Not everyone who arrived in Dumfries and Galloway to ride the first edition of The Gralloch last May was aiming to qualify for the Gravel World Championships. While participation at Worlds was a carrot dangling for all, many who arrived in Gatehouse of Fleet were there for the experience and the fun, despite the event being the United Kingdom’s first qualifying race. And let’s face it only 25% in each age group could qualify anyway!
That said, there were plenty among the 900-odd riders who lined up in Gatehouse of Fleet with an eye on an early autumn trip to Italy, and Helen Jackson and Carl Morrish were two who arrived there to unseasonably warm weather and a tough course among the hills of the Prosecco vineyards.
“It was brilliant,” said Hampshire-based Carl, who finished 60th in the hugely competitive 40-44 Men’s category. “I've been away cycling abroad quite a lot, I've only done two other races abroad, a couple of mountainbike ones on the marathon World Series. This one was a really good, a bit more chilled.”
Helen, from Kendal Cycle Club, bagged the highest finish of all who qualified at The Gralloch, taking the overall world title in the Women’s 45-49 age group. “That was a great felling, the atmosphere was amazing and it was super well organised and a real pleasure to be there. It was excellent,” she told us.
Both Carl and Helen are experienced competitors having ridden and raced more than one discipline, Helen even dabbling in a bit of fell running too. Indeed, despite finishing second in her age category at The Gralloch she has a long list of victories to her name. So how was it crossing the line to win a rainbow jersey?
“You don’t want to be the one that puts their arms up in the air and then finds out someone was two minutes ahead of you, so I wasn’t about to be the one that starts celebrating!” she quipped. “When you’re standing on the top step it’s super special because you’ve been the best out of everybody that you could have beaten, the people make you feel special, the atmosphere was really friendly. It’s special, but for me it’s all in the experience and doing what I could have done and as hard as I could.”
How did Carl’s race measure up to expectations?
"Probably there or thereabouts. We went there on the Thursday morning, so we had a good few days to pre-ride the course, but I wasn't feeling brilliant the first few days. Whether it's a bit of that lingering or just dehydration, I suffered the the last few hours of the race. The first three or four hours I was going pretty well, but the last couple of hours I just died. I stopped and walked a couple of times, which a lot of people did to be fair. A bit of a weak finish probably cost me10-15 places and I would have been inside the top 50, 40 otherwise.”
Though some age groups rode on different courses everyone finished with the same loop which included technical descents and very tough climbs.
“I fiddled around with my gears before and fitted a bigger chain ring,” explained Carl. “We pre-rode the finishing loop on the Thursday and I'm glad we did, I immediately changed back to small chain ring which luckily I’d brought with me!
“It's so steep, even though a lot of them were semi-paved on kind of ribbed concrete roads through vineyards, there was just nothing easy. All of the climbs were just super steep, 10, 15, 20% You can’t settle in and pick your pace, it was just whatever effort you're able to do to get up it basically.”
While the tough finish might have put paid to Carl’s hopes, it was where Helen, used to the roads and trails of the Lake District, made the difference.
Her group started with around 30 women but there were soon down to just four at the front, Helen joined by Dutchwoman Petra Sweertman, an Italian and a Spanish rider. However, with Helen and Petra doing most of the work early on in the race it was only a matter of time until they would try to get away.
“It’s hot and it’s stressful, and towards the end of the first loop there was a sign and the two girls at the back, the Italian lass and the Spanish lass hit this sign and me and Petra got away. We worked together, through and off through and off.
“We’d had a bit of a chat and Petra said to me ‘look we’re coming to the hills now, you’re definitely stronger on the hills, you have to go.’ My heart sank knowing that I had to leave her because I did the climbing when we were together, and she was super strong on the flat.
“But the climbs about 15k from the end just get steeper and steeper and more arduous and relentless and I just sat there in my easiest gear, just pedalled and did what I could and slowly but surely just got away from her.”
The 2024 Worlds is in Belgium next October, and whether or not the flat route suits them both Carl and Helen, in her world champion’s jersey, will be back at The Gralloch in May, both looking to qualify.
“It was a good experience,” Carl concludes. “It’s good to go to something like that, wear a GB jersey which is quite nice, never done that before. And just being part of it.”
Will you be there too? Find out more about The Gralloch and register here.