Etape Cymru REVIEW
by Jennifer Trotman and Sean Lacey
Date: Sunday 9th September
Distances: 92 miles, 9000 feet of climbing
Entry fee: £55
Start: Bangor-on-Dee Racecourse, Wrexham LL13 0DA
Catering: Fast food van at start/finish, bar/café at end (not free).
Feed stops: Six – at 17, 27, 34, 45, 60 & 72 miles, all with toilets.
Timing: chip in handlebar number. Results sent by text message after the event and on the website by the end of the day. Signs: large yellow signs with black text/arrows.
Roads: CLOSED! Variable road surfaces, through stunning Welsh countryside.
Goody bag: medal, free samples, etc. Plenty of free parking on site. Motorcycle outriders. Broom wagon.
The Etape Cymru was doubly blessed with Cyclosport riders this year as both Sean and I riding it. We both rode the inaugural event last year and were very disappointed with it, Sean even more so as it was his target event for his Cycling Plus year. Having met Human Race, the new organisers earlier in the year, much had been promised for this year’s event and we were both keen to give it a second chance.
Neither of us were keen however on the hideously early start! Human Race had arranged for riders to register on the Friday or Saturday before the event and having done that as I was staying locally, I had the luxury of a 4:50am start. Sean had had to arrange to sign up on the morning, and had to be up at 4:00am in order to have time to get sorted, parked and registered!
The start was at Bangor on Dee racecourse and the sun was rising as I, and everyone else, started parking up. We'd all been advised to arrive an hour before our start time - mine and Sean’s being 7:00am, as was my friend Kevin's, so we all met up there. The forecast was for sun and 22C+ but clearly that was going to be a while coming as it was really chilly out.
Sunrise Over The Car Park
There was a large toilet block on the car park side which you would have thought was adequate, especially as there were also toilets nearer the start, but I guess maybe not enough people knew that as the "Ladies" definitely ended up being "Unisex" as the "Gents" got bored of queuing! I went off in search of black coffee. The café/bar wasn't open, and the burger van only had the ready made add hot water to variety of drinks which only came in white. White tea, white coffee. No coffee for me then.
Looking at the list of entries displayed in the bar area, the start times were incredibly precise. 7, 7:02, 7:04...etc. As the broadcast commentary got going it became clear that we were going to be going out in two minute batches, with the aim to get us all underway in a very short time. Quite a challenge I would have thought, but apparently everyone was away by 7:26am, so I guess it worked! We headed back to the car park for that final get ready faff/push and I added leg warmers to the gilet and arm warmers combo that I was already wearing.
Off To The Start
The announcer started to get quite keen that we be heading for our pens and since ours was the first one, it was time to make a move. As we waited in line we were given a safety briefing and then were slowly moved forwards towards the start line in fits and starts, to allow the outriders to get underway and out on the course ahead of us. Apparently it's the "UK's toughest closed road sportive". If you didn't know that before the event you did by the time the man with the microphone had finished talking to us. Still, as he reminded us, nobody was forcing us to do it…
The Start Line
5, 4, 3, 2, 1...and we were off. Over the timing mats and out into the chilly Welsh wilds. Oh man it was cold! I'd not met Sean before and we rode together for a while and chatted some, but keeping up with him was easier said than done, even though he did a very good job of hanging back as often as he could. At least the first ten miles or so were pretty flat, meaning we did actually get to warm up a bit before hitting the hills. Kevin had disappeared early on, and Sean now drew inexorably away, leaving me to pootle along on my own. This came as a bit of a relief in many ways because for various reasons I wasn’t having a great ride, and my misery does not love company, especially not when the hills start!
First Feed Stop At 17 Miles In
The first food stop, 17 miles in, came as a massive relief. I stashed my gilet & arm warmers, used the facilities, but completely forgot to get water or food so it's just as well I always carry what I need, and that there were 6 food stops on the route anyway (2 of the 4 were used twice). However, and most fortunately for me, as I was trying to sort myself out Kevin emerged from somewhere, meaning that I had to pull myself together, and also that I would at least have someone to ride with for a while. As it turns out he stuck with me for the entire ride which is just as well as I don't think I'd have made it 'round the way I was going, so thank you Kevin!
