PELOTON x Panaracer: Gravel Racing U.K.-style By John Wilcockson | Images by Chris Auld

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North American cyclists have been drawn in their thousands to gravel grinders like the Belgian Waffle Ride, SBT GRVL and UNBOUND Gravel; their counterparts in Great Britain have also gained growing enthusiasm for a varied calendar of off-road events. Perhaps the toughest U.K. gravel event is the classic Dirty Reiver, held in the remote hills of the Kielder Forest on the England-Scotland border. Now in its fifth year, with alternative distances of 65, 130 and 200 kilometers, the Dirty Reiver has previously been held in mid-April, but it’s happening in September this year after being cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Riding on gravel is nothing new in the U.K. Touring cyclists were venturing onto unpaved roads and “tracks” more than a century ago, with the first magazine story appearing in May 1919, when Cycling published a piece by the writer known as Wayfarer (actual name Walter MacGregor Robinson) titled: “Over the Top: Crossing the Berwyn Mountains in March.” He described a trek with a few friends through the mountains of Wales on a day of spring snow.

Wayfarer’s writings inspired several generations of cyclists to tackle what became known as “rough stuff riding” and saw the formation of the Rough Stuff Fellowship in 1955. The fellowship’s founder W. H. Paul wrote a letter to Cycling in 1961, saying he was “dismayed…that the Bradford Racing Cycling Club intend to run an open cyclo-cross event over the route of the three peaks of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough.” But that didn’t stop the now world-renowned 3 Peaks Cyclo-Cross—the predecessor of long-distance off-road events—from going ahead; the 58th edition will be held in September 2022 over its arduous 61-kilometer course that features 5,000 feet of climbing.

Today’s U.K. gravel scene has taken a cue from both that pure ’cross race and the “quiet, unobtrusive cycle-rough-stuff wandering” espoused by W. H. Paul. Typical is the gravel enduro at the Dukes Weekend in Scotland that’s described as a 75-kilometer social ride on “the most incredible gravel riding in the U.K.” mixed with six competitive timed stages—including a roller-coaster 3-kilometer section of single track known as the Venacher Side.

Another enduro-style race, held in late June on some of the best gravel trails in the remote, so-called Desert of Wales is The Gritfest, which has a 100-kilometer grinder with over 6,000 feet of climbing followed the next day by one over half that distance. Other events include the Dorset Dirt Dash in late May that follows a 100-mile route through typical sleepy English countryside and along Dorset’s famed limestone coast.

The first-ever British Gravel Championship, the King’s Cup, is due to be held on September 19 this year. Raced entirely within the King’s Forest in Suffolk, both men and women will race three laps of a totally off-road circuit with minimal elevation gain for a 78-kilometer distance. But for all off-road enthusiasts the Dirty Reiver is the U.K.’s closest equivalent to the gravel grinders of North America.

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