A testing new string of bridleways, forest tracks, byways, field crossings and linking lanes born out of lockdown exploring, we were invited to the Brother Cycles HQ in Kent to recce a new event for 2021.
If you’ve heard of, or have been lucky enough to attend, Brother in the Wild UK, you’ll know the vibe. The two brothers behind the small British bike brand are pretty damn chilled, and so is the annual bikepacking weekender that’s usually held on the South Coast, either in the New Forest or the Purbecks. In fact, the British event has been so popular that Will and James from Brother have teamed up with a number of their European retailers to bring the relaxed camping and riding vibe to Munich, Berlin and Bordeaux too.
If you listened to our chat with Will Meyer on the Unpaved Podcast, you’ll know that his background in cycling hasn’t always been as chill. We spoke at length about his attempt on the Tour Divide – arguably the Holy Grail of global bikepacking challenges – and how he’s still keen to train up and go back to his unfinished business.
I wonder if it’s this desire to ‘go big’ again that instigated thoughts of a second, perhaps more serious Brother Cycles event. Not serious in character, of course, but a properly tough challenge. “I want to see people crawling back to HQ well after dark, covered in mud, knackered, and hand them a beer. It’s got to be this time of year too, the trails are more challenging”, Will shared his vision.
Living in Margate on the Kent coastline, Will had spent much of the British lockdown exploring locally, discovering a huge network of off-road tracks across the coastline near their farm shed HQ in Faversham. With such great riding on their doorstep in an area of the UK that’s pretty unknown for gravel riding, a roomy farm barn to host in and some handy local contacts for putting on a good party, Will’s idea of a new event – as yet named – for 2021 had been born.
The last day of ‘summer’
We met up in Faversham on a grey Saturday in mid October, the last official day of British Summer Time before the clocks changed. A mix of local pals and riders like us that’d travelled much further, we split into socially responsible groups of six or less to tackle the 100 kilometre plus route ahead. The nerves were palpable; none of us had ridden much this year, at least not compared to normal, and challenging rides like these seemed to be easily replaced by hanging out at home in the warmth away from the worsening weather.
The plan had been to hop on board one of Brother Cycles’ new 2021 Kepler touring frames, but alas the shipping (or rather dodgy computer system at Folkstone) had let us down for a frame of my size. Thankfully we still got to marvel at a spangly pink build that Stefan from Pannier.cc was riding, complete with chunky 650b Teravail Rutland tyres, a wide-ranging SRAM 1X chainset with polished finishing kit.
Riding for coffee
With the first leg stretching out for 20 kilometres to the city of Canterbury, where coffee was about to be laid on thanks to Kristian at The Goods Shed, the incentive was strong for a pretty nippy pace out of Faversham. Quiet lanes led to our first taste of grassy bridleways, and then up through the very New Forest-like Church Wood, before a fast road descent right to the heart of Kent’s most historic cathedral city.
Bypassing the tourist sites, we navigated straight to The Goods Shed by the train station, a wonderful barn-like structure with a sort of indoor market. This shared space was occupied by a number of small food businesses, including a butcher, beer specialist, bakery, fishmonger, grocer and of course, a couple of cafes and a restaurant. What a place!
Delicious coffees and the most incredibly creamy hot Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese tarts) were very generously laid on by Kristian, the owner of Gill’s, who’s a friend of the brothers and a Brother In The Wild veteran. Thanks pal!
Well-caffeinated and keen to crack on, our small groups headed out to the south-east, where after some small lanes and the onset of the drizzle, the real mucky challenge began. A bridleway trail around the edge of an orchard sounds pleasant enough, but after a few weeks of rain and some pretty deep tractor tyre ruts, it was… a lot of fun, at least for those with decent mud tyres like the 650b x 47 Teravail Rutlands like I was lucky to be running!
The slop gave way to different challenges next, the bridleway crossing three very open, exposed stubble fields into a swelling headwind. Claggy clay soil was clumping to the tyres to the point where we searched hedgerows for sticks to de-mud and shed a few kilos, pulling away perfectly smooth strips of mud on frames where clearance had sheared off excess filth from the sidewalls.
Clay soon gave way to chalk as we were tackling parts of the North Downs Way, a long distance trail that spans from Dover on the South Kent coastline to Farnham in Surrey. Although these might have been better draining hillsides, anyone who’s ridden chalk in the wet will be able to attest to how slippery it can be!
Will promised us that it wasn’t much further for the first pub. Of course, as a Brother Cycles ride, there were no less than three marked out on the route, and many more besides to pass. By now, my stomach was rumbling, so I was glad to roll into Elham and secure a bitter shandy and an order of their famous cheesy chips; just the warmth and fuel needed as the rain started to pour and we sought a timely shelter in the cosy village inn.
