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Taming the Dragon

The 20th Anniversary Dragon Ride on Sunday 23rd June 2024 saw a post-covid record 4,500 cyclists take to the roads of South Wales. Several Wheelers made up this number, making the trip to Port Talbot to take on the legendary ride. Richard and Geraint report back from a big day out in the saddle taming the dragon.

Richard Mantell

Last year I took on the vicious, but relatively short, climbs of the Fred Whitton – which is a lap of the Lake District national park. For this year’s main event, I decided to opt for the long, but relatively shallow, hills of South Wales for the Dragon Ride – which is a lap of the Brecon Beacons.

The Dragon Ride offers 4 routes to choose from: Macmillan (98k / 1,345m), Medio Fond (157km / 2,223m), Gran Fondo (215km / 1,345m) and the Dragon Devil (296km / 4,433m). Having previously completed the Medio Fondo two years ago, and not having any success in convincing some friends that the Devil was a ‘fun’ idea, I signed up to the Gran Fondo with four friends. This route had 8 main climbs which in my head I had decided was a short sharp punchy 5 min vo2 effort, a 10 min threshold effort and 6 x 20 min tempo efforts. Simple.

Training started in January. My plan was relatively simple, 2 to 3 structured work outs on Zwift during the week with a long ride on the weekend. As well as a couple of local sportives thrown in as well. I aimed to average 6hrs and achieved a little over this which I was pleased with and added up to about 4,500km and 150hrs of training for this event.

As you may have worked out already, I like stats and data.

From the start to Sardis Hill was reasonable sensible and well-paced, a good group formed and turns on the front were shared well with a good through and off. However, as soon as we turned the corner on the climb that all went out the window. Strava tells me that for Sardis Hill (or at least the closest segment I could find to it) I averaged 323w (4.5wkg) for 4mins. Not completely crazy, but not the sub threshold effort I had been telling myself that I would do. I wanted to stay with the front of the group, and as we rolled over the top, two of my friends and I had made the selection. The next 20km flew by as we sat in a group and averaged 34kph for a Zone 2 effort on what had effectively been a constant shallow uphill section. And at this point I foolishly started imaging I’d be holding this pace all day and would be finished for lunch. Those thoughts were quickly forgotten as we turned on to Glynneath Hill. I had been half expecting to be spat out of the back of the group immediately, but the pace was just at a level I could hold on and not feel like I was about to blow up and I wanted to stay part of this group which had been so good this far. Halfway up the climb, we hit traffic and whilst most of the group made it past, as part of the back, I got stuck when a 4×4 with trailer overtook and then pulled in. This was probably a blessing as looking back on the data, I hit my best ever 10 min power on this climb. Probably not a sensible pace to have been holding with 100 miles still to go. I crested the hill solo and pushed on hard thinking the group couldn’t be far ahead and I could catch them.

Approaching the 1st feed stop, and having not seen them in 10km, I decided it was time to stop pushing and to start riding a more sensible pace. However, after pulling into the feed stop and filling up my water bottle, I bumped into the group also about to leave. We left together, however my excitement of being back in the group was short lived as after the first feed station there is a short but relatively steep climb and I quickly realised if I didn’t let them ride off, things were not going to finish well. So 65km in I was dropped for a second time, but it was the right call as I knew I had burned more matches than was sensible.

About 10km later came the Black Mountain, probably the climb I had been looking forward to the most and it didn’t disappoint. The road majestically meandered up the mountain for 5.3km at a steady 5.8% average. The switch backs delivered breath taking views over the national park – for just over 24 mins at a steady 210w (2.9 wkg). What goes up, must come down and this descent didn’t disappoint. Thankfully the photographer caught me looking a little more pro than I felt as we don’t get to practice those types of descents in the Surrey Hills.

The next two climbs, Bwelch Bryn Duon and Bwelch Bryn-Rhudd, were okay and more steady pedalling ticked them off nicely and took me up to the second feed stop. The day had got quite warm, and I had run out of water since the last feed stop. So, after drinking and eating as much as I thought was sensible, I tried to see if I could find out on a location tracker how far behind my other two friends were. However, after failing to get any signal, and waiting for as long as I thought I could without getting cold, I was about to depart only for them to arrive. I decided to wait for them and I’m so glad I did, because riding the final 100km with some company certainly made the time go by a little easier.

