Ride Report: The Dragon

Dave grovels round the longer, harder Gran Fondo Route and lives to tell the tale

by Dave Atkinson   June 11, 2012  

Climbing the Bwlch

In my head I was showing up in full Audax guise, saddlebag and all, and chortling to myself as I picked off the carbon road bikes on the long Welsh climbs. What actually happened was that I suffered like a dog most of the way round and got my arse kicked. Okay, I did overtake a few bling bikes. But the problem with starting in the very first group is that everyone that's slower than you is behind you already...

I set off in the leading 100 and finished in my usual position, somewhere just below halfway, in an unspectacular time of 9:36. I'd hoped to do it in under nine hours. In the end, on the day, I just didn't have it. Whatever 'it' is. Perhaps 'it' is a flash carbon road bike of my own. Maybe 'it' is the presence of mind to not go out for four hours the day before, or try and keep up with the fit lads for the first hour. More likely, 'it' is a body mass index of less than 25 and a winter of turbo sessions in the locker. Whatever. It wasn't there.

Anyway, enough about me. The Dragon. It's an institution, now in in its ninth year and bigger than ever. It's been taken over by Participate Sport, who are big players in the event market. Gone is the start in the Sony car park at Pencoed, moved to the altogether more lovely Margam Park which has a castle and lots and lots of space. It's a couple more junctions down the M4, so a slightly longer trip for most people, but the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses. The event village was a step up from previous years – the plan is to make the Dragon into more of a festival and extend it over a weekend, probably from 2014 – and the starting pen system was very well organised. Seven thirty on the dot and with a wave from Olympic hopeful Matt Crampton we were off, on fast, quiet roads.

The route of the Dragon changes every year; on paper this year's route looked like the hardest for a long time, possibly ever. For a start it was a touch longer at 206km, but the real extra difficulty came from the extra hills. First big climb was the Black Mountain, similar in length and gradient to the two signature climbs of the Dragon, the Bwlch and the Rhigos. If you want Alpine-style ascents without trusting your pride and joy to the budget airlines then this part of Wales is the place to come. Admittedly they're not as long or as high, but the long, swooping, well surfaced, constant gradient climbing makes a pleasant change from the steep, gritty stuff the UK is better known for. Ridden from this direction you see miles and miles of bobbing heads, struggling up the slope and over the top; a carrot to keep you going or a psychological stick? you decide. Topping out at 500m the descent is the best of the day, steeper and more technical than either of the other two big hills. At this point I was fresh enough to enjoy it too.

After that the Dragon hauls itself over the moors and onto the climb to the Crai reservoir, thankfully quite near the top. A word about the start of the ride here: there was one pretty sketchy junction, steep downhill to traffic lights, made even sketchier by a shower making the surface treacherous. I saw a fit-looking girl go down hard, sliding out and hitting the barrier at some speed; shortly after that a chap went down awkwardly right in front of me, taking me out too although I'd almost managed to stop. I suffered a bent mech hanger for my troubles, but the great thing about steel bikes is you can just bend them back.

All this is relevant here for two reasons. Firstly, the girl who had spilled at the lights came past me on the moors like I wasn't moving, jersey and shorts in tatters and thousand yard stare on. Strong lass. Secondly, it's a long way from the first feed stop to the second; too far, most of us decided. After my off I'd congratulated myself on being all calm and collected, helping the chap to the side of the road with his pringled front wheel and bloodied hand, collecting his energy gels and sticking them on the verge. I was on the verge, on the moor, of bonking spectacularly, as I reached into my Carradice pocket for emergency rations only to find that the gels I'd been helpfully picking up were my own. Ah. With no water left in the bottles and nothing to eat it was slow, slow progress to the reservoir, trying to make sure I didn't fall apart completely. When I finally got there I spent a happy five minutes shoving malt loaf, apple pies, jam tarts and salted potatoes into my gaping maw, and more into my pockets (malt loaf, not potatoes) - disaster averted.

