After last weeks fabulous weather, thunderstorms were forecast for Sunday, threatening to add some extra fire and brimstone to this year’s Dragon Ride - the venerable sportive across the mountains of South Wales, now in its 7th year. But fears of a deluge were ungrounded, and about 3500 riders enjoyed a fantastic day out in the sunshine.
With warm conditions, big fields, crowds of supporters near the summits, and roads as near to Alpine as you’ll get anywhere in Britain, plus motorcycle marshals and those famous yellow Mavic support cars, this event definitely had a feel of the Continent - a perfect warm-up for anyone doing the Etape next month.
We started near Bridgend, with groups of 100 going off at minute intervals, so queues at the start line were kept to a minimum. As we waited, the PA played the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean - a tune that went round and round in our heads for the rest of the day. Curse you, Cap’n Jack.
Within a few miles, we turned into some narrow lanes over the hillsides, quickly splitting any big groups that might have formed. But generally, it was easy-going, so we tootled along for about an hour until a sharp right turn led to an equally sharp incline, and the start of the first big climb of the day.
This was the Vale of Ogmore, and we pedalled steadily uphill through former pit-towns. Then houses gave way to trees, and the road started to wind up the increasingly steep valley side, with a lovely big sweeping hairpin about halfway that wouldn’t look out of place on the Tourmalet. The full name for this section is Bwlch-y-Clawdd, but everyone just calls it simply the Bwlch (Welsh for col) and Dragon riders get the pleasure of doing it twice.
From the top of the Bwlch, there was time for a breather on the swooping descent down to Treorchy, then more steady uphill - and more of those lovely hairpins - as we tackled the second big ascent of the day: the famous Rhigos Mountain Road, a long and steady climb out of the Rhondda Valley with some spectacular views over the surrounding hills and forests.
The full title of this year’s event is the Verenti Dragon Ride, thanks to sponsorship by the in-house brand of bikes from Wiggle.co.uk. So it was most appropriate that I was riding a Verenti Rhigos up the very hill for which it was named. With 30 miles done, it was displaying just the right mix of stiffness and comfort needed for an endurance ride of this nature.
From the Rhigos summit, another long descent took us down to Hirwaun where the routes split: the 190km Gran Fondo went one way, the 130km Medio went the other.
We took the long option, past another closed coal mine, then up and over the moors to the northwest of Merthyr Tydfil. After the post -industrial wasteland down in the valley, this was a beautiful section of high rolling unfenced road, looking even better now the sun was properly out, with the whaleback mountains of the Brecon Beacons on the horizon.
Another steady climb brought us to Storey Arms - the highest point on the A470 across the Beacons - and then another fabulous long descent on wide dry roads down towards Brecon.
After joy, comes pain: about 10 miles of narrow main road with rough surface and lots of nasty short little hills, followed by another long climb up to Cray Reservoir, and the second feed station. By this time, the route was taking its toll. Riders that skipped the first feed, or ducked in for a few seconds to grab a gel, were now sitting on the grass and tucking into cakes and bananas.
For the next section we teamed up in a group of about 10 other riders and worked together over the wild and windy landscape near Coelbren. A mixed crowd from London Dynamo, Bristol Road Club and Cardiff Jif (among others), we made steady progress down the Vale of Neath, sharing the load and a bit of banter. Thanks for the company, lads.
All badinage ceased in Neath though, as we faced Cimla Hill - probably the most unpleasant climb on the whole route - steep and unrelenting, and busy with traffic.
With the third feed-station passed at Cimla summit, it was less than 30 miles to the finish, but no call for celebration just yet as it was time to meet the Bwlch again, this time from the western side - its longest approach, and potentially a killer at this stage in the ride. But we had a bit left in the tank, and aided back a backwind, and some caffeine impregnated energy gels, we kept a steady pace up here, once again revelling in those Euro-style hairpins near the top.
With that much climbing, it must be all downhill now? There was certainly was a lot of descent, but just when we thought it was all over, bang, there was a sting in the dragon’s tail: a sneaky little climb over one last Welsh mountain.
All over? It is now. We passed the 10k-to-go sign, then 5k-to-go, and managed put a spurt on for the crowd as we went under the finish arch.
What a day. Without a doubt, the Verenti Dragon Ride has some of the best climbs you can do on a bike anywhere in a UK. To be honest, they’re not that difficult. Long, yes, but not steep - just like the classic climbs in the Alps or Pyrenees. Which is exactly why this event attracts thousands of riders every year.
If there’s a downside to the Dragon, it’s the number of towns - and especially the number of narrow car-lined streets and junctions with traffic lights - that the route includes. Of course, you always have to go through the foothills to get to any descent mountains, but the urban sections do take the edge off. Some of the towns could be avoided by moving the start a lot further north, but then you’d loose the handy access from the M4, so maybe it’s a fair pay-off.
The other grumble we heard from several riders was the route back to the car-park from the finish; down a cycle path, through a barrier, across a busy pub forecourt, round the motorway roundabout, along the dual carriageway, and round another roundabout. Not what you want at any time, but especially when you’re on a high having just completed an epic ride.
And many riders seemed to completely miss the ‘finish village’ set up by the organisers. It was a nice touch, with a couple of food and drink stalls, a bar and some display stands round a wide grassy area. There was even a live band, but they mostly played to an empty field - which seemed a shame.
But overall, the Verenti Dragon Ride looks destined to remain a key feature on the UK sportive calendar. We look forward to coming back next year - but just hope there’s some different music on the PA at the start.
Thanks to John Berry for the pics of the ride