The hardpack gravel beneath my wheels was passing slowly, so slowly. Cranking over my bottom gear at a painful 50rpm and fatigued beyond coherent speech, I looked through the passing stones and waited for this, the penultimate climb of the day, to be over.
“I reckon it’d do us good to walk out to the pub for food tonight,” said my ride partner Owen Rogers breezily, as he span his enviably low bottom gear up the gravelly slope. My reply was non-committal. Cryptic, even: “Uh.” My face didn’t give much away either, apart from the slack jaw and wide eyes of a village idiot. Those with a particular talent for reading features might have inferred a deep-seated desire for the whole thing to please be over.
“You don’t seem very enthusiastic about the idea,” Owen grinned.
Seconds passed. “I’ve got literally nothing,” I grunted truculently in the wide open space between pedal revs that the steep gradient had reduced my small-but-not-small- enough 42 x 42 gear to.
We were both exhausted. Six hours’ riding across 100km of the UK’s finest uppy-downy gravel had seen to that. We had said goodbye to our support truck 10km before and were now ploughing a lonely, unsupported furrow with 15km back to the finish at Gatehouse that somehow felt like much more than that.
One big descent later and we were on the final haul, a winding traverse around a shallow balcony that stretched on and upwards to the horizon, where tarmac and a final four miles of almost unbroken descent homeward awaited.
We were in Scotland’s Galloway Forest Park riding the course of The Gralloch – round seven of the Trek UCI Gravel World Series, which took place on on Saturday 20 May. The course is 113km long, relentlessly hilly and 95% on gravel doubletrack.
Great British gravel
It’s good gravel, too: “World class gravel!” route designer Warren Sanders had pointed out to me on more than one occasion, and I had to agree. There are miles of it, stretching and winding the length and breadth of the Forest Park and Warren, who runs Galloway Cycling Holidays with his wife Esther, knows every inch of it.
There are few places in the UK where you could construct a 70-mile route of almost unbroken forest tracks like this, and Galloway is clearly one of them. There are no shonky singletrack paths or dodgy main road link-ups, just good doubletrack forest road that you could drive a 4x4 on (and indeed, we had a support truck for all but the last 25km), and just a smidge of tarmac road, which is closed to what little traffic there is on the day of the event.
The tracks run die-straight through thick forest, or wind across wide open moorland, snaking up and over huge hills. While for the purposes of the UCI World Series the Gralloch only featured two classified climbs, in reality there’s rarely a moment when you’re not either going up or downhill.
The day had begun under the granite clock tower on Gatehouse of Fleet’s atmospheric main street. Owen and I rolled out with route-man Warren accompanied by a 4x4 full of gels, bars and water bottles and in my case at least, at headful of self-doubt.
Immediately we were gaining height, and when we turned off the tarmac a kilometre later we were gaining height more quickly and – even earlier than predicted – I got dropped. Enveloped by a thick cloak of dismay, I looked back longingly towards our accommodation and its cosy bed and wanted nothing more than to bid a hasty retreat, go back and order a bulkload of Fat Lad At The Back kit.
Carbs before climbs
However, against my better judgement, up we continued, winding upwards until, finally the road levelled off. We’d been climbing nearly 7km. The Scots porridge and toast was going to earn its keep today. We had just climbed the Gralloch’s
first classified climb, Fuffock Hill (don’t try saying that when breathing out of your backside), whose official stats rate it at 4% average with 11% ramps towards the end. It’s hard work, clearly, but worth it for the view over Gatehouse and out to the coast at the top.
The Gralloch broadly consists of three distinct loops in the forests north of Gatehouse. Unless you know the area well, each feels as rugged and remote as the next, with just a few miles of road in the middle and at the end as a nod towards civilisation.
For now we set about completing the first big loop, a winding descent of several kilometres delivering us inevitably to the bottom of the next climb. Descending on Galloway’s gravel
focuses the mind. On the road, even a whiff of gravel on a downhill bend is enough to provoke a flurry of shouted warnings; on Galloway’s tracks, it’s a prerequisite. But once you’ve learned to trust your tyres, feeling the bike squirming around – and holding on – in the bends is part of the fun.
