The Dragon Ride. You’ve heard of it right? It’s that sportive in South Wales. The one which organiser Lou Lusardi has been touting as the UK’s future entry into the UCI’s official pantheon of global super-sportives, the ‘Golden Bike Series’.

The ride has been growing steadily towards meeting Lusardi’s dream, and will probably achieve it sometime during the next couple of seasons. Last year he had 650 riders roll out of the start in Bridgend. This year a massive 1,500 riders had signed up via the website and filled the capacity in a matter of days of going online in early January. With this impressive growth the event is clearly heading rapidly in the right direction.

As were the early waves of 50-strong groups departing the Bridgend Recreation Centre in five-minute intervals. This was only my second sportive in 2005 but one year on, I’ve learned a lot and remembered well the damage this ride inflicted on my mind and legs 12 months ago. On that day, searing heat and a course grand in its scope had conspired to dwarf the 650-strong field into small, tatterdemalion groups or solo riders. Cramp was an early companion. Misjudging the distance and early speed was a mistake that I was determined not to repeat this time out.

Sunny beginnings
Warm sunshine at the start doesn’t disguise the fact that the temperature is greatly reduced from last year’s 30°C+ inferno. The temperature may not be so hot but the early pace is, and immediately the effect of the increased numbers in the field becomes obvious. Starting about fifth wave back I enter the new section of the course, a scenic seaside loop around Porthcawl, in a fast moving peloton, only to be confronted with another peloton coming the other way, having finished their circuit of the town.

The 70-odd riders opposite are in a formation familiar to anyone who races on the road. Instead of a nice orderly bunch (riding at this point with rolling road closure police escort) they are in a single line which is starting to fragment as a result of the guys at the front setting a tempo virtually unattainable to any of the following pack. In short, less than 10 miles into a hilly 100-miler, these guys have their ears pinned back and are going for it. Majorly!

I swear under my breath that I won’t get dragged into this kind of behaviour so early in the season but as we roll along lanes approaching Margam and Port Talbot, a look ahead on the road reveals dozens of small pelotons forming, breaking up and reforming as riders play a game of sportive chess, trying to find groups similar enough in ability to their own.

It’s an awesome sight. Pockets of brightly-clad cyclists visually jarring with the vibrant green fields and hedgerows, stretching as far ahead as the eye can see. Unfortunately it’s also an invitation to go ill-advisedly fast, as every time you gain a group, there is another target waiting to be chased down ahead. The early steep slope before Cimla (just after Richard Burton’s house) reminds everyone that there’s some serious climbing in store, and all but the fittest or most foolhardy pay respect and slow up considerably.

Roller coaster
After a 40mph descent in traffic, a couple of bends to circumnavigate the town of Neath and some Sunday-driver congestion around the local Sainsburys, we enter the ride proper on the high-speed roller coaster of the vale of Neath.

If you have local knowledge you realise that all the mountains you can see looming up out of the mist, miles in the distance, are mountains that you’re going to be spending the next few hours riding over.

It’s a daunting sight and several riders in our bunch are clearly worrying about what is to come. After the Glyneath feed station it’s time to start climbing properly as the road rears up first to Abercraf than past the Dan-yr-Ogof caves and the Cray Reservoir in a series of energy-sapping, draggy climbs, which stretch for miles into the distance like a meandering grey river bisecting the lush green landscape.

The scenery here is staggering and combined with the numbing sensation in your legs from the constant uphill gradient, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re on some alpine pass.

Unfortunately the sunshine at low altitude has given way to a dull grey overhead canopy and it’s clear that rain is going to be an issue at some point later in the ride. But it’s on this section that the increased number of riders really plays a part. Last year along here there were groups of one or two riders picking their way along, toiling miserably into a stiflingly hot headwind just trying to keep a decent momentum. This year there are huge groups of riders to work off.

Racing teams and clubs are testing their climbing ability and there are all sorts of tempos and tactics being utilised. This is the first time a sportive in the UK has truly resembled some of the European ‘classics’ in terms of rider numbers. Last year’s mind-numbing attrition is replaced by an enjoyable, fast, streamlined group sweeping up everything in its path as target after target is chased down.

At the bottom, after a high-speed descent on wide roads approaching the half-way point of Dyfynog, the questioning starts. Dragon virgins are aware that pretty soon we’re going to hit the ‘nameless climb’ after Sennybridge. The riders around me have all heard of it, but none have been up there, they’re nervous. “How far is it?” “How hard is it?,” “How long is it?” And “How bad is it?”

It’s bad. Particularly as a group of quality racers have joined us just before the rolling approach roads and the speed has ramped up accordingly. It’s the usual suspects, a small group from local(ish) club Cwmcarn Paragon. I see these boys a lot on Welsh sportives and they know only one way to ride: they’re fast and smooth and it’s always a pleasure to ride among them, but the price you pay can be high if you try to hang on and you’re not up to it. They tear into the narrow lanes along the valley floor with the Brecon Beacons looming up on the left.

Carnage on the road
We hit the lower slopes of the climb and there’s carnage immediately as riders who, just moments before, were flying along are suddenly grovelling at about 8mph. Then it gets worse as the left hairpin gets ladder-steep on the higher section to the top hairpin at about 25 per cent. Suddenly hundreds of riders are whittled down to a handful.

