The Gralloch, a journey into darkness

The Gralloch is Britain’s first UCI Gravel World Series event and what an event it was!

The race would start in the little town of Gatehouse of Fleet, with the race heading out into the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere: which means it was pretty: very pretty. Normally I don’t notice the views on a race, but on this one, well it was special.

After a less than stellar performance at the Gravel Fondo Limburg a few weeks before, I was hoping for something better today. What I didn’t know was that apart from a severely impacted training programme, my body was finally succumbing to forty years of cycling wear and tear. An arthritic hip and a bulging disc was going to make this beautiful race a horror story!

But let’s start with the nice parts first! Living on England’s sunny southern coast meant that the trip to the Gralloch was going to be a long one. Trains and planes were out, the first is ridiculously expensive in the UK. The second is environmentally unacceptable and impractical. Instead we get to take our new electric car and test out how good the charging infrastructure is here, compared to Europe. Answer? It’s not great, they’re getting there, but can’t compare to Europe.

Anyway after a twelve hour journey we arrive in Gatehouse of Fleet. It’s a tiny place, but picturesque. The car-park is a field on the edge of town and we ride to the start zone. This looks like it’s normally a fairly sleepy kind of place, but not this weekend! There are cyclists everywhere, of the gravel kind. Not all are moustachioed and wearing plaid though. There’s a fair amount of fit looking folk around, it’s going to be another fast one I feel.

Beer and bikes at the Gralloch
Beer and bikes at the Gralloch

Signing on is quickly done and we head over to the Murray Arms for a half – I am racing tomorrow – and a chat. Whistles wetted we decide to eat at the hotel rather than in town. And what a hotel, the Cally Pally is an ex stately home and the rooms are great, with balconies to sip coffee on and ponder tomorrow. Pondering and dinner done, it’s time to do last minute kit and clothing checks, then bed.

With a very civilised 11 o’clock start, there’s no morning rush. We take breakfast, spotting Alex Dowsett and Nathan Haas who are also competing today. I resist the urge to request selfies and make do with a nod as I pass them. Seeing as we arrived so late, there’s been no time for a recon, so I make do with riding the road start up to the first section of gravel. Not great, but it’s all I’ve got.

As usual for a UCI gravel race, riders start in their age categories. First off will be the women’s bunch, this contains all the female racers and it’s a big bunch. I’ve attended a lot of races on and off-road and gravel definitely seems to be attracting a lot more women riders than any of the other categories. Could this be because it’s the latest fad? Or are road and Mtb events missing something when it comes to getting women racing? Is road seen as too hard, if you’re not fit enough it’s game over? And is Mtb too technical? I don’t know, these are just thoughts after speaking to my own partner, who has bought a gravel bike.

Cameron Mason lines up with the other fast boys! Courtesy of Red:On

There’s a short gap after the women’s bunch departs, then it’s time for us old boys! I’m riding in the 55-59 category and it’s a big group, ninety-three riders. With the exception of lone riders from Belgium, Australia, USA and a few Irish, it’s an all British affair. The countdown starts, the music ramps up and the nerves kick in: too late for another wee!

The horn blows and we’re off! The plan today is to ride sensibly, try and achieve a negative split, to steal a runner’s term that my partner is always talking about. In these kind of events it makes sense. They’re long and sprinting off at the beginning, burning up those reserves is never a good idea, but I always do! The start is a road climb to the gravel, nothing too steep and the pace is sensible, but as we approach the gravel, people are accelerating to get a good run on to it: you don’t want to get stuck behind a dismount or fluffed gear change.

The front runners would be home long before me! Courtesy of Red:On

The first climb is up Fuffock Hill, it’s a long one: six kilometres with the road section. I knew straight away that this was not going to be a good day. There were some worrying twinges coming from my back and we’re only a few minutes in! I decided to not push too hard, hoping it would magically disappear as I warmed up into the day’s effort: fat chance!

Following the climb, we’re rewarded with a sweet descent that makes up for the the previous pain. A little side-note if you’re thinking of entering some of the UCI Gravel World Series races. I’ve done three now, all in Europe and the one thing I would recommend is that as well as being super fit, learn to descend! I was passing so many riders that were obviously not confident going fast downhill. They were losing heaps of time on riders like me, which they then had to make back up on the climbs. Now if I’d been fit, this would have been a big advantage for me: but I wasn’t.

