Explore: Don't get dirty

Most adults would squirm at the thought of being covered in mud, but Canyon ambassador Dalila Lecky embraced the dirt, soil and mess in search of adventure at North London Dirt

This article was produced in association with Canyon 

“Stay out of the mud!”

A phrase frequently heard as parents urgently shout at their children, trying to prevent them from charging towards a puddle of the darkest shade of brown, like a magnet pulling in wet soil. No matter how often parents warn their children to avoid touching the mud, even in the middle of a concrete jungle, children manage to find the tiniest patch of soil or mud to squish between their fingers and splatter up their legs.

However, as children grow older, the message of staying clean becomes ingrained, and the allure of mud and dirt becomes suppressed, buried deep within their inner child. People transition from being covered from head to toe in mud, to not even wanting to see a speck of dirt on their shoes – it is as if embracing cleanliness and living on the soapy side of life becomes an official rite of passage into adulthood.

Nevertheless, there are some adults who embrace the dirt, unearthing their inner child in the face of mud, adventure, and sheer enjoyment. They do so at events like North London Dirt – a 70-mile gravel ride that seeks out pockets of nature within and just outside the bustling metropolis of London, traversing tranquil bridleways, canal towpaths, and farm tracks that lead riders into the scenic countryside. Organised by two brothers, Philip and Andrew Diprose, the event is now in its sixth edition, continuing in its efforts to raise money for St. Mary Centre, a London community hub, in Stoke Newington where the ride starts and finishes.

People arrive in the early morning, fresh faced and bright eyed, but ready for the thrilling journey that lies ahead. A palpable sense of freedom permeates the atmosphere as people clad in pristine lycra engage in conversations with others sporting flannel shirts, baggy shorts and trainers, over golden pastries and steaming cups of coffee. Whether they are road cyclists, mountain bikers, gravel enthusiasts or complete novices, all are welcome at North London Dirt.

Departing from Stoke Newington, in north-east London, this year’s route took the riders north, leading them out of the city along picturesque towpaths. As they pedalled onward, they encountered narrowboats decorated with colourful plant pots, remnants of crumbling industrial structures and numerous vessels peacefully moored on the water’s edge. Within just a few miles, the cacophony of the bustling city faded away, replaced by the satisfying sound of gravel crunching beneath their tyres and snippets of conversation among fellow riders in the distance.

With North London Dirt prioritising fun and adventure over competition and racing, riders wholeheartedly immerse themselves in the spirit of exploration. So much so, some riders don’t even know where they are going. “I wish I could tell you where it goes.” Dalila Lecky, Canyon ambassador and one of the riders from this year’s North London Dirt, laughed. “A common theme of North London Dirt is that a lot of time you are saying, ‘Where are we? How far outside London?’ But it is never that far outside of the city really.”

As the riders embarked on their journey, the familiar urban landscape gradually transformed into a realm that felt worlds away from the busy concrete streets of the capital. Yet, the ever-changing weather served as a constant reminder that they were still firmly planted in the UK, with the early days of May offering the usual mix of sunshine and showers.

“I quite enjoy it,” said Lecky. “I mean, obviously I’ve got to clean everything when I get home, but once you’ve gotten wet and muddy, it’s like, well, I can’t possibly get any more dirty than this, so let’s just have some fun.” The allure of mud, with all its messiness, became a gateway to pure enjoyment, allowing Lecky to reclaim the care-free spirit of childhood. Plus, it had its advantages. “Mud makes for a soft landing,” she said.

Every year uncovers new paths

Lecky is definitely smitten with the event, and this is the third year running she has completed North London Dirt. She explained that one of the main reasons for her continued participation was the efforts of the Diprose brothers, who meticulously craft a unique route for each edition. With each passing year, they skillfully curate a captivating tapestry of unexplored paths, guiding riders to discover hidden gems within one of the world’s busiest cities.

“It’s what sets this event apart,” she said. “Some other rides and events fall into a predictable pattern, following the same routes year in and year out. It can make you think, ‘I’ve done that, and I’m not sure I want to do it again.’” Instead, with North London Dirt the unknown beckons, and riders eagerly pedal forwards, craving the thrill of exploring uncharted territory. The brothers who organise North London Dirt understand the importance of creating an experience where the riders can focus solely on enjoying themselves.

To ensure this, they provide the route to participants in advance, allowing them to upload it onto their GPS systems, freeing their minds from distractions and enabling them to fully immerse themselves in the landscapes. But this goes beyond the event and opens the doors for riders to discover their own paths. “It’s a handy tool for the future,” said Lecky. “If I really enjoyed cycling in that area, later on, I can just go back and look at the GPS and just pick out some bits from the route and sort of create my own.”

A path for all

Riding through Epping Forest was Lecky’s favourite part of this year’s route. Spanning 20 kilometres, the forest invites riders to lose themselves among its labyrinthine dirt paths, running between old oaks, birches and beeches, the forest floor carpeted in bright purple from the wild bluebells.

