The plan was hatched back in November last year. Fresh, or rather, enthusiastic, from the Tour Ride, London Paris and Surrey Hills Sportive I put a call out for Diss Members to get on their bikes and explore new parts of the country. Consequently, as you know, a big group took on the Cheshire Cat back in March which was to prove a stepping stone for the big one – The Dragon Ride 206km and 3350m of climbs.
Sadly, Mike Farrington was unable to join us (It was his idea to take on the Gran Fondo route, thanks Mike!), so Andy Smith and I awoke on the Dragon weekend to find that West Wales was being washed away and we were in the grip of some the worst summer weather imaginable. What on earth were we going to find in Wales? Would it be on? Would we be blown off a mountain never to be seen again? We packed up the Land Rover and decided to find out. It was a lads weekend away after all!
Amazingly we got to our hotel just outside Cardiff in around four hours, arrived in sunshine and promptly walked into the village to find some Brains and a bite to eat. Of all the sights we didn’t expect to see was a ‘Chateau’ sitting above the village on the hillside. The marketing material said this ride was as close to the Etape as you could find in the UK. We had just walked into another world!
- ‘Chateau Tongwynlais’
Due to our early start, 6’o’clock alarms, breakfast options were restricted to McDonalds so fuelled with an egg McMuffin and coffee (?) we headed off to Margam Park. Cloudy, a bit of drizzle and little wind was to be the order of the day. We timed our arrival just right before the traffic was backed down the M4. Around 4000 participants were expected and it was starting to show.
The first big decision of the day was what to wear. We two girls blouses held a fashion show at the back of the Disco (that’s the vehicle to the uninitiated) putting on, taking off, does my bum look big in this before settling for the days attire a process made easier for me as being half asleep and in the dark left my winter boots and box of glasses in the hotel room!
After attempting to make best of the facilities (some nifty pissoirs but no loo roll anywhere all day – poor Andy) we joined the next batch of riders to be set off by Sky Rider Matt Crampton. No sooner had we left the park the roads seemed to be coated in treacle. What seemed to be flat was deceptively uphill. How on earth were we going to finish the route? At least at this early stage there were lots of riders (we set off in a group of around 125 to start with) and we soon got into a bit of rhythm. All was well and it seemed just another Sunday morning Club Run until we turned off the High Street in Maesteg. Left at the lights took us onto the bottom of the first jaw dropping climb, a straight steep incline. Think approach to Mow Cop. This started to sort people out and those around us started to change. The cycle of climb and descent had begun. We whistled down the other side though, past the Ambulance with a rider on a stretcher with neck brace(!) round the bend (he hadn’t made) and onto the next one.
A bit of urban riding ensued before another Mow Cop killer, short and sharp and then general ups and downs to the first Feedstation. This, being available to all three routes was mayhem but we stocked up on fluids, bananas and interestingly cooked new potatoes with skins on and covered in salt. Alas, no loo roll!
- Feedstation chaos
Now it started to get interesting. We headed into a non descript village (I didn’t have a clue where we were having completely lost my bearings) before turning off the main street (there was a trend developing here) onto another incline. This took us over a Cattle Grid and onto Black Mountain. We did a number of Cattle Grids and until Sunday I had never jumped one on a bike, or anything else to that matter, but with a little incline in front it didn’t take much to get aerborn.
The long steady incline (we were down to around 7-8mph) was alpine in style and was our first taste of snaking rural roads. At the top we regrouped only to be told that “You don’t find hills like that in Norfolk”. We had been spotted by a couple from Cambridge. “Weren’t you on the Norwich 100?” they asked. They had remembered the Diss CC Thin Blue Line zipping past them on that hot, sunny, flat(!) (Stop! – Ed). Diss CC was being noticed. Moreover, we passed a few Iceni Velo people too! Nice.
- Atop Black Mountain
By this time we were getting into the middle third of the ride. ‘Alpine’ descending was followed by another alpine climb including a very picturesque agricultural area of hedged meadows all looking extremely green and lush. It seemed everyone around us was asking “Where is the next feedstation?” It was on a hillside, along a main road with a panoramic view of the hills. Thank God it wasn’t windy or raining more than it did as with the final two positions the gazebos would have been blown who knows where. No cosy Village Halls for us!
- Contemplating the final push!
The final stretch contained the two (really? – Ed) most serious climbs namely Rhigos and Bwlch. Both are featured in 100 Best Climbs. They are in the classic Alpine mould with twisting hairpin turns and precipitous edges but boy, did we come down them. I clocked 46mph somewhere along the route, freewheeling. We had to slow for one or two of the tight turns but others you could see straight through and just had to tuck down behind the bars and hurtled into the next town or village at the bottom. What caught us out was that we had thought we had completed the last climb of the day only to be faced with the best of the day – Bwlch. A comfort break was needed halfway up Bwlch and a Motorcycle outrider stopped too. “You’re from Norfolk” (adopt a Welsh accent – Ed), “My wife is from Kenninghall”! Once again we found what a small world it is and how rewarding it is to travel around with our Club jersey. We were in his ‘backyard’ and had a good chat with him.
After hitting a flat spot midway (well me anyway) we both seemed to finish strongly and gave a tow to a couple of other guys as we headed back to Margam Park, just outside Port Talbot 131.6 miles and 8557 calories later. We averaged 14.8mph overall which we felt was respectable given that we were in alien territory and were there with the intention of completing rather than killing ourselves. The ride time was 8hrs 53 with an official time for us both (we made a point of crossing the line together) of 10.38.13.
- The spikey profile
All in all we had a cracking time. The weather was actually perfect, the event seemed to us well organised with outriders, Mavic support and excellent signage and the scenery was breathtaking (or was it the exertion). We would certainly recommend it. Now for the L’etape!