Distances: 195 km / 120 km / 45 km
Participants: 4150 (Entries sold out in days, released end Dec)
Start: Pencoed Technology Park (units 2-6), Felindre Meadows, Pencoed, CF35 5HY
Cost: £32 / £32 / £22
Transport: Parking nearby
Bridgend Station 10km
Many accommodation options locally
Feedstops: 3 / 2 / 0
Timed: Yes though partially failed (Disposable number tag system)
Signs: Clear Black Arrows on a Yellow background, Darker background for the longer route, marshalled at major junctions
Road: Great road quality through the majority of the route
My Ride: http://www.strava.com/rides/dragon-ride-2011-681641
The Dragon Ride is a remarkable Sportive. The route is like no other I’ve experienced in the UK, offering long, almost Alpine style climbs and descents which are linked smoothly through the beautiful southern Welsh valleys. Combining this with a fast and flat opening coastal road section and good quality tarmac throughout it really is a difficult one to top.
However, there were a number of organisational problems mainly as a result of the events huge popularity and the timing system. Participants experienced long delays at the start resulting in some unnecessarily missing the mid point cut-off and more problematic, the chip timing system failed to detect many riders, leaving them frustratingly without a time or with partial results.
With the promise of UCI golden bike status next year I really hope this spurs the organisers on to improve and fix the problems seen this year as with the roads they are blessed with this ride really has the potential to be the model for them all.
The start had a festival atmosphere with marquees of merchandise, new bikes on show and last minute parts and nutrition available from Wiggle. Rider packs had been received in the post containing bike numbers with an integrated timing chip and a number for the back of our jerseys. This made the morning’s logistics easier so we just needed to head to the start. After meeting my mate Henry we did just that, but were met with a huge number of riders already queuing to start. Due to a problem with the timing system the first start time had been delayed to 8am while they tried to fix it so we were waiting over an hour to reach the line. Although it got a little chilly the rain stayed off and as I’d not seen Henry in a while it was a good chance to catch up so for me it proved to be no real hardship.
Straight from the off the riders were going extremely hard. I tried to join a group but it was really difficult, with the paces averaging 40kph plus. I was caught in a regular quandary of trying to keep with a group who were pushing above my rate or making it on my own and face all the energy lost from the wind which was blowing fairly stiffly around the coast. I plumped for the former and was really glad I did as the experience of pushing those flat open roads full pelt, wheel to wheel and shoulder to shoulder was something else, particularly at Ogmor-by-Sea where the road hugged the coast. Even a kamikaze sheep which seemed hell bent on flooring someone couldn’t slow us for long. I couldn’t keep it up forever though and mercifully at just over 30km the group simultaneously slowed. Either they were all getting the same twinges from their legs as me or the realisation that this was a 200km ride and we hadn’t even seen a hill yet had suddenly hit home.
Back on the coast at Porthcawl we met the first feed stop on the sea front. Though seemingly not the opinion of some the feed-stops impressed me. Considering the number of participants they seemed to be disciplined enough with a rough one way system which allowed me to stop, grab what I wanted; some energy drink, bananas and occasionally some cake without wasting too much time. People were more put out by insufficient toilets and I can see that more provision would be constructive, particularly for women, and I’m sure it would help their reputation if they encouraged more men to use them too.
Back on the road I glimpsed the oil refinery at Port Talbot before we turned in land, which spelt the end of the flats and in fact an almost continual 24km climb. This was the first ascent of the legendary Bwlch, up the side of the gorgeous Arfan Valley, though the start of the steeper ascent doesn’t really start until Cymer, where they had placed another timing matt with the intention of giving the riders a climbing split time.
The climb is long and much more in the European vein of a steady 6% grinder than the usual UK short sharp kicks. But grind it does and gets steadily steeper, the real crusher is at the steepest section, because of the switchback you can see riders way up on the far side of the valley still climbing, which at that point seems impossible to reach. Rounding the top of the hill we met the second feed stop and again I kept it to a minimum just grabbing a drink and on my way, where we were immediately met with the route split. Unfortunately because of the late start a number of people who otherwise would have been alright were caught out by the 1:30pm cut-off and were put onto the shorter route. I was fortunate to have got up there OK so hung a left, and what a piece of road that was, a majestic sweeping descent dropping 400m to the valley floor.
