Kielder Forest, Northumberland
When it was casually suggested that we all do a "fun little gravel event up north", almost as a throw away comment, at CX training last winter the response was naturally, "sure, why not, should be a laugh". It turns out statements like this ought be carefully qualified before committing. The "event" in question turned out to be the Dirty Reiver. The location, Kielder Forest. Both notorious for being tough on bikes and even tougher on the legs. But ignorance can sometimes be bliss, and the end result was a fantastic weekend of adventure, in an incredible setting with a glimpse of what, I think, may even have been the mythical "Spirit of Gravel".
Kielder is simply beautiful. Sitting at the west of Northumberland, straddling the Scottish boarder, it is an expanse of smoothly rolling hills blanketed by pine forests. In the sun it invites you to explore and soak up the incredible vistas that reward each ascent to a summit. In the wet, it takes on a completely different personality; managing to feel bleak and remote while promising pockets of shelter in among the deep pine forests. We were to experience both sides of the character of Kielder.
While the seeds of our endeavour were sown way back in the autumn of 2022, it was on Friday, 22nd April 2023 that we finally set out on our journey. The months of increasingly earnest preparation meaning that, for my part at least, cars were packed with far more than would really be needed, but offering reassurance that any eventuality could be covered. In the preceding weeks our WhatsApp chats had been particularly focused on the weather. It seemed inevitable that rain would feature but the extent of any precipitation seemed to swing, almost hourly, from a light sprinkle to an absolute deluge. While no detail seem certain, two things were for sure, "changeable" was an good description, and wet weather tyres were going to be the safe bet.
However, we arrived on Friday afternoon in bright sunshine. Seizing the opportunity, we got kit dumped, bikes unloaded, and hit the trails. And what trails they turned out to be! Wide, flowing, fast rolling and with views to die for in every direction. Our circuit of the Kielder reservoir loosened the legs and fuelled the soul. Finished off with pizza and pre-event fermented malt-based liquid nutrition we retired ready for the early start and long day in the saddle still to come.
Saturday morning greeted us with an altogether different character of Kielder. The rain had, as promised, come but thankfully with less gusto than feared. Drizzle not deluge and intermittent at that, so we picked the half-full glass and counted our blessings.
At 8:00am on the nose we rolled over the start line at Kielder Castle. Spirits were high with hopes and dreams very much alive, kept buoyed by the camaraderie and enthusiasm of the 1,500 other people riding. Sure, the pace was perhaps overlay enthusiastic to start. But the gravel roads remained firm and fast rolling despite the rain. And the atmosphere was charged with positive energy. As the kilometres clicked by there was time to soak it all in (literally and figuratively). The expanse of the landscape, the brooding forests, the bleakness of the logging fields, and the gravel; a seemingly endless ribbon laid out ahead of us.
Adrenaline is a fantastic drug. But unfortunately it can only carry you so far. By the time we reached the first feed stop we had covered 50km and about two and a half hours had passed. The weather seemed to be closing in, the appeal of energy gels was wearing off and, critically, the legs were starting to feel heavy. It was this point that I made some mental calculations, told myself discretion is always the better part of valour and decided that today was not a 200km day. Fortunately, the Reiver comes in three flavours: the full Dirty Reiver, Dirty 130 and 65er. This year I was going to swallow my pride and take the middle ground, which was still a long way and plenty of time in the saddle.
It was the best decision I could have made. The next 50km took longer, nearly 3 hours, and by the time I reach the "mid-point" stop at kilometre 100 I knew I was running on fumes. But that was okay, I had a pasta salad and, like manna from heaven, a pork pie waiting for me in my drop bag. And that replenished my legs and my enthusiasm more than I could have hoped, leaving me ready for the final stretch home and riding with my smile restored.
The last hour or so flew past and the surroundings continued to inspire and delight. The rich variety of riding meant every kilometre seem to offer something new, visages that were carefully committed to memory as they passed. The fear of monotony, that I confess had been lurking in the back of my mind before we started, was unfounded. The route was perfectly designed, showcasing an amazing place to spend time on a bike.
And then, much sooner than I expected, I was at the split where the 200 route headed off to the north while my new chosen path for the day swooped round the final gentle forest paths back towards the Castle. Was there a moment of regret at that junction? No; I knew I was going to finish my ride having enjoyed every minute of it, satisfied, and keen to come back.
Meanwhile, three of my brave riding companions had carried on. They had the legs and the grit to dig deeper than me and had taken that path to the north well before I reached that junction. Later in the evening, after we had all washed the worst of the grime off ourselves, quenched our thirst and filled our bellies, they told me of their exploits on the gravel trails beyond the relative safely of the Dirty 130. Their stories were of monstrous climbs, descents that went on seemingly forever. Of moments of darkness, camaraderie with others who also summoned deep reserves to carry on, and of the thousand-yard stares of the truly broken. But they too finished happy. Exhausted, but happy.
Did we find the Spirit of Gravel? Maybe. We definitely glimpsed something that felt like it could be; the combination of riding in an amazing location, sharing it with friends and a thousand like-minded strangers. The sense of satisfaction at the end. But most of all, the fact that a wet, long, chilly and grimy day on the bike still left everyone with huge smiles on their faces and already talking about "next year".
If that is the Spirit of Gravel, then I'm a believer!
Ben Bollans (RLSCC)
Debbie Bradley (Peddlamaniacs)
Alex Craig (RLSCC)
Paul Daniels (RLSCC)
Paul Harrison (RLSCC)
Jenine Horgan (Peddlamanicas)
Steve Large (RLSCC)
Alicia Lisle (Team Empella)
Laura Powell (Team Empella)
Footnote: The whole Dirty Reiver experience was great; well organised with everything you needed but also laid back and hugely enjoyable. On a personal level, massive thanks has to go out to two people: Laura Powell who not only suggested the idea in the first place but also help get us all sorted with places. And Steve Large, who made sure we had somewhere to stay, that wasn't a "bivvy in a hedge"! Thanks both.
Additional photos kindly provided by Ben Bollans, Paul Daniels and Laura Powell.