Ride Report: Dragon Ride l’Etape Wales
Can a UK sportive really offer a riding experience that’s comparable to European Gran Fondos? Providing some of the finest scenery and most fearsome climbs the UK has to offer, Emily Chappell thinks it most definitely can…
What? The UK’s longest sportive – 305km and nearly 4,000m of climbing.
Where? The small-but-perfectly-formed mountain ranges of South Wales.
Why? You’d have to go a long way (i.e. across the Channel) to find an event this big – in all senses.
The Dragon Ride has been running for 16 years and takes riders through some of Wales' most beautiful mountain scenery, with route options of 100km, 151km, 223km and 305km.
If you’re in to bagging cols, this is definitely one for you, with riders getting to tick off Rhigos, Bwlch and Black Mountain, as well as tackling the leg-busting gradients of the Devil's Elbow (average 10.3%) and the Devil's Staircase (12.5%, with a short section of 29%).
I was only the 29th woman ever to complete the 305km Dragon Devil - but with more and more women realising that the long-distance is their thing, I suspect there'll be many more in 2019.
We started off easily enough, with the long steady climbs of Rhigos and The Bwlch, but after a 90km warm-up we hit the first of two timed climbs – the Devil’s Elbow and the Devil’s Staircase.
Keen to capitalise on this apparent theme, the organisers had invited Didi ‘The Devil’ Senft (the Tour de France’s most recognisable fan) over from Germany to wave us off from the start line and cheer us on as we struggled up the Elbow’s 17% gradients.
I’d opted for the 305km Dragon Devil route (you could also go for the 223km Gran Fondo, the 151km Medio Fondo, or the Macmillan 100km), which was the only route to take in the Devil’s Staircase.
The Devil’s Staircase, with its famous 30% bend that even Simon Warren (of 100 Climbs fame) describes as “almost unrideable”, would be a challenge on any ride, but putting it at the halfway point of today’s outing, meaning that riders reached it with over 100 miles already in their legs, verged on the sadistic. I made it up without walking.
Judging by the wide variations in people’s times (some took over 20 minutes to cover less than 2k), I suspect others weren’t so lucky.
Once we’d conquered that beast, we were rewarded with a swooping rollercoaster of a road alongside glistening blue Llyn Brianne, then a gentle descent along blossoming country lanes back to Llandovery, shortly before we rejoined the Gran Fondo route.
All that was left to tackle was the Black Mountain, which offered wide-reaching views of the rolling hills of Mid Wales and a slow line of brightly clad cyclists making their weary way up the windswept switchbacks.
Oh, but wait – what’s this? The Dragon has a sting in its tale. After we’d descended off the mountain and back into civilisation and reassured ourselves that we had less than 30 miles to go, we encountered a short urban climb that went round a corner and …kept going. And going. And going.
Cimla Hill comes in the final hour of the Dragon Ride, just when ill-prepared rouleurs (such as myself) might be winding up the pace and thinking about a finish line sprint.
This additional peach ensures that there’s not a single rider who doesn’t reach the end utterly spent, and pathetically grateful for the pint of (non-alcoholic) beer they’re handed as they cross the finish line.
The glorious Welsh scenery – long panoramic climbs, endless views, tiny winding lanes, and hefty doses of that middle-of-nowhere feeling; the sunny weather - challenging the myth that it always rains in Wales; and the company. I chatted with so many lovely people on the way round the Devil route – there’s a comforting solidarity in knowing that you’re all pushing hard together in a challenge that will see every rider struggle at some point. It was a nice touch to have people’s names printed on their bib numbers – somehow, it made us feel like we were all already friends, as well as avoiding that ‘god, what did he say his name was?’ moment that I’m sure we’re all familiar with.
The route signing was another high point. Usually this is something you only notice if it goes wrong, but on the Dragon ride it stood out because it was so good.
As well as junctions and dangerous descents, Human Race gave us warning of upcoming climbs, cattle grids, narrowing roads, and even rough surfaces, as well as the points where the different routes split and merged. It may sound like overkill, but this attention to detail played its part in making riders feel confident, safe and well-supported, and even psychologically, that’s worth its weight in gold.
The bail-out point, where I could have turned left and ‘only’ done the Gran Fondo route (223km). I was feeling so tired and slow and grumpy after this that for the next few miles I wished I’d taken it. (The extra 70km loop through the Cambrian mountains re-energised me though – it’s impossible to remain lethargic when grinding up 25% climbs.)
The feed stops were spot on. The roast potatoes (with salt and rosemary) were a highlight for many of us, and made a refreshing change to the endless pastry products I usually shovel in on sportives.
There was a good choice of pocket food (sweet, savoury, protein-enhanced, sugar-free), and the obligatory piles of jelly babies – which went surprisingly well with a couple of mouthfuls of roast potato at the 160-mile mark, and got me through my final sprint.
The only thing lacking was a coffee cart – a hit of espresso would have been a godsend at some of the feed stops.
I got away with it this time, and I suspect this ride is gentler on the posterior than many. What it inflicts on riders in duration (and in this year’s case, heat), it makes up for in time spent out of the saddle (some of the climbs are so steep you’ll wheely if you don’t stand up), which lets the blood flow to parts that might otherwise be painfully compressed.
Don’t forget your sun cream.
A good long rest! The Dragon Ride showed me that my fitness is where I want it to be, but I’m still carrying some fatigue after a few weeks of big miles. And I need to make sure I’m ready to lead Le Loop next month.
The practical advice
Don’t do what I did and race up the first couple of hills, only to find yourself exhausted by the halfway point.
But if you do, salty roast potatoes and jelly babies combined make the best energy food I’ve ever tried.
There are some long draggy sections towards the middle of the route, which, if there’s a headwind, can be as morale-sapping as any climb. This is an excellent time to find a group, tuck in behind someone strong, and practise your wheelsucking.
Don’t skip the Llandovery feed stop (before the 70km Devil’s Staircase loop), as I saw many people do. I almost followed them, but by the time I arrived for the second time (the route loops back and revisits the same feed stop) I was dizzy and shaky and worrying that I’d have to stop for a lie-down in a hedge. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if I’d left even longer between breaks.
Lauryn Hill’s ‘Doo-Wop (That Thing)’, Santigold’s ‘Disparate Youth’, and The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’.
Is it for you?
This is the biggest sportive you’ll find in the UK, so if you have your eye on something like l’Etape du Tour, or the Mallorca 312, it’s a good chance to see how you’ll cope with a big hilly ride before you commit to travelling all that way.
And if, on the day, it turns out you’re not feeling as energetic as you’d hoped, there are shorter routes on offer. Saying that, ‘shorter’ is most definitely a relative term here, as 223km and 151km still qualify as big days out in my book.
Finally, the organisation really is top-notch – it’s almost as if Human Race know how frazzled and bewildered people can get a hundred miles into a ride. The signage is generous, the marshals were attentive, the feed stops were banquets, and every little detail had been thought of. If you make the Dragon Ride one of your big challenges for 2019, you’ll be in safe hands.
General entries to the Dragon Ride L’Etape Wales 2019 will open in September at the early bird price. There will be a rush to purchase one of the limited number of these places at the best price, and they are likely to sell out in the first couple of days. Pre-register your interest to keep updated.
If you can’t wait until next June, you can take part in our other L’Etape UK event; TP ICAP L’Etape London on Sunday 23rd September. Starting at the Lee Valley Velo Park, the “sprinters sportive” will take you out to beautiful Essex countryside. Secure your place, and test your legs on the three closed road sprint sections for the chance to take home an official Tour de France green jersey.
Read about Emily’s Mallorca 312 experience here