We were excited when we saw the tough new course for the Dragon Ride in 2012, and so was former Welsh junior TT champ and aspiring racer Graham Howell. He wanted to ride it, we wanted a ride report... it was a match made in, if not heaven, then Heol Senni at least.
Graham's been out to do a full recce of the 206km parcours for next year. And what did he think? Over to you, Graham...
For the love of god people, eat lamb like your life depends on it!!! Maybe that way we can get the road-bound sheep population down to a minimum for the 2012 Dragon Ride.
That nugget of advice out of the way, lets get on with it. The 2012 Dragon is easily the toughest Dragon I can recall. Not content with its usual haunts of the Bwlch, Rhigos and Cimla it's taking the fight to another mainstay of the British Sportive calendar: The Black Mountain.
The ride out of Margam to Maesteg seems to be the only friendly part of this years route. Featuring some gentle rolling roads it acts as a perfect warm up before the days first legstrecher up the short sharp rise up to Bryn. This places you neatly facing up the Afan Valley and teases you with the longest of the Bwlch's three sides. Previously at this point you'd be bracing yourself for a long war of attrition with a ribbon of tarmac that never seems to end. Instead you're directed to the lesser ridden climb of Cimla. With a gradient approaching 20% in places it appears to be specifically desgined to take the spring out of your legs very early on in the day.
More rolling roads fill the distance between Neath and the foothills of the Black Mountain. Tackling this beast from the Neath side is a tad less challenging than the alternative, especially when there was a chance to incorporate a former Tour of Britian KOM point into the ride. Still, the descent, having been recently resurfaced, allows you the confidence the have a little fun with some of the better sighted sweeps and hair pins. However this will be the first point on the ride where the sheep, who aren't overly familiar with the sight of a cyclist, may cause problems. After the first few waves of riders have been through things will probably improve but if you are intent on leaving early be aware.
Steeper gradients rear their heads more than ever this year and the rolling terrain connecting them never really allows for too much of a recovery. At the top end of the course you have the rapid succession of Defynnog followed by Heol Senni. Two 20% climbs back to back at this point made my shoulders start to give up on me. The constant pulling on the bars due to the climbing will definitely start to tell around this point. Heol Senni with its sharp hair pins – and sheep – makes for a technically demanding climb. Personally I didnt feel as though I "beat" Heol Senni properly. You remain hidden under tree cover for the vast majority of the climb which makes for a very different feel to the Bwlch and Rhigos, where tree cover is done away with very low down in an almost Ventoux-esque fashion allowing you too clearly see your altitude gain.
The drop down into Glyn-Neath, even with only 2 of us looking for road space, I found outright dangerous in places. When you consider the sheer number of riders coming through this section of road on the day I hope there will be Marshalls allocated to some of the tighter, steeper bends just for safety's sake. All it would take is one arse wanting to explore his inner Cancellara or a tired pair of arms struggling with bike handling and alot of riders could be left without any room to manouevre.
Cefn Rhigos, Rhigos and Bwlch is a combination of mountians I try to get in on almost all of my longer training rides but after a sapping 150km they become different animals altogether. As a challenge thrown into a club run with friends they can offer a bit of friendly rivalry and a fun few minutes of descending. By this point my upper body was screaming making the descending almost as taxing as the climbs. Even if you're used to riding these hills, and even though they're not super steep, don't underestimate the amount you'll need in the tank to make it back to Margam Park.
Dave is a founding father of road.cc and responsible for kicking the server when it breaks. In a previous life he was a graphic designer but he's also a three-time Mountain Bike Bog Snorkelling world champion, and remains unbeaten through the bog. Dave rides all sorts of bikes but tends to prefer metal ones. He's getting old is why.