The Dragon Tour is a three-day event organised by Human Race in South Wales, culminating in the famous Dragon Ride sportive - freshly rebranded, thanks to Human Race's acquisition by ASO, as Dragon Ride L'Etape Wales by Le Tour de France. All you need to know about this year's challenge is: wind, rain, and epic mountains. In those three days we climbed more than 5000m, half of which were packed into the very last day during the Medio Fondo route of the Dragon Ride.
The most hardcore cyclists heading to this beautiful corner of Wales each June gather on the Sunday for the famous Dragon Devil, whose epic distance covers 305km of roads and 3,800m climbing. In total, there are four distances entrants can choose from on the Dragon Ride: the MacMillan 100 (100km), Medio Granfondo (152km), Gran Fondo (230km) and the Dragon Devil. None of which is easy, by the way!
I booked my accommodation in Swansea, which I believed to be near to the Dragon Tour HQ, but for some reason the starting point was then moved further down from Port Talbot. This meant a bit of commuting on the Arriva and GWR trains for me to get to (and back from) the HQ, as I refused to add a 30 miles loop to the daily planned rides.
While my legs are still aching a week later, one thing that brings a smile to my face is the kindness that I received from everybody I met during this weekend. From the train attendants (that's right, my bike and I always managed to jump on a train without any troubles), to the host of my B&B, to the Dragon Tour's volunteers, marshals, and other cyclists too.
Here's how my wet and wild Welsh cycling weekend played out...
Day 1. Mumbles and Gower
On your first day you can expect a gentle introduction to Welsh cycling. If 1500m climbing and 138km can be gentle!
Retrospectively, Friday was our driest day of the tour, and a little windy: but nothing compared to what was about to come towards us for the rest of the weekend.
Each day entrants were able to choose from three different routes: short, medium, and long. I chose long as It was the only route including both the Mumbles and Gower. So worthy! The short ride was 109km on the first day. All the rides (every day, including Sunday) start from Margam Park just a few km east of Port Talbot, before heading north and touching on the outskirts of Port Talbot and Neath.
This first day is a tour of the Gower Peninsula, and it was the most scenic day of th weekend this year - simply because for the rest of the weekend we were surrounded by clouds, rain and mist... and I couldn't see much!
After a quick introduction on Twitter the evening before the ride, I was lucky enough to meet Dean Downing from TrainSharp (and attention all, rolling drums: ex-pro rider and champion from no less than Team GB!). He was awesome, and straight away gave me the best tip ahead of the weekend: don't give it all out on your first day. I was surprised, as we had just met, that he seemed to know already about one of my worst weaknesses: pacing myself.
Dean stuck with me for a few km, until when we were clobbered by two monstrous walls just on the outskirts of Neath I believe. I survived the first wall. "No problem," I thought, "I can do this!" Until we hit the second monstrous wall after a few hundred metres, at which point I was out of breath and on my lowest gear already!
Our group then split into two, due partially to different strengths and partly to street traffic. I stayed behind and formed a small gruppetto with two other guys, and to my surprise (and gratitude), we stuck together even after the feed stop at Gower.
The best part of the ride is definitely leaving the traffic at Swansea behind, riding along the coastline, getting to the Mumbles and carrying on around the cliffs to our right in the direction of Gower. This part of Wales is stunning. The roads are quiet, and the cycling quite amazing.
When we got to the far end of the peninsula, at the last left turn is the road to Gower. I couldn't help but notice all the cyclists that were already coming back from the feed station and I felt bit jealous; part of me just wanted to see the feed station behind each bend. On the final descending segment, the view opened up to us: the green hills, the sandy beach, the sea, and surely enough, our food stop!
A food voucher was handed out to us for some hot food and hot drink. I grabbed a beef pastry and a white coffee. Whilst I was having my snacks in the great outdoors, I handed my bike to the mechanic.
Mechanics are on hand at all the stations and they are also roaming the route to help cyclists who are having mechanicals. Great, great service! I handed my bike to the mechanic because incredibly loud noises were coming from it when I would stop pedalling on the descents.
The bike seemed fine otherwise: no problem with chain, no problems with gears changing. I was baffled. And so was the mechanic. He seemed to think the bike was safe to ride despite the noise, so... off we went again. My new friends and I learnt to live with the noise, and we nicknamed it the strangled goose!
At Gower, cyclists are more than halfway through the long route. In fact, from here, there are just about 60km left to ride that are much less hilly than the morning ones. It makes for a very quick return back to the HQ. On the way back, we met other cyclists and we tried to ride into bigger groups. Nevertheless, I was starting to feel fatigued on the bumps whilst the guys had still enough power in their legs to push for it. I decided not to overdo it during my first (out of three days) so I took the final small hills at my own pace.