Because of its size the Dragon tends to stick to bigger roads, and the nature of the area means that the climbs tend to be long, reasonably steady affairs. However, this year the organisers had managed to swing a road closure from Heol Senni over to Glyn Neath, and that meant the ride could take in a special treat: Bryn Melin, the Devil's Elbow. Once again it's a climb that's laid bare you as you approach it, with riders clinging to the tarmac seemingly vertically above you as you grind up the foot of the valley to the first hairpin, already in bottom gear. The angle of approach makes the climb above appear even steeper, sapping your will to turn the pedals. Round the first hairpin and onto the traverse and it's a 20% slog, all chat suspended, heads down, focus on the tarmac two yards in front, pray you have enough in the legs to keep the wheels going round. Through the second hairpin and it's still steep but you know you've cracked it, the gradient relents and your reward is a swooping run over the moors with majestic views to the Brecons.

The next climb is Glyn Neath Bank, or 'the one that Dave forgot'; I was heading for the foot of the Rhigos in my head, so this climb was pretty psychologically damaging even if it's not particularly long, or steep. It wasn't long before we were actually on the Rhigos though, and at that point you know you're going to make it home. They're long climbs, the last two. The Bwlch especially is a grind, not least because it's an awfully long way from the psychological summit – the junction at the top – to the actual summit on the road towards Port Talbot. They're steady though, and so long as you have enough gears you can guarantee you'll make it to the top. I only saw one person walking, on either climb. You can almost smell the post-ride pasta from the summits, and there's a feed stop on the top of the Rhigos to top you up ahead of the final push.

It's all downhill to the finish. No, really. Save for a couple of short efforts to crest a couple of rises in the road, the road from the top of the Bwlch to Port Talbot is a steady descent. I finally found the holy grail of sportive riding, a group going just a little bit quicker than I could manage on my own. In the whole ride, I hadn't managed to stick with a single line until now. Time to sit in and take it easy as they hoovered up rider after rider on the run down past Cymer and Afan. By the bottom were were nearly 40 strong for the short section along the A48, although it all fell apart again as the road rose for a final time before the triumphal entry, whereupon I received my scarcely-deserved medal and goody bag full of WD-40, shampoo and coffee sweets.

I've been to the Dragon before, and this was the best one yet for me. Okay I suffered, but we like that on our sportives, don't we? The inclusion of the Devil's Elbow and the Black Mountain make it a much tougher challenge, upping the climbing to 3,500m according to the usually reliable bikehike. In previous years the Gran Fondo has been long but not especially tough; this year it was a real test. The new venue helps enormously with making the ride feel like a proper event. The Pencoed start always felt like a means to an end; somewhere to park your car while you ride. Margam is a destination in itself, and the feel of the start and finish is immeasurably improved. The organisers are hoping to start and finish the ride in coming years in front of the castle. That would be fantastic.

Any negatives? Everyone I spoke two had the same two gripes. The junction near the start is dangerous and needs to be properly marshalled, and it's too far from the first to the second feed stops. Some people grumbled that the Devil's Elbow is too steep and not in keeping with the rest of the ride, but those people just need to man up a bit. My feeling is that its inclusion, along with Black Mountain, moves the Dragon up a notch difficulty-wise and that's a good thing. It's not the Fred Whitton, but it's a long, hard ride rather than a nice day out in the hills. The Rhigos/Bwlch double whammy at the end, followed by that long downhill, makes for great finish. If you don't want it that hard, you can always do the Medio Fondo route which is still a genuine challenge.

Feed stops have been criticised on the Dragon in the past. My experience of them this year is that they were excellent, well stocked and well organised with a good range of food on offer. I went off early so I don't know if the later riders still had malt loaf and cakes to eat, but no complaints from me. Marshalling, save for that one junction early on, was good, and there were plenty of support bikes and cars in evidence, including proper Mavic neutral service. There were more people out cheering on the riders than I remember from previous years, too. The Dragon has had opposition in the past from locals, maybe that's a sign that after nine years, people are coming round to the idea that they can sit out and enjoy the spectacle for a morning rather than grumbling that they can't get to Sainsbury's. Here's hoping. And roll on 2013.

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/187584005

24 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Chapeau boyo!

posted by Some Fella [786 posts]
11th June 2012 - 13:37

2 Likes

I agree it was a great event, and the inclusion of the extra climbs (and descents) was definitely a 'good thing'. Two additional criticisms however.

