Monday, 9 January 2012

Wiggle Dragon Ride 2011

"I am so cold... I am so cold... I am so cold..." Amazing really, after cycling for almost 3 years, I could get it so wrong....

Having chosen to wear a short sleeved jersey and bib-shorts for the Dragon Ride 2011, I was ill prepared for the downpour of rain half-way round the 200km route. I rode for several kilometres along downhill roads chanting this miserable mantra, interspersed with the occasional "F" word when the pace quickened and the temperature dropped.

A year on from my first Dragon, I was returning stronger but slightly chubby (as my son would say). A curious combination which left a lot of question marks over how I would fare against those pesky mountains. Last year I had accelerated away from my brother Rob and my friend Neil up the first big ascent, leaving them to ride the remaining  140km on their own. I finished in just under seven hours and was treated to hollow, murderous looks from the pair of them as they crossed the finish line forty minutes later. "We said we would stick together..." Is one accusation I remember brushing off with a heroic laugh. I was thinking to myself, "Well you should have stuck with me then."
This year we were doing it again, but Neil is getting old and frail, rapidly approaching the twilight of his life at 40, and wanted to do the middle distance ride. Which left me and Rob both resplendent in our late 30's to try and stick together. Upon arriving at the Pencoed start/finish line (40 minutes earlier than last year), we were treated to the first real spectacle of the day. We were confronted by the biggest queue I think I have ever seen in real life. It was like a special effects trick, where a section of crowd is filmed and then reproduced over and over again. There was a wide, sinuous ribbon of gaily coloured, grim looking cyclists stretching away from the start for over a mile.

Like many in the queue, I had arrived hoping that the weather would stay cool but dry. We made our way to the back of the queue and with dog-like curiosity I checked out the thousands of bikes and calf muscles as we rode along. I was surprised to see a familiar bike in all that mass of metal and carbon, but Rob Penn's famous racer (It's All About The Bike) with its blue and orange frame totally stuck out in the crowd as did Rob with his big pearlescent smile.
It took over 90 minutes to get to the start line and by that time most of the riders were actually shivering. So when we were counted off the starting grid it came as no great surprise that everyone tore off down the road like we were taking part in a 30mile club ride, desperate to warm up.

This first stage of the Dragon is new to 2011 and takes the event towards the seaside for the first time. It also keeps riders away from any big inclines until well after the first feed station. And so the stage became a 30 mile race, flying over gently undulating country lanes. I hastily picked out the quicker bunch of riders (who are easy to spot, they tend to be at the front) and lead Neil and Rob into the shelter of the fastest part of a large pack, which soon separated from our main bunch up the first hill. We found ourselves flying across Wales at well over 20mph, nestled safely in a group of a rapid riders.
It nearly went pear-shaped at this point as our fast group was joined by an even faster group of club riders, who flew past us three of four mph faster. I made a snap decision and decided to jump on the back of their train, just as (I found out later) Rob and Neil were "relaxing" in the back of our group, unable to see my move. Because of the speed and the extra effort I was putting in, I didn't check behind me for some miles, and then it was too late as they were nowhere to be seen. I felt disheartened as I knew this group I was with were going to leave me like roadkill at the bottom of any mountain. To cement this suspicion we hit a steep gradient just as I took my first and only turn at the front of the group; I found the climb very taxing and the group flowed around me, someone making a broken robot sound (I can demonstrate in person) as they tippy-tapped past. I kept on the back of the group but realised this wasn't where I belonged.

Regardless, we were still flying towards the first feed station and the weather was fine. The coastal portion of this ride was interesting, it felt as if the Dragon had left its natural habitat. This was no bad thing, it made for very fast and enjoyable riding along different terrain. But like Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, the Bwlch was ever-present, lurking over the horizon.
We reached the first feed station and I already knew this group wouldn't be stopping; they didn't seem like the kind of riders who stopped for anything short of a heart attack. So I pulled into the first feed station wondering whether I would be ploughing past riders on my own for the next 90 miles. It wasn't an appealing prospect after doing just that last year. But then Rob and Neil pulled into the feed station, less than 2 minutes after my arrival. They had thought of trying to catch my group, but the tight roads and larger, slower groups were making overtaking quite dangerous, and so Rob had decided to (successfully) increase the tempo of his group.
Rob's buckled wheel made for interesting descents.

