The Dirty K is more of an organised adventure than a race, the inaugural gravel event defying conventional perceptions of what a bike race can or should be. Offering four race segments throughout the course, self-timed by riders via Strava, it allowed some to smash their max heart rates for glory, or at least bragging rights. But ultimately, they would be outshone by the real stars of the day on the loop through Northern Coromandel’s lesser travelled sealed and gravel roads:
The riders of bikes that were thirty years old and looked like they had their last bike shop visit 29 years ago were some of those stars. They rode the equipment they had and accomplished a commendable goal by completing the Dirty K. (1500metres of vertical gain in 72km of hilly terrain with half of it on gravel is no trivial day on the bike.)
It wasn’t only retro bike riders doing it their own way though - the inclusiveness of riders on varying steeds was noticeable: drop bar gravel bikes and road bikes of all variations, flat bar mountain bikes from XC to trail to retro style, and even an e-bike and a couple of fat bikes.
The nature of the timed sections meant riders had different approaches to how they rode throughout the day. I passed a buddy of mine on the first timed stage, which is worth noting because usually he can ride away from me at will, to an embarrassing extent. But he had chosen to roll along with another of his mates at a cruisy pace, simply not giving a jot about his recorded time on that section. Rest assured though, he came to a gentleman’s agreement with his mate on the last and biggest climb of the day and proceeded to put 10 minutes into my 30-minute time of fully-tapped-out effort. Humbling, but a decent reality check for sure. It serves to illustrate how there is no ‘right’ way to ride the Dirty K.
The course offered a sublime mix of smooth hot-mix seal, chunky tar seal, polished hard pack dirt between gravel tracked-out by cars, to short sections of gnarly corrugations and coarse, freshly-laid roading metal. Everything was on offer within the course’s 72km length.
The 1500m of vertical gain over the course length meant epic views from on high as well as different viewpoints from closer to sea level on both the western side of the peninsula facing the Firth of Thames and the Eastern side’s rocky meeting with open ocean.
There was plenty of banter to be had amongst the groups of riders as they constantly changed and passed each other and re-formed anew throughout the day. I saw one such group rolling into a feed zone with a rider off the front, claiming the win with an outstretched arm overhead to indicate his number one status a solid 50m before reaching the one-lane bridge. He was obviously rubbing it in to his mates that their equivalent of the typical bunch ride’s sprint for the town line was his. Shenanigans and light-hearted fun were the order of the day, making a stark difference to many events with a more myopic focus purely on race performance.
While many races frown upon less conventional behaviour, the Dirty K encourages and even endorses it: Gayle from Giant/LIV NZ ‘modified’ her race plate, explaining “my boyfriend’s middle name is James, my 2007 Toyota Hilux truck is called Jim - how could I not cut the 5 out of 5007 to make it the much cooler 007 - ala James Bond?!”
While there was plenty of fun going on at ground level, the views on offer added another dimension of enjoyment. One of the noticeably different aspects of the Dirty K over other bike races is that you could ride slowly, or even stop for minutes at a time to appreciate the wonder of NZ’s countryside around you while still being competitive at the sharp end of the field on the timed sections. This clearly has a lot of appeal compared to the alternative of only seeing the wheel in front of you on a nondescript section of tar seal road as you struggle to stay with a bunch – many of us have been there, done that. Life is for living, and banking those epic vistas is a worthy goal for many, more so than shaving 2 minutes off your last suffer fest around whatever road sportive you’ve dedicated money, energy and time to in years gone by.
Although the race, I mean ride, finished in the garden bar of The Coromandel Hotel the good times didn’t stop there. Brothers Brewery are a partnership made in heaven for the event, with riders quickly having a well-earned beer in their hand as soon as they crossed the finish line and began the arduous task of regaling their mates with tales of their day’s riding.
For the full Dirty K gallery, click here.
Words & Images: Nick Lambert and Cameron MacKenzie