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A Tale of Two Gravel Races: Kelowna’s Kettle Mettle vs. Northampton’s Reggie Ramble

Gravel is the hot new word in cycling. Everybody loves it. It’s the 2020’s version of mountain biking, and gives the bike industry a new marketing buzzword. The truth is gravel bikes have been around for ages—we used to call them Cyclocross bikes. Cyclocross itself, of course, was an off season training thing that started with modified road bikes but eventually led to dedicated machines being built.

Still a trend is a trend and with the rise in gravel as a marketing term comes the gravel races and events. Even the UCI is dipping into it this year, stepping on the toes of long standing and well established gravel events that already exist.

I moved back to Ontario from Kelowna a couple of years ago and, thanks largely to family related geography, heard about the Reggie Ramble which runs through Northampton county, starting in the very pretty little town of Warkworth, Ontario. Cancelled in 2020 becuase of Covid-19, the 2021 edition was a go but pushed back to the end of September. This coincided closely with my 50th birthday, so I figured I might was well ride it.

It also coincided with the scheduled (but eventually cancelled) 2021 Kettle Mettle Gravel ride in Kelowna, which I rode four or five years ago. As probably one of a small number of people who’ve ridden both, I thought it might be useful to compare and contrast the two. (The funny thing is family related geography led me to the Kettle Mettle as well—it follows the Kettle Valley Railway Trail, and my family were some of the earliest passengers on that particular railroad which went right past the farm my Grandmother was born on.)

So, let’s look at the two and see how they compare.

Distances

The Kettle Mettle runs from Penticton to Kelowna on the old rail bed of the Kettle Valley Railway, which was long ago converted into a cycling trail. Starting in wine country it winds slowly uphill towards Cache Lake, then through the Myra Canyon across a series of well known and extremely scenic trestle bridges.

Three choices of distance are offered: 100km, which is basically straight from Penticton to Kelown. 50km, which starts at Chute Lake (avoiding most of the uphill ride) and 120km which basically throws an extra loop into the 100km route towards the end. For 2022 a new two day route was offered, but the race didn’t run and I don’t know many details.

The Reggie Ramble also offers three distances: 65km, 130km and 200km. The routes combine off road trails, gravel roads and short stints on paved roads in an interesting way: there are three separate loops that all start and end at the Warkworth Fairgrounds. This avoid repetition for the most part—the loops all covert different roads.

Comparing the distances isn’t easy or straightforward though: I rode the 100km version of the Kettle Mettle and the 65km version of Reggie Ramble. Let’s just say…they were comparable. This comes down a lot to the terrain.

Actual Distances

Planned distance and actual distance don’t always exactly work out together: my trusty but only-as-accurate-as-GPS Garmin showed the 100km Kettle Mettle route at about 97km. By contrast the 65km Reggie Ramble route came in at 73km or so. The latter is a pretty significant discrepancy in distance, and I’ll talk about that in a bit. You can see both routes by following those links to my Strava rides.

Terrain

Distance is all about persistence: measured by that metric alone most bike rides are a function of “How long do I feel like riding?” Terrain is a whole other beast. There’s a reason the Tour de France doesn’t start it’s semi-annual Alpe d’Huez stage at the top of the mountain: the climb, after all, is the killer.

As mentioned, the Kettle Mettle follows the Kettle Valley Rail Trail along the the old railbed. What this means is that you’re riding a trail that can comfortably fit three or four riders abreast in most spots and, by virtue of being a retired railroad, climbs at a grade of about 2%.

What this means is that for even average riders, the climb isn’t really a factor. Most people can handle it without too much difficulty once they find their groove. There’s an initial climb from Penticton up to Naramata, but it’s the start of the race so you’ll be fresh and once you get into Naramata it’s a well maintained smooth gravel trail.

Of course, at 100km in distance, trail conditions change quite a bit and they can pose a bit of a problem. In the year that I rode, there was a huge section of the middle of the trail (starting at about Chute Lake) turned into a soft, sandy mess. This wasn’t so bad for Mountain Bikes, but it let me sinking into the trail on 32mm Cyclocross tires. This left me riding the edges of the trail at best, and walking in quite a few sections.

The Reggie Ramble’s terrain, by comparison, is a wild and untamed beast. As mentioned, it uses combines both paved and unpaved car friendly roads with backcountry trails through the Northumberland Forests. Starting with about 3 or 4km of not overly steep uphill riding on pavement the ride quickly hit gravel roads through farm country. While these roads are often fairly flat they also often featured short, but steep, climbs along the way.

The real action starts when you dive into the trails, most of which are narrow, slightly rough, and also feature steep climbs. Of course what goes up must come down but the Ramble’s route is fairly rolling in nature, so you’re up and down the entire way. This makes it a much tougher ride than the Kettle Mettle which essentially does that steady climb to the mid point, and then a stead descent towards Kelowna.

