Dragon ride 2012; a roller-coaster day in the saddle by Michael Young

VC Walcot

I was able to grab one of the 100 late entries for The Wiggle Dragaon Ride in April. The first 3000 entries sold out in under 3 hours in December and the remaining 1000 balloted was the first indication that the Dragon Ride might be a  worthwhile objective as a means of focusing my cycling and building back up my fitness after breaking my elbow and face in February, let alone taking part in one of the most established sportives in the Country. Entering before looking at the route, which changes year on year, may have been a mistake at 128 miles and over 11000 feet of vertical assent, (206km and 3000m). It really did mean I had to accumulate mileage in the 10 weeks I had before the start and get back to fitness. The majority of miles logged was with VC Walcot on Sunday morning club rides. I concluded these rides with a climb to my new house up Bannerdown to Colerne. All good preparation.

I was fairly anxious of the task in hand the night before, with one eye on the weather forecast and one on my cycling kit bag I was unsure of what type of seasons kit to wear, and not in the fashion sense. I decided to take it all, as well as enough food to last a week just in case. The early drive listening to the reports of flooding in mid Wales on the radio and spots of rain on the windscreen around Bridgend heightened the anxiety levels. Though having done a fair few sportives and cycle races I relied on going through the motions once I arrived. Deciding what I needed to wear (I gambled and went without a jacket), where to put my food in my jersey pockets, checking my tyres, brakes and gears and rolling to the start without too much fuss.

The organisation and facilities for 4000 riders was great, and my allocated start window between 8.15 and 8.30 meant no queues and off I went with about 50 riders. The first 40 miles were the ‘flattest’ and so I wanted to start fast, get the early miles in before taking it easier for the hard ones towards the end. Slower riders started first from 7.30 so there was plenty of people to chase down. I may have been a bit too excited and reached the 1st of 3 feed stations after nearly 30 miles at an average speed of 19mph. The 2nd feed station was at around 70 miles, I made the calculation to continue without stopping and to slow the pace at the base of the Black Mountain. This was a fairly decent proposal, although I got too the bottom of the climb and wanted to stay with the guys I was cycling with and went up the Black Mountain like a rocket, at least by my standards. It was a great feeling shooting past the continual snake of people bobbing on their pedals the whole way up the 3 and a bit mile climb. I didn’t stop at the top and continued at pace, and led my small group down the epic 6 mile decent the other side. It was such good fun I ignored the slight cramp like twinges in my legs as I sprinted out of each corner.  Having worked like a Ox going up, the temperature gradient descending really got to me and at the same time rationing my water reserves to make it to 70miles and the 2nd feed station assuming the route flattened the other side of the Black Mountain all lead to a bit of a disaster. The testing rolling terrain and onset of a cold rain shower brought the onset of severe cramps in both legs at the back and the front leaving me unable to do anything stood over my bike at the side of the road, the riders I had zoomed past up the Black Mountain were now doing the same to me. I managed to peel myself off the bike and begin to loosen my muscles while exhausting my water, energy gel and banana supply. In the middle of the Brecons shops are few and far between so I struggled on, cramping at anything that resembled a mole hill. Slowly though as the rain stopped at the temperature started to rise my legs responded and was able to make it to the 2nd feed station passing people for the second time.

Very well stocked, the feed stations were run by local rotary club volunteers. I especially enjoyed the salted boiled potatoes that came with comments of encouragement from the dulcet tones of the local Welsh accent. A big thanks to all those involved, was a great comfort having such enthusiastic people handing out Bananas and cake. Reserves of drink, food and moral pack to brimming I headed off with the mindset of 30 miles to the next feed station then 30 miles to the finish.

I started to enjoy myself again once I had warmed up after another long, fast, cold decent. The ever rolling terrain provided some great scenery and a welcome distraction to the slowly descending distance to go on my Garmin. Having a partner in crime during the middle miles would have been excellent. The great thing of having 4000 people on the course was that you were never out of sight of another rider, but it did mean that people just rode their own individual pace and hardly any groups seemed to be forming. The extent of climbing may have also helped in the lack of social cohesion, a route where no. 1 comes first. A few good climbs similar to the ones around the Bath area were not too challenging, this all changed at 85 miles with ‘the climb with no name’. At a mile and a bit long, 11% average gradient with a wicked 20% hairpin section I knew what I was in for having descended a few years ago on a smaller local sportive. The climb claimed the first riders walking their bikes, a compact chainset was essential if you are anyone other than a pro-tour mountain goat.

The next major climb, and one that is a main stay with the Dragon Ride was Rhigos. I was starting to feel a bit empty at the bottom, but the final feed station was at the top. At a steady pace the 3.5 mile climb wasn’t too bad at an average gradient of 5%. The more I climbed the better I began to feel, sucking in the fresh mountain air, looking at the amazing views and in a bit of delirium started singing ‘whats that coming over the hill, its VC Walcot, its VC Walcot’ to the tube of Monster by The Automatic. More salted potatoes at the top, cake and energy drinks brought me back to reality as a man gesticulated with a banana that the pylons on the mountain ‘over there’ was where the final climb was going to take me.

Another cold decent was hard and fast and a bit nervy in the damp. Not wearing a jacket was probably the right decision, the rain was never hard and a base layer kept my upper body warm. Having summer bib shorts was probably the wrong decision, the fast descents really cooled my legs and knee warmers or thicker bibs would have helped keep the cramping away.

The last climb, Bwlech, is another climb that has been included with the Dragon Ride for the last few years. I decided to use the first few miles of the 4.6 miles climb to get my muscles warm before I would try to emulate the feelings I had going up the Black Mountain a good many hours earlier. At 5% average it was a long climb that allowed you to enjoy the views, which are really rather magnificent. Those new to cycling might not understand why people ‘enjoy’ cycling up hills. The views for me are why I enjoy it, plus going back down at times can feel like flying.

At the top of Bwlech it was a good 15 miles back to the finish. Although most of it was downhill through the Afan Valley, where there is great mountain biking for another day, it was still hard work with over 100 miles in the legs. The top section of the decent was very fast, reaching 60mph was a first for me on the bike. Further down doing 50mph with the worst cramps of the day was ‘interesting’. The guy infront was wearing a jersey saying ‘Keep Calm, and Pedal On’. Very apt.

Reaching the finish was a great feeling. Glad to take the pressure of my behind and reapply to my feet. A warm pasta meal was included and was eaten at a pace reminiscent to the speed of the descents. I would of loved to have sipped a local ale in a deck chair in the ‘riders village’ but this would not be wise for the drive home and would have to wait. It was a great day and a hard ride, the talk from the experienced riders at the finish was that it was probably the hardest Dragon Ride ever. I suffered and excelled over the 9 hours I was out there in the Brecon Beacons. An iconic British Sportive accomplished, and having cycled this part of the world a little over the last few years, the people and scenery re-affirmed to me why my Welsh friends call their home Gods country.