We entered the British Gravel Championships and it was brutally fun
We lined up with Britain's top gravel hitters to find out what it’s really like trying to hold on to the pace in a fast and flat five-lap, 76.5km race
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“I just drilled it for about a lap at the start because I knew it would split it to hell,” the newly crowned women’s British Gravel Champion, Danni Shrosbree, told me after the race. Uh-huh, yeah that hurt, I felt that.
Great racing, great atmosphere and a great course - hard-pack chalky doubletrack mixed in with sandy sectors and wooded trails - yes, for the second year running, the fast and flat course of the King’s Cup Gravel in Suffolk was the event to crown the country’s gravel champions.
We (myself and Cycling Weekly’s Tech Features Editor, Stefan Abram) entered the men’s and women’s races to find out what it’s really like trying to hold on to the pace of Britain’s top gravel-ers. Spoiler alert, we didn’t win.
But we did catch up with the victors of the British Gravel Champs and picked their brains for training tips and racing tactics, as well as checking out the tech on the race-winning bikes of the British Gravel Championships.
While the course wasn’t super technical, it wasn’t wide throughout. Positioning and being on the right wheel certainly counted for something, especially in the opening few kilometres. Being situated in Suffolk, the course was as flat as to be expected. Unfortunately the flat terrain wasn’t the only sort of flat we were acquainted with, though…
With hindsight, it was a very good thing the two of us wanted to see what racing at the top level in gravel in the UK was all about and gave the British Gravel National Championships at the King’s Cup Gravel a go - if we had just sent Stefan along, it would have been very difficult to pad out this article with the five minutes of grinding he packed in before a slash to his sidewall spelt an end to his effort.
A ‘British Gravel Champs special’ first ride review of Factor’s just released race-focused Ostro Gravel, which launched just the day before, unfortunately wasn’t to be. Luckily, though, the King’s Cup Gravel wasn’t only about the British Gravel Championships: the weekend’s offerings also include a 40km and 100km timed Gran Fondo events, so the Factor Ostro Gravel still had plenty of opportunity to be tested on Suffolk’s finest.
Even though there were a couple of national titles up for grabs, the King’s Cup Gravel is a festival of racing and in keeping with the spirit of festivals, it was a night in the tent for us. Race-ready legs and all weren’t to be - a deflated air mat was the first flat of the weekend.
Travelling over from South Wales (on the opposite side of the country) to Suffolk, saw us shining our headlights onto the earlier arrivers in the pitch black. Our journey by far wasn’t the longest, though, with riders coming down from Scotland and the intermittent glows on canvas continuing to signal the steady trickle in.
Having used an MSR Hubba Bubba tent for many a night bikepacking this year, setting it up in the dark wasn’t a problem. From engine off to heads down, we’re talking half an hour.
The morning barely revealed any more of the campsite than we glimpsed in the night. The descent of a thick blanket of mist reduced visibility to a few tens of metres and gave an eerie feel to the event village.
Grabbing a hot breakfast bap warmed me up from the inside, but as if I needed reminding of how early it was getting prepped in time for the 08:30 start of the women’s race, the coffee vendor was still yet to open. Doubly disappointing as Origin Coffee’s espresso proved to be exceptional for the rest of the weekend.
Making kit decisions at the crack of dawn is always a challenge. You know (or hope) that it’s going to warm up as soon as the sun burns through the clouds and mist - but that doesn’t make it any more comfortable in the meantime when the damp has wrapped itself around you and is drawing out all your heat.
I opted for wearing Santini’s Redux Vigor insulated gilet over the Giro Chrono Expert short sleeve jersey, and went for a lightweight pair of full fingered Chrome cycling gloves. Bare arms and bare legs were all okay as my core and fingers were all warm and happy.
What it’s like to race in the women’s British Gravel Championships
Criss-crossing through the King’s Forest in Suffolk, it was 5 laps of a 15.3km / 9.5mi circuit for both the men and women to battle it out to be crowned British Gravel Champion, about 76.5km /47.5mi in all.
Five laps is the perfect number in my opinion. It’s enough that you get fully familiar with the course, knowing exactly where’s best to make a move in the closing laps or kilometres, but too much that it starts to feel repetitive - or dizzy making.
The start line was 200 metres wide - they did have a whole field to play with. So that meant 68 of us got a front line position. Very generous. Pretty much immediately, though, we were funnelled into the first windy singletrack section through the forest. Good positioning from the off was vital.
With a background in road and track racing - and having never entered a cyclocross or mountain biking event - this was my first experience of such an explosive start with all the fighting for position. I’ve always liked road races because of the neutralised starts - it gives you a chance to calm your nerves.
I knew that the start was going to be hard. I knew I had to clip in quickly. But knowing and executing are two very different things.
The pace that the girls kicked off at was incredible. I didn’t have the punchy fitness to set myself up with an aggressive start, and so I slipped into the single file line through the twisty singletrack, much further back than would have been preferable.
The first 15 minutes were mega. I could still see the girls were drilling it up on the trail up ahead. And those weren’t even the leading riders - they were already well out of my eyesight.
That first lap was chaos as the dwindled and disparate groups on the trails began to emerge. There was a lot of overtaking and being overtaking after those opening few kilometres, as I tried to remedy the bad start I had off the line, along with even stronger riders storming past as they looked to correct theirs. Everyone was grinding it at their own pace, even by the end of the first lap you didn’t have a main peloton so much as larger and smaller groups.
In the end, 23rd (out of 68 down on the start list) in the British Gravel Championships isn’t my top racing achievement, but as my only bunch race this year - and first experience racing in a group off-road - I’m quite happy with that. And it was incredible to see (well, not really seeing) just how fast the top girls were able to grind it on gravel.
King's Cup Gravel Fondo
But the King’s Cup is not all about the British National Gravel championships, there were also two Gran Fondos to enjoy on the Sunday: 100kms and 40kms were the options, and the latter was the post-race distance that Stefan and I were down for.
100 percent on gravel tracks, it was a lovely chill cool down ride after the chaos of the day before. And a great opportunity to follow a fully-marshalled route - which was flat for a change.
The gravel that I’m used to back in South Wales can be viciously steep and, sometimes when scouting out new routes, you can come across sectors loaded with large rocks which involve a lot of hike-a-bike to traverse.
Although I love the satisfaction of discovering epic new local trails and hidden gems, it was very nice enjoying a smooth gravel ride that you know is going to stay that way - and the gravel fondo really delivered.
With all the riding out of the way, all that was left was to grab a final lovely coffee and relax with Lucky Saint's refreshing alcohol-free beer.
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I’ve been hooked on bikes ever since the age of 12 and my first lap of the Hillingdon Cycle Circuit in the bright yellow kit of the Hillingdon Slipstreamers. For a time, my cycling life centred around racing road and track.
But that’s since broadened to include multiday two-wheeled, one-sleeping-bag adventures over whatever terrain I happen to meet - with a two-week bikepacking trip from Budapest into the mountains of Slovakia being just the latest.
I still enjoy lining up on a start line, though, racing the British Gravel Championships and finding myself on the podium at the enduro-style gravel event, Gritfest in 2022.
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