Together with seven team riders of Bombtrack Bicycle Company we took off to England last weekend for participating in Europe’s largest gravel grinding event, the Dirty Reiver.
Dirty Reiver is a so-called “Off road cycling challenge”, and with almost 1000 participants it is one of Europe’s largest events in this category. Participants can choose between two tracks: a 200 km circle or a shorter “Dirty One Thirty” with 130 km. Both routes are renowned as they take you across several “hills” along the Scottish-English border. However, the goal is not being the fastest rider but to really bike the entire day, to meet new people and to enjoy the countryside – and maybe to discover and explore your own limits.
My alarm clock rings an hour too early. Jona moans sleepily and tries to figure out finding the snooze button. However, I am happy to finally get up, as I have been turning from my left to my right side for the last hour. But the other riders in the house are not yet awake, everything is quiet, until we are realizing – with a tired gaze at the kitchen clock, that we forgot about the time change. We are actually one hour ahead. We reflect – should we go back to bed? No way! A long day is awaiting us and we decide to have a generous breakfast to get started.
Soon the others are stumbling into the kitchen and within the next half hour everybody is getting the last bits and pieces ready – between breakfast and coffee – before we finally load our bikes onto the bus, and off we go!
By the time we get to old Kielder Castle the square in the front is getting crowded. The morning breeze is fresh but the forecast for today is promising and the atmosphere is fantastic. However, my stomach is rumbling, maybe three bananas, a large bowl of porridge, and toast with eggs was far too much for breakfast, or is it the excitement?
The winter was wet and cold in the North of Germany, and my bicycle hasn’t seen much else than the garage during the past months. When I filed my application for Dirty Reiver a few months ago, I hadn’t really thought about this fact and now I feel somehow not really prepared for a long day in the saddle. And besides, it was my first time taking part in a so-called challenge. Normally I bike to work or get my bags and go bikepacking in off-road terrain. But simply getting on my bike and cycle miles and miles on roads and gravel tracks is something I’m normally not used to. So to be on the safe side, I’ve registered for the shorter 130 kilometer loop.
It would have remained just like that if my team mates wouldn’t have asked me the night before why I wouldn’t bike the large loop. And me? I didn’t really have a satisfactory reply that would justify my registration for the shorter loop. The truth was I was not really sure if I would make it and therefore I decided to be on the safe side. “It’s up to you, the 130 km will be quite tough”, stated Jona. But the issue didn’t stop bothering me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why not try the large loop just as the other riders in my team? A challenge is a challenge!
So I was standing there, my stomach rumbling, my race number saying 130 km, having a strange feeling that I didn’t want to leave it like that.
The whistle for the race start is nearly inaudible, the group of almost 900 riders is slowly taking off. Jona waves and gives me thumbs up, then his black T-shirt disappears in the crowds. He doesn’t know anything about my decision. I start and pedal steadily. “Don’t go too fast” – I remind myself – “you have time, the entire day”.
I’m entirely focused on just one goal: to make the 200 km loop, no matter how. During my first kilometers I try to prepare myself mentally for what I might experience during my last kilometers: unbearable pain in my backside, strenuous leg cramps, merciless exhaustion, sheer desperation. Maybe it is a blessing that my bike computer is soon out of order without notice. Suddenly no mileage, no clock, no altitude. First I am upset that it’s no longer functioning, but soon I realize that it’s even better not knowing the slow passage of time and every singly hard kilometer. Instead I enjoy the unawareness and cherish the illusion that it saves me negative thoughts and expectations too high.
Actually, surprisingly fast I reach the first pit stop at kilometer 55, but I allow myself only a short break. I fill up supplies of water and power bars, have a few chocolate brownies – a few too many – and get started on the second leg, having the route as pie chart in my mind, with the first quarter marked in red color.
Only at the 100 km mark I am realizing that I can really make it. My legs are surprisingly fresh and my entire body is still OK. In contrary, I feel really fine. When I get to the crossroads that take you back to Kielder Castle to the right, I didn’t waste any time, and make a left turn. Now there is no way back, that’s obvious, and I keep on biking full speed ahead.
A bit past half eight I finally cross the finish line. 12 hours in the saddle, 3500 meters altitude. Paul, the race organizer approvingly pats my back when I reach the finish, just as he did with every driver as I learn later. I keep on looking for Jona and the other riders, but can’t see them anywhere. Anyway, I assume they got here hours ago. ‘Doesn’t matter”, I think to myself and get myself a beer and a proper plate of pasta to celebrate the day. Satisfied I settle down at one of the long tables when suddenly Jona grabs me from behind. “I can’t believe it, you really made it.” I smile at Jona “Yeah, didn’t know I could bike that long!”
I have really underestimated myself and if I hadn‘t dared biking the entire loop I would still believe I wouldn’t be able to make it. I spend a lot of time thinking that evening about my accomplishment when I crash onto my soft pillows. What do I take back home from this challenge? What is my benefit of biking an entire day with others for 200 kilometers across remote gravel roads? Satisfied I realize, it is definitely more than nice memories. In the future I will dare and try more, even if it might mean taking the risk of overestimating myself. Only if you are prepared to accept a challenge, you will really face it and test your own limits.
More about the Dirty Reiver.
Written by Franzi from Tales on Tyres