The Night Before
Yorkshire True Grit billed itself as Yorkshire’s first gravel biking event ,taking in a combination of gravel tracks and trails. Riders on the Outlaw route were promised “an off road cycling challenge that will take you across the stunning North York Moors using a combination of public bridleways and private tracks…. Based on the popular American Gravel Grinder format, Yorkshire True Grit will test your endurance like no other cycling event.”
I was fascinated to see what this was all about. As the owner of one of Specialized’s first batch of gravel bikes I was keen to see what else it could do. It had already proved its worth as a tourer, where it performed particularly well on National Cycle Network routes when fresh tarmac often gives way to poorly surfaced roads and bridleways. Its relaxed geometry and sturdy build had proved its worth when it came to carting camping kit around. Its considerable bulk had made it less pleasant for bunch riding on winter club rides. On warm sunny evenings it was fun to be able to duck down random forest tracks around the Harrogate district and discover new bridleways. So now it was time to give it another challenge. And since the organisers of Yorkshire True Grit had kindly offered me a place, it would have been foolish to refuse.
True Grit had taken over a field on Duncombe Park outside of Helmsley and very kindly provided a camping option along with a coffee van and butty barbeque for those in need of refreshment. Had it not been tipping down pretty much constantly the day before I would have taken them up on the overnight option, but the knowledge that I could sleep in a warm, dry bed and still be at the 7.30 starting line within ninety minutes of getting up swayed me towards the easier option. Plus, it meant more time for kit procrastination.
It had been a long time since I had ridden off road, and it did cross my mind that the 32mm semi-slick tyres of my Specialized Diverge might not hack it on the day. However, several years as a roadie had made me complacent. I had conveniently forgotten the Formula 1 levels of consideration that go in to the technical choices of off road tyres and figured I could get away with what I had. Heck, it’s gravel; riding right? I’d seen the pics of nice, wide US dirt trails with cyclists zooming along lacking a care in the world. How hard could it be?
As the Untouchables quote goes, ‘you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight’. The night before I’d been pondering if my tyres would cope. Lining up with the other sixty or so riders for the event briefing the answer was starting to become obvious; No. No they wouldn’t. Not remotely. Every other rider was either on a knobbly and gnarly mountain bike or else riding cross bikes with some seriously chunky rubber attached. Hell, there was even someone on a fat bike. So not a pair of 32mm Specialized Roubaix’s designed for middle aged fellas going on cobble-jollies to Northern France then.
As the bunch made its way out of Helmsley and turned in to Riccal Dale woods, my bike slipped in and out of control. I was rapidly losing sight of the front pack as every ounce of energy and concentration was going in to not planting myself in to a bush or worse, taking out another rider. When the track went uphill my wheels carried on spinning, not helped by the front shifter refusing to take me in to the warm embrace of the granny ring. There was no other option but to get off and push. As the route flattened, so I was able to hop back on and pedal through, assuming the muddy single track was either not too muddy, not about to go down a steep chute or both. On a dry, mid-Summer day this would have been challenging but achievable. Today it wasn’t.
After leaving Riccal Dale, the route took us up and over Pockley Ride Plantation and on to Bedlam Rigg, where we got our first view of the classic Yorkshire heather moorland. If you’re new to North Yorkshire, then the Moors really must be on your bucket list of places to visit. Unlike the rolling hills of the Dales, they present a far more textured landscape of open heather, sharp, spiky undulations and wide open shooting tracks that make for great cross country riding. But Yorkshire is only as beautiful as it is because some days the weather can be downright horrific. This morning was one of those days.
A solid few days of drenching had rendered the rubbly, sandy tracks a bogy, gritty paste that scraped on the brake discs as my pitifully shod back wheel fought for traction. The wind swept the rain horizontally across the moorland. My old Berghaus goretex paclite, prudently packed in place of a go-to Castelli rain cape, fought to keep the wind and rain from chilling me to the bone. It was like peddling in porridge.
Of course, not all of the course was this grim, as these photo’s generously provided by Mick Kirkman show, but it wasn’t easy!
20 miles in and approaching the water stop at Bloworth Crossing, I had a choice to make – carry on with the full 60 mile Outlaw route or break off to the shorter Drive route and take an early bath. I would like to say that my innate ‘Yorkshire grit’ spurned me on with sheer bloody minded determination; That I stepped up to the the challenge, pushed through the limits, slayed my metaphoric demons and didn’t let it break me. But I didn’t and it did. Decades of silly exploits have taught me to know when I’m done . I also know when I should be on a short travel 29er with low tyre pressures and knobbly tyres. And to compile things further, I know that when I’ve got All About the Base by Megan Traynor stuck in my head, it’s time to quit the slogging and raise the pace in a homeward direction, if only to try and shake the earworm.
Escape route it was then. Hopping on to the shorter trail took me along a gently undulating shooting track, got me over to the Cleveland Way, along a heart-stoppingly fast, rubbly downhill and back to the safety of tarmac and a nice, swift, pretty much constant downhill back to Helmsley.
So what did I make of the whole experience? First of all, as I’ve made it pretty clear in this review, I had well and truly turned up with the wrong tyres for the job. In perfect conditions the route would have been manageable to anyone with a degree of off road bike handling skills. Would I have defined it as a ‘gravel’ route in the way that the bike companies market the sector? Turning to Wikipedia, gravel roads are defined as “… a type of unpaved road surfaced with gravel that has been brought to the site from a quarry or stream bed. They are common in less-developed nations, and also in the rural areas of developed nations such as Canada and the United States. In New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries, they may be known as ‘metal roads’.”. For me this felt more like a cross country challenge that could be tackled with a variety of bikes, but where the fastest time could best be achieved by a technically competent, fit rider on a well shod cross or gravel machine. So fantastic training for the annual Three Peaks race for instance but not what might be immediately equated with ‘gravel riding’.
It was though a smashing event. The organisers were attentive and friendly, the route well marked and the facilities at the start line well thought out. I definitely have unfinished business…
Fancy having a go next year? Keep an eye on http://yorkshiretruegrit.co.uk/ and follow @yorkstruegrit