Taming the Dragon
Dragon Ride - report from Welsh epic by Richard Preece
Posted: 2nd July 2009
In recent years the sportive scene has fast become one of the most popular forms of weekend competition for thousands of riders in the UK. Long distances coupled with often undulating terrain make for a great challenge and really give riders something to target and train towards. Many riders in the UK use these events as a training ground for larger European events like L'Etape du Tour or La Marmotte.
The Dragon Ride is one such sportive and its position in the calendar, just a month before the European events, makes it popular with riders looking to fine tune before their big ride. For many riders though, who are not riding in other events, it provides a great target and event to train towards - giving some rationale to riding cold and wet winter training miles. This year's event attracted a colossal 3000 entrants and many more would have ridden if more places were available.
I completed the Medio Fondo in 2008 and was so inspired by the experience that I chose to return in 2009 to ride the Gran Fondo. Now in its sixth year, this year's Dragon was arguably the toughest yet - greater distances for both the short and long routes and more climbing than previously featured. This meant that the Gran Fondo was now 117.5miles long with nearly 3000 metres of climbing.
The day began with a 5:30am start, forcing me to eat breakfast in a vain attempt to cram-in calories and vital energy before the start. The ride started from 8:00am onwards and an early departure looked on the cards until reaching the turn-off junction, with its long, slow moving queues. It is no surprise that delays were present, with 3000 riders descending on the car-park facility, it was almost inevitable and the ride organisers can't really do much to counter-act this.
After unpacking the bike and riding over to the start area it was 09:15am before my ride was underway. After a long week at work and the day before spent on my feet, not drinking or eating properly, my legs didn't feel as good as I wanted them too. This was to be my longest ever ride, my previous best was the 2009 Cheshire Cat at 105miles. My aim for this ride was to enjoy it as much as possible and complete the full route.
My local training rides usually focus on riding hills but they are all very short in comparison to those featured on the Dragon Ride. Many I ride at home are steeper but the sheer length of the Welsh climbs sets the Dragon apart from any other ride I have done. Climbs can feel like hard work on the way up and in the searing heat towards the end of the ride a couple certainly did. The upside of climbing is the descending afterwards. Some of the downhills were tighter and more technical than others but the majority were fast and flowing allowing riders to let off the brakes and let gravity do the work.
After the first two classified climbs there was a feed stop which allowed riders the opportunity to refill bottles and grab vital food for the next section of the ride. Shortly after the first feed area the route split and riders could choose between the Medio and Gran Fondo routes. One of our group split off here to complete the Medio, which at 81miles and 2300 metres of climbing is still a long ride! It took some mental resolve not to join him and as the group trundled along I wondered if I had made a mistake. The next few miles were not hugely enjoyable and upon reaching the second feed station with 60 miles completed the gravity of having to ride another 57 hit home. At that moment I seriously questioned my ability but over the next section I tried to detach myself from the overall distance. Instead I rode 5 miles at a time to try and keep mentally active and soon I reached the final feed stop at roughly 90 miles in.
From here the next mental barrier to break was the 100 mile mark and only the Bwlch climb stood between me and it. The climb was not particularly steep nor was it the longest of the day but the exposed nature of the road meant there was no shade and the now cloudless sky enabled the sun to really take its toll.
At the summit of the climb, standing at over 1700ft, the views were spectacular. The next descent was, for me, the best of the day and a just reward for the day's efforts. Another smaller climb and a slightly tricky descent tested rider's stamina and alertness further still but soon after the flat roads returned, leading back to the start/finish area.
Crossing the line was a really great feeling and the sense of achievement was evident in all the riders I met. My time was irrelevant as I had set out to complete a goal and had done. This is the great thing about the sportive experience. No matter what your age, fitness or ability you will find entrants who all have an individual goal and idea of what they want out of the ride. Whether you want the fastest time (this accolade was taken by Cervelo Test Team's Dan Lloyd), or just to have a good day with friends these rides allow you to see great scenery, meet other like-minded riders and enjoy cycling.
After a stop-off for food on the way home I got back at 11:30pm to complete a long but memorable day. Will I be back next year? Of course!
More info: www.dragonride.co.uk