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TOP RIDE: Dirty Boar Gravel Ride

The Dirty Boar: The world of the ‘gravel bike’ and the off-road style of event has been growing over the recent years, so to give us the background info, Bruce Carnevale entered ‘The Dirty Boar’. For the second year; ‘The Boar’ started in the Haute Fagnes region of Belgium, goes to the foothills of the German Eifel forest, before looping past Eupen and returning to the Haute Fagnes. 164 kilometers with 2600 meters of climbing and practically no asphalt. Take it away Bruce…

Words by Bruce Carnevale

One of the first mails I received after having registered for the Dirty Boar gravel ride stated the following:

  • We recommend you put some disinfectant gel/tissues in your pocket/bag to clean out any wounds as quick as possible. We will have basic first aid kits at the feed stations and there will be a professional first aid station at the finish.

As the Dirty Boar was my first gravel event, and thanks to its name, I wondered what I was getting into.
One of the second ones I read came via FB:

  • Hey riders! Any chance some of you leave from Liege super early (in the night from Friday to Saturday) to arrive in Ovifat at 5:30 – 6:00 am? I arrive in Liege by train at 2 am or so and would be glad to spare my legs for a 60k extra ride. Many thanks!

So, Dirty Boar riders need bandages, but no sleep? What was I getting into?

The Dirty Boar is a new gravel beast full of beasts, so-to-speak. In its second running this year, it takes in the High Fens, or Haute Fagnes region of Belgium, goes down into the foothills of the German Eifel forest, passes by just south of the Belgian city of Eupen and travels back up into the Haute Fagnes. It runs about 164 km, has about 2600 meters of elevation gain and little pavement.

The Hautes Fagnes region in Belgium is a plateau-like raised bog or swamp, very acidic and home to rare flora and fauna. It is also the largest Belgium national park, covering 4,501 hectares (or 11,123 acres, 17.38 square miles). Meaning lots of unpaved roads, boars – the four-legged ones stayed out of sight – and very few signs of civilization (as far as that is possible in this densely populated part of the world). In other words, ideal for a gravel ride. While we rode along forests, through them or out of the plateau into Germany, the latter sections of the Boar were more exposed and a head wind cropped up.

The event’s organizers – Jens, Hans and Tom – are dedicated gravelleros and were inspired by the British Dirty Reiver event, held annually in Northumberland, Great Britain. Of course also by the Dirty Kanza. After they rode the British event in April 2016, they decided something similar was missing in their own country. Voila, the Dirty Boar was born and first held in September 2017. Its attitude – “enjoy a great day on the bike with like-minded riders where you enjoy the views and each other’s company” say the team – may have been what got the Dutch Tour de France veteran Laurens ten Dam to take part last year.

Here is their promo clip:

But it was a nasty, rainy day in Belgium last year, a real Rule 9, and of the 350 registered, about 280 took part.

In 2018, 500 registered and most came on Sept 8. While it had sporadically rained the days before, the sun shone on Belgium that day, although at the start at 7 a.m. in Ovifat, the only city in Belgium with ski lift, the temps didn’t get above 4° Celsius (that’s about 40° Fahrenheit). Ovifat is near the highest point in Belgium, the Signal de Botrange, which lies at 694 m (2276 f) above sea level.

Early morning at registration

7:00 am at start with cyclists

The profile of the Dirty Boar presents you with a big long saw-tooth descent and a long saw-tooth ascent. But that’s obviously not the whole story. The organizers describe it this way:

  • We don’t live in the Hautes Fagnes ourselves but when we decided we were going to organize a gravel ride, we knew it was the “region to be” for us as it had everything we wanted to include in gravel ride. For us a gravel ride should have a max amount of good rolling gravel or forest roads, some river crossings, a lake or two and great views. The ride should not be too technical (but a few difficult sections never hurt anybody.

Yes, we rode mostly downhill for 80 km, but that was full of ups and down and some quite technical stuff, single trails, a 300-meter passage full of exposed tree roots about every 10 meters, lots of rocks to swerve around and plenty of puddles to avoid – or to ride through if the road didn’t allow it. The route was so varied though that you didn’t notice the long descent. The ascent made itself known, though, as the kilometers began to pile up.

