Thursday, 28 June 2012

Tour de Wales - The Dragon Ride

To cap off a great week of riding up hills in the rain in Wales, Selene and I were meeting up with a group of my regular cycling buddies for our annual tilt at the Wiggle Dragon Ride. After riding cold up Constitution Hill (no warm up, straight up a cobbled 30% climb, back down again, and then to the beach!) we checked in at our ‘usual’ hotel – the unassuming Port Talbot Best Western (and by unassuming, I mean horrific concrete monstrosity parked on the Welsh coastline) – then revelled in being back in civilisation after suffering through some very wet days on the campsite.

Keeping in line with the noble tradition, we then met up with the rest of the gang at the excellent Zia Nina restaurant in Bridgend. If there was ever a place to load up before a long ride, then this is the place to be. Packed to the rafters with groups of men ordering large bowls of pasta, it was pretty clear that the Dragon Ride was in town and we didn’t see this as the right time to buck the trend – three courses of your finest carbohydrates, please sir! Carrying our bloated stomachs back to the hotel, it was time to tuck in for an early night, although it soon became clear that not all of the hotel’s guests were cyclists as a disco and karaoke carried on late into the night (reverberating around the entire building, and I can tell you from experience that it’s not easy to sleep as someone badly renders Lady Gaga’s Poker Face with a strong Welsh accent). In addition to the terrible music, it was clear that there were a few characters left worse for wear after a long night’s singing. After drifting off, I was rudely awoken in the early hours by what sounded like someone hammering particularly large nails into a solid brick wall right outside of our room, which kept stopping and starting over a period of about half an hour. Finally reaching the end of my tether, I dragged myself out of bed and opened the door to find a chap wrapped only in a bed sheet banging away at a room door and looking dog tired. When I asked exactly what he was doing, he explained that his comatose roommate was in there with the keys, and there was nobody on reception to help in his plight to get back to bed. As much as I could sympathise with his position, I don’t think that he would have felt particularly out of place sleeping on the floor in his current state, so I advised him (as politely as I could muster) to pipe down and stop keeping everyone else up.
Pre-ride prep
 With that fantastic night’s sleep behind us, we did the usual cyclist’s trick of waking up supremely early on a Sunday, and made our way to Margam park to join the enormous queue of cars down the M4, all trying to get to the start line. For those who had had too much coffee *ahem Rich D, here’s looking at you* the queue did seem to take longer than necessary, but after parking up and the pre-requisite amount of start-line faffing (“which shoes should I wear?” “Is it a rain jacket sort of a day?” “gloves or no gloves?”) and loading Selene up with a load of spare kit for the support car, we were finally ready to go. Or at least, all of us except Simon were ready to go…10 minutes later, Simon rocked up with newly-purchased gels in hand and we rolled over the start line, ready for the next 130 miles of killer Welsh hills
The rather Dragon-toothed profile
Almost straight away it was into the usual ‘sportive’ mode – an unrealistically high pace being set by fat chuffers who had no hope of keeping it up. Still, I hate being overtaken by fat chuffers, so joined in and ended up towing an ever-decreasing group of mamils (middle-aged-men-in-lycra) around the first 15 miles or so to Maesteg. Fortunately the split up the hill was enough to disintegrate the group and a short stint together at the top, although not before taking the photo-op to sprint out of the front of the group so get that all-important picture
Leader of the pack
After a storming descent (the first of many for the ride), we reached the bottom of the valley after Neath and began the long climb up to the Breacons and Black Mountain. Just a short way into the climb came the first feed stop, by which time we were already two men down – somehow no-one knew where Rob or Simon had gotten to. Nevertheless, on such a big ride there are always wheels to ride with, so we got the group shot and pushed on

Group shot: fuelling up
The first categorised climb of the day was the Black Mountain, which rises up an impressive 1,400 feet, all at a steady 7/8% gradient and leaving you climbing for about 10 miles in total. It’s a proper Alpine drag, with only a brief respite as the road levels off to cross the cattle grid that signals wilder, smaller roads. It was a great change to be climbing in clement weather, and with lots of riders up the road to target and pass on the way. Rich and I climbed most of the way up together, and regrouped at the top for the others

I think Rich now cycles round like this all the time

Rich D

Clive smiling/grimacing up the climb

Gus - chatting normal!
After all that work getting up the climb, we were rewarded with some more amazing descending for the next few miles and pretty much all the way to the base of the next climb. I think people have noticed how my descending has improved since I’ve started this challenge – in part this is just an output of the number of hills I’ve been climbing (and therefore subsequently descending) this year. I think that there is a lot of confidence involved in taking your bike to its limits down hills and around corners, and you only really learn those limits by pushing harder and harder (until you go past the limit…and then you’re in for a shock). Anyway, I can now hold Clive’s wheel (the Nibali of our little cycling congregation) which isn’t so bad when you consider that he’s got a few kilos on me (sorry Clive!)

