When Focal Events, the creative force behind gravel classics like Dirty Reiver and The Distance, phone to say they’re working on something new, you listen with intrigue. Focal ‘get gravel’ and understand punters expect more than just arrows nailed to telegraph poles and a box of bananas at the halfway point. Riders want an experience they’re going to remember and long to return to.
And what was the new plan exactly? “Coast to Coast… Gravel style.” That was enough to whet my appetite, so I packed my bags and loaded the car for the long drive north to learn more about the Frontier 300.
Welcome to the Frontier, have you paid and displayed?
Early one September morning, I find the Focal team in a car park next to Carlisle Castle. I’m more accustomed to finding this pair manning registration at Kielder Castle for the Dirty Reiver. Or chatting with riders chilling at the Brodick Castle feed station during Grinduro Scotland. There’s something about fortifications that Focal seem to… focus on.
Fighting for parking amongst the early morning commuters are a crack team from Salsa Cycles UK distributor, Lyon Outdoor, Tom and Chris. Pleasantries exchanged about the damp weather and the long drive, we head off in convoy towards the Scottish Border. The Frontier…
Scottish Marches – Frontier 300 Country
As we escape the confines of the urban jungle, concrete gives way to rolling hills which cast ever deeper shadows as they steadily increase in elevation. Views from the minibus windows show little more than hills, moorland and forest. This is proper wilderness country.
As we ready ourselves for the first ride of the day, Andy provides a brief history lesson on the Scottish Marches. A term used for the border during the medieval era, characterised by violence and cross-border raids. For veterans of the Dirty Reiver, they’ll understand the whole ‘border-raid’ theme. As the 200km gravel grinder crosses over from Northumberland into Scotland and then back again. This continuation is not by coincidence or by Focal Events’ interest in border history (well, maybe a little). The Frontier 300 is seen by the organisers as that next step from the Reiver.
Dirty Reiver XL
The Dirty Reiver was one of the first dedicated gravel events to be held in the UK, taking inspiration from the likes of the infamous Dirty Kanza in the States. After four years, Andy and Bryan are still pushing to grow the Dirty Reiver further. 2020 will see new sponsors and a variety of distances bolted on to the original 200km loop that snakes out from Kielder. There is the established 130km Dirty One Thirty, along with a 65km option. Even e-bikes are welcome with the the Dirt-e Reiver category.
But where does a seasoned Reiver rider go once heaven forbid, 200km gets too easy? Ideas had bubbled about a mooted Reiver 300 but logistics common sense prevailed. And besides, a completely new event is more exciting than an extra loop of Kielder, right?
Frontier 300 ticks the box for those looking to push themselves beyond Kielder and also invites a new kind of rider into the mix who wouldn’t normally be excited by a loop around a commercial forest. Riding from Point A to Point B presents a whole new challenge to the gravel cycling calendar.
Frontier 300 stretches from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea, along the Scottish Border, picking a route that doesn’t link together iconic roads or tourist honeypots. It sticks tightly to the beaten path, only joining the tarmac when absolutely necessary.
This is no bikepacking tour, rather it sticks to the roots of USA style gravel racing. An early morning Grand Depart will see riders head east over the hills towards Duridge Bay where the Salsa Beach Party will be in full swing to welcome the weary traveller.
It’s an event that Bryan of Focal has been dreaming of for years. But to ride it on a mountain bike would have been a slog only attempted by the committed and the fool hardy. Gravel bikes have come of age, enabling riders to cover distance over any terrain quickly and efficiently.
Riding some choice sections of the route over two days gave me a good feel of what the Frontier 300 will be like. I always thought the expansive network of gravel roads in Kielder and that ‘out there’ feeling couldn’t be beaten. But somehow, Focal have managed to link up huge sections of gravel that traverse in an easterly direction across the borders. With only the occasional and often welcome, tarmac section to relieve you of the relentless gravel buzz.
