Voted the UK’s most popular sportive and with all 3,000 places selling out in 48 hours, the Dragon Ride is one of those must-do cycling events.
Offering the Corto 40km, Medio 130km or Gran Fondo 190km routes it features tough climbs that, although far shorter, mimic those of the Alps, making it a prefect testing ground for riders who will be heading off to the Etape or Marmotte.
The forecast was good, maybe a slight chance of a shower, so I was a little worried by the dark skies above as I packed the car. Last thing I wanted was to get wet before the start.
Approaching the HQ, I was directed to an overflow car park, and as I would find out later, this saved me upwards of 30 minutes’ queuing, as everyone had decided to arrive at the same time.
I got my kit on in the car park under the now rapidly darkening skies, applying arm-warmers and a cap instead of the planned sunscreen and headed off, filtering through the Premier Inn car park to the start area.
Groups of 100 riders were set off at precisely two-minute intervals, and 16 minutes after the lead group left I was on the road, and thankfully still dry.
Using experience gained from previous sportives, I went to the front of our group, put it in the big ring and forced the pace to see who would come with me. Each bunch I passed, I picked up riders and dropped others, each short climb honing the selection further, so by the time it rounded the corner, after the opening 14 per cent section on the Bwlch a strong set of riders had formed.
There were four of us at the core and for the majority of the day we were a tight unit and no longer individuals. Composed of myself, a rider from Big Foot Bikes in Kent, a triathlete from London Dynamo and the fourth member I can only identity as the rider in the Giant kit.
The Big Foot rider set a fierce pace up the Bwlch and then again up Rhigos, a pace the rest of us could match but not better, so we just hung on, glued to his wheel.
Over the top of the mighty Rhigos we bypassed the first feed point and dropped down to Hirwaun, where the Medio and Gran Fondo routes separate.
The course now headed into the Brecon Beacons and was just beautiful. Long gentle climbs through epic, awe-inspiring scenery on near-perfect tarmac. For the next 60 kilometres we were visitors in sheep country, as we slowly reeled in a handful of solitary riders, glad of the company on the lonely, exposed roads.
Upon reaching the furthest feed stop at the top of the climb from Cray, minus our triathlete, we filled our bidons and I attended to a loose bottle cage, losing valuable time. Then it was back on the pace, sharing the work and pressing on.
Once we joined the medio route again our peace was broken and we were back among the mêlée of riders. We ploughed through group after group, picking up passengers all the way to Cimla. We shot up the short, harsh ascent to the final feed stop and were back to three riders again.
We didn’t stop, although I didn’t have much liquid but pressed on, heading to the Bwlch for the second time. It was here that our group finally fragmented.
A brutal turn by the Giant rider, in a gear that made my eyes water, shelled the man from Kent and distanced me, but as soon as he was away he tied up, I caught him, passed him, and drove on alone. I’d suffered on the early ascents, but now I’d found my climbing legs.
I was loving this climb and over the top I was straight in the big ring and racing for home, although it was still a long way off. However, I imagined I was Fabian Cancellara, pounding his way to victory in the Tour of Flanders, I stuck it in the 13 sprocket and drove as hard as I could.
My legs felt like pistons, and I never let off the gas for a moment – there wasn’t a second to be wasted. I almost rode the last 5km like a pursuit, determined to leave everything on the road, and I did, finishing with a sprint for the line.
The weather had held off, not a drop of rain had fallen and we’d seen plenty of the sun. I was desperate for water and found a bowser with a hosepipe attached.
The finish area was a jumble of bodies and bikes, riders’ faces caked in salt and their bikes covered in sticky energy gels, we’d all fought the Dragon and we had all beaten it.
What’s so special… Bwlch
The Dragon’s prized possession is the Bwlch. This mountain boasts not two but three climbs to its peak, and the Dragon has the two hardest. They bookend the toughest part of the route, if you’re fresh when you hit the first ascent you certainly won’t be when you return.