Toiling up the Bwlch early on

Pics by Phil O'Connor

It didn’t take long to find out that the the 2008 Dragon Ride Wales was going to be a different beast to its predecessor; within two miles of the start line, on a small rise out of Pencoed, the group of around 30 in which I started had split irrevocably, leaving Onimpex boss Ken Jones stranded at the back as I desperately latched on to the back of the attackers.

Ken’s plight wasn’t helped by the fact that the first 10 miles ran directly into a stiff wind, or that the others in his group were more interested in saving their legs for later than closing the rapidly widening gap, but what really did it for him was the sheer aggression of the Kingston Wheeler making the pace. He in turn was towing a good half-dozen members of the Birdwell Wheelers, each of whom looked as if he would have been perfectly at home in the local E/1/2 road race. For this is what sportives seem to have come to: a chance for hardened roadies to have a tear up as a change from proper racing.

Meanwhile, the ed. sat on the back and wondered how long this was going to last. About as far as the first steep slopes of the Bwlch was the answer, as the Birdwell bunch rode away leaving me to tow Kingston Wheeler to the top. No worries; both of us being on the hefty side, we caught and dropped our erstwhile chums on the drop into the Rhondda valley, only for me to get tailed off again once they caught us on the drag up the Rhigos. This time Kingston managed to stay with the Birdwell boys and I thought I’d seen the last of him.

That, however, is to misjudge the nature of sportives, which can see groups of riders separated by only a couple of minutes on the road after hours of hard effort. As I began the dreaded leg across the Brecon Beacons, a rider with a style reminiscent of faster Audax participants hacked past, having obviously caught me after starting later. Maintaining a near-constant 120rpm by dint of frenzied shifting up and down his cassette, my new companion presented a challenge I could not turn down. Despite the fact that he was moving a fair bit quicker than I thought prudent, I got on his wheel and we settled down to a long, hard slog in which I occasionally came through, if only to show willing.

Group after group was left in our wake as Cadence Man whizzed along until we went past a bunch tacked on the back of a solidly-built chap, clad in CSC team kit, riding at around 60rpm. He jumped in with us, putting in useful turns and leaving me unsure exactly how fast I was pedalling. Finally, at the foot of the long descent towards Brecon, we turned left for Heol Senni. Here we passed the Birdwell boys and Kingston Wheeler as they fixed a puncture.

Shortly afterwards, CSC Man eased off to chat to another rider and I was left once more to the mercies of Cadence Man, who turned out to be Keith Henderson, winner of the Smithfield Nocturne Folding Bike Race on his Dahon. He was, he said, new to long-distance riding. Did I have any advice? ‘Slow down a bit; the last 10 miles are the hardest.’ I said this more to save my own legs than his, but it had the desired effect as we began the drag up to the Cray reservoir.

Suddenly, Keith seemed less vigorous than previously and not necessarily thanks to my advice. He looked relieved as we pulled into the feed stop and was still there as I left in company with another bunch of fast-looking characters distinguished by their mostly pale-blue jerseys. Amongst them was another Kingston Wheeler. Whether they had all started together I could not tell. But there was enough pace in the group to get me to the foot of the Cimla climb in really good time. Here, the cramp that had threatened on the Coelbren ascent began to bite in earnest, but the sight of a salt-encrusted Huw Williams of Cycling Weekly suffering mightily eased it off nicely.

The long road across the Brecon Beacons

Nevertheless, my second climb of the Bwlch was a torrid affair and I was more than pleased to begin the penultimate descent back into the Ogmore Valley. As ever, a group formed along the valley road, only to blow apart on the short, sharp climb to Llangeinor. Halfway up, a group clad in familiar jerseys pulled past; the Birdwell Wheelers had caught up, this time minus their Kingston Wheeler. One of their bunch said some thing that contained the phrase ‘old diesel’ – enough to goad me into staying with them to the top. The descent really needed a warning sign at the top; thanks to the preview I had earlier in the year, I knew what to expect and sat back to watch the lead rider lean ever harder as he struggled to stay on line around a 40mph bend that just got tighter and tighter…

Over the last few miles back to Pencoed we had but one final difficulty to cope with; the rider in pale blue with Carbon-Something written across his buttocks who persisted in trying to break away on every slight rise. No matter; we peeled around the last roundabout to see the red arch denoting the finish line and most of the group indulged in a sprint that took them up the road while the wiser among us turned left across the transponder mat to record a faster time…

Was this the best Dragon yet? The new start and finish route is a great improvement, as is Pencoed College over the sports centre in Bridgend that previously hosted the event. The ‘expo’ area was buzzing at the finish, creating a fantastic atmosphere inflated still further by the silken commentary of David Harmon. The route itself, with a relentless succession of long, hard climbs either side of the strength-sapping Brecon Beacons road, is both fast and demanding, with plenty of scope for improving average speed by controlled group riding, which the lumpier terrain of some UK sportives makes near-impossible. And next year there’s a rumour that the feared Bryn Melyn climb will be back… Bring it on!

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