Another year of sportives is in full swing. A mainstay of the current cycling boom, these events provide great opportunities for so many riders; they encourage you to cycle in new places, they give you that extra test and you also get to enjoy the full effect of road cycling’s esprit des corps. But with ever more sportives coming on line, the calendar is now looking pretty crowded in places and riders are getting spoilt for choice, so perhaps something a little bit special is now required to get a new event noticed and established.
Well, if there is one relative newcomer to the scene that surely has the qualities to gain plenty of notice and join the ranks of the established it is the Etape Eryri, a mid June event in the cycling paradise of North West Wales.
Organised by Always Aim High Events, the Etape Eryri (the Welsh name for Snowdonia) made its debut last year with over 600 taking part. This year saw double that number turn up. For a very reasonable entry fee, riders are provided with electronic chip timing, well organised feed stations, ample road marshalling and plenty of support vehicles to help out in case of breakdown.
Most of all, you will have the chance to take part in a mass ride in a stunning national park. Yes, you will have to ride uphill a lot, but this is surely one of the best ways to gain a deep impression of the spectacular beauty of the area. If any further recommendation is required, then take note of the wholehearted support provided by Sir Dave Brailsford, who grew up and started his cycling life in Snowdonia. He’s turned up to ride both times and says ‘anyone who’s thinking about doing any event should come down here and do this one, it’s fantastic’.
I’ve been riding in this area for a few years now and can say, without hesitation, that none of the three routes on offer will short change you. The least demanding is the 47 mile Etape Bach. But don’t underestimate the challenge.
This was the choice of Sir Dave this year, who was going round what was effectively his training loop as a youngster. The Etape Canol is a tough 76 miles and my route for the day. Out with my regular sparring partner and fellow chevron hunter of the roads and lanes of North Wales, the Canol would, by my reckoning, throw 7 hard climbs our way, more than enough to quietly get a few things straightened out between us. The big one, attracting the bold majority, is the Etape Mawr, a fabulous 103 miles long with over 1600 metres of climbing.
The ride starts and finishes in the fine venue of Castle Square in Caernarfon, home for the day of a little cycling festival, with live music, food stalls and cycling entertainment. There is also a short family ride to encourage a few youngsters and is free to enter. All riders set off along a coast road then work their way towards the first great highlight of the day, the gorgeous Nantlle Valley.
If it’s clear you’ll have a lovely view of Snowdon framed in the distance as you make your way through the valley. The first big climb is just ahead, Drws y Coed, which the organisers have set up as a timed climb. It’s mostly downhill after here for the next few miles to Beddgelert, where the first feed station is. From here, Etape Bach riders go through, up and then out of beautiful Nant Gwynant then straight up again as they head for the Llanberis Pass, right beside Snowdon, a continual climb of almost four miles.
The rest go in the direction of Ffestiniog, though don’t get there until they have gone up two more climbs, the first of which comes just after Llanfrothen and seems to go in a series of steep steps round a succession of corners and is known locally as The Wall. This is great stuff. The descent can be a bit of a sizzler, with things perhaps capable of running away from you on the final section just past Llyn Mair, if the daredevil I saw overshooting into the pub car park at the bottom was anything to go by.
After climbing again to the feed station at Ffestiniog, the Mawr and Canol riders part company, those doing the 103 mile route heading out for the wilderness past Trawsfynydd, eventually working their way up and over some tough roads to the A5, which they cross at Pentrefoelas. Then it’s up the Nebo road and a descent into Llanrwst. It can be quite a bumpy road as you go down the heavily wooded section of this descent, but things improve about halfway down, when a fantastic view of the valley briefly opens up to your left.
The Canol course riders carry on to Blaenau, then over what I usually find a real exposed slog, the Crimea Pass, a big beast of the area. But the conditions were kind on the day, with only a light wind and a moderate temperature, ideal for this sort of event.
The following breeze on the way up meant that, in the context of the day, this was not the major grind it could have been. And you’re now faced with one of the great descents of the area. It’s an open and relatively straight section of road, so those with the ambition could easily top 80 kph down the other side. Once you’ve reached the bottom of this screamer you can maintain a high pace for a good few miles as the road continues its drop down to Betws y Coed.
It’s at Betws y Coed that the Canol and Mawr riders re-unite. You are, of course, straight away faced with another climb, but this is a more favourable, up-through-the-gears effort that gets you to Capel Curig and another feed station if you want it. You can begin to think of the finish by now with the last landmark climb up to the Llanberis Pass not far away.
Look around once you’ve got to the top for a final great reminder that you’ve been riding through countryside of fantastic proportions. The ride on home from here, about 15 miles, can be quick, though the final ‘sting in the tail’ ascent at Ceunant is there to cause you some inconvenience. At the finish, you ride round Caernarfon castle before you cross the line, a grand way to end I think.
I tickled round on the bike for a shade under five hours. Whilst content with that side of things, I had been alongside a featherweight who had just gone and shed another few kilos, so I wasn’t so much straightened out as flattened as the roads went uphill.
Never mind, I thought, this has to happen now and again, it’s all part of why we are here, then mentally flipped it away as just a private little contest that didn’t really matter. But some congratulations do have to go to Gareth McGuiness, who used his five hours on the bike to solo away and finish the Etape Mawr first; the second time he has done this.
Special mention should also be made of the road marshals who really put in a good shift, cheerful and effective all day. They have rightly received a lot of praise. Well done also to whoever had the idea of giving some spectators cowbells to ring along the course in support, this was inspired. And the speed with which motorcycle support vehicles found me on a couple of the times I was dealing with a minor mechanical was also reassuring. All in all, this had the feel of a very well thought out and well run event.
Set in a place of endlessly breathtaking scenery, it looks like it could develop into something of real substance. ‘A little bit of Welsh magic’ was the apt description I overheard someone give shortly after I’d crossed the line. Let the last words come from Sir Dave Brailsford who said of the organisers ‘I think you guys do an amazing job and have really put the event and the area on the map.’
I think so too. Sir Dave plans to be back next year. If you fancy taking part go to www.etapeeryri.com and check it out. Demand is likely to be high.
Manchester mountain bikers
Your reviewer, John Draper