Near the beginning we were treated to a fantastic panorama of the Hautes Fagnes region and many stopped to take pictures. A hardcore race this wasn’t.

Looking over the Hautes Fagnes

Just after sunrise near the highest point in Belgium

The Dirty Boar took us through very dense forest and exposed tracks, some very steep (15 – 20%) ramps, an off-camber climb at the end came directly after a creek crossing. I began to see the sense in 1x setups. The gravel was fine, also some very coarse and bone-jarring. If nothing else, it was diverse enough to leave you with plenty of eye candy and technical enough to leave you wondering if you shouldn’t have mounted wider tires. Even a brief passage at the end was on a private road which the Boar crew got permission to use on this day only.

Just after starting

Lake through forest

As there were lots of turns, there had to be lots of signs and the group did a good job signposting, but sometimes the small yellow arrows, over 350 they said, were sometimes hard to find. Groups rode past the signs, only to have to backtrack when one of us realized something was wrong.

The Boar team recommends bringing the GPS file with you and there’s a good reason why. Once I spent several minutes at a crossing in the middle of the forest looking for a sign; my internal GPS said to turn left, but I saw no such sign, so I waited till another came who’d loaded the ride in his Garmin.

The road crossings were always manned or womanned to ensure safety, and there were three feed stations with plenty of fresh bananas, sweetened waffles (the Boar is a Belgian event!) and sponsor food (BYE Nutrition). As Lezyne were also sponsors, their tools were available at all stations.

Most rode gravel bikes; there were quite a few Bombtracks (a German-based bike company and sponsor of the Boar), several Lauf forks (another sponsor), some cantilevered crossers (yours truly) and some hardtail, even hardnose 29ers. Lots of bright colors – orange – too, in the form of Cannondales, Bokehs, Santa Cruzes and others.

Perhaps the course was tough on some of them – there were flats at least every 10 km. Even the tubeless crowd wasn’t immune – one ride gashed his tire so badly, he had to patch the tire from the inside with the help of another rider. 35 mm cross tires served me well, the 4.5 bar saved my butt, but left it jarred as well. In any case, the Boar crew recommended bringing chain links, chain lube, even extra brake pads. At last year’s edition several had no brakes in the final 10 to 20 kilometers. I examined my pads before and after and the wear was easy to see.

Classic Belgian gravel

Once we had passed the third feed station, the route got very challenging, not only because we were traversing common hiking paths, with many happy hikers and their dogs, but also because the route was narrow, had several creek crossings – with and without bridges.

Several were very challenging – thanks to large, hard-to-see rocks – followed by very steep inclines. After one of the easier crossings, we passed through some heavy shale. Inevitably, someone flatted in front of me.

At the end though, all the effort was paid for by Belgian fare – fries with mayonnaise (ketchup is sooo American) and a beer from La Redoutable (9% alcohol to match the average 9% grade of the nearby La Redoute climb in Liège-Bastogne-Liège). All part of admission. And the temperatures had risen up to a comfy 16 °C (60 °F).

The lunch of Belgian champions

The Boar team is a happy lot; the Boar riders, too. Their spirit is exemplified in statements like these: “At the start of the ride we ask the riders to take care of each other (give help if needed) and of nature (don’t throw anything on the road). And at the end have a beer and some fries and talk about the day.” What’s more, a part of our registration fee, €50, goes toward a charity helping the intellectually disabled race cyclocross bikes across Belgium.

And you could wash off your bike:

Plus the Dirty Boar himself was there as were planks to sign you name on. The head was huge. A hunter friend of mine said most boars, while typical of the region – and hence the name – were not that large in the Hautes Fagnes. The Boar team bought it second hand in Belgium. And it is real.

The Dirty Boar has a FB page so you can read much more and watch for the registration date for 2019. This year it filled up in less than two months, so you need to be quick, or look at the FB page for cancellations. There was also a two-day Boar bikepacker Dirty event in June, which might appear again in 2019.

More information: www.dirtyboar.be

Relive ‘Doin’ the Dirty Boar 🐗’

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