The way back from Swansea to HQ is mainly on big roads. Thankfully, were in Wales and - at least compared to my usual riding around London - the traffic is not too bad. On the last 20km of the flat stretch I joined a very powerful group, mainly led by a woman in a pink cycling jersey (sorry, I don't remember the name or the club's name) and a super kind cyclist from Sportive CC (who had two cramps in our last 10 miles). This pair rescued me and brought me back to the pack when the speed was getting too fast for my tired legs.
Back at HQ, I took advantage of the free massage before heading back home. I had a chat with a few of my companions for the day before disappearing into the horizon towards my basecamp in Swansea. Great day on the bike!
Day 2. Black Mountain and Betws
Wind. Rain. Wind. Rain. Winds of majestic proportions. Rain. Rain. Wind. Rain. That's my memory from our second day on the bike. Literally! There was nothing else. Some ups and down in the mountains. I couldn't for the sake of me see where I was until I was back in the town of Neath at the end of the day.
Not that I need to prove anything, because I know that you trust me blindly... but just in case, watch the videos from the Dragon Ride on Dean Downing's Facebook page and you'll get the gist.
Anyway, back to the start. The choices for today's rides are a long 114km and a short 95km route. Only the long one included both the Black Mountain and Betws Mountain. As I knew I didn't have the legs for a Gran Fondo on Sunday, my only choice was to ride on the Black Mountain on this day.
Nevertheless, having thoroughly checked BBC Weather 10 times a day for the past week; I thought I'd be more clever than Mother Nature. As the forecasts suggested that the rain would start around lunch time, I talked myself into cheating and I created my own shortcut for a 80km ride that included both peaks. I thought: "I should be fine, by the time the rain starts I will be on my way home..." FAIL!
So it was that on Saturday morning, instead of heading to the HQ, I caught the train for just one stop from Swansea to Neath. The route was passing just one mile south from Neath station. And that's where my own route started. For a few kms, you slowly ride a gentle gradient towards the Black Mountain.
Despite the morning rain, I found myself in an incredibly positive mood whilst riding up the 6km of the Black Mountain (average gradient is 6%). Me, my bike, my waterproofs, my easy pace, the Welsh gentle rain, the Welsh rising winds. At this point the road was quite nice, so I wasn't worried at all. I told myself, "I will take this slowly today and I will be as fresh as new tomorrow."
But then, when I finished creating my own fairytales in my head, I actually woke up to be more than halfway through the Black Mountain with torrential rain and gales of wind pushing me to the side of the road and nowhere to shelter! I had no idea where I was.
When I was approaching the top of the mountain, a couple of support motorcycles slowed down to check on me. Once they were happy I was fine and not hallucinating, they went ahead to check on other cyclists. The wet, but relaxed, climb was soon to end.
I saw the first feed station a few metres after the peak. I am actually not sure how those volunteers survived those conditions up there, but surely they are my heroes. The gent and two ladies took such good care of me: they made me coffee, and offered so much food. By the time I was refuelled other cyclists were arriving and I decided to attempt the descent.
The descent from the Black Mountain was one of the worst rides of my life. Seriously. The roads got narrower. The surface uneven. The mud and water was flooding down the small roads. The gentle gradients, all of a sudden seemed like death traps to me. It was impossible to see anything ahead, the rain was hitting me hard due to the wind, and I had very little success to control the direction of my bike.
At one point, the wind was so bad that I had to stop and get off the bike. A few seconds later a group of about 10 cyclists slowly passed by and encourage me to jump back on. So I did... but the remainder of my descent I really wasn't sure if I could make it without falling off!
There's very little rest between the descent of the Black Mountain and the start of Betws. The latter, despite being shorter feels so much harder. I can't say if it was because of the weather conditions, but by the time we got to Betws the legs were really struggling to keep moving. I was already looking forward to the next feed station, not realising it was actually located before the end of the climb: but there it was. I decided not to stop. The effort to get off the bike, get cold, and then having to complete the ascent after the feed station did not appeal to me.
The last 20km after the second peak were actually a long downhill, back towards Neath for me, and back to Margam Park for the rest of the day's heroes.
Day 3. Dragon Ride. Medio Fondo
I jumped on the 08:10AM train on Sunday morning with a few fellow cyclists also based in Swansea for the weekend. Michael, a dad of two from Surrey, kept me company and we had a good chat and a few laughs on our way to the starting line. This was our second commute together this weekend!
It was approaching 9AM and on the way to Margam Park, we could see the first waves of Medio Fondo cyclists kicking off the day's adventure. Amongst others, I spotted my friend Lee with whom I trained last year in France for a High Altitude weekend with Col Conquerors. We kept in touch ever since.
Anyway, less of my private life! The atmosphere at the HQ was completely different today: the place was buzzing with cyclists, entertainers, volunteers and early-morning supporters! The waves were very well organised and very quick to go through. In just a few minutes I was being briefed and a recorded message from Chris Froome wished us good luck ahead of today's climbs.
