It was about the time I sold my campervan last year, that the little worm in my ear started plotting how I was going to spend the money I got for it. After all, we always need more bike stuff, it’s only the justification that takes some thought.
It’s safe to say that it didn’t take long for me to hatch both a plan, and an excuse for the plan.
2019 saw me turning 50, and in the usual panic and societally-induced need to do something stupid to mark the occasion, I found the obvious ‘excuse’. I had decided that in 2019 I would aim for two broad ambitions, one would be to get my 2nd Cat Road Race licence (currently only 14 points left to get to reach that goal) and the second was to ‘spend less time at home’. Hence the need for the excuse to justify my absence to my other half. The ‘spend less time at home’ was ideally to spend more time out on the bike, and connecting with the ‘glad to be alive’ pooka in my soul. So not just riding, but spending days at a time, riding and camping and riding some more. This isn’t uncommon I know, the industry is currently awash with gravel this and bike-packing that. So I didn’t just come up with it without some commercially induced prompts, but it speaks to my inner child (as well as my acute desire to just escape every now and then and get back to nature). If it’s exciting me this much, then I can see why it’s the current big thing... time on the bike, hanging out with mates, relative freedom of not having to be anywhere at any time and ‘it's not a race’ ticks ALL my mental health needs. So far this year I have only managed one bivvy weekend (yes I missed the glorious sunny Easter weekend opportunity to get away!) But I did travel up to Northumberland a few weeks ago to ride in my first Dirty Reiver.
During the ‘plan and excuse’ hatching session, which inevitably involved a new bike, obvs!.. I had decided that I would get the Reilly Gradient, which appeared to be MADE for the Dirty Reiver. Well, who am I to argue with the experts, both were in the bag! The Dirty Reiver is like a long distance off road sportive. It’s not a race, but there are bandings for finishing times, and cut offs at certain sections to ensure that you are not stuck out in the wilds in the dark. I liked the laid-back approach and the fact that it wasn’t a race. Having done 12 & 24-hour endurance MTB events before, I always found that my race nerves got in the way of the enjoyment of cycling, which was to me, why I was doing it.
Having entered the Dirty Reiver with club mate Tony (and being not just a little alarmed at the write up in Cyclist Magazine of what happens when you try to race it), I set my mind on doing the full 200km by ‘measuring my efforts’, so as to give myself a good chance of finishing. I put to the back of my mind the requirement for a survival blanket and a whistle as just being overzealous event insurance HSE requirements. Who would even hear you whistle out there, honestly!?
Tony and I set off on the long drive north from Brighton the day before, fuelled by rubbish service station coffee and talking rubbish about bikes. I also introduced him to ‘Pop Master’ on Radio 2. It was the 80s, so we did quite well with the questions and it passed another few miles of the A1. On arriving, we dumped our bikes and gear in the wee shed called ‘Fox’ that we had hired for the weekend. I think it’s called a pod, but it’s really just a shed with carpet and, very importantly so it turned out, an electric heater. We were staying at the Kielder Forest campsite, which had opened especially for the event, and boy were they happy to see us, such a welcome I have never had from a campsite in my life before!
We then nipped over to the castle to investigate the registration and sign on and to seek out some liquid libation. ‘Rego’ didn’t open until 3, so there was nothing for it but to nip into the pub to ‘keep warm’.
After officially signing on and registering for the 200km event, we prepared our food drop bags ready to deposit in our allocated bins… I think I must have a much higher metabolism (or lower expectations of the food stops) than Tony as I seemed to have overdone the malt loaf somewhat.
Limiting myself to just to two pints at the pubm we turned in for an early night in readiness for the day ahead of us. In our nice warm shed, we didn’t realise until we awoke the next morning that it was in fact FREEZING outside and everything had frozen solid, including our bikes and possibly the latex sealant in Tony’s wheels (as they decided to give him an early morning panic attack before we had even started). Then, he is known as being the king of mechanicals, so was probably to be expected.
We dutifully shuffled off up to the start to stand around with our hands shoved into our armpits and not hear a word of the official rider briefing, as we were so far back, in line with our finishing place ambitions.
