Ride report: Etape Cymru

Our man Stu makes the journey to Bangor-on-Dee to try out the closed roads of one of the best rated sportives in the UK calendar

by Stuart Kerton   September 10, 2013  

A second class ride is better than a first class walk

The hire car bloke is doing his best to find some highlights of what can only be described as the ugliest car on the planet. Thankfully the Nissan Juke, or Junky as it becomes known, has got loads of toys to keep us entertained on the four and a half hour trek from Wiltshire to North Wales so we can have a crack at the Etape Cymru. The bikes are loaded, bags packed and the iPod plugged in – road trip!!

The UK’s toughest sportive

Well, on closed roads anyway. And that’s the main reason my name is on the entry list. I love riding in Wales but knowing that the majority of the best climbs and more importantly the descents (I’m more of a sprinters build than a climber!!) are on twisty narrow lanes, not having to share them with cars is a huge bonus.

The 88 mile route starts at Bangor-on-Dee racecourse before heading out through the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley so you know it’s going to be lumpy especially with the inclusion of a timed ascent of the Horseshoe Pass. The fastest man and woman to reach the top of the 6.1km, 317m climb will receive a shiny Festina watch for their effort. I’ve already got a Festina watch so I’ll use that as an excuse for a poor time – “I don’t want to be greedy, I’ll ease off and let someone else have a chance”

Mavic’s bright yellow service cars will be perusing the route for any mechanical issues alongside a fleet of motorbike marshals and stationary mechanics at each feed station, of which there are four.

It was voted ‘Sportive of the year’ in 2012 so that and the closed roads will hopefully justify the near sixty quid entry fee, either way I can’t wait – the event has already got me out of going to a wedding full of people I don’t know so the cycling shades are pleasantly rose tinted.

Peanut or sausage

Registration for the event is on Friday evening or Saturday until 7pm and we were running late thanks to Junky’s lack of pace and slightly indecisive satnav. My main concern is missing my 15 minute slot for Wattbike to analyse my pedalling motion. After reading Mat’s It’s all about the sausage blog last year I’ve always fancied having a go on the Wattbike to see how my legs stack up so when they offered a handful of taster sessions as event sponsor I got my name down for one.

After a bit of committed throttle work we landed at registration with a few minutes to spare and I headed straight to the stand to get my technique checked. The Wattbike is a pretty decent bit of kit full of facts, figures, graphs and data but there is just two things I’m interested in – my leg power balance and my sausage.

The Wattbike shows a readout of the force you’re applying during the pedal stroke (check out Mat’s blog for the photos) for each leg, at the very least you want a peanut shape, an oval pinched at the waist showing a slight dead spot where the rider isn’t pulling up on the pedals, what you want and what I got was a complete oval or as Wattbike call a sausage shaped graph. All those thousands of miles on fixed have obviously paid off this year.

A slightly worrying leg disparity of 2% (left leg is stronger putting out 52% of the power) is put down to my injured back, I’ve never noticed an issue but it’s one for the excuse bank tomorrow.

Proper planning prevents

Whether you go for the five Ps or the expletive loaded seven, things had gone pretty well in the last few weeks, I’d included some extra climbing into the 230 odd miles a week training I was doing and even laid off the sauce a bit to get the body fat down to a climbing friendly 8.5%. The roadcc jersey was going to be on my shoulders and the fact that I kind of do this stuff for a living meant I wanted to do more than just turn up and make it round.

The original plan was my ride buddy and I would register and then do a little recce of the Horseshoe Pass. Registration was situated in Llangollen, pretty much at the foot of the climb, but by now it was getting dark and we still hadn’t even checked into the hotel 25 minutes away in Oswestry. The only option was a quick spin up to the summit in Junky and we weren’t the only ones considering the stream of cars coming down with bikes attached to roof or boot. Junky made it so that was good enough for me: if a car that struggled to overtake a tractor could climb it, so could I.

Pasta, potatoes, rice

A sensible pre ride dinner, maybe even a cheeky glass of red to wash it down, that was the plan I’d told the missus when I’d left home earlier. “I’ve worked too hard to go and throw it all away the night before” I said to her in a rather mature tone, in a couple of months I’m going to be a dad of three, late nights and boozing are a thing of the past!

Finally checked in we made a dash to the pub praying they’re still serving food. I hadn’t eaten since midday, eight hours ago so I’d have happily chewed on a beer mat.

We walked past KFC, “we’ll probably end up in there,” oh how we laughed!!

