Cyclo-Sportive: The Dragon Ride

Six years in and the Dragon, voted the nation’s favourite cyclo-sportive continues to thrive. While organiser Lou Lusardi has tweaked and changed the event down the years, the primary aim of providing a great day out as well as a significant physical challenge remains the focus.

This year’s changes saw an extended opening loop provide an early test of the riders’ credentials, through scenic Llantrisant Forest. But at a time when many sportives are simply trying to bludgeon their entrants into submission by making their courses longer and harder, the extra distance (this year’s long ride topped-out at 180 kilometres) was added for a reason.

Mindful of problems at the first feed station last year, the opening loop served to thin out the masses and relieve pressure on the food and drink supplies early on. Riders also noted that the descent through the forest provided a new element to the course – tight, twisty, technical descending. The majority of the Dragon’s 112-mile course is suited to the vast numbers of riders who sign on every year (around 2,500 started this year) and understandably offers wide and sweeping tarmac.

The new section through the forest was anything but and unwary riders were punished with early crashes if they didn’t respect the narrow, gravel-surfaced downhill bends. A series of testing, short hills and thrilling descents then returned the riders to the course proper and the infamous double whammy of the Bwlch and Rhigos mountains which provide entry and exit to the Rhondda Valley.

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Driving against the flow of riders scaling the Rhigos offered amazing sights as a three-mile-long chain of bikes snaked up the climb, neon-bright in the perfect, sunny conditions against a backdrop of the lush green mountains lining the valleys. The split point for the shorter route comes at the bottom of the cannonball-descent to Hirwaun but even the soft option now entails a not insignificant 120 kilometre ride, another result of the extra miles tacked on at the start.

An arduous grind across the Brecon Beacons follows on the long route, offering no respite all the way past the mid-point feed and picturesque Crai Reservoir climb. A brief descent and fast, rolling road along the Glynath bank led to the steep Cymla climb out of Neath, the infamous compression under the viaduct bridge at Pontrhydfen where the riders are forced to contemplate the Bwlch for the second, and this time much harder ascent. It’s a relentless slog through the terraced mining towns of the lower slopes before it steepens and opens out onto the mountain proper a couple of miles from the top. The reward is some spectacular high-speed descending into Nant-y-Moel, the gateway for the largely downhill 12 miles or so to the finish.

As ever the ride was well signed, marshalled and policed by motorcycle escort groups, weather conditions were near perfect with only light headwinds and there were even a few celebrity riders present in the shape of some British paralympians and the Cervélo Test Team rider Dan Lloyd, fresh back from competing in the GiroD’Italia.

All of which added up to a hugely popular event and you couldn’t find a finishing rider anything other than full of praise and beaming smiles. Probably the best Dragon Ride of the six so far, it keeps getting better and it’s hard to see how they can improve on it in the future. But somehow they always seem to.

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My Cyclo-Sportive – Chloe Thomas
06-54-43 (180km route)

This was my second Dragon Ride and I had a score to settle. 12 months ago I had barely begun cycling when I took on the Dragon, and lost. Heavily. Then I hadn’t ridden further than 50 miles in one go and despite getting round the long course in a comparatively respectable time, I took a terrible beating. I cried like a little girl going up the Bwlch it felt so bad.

So this year I had a score to settle and I had come prepared. 12 months more riding experience, the recent Nove Colli in my legs and a newly acquired second category racing licence in my purse. In short I was carrying bigger guns. I was determined to ride fast and I was determined to enjoy it.

It was a superb day, the sky was a perfect blue and the addition of an extra few miles at the start through the idylic Llantrisanrt Forest was beautiful. The short, sharp hill and winding, long decent certainly added a new dimension to the ride, and got the legs going even before we’d hit the first big climb.

The mountains of Bwlch and Rhigos are hard but worth it for the stunning views that left even the most focused riders awestruck. The descending rivaled the Alps for me and provided as much fun as I’ve had on a bike. With hundreds of riders the whole way along the course there was always someone to ride with and the feed stations nicely broke up the ride into four manageable 30-mile chunks.

After the big opening climbs the middle section gave way to a tough, undulating section through the barren moorlands of the Brecon Beacons and Crai Reservoir, with only the sheep to cheer you on. I saw only a handful of cars all ride, mainly on the hill out of Neath and all the junctions were brilliantly managed by marshals and police stopping the traffic for us.

And I didn’t cry the second time up the Bwlch this year. Even when it felt and looked like a never-ending line of riders taking a stairway to some unreachable heaven.

Somehow I even managed to ride the last 17 miles home at a pace I don’t think I could have done in a time trial, mixing it up with some of the fast guys trying to get home in a good time. A fantastic experience which I’d recommend to anyone.

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Sportive Sound Bites

Dan Lloyd 5-47-25 (180km route)
“I wasn’t going all out as I’ve got a short stage race this week to prepare for the national champs in Abergavenny. So I was just riding to a target on the power meter. It’s my first ride and I’ve never seen so many people on bikes, it’s amazing. What a great event, I understand why so many people do sportives now.”

Rob Jeffroy 4-29-28 (120km route)
“I was riding on my own since the split-point and found it quite hard going in the light headwind. I normally do the long ride but I’m using this to get back up to speed after a crash in the Easter three-day race. It was perfect for that, I know the organisation is good here and it didn’t disappoint again today.”

Steven Madeley 4-48-37 (120km route)
“These are my training roads as I live locally but I only did the short ride as I wanted to get back early for lunch. The extra loop at the start was significant, it really reduces your average speed. Last year it was 17.5, this year about 16.9. The slight tail wind up the Bwlch the second time was a relief.”

John Gilling 7-26-52 (180km route)
“Wow, what an amazing ride. It was my first time and the hills were spectacular. Even the car-drivers seemed to be courteous. I’m training for the Etape and I learned that I should have taken some savoury food. No complaints it was a great event.”