There are plenty of gravel events popping up although you don't always know what your going to get as the definition of gravel riding is still a bit vague. Many one-day events try to lean towards the US interpretation of gravel which usually involves covering long distances on smooth dusty gravel roads.
It’s not all that reflective of UK gravel riding though. Most UK gravel riders spend their time navigating the ambiguous bridleways, old military roads, and forestry trails, retracing many of the tracks that the early Rough Stuff Fellowship pioneers did over 60 years ago.
There's no champagne gravel in Yorkshire
Borderlands is a new gravel event held in the heart of Yorkshire and promises to deliver jaw-clenching climbs and testing terrain, rather than rolling climbs and groomed gravel.
Borderlands is organized by Matt Mannakee and Victoria Mannakee of Struggle Events who run a series of road sportives. This is their first foray into gravel with the options to ride the road sportive on Saturday, the gravel event on Sunday, or make a weekend of it and ride both.
Struggle events are pitched as being a tough day out but Matt and Victoria haven't needed to go out of their way to achieve this. All the Struggle's sportives are based in Yorkshire and if you have never been to Yorkshire there is only one thing you need to know, the riding there is brutal.
The majority of climbs, whether gravel or road, are savagely steep and unrelenting. Descents are equally demanding and often involve high speeds and unpredictable technical corners that could easily result in some unthinkable outcomes if they aren't respected. It's not surprising that Yorkshire has nurtured some of the biggest names in cycling including Danny Hart, Lizzie Deignan, and Tom Pidcock. All of whom have seen the top step of a World Championship podium along the way, as well as a few Olympic medals.
At the start there’s a nervous hustle and bustle, what lay ahead was 100km of unknown gravel with 2400m of climbing. The route would leave Dales Bike Center, home of the Ard Rock Enduro, and climb up Apedale, Oxnop Scar, Great Pinseat, Moresdale Ridge, and Skelton Moor following public and private sections of gravel. We had been briefed the night before by Matt and his panel of gravel experts Nick Craig, local route master Stu Price of Dales Bike Center, and Bike Perfect's very own Guy Kesteven who filled everyone with dread regarding what was to come whilst simultaneously assuring us that it would be a great day out on the bike. If five climbs sounded like too much, there was also an easier 50km route with just under 1000m of climbing which took in the first two climbs before looping back to the start.
It’s a Struggle, not a snuggle
Riders set off in waves and tires were soon off-road and approaching the first ascent. The route is front-loaded with one of the hardest climbs of the day. Gradients quickly steepened and as I clunked through the gears each pedal stroke drove me higher up the hillside. When the front wheel was already feeling light on the ever-challenging gradients, the loose surfaces and buffeting winds made climbing even harder. The route turned and the wind helped push riders up the last section of climbing through an unworldly baron environment littered with lunar-esque craters.
The first descent was rapid, chains swiftly transferred from one end of the cassette to the other until speeds increased to such a rate that pedaling was rendered useless. Swooping turns flowed between each other and rollers offered opportunities for airtime for those brave enough. The pain of the first climb was soon forgotten as smaller ramps topped up the elevation ready for the next descent.
I was feeling a little too brave, clattering into a steep roughly tarmacked farm track and puncturing the front wheel. It was only a tiny hole, unfortunately, the tire plugs I had were way too big. After some framebag rummaging I found some smaller Dynaplugs but no applicator with a little fiddling a plug was stuffed into the tire and I was moving again.
Back on the move
The second climb took us up Cross Top road to the top of Oxnop Scar before turning off onto a DIY ribbon of tarmac that swooped through the fields. The clear line of sights and grassy runoffs gave me the confidence to let off the brakes a little more as we descended toward the feed station.
Topped up with Veloforte bars, I was treated to a tailwind along a pleasant undulating gravel track that ran alongside the River Swale. For the 50km riders, this would be a gentle cruise to the finish and a pint from Cold Bath Brewing. For the 100km riders thoughts of such refreshment would have to wait as we about turned and with our noses in the wind began the slog to the highest point on the course.
The climb up Great Pinseat is stunning, littered with the remains of an industrial past. Scars from the battle between man and landscape give an idea of just how rugged and unforgiving this area can be as we pass the ruins of the Old Gang Smelt Mill and deep rock river beds. The descent off Great Pinseat is another high-speed reward that elevated heart rates and rattled eyeballs after a grueling climb.
Moresdale Ridge climb with its relatively gentle gradient and smooth surface was a delight and the following road section was a welcome rest for hands and legs alike too. The route then turns off the road and up the valley towards Skelton Hall. The climb up to the moor above isn't the longest, steepest, or highest but the gradients up to 20 percent were more than testing enough with tired legs. All that was left was to navigate the maze of narrow pathways around Marrick and whizz down the road to the finish. Crossing the line at the Dales Bike Center, the courtyard was already buzzing with thrilled riders recounting the day's exploits.
There is no doubt the Struggle event lived up to its namesake and I loved it. It's meant to be tough but the mixture of leg-straining climbs and rough descents were equal parts challenging and enjoyable. Think of it as type 1.5 fun, hard work but all the better for it.
Some riders might be put off by the theme of hardship but this isn't a race so there is no pressure to be fast. Each climb is demanding but there is the reward of riding through the beautiful landscapes. Despite pushing the limit of my 40mm Halo GXC tires on the flat out flowing descents the terrain was still unequivocably gravel riding, rather than underbiking chore.
If you are looking for a challenging yet fun gravel event, Struggle Borderlands delivers.