I’ve ridden my share of Sportive rides and plenty of 100 mile distance rides to boot, but nothing prepared me for last Sunday’s Wiggle Dragon Ride from Margam Park in South Wales.
I say “nothing prepared me”, but I probably should have said “I did no preparation hence deserved every ounce of pain that I suffered”. I struggled around in a mediocre 10hrs 4mins. Not a bad 131.6miles considering my limited amount of riding and less than perfect physical fitness. However, I have a fairly arrogant take on cycling in general. I’m faster than most of my riding buddies up and down hill, particularly on the mountain bike, but it’s rides like this you realise how much a training plan could have helped. Of course having camped in a nearby campsite the night before seemed like a good idea at first, the local Cockerel had different plans for us. The whole campsite was wide awake sometime shortly after 4am with the sound of farm yard birds and this very annoying Cockerel that wouldn’t shut up for two hours. Not an ideal start to the day.
Matt Mountain (Wiggle clothing assistant buyer) was my partner on this ride. We left the campsite after setting down our tents and headed for Margam park, about two miles up the road. We effortlessly joined the flowing single-file queue of cars entering the huge park, found our spot and prepared our bikes and food for the trip. I had stuffed my pockets with a few High5 gels and a mix of Maxifuel and Zipvit bars in addition to my favourite long-ride nutrition, Nature Valley bar.
Matt had only been riding road bikes for six months, and never ridden any more than 74 miles in one go. However, once he found out his start time would be at least an hour later than mine and he’d probably be back before me, he decided to join me on the Gran Fondo distance ride. We set off just before 7:38 and settled onto our bikes as the miles started to pass us by.
In hindsight, we pushed a little too hard early on. We were overtaking droves of people because we felt we could. This is a common trait of my event riding style. I tend to push on and get out of the packs early on at the cost of energy deficiency later on. So far, everything I had done was not in the best interests of my ride later on in the day…including the salt-heavy Pizza Hut pizza the night before!
As the miles ticked along, Matt and I were pleased to see how quickly we’d swallowed up 30 miles or so, before one fellow cyclist pointed out we only had another 100 miles to go! This put things into perspective for me. I’d now ridden the equivalent of my ride one way to work, and at a similar pace too. All I had to do now, was ride the equivalent of the longest Sportive I’d done to this date, of 100 miles or so. Matt and my pace really backed off at this point. We didn’t talk about it, we just both knew the day was going to be getting quite challenging.
50 miles in and the hills were starting to flex their guns. We were now well within the Brecon Beacons national park. The scenery was doing a great job at making up for the steeper inclines. Matt was using a newly fitted “standard” chainset which was forcing his legs to push extra hard, when my compact chainset on my De Rosa R838 was doing nicely, albeit I would later crave a triple! It was around this time Matt started to share with me his discomfort. Climbs were getting steeper, longer and with it, came a slower pace. At 50-60 miles I was feeling pretty good still, as I have a cycling base that has been built from years and years of riding and many 100 miles rides previously. Matt on the other hand was already doing exceptionally well. My waits at the top and bottom of hills were getting longer as I encouraged Matt to keep going and not to give up. That’s hard to do when he knew full well we were barely half way through the already torturous ride. The bigger climbs were still miles away.
Just a few miles before the second feed station, Matt told me to plough on. Until now I was insistent we stick together as I knew I would need his help as much as he would need mine later on in the ride. However, he told me he wasn’t having much fun now and will be giving up at the second feed station, to await the broom wagon (the term used to describe the vehicles that follow the last rider and pick the stragglers up). I agree and grind up the long shallow climb to the 2nd feed station expecting to refuel and leave by the time Matt arrived.
It seemed many riders were requiring a longer pit stop than the first feed station, hundreds of riders were filling their bottles and stuffing their mouths and pockets with salted potatoes (yum – take note event organisers), energy bars, bananas and more. By the time I refuel having fought through the crowds; Matt has arrived and confirms his decision to bail from the ride at this point of around 70 miles. I bid him farewell and set off as if he had sacrificed himself for the greater cause.
It wasn’t long until the influx of energy foods and drink weren’t helping as much as I would normally be used to. Only 5 or 10 miles after the feedstation came one of the steepest hills you could imagine having to ride up. It was a hill that I don’t think had a name. In fact, I heard many refer to the hill as “the hill that has no name” a few miles before. A double switchback climb that was so steep, lots of cyclists were stepping aside to stretch, have a break and in one instance that I saw, a chap dressed in red dismounted, removed his shoes and socks and proceeded to walk up the hill. This didn’t seem like such a bad idea as it took me almost the entire climb to over take him as his walking pace was ever-so-slightly slower than my grinding pace.