Conor Swift wins the men’s race. Courtesy of Red:On

And now for some kit-chat. On the start line I’d noticed that most riders are running fatter tyres now. The days of turning up on cyclo-cross tyres seem to have left us. The organisers had given us a good idea of the type of terrain we were going to be covering and skinny 32mm tyres were definitely out!

I was running a set of 44mm Vittoria Mezcals – which I’m reviewing for CycleTechReview – with the Gravel Endurance Casing. With the type of gravel we were dealing with on the Gralloch, this was a definite bonus. The majority of tracks we were riding on were wide forestry roads, the kind used by lorries. These were firm, where the tyres had crushed the gravel, but stray from there and the gravel got bigger, looser and nastier. On the downhills straying too far from these lines could be sketchy to say the least.

Tiffany Cromwell on her way to victory. Courtesy of Red:On

And bigger tyres means a larger volume of air to cushion your ride. I was running around 28psi – assuming my pump-gauge was accurate – and that gave me the perfect ride. On the rough stuff it gave plenty of comfort and grip in the corners, with no rim-strikes when I went off-piste. And on the road it wasn’t too squishy: a technical term!

Just like in Limburg I was on my Handsling Bikes CEXevo, running Shimano 105 Di2. Gearing was 50-34 and 11-34 which was absolutely fine for today’s parcours. Wheels were Handsling’s own hand-built hoops, these fast, light wheels are an absolute joy. They’ve taken a hammering at the Gralloch, at Limburg and down on my Sussex flint and chalk trails and are still true.

A tired old man contemplates his future

Back to the Gralloch. After that downhill my race just got worse. While my fitness was ok, what I didn’t know was that after forty plus years of riding, my body was starting to fail. My hip and back were so painful I was having problems pressing on the pedals. But you know us cyclists, pain is just weakness etc.

So I kept on plugging on. I wanted to make the qualifying cut at least today. Houffa’s seventh place was not going to happen, but could I at least qualify? There were ninety-three in my category and I needed to finish twenty-fourth or better, could I do it? No. No, I couldn’t. But I could help another. I’d picked up another rider who was sitting on my wheel, something you could definitely do on this course. We rode the course together, both suffering in our own ways. What we didn’t know was that I was towing her to victory!

The Gralloch has some big country
The Gralloch has some big country. Courtesy of Red:On

On the final climb before the road descent back into town we were joined by another rider from my category who’d also been suffering. As we came off the gravel and on to the road, it was nice to have another wheel to share the work. And then we hit the road descent, probably one of my highlights after all that suffering! Almost six kilometres of closed road, twisting and turning downhill: what a joy! We flew down it as fast as we could, safe in the knowledge that we wouldn’t come across any cars. The final roll across the line – I secretly wanted a sprint – with cheering townsfolk was great. I got my finisher’s medal, a hug from the wife and then realised I couldn’t actually get off the bike!

I was in so much pain, I had to ride to a fence and slowly dismount. Staggering over to the organiser’s tent to find out if I’d qualified, I presented my number, held my breath and the look on the official’s face told me all I needed to know. There will be no trip to Italy, not today. I would have sat down, but I was having trouble bending, so stood looking morose, drinking a cup of tea and eating a huge steak sandwich: life was good, even if my body wasn’t!

Scotland has some amazing gravel riding. Courtesy of Red:On

Despite all the moaning, I thoroughly enjoyed the Gralloch. The setting was beautiful, helped by the good weather. I might have thought differently if it had rained! Also, seeing and being passed by, top riders like Conor Swift and Cameron Mason was a treat. The speed these athletes are capable of is awe-inspiring, especially when they fly past you on a downhill! Check out Alex Dowsett’s video of his Gralloch experience. All I can say is I totally agree with their opinion of how hard it was: even though I was nowhere near their power outputs!

And the course itself was an eye-opener. The majority of the course was on wide gravel roads and when I say gravel I mean gravel. Not chewed up bridle-paths, or rooty single track, but huge tracks that twisted and climbed all over the land. The views, when I had time to look, went on for miles over lakes and forests, with plenty of open sky and not a car in sight: bliss. Being based in the far south of the UK, we are limited in the type of riding available. Scotland however has had a different approach to land access since 2003. This opens up huge tracts of land for us gravellistas and the Gralloch made the most of it.

I’ll be back next year to qualify, what will I change? I’ll come up earlier and stay longer. If the weather’s good, then Dumfries looks a lovely place to explore. Hopefully I will have my old body sorted and will be able to tackle the Gralloch, see you there?

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