The Dirty Reiver: A Delight In England

The Dirty Reiver is England’s premier gravel challenge. The master mind, err… instigator behind the event is Paul Errington. Paul has been a close friend of Salsa Cycles for five or more years now. Having traveled to the United States for the likes of Dirty Kanza and this year’s Land Run, he was inspired and compelled to bring a proper gravel event to the U.K. and give it that English touch. That touch comes in the form of starting from a small castle in the Kielder National Forest between England and Scotland and naming the event after Border Reivers; the plunderers in the area during the Middle Ages.

The Dirty Reiver is a bucket list gravel challenge. There is no winner of the event. Rightly so, there are bragging rights for first back, but claiming the ‘win’ at Dirty Reiver is missing the point. Being proud of being the fastest man or woman around the course is expected and encouraged. It is a challenge against the course, the weather, and yourself. It is an opportunity to ride a course that Paul and his volunteers have masterfully selected to highlight the region.

The Dirty Reiver starts and finishes at Kielder Castle, a 200-plus-year-old ‘hunting lodge’ built in the late 1700’s that is now a national forest, mountain bike trail center with 60-plus miles of singletrack trails, and entrance to hundreds of miles of forest service two-track gravel roads…

I was invited to The Dirty Reiver by Salsa U.K. brand manager, Bryan Harris. Bryan, with his brother George, is a welcome sight, picking me up in Manchester on my first visit to England. Three across the front seat of a small van, we wended our way to Kielder, Northumberland via M6 and a tangle of carriage ways and cart paths through delightfully beautiful river valleys that made me ponder changing trades to that of a sheep farmer. The rural landscape, kindness, and language of the English people grabbed ahold of me quickly.

Bryan Harris (center) and his brother George (left) on their Warbird and Mariachi respectively during The Dirty Reiver…

Friday afternoon and evening, I had the opportunity to meet Kenny Wilson and Tom McKeown from Salsa’s U.K. distributor, who had also come up for the weekend to support The Dirty Reiver, Salsa, and Bryan. Kenny supported the event, shooting nearly all the photos I’ve included, running from checkpoint to checkpoint volunteering for the event, and taking care of us at the finish line upon our return. Tom is a young lad and impressed me with a legendary move. I’ll get to that later.

From left to right; George Harris, Kenny Wilson, Bryan Harris,Tom McKeown, and Stefan Amato from (an online retail shop and site dedicated to adventure cycling with some nice landscapes of the Kielder area in the Journal section)...

Salsa is the exclusive bike sponsor of the Dirty Reiver. It was entertaining to see a Salsa tent next to a 200-plus-year-old castle wall.

800 riders stacked in front of the castle on a sub-freezing morning were ready to ride. A few minutes of silence for ultra-endurance rider Mike Hall who passed this past month while racing his bicycle around Australia. He is, was and will be forever missed by the cycling community. I never had the opportunity to meet him. I wish I had. I’d be lying if I said that those few minutes didn’t choke me up and bring tears to my eyes.

Checkpoints are well tended to and attended. Here at Checkpoint 1 I discovered a cherry biscuit, split and filled with a sweetened cream cheese. With one in my mouth and the other in my chest pocket I filled my bottle and rode off like a squirrel stealing food at a picnic…

Typical Kielder forest roads were a narrow two track with fist or larger size rocks embedded in them. They were less like Midwest and Central Plains hero gravel and more like Rocky Mountain forest roads. The whole route reminded me of riding in parts of northern Montana, particularly the Swan River Valley section of the Great Divide Route. Seen here is a delightfully smooth road.

There are two distances of The Dirty Reiver, 130-km and 200-km. That the race is measured in kilometers is peculiar considering the British use miles. In the 200-km route there is over 14,500 feet of climbing. The longest climb is six to seven miles. Enough about that though; this brings me to Tom’s legendary feat.

Tom, seen here having tea at checkpoint 1 came to The Dirty Reiver of his own volition and planning to ride the 130-km event with Bryan and George. He has never ridden a gravel event and in his words “planned on seeing how his legs felt.” At the 130-km turnoff for the finish where many 200-km riders were deciding to end their day short, Tom decided that he would go on and finish the 200-km. At this point, he had already been on his bike for seven to eight hours and could have, without guilt or insult, ended his day with a cold beer and a burger while lounging in the castle for the afternoon. What Tom did is rare, if not unprecedented, in endurance events. I am impressed to say the least. Is there a phrase or term for this act of character and determination? If not, there is now. #tommingit

Taken after his finish of 12-plus hours. Tom looks tired but overjoyed. When I saw Tom the following Monday he barely fit through the door, deservedly walking just a few inches taller and quite a bit prouder. #tommingit

Bryan and George Harris finished the 130, their first gravel event in their planned time of just over eight hours. The way it was described to me, they pedaled hard on the climbs and crushed the descents taking advantage of their mountain bike skills on the rough and rocky terrain. It didn’t hurt that they both had suspension forks. (NOTE: Tell us how you feel about gravel and suspension (constructively) in the comments section, please!)