Shortly after this feed stop came one of the ‘secret’ climbs that were not officially named. This one was 1km long at 9% average with an 18% max gradient – it certainly felt worthy of having its name included. The descent from this climb took us down to the start of Pen Y Fan which, whilst on a main road, was fortunately quite quiet. It’s a long curving road set against the backdrop of the mountain of the same name which is the highest peak in the national park. This climb took exactly 20 mins at a steady pace averaging 190w (2.6wkg). At this point the route takes you across some beautiful and untouched Welsh landscape which appears to be completely uninhabited, apart from the sheep who were completely unphased as we passed them.

At the bottom of the descent off the mountain came the 3rd feed stop. A special mention has to go to the warm Croissants which were offered up and went down a treat following the numerous gels I had had to this point. With 100 miles in the legs, and having burnt too many matches early on, I was starting to feel a little tired, so it was nice to see fellow Wheelers Sean F and Andrew S again for a little chat and morale boost before heading on to the two final climbs of the day, Rhigos and The Bwlch. Both climbs I had done before two years ago and climbs I had remembered enjoying. It’s a funny thing memory. At least mine seems to be particularly selective.

Rhigos is 5.6km at a steady 4% with a picturesque switchback. It was also the events timed climb, although there was no danger of me even thinking about going for the KOM at this stage of the day. I settled into the same steady pace averaging 190w (2.6wkg) and ticking the climb off in a little over 24mins. We lucked out for the descent having a completely traffic free road and being able to practice our best aero tucks always the way down until the final feed stop where we were unexpectedly serenaded by a traditional Welsh Choir.

After seeing off a couple of gels, it was time to hit the road for the final climb of the day. The Bwlch which apparently was to be 4.4km at 5.8%. However, the actual climb was closer to 7.0km at 5% and took a little over 30mins at the same steady pace averaging 190w (2.6wkg).

Cresting the top of this climb feels like the finish line as the realisation that all the major climbing for the day has finished. The reality was that there was still 30km to be done, but as that was mostly downhill and with spirts now very high, it was ticked off quickly. The final 2km starts heading back up hill, and if you’re not prepared for it, can be a little unwelcome. Fortunately, I remembered this from two years ago and had mentally left a match ready to see me up and over to the finish line, which I crossed arm in arm with my two friends like a winning World Tour Team arriving in Paris.

Crossing the finishing line, we were handed our medals and a cold alcohol free larger which I had been looking forward to for at least 100km. Bumping into Sean and Andrew for about the 5th time that day, we managed to find a table together and enjoy our free macaroni and cheese which tasted simply incredible.

Geraint Lewis

What a brilliant event – probably the best sportive I’ve done in the UK. I stayed with a mate locally, and rode 5km to the start. Everything was running pretty smoothly; I set off only a few minutes later than my official time. Sardis Hill comes as a rude leg-awakener after about 15km; you take a left-hand bend and Bam! Straight into a narrow 15% ramp. It eases off after a couple of hundred metres, before ramping up again towards the summit.

The next climb, the altogether more benign Glynneath Hill was preceded by the surprise of finding a large bronze statue of Glynneath resident and Welsh rugby supporting legend Max Boyce in the centre of the village.

I won’t go on to describe all the climbs, but they were largely well-surfaced with a steady not-too-steep gradient. (I very sensibly avoided the extreme pain of the Devil’s Staircase, a 28% treat reserved for those masochists doing the full-fat Dragon Devil route.)

The roads on the whole were fantastic; a real pleasure compared to the potholed misery of Surrey. There were a couple of areas where resurfacing was underway, but these were short and well signposted. It was nice to see a road sweeper gathering up all the leftover loose chippings, rather than leaving them piled up in the gutter to catch out cyclists! There were a number of cattle grids, but these were well signposted too, though the SLOW warning when climbing was somewhat redundant, given they’re best negotiated at a decent speed.

The food stops were pretty good too, with bananas and excellent roast potatoes supplementing the gels, bars, Haribo and jaffa cakes. The highlight was definitely the stop at Penderyn, where they had a really good selection of savoury wraps. None of the local specialist produce though (Penderyn is Wales’ finest (only?) single malt whisky).

All in all a fabulous day out. I might even come back next year…