The Dragon Ride is one of the most famous and most demanding sportives in Britain. It’s not an event I’ve ridden but this year my friend Damien did and I asked if he’d like to write a post about the experience and this is his story:
On the 4th or 5th of June I came home to a small and unassuming
envelope which I’d taken to be a circular until I finally opened it
and discovered enclosed my race number – 3747 – plus timing chip and various stickers for my bike and helmet. They filled me with dread – and not the thrill I’d had earlier in the year when I received my
“Accepted” magazine from the nice people that run the Prudential
RideLondon-Surrey 100. Let me explain…
I’d had a fairly simple strategy for my sportive preparations during
2013: Ride my bike. To be more specific, go and ride up as many hills
as it takes, and make sure I’d ridden the requisite distances before
heading to any start line. In other words, make sure I knew what I was
in for and make sure I was up to it because I’d already done something similar. With the exception of Whitedown Lane at the very beginning of last season, it had proven an effective strategy.
However, at the beginning of 2014 Mr girodilento and I had
hatched a plan to transform ourselves into fitter, stronger and harder
riding gods. Our principal motivation was to surprise and then destroy our regular nemesis, using a thoroughly professional one-two on the hills. After a careful analysis of the opposition’s training, the standout difference was (and is) his apparent (and somewhat unnatural) love of the turbo trainer. That and the many hours they while away together.
So a new strategy was born for 2014 – structured training. One of us
took to a Wattbike and the other (me) dusted down the turbo trainer
and subscribed to TrainerRoad. The theory of which had all seemed well and good at the beginning of the year; I approximated Wattbike’s Dragon Ride training programme using TrainerRoad rides, and off I went. My goal was to follow the lead of my hero/ nemesis and wear out my turbo trainer. I even mused about what I would replace it with.
Reality could not have turned out to be more of a stark contrast. I
had a series of chest infections which kept me off my bike. Normally I
would ride through coughs and colds, but with a very large ride
looming ever more threateningly on the horizon, I reasoned that rest
was a good idea. But here’s the thing, when that envelope dropped
through the door I’d completed just 6 of a 12-week programme. Worse, I’d begun deviating wildly from Wattbike’s recommendations. In a nutshell, I lacked confidence, was underprepared and turbo training had left me with a sore arse.
After quite a lot of discussion, I’d come to the obvious conclusion
that riding a compact was the sensible choice for tackling Brecon
Beacons. I’d recently bought a previously enjoyed Cannondale CAAD 10 (fantastic bike, by the way) and transferred my Ultegra 6700 10-speed over, installing a Praxis Works bottom bracket at the same time so that I could use it with the original Shimano cranks.
Unfortunately my rear wheel, a Mavic Kysrium Elite, was just about to give up the ghost, so I also put on the Fulcrum 3 wheelset which the previous bike owner had thrown in with our deal.
I’ve enjoyed riding the Kysriums, they’re a great value, light, stiff
and reliable wheel. To my rear end, they seem more comfortable than
the Fulcrums. Not to say that the Fulcrum is a bad wheel, in many
respects the two wheelsets are similar, but I guess it’s just what
I’ve become used to. And it made me think again about saddle choice,
because this is an area I’ve found hard to get right. Really hard. At
Scott’s recommendation, I bought and fitted a Pro Turnix Carbon
(142mm) and I have to say, it’s about the best thing I’ve ever bought
for my bike. Transformational is the word I’d use for it’s comfort
(it’s lightweight and relatively low cost too). Recommended purchase!
Five go mad in Powys
So off I went to Wales, full of misgivings. I met with my riding
buddies – two of the Schneider Electric lads with whom Scott and I had ridden coast to coast in 2013 – in Margam Park. They were being joined by two others.
One of our group looked strong and ready, having put in some hard
miles in Yorkshire leading up to the day. Three looked like they’d
just emerged from the pub smoking area after a lock-in. But the most
nervous was the fifth rider – me. During a very disturbed night’s
sleep, I’d spent a lot of time wondering if my son had any Tramadol
left over after a recent operation and whether it would have been any
help to me in the ensuing 12 hours.
