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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

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.

With 20 years of road cycling and over 150,000 miles in his legs it's safe to say Stu is happiest when on the bike whatever the weather. Since writing his first review for road.cc back in 2009 he has also had a career in engineering including 3D-CAD design and product development, so has a real passion for all of the latest technology coming through in the industry but is also a sucker for a classic steel frame, skinny tyres, rim brakes and a damn good paintjob.
His fascination with gravel bikes is getting out of control too!

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