By Brendan Hills

Last year was not my best for riding. Or for motivation. Or for much of anything.  In that way, I think I’m like a lot of the world last year.

2019 was amazing: my career was taking off in an exciting way, I was loving living in London, and I somehow also had the energy and enthusiasm to be riding more than ever. I trained like crazy for the Silk Road Mountain Race, and completed that with a mid-field result. In such a tough race which most people don’t complete, I was super happy to make it to the finish line. Next up I completed the Fat Viking event in Norway, which qualified me to ride the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

Silk Road race

Then of course Covid arrived with lockdowns and international travel restrictions. And though there were some good adventures during those 2 years (like attempting to cross Iceland at the start of winter) - it's hard to get back in the groove.

But then, I joined a gravel sportif and re-discovered the love of riding fast offroad and enjoying the feel of dirt under the wheels - a feeling greatly enhanced by the 'Great British Drought 2022' meaning miles and miles of hard, dusty trails (that remind me of Australia). My partner Kate Hills and I thought, let's go all in on this, and enter as many as possible, and of course buy nice fast gravel bikes!

Enter centre stage the Pearson On and On and Kate’s Around the Outside.

Pearson Gravel Bikes

Their lightness and strength just makes them go fast all the time. The perfect bikes to help us decide to sign up for the 3 day Raiders Gravel stage race in Scotland.

Day 1 - The Grannoch 

A great day of racing on the gravel of the Scottish borders.  

On a personal level, it's been so long since I put on a number and did a race - gosh it's great to do it again. That was helped by a good result for day 1: first mixed team, and second team overall. To be honest I am not sure we can repeat that again tomorrow and the next day, but I am happy we did well today.

The racing was hard - with the tone being set by a novice pace car driver who revved the 'neutral start' up to 40kph! That split the field into straggling bunches from about km 1 - then it was just a matter of trying to hang on and slowly pick up riders as we went. In the end the 73km stage took only 2h30 or so - very fast for gravel (and for us!).

Raider Gravel

One reason we wanted to come here was that the Dumfries and Galloway area is a part of Scotland that we haven't visited properly, other than a brief transition on the way to Ireland with my mum when she visited from Australia.

It seemed like a lovely place - quiet and remote feeling, and actually easy to get to from England since you don’t need to drive (or train) as far as you do when visiting the Highlands. It felt suitably wild and remote, with long stretches of nobody. No houses, no roads to cross and superb views over the hills and the locks, a great find.

Day 2 - The Clatteringshaws

A story of many ups and downs, and an oddly unsatisfactory conclusion.

For stage 2 the weather was cool during the 8am briefing, but by the time we were standing in the sun for the 9am rollout we had armwarmers off and were enjoying the Scottish sunshine. That was to be the weather for the day - blue skies and sunshine. Perfect.

The neutral start was carefully controlled, with the driver maintaining a steady 15mph (24kmh) for the first 10km. In a way, I think we preferred yesterday's insane start as it gave us no time to think about it, and also today the pack was a bit nervous with lots of riders grouped in behind the car and some not comfortable riding in groups (e.g. locking up brakes with no warning, dropping arm warmers into the chain etc!). However eventually we got to the end of the neutral section and riders took off at their own pace.

The Clatteringshaws

Unfortunately I found myself caught behind a very nervous roadie on the first descent, and as he weaved across the road looking for a smooth line (there were none), I was pushed out onto some boulders and shook my Garmin mount loose, leaving my bike computer pointing straight down. I thought about popping it into my pocket and continuing without it, but the GPS is necessary to see the course, so Kate and I stopped to fix it. Trying to find the right tiny allen key took a while (and 2 tools) so by the time we got going again, we were last.

Ok - regroup and go again.

A few km on, we had reeled in many of the other mixed pairs teams, and were riding well, when suddenly my gears started skipping and I broke the chain. I replaced this, and headed off - thinking I must have just bounced the chain out of line, it happened again, so eventually we had to pull up. I got it shifting ok after a few minutes, however, you guessed it, we were now last.

A few deep breaths - and start again. Focusing on pulling back lost time, we gradually caught many of the mixed teams.

A few km on, we came across a rider with a flat tyre in need a CO2 cartridge. I had a spare, so a short stop this time, and then on again having lost a few places. 

The riding was great - fast and smooth gravel trails, with great Scottish scenery and we were really enjoying ourselves. We eventually came past the 2nd placed mixed team (Catherine and Richard) and realised that we must have made up a good amount of time. 

