Dragon Ride, 2018

The Dragon Ride is a cycling sportive in South Wales. There are 4 distances to choose from:

  • Macmillan 100, 100km
  • Medio Fondo, 153km
  • Gran Fondo, 223km
  • Dragon Devil, 300km

I was doing the Dragon Devil which cannot seem to make up its mind if its 300km or 305km long. I’m going for 305km (189 miles) with 15,843ft of climbing.

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The race starts in Margam Park, just outside Port Talbot and loops around the Brecon Beacons before returning to Margam Park. The road book advertises the following:

Climbing: The route features 6 x Category 5 climbs and close to 5,000m of total climbing.

Timed Climbs: There are two timed climbs (Devil’s Elbow @ 90km & Devil’s Staircase @ 190km).

Feed Stations: 6 stops at 59km, 96km, 122km, 154km, 219km & 256km. There will be a water station at 185km.

Travel

I got up at 5am and had some breakfast (porridge) before driving to Margam Park which is about 40mins from where I live. I had a start time of 6:45 to 6:55 as the Devil distance sets off first. This was a good thing as it meant there was not too much traffic getting into the car park and I was able to park 3 rows back from the start.

Unfortunately my watch had decided to stop charging itself when I turned my back on it so it was on 8% battery when I woke up. I had it charging from a powerbank on the way to the start but it only got to about 50% so I knew it would not survive the whole race.

I put my bike together and got dressed and headed over to the start area.

The Race Start

I got into the 3rd of 4 pens and waited about 15mins before my pen was called forward to the start. The race briefing was quite short and consisted of basic instructions about following road signs and the highway code (no road closures), avoiding sheep and avoiding a piece of metal in the road 50m from the start.

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Start to Feed Station 1, Penderyn Primary School, 59km

The first section is relatively long to the first feed station at 59km.

After exiting Margam Park we headed out towards Port Talbot. Past the steel works and into the town, under the M4 and then we started to head up the Afan valley. There were a few sections of traffic-lighted road works so it was a bit stop start along here.

It was good to get in a group here as its flat and it was easy to draft along.

At Pontrhydyfen, the birthplace of Richard Burton, we swung under the aqueduct and then there is a short, sharp pull for 30 or 40 metres, which always seems to catch people out.

From here the road follows the River Afan up the valley to Cymer, an old mining village that had a massive mining tragedy in 1856, killing 114 people. Nobody was prosecuted for it, and no compensation was paid to families.

As we swung through a right handed corner in the village there a police motorcyclist standing in the road shouting “watch out for drawing pins”! Easy to say but not so easy to do.

I was lucky. For the next mile or more I was constantly passing upturned bikes in various stages of puncture repair. I stopped counting at 30.

From here we started the first climb of the day, the Bwlch. The Strava segment has this at 4.2 miles @ 5%. So this is a steady climb.

The sun was out and there was little wind so it was shaping to be be a cracking day!

From the top of the Bwlch there was a great view down to Treorchy in the Rhondda valley below. Its quite a fast descent and you have to mindful of sheep.

From Treorchy we rode through the town to Treherbert where the next climb, the Rhigos, started. Its a similar climb to the Bwlch in terms of length and gradient.

From the top, it was another long descent, this time ending at a roadabout near Hirwaun. We crossed over the A465 and continued heading north to Penderyn on the A4059. Past the Perderyn Whiskey Distillery and just a little further along was the first feed station.

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Always good to the get to the first checkpoint. It was busy but not overcrowded. I topped up on water and ate a few salted potatoes and Jaffa cakes.

Penderyn to Feed Station 2, Ystradfellte Car Park, 96km

So after a quick stop at feed Station 1, I headed out on the second leg to Ystradfellte, 37km away.

Its a steady climb on the A4059 into the Beacons. This area can be very windswept, but today was relatively calm and the sunny weather continued. There is a short descent to merge with the A470 towards Brecon before we climbed again to the foot of Pen Y Fan, before descending again towards Libanus.

Just before Libanus, we turned left onto the A4215 towards Defynnog. I have driven this road many times and it does not seem particularly hilly, but on a bike it always feels more hilly than expected. About halfway along we turned left again, now heading south. The roads here are very small, single track and quite windy.

After a few minutes we could see the Devil’s Elbow climb ahead snaking up the mountain. Its just over a mile long averaging 10% with 2 switchbacks in the middle. The steeper part is about 0.5 mile @ 12% going to 15% in places. My strategy was to go in, in my second lowest gear and take it fairly steadily as we were still in the first third of the race.

