Gritfest is a brand new, two-day gravel stage race that's going to be held on June 23/24th in some of the most uninhabited British terrain this side of the Scottish Highlands. As media partner, we headed into the hills around Cilycwm in the 'Green Desert' of Mid Wales to ride part of the course and get a feel for what the event will be like.
It's safe to say that the weather in Wales isn't known for playing ball, especially in springtime. After spending the night in Llandovery, we woke to the genteel spatter of rain and a light dusting of snow on the tops of the hills we could make out through the gloom. Considering the fact everything had been under huge snowdrifts a few days earlier, we were definitely getting off lightly.
After an athlete's breakfast of fried things, we met photographer Anthony Pease and race organiser Matt Page in the carpark. Matt is a seasoned event runner with the likes of Battle on the Beach and the Dragon Duathlon under the belt of A Cycling, which he runs with wife Nia. Matt is also a former professional racer, so he's got plenty of experience on both sides of the fence.
He also grew up and now lives in the area, which means he's got a vast knowledge of the trails and fireroads that criss-cross the hills, ideal when you're trying to pack in as much entertainment as possible into a route. As he says: "I think this kind of event lends itself well to this area - it's lucky that I do know it that well".
It's very much the sort of terrain that's superbly suited to a gravel bike, with big rolling hills that provide challenging climbs and descents that are flat-out, high-speed affairs. It's too rough for a road bike but not so technical as to demand a full-on mountain bike and Matt has laid out a route that he reckons will require solid bike handling skills as well as outright fitness to prevail, aiming to make the result a reflection of an all-round rider.
The race itself will be held over two days, with the first packing in some serious distance at 82km, with a correspondingly large 1,600m of climbing to be done. After setting off from the event village on a farm just outside the village of Cilycwm, riders will take a steady 10km ride out to the Llyn Brianne reservoir.
The first special stage will then start atop the spectacular dam - the UK's highest at over 90m - and wind up and around the lake for 11km, finishing on an absolutely flat-out descent to a small chapel. We started our loop on this stage and while we chatted our way up it, doing it at race pace when you've got a big day ahead of your will require some careful pacing - something that can't be said for the descent, which was a flat out flowing affair best done in a full aero tuck.
While the racers then get around 11km of non-timed riding around Twyi Forest to recover, followed by all 21km of Special Stage 2, we split from the route and headed for the sweet delights of the Devil's Staircase, which racers will get to enjoy as part of their 'rest' period after the timed stage. Safe to say, it's an absolutely brutal piece of tarmac climbing and I was glad my bike had low gearing, which even then I struggled to turn over.
It didn't present any such problems for Huw, who'd come along for the ride with friend Ian. While my heart rate was going like a moped engine up a mountain and my legs were busy turning to jelly, he pulled away with ease, despite a light coating of snow on the tarmac. It turns out Huw was an absolute ringer, having won 24 Hours of Exposure plus UK and European 24 Hour Solo MTB Championships in his time as an endurance racer. Fast friends indeed.
Suitably put in my place, we continued onwards, with a fairly fresh helping of snow on the ground making going a little bit harder, though with the welcome distraction of animal tracks in the snow leading me to wonder if there were deer in the area. It turns out the cloven hoof belonged to something a little less exotic, namely the sheep that were in front of us. In fairness, a few minutes earlier I'd made my vision go weird at the top of the climb, so I possibly wasn't functioning at 100%.
Part of this section climb would serve as the final Special Stage of the first day, climbing an undulating 161m over the 10km distance, but then dropping 372m on a lovely section with perfect corners that felt like the gravel bike equivalent of a heavily bermed downhill track. Much whooping happened as we railed turns back down to the valley bottom
Riders can then hang up their racing boots for the day, taking in 24km of off-road views as the route winds through hidden valleys and unspoilt terrain, sucking in some truly massive views before landing back on tarmac and winding back to the event village over the course of 10km or so.
Once again, we cut the route short, briefly passing three or so houses that were the closest we'd come to anything like civilisation in around 30km of riding before another stiff climb and incredible descent spat us back out at Llyn Brianne once more. Despite only riding 42km and 1,000m, it still felt like a pretty big day on a bike, though the snow and cold definitely inflated the difficulty on sections that should have been easy rolling.
While we had a pasty and the sweet embrace of dry socks and a car with the heating turned up to 11 to return to, racers will have an even better deal, as the event village will have plenty of food to return to. There will also be live music from a local band, plus local beer to help you 'hydrate'. If the Welsh weather plays ball, all this will be held outside, but there's also plenty of space to keep everyone comfy inside the barn if it's less compliant.
There will also be plenty of entertainment for non-riding partners and kids all through the weekend, with archery and bushcraft on offer, plus a whole load of other attractions in the local area.
It's a nice touch that the second day of racing is only just over half as long as the first, so you might actually get to enjoy the Saturday evening rather than having to feed and retreat to bed in anticipation of another massive day.
At 44km and 1000m of climbing, there's still going to be enough of a challenge, but the three special stages are all much shorter, in the 4-5km range. You'll also take in the mountain bike trails of Cwm Rhaedr - though apparently with a surprise - plus a stage that's almost entirely a descent, finishing in an unused, old lead mine.
It's not all plain sailing, as the final stage has a climb that will "sting the legs" according to Matt, though your efforts will be repaid with a descent that spits you out near the event village.
If you're after some big days of riding and racing in a part of the country, then Gritfest looks set to deliver in spades. The terrain is as near as you can get to the 'backcountry' our North American friends are so fond of - we only saw two other people all day and the only traffic we came across on the roads and paths had four legs and bleated.
There's no doubt it'll be a challenge whether you choose to race it hard or just enjoy the ride, but Gritfest does look like it'll deliver both pleasure and a fair amount of pain, all while riding in some of the most unspoilt bits of Britain. It's also a bonus that it's relatively easy to get to the area, being within about three hours drive from our base in Bath and a similar amount from the likes of Manchester or Birmingham.
Anyway, entries are almost full, so if you like what you've seen, head to the Gritfest site and sign up. We'll see you there come June...
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