I pedaled to a 9:15 finish, going out harder than I should have on little sleep and jet lag from flying in the day before. At around midway, I had a conversation with myself about why I was there and realigned my expectations of finishing in sub-eight hours. I rode the first 60 in sub-four and the second in over five. They weren’t particularly more difficult, but the travel had gotten to me. Aside from that period of personal reflection, I enjoyed everything about the course. The climbs were challenging, and the descents were fast and technical at times. The course was described to me, the following day, as all the challenging sections of Dirty Kanza, but with more climbing. My Warbird performed flawlessly, and I made the right choice on the 40mm tires. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder what a suspended Cutthroat would feel like.

Jim Cummins, Executive Director of Dirty Kanza, rode his suspended Cutthroat for the race. This is the second year of the event and Jim’s second year at the event. Jim is looking sun-soaked and dignified. Paul Errington is seen here congratulating Jim; you can tell that there is nothing but respect and admiration for one another…

Paul Spencer from London riding for his shop and Salsa dealer SLAM 69 on another suspended Cutthroat. Paul rode loaded, prepping for the Tuscany Trail race that will start in Masa, Italy on June 2nd, 2017. Paul tells me that he loves his Cutthroat and has painstakingly looked after every detail. In addition to invigorating himself, he has pulled a couple of his mates into gravel and endurance riding.

I’m constantly reminded of why I love these events when I see cycling changing someone’s life in a positive way, giving them purpose, building character, confidence, and community that they feel a part of. Paul’s mates reminded me of that. The front of the pack is inspiring because of their feats of athletic prowess, but the rest of the field are inspiring because of their spirit, grit, and determination. That is not to say that the leaders don’t have those qualities, but the spirit of a first-time finisher has a purity to it. You can see them become a new self as they roll into the finish chute. Yes, I know, I’m romanticizing it a bit. Go ahead and poke fun. Just remember the pride you have when you finish something challenging before you do.

Rich and Shona from Keep Pedaling, a Salsa stockist in Manchester, rode their Rohloff equipped Powderkeg. They are planning for The Highland Trail 550, a brute of a multi-day bikepacking event where they will ride, push, drag and carry their Powderkeg for their second go around. The two of them are in-sync on and off the bike. They live, ride, and work together. I had the chance to visit their shop on this trip. They are a great resource for urban cycling, touring, and bikepacking. We shared dinner and a pint. They are, as the English say, lovely people.

When I crossed the finish line, Paul Errington was there to congratulate me. It was good to be back. He asked if I would do it again and what I thought of the ride. My response, without hesitation was “Yes, and the course is absolutely amazing and beautiful”. Out on course, riding alone, I imagined the time and energy Paul put into what is now his trade. I imagine he poured over maps and GPS data, inked out a course, recon rode it, reviewed it, and refined it. Paul does this like any of us would do when working on something that is our passion. I know Paul would be the first to say that he doesn’t do it alone. He enrolled the land managers, caretakers, and people of the Kielder region, and invited Salsa and many others to be a part of the event. We are honored to be a part of it.

Allow me to reminisce, wax poetic (or do my best) and be a bit proud (bordering on boastful) for a moment. In 2007, I entered my first gravel race, TransIowa. Ten years on and gravel is undoubtedly one of the fastest growing segments of cycling participation. Events like The Dirty Reiver are popping up globally and, in the US, the calendar is nearly full. In 2009, as I rode through the Kit Carson National Forest on The Great Divide Route north of Cuba, New Mexico, I came across the annual gathering of free spirited hippies known as The Rainbow Gathering. Each time I passed an attendee they would greet me with “Welcome Home”. When Paul congratulated me, I was reminded of that phrase. I love many types of riding and I consider myself a mountain biker. As a product of my environment and at a time in what will become cycling history I became a gravel rider. It wasn’t a trend that I or we at Salsa Cycles followed. We did it because it was what we did, and only realized after we continued on the importance that it had to other riders.

The first gravel specific racing bike, the Salsa Cycles Warbird, was laughed at; called a marketing ploy and nothing but a different name for a cyclocross bicycle. We’ve never said that you can’t ride any bike for gravel riding. We just felt that the best bicycle for gravel riding was a purpose-built bicycle with room for larger volume tires, mud clearance, a wide range drivetrain, disc brakes, and most importantly fit, handling, and features like Class 5 VRS that make the bike comfortable for long hours (perhaps multiple days) in the saddle. We built what we wanted and now multiple generations and thousands of hours of ride-inspired refinement later we think the Warbird is the best gravel bike around.

It isn’t lost on me that I attend these events to represent Salsa and in the end help sell more bikes. In the end though, we don’t do it just to sell bikes. We do it for many reasons, but most importantly because we get the opportunity to promote experiences that will change a rider’s life, be a part of those experiences, and see it firsthand.

I look forward to representing Salsa at many more events in the future. With luck, The Dirty Reiver will be one of them. Put it on your list. You will not be disappointed. Should you find your legs feeling good and debating the option to go longer, remember #tommingit.

This post filed under topics: Cutthroat Dirty Kanza 200 Gravel Joe Meiser Paul Errington Trans Iowa Travel Ultra Racing Warbird

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Joe Meiser

Joe Meiser

I've had a lot of good luck and made a series of choices to be working for the brand and in the bike industry. In 2007 I signed up for the TransIowa just to see if I could complete it. I completed it and discovered a few things about myself in the process. Adventure cycling has been in my blood ever since.


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J4jacket | May 23rd, 2017

I look forward to representing Salsa at many more events in the future.

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Jean | July 30th, 2017

thanks for event post
Cycling is my passion

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