Since relocating to Northern Ireland, we've been on the search for the rough stuff. The local forests have offered some good runs but when we came across the Lakelander Gravel Grinder, this seemed to be what we were really after!
We dropped Rowan McMahon, the race director, an email to see if we could piggyback on this year's ride and he kindly gave us a place to cover it. He explained the event was made up of 2 distances: a 50km Little Dog and a 100km Bog Dog with a made up 'Mongrel' for those who don't make the cut off point. Set in Ballintempo Forest, Co. Fermanagh, I was warned the course was far from flat. I was actually told the night before the event that there was something like 4km of flat out of the 100km ride! So I had to get a move on in getting some gravel practice in. I visited Tollymore Forest a few times considering it includes 2 quite steep climbs, an ideal place to prep' for the Gravel Grinder.
My gravel skills are average at best. I'm someone who needs to know exactly what they are dealing with when going off-road, I'm assuming that's true for a lot of people but I was riding with a few guys from The Yard (LBS in Rathfriland) in particularly Colin who sounded like he was the Tom Pidcock of his hey day! My limited gravel experience was all back in London mostly my commuting which included the local woodlands (hold a couple of KOMs still I believe!) but there's my point about knowing the trails, you know where to push and throw the bike and be prepared for any fixed hazards such as exposed tree roots etc. Obviously, hazards change with weather so you can't full proof in that sense but you'll definitely see your confidence improve though. I managed to get in roughly two lots of 35+ rides in Tollymore so I was 2/3rds ready for the 100km.
Now, to me Belcoo (HQ for the ride and next to Enniskellen) sounded like it might as well as been a plane ride away but it turned out to be a stress free drive there and back. Something I had noticed considerably that even though people here in NI tend to drive quite quickly (I put it down to basically every road is national speed limit), traffic is nowhere near any levels like London and the South East. Earlier this year, my family and I drove down to Portsmouth from West London and it was just stressful with the amount of traffic you have to contend with. But even though I was stuck with just a radio, it was a smooth journey across the country. Mrs NITP had kindly allowed me to have the night away so I didn't have to drive in the morning and the nearest place I could find which was reasonably priced was the Abocurragh Farmhouse, nestled nicely outside the forest and the town of Belcoo. If staying over somewhere the night before is within your budget, I would seriously recommend it. I was made to feel right at home. A nice big room to myself with a lovely breakfast in the morning is the way to prep' for a big ride.
I picked up my registration stuff the night before to beat the queues and it was all very well organised. Included in your entry fee was a t-shirt, a tracker, your bike number with zip ties (had an issue with those!) photos and a medal and some food at the finish. Parking was included but was limited to a first come first served basis so I hope the locals of Belcoo didn't mind a few hundred cars parked up in their streets. Colin, Eddie and Geoff drove down that morning and I met up with them just by the repair van which would make another appearance further on in this story. I managed to get some tape from the local mechanic because the zip ties were too short to fit around my tube and bar bag. I think others had an issue too or just zip tied it under their bar bag if they had one. The tape didn't really do a good job as you can tell from the photos.
I believe it was Rowan who got on the mic and announced the 100km crowd who was setting off first. Did find it strange to be quite a late start for a sportive at 10.30am but that was my first mistake. This wasn't a sportive. This was a race. There were some serious hitters in the ranks and Rowan announced it was a 3km neutralized start behind one of the lead vans up a hill out of the town. What did I get myself into?! Our little Co. Down crew were positioned near the back and were approaching the day as a social outing although I never saw Geoff again as he bombed up the road as soon as it started. I stuck with Eddie and Colin for most of the start but as we turned into the forest, the race was on. Some opted to walk their bikes already up the first and immediate gravel climb and it was quite thick stuff. If you have ever climbed a hill in a sportive where it started to bottle neck, you're focused more on not stopping because someone else had. Add in quite thick gravel and it really was a rude awakening into what was in store. I lost Colin and Eddie now and then partly down to avoiding others finding the best line to ride on but also down to misses like the guy in front of me puncturing and having to pull the brakes hard to stop me smashing into him!
The 100km route was the same as the 50km apart from a side loop at the start and a bigger loop after feed stop 1. The side loop took in a forest ridge which looked steep by just looking at it but as I turned into the single track lane, I could see straight away there was a problem. We were all warned before the ride to keep left when riding on lanes passing riders coming the other way but myself personally found this loop a bit dangerous and I was proved right. As I started to climb, riders were coming down a very steep and rough descent but on my side of the track and having to skid and brake hard to manoeuvre to their left side. The climb continued to the left at a junction but I had stopped because lots of riders behind me were calling others coming down to keep to the left to slow or move over. To their defence, they were finding it hard just to slow and at one point, I had a guy lock up and coming straight at me. I knew there and then something was going to happen because the numbers coming up and coming down made that a probability rather than a possibility.
Bangs and clattering sounds made me turn around to see a couple of guys out on the side of the verge with shouts from others to tell riders descending to stop. Luckily, an ambulance was positioned right at the bottom of the hill and came up to the incident. I opted at this point not to do the climb. I just didn't fancy being part of something like that. I am unsure if there were signs on the descent to tell riders to slow and keep left but it seemed either riders were too caught up in the descent and didn't realise this was a section of the route which safety was quite paramount. I always ride within my means and I am a roadie at heart so I am extra cautious when it comes to terrain I am unfamiliar with. In retrospect, there should of been a marshal positioned around up the climb or a stronger message about this section. The paramedic told me he believed one of the guys had broken ribs but soldiered on. When he told me that, my mindset had changed into targeting the Little Dog knowing there were some quite steep descents on the 100km course. Colin, Eddie and everyone else it seemed was fine with it so I also put it down to my own skill set because I was the only one who turned back after the crash.
