Well that was hilly.
My wife and I headed down to Port Talbot on the Saturday night. We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express just off the Swansea junction of the M4, which proved the perfect (if expensive) base for the Dragon Ride – it looked like quite a few other had had the same idea, including none other than Didi the Devil himself..! The hotel were fine with letting me keep my bike in the room, which was very convenient and one less thing to worry about over night.
After dinner, we went back to our room and I faffed around for a bit trying to decide which lenses I should put in my sunglasses and whether I should put the spare inner tubes in the saddle bag or my jersey pocket. That out the way, we went to bed and waited for Sunday to begin.
It was grey and wet outside first thing (which inevitably rekindled last night’s lenses uncertainty) but the weather forecast was suggesting it might brighten up later in the day (ha!). A 20 minute drive and we were in the queue for the car park at Margam Country Park. Very well organised marshals shuffled cars into place and we got out and checked I had everything. The guys next to us in the car park were struggling to pump up a tyre as their pump didn’t appear to be working so I offered them mine (I’d brought my track pump in the car just in case) but I just received a dirty look and curt “no”. I remember hoping that this wouldn’t set the tone for the social quality of the rest of the day…
I cycled over to the Event Village, had a quick look around and then went straight in to line up for the start.
I was off just before 8am. The first few miles took us past Port Talbot and straight towards the first mountain, Bwlch. Let’s just get one thing out the way. The climbs aren’t steep, but they are long… longer than anything I’ve done before. This means that you can spin up them, but they deceptively sap energy and your legs seriously suffer as the ride goes on. My 32t cassette switch was a blessing though.
Bwlch was a scenic pleasure and had a real alpine vibe to it, the weather being warm and dry at this point. The descent, however, was the first taste of what was to come, with very strong crosswind gusts hitting regularly and pushing bikes and riders across the road. Both me and the bike are fairly light too so were pretty badly affected, but quite few others also said they had had issues.
After Bwlch quickly came Rhigos, about 26 miles in. Rhigos was beautiful, although I had a lot of time to admire the view as just before mile 28 I picked up a puncture on the rear tyre. The first puncture I’ve ever had on a sportive and it was the Dragon Ride! I noticed it was deflating slowly and worked out I had a couple of minutes of sufficient air in the tyre to find a nice layby to sort it out. Suitable location found, wheel off and I quickly identified a small flint stuck through the Vittoria Corsa tyre and prised it out with my multi-tool. Removing and refitting the tyre with thumb power wasn’t too bad (you can’t use tyre levers on carbon rims) but pumping up with my mini pump reminded me how efficient track pumps are! Overall, I think it set me back 7 minutes or so. Thanks to all those who asked if I needed help as they cycled past, very kind and a good illustration of the friendly atmosphere of the event.
The next 20 or so miles took us into the Brecon Beacons National Park and was constantly up and down – there is very little flat on the Dragon Ride. At mile 54 I hit the Devil’s Elbow, the steepest (20% in parts) section of the route and the only part that was closed road. The organisers had set up a couple of Tour de France specials for us here: a King/Queen of the Mountain timed climb section and support from Didi the Devil himself, perhaps the most famous of long standing Tour de France and Giro D’Italia supporters! Having given up a little on hitting my target time of 9 and a half hours (because of the wind and the puncture), I thought I’d have a good crack at the timed section instead. I managed it in 6 minutes 7 seconds, which I thought was pretty good going. The fastest time was a whole 2 minutes quicker though, which was some effort!
Soon after Devil’s Elbow came the second drinks stop (I skipped the first at 36 miles in). I didn’t stay long but did claim a few salted potatoes and filled up a drinks bottle. I’d heard that salted potatoes are a Dragon Ride speciality and they really do hit the mark and give you a good carb hit without tasting like an energy gel…
The route then double backed on itself before heading north again at Glyn-neath. Up and down all the way, it then turned west just before Trecastle, towards Black Mountain, which I reached 97 miles in. This was the highlight of the route for me, being the most scenic and most challenging climb, mostly due to the tough winds and short sharp rain showers which lay in wait across the hillside. It was heavy going as a result, but I knew that after the summit, the final 38 miles or so were pretty much downhill.
Black Mountain down, it was the first fun descent of the day heading south into Neath (I think it was more sheltered that those coming off Bwlch and Rhigos). I’d dismissed the climb out of Neath as insignificant when looking at the profile ahead of the ride but, I assume due to the distance already covered, it really wasn’t at all! There were quite a few people muttering to themselves on this climb, presumably having fallen into the same trap of complacency, but after that was finished it was a fast finish along big roads back past Port Talbot to Margam Park. I had a bit of a second wind over the last few miles so upped the pace to try and gain some time back. With one guy hanging on behind me for a while (and very politely apologising for not having the legs to do a stint in front), we carved past several groups of riders who were already dissecting their rides and sharing stories; I pulled into the finish 9 hours 34 minutes after I started.
My wife was there to see me finish and quickly ordered me a plate of chips (thank you!) but not before I’d been given a finisher’s medal and a free pint of what I swore was beer. I later found out it was a non-alcoholic isotonic recovery drink!
We sat in the Event Village for a little bit taking in the atmosphere, before hobbling back to the car to get home.
So, conclusions. The combination of the distance, scenery and length of the climbs makes the Dragon Ride a truly epic sportive. In good weather, I can totally see that you’d think you were taking part in a large-scale continental event, rather than in the UK. Most of the efforts to make it a “Tour de France experience” were I’ll be honest a little lost on me, with the strong exception of the timed climb section and Didi the Devil support, which were both inspired additions and made the ride that bit more special. Organisation was impeccable, support along the route plentiful (loads of event marshals around on motorbikes throughout the route for example) and the drinks stops were well stocked and manned by enthusiastic and smiling volunteers. Overall, if you’re looking for a challenge and want to experience a higher level of sportive in the UK, then in my opinion the Dragon Ride should be right up at the top of your list. It’s the most challenging single ride I’ve ever done and, bar LEJOG, the best thing I’ve ever done on a bike.
You can take a look at my ride on Strava here.