Then there are only two of us, me and one of the guys from the Paragon. Over the top he slows up and his clubmates catch up for the high-speed descent through narrow valley roads lined with sheep to the village of Ystradfellte. It’s insane, over 35mph along a six-foot wide, twisting, downhill road, just centimetres from the noses of grazing sheep.

Fortunately the fresh mutton and lamb holds its station and doesn’t venture onto the road. I can climb with the Cwmcarn guys but no way can I hold onto them on the flat and finish the ride alive, so they disappear into the distance.

I’ve got about 40 miles to go at this point, over the two big climbs of Rhigos and Bwlch and the prospect of a solo, home-run from that point would normally be very daunting, but these are my local roads and I know what’s coming. With no sign of the cramp that afflicted me at this point last year I resign myself to a long, hilly time trial and head for the Rhigos.

A wall of drizzle meets me on the lower slopes, ruining the scenic vista, but actually feeling pleasantly cooling in the heat of the climb. Views over the Llyn Reservoir are epic as the road gets higher and I’m passing lots of riders on the higher slopes.

I’m in some kind of zone over the top, feeling strong and focused despite riding solo into the wind and drizzle. I know the descent well, if I stopped and peered over the edge, hundreds of feet below I’d see my parent’s house nestling in the Rhondda valleys’ highest former mining village. Some riders have stopped, using the amazing view as an excuse to recuperate, but I’m on a mission.

The descent is treacherous in the wet conditions and I get cold long before the bottom. Shivering sets in and all sorts of mental weirdness is taking place in my head after close on five hours of hard riding in the hills. Riding through the traffic on the floor of the Rhondda valley I catch a group of five good-looking riders making the turn to start the final climb of the Bwlch, and things warm up.

They’re looking up at the wall of rock with some trepidation, but I know that the top represents the last of the day’s climbing and the reward is a howling descent through the Ogmore Vale to the finish. Still free form cramp I decide to give it everything on the climb and attack it all the way up.

Crowds on the hillside
It’s a draining climb the Bwlch, and it’s easy to let your attention wander to the incredible views down the valley as you scale it. At the top, hoards of people gathered round the viewpoint have switched their attention to the riders struggling up to the summit and their applause is a welcome psychological lift. The descent is what you live for as a cyclist. Nant-y-Moel, Pricetown and Lewistown flash past in a blur of speed as a kind of tunnel vision sets in and I’m thinking of nothing other than riding the next 12 miles as fast as possible.

The closer we get to sea level the more the sun is shining and the temperature is beginning to soar. I hook up with a small group of riders but they aren’t going fast enough to help me. Just as I’m about to enter another lengthy stint of solo riding the cavalry arrives from behind, three riders, one of whom is impossibly strong this far into the ride. He sits on the front and taps out close on 30mph for the majority of the remaining ride. One by one the other two get blown out but there’s no way I’m losing a ticket to a free ride of that quality, and I stay with him to the outskirts of Bridgend.

There we meet a group of riders stalled at red lights and contest the inevitable unnecessary sprints to various town signs at stupid speeds through heavily congested traffic.

After just shy of 5.5 hours’ riding time I roll in and the atmosphere in the finishing area is buzzing. There’s the usual range of tall tales from heroic rides to appalling suffering, but everyone is beaming having finished one of the toughest courses on the UK sportive calendar. A brief chat to the organisers reveals that due to the World Cup quarterfinal being played on the same day (between England and Ecuador), as many as 400 of the original start list didn’t take the line.

Next year’s event promises to grow even further and there are some interesting developments to the route planned. Look out for details in the next few issues of Cycling Weekly.

THE ROUTE
Long ride:162km (100.66miles)
3,370metres climbing
Short Ride: 107km (66.48miles)
2,307metres climbing

Leaving Bridgend the ride heads south to the seaside town of Porthcawl before heading inland to Pyle, Margam and Port Talbot along the A48. Turn right at Taibach and left onto the 4107 signposted Afan Valley. Left down steep decent signed Cymla and Neath. After Neath take B242 to Glyneath then left, signed Abercraf. Right at Abercraf past Cray Reservoir towards Sennybridge. Turn right at Defynog and right again, signed Heol Senni. Turn left in narrow lanes, climb then descend to Ystradfellte. Left turn, climb out of the valley and descend to Penderyn then Hirwaun.

Right then left onto Rhigos mountain road. Climb and descend to Treherbert. Follow Rhondda Valley main road to Treorci, turn right towards Cwmparc then left and right to ascend Bwlch mountain road. Straight on past observation point at top and descent to Nant-y-Moel. Left at small roundabout at bottom of descent then straight on on A4061 signed Blackmill and Bridgend. At Bryncethin turn left and immediately right for short climb to Coity, then left and straight across big roundabout to Bridgend.

DRAGON RIDE 2007
Next year the Dragon Ride is hoping to attract a massive 2,225 riders and entries go online at www.dragonride.co.uk shortly after Christmas. Watch the website for details as the event is likely to sell out quickly. The Dragon Ride website has already been updated to accommodate 2007 details and the ride takes place on June 24, but the course has yet to be finalised.

This article originally appeared in Cycling Weekly October 19, 2006