The Dragon Ride: Going Big (and then going home) —by @bendihossan

Last year I discovered the L’étape Wales, AKA: The Dragon Ride, and decided I would like to ride it. It was too short notice at the time to take part so I made sure to mark it in the calendar for 2018 so I wouldn’t miss out.

There’s an abundance of routes to choose from and I’d decided that the 100km or 153km routes would be my options for a last real “big” ride before the Velothon and a good tester to see how I was fairing. The event is a month before the Velothon so there’s plenty of time to recover and get prepared again in between.

Going hard…

After some thinking I decided to do the Macmillan 100 route of the Dragon Ride as I was going to be getting there by train and I didn’t want to risk a late finish and missing a train home and getting stranded in Port Talbot. Nobody wants to get stuck in Port Talbot. As the day grew nearer I started checking train times and something I hadn’t realised became clear: the event is on a Sunday; trains on Sundays suck.

The earliest possible train from Central to Pyle (the nearest station to the start line at Margam Park) would get me there 30 minutes after the time the event requested I arrive by. Hmm. That’s a problem. Well, I was umming and aahing between the 100 and 150km and it’s 50ish km to Margam from where I live so, er, yeah: let’s get an early start in and ride Cardiff to Margam before the event. Then I’ll get the train home. Or…I could ride home again too?

Suddenly I’m getting excited by the prospect of a punishing 200km day in the saddle.  I’ve ridden a few 150-160km days before so… yeah, let’s do this. “Screw it”, I’m thinking. “Why the hell not, eh?”. If it came to it, I could at least get the train home. I checked the options and yep, although the trains weren’t exactly regular, there would be options I could use. During this madness I’d roped my riding buddy Rob into joining me on the Macmillan 100km course too. He wasn’t going to ride there and back with me though. He’s going to drive with his bike in the boot and meet me there. The guy’s not stupid, I’ll give him that.

Sunday the 10th June arrives. My alarm goes off at 0530am and I’m dressed and out the door by 0630. All bike and kit prep had been done the night before so even though I’m no morning-person even I was able to get up and moving with enough time to get to Margam Park for our the start time of 0950-1000. I’d allowed myself two and a half hours to ride there, which I estimated should be an average pace of 18kph or there abouts. No problem, I can easily do that without pushing too hard too early. With the route downloaded into my Garmin headunit and having already Streetview’d the hell out of my way there in the previous few days I got on the bike and set off.

On the way there I felt like I wasn’t riding hard and the quiet roads at that time in the morning helped too. There was never the fear of hearing an engine revving appearing behind you whilst you’re trying to keep your heart rate in zone 2. I barely saw a car that morning. Lush.

The map screen on my head-unit had been giving me the directions I’d plotted all the way there and upon arriving in Margam I looked down and my stats and saw “Avg. speed: 24.5kph”. OOPS! Without realising I’d pushed on and arrived 30 minutes early and gone way above the pace I’d aimed for. This might come back to bite me later. Oh well, it’s done now.

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A bit of gravel road riding in Margam Park

I waited for 30 minutes at the start enclosure and browsed the shops until Rob arrived. Then we joined the queue for the start pens and waited for our turn to be called over. It wasn’t long and we were off. Cowbells clanging with supporter’s cheers and we rolled out of Margam and out towards Port Talbot and Afan Forest.

Going harder…

The initial pace was pretty high as everyone got a bit excited on the initial 10km of flat roads but as soon as we started climbing towards Afan Forest and the bottom of the Bwlch it became pretty apparent that wasn’t sustainable. It was at this time Rob and I realised that the chill breeze that we had in the wee hours of the morning had gone and had been replaced by stillness.

Just…still, hot, air. As the day creeped onwards the temperature rose and rose and rose. Climbing Bwlch mountain in scorching midday heat and not even a welcome breeze for your efforts was really difficult. I drank as much as I could without getting bloated and just tried to survive and hold onto Rob’s wheel who was riding as strong as ever. That guy. He bossed the climb. Chapeau, my friend.

