Sunday, 1 January 2012

Verenti Dragon Ride 2010

"So, we'll stick together as a trio for ninety miles and after that it's a free-for-all, yeah?" This was the agreement laid down by myself to my brother and my friend Neil prior to the Dragon Ride in Wales.
About ten minutes after finishing the ride, Neil and Rob weren't feeling the love for their betrayer.

We signed up to the 2010 Verenti Dragon Ride on midnight of boxing day 2009. Such is the popularity of this sportive, voted "UK's most popular Sportive" for a second year running, that the tickets were sold out in hours.

And then, between Christmas and June 2011, we started to train for the biggest ride of our lives; 190km of mountain climbs, 117miles of Welsh pain.
 I forgot to bring my shoe covers and rode the Dragon with food bags on my feet. The day had been forecast rain, and thankfully the forecast proved inaccurate. In fact it went from overcast to brilliant sunshine later in the day. Erring on the side of caution, with our waterproof jackets tucked into our shirt pockets, we queued on the Pencoed Start/Finish stretch of road waiting for our block of 100 riders to be released at the 2 minute intervals. We had arrived late, starting towards the back of the whole queue. The ride started with a blast of music from the tanoy system and we were off, spinning along the first (and practically last) stretch of flat road.

It wasn't until after 60km that we rode upwards into the Brecon Beacons, exposed to gusts of wind, climbing steadily upwards into raw Welsh countryside. This part of the ride taught me a lot about riding in groups, and proved to be the breaking of our trio. We span away from the first feed station down the mighty Rhigos Mountain as a strong group, powering down the steady gradients as a unit. Coincidentally, as we reached the foot of the Beacons we found ourselves with three of our local club riders, the Kenilworth Wheelers, and a rag-tag peleton of a dozen other cyclists.

The incline up the Beacons, like nearly all of the Dragon Ride slopes, is relentlessly moderate. Having spent my adult life in the Midlands, where speed-bumps are classified as hills, the Welsh mountains were like nothing I have ever, ever experienced. Over the next few kilometres the pace remained harsh as we pushed upwards, passing riders almost constantly. The group worked well together, indicating with left arm behind backs when overtaking (very funky). The most notable feature of this first big effort was the absence of noise. Apart from the occasional click of gears, and drone of wind, the mountainside was eerily quiet considering the number of people on it.

 The ascent started to take its toll and the peleton thinned out, stretching to breaking point along the exposed hills. At some point, and without a fuss, the peleton broke. My occasional shouts for my brother went unanswered and snatching a look behind, all I could see was Neil panting and staring into infinity and glimpses of a couple of other riders dressed totally different to Rob. I was also slipping behind the Wheelers and was becoming more and more exposed to the hilltop wind. With about fifty metres to cross, I decided to bridge the gap. I spent the next five minutes clawing back precious metres until eventually, covered in sweat, I found the sanctuary of the group, dipped my head and relaxed. After fighting through a wall of wind I found myself suddenly swept along with relative ease.

This group picked up speed as the ascent levelled out and we traversed the Beacons, our numbers minimising the effect of the wind. This was the most exposed part of the whole Dragon Ride and I had managed to tuck myself in at a very fortunate time. Later, Neil explained that he had noticed too late that I had moved up to the Wheelers. He had fought across half a kilometre on his own and got within twenty metres of rejoining us before cramp hit his legs badly. His ride was then punctuated for hours with intermittent bouts of debilitating cramps, preventing him from turning the pedals for minutes at a time.     

And so I lost Neil and Rob. And I found myself descending the Beacons with three other riders who all wanted to get down as fast as possible. We formed an impromptu chain-gang and built speed rapidly down the hill. The effect was so exhilarating that I found myself pushing the pace every rotation, taking the front by using the slipstream of another. The descent lasted minutes and I didn't really notice that my exertions were exceeding my uphill efforts, adrenaline dampening the inevitable aches and pains. At the bottom, after nearly crashing into the guy in front due to a late signpost spotting/hasty braking error, we turned into another hill climb. At this point I got the payback and was struck with cramp deep in my right thigh. The descent had gained us about 20 seconds on the Wheelers, and as I found myself unable to pedal, they all streamed past looking very refreshed. It took a couple of minutes to get moving again and a further five minutes to chew on a flapjack Neil had made. Nice flapjack, impossible to eat when cycling. The cramp faded as I fed and watered myself as quickly as I could. But the group was gone and I limped the remaining uphill kilometres to the second feed station.

By this point the Dragon Ride experience was something of a lesson in pain-management. But now the 190km distance became a big feature in my mind. My brain was kind to me and did some rationalising. It told me that I had done half the distance and only had two 30 mile rides left to do (I am old and work in miles). This positive outlook squashed the fears and I continued onwards without ever being daunted by the distance again.

Having pushed very hard over the Brecon Beacons in the second quarter of the ride, I was feeling the physical effects. The realisation was settling in that I was only half-way round and more than half-exhausted. The second feed station is situated on the half-way point and having greedily eaten four free gels at the first feed station, my stomach was in knots (not to put too fine a point on it). I decided to revert to natures finest, the humble banana.