As these photos show, the climb was very steep indeed and had hundreds of cyclists grouped together while trying to tackle the climb. I didn’t let it beat me though, staying on the saddle all the way up before briefly stopping at the Wiggle Land Rover. I didn’t say anything as I recall, choosing to spend the descent on the other side recovering and regaining my composure. About twenty minutes later, when I and plenty others around me weren’t really in a “talking mood”, the roar of rubber on tarmac approached from behind. Woosh – woosh – woosh –woosh as a tightly packed group of riders flew past. Around five riders pushing mercilessly forward comprising of three Wiggle team riders who clearly were too focussed to notice my struggling body in a Wiggle Jersey. Lee Williams was in the group who finished the race in a podium position and also new Wiggle team recruit Tank Lewis. You’ll start to see more of Tank in orange Wiggle colours. Whi
le Lee towed Tank’s huge body up the hills, Tank was producing a superbly efficient slipstream along the flats. Well done to the Wiggle team!
Meanwhile in slogsville…the remaining 30 miles or so were really challenging. The two longest climbs were now ahead of us. I was using my Garmin Edge 800 which was accurately recording my ride and because I updated the unit before the ride with the GPX file supplied by the Wiggle Dragon Ride, I could see all the gradients that I was heading towards. “WOW, that must be the Rhigos” I thought to myself as I turned right at a roundabout at the bottom of the hill. This was shaping up to be one of those hills that destroyed you because it started with a roman road-esque climb that was a reasonable effort, while showing no mercy stretching off into the distance. Soon enough the switchbacks came about, but I was starting to find my groove. I’d started dismounting periodically to stretch out my cramping legs, but insisted I shan’t be doing any walking! Once I made it to the top, I realised my forte on this ride….long, winding descents.
Going downhill fast is not something I am fearful of and indeed, during today’s Dragon Ride, this was the only opportunity I had to overtake others. The descent from the Rhigos was my time to shine. According to the Strava Application I later downloaded, I managed to get the 3rd fastest descent of all (Strava) time. Overtaking so many riders so quickly for once was a real pleasure. Shame they quickly took me back, but it was fun while it lasted. Yes, the fun…that didn’t last long as the final hill of the day was now looming.
The Bwlch (roughly pronounced “Boolch”) was a big hill. No, a mountain. No, hell on a bike. A long climb to finish off any weary legs. My legs got their third wind here and there, like an old car trying to start on a cold morning for the first time in a few weeks. I eventually got to the top and enjoyed a very fast descent from the top, traversing the hillside, taking each corner flat out, being sure to stay on the right side of the road. You hear lots of stories of bikes hitting cars because they cross lanes. Satisfyingly, Strava recorded a 2nd place on this downhill I later found out. Finally my classic-car-like legs got spinning at the bottom of the hill, when I began to slipstream and overtake my way as far forward as possible. The finish line was now in sight as I gave every last ounce of power. I started to burn out for what would be the last time as the finishing straight was longer than I expected before turning into the park and freewheeling to the finish line.
What a day, was had. An experience learning where my absolute limits were. Only three hours earlier I was thinking I’d never do this ride again, it was so hard and hurt so much. Already having only just dismounted from the bike, I was planning how I would improve my time when I ride the Dragon Ride 2013. I will return and I will beat my time by at least two hours.
As I head back to the Wiggle Bike Shop team to find my riding buddy Matt, I learn he hasn’t been swept up at all. No broom wagons had returned and the second feed station had been set down. Where was Matt? An hour and ten minutes later, he crosses the finish line, a broken man with the most blood shot eyes I’ve seen, every ounce of energy drained. Great job to Matt.
The Wiggle Dragon Ride was exceptionally well organised and I must thank the local Rotary clubs of the area who manned the feed stations and kept riders happy and energised.
What Kit I rated on the day
Bike: De Rosa R838 Athena – Available HERE
Supremely comfortable with fantastic handling characteristics on descents and corners
Cycle Shorts: Assos F1 Mille – Available HERE
THE cycle short of choice for long rides. The chamois is the best I’ve experienced in my many years of cycling
Chamois Cream: Morgan Blue – Available HERE
Never a chamois crème user, but the Morgan Blue chamois crème used kept me comfortable, cool and rub free, even after 10 hours in the saddle
Computer: Garmin Edge 800 – Available HERE
My only encouragement for most of the ride, the Edge 800 was fantastic on giving me my location, performance (or lack of it) and afterwards, provides a great way to evaluate and share data on Garmin’s Connect site (connect.garmin.com) and on Strava
Shoes: DMT Radial 2.0 Road Shoes – Available HERE
Hours in the saddle normally give me pins and needles in my toes and often an achy insole. The DMT provides superior arch support and an event fit for my wide feet. This made the shoes incredibly comfortable for the entire day in the saddle
Nutrition: Salted Potatoes – Available HERE
Some nutrition I like, some I don’t, but on this day the tastiest and most effective nutrition amongst the energy drinks, bars, cakes and snacks was salted new potatoes. What genius decided to supply those? Fantastic food and great tasting too.