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Rob and I smashing it on the Bwlch descent: grinners are winners!

After summiting the Bwlch and grinning at the photographers as we made the descent down to Treorci the legs started to loosen up again and the increased speed meant the air passing by was a little cooler and I felt less like I was overheating and about to blow.

The climbing isn’t done yet though. It’s only a brief 5km before you arrive at the bottom of the Rhigos. An equally punishing climb. I’ve ridden both these before on many occasions with varying degrees of feeling like I was about to collapse but as the saying goes: “It never gets easier, you just get faster”. I like these climbs though.

They’re long and steady gradients all the way up. Steep climbs don’t suit me much but on steady gradients for 20-30 minutes and I can manage a consistent effort well enough to get me through it and feel pleased with myself on the other side. Up and over the Rhigos and down the other side going “full Froome” on the long straight bottom half of the descent it was a good time to stop at the well placed feed station just outside Hirwaun.

Standard feed station stuff: water, jelly babies, jaffa cakes, bananas, etc. And then out comes a box of sauteed potatoes. Oh my word. I cannot describe the tastiness and the photo won’t do it justice. You’ll just have to ride the event to find out how good they are.

After stocking up on water Rob and I left for the final half of the 100km course. All the climbing at this point is done apart from a final short/sharp sting in the tail in Neath. At this point I was 100km in and a bit feeling tired but not fatigued. I felt like I’d worked for it but I still had legs to get back to Margam comfortably. The route back was flat or a downhill false-flat so it should be a good run in to finish.

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Hmmmmmmm! TASTY.

It was downhill…but it was a mostly straight open road down. As we got closer to the coast it became apparent we had a block headwind. We joined a group of 5 or 6 others and worked together to get back to the finish.

As we came into Port Talbot and turned across towards Margam the headwind became a cross-wind and the group fractured a bit into smaller groups. Rob and I were still together and I took the front to lead us back into Margam.

I was definitely feeling tired now. 150km in and that headwind and final climb at Cilma Hill in Neath had done more to push me into the red than expected. Final push into Margam and boom! Done. Mic-drop. That was a solid 150km ride. We grabbed a complimentary Erdinger alcoholfrei beer with our medals, shook hands with Didi The Devil, and sat our tired legs down.

Happy with the effort for the day was done, and I wasn’t going to ride any further, we chilled out, had some food and watched the final few kilometres of the Critérium du Dauphiné on the big screen in the finishing enclosure.

I checked the train times and realised I’d just missed the train. Bugger, next one is 2 hours away! Rob offered me a lift so we tried to see if both our bikes would fit in his car… it wasn’t looking possible.

So a little worse for wear I figured I’d signed myself up for 200km, my escape routes hadn’t worked out, I’d better get riding then.

Going home…

It had taken me 2 hours that morning to ride back and the train would take at least that to arrive and get into Cardiff and even then I’d have to ride home from Central so… decision made: I was riding 200km.

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Famous last words?!

I crawled out of Margam, barely moving. Rolled down the road and up small hill onto a country lane and creeped over towards Aberkenfig and Pencoed. I got overtaken by three other riders from the event and stuttered “Morning!” as they went by. Morning? It’s nearly 5pm. I’m delirious.

I was definitely watching my pace now though. I might’ve forgotten to take it easy on the way out this morning but I was incapable of making that mistake now. As I got closer and closer to home the lactic acid in my legs got less and less and I was able to suffer a bit less on the rolling terrain and spin a tidy cadence more freely.

I ticked off the villages as I went by and made the next one my milestone to keep my mind occupied. Llanharan, boom, Miskin, boom, each one a psychological pat on the back. I got home and checked my Garmin. Distance: 190km. Ah screw that, it’s close enough to round up. As far as I’m concerned I’ve just ridden 200km.

I struggle to stretch a little, enjoy a mug of tea, and sit in a bath for a bit to soak and relax. Mission accomplished.

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