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Focal Events: Finding the good bits of gravel in the UK

The hype for gravel and bikepacking events is such that entries sell out not long after they are open. For example, the Dirty Reiver in the UK filled all its 1.800 spots in just five hours, showing the excitement of locals and enthusiasts from other countries for a good dose of gravel riding.

Promoting the UK gravel scene

The organizers behind this event are Focal Events. In addition to the previously mentioned Dirty Reiver, which could be considered one of the largest gravel races in Europe, they have in their portfolio a set of events that covers the whole off-road dropbars spectrum, from pure leisure gatherings to competitive racing.

Is the UK the holy grail for gravel riding? Probably not as a whole, but Neil and Bryan from Focal Events have managed to make the most of certain areas that evoke mid-West vibes and have nothing to do with the urban areas that populate most regions in the United Kingdom.

“The gravel in the UK is really good if you are in the right places. But there are not many right places”

When asked about how the terrain compares to the typical gravel paths in the US or other parts of Europe, Neil and Bryan mentioned that the UK can be considered unique in that regard. It doesn’t have vast fields with gravel trails and the surface itself is damper, but you can creatively get really good routes.

That is definitely what they have been doing with their marquee event Dirty Reiver since its first edition in 2016. A 200 km gravel-grinder style single loop of which 95% is gravel. Something not easily achievable anywhere, let alone in the United Kingdom. “Gravel combines the ability of road bikes to cover long distances and the adventurous sense of a mountain bike ride”, they said, and we could not agree more on that. The race starts in the remote Kielder Forest, at the border between Scotland and England.

The Dirty Reiver can be compared to Unbound given how popular it is in the UK, and in fact, there used to be a partnership between both races in which the organizers promoted the participation in the two events. “As time moved on it was more difficult for people to travel. The relationship is still strong, but we do not collaborate with participants at this stage, unfortunately. It will be something we would like to pick up again in the future”, said Neil.

There is another link between Focal Events and US races. Grinduro is a well-known event that combines the best elements of a mountain bike enduro with a gravel grinder-style road race, and since its inception, it stood out for the camping vibes and camaraderie that is now common in all gravel events. They trusted Focal Events to take the event outside America and into Europe, more specifically Wales. It proved to be a success and the event now has several stops across Europe and Oceania, all of them running in some sort of franchising system.

A day-long gravel adventure

In 2023 they are relaunching The Distance, an event that seems particularly interesting even in a cycling calendar in which it is difficult to come up with something new. We consider the format of the event to be very inclusive and will surely allow people of all types of backgrounds to enjoy a full weekend of social riding.

The Distance, taking place on May 12th-14th in the Central Lake District, is adapted to the ability of each participant taking part. The first part of the route is the same for all starters, but things change once you get to the first checkpoint; if you have been fast you receive a longer track to get to the following intermediate point, and if you arrived later your remaining route will be cut short. There are up to three route options at every checkpoint, and the total distance ranges from 45 to 100 km.

This is done with the main purpose of having everyone arrive at the camp more or less at the same time. Everybody will be out for a full day of riding, but some will have covered more ground during that time. “In a nutshell, all riders finish in a similar time having had their own unique adventure!” explained Neil Atkinson.

Think of Unbound and the different finishing times of the participants. The first ones to arrive do it more than five hours ahead of most of the rest and, although some may stay at the finish line waiting for the others, it doesn’t really foster cohesion among the participants. The late finishers will not be able to relate to the story that the fastest riders may share about their race, and the same happens the other way around.

At the end of the first day riders of The Distance will be welcome into camp, where there will be a fire to chill around with a beer while sharing stories and listening to what sponsors and brand ambassadors have to say. On Sunday there will be a short and easy social ride, a great chance to share more stories with old friends and new ones.

Last but not least, Focal Events also organizes Frontier 300, a 300 km supported ride from the west coast of Scotland to the east coast of England. The terrain is half gravel, half tarmac, and the forest trails and minor roads riders will ride by on June 17th will surely be at the level of their other events.

Photos: Focal Events archive