Dragon master: meet the man behind one of Britain's biggest sportives

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Dragon master: meet the man behind one of Britain’s biggest sportives

The Wiggle Dragon Ride has grown in the last 10 years to be one of the biggest in the country.

Some 5,000 entrants are expected to tackle the routes offered for this year’s event, which departs from 850-acre Margam Park country estate, in Port Talbot, south Wales on Sunday June 9, 2013.

With our thoughts focussed on sportives this month, one in which the ‘season’ begins in earnest, we caught up with the Dragon Ride’s founder, Lou Lusardi.

The Dragon Ride. Pic: Sportive Photo

A mechanical engineer by trade, and a keen mountain biker in his spare time, Lusardi, 58, became involved with cycling in a professional capacity 12 years ago when he became the CTC’s representative in Wales.

During this period, he formed a cycling holiday company, Breakaway Cycling, taking guests to Gran Fondo events in Italy. “At that time, the Fred Whitton and the Polka Dot Challenge were the only other two events [in the UK] and it’s debatable whether they were in the same Gran Fondo-Continental sportive mould, so we like to think we were possibly the first Continental-style sportive in the UK,” he says.

The appeal of sportives is the chance to ride with the support enjoyed by professional riders, he says. He compares the experience to the television programme, Stars in Your Eyes. “Tonight, I’m going to be…Bradley Wiggins!” The opportunity to ride the same machinery on the same roads in the same kit as the world’s best is cycling’s key advantage over other sports, he says.

“If you follow Grand Prix racing, you can’t go out and buy Jenson Button’s McLaren, but you can get pretty close to it on a sportive. On the Continental sportives, with the Etape and the Gran Fondos, you’re riding the same sort of roads that the big stars ride as well.

“It does give you that feeling of being on a big tour. You’ve got a big group, you’ve got the atmosphere. If there’s a couple of you riding together, it’s almost the feeling that you’re riding in a team. That’s the thing that Britain didn’t have 12 years ago.”

Lusardi noted the popularity of Gran Fondos in Italy, held every weekend, and foresaw their appeal in the UK, but the scale such events have achieved in this country has surprised him.

He believes that the appeal of sportives, while boosted by the competitive success of Britain’s elite cyclists, is independent of it, in short, that the sportive had beccome popular before British success at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

The Dragon Ride. Pic: Sportive Photo

For the 2013 Dragon Ride, Lusardi is operating to the maxim that things unbroken do not require repair, and has decided to continue with the Medio Fondo (125km) and Grand Fondo (206km) routes from 2012. The big change in 2013 will be the introduction of timed climbs.

The engineering of mountain roads in south Wales makes the climbs similar to the Alps, he says: long, constant, and able to inspire a rhythm. The hills, to the north of the M4 and running straight from the coast, are encountered early in both routes. “It’s a challenge to find some flat roads,” Lusardi jokes.

Organising an event for 5,000 people represents a significant logistical challenge. Lusardi and his team will start the nine-month cycle in September by processing bookings.

Unsurprisingly, his workload, and that of a small army of helpers, one that can swell to as many as 70 people, reaches its zenith on the day of the event, when he will rise at 4am and leave the site at 10pm. Riders begin to arrive at 6am, ending a period Lusardi describes as the calm before the storm. It’s usually quite pleasant to have a minute to reflect just before the morning starts – and then all hell breaks loose!” he jokes.

The finish line can be an emotional place, he reveals. Last year, the volunteers handing out the medals were children, upping the emotional ante further. “Some of those guys have been riding for 12 hours: your energy levels are low and your emotional levels are high,” he observes.

Lusardi’s background in mountain biking, and his work with the CTC, gave him first hand experience of the regenerative benefits of cycle tourism to the hard-pressed Welsh valleys, decimated by the closure of the coal mines in the 1980s. Hotels within a 60-mile radius of the event will be fully booked for the weekend of the event, he says proudly.

A positive relationship with the authorities has been forged in the Dragon Ride’s 10-year history, he adds, but he feels some areas of local government should focus more on the economic benefits of the event rather than the sometimes unavoidable traffic delays caused by an event held on open roads.

The Dragon Ride. Pic: Sportive Photo

With a reputation among the hardest of all domestic sportives, the Dragon Ride is unlikely to be the debut event of many riders. Lusardi describes it as achievable for the newcomer, but not without training, and recommends a flatter sportive as a warm up.

He travels each year to Cape Town, South Africa for the Cape Argus, one of the most popular sportives on the planet, attracting more than 40,000 riders. The event has developed its own momentum, Lusardi says. The prospect of events in the UK doing the same is entirely possible. The Dragon Ride, 10 years old this year, may have already begun to do so.

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