A smile played on Lecky’s lips as she recounted a particular section of the forest. “There was a bit where it got really muddy,” she said. “But the mud was quite slippery and so as you cycled along, your back wheel would slide from side to side, and you kind of felt like on the edge of control and I love that.

“A lot of people don’t, but I do. It is a test of your skill, and it keeps your interest because you’re constantly having to put little bits of input in just to make sure you keep going forward. It keeps things interesting.”

Lecky emphasised the sense of achievement that accompanies navigating challenging terrain, with each successful passage through the slippery mud without losing balance or falling over a triumph to be celebrated. While some may squirm at the thought of getting muddy and riding their bike in less-than-perfect conditions, Lecky is the opposite. “We were quite lucky that the weather was a bit rubbish,” said Lecky. “Actually, it was more than a bit rubbish that day. But sometimes that’s part of the fun of it.

“But because the weather wasn’t great, the canal towpaths were very quiet. On a sunny day, they can be super busy with people walking and jogging and all sorts, making it quite difficult to cycle down. It was nice having empty canal paths.”

As the riders returned to Stoke Newington, somewhat dirtier than they were hours earlier, the day’s event was topped off by some well-deserved pizza and beer. Riders rolled in having taken the route at their own pace and joined in the conversations, exchanging their stories from the day. Lecky reflected on the diverse array of riders who participated in the North London Dirt event. There were those who approached the day with a relaxed and leisurely mindset, taking their time to soak in the experience. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there were riders who sought to push their limits, testing their speed and endurance to see how quickly they could complete the route (and have first pick of the pizza). And then there were individuals like Lecky and her friends from the Steezy Collective, who found themselves comfortably in the middle of the pack.

They embraced the essence of the event, prioritising the enjoyment of the day and the camaraderie shared with fellow riders. “We’re just out having a good time,” shrugged Lecky. “We’re not racing it, but we’ll go at a fairly decent pace.”

Values aligned

Having already established her love for the bike through racing, Lecky found her passion for gravel through cyclocross with her friends. “We would just go out and find whatever trails we could locally. And as the gravel scene grew bigger and bigger, we realised that a lot of what we were doing for practising for our cyclocross was essentially the same thing.”

She remembers turning up to her first gravel event on her cyclocross bike with its 33-millimetre tyres and “just getting on with it”. From that point on, Lecky’s gravel journey unfolded alongside her role within the Steezy Collective. Founded by three women – Alice Clew-Smith, Kitty Dennis and Taylor Doyle – the Steezy Collective champions inclusivity in cycling, creating a network for all women, non-binary and trans riders of various disciplines and skill levels.

Lecky has been a part of the collective since its inception. “I remember Kitty messaged me,” said Lecky, “and she was like, 'We are starting something. It’s not anything yet and I can’t tell you too much, but do you want to be a part of it?' I was like, this is cryptic, but I trust you, so keep me informed.”

Lecky now joins the Steezy Collective on various rides, including events like North London Dirt and laps around London’s cycling hotspot, Regent’s Park. This year the Steezy Collective supported North London Dirt, and Lecky noticed a significant increase in the number of women joining the event. “I found more women came along to the ride because they knew there were a bunch of other women all riding together – more like women showing up with their friends,” said Lecky. “Steezy was consciously doing a ride as part of North London Dirt. They even put it on the posters, so I think that attracted more women.

“Whereas I did Southern Grit [another gravel ride in London], and they didn’t partner with any groups like Steezy and that was definitely more male heavy. I think I only saw two other women that day.”

The values upheld by the Steezy Collective align with events like North London Dirt, who set out to create a welcoming space for riders of all backgrounds and identities. By fostering a safe and inclusive environment, groups and events like this enable everyone to enjoy the freedom and thrill of life on two wheels, which Lecky said was demonstrated clearly by the amount of female participation in this year’s event.

North London Dirt is more than just a gravel ride. It is a celebration of the child-like spirit within us all, a reminder to embrace the thrill of getting a little dirty and exploring the world with wide-eyed wonder. So, the next time you hear the call from a muddy path or the beckoning of an unknown trail, remember North London Dirt and Lecky, who remind us that the greatest experiences are often found when we dare to step off the clean, paved road and into the great, big wild.

Canyon Grizl CF SL Trail

Dalila Lecky used the Canyon Grizl CF SL Trail for her 70-mile adventure with North London Dirt. Manoeuvrable, versatile and at ease even on the roughest terrain, it is the perfect bike for the dirt paths of Epping Forest and the demanding trails the Diprose brothers found in and around the city. Offering fits up to 50mm tyres and with RockShox Rudy suspension – the Grizl is a fast and comfortable mixed-terrain shapeshifter you can really push when the going gets rough. And with plenty of mounts to customise your set-up, it’s a gravel bike that can be your steed on all-day events or multi-day trips that allow you to explore even further beyond the city limits.

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