One of the joys of this ride is how it seemed to just seamlessly flow and before I knew it we were delivered to the next big event the similarly challenging Rhiggos (6km, 4.9%) another long gradual climb and sweeping descent. The climb out of the valley at Glyn-Neath (2.9km, 5.9%) on the other side is a more typical short UK affair but with more of the same beautiful scenery.
An undulating section through little villages followed before meeting the third and final feed stop at around 135km. I noticed they were offering salted roast potatoes, a novel idea, though I was certain my guts were in no mood for experimentation so I pushed on with just a drink. At one point we hit a savage 20% dig that appeared from nowhere around a bend. Though not really much of a challenge with everyone still on their big ring it had riders dropping backwards all across the road. More twists and turns through villages and towns until we hit the Cimla (2.8km, 5.8%) though diminutive compared to many of the days climbs I found this one the toughest, though I think this was more indicative of me flagging than the road itself.
Then suddenly the road looked familiar as we had rejoined our earlier path for the second climb of the Bwlch. I was clearly feeling the previous miles as with all the will in the world I added another 4 minutes on my previous ascent time. At the top the rain had a bit of a go so I wrapped up for another beautiful descent, a sure fire way to bring the sun out, and sure enough I was soon stripping off again at the last small climb of the day.
I noticed the 10km to go sign and clocked my time of 6:46 and quickly calculated I could make the sub 7 hrs mark. I’ve never hit the end of a ride so hard, down on the drops trying to TT with what little was left in my legs. I hammered round the final approach, a series of roundabouts and chicanes, to meet the crowd assembled round the finishing straight all looking completely nonplussed as to why someone coming in after four o’clock in the afternoon would be riding so hard. A completely understandable point of view but at the time those 30 seconds really mattered to me!
Sadly many people probably had similar targets they were trying to achieve. I say sadly as since completing the ride it has become clear that many peoples timing chips didn’t register, leaving many with no time at all. I was fortunate enough to get a start and end time though none of the splits seem to have been logged. I understand how incredibly frustrating that must be to anyone who didn’t time their own ride. I can also see why the organisers gambled on these tags as no registration and timed climbs would have made the event superb. It’s a real shame for everyone involved that didn’t pay off. Having participated in marathons, although incredibly challenging, I know that it is possible to provide support and reliable timing for such a large event however for Sportives it seems it is yet to be achieved. I hope that this problem is solved soon as lets face it, the opportunity to ride with 4000 like-minded individuals is a big part of its appeal.
Back at the headquarters the festival atmosphere from earlier continued though this time with some much wearier looking faces. A band played country music in the background as I collected my finishers medal, a recovery drink and a free, tasty and much needed bowl of pasta.
Participating in a full season of Sportives is a steep learning curve for me, at each event I hope to write a little about what I’ve picked up, or more likely still need to pick up. Perhaps I’ll help someone avoid the same mistakes or at least give a good opportunity to point and laugh.
• This was the first ride I’ve had this year that I’ve come away from without having big regrets about my performance. I really felt I gave it my best, pushing hard and sitting up when required and eating and drinking at all the right times. I think partly this is because this style of climbing seemed to suit me. Now all I need to do is work on making that best much much better!
Jamis Xenith Pro with Continental GrandPrix 4 seasons tyres
Garmin Edge 800
Topeak Aero Wedge pack, Topeak TriBag, Camelbak Podium waterbottles
Blackburn Air Stick III pump, Topeak Mini18+, Bontrager Air Rush regulator
Specialized BG Comp Road shoes, Cyclosport Endura shorts and jersey, Gore Bike Wear Oxygen Gore-tex shell, Specialized Propero helmet, Gore bike wear Power mitts