Time to head for the hills. With an advertised 9000 feet of climbing, this was never going to be a flat ride, and although the route had changed since last year, I did know what kind of thing I was in for. One of the advantages of long climbs is that my personal crawler gear comes out of hiding. It only happens on properly long climbs, and you don't get that many of those in the UK – though Wales seemed to have them in abundance!
Start Of The Horseshoe
The big named challenge of the day, the Horseshoe Pass, came much earlier in the day this year. There's a big sign near the bottom telling you that the Pass is 3 miles away, and then there were timing mats shortly after that for those who wanted to take on the KOM challenge. It's a long slow slog of a climb as you might imagine - there's a steeper section very early on that you don't really realise is part of it, before the horseshoe curve has really started, then a long gradual slog to the steeper bend by the white cottage and then after the bend it's easy. No, really, it is. We chatted our way up most of it, and felt like we were flying by the time we reached the top. The views were just amazing, and it's always nice to see how far you've climbed, it adds to the sense of achievement.
Nearing The Top Of The Horseshoe
See How Far We've Come
Having gotten that particular climb out of the way I started to feel a little better. The next food stop, 27 miles in, came after a very lovely and well earned descent. In fact lots of the descents were lovely - all bar one, but we'll get to that later. This particular food stop, complete with music and very perky cheerful staff, also doing the commentary thing, was used twice as the route looped from there. This time I did get water, and bananas, and so on, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice!
Second And Fourth Food Stop
The first loop from here was lumpy. There was a very long stepped climb in there somewhere which actually suited me quite well. Slog a bit, rest a bit, slog some more...you get the idea. It actually climbed as high as the Horseshoe Pass had, whilst being less obvious about it. At this point it was sunny without being too hot, and the scenery was frequently stunning, especially the higher you got. There was another food stop at 34 miles, but we didn't stop, it being only 7 miles after the last one. Having so many well stocked food stations meant that none of them were too busy and that you were never too far from the next one. On top of that one of the motorcyclists on the course was checking on everyone and had water and gels if you needed either, which I thought was a nice touch.
Green Welsh Valleys
Back at the second food stop, or the fourth as I think it was by now, and those who'd already done it were delighting in telling us all what the next loop held in store for us. I'm not sure that was helpful! I usually get second wind around 3 hours in, but today it was only first wind! Talk about taking a long time to warm up... I even still had my leg warmers on as although it was getting warmer, descents and Welsh valleys were cold, and they didn't actually come off until around half way through the ride. I do like that halfway point though, it’s very motivational.
Kevin Pulling Me Round
Climbers In Front
There were two big climbs I think, and I certainly remember going up a lot. Apparently the first one was the Shelf at Graigfechan. The second is World's End, which involved lots of long slow slogging, and some quite steep parts as I recall, but at least by now I was feeling like I could do it and, probably oddly, that it wasn't overall quite as hard as I'd thought it was going to be. There was a brutal wind on the moors at the top there though, as if fighting gradient wasn't enough.
Long Slow Slogs
Another Feed Stop
Up Where We Belong
The descent from World's End however was the exception to the lovely descent rule as mentioned earlier. It was narrow, wiggly, with a lousy road surface and no option but to do the whole thing on the brakes. To cap it off, there's a ford near the bottom. You can ride through it…but we were being advised not to as apparently they'd already had a lot of accidents there. Considering that I nearly fell over walking through it I think that was probably a good call!
Now I wouldn't go so far as to say it was all down hill from here, because it wasn't...but we did know that the really big climbs of the day were behind us. The route took a familiar turn as we started to retrace our steps back towards the start. The scenery; castles on top of hills, rocky cliffs, wide valleys, was all just as stunning second time around.
Castle On A Cloud
The first food stop became the final one, leaving us with 17 miles to go to the end. There's a challenge for you, right? How fast could it be done? Although there was the odd lump in there, we were off and flying for home. A long sprint finish you might say. And, with the roads firmly closed, and all junctions open to us, it was an absolute blast. Just wish I could have done the whole thing that fast! In my dreams.