1. My start time was 8.30-8.45. I was on schedule to arrive at Margam Park at around 8am. However there was a very long queue stretching down the M4 to get it. As a result I didn't arrive at the venue until around 9am and didn't start until 9.30am. The organisers will need to get this sorted next year.

2. By the time I got to the feed stops long queues had developed. I skipped the first one at 30 miles. It seemed to early on, and the queue was enormous. At the second feedstop queues were also long, which delayed me somewhat longer than I'd hoped. The good news was that they still seemed well stocked up.

Other than that, I agree with your two criticisms. The second feed zone was too long after the first. The final one could have been earlier too. And that junction was dangerous, agreed.

However, it was a very good event otherwise. Great course, nice atmosphere, very well marshalled, good support vehicles, friendly locals cheering us on, and a fantastic start/finish venue. I'll be back.

posted by Denny Gray [2 posts]
11th June 2012 - 13:54

1 Like

Denny - interesting to get your comments as you were at the other end of the race to me. I arrived at 6.45am and just drove straight in, there was next to no-one around then and it was easy enough. sounds like they definitely need to factor in some more time in the schedule for people arriving; that was always an issue at pencoed too, to be fair. not sure if margam is better or worse in terms of access, much the same i'd think.

similarly i didn't have much trouble getting served at the feed stops, but they do get busier. good to hear they didn't run out though, they have on occasion before.

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7435 posts]
11th June 2012 - 14:28

1 Like

Glad I 'only' did the medio fondo now. That Devil's Elbow climb sounds nails!

Great event all round. Well done to the new organisers.

posted by Yennings [224 posts]
11th June 2012 - 15:15

1 Like

That was a lot tougher than the 2009 course. That last 5 k nearly killed me - was blasting it on the basis of the advertised 206 k only to find it was 212 Crying Possibly a bit too long? Very few getting round in under 8 hours. Black mountain was a great section to include.

posted by MarginalFlats [1 posts]
11th June 2012 - 17:47

2 Likes

Once stayed at a place called ARAF in Wales. No idea where it was but it was very well signposted!

Mike

mike the bike's picture

posted by mike the bike [145 posts]
11th June 2012 - 17:50

1 Like

We queued for around 10-15 minutes to get in at 7:30ish. To be fair to the organisers they were already alternating between the main and overflow car parks in an effort to keep the queue moving.

I only had to queue at the 2nd food stop, and that was caused by the food queue getting muddled up with the queue for one of the water stations.

The course was great - I really enjoy the big steady climbs and descents (Black Mountain, Rhigos, Bwlch) and mixed in with the extra distance and the evil Devil's Elbow made it a real challenge.

posted by pdw [33 posts]
11th June 2012 - 18:01

2 Likes

I read the Devil's Elbow and thought you had been up my way http://www.flickr.com/photos/castlekay/1260779884/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/landscapes/devils_elbow/

Looks like it was an "enjoyable" ride and nice write up Wink

Gkam84's picture

posted by Gkam84 [8935 posts]
11th June 2012 - 18:46

2 Likes

chapeau Dave ... I bottled it and rode the medio, even
then only posting 6:51 !!
I think, due to traffic and toilets, I may have been the
last man over the start line too !!

Bwlch is a very love it/hate it climb isn't it Smile

still on the 3rd switch-back of Bwlch !

posted by therevokid [726 posts]
11th June 2012 - 19:33

2 Likes

I was out yesterday riding the opposite way at Cimla, The descent was sketchy for you guys and yes the junction was bad (a few Lance wannabes though took the urine) also the bottleneck at Pontrhydyfen before that was a problem. Drivers were losing it and I was getting the flak!! Think the other way there is a better option

Now a roadie why rustle

tonguetiedstu's picture

posted by tonguetiedstu [3 posts]
11th June 2012 - 19:39

1 Like

Dave, great write up and thanks for the kind words Ref my performance post crash. It ended up, for me, being 30 mins slower than I wanted due to the crash. And an extra 10 mins on top of that as I clocked 132 miles not 128, as did most my group. luckily it was all down hill though!

posted by karlaboddy [1 posts]
11th June 2012 - 19:56

1 Like

Wait. They gave out WD40 to cyclists? That stuff is the lube of Satan, it attracts and holds onto dust, muck and hair worse than anything!

