Riding pics by www.sportivephoto.com
Is it actually the biggest UK sportive? Verenti Dragon Ride organiser Lou Lusardi wasn’t too sure when asked prior to the 2010 event, pointing out that the title is one for which there are now several contenders. What it is, surely, is the closest a UK cyclosportive gets to Continental-style going, with three climbs – the first up the Bwlch, then the Rhigos and then the second Bwlch ascent – of the considerable length and relentless but steady gradient of shorter Alpine or Pyreneean cols.
The 190km Grand Fondo route is certainly one to respect. Once I had persuaded BikeMagic.com editor Dave Arthur to take the plunge and have a go at a ride he has in previous years avoided, we decided to make a pact and ride around together. No racing each other and making life hard early on; instead, a paced ride aiming at getting as close to the six-hour mark as possible was the order of the day. We zip-tied our combined number/timing chips to our ‘bars, dined and slept.
Breakfast was porridge, muesli and croissant; fortified, we joined the throng waiting to depart in groups of about 100, joshed with Mr. 100 Climbs Simon Warren and, soon enough, got going. DA was happy to take things easy early on, especially as his breakfast was sitting uneasily. Mine too; 90 minutes between it and the start of a ride is the minimum and we’d had 10 fewer. Still, it stops you going too hard, too early, which pays off later.
As ever with cyclosportives, the first quarter was a frenzied affair with riders burning gas on every climb with reckless abandon. Maybe it is the done thing, but it is not the way to a fast finish. Team RCUK/BikeMagic trundled along steadily, finding a good wheel to follow along the drag up the valley from Llantrisant. The headwind here would have eaten into reserves needed later…
Unsurprisingly, the kind chap who did the towing disappeared on the short, steep climb that followed. More lumpy miles took us up the Ogmore Vale to the foot of the Bwlch; halfway up, a cheery female voice called out to ask if we were the people “on the internet.” Guess so, and thanks for the shout. The crest of the climb was enlivened by a burst from a black-clad rider promoting VITSOE who sat behind us and twiddled past just before we got to the top. He also enlivened the descent, on which DA first showed his hand and my Reynolds Attack wheels proved their worth.
On the Rhigos, things began to settle down a bit. By this stage on either the Gran or Medio Fondo, the softening-up process has been going long enough to have softened up most riders, and everyone climbs the Rhigos at what feels like a manageable pace.
Except, of course, that all too often it is not. Even if you are feeling good, the Brecon Beacons leg along the A4059 is hard work; push too hard and it can be the beginning of the end. Several times I had to dissuade DA from pressing too hard at the front on this deceptive stretch, which finishes with a short descent to a reservoir. Here, our group was almost brought down not by a sheep that ran across in front of use but by her lamb, which followed having burst from cover by the roadside.
By now it was becoming apparent that DA’s climbing legs were elsewhere. Oddly, he was going well on the flat and, more impressively, downhill and, when the i-ride team, or what was left of it, came past on the long descent towards Brecon it was DA who went to the front to push on.
A wiser head stayed at the back, knowing the stiff climb and rough road over to Defynnog that was to come. And on the dreaded section to the Cray Reservoir feed, which always goes on at least five miles too far, DA seemed again to be suffering. On the descent to Abercraf, however, he really began to turn on the gas, doing most of the work right to the foot of Coelbren, on which he began to suffer again.
By now we were encountering few riders of the road and those we did find we quickly outpaced. Good, this, or they would have sat behind on the long descent of the Neath valley. At the end we were recaught by a bunch from Yogi cycles; big groups can travel fast on many sections of the Dragon. On the savage Cimla climb, however, they dropped quickly away and we left the feed with one more big climb in our way. It is, of course, the biggest of the Dragon, rising to well over 500m virtually from sea level and climbing almost without a break for 11km.
Cramp began to nibble at my thigh adductor muscles, which presumably get used properly only on climbs and which don’t get enough by way of long, climb-afflicted riding to train them properly. Luckily, the view of the Bwlch road snaking its awful way up the side of the mountain seen as we left Abergwynfi was daunting enough to persuade DA to agree to take it easy – or was it his legs?
Once over the top, we began to sniff the finish and threw ourselves down the descent, taking turns to slipstream and get enough speed for a pass on the other. Approaching the long left-hander, I spotted Team Wiggle Tandem stoker and Eurosport commentator David Harmon tootling along and yelled his name as we whizzed past. As we entered the built-up area of Price Town, who should pull alongside but an exercised Harmon, who made sure he got in front by virtue of a slightly “adventurous” manouvre before sitting up and waiting for Wiggle team mates Jez Hastings and Peta McSharry.
The final proper climb of Llangeinor done and dusted, DA was into his stride and, at several points, the 11 sprocket while I hung on and wondered whether it would not have been better to attack him earlier when he was feeling ropey. We stopped for ages at Bryncethin’s traffic lights and acquired something of a following, which dissipated along the last leg back to Pencoed for the simple reason that we had a strong tailwind.
There is nothing worse when fatigued than trying to hang on a fast wheel in such circumstances, when the follower has to push a big gear and gets relatively little shelter. Well, there is; how about trying to hold said wheel as it get hoofed over the final 100m lump, this effort blowing me off DA’s wheel? All credit to him; we’d made a pact and he kept to it, ensuring that we crossed the line in exactly the same 6h 19’ 01”. A gold standard ride and 73rd place, if not the sub-six we’d aimed for. But then the Dragon is not that easily tamed.