Kielder Forest is a stunning location; I’ve never been to that part of the world before but it’s sheer bliss. The roads are silky smooth and covered in fresh tarmac, snaking across the wide valley floor between the trees. You could be forgiven for thinking you’d dropped into an alpine valley. The start and finish point was at Kielder Castle, tucked away by the waterside at the northern end of Kielder Water. The views are stunning but in the back of your mind you start to think about which of the big rolling hills you’ll have to climb, and just how on earth you get around this massive expanse of water.
Sign on opens on the Friday evening and coincides with the ‘gravel expo’. This was less of a positive than the stunning location and consisted of about eight sponsor stalls where the staff seemed more content talking to each other than the riders. I suppose in most cases people arrive with everything they need so an expo feels a little laclustre these days. Still, it was a chance to catch up with some familiar faces and discuss kit and bikes for the following day. The whole of the Ribble Test Team quickly signed on and headed back to the accommodation to fuel up for the following day once we’d picked up the complimentary beer; an admittedly welcome touch.
Our accomodation was a bunk barn called Tarset Tor; 15 miles from the start of the event and situated at the head of the valley with some stunning views. The site is faultless and consisted of eight beds split between two rooms, a kitchen and a lounge area. Perfect for an outdoors based weekend and plenty of space to hold all the bikes and gear we required. Bikes fettled and pasta consumed, we headed to bed, apprehensive for the following day.
6am. We all woke up, looked out of the window and realised everything was frozen but the skies were clear, meaning a dry start to the day. We wisely drove down to the start and were greeted with a car park full of sleepy riders trying to decide what tyre pressure was most appropriate. Some fingers were possibly lost to the cold at this point but that’s life.
8am. A staggered start from the event village after what felt like a lifetime. The Dirty Reiver offers three distances; 200km, 130km and 65km. Someone stupidly signed us up to the 200km. Initial plans had been to roll out as one squad but the ex racer amongst us had other ideas or needed to get warm so disappeared into the distance in a cloud of dust, with the rest of us splitting into groups shortly after, settling into our rhythm and preparing for the long day ahead.
Pretty much the first 20 miles are all uphill and really string out the riders, giving you a bit of breathing space to pick your line. Unsurpsingly this section of the course was also filled with riders scattered by the roadside fixing mechanicals and punctures; people underestimating the impact that off-road terrain has on bikes. Thankfully the sun was fully up by this point and temperatures were rising.
Kielder’s gravel tracks feel so remote that it’s impossible to gauge where you are or in what direction you’re facing. They all look the same and seem to continue on endlessly into the distance. The sheer size and beauty of the area very quickly becomes apparent, as does the fact you’re a long way from society and without phone signal.
The 200km does two loops, the first of which is to the north of Kielder Water. The tracks are mostly what you might expect; hard-packed gravel with a loose upper layer that makes things a little spicy when it’s dry. There were a good number of corners I thought I was going to wash out on, only to snap the bike upright by sheer luck. The first feed is about 30 miles in and until this point it’s a net gain in elevation. After a little more climbing beyond the feed you’re greeted with a very welcoming and seeming endless descent.
Towards the end of the first loop, you realise just how spread out riders are; you can see dots in distance behind you and a handful upfront but catching them takes so much longer than on the road. I’d managed to catch up with a friend and enjoy about 20 miles together but approaching the second feed I let him go on ahead, conscious he was pushing for a time and I wasn’t; big thanks to Steve for stopping and helping me fix my one and only puncture though. Tubeless would be perfect for the event but I ran out of time to get sorted.
The end of the first loop is signified by the second feed stop. It’s here you choose to do the 130km or the 200km. I’ll admit that 130km was tempting but personal pride dictated otherwise. The feeds were the most disappointing part of the event and seemed lack any real sustenance for such a brutal ride; Jaffa cakes, jelly beans and a lack of savoury food other than some white baps with a bare slither of cheese. I carried enough of my own fuel but always think feed stops make up a big part of events so I hope this is addressed in future.
The second loop starts with a climb nearly 12 miles long, taking you up through the forest and up onto the barren moorland above. I was lucky enough to get into a group at this point and work together into the headwind. Riding with a mate through this section is thoroughly recommended. Thankfully the climbing comes to an end and you’re greeted with some sweeping downhill and more rolling terrain for a long stretch of the loop. The field thins out even more at this point as people have either chosen to cut off onto the 130km or are spread thinly as everyone works to a sensible pace for themselves.
The third feed comes at 90 miles and is massively welcome. There is a short stretch of tarmac to ease the legs before you arrive at the Pannier CC feed. This stop runs alongside the main event feed but is a million times better and the one they got all the riders talking; fresh coffee and new potatoes with cheese laid out for all to devour. An absolute blessing at the point when you’re definitely feeling lowest in the ride.
There are another barren 15 miles after the feed before you drop down out of the forest to the main road. Kielder Water comes into view and you know you’re into the home straight. Only one thing stands between you and the finish line now. The Lauf special stage. Cross the dam wall and a marshal signals the start of the stage. I expected a trail centre type parcours but was far from correct. The special stage is a great mix of torturous uphill, technical descent and unexpected terrain. It’s tough but you know you’re close enough to the finish to burn the last of the matches now. The winning time was insane and knowing I woulnd’t be in touching distance I used the stage to make up some lost time from earlier on without taking too many risks.
Lauf stage complete and you’re into the last 5 miles. This section is a dream. It’s a flowing single track that follows the waters edge and rolls really well. Even if you’re feeling shattered at this point you can pick up a few more miles an hour and really hammer it home for an uphill sprint finish into the castle.
You’re greeted with a patch rather than a medal which is a nice touch and a food voucher to start the recovery process. At this point everyone is shattered but it’s an opportunity to catch up on the day’s war stories and deliberate if we’ll come back next year. Everyone has unfinished business so I suspect it’s a yes.
As a team we had mixed fortunes but everyone enjoyed the event in hindsight and felt they had chosen their equipment well. I managed to scrape ‘Top 50’ in 8 hours, 35 minutes which was still nearly 1.5 hours behind the first rider home - crazy!
All things considered, I’d go back and ride again, making sure I ran tubeless tyres and packed a healthy supply of savoury snacks to compensate for the feeds. The last two years have been blessed with good weather and long may that continue. I think next year I’ll have a crack at the 130km.