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.
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.