at the top of a hill. The first I'd seen before, on the Kielder Cross; whether it's wrong tyre pressures, losing comfort by having them too hard, dropping pressure for comfort but then flatting on rougher sections, it seemed to be unending. I was running 40c Nanos, tubeless, at 35-40psi and didn't have an issue all day, so that was a bonus. The amount of faff from some of the groups around me was amazing though, maybe only to those of us who predominantly ride solo, but it was eye-opening. At the top of every climb, there'd be a group of 5, maybe 10, maybe 20 riders pulled up, some eating, some repairing punctures, some drinking, some off weeing in the trees. I to-ed and fro-ed all day with one group of riders, whose club I won't name, who could have been a pile faster than me if they'd stopped less, they certainly always passed me at a good pace, only for me to overtake them again at the top of the next hill.

Mamba country: Miles and miles of bugger all.
The first proper rough descent also vindicated one of my kit decisions. The mandatory list said ‘ability to carry 1.5 litres of water’ so I’d opted for one 750ml bottle and a litre reservoir in my pack. As the trail turned downwards and the surface went south with it, the potential for loss increased exponentially. The first instance especially, but all of the more technical descent sections were littered with ejected bottles, dropped food, bounced bananas and slipped energy gels. One section of trail even appeared to have sprouted several wild Pepperami plants...

I managed to keep hold of all my food and stuck with my gameplan to eat something small every half hour. We dropped out of the forest towards the first cutoff point, at Cranecleugh outdoor centre at 24km, and I glanced at the clock to see how far up on the cutoff times I was - over an hour, as it turned out. No problems, just another climb back into the forest, steady away, spinning the cranks. The roll over to the first Feed Station at 60km was more of the same: Long climb, steady flat, rolling descent, warm air, bright sun. Eat. Drink. Be relatively cheerful if not totally merry. We soon dropped out of the woods for a short tarmac out-and-back to the Feed Station, the marshal at the junction wielding a guitar and serenading us with a bit of Tom Petty as we went past - a burst of Free Fallin’ that raised a smile or two. The musical philosophy continued at the feed stop itself, with The Beatles ‘Within You and Without You’ filling the air serenely as I and a few others stretched tight legs and aching backs on the grass, refilled bottles, munched on some lovely Lemon Drizzle cake and chatted. I ditched the gilet and the arm warmers as the temperature was getting up quite nicely, from 4°c at the start up to 20°c there at Stonehaugh. The knee warmers stayed on - I’d had a couple of niggles with my left knee in the run-up to the event, and the coverage was more psychological than anything. I was an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff here, the only one that would really impact the 130km riders, and feeling pretty damn good, so after a quick word with both Stephen the mechanic and Sarah - another events regular - I was off again.

Decend! Pic: Stephen Smith @steph3nsmith
The rollout from the feed was pleasant tarmac, and a bit shaded, so nice to clip along at a decent rate. We turned right and the gradient rose gradually, with the whole kilometre of climb visible ahead. The young lady on the mountain bike next to me told me being able to see the whole climb was making her want to cry, which seemed a little odd. As before, nothing was steep, just long and steady, and I distanced her a little as she stopped at one point, hopefully not to actually have a cry. She passed me again somewhere along the way, in good form, but had a bit of hesitation when we made it to the ford and I rolled past her again while she deliberated walking or riding. I rode through, staying left as the marshal suggested, and crossed absolutely fine. To be honest, it was nice to cool my feet down in the river a bit, in hindsight I should have taken a minute and splashed in full body. I’d still have been dry within minutes.

From the next high point came the next longer, rougher descent. Myself and another gent on a gravel bike dropped in at the same time, me having great fun on slightly bigger tubeless tyres, him admitting he was running sealant-filled Slime tubes and they'd worked so far. Chat got interrupted by some of the roughest sections, and I passed the marshal and photographer at the bottom of the hill looking somewhat, shall we say, focussed. As you can see from the pic, my apparently standard angry race face was out in force - thanks Stephen for capturing that one. Truth is, my hands were taking a beating, and my gloves weren't helping. Whether they'd stretched and slipped, whether something was loose, I don't know, but whatever part of the bars I used, I was starting to get hot spots between my thumbs and my index fingers, probably right on the edge of the glove padding. That positioning meant they were sore when I was riding on the hoods and just as bad when I was down on the drops and braking. Just what you need on the rough stuff.

We caught another pair of riders at the bottom of the hill, two friends who'd ridden last year's 130 and were on for the 200 this time out, both on shiny titanium gravel bikes but both taking the mickey out of each others budgetary choices - there's a bit of cost variation between a Salsa Ti Fargo and a Sonder Ti Camino (The former costs pretty much double the latter, for those not in the know), but both looked great and their owners seemed happy with them. The four of us rolled on on the tarmac and farm lanes, passed a happy marshal telling us it was only 5km to the next feed station. We all wondered if he was lying, but it turned out not, and the only thing between us and the 96km feed stop was one more gradual tarmac rise. Hmmm.

Feed station 2: Bliss.
I'm not going to say the wheels came off at this point, but I started feeling lightheaded. I'd been eating regularly, so it wasn't that, but with the heat I suspected I hadn't been drinking enough, despite the bottle-and-reservoir plan. I finished the bottle off, took a long pull from the reservoir, and remounted to plod on, knowing I could get some respite and rehydrate in a couple of kilometres, not realising that the mercury had hit 27°c - I just knew it was damn warm and I was feeling it! Fortunately, the feed stop was at the bottom of a rolling descent, and I pulled in, dropped the bike and went straight for the water butts. I'd brought both Tailwind powder (energy drink) and Zero (electrolyte) tablets with me, so I made my mind up to have a full bottle of electrolyte before I left the feed stop. That didn't take long, so I had a second just in case, then refilled with Tailwind for the last 30km. We'd been able to leave a drop bag to pick up here, and I'd stashed a couple of samosas in mine, the spicy savoury making a nice change from the sweet stuff I'd been munching all day. I ditched my baselayer into my pack, likewise my knee warmers. Feeling a chunk better having thrown some liquid down, I pulled on my mp3 player as well and churned off out of camp.