Seeing the crash did knock my confidence. My descending skills in particular has had a bit of a setback recently. I had experienced a violent case of speed wobble on a local road descent. I was certain I was about to come off and do some serious damage but thankfully managed to slow the bike down. At first, I thought it was a loose wheel but thanks to the Twitter community, the incident was diagnosed as speed wobble. If you have never experienced an episode before, the whole front wheel becomes a blur because of the intensity of the wobbling. If I am not mistaken, it's something to do with an external force (like wind) acting upon the steering resulting in shimmering of the wheel. I haven't been fully confident since so descending on gravel with average brakes in comparison to the other machines out there, it would be understandable to be cautious.
The forest itself makes you feel so isolated. The whole place is raised above the surrounding lakes but the ride itself took you past a few secret water spots. It was hard to take it all in as I was constantly looking for the best line all the time but as I progressed further into the Gravel Grinder, I started to feel my confidence coming back. The forest tracks were wide enough to see way ahead of you, there were no sharp bends just some thicker gravel at times. Now, I always thought my GT was one of a kind in a way but when a random guy rode past shouting something at me, I did wonder if he knew me. Years ago at the Red Bull Timelaps, I had a guy shout notinthepeloton at me mainly because I advertised I was on a pink aero bike at the time! As I caught up with him, he was riding the same bike but with the original components. He loved his, I've had upgrade issues with mine especially with the wheels. I had 3 broken spokes on the rear alone so gave him the warning but just showed how friendly everyone was on the ride. A lot of hellos and how you getting ons, just proves how influential cycling is in bringing people together with one common goal to just ride their bikes.
I managed to find Eddie and Colin or did they find me? But I lost them again for good at a road junction because I had to pull over as the rear tyre felt soft. Turned out my suspicions were right (although this was only confirmed the next day when the tyre was completely flat) that I had a very slow puncture. The mobile mechanic was on hand to give me a quick changeover which also revealed one of the Halfords tubes I had brought with a gift voucher was faulty. I never buy tubes from Halfords for that reason but I thought I would buy a bundle to cover me. The unscheduled stop also resulted in me meeting another Londonder who I assume had flown over for the event but he was rolling on standard 25s. I told him he was very brave, he said it was all about the fun. Ride on brother! When it came to tyre sizes, I was running 38s, can't fit anything bigger as I don't have the clearance. But there was a big mix of gravel and mountain bikes with the one with road bike in for good fun!
I thought I'd see Colin and Eddie at the feed stop where the two dogs diverge but as Colin admitted to me after, they didn't wait (well they did, just not long enough for me!). So after a couple of bananas and a slice of cake, my mindset was still unchanged so chose to head back on the Little Dog. Did this meant I was a mongrel?!. I just felt I wasn't prepared enough for what was to come. I think if I hadn't seen that crash or that side loop wasn't included, I would of gone on. I thought this was my chance to push a little harder too, no point doing these events and not upping the skillset. So I started to hold more speed on the descents which were not particularly steep on the return leg. It was the cornering I was having issues with, any thick gravel and I just imagined my bike sliding underneath me and down I go. Suppose this is where the lack of proper off road experience has hampered me as those who clearly were more comfortable on the rougher stuff had no trouble whatsoever.
There was one steep climb which stayed in the memory on the way back. It was a climb straight off a short piece of tarmac and only had one decent gravel line up. I noticed a few walkers (no shame in that at all) but I knew as long as I kept a good rhythm and found the best climbing line, it would be conquered. I was thrown onto some of the thicker stuff when I had to overtake a couple and then wary of crossing back over to the climbing line in case I got bogged down again and the wheels would just spin rather than propel me.
At one point, 2 fast guys came through around a corner. They actually turned out to be the Big Dog winners (wtf?! That early?!). I knew from the Hammerhead (review to come!) that I didn't have long left but remember the grind up from the start which meant it would be a rough descent back to the finish. Well, for me it was because I had a couple on MTBs bomb down - I wish! Rolled into the finish area and greeted with a heavy weighted metal. Food was provided at the community centre in the town but I opted to go straight to the car which was parked further. After a quick take away Costa, I hit the road bit annoyed with myself that I didn't go further. I knew I had a good extra 20km in me but with double the climbing still to come after the first feed stop, would I of made it back? Colin said to me afterwards I wouldn't of because the climbs were horribly steep. I think he underestimates my climbing ability, it's the descents I've been struggling on. I am not a pro climber by any means but I've only stopped to walk off twice in my lifetime (first time up Whitedown and first time up Barhatch - that's understandable surely?!).
So would I recommend the Lakelander Gravel Grinder? Absolutely. Any moans I've made are based on my personal skill set. I am certain with another year under my belt, the Big Dog can and will be tamed. It's a pure gravel playground in the middle of nowhere with some cracking landscape. One road, you're riding next to moss laden trees. The next road you're coming across an idyllic lough. You could literally spend a weekend in there which is what a recommendation of mine would be. Rowan and his Lakelander crew could turn this event into a weekend of gravel, maybe reverse the routes the next day or have a team event perhaps. Not sure the town of Belcoo is big enough to host 900 riders overnight though! You're well looked after, you're tracked and fed well. It really does set a high bar for future gravel events. Obviously it helps when you have somewhere like Ballintempo Forest to plot the routes but it's well signposted (although I was a little confused as to why some riders were asking for directions in certain places when the road was blocked by the marshals and there was only one way to turn?!). So if you're looking for your main event for next year and a proper adventure in a very remote part of Ireland, the Lakelander Gravel Grinder should be a serious consideration. Just make sure you let me have the climbing line if I need to go past ya!