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.
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|
|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|
|Clive smiling/grimacing up the climb|
|Gus - chatting away...as 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.
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 Sportivephoto.com 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:
|Strike a pose - not sure those on my|
wheel were impressed
|Just a little more climbing...|
|...Before tucking in to some|
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...