“A table won’t be ready until 9.15pm sir, feel free to have a drink at the bar while you’re waiting” Four pints of Stella on an empty stomach later and my roast lamb and garlic potatoes turns up covered in a very nice redcurrant sauce, well I think it was nice. I was too pissed and hungry to tell as I hoovered up the plate of food, paid and left.

We ended up in KFC sharing a bucket of assorted chicken limbs and fries.

The morning after the night before

The alarm went off at 5am and I was feeling rough thanks to last night’s overindulgence. I couldn't face breakfast.

We were amongst the first thirty or forty cars to turn up thankfully as the level of traffic entering the car park soon caused a fair bit of congestion. We were off in the first wave at 7am and we hadn't got the bikes set up with timing chips and numbers. Rain was  forecast so I decided to leave the best bike in the car and ride my commuter come trainer.

Bangor-on-Dee racecourse is a great event HQ with plenty of facilities for food, drink and toilets. The sun has come up and the view out over the valley is beautiful and the fresh air is having a decent effect on my head. A message comes over the loudspeaker system telling riders not to worry about their scheduled start time as there are still a lot of cars stuck out on the road.

And they’re off

7:10am and we rolled out under the start gantry before passing out through the village onto the main road. It was eerily quiet as the first batch of around fifty cyclists took up both lanes chatting away, pushed along by a tailwind. The lack of cars would take some getting used to.

It was 15 miles to the first feed station with a steady uphill gradient all the way, I was  feeling pretty good as I carved my way through the riders in front, even though we were on country lanes it was easy to pass in the knowledge that there shouldn’t be any oncoming traffic; plus the majority of potholes had been filled in leaving little in the way to catch you out.

The feed station was pretty impressive with a whole host of energy products, biscuits, bananas and boiled potatoes, yep bags of boiled potatoes. I knew I needed to eat but could only manage a biscuit and a bottle of water. We weren't far from the Horseshoe Pass and to make sure the legs are warm there was a steady climb complete with beautiful views, meandering sheep and steep drop offs. A steep twisty decent got the heart rate going.

It’d been a cold morning but the jacket got unzipped at the start of the Horseshoe Pass as the sun came out. I found a rhythm and stuck to it, remembering the Wattbike ‘sausage’, and kept my cadence high. I passed some, some passed me and after 21 minutes I was at the top and it was time to really enjoy the closed roads clipping apex after apex on the decent.

We were battered by the wind a bit on the next main road section but got into a decent group and started to pick up the pace. It wasn't even 9am but residents were already sat on garden walls cheering us on a we flew along the deserted village roads.

There was another feed station at 34 miles, it looked excessive on paper but it had been a hard thirty miles. Unfortunately I still couldn't bring myself to eat. I forced down 3 Jaffa cakes which I soon came to regret.

I felt rough for the next 10 miles and my legs no longer wanted to work, I was passed by a lot of people and the average speed was falling. Oddly for me though once the road started to climb I felt better, which is a good thing since we continued to go skyward for a fair while. As the Wiggle motivational sign said though, ‘what goes up, must come down’ meaning we flew through villages well above the speed limit.

The whole route has very few flats but after 50 miles the climbing starts coming thick and fast and they’re the type of climbs more associated with the continent, nothing too steep but they can go on for a good while. First you’ve got the Shelf which goes on and on but once again offers beautiful scenery as you haul your way up. A short descent and a quick blast along the main road brings you to feed station 3 and with the mention of cheese on toast I’m a happy chappy. Sugary stuff hasn’t been working out for me meaning I hadn’t even touched my bottle of energy drink or gels for the last 57 miles and the legs were getting tired.

The next climb of note was the aptly named World’s End. The sun’s shining and with plenty of spectators out on the lower steep sections it’s a great day to be a cyclist but the two miles of climbing has only just begun. It’s a desolate place at the top thanks to the cloud coming in and a cold wind, even the sheep look miserable but thankfully this is the last of the big climbs and the descent itself is brilliant, sweeping tight bends, plenty of gravel to keep you on your toes and even a ford chucked in for good measure. I made it through upright slightly alarmed by the amount of paramedics stood there on standby.

We were on the return leg now picking up the road we came out on, taking in the Panorama climb and there is no doubt how it gets its name, the views were absolutely amazing and once we’re over the top its pretty much downhill all the way home. I skipped the last feed and pushed on.
Twelve miles to go and I was on my own but doing okay, my average speed sitting at around 15.5mph. I heard the whirring sound of deep section carbon wheels coming up behind and slotted onto the back of a train of about 10 riders as they snaked through the country lanes.

