Surrey Hills GravelCross
Tue Jul 16 2019
Since getting my first CX bike last spring, I've been trying getting into some longer-distance gravel rides. The South-East UK isn't famous for it's endless gravel roads, so my rides have mostly been linking up shorter gravel tracks, bridleways and paths with quiet roads, with some singletrack too when I could find it.
Personally, I thought this was pretty niche riding, somewhere between a road ride, XC Mountain bike ride and a traditional US-style gravel ride, however I discovered the Surrey Hills GravelCross Event, part of the Kinesis GravelCross Series, a small run of events fitting my style of riding exactly. 3 options, 40k, 56k, and 74k, open to all from 29er mtbs, through XC to gravel/cx bikes. I aimed for the 56k 'mid' event, on account of the 850m climbing in the Surrey Hills.
I put in a few training rides based on the route, trying to cover off the more technical off-road sections as well as the climbing. Whilst not a race, I was keen to get a good time and hopefully keep up with some more experienced riders from the local CX leagues.
And other tales of underprepared adventures
After a week of obsessively checking the weather forecast every 15 minutes, Saturday arrived looking overcast. Never mind, the forecast didn't predict any precipitation. 5 minutes after leaving the house, the heavens opened, and it chucked it down. A quick trip back to pick up a waterproof and we were good to go. The event started in Chilworth at a local school, where the hall had been repurposed into an event centre. There was about 50 other riders in the car park with a variety of bikes, from old-school CX bikes (still with cantis!) through to some hefty full-sussers. I was nervous, on my lighter-weight CX bike with mud tyres. Unusually, the start time was listed as "8:00-9:30", so only about 20 riders starting at the same time as me. After a pretty minimal event briefing (essentially 'it's wet, don't fall off'), still in the pouring rain, we were off.
The ride kicked off with about 3kms of road. I headed out at the front with 2 other guys on CX bikes and sat in a tight group, through the main road in Chilworth. Soon it split off into singletrack, and I maintained pace with the other 2 riders. A short loop back round put us onto the climb into Blackheath, a small sandy forest south of Chilworth. All was ok for another km or so until the sand got deep, like a CX sandtrap. I hadn't noticed it due to the heavy rain coating my glasses so I immediately dug in, caught a wheel, and faceplanted, watching most of the field go past. I got up, un-bent my brake hoods, and got back on, trying not to touch the sand coating the inside of my mouth. I carried on for a few more kms, gingerly limping through the sand until we hit the main doubletrack path off of Blackheath. A short road section looped us down to the old Down's Link, a disused railway leading to the South Downs. Still HOOFING it down, I was freezing, and not having the greatest fun, however I'd managed to catch back up to another group, so stuck with them whilst we blitzed down the flat gravel track into the rest of the Surrey Hills.
The next 20kms followed in a similar pattern, with a good mix of semi-technical off-road tracks linked by quiet road sections, with regular cloudbursts too. I was able to make up a lot of time on the road sections, but was starting to find everyone else was gaining on me on the gravel sections - I was really under-tyred. A final long climb up to Pitch Hill saw me take a few more places, before the descent through Walking Bottom started. Here I was actually holding back, keen to keep things in control and not get a pinch flat on the rutted track. Into Peaslake, where I'd normally stop for some calories, however today I was keen to keep moving to keep warm. I took on some Jelly Babies and fig rolls (high quality nutrition) and pressed on up Radnor road. Another blistering gravel descent shook the teeth out of my head, and I found I was really struggling with grip here, so as much as I pushed it, I was still unable to keep pace with some other riders.
A longer road piece took me to some more sandy singletrack, then some more quiet lanes took me to the final 10kms - starting with a sandy track cutting around St Martha's hill. I'd been on my own for a while here, and the weather was cheering up, so I was really starting to get into it. I was also on more familar ground, having taken a MTB across here loads of times, so taking a CX bike down here was slower, but no less fun. I could only see a couple more tyre tracks at this point, so had no idea how many people were ahead of me, so I pressed on, knowing I was near to the finish. The final offroad section took me down a favourite Strava Segment of mine, where I opened it up and went for it - 1km of gentle gravel doubletrack really put a grin on my face! I took the KOM too which was great - especially after the ride so far.> Someone has since pipped my KOM...damn!
The final 5kms took quiet roads back into Chilworth, where I was the only one at the event centre other than the organisers. A nice understated finish after the quiet second half of the ride!
Results were posted up within a day or so, and I ended up 5th overall, and 1st in class (<40 CX), which was a real bonus!
- Get some bigger tyres. I was using 33c mud tyres - Clement MXP CX. These had ~2000kms on them so were pretty knackered at this point. They were way too narrow for the sandy sections, way too slick for the mud, and way too slidy for the road. On every different terrain, they were compromised, which really slowed me down and made me feel pretty unsafe. Dropping the tyre pressure helped to some extent on the offroad sections, but slowed me down a lot on the road. Next time, I'll consider something higher-volume and fresh, like 40c G-Ones.
- Learn how to ride sand properly. I immediately stacked it, around 5kms in, and it shook me up a lot for the next section of the ride.
- Actually follow the GPS. Riding in a group often seems like a great idea, but a couple of times I was in a group that took a wrong turn, costing us all time. I had the route on my Wahoo, and should've followed it more closely, as some of the turns were a little less-visible.
- CX bikes can be pushed further than you think. The route had more challenging sections than I'd usually ride on a CX bike, yet I was fine! Although pretty uncomfortable in places, I was able to maintain a good pace, and wasn't under-biked on the rough stuff.
- Fuelling, hydration & pacing were pretty perfect. I was aiming for 25-30grams carbs every 30 mins, and sipping water every 5-10 mins, and it worked out great. I missed one or two feeds due to the terrain, however I still had a decent amount left in the tank by the end. Pacing too was good, I was aiming for a tempo pace based on heart rate (high z3/low z4), which was sustainable but still pushed me.
- Hills are my friend. I'm a pretty light guy, and was riding a pretty light rig (compared to some of the guys on full-susses or 650b adventure bikes), so I found I carried a lot more speed on the hills that I thought I would. As the route had mostly gravel downhills and road uphills, I was able to make up all the places I'd lost on the downhills by pushing hard on the ups.
- Stopping vs not stopping. I'm still on the fence on this one, as there was an organised feed zone en-route as well as lots of places to stop. If I'd stopped I could've adjusted tyre pressure more, as well as rest up before the next sections. However I usually tend to keep stops to a minimum, and I found that here, I was able to make up a lot of paces simply by plodding on more, and not making any faff-stops!
Overall, I thought the event was great. The organisation was great, the route well marked, and the organisers themselves super friendly. This made me feel like for the mostpart I was riding my own ride, however the occasional other riders and marked route made it feel a lot more than that. As my first event, I was super pleased to complete it and place well, and will definitely be returning next year with some chunkier tyres to take it on again. The route itself was perfect, and most sections of it now feature heavily on my regular off-road rides.