Gravel racing is hugely popular in the US, with regular 100 to 300-mile events taking place on the country’s extensive network of gravel roads, and their popularity has even prompted the industry into developing a whole new genre of bike designed especially for such events.
Gravel racing hasn't really taken off in the UK, but this weekend, gravel racing comes to Kielder Forest, with the inaugural Dirty Reiver challenging 500 cyclists to a 200km course (with 3,711m of climbing) on the gravel fire roads within the Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland.
The Dirty Reiver came about after organiser Paul Errington rode the famous Dirty Kanza 200 in 2012 and became hooked, and went back to the US to ride the 325 mile Trans Iowa. Having sampled the gravel racing scene in the US, Paul set about bringing a similar event to the Kielder Forest, an area he calls home. The Dirty Reiver was born.
“Gravel grinding for me is the perfect combination of distance riding while retaining a hugely social scene, there is no ego, there are no hugely specialist bikes needed … you just grab your bike and get the miles done,” says Paul.
It’s clear there is an appetite for gravel racing in the UK. The 500 places sold out almost immediately when they went on sale in January. Despite our lack of gravel roads and gravel races, gravel bikes have started to become popular with British cyclists who value the benefits of disc brakes and wider tyres for dealing with potholed roads, and want to be able to tackle more than just tarmac.
So the Dirty Reiver then, a chance for us Brits to see what a long distance gravel race is all about. Except it's not officially a race, though it is timed and you can bet the fast boys and girls at the front will be taking it seriously. For the majority of those taking part, and I include myself here, it’ll just be about survival and making the finish.
An interesting fact for you, thanks to our resident Scot. The name Reiver comes from the border raiders that used to patrol the Scottish/English border from the 14th century to the 17th century, and Dirty is homage to the event that inspired the organiser to put it all together.
As an added bonus, Dirty Kanza founder Jim Cummins who will be on hand for the inaugural Reiver event to meet riders and participate in the ride.
You can read more about the Dirty Reiver event here
A bike fit for gravel racing
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand this past year or two, you’ll know the industry has taken notice of the gravel racing scene and developed a whole new category of gravel bike.
You can ride any bike at a gravel race, and many people do. Many participants simply ride cyclocross bikes modified to suit the demands of the course, but bike industry designers have set about creating bikes that are better suited to long distance comfort over unpredictable terrain than bikes designed for a frantic 1-hour race.
So what bike to ride? This will be my first gravel race, I’m definitely going in blind, but I think I’ve got the right bike for it. US brand Parlee has lent me its brand new Chebacco (named after the company's local stomping grounds), a bike designed to be versatile enough to be equipped with slick tyres for mainly road riding, or chunky off-road tyres for tackling dirt and gravel tracks, as it is here.
The carbon fibre frame and fork has space for up to 45mm tyres and features a full complement of mudguard mounts, disc brakes with internal cable and hose routing, and interchangeable rear dropouts so it’ll accommodate any current standard - it is set up here with a 15mm front thru-axle and 142x12mm thru-axle at the back.
There’s some very nice equipment on this bike. I have no excuses. It’s been built up with a Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset, Mavic’s new Ksyrium Pro Allroad wheels with Clement X’Plor MSO 40mm tyres and Parlee’s brand new carbon fibre handlebar and stem, which uses the 35mm standard, and matching seatpost. A Fizik Arione saddle completing the package. It’s a size 56cm, and on the scales, it comes out at 8.52kg (18.76lb)
I imagine there’ll be a huge mix of different bikes and equipment on show at the event, and it’ll be interesting to see how other people, many in the same boat as me in having never done a gravel race, approach the event in terms of bike set-up.
Are you taking part?
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.