We didn't dip below 20 odd mph for the last five miles and riders were dropping away left right and centre but new ones joined as we passed and everyone worked well. The closed roads are paying for themselves now as we don’t have to slow for bends or junctions to keep the speed up. I made a school boy error taking a turn on the front just as we turned into the wind but gritted my teeth and got my head down until a fresh pair of legs come through.

As we headed into Bangor-on-Dee the cobbled bridge felt like Paris-Roubaix to tired legs and hands but the crowds were out and cheering which resulted in the speed pushing up again: I’m now on my limit. Thankfully though the gantry is just in sight and I even manage a little sprint for the line.

The legs were sore but I’ had a grin on my face, that was fun despite the bad patches and I instantly decided that I’m definitely doing it again.
Before I’ve even got my medal and goody bag my finish time has been texted to my phone, 5:33:29 putting me in 231st position overall out of 1499 finishers (provisional) which I was chuffed with considering the way I felt when I crawled out of bed earlier.

The stats according to the Garmin:
88.4 miles
5hr33 overall (15.9mph ave)
5hr20 riding time (16.6mph ave)
7828ft climbed
42.3mph max speed

A grand day out

A lot of planning obviously goes into the route and the road closures and while it might inconvenience some like the mouth-breather who it seems dropped tacks all over the road the majority of locals actually embrace it and come out showing their support by cheering and clapping.
The event had a very fun feeling about it compared to a lot of others I’ve ridden and the lack of cars seemed to have a huge effect on how riders of different abilities get along. The natural position of riding on the left meaning it’s easier to pass slower riders on the right without worrying about cars passing at the same time.

On the whole the Etape Cymru is a brilliant day out especially as we were lucky with the weather, the rain didn’t start coming in until about an hour and half after I finished. The organisation is spot on from entry right through to when you cross the finish line.
I’ll be back next year that’s for sure, maybe without my mate Stella or Colonel Sanders though.

21 user comments

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I hummed and haaaaed about this event and ended up not going. You entertaining post just made me regret it.
Cheers
Applause

posted by Arno du Galibier [23 posts]
11th September 2013 - 9:36

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Bit trainspotterish - apologies - but what is the jacket? Looking for something like that now its cooling.

posted by amazon22 [150 posts]
11th September 2013 - 9:41

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amazon22 wrote:
Bit trainspotterish - apologies - but what is the jacket? Looking for something like that now its cooling.

Its Rapha's Rain Jacket http://www.rapha.cc/rain-jacket
looks as though its about to be discontinued though, shame as its a brilliant jacket.

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posted by stuke [301 posts]
11th September 2013 - 10:26

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delayed reply about Rapha from me

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posted by willdeath [27 posts]
11th September 2013 - 10:56

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Nice report, looks like a great ride. I'm a little puzzled as to why you would leave your Number One in the car. Notwithstanding the forecast for rain, how often do you get to do a ride like this on closed roads? I don't quite understand why you wouldn't want to enjoy it to the maximum by having your best bike under you?

(+1 on the Rapha rain jacket).

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posted by Low Speed Wobble [137 posts]
11th September 2013 - 11:47

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The first section on the Panorama is always the most picturesque, with good views of Dinas Bran castle and the rockface on the right. To be honest, a slow dawdle is the better way of seeing it rather than the speedy sportive way. And the descent into Llangollen is somewhat pant-shittingly terrifying...

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing..."

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posted by Cooks [478 posts]
11th September 2013 - 13:16

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Did you see the chap on the Brompton?

"I can't believe I ate the whole thing..."

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posted by Cooks [478 posts]
11th September 2013 - 13:19

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Low Speed Wobble wrote:
Nice report, looks like a great ride. I'm a little puzzled as to why you would leave your Number One in the car. Notwithstanding the forecast for rain, how often do you get to do a ride like this on closed roads? I don't quite understand why you wouldn't want to enjoy it to the maximum by having your best bike under you?

(+1 on the Rapha rain jacket).

Taking the Ribble didn't detract from the ride at all and considering my best bike has a steel frame and deep section wheels the weight of the two is pretty similar.

Its a standing joke amongst riding buddies that my Sarto will never be seen outside if there is a cloud in the sky and if I'd crashed it on unfamiliar roads or in a group I'd have been gutted.