We were three amigos once again, this time without a larger group to hide in. After a potentially dangerous Mario Kart moment where I accidentally stored my banana in between my number and my pocket and it landed on the road a mile later, we started stage 2 almost as quickly as stage 1. As we journeyed away from the sea and into the valleys, I started to wonder where the 3000metres of climbing was going to be squeezed in. We had ridden around 50 miles and barely hit more than a hillock. It was then that we hit the bottom of the Bwlch.
Drinking from a water bottle up a mountain is important, but like last year, I found that sipping from the souls of struggling cyclists is even more refreshing. Slowly but surely we threaded our way up the Bwlch, overhauling hundreds of riders by virtue of the thousands that started before us. Like everyone else on the mountain, we rode silently upwards, saving breath for the pedals alone.

About halfway Neil called to us and waved, cheerfully bidding us farewell before slowing his pace. Rob and myself rode on without him. At the time I thought he would regret it, but I was proven wrong.
Feed station 2 was at the top of the Bwlch and was sorely needed. Rob's rear wheel had developed a bad buckle and needed some attention. Whilst he set about tweaking the spokes for the 40mph+ descents, I fetched bottles and cakes. A rider at the cake table was asking for energy bars and the Welsh volunteer was informing him in cheerful musical Welsh "I don't know about energy bars, but there are lots of cakes here" gesturing to the mountain of apple pies in between the two men.  The cyclist repeated his question several times in some way trying to convey the concept of an energy bar in case there was some kind of communication breakdown and I saw the volunteer innocently point at the bananas ("they come in wrappers if you want wrappers" - presumably). I recalled last year where the Dragon had supplied energy gels and I had greedily gobbled up too many and given myself an upset stomach. I wasn't missing that.
I will however recommend the bags of white powder I brought along for the ride! Now, I don't subscribe to doping, but some legal chemical assistance can prove invaluable. After suffering from cramp deep in my quads last year, I pushed the boat out last week and spent a few quid on a bottle of powdered electrolyte energy fuel. This I poured into my water bottles from my pre-measured bags at each feed stop. Not one twinge of cramp the whole way round.

From the beginning of that climb to the next feed station is where the organisers had hidden most of the climbing. Before climbing the Rhigos I noticed Rob Penn's bike lying on a grass verge as we zoomed past. He emerged from the hedgerow, rearranging his lycra shorts. For some reason I thought this would be a great time to be sociable and shouted "Hi Rob!" As we rolled past. I am pleased to report that Rob looked as thought-disordered and haggard as the rest of us, his thousand-yard stare unbroken by my fleeting greeting.

The rain held off long enough to allow us a fast descent off Rhigos, which has to be the best stretch of road to descend on in the whole route. The Dragon has a lot of very exciting descents, but the visibility and gentle curvature of the road down the Rhigos is a joy to ride. But once that was done the heavens opened.

Inadequately dressed as we were, the rain actually turned the Dragon Ride on its head; When the climb out of Neath arrived it was pouring down, and due to this I was bitterly cold. The climb slowed us down and warmed us up, which is just what we needed. It was still hard, but at least there was solace to be found on the incline.
However, upon reaching the top of the hill, the dangers of going downhill in the rain made themselves abundantly clear. When riding a bike with contact surfaces to the road smaller than a postage stamp, braking has to be done carefully in the best of conditions. But with the roads slick and greasy and some descents so steep it was barely possible to stop the bike from gaining speed, riding became a study in self-preservation and careful bike handling.

The increased downhill speed also increased the blast of rain, cooling us rapidly as we whipped along the flats and painstakingly braked down the slopes. Some riders, most likely the ones who have not fallen and injured themselves before, rode downhill as if the Dragon was a closed road event, which sent chills down my spine as I watched them hurtle past driveways and blind junctions.

Neil had been making good use of the several hours he had waiting for us to get back...

And so I found myself repeating my mantra of misery whilst we flew along towards our second and final Bwlch ascent. We climbed inside ourselves, barely experiencing anything more than pain and weariness, reminding each other to drink as it is easy to forget when in the rain.
After more ascents on drying roads, we finally hit the 10km to go marker and decided to dump our remaining energy into attacking the rest of the course with everything we had left. We rode well and managed to complete the final time check only 3 minutes behind the fastest recorded rider on this section! The finish line surprised me, when riding through I found I was welling up! The sustained effort and sense of achievement was such that it had reduced me to tears. It was the best and hardest sportive I have ever taken part in.


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