By now it was clear that we were all riding at our own pace and I decided that I would push on and see what happened. Still feeling the efforts of the week’s miles, hills and weather in my legs, I was a little worried when I looked down to see we’d only covered 75 of the 130 miles, and knew that there was a good distance to cover with some pretty hefty climbs yet to come. As we crossed fairly bleak Breacon moorland, I gritted my teeth and pushed through the pain, picking up a few stragglers on my wheel but sadly no-one who had the legs to do any work in the wind, and rocking up to the second feed at the top of Cray, I was definitely ready to top up the tanks with some food and drink (as well as getting a sneaky kiss from Selene), which made a lot of things better.
Sprinting for the feed
I hung around to stretch my legs and see that the other guys made it to the stop ok, and then headed off back into the hills – the next significant one being Bryn Melyn. Also known as “the hill with no name” and “the Devil’s elbow”, this is a bit of a beast of a hill which you can see all the way up (not a good thing when your legs are tired) and with some fantastically steep switchbacks up what appears to essentially be a cliff face. I’d say this was probably the hardest hill of the day, especially with the mental niggle of knowing the climbs and distance still to come – once again going to show that it’s not always the biggest of climbs that are the baddest of them all. The guys from obviously knew that this was a good place for some classic ‘pain’ pictures and had put a snapper on both the hairpin and the false flat at the top to make sure they got a full gallery of lactic burn:

Next up was the long climb of Rhigos, which I had done as a stand-alone hill earlier in the week. By this time, the sun was shining down and the temperature hotting up, so conditions even allowed for a view up the hill (what luxury). My legs, however, were not feeling anything near as sharp as they had on the previous run up the hill, as you can probably tell from my expression in this photo
 After the struggle up, I knew from my prep the night before that the Bwlch was the final hurdle, after which there was a straight 15 miles of downhill run-in to the finish. Unfortunately, the Bwlch was quite a lump, with about 1,200 feet of climbing spread over a steady 4 miles. It also had the quite undesirable quality of being ever so deceiving in where its summit was, with several blind turns which only lead to more uphill to climb before reaching the top. Selene had driven up, so having posed and waved, it was time to push on and reap the rewards of all that ascent

Strike a pose - not sure those on my
wheel were impressed
Just a little more climbing...
...Before tucking in to some
delicious downhill
Having riden about 60 miles solo, towing a few but mainly passing riders, the riders on the road ahead had become quite spread out and as I topped the summit of the Bwlch a glorious panorama of open switchbacks with a couple of riders dotted like ants down in the valley below. With the time and space to enjoy myself on the empty road, I bombed down and caught a larger group on the flatter slopes, where we started trading turns on the front like a group out on a normal evening chaingang (I think the adrenaline was infectious). Moving along at a reasonable lick, we also caught one of the motorbike outriders who, like any good moto, promptly kept his speed at a steady 30mph allowing us to sit in his draft and cruise through the busier roads back to Port Talbot. The aforementioned adrenaline even went as far as tactics, as the group lined themseleves up for a sprint finish - I knew my legs didn't have it so on a slight rise in the road I put in a spurt, dropping the paceline and tucking in right behind the moto, burying myself to make the gap stick. Not a race, I know, but it's always nice to cross the line solo!

After that perfect end, we sat in the sun and tucked in to an immense picnic that Selene (as well as looking after us all on the road, taking pictures, and being the best support car) had prepared - what a girl!
One benefit of being first in is first pick of the grub
The Dragon was an immense ride - 130 miles, over 10,200 feet of climbing, and 7,500 calories - so I was pretty pleased to come in at just over 8.5 hours. The change in the route from last year made a world of difference and riding Welsh hills in the sunshine is an experience everyone should have at some point in their lifetime...

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