It was quite fun anyway overtaking squeaky, poorly maintained carbon superbikes on my £105 frame up the Horseshoe Pass Big Grin

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posted by stuke [301 posts]
11th September 2013 - 13:19

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Cooks wrote:
Did you see the chap on the Brompton?

Only at the finish area, a doffed cap to him and the guy I saw roll over the finish line on a singlespeed Genesis Day One!!

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posted by stuke [301 posts]
11th September 2013 - 13:26

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@stuke - Sarto! Torcello? Nice. You did the right thing!

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posted by Low Speed Wobble [137 posts]
11th September 2013 - 14:08

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Low Speed Wobble wrote:
@stuke - Sarto! Torcello? Nice. You did the right thing!

Rovigo - a pretty standard Columbus tubed frame but it rides beautifully

sarto.jpg

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posted by stuke [301 posts]
11th September 2013 - 14:18

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Saw the guy on the brompton keeping up with the carbons! Brilliant! Wondered if he was doing it for charity or just doing it for the fun of it?

I saw a guy on a Pinarello kitted out with Wiggo style TDF finishing kit, even perhaps a power meter up front though weren't sure.

My fav though was whilst I was at the 3rd stop someone with a hell of an expensive bike being told that the noise it was making was because he was crossing his chain (something I always see) Rolling Eyes Rolling On The Floor

Great review, currently trying to gather some friends for another crack at it next year! Bring on the horseshoe!

posted by Cycle_Jim [281 posts]
11th September 2013 - 15:58

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stuke wrote:
amazon22 wrote:
Bit trainspotterish - apologies - but what is the jacket? Looking for something like that now its cooling.

Its Rapha's Rain Jacket http://www.rapha.cc/rain-jacket
looks as though its about to be discontinued though, shame as its a brilliant jacket.

Yes, just a few left in odd sizes, many thanks though. Odd that it seems to have a left a gap in their range. Recently treated myself to their classic bib shorts and the quality and comfort is outstanding - my old endura stuff doesn't come within a country mile! I'd be tempted for a classic soft shell jacket instead but black only - not safe enough for me.

posted by amazon22 [150 posts]
11th September 2013 - 18:50

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Nice report Stu.

I was with you for most of the middle section of the ride (I was the Chinese guy with the yellow and black jersey, bib no 51). You were going pretty well for someone with a hangover! I remember thinking at the time that you don't often see someone who's cycling jacket cost more than their bike frame, but now I know the full story!

I thoroughly enjoyed the Etape Cymru, I had imagined blasting along at 25mph on closed B-roads, but the reality was narrow, tight country lanes that either went up or down and nothing in between, but it was all the more rewarding because of it. Organisation was great, we were on the road very quickly and the feedstops were set up nicely so that you could do a quick restock without wasting time.

My one gripe was that the timed section wasn't particularly well marked. I failed to spot it and was cruising up the hill wondering why everyone was caning it up there! Probably for the best as I rode steady and finished with legs still feeling good.

posted by mingsta [11 posts]
12th September 2013 - 12:16

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I was riding with you in the fast group towards the end! Great fun!

Then I picked up a puncture from a tack in the last 2 miles or so and dropped off, finishing just a minute behind you.

It was definitely a pleasure to ride on closed roads in such a good bit of countryside. Bring on next year!

posted by MrGear [84 posts]
12th September 2013 - 12:19

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@mingsta - yeah I remember now, right up until the 3rd feed station iirc Smile

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posted by stuke [301 posts]
12th September 2013 - 16:09

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Hi, great to read your report - it was a wonderful ride - I was the guy on the Day One. Cheers!

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posted by Gaviao1973 [2 posts]
12th September 2013 - 19:58

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Gaviao1973 wrote:
Hi, great to read your report - it was a wonderful ride - I was the guy on the Day One. Cheers!

What gear were you on?

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posted by stuke [301 posts]
12th September 2013 - 21:29

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Hi, sorry for the delay in replying - I was riding 46:16 so around 78 gear inches.

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posted by Gaviao1973 [2 posts]
27th September 2013 - 17:50

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stuke wrote:

What gear were you on?

Are you saying he couldn't do that riding clean Wink

posted by stuartp [53 posts]
21st October 2013 - 13:26

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Great ride report...I was interested in the climbs to see how it compares to my rides. Fortunately one of your co-riders mapmyride'd it (http://www.mapmyride.com/gb/ellesmere-eng/etape-cymru-2013-route-279167991)

1 cat 2
2 cat 3
1 cat 4
5 cat 5

Looks like a fun day out.

posted by massspike [30 posts]
21st October 2013 - 15:58

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