When I started this blog I made a promise to myself: I wasn’t going to start another journal where some middle-aged guy gives you a blow-by-blow account of his “epic” day on the bike. We all know what it is like to suffer on the bike, to bonk, to be wowed by the views, have a rush of endorphins, to fail or triumph through adversity. Like bad writing about sex it is far too easy to write something trite, clichéd and basically a bit awkward.

So I now have a bit of issue, buzzing I still am from yesterday’s Dirty Reiver gravel event around Kielder Water. The day was magical with just the right amount of suffering – oh yes, I suffered – to make me look forward to doing it again next year rather than whimper with at though at taking my bike offroad again. And I want to tell you about it. But I can’t because of the rule I set myself. So instead I’m going to take you through a few lessons I learned along the way and perhaps some of the epicness will reveal itself… let’s see if I can get to five.

1. Planning

It was a bit of rush job to get up to Kielder. I pretty much had everything sorted apart from the major oversight that revealed itself when I booted up my Garmin at the start. “Front derailleur battery critical”, said the warning on the screen. SRAM eTap is a modern, technological myrical but you’re left riding an inappropriately geared 1x set up if you don’t charge it. That’s where I found myself about 20km into the 200km event. The choice was whether to but the chain in the big or little ring. I chose the former because I reckoned I could get away with it and it would reduce the chance of dropping the chain. I managed for about 150km with a fair bit of honking out of the saddle at 30rpm before I was kinda broken and swapped to the little ring to pootle home.

LESSON: charge your eTap! Or more pertinently think about the details and give yourself time to prepare and make sure things are ready. Probably even make lists.

 2. Distractions

Saturday was a rare day for Northumberland in April with wall-to-wall sunshine and balmy tempratures. The moorland and forests looked stunning with sweeping vistas across the heather and babbling brooks. No matter how much the legs hurt you just had to look up to take your mind off things and find some serenity.

LESSON: Switching off and finding something else to think about is important. That and the urge to see what’s over the horizon.

3. Companions

I started the ride with Jorge a cycling buddy of longstanding who has joined me on a large number of big rides over the years. We stayed together for 80% of the ride but even when we were riding as a pair I was often ahead on a descent or he was climbing a little more quickly. At the end he pushed on and finished a few minutes ahead of me; rather than being miffed it was great to see a friend having a strong day on the bike especially after he has had a few distractions from getting out on the roads and trails.

There were other people around too: Robin from Rapha and his buddy Steve who we rode with most of the way; Anna who I’d heard talk about the French Divide a few months ago; and lots of unknown but friendly cyclists. It felt like a real community in a shared endeavour. There were still moments when I was plugging along my own a brow of a hill or twist of the trail meaning I couldn’t see anyone ahead or behind me. As the ride progressed those moments go harder and I know I’ve signed up for up to three weeks of solo riding in the TCR. Something to mull over.

LESSON: Community and companions are important and make an event. When doing the TCR I need to make time to stay in touch with friends and family and stop to talk to other racers because I will need it.

4. Kit

This is the second time I’ve done the Dirty Reiver. Last year I did it on a borrowed ‘cross bike. This year I did it on my Mason BokehTi with fatter, slicker tyres and a set of Lauf forks. Turns out I wasn’t much faster but I was so much more comfortable and confident on the gravel. In particular there is one rocky, steep descent which really tiptoed down this year with other riders overtaking me. I was 30% quicker down it this year just by having better kit.

LESSON: Think carefully about what you need and prepare properly becuase the right kit can make a huge difference. Also some event T-shirts are awesome.

5. Sustenance

Riding offroad challenges me to eat and drink enough. On tarmac you can easily take your hand(s) off the bars to grab your water bottle or eat; offroad more concentration is needed so I had to make a concerted effort to hydrate and take on energy. It made a huge difference and I felt much fresher at the end. I also really appreciated real food alongside energy drinks, bars and gels. The potatoes at the third feed stop smothered in butter and cheese were a real highlight.

LESSON: Training isn’t just about building strength and power it’s about learning to drink and eat to keep yourself fuelled; and for me that included normal food not just sports nutrition.

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