DISTANCE 59 miles (95km)
MAIN CLIMB Bwlch and Rhigos
TOTAL CLIMB 1,100 metres
ACHTUNG! Descent of the Bwlch is fast

The Dragon Ride will be five years old in 2008, and the course that organiser Lou Lusardi has prepared will really get you breathing fire if you do it.

“We’ve made it more compact; it will be slightly more intense and certainly it has more climbing,” he told me, shortly before we set off for a taste of what’s in store on June 15 next year.

“We’ve cut some of the flat bits, and mindful of a problem that was beginning to cause concern, that of riders jumping red traffic lights, we’ve changed the finish so that there are none in the last few miles,” says Lusardi.

Instead of starting and finishing in Bridgend the ride begins and ends almost next to junction 35 of the M4 at Pencoed College. A short ride across a common called Heol-y-Cyw — “It means road of the chicken,” says Lusardi — and you hit the first climb after just 15 miles.

That’s the Bwlch, a regular in the training runs of top local pros Nicole Cooke, Magnus Backstedt and Geraint Thomas. The climb is at the top of the Ogmore Valley, which like all the Welsh valleys was once home to the bustle and clang of coal mines, but is now a quiet place where nature is trying to reclaim the past.

“This valley isn’t doing too badly I think,” says Lusardi when I ask how much work there is here now that the collieries have gone. “Bridgend has a lot of new businesses but higher up in the valleys, in places like Merthyr, things aren’t so good.”


Valley welcome
The Bwlch is in a benevolent mood, if a little foggy on top. From the summit the route descends into the Rhondda Valley at Treorchy, home of one of the most famous male voice choirs in the world, and over the next climb, the Rhigos. Then it’s down into Hirwaun. “It means long meadow,” Lusardi points out.

This is where the Dragon Ride splits, the 120-kilometre Medio Fondo turns left and goes to the Vale of Neath, and the 180-kilometre Gran Fondo continues north into the Brecon Beacons. The Italian word ‘fondo’ gives some indication of Lusardi’s inspiration for the events: “It was the Gran Fondos I took part in, in Italy during the mid-Nineties. As you might guess from my name, I’ve got some family in Italy, and it was on visits to them that I found out about and took part in Italian cyclo-sportives like the Gran Fondo Barilla.

“I came into cycling from football, because I had a doctor who said that cycling would be good for a knee injury I’d picked up. I did a lot of mountain biking and raced in the National Points Series, but the Gran Fondos were something else. Being in big fields of 7,000 or so riders and having people out cheering you on was such a great experience. You feel like a pro for the day. So it got me wondering if we could create the same in Britain.”

Sportive boom
Lusardi, and many similarly inspired organisers, have created something similar in Britain. Cyclo-sportives are booming, but Lusardi isn’t resting on his laurels. “I’m conscious of what happened with mountain biking. In the mid-1980s it went ballistic, but that has all but fizzled out.

“Right now things are looking good for road sportives. We have the backing of the police, even though they were a bit sceptical at first. I think that the next thing we have to concentrate on is involving the local community more. We have a lot of local volunteers, and they all get paid for their time, but I want to put things on at the finish area for locals. This year we are going to do something with British Cycling’s Go-Ride scheme. I want to create a local feelgood factor about the event.”

Riders on both the Gran and Medio Fondos will be feeling good when they reach Glyn-neath. The two routes join together here for a fairly flat run down to Neath. But there’s a sting in the tail after that, starting with a tough slog up Nant Clima. From there, the route descends into the Afan Valley at Pontrhydyfen, the birthplace of actor Richard Burton.

“The riders will do the Bwlch again, from the west side, then they will descend the Ogmore Valley to the foot of a new climb in the Dragon Ride, Llangeinor mountain,” says Lusardi. Today though, we miss out those climbs.

Turning from the mountain bike friendly Afan, we go through Maesteg and back to the edge of Bridgend to complete a 59-mile taster that is quite enough for the end of November, thank you.

Open entry
Entries for the Dragon Ride open just before Christmas at www.dragonride.co.uk, but hurry because places are usually all gone in three to four weeks. “We do offer an entry transfer scheme, though,” Lusardi points out.

The Dragon Ride is also one of the few cyclo-sportives that does event registration by post. “We take on board any criticism and one thing that came out of the first few rides was that people who lived in Bristol, say, who don’t need to stop in South Wales overnight, weren’t happy about coming over the day before to register, so we send all our ride packs out through the post,” Lusardi says.

With constant refinements like that, Lusardi hopes one day to get UCI Golden Bike series status. “They are quite rightly pernickety, and maybe we aren’t ready for it yet. We need to do more to make the day a whole family event for example, but I think we can get in the Golden Bike in the next few years. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway,” Lusardi tells me.

YOUR GUIDE: LOU LUSARDI
* Aged 52, lives in Bridgend, works as a cycle officer for Cardiff Council, where as well as his own budget for schemes he offers input from a cycling perspective on all highway plans
* Organisational background comes from organising and competing in motor sports events. Cycling specialisation comes from being a CTC campaigns officer
* Runs Breakaway Cycling Holidays in his spare time
* Dragon Ride works closely with the Cape Argus cyclo-sportive in South Africa, which Lusardi rides each year, and with the Melbourne ‘Bay in a Day’ ride


WHICH WAY?
From junction 36 head north on the A4061. Turn left (TL) in Treorchy, still following the A4061. TL on the outskirts of Hirwaun on an unclassified to Glyn-neath. Join the B4242 and head south-west towards Neath. Just before Neath TL onto A4109 and TL again onto the B4434. In Tonna turn right (TR) onto the B4287. In Pontrhydyfen TL onto the A4107. In Cymer TL onto the A6063 and back to start.

RELATED LINKS
Dragon Ride 2006 review

EXTERNAL LINKS
Dragon Ride: www.dragonride.co.uk.