One thing you have to hand the Wiggle/ Human Race people, they know how to organise a ride and get people off the starting line. We got through the briefing and across the start line very efficiently, and
quickly we were off towards Port Talbot on the flat. For the first few
kilometres we rode with hills to our right; I was reminded of that bit
in Braveheart when Wallace’s executioner draws back a blanket to
reveal the instruments of torture and ultimately, demise. My
confidence was that high!
Then we started climbing. Climbing, climbing, climbing. The first
20-odd kilometres took us up to about 500m; a proper climb. The sort of climb I’d wondered about whilst tackling our local, relatively
modest 100 – 150m hills. Something does happen in your head as you
turn and head up, turn and head up and, just as you think the summit
is sight, turn and head up again. I started to fret about what this
was going to be like on tired, 100-mile legs.
By way of reward, the scenery is absolutely magnificent in Wales. In
parts, stunning. Certainly amongst the best I’ve had the pleasure to
ride. The roads were very quiet and in the main, the surfaces in very
good condition. Certainly our Kentish roads don’t hold a candle to
them. At the beginning of the ride everyone was in good spirits,
cheered by the banter of the Welsh. The day started to warm up, and
although it never really got going weather-wise remaining drafty
throughout, it didn’t really rain other than a short shower.
The problem with riding the Dragon is that you’re only ever climbing
or descending. There’s not really any time spent on the flat to ride
your legs back into form. That’s my excuse anyway. The good news about the ride is that all that pain seems to draw people together. It is a good humoured ride, from the volunteers manning the feed stations to the marshalls and riders themselves, there was a pervasive
cheerfulness. I’m not sure whether this was down to the relatively
benign weather or mild hysteria, but bring it on.
Another point is the general standard of riding. Now I’ve ridden a few
sportives and although I wouldn’t say I’m an expert cyclist, in
14,000km over the last 30-odd months, I’ve shared the road with the
good, the bad and the downright ugly. OK, so on some of the tougher
climbs there was a certain amount of weaving (me too), and in some of the tighter lanes it was sometimes hard to make forward progress as slower riders formed roadblocks when gradients kicked in. But I saw and heard very little testiness, and descending seemed controlled and disciplined. On reflection, this may be in the nature of the ride and the people that take it on. Unlike some of the more “accessible” sportives, climbs are for climbing, not walking.
The hours ticked by, the climbs ticked off: Blwch, Rhigos, Penderyn,
Heol Senni/ Devils Elbow. Past the 100-mile marker and up the Black
Mountain. And even when you think it’s all over, a couple of steep and spiteful inclines, then out of Neath and up Cimla. We’d stopped at the feed station just around 150km in, and from that point my head had gone. I’d seriously considered abandoning or joining the shorter Medio Fondo. But in the end, there was no real choice but to dig in and press on. We closed up and rode together for the last 20km, me just looking at the wheel in front and hating every meter climbed over the publicised 3000m, every kilometer that we hadn’t expected.
And then there we were; back in Margam Park. Other than having to stop when the guy in front fell off at the foot of the Devils Elbow, I’d
ridden the whole thing. My biggest ride ever at 226km, with a healthy
3650m of climbing (significantly more than the 2250m which was my
previous record). It felt good, and it still feels good – a real
achievement. Even though I know at least one local rider for whom the Welsh Dragon was a training ride for an even bigger adventure in the Alps, I’m satisfied. I wasn’t prepared for how tired I’d be, even a
fortnight after, or how hungry I’d be. But it feels, well, righteous.
I was surprised how far and hard I can/ one can go when the challenge
presents itself. I have learned to trust the turbo – it is my friend.
I have also learned to hate the sweetness of energy gels, bars and
drinks when you spend a day in the saddle. By contrast, I have
discovered that salted, boiled potatoes in their skins are as fine a
food as you can get. But to understand that, maybe you need to get
yourself signed on to next year’s Wiggle Welsh Dragon Gran Fondo 🙂