What went down at the Dirty Reiver Gravel Adventure…..

published by bktr on 07/05/2017 15:16:00


If you’ve spent any time recently within either Ings or Ambleside you’ll have heard murmurs of a gravel “adventure” that 3 of our staff (Mike, Matt and John) were taking part in on one sunny day up in Kielder Forest.  Essentially a 200km off road gravel route you could choose what bike you opted for and the challenge was to get round a) in one piece and b) in the fastest time you could for kudos only as it’s obviously not a race!!

Here are the accounts from the boys on how they got on or didn’t…

Dirty Reiver 2017 - John

The Dirty Reiver is a 200km (or 130km short option) gravel sportive type event around the remotest areas of Kielder Forest which ran for the first time in 2016.  Speaking to various customers and reps reviews ranged from “great but hard” to “horrific, I’ve never felt so bad on a bike in my life, I was totally broken by the end”.  Normally this would be enough to discourage me but I did quite fancy a new gravel bike so entered the Dirty Reiver 2017 to justify one...

Fast forward a year and Friday the 21st saw me arrive at Kielder campsite with my tiny backpacking tent and almost all of my cycling kit - when the weather forecast is “changeable” you can’t have too many options.  After some wind and rain whilst putting the tent up the weather seemed to settle down to clear and cold which was fine by me.


A 0530hrs start on the Saturday for breakfast and a final kit sort out saw a slight ground and tent frost and a distinct nip in the air but once lined up ready to go at 0700hrs with 799 other riders it had warmed up just enough to be pleasant.  Looking around saw a massively varied approach to bikes and kit, some people were on road bikes with the narrowest gravel tires imaginable squeezed in whilst others were on full suss mtbs with big riser bars and hefty tires.  It’s a testament to the variety of the terrain on the course that either of these options would have paid off at different points of the route. A quick safety brief and a few words about Mike Hall, killed whilst endurance racing in Australia and who was known personally by a lot of people on the start and we were off.

Initially things were going well, the first couple of descents saw dozens of people suffer punctures but I was feeling pretty smug knowing my tubeless setup should keep me rolling.  That sense of smugness lasted until the 6 mile point when something tore my rear tyre, sprayed tubeless sealant everywhere (seriously, it was like a bloody fountain!) and necessitated the fitting of an inner tube.  At this point it dawned on me that instead of an “almost invincible” tubeless set-up I was now running a very flimsy xc race tire and tube with 114 miles left to do and one final spare tube.  

The plus side of a very early mechanical is that you end up at the back and whilst this might not sound much like a plus it does mean that once you’re on your way again you don’t get overtaken very often. The remainder of the ride saw me passing a lot of the people who had ended up in front of me and in terms of morale I think it was better this way rather than being towards the front to start with and just having a steady stream of faster people coming past.

The first feed stop at 30 miles soon came round and I was feeling pretty good, stopped to fill the water bottles and have a couple of flapjack squares and a hot chocolate and off again.  Weatherwise it had cooled down a bit and got windier but nothing too bad and the base layer/long sleeve jersey/gilet combo was working fine.

The next feed station was at 60 miles and given that my longest ride this year was 64 miles I was expecting to start to feel the miles.  Oddly though I was still feeling fine, my plan to get either a Torq bar or gel down me every 30 minutes seemed to be paying off and I was still catching many more people than were catching me.  Still not on for a podium finish by any means but again it was good for morale.  Having said that, it was a case of spotting someone in the distance and then making the overtake 45 minutes later after slowly reeling them in!  There was a long mtb type descent leading to some easy tarmac lanes on the run in to the 2nd feed station and the last few miles to the feed station flew by.  Feed station 2 was where we could pick up our drop bags so I could top up my gels etc and also treat myself to some beef jerky which I’d put in for a bit of something different. Somebody had helpfully left a pot of salt near to the chocolate flapjack so obviously I treated myself to some salted chocolate flapjack which turned out to be an inspired choice.

The climb out of feed station 2 was pretty heavy going, particularly on legs which had cooled down a bit. Thankfully there was quite a lot of descending afterwards so the miles ticked by nicely until we reached the river bank.  This was where the event became a lot less fun really, slightly uphill, rocky and draggy this section seemed to go on for miles and you couldn’t get a rhythm going.  At the end of this section there was bit of a clearing with about 20 - 30 riders sat around cursing the previous few miles.  A few more long sloggy climbs and equally long but far less sloggy descents took us to the split for the full 200km event or the short route back to complete the 130km option.  I was still feeling surprisingly perky at this point so didn’t think twice about hitting the climb which marked the beginning of the end.

This feeling of perkiness soon faded as the climb just went on and on and on with only the odd period of really strong headwind to mix things up a bit.  A change wasn’t as good as a rest it turned out.  At some point I ended up on tracks I recognised from a sneaky recce a couple of weeks earlier and despite having done about 85 miles of the course by this point I still set a couple of PRs on the next couple of big climbs, god knows what I’d been doing when I was last there but I must have been doing it really slowly.  At the top of one climb a marshall told me it was a 5 mile descent to the next feed station. This was such good news it could clearly only have been a lie but no, he was right!  If anything it was too much descending as I started to get cold but I won’t complain too much about this bit.


The guys from the bikepacking/adventure/gravel website Pannier.CC were in charge of the 3rd feed station and they’d spent the day cooking boiled new potatoes with herb butter and freshly brewed real coffee which were both a massive hit.  Chatting to them the previous day they’d been amazed at how positive people were about the potatoes plan as they hadn’t been overly convinced - next year there’ll be more potatoes.

pannier.cc potato.jpg

The next couple of climbs were both steep and long and I passed more than a few people who had clearly blown by this point, thousand yard stares, pedalling squares, zig-zagging, the works.  Strangely I was still feeling ok and had no concerns about finishing etc - I knew what was coming up and was convinced it was in the bag now. However the next section was nearly enough to make me change my mind - a slight rise along a long, narrow, arrow straight track which just wouldn’t end.  I’d ride for what seemed like miles, look up and the end was exactly the same distance away as it had been.  And repeat.