It can be awkward meeting traffic coming the other way on these type of climbs but fortunately the road was clear today. Didi the Devil, mascot of the Tour de France, was there to cheer us on although he was out of oomph when I passed him, managing only a feeble “Allez, Allez”.

From the top of the climb its mainly descending to Ystradfellte, which is a small village. There is a sharp right hand bend in the village and the car park was just there on the right hand side.

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As usual I filled up with water and ate some more salted potatoes and Jaffa cakes and prepared to set off.

I was quite amused when I went to collect my bike, to find it sandwiched between two Pinarello Dogmas. It was quite tempting to take the wrong bike, but I managed to resist. Needless to say, given they were at the feed station at the same time as me, these were not TeamSky riders.

Ystradfellte to Feed Station 3, Crai, 122km

There are a couple of short sharp pulls out of Ystradfellte, but generally its descending down off the Beacons to Pontneddfechan with a sweeping right hander and the bottom of a hill, and then along to Glynneath.

I would normally be heading home down the Neath Valley, but not today! So we climbed out of the Neath Valley and over to the Swansea Valley at Abercraf. We turned north onto the A4067 and climbed up to the Crai reservoir. There seemed to be a bit of a headwind here so I caught up some guys in front and drafted along for a bit. I took a turn on the front, and of course, nobody was interested in coming past so I towed the group upto the village of Crai where we turned off the “A” road towards Trecastle.

The third feed station was just off to the left here. For some reason its not marked on the event map.

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It was around here that my watch ran out of power.

Crai to Feed Station 4, Llandovery College, 154km

Setting off again there is one quite steep climb shortly after the feed station, but its not very long. Then some undulating terrain for a few miles until the route for the Devil splits from the route for the Gran Fondo distance, just before Trecastle.

After the split there was noticeably fewer cyclists on the route, as expected.

I was riding on an unknown road for the first time now, on the section from Trecastle to Llandovery, along the A40. Its generally downhill all the way so this was a fast section of the route.

We passed through the village of Halfway, and although close, it was not at halfway!

From there it is a short ride to Llandovery and the next feed station, in a tent inside the grounds of Llandovery College.

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Llandovery College to Feed Station 5, Llandovery College, 219km

So the next section was a northerly loop upto the Devil’s Staircase and back via Llyn Brianne, probably the most scenic section of the race.

We headed off north on the A483. Its quite undulating here and we went past the village of Cynghordy, before climbing up and around Sugar Loaf Mountain. From here its a descent down to the town of Llanwrtyd Wells, which claims to be the smallest town in Britain and the home of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships, as well as the Man vs Horse Marathon which I should do one day!

From here we turned left onto a small road towards Abergwesyn. I had caught up another rider, the first I had seen since Llandovery. I was expecting a water stop around here as there was one advertised at 185km, just before the Devil’s Staircase, but did not spot anything.

At Abergwesyn, we turned left along a small road that heads along the River Irfon. Its very scenic along here as we climbed along the river valley toward the bottom of the Devil’s Staircase. The road is very narrow here and I was almost forced off it by a van driver thinking its fine to pass a cyclist at 40mph along these sort of roads.

At the end of the valley the road drops down from the hillside and crosses the river before starting the climb up and around the mountain, Cefn Coch. This is the Devil’s Staircase, the most difficult climb on the ride. There is a helpful sign at the bottom about staying in a low gear!

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I was at about 120 miles at this point, but at my level of ability, there is not much strategy involved, its just about survival. Here is the VeloViewer profile for the climb:

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Cross the cattle grid and pass the trees on the right, hiding the climb. The road turns slightly right here and then you can see the climb, very steep at the start. Down to lowest gear and out of the saddle. No chance of carrying any speed into the climb as there is a poorly maintained cattle grid and a slow preamble before the climb proper starts.

The Strava segment says it hits 40% here; I’m not sure that is right but it is very steep at the bottom of the climb. Over the ramp and its around 15% to the first hairpin. Best to take the long way round here; its a left-hander so if there is a car coming down it could be game over on that hairpin! No cars today.

Round the hairpin at 20% and you can see upto the next hairpin. The gradient eases off to about 12% at the start of this section, so sit down and have a rest. By halfway to the next hairpin it ramps up to 20%. Wide berth on the hairpin at 25%.

Gradient then eases back to 15% for a little while so sit down and relax for a few seconds before the next sharp ramp which Strava says gets above 30% (umm, not sure). Then it eases again for a few seconds before ramping again to 25%. Pure survival now; one peddle stroke then the next. Tack across the road. Sight for traffic every 5 to 10 peddle strokes. Car coming down. Car stops. Reach car, thank driver. Pass car and continue tacking. Road turns slightly left and the gradient drops to 15%. Pass a walker; just about going faster. Another ramp to 25% then the gradient drops off again.

