Before the Dirty Reiver gravel grinder was created in 2016. Before Kielder Water, the largest reservoir in Britain, was formed in the 1970s. Before the trees in Kielder Forest were first planted in the 1920s. And long before this wilderness on the England-Scotland border was a bleak moorland used for grouse shooting and sheep grazing, the Border Reivers ran the show.
Reive is an ancient Scottish/middle English word meaning to “raid” or “plunder”—and that’s what the Reivers practiced for hundreds of years between the 13th and 17th centuries. Both Scottish and English Reivers would cross the border to raid small farms, steal cattle, horses and sheep, and herd the animals back to their home country. England and Scotland were independent countries back then and the plundering wasn’t considered illegal. And it wasn’t until the two countries were united in the late 17th century that the first sovereign of Great Britain, James I, brought law and order to the border country for the first time.
The Border Reivers dressed in sleeveless doublets reinforced with armor; they wore helmets known as steel bonnets; and their weapon of choice was a light spear or lance. They rode small, sturdy ponies known as hobblers, which were noted for their ability to negotiate boggy moss and cover great distances over difficult terrain at high speed—not unlike the gravel bikes ridden in the Dirty Reiver today. The bike-mounted race starter at Dirty Reiver wears a similar outfit to the old plunderers, holding a spear-like flagpole to wave the riders on their way.
The gravel trails of Kielder country don’t boast major climbs, but several hills on the course are as much as 7 kilometers long with steady grades maxing out at 1,300 feet (400 meters) above sea level. The longest Dirty Reiver event is 200 kilometers with more than 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) of vertical gain; the two-lap Dirty One Thirty climbs for 6,500 feet (about 2,000 meters) over 130 kilometers; and the one-lap Dirty 65’er (and the e-bike event on the same circuit) climbs for 3,250 feet (1,000 meters) over 65 kilometers.
The courses and conditions have changed over the years. As a rider in 2019 wrote: “The one constant in Kielder is the unpredictability of the weather, although there’s one faithful feature: the cold.” Sometimes there’s sunshine, sometimes snow—as in 2016. And when the riders leave the trees behind for open moorland, a “merciless” wind can greet them. One competitor in 2019 said that after descending from the higher ground and “back in the embrace of the forest, the incessant wind was replaced by feeling a calm and peace.”
Two years ago, the majority of the 418 finishers in the 200-kilometer event rode gravel bikes, but the fastest two were on a ’cross bike (Dutchman Gosse van der Meer) and a mountain bike (Englishman Harold Evans), who were the first in event history to finish the 200 kilometers in less than seven hours. The two rode together for most of the day, until van der Meer struck a rock on a fast descent and flatted with an hour remaining. The mountain biker stopped to help. “It was a true act of sportsmanship,” said the Dutch ’cross rider. “You don’t see that at any other races [except] in this gravel community.”