Sunday, 14th June
Dragon Ride, Wales. 117.41 miles.
A week of barbeque dinners and drunken debauchery is hardly the preparation of a professional cyclist, yet a diet of burgers, lard and beer preceded my Dragon Ride. Since I’m not a professional cyclist, I didn’t see this as a problem, and I had been attacking my daily grub with similar spirit to that shown by Carlos Sastre on 2008 climb of l’Alpe d’Huez. A few ales on the preceding evening seemed like a good idea at the time.
The resulting following morning’s early start was greeted with the contempt that all early starts, with the exception of those necessary for an outbound holiday journey, are held in. I managed to force-feed myself with a couple of crumpets and a mug of tea, load the bikes onto the back of the car, and make the hour-long journey, in the company of my brother, Patrick, to Chris’s hotel in Bridgend before I was truly capable of speech.
After much messing about with the appalling BikeHut track pump, fumbling with cable-ties for fastening race numbers to bikes, and sharing out bananas, the three of us set out for the start line. Adding an extra four and a half miles to the day wasn’t really the sort of warm-up I’m used to, normally settling for a cup of tea and some light banter, and the legs felt like they were filled with runny brie as we made our rolling start from Pencoed Technology Park.
It wasn’t long before the road started to point skywards, and I started to go backwards. I confess that I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention to the signage, but I think it may have been at the foot of the Bwlch when I was dropped. Patrick, being far fitter than either Chris or myself, disappeared around a left-hand bend, and Chris, making up for his lack of fitness by having a proportionate lack of weight, went with him. I decided, right there and then, that I was going to ride at my own pace, well within myself, and make it to the finish line alive.
The ascent of the Bwlch was closely followed by the hair-pinned climb of the Rhigos, where the road rose steadily upwards and the riders climbed to the ringing sounds of Tour de France-esque cow-bells, and the shutter of Phil O’Connor Photography’s Nikkon, permanently recording the drained faces of the riders for posterity and, presumably, for Phil O’Connor’s wallet.
The sight of the first feed station at the top of the Rhigos was a welcome sight and, despite over a hundred riders milling around with jam tarts, bananas, and High 5 energy drink, Patrick and Chris were spotted near a burger van. Like a moth to a flame, my attention was immediately drawn to the wafting smells of the hot plate, so it was probably the best place for them to stand and wait. The crumpets and cup of tea had long since been used and, despite my better judgement, a dirty burger was consumed, and was relished with relish. Duly poisoned with the filthy fast food (the onions were sweaty enough to have come directly from a rugby player’s jockstrap), and having had the ladies’ bottoms that Chris thought we should attempt to follow next, and a rider with a prosthetic leg, pointed out by him, we headed for the wonderfully fast descent of the Rhigos.
The barely-cooked patty of ground-up cow’s lips and hooves had failed to provide me with any kind of nutrition whatsoever, and it wasn’t long before I found myself off the back, once again, for a long and lonely slog across the windswept Brecon Beacons National Park with only the sheep for company. After about ten miles of watching the wheel of the bike in front, from it’s permanent distance of about three hundred feet beyond my reach, I could’ve thrown the towel in, except I didn’t have a towel, or know where to throw it if I did. Now, I’ve seen what happens on the telly. I’ve been watching telly’s for years. On the telly, I pull over at the side of the road, get off my bike, the numbers are peeled from my jersey and I get into the team car or the voiture balai and hide from the cameras. Out in the Brecon Beacons, there was no team car, nor a television crew filming my sorry abandonment. Until the motorcycle cameraman turned up, I’d just have to plug away.
If there was any fluid left in my ravaged body by the time I reached the second feed station at the top of the Cray, I could’ve cried tears of joy at the sight of both Patrick and Chris. Not because I was all that pleased to see them, per se, but more for the fact that I was riding much closer to them than I had thought. Patrick’s greeting amounted to, “Oh hello. I’m just going. Bye!”, and so he did, proving that it wasn’t him, but Chris that I was close to on the road. Chris sat rocking on the grass banking by the roadside, repeatedly muttering “this isn’t fun” and “never again” to himself. I grabbed a refill of High5, and joined him on the banking.
After twenty minutes of being thoroughly abused for “forcing” Chris to enter the Dragon Ride, we hit the road again. The descent off the Cray provided us with long sweeping descents, and something that almost resembled a flat road. We rode together on the ascent of Coelbren, with Chris’s moaning only silenced by distance. On the run-in to Neath, we became separated by my need to hide behind a tree, and he (probably) didn’t hear me saying anything. It didn’t matter. Chris had done plenty of moaning about how rough he felt, and it was to have a rejuvenating effect on me.
Once into the old Roman town of Neath, the climb of the Cimla stood in the way of the third feed station, where a number of sunburnt cyclists lay about on either side of the road, many looking back down the hill for friends, relatives, or the next bottom to follow. Chris was waiting in the latter group, eagerly checking out the rear end of anyone that still had a pulse, and we joined forces once again for the second ascent of the Bwlch. The western face of the Bwlch, from the Afan valley, is reputedly the harder of the climbs, and felt decidedly alpine, with it’s sheer drop to one side, and a number of riders ground to a halt, keeling over sideways in front of me. Chris didn’t make more than a hundred yards on me on the ascent, and was in sight at the summit.
On the last climb of the day, the short climb of Llangenor, Chris disappeared for the final time. I couldn’t turn the pedals over at any great rate on the incline, so I tried to make up my deficit on the flat road to the finish. I passed a man on a unicycle, and finally rolled into Pencoed after a spirited chase, only seventeen seconds down on the much younger and skinnier Chris. I’d finished the Dragon Ride, but I’d been beaten by both of my companions. Oh, and the one-legged man beat me too.
Fatman: Pinarello Paris with full 9-speed Ultegra and Mavic Open Pros
Chris: Wilier Mortirolo Carbon with full 10-speed Veloce and Fulcrum R7s
Patrick: Some Orbea thing with 9-speed 105, and Ultegra compact chainset