A bittersweet reminder of winter rides, the effort to leave the warmth of the pub was almost as hard as the ensuing headwind assault on an incredibly lumpy field margin. The tracks became a little more techy now as we headed up and over Lyminge Forest, and it seemed that even though the morning’s route had been undulating, the afternoon was going to be even hillier! Ambitions of finishing before dark were by this point fading quicker than the light on the last day of summer….
The roots, chunky rocks and puddles hidden by flame-coloured leaves were interspersed with rude lane climbs, the weather changing every time I removed or replaced my coat. We soon passed a pub called The Bowl, which came as a surprise, as we were supposed to reach it at 90 kilometres in. Turns out there’s two ‘The Bowl’ pubs. Try harder please, Kent.
It wasn’t long after this point that we soon realised that our little group was the last on the trail. After having waited for what seemed like forever for Will to have a tubeless mare, a few texts revealed that the locals in the group behind us canned it after a freak hailstorm and headed back in search of a train! Can’t blame them really, as the storm was looming ever closer (forecast for 6pm) and sundown wasn’t far away.
Will from Brother, Stef and Dave from Pannier, Taylor from Cloud 9, Tom Farrell from The Woods Cyclery and I headed on in the fading light to what was my favourite part of the whole day; the exposed grassy bank of the Wye Downs overlooking the Wye Valley, struggling to keep upright in the barrelling crosswind nearly pushing us off-trail with every gust.
From this high vantage point with Will claiming ‘we’re nearly finished now‘ (yeah, right), Stef decided this was the opportune moment for the bottle of Muscat he’d carried all this way in his handlebar bag. In true Pannier fashion, he produced a set of six small steel cups seemingly out of no-where and poured us each a warming tipple, but not before he had the chance to try a (highly unsuccessful) high pour.
At the end of the bank, the rooty descent through the woodland was a blast, but we knew that we next had to climb the hillside opposite, which looked just as steep. After waiting a while at the level crossing in town, we started our ascent on singletrack switchbacks that thankfully evened out the gradient a little. Up into Kings Wood on the North Downs Way again, the fading light became even more apparent under the shade of the canopy.
On wide, fast forest gravel roads, the pace was easy to maintain, even though we were still climbing a bit. Lights on, stomachs rumbled again as we dreamt of what we might find at The Bowl, take two. Even though it was getting pretty late, we were comforted by the fact that the last 20 kilometres or so were going to be downhill, with a tailwind. Easy peasy, yeah?
Riding on in the darkness, I started to remember how much fun night riding could be. Sure, we were only out for the day, but it was such a big and challenging day that it really felt like an adventure. Somewhere totally new, unlike the monotony of the local trails that I’ve come to know too well during 2020, and back in the company of some wonderful friends that I’d spent too long apart from. I kinda hate the word, but this was just the end of summer ‘epic’ that I needed.
Cheers of joy went off when we finally reached The Bowl after a taste of the fat tailwind to come. Cheesy garlic bread, soups, chips, you name a carb and we ordered it. The juxtaposition of the spotless, cosy country pub and our filthy legs (not to mention the state of Stef’s rosé pink chino shorts which the locals sniggered at) was priceless.
The final stretch
Putting everything we had back on before braving the impending storm outside, we set off on the home straight to Faversham. I’d love to go back and ride this part in the daylight; a network of downhill trails through woodland and a long, grassy strip that were pretty testing in the dark, littered with freshly fallen bows and even trees that certainly put us on edge. White mushrooms glowed up in dynamo lights at the edges of the trails and slick mud patches lingered under leaf piles, ready to catch us out.
Finally arriving back at Brother HQ at 9pm, some 12 hours after setting out, we were elated and exhausted. Under the harsh strip lights of the empty warehouse, we could appreciate the state of the bikes; absolutely filthy and most splattered with blood-red berries from some hedge or yew.
Will was made up. This was exactly what he’d had in mind. Was 104 kilometres enough? Will had more like 130 in mind… but to us, with the slippery trails and short daylight hours, 104 was plenty enough when you throw in some good pub stops!
Diaries for 2021
After reading this, you’ll either be gagging to sign up for next year’s event, or firmly put off. A challenge of this type is a bit marmite, and given its proximity to Kent, I thought the Flandrian conditions were pretty fitting. We’ll have to wait to hear what Will and James from Brother Cycles pull together for the inaugural Kent ride, set (fingers crossed) for next autumn, but let me tell you this, it’s one I’ll definitely be back for!
Thanks again to Tom Farrell from The Woods Cyclery for the corking snaps.
Last modified: 19th November 2020