2015 - Wiggle Dragon

Report courtesy of Andy Flint - Sunday 7th June

So having signed up 9 months ago and set my sights on doing ‘the big one’, billed by many commentators as one of the hardest Sportives of the year, I found myself at the start still wishing I had shed that half stone and wondering what was left in my legs after the Chiltern 100 the weekend before!  That said, I was quietly reassured that my build up had gone to plan and so the legs were ready...

On putting this one in the 2015 calendar I decided that I had to get the miles (and hills) in the legs in the course of the first half of 2015 so I would have half a chance of enjoying it!  I therefore completed all 5 reliability rides in January and February (they were cold and hard graft), took on the Lionheart (what a pig of a climb) and the Burgess Hill Classic (more hills and so much wind) in March, completed over 650 miles in Mallorca on the VCC training camp (gorgeous) in April, took on and almost lost to the Dartmoor Demon (cold, wet, windy and down-right foul), and then completed the London Cycle Sportive (great), the 2 day London Revolution (even better) and our very own Chiltern 100 (back to foul) in May and so finally the Dragon was here.

Joining up with Kate Gannon, Phil Mann, Mike Large and Philip Cork what could go wrong?! Turns out a mixed group (Gran Fondo and Medio) had to start at the later time despite our readiness some hour and a half earlier.  Let’s face it, the Gran Fondo is 146 miles, so every minute (in fact every hour) counts!  Given Philip and I were the two Medio riders it looked like we would have to let our VCC colleagues head away and leave us to fill time on what was turning out to be a quite beautiful day.  This of course didn’t appeal!  However, officialdom was in full force, which is perhaps understandable considering some 5,500 riders were being let loose on the open roads of South Wales.  After some ‘discussion’ we realised that officialdom was not going to yield... Fortunately, we then learnt an up-grade was an option (for an extra Fiver) at the information booth.  Philip and I duly signed up for the Gran Fondo and carrying our now orange ‘number plates’ our group was ready to roll.  After the Human Race promise we rolled out to take on the mighty Dragon.

Given the early start, our group had stayed over-night in Goytre, some 5 miles from the start in what was a somewhat minimalist and very budget version of what I imagine a Haven holiday camp to be like!  An extra 5 miles each way meant we rode to and from the start and as we made our way to our engagement with officialdom we noted a certain Mr Andrew Hunt rolling out in splendid VCC colours the other way – apparently he had a great ride (Medio) and managed to get home in time to see Wiggo set his new world record, some achievement!

The ride itself takes a route out of the grounds of Margom Park and on down to Port Talbot and then through and up into the valleys!  A key feature of the ride is the length of the climbs, which whilst never peaking in elevation at anything too scary do go on and on (and on, and on).  Up of course has its benefits and long climbs are followed by long descents with sweeping turns that make for a heady rush.  Good job we had these descents as this meant I could catch up with my fellow Gran Fondo cyclists who were pushing a strong pace.  They were keen to make good progress as their 146 mile ride was clearly going to take a good few hours more than my Medio 96 mile poor relation, so I was frequently off the back and only sighting VCC colours from afar until nature and my added pounds helped me claw back lost time!

The ride was certainly busy but it never felt crowded and every rider was very friendly.  Many shouts of “Go Verulam” were followed by conversations with people commenting on their previous weeks Chiltern 100 experience (easily summerised as wet!) whilst one guy from High Wycombe was determined to tell me about another hill that was not on the Chiltern 100 route but was in his view, the hardest hill in the Chilterns.  But could I fathom where it was, not a chance!  Fortunately another ascent arrived that meant his frustration was replaced by the need to breath and not talk!

Compared to the weekend before, where we braved wind and rain to master the Chiltern 100, the Dragon gave us many challenges but all delivered on a glorious day that simply got better and better.  Even the Devil’s Elbow couldn’t put a dampener on our spirits, despite its seemingly vertical nature.  In fact, looking ahead as you make your way towards the horseshoe corner, the riders ahead of you do appear to be climbing a near vertical wall and the sense of impending doom plays with the mind and drives a growing urge to un-clip!  I succumbed and released my left foot to avoid the panic that otherwise is over-whelming, but on arriving at the corner whilst the gradient is severe the legs kept pumping and progress was steady.  Breathing hard I found myself making headway despite 3 support vehicles blocking 90% of the road and going slower than me!  This, in hindsight, was perhaps helpful as I felt the need to push on past them.  Despite having to take the inner side of the corner, front wheel lifting precariously as I stood and stamped out some critical pedal turns, the adrenalin of the moment helped and I found myself passing all 3 vehicles and a number of riders too and, thankfully the top arrived before I ran out of breath!
After the Devil’s Elbow the sense of achievement was high, the road felt like it was going down even though it was still going up and the ride on from this point to the next feed station passed quickly and meant I arrived only a minute or so behind my Gran Fondo companions.

The next phase of the ride took us on through more fabulously scenic riding and whilst I was still hanging on to faster pace than I wanted, we did manage to stay together until the split at which point Philip and I waved happily and breathed a sigh of relief knowing we could set our own pace as we headed for the finish.

That said, pumped at the thought of having only c20 miles to go and seeing as the road was now gently downhill, we found ourselves putting on the speed and jumping on the back of a number of trains with folk who were way quicker than us.  Of course, it didn’t last and at the merest incline we found ourselves tumbling off the back!  Fun as it was, we couldn’t keep up the pace.  In addition, changing down from my bigger to my smaller cog, my chain caught and then crashed down bending my front mech out of position, meaning I was stuck with no big cog!  At this point I should have stopped and sorted it out but I was thinking only of the finishing line, and as the route was still largely down and fast I simply spun my legs until they could spin no faster!  Philip was still enjoying the tow and later admitted that he couldn’t quite believe I was speeding up!

Thinking we were on the home run as we passed the 10 miles to go, we were in confident mood as we entered Neath.  Then we took a left turn and realised the road ahead was going up again.  And it then went up and up for what seemed like forever, we couldn’t quite believe how much up there was!  Perhaps that was simply the legs having nothing left that meant what would normally have been a simple, steady climb became torture... Thankfully, as we saw the road ahead climbing seemingly endlessly on, we were overtaken by a rider who provided reassurance that we were almost done with the climbing – phew!

The rest of the route whilst undulating was generally downhill and fast, although the final stretch back from Port Talbot to the finish was into a headwind that ensured we spent every last bit of energy on the Dragon!

Arriving at the finish, we had a small gilt trip when we were congratulated over the loud speaker for a great time for completing the Gran Fondo, so we scuttled back to the information booth to reverse our status back to the Medio.  We didn’t get the fiver back!

With the sun shining down on us, we took a moment to enjoy the HQ with its stalls and brass band.  Philip bought a Dragon Jersey whilst I bought a cheese burger!

The Dragon is certainly a very tough ride, even if, like me and Philip, you opt to do the Medio.  But if you get the right day, like we did, there isn’t a better way to spend a day cycling.  Hats off to Kate, Phil and Mike who completed the Gran Fondo.  Perhaps next year?!