We completed loop one on a big climb – 4km at an average of 3.5%, a gradient that’s nothing to write home about until you consider that it’s achieved, like all the other ‘average gradients’ on this ride, via a constant flattening and ramping up of the road, often into double figures. Hard work.
After the first of the two significant road stretches we turned north again, a strong southerly at our backs and enjoyed another mammoth downhill. The nagging thought that what goes down must come up was not unfounded – we’d ‘enjoy’ climbing back up this particular stretch at the end of the ride.
The ride’s second major loop is the biggest, at nearly 25 miles (40km) in length. It heads out east to Loch Stroan and then on to Loch Ken, which at 15km long has its own impressive stats.
This loop started with a hard climb – steep and loose, winding up throug the trees – and then after another whooping descent, we were on to the day’s second classified climb, Tannoch Flow. A 10% opening ramp gives way to solid 5% climbing for most of its 4km length, with just a short stretch of downward respite a third of the way up.
Ride on the wild side
Taste The Rainbow
If you’ve ever fancied a real, bona fide rainbow jersey of your own, the Gralloch is your chance. At least it is one of 16 chances to get a ticket to this year’s UCI Gravel World Championship in Veneto, Italy in October.
This year's Gralloch was the seventh race in the 16-round Trek UCI World Gravel Series, (there are seven more to go) and riders in the top 25% of their age group in each round will qualify for the Veneto Worlds. Win your age group there and you get to wear a set of real rainbow
bands and thumb your nose at anyone who tells you you’ve got to earn them to wear them. The series kicked off in Spain with La Indomable on Sunday 23 April and is truly global, with events as far flung as the USA and Canada, South Africa and Australia. After the 19-34 bracket, the age groups go up in five-year increments – small enough to mean you might feel reasonably optimistic about Worlds qualification if you’re halfway fit.
There were some big names at this year's race, with Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM) and Connor Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) winning.
Despite the star riders, the Gralloch is not an elitist event – turn up and treat it as a personal challenge by all means; just getting round this is an achievement in itself for us mere mortals.
Dates for next year's Gralloch Gravel have not been announced but you can register your interest. The same beautiful gravel trails are also being used for Raiders Gravel - a three day event at the end of August.
As we began the climb up we passed the gralloching shed where deer carcasses are prepared after being shot – a brief reminder that while you might be about to take on another tough climb, there’s always someone worse off than you.
‘The Gralloch takes guts’, they say, and this is why – and where the ride name comes from.
Now at the very top of the course, we broke off east. Despite the fact we were skirting one of the biggest hills in the area – the 493m Black Craig of Dee – this turned out to be a very welcome steady interlude. We rode along the old ‘Raiders Road’ alongside the picturesque and babbling River Dee, and without any taxing climbs or descents we hardly knew what to do with ourselves. The respite was predictably short-lived.
What came next, as we headed south again towards the start of the final loop, was 10km of climbing, broken only by two short descents which were dashed off in less than five minutes. It was a succession of hills rather than a single climb, and it wasn’t classified either – the perfect example of the Gralloch’s relentless terrain. It was halfway along this stretch that Warren decided that discretion was the better part of valour and made a break for home – after all, as route designer he knew only too well what he was letting himself in for by continuing. But with Owen having only driven the route and me not having seen it at all, we blindly resisted the temptation to follow Warren and pushed onwards, uphill, into the final loop.
Into the breach
An hour of hard riding later, with 25km left, we gathered one last time next to the truck, cramming in a gel here, a bar there, topping up bottles, before saying a final goodbye. Our driver Ruaridh and snapper Joe had people to see, places to be and hadn’t banked on us taking quite so long.
The Galloway Forest Park is true wilderness riding, especially for a Surrey boy who’s never usually more than Mars bar’s throw away from the nearest convenience store. And that feeling was only amplified as we watched the truck drive away. Between us and the nearest stretch of tarmac remained more than an hour of some of the hardest riding either of us had done for a very long time. Teeth gritted, we pointed our bikes towards those final big climbs and set off once more into the wild.
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