For comparisons sake, about two weeks prior to the Reggie Ramble I spent a day in Prince Edward County and rode 50km on the Millenium Trail there in about 2 hours. It was a really nice ride with a stop at JK Fries for lunch after. That trail is flat though. 65km on the Reggie Ramble’s first loop? 5 hours. Also: no french fries.

Rider Support

For any ride of this nature, rider support is a thing. This is one area where the two rides differ dramatically. In a nutshell, while the Kettle Mettle had food and water stations at three points along the route (making a distance of about 35 – 40km between them) the Reggie Ramble offered none. Not at all.

While this was mentioned in all the literature I’m not sure that it really sunk in until I heard the organizers announce at the start that if you ran into trouble you should “call 911 on your cell phone.” It was true though: there were no sweep vehicles, nowhere to refill a water bottle and nowhere to even rest your legs for a minute if you wanted to.

Equipment Recommendations

While the Kettle Mettle is dominated by mountain bikes, the rise of the Gravel Bike class in the intervening years was evident at the 2021 Ramble: straight bars were a rare sight.

Following the Reggie Ramble’s Instagram feed gives you access to a wealth of videos about the ride and advice: one of the key pieces that’s worth listening too is a about gearing. Not matter what bike you ride, you’re going to want a very low low gear: possibly a 40 tooth cog on the rear. My bike is really geared for Cyclocross racing, so my low was…not so low. Regrets, I’ve had a few. I could have changed the rear cassette before the ride in 15 minutes but alas.

Whether you choose to ride a Gravel Bike, a Mountain Bike or your old Hybrid I think you’ll be OK on the Kettle Mettle. I even did a section of the ride with a but on 25mm road racing tires. For the Ramble, I’d suggest a proper Gravel Bike or a Mountain Bike only.

This Is All About Fun Right?

Both events are much more about fun than competition—at least at the level I was riding them. I’m not going to speak for the sociopaths who chose to do the Reggie Ramble’s 200km route, after all.

So, was it?

I very much enjoyed the Kettle Mettle when I rode it, though my body was quite sore by the time I got home. All in all though a good bike day, and I met quite a few people along the trail who were all having a good time.

Looking back on the Ramble it’s a bit harder to assess the fun level, and that’s mostly due to the lack of support. I sort of wound up in a cluster of riders at the back of the back and we all kept leap frogging each other which was fun: the Pinoy Pedal Pusher’s from Mississauga had a huge contingent of riders, and I was hanging out with about a half dozen of them.

The biggest problem was water: this was partly my fault. So paranoid was I about getting a flat en route, I’d finally affixed a saddle bag with tubes/levers/etc. to my bike. Naturally, I didn’t get a flat. What I’d forgotten to do was throw a second water bottle cage on the bike, leaving me with only one. It was a pretty warm day, and I ran out about half way through. Mercy came in the form of a local father out for a ride with his son, who emptied his bottle into mine. (I had considered stopping at a house which might have worked, but felt…invasive.)

One of the people I was riding with was carrying three water bottles and emptied them all before the end of the ride. Who knows what would have happened if I’d even had that second one…it may not have been enough. Keep in mind that this ride is moving back to its July date for the 2022 edition and it’s bound to be even warmer, dustier, and more mosquito dominated.

Would I Do It Again?

The short answer to this is yes: but there’s some caveats and nuances.

The Kettle Mettle is well organized, well supported, and well run and if I ever wind up in Kelowna at that time of year again I’d like to ride it again. The trail is fun, and has sections of beautiful scenery. Of course you can ride it any time you want, but the event is nice and delivers a good sense of camraderie.

I feel pretty strongly that the Reggie Ramble needs to do something about the complete lack of on course support, and I’m not sure if I’d do it again without knowing that something had been done. I certainly wouldn’t ride one of the longer distances, even if I were in better shape. The lack of support poses a number of problems:

  • The lack of water and food leads to a very real potential for physical problems—dehydration is a real concern
  • If you do wind up with some form of mechanical difficulty, you could be more than 30km from any help. I had a single tube but what would have happened if I’d gotten two flats? A broken chain? (I had someone in the area I could have called, but what if my cell phone battery had died?)
  • Signage, while not bad in many spots, could be improved. Towards the end of the race there was a long gravelly downhill that I just flew down with a tiny sign indicating a right turn at the bottom. I missed the sign, and if I hadn’t had the course loaded into my GPS this could have been disastrous. Keep in mind the lack of support, and who’s going to come looking for anyone who gets lost?

One solution could be to require riders to activate Strava’s Beacon feature—at least organizers could track problems then—but even that doesn’t take the place of actual support. It just alerts problems.

The other thing I’d do—and this may happen sometime this winter—is that I’d change my gearing to a lower low. I’m not saying my time was the fault of my equipment and not my fitness, but the lack of a sufficiently low low was a big problem. I won’t make that mistake again.

Next year’s Reggie Ramble moves back to its normal July date, and I’m not committing yet. For starters, it’s going to be even hotter (and I still haven’t installed that second bottle cage.) I’d like to make it an annual thing, but I also need to work on some fitness issues—time to start doing intervals again.

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