Passport control at the top of Kershope Burn
The next hour and a half was pretty painful. Firstly, the steeper rise out of the feed station and a couple of shorter ramps, though a bit of the Afro Celt Sound System in my ears kept me tapping along with a decent steady rhythm. Secondly the next descent, on rough forest road, newly and badly patched, with the gloves chafing my hands to the point where I stopped, threw them in my pockets and rode bare-handed to try and ease them a little. Dropping out into sunlight from a dense block of woodland, I saw the U-turn point that marked the start of the Border climb - 7.5km up the Kershope Burn with 200m of continuous, gradual ascent. I'd heard about this, though I'd never ridden it before. I trotted on, though the surface was just rough enough to make settling into a rhythm nigh-on impossible. A handful of riders to-ed and fro-ed with each other all the way along, each pausing to eat, drink, wee, have a quiet word with ourselves etc. Half an hour of true grind later the border crossing appeared, the picnic table, bridge and signs that mark the boundary between Newcastleton and Kielder forests. I stopped, dismounted, took a couple of pictures and stuck my head and hands in the stream. The valley was sheltered and windless, but like a moderate, rough, lumpy oven to ride up. I wasn't the only one suffering a bit though, so after a short break four of us left the temporary idyll and crossed the bridge to head for home.

"130k Finisher". That's the important part.
 There was a cruel jab first though, one more short rise, probably the steepest thing we'd ridden all day. Well, I say 'ridden'. The guy at the front of our little bunch stopped to walk up it and the other three decided that that was a convenient enough excuse to do the same. At the top, we remounted and realised it was down down down from here. An arms race began, who could get up into the big ring and get cranking first, and we all did. Shooting down towards Akenshawburn there was a short gravelly rise, a group of us pedalling furiously, determined not to get off. We were greeted at the top by two figures: Bananaman and a Chicken. Hmmm...

This was the 200/130km split point, and these two unsavoury characters were our encouragement. Dropping to 130km? Chicken. Heading out for the big kahuna? Hero, have a banana. I chuckled, grinned, high-fived the chicken and spun off towards home, spirits lifted by a bit of daftness. Down Akenshaw Burn and into Lewisburn, back towards the arced Lewisburn Bridge and onto the Lakeside way, relishing the down and the flat. Soon, we were alongside the lake and the Bakethin Weir track, then the North Tyne and definitely homeward bound. An unfamiliar section appeared, and I realise we were headed across the road past Butteryhaugh and the next pop out onto tarmac would mean the final short climb to the castle and the finish. I'd passed a couple of riders on the trail, and myself and two others were in a short, fast train headed for home. We hit the tarmac, and turned right and left, with a good number of spectators near the Anglers Arms and lining the grass up the hill, cheering us and everyone else in. The other two stood up to climb, I stayed sat, upped my cadence and passed them both, slightly to my surprise. A sharp right turn at the top and into the driveway, past the timing point to stop the clock at 8:21:21. I turned and clapped the other two in, gratefully accepted my finisher's beer, badge and Tunnocks Teacake and slumped off into the grass to have a nice long sit down in the shade.

They had beer and pies. Win.
The hard work done - and well under the 10hrs I'd been preparing myself for - the rest of the evening was a laugh. I loped back to the campsite after a veggie chilli and a cuppa, and decided to go chill my legs in the river, since I hadn't at the ford. 15mins of sitting and splashing and I felt pretty invigorated. I grabbed a shower, got changed, chugged another bottle of electrolyte and wandered back up to the castle to cheer riders in and grab a drink. The guys at the Nomad Bar were pulling the pints of Reiver ale, and it seemed rude not to. A couple of those, a couple of rhubarb and ginger G&Ts and a good chinwag and I was a slightly tipsy but very happy individual. I chatted with the Focal Events team for a while, grabbed a steak pie to try and soak some of the gin up. Andy H and I made a rough plan to meet down at the Anglers Arms once him and his mate had eaten, and I sauntered down around 9pm to grab a pint and sit outside. By 9:15pm I was halfway down that pint and also half asleep in it, so decided I'd finish it and go put my head down, and catch up with Andy another time. Turns out, they'd both dozed off after dinner as well, so both sides missed each other! I turned in for the night and slept like a log, save for the half hour listening to the drumming of the rain, the crash of thunder and watching the bright flashy lightning going off directly over my tent at about 2am. Interesting way to cap a long day off, definitely...

Nearly the end of me, certainly the end of the day.
All in all, I'm really chuffed with the day and with the ride. The course was excellent, the atmosphere fantastic, a brilliant venue and a cracking event all round. I'm really happy with how I went, like I said, 1:40 quicker than I was preparing for and with genuine potential to have gone a bit quicker - not necessarily riding wise, but I could have reduced the stops, especially at FS2. Admittedly, the time-out and forcing liquids down was very necessary, so I'm not beating myself up about that. My Garmin download shows 7:38 riding time out of 8:27 total, so 50 minutes stopped of which nearly 30 was that feed station: That's okay with me. My legs held up, my knee held up, I've got bruised hands and a sore backside, but you know what, that's all good. I've been laid the challenge of "200 next year or we’ll press gang you onto the team" from one of the Focal crew, so who knows. I'm still not sure whether I'd last the 200, but I can certainly say I enjoyed the 130, and hey, there's a year to think about it either way...

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