GT85, anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

posted by Mr. Rossi [37 posts]
11th June 2012 - 20:12

1 Like

Gkam84 wrote:
I read the Devil's Elbow and thought you had been up my way http://www.flickr.com/photos/castlekay/1260779884/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/landscapes/devils_elbow/

I WANT TO GO THERE

Sir Velo

Raleigh's picture

posted by Raleigh [1730 posts]
11th June 2012 - 20:46

2 Likes

WD40 used to be the entire sum of my bike maintenance regime before I saw the light. Still, it's probably better than shampoo and coffee sweets - not a combination I've tried before.

Noli porcum linguere

captain_slog's picture

posted by captain_slog [278 posts]
11th June 2012 - 20:53

2 Likes

First Dragon for me.

That Devils elbow was painful, though i felt like a pro for at least 30 seconds as the Mavic service car came up behind me and gave me the thumbs up near the top Cool

Managed a 7hr50 for the long route which was ok. Stopped for too long at the last food stop as my back was killing me!

Glad you are ok Karla. Saw you being tended to at the junction.

Phil

posted by MountainMutant [3 posts]
11th June 2012 - 21:02

1 Like

karlaboddy wrote:
Dave, great write up and thanks for the kind words Ref my performance post crash. It ended up, for me, being 30 mins slower than I wanted due to the crash. And an extra 10 mins on top of that as I clocked 132 miles not 128, as did most my group. luckily it was all down hill though!

chapeau to you, that was some stack at the lights. i note that you still managed to finish third of all the women... Smile

the poor chap that went down in front of me a mile down the road was the same chap who was tending to you on the tarmac, i think... don't know if the mavic service car gave him a new wheel or if he was okay to carry on.

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7435 posts]
11th June 2012 - 21:47

1 Like

Mr. Rossi wrote:
Wait. They gave out WD40 to cyclists? That stuff is the lube of Satan, it attracts and holds onto dust, muck and hair worse than anything!

GT85, anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

it's great if you actually use it for what it's designed for, ie flushing out dirt and dispersing water after cleaning. it's not a great lube. but then it isn't a lube, so it wouldn't be Smile

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7435 posts]
11th June 2012 - 21:50

1 Like

are those calories right???!?

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

Cooks's picture

posted by Cooks [491 posts]
11th June 2012 - 21:56

2 Likes

re: the distance, my phone running garmin fit stopped at 214km - it generally overestimates by about 5% though. i traced the route on bikehike and that's normally fairly accurate; it said it was 204km

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7435 posts]
11th June 2012 - 21:57

0 Likes

Cooks wrote:
are those calories right???!?

no.

although the double angus steakhouse burger at the services on the way home was probably about 14,000 calories Big Grin

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7435 posts]
11th June 2012 - 22:01

1 Like

Doh! Fair point, but many people still use it as such. GT85 is way better though, right?

posted by Mr. Rossi [37 posts]
11th June 2012 - 22:21

0 Likes

to be fair, wd40 do claim it as a lube. not much use on chains though. good for brifters and gear cables, i find. though not as good as GT85, no

Dave Atkinson's picture

posted by Dave Atkinson [7435 posts]
11th June 2012 - 23:12

1 Like

dave_atkinson wrote:

although the double angus steakhouse burger at the services on the way home was probably about 14,000 calories Big Grin

I was so, soooooo tempted Smile

still on the 3rd switch-back of Bwlch !

posted by therevokid [726 posts]
12th June 2012 - 8:33

1 Like

That was my first Dragon Ride and jumped into the Gran Fondo. Walked away from that ride feeling like a hero. It was an epic. I cant wait to see what they do for next years route...I hope they keep it the same, that ride was a real test of preperation, along with mental, physical and emotional strenghts. The Medio didnt look like a walk in the park and the cortso (rode it the day before) was a stiff enough test - for an easier ride???

The only critique I could give is that the organisers made my six yr old walk nearly three miles because they wouldn't let the visitors park any closer when I finished, the queues were very long for food and water (but those manning the stations worked like Trojans to keep us moving) and the hazardous corners and junctions need a bit more early warning up the road.

Other than that DONT CHANGE A THING!!!!!

Etape Cymru???? Hmmmm thinking about it.

posted by arthurkelly [2 posts]
12th June 2012 - 21:06

0 Likes