We watched a stream of riders funnel off up the hill out of the start, and gradually we were on the move too. Clipping in and rolling away, I was thankful that we would have a chance to get warm. We followed a neutral start vehicle for a short distance before being despatched onto the forest road, and we were off. Sticking with my plan to pace myself (and the fact that I had a 34-42 gear combo), I gently spun up the climbs watching Tony power away on his 42-30 cross set up. This was the first real test for me off road on the Reilly. Since I got it in February, I used it with my HUNT 30 Carbon Aero Disc wheels on as my winter road bike. For the Reiver, I swapped those out for the Mason X HUNT Adventure Sport Disc 650B, with Schwalbe G-One Bite tubeless. The first really fast descent made me glad I had also swapped the road bars for a set of Ritchey VentureMax flared bars, as they made for inspiring confidence on the descents. As long as I could see the ‘exit’ point I just let off the brakes, stood up, and bent my arms and it just galloped over everything! I was beyond happy, I had completely forgotten that I could no longer feel my toes and I flew straight past Tony whooping like a kid. Tony was riding HUNT wheels too, but he had opted for a standard cyclocross setup, which wasn’t quite as confidence inspiring on the descents or the corners as the Gradient and my 2.1" of rubber. We made good progress and shuttled past each other on the climbs and descents until the first food stop. The water in my bidons hadn’t fully defrosted, so I was glad to see that they were making hot soup as the warm drink and the salty taste made up for the entire packet of frozen mini stroop waffles I had already eaten.
Miles were disappearing under our wheels, and snacks from our pockets, but the average speed was not overly concerning at this point.. the trails were super-fast and we had only stopped a couple of times to change layers, take photos and move edibles around ourselves and the bike. I was really enjoying alternating between staring at the flat bit in the middle of my front tyre and ogling all the different bikes, kit and setups around us out on the course.
It didn’t take long for it to dawn on us both, that during the entire car journey up the day before we hadn’t actually shared with each other what was ‘in our heads’ regarding the route options. As Tony had signed up for the 200km, I took it as a given that was what we were doing. After all, it was a bloomin’ long way to drive for a 130km bike ride. As we rolled out of the second feed stop we met with the route split, and hecklers. So, I turned right towards the sign that said 200km… it wasn’t until Tony rode up behind me and said “Oh, I had thought maybe we would only do the 130km” did I realise that we hadn’t aligned our inner dialogues… I had fully expected we would be riding for 10-11 hours (averaging 20kmh over gravel would be pretty good going so in my head). I had compared it with a 12 hour endurance event, and that was why I had paced myself on the climbs and had made my inner peace with this piece of information. However, the inner peace was not with Tony. Riding on for some way in silence I could tell he was giving himself a talking to and mentally re-adjusting his day, and making a mental note to not let me get ahead of him at such important junctures ever again. It was all taken out of our hands anyway, as shortly after that we arrived at one of the cut-off points to be told that we had missed the cut by 7 minutes and were diverted… I was not happy, and strangely Tony also seemed to be disappointed, but then he may have been faking that!
We ended up covering 180km in a moving time of 10.24, and I even managed a QOM, it was just that ‘long sit down’ at the second food stop which was our undoing.
By the time we rolled into the event village, it was mostly empty of bodies and full of empty Erdinger cans. Sorry, it’s not a recovery drink, BEER is a recovery drink, and I needed one of those please kind sir. Sitting in a slight ‘hangry’ fuzz I inhaled my veggie wrap gratefully and without muttering a word to each other we rolled down the hill back to ‘Fox’ for a little lie down.
Both the bike and wheels, set up specifically for this event, rode faultlessly... and I am even more in love with the bike than I was before. Its true potential is held in its off road, high-speed prowess... and the Mason x HUNT 650b wheels not only picked up speed much faster than I was expecting, but they floated over all the lumpier bits of the high speed descents, leading me to take more and more ‘risks’ with the pace. The confidence and handling was as sure as my full-suss mountain bike, and I was on a Ti fully rigid bike with drop bars!. It was insanely unbelievable. The only change I have made since getting home is to swap the suspension seat-post off my hardtail mountain bike onto the Reilly, as my undercarriage took a bit of a beating that I’m keen to avoid again!
Tony wants a Reilly Gradient now and has already asked me if I want to do it again next year.