This is about halfway to the top, but the second half averages about 10% with some short sections at 15%.

From a race time perspective cycling up the Devil’s Staircase probably results in a slower time for the race, versus unclipping and walking up and putting in more power for the rest of the route… but who wants to do that!

I was very pleased to have got to the top.

Its a steep descent down the other side (25%) so hard on the brakes and do not miss the left handed turn off halfway down!

From here we started to head south and after a few miles we came to the shores of Llyn Brianne, which is a massive man-made lake supplying water to a large area of South Wales, including where I live.

Its very picturesque around Llyn Brianne, but I had just about run out of water as we left the lake and headed along the Towy River valley towards Llandovery. Its undulating but not too difficult from here to the town.

We stopped at the same feed station as last time, in Llandovery College.

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This feed station had some cooking capability so we had cheese on toast and pasta. There was no sauce for the pasta. Now I know this was a cycling, not a gastronomy, event, but in my opinion this should not be allowed. On the positive side, all the feed stations were well stocked, so pasta aside, all good.

It was good to know we were heading back towards the finish!

Llandovery College to Feed Station 6,

Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr, 256km

After filling up with water and food I set off again. We were heading south, firstly to Llangadog on the A4069 which runs parallel to the much busier A40. At Llangadog we turned left and started the climb up the Black Mountain.

This is a regular climb for me so I know it well; the official Strava segment is 4.5miles @ 5%. It only get over 10% in a few places. The climb starts in forrest, then into farmland before crossing a cattle grid out onto wild hillside. It can get windy and usually its a headwind, but today was calm and therefore relatively easy. The Gran Fondo route rejoined our route at the base of the climb so there were more people about again.

It was a case of plugging away to get to the top. Its a good descent on the other side though, down to Brynamman, although again you have to watch out for sheep.

We took a sharp left at Brynamman onto the A4068 which heads south-east over to the Swansea Valley at Ystalfera. It quite undulating here, but no big hills. Somewhere along the road was the last feed station; this time in a local school carpark, Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr.

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I did the usual topping up on food and drink and prepared to head out on the last section of the race to the finish, back in Margam Park.

Ysgol Gymraeg Dyffryn Y Glowyr to Margam Park, 305km

After the feed station I continued along the A4068, until it joined the A4067 which runs up the Swansea Valley. We headed north until Caerbont where we turned right and started to climb out of the Swansea Valley over to the Dulais Valley. From there we headed south down the valley to Aberdulais where we joined the Neath Valley and the A465, down towards Neath,

From Neath, there was one last sting in the tail as we climbed Cimla hill. There are easier ways to get to Port Talbot from Neath, but this race is a challenge so fair enough. Climbing out of Neath we were heading over to the Afan Valley again at Pontrhydyfen. Again, it was a slow and steady climb.

At Pontrhydyfen, we turned south down the Afan Valley to Port Talbot. It was about here that I joined up with a few riders going quite quickly on the flatter ground and was able to draft along with them. The group slowly picked up more riders as we went and by Port Talbot we were about a dozen.

It made the flat miles from Port Talbot to Margam Park go by a little quicker, but eventually our little group broke up and I did the last couple of miles back to the park more or less on my own.

It was good to finish in 12hrs 39mins 5secs and collect my medal!

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Since my watch ran out of power during the event I only have a relive for the first part of the race, but here it is anyway:

Lessons Learned

  1. My experience was that the event is well organised, and although there are a lot of people the roads and feed stations are not too busy.
  2. Food: I carried 6 cereal bars and 9 packs of Shot Bloxs. I ate 5 cereal bars and 2 packs of Shot Bloxs. There is plenty of food on the course and the feed stations are well stocked (apart from pasta source)! In reality after the first feed station, you could just eat at each station and not carry much with you. Bear in mind that there are not that many shops about to buy things.
  3. Water: I did not see the water station before the Devil’s Staircase and ran out of water before getting back to Llandovery. It was very hot there and this is a difficult section so pay attention to water here.
  4. I am very familiar with the route, but the signage looked pretty good to me all the way around so no navigating required.
  5. Riding with a group of friends would help with drafting on the flatter sections. Also, you could take it in turns to stop at feed stations, fill up for the group and catch them up again, rather than all stopping. Obviously only relevant if you care about improving your time.
  6. Travel to and from Margam Park is easy for me as I live in South Wales. It seems to be a good location for an event like this though as its near the M4 and is a big open space with ample parking and areas to congregate.

1 thought on “Dragon Ride, 2018

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