Ride Report: North London Dirt
Gravel Union On
24 September 2021
You wouldn’t have thought that gravel riding within earshot of London would be world-class would you, but that’s what the North London Dirt event promised. Olly heads to the “big smoke” to see if gravel nirvana really was to be found so close to urbanville.
“Did you know that Gareth has never ridden more than 70 before and he’s brought overnight kit in case he doesn’t make it back before it goes dark” said my brother-in-law, Nick. “70miles?” I replied. “No, 70kms” said Nick. I looked down at my GPS and it showed that we’d ridden just over 45kms at that point. The whole route was nearly 110kms, so this was going to be heading into the unknown for Gareth. But that’s what big days out on a gravel bike are all about, aren’t they?
When you live in an urban area, you get pretty good at linking tiny snippets of trails together to make a ride that flows. It’s not “gravel” riding in the literal sense of the word, but if you can have a brilliant day of riding where you start from your front door, you get to explore a new area and every trail has a different characteristic than the one you rode 10 minutes before, then for us that is the description of a perfect ride. Throw in some super-efficient, but low-key organisation, an incredible sense of camaraderie, a freshly baked post-ride pizza washed down by a hand poured IPA and you have, in essence, the North London Dirt. Urban gravel riding at its finest.
Finding gravel gold among the housing estates and light industry that makes up the periphery of most large cities is not an easy task. During recent world events, many of us were either forced (or chose) to ‘ride local’, and soon realised that finding good trails and making a route that ‘flowed’ is a real skill. Philip and Andrew Diprose, the brothers behind the NLD, basically spend the 12 months between their events painstakingly researching options for next year’s event. They must spend days and days pouring over maps and aerial images, trying to piece together a seemingly random collection of trails to form a whole, significantly bigger than its components.
When I saw that NLD was going to be run again in 2021, I put it straight away on my mental calendar of gravel events that I wanted to do and then my next thought was my brother-in-law. Although we currently live nearly 500kms apart, I’ve done a variety of rides with Nick in the past, where we’ve used a cobbled together collection of bikes, clothes and kit to fit in a quick ride in whichever part of the world he was living in at the time. A dawn raid through the suburbs of Paris, a sunny blast around some man-made trails near Washington DC and a snowy MTB ride on the moors of Yorkshire had all been crowbarred into his crazy-busy schedule in the time that I’ve known him.
Nick is one of those slightly sickening individuals who is a natural sportsman and seems to be able to turn his hand to anything vaguely sporty. So, I figured he’d up for a 110kms gravel ride, even one which sneakily shoehorned in more than 1000m of climbing. I packed my spare gravel bike for him and got him a helmet and glasses, but I didn’t have any other spare kit that would fit. So, while I was kitted out to look like a (slightly grey-around-the-temples) expert gravel rider, Nick was wearing a fetching ensemble of football shorts, long sleeved sweatshirt and a pair of trainers. Who says you need all the gear in order to enjoy a day out on a gravel bike! To add to his slight air of trepidation, Nick had never ridden a gravel bike before, nor had he used Shimano STI levers. As we set off from his house to ride to the start, I tried to teach him all the basics of changing gear, using disc brakes and getting comfortable and confident on the bike. It was quite a steep learning curve for him.
When we arrived at the start, it was immediately obvious that the Diproses had got the ‘vibe’ of the event just right. The sign-on area was next to a newly completed St Mary’s Centre, a community funded building which houses a variety of charitable organisations (and to which the profits of the NLD are donated). The courtyard outside the center was filled with a visibly-buzzing group of gravel riders of all types, sizes and styles. There were a number of shiny Canyon gravel and adventure bikes artily displayed, a beautiful Landrover Defender 110 converted into a mobile bar from Magic Rock Brewing and most importantly a set of French doors in the gable end of the building were open and a fully functioning coffee station had been set-up inside where the staff were pouring shots of caffeinated liquid-gold for the assembled crowd.
Nick headed off to get the coffees while I got us signed on. He came back with coffee cups in hand, but also with Gareth in tow. They had chatted in the queue and instantly bonded over their “casual” attire. It turned out it was Gareth’s first gravel event and as he was a solo rider, we asked if he would like to ride with us. I figured that he and Nick had a similar levels of experience v enthusiasm and so we would make a good team.
The initial part of the route headed north, out through the suburbs of London. Plenty of street furniture and a short succession of junctions between tiny backroads made communication between us key, so I tried to teach Nick and Gareth the basics of on-bike communication as we rode along. They were soon expert at using the odd lexicon of hand signals that road cyclists adopt – keen students are always the best ones to work with! The initial gradients were kind to us and I tried to set a pace that I thought we would be able to maintain for the whole distance of the ride.
After the initial sections of urban riding, the route funnelled us onto the banks of the River Lee – a canalised river which leads pretty much due-north out of London. We had 10kms of riding on gritty towpaths which we used to warm our legs up, practice on-bike “comms” and prepare ourselves for the challenge ahead.
Surprising quickly, we reached the outskirts of London and the landscape changed from being urban, to suburban, to industrial, to post-industrial barrenness to suddenly being rural. The route held plenty of challenges – navigating a couple of road crossings via elevated bridges complete with steep flights of concrete steps was a good chance to practice our CX skills. Based on these photos, I need to help Nick with his technique somewhat – I blame the teacher of course.
As we headed further out, the route tacked together several tiny cut-throughs, alleyways, bits of urban cyclepath, parkland and small stretches of road. Luckily the GPX file provided by Philip and Andrew was spot on and we easily navigated the complex route.
