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Tim Pulleyn vs Dirty Reiver: Getting through a 200km gravel ride

Tim Pulleyn (@timothypulleyn) has far too many part time hobbies that he excels at. Trumpet playing, bike fettling, photo snapping, saddle sitting, personal grooming, surviving freezing temperatures, not looking after old people, making in-jokes, the list is obscure and endless! That made him the perfect candidate to join Shimano on a weekend in the North of England.

Dirty Reiver is an off-road gravel event based in Kielder, Northumberland, paying homage to the Gravel Grinder rides found predominantly in the mid-west of America. It covers the rough rocky roads between the forests in the border region of England and Scotland, and has the noteworthy reputation for being one of the most remote places in England.

As I’d been warned by a grizzled veteran, the terrain is unforgiving with rolling hills, slow and rocky technical sections and slippery gravel paths. Having done similar events in the past, I fully knew what I was getting myself into, but with over 6,000 meters of climbing and 200km in store, it’s safe to say I was anxious.

My set up

After riding the Torino-Nice Rally, a 700km self-supported route through the Italian/French Alps, I had the perfect setup for the ride. My all-round Woodrup Cycles Columbus Max frameset, Whiskey No9 Gravel forks, PRO Vibe bars and stem with Shimano’s Ultegra R8000 11-speed groupset and Shimano RX830 wheelset with tubeless tyres. The bike and all its components were hard wearing, comfortable and most importantly reliable.

Clothing was a more difficult choice because the weather was forecast to have a 25c temperature difference that day. I chose Shimano’s Evolve bibs and Jersey with an S-PHYRE base layer. With near-zero temperatures before the start I was grateful of Shimano arm and leg warmers for a few hours. S-PHYRE sunglass and S-PHYRE RX9 shoes completed the look. Gloves you ask? Yeah, I found myself missing them too!

When we arrived at the Kielder Castle race HQ on that unusually warm April afternoon there was immediately a buzz of excitement in the air with stalls and merch stands either side of the start/finish area.

I knew it would be a long day in the saddle on the day of the race so I was keen to make final tweeks to the bike, sort out my kit for the morning and get an early night. After a few night caps with the Shimano guys I hit the sack for some shut eye. That hardly came though because the temperature was absolutely freezing in my camper van. Nonetheless, I crawled out of my sleeping bag in all my clothes at 5:45 am to get ready.

Rocking up to the start line at 7am I was very pleased with two last minute choices. I swapped my Shimano S-PHYRE lenses from clear to iridium red and I bought some last minute sun cream, fearfully aware that I might have jinxed any chance of the sun staying out!

We’re rolling

The start was super slick and within 20 minutes everyone was on their way in search of gravel. The starting 60 km gave everyone an introduction as to what was coming. It was either super loose dusty gravel tracks or bridleways, often with pot holes darted about, or gravel cycle paths which were the closest you could get to a ‘smooth surface’ on this particular ride.

Section two led me and many others into a false sense of security. It started with light gravel tracks, undulating enough to maintain speed from one descent up the next hill without having to burn loads of energy hitting each incline. That didn’t last for long though, the rocks became much bigger and the road soon became single track with little opportunity to gain momentum. At this point I was extremely appreciative of those XC9 shoes. There were a few times the rocks got the better of me but the lugs on the sole gripped the floor with no problem. With the stiff carbon sole I’d been expecting my feet to be grumbling somewhere during the race but they remained super comfy all the way through.

It had been a while since I’d taken part in an event like this where so many people are riding so I’d forgotten the comradery that goes with a ride like this. I found myself chatting with many different folk along the route, whether they were passing me or I was passing them. Everyone knew how difficult the course was so it was really satisfying that people were so friendly, a testament to the type of event the organisers have successfully created.

About 30km from the final feed station I caught up with a chap who was running out of energy, similar to how I felt at the time. We got chatting about the Dirty Reiver and how he’d taken the 135km route last year even though he signed up for the 200km one. He was particularly annoyed at himself for doing that and vowed it wasn’t going to happen this year.

Around this point we came to the cut-off point where you could choose the shorter or the long route. My legs at this point were aching bad and my energy levels felt depleted but I’d signed up for the 200km route so I knew I’d also be annoyed if I didn’t complete it. Luckily for me there was a hero from my childhood spurring us on. In the middle of a forest miles from anywhere stood Bananaman. It worked too, straight to the left for another 70km of rough road on the orders of a 6ft cartoon character!

It’s all down here from now, right?

The last two climbs to the final feed station were brutal killers but at the top the guys from were there with fresh coffee and ‘real’ food delights like hot potatoes and cheese. It definitely made a welcome change from cake and energy drink. Fuelled up and ready for the final push, I didn’t dare dwell on the above question.

The final section was all about mental strength. There were two parts in particular where this applied - hats off to the organisers for playing with everyone’s minds!

The first part was when you reached Kielder Lake. My mood lifted, I knew it couldn’t be far and now off the rough stuff and onto the light gravel cycle ways. I caught up with a rider and asked where the finish was. He pointed directly over the lake and said ‘We’ve got to go ALL the way round first’. How far could it be though?

Well… That lake went on for what felt like forever. We were constantly going back on ourselves, looping around, swirling up the side of the hill to come down again which added to the frustration of finishing. The end was literally in sight though.

The second part came as we hit the main road. This was familiar ground, we were nearly at the finish, I could practically taste beer. Plus, all of a sudden Tarmac felt incredible compared to gravel! We came to the junction for Kielder Castle but what… we were turning in the opposite direction! From being no more than a kilometer away we had another 15km to do, and worst of all it was the reverse of the first section we covered in the morning. All those swooping descents in the early morning came back to haunt me.

I dragged my weary body around those tracks in the fading light and finally my computer was ticking onto 199km. That final kilometre was amazing, even with one last steep climb up to the Castle. I’d been out for long time and many riders had already finished but still a big group of spectators were there to cheer every single rider through the finish line, something I’ve never experienced at the end of an event like this.

Looking back, the 200km route was an incredibly tough challenge. Dirty Reiver is an onslaught of drop bar brutality, presented through the lens of dusty gravel and psychological exhaustion. What really made the event for me though was the organisation and the friendliness of everyone involved, from the riders to the marshalls and the organisers themselves. I’m pretty confident I’ll sign up for next year’s ride, although I’ll probably take the 135KM route, unless Bananaman tells me otherwise...

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