Then we got to an intersection where the course on the Garmin said turn left, but multiple painted arrows, and a sign said turn right. There were lots of tyre marks on the road to the right, and less on the one to the left. What to do? We debated for a bit, and I looked to see if it was a minor detour (as we had experienced yesterday), and Kate remembered that at the briefing there had been some mention of a course alteration - but wasn't that at the main road?

Reluctantly we headed right, but soon met several of the fastest solo riders coming back the other way - and they yelled to us that the markings were wrong.

OK about face, and then when we got back to the erroneously marked corner, we met the 2nd mixed team again. Damn.

Eventually we pulled ahead, and then finished off the last few hills to the finish. A great day of riding, but the mistake with the course was pretty annoying. The organisers said they would use the GPS tracker info to take the finish as being the wrongly marked corner. OK that seems fair - though it meant that the effort we put into the last 10km was a waste. Still, a good result and we were now leading the mixed teams.

The Clatteringshaws

Feeling pleased, and while looking over the results that afternoon, we received a text from the organisers saying that they couldn't work out the results for the day, so instead would not count stage 2 - the overall result would only be taken from stages 1 and 3. Very frustrating!

For sure, some of the shine had gone off the event, but tomorrow is another day and we were looking forward to heading out again to enjoy the fast riding on these great trails.

Day 3 - The Skerrow

Raiders Gravel: Stage 3 - a happy ending.

Kate Greer and I lined up for the 3rd and final stage of RaidersGravel.com in mild weather, and stood in the start box chatting with the riders we had got to know over these couple of days of riding. The dramatic countdown: 10...9...8...7... proceeded a relaxed roll out behind the lead car for the neutral start. However, the car driver had clearly been told to keep to 24kmh (15mph) so they then proceeded to drive at precisely that speed straight up the 5km of the longest hill of today's course! Naturally that speed was not sustainable by almost any of the riders, so the field was blown apart within the first kilometre of the neutral start.

Raider Gravel

We pushed on at a good pace, but tired legs and no warm up suggested it was better to back off a little to avoid getting too exhausted before the timed race even started.

Once onto the gravel we enjoyed some smooth descents and steady climbs up to gain great views of the beautiful Galloway Forest Park. The riding was fast and fun, though we did pass a few people with mechanicals. Fingers were crossed!

After about half an hour a sharp right took us onto a rail trail with a surface of chunky ballast gravel which made us smile as it was really the first bit of technical riding. However, soon it became obvious that this was going to continue for the whole 10km section. The only way to ride on that surface is fast (if you ride slowly, you hit every stone and get bounced off line into the bush), so we pushed on as hard as possible.

We passed many people with punctures from the sharp stones and hoped we would escape unscathed. Luckily we did, although there were a few tense moments as we criss-crossed the trail looking for the smoothest line.

The Raiders Road Forest Drive was a highlight of the course, giving us many fine views and reminded us of the Grand Ridge Road in Gippsland, Victoria. 

Raider Gravel

With such a fast stage we didn't stop at the water points, and pushed on towards the finish. Enjoying the ride until the end, we soaked up the great views, and the fun, fast riding.

In the last 500m Kate yelled "flat!" to me - and indeed her rear tyre had gone a bit soft on a rocky descent (the same one that dislodged my Garmin the day before) but it held so we rolled across the timing mat before stopping to pump it up.

There was a lovely 10km road ride to return to the event village - which was a great way to finish up.

At the finish we ate and drank as much as we could - 3 days of hard riding made us feel hungry all of the time!

In the end we did win the Mixed Team category, and only one of the men's teams beat us. So well done us! We received some nice prizes of sunglasses, a bottle of local Sky Garden gin from Darkart Distillery and winner's jerseys.

What a blast, it was such a fun event, and a great way to see this area of Scotland. Hopefully the organisers can fix some of their teething issues (this is the inaugural running of it), and come back next year to make it bigger and better. We aim to be there.

The Wrap Up

We had a brilliant 3 days of racing and exploring the Galloway and Dumfries area. It showed us both a new part of the UK, and reinvigorated our enjoyment of riding at pace on gravel.

On top of that, our short holiday and intense, focussed riding, was a great opportunity to get some headspace and an antidote to the chores of everyday life.

As a result, we signed up for the Kings Cup British Gravel Championships - now that’s another story...

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