“We’re about to ride past Spurs’ training ground” said a fellow NLD rider, who was clearly a football fan too. With a swift glance left at an opulent entrance, complete with uniformed guards patrolling, we passed by and with that, our route exited London. That is assuming you consider the M25 orbital motorway to be the outer perimeter of London anyway. With almost comical timing, as soon as we rode over the M25 the route turned rural – initially a tiny singletrack running betwixt a tall hedge and a metal fence, but then onto a super smooth gravel road. The singletrack section was the perfect introduction for Nick – smooth and relatively straight, but with just enough of a downhill gradient (and close-proximity of the adjacent enclosures) to make it feel super-fast. My boy-racer aspirations kicked in and I boosted the speed up a bit. Then, worried that I had inadvertently dropped Nick and Gareth, I glanced behind to see Nick practically buzzing my back tyre, a huge grin plastered across his face. He was clearly a quick learner and was obviously enjoying himself.
The route from this point neatly linked together sections of swoopy off-road trails, including some super-fast woodland singletrack, with short sections of rural backroad. Each section had a unique feel and there was a surprising range – even some Flandersesque farm tracks around field margins.
“Coffee and bacon sarnies 1 mile after the Red Bull mechanic station” pinged a message on my phone. That’s the kind of über-useful route advice that only good friends on the same wavelength can provide. I passed this nugget of inspiration onto my ride buddies. We skipped the official drinks stop and headed on just down the road to where The Country Bumpkin tearoom was located. A former farm building now converted into a café, complete with sunny outside tables, was the perfect excuse for some time off the bike. Tea, bacon sandwiches and cake ingested we were duly re-energised and headed out on the bikes once more.
The afternoon route selections followed a similar pattern to the morning – grin-inducingly fun sections of gravel trails and woodland singletrack, interspersed with sections of minor road. Philip and Andrew seemed to have worked their trail-alchemist magic on the route and included just enough descents, flat bits and climbs to keep all the riders equally entertained, motivated and stretched.
I made sure we stopped frequently during the afternoon. The temperature had slowly climbed all day and with that, the risk of dehydration and energy depletion. We noticed that whenever we stopped Gareth was eating, but his trail snacks were quite sugary and I figured in the long-run that wouldn’t do him any favours, so we shared out our collection of slightly more balanced trail food instead. Even so, it became obvious at around the 85km point that both he and Nick were starting to tire. By this point Gareth had already exceeded his previous distance record, so I figured a proper stop was in order.
In my slightly ‘special’ view of endurance riding, you haven’t had a proper day on the bike until you’ve sat in a slumped stupor on a petrol station forecourt, inhaling calories. I had the usual “these aren’t all just for me, honest” conversation with the cashier as I purchased what looked to him like a mountain of calories. Luckily the restorative power of coke, crisps and flapjack should never be underestimated and Gareth and Nick were soon back to being fully charged and raring to go. A quick scan of the route showed we had 25kms still to go – in the scheme of things, not a vast distance, but there were a few short punchy climbs still to come, including some ‘secretly hard’ bits that the Diproses has snuck in right at the end.
The route started slightly ignominiously with some urban sprawl, followed by a giant concrete underpass which tunnelled its way under the roaring M25 motorway. This was instantly followed by a section of beautiful, flowy singletrack. It was very odd to think of all the drivers on the motorway blissfully unaware of gravel riding heaven being available just the other side of an armco barrier from where they were.
The following draggy climb up a ‘sticky’ section of tarmac, tested our resolve, but was soon followed by more mixed sections of tiny road and flowing trail. The map showed we were in Barnet, which in my brain should have all been grey, concretey and not-altogether-fantastic, whereas on the ground it was lovely. For some reason we all had similar misconceptions and rode along saying “I can’t believe this is Barnet”. (sorry Barnet)
A series of short dragon-tooth profile climbs took us into the extremely affluent suburbs of North Finchley and up to the summit of Muswell Hill where we rode passed Ally Palace, a Victorian exhibition center and leisure complex with outstanding views over the city of London. Nick and Gareth made the most of a few minutes of down time while I scooted around taking photos, but we were soon back on the bikes for the final section to the finish line.
You can read quite a lot into a cyclists’ mental and physical state by their posture on the bike and I think from this, you can see that Nick and Gareth had been pushed pretty hard by this point! Luckily the final lumpy bits to Finsbury Park meant all the climbing was out of the way and we rolled gently to the finish line. We were almost the last finishers of the event, but a small crowd who were making the most of the late afternoon sunshine cheered us home and the ever-enthusiastic Philip and Andrew greeted us with celebratory fist bumps, shortly followed by offers of cold beer and hot pizza.
We made the most of the sunshine and sat in the courtyard garden at the start/finish line, chatting with fellow NLD riders. A few days later, a group of friends who had also taken part that day mentioned that they’d seen Nick and Gareth finish and how happy they both looked. Despite being pretty cooked, both were beaming. Gareth said he didn’t think he had the skills, fitness or tenacity to finish such a long ride at such a respectable speed (we averaged 19kph over the 110kms) and that it had given him great confidence to try bigger challenges in the future. Nick, although tired, was obviously hooked on gravel riding and said he’d relished the physical challenge and the mental headspace that a day on the bike had given him.
Pizza and beers duly inhaled, we got ready to ride the 5 or so kms back to Nick’s home. As we packed up and slung well-stuffed goody bags over our shoulders (including one for each for Nick’s ecstatic daughters) I noticed these two posters in the windows of the St Mary’s Center.
I couldn’t agree more – North London Dirt Gravel is best.
If you’d like to sign up for next year’s event, check out the NLD Insta feed here. If you’d like to find out more about the charitable work that the St Mary’s Center do, or to make a donation, visit their website here