We set off on the usual commute towards Neath. I kept reminding myself to "play it safe" and pace myself as today would be a long day. Pretty early on the Medio Fondo you hit two of the major climbs of the day. Bwlch is just 30km into the ride, with an average 5% climb of 6.7km. The climb is steady, never too steep. Once you get your rhythm you'll easily get tot the top (easily when you have an 11/32 cassette on, like I do!!). I was pushing myself, following a group riders that were slightly above my pace. Still under control though, but it meant that I went to the top quicker.
No rest for the wicked! The descends from the top of Bwlch is windy again, although at least it was not yet wet. But my carbon bike and I do not really enjoy the gales of winds at such high speeds. My worry is to be pushed sideways and lose control whilst dozens of other cyclists are throwing themselves down the hills. Luckily, nothing happened, and we carried on towards the next mountain.
There's really no break between Bwlch and Rhigos. A bit of rolling terrain and I find myself climbing again. The climbs are very similar in their profiles, but Rhigos's views are stunning! It's a pity that the weather turned on us again; it was pretty much grey in the valley and we couldn't see too far ahead. My strategy on Rhigos was more of the same: steady, rolling up slightly above my average, but never forcing my heart rate out of control.
Today at the feed stop, I met Julian the Bear whom I'd spotted on Twitter on the first day of the Dragon Tour. Julian and his friend Peter Freeman rode the three-day event raising money for The National Start, a charity realising aspirations of people with disabilities. Their adventure was even more epic when, on Saturday, in the grim conditions on the Black Mountain, they lost a turn and cycled in the wrong direction for way too many miles. The rescue team took an hour and a half to reach them. I was very happy to know that both were well, and Julian incredibly managed to stay dry under the horrible conditions in the mountains.
Back to the ride, and after the feed stop cyclists have an opportunity to rest on a 20km section that definitely feels flat, having just climbed Bwlch and Rhigos. I found both solo cyclists and groups to be incredibly friendly on this event, and I was very happy to be able to interact with them... when I wasn't out of breath! It made the all experience so much more enjoyable.
At about 90km in the last of the major climbs start. At this point I was in company of a fellow cyclist, who suggested that the (infamous) Devil's Elbow climb had not started yet. I was surprised, as we were clearly climbing already: and it wasn't easy! But soon enough, I saw ahead of me yet another cattle grid and the timed climb signs ahead of us. I looked at him in dismay. We both said good luck, and sure enough he was gone way ahead of me.
The Devil's Elbow is the steepest climb on the Medio Fondo. With gradients up to 12%, the short (1.8km) climb is there to kill your legs once and for all! Helping surmount gravity are the great volunteers, organisers, and supporters who line the roadside on the climb. Locals clearly know that this is the place to be if you want to see some riding action. At the top of the climb, in fact, a few hikers were sitting at the side of the road, staring at us struggling through the last few metres of the climb. They must have thought "Why on earth are they doing this to themselves?"
At the end of the Devil's Elbow, we are 97km deep into the Medio Fondo. Just 55km to go! The good news is that from here, the terrain becomes more rolling, and the following climbs are not as steep (e.g. Glyneath and Colbeath both at 6% average) and shorter. The descents out of the wind are a relief now, and in my attempt to get back as quickly as possible to HQ I skip the last feed stop; also because at this point it was raining again, and I didn't fancy getting cold. I had enough water and food on me to get me to the end.
I basically blasted the last few kms. Having played safe all day, I still had some fuel in the tank. At 30km to the end I found a couple of other cyclists willing to work together nicely with some very big power efforts at this point (and dozens of just incredibly bad cyclists who threw themselves down the descents, overtook me dangerously pulling in front of me, just to reach a standstill when the flat sections where starting!!). The last 20km of commuting back from Neath was our team time trial, and it was (safe and) great fun!
Back at HQ the atmosphere was incredible. Music, videos, cheering people, resting cyclists. The usual free SiS Quick Recovery drink was handed out to us together with the medal. Free pasta was also awaiting us: three options on the menu! They know how to cheer up an Italian! I refuelled quickly and made sure to be on the way back to my B&B before getting too cold.
And so my Dragon Tour was complete! The weather may have been patchy, making for some epic memories - particularly on Day 2 - but the warmth of the people and the beauty, and challenge, of the countryside will stay with me.
If you haven't yet been to this part of Wales, I fully recommend the Dragon Tour. It's a fantastic weekend of great riding, excellent organisation, incredibly kind people and a must have on your cycling checklist!
The Dragon Tour returns on 8-10 June 2018 with entries now open at www.letapeuk.co.uk/wales/dragon-tour/. For a taste of the route, check out Laura's relive.cc video featuring Bwlch, Rhigos and Devil's Elbow: https://www.relive.cc/view/1031912558