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Preview: Etape Cymru
Event: 9th October 2011
Promoted by: K-Extreme Ltd
Event HQ: TetraPak HQ, Wrexham Industrial Estate
Route Guide: Stuart Wilkinson
Back in May, local cyclist Stuart Wilkinson rode a recce of the forthcoming Etape Cymru sportive, which takes place on 9th October on closed roads, taking in some of North Wales' iconic cycling climbs. As well as closed roads, a superb route and all the usual sportive comforts, British Cycling members get £12 off the entry fee and non members get one year's Ride membership, worth £24. Let's find out what Stuart thought of the route...
A couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see that Britain's second closed road sportive will be held almost on my doorstep on 9th October. Luckily I had a few days off after Easter, and used one of them to try out the proposed 100 mile Etape Cymru route.
It was quite a novelty to cycle from home to a sportive start line - just five miles to the Tetrapak factory where I tripped the lap counter to start my time. After a few flat warm up miles cutting through the cool morning air of the Maelor countryside, the first climbing test comes just inside the vale of Llangollen. Garth is an unrelenting 3km through a village strung up the north side of the valley. Everyone will be glad to get this one out of the way on fresh legs. The reward is coasting down the glorious Panorama road with massive views of the valley. It has just been resurfaced all the way down to Dinas Bran, smooth and soft as carpet.
Above: Panorama View
I took in some in-flight refuelling as the Etape course joined the Mega Challenge route up the lovely Eglwyseg Valley and the World's End climb. The famous ford was in low water, so I cautiously rode it rather than pushed, thankfully staying upright. Out of the top of the forest, you emerge onto the Esclusham mountain road, a ribbon of tarmac draped across a few miles of purple heather uplands. Perfect for blowing any remaining cobwebs out of your head on a sunny late April morning.
After the short double-climb of "Cote de Gwynfryn" (14%), you can sit up a bit and enjoy the scenery down through a pretty section of middle-of-nowhere lanes between Ruthin and Corwen. No monster hills, and some lovely quiet lanes past farms and bluebell woods. For 10 miles I might as well have being doing it on closed roads anyway - I didn't pass a single car.
Reaching the top end of the Llangollen valley at Carrog the respite is over, and back into the steep stuff over the lower slopes of Llantysilio Mountain. Some Plaid Cymru canvassers were out posting leaflets to the cottages and gave me a cheery wave as I ground my way up. The day was warming up nicely by the time I descended into Bryneglwys, and stopped to check the route with a lady pushing her lawnmower across the road. "Carrog mountain road? Yep - straight up from here". The Carrog Bwlch y Groes (Pass of the Cross) is kinder from the north side, and the views from the top are stunning. Cycling doesn't go to many better places than this hidden gem of a road, with a white-knuckle descent for the fearless thrill seekers among you.
Above: Carrog Bwlch y Groes
Along the valley at the bottom, don't miss a glance at the historic Vale Crucis Abbey ruins on your right, as you speed past towards the Horseshoe Pass. I did a bit more than that - stopping for my mid-ride break at the campsite cafe.
Horseshoe pass is deservedly showcased in the Etape route. It's quite an alpine gradient (don't believe the 20% sign, the steepest bit isn't much more than 10% if that), and it steadily rakes it's way up the natural contours for the best part of 5km; smooth asphalt all the way. Once you've reached the slate quarry, it relents and you can click back up a few gears to the top. If I was God, I'd add another 3000ft to the height of the Clwyds round here, and coil more hairpins all the way up to the Ponderosa Café (or ski station!), which would be elevated to 1400m. Then - Wales would have a mighty Hors Category climb with looks to rival the Stelvio or the Col de la Madeleine. But as it is, our "Col du Fer a Cheval" is just a very nice Cat 2/3. With 65 miles already in the legs, few people will break their personal bests on the Etape ... I certainly didn't at a shade over 21 minutes.
Above: View back down the Horseshoe Pass
There were a few treacherous potholes on the fast descent down into Graigfechan. Not deep, but they were cleverly camouflaged by the dappled sunlight from trees lining the road. I'm told good news is that the council will be fixing the roads on the route before the big day. Shortly after this point I made a bit of a navigational blunder. Sparing you the details, instead of hitting the Shelf climb, a mapping glitch took me up a nice mountain bike trail, and hobbling the ensuing 2km cost me a good pair of road cleats. D'oh - I really should have known better. But on the day, rest assured, riders will be going up the Shelf, another of NE Wales' finest, and the last major climb of the Etape.
By now, I was getting a sense this is going to be quite a tough sportive. With increasingly throbbing legs, I made my way back up past Llandegla forest - wondering whether or not to make an unscheduled stop at the excellent mountain biking centre for another calorie fix and bottle refill. But I churned on past, into the last section that winds its way through the Wrexham hills to Penycae. Thankfully its mostly downhill now - apart from a little shocker at Brynwolfa that had me on the rivet just crawling up it. Nearing the finish, I was starting to feel that deep spreading glow of satisfaction at completing the course. With the last of the mountains and hills behind me, the last stages were simply a case of retracing the country roads in the afternoon sunshine.
The Etape Cymru seems destined to become the latest addition to Britain's mega sportives, the closed roads being a big crowd puller. It showcases some of the fantastic cycle climbing country that we are so blessed with here in North Wales. Hope you can make it.
Etape Cymru Facts
9th October 2011, Wrexham, North Wales
100 Miles, 6000ft of climbing
Four Major Climbs: The Shelf, The Garth, World's End, Horseshoe Pass