Tuesday 11 Sept 2012
Having, packed, prep’d and tweaked as much as necessary on Saturday afternoon, I was set to greet the Etape Cymru being as ready as I could ever be. I arrived just after 06.30, following a quiet 2hr drive from the wrong side of the Pennines across to the rolling heart of North Wales. At 92miles, approximately 3000 metres of ascent and a label of the toughest closed road event, this day out was to be a grand, but challenging day in the saddle.
With a swift set to, I was ready and being called up for the start line in a smart well organised fashion, which became the theme throughout the rest of this 2012 event. Setting off in the cool, but sunny and bright conditions, we were off and in to my first luxurious closed road Sportive. Interestingly, pretty much all riders stayed to the well trodden left hand side of the road, which was probably part habit, but also part prudence during these early miles.
The route quickly swept through the wide open and well maintained roads, before tipping in to a densely packed hedge lined series of lanes that would form a large part of the Etape’s route ahead. Riders were smart, courteous and patient as the road surface changed and the tight corners weaved deep in to the Welsh countryside. This was great to see and something we at British Cycling are working towards, so riders and organisers alike can benefit from good common and well communicated practice in this rapidly evolving sector of the sport.
Having popped through a village or two, we found ourselves climbing gradually past many early rising well-wishers and their livestock in this rural area to emerge through the trees on to a moorland road following the well stocked Feed station # 1. This swiftly ran down and along the hillside to reveal a stunning view in to the faintly misty rolling valley below. The view, not to mention the welcomed sunshine made for a rather picturesque photograph or two, but also revealed the scale of the hills in the area giving a little perspective for things to come.
With more friendly hamlets and a labyrinth of B-roads behind us, I found myself rolling over a timing mat and suddenly up on to the Horse Shoe pass. Foolishly, I hadn’t looked in to this section in great detail prior to event, but unlike a couple of other Sportives in recent months, this wasn’t so steep, but it was certainly long. The road impressively sweeps up and around the valley wall on a well surfaced, approximate 8- 10% gradient, before hitting the 20% section up past an epic slate wall. Gears were low, cadence was high, but the wind was to be with us in the form of a pleasant tail wind to aid the 6.1km climb to the top. Job done and what a descent to follow. An open, sweeping super cycle highway made for an enjoyable run off the top and allowed everyone to maximise the benefits of participating in this closed road event down to a well earned feed # 2. The day was getting warm and it was time to take on plenty of water to keep hydrated over the several hours that followed.
The route ran for several miles on wide and pleasant roads, before doubling back to another weaving back road, which quickly and steeply pitched up the hillside in a series of relentless steps skywards. Riders ground on again with much determination, but here the audible social chit chat of previous miles had turned to lesser more basic communication, as everyone concentrated on the task in hand. This did eventually ease up, but the damage here had been done and by roughly 2.5 hours in, this discomfort was set to stay. It’s something that we are familiar with late on in a challenge ride, but the miles to date meant you weren’t going to get round this with too much rest bite.
Having stoked the engine again at the next feed station, which was stacked with a great Welsh Rarebit, we would now enter a real roller coaster of a road, which passed the popular MTB trail centre in Llandegla. Something savoury at this point of the energy bar doldrums went down incredibly well, so thank you Feed team for that!
With more cherrie support and cows bells throughout the miles to come, we swung off the fairground and on to a quiet back road. A marshall called “just a small up for you here then, boys”. OK, so 20% + may be considered small around here, but this was sharp, not that short and tough at this stage of the event, however it did make for another good challenge as we headed up and out on to another open moor. With no let up in the wind, we made steady headway across the landscape, where I found myself creeping between riders to take a little shelter on the way. Apologies all, this is not always a favoured approach, but the wind was becoming tiresome and I was more than happy to return the favour to all those along the way. The pace was steady, the wind was strong and the baron road ran for what seemed a good couple of miles, before plummeting to a lively, but well marshalled descent and ford at the bottom. This descent appeared to have been mangled over the years as the surface, although scattered with gravel in the middle, had been twisted and contorted out of all resemblance of something flat. This weaved, bucked and turned down around the hillside in spectacular fashion across a steep wooded hillside, with a impressive drop to our right. Feathering the brakes and well honed calls from the riders in front made for another clean and safe pass of this stage.
From here on, the road wound its way through more rolling hillside, passing great outcrops of rock and in view of more rolling hills in the distance. We eventually hit the moor road on which we passed early in the day: familiar territory, which was great news as my legs definitely knew about the 75 miles covered so far. We had now come full circle, albeit in a clover leaf pattern and were greeted with an extremely cheery 30kms to go. Here we took maximum advantage of the closed roads as we rock and rolled our way back through the picturesque landscape and villages that we had passed through on out the way out in the morning. Many familiar faces were hanging out over their garden gates and stone walls with as much enthusiasm for the passing 1000 riders they had already seen earlier that day. The support around the course was great and is further testament to how sport has been embraced in recent months. I am sure that it’s not that often 1000 cyclists may pass your door in this area, but they sure did make us feel welcome when we did.
The sun continued to beam and run in was as equally enjoyable as the start, before we hit the one kilometre to go sign, which meant we were now home and dry… What a thoroughly enjoyable and spectacular day this had been. The route had been seamless, the planning and logistics first class. Feed stations well stocked and the scenery was stunning. I’m not usually one for mentioning the weather, but today had been fabulous and truly ideal for the event. Yes it had been windy at times, but this is far better than either cold, or wet, so happy days!