Race Day: Ben Boxer at Dirty Reiver
As we made the journey north, nervous excitement brewed. Haphazard preparation, fewer long days in the saddle than we’d have liked, and an unfortunate influenza setback added to the sense of uncertainty. Martin and Jake had redemption on their minds, having fallen short of the full 200km route last year, whilst I lacked this shared motivation; instead, excited by the purity of a challenging day set amongst a beautiful landscape. A herd of Belted Galloways greeted us as we straddled the Scottish border, and we started to spot like-minded travellers headed for Kielder.
The winding road and rolling hills soon gave way to the familiar sight of the castle – the start and end point of the upcoming ride. The buzz of riders setting up camp and discussing setups and strategies filled the crisp evening air. We found our names amongst the hundreds of fellow entrants on the sign-in sheets and explored the race village. Our building nerves were eased by copious carb-loading as we made last-minute adjustments to our equipment.
Race day. We rolled back down to the castle, now crowded with contestants going about their pre-ride routines. As we joined them, I spotted a screen displaying a livestream from a nearby osprey nest, contrasted between sponsor marquees. Race day – but also, Earth Day.
The forecasted rain fell right on cue, as the first wave of riders flowed onto the course. Once the initial period of jostling and sketchy, tyre-on-tyre descending passed, we settled into a rhythm. It felt good to be moving. The familiar Kielder dust was dampened by the continuing rain and cascade of tyres – this was going to be a very different ride to last year. Although Martin, Jake and I had drifted apart as we naturally found our own pace, we reconvened at the first feed station.
After a refuel, we headed back out into the expanse of forest. The largest man-made forest in the country, surrounding the largest man-made lake, and under one of the nation’s darkest skies. In this land of firsts, we felt like a true medley of mediocrity. Embracing the ‘smiles, not miles’ philosophy, we continued, making sure to appreciate the space we moved through and the people who we shared it with. Moving along the route, I considered the lack of biodiversity amongst the young growth, coniferous plantation that surrounded us. Despite this, the air was clean, and the rest of the world seemed distant. The combination of challenging, physical activity in nature was once again proving hard to beat.
Feed station number two marked the halfway point. We took the time to fill our bottles and bellies and chatted amongst the other riders. It wasn’t until we saw the clock and remembered the approaching cut-off time that a sense of urgency arose. I made the call to push on ahead, with my focus now fixated on the single goal of completing the full route. For the next 40km, I experienced a flow state-like harmony of movement of body and bike. All thoughts were quietened as I cut along the gravel. I wonder if I would have had this same peaceful experience if I had been more concerned by making good time earlier in the day, at the cost of the enjoyment of the present moment…
A near-collision with a shrew brought me back to the now! I made the cut-off by a narrow, four-minute margin and set out onto the final section of the course into a fresh headwind. The morning’s rain was beginning to take its toll on my drivetrain. “Your bike sounds like how my body feels”, remarked another rider. Summiting the day’s longest climb, incidentally one of the longest and highest forestry roads in the UK, I paused to appreciate ‘The Nick’. Descending into the third and final feed stop, I made sure to treat my gears to some fresh lube.
As the miles ticked by, the crowd thinned and there was a growing sense of community and shared will to make it to the finish. Faces became increasingly familiar as we pedalled, crested, and coasted. I spotted a ‘10 miles to Kielder Castle’ sign, followed by a ‘9 miles’. Time slowed during the final push around the reservoir in the setting sun. I realised that I hadn’t checked my GPS all day, and had enjoyed the relative unknown of speed, location, and time. A large roe deer darted across the lakeside trail. As I crossed the final bridge and begun to winch up the final climb to the castle, Martin and Jake cheered me from the garden of ‘The Anglers Arms’. After just shy of 12 hours in the saddle, I crossed the line and was greeted by a marshal explaining how I go about receiving my much-anticipated reward of a hot bowl of curry.
After we had exchanged memories from the day, we made our way back to camp. A stretch and long-awaited freshen up in a nearby stream followed. The Dirty Reiver had lived up to its name! A day of contrasting yet complementary halves: smiles and miles, challenge and ease.
Race day – but also, Earth Day.