Coffee and Shelter
We take refuge in a small cafe to hide from the rain and drain the kitchen of it’s soup of the day special. More coffee is ordered as we optimistically hoped the sun would burn through the clouds and give Dan the Photographer some much needed light for the afternoon riding shots we had planned.
Talks turn to the logistics of the Frontier 300 and for those lesser mortals who love the concept but don’t have the legs. What if someone really wants to take part in the event, but they know their fitness will let them down?
Also available is a relay option for riders with a willing friend (or victim) to share the load. At the designated points along the route, you can hand the baton to your team mate, who will continue the ride east to the finish line.
Andy points out that there will of course be various feed stations along the route rather than a completely self supported event. Journeys end will be on the beach at Druridge Bay where Salsa will have the tents up for their ‘Brunch on the Beach’ welcome party. After 300km of riding, this will look like an oasis for many a rider!
With a 30 hour window to reach the east coast, even the steadiest soloist should be back in time for brunch. For those who set off a little too quick, or need a nap, a couple of checkpoints will have provision for riders to put their head down for 40 winks. Don’t think about counting sheep though, the clock is still ticking!
It’s only weather
With the weather firmly settled on a typically autumnal wet grey mist, we could either sit and chatter over coffee all afternoon or get back out. Seeing as Lyon had brought half the warehouse of Salsa bikes with them, there was good reason to head back out in the rain.
Dan the Photographer was praying for a break in the clouds. Images of wet, sodden riders in rain jackets is a world away from what it will look like in June (hopefully). We hugged the edges of the fireroad climb, avoiding the torrent of rain water flowing back down the hill. Glimpses of a watery sun would occasionally break through patches of cloud, filling Dan with reignited enthusiasm.
The rain was but a minor distraction. Myself and the other riders were busy comparing notes, preoccupied with the subtle nuances between each of the Salsa bikes that the Tebay Two had brought along.
The highlight for me was Salsa’s Warroad and I wasn’t alone in my feelings for this bike. Bryan also was jumping with delight over how this carbon beauty performed. Intended as an endurance ‘rough road’ bike with large volume 650b tyres, the Warroad is just as capable on the gravel. It’s a racier geometry to its more relaxed stablemate the Warbird, but this makes it feel much more agile and lively to ride.
At the other end of the spectrum is the chilled and competent, steel Vaya. A mile muncher that’ll never catch you off guard if the country you’re riding though distracts for a moment. Tom wasn’t sharing the 650b Journeyman with anyone. Although this hot pink Salsa is pitched as ‘entry level’, Tom’s broad grin told a different story.
Focal have a reputation for creating challenging and memorable events, not races. #notarace epitomises their approach. Like the Reiver, there’s always a competitive element and Frontier 300 will prove no different as riders compete against their peers over the gruelling terrain. I’m certain my legs won’t be up to anything resembling a quick effort over 300km. But there will be those determined on hitting the beach (and brunch) first.
Just like the Dirty Reiver, I can see full spectrum of rider types rocking up at Frontier 300. Everyone from the racing whippets packing the bare minimum, to the adventure rider loaded up for a self-supported ride. That’s part of the magic of gravel riding, everyone and anyone is welcome. I’m excited by the relay option and the mix of riders who sign for it. Will we see lean racers or TCR endurance style, packed with sleeping kit for the shared stints ahead?
If you are keen to enter the Frontier 300, entries open in January. The inaugural event will be open to 200 solo riders and 75 relay pairs. Don’t sit back on the sofa and wait until you’ve entered to start the training plan though… From what I’ve seen, this event is going to require some fit legs!
Entries open 1st January 2020 via the Frontier 300 website: www.frontier300.cc
ADVNTR were joined by Salsa/Lyon Outdoor (who provided the bikes). We also used Terravail tyres, Ortlieb packs and Arundel’s Mandible bottle cages, all of whom are sponsoring the event. All photos were taken by Dan Monaghan of Cadence Images.
Last modified: 28th November 2019