 Like any food, Gels are to be taken in moderation, and are best trialled before an enormous ride. I knew that I had to keep on taking food and liquid so I settled for water and fruit. I later found out that the Gels and powders for drinks were in short supply, so not only had I upset my stomach, I had deprived others of Gels

 Neil, Rob and myself had agreed to wait at the feed stations for one-another, but I hadn't expected to be the guy in the front. So I groped around in my conscience for a scrap of decency, and coming up empty handed I got on my bike and left the feed station. For the next ten kilometres I regained my strength by dropping the pace slightly. Behind me I could imagine Neil and Rob getting stronger and stronger, and this pushed me onwards. By leaving the feed station quickly I had gained a few precious minutes on them and I knew that if I was going to flaunt the unwritten rules, then I had to flaunt them as sensationally as possible.

 The sensation arrived in the form of a man. And sensationally, he was called Toks. He came along just as I was finding my legs again. I had climbed a particularly steep hill with a group of five T-Rex's*, when Toks came past at a rate of knots. I followed him and undoubtedly finished several hundred places faster as a result of that one decision. Toks went past the group as if he was late for something and I latched onto his back wheel, feeling my energy levels top up as we sipped from the exhausted souls of the dozens of riders we flew past.

 After a few kilometres of tailing him, I knew it was time to give back a bit and volunteered to take the front. I pounded into the headwind, pushing hard. Mercifully Toks called to me and told me not to kill myself and I knocked it back a notch. This was the fastest part of the Dragon Ride for me. We stayed together for more than forty kilometres and kept a pace I didn't believe I was capable of. We would swap every kilometre or so, sharing the front and recovering at the back. Toks is obviously an experienced cyclist, careful to obey the rules of the road, but rapid.  I was once again shown how these rides can be dramatically affected by other riders. There are three choices I made on the Dragon Ride that gained me about an hour and following Toks was the most significant.

After an age of flying along the roads of Wales, I lost him near the bottom of the steep climb out of Neath, half a mile from the third and final feed station. The climb was tough and the day was really heating up. The separation happened in a second, and there was nothing I could do to regain it. Every time I tried to give more effort, I could feel the spectre of leg cramp stretch inside my leg. He was still in a rush and although I started pulling him back towards the feed station, he didn't even stop to fill his bottles. Mildly amazed, I pulled over and guzzled water and bananas, wandering if I would find his withered husk half way up a mountain.

 The final quarter of the Dragon was entirely mental, like Toks had said before he mentally flew past the final feed station. To put a large emphasis on this, the course revisits the mighty Bwlch. If the Dragon is typified by long steady killer ascents, the Bwlch is the godfather of all of them. Rather than the first Bwlch ascent, this climb starts at the bottom and climbs entirely to the top in one long sitting. With no punctuation, just a road and never-ending mountain, this was truly a test of spirit. I saw one guy get off his bike and climb the metal barrier before collapsing on the edge of a steep drop. I thought to myself that perhaps he was having a heart attack, but like every other rider on that hill, I kept climbing. He may have been having a heart attack, but at least his climb was over, lucky bastard.

Barring injury or personal tribulation, this ascent is the hardest of the lot. Ask any rider of the 2010 Dragon and they will recall the breeze at the top of the Bwlch as you curve around to the left. That breeze was better than a pint of lager on a hot day. I powered up the Bwlch at approximately 9mph, steadily passing the ribbon of riders. Later that evening back on the campsite, I spoke to a nice Welsh chap who had ridden the Dragon as well. He was 43 years old and had confided the night before that he was something of a runner. He did the entire Dragon in just over 6 hours and powered up the Bwlch between 14 and 15 mph! By my calculations I had bumped into one of the top 25 cyclists on the Dragon, and he took up cycling a year ago.

 After climbing the Bwlch you are treated to an enormous descent down to a shortish sharpish hill and then another enormous descent to the finish. Coming down the Bwlch I realised for the first time that I was almost on target for a sub-seven hour finish. Without Toks I wasn't as sharp, but I kept pushing through the remaining kilometres and as I raced down the mountain in the bright sunlight, I kept glancing at my clock trying to do the maths in my head.

 The rush to the finish was fast. However, speed is relative, and I later found that Toks had gained about 25 minutes on me in the last stage, which leaves me thinking he probably climbed the Bwlch between 12 and 14 mph. I went through the finish line in 6:58:31 and collected my goody bag with an enormous grin plastered to my face. For me the Dragon Ride was a revelation. For the last 12 months, cycling has been a mainly solitary trek along 6500 miles of road. I've trimmed down and gained strength. The sportive showed me just how much I had come along in this time.

 No serious injuries were reported this year. The marshals were mostly in the right places and were very helpful. I wasn't aware that Gels and powders were going to be rationed, and looking back I guess it's inevitable; if expensive items are being given away, people get greedy (ahem). I am sure that asking riders to ration the Gels at all the feed stations would help prevent this problem. I would also like to see the organisers make sure the riders know which way their route is when the road is being used for more than one route. At one point I wasn't 100% sure I was going the right way for a mile or two. But for a ride that takes in 190km, my overall opinion is the organisers ran an exceptionally good event.

 Rob and Neil came in less than an hour later. Neil had nursed his cramped legs for more than a 1/4 of the entire race. By starting near the back of the race, we all spent most of the ride passing other riders. They did the last 30 miles in a much faster time. I know that Neil is itching to attack another sportive to bury some demons. Having spoken, their experiences are totally different to mine, with their own high and low points. But we all agree that come 2011, we'll be coming back to beautiful Wales to beat our previous times on the Verenti Dragon Ride.

* according to my friend who used to work in a cycle shop, a T-Rex is a customer who walks into the shop on enormous legs, with feeble arms that only seem capable of grasping food.

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