Finally the route popped out onto the Lakeside Trail around Kielder Water itself, the surface was really good for carrying speed but the numerous skid marks heading into the ditches alongside the track proved that the surface was faster than the corners could handle.  The Lakeside Trail is odd, running along the shoreline it should be fairly flat but in reality it’s a constant series of short sharp climbs and descents.  It was along here I finally started to flag, whether it was because I knew the finish wasn’t far off or whether the miles had actually caught up with me I don’t know but I started to throw guarana boosted energy gels down at an ever increasing rate.

Torq gel.jpg

Finally I popped out of the forest and just had the final climb up to to the castle to go, cheered on by spectators and marshals I finally crossed the line after being out for 12hrs45.  From that I’d spent just an hour stationary at feed stops and repairing punctures. The total distance was 126.4 miles according to the Garmin so twice as far as my longest ride in over a year.  Unsurprisingly the complimentary beer went down a treat, as did the recovery cheeseburger. And the second recovery cheeseburger.

Kitwise everything worked perfectly other than the tubeless tire, I was riding a Specialized AWOL Comp which is Specialized’s 1x11 steel bikepacking/gravel/monstercross option.  Fabric tape over gel pads meant I had no issues with sore hands, some Crossmax SLR wheels kept the overall weight reasonable and made the bike feel a bit more responsive than usual and last but by no means least - a swap to my old mtb XX1 crankset running a 32T ring meant I had no issues on the hills.  The only thing I might consider for next time is swapping the seatpost to something with a bit more give. 

The toptube bag held gels and bars and the saddlebag a few bits of spare kit which I didn’t use such as insulated gilet and spare gloves.  The 3rd bottle underneath the downtube had the toolkit in it.  Phone & car keys etc went in a zipped jersey pocket with caffeine/guarana gels also in a jersey pocket to keep them apart from the regular, none turbo-charged versions. Gore 1985 ShakeDry waterproof went in a jersey pocket just in case.


And I’m all set for next year!  Crossing the finish line I could happily have given my bike away but sat in the courtyard chatting afterwards I was already planning for the 2018 event.  It’s such a good challenge, well organised, great terrain and with fantastic back-up and support from the marshals that I don’t see how people wouldn’t want to do it again.  Unless the weather’s grim in which case I’d imagine the event becomes a very different beast.  So I’ve booked the time off, sorted the holiday cottage (no camping for me this time!) and promised myself I’ll do some proper training.

Dirty Reiver - Matt

Dirty Reiver 2017



Firstly, I'd like to say Sorry to John for recommending the super light XC race tyres for his “Reiver wagon”, Yes we all know punctures are inevitable but I really didn't think I'd be playing a part in his 6mi in woes that he found himself in.

Secondly, I'd also say that it turns out you actually NEED to do some distance riding to have a hope of doing well in an event like the Dirty Reiver. I’ll spare you all from the excuses but there's only so far naivety and a little hope will get you.

As for the event, well the DR has it all, whether it's the lure of being “something a little different,” the landscape, the scale of the event (in terms of mileage), the risk of it being terrible if the weather Gods didn't shine (see last year’s for reference), a cold beer afterwards? “Proper” coffee for sale in the event village. I can't really put my finger on the one thing that made it, but it was a corker.


My bike of choice this year was the Scott Scale 940 that I'd pieced together to be as “fast as possible” but with the comfort of bigger tyres and flat bars rather than my cross bike which I'd only manage to ride for a maximum time of 4 hours at a time in the past. The Scott Scale was a good choice for the ride, I managed to score some super light Mavic Crossmax wheels to help keep things spinning fast, stem slammed, flatbars, stubby bar-ends (queue Sarah's disappointment), and some colour matched foam grips to boost morale, top tube food bag, tool cage and seat pack on and it was ready for the job.


The ride was going well, I was off in the 2nd wave of starters with Mike and a fair few of the faster riders, we set off well (too well really). Those who have raced before will know; when you're a racer and you're lined up on a start line of any description it's impossible not to get in that same frame of mind over and over again. Once again, even though it's 07:00am, it's cold, I've only had 1 coffee I still find myself following the wheels, moving up through the groups and riding with others who probably could carry on like that for the remainder of the distance.

There were many good bits to riding the Reiver, the landscapes and the views were just too good sometimes, passing riders on fast descents, chatting away while whipping along traffic-free roads, witnessing some questionable river crossing techniques (singlespeedmatt) but my ride came unhinged after a dark spell sometime after the 2nd feed stop turned out to be one I couldn't get out of. My speed plummeted to that of a crawl. I couldn't stomach anything. The friendly chit-chat wasn't there and I'd sewed the seed of pulling the plug. There was no cramp, no aches and pains that I'd thought would be my nemesis having simply not ridden a bike enough to deem 200km round Kielder to be feasible and after making a turn to carry on with the the 200km a mere 10km or so further and I was lying in the back of my car watching rider after rider carrying on after I'd left singlespeedmatt to carry on with them but riding the remainder paniagua (minus the bread) wasn't for me on that day.

So, yes in hindsight more “training” would be needed but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’ll be back next year rain or shine, gravel bike in hand, a stronger mind and an iPod with some ridiculously good music to get me out of a hole when I'll find myself in one again. Tips for the Dirty Reiver, get your diet right for the day and practice this until you get it right, get some miles in the legs, keep it fun, keep company (sorry Josh), don't start at a pace you can't maintain; after-all it's a pretty big day out!

See you there next year!