Dragon Ride L’Etape Wales

As I have mentioned before, my best motivation for training is to fix an event on the calendar to train for. It gives me the focus that I need to push myself into regular and useful training.

After missing all of the club’s visits to the French mountains in 2017, I felt that I needed to make the effort to get up some mountains in 2018. As the family budget was tight, I decided that the best all round solution would be the Dragon Ride –  L’Etape Wales.  Several club members tackled the ride in 2017 and I clearly remember viewing the hill profile on Strava and thinking that it was a lot of climbing!

So, the button was clicked, money paid and event booked. That’s the easy bit. Next comes the hard bit. Not just the training but actually seeing it through and completing the event.

Many of the other members have signed up for Tim’s Alpine adventure of Geneva to Turin in the Summer so training rides were plentiful and motivation, within the club, was high.

The last big part of my Dragon ride training was a local, early season, sportive, called The Hampshire hilly hundred. It is, as the name implies, 100 miles and it is hilly! My thinking was that the distance and climbing figures for the hilly hundred were very similar to the Dragon ride, once through it, I would be ready for the Welsh mountains…..

So off we went to Wales, heart full of confidence, pocket full of energy gels. Saturday evening on the M4, an absolute breeze, and it wasn’t too long before the 150 mile car journey was done and we were in our overnight accommodation just outside Swansea. Already noted was that we has passed Margam park, the start venue for the event and that we were no more than 20 minutes away – Great, a little bit longer in bed…..?

We arrived at the country park, set up the bikes and stuffed our pockets full of sugary snacks to help us through. Tim was entered in the 230 K route so his start time was a while before mine on the 153 K route. I watched Tim start his ride,

I grabbed a coffee, browsed the stalls in the start village and then joined the ever growing queue of riders waiting to start the 153 K route.

Perfectly timed, I arrived in the start section bang on 9 am, my earliest start time.

Safety briefing over, short countdown and GO!

Well, actually not go. I set off, mid group ready for my mountain adventure but my left foot wasn’t clipped in. Clip, un-clip, clip, clip, un-clip and then it gradually dawned on me that this wasn’t a stone of similar jammed in the cleat, this was a cleat so worn that it wouldn’t lock in anymore – DOH!

Pre event checks from now on will always contain a solid look at the cleats, but that wasn’t going to get me out on the road.
I turned back, bypassed the start and back into the start village. As luck would have it, the local bike shop had my cleats on their stand, so multi tool in hand, cleats were replaced and finally I started the Dragon ride.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect with regard to the route. Don’t get me wrong, I’d looked at the profiles and the distances but that doesn’t always tell the full story of the road.
After the flat run out past the steel works at Port Talbot the route turned inland up the Afan valley.

I was quite pleased to have caught up with most of the people around me in my original start group and I started to look for groups to ride with to help the day go a little easier. These guys were great but their climbing abilities surpassed my own so once we arrived at the first climb, they were gone.

The first climb was everything I had expected, a steady gradient and Looooong! It was hard work but manageable.

What really hit me at the summit of the first climb was just how stunning the scenery is in Wales. I understand that we were blessed with some uncharacteristically warm and dry weather for the event but, nevertheless, Wales looks stunning. The mountains were on!

The second decent was more open than the first and the road surface was very good. I was finding confidence and also speed. Great fun.
Into the next valley and then I saw a road sign for Brecon. Brecon national park is a huge beautiful area of unspoiled countryside, stunning views and also the home of the Devils Elbow climb, something that I had been constantly hearing about all day.

Somewhat out of the blue, I saw a sign for the feed station. It was a pleasant surprise and it was packed with hungry / thirsty riders.
I have to congratulate the organisers of the ride on the feed stations. The quantity, quality and variety of food available was incredible and clearly very well thought out and the volunteers manning the stations were just so friendly and helpful.
Topped up bottles and away into the national park.

The park was hard! Not a climb as such but a relentless drag with little or no respite. On and on for miles and it was warm out there with no shade. This was where my hydration levels became an issue and after the long and stunning decent into the devils elbow valley, I had a mid ride melt down.
I had to step off the bike, I felt weak, slightly disorientated and had cramp in my left toes.
I struggled on, wondering what was wrong
I think that I new that I hadn’t drunk enough but by the time you realise its affecting your performance it takes a while to get it sorted.
The devils elbow:
Even if I had been on top form, this would have been hard. There is a long climb, pitching up between 4 and 8 % along the the bottom and side of the valley. As you get closer, you can see the steepest part lined with the king of the mountain banners – yuk!
I made it up and around the bend, but ran out of steam just under halfway up the steep part.

According to the guys at the next feed station, from here on, we had two climbs left, the second, up and out of Neath was not listed as a climb but wasn’t to be underestimated.
Ok,  so climb done, tough but over, just Neath and then home!

I have to admit that I was ready to finish, it had been hot and tough and my shoes were starting to feel uncomfortable. I passed through Neath, dropped a couple of gears and dug in for the final climb……. BANG ! ! – Fortunately I wasn’t too committed to the climb because my rear derailleur had broken clean off of the bike!

It was over. Bike broken, roughly 10 miles from the end. As sad and shallow as it sounds my main concern was not what to do next but more the fact that I was now not going to qualify for a finishers medal!
I flagged down one of the many motorcycle outriders and explained my situation. I was surprised by his response. He said that due to my position on the route and the time of day, I would probably be waiting for the broom wagon until about 6 pm, it was 4.30….. His best suggestion was that I called for a taxi.

I began to walk, I’m not sure why, I just needed to think, I guess. After a few hundred yards walking up the hill I found a shady spot on a wide piece of pavement.

I had hatched a plan. With the tools and parts that I had packed on the bike, I removed the chain and derailleur. I then shortened the chain to run on only one pair of gears and I was off again.

It was an unpleasant solution as it wasn’t reliable. Many times I had to stop and fettle the setup but it did, eventually, get me home and it did allow me to claim that illusive medal.

Bad luck aside, the Dragon ride was a great event. It is an event for the advanced / fit cyclist and possibly not ideal as your first ever event but definitely a challenge to set yourself as an aim for all of that spring training.
The organisation was very good and the food stops and after ride experience were among the best that I have experienced at any UK event.