Gavin beats broken bikes and dodgy dentistry to take on the mighty Dragon Ride.
How did I find myself ascending the Brecon Beacons on a hired bike, nursing a tooth ache in the blistering sun with four thousand other cyclists? The Day of The Dragon had arrived! Of the four initial draGoons - only two had made it to the start line - and thanks to a careless passenger door opening on me on the Kings Road on Thursday before the event - it was nearly only one.
My bike was bent - and my tooth was split - and I prepared Peter with the news that I may be joining Tom and Dave on the sidelines for this ride. A few shots of solpadene and a phone call to Tony of British Bike Hire and the weekend was rescued.
As with many mass participation events - we were allocated start times - and our start time was 07:00AM. An early rise was required - and there were a lot of cyclists in Port Talbot Ibis padding around the breakfast area and car park, conscious not to disturb the slumbering hen and stag parties who themselves had been so considerate just hours before.
The event HQ was well organised - and the grounds of Margam Country Park provided a stunning backdrop. The grounds are home to a deer herd that dates back to Norman times, a Go-Ape theme park and has hosted many a battle between Dr Who and various aliens. Had the Tardis have landed in the vicinity on this particular day - the Doctor would undoubtedly be checking his console and co-ordinates - the conditions more suited to New South Wales than South Wales.
Rolling out of the country park towards Kenfig Hill under blue, cloudless skies, arm warmers and gilets were soon being discarded. Even early in the morning, there were spectators lining the side of the road offering encouragement and advice. To see the names of the infamous rugby towns as Cefn Kribw, Maesteg and Neath was for me a step back to my childhood, when I would watch London Welsh with my dad do battle against these mystical teams from places with unpronounceable names.
"Luckily - there was an ice cream van and a feed station at the summit - and another chance to tuck in to the salted boiled potatoes that were omnipresent at every feed station on the Dragon Ride."
Gavin on the diverse feeding options at the Dragon
But there wasn't much chance to daydream for too long before the road turned right out of Maesteg up the Neath road and past the golf course. The climb was a steep flavour of what was to come, and following a sharp descent, the services of St John's Ambulance were quickly pressed in to action. The constant presence of medical and Mavic support vehicles was a much needed safety net for many - and with the Brecon Beacons lying in wait - it was comforting to know that in this heat - there would be some support.
The first feed station came just after Neath - and set next to the Cefn CoEd Colliery Museum. This was a reminder of the mining industry that is readily associates with South Wales and nice for the route to pay homage to the industrial heredity of the area. Heavy industry would soon be forgotten though, as the route set off towards the very non-industrial Brecon Beacons, beginning with a long Alpine-esque climb in the Black Mountains.
With no trees or shade the sun was merciless and cyclists appeared on the road ahead like a line of marching ants. Happily - though the climb was long - but the gradient was constant and more than manageable.
There then followed a fun descent - along which there was further evidence of the excellent service provided by St John's Ambulance. A swift right hander bled any speed out of the plunge - and ensured that the next section of rolling hills were tackled from a standing start. As the route headed east, delving further in to the heart of the Brecon Beacons the sun rose higher and the salty sweat started stinging the eyes.
The second feed station was welcome - and Peter and I tucked in to a hearty Sunday lunch of Jaffa cakes, flap jacks and boiled salted potatoes.
As the timed climb to Bryn Melyn approached - all the sustenance would soon be needed. Bryn Melyn -- AKA Devils Elbow - whilst not the longest climb on the course was - as I was reliably informed by a local - perhaps the most difficult. To be honest - the state I was in at this juncture - I would have struggled to climb the stairs, toothache had crept back in, my eyes couldn't see past the streams of salty sweat. There was a fabled 30% gradient on the inside of a hairpin - so I took great care in crossing to the other side of the road where the corner was a little more manageable. Luckily the roads were closed on the timed climb sections.
There was no time to recover from the traumas of Bryn Melyn - as a descent in to Glyneath was followed by another Alpine style schlep up Rhigos. Luckily - there was an ice cream van and a feed station at the summit - and another chance to tuck in to the salted boiled potatoes that were omnipresent at every feed station on the Dragon Ride.
As the roads continued to bake and point upwards - I started to blame my kit on the discomfort. At Treorchy - a district nurse refused to swap bikes with me and I was scanning the side streets to see if any paper lads were in the market for a bike - for the price of a taxi journey back to Port Talbot.
It was no use complaining to Pete about my discomfort - as he was suffering with hot foot and was wincing with every pedal stroke - we referred ourselves to the fabled Rul#5 of the Velominati. I tried to make use of his disposition - and gain office bragging rights - by attacking him on the long drag up Rhigos. Sadly - the only thing that changed was the expression on my face - as my pace remained around the speed of a shop mobility scooter!
As the last timed climb rose above the village of Treorchy - the day's work was almost done. This was the last of the three long drags - which make a nice change from the steep but shorter climbs that we tend to get in the South of England.
Although the Dragon Ride was a 130 mile mega Ride - the last 20 miles or so were downhill - each inch of effortless momentum welcomed after a long day.
I am not sure that my finish time would ever raise the eyebrows of the sports editor of L'Equipe and the time category certainly not up to the Gold Standards that my fellow bloggers attain - but the whole weekend was thoroughly enjoyable. The event village was busy - and there was just time to sit down and enjoy a plate of pasta and inspect tan lines before heading back home in the car.
The service that British Bike Hire provided was efficient and friendly - I hired the bike at short notice and dropped it off at the event. I had read that in previous years' the Dragon Ride was open to criticism for organisation and parking, but we had no such worries this time.
This is though - a tough sportive, BikeRadar - among others have, featured this event as one of the UK's toughest Sportives, I can only wince and agree. Although it was extremely hot, I am not sure that the default welsh weather (in my experience - rainy) would have made the day any easier.
Lastly - hats off to the Welsh - both those participating were friendly - the spectators encouraging and the drivers considerate, making true the welsh hymn that there will be a Welcome in the Hillsides.