Flying On The Flat Home
One last flying downhill and we were over the mats, under the red arch, and back to applause and the tireless commentator still doing his cheery best to keep everyone going. Of course by the time I got in Sean was already driving home!
Medals At The Ready
This year the Etape Cymru was everything it should have been last year. The new management did a great job. It was extremely well organised, with around 250 people involved on the day. Considering that there were around 1200 people who actually rode it, that's a pretty impressive staff-rider ratio. The signage was great, not that it needed to be with marshals on every junction. There were Caution signs, and mileage markers. There was more than enough food stops with more than enough food, ranging from the usual to boiled potatoes and welsh rarebit. But most importantly of all? The roads were as CLOSED as they were supposed to be - which is really what you're paying for. It made for some far more enjoyable riding that you usually get in this country. I kept realising I was instinctively listening for cars...and not hearing anything!
According to my Garmin it was a little under the 92 miles, and was more like 2300 metres of climbing than 3000. I do think it was easier than last year, but I don't think that's a bad thing at all, and I'm sure the better weather helped with how I felt about it. However I'd definitely recommend it now. It's a proper challenge without being stupidly difficult, the scenery is awesome, the route is great, and it's all well organised. What more do you want?
Road Closed Notice
We were off bang on time and I was first over the start line – interesting as I could tell just how many people overtook me from the results – and into a flat section out of the new HQ at Bangor-on-Dee racecourse, which allowed a warm-up before hitting the climbs. It also provided a pleasant few miles riding with Jennifer.
Jen Still Smiling
It didn’t take too long to get to the first climb, a prelude to the first time over Panorama, a spectacular climb up with stunning views and a good new tarmac surface, which was put down for last years event.Off Panorama, the descent, avoiding the sheer drops, started the run up to the Horseshoe Pass. As Jennifer has mentioned, it was timed as a King of the Mountains challenge and again, I had no chance of winning but having climbed it a few times before was keen to get a PB so pushed on.
The weather was in our favour today and unusually gave a slight tailwind up the climb so I was happy with my time of just over 22 minutes. The Horseshoe descent is always fun and being traffic free allowed full commitment, before heading up to another of the well stocked and staffed feed stations situated on an island, serving separate parts of the route. Out again and onto Worlds End. Not the toughest climb out there, but someone had switched on the fans and the headwind was fierce. Even on the flatter sections in your lowest gear it felt like you weren’t going anywhere!
Fighting The Wind
The descent off Worlds End went down the way it climbed up last year, meaning a quick approach to the infamous ford. The sight of an ambulance attending a rider who had fallen (despite the marshals advice I may add) convinced me to walk the slippery few yards across, before heading back up Panorama the opposite way. Here was the only section with a bit of traffic on, I suspect they got on after the road briefly opened in between the outgoing riders passing and them coming back the other way, but there wasn’t much chance of a problem.
Once off the climb it headed back to HQ on fast rolling roads which was almost as much fun as the hills, time trialling your way back. Over the finish line to rapturous applause, we were handed a handsome medal and goody bag of assorted oddities, carrying the feeling of a ride well done. The event was a revelation after last years ride. Everything Human Race had promised was delivered and I think everyone was in agreement that it was now the ride it should have been.
Hats off to Human Race for taking it on, after the negative publicity last time this could have easily been a disaster, but they pulled it off. I should say that I’m not taking anything away from the original organisers though as the event wouldn’t exist without them taking the plunge and giving it life.
Well Stocked Feed
The closed roads were truly closed this time which inspired confidence and gave you the ‘pro’ feel of taking the lines you wanted. The feed stops were well stocked with ZipVit products and local produce, and that the four locations appeared six times was genius, as this will have helped many people out and gave you a choice on where and when to stop.
As I’ve mentioned earlier the HQ was great, plenty of parking and good facilities – easily better than a grim industrial estate. I felt it wasn’t as tough as the previous event, as we climbed a few of the climbs from the other side, but this made it a more enjoyable ride I